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.

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.

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:

Why does it matter?

Why does it matter?

Droughts. Climate change. Tough farming conditions. Human rights violations. Self-expression denied. This week, two news stories highlighted how important the work of Spirit in Action is to combat these devastating realities.

New York Times: Loss of Fertile Land in Kenya

“More than in any other region of the world, people in Africa live off the land. There are relatively few industrial or service jobs here. Seventy percent of Africa’s population makes a living through agriculture, higher than on any other continent, the World Bank says.

“But as the population rises, with more siblings competing for their share of the family farm, the slices are getting thinner. In many parts of Africa, average farm size is just an acre or two, and after repeated divisions of the same property, some people are left trying to subsist on a sliver of a farm that is not much bigger than a tennis court.

“Fast-growing populations mean that many African families can’t afford to let land sit fallow and replenish. They have to take every inch of their land and farm or graze it constantly. This steadily lowers the levels of organic matter in the soil, making it difficult to grow crops.

“In many areas, the soil is so dried out and exhausted that there is little solace even when the prayed-for rains finally come. The ground is as hard as concrete and the rain just splashes off, like a hose spraying a driveway.” (Link to full article.)

SIA Partners in Action

SIA partners like CIFROD Kenya are helping to address the challenge of concrete-like soil. When I visited many CIFORD gardens last month in Maua, Kenya, I saw how CIFORD’s sustainable agriculture training helps farmers to break up the soil, replenish the nutrients with manure, and reduce water usage. (Read my blog post “How to garden in a drought” here.)

One of the grateful farmers we visited in Kenya. After implementing the sustainable agriculture techniques he learned from CIFORD, he noticed now much more he can grow.

The Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative also trains members to use manure and compost, and to intercrop their crops by alternating rows of beans and corn. The corn pulls nitrogen from the soil, and the beans help add it back into the soil. This can improve the soil and also increase the farm yields.

BBC: Mass arrests of gay people in Nigeria

“More than 40 men have been arrested in Nigeria over the weekend for performing homosexual acts, police say. Nigerian newspaper Punch reports that the police raided a hotel in Lagos State on Saturday afternoon and says the hotel was cordoned off while the investigation was carried out.

“Homosexual acts are punishable by up to 14 years in jail in Nigeria, while gay marriage and displays of same-sex affection are also banned.” (Link to full article.)

The situation is similar in Uganda, where gay and lesbian people have no legal protection and there are laws banning gay marriage. Extreme social stigma and threat of physical violence means that it takes great courage to be out as LGBT.

Spirit in Action is in the early stages of partnering with Universal Love Ministries (ULM), a grassroots organization to end violence against women and LGBT people in Uganda. ULM delivers seminars in schools, churches, and communities creating awareness on human rights for women, children and sexual minorities.

I see the work of ULM as an important part of SIA’s mission to help everyone know that they are spiritual beings and that we all hold the divine within us.

Sharon Kukunda shares about why she works with ULM in Uganda:

These two news stories remind me that the work we are supporting is not trivial. It is about life and death. SIA’s partners are boldly helping people live better lives, with enough food to eat, and the right to be safe. Thank you for joining us in supporting this work.

Do we have the courage to act?

Do we have the courage to act?

Reposting this post, originally posted January 20, 2015, to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. It is also renewing the call to stand up for the rights of the oppressed people in your country and around the world.

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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  -MLK, Jr.

Yesterday, Boyd and I took our lunch break to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail aloud to each other. Reading it in its entirety, rather than in a series of quotes, I was impressed by frequent references to God, Jesus, and Biblical figures. There are many deeply moving quotes from King about the arc of justice, about how we are all inter-connected, about expressing compassion to each other, about love and hatred. These are quotes that stem from and refer to the deep truths of his Christian faith without always mentioning his faith.

King’s letter quoted Amos and made more than a few references to Paul and the early Christians. He seemed to take courage from those first Christians who were radical in their faith and who didn’t settle for the status quo. Churches today, King lamented, were afraid to be labeled as “nonconformist” and were shying away from the important work of challenging injustice and structural prejudice. He asks: “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”

This letter is a call to action, now. Not to wait. Not to be afraid to be different or radical or uncomfortable. People of faith must be people who stand up for justice, for moral rights, for the inherent dignity of all people.

Sometimes action means listening. Small Business Fund coordinators listen to the stories of the successes and challenges of the entrepreneurs in Uganda.

We may not be able to help everyone. But we are not waiting until we can to solve all problems before we serve one person. We are not waiting to be a perfect organization before we dive into action to co-create with God for a better world.

Spirit in Action is not just a “spirit” organization. It is also an “action” organization. We see light and value and hope and possibility in the poor, in people of distant communities. We see that organizations that do not allow people to be actors in their own future, in their own prosperity, perpetuate an unsettling hierarchy of those who are helpers and those who need help. Action is confronting people who make statements that lump all of Africa into a uniform culture, who distrust all people who are poor. I know that is my great privilege to serve others, to give and encourage so that they can realize their own dreams for a better future.

Thank you for joining me on this path, in this action, in this service, and in using the power of God for good.

I sign off my post today with the same words as Martin Luther King, Jr. used in his letter from the Birmingham jail:

Yours for the cause of Peace and [Sister/]Brotherhood,
Tanya

Receiving the gift of a chicken from a Small Business Fund leader in Kasozi Village, Uganda, 2014.

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