Writing to you from the frozen north of the United States is such a remarkably different experience compared to where we were posting from this same time last year. I was up early this morning shoveling our walkway of the six-to-eight inches of snow that had accumulated overnight, and pondering what I had heard of the weather in Belize last week—which I have on good authority was in the low 90s. But here we are in Indiana, surrounded by the white fluffy stuff and the withering winds because we believe that the Lord is calling us onward to new ministry endeavors and a new missionary vocation, and as I sit down in this week to start squeezing out some papers on Denys the Areopagite, John of Damascus and Hans Urs von Balthasar, it is that thought that is keeping me going. That, and another cup of coffee to spark some nimble inspiration into these fingers.
In this update I want to focus on three things: 1) how my studies are going, 2) how our family is doing, and 3) how our financial situation is evolving. We feel that you, our supporters deserve a thorough briefing on all these things, to assist you in your prayers, to help you feel connected to our little family, and to guide you as you prayerfully join us in this ministry and vocation to which the Lord is even now still calling us.
1. Doctoral Studies
I am very pleased to report that I survived the first semester of my doctoral coursework in theology at the University of Toronto! (I say University of Toronto because although I am a student at Wycliffe College, the academic side of things is managed through the broader University, and consequently I have been taking classes at a number of other colleges within the Toronto School of Theology.) The classes have been harder than I was hoping, though not more difficult than I could have reasonably expected, and I am grateful for the opportunity to reintroduce myself to academia before having to write a dissertation, which is what would have been expected of me if I had accepted an offer from a university in the United Kingdom.
I’ll admit: it has been difficult getting back in the swing of academic work, particularly when it came to picking up again the habit of focused writing. Since graduating in 2009 with my MDiv, I would sometimes write out sermons (although with less and less frequency), and I wrote small pieces that ended up online in blog posts or church newsletters. I had kept up on my theological reading, and even bettered my skill in the biblical languages, but this past spring was the first time in over a decade that I have had to write essays of the caliber and length that would satisfy the expectations of a graduate program in theology. Moreover, when lack of practice was not holding me back, anxiety would step in and keep me from getting very far. But with the help of God’s grace, I was able to get my essays finished and polished before the close of the Fall term, and I was very pleased with the grades that I received in all my classes. To God alone be the glory!
Some of you might be interested in what courses I have been taking (if not, skip ahead to the next paragraph!). Last term, in addition to a standard class on research and scholarship that all incoming doctoral students had to take, I was privileged to take a seminar with W. David Neelands on the English reformer Richard Hooker, whose writings will most likely figure very prominently in my dissertation. The class I enjoyed the most however was a seminar on “theodicy” in early modern theology, led by my adviser Ephraim Radner. It may have been a little off-topic with respect to my long-term research interests (Christology, anthropology and cosmology during the “Long Reformation”), but I found it not only intellectually stimulating but personally challenging as we thought through the history of Christian responses to evil and suffering. During the Winter term I am currently juggling three rather demanding courses, all of which are led by experts in their fields: a class on Hans Urs von Balthasar led by Sr. Gill Goulding, a seminar on the sacraments taught by Joseph Mangina, and another taught by Robert Sweetman entitled “Rhetoric as ‘Philosophy’ from Isocrates to the Age of Abelard and Heloise” (the name’s a mouthful, and the workload is certainly a handful).
This should leave me with just two more courses to take in the summer and/or fall terms of this year. Since (as of last month) I have completed my language requirements (French and Latin), the projected schedule of my doctoral work should be:
Complete the rest of my coursework by December 2021;
Have my prospectus accepted by the end of February 2022;
Complete my comprehensive examinations by August 2022;
Have my dissertation proposal accepted sometime during the Fall of 2022.
This would keep me on track to defend and complete my dissertation (Lord willing) by Spring of 2024. During this dissertation phase of my doctoral program, I will also be expected to serve as a Teaching or Research Assistant for the experience it will afford.
So this is where I am at with my studies. Although I am just beginning a very long process, it is going well, and I would ask you to keep me in your prayers. Please pray that I am able to focus and perform well in the classes I am taking now, and that the Lord would prepare the way for the new academic challenges that will begin by the end of this calendar year!
2. Our Family
Mary Beth and the boys (or, as she likes to spell it, the “boyz”) are doing well! After eight months of living with family—first her parents, and then mine—we were able to find a small, furnished two-bedroom place in my Indiana hometown to rent until we are able to relocate to Toronto … Lord willing this coming summer. (My Study Permit was approved, but it was approved too late for us to move up there right now.) We love our little house, and although our living expenses are going up, we are so grateful to be able to have a place of our own to be together as a family.
James is getting so big! At five months already, he is incredibly smiley (if also a bit clingy), strong and active, and he is much more of a lover of music than Austin every was. The doctors are very happy with his progress, and we could not be happier having him now as part of the family … indeed, life without James seems unimaginable. He absolutely loves Austin, and he’s desperate for any amount of playtime that Austin can give him. Austin is happy to return the favor, and loves making James smile, although we are still working a bit on the whole “sharing” thing, of course.
