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.

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.

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