Human Chain of Love

Human Chain of Love

Today, I am sharing a sermon that has inspired me recently. It’s by Rev. Shawn Newton of First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto and it’s about how to show love by reaching out to those in need.

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All summer, I’ve been reflecting on an image—the one pictured below.

The photo was taken on July 8th, in Panama City, Florida. What you can’t see is that one hundred yards off shore, ten people – including a family of six – are fighting for their lives, as a strong riptide saps all of their energy, and makes it impossible to swim to safety.

It started with the two boys in the family getting pulled along first. And then others went out to help them, but caught swept up in the riptide, too. With no life guards on duty, and no rescue equipment at hand, the people on the beach looked on in horror, until someone had the idea that they form a human chain.

Beachgoers form a human chain to save a family from drowning in at Panama City Beach in Florida. (Photo: Leona Garrett)

A woman named Jessica Simmons described her resolve, saying that in the heat of the moment, she was determined that, “These people are not drowning today. It’s not happening. We’re going to get them out.”

The effort started on the beach, with the human chain forming with, at first, a small handful of volunteers that grew and grew, and then moved steadily into the churning surf. In the end, there were some 80 people stretched out into the ocean.

The strongest two impromptu rescuers headed past each link in this human chain until they reached the ten swimmers stranded by the current. They first pulled the two boys to the end of the chain, and then moved them along that long strand of love passing the boys all the way to the beach.

Next came their mother, who was struggling to keep her head above the water. She was sure she was going to drown. By the time she made it to the beach, she had blacked out. When she came to, she heard that her mother, still in the water, was having a heart attack. As everyone in the chain was being battered by the waves, she told the rescuers “to just let her go” so they could save themselves.

The chain grew.

Anyone who could help was linking their legs and arms with their neighbours. In the end, after an hour of incredible effort, everyone, those rescued and each link of the chain, had made it back to the shore.

Not knowing what else to do, they began to applaud—each other and the overwhelming grace they all felt in that moment.

Links in the human chain in Kenya! The SIA team meeting with community organizers and helpers in Mumias. Our links are helping to pull people out of poverty.

Making Love Tangible

If you’ve been attentive to the news in recent days, amid all of the horrific scenes, you have also seen powerful images of people doing what they can to form human chains, to reach out, to rescue, to save and uphold life, wherever and whenever they can.

It is the covenant with life in action, on full display, with very human hands. The covenant that demonstrates the best of who we are, the best that we can be in the face of catastrophe. The covenant that makes tangible the love that will not let us go. With floods around the world, with the earthquake in Mexico, with fires blazing in British Columbia, we are living this morning in a world of hurt.

May we find our own ways to reach out and serve life, by playing whatever part we can in forming human chains of love, be it by providing emotional support to those who are suffering, be it by volunteering to help with the clean-up, be it by giving generously of your resources to aid the relief effort.

May we reach out, in times of natural disaster. May we reach out any time others are reeling from disaster, of whatever sort, that we may do our part to tend the fabric of life, knowing that our lives are interconnected with all of life, and trusting that the hand we extend to others in their time of need may return to us when we, ourselves, need it most.

So may it be. Amen.

Has it really been 10 years??

Has it really been 10 years??

Has it really been ten years?? When I embarked on this journey as Spirit in Action Executive Administrator in September 2007, I had no idea that I would still be here ten years later.

In those ten years, Spirit in Action has given:

  • $79,650 for 531 Small Business Fund businesses
  • $50,439 to 27 different grassroots organizations

Wow! Behind each of those numbers are families and groups of people. They represent individuals with whom I have emailed, texted, visited, listened to.

Del and Tanya at Del's desk in 2006

Del and Tanya at Del’s desk in 2006

Fond Memories

In these ten years, I treasure memories of:

  • Seeing the realization of a dream in Malawi (breaking ground on the new training centre, and three years later cutting the ribbon and sleeping in the new dorm rooms)
  • Receiving letters from Del, filled with affirmations and encouragement
  • Achieving a personal life goal of publishing a book (and getting to tell the world about SIA’s collaborative and flexible approach to grantmaking)
  • Singing in a circle with our partners in Kenya, and being surrounded by dancing women in Malawi
  • Eating pancakes and drinking chai at Samro School in Kenya, surrounded by dear friends
  • Arriving in Manyamula Village this year and being welcomed by the local team who shook my hand and gave me hugs, saying over and over, “feel welcome!”
  • Surviving rides on packed buses in Malawi, learning to let go and let God as we drive wildly off into the unknown, pedestrians diving out of the path of the hurtling bus
Tanya and Canaan in the MAVISALO poultry house.

Tanya and Canaan Gondwe in the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative poultry house in 2011.

