International Women’s Day

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Photo Credit Haley Huckabee

I awoke to a ding on my phone from a friend in Uganda wishing me a happy International Women’s Day.  I thanked him for his well wishes, and promptly went to look up what International Women’s Day is. I found it originally began in New York, but after Russian women got the right to vote on March 8, 1917, March 8th became the day to celebrate women around the world. It is a day for women’s issues to be championed and the spotlight to be shined on progress made.  I found out it is not only a national holiday in many countries other than Uganda, but it has also been celebrated since 1909.  What?  How have I missed this? Probably because it was started by a socialist movement and further celebrated by communists, and now is going forward with feminist backing. These are not the groups conservative women typically link arms with, which I think is unfortunate in this instance, because there is a global issue and we are burying our heads in the sand.  We object to the methods of protest, or the forceful nature of the groups, or the perception that somehow taking care of the home and children is frowned upon, or the agenda that women want to be like men.

There are a whole host of reasons we, as conservative women, are unaware of this movement. However, when you see women who strap their babies to their backs so they can go to work because there is no childcare, or when you become aware that school girls cannot go to school while they are having their periods because there are no feminine products available to them, something shifts inside of you.  Women’s issues are no longer about some bold and vocal women who seemingly want to attack all conservative viewpoints.  You recognize those same voices are loud, because so many women are silenced by their shackles.  They sit, on cardboard each month in their homes while they bleed because they have no other option.  They are ashamed of the very thing that makes them women and gives the ability to create life.  The children they bear become a liability when it comes to getting out of poverty.  Womanhood and motherhood should be celebrated, not a source of shame, and that is something ALL women can get behind.

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I don’t think women want to take the place of men.  I don’t think they want to become higher up, or somehow over men.  They simply want their voices to be heard. They want to be respected, as women. They don’t want their ideas and viewpoints to be dismissed, just because they are female.  They don’t want their gender to be a liability.  In other countries, their futures are set for them, because of their gender.  They miss so much school they fall behind, so far they cannot catch up.  Without an education, they repeat the cycle of young marriages, young motherhood, and young poverty.

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Here it is different.  Women have an abundance of options.  We can have careers, or children or both.  We can vote and have a say.  Yet, underneath all those options, is a mindset that we should not want more.  We should be happy with what we have and not press to go further, as if ambition is only the right of males.  As if our ideas are somehow flawed, because we do not think in the same way men do. Trust me, we do not want to think like men do!  We have a uniquely feminine viewpoint, which is absent from many male-dominated fields. They are missing out on some pretty spectacular ideas, and they don’t even know it.

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What we bring with us is more than just people who can get it done. (And we can get it done, because we are superb multitaskers!)  However, we are also visionaries, strategists, creatives, innovators, analysts, collaborators, and worker bees.  We can do it all, if given the chance.  The thing is, God made us that way.  We are made in his image.  Uniquely formed, just like men, with specific gifts and talents to be used. To be pigeon-holed is to be limited and not fully who God made us to be.  There is more for us.

Jesus knew that, and he set women free.  The woman at the well, the adulterous woman, Mary and Martha, and a whole list of others, each felt his acceptance of who they were.  As they were.  He didn’t demand from them, he allowed them to be who they were and he called them up in truth and in love to be more fully themselves. Once again, he was a rebel of his day.  He is our example of how women should be treated, accepted, respected, and included. Rather than seen as property, or less than, he elevated women and called them into their purposes.  Purposes beyond childrearing, he called them to walk alongside him, to spill their tears for him, and to anoint him. He knew their hearts were tender because of motherhood.  He knew they had wisdom because they were women.  He honored their roles, and he raised them up. They were the first to see him alive after his death, because he knew they would understand resurrection from a dead place. They had lived it, when he called them forth.  He was a feminist, and I think he would celebrate International Women’s Day, because he wants all women to be free, and I can celebrate that too.

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Aunt Betty

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Photo Credit: Beverly Brown Photography

When I was a little girl, my Aunt Betty used to take us to the symphony.  She is a music lover who wanted to pass her passion on to the next generation. She did that for my brother, sister, and me, since she never married or had children of her own.  We were her charges, to carry on her musical legacy.  We saw Robert Shaw’s Christmas Concert every year.  We went to see the opera. We went to organ recitals. We went to the High Museum of Art.  We went to a children’s museum called The City. Her home was, and still is, filled with interesting instruments.  Recorders from far-away places, thumb pianos, maracas, dulcimers, guitars and she even has an organ in her apartment!  When I was little, she didn’t have a TV, but she had a record player and it played classical music or organ music, regularly. She taught me how to play the guitar, or I should say, she tried to.  I am not a very coordinated person, so my attempts at guitar and piano lessons didn’t go well. None of the three of us have the musical talent she does.  However, I do know that we admire talent when we see it, in part, because we were taught what it looks like from a young age.  She has carried on that tradition with our children, her grandnieces and nephews. Taking them to organ concerts, and gifting a string trio to the first grandniece  to marry, at her wedding. It will be a legacy of music passed on for sure.

Betty has been an accomplished organist for as long as I can remember until now.  She played at all our weddings. She has played the organ in numerous churches over the years, and until some recent falls where she broke her elbow, wrist, and shoulder, she was still playing at the age of 84. Her first fall was carrying a box of music from the church at which she was currently playing.  At one time, she traveled the world with the Organ Guild to tour and play some of the most beautiful instruments in the cathedrals of Europe.  To say she likes music is an understatement. To say music is her life, would be more accurate.

