Monday, March 21, 2011

Transformative Dignity

Today is World Water Day.  Many of you may know that the issue of clean water is important to me because my son, Tariku, who we adopted from Ethiopia, drank from a dirty water source that would likely have taken his life had he not received good medical care here upon his arrival in the U.S.  His stomach was full of parasites and he had diarrhea most of his life because of his contaminated water source.  You can read more of Tariku's story here if you like.  But today you and I have the opportunity to focus our attention, efforts and resources on India.  My good friend Jody and The Adventure Project are teaming up with Water Aid to make a difference today in India.

Did you know that 1/3 of all drinking wells built in the last 20 years are broken? Instead of drilling more wells, The Adventure Project is using the charitable gifts they receive for something revolutionary – to train and employ hand pump mechanics. The mechanics earn an income, bringing themselves out of poverty, and they save lives – turning water back on for thousands of people each year.  Smart, huh?  I think so! 

I'd like for you to take a minute to meet this extraordinary woman, Ram Rati.

Becky Straw, co-founder of The Adventure Project shares her experience of getting to know Ram Rati...
I met Ram Rati in her village on a cool morning at the crack of dawn. I was instantly energized by her quick wit and smirk of brazen defiance. While other women stood demurely off to our side, faces covered and trying not to interfere, Ram Rati walked around like she was mayor, rattling off stories and beaming with pride.

This culturally conservative region in Northern India generally frowns upon women speaking in public, going outside without a veil or sending girls to school. So, to see a woman like Ram Rati, a spitfire barely five feet tall, riding her bike gallantly into their village is a shock to most people. And then she opens her toolbox and fixes their well.

Ram Rati applied to be a mechanic because she grew tired of all the broken wells in her village. Each broken well meant a farther walk, a longer line and hours spent searching for clean water. In her district, and throughout Africa, one-third of all wells drilled in the last twenty years are now broken. She decided to do something about it. She applied to become one of the first female handpump mechanics.

Strong, hardworking and not afraid to speak up, Ram Rati’s life has been full of courageous action. Forced into a child marriage at the age of eleven, she boldly escaped at thirteen, convincing her brothers to take her in. She spent the next fifteen years grinding wheat and helping raise their children.

When WaterAid showed up in her village, Ram Rati began to see hope. She was taught how to fix wells and prevent them from breaking. She learned how to ride a bike with a skirt on and her toolbox strapped to the back. She removed her veil and found her voice.

But there were some doubters. “At first I thought, how can she do?” one of the men told me. “But she got trained and learned, and now she can do it very nicely. Even a man can’t do the job as well as she does.”

Ram Rati’s friend Sheila, who is also a mechanic, added. “When I first learned to cycle people were laughing, saying, ‘Today you are learning to cycle, will you be driving a plane tomorrow?’”
“What do people say now?” I asked.

Ram Rati chuckled, “Now they say, handpump mechanic, please come. We are waiting for repairs, please come!”

That afternoon I sat in the dirt alongside a group of women, watching Ram Rati and her colleagues fix another well. I was blown away by how strong they were. How they jumped in and grabbed the heaviest tools. They knew just what to do, and how to fix it. I scanned the crowd and noticed three school-age girls also watching. Mouths open, standing in awe. They were mesmerized. I recalled what Ram Rati told me earlier in the day, when she grabbed my arm and pointed at those same three girls. With conviction she said, “I want these girls to be more than us.”

On that day, in the middle of a small village, I think I observed the birth of a revolution. For the female mechanics, this is their Women’s Rights Movement.


I left India convinced that creating opportunities for women to succeed can alleviate poverty and save lives. Already, Ram Rati and her team have fixed 304 wells, turning clean water back on for over 30,000 people. But it’s more than the weight of water that’s transformative. It’s the dignity.

In looking through my travel photos from India, Haiti and throughout Africa, I realize there are millions of powerful women who are unable to speak. Because they are silently standing behind veils, or are too busy walking for water.

I’ve decided that I must use my voice, to help other women find theirs.

