Jessica Goudeau is the Co-Founder of Hill Country Hill Tribers in Texas.
Hill Country Hill Tribers began when God interrupted my nap one Saturday in late October 2007. Despite the fact that we were tired and weren’t sure we wanted to go, my husband Jonathan and I took our 10-month-old daughter to a fall festival that our church puts on in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Austin. One of our ministers had asked us to come because we’re some of the few Spanish-speakers in a church of mostly gringos. The baby wouldn’t take a nap, meaning no one else could either, so we stuck her in a last-minute costume and went.
God interrupted my long-term plans that day. In the midst of all the Spanish, I heard another language and turned to see a group of people straight from the hills of Thailand. The scene was surreal to me. I spent two summers in Chiang Mai, Thailand while I was in college, but decided to focus on Latin America. Both Jonathan and I had both gone back to graduate school to prepare for a future of economic and educational development in a Portuguese- or Spanish-speaking country.
As I stood in a field of Spanish speakers, with a Spanish pamphlet in my hand, I’ll be honest that my first thought was, “Are you kidding me, Lord?” Because there on the rise was a woman adjusting her handwoven skirt as she squatted to spit in the grass. I saw children that looked so much like children I had seen in hill tribe villages in northern Thailand. They looked at me shyly from behind their hands or their mother’s legs. The smell on their clothes was one that was both unique and familiar, wood smoke and a rich combination of spices. I found out later they were Burmese refugees who had moved to Austin after fleeing persecution in their home villages. They lived in the no-man’s-land of refugee camps in Thailand before being resettled in Austin. All I knew then was that God opened a door in my life.
I made friends with a woman named Heh Ler who could barely speak any English. Her youngest daughter, Too Ti, had on sandals despite the cold weather. When we left, I told Jonathan that I was going to do something about Too Ti’s shoes.
I went back a few days later to track down Heh Ler. What I found was a large group of Burmese refugees living in an apartment complex nearby. We asked some of the refugees what they needed the most from us. Their response was English classes for the women. So we began teaching them ESL. We became great friends. And we learned that many of the women we had come to love were phenomenal weavers, desperate to earn money for their families.
We organized a fair trade festival at our church. We prayed that if God wanted us to continue with this ministry, he would show us that day. In four hours, we sold over $3000 worth of products.
A few months later, we became a non-profit and launched our new business. Our products have changed as we’ve added new artisans to the group, but our commitment to helping Burmese refugee artisans make supplemental income to support their families is as strong as when we began four years ago.
God has continued to interrupt our lives in beautiful and holy ways. My co-founder, Caren George, and I have changed the rhythm of our comfortable middle-class lives because God has shown us these women living within a few miles of our homes. Our small children are growing up surrounded by refugee children; our kids are more comfortable in some of the shadiest neighborhoods in Austin than most adult Christians we know, a blessing for which I am constantly grateful. Caren and I have given of our time, our resources and our lives because it is impossible not to--once God gave us a heart for these women and we saw a way to help them achieve both independence and artistry, it was easier to turn our lives inside out than resist that call. I’ll tell you tomorrow the story of one of our artisans and you’ll understand why. They constantly bless and inspire me.
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Guest Post, Wrestling with Poverty in the US, part one
Guest Post, Wrestling with Poverty in the US, part two
Guest Post, Wrestling with Poverty in the US, part three
Refugees, Part 1
Somalian Refugees: Guest Post from Portland, Oregon