What she did for us, she also did for hundreds of school children as a music teacher in inner city Atlanta, for 37 years.  Christmas season during that time was her busy season. Chorus performances, concerts, and church programs filled her days and nights. At the lighting of the Great Tree in Atlanta, you might find her on one of those bridges, either singing or directing a children’s choir, or she might be playing the organ for a Christmas cantata somewhere. The children in her schools benefited from her passion.  I have met some of her former students, who sing her praises, (pardon the pun) and they talk about how her teaching inspired them to pursue music into adulthood, in one way or another.

It didn’t really occur to any of us, until recently, that she was a renaissance woman involved in the tumultuous 60’s in Atlanta during the Civil Rights Movement. Segregation of schools, marches, and all that was happening in that time period, whirled around her everyday life in the city.  Her best friend, Mary Frances Early, was recently recognized as the first African American woman to graduate from UGA. I only knew Mary Francis as Betty’s friend, not a Civil Rights heroine.  When I thought about the years in which she was teaching in the Atlanta City School System, it dawned on me what that would have been like. Teaching is not an easy job anytime, but during that era it was downright dangerous, especially to be a white single woman teaching in black schools, when race polarized the nation. It kind of helps me to understand the spunk of my aunt which has followed her into her old age.

She knows her way around the world of music performance in Atlanta, and is friends with many of the great symphony players and/or choral members as well as the conductors. You might say she is a friend of the arts.  In fact, her latest fall in December where she broke her arm and knocked out a few teeth, was at Symphony Hall getting from the parking lot to the auditorium.  Did I mention, she is fiercely independent? Insisting she is capable of going and doing the things she has always gone and done.  It is true, that she does things her way and always will.  She is not intimidated by much, and afraid of even less. In fact, I would say, probably the only thing she fears is losing her independence.

She landed in the hospital last week, when she got dehydrated and her kidneys refused to cooperate.  The reality of age catching up with her set in, for all of us as we made the back and forth trips to Atlanta.  The falls of the past few years where the evidence things were changing, and now it is clear the changes she, and all the rest of us have wanted to avoid, are here. It is not an easy place to be in any sense of the word. She is at rehab now, getting stronger.  It is our prayer that she will be able to return to her home soon with some help there so she can continue to go and do as much as she is able.  We covet your prayers as well.

What About the Children?

My heart has pulled into its shell for protection, just like a turtle.  In the wake of all the usual voices after a school shooting tragedy, it cannot handle the quagmire of clogged minds.  It cannot handle the thoughts of children stopped from fulfilling their life dreams, or the images of teachers-turned-decoys with targets on their backs.  The sounds of parents crying out in the night for their kids, is too much to bear.  All the injuries, both physical and emotional, are a heavy load which brings sorrow to the surface, and locks my heart up tight.  The idea that in a few minutes, so many lives could be changed forever, for no apparent reason, is just incomprehensible.

The trauma of so many lives lost is devastating. Debilitating fear becomes a companion for parents, students, and teachers. The need for counselors to be available for months to come is a testament to the deep pain experienced and the great need for healing. I cannot endure the endless arguments and blame placing, so I turn off all media, and I pray for the families, because I still think prayers matter. In conjunction with whatever else we come up with, prayers at least acknowledge the spiritual battle in which we find ourselves.  The enemy laughs at our arguments and our outrage as well as the fact, we don’t even recognize him as the source of the problem. He rejoices in the disunity he is causing. His plan has always been to take out the children, history shows us that clearly.  I grieve for the victims, for all the rest of us, and for our country.  Ultimately, it is our country’s future which suffers with each shot, and loss of a student filled with potential.

Maybe because my trip to the South Sudanese refugee camp is so fresh in my mind, I can’t help but think of what I would do, if I didn’t have a break to process unprovoked violence. What if my turtle shell withdrawal, couldn’t happen?  What if the violence was this bad every single day?  What if instead of 17 killed, there were thousands killed, in every direction? What if there was the equivalent body count of a school shooting or higher, and what if it happened daily?  The people run for their lives, through the bush, at night; most of them women and children. The children have no advocates there. The innocent ones always suffer the most in the battle.

Trauma equivalent to a thousand school shootings remains behind their eyes.  There are no counselors, or outraged citizens to argue on their behalf.  There is no place for these children to speak out to be heard. They carry their pain with them on their faces and in their hearts. Trust is hard to come by, because they have only known war. War where long-time beliefs about the “other tribe” undermine civil discourse. War where rape and pillaging is carrying out by both sides, while trying to make their point. War where opposing factions believe killing each other is the answer.

Civilians are caught up in the crossfire, and used as victims of torture. Tanks crush them.  Soldiers and rebels rape them. Parents are killed so their children can become child soldiers…and the body count grows, over 300,000 dead with another 3.5 million displaced.  In a country of 12 million people, a quarter of the population are homeless and 1.5 million have fled to neighboring countries.  It is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

The children, whether it is 17 or 300,000, are the targets.  They are the victims, used to provoke.  So many stories.  So many tears.  So little being done to protect them.  They fend for themselves, hiding in classrooms, or running through the night.  They witness bloodshed, and are expected to move on with life, as if it is a normal day.  Here the outrage lasts a few weeks, until the next time.  Across the sea there is no outrage, only silence…and weeping in the night. The enemy’s plan is the same in both places, take out the children, and you take out the future.  Where are the advocates for the children?  I see advocates for guns.  I see advocates for mental health care.  I see advocates for government parties. In the war across the globe, I see advocates for the tribes.  I see advocates for peace.  I see advocates for refugees.