You and I have the privilege and opportunity to act today on behalf of the people in India who are sitting in their villages with broken wells that if fixed, would be giving them clean water today.  While Ram Rati and her team have fixed 304 wells already, there are still another 4,000 in the region that need fixed. I am looking for just ten of the people who read this blog post today to go HERE and donate just $20 to this important work.  I am a part of a network of bloggers who are hoping to collectively raise $10,000 TODAY, which will be matched by Prem Rawat Foundation.  That's $20,000 in just one day.  It's audacious.  It's big.  And it's possible.  If we raise $10,000, we will help mechanics fix hundreds of wells for years to come, turning water back on for 300 people each month.  Through the generosity of Prem Rawat Foundation, that money is doubled, and well, you can do the math. More jobs created, more people served and more healthy futures for thousands of people in India.

Just $20.  Just a small sacrifice.  Just a huge difference.   Thank you, friends.

UPDATE: In just one day, $11,500 was raised for this project, for a total of $21,500 when you add in the match!!  Wow.  It's incredible to realize that our voices individually AND collectively can make a tangible difference!  Thanks to everyone who joined in!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Out From Under The Umbrella

I’ve been reading and talking about vulnerability a lot lately. It doesn’t seem at first glance that vulnerability would be related to orphan care or poverty and justice issues. But, after listening to Tom Davis’ talk at Idea Camp this month on this topic, I’m starting to understand the strong connection between vulnerability and our love and care for the marginalized.

Unfortunately, vulnerability is usually associated with weakness, fear and shame. But as Tom says, vulnerability also (and more importantly) encompasses how we feel joy, belonging and connectedness. Vulnerability to me means stepping out from under the umbrella of safety and putting myself and my heart out there, come what may. Sometimes, it hurts like crazy, but it almost always leads to joy.

If you’ve been around my blog (or my life!), you know that I have adopted my son from Ethiopia and while there, was WRECKED by a leper colony called Korah. 75,000 people living in a kind of poverty and pain I hadn’t really known existed. My friend, Melanie described her experience in Korah this week so well...

We followed Yemamu and Sisay into the dump. My first thought was that it looked like a post-apocalyptic world, like a movie set for the next big summer blockbuster. But it was real. We stepped through broken glass and plastic bags, large bones of animals, dirty diapers, bottles, cans, batteries leaking acid, rotting food. Layers and layers. Someone had dug a deep hole looking for metal to scavange and the layers of trash went as far as I could see, down down down, smoke pouring through the fissures in the strata.

And there were people. Hundreds of them. People like Busana, who received treatment at e hospital and now lives in Korah, foraging for metals in the dump that she can sell, her 1 1/2-year-old child on her back and her husband nearby searching in the dump.

As we were walking, the smoke filled our lungs, and the smell of rotting diapers, food, and animals filled my nose and lungs. I dry heaved over and over and prayed for the strength to keep walking, to keep asking questions, to keep shaking hands and hearing stories. We saw homes made of plastic tarp where 25 men squeeze in at night to sleep as the hyenas prowl outside. We saw litters of puppies, dogs with matted fur, pigs, and goats. One man was roasting a pig and it looked like he was using the smoke from the dump itself to cook it. A group of young men found a carryout container of raw chicken wings and said, “Let’s eat!” They huddled around it and everyone dug in hungrily. Yemamu showed us what people eat – coffee creamer packets discarded from Ethiopian Airlines, packets of cooking oil, leftover water in plastic bottles. He explained that many people die by drinking the wrong thing or eating something bad. The food at the dump could come from a restaurant…or it could come from the hospital and be mixed with infected blood. The water could be clean water, or it could be chemicals. They take that chance every time they eat. Their clothes come from the dump, and they could be clothes from a patient who died at the hospital, covered in blood.

Each day is a battle to stay alive, and the resilience of the human spirit is remarkable in this place. The older boys take care of the younger ones who have been orphaned. We saw women collecting plastic bags to turn in for money. Garbage trucks came in and out, pouring more and more refuse onto the smoking heap. Hundreds of people gathered around the new piles in search of food and metals. The smoke was so thick that we couldn’t see very far in front of us.

All I can say is walking through Korah (or anywhere where people is suffer) is choosing to be vulnerable. It is intentionally allowing your heart to be ripped out of your chest. Meeting the suffering face to face in all their beauty will take your breath away (as will the stench of the garbage dump they live on). Seeing a family of 12 living in 10x10 room of filth will jolt you. Watching women with leprosy whose fingers are gone trying to eek out a living by embroidering will fill your eyes with tears. Walking away from that place to go back to your comfy bed will cause you to question everything you know.

