Entertaining Angels

Entertaining Angels

This post is an excerpt from a sermon I gave at First United Methodist Church of Point Richmond in December 2015.

I saw a sign recently on a bathroom. It was claiming the public restroom space as a safe space for everyone. It was a co-ed bathroom. Anyone could use it – male, female, transgender, everyone across the spectrum. “Assume I belong,” the sign said. No matter what I look like, if I’m using this restroom, assume I belong.

Establishing categories helps us make order of a complex world. It simplifies things to think of two genders – male and female – as fixed, obvious things. When I assume that anyone belongs in my “my” bathroom, I acknowledge that everything is not as simple as that.

King Jordan was the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, a deaf school. Before 1988 the school had only had hearing presidents, not one of their own from the deaf community. I think there are some assumptions behind this: ‘It’ll just be easier to have a hearing president; they’ll have been better trained; they’ll be able to talk to the media and donors easier.’ King Jordan concluded the interview by saying, “deaf people can do everything except hear.” Assume I can do it, he was saying. Assume I am capable. Assume the students want someone like themselves to lead them.

Entrepreneur in Nairobi

Sarah Owendi, Nairobi, Kenya: “I used to wash clothing. I was living day by day. When I receive the Spirit in Action grant, I invested in cereals. Now I pay the rent, feed kids, clothe myself. I lived only on handouts before from Josephine. Now I stand on my own 2 feet. Rent is 1500 shillings per month. I did used to earn 200 shillings. Now I can earn 1000 shillings a week.”

A Smart Risk: Assume Best Intentions

This brings me to my work giving grants and supporting families and communities in Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda. What assumptions do we have about Africans? First of all, that they are all alike, rather than assuming that Africa is a continent with 54 different countries and many more different cultures. We have assumptions about poverty, desperation, and violence as a normal, everyday occurrence.

Some charities rely on the old assumptions. The pictures of crying children asking for money assume that the child doesn’t want anything more than you to come in and save them. It assumes they are helpless to improve their own future.

With Spirit in Action, I want to challenge these assumptions and instill new ones. “Assume that I can be an entrepreneur,” people like Mestina in Malawi are saying. (Read Mestina’s story here.)

Mestina with Tanya. Showing off the family’s new kitchenware. (Malawi)

People sometimes ask me how we know that people are using the money that we give them well. Part of it is that we have on-the-ground local coordinators who help ensure that people are using the grants for the intended purposes. Another part of it is that we trust them.

In a way, we assume that they will use the grant wisely. Why assume that? Well, because for many poor families who want to provide a better future for their children, this $150 is their great chance to take a step forward in life. I assume they don’t want to mess it up. I assume they want to use the money to start that business they’ve been dreaming of.

Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” It’s only unawares if we assume that it takes a certain kind of person to be an angel, and if we assume that the person in front of us doesn’t fit the mold.

What if we assume that an angel can be, could be anyone? Then our call is to entertain those around us, letting go of old assumptions and embracing a new lens.

Elizabeth Nyambura, Nairobi, Kenya: “I used to work in a hotel. A hotel is what we call the roadside restaurant. I made 100 shillings ($1) a day. With the first grant I started selling shoes. I go to small markets to sell shoes. I can pay for rent now, and for school fees. My extended family members are benefiting from the work that I do.”

“Hope is our Greatest Weapon”

“Hope is our Greatest Weapon”

I was so encouraged by this letter from SIA partner, Samson Turinawe. Samson is the Director of Universal Love Ministries, which works to promote an inclusive and diverse society in Uganda, free from gender- and sexuality-based violence. May we follow his call to stay hopeful in our work for justice. 

2017 is coming to a close and it is a good time to take measure of what we’ve accomplished together this past year. I want to recognize your good efforts on behalf of Universal Love Ministries and acknowledge the relationship that we’ve developed as a consequence of those efforts. Your goodwill and the commitment that you’ve demonstrated made a real and substantial difference in the lives of marginalized people whom ULM supports. 

I don’t know how the year went for you, but surely each of us faces challenges. We must own up to the errors we’ve made in addressing those challenges. We must come to terms with personal weakness that perhaps exacerbated the situation. Yet each of us has strength and wisdom too, which sometimes allows us to transcend circumstances and make things better.

There is more to life than regrets over the past. Never allow challenges to keep you down for long. You are strong and you can do better.

Samson surrounded by Inclusivity Club members.

Everybody Can Serve

If you are a teacher, kids in your class look up to you; their parents trust that you are teaching their kids well even if they don’t say that to you directly. If you are an activist, there is more to stand for; more good change that is needed. If you are a researcher, the future is waiting for your work, discoveries that can help people and make their lives better. If you are a doctor, remember that the society needs you, sick people to restore their health. If you are a writer, don’t forget that we expand our minds through what we read, what we see and feel.