I don’t see many advocates for the children themselves, in either place.  The grown-ups have all the ideas, while the children continue to die.  There are no easy answers, if there were, someone would have tried them already.  The spiritual battle rages on, and the evil one appears to be unopposed, gleefully wreaking havoc in every place disunity rules. We hold to our viewpoints like stone statues, refusing to compromise.  Stone statues, which are as immovable as the headstones of our children.

Dear MSDHS

Dear Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,

You have made the list every school hopes to avoid…the school shooting list…the mass casualty list.  The lock-down training you had, didn’t take into account a false fire alarm.  The hide-and-go-seek plan didn’t work as well as you believed it would, because training cannot cover every possible scenario a sick mind can conceive.  As teachers, you are aware of this fact, but you go to work anyway. And students come to school.  Everyday.

Except today.  The day after.  The day after the unimaginable happened.  The day after everything was turned upside down. The facts are still being pieced together, the investigation is ongoing. Rumors fly like the wind on cellphones and social media.  Talking heads speculate.  Politicians capitalize on tragedy to push agendas of one side or another.  The noise is chatter and supposition, but no one knows the horror.  No one gets what is was like to be inside that building hearing shots, seeing the losses.  No one but you. So, hold onto one another.

Know that those of us who have trained to sit defenseless with our frightened students huddled in darkness are with you in thoughts and in prayers. You are living our nightmare.  Today, we go through our minds and we take another look at our classrooms.  We lock the doors and pull the blinds.  We look for possible escape routes if we ever become you.  We think, ‘Where would we go, if we were here?’ as we walk down each hallway.  We wonder what would happen if we were in the cafeteria. We bring bats to school for “recess” and we leave them beside our doors.  Hornet spray that shoots from long distances is in the cabinet in case we have “hornets” in our building.  We carry our door keys around our necks, and teach children how to lock themselves in bathrooms and stand on toilets to avoid being seen.  It is what fear demands of us, to be diligent, so we do not become you.

Yet, we all know it is possible, on any given day, a seemingly random event will reveal the truth, that our best laid plans evaporate when confronted with reality.  Some lives are saved because of the training, but others are lost.  And in the middle of it all, you are there grappling with the pain, shock, and the grief.  Students ache for their friends.  Parents cry in horror as they face empty bedrooms and tables. Administration is fending off the press, and trying to create a space for healing to begin, in the midst of all the fingers pointing in a million directions.

Bless you Stoneman.  Bless you all.  Please allow us to hold space for you.  To lift our prayers, while you try to get your heads around the events of the day.  Let us stand when you cannot, and hold you with virtual hugs that need no words.  Give us the gift of carrying some of your grief so that we lighten your load. Let our tears be liquid prayers that mix with yours.  Know you are not alone, and though we cannot possibly grasp what you are going through, we are with you just the same. As teachers, as parents, as students…as humans…we reach out to say you are cared for.  You are loved, and your grief is felt in ripples across our hearts.

God,

Please be with everyone involved in this horrible event.  Hold up those who feel the losses, with your compassionate hand.  Give them comfort.  Surround them with your peace and grace.  Bring them people who can walk with them, through the processing of the grief.  Take their fears Lord.  Give them sweet sleep that is nightmare/flashback free.  I ask for the students to come together for one another during this time.  To hold one another up, and to not allow this to separate or isolate them.  I pray for unity among the student body.  Give them healthy ways to express their grief.  I pray for the parents who wake up today, without their children.  God, please, please, comfort them.  Give them the strength to get through the coming days, but also the years of empty places that are ahead.  Send your people to uphold and surround them.  Gather their tears.  Be with the teachers, as they continue to do their jobs.  Give them a voice. Open ears around them to listen to their fears.  Help them to be strong for the students and parents, but not to forget to nurture themselves and find healthy ways to express their own feelings.  Be with the administration of the school system.  Help them to navigate all that is happening.  Give them outlets to release their own grief, while still working through all that is involved with this type of event.  Be with the investigators, the first responders, the medical teams, the injured victims and their families, and the family of the shooter.  Many lives were scarred yesterday, Lord begin the healing process of the open wounds of the heart. Pour out your balm and begin to put the pieces of shattered lives back together.  In Jesus name, Amen.

My Comfort Zone

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I have been back from Uganda for 2 weeks. Back in my comfort zone. I have hot and cold running water just a few steps away at any given moment.  My electricity works all the time.  I have 3 types of ovens and a stovetop, as well as a refrigerator, which is full of food and spits out luxurious ice at the push of a button. I have a car that can take me anywhere I want to go, at any time I want to go there. These are the things I assume will always be there for me, the things I take for granted.

I do not have to walk several miles each day, with a jug on my head, to get water for my family.  I do not have to gather firewood to cook my food. I do not have to wait a month for my food ration to arrive, or figure out a way to make it last so that my kids can eat every day.  I do not live in a tent made from a tarp, or a hut made from the mud I made myself.

These differing experiences make me ponder and feel. They move me, and cause me to recognize I could have easily been born in a different place and had a completely different reality.  I could have lived in a country where war knocks on your front door, while you are running out the back.  Honestly, I am not sure I would survive it, because I am soft. I am not accustomed to the back breaking work it takes, just to make sure my family lives another day. It is beyond my comprehension how strong the South Sudanese people are.  If it were me, I would crumble up in the heat and die.

