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Thursday, January 16, 2020

2020 coast to coast, continent to continent, two weeks in!

The last hours of 2019 found us in Half Moon Bay, California, where Scott's 87-year old mom lives, a block from the cliffs that drop to the Pacific. His sister Sonja, with husband Kevin and 2 of 3 kids were in town, enabling us to tie up a year with many family events. Looking back on a very unexpected year, one of the bright spots was the opportunity to see our moms and sisters and nieces and nephews more this past year than probably the five prior combined. Having a two-part wedding and two graduations helps, not to mention a life-threatening event. We have typically arrived a few days before annual Serge meetings in Philadelphia to visit California (not exactly on the way unless you consider the relative ease of getting to the West Coast when flying to the USA compared to when sitting in East Africa) . . . but rarely to watch the final sunset of the year with such a great quorum. 

And the first hours of 2020 found us walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, a tradition of Sonja's friends, with stunning views followed by interesting conversations and a LOT of food. 

From California we stopped in Salt Lake City as we made our way East to those Philadelphia meetings, enough time for one ski day with Luke and Abby and Caleb, walks with Botu, and conversations and dinners. It's our first time to visit MARRIED children, which actually didn't feel at all revelatory because Abby seems like part of the family from forever.

(And now a small blog commercial break for better photography once again, this time from Luke

 And one iphone selfie from the slopes . . .

Twice a year our Serge Leadership meets; about 2/3 of the day we talk about big picture strategies and goals, review policies, catch up on trends, and the other 1/3 we pray. For each leader and each area. So it is a particularly Serge-y time where we can be discussing what we need to do to reach out to a more diverse segment of America, or where the Spirit is moving overseas . . . and then sharing our own stories of weariness or failure and finding prayerful support. And there are dozens of sidebars, a quick meeting with someone about a financial reporting issue or someone else about a recruitment idea.

Dinner AT the Massos . . . 

And the cake and dinner for Michael at the meetings

This time the highlight was a dinner to honor Michael Masso who wrapped up his 25 years with Serge as he returned to the USA to spend more time with family and work in renewable energy. Karen will continue to work in our home office, but it is the end of a family era. Acacia and Liana were able to attend this dinner with Serge leaders, and hear dozens of quintessentially Michael stories . . . adventures, puns, courage, simplicity, spiritual insight, pranks.  We often say that no one ever has or probably ever will save more lives in Bundibugyo than Michael, who put in a gravity-flow piped water system just in time for war to displace tens of thousands of people into camps.  We remembered the early days in South Sudan, the many family trips, the shared suffering and learning and joys. I sobbed but most of it was pretty funny and celebratory.

The re-connections with Serge friends like this dinner with Batstones, Hyltons, and Alyssa . . huge treats

Serge publications table--note that both of the featured books came from authors in our Area, Eric McLaughlin and Bethany Ferguson. Both highly recommended.

Last but not least, our USA trip stretched from a planned ten days to a full two weeks when a broken tooth required two emergency dental visits. Not a happy reason to stay a few extra days, but nevertheless a boon to have a few walks in the woods, a time to re-pack, and the opportunity to worship with our church in Sago and drop in on my dad's two remaining living siblings, Aunt Ann (with Uncle Dave below) and Uncle Harold.

Today we are back in Uganda--got to our hotel in Kampala about midnight last night, slept some needed hours, and spent all day doing errands and getting groceries and visiting some friends. Tomorrow on to Bundi. 

2020 has already been full of connection and beauty. But the vast shifts in place and person do take a toll. I got on the plane to return feeling disoriented, regretting not seeing MY mom or sister, having misplaced/lost a couple of important things along the way, feeling poured out already. Grace at the fray, I know this will be better soon, but prayers appreciated.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Omaha Beach, 75.5 years later

Christmas part 2 . . . (see previous post for Cambridge). On the day after Christmas, we made our way down to the coast of England. 75 years ago, at the height of WW2, ten thousand young men assembled there for the invasion of Normandy. And amongst them were four of my uncles.

Our parents were all four the youngest in large families, children during WW2. But all of them had siblings who served. My dad, as the youngest of 15, was one of 9 boys. Three were too young to join the military, but the one closest to 18 lied his way into the Navy by the end of the war though he never made it overseas. Five of the remaining six fought in Europe in the war, four of them landing in Normandy, including three on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Pretty much like Saving Private Ryan, except they all lived and no one made a movie. My mother, however, got these men to talk 25 years ago on tape, on the 50th anniversary of DDay. They had never uttered a word of their war experience until one sunny picnic afternoon she got them talking with each other. I listened to that recording for the 75th anniversary and decided to honor my uncles with a trip in their footsteps.