This is what makes our society complete. Nobody is a lesser person. Our individual contribution is what makes us greater as a people.

Sharon Kukunda, Associate Director of ULM, presenting at the Inclusivity Club conference. The theme was “The Role of Youth in Celebrating Diversity.”

Hope is our greatest weapon

Hope is our greatest weapon for facing the future. No matter the challenges we confront today, we must not let pessimism keep us down.

Maybe our politics failed us. Maybe you were betrayed by people you had previously trusted. As we end 2017, make this your oath: never fail yourself and never be destructive because society mistakenly thinks its right to do destructive things on behalf of the majority. We can make this world better than it was yesterday. We can make it better for all people.

However little start, share, learn, network and strive to inspire others, even if it is just one other person.

You have our best wishes and prayers for the New Year. We believe you’ll arrive at the New Year with dreams and an uplifting vision for our world, for our generation and the next generation. The ULM team will never stop to stand with those who are threatened; we’ll stand to make those who have been silenced to speak out for themselves. We are committed to this journey. We do not go to bed blissful, satisfied with the way things are. Every challenge is an injustice to overcome and this gives us reason not to relax. 

Turinawe Samson
ULM-Uganda

Local and school leaders at the Inclusivity Club Conference in November.

Creating a more inclusive Uganda

Creating a more inclusive Uganda

How are Ugandans fostering a more loving and inclusive society? Universal Love Ministries (ULM) is hosting a series of workshops, supported in part by Spirit in Action, at schools in Uganda. Their team talks with students and teachers about life planning skills and human rights, particularly the rights of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) people. At the end of the workshop, students are encouraged to form “inclusive clubs” to defend human rights in their school.

Taremwa Kenneth is a Fine Arts teacher and deputy head teacher at Bitereko Vocational Secondary School, where ULM held a recent day-long workshop. In his many roles, he works closely with head teachers, and government and community leaders.

Kenneth sees that the Universal Love Ministries’ workshops are having great impact in his community in Mitooma District. LGBTI youth are safer and more confident. Youth are focusing on inclusion and standing up against hatred. After talking with youth who attended the workshops, Kenneth shared his findings.

Skits are common in Ugandan workshops. They are a more fun and accessible way to talk about social change.

Report from Kenneth, Deputy Head Teacher

“I attended two of the day-long ULM sessions, the one held at my school and another that was delivered at the Kitojo Secondary School. After ULM left Mitooma, the message they delivered in the workshops circulated around the district and reached community members and government officials. This happened by word of mouth as teachers and students who attended the ULM workshops retold what they had learned to others.

“Recently, I traveled to Kampala and spent a week of training at the ULM office. The training opened my inner eyes and ears. It helped me to start thinking in a different way: a way that seeks a constructive solution to the problems faced by people in our communities.

Samson Turinawe, director of ULM, leads a workshop session on human rights and life skills.

What have students learned about being inclusive?

“I talked with students, including those who attended the ULM workshops, as well as those who got word about what happened at the workshop through inclusive club members. Through this I learned how the previous ULM workshops helped the students and teachers who attended.

  1. They learned about human rights. They had heard about human right but they did not know exactly what human rights mean.
  2. Students came to know that one’s sexual orientation cannot be changed.
  3. They learned the difference between gender and sex.
  4. They learned that LGBTI people are not cursed nor are they agents of the devil, as they’ve been told by local religious leaders.
  5. LGBTI youth were happy to know that there is an organization which is educating people to accept them and include them in each and every activity in their communities.
  6. LGBTI students started believing in themselves and accepting who they are. It was their first time to hear someone affirm them. 
  7. Some LGBTI students who were in the closet are now coming out openly to their fellow students about their sexual orientation.
  8. Students now socialize in the inclusive club, which meets twice a month. In club meetings, they educate others on human rights, and to accept LGBTI.
  9. Students told me that they would love to have more training because they have more questions they need to ask, and that they are also asked many questions which do have answers.
  10. LGBTI students reported that they are no longer teased and bullied by their fellow students and that after the workshops some students approached and apologized to them. 

Inclusive club members. At their meetings they talk to others about human rights and help people accept LGBTI students.

ULM fills the knowledge gap

“They all thanked ULM for the good work. I want to personally thank the ULM team and Samson for the good work that ULM is doing for issues that affect our country. I did not know how to handle these issues beforehand. Many professionals still do not know how to handle these issues. ULM is there to fill the gap. I am committed to use the knowledge I gained at ULM along with my connections and my network of friends to see that ULM’s work and teachings reach many people, directly and indirectly.”

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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