These kinds of trips are perspective changing ones.  I knew this would happen, and that my eyes would, once again, be opened to the disparity of the world in which I live.  I have heard it said, “We have poor kids here.  Why not feed them?”  I would agree with that statement. I have 20 years-worth of experience meeting the needs of poor kids in my own community, educationally and otherwise.  The schools here feed them breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack.  They also send home backpacks full of food every weekend. There are food banks, and soup kitchens in our town. The schools have clothes closets.  All of the community programs are specifically designed to care for these kids and their families. All of them are important to the well-being of children.

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In the refugee camp I visited, there are not the same types of programs. There are monthly rations, and that’s about it.  Fending for yourself is the norm.  Some kids can do that, and others cannot.  Being that 85% of the people in the camps are women and children, it is difficult to make do.  It requires the entire family just to survive.  The little kids, pick up firewood.  The bigger ones walk for water.  They plant and try to make the dry dirt produce something edible. It is a life of survival which produces a survival mentality.  Thinking past today is a rarity.  Going to school, if you have one near enough, is a luxury.

The Greater Hope Schools Initiative, just started a school lunch program at Hope Primary School in the camp.  The parents of the students do the cooking, so all 600 students get one meal each day.  The pictures show smiles from ear to ear, as the children eat their fill.  Learning is increasing, as is hope.  All because of one meal a day.

I heard a story once of some orphans who had been through traumatic times.  They couldn’t sleep at night, until someone figured out they were worried about when and where their next meal would come from.  Each child got some bread to sleep with so they knew they would eat again tomorrow. It solved the problem of not sleeping. For the kids at Hope Primary School to know they will get at least one meal a day, will have a similar effect on their studies. It is difficult to concentrate when starvation is rumbling around in your stomach. The difference on their faces, after just one week of the lunch program, is remarkable.

I am not sure why it has to be either we feed kids here, or we feed kids there.  Why can’t we feed both? It seems to me that all children should have the right to survive and to thrive, no matter what country they live in. It is not up to me to pick which ones need help.  They ALL do.  So rather than wall my heart off, I have opened it wide, and despite the pain of seeing the hardships, I have also seen a spark of hope beginning to flame up.  The smiles of the students are amazing to witness, because this lunch brings life to them, in more ways than one.

To find out more about the lunch program go to The Greater Hope Project

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As a Matter of Fact…

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The story of how I got involved with a South Sudanese refugee camp in Uganda is an interesting one.  I have been asked about it enough times I thought it might be a good idea to write it down.  Sometime in the fall of last year, a question popped in my head demanding an answer.  I ignored the question for a good while. It was in reference to the plans for establishing long term bases and church planting in foreign countries that AIM (Adventures in Missions) is currently undertaking.  The question was, ‘Is there an educational component to the development of these bases?’  I am a part time employee in the Parent Ministry department, not the Long-Term Missions department, so I wasn’t sure why I needed to ask this question so badly, but it would not leave my head, so I went to Seth Barnes (the founder of AIM) to ask it.

“As a matter of fact…we do have an educational component to our South Sudan Refugee Project,” he said.

“What is the South Sudan Refugee Project?” I asked.

He proceeded to tell me about the conflict in Sudan and how his dear friend Uche had contacted him about helping in the refugee camps in Uganda.  Uche has been a missionary to South Sudan for years. The project to come along side what Uche is doing there, already had a team of people working to help refugees in many areas of need.  Seth sent me two documents, one had an overview of an expansive plan to address needs of water, medical care, shelter, food, as well as emotional and spiritual needs.

The other document was a plan to develop an educational model, called the Greater Hope Schools Initiative, that will be used in refugee camps to start schools which address the specialized needs of children who have endured enormous trauma.  The overview document included an empowerment program in which students work on projects around the school to create ownership. A student lunch program to meet their physical needs was to be developed. It included a child-centered teaching approach which focuses on real life problem solving and critical thinking skills. It addressed the emotional needs of children who have experienced trauma.  It had a discipleship program built into it.  It included a community component which involves parents in every aspect of the school.

As I read that document, everything I have done in my 20-year career as an educator was included. My heart began to beat faster and my mind was spinning with ideas of ways to put some meat on the bones of this document. I felt the need to talk to the educator on the team about the school portion of the project, only there was no educator.  What?  No educator?  How can you build an educational model without an educator?  And so, I became the educator on the team, and began to design a chit system (point system) to have students do jobs/projects around the school.

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Meanwhile, in Uganda, there was a man who escaped South Sudan’s war and saw the need to start a school in the refugee camp.  Alfred is an educator who has a passion to see the children of his country educated to be the leaders of the future.  A group of refugee parents led the way, and they started Hope Primary School. It started under a tree, with Alfred teaching all the students.  Soon there were more teachers and more students.  The group came together, each family bringing a tree to be a post of what would become the classrooms of the school. Alfred and Uche came together and a vision for Hope Primary School to become the first of the Greater Hope Schools was born. Hope Primary School is a pilot school for the Greater Hope Schools Initiative, which is only a small piece of the overall South Sudan Refugee Project. There are many moving pieces in this project on many levels, but the school is the part I felt most drawn to.

