But what do we have in common?

But what do we have in common?

I shared the following testimony of faith and mission at First United Methodist Church of Point Richmond a few weeks ago. The message was about finding common ground around the world, seeking connection, rather than differences.

Last month, when the fires here in California made it on the news in Malawi, Canaan Gondwe, our long-time partner, sent me a message. He was worried about us after hearing about the fires and let me know that he was praying for us and our donors and board members in the area. “To raise a home,” Canaan said, “it takes time, it takes a lot of money and effort. And just to lose it through fires is very unfortunate. We are praying for California.”

Fires, floods, drought. Dry cops, unbearably hot or unbelievably cold days. Possessions stolen or lost in disaster. Jobs lost, unemployment stretching on and on. Fighting and scheming for the best education for a child. Being part of Spirit in Action is a practice in living and seeing our shared humanity. These are basic experiences we have in common.

It’s so easy to focus on the differences between places like rural Malawi and the Bay Area. In my experience, Malawians are just as likely as Americans to think that there’s little we could have in common. Representations of North America arrive in Malawi through the distorted examples of volunteer programs (Peace Corps and church mission trips), movies (James Bond and Disney movies), and music videos (Taylor Swift and Michael Jackson). These leads to a belief that Americans are all rich people who don’t have any worries or challenges.

Checking Facebook in Malawi. Think complaining about internet speed is only a #firstworldproblem??

Similarly, representations of Malawi (lumped in with all of Africa) mostly arrive here through calls for charity and news about poverty. There are not many opportunities for each of us to see the wealth of experiences and cultural diversity in each country, or to experience each other as individuals.

Do only poor people pray?

While I was in Manyamula Village in Malawi in May, my Spirit in Action team spoke at the local church. Like this church, they share a love of music. The raw, loud, acapella voices filled the church, singing praises to God and proclaiming God’s goodness. (Listen to Standing on the Mountain of Zion.) The children’s group presented their offering of tubs for water and some utensils for cooking to the visiting church leader – while singing and dancing down the aisle. Like your service here, they said prayers and made announcements, and greeted one another.

Children presenting at church in Manyamula, Malawi.

After the service, Matthews – who was one of our hosts there said how wonderful it was to have us in the service and how good it was to have Mike Hegeman, from the SIA team, give a sermon. Matthews said, “People here think that Americans don’t pray, because they are all rich. And only poor people need to pray.”

It is true that we pray in need, perhaps more than we pray in abundance. But certainly, all of us have times of need. These assumptions create space, rather than bring us together.

If their logic was that you are rich – therefore you don’t need to pray. What are we also assuming, what flawed logic do we have when we think of Malawians as poor? I think many of us might also be guilty of thinking that all Malawians, maybe all Africans, or most at least, are poor. What it took to break through some of these assumptions was simply sharing a church service together, praying and sharing together.

#firstworldproblems

One of my recent pet-peeves is the use (or misuse) of the phrase, #firstworldproblems. Here are some examples:

  • “Don’t you just love it when your phone keeps dying on 20% battery #firstworldproblems”
    • BUT: Who knows better about having a cell phone running out of battery than someone who doesn’t have electricity in their home
  • “Need a nap, but have to wait up for packages… #FirstWorldProblems”
    • Think slow mail systems and lack of sleep only happen in America? Seriously, sending letters to our donors from a Kenyan post office took longer than even the busiest American post office!

My point is that we can be almost glib in creating distance between our experience and how we think others experience life. When actually, there is so much more we have in common.

Kenyans – They’re just like us! They like photobombing selfies! [Mumias, Kenya]

The significance of a house

Coming back to the loss of houses in the fires, and in storms and floods. These are moments that call us to work and pray collectively, with people all around the world.

In America, having your own home is some status of “making it.” Believe me, that’s also the case in Malawi. In 2011, I visited Paulos Lungu at his shoe repair stand in the marketplace. The Saturday market mostly consisted of temporary stands, with a few roughly constructed shops. Paulos and his wife, Sequina, had received a Small Business Fund grant of $150 in 2005. They had invested in a shoe repair business, building off Paulos’ skills.

In 2011, he told me how he wanted to build a home for his family. He was already buying bricks (fired clay, to last longer than packed mud bricks) for their future home.

In 2013, they sent me a picture of them proudly posed in front of their new home – complete with a thatched roof!

During our visit in 2014, Paulos was eager to have us visit his house. He welcomed us inside, showing off the cement floor (no longer dirt!) and showed us where they were storing the iron sheets. They were slowly buying the corrugated iron whenever they had extra money at the end of the month.

Visiting the Lungu home – complete with iron roofing sheets – in May!

Then in May – 12 years after that small Spirit in Action grant, six years after my first visit – I had the honor of walking across the threshold of the beautiful, iron-roofed Lungu home. They will no longer live with leaks during the rainy season! They have tremendous pride in how far they’ve come.

Before Spirit in Action, Paulos told us about how his life had been. He had no house of his own. He would stay at a relative’s house as long as they’d have him, then he would move onto another relative. And how they have their own gorgeous home that also houses other relatives – Sequina’s mother and various aunts.

“This is not a house of a poor person,” Canaan Gondwe, local coordinator and mentor, said proudly of the Lungu home. If you have iron sheets over your head, you are doing well in Malawi. It is a sign that you have made it. Canaan, Paulos and Sequina know very well how devastating it would be to lose a home. Their prayers – after hearing about the fires here – are prayers of solidarity and understanding.

