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Thursday, August 30, 2018

OVC's--Caring for Orphans and Vulnerable Children

four preems in one incubator today . . it doesn't get much more vulnerable than this

James 1:27 says "Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this:  to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world." 

Active mercy, and deliberate counter-cultural living.  These two threads twine together when God's people pour their lives into the most vulnerable.  So many Kingdom parables talk about the small, the overlooked, the fragile, the margins.  

There are countless ways to love orphans and vulnerable children (and widows), but lately I've been asked a few times about our Serge East and Central Africa approach, so here'a a brief overview.  

Embracing presence:  we go to the places where the orphans and the vulnerable live.  Most measures of childhood risk light up the maps of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as India and South-East Asia.  That's where we are, in the villages and city streets, in the hospitals and schools.  We're not sending ideas from afar, we're walking alongside.

Empowering community capacity:  our primary method of visiting the orphans and vulnerable is to provide the means for their extended family to care for them.  This can look like food supplements for surrogate breast-feeding aunts and grandmothers when a mother dies.  Or dairy goats for families with HIV.  Or house-building for widows caring for children.  Or producing a locally sourced nutrition supplement, so that the weekly gatherings provide touchpoints for care and education and function as a support group for the weary (see here and here and here).  Africans have been caring for their orphans and vulnerable kids for millennia; we're not here to change that but rather to bow to justice in sharing what we've been given.

Breaking generational cycles:  one of our biggest projects, which has been a battle for every inch of progress, has been Christ School Bundibugyo.  The school subsidy allows students from one of the poorest places in Africa to receive the best education in the district.  But we also provide full scholarships for about 20% of the student body through the OVC program.  Most of our teams have a strong educational component to pass skills on, and we attempt to focus on the most marginalized as we do.  This enables the last to become first, which is a Kingdom-coming moment.  

Seeing individuals:  across our countries of work, our teams have set up sponsorships for individual OVC's.  God sees first, and we follow.  Today alone, I had texts from three different young people whom we've sent to laboratory school, medical school, and nursing school.  Others have become math teachers or pastors or seamstresses.  Our teams want to be the catalysts that change lives, for those who would have otherwise had no dream of such opportunity.  And we see them now turning back to their communities to seek out and bless others like themselves.

Safe places and fun:  orphans and vulnerable kids need counseling.  They need after-school programs, tutoring, discipleship and sports.  They need coaches and pastors and teachers and friends.  They need skills training and support.  Just one person in a child's life can prove to be the channel of belief, fostering potential, cheering them on, giving them an alternative to the hard losses in their lives. It's so much fun to see a pack of kids playing football or drawing pictures or listening to stories.

Survival:  much of our Serge area works on a very basic level to just enable children to survive, to provide safe deliveries so they won't become orphans, to provide decent care for their illnesses, immunizations, growth monitoring, clean water and sanitation.  Day and night, we're working with our local partners to care for the most vulnerable.

There are excellent organizations that run orphanages; Serge is not one of them.  Quite a few of our missionaries are adoptive parents, which makes sense as the same people whose heart for the hurting propels them across the world also tend to want to give a home to an individual child, but we are also not an adoption agency. The places we work are mostly very traditional in culture, with an extended family network to absorb their orphans and vulnerable kids.  So we have chosen to focus on community-based efforts to strengthen capacity and build resilience, to enable children to remain integrally part of their culture while also having enough to eat and a decent education.  It's not the only model, and there are always exceptional circumstances that look different, but generally that's our modus operandi.  

Jesus tells us that as we pour ourselves out for the least of these, we actually in some true but mysterious way encounter him in the process.

Pray for our workers; the fractured systems take a toll, the reality of vulnerability means we see too much death.  Follow some of the links above if you want to join in a material way, putting your resources into high-impact places.  And consider what kind of true religion you seek.  According to James, it's not about winning political power and influence, but visiting--actually GOING TO--the orphans and widows.  We need teachers and coaches and nurses and nutritionists and artists and therapists and pastors and counselors and builders and engineers and probably gifted people we haven't even thought of.  Here's the link to find out more!

A few OVC's from my world today . . . 

