Explaining my Tattoo to Kids of the Inner City

Working in a place where everyone and their 30-year-old grandma has a tattoo, it’s been an interesting experience trying to explain mine to them. I thought it was simple to understand. Especially since so many of them understand the significance of a cross.

The difference stemmed from the fact that they think a tattoo should be a part of self expression. It’s very personal. Unless it’s a gang tattoo. Then it’s a part of a group identity and is meant to show loyalty.

“That’s a gang tattoo,” the kids told me in May. “You’re a part of a gang. Or at least a squad.”

“No,” I insisted.

“Yes,” they said. “It’s a tattoo that all these people got to show that their the same, right? That’s a gang tattoo.”

I was baffled (as I often am with these kids), but after I let the idea sink in, I accepted it as a difference in semantics. Since gangs are what they know, their vocabulary to describe what I have reflects that. They don’t understand standing in solidarity with others around the world, but they understand sticking up for a gang brother. And really, the two are the same.

What I mean to say is, I, apparently, am a part of a “gang,” which would make Jesus my gang leader. He’s a very strange sort of gang leader. He says things like, “If someone takes a swing at you, let him take another, too” and “Love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you.”

It was not the conversation I expected to have over my tattoo, but it has been a fascinating look into the world of my students and a chance to see myself in a new light. I already knew that I was a Citizen of Heaven (Philippians 3:20), an Ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20), a Slave of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22), a Prisoner of Christ (Ephesians 3:1), a Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), a Child of God (John 1:12) and a Friend of God (John 15:15). But now, I have a new identity:

I’m Christ’s Gang Member (my students).


Standing in Solidarity

I got a tattoo.

In this day and age, that can be a mundane statement, or a damming one. I have been talked out of, scared out of and begged out of getting one many times before. To all of those who make that scrunched up and hurt face, I do apologize. I don’t mean to offend.

But this tattoo means more than a western taboo.

My sister, Jodi on the left. I'm on the right.

My sister on the left. I’m on the right.

What it is:

The Coptic Cross is the symbol of the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt and has been tattooed on Christian arms, young and old, for centuries now. In a world of religious violence and oppression, the cross tattoo is a symbol of faith and solidarity. It’s a symbol of fearlessness in the face of  terror. And it’s a family crest.
Why the tattoo:
God has blessed me greatly by allowing me to live in a country where it’s safe to be a Christian. In fact, Christianity is so common place that people have a hard time understanding what trial by fire really means. We read about the martyrs of the Bible and we think, “Huh. What saints!” and move on with our lives of soccer games and TV show, comfortable in knowing that no one is going to imprison us or torture us for saying we believe in Christ. Worst case scenario, we’ll get a scoff and an intellectual challenge, which I always enjoy because it makes my brain tingle.
But elsewhere in the world, the scene of the martyrs is still going on. Christians are being killed, and imprisoned around the world today. Sometimes we hear about it and shake our heads sadly for the people we don’t know–who live so far away we should probably pull out a map to find them, if we weren’t too busy looking at kitty pictures on the internet. We call them brothers and sisters in Christ, but we have very little emotional connection to them. We don’t even know their names. And if we heard them, we’d probably bulk at how foreign it sounds. It’s nothing like Paul or John, whom we proudly name our kids after.
In our world of placid comfort and spiritual lethargy, it is important to have a constant reminder of the turmoil and spiritual war going on in the world–something to keep me mindful and alert, to think beyond my own little bubble to the Christian family members around the world.
That’s what this tattoo is: a reminder of my greater family around the world–all who are suffering for their faith. And it’s a reminder of my own identity. I stand with them.

My Counselor

My chronic episodes of loneliness usually attacked me in the night when everyone I knew was out with the neon lights and world-erasing music.

But one time, I had an episode in the middle of the day. It happened some time after I had met the angel man in the middle of the night. This afternoon, the college campus felt more empty than usual as I made my way back to my dorm. I didn’t want to get there. There was nothing to do and no one to see. So I walked as slowly as possible on the longest route I knew.