I felt compelled to go to Uganda.  I wanted to meet Uche and Alfred to hear more of their vision.  I wanted to see the teachers I was designing things for, and hear their hearts.  I have been a teacher who is told what to do from someone who has not been in my classroom.  I did not want that to be the case here. I needed to stick my toe in the water and see if this project was as much of a fit for my skills as it appeared.  The only problem was that it costs quite a bit to go to Africa. Every penny we bring in goes to pay bills, so I talked to God about it. I told him if he wanted me to go, at this time, he would have to make it clear and provide the money.  My first seed money came in when a friend of mine won a contest and felt led to send the prize money to me. I got three other unexpected checks in the mail as well.  Next, some work I had done years ago resurfaced, and it was clear I had never been paid for it, nor had I finished it.  With the back pay, and the pay for the completion of it, I had what I needed to purchase my ticket. Hannah found me a great price on a ticket, which went up ten minutes after I purchased mine.

There was another team going in at the same time as me, to do some filming to bring some awareness to the plight of the refugees and to spotlight the project.  Another team was there to live and serve in a children’s home for orphans in the camp, called Dreamland. Others were also going in to train people to work with trauma victims.  It seemed to be perfect timing for me to go.  God had done what I had asked, which meant I needed to follow through with my decision to go.  Let me say, I have not traveled internationally until the past couple of years, and I have never done it by myself.  I am always with someone who knows more than me, and I follow along like a chick follows its mother.  The idea that I would have to fly nearly 24 hours, with a lay-over in which I would leave the airport in Qatar, and find an Air Bnb, was scary to me. To get back to the airport in time for my flight was scary for me.  To spend a night in Entebbe on my own, and handle switching money, as well as paying for things with the money I didn’t understand, and then to fly in a small plane to a dirt airfield was scary to me too…but I knew I had to do it.  I got encouragement from many people to go for it.  Hannah promised me I could do it, and I believed her.

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I went.  By myself. I didn’t get lost or miss my plane. Honestly, I felt quite accomplished when I arrived back home that I made it intact, with all my belongings.  While I was on the ground in Uganda, the people I met, were as inspirational in person as they were from a distance. I met men who fled their country and brought 135 orphans with them. I met pastors and missionaries and teachers.   I got to meet the government officials who are over the camp from the Office of the Prime Minister.  I met the Bishop of the Church of Uganda who we are working under while we are there. I had a wonderful meeting with the Minister of Education and her team to discuss the Greater Hope Schools Initiative. I had an opportunity to train the teachers and develop next steps for their plan for the school.  I got to dance and play with orphans, and meet students who see the need for education. My trip confirmed what I thought to be true, I have something to offer to this project. Therefore, you will be hearing more from me about the crisis in South Sudan and the needs of the refugees. I have been invited back to train more teachers in May, so pray if that is supposed to happen God would provide.  I am still tutoring and working in Parent Ministry.  This new project isn’t a paying one, but it is a heart one.  Thanks for all your words of encouragement to me as I take these crazy steps I feel led to take.  Here’s to living fully!!

February 2nd, 30 Years Ago (Guest Blog)

As told to me by Bill Gunnin

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This thirty year mark is a significant day. It is a monument that marks a day of before and after in your life.  A day of reckoning so to speak. For you, it is a day of monumental shift where everything changed. For me, it is not that way at all.  I don’t have a before.  I only have an after.  I don’t remember what I was like before.  I am told I am different now than I was then and that’s all I know.  For me, I don’t feel different, it is just a continuum of my life.

It grieves me you had this horrific time in your life because of me, and I can’t relate emotionally.  I can’t help you with it, or heal it for you, or work through it at all, because I don’t remember any of it. You tell me the things I did, and I am horrified in my mind, but I don’t feel it.  I can help intellectually, but emotionally I can’t connect at all to your pain.  I can say I am sorry and it could help some, but I have no connection to the feeling of it.  I say I am sorry, because it is what you do when you know you have hurt someone.  For me it is just head knowledge of what happened, but for you, it is great emotional pain which I have no part of.  It is a big day for you each year to mark the day your life turned upside down…our lives turned upside down. For me it is just another day.  I am grateful to be alive, and I know that is why we celebrate this day, but I don’t even know how to talk about this day.  I am flummoxed.  It’s a day that changed everything, and I don’t remember any of it…so what the hell am I supposed to say about it?

Thirty years later.  I should have done more with my life in thirty years. I have no patience because I am ADHD to the hilt.  Yet, I can sit and tune a piano for hours.  I can do tedious things sometimes, but others I can’t sit still. My TBI makes me a dichotomy, unstable and unable to be consistent, which is a big problem in my life.  It holds me back, and I can’t do anything to help it.  Heaven knows I have tried, and you have tried to help me.  It feels quite a mess, like I am lost and cannot find my way. Mostly it feels like failure.  In thirty years, I should have been in a different place, but I’m not…we’re not, and that feels bad in the deep places.

As far as memories go, you ask what I remember of that day and I have snippets.  Nothing chronological at all.  Just like still photos in my head that don’t seem to go together.  They are foggy.  I am not sure if some of them are real, or if because you have told me the stories I have a “false” memory.  I remember having breakfast that morning at IHop in Roswell with a family from the church. I have trouble pinning past memories to specific days.  I remember breakfast, I know that I did that on the morning the accident happened…I’ve been told I did. I remember getting a notebook from them. I met with them more than once, so it can get a little blurry which meeting I remember.