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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Advice to Oursevles

This is an imaginary letter from people we work with in East Africa to us . . . garnered from our own plentiful mistakes when we have had friends who were brave enough to tell us what we needed to hear.  It is compiled here to help all us North Americans listen and learn. It has nothing to do with this photo, but I like this photo . . 

Dear Cross-cultural worker -

We want a partnership with you, and we see you have a lot to offer us.  You have great training, and you believe in what you are doing here.  We respect that. We like the way you've brought your family to our place.  So let us tell you a few things that will help you have an impact and enjoy your time.

Short answer:  it's all about investing in relationships.  

As you come, we assume you aren't going to stay long, so we often hold back.  We also fear that you don't particularly like our food or houses, which seem inferior to yours, so we're reluctant to reach out to you.  You might think God told you to come here, but He didn't necessarily tell us!  So you need to come into our place FIRST asking questions about whether you are needed and where, and how you can come alongside us.  Then you will need to do the work to come across to us.  If you plan events where we can interact on equal terms, if you can share food with us, if you can stop and talk to us, if you can ask questions, it builds a bridge with us.  It makes us feel seen as human beings. 

When you come, learn our language.  Know about our country, notice good things about it, write some positives in your blogs and letters showing that you actually like this place.  Don't make everything sound desperate.  Don't make it sound like you're the only one working, all alone, taking credit for everything that happens.  Mention us. Pray for our country too!

God is merciful, and even though God is just, God doesn't keep a scorecard of everything we do wrong.  Sometimes it seems like you notice every single deficiency and call us out on it.  You even seem surprised when things end up going well in spite of our mistakes, as if it doesn't make sense since we didn't do it your way.  Try to understand our limitations, try to adjust to new ways.  Ask us about our family obligations, ask why we need time away, ask who is depending on our salary, realize that we don't have a buffer like you do.  Notice what kind of schooling options we have for our kids, and how it's different from yours.  In fact many of us are sacrificing to work with you, but we aren't admired for that, and when we go home no one buys us dinner or lends us a car, instead they ask us for help.

We do appreciate all you've given up, but think about it this way:  you sometimes want to complain to us about how hard it's been for you, yet your lifestyle here is still far above what we can hope for.  So don't expect us to feel too sorry for you.

Sometimes we will have conflicts.  All people do.  Here, we don't feel comfortable being as direct as you are. If you want to correct or change something, pull us aside and tell us quietly, never shame us in front of others.  When you show anger, we can't hear anything you have to say.  If it's something really hard or big, please find a person we can both listen to who can mediate for us.  That's how we do things here.

Our favorite things:  when you come with a commitment to teach, to pass on your role, to give us your skills, to invest in training us. When you treat us as equal partners, when you notice us doing something right and point it out, when you ask our opinion and we can see we have something to contribute.  When you introduce us with respect, or tell others to listen to us, let your children play with ours.  When we can pray for each other.  When you remember us after you leave, and keep in touch.

Thanks for listening,
Your friends who put up with you for the last 25 years

Friday, August 24, 2018

Wobbling but steadfast

Who remembers these toys from our childhood?  I suspect my 50-something friends . . .  Weebles wobble but they don't fall down. They were little people with rounded, weighted bases, who tipped but popped back up.  