There have been prayers shared, prayers answered, inspiration sent and received, amazing donors, and dedicated board members and volunteers. Through it all, I am continually blessed to be able to dedicate myself to work that I see is making a positive difference in the world.

When I first started, all the places seemed so far and unfamiliar. I didn’t know how to pronounce the names of our partners. Now, when I say “Winkly Mahowe,” I hear Winkly’s own voice in my head. Now, when I think of Eldoret, Kenya, I know the smell of the rain on red earth. This vastness – and the smallness – of this world are more real to me now.

Dear friends in Eldoret. Samuel and Rhoda Teimuge, Tanya, and Dennis Kiprop.

Fanning the Spark

In one of my very first blog posts in 2007 I reflected on 2 Timothy 1:6-7: “I remind you now to fan into a flame the gift God has placed in you. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of inward strength, of love and of self-control.”

I wrote, “This was my morning mediation today and it really rang true for me – I truly feel that working with Spirit in Action fans the Spark of Spirit that God has placed in me. A flame is not timid, it creates a warmth inside (especially necessary during Minnesota winters!) and gives strength to others who see it – passing on hope and encouragement. Prayers and communion with Spirit in Action correspondents will fan my spark into a flame today. As I fan other Sparks each day – my flame grows stronger.”

Today, ten years later, this image of fanning the spark within me still inspires me, and I’ve had the privilege of seeing others fan their spark- for themselves and for their communities.

Thank you to all of you who have been part of this journey with me! And, don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.

Pancakes and chai in Kenya. Yum!

 

Surrounded by a song of welcome. (Malawi, 2014)

Seeing Capacity Where it Already Exists

Seeing Capacity Where it Already Exists

What works to help families move out of poverty? Spirit in Action is addressing this on the international level, with our Small Business Fund, and our support of grassroots organizations. It turns out our answer is similar to the one presented in a fascinating article and interview in the New York Times this month!

When social worker Mauricio Lim Miller was asked for advice about how to address poverty in California in 2000, he turned away from the programs and institutions that were part of the “war on poverty” and instead looked to individuals for answers.

“Lim Miller had long had doubts about the effectiveness of his work helping people escape poverty.” He didn’t know the answer, but he did know who would have some ideas. (I’ve also written about knowing how much I don’t know.)

The article quotes Lim Miller, “When I came to Jerry Brown’s office [mayor of Oakland, at the time] I told him, ‘I don’t know what to do. But my mother figured out how to get me out of poverty, and I think other mothers, fathers and guardians might also have ideas about how to get their lives together. I would ask them to show us how to build their lives.’

The outcome of the discussion was the Family Independence Initiative, which helps to strengthen social networks and provide resources to low-income families in the U.S., so that they can create a new future for themselves.

Smart Risk #5 Practicing Vulnerability

Smart Risks

Trust and invest in families,” pleads the front page of the Family Independence Initiative. The request is a familiar one to us in international development. People don’t want to be seen as victims, they want to be trusted and supported to move forward.

In the interview, Lim Millar highlights how people attempting to address poverty have missed the capacity in the communities themselves. War on poverty fell into a “listening gap,” he says, providing services without listening first.

Listening to Small Business Fund leaders in Malawi as they tell me about their successes.

This is in fact the same message as my co-authors and I write about in the new book, Smart Risks: How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. The book features thirty short essays, all stressing the importance of listening to local experts, investing for the long-run, and building up community support systems where empowered individuals work with peers to rise up out of poverty.

When we dare to trust, we see results. From Lim Miller, “The data showed that when we provided an encouraging environment, but didn’t provide services, families had better outcomes.”

It can feel like a risk to trust people when you are giving money. However, if we give money without listening first, we risk something even greater. We risk leaving untapped the power, knowledge, initiative, and expertise that already exists in all communities.

It is an honor to witness the strength that exists in the Manyamula COMSIP cooperative in Malawi.

Love is Warm Coca-Cola

Love is Warm Coca-Cola

Today’s story of Small Business Fund success in Kenya is about more than monetary success. Sister Magrina, who received a Small Business Fund grant in 2014, is using her success to encourage and empower women in a very rural, isolated part of Kenya.

Mike Hegeman, SIA Advisory Board member who traveled to Kenya with me, wrote about the inspiring life of Sister Magrina. The following is excerpted from his sermon, “Our Uncommon Life.”

I recently returned from spending six weeks in the developing world, in countries such as the Philippines, Malawi, Ethiopia and Kenya. And in each place I encountered common people of faith living in uncommon ways.