Building Long-term Relationships 

It’s this network and mutual support that is so key to Spirit in Action’s impact. I think I mentioned last year about the book I was working on: Smart Risks: How Small Grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. One of the “Smart Risks” is Being Flexible and with a long-term outlook.” Long-term relationships with our partners give us time and space to deeply understand each other. Long-term relationships mean there is time to know each other, and celebrate our successes and milestones many, many years after the first grant.

My visits to over 100 Small Business Fund groups and nine grassroots organizations in May and June were about more than reports and oversight. The trip was about making this connection, building this cross-cultural understanding.

This year, these holidays, I invite you to consider how similar we all really are the world around. Rather than focus on differences, let’s take time to learn about the true individual experiences of others. Let’s be open to seeing the potential and goodness in those around us and those all around the world. Amen.

Inspiration from Kenya: Change, one step at a time

Inspiration from Kenya: Change, one step at a time

At the blessing of the piglet ceremony in Malawi in May, all the guests were invited to share some words of inspiration and encouragement. The assembled group included members of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative where were gifting the pig, the boy receiving the gift, and Spirit in Action Small Business Fund Coordinators from Kenya, Uganda, and other parts of Malawi. In turn, each offered prayers, words of gratitude, or Bible passages.

This piglet was given by the community organization to a promising young boy in the neighborhood. A cooperative member presents the piglet to be blessed.

Soft-spoken and earnest Dennis Kiprop from Kenya stepped into the circle and greeted the group. He had a story to tell us, a story of encouragement. He spoke in English, with fellow SIA SBF Coordinator Thomas Nkhonde from Malawi, interpreting into the local language, Tumbuka, for the rest of the group. 

Dennis Shares a Story:

This is a story about a ten-year-old boy playing on sand along the beach. As he was playing, he noticed that the tides were pushing little starfish up onto the shore and into the scorching sun.

The boy paused to watch and felt he should help in some way. He started throwing the little starfish back into the ocean. As he did this, an old man who had been watching from a distance approached the boy.

The old man looked at the boy and said, “Young boy, what are you doing?” The young boy replied so humbly, “I’m throwing the starfish back to the ocean, to keep them alive.” The old man looked at the boy and at the long beach filled with scorching starfish. He shook his head and said to the young boy, “No matter how long you do this, you won’t really make any progress.”

The young boy looked into the old man’s eyes. He picked up one more star fish and said, “this one matters.”

Here is the moral to the story: We can’t solve all the problems in the world at one time, but one little thing counts, day by day!

Thank you, Dennis, for sharing your optimism and hope with Spirit in Action!

Dennis Kiprop, SIA Small Business Fund Coordinator from Kenya, always had a motivational story to share with the group!

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.

**********************

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.

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.

“Within you is the Power”

“Within you is the Power”

Let us not be tempted to think of SIA’s partners and Small Business Fund members as weak or helpless. In the West, we hear many stories of how desperate situations are in some African countries. Del Anderson, SIA Founder, never believed that hopelessness was the whole story.

Meeting people face-to-face, shaking their hands, and hearing theirs amazing stories of struggle and success, I felt and connected with that power – that Divine spark – in each one of them. One of the inspirational reading that Del often sent was, “Within You is the Power,” by L. Stevens Hatfield. Words from this piece popped into my mind frequently throughout the trip.

May you be similarly inspired by the Power of God that is in each one of us, no matter where we are born, or how we organize our family structure, or make a career.

Tanya with Salome Lowole, Small Business Fund leader in Malawi. She is a widow and baker.

Within You is the Power

Excerpt from the work by L. Stevens Hatfield

Within you is the power. Within you is the power to face life and all that lies before you with unshakable assurance that “the Lord your God is in the midst of you” (Deut. 7:21 RSV).

No matter what yesterday’s problem was, within you is the power to live this day in complete at-one-ment with God. As you walk in the understanding of divine love today, you are strengthened, renewed and blessed for within you is the power to meet life triumphantly, radiantly, gloriously.

Is your body in need of healing? Know that the spirit of God within you heals you. Are you frustrated or concerned over some important business or personal decision? Know that the wisdom of God within you illumines and makes the way before you clear. Whenever you surrender any problem to God, all things are made right and you are blessed and guided to paths of peace, freedom, health, and happiness.

Manyamula COMSIP Bookkeeper and all-around entrepreneur and innovator, Mbwenu Chirwa, with his son. (Malawi)

Within you is the power. If you have some need, if you are trying to reach a decision about something, talk to God about it as you would talk to a loving parent or friend. Give your problem to God. God is your unfailing help, your guide, your source, your supply.

Is there a difficulty in your life that seems insurmountable? Turn your attention away from it. Be still and know that within you is the power to solve all problems. Know that God’s wisdom is always available.

Within you is the power. At times your path may seem unfamiliar and strange to you, but God knows the way. You can rely on God. If you meet difficult situations, call on the presence of God within you. God will answer you. God will be with you.

Jesus, the Christ, demonstrated the glorious truth that the power to overcome all difficulties come from within. He drew on this power to heal, to comfort, and to bless. He said, “The Kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Lk. 17:21). In this kingdom is the power that guides, directs, and inspires you.

Within you is the power to live and work each day with a sense of greatness and purpose in your heart. Keeps your mind stayed on the power.

Members of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative and Maize Mill, sharing a song and dance with me.

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