Kind of like us in real life now.  One of the constants of this season:  being thrown off-balance by unexpected change/problems/issues/sorrows.  This morning, for instance, one intern was so sick the nurses in the Newborn Unit had hung an IV drip, and even though she said she would still try to work she clearly had to go home (not that we would want someone with that level of gastroenteritis touching babies even if we weren't compassionate), the other intern is supposed to be on his last day and was unreachable until afternoon, all the new clinical officer interns were called to a half-day meeting, one medical officer (like a resident) got sent to a month-long training and the other had to leave for a family funeral, the medical students went to clinic, and my colleague was a couple hours delayed on the road.  Meaning that out of our team of 12, one lone clinical officer intern who wasn't in the meeting, and me, were left to round on, do vital signs, write notes, draw blood, talk to parents, for 32 NICU and about 30 more Paeds ward patients.  Or take this week: we found out that our medical licenses got lost in the cracks of ever-changing medical superintendents, one of us went to considerable effort to gather evidence-based support for following the Kenyan protocol for a certain type of patient but the team decided to just do what they have always done anyway, one of our kids had travel delays and later found out (unrelated) about a misunderstood missed deadline, I was scrambling to get the final edits on on the 4th Rwendigo book, all our kids are in significant transition as Julia wraps up her last week at Spring Lake Farm in Vermont and prepares to move to her Fellow's Program in Greensboro, Jack moves into his apartment with Cru friends at Duke (where he has no bed), Luke continues to figure out being an ortho intern, Abby (Luke's girlfriend) seemed to have one apartment after another fall through (though she finally got a place for her NP Trauma Fellowship), and Caleb got transferred to a different platoon that means he'll spend two of the next three months in additional training and field exercises.  Then there are wobbles one doesn't expect to make such an impact, like the death of one of our family friends Dr. Fred Hubach who represented the stable foundation of my childhood. There was a day when riots made the road our teams were traveling in Uganda impassible, and then an embassy notice went out to expect street protests in Kenya too. There is the daily scan of the Ebola news, praying the epidemic does not reach Bundibugyo or Nyankunde (so far it hasn't, which we are thankful for, though the total cases have risen to 103).  There was the afternoon I spent catching up our mortality database, feeling sad about the babies who have died.  Then there are the small things like going to worship practice, and the leader has decided I need to add the electronic percussion on the keyboard, which I've never done, so it was kind of stressful.  Or the fact that the lady who does two half-days of housework for us while we're in the hospital left for the week.  Or the bizarre announcement that after changing our residence to WV two months ago, the 911 coordinator decided to change our address number (we're on a little gravel country road but for some reason 3413 will eventually have to change to 3317 . . . ).  Or the constant cross-cultural nature of everything.  Nothing earth shattering, just the constant pushes and punches that knock you off your groove.  And all the above is this week alone.

Wobbling, righting, wobbling, righting.

One morning this week I was really struggling, particularly discouraged.  I knew that the constant hits throwing me off-balance had resulted in a pretty poor attitude.  This verse jumped out. "Create in me a clean heart, O LORD, and renew a steadfast spirit within me . . . that the bones You have broken may rejoice."  I need a new, tender, heart, a renewed steady spirit.  And the promise is that even the broken parts will eventually rejoice.  

The weighted bottom of the Weeble is what keeps it popping back up, and the weight in our lives is that anchor called hope, that leaning into a dimension where the spirit is being refined like silver.  Honestly the prayer for a steadfast spirit and clean heart DID help with the next day's punches.

We're all little Weebles trying to testify to glory.  

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Post-Parting Blues

Post-parting blues may be the theme of life.  Humanity left the garden of peace, harmony, purpose, community (the photo from our beach retreat above reminds us of Eden) for a life marked by fracturing.  Our hearts were created for continuity and presence; they feel crushed by the reality of partings.  I don't think I expected to be hit with this so hard as we returned to Naivasha this week, but in retrospect it makes sense.  We pray over and pour into the people we serve, and one thing I've learned about prayer this year is how it catches one up on another's story, how it cultivates tenderness towards them.  So after a week of intense immersion in actual palpable relationship (not just virtual or spiritual) with 140 people we love, the parting was rough.  And augmented by saying goodbye to Jack (AGAIN).  He had an amazingly rich summer with our Kibuye team working on engineering projects, and the gift of an intersection point between family and work is no small gift.  His work also enabled him to serve as the 5-to-7 year old kid program leader at the retreat, and have meals and talks and fun with us.  I'm so thankful.  But the taste of the old days when our Serge life and family life went hand in hand makes this post-parting week even harder.                       

So. . . since that aching pit-of-the-stomach emptiness is part and parcel of August for many in the world, schools starting, kids leaving, vacations ending, new jobs and programs .  .  here are some ways that we see God giving us grounding to make it through those blues.