So we boarded an overnight ferry from Portsmouth, home of the British Navy, to the French coast of Normandy, and spent three days walking 40 miles along the routes they would have taken from Omaha to St. Lo, carrying packs and following small roads and fence rows, stopping to read signs and admire churches, sleeping on a couple of working farms.

As we walked the strip of sand where thousands died, we listened to the recording of Uncle Carl and Uncle Edwin remembering the landing. Like a loyal West Virginia big brother would, Uncle Carl borrowed a jeep on the landing day, drove under fire up to the area of Uncle Edwin's battalion, jumped in his fox hole for half an hour to be sure he had survived, and drove back. We saw a monument to the 5th Engineers, Uncle Woody's unit, while hearing his voice describe half his transport blown up, men thrown into the water, helping others struggle out of their packs lest they all drown, swimming to shore and huddling under the cliffs, then burying body after body.

It was an act of courage in the face of the probability of death, a time of miraculous escapes (like the bullets that pierced one uncle's small tank just in front of his chest and behind his back), of moments of humanity like the French church that gave them a feather bed to sleep in, something these country boys had never seen. Uncle Glen was in a barn near St. Lo that suffered direct hits from our own bombs, one of the worst friendly-fire incidents of the war. But they marched on, all the way to Berlin, then came home to marry and live simple hard-working lives and never admit they were heroes.

For us, the days of walking, the kindness of the French people (Jack's language skills were a plus, but the Normandy people still appreciate American partnership), the poignant plaques and memorials, were a sobering yet richly meaningful walk through history. My uncles were my kids' age at the time, 21-26. At one farm, the owner insisted we borrow her car and told us where to go for dinner (it was well past dark and we were exhausted from a day's walking). At another they owners told us their own war stories from their parents, a mother killed, a father missing but found, an aunt who fell in love with an American but lost touch then met him 40 years later in a museum, at which time he sold all his property in California and returned to spend the rest of his life with her.  You can't make this up.

Thankful for this family history, and for the ability to honor it with our kids.

(photos by Jack again!)

Christmas in Cambridge, and dreams coming true

Most of the last 26 Christmases we have spent closer to REAL Christmas than to IDEALIZED. Meaning, in the actual atmosphere of goats and displaced humans and out-of-hospital births and starry skies and poverty. However, this year we opted to depart Uganda ten days ahead of the end of 2019 and break up our trip to January Serge meetings by stopping off in England. Home of my idea of Christmas in many ways, dark nights and twinkling candles and stunning musical choruses, pine trees and hot drinks and baked deliciousness. And more importantly, home to Jack Myhre for this school year as he pursues a Master's in Engineering for Sustainable development.
Magdalene College Library above and chapel below, home of Jack Myhre and CS Lewis

So we landed near Cambridge just as the winter solstice tipped us into the longest night of the year, rented a car and spent the evening with Serge colleagues in Harrow en route to Stonehenge. Jack had found out that for the winter solstice, access to the ancient site for sunrise is free . . . in prehistoric times, people hewed these massive stones and lined them up to catch the sun's rays at the solstice. So we joined hundreds of other adventurers in the predawn darkness and waited for the light, a fitting closure to a 2019 that has been full of sorrow, plague, war, lawsuits, threats, need, landslides, transition, and welcoming a new year where God's light will grow.

when your brother puts a camera in your face once too often . . 

From there we picked up Julia and Caleb and went on to our AirBnb in Cambridge proper for three days of immersion in Christmas and college. We climbed towers and walked lanes, perused books and admired chapels, gazed on art and toured libraries. But our real purpose was to camp out on the sidewalk all night on the 23rd so we could attend the Christmas Eve Festival of Lessons and Carols at Kings College. This service has been celebrated for a hundred years, since young men limped home from WW1 (movie plug--go see 1917, it is excellent) needing to be re-grounded in history and hope. We have been listening to this service on BBC in Uganda and Kenya for decades. And it was a bucket-list joke to say, some day, let's go to the service for real. The line forms around dusk, and by dawn there are hundreds of people waiting. We staked out our little piece of sidewalk with cardboard to sit on and blankets and umbrellas to survive the hours of cold and rain, about 50 back from the front of the line. Amazing story: one of the couples Scott went through residency with, who has supported us all our time in Africa, was doing the same thing with their kids. Fun. I personally huddled under a tarp and shivered and slept curled up for a few hours, because I can sleep most anywhere and because when they hand out the tickets at 7:30 am, I knew most people would sleep a few hours back at home but IT WAS CHRISTMAS EVE BAKING AND COOKING TIME!!!

The doors open to the ticketed diehards at 2:30 pm as we all returned, showered and dressed nicely and eager to worship. The Festival consists of 9 lessons, from Genesis on through the story of Jesus' birth and the wise men and the slaughter of the innocents, interspersed with carols sung by the Kings College Choir. The most iconic is the beginning, as a young boy soprano begins "Once in Royal David's City" alone as the choir enters. The organ swells, the congregation joins, stands, sits, meditates.  It was glorious.