One such person was Sister Magrina. It took us several hours to reach her, down a winding highway from the lush, fertile highlands of northwest Kenya, into the arid and seemingly desolate lowlands of the Rift Valley, an hour’s journey down a shockingly bumpy road, then a twenty minute hike into the brush, all to find a woman dressed humbly in a blue habit and shod with a worn pair of laceless sneakers, sitting under a tree in the limited, but much desirable shade, holding in one hand an outdated cellphone and in the other a bunch of rocks which she would throw one by one to keep the birds out of her withering crops.

Sister Magrina, Dennis Kiprop (SIA-SBF Local Coordinator), Mike Hegeman, Ursula, and her daughter, Chebit, on Sr. Magrina’s farm.

Sister Magrina is a nun with degrees in counselling and addiction therapy, who had given up the “comforts” of her highlands home to come live among the poor of this most forgettable village on the edge of nowhere. Just a smattering of mud huts and farms, with no running water and no latrines; only a paltry stream to water the vast desert valley.

Sister Magrina had come here to plant a farm, not for herself, but to have a reason to be closest to some of Kenya’s most vulnerable people. Here in this village spousal violence is rampant, alcoholism legion and malnutrition ubiquitous. Sister Magrina sits by her crops, and when women of the village or children wander by, she invites them to sit and pass the time of day. She listens to their woes, how evil has befallen them and scourge has come near their tents. She quietly teaches them about ways they can support themselves when their husbands are off drinking and neglecting support for them and their children. She teaches them how to grow kitchen gardens and about helpful hygiene techniques. She encourages the children to stay in school.

Women and children who pass by Sister Magrina’s hut are greeted and welcomed over for a cookie.

She is the presence of God’s love in that place; the God who promises to be with us, is present in that place through a sister willing to live in a mud hut, drink from a simple stream, and hope to teach people to create a sustainable way of living for themselves.

Love is Warm Coca-Cola

Drinking warm coca-cola and eating cookies with Sister Magrina in Kerio Valley, Kenya.

More than anything else, she teaches them about love, and thereby teaches them about faith in God. Sister Magrina says, “In this place, I am not a Catholic; I am not a Protestant. I am one who comes in Christ’s love to make a difference; I have come to a place where no one else will come…to be among God’s people…even if they don’t know yet that who they are.” Sister Magrina lives a pretty uncommon life. Her work bears witness to God’s salvation, God’s delivering grace.

When first we came upon Sister Magrina, we were strangers. Yet, she set out burlap sacks for us to sit upon the dusty ground. Warm Coca-Cola appeared, along with some fruit and crackers. We fellowshipped in the dappled shade, still sweating, and we listened to an uncommon woman, express her uncommon faith, embodying hospitality to strangers…with children in her lap and at her feet.

Sister Magrina shows Tanya her beans and watermelon plants. The crops are dry-farmed, relying on rain.

Pray for Kenyan Elections Today!

Pray for Kenyan Elections Today!

Today is the day that Kenyans are electing their next president, governors, and local representatives. In the presidential race, there is fierce competition between the incumbent Mr. Kenyatta (Jubilee Party), and the opposition, Mr. Odinga (Orange Democratic Movement). There are many other candidates running and unless one person can secure more than 50% of the votes there will have to be another round of voting.

Everywhere that I visited in Kenya (in June), I saw huge political rallies in fields and heard political messages blared through loudspeakers on the back of trucks. Political posters were plastered to walls, shops, and street signs. Everyone was praying for peace.

Driving past a political rally near Maua, Kenya in June.

Prayers for Peace

We attended church in Nairobi. Prayers for peaceful elections were part of the service. Cards with the prayers sat in the pews, next to the songbooks. “We pray for our current and future leaders to work for the common good and prosperity of our country, that justice shall be our shield and defender.”

Prayer for Peaceful Elections. Flora Hostel, Nairobi.

This morning, I received an update from Joe Gichoni – one of the leaders of our partner, Megabridge Foundation:

“We thank God that the much awaited day is here with us. It is 4am and people have started queuing to start voting at 6am. There are not any reported unusual incidences yet and we do not anticipate any to arise in Jesus name. Thank you for keeping our country before the Mighty God.”

Margaret Ikiara, leader of the grassroots organization CIFORD Kenya, posted a prayer on her Facebook wall:

“Today Kenyans go for general elections to elect our leaders. It’s a God given opportunity to have a very peaceful country. May we vote wisely and remember after today we need our beloved country. We need our neighbours, sisters, and brothers, and need our future to grow to greatness. Let us make our dreams. Kenya is a name, County is you. Take care of our beloved country. Love you Kenyans, Love Kenya. God bless Kenya.”

I invite you to join me in praying for peace and a free and fair election. I am also praying that the next government will be dedicated to reducing poverty for all, rather than resorting to corruption and kickbacks to their supporters. God bless Kenya!

Follow the Election

For more information – and some good pictures – check out these news stories:

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