1.  A theology of parting and hope.  This book Every Moment Holy (thanks to friends) is a beautiful collection of bringing meaning into the every day moments of life, the behind-the-veil deeper realities.  I've been reading the section about missing someone, which reminds us that even that sorrow can make room in our hearts to invite God to change us, to fill us, to make something new, to open space to love others.  We don't deny the missing, but we do expect redemption even in this.  And we do see that Jesus walked this path, and continues to walk it with us.

2.  A discipline of meaningful work.  Truly our days of hands-on concrete patient care and teaching do give us a sense of rootedness and place, of being part of a community of good.  The partings are not meaningless, they serve for the good of someone.  Teaching our interns, performing surgery, attending to fragile patients, all fill our days. 

3.  Inviting others into the space.  What a treat that Alyssa, one of our Burundi Team Leaders, was able to spend some time with us in Naivasha this weekend.  The Ickes family next door, our church friends and worship team.  God continues to send us others even as we miss many. The emptiness can be an opportunity of sorts.

4.  Phone calls and photos.  The wonders of technology, seeing Jack reunite with Caleb whom he had not seen for well over a year, and climb mountains in Alaska.  Talking to Julia and Luke on the phone.  Hearing from our moms. Emails from many others.  Don't let me ever take for granted the fact that I can text Utah while writing a blog post in Kenya.  

5.  The long term view.  Ultimately we know that all these partings are temporary.  The great cloud of witnesses still wait in another dimension.  And in this world, time will carry us back to most of the people we miss today.

As always, this is a pep talk to ourselves, but let's remember the ones we love and encourage each other to press on with hope.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Invitation to Wilderness: Serge East/Central Africa 2018 Retreat

 Over the last two weeks, we hosted Greg and Courtney Thompson and their family to a brief experience of Africa combined with speaking to our East and Central Africa Area in Serge for our Area Retreat, held every 3-4 years.  We invited them into some wilderness, and then they showed us that God invites all of us.

Greg spoke from Exodus 13, a passage I think I've tended to gloss over.  In verse 17 we are told that even though the way to the Promised Land could have been easier and shorter, God led them through the wilderness of the Red Sea, the desert, the thunderings of Sinai, the hunger and snakes and years of camping.  There the people were stripped of clarity and control, he said, as an invitation to intimacy with God.  

Powerlessness and confusion?  Well, we have that in abundance as we cross cultures, make a thousand mistakes, struggle to understand and be understood, to order and bless in the face of chaos. The shocking proposition he laid before us:  God actually brings us here for our good, to embrace us with protection and presence.  We need to be shaken out of our little kingdoms of comfort to cling to the only love that matters. 

In fact the entire narrative is one of a lover and a beloved, a growing confidence and warmth that actually transforms us into people whose potential for reflecting beauty and truth into a broken world brings about the vision of community we long for. Communion with God and with each other, spilling over into acts of justice and mercy for all.  We trust the path even when it leads through suffering, because it leads to intimacy with God.

It was over a year ago when we began dialoguing about this retreat.  In the meantime the Thompsons walked through some wilderness of their own, ultimately deciding to leave the place they have loved and worked in for the last two decades and move to Memphis to be part of the movement towards beginning to heal the centuries of racial injustice in America.  And in the meantime our people in Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Congo, South Sudan, and soon Malawi have walked their own wilderness paths of grief and loss.  We faced miscarriages and wars and Ebola nearby and temptations and failings and loneliness and the mundane daily stress of feeding a family and caring for others.  But over the last week, we all came together to worship and pray, to strengthen and encourage, to ponder anew the God who pursues us even when the path feels obscure and the higher purposes cloudy.  

We are so grateful, to them and to the dozen others who came to speak to us.  We had 6 days of retreat, including Team Leader training on topics from vision to paperwork.  We had a panel of Kenyans express to us what it is like to be shamed by us, to be isolated or treated unfairly, good hard things we needed to hear.  We had long-term Serge wise people speak to us about evangelism and loving others and ministry from weakness and transforming communities.  We had spirited worship and a communion service on the beach under the stars. We danced and drew, swam and ate and ate some more.  We celebrated.  We commiserated.  We finally hugged goodbye and went on our hundred wilderness paths back to beautiful stretching places where God woos us to be loved.

Thanks to all who prayed for this time, and do keep us in your hearts as we return to the journey.