THE HEARTLAND NOMADS
In memory of Shane, Calvin, and Karolina
It has been a very difficult week.
A year and a half ago, I joined Liberty in North Korea and traveled across America’s Heartland and lived out of a van for ten weeks, visiting schools and churches, talking about North Korea, and getting people to support refugee rescues and other ways to help the North Korean people. It was truly one of the biggest highlights of my life so far. The journey was full of self-discovery and learning, working hard, facing challenges, and most of all, meeting incredible people. I came into LiNK, impressed with it as an organization. All those who worked with LiNK or supported LiNK had humungous hearts. By the time my term was complete, LiNK was so much more… it had become a family.
It still is.
Whenever people ask me about my involvement with LiNK, I never say that it’s over. I’ll say that I’m not “officially active” with the organization, but the truth is, once you’re LiNK family, you always are.
On Tuesday, I received the horrific news. The three Heartland Nomads who were currently on tour had been killed in a tragic accident outside of Lubbock, Texas. I was in shock. I was teaching a class, and I had to walk right out of the classroom.
What I’ve experienced since has been a very real but very strange sense of grief. I suppose there are no default methods for dealing with grief, everyone has their own way. My heart went out to the families of the three nomads. Then I thought about everyone at the LiNK office. The staff. My friends who have continued working with LiNK. The other teams of nomads and the interns. I remembered the extremely tight knit group that I had worked with in the Fall of 2012. Earlier this year, I would see photos of the current nomads and interns and think that it kind of reminded me of my own group… tightly bonded and everything. I could only imagine the deep sense of sadness and numbness in Torrance, and yet, I felt it too.
I had never met Karolina, Shane, or Calvin. I wish I had gotten the chance to. My LiNK friends who have had that opportunity have all been saying the same things… that they were selfless, vibrant, and full of a passion for life. The fact that they were LiNK nomads already tells me a lot. Yet, although we had never met, we share such a deep bond through our hearts for the North Korean people, our friendships within the LiNK family, the route and the road.
It hit me extra hard that the three of them were Heartland nomads. We drove on the same roads. We probably slept on a lot of the same couches, and spoke at a lot of the same schools.
I started going through the photos on the team’s Instagram account– a surreal experience altogether, because 18 months ago, the account was mine. Photo by photo, I saw glimpses at the last ten weeks of their lives, and man did it look familiar.
In Chicago, they stayed with Dr. and Mrs. Pahl, and they met their wonderful dog Lovey. I knew the nomads must have been inspired by this couple.
In Wichita, they befriended my kind hearted, justice loving friends at Wichita State. The hospitality I was shown at that school came just when I was feeling the most tired, and it reenergized me for the rest of tour. I knew Karolina, Shane, and Calvin must have been similarly welcomed.
In Austin, one of the very last stops, they were hosted by my friend Julian, one of the people I know who is most passionate about the North Korean people. I knew they must have had some amazing conversations.
They stopped at a museum full of giant crochet needles, something my team so would have done. They danced with rescue teams and recorded it on video, something that makes me proud. They took the time to enjoy themselves and create moments while on the road, all while working hard to make this world better for people on the other side of the globe.
“The road is life,” says Jack Kerouac, and in the context of LiNK, he would most definitely be right. I scrolled back further on their Instagram timeline, up to the point where my photos and my moments with my teammates began to appear. I’ve been missing Elaine and Menekse a lot lately. When you’re on such a tour, you really do experience a fullness of life that goes beyond words. You work extremely hard for something you truly believe in. You take in the beauty and the wonder of new places. You live in close circles with each other, and you learn how to enjoy each other, celebrate differences, give grace, and share moments. You begin asking the big questions in life, often realizing that sometimes you don’t have answers… you just have each other.
While it’s been a hard, hard week. I’ve seen the strength of the LiNK community in full. There’s been the wave of red profile pictures on Facebook, never a more direct symbol of strength in unity. Former nomads, interns, staff members, rescue team members, and supporters have been gathering all across the country. This weekend, we are meeting up in Portland and Torrance and New York and Pennsylvania and St. Louis and Texas and Georgia and even in Seoul, all in memory of Karolina, Calvin, and Shane. I’ve been strengthened through my LiNK family, and I feel tidal waves of Love towards everyone I’ve known through the organization.
My heart continues to grieve for their families. LiNK has started a fundraising page for their families to cover the costs of their memorials, and the goal has been shattered in less than 24 hours as a testament to the many lives they have impacted. I continue to give, hoping to send these families a massive outpouring of Love.
I’m reminded of the chorus to Thrice’s In Exile, a song that is sort of the unofficial anthem of LiNK nomads because of its powerful lyrics. As the chorus goes,
My heart is filled with songs of forever
A city that endures and all is made new
I know I don’t belong here, I’ll never
Call this place my home, I’m just passing through.
There’s one photo in particular that stood out to me of the Heartland Nomads. They are in Waco at a wall with the words “Before I Die” stenciled at the top. Below, pedestrians have written life goals on the wall. Calvin and Shane are posing underneath where they have written “Before I Die, I will FREE NORTH KOREA.”
One day, when North Koreans are no longer risking their lives to flee their country, when they are no longer suffering from widespread hunger, and when I can log onto Skype and freely chat with my friends in Pyongyang, I’ll be thinking of Shane and Calvin and Karolina. Because before they died, they rallied people all around our country to care about the people over there. Because of what they did, refugees were rescued, and teams were formed so they could continue to be rescued. The North Korean people received wider attention, and then the support of the international community. And the seed from where this grew was planted by Shane, Karolina, and Calvin.
Their lives were powerful. They will not be forgotten. And the impact of three lives well lived will be felt from the Heartland to California, all across the United States, through the Korean peninsula, and even in the most isolated country in the world.
We miss you dearly, Heartland.