I can’t do chronological.  I have bits and pieces, after the breakfast. Walking the halls.  Vague memory of a wheelchair.  The door in my room had a window in it. I had to wear a belt over my clothes.  I hated it, I remember not wanting people to see me wearing it because they would think I was a crazy patient.  I remember there was a dining room, and I had some job I got to do there, but I don’t remember what it was.  I remember people asking me the date.  I would go look at the calendar so I would know, but then not be able to remember. That was frustrating to me.  I have memories of them giving me lists of things to remember.  I remember physical therapy, but then it gets blurred because of the other rehab place I went to later on.  I remember people following me around. I thought they were stalkers. I didn’t know they were there to make sure I was safe.  I remember going home for day visits and having to go back to the hospital. I was nervous about it, really scared, but I didn’t want to go back to the hospital.  I wanted to be home.

This is a vague feeling…how do I describe this? I’ve never quite tried to communicate this or thought about this, I remember going home, but feeling like I am not sure if I belong here.  I felt lost.  What am I supposed to do now? I remember going into the house and feeling a sense of being unsure and afraid.  No schedule, no responsibility, no job.  I was so nervous.  I felt trepidation.  I feel it now, just talking about it.  Insecurity.  Not confident.  I thought I was supposed to know what to do, but I didn’t. It was a bad feeling. When I look back at that time it might have been the realization I was not who I used to be. Only I couldn’t verbalize it, I could only feel it, and not even really know what I was feeling.  Does that make sense?  It is a very uncomfortable feeling that I used to be one way and I am different now…I don’t remember what I was before.  I hate that.

I remember going to court to plead nolo contendere.  I was told to say that, so I did.  So, there was no penalty.  I didn’t think I did anything wrong, but I had the ticket for following too close, since I hit from the rear. I can’t remember what I was doing or anything about the day and the judge thought I was bad off since they had to check me out of the hospital to go to court. My dad had information from a private investigator he had hired to find out what happened.  I didn’t know that at the time.  I didn’t know someone pulled out in front of me, or that there were three cars totaled. I didn’t remember it was raining, or that the construction truck that pulled out in front of me had long lumber hanging out the back, which is what hit my head at 60 miles an hour. I didn’t know a bystander had removed my seatbelt to try to pull me out, in case the car was going to blow up, but no one would help him, and I was pinned inside until the jaws of life arrived. I didn’t know I was unconscious at the scene, but when I woke up it took 7 people to get me in the ambulance because of the fight or flight response. I don’t remember being handcuffed and tied down in order to control me and get me help.  I didn’t really know anything about any of it, only what I have been told later.  It sounds terrible and I am glad I don’t remember.  It is like I am talking about what happened to another person, not me.

I remember my friend Jim Moon coming.  That could be a false memory, because you have told me about his visit ,and how perfectly timed it was for you for him to be there on the day they moved me to the rehab unit.  I don’t remember anything before that, the ICU, or the surgical unit. I think I lost several weeks. I remember other people coming and going, but not anyone specific. Lots of visitors, but I can’t recall any of them. I remember a tape player in my room.  I don’t remember throwing it because I didn’t want to hear music. I didn’t know there were three different tape players because I kept breaking them, but you wouldn’t give up trying to play music for me.

I remember the boy next door with the thing through his head. I knew he was worse off than me since he couldn’t talk or move his head at all. His mom was nice to me.  I remember being across from the nurses’ station.  I didn’t know the window in my door was so they could watch me closely to make sure I wasn’t hurting myself or doing crazy things.  I remember walking past the babies in the nursery and looking at them.  They were cute.  I think there was a TV room and we tried to watch the Olympics. I didn’t know that I couldn’t sit still for more than 5 minutes and I paced and walked the halls to keep moving.  I remember I had some kind of job at meal time, but I didn’t know it was taking trays from the people in wheelchairs and putting them away.  I didn’t know they gave it to me to keep me busy since I couldn’t sit still.  I felt pride that I had responsibility.  I thought I was better off than the others. I remember talking to people and feeling I provided an important service.  Like a waiter.  I felt less damaged. I was helping people worse than me. I used my people skills…always trying to be charming.

I remember looking at my calendar to show them I was smart. I remember thinking they were over concerned that I knew what day it was.  So I would go look and then I still couldn’t give them the right date. I felt I was outsmarting them to go look at my calendar right before they asked me the questions.  Funny I knew they were going to ask, but I couldn’t get the answer right. So frustrating.

I remember the belt and having to wear it.  I wanted to hit my dad with it, because he was antagonizing me.  I felt mocked. He was trying to be funny by calling me cripple, but I didn’t think it was funny at all.  I got really mad at him. I don’t remember you stepping between us so I wouldn’t hit him, but I remember the feeling I was going to explode.

I do have a memory of riding in a wheel chair, before the belt. I didn’t know I made you walk me constantly at a specific speed…not too fast, not too slow…for hours and hours.  I didn’t know you all tag teamed to take turns walking me. I don’t remember learning to walk again. I do remember you taking me to the chiropractor to try to fix my shorter leg.  We went several times, before it finally shifted.  In my first memories after the accident, I was walking, so I guess I lost a few weeks. I remember one day I was looking for you and couldn’t wait for you to get there. I put on the sweatshirt you said I looked good in and waited. I was so happy to see you come around the corner that day. You have told me that is the day I was back…you could see the sparkle in my eyes again.  I only remember being happy to see you.

I also remember being excited about a necklace I got you for Valentine’s Day.  My dad gave it to me, but I really thought I picked it out.  I can’t remember what you got me.  I didn’t care about that, because I was so excited about giving you the necklace. I thought I gave you pearls, but you say that was for our wedding.  I get things mixed up sometimes.  It was opal with diamonds around it, now that I see it I remember it.  I don’t remember the stuffed dinosaurs with their necks twisted together that you bought me at the gift shop.  I also don’t remember telling you all about how I went shopping to pick out the necklace.  I guess I made that up since I didn’t know how I got it.

