Issue: Spring/Summer 2015

The So Not Boring Life

Karen (Pangel '78) Smith

I came to Houghton as a freshman in 1974, a new believer from a non-Christian background.

Vividly and emotionally, I recall the first time I heard “And Can It Be” and “It Is Well With My Soul” in chapel. With little Biblical knowledge and even less exposure to missions, I was the proverbial sponge ready to soak it all in. Bible with Dr. Carl Schultz was a revelation to me, and Life of Christ with Dr. Warren Woolsey was just astounding. Volunteering with Allegany County Outreach fueled my desire to train to be a teacher and then go out into my world next door and teach the disenfranchised and those with special needs. The Holy Land trip with Dr. Larry Mullen (a favorite of my husband, Douglas Smith ’78) was thrilling and heart wrenching as I saw intense, abject poverty for the first time.

Graduation brought a compulsion to further my education with a master’s degree in special education. This was achieved while Doug was in medical school and residency. I taught abused and neglected children for several years which drove home to me what I had come to learn at Houghton—that there is a mission field all around us.

Two decades and many “mission fields” later, I looked up at the screen at church to read about a new ministry launched by Samaritan’s Purse, The Children’s Heart Project, which brought children with life-threatening heart issues to the U.S. for surgery. A host family was needed to house two Mongolian toddlers in dire need of life-saving surgery. The babies would come with their mothers (nomadic herdsmen) and an interpreter. The children would recoup from surgery at the host’s home for six to eight weeks. This had my attention.

Next, smiling down from the screen, was a picture of two of the most exquisite faces—which I later came to know as belonging to Nyamsurin and Anujin. Now this had my heart.

I was bowled over with the thought of a mission opportunity right in our own home with involvement—and sacrifice—by our entire family. A teen friend’s words resonated in my mind: “but Mama Smith…I just think the Christian life is so boring.”

We would see.

Fast-forward 12 years, 18 international kids and their caregivers from five countries (Mongolia, Kenya, Kosovo, Honduras and Haiti), and 10 interpreters—toddlers, teens, children and adults from Muslim, Buddhist, Animist, Atheist and Christian backgrounds. Poor and destitute, they came for heart surgery, and many found a heart change, too. Moms saw their dying children brought back to health when they thought there was no hope and were told of the One who is our only hope. What an honor to be a witness to their transformation.

On one occasion, a local philanthropic group needed a host family for a Haitian toddler scheduled for heart surgery. This family came with a few caveats: there would be no translator, and the mom was pregnant, but only about five months according to the nuns who had examined her. Off we went to the airport to pick up an adorable toddler in rags with the telltale blue-tinged skin and her mother, also in rags and enormously pregnant. Less than 24 hours later, at 3:00 a.m., I heard a distinctive newborn cry and found a strapping seven-pound baby boy with a full head of hair squalling on our bathroom floor, cord and placenta still attached, and one very bewildered, naked young mama.

Another example of the boring life?

In God’s timing, the Samaritan’s Purse chapter in our lives came to an end. We kept our eyes and hearts open for what might be next. In 2013, we became involved with an organization called Hearts and Hope for Haiti that planned to open a preschool on site at an orphanage in Haiti. I was in full throttle during the Christmas season with plans for the school. During my preparation, tragedy struck as two friends (Marylyn and her daughter Kelley) were brutally murdered—two beautiful Christ followers gone from us forever. What does one say to the family left behind? Surely there is no card eloquent enough, no flower arrangement fragrant enough. Many restless nights ensued wrestling with God until one night, just before the trip to Haiti, peace enveloped me with the thought, “Name the preschool after Kelley.” I had tutored alongside Kelley at an inner-city mission and knew she had the gift of teaching. I asked the director of the trip if I could be so bold as to name the school.

Several days later, we arrived at the orphanage. I was distracted thinking about hauling the tables from the kitchen out onto the porch to set up the school. We pulled into the compound and off to the right, a new wooden building—primitive, but with walls and a roof—caught my attention. The Kelley Erb Pre School stood before me.

In January 2015, we were back again, living our, oh, so not boring life. With tears swelling, I joyfully hammered an official sign—small and inconspicuous so as not to be a temptation to steal and because the woman whose name it bears would want it that way—next to the entry with a small picture of a beautiful young teacher: “The Kelley Erb Pre School… Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

“He did what was right and just, he defended the cause of the poor and that not what it means to know Me?” (Jeremiah 22:15-16, the Smith family verse—well, one of them.)