Austin is now a full-blown toddler: he often talks in whole phrases, and he’s curious about everything, wants to help with everything, and wants to push the boundaries on everything. We love it … and we love him so much! His favorite things in the world right now are trucks, airplanes, balls, but far and away above everything else: sticks. He’s intrigued by snow, but he doesn’t love to be out in it, which is okay with us since we don’t love to be out in it as well. He’s learning to pray, which is hard because even adults find it difficult to focus during prayer, but he is starting to love the songs we do during prayer time, and he’ll cut his prayers short to try and go straight to the songs. And he adores any time that he can see his grandparents, whom we still get to see a couple of times a week now. In short, this kid is great, and we are so blessed that God has entrusted him to our care.
One of the big things that has happened for our family since we last wrote an update is that our plan to return to Belize in the summer to pack out has had to change (again!). St. Andrew’s let us know in January that certain financial pressures due to the pandemic were requiring them to rent out the Rectory, and the decision was made to have them ship our belongings to us—without our going back for them. Initially we were hoping to sell many of our possessions, but it appears that most of them will actually be put in a container and shipped across the Caribbean to Miami, where they will be delivered to our house in Indiana.
Because my going would have been impossible due to the demands of my studies, and traveling with children during a pandemic has been unadvisable for Mary Beth, her mother went down to San Ignacio in our place for a couple of days last week to help organize things and carry our most delicate possessions back with her, and it appears that this week the container with our things will be packed up and sent on its way. In all honesty I can say that we have seen God’s hand move in amazing ways not only to allow her to go down on our behalf, but also to see how God used her during that time in Belize to touch people’s lives, even if briefly. Indeed, this whole season has been a testament to our family that God is able to arrange the details better than we ever could, and to take care of things that we could not even have anticipated. We are getting a whole new lesson in how to trust God regardless of what circumstances might suggest, a painful lesson to relearn again and again but one that forms the backbone of the missionary vocation to which he has called us.
Still, this has been unbelievably difficult for us: we have been desperate to be back in Belize to close out our time with our people there on a better note, to say goodbye in the best way possible, as we we gradually packed up the Rectory and made our way to this next location. We first thought it would be last summer that we would have packed up, and then we were looking toward this coming summer. Now however it is unlikely that we will be back in Belize for a long time, perhaps not until after my doctoral studies have come to an end. This fact has been heartbreaking for me and Mary Beth, and we ask you to join us in praying for our friends and parishioners, our churches and schools back in Belize, as they move on as well without us, with new initiatives, new vision and new leadership. We genuinely believe that God has got them in his hands, and we are trusting that he has our little family in those same hands as well.
3. Our Financial Situation
Predictably this move is not going to be inexpensive: we are forecasting that all told the moving expenses will be around $7,000 (USD) after everything is said and done, and it looks like we will be selling fewer and fewer items in Belize to cover those expenses. If it can be sold at full value the Nissan pickup truck that I purchased in 2014 should cover these costs, but we are not sure how long it will take it to sell at that price. Please pray that we are able to sell the truck for its full value—and that very soon—along with the other belongings that are being left behind for sale.
I write this at the same time that our missionary support has reached new lows. I’ll get right to the point: there is now a $3,300 gap each month between pledged/regular gifts to our ministry and the ministry’s bare-minimum expenses (salary, health insurance, taxes, and pension). The issue is not whether Mary Beth and I will need to take a pay cut, but how much of a pay cut we will each need to take, and we will be having precisely that conversation with our leadership at SAMS over the next couple of weeks. We still need to work the numbers, but we anticipate the need for a decrease of 30–40% in our salaries.
This is not entirely unexpected—we always knew that there would be some drop in our support as we prioritized this new stage of training for future missionary service over how we had until recently been serving in Belize—and of course the effects of COVID-19 have amplified the likelihood that we would see a drop. But now that we have come into 2021, it is time to take stock realistically of the resources that the Lord is entrusting to us and work out how best to use them for his glory and for his kingdom.
As we enter this new season of diminished resources and heightened demands, we are so grateful for each one of you who has been dedicated to supporting us in our ministry. Whether you have been “on the team” since I first went out as a full-time SAMS missionary ten years ago next month (!!!), or whether you have only recently signed up to be a part of how God is calling us in this next stage of international service, you are a tremendous instrument of his blessing to me and to Mary Beth, and to our “boyz.”
I should also add that if the Lord is leading you to make a gift to our ongoing ministry as missionaries-in-transition, I cannot think of a better time to do so. Not only are we looking for new partners who would be willing to make a regular gift to our ministry, we would be so grateful for any one-time gifts. Even a single gift can help provide our missionary account with a little financial margin so that, as we move ahead with adjusted salaries, we will not need to readjust them a second time in the near future.
So from all of us here at Team Alenskis, whether you are trapped in the snow or sweating in the tropics, we love you and we wish you all the best. Please keep us in your prayers! (And a blessed Lent to you as well!)