I remember playing an electronic poker game and making houses with playing cards. I don’t know how I had the focus for making those houses.  I don’t remember exploding when they would fall.  I remember pacing and walking in circles around the hospital. I remember being mad and hitting the windshield of the car and breaking it.  Did you ever doubt I would get back to stable consciousness?  What scared you?

Everything scared me. It was so unpredictable. One minute you wanted me right by your side, the next you were calling me names and telling me to get out of your room.  Then you would beg me to stay.  It was a rollercoaster on eggshells.  Rage.  Anger. Inability to focus.  Constant movement.  When you got home it was worse than in the hospital.  You put your fist through the walls, threw the keys at me so hard they stuck into the sheetrock. I got good at ducking. I also learned to stand up to you, and somewhat how to not take it personally.  I knew it was brain related and the inability to control emotions, since it was a frontal lobe injury.  So in some ways it wasn’t your fault, but still it hurt so it was very difficult to deal with. You needed to have consequences for your actions, even though you couldn’t control them.  I eventually learned to try to teach you coping strategies, and some of those worked sometimes. I also learned how to adapt my life to what you need.  It has been one hell of a journey for both of us, Honey. We have endured so much, and that is the reason I celebrate this day.  It shows us God’s faithfulness to hold us together despite horrific circumstances, and years of coping with this injury. I am so glad you lived.  Happy 30 years alive day! 

Thanks.  Can we stop talking about this now?  I don’t want to remember anymore.

Beginner’s Luck

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I made some adjustments at half time.  I studied my opponents.  Every move was predictable.  Then I realized, so were mine.  Especially, being as green as I am.   I changed my strategy to behave like a veteran traveler, and I went back into the game.

Being intentional as a strategy was new to me.  I put my haphazard ways behind me and set out to leave no room for my enemy.  I got up, got dressed, and then coated myself with bug spray…slowly, one limb at a time.  I gave myself breaks between each limb, so the chemical cloud would dissipate.  That way I could both breathe and don my chemical shield.  It worked for the day.  Round 7 was mine.

In the evening, the weather was glorious.  I decided to sit on the porch and enjoy the breeze, however, I neglected to reapply my armor.  Round 8 went to them.

By the last two rounds, I had my strategy down.  I applied my spray the same each morning.  I also learned, that as soon as I arrived back in my room each afternoon to go ahead and ready the mosquito net…before the sun set, while the little blood suckers were asleep.  It worked like a charm, and they couldn’t figure how what hit them.  Rounds 9 and 10 went to me.

In the end, I starved the little guys.  The final score was 6 to 4, and barring any malaria breakout when I get home, I must say I was pretty proud to win so big in my first major championship. I will continue to take my malaria meds for the upcoming days because I know pride comes before a fall, and they would love it if I let my guard down and got sick once I am home. Ultimately, I know I learned some great lessons which will benefit me in future matches with them, but this time, I am happy to have won by beginner’s luck.

 

The Story

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The story that got me here, the one that actually got me on the plane to Uganda, wasn’t the fact that there were refugees or even the orphans of war, those exist in many places around the world.  No, as compelling as those stories are, I would have been content to read about them from the comfort of my own country, as I have done many times before. I would have given them my pity, but not been moved by compassion to go. I would have felt bad and hoped that someone would help them, but I would not have saved my own money to purchase a ticket. I would not have known how to help and I would’ve thought there was nothing I could do.

The story that captured me is one where a man named Alfred fled his country to make sure his family was safe.  He left a job and a life behind.  He arrived in a foreign land and saw the future of his country roaming the refugee camp, and decided to start a school.  Under a tree. He gathered a community of parents who wanted a school also and they built one.  That story mesmerized me.  The recognition of a problem, yes, but he did not wait for someone else to bring aid.  He started.  Just himself and a handful of others.  They took the initiative to educate the children who will be the future leaders of their country.  Without supplies.  Without help.  Without a building.  Without books.  Now THAT’S a story.  Maybe it spoke so deeply to my heart is because I am a teacher.  Maybe it is because now there are 16 teachers who have done the same as Alfred.  They inspire me. Only a few of them are officially trained, most of them are not, but all of them passionate to see children educated. Alfred planted a seed of hope and it started to grow.

Now, he is my new friend and has told me more details of his story.  He has a bachelor’s degree in education and was a teacher.  Then he went to India to complete his Master’s degree in business and personnel management. When he returned to South Sudan he was hired by the schools to be the assessment coordinator for a large number of schools.  It was a very good job.  He drove from region to region visiting and consulting with schools.

Alfred has 6 children and in many African countries, the children who go to school must pay tuition.  With that many children, his tuition bill was high and caused him much stress.  Shortly after he started his new job, war broke out again. It was not safe for his family, so they came to Uganda.  He continued working in South Sudan, but many conversations with his family led him to come here to get them settled. He planned to return to work so they would have income, but the borders closed to those coming into South Sudan.  He lost his job, so now he lives in a refugee camp.  He suffers from hypertension due to the stress of the past few years. He was offered a job by a university 1 ½ hours away, but without a vehicle he cannot make the journey, besides, he says he will not abandon the children in the camp because he knows they are the future of his country.  He saw a need and he leads the school here.  The steps they are taking are small, but the vision is huge.