It wasn’t long enough. And as much as I hated the emptiness around me, I was uncomfortable with seeing people. So after running into two or three strangers, I decided to get off the path. I ducked under some low branches to explore a little piece of the campus I had never seen before. It brought me to small, man-made pond. And following what must be some crazy instinct in me, I sat down next to the water’s edge and stared into it as if in a trance.

It was peaceful, but it wasn’t making me feel peaceful. The peacefulness was outside of me—all around me. While on the inside, I burned.

Every once in a while, I’d hear someone walking on the path nearby and look up to see feet through the underbrush. They passed me by without notice. I didn’t want them to notice me. But then again, if they did happen to see me, I wanted them to come running to comfort me.

Once again, I cried out to God for someone to talk to. Someone to notice me and say, “Hey, what’s wrong? Wanna be best friends? Tell me everything you feel right now.” Not that I knew how to put anything into words. Some sincere company would be nice.

“I don’t care who it is,” I told God, “I’d talk to anyone, just give me another chance! I need someone!”

There was a sound of something coming through the trees behind me. I started thanking God and turned around to meet my new best friend.

A giant turtle, big enough to ride on, slid down the slope behind me and came to rest within reach. He looked me straight in the face and then pulled himself into his shell. And sat there, unmoving.

“Har, har,” I said out loud to God. Where did this thing even come from? There was nothing behind me except a small group of trees and the sidewalk leading to the campus apartments. Surely, a turtle that big hadn’t walked across the cement path without drawing a lot of attention. Seriously, if I’d curled up into a ball, I’d be the same size as the turtle.

But then I thought, Well, maybe this was who God wants me to talk to. Maybe talking to this animal will bring me peace. …Or maybe God is laughing right now.

I considered the turtle. If it was God’s answer to my prayer, it could be therapeutic to talk to it. Or I could look like a lunatic. I made several honest attempts. I opened my mouth and then closed it again without making a sound—terrified that a real human being would hear me and laugh.

Finally I gave up. The turtle wouldn’t even poke its head out of its shell. It didn’t want to talk to me—or listen to me, rather. And as fascinated as I was at this giant (and no doubt ancient) turtle, I was starting to feel restless sitting there in what could only be God’s idea of a joke. With a small amount of anger towards the situation, I got up and pushed my way through the trees, back to the cement path, leaving my counselor behind.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. 

John 14:16-17

Weekly Writing Challenge: The Sound of Silence (a.k.a. The Angel Man Story)

When I first started college, I was coming out of some of my worst years, emotionally and mentally. I wanted to make a fresh start for myself, but that hope began to fall in before too long. I’m not entirely sure what set it off. It was probably a combination of things. But in any case, it precipitated several nights of wandering across my college campus looking to be alone, or to be found.

One of these nights, I was a little worse off than usual. It didn’t matter that I had caring friends that would have come if I had called. I still felt isolated beyond help, like the world was behind glass and I was locked away from it. I could see people congregate in the courtyard and imagine how I’d walk up and meet them. But I couldn’t make myself get near. By 10pm when the library closed, I was curled up under an arched bridge on campus. I was watching the turtles. At least that’s what I told myself. Shortly after, the college grew silent and the building lights went out. It was just me and the street lamps. And the turtles.

I don’t know how long I stayed there. I was losing my perception of time, even with the clock tower in my face. I wandered around the agricultural building and then followed the road off of campus. When I finally looked up to see where I was, I had walked into the off campus apartments. The ones that carried all kinds of stories of drug busts and murders. They were cheap living if you didn’t mind a little bit of risk.

I knew a guy who lived there. And maybe that’s why I had walked in that direction. I desperately wanted someone to talk to. But I didn’t have anything to say. And I didn’t want to listen to petty talk or even intellectual talk. To me, they were both just as shallow. So I didn’t go to his door. And I didn’t go home. I found myself stuck on the sidewalk. I looked at all the buildings around me and thought about how many people I was surrounded by, but none that I could say anything to.

I sobbed. In the middle of the night in a sketchy, poorly-lit street, I stood on the sidewalk and sobbed. I begged God to give me someone that I could talk to. Just anyone that would listen to me–really listen to me–and sympathize. I begged Him over and over again. And then I stood there. I don’t know how long I stood there. I was waiting for an angel to appear. Or maybe that guy I knew. I’d settle for him.