And since we spent our family life in British colonies, we go to church on Christmas morning too. Which was almost better!  A smaller intimate group in another spectacular historical chapel, original music written by the organist, a meaningful sermon looking at the foreshadowing of suffering in the Christmas story, the sacrifice of redemption. Communion.  And as we filed out into the entry of the Trinity Chapel, cold flutes of champagne and warm mince pies and Merry Christmases all around.

Back at our AirBnb, the kind proprietors had put up a tree and lights. And the ever-faithful Schuberts sent us a puzzle, this one of photos from Luke and Abby's wedding. So we had our traditional meals and goodies and gathered around the tree and worked on the puzzle and thoroughly enjoyed the days.

Christmas in Cambridge, highly recommended.  Christmas with 3 out of 5 kids, priceless.

(all photos from Jack)

Thursday, December 19, 2019

13 Magi and g-nuts, soya and morninga: a 2019 visit to the vulnerable

Today is day 12 post-flood and landslide.  Now the SUV caravans of UNHCR, CRS, Save the Children, Uganda Ministry of Disaster Preparedness, Ministry of Health, NGO’s that care for internal migration, the Red Cross, are moving up and down the road (or what’s left of it), calling meetings that suddenly disrupt normal work in the hospital or government, that pull people into the priorities that each group brings with their tarps and money. Mostly this will eventually be good for Bundibugyo. Some press, some concern, some supplies, some effort. Only one water system has been repaired to functionality, and Josh is still problem-solving and infusing some relief funding to keep the water tanker trucks filled and moving to the hospital and camps for the displaced.

Meanwhile though, since we have actually been living through all this rain and muck ourselves, and since we are connected to a small flexible organizations and donors who are quickly responsive, we were able to supply about 500 people with emergency survival items last week, and we’ve now completed nutritional surveys at both IDP (internally displaced persons) camps this week. We gathered and trained a team, purchased supplies, and visited one camp yesterday and one today. At each place we began with prayer and a good-news story, grounding the relief effort in the reality that even in sorrow, God sees and cares. Then women and children were registered, receiving books for recording health visits since their possessions were lost. We gave each child a dose of Vitamin A and emergency supplies of ORS (oral rehydration) and zinc (tablets) that they can use in case of diarrheal illness, a life-saving intervention after floods and rocks destroy waste disposal and cut off clean water. Next each was weighed and measured, then the results analyzed to identify any that were moderately or severely malnourished. In a normal situation, we’d expect 3% or less of kids to qualify. This week we found 16% of the children were malnourished (40 moderately and 5 severely, out of 185 screened).

The good news is that all of the children received a kilogram of supplemental protein rich food, a peanut-soya-morninga leaf blend that will boost their nutrition. The malnourished ones received a quadruple supply!  Plus antibiotics, and a follow-up appointment.

Hungry kids are vulnerable kids. Poor nutrition increases susceptibility to disease, and negatively impacts brain growth and development. It is one of the cycles of poverty that is very difficult to break without an infusion of help from somewhere—food to make people survive and thrive, heal and grow, learn and play, and eventually care for their own families.

Our team has had a focus on nutrition for decades, because it is an intersection point where spiritual truth, parity in relationship, justice in economics, wisdom and kindness in social circles, education and achievement, all meet. Real religion is just this: caring for the orphan and widow in their distress (that’s in the Bible).  In fact we are thrilled to have Serge Apprentice Jessie Shickel spearheading this program right now, and would very much like to have more help. The work this week not only identified and helped another almost 50 families . . . It was a visible touch of God’s mercy in a place that needs to see it.  It was an opportunity to learn new skills and serve for 13 mostly CSB alumni. It was a little taste of the Kingdom for us all.

And it was a reminder of Christmas (isn’t everything), because the young child Jesus was born displaced in a makeshift camp . . And then was sent fleeing as a refugee across borders. The magi came with their gifts, people of resource who studied the situation and came with their aid. Re-imagine the scene of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, expensive gifts, as an aid distribution. Some portable goods the family could use to survive. Brought out of the respect and curious wonder of people from far away, who wanted to help.

Tonight we will meet with the district leadership and a number of NGO’s. The disaster response is hopefully turning a corner where the bigger agencies will take on an increasing role. Our team will continue to support nutrition and water, and look for gaps we can fill. And Scott and I will head tomorrow to our own Christmas break meeting our kids. We are deeply, deeply weary, feeling the weight of sadness around us, the desperation. At the same time, as much as we are eager for a break and for a reunion, we will truly miss this place for a few weeks. Where you pour your treasure, there is your heart. We’ll be back in January, hopefully with a little rest and perspective.

Let me close with a photo of our team this week, the young men and women who have worked hard to make all this happen.  These are my 2019 Magi.