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Because of his story, I had to come meet them.  To see what they are dealing with in person, so that the Greater Hope Schools Initiative I am working on will encourage them, rather than hinder them in their efforts.  I did some training today and thanked them for what they are doing. I told them how inspiring it is to others.  I also told them they are the reason I came across the ocean, so I can learn from them. Even though I am the one training, they are the ones teaching.

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I had no trouble at all in getting them to share their vision of what they want their school to be.  There we several words that reoccurred in the activity we were doing: leaders, community, peace, exemplary, respect.  These ideas are born out of their struggle, born out of knowing what is NOT needed because of their experiences. Taking the big ideals and translating them into actionable steps required focus, thinking, and much discussion.  As a group, they came up with plans to begin developing student leadership and community dialogue immediately. Baby steps to implementing the Greater Hope model. They are not deterred by the fact it will be a slow and gradual process.  They are used to slow processes. These young teachers want their country to change and they see the potential to have some part in the process and that is enough reward for them.

We then spent time on how to write a lesson plan, since most of them have no formal training.  We talked about behavior management strategies and what will work in a classroom of 96 students who are all experiencing differing levels of trauma and PTSD. We talked about how to break lessons down into chunks, and how to try to allow the kids to be more engaged. We talked about record keeping. We could have gone on for days.  One day was not enough.  I came with the idea I could encourage them and bring some hope, but as it turns how they were the ones doing the hope bringing…to me. The name of their school is Hope Primary School and it couldn’t be any more accurate.

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Exile Life

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Our project leader Uche and Mickey, our communicator with the Office of the Prime Minister, have been orienting the team.  This includes cultural awareness, as well as a history lesson. There have been hours of questions and answers about the situation in South Sudan and all the people have endured there.  It was very informative, but if I had to tell you all the different tribal issues in detail I could not do it.  The complexity is mind-boggling.  The simplistic explanation is one tribe got positions of power in the government and began living above the law while oppressing others.  Another tribe did not like this and began to rise up.  Several other tribes then also joined in to try to overthrow the government.  The bigger issue is that many of the other tribes do not like one another, so pretty much everyone is fighting everyone else. The whole country is unstable and there is no security.  (Uche please let me know if this is too simplistic or inaccurate.)

However, what stood out to me from our meeting was the fact that this is not the first war in the region.  There was another one, some years ago, where there were refugees who fled into Uganda. They were here for many years waiting for peace to come.  When things settled down, they returned back to South Sudan. Now those very same people who were children when they came before, are faced with the decision to leave again now that they are the adults.  Some have decided to stay in South Sudan, because they would rather die on their own land than go back into a refugee camp.  Others are fleeing again, bringing their children with them this time.

Uche made a comment that stuck with me, ‘They have an exile life.’ More importantly, our instructors made sure we understood, anyone working with them needs to know they also have an exile mindset. It comes from being forced from their homes.  Living in another country that is not their own.  Waiting. Simply existing.  Living in limbo. Foreigners in a foreign land. For years.  No hopes for the future because they don’t know where they will be, or even if they will still be alive in the future.

We are helping Hope Primary School, a school in the camp run by South Sudanese teachers, attempt to develop a model that brings some sense of stability to life in the camp.  They need some guidance and someone to come along side what they are doing. Their desire is to create a vision for the future for kids who don’t know how to dream. They want to break the exile mindset.  To do so there is much work to be done and it starts with the children.  The school will be a bridge to families and develop a sense of community from the inside out. It will give them a place to call their own.  It will help them to feel like they are moving forward.  The children will be educated so future of South Sudan will be different when they are the leaders.

On paper, it all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?  Theoretically it is neat and clean and simple.  But in practice, here on the ground, it is another story.  The lack of resources, the lack of personnel, the enormous numbers of children, the environment of hopelessness in the camps, all of it is daunting.  All of it is overwhelming to me…and I don’t live here or try to teach 96 students a day with no books, paper, pencils, or materials. I cannot imagine what the teachers must feel on a day to day basis.  It is a God-sized vision, which only he can bring to pass.

So in that spirit…here is my prayer.

 

Lord,

Please direct the teachers at Hope Primary School.  Give them wisdom. Show them the steps needed to progress their vision and yours.  Give them strength to teach the numbers of students you bring them.  Help them to see past the crowd and into the hearts of each child.  Multiply their numbers, bring them more educators and more to support them.  Stir in the hearts of the parents to join with the school by helping, volunteering, and being with the kids. Give them divine creativity on how to do this thing they can see.  Help them to have innovative ideas for scheduling, and teaching.  I pray for the children.  That they would feel your love at the school.  That they would feel safe there and I pray their minds will be open to learn and they will be motivated and engaged in the lessons.  I ask that you give them dreams for their future.  That the exile mindset would be broken off of them.  Help their thoughts to be looking forward.  Heal their hearts Lord.  Erase their memory of traumatic events they have witnessed.  Allow them the freedom to share their stories with those who are trained to help them.  I also pray for their parents.  Lord, hold them close to your heart.  They are in survival mode and it is hard to see past a lifetime of pain.  Heal them.  Heal their scars.  Give them hope again.  Help the children to lead the parents on a new path of hope.  Bring routine and normalcy through the school.  Help it to feel like a home away from home.  Give the teachers ideas for kids and their families to be involved in building a community there.  Connect them with the right leadership to carry it through, here in country, and also those around the world who can help them.  Thank you Lord for your hope for this school.  In Jesus name Amen.