But an angel didn’t show and neither did that guy I knew. I was starting to shiver and shake–not so much for the cold, but for all the crying. So I decided it was finally time to crawl back to my dorm. If I could make it through the night, I thought, tomorrow would be a piece of cake.

I turned to leave, giving one last look over everything in case I missed the angel, and then I took a step towards the school. A dark car passed me and turned into the apartment complex–so close to me that I made eye contact with the driver. And not just a glancing eye, either. The man stared me down as he turned into the complex. I took a deep breath, hushing all of the rumors of danger in this area, and kept walking–faster.

I heard the car park and the door slam. Then I heard him walking. I was two blocks away from campus–and the campus police. I had the call stations mapped out in my head. “Hey!” He called to me.

I froze. I don’t know why I froze. Except that his “hey” wasn’t the threatening kind. So I turned around.

“Are you high? Or just depressed?”

“Depressed,” I said, trying to laugh at the thought of me being high.

“You wanna talk about it?”

I did. With every part of me, I did. But I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t even pinpoint what was troubling me so much. And then there was the practical part of me that saw that I was alone with a strange man in a bad part of town in the middle of the night.

“We don’t have to go anywhere. We can stand right here and talk about it.” It was like he was reading my mind. Or my face, more like.

But I still didn’t know what to say and the practical part of me was starting to scream. So I shook my head, “no.”

“Well, alright,” he said. But he didn’t turn away. I did.

I turned away from him and walked back to campus. He didn’t follow me. He stood there and watched me go.

By the time I was back on campus grounds, it hit me–he was my angel. He wasn’t shining with light and floating down from Heaven, no. He was dark and drove a beat up car. But he was everything I had begged God for. He had done everything right. And I had turned him down. I had walked away.

The original Writing Challenge Prompt:


Pho of Love

Meet Mrs. Rochom:

She's the one in the middle between her two teenaged daughters.

She’s the one in the middle between her two teenaged daughters.

Mrs. Rochom (who’s first name I can neither spell nor pronounce) possesses a love that transcends language barriers. Each time I visit her house to talk about her daughter’s progress in school, she motions me to sit on the couch, insists that I take a bottle of water and a donut from the factory she works in (or a box of donuts), and then sits herself down the floor in front of me and spends the next half hour trying to express her gratitude and hope with the few English words that she knows.

Sometimes she tries to tell me stories from her home in Vietnam. She brings out laminated pictures–precious pieces of her childhood. She talks in broken sentences about how she was just a teenager when she got married and how she’s so excited that her girls have the chance at an education before having families of their own.

By the time I leave her house, she’s given me another bottle of water for the road and either donuts from her place of work or cleaning supplies from her husband’s place of work (another factory).

Then one day, she came into our school and insisted that she wanted to make lunch for everyone as a way to thank us. “One7 help my girl… they help my family… I make lunch here. Monday.”

So on Monday, we had a traditional Vietnamese lunch: pho soup with egg rolls on the side.


Tri and Kiet helped Mrs. Rochom serve egg rolls, rice noodles (for the pho), and salad (also for the pho) to our students. On the right, the student’s respective home countries are Thailand, Mexico, and Iraq, front to back.

It was my first time eating pho soup. I needed some instruction on how to do it properly. The girls put salad on my plate made with lettuce, cilantro, bean sprouts, and cucumber; and  rice noodles in my bowl. Mrs. Rochom poured the soup broth, meat, and quail eggs over the noodles. There was also fish sauce, sugar, and Sriracha sauce to go on top. “You can eat the salad on the plate or mix it with the soup,” Tri said. This little fact shed a lot of light on how our Vietnamese students eat salad and soup at school–they always insist on mixing their salad in with the soup, or even into their pasta dishes.


mmm. Quail eggs and various types of meat over rice noodles!

The soup was delicious! But also required a napkin.

Mrs. Rochom spent the lunch hour running around the room with more to fill people’s bowls and saying “Thank you, teacher.” ever time she passed me. She kept insisting that we take more and brought by every option to offer another helping. In very few words, she showed a heart full of love and thanksgiving to a room full of hungry girls and women.

Offering Everything

I once met a man named Jason on a lonely downtown street in the middle of the night. In a time when I needed someone and had no one, he reminded me that God is always there.

I sat on the wrong side of a heavy barrier chain, which was meant to keep people a few steps away from the river in Wilmington, North Carolina. I wasn’t going to try anything. I just wanted to be close to the water and watch the currents. Like, real close. The town was dead quiet. The only living thing I saw was a rat that ran over my foot without giving me a second’s thought. I had kind’a hoped it’d stay. Anything to make me fell less alone.

Jason shuffled cautiously towards me from the street behind. “Are you alright?” He asked. “You’re not gonna jump are you? You’re awfully close to that ledge.”

I stood up and looked him over. He was bony, dirty, and disheveled. His clothes hung off of him like sheets on a wire.

I had seen him just a few nights before. I had watched him beg a man for some money. He explained that he was trying to find work and had even asked a store if he could clean their windows for some food. But they had thrown him out. The man had turned him away. So I had offered him some money, but he politely refused to take it and in a gentlemanly gesture said, “I’m not going to take money from a lady.”

Here he was again with his hands stretched out–not to beg for help, but to offer it. Without getting too close to me, he asked me to step back over the chain and away from the edge. I did. The irony of this scrawny, homeless man trying to help me was overwhelming. He had nothing, but he knew what I needed. We hugged. His ribs stabbed me and his shoulder blades pressed on my arms. He felt fragile.

He told me his name and we started talking. He said he used to live further north, but then his wife divorced him. He moved to Wilmington to get a new start, but couldn’t find work and had soon lost his home. The night that I first saw him, he was arrested for begging–a controversial new law to keep tourists happy. This night at the river was his first night out of jail and back on the streets–just in time to be a friend to someone who needed one.

He never asked me for money, but I offered it to him again. This time he took it gratefully and said he was going to find a homeless shelter. That was the last time I saw Jason–the man who reached out to me in my time of need and offered the only thing he had.

God Colors in Tri

Meet Tri.


This is how Tri studies feet.

Tri is my little sister from another continent.

Tri is my spiritual mentor.

Tri is a preacher. Her life story speaks volumes for overcoming the trials of living in a fallen world and the power of God to transform lives. She demonstrates a joy that transcends sorrowful circumstances. And if that wasn’t enough, God gave her a pastor’s tongue that speaks through language barriers to deliver messages of transformative encouragement.

Here, Tri's speaking at our first One7 Academy end of year ceremony.

Here, Tri’s speaking at our first One7 Academy end of year ceremony.

I first met her four years into America. I was helping One7 Ministries set up One7 Academy, and she was to be my first student.

Through the short years I’ve known her, I have been privileged to see God transform her and use her to reveal His glory. I treasure this letter she gave me during our first year of school together. The message captures her heart, and is embodied in the language of a displaced refugee.

Tri's Letter exerpt

In the classroom, Her fun-loving bubbliness invigorated everyone. Her compassion was a counseling force. And in those moments when she was feeling downtrodden or distraught, the whole class felt the weight of mourning.

Fortunately, she was a lot more bubbly then melancholy.

Fortunately, she was a lot more bubbly than melancholy.

Now, God has set Tri up to be a leader among the other displaced refugees finding their way in east Charlotte. They’re lost, confused, and many of them live in fear. It’s hard for someone like me to know how to comfort them. But God has set up Tri as a sympathizer that knows their pain. She sits down with those who are hurting and shares words of wisdom that she’s learned from her experiences.

I count myself lucky to know her and always look forward to hearing what she has to say. Here are a few of my favorites:

“This is not home for me. Heaven is home for me. And I know that He holds me in His arms.”

“I can’t change people’s life only God can do that. All I can do is pray.”

“People who are shy now speak, and people who walked alone now are surrounded by people, and people who hate now know how to love.” (speaking about the people involved in One7 Ministries who’ve been transformed by God’s love)

“Our God is a rich god. He can have whatever He wants.”

Tri embodies 1 Timothy 4:12:

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.

Tri sets an example for me to follow. I may have taught her a few things in class, but by the end of the year, she had taught me so much more!

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