Opening my heart up to people who suffer has been for me, the ultimate form of vulnerability. It messes with me. It doesn’t allow me to ever be the same again. It is a choice that I either make or I don’t.  I either expose myself to things that hurt and in doing so, become fully alive or I put my walls up and stay safely hidden. 

I have to say, this week has been one of those weeks where I just wish I didn’t know. I wish I could go back to ignorance because it has hurt SO badly these past few days. Since I actually know some of these people and their stories, they are ever on my mind. When I open my fridge to get food, I think about the food they scavenge from the dump every day. When I grab my Advil I am reminded of their open sores, their diseases. Their faces are everywhere I look. People like my friend, Yemamu, who work tirelessly to make a difference in their lives are always on my heart.

And you know what?  That is just a GIFT.  The fact I see them at all and care about them is a gift to me from God.  I cried every day this week, real, wracking sobs over people I have only visited once.  I cried because I was frustrated and angry at God for allowing me to see them in their pain and then for sending me back to my comfortable home.  I cried because I don't know how to reconcile my life here much of the time.  Some days it feels like I will explode for wanting to be in Korah, among the people there and yet here I am on the other side of the world.  I wept over the reality these beautiful people face every day. Yet, I'm reminded that this vulnerability that threatens to tear me open some days, is the very thing that brings me the deepest joy and a sense of connectedness.  Vulnerability breeds compassion.  Putting ourselves in a place to SEE and FEEL the pain is vulnerability.  Once we SEE, we become compassionate. Compassion literally means "to suffer with".  Once we suffer with someone, we love them.  And love...well, that is what ultimately transforms us and the world. 

Jesus left heaven for the confines of earth, experiencing fully the pain and mess of this world - suffering with us.  He gave Himself up for those He loved - the ultimate vulnerability - so that we might have abundant life.  And it is as we follow His example of becoming vulnerable that we find our fullest, richest and abundant life.  My tears this week have felt painful at times, but they have ultimately helped me connect to the heart of God that pounds furiously for the hurting, the lonely, the outcast.  How beautiful and humbling. 

I'd encourage you if you have 20 minutes to watch Tom's talk on vulnerability...

IC ORPHAN - Children's HopeChest from The Idea Camp on Vimeo.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Whatever He Wants

This is my 100th blog post, which isn't anything special.  But, I was wondering about what I would write that is a good reflection of where my heart is right now (100 blog posts into this journey of learning to love the least) and then I read the post below from Katie Davis.  For those of you who don't know Katie, go here to learn about her life in Uganda with her 13 adoptive children.  I was privileged enough to meet her and her beautiful girls in Uganda in 2009.  God has used Katie's faith...her stories...her heart, to challenge my personal walk with Him.  I hope this honest, raw post speaks to you powerfully, as it did to me.  May we take these words to heart... 

“I am so old. My whole body hurts. I have suffered much,” her eyes shine with joy as she speaks, “oh, I am suffering. But whatever He wants. Whatever God wants!” And she laughs and she laughs.

We sit in our circle in the dust of a slum and we share our hearts and our prayers. Jja Ja Maria, who looks to be a hundred years old and reaches no higher than my shoulders, is the last to share.

Her life, it has been hard. She is in Jinja because she had to flee from the war in the North that tore apart her life and her family. Her son was shot last week by a soldier on the border of Uganda and Sudan and frail, little Jja Ja had made the 13 hour bus ride in the stifling heat and watched as they had lowered her last living child into the ground. The journey had taken almost a week and when she came back she found her grandchildren sick and even though her whole body ached from travel she still took them to the clinic and continued bending over her work so that she could make enough money to put food on the table. Now she is back and we are happy to embrace her and ask about her journey and ask how we can pray for her.

“What ever He wants," she chuckles.

I look at the joy that is spilling out of her wrinkled face and I repeat the words that she has spoken in my head and that doesn’t make sense. She is hurt and she is suffering and she is laughing about it and sparkling with beauty and radiating Joy.

That doesn’t make sense. Not to me. Not yet.

But she already knows what I am just learning. That even this, it is from Him. Even this, it is Holy ground. This thing that I label suffering, it is really Joy.

“Does disaster come to a city unless the Lord has planned it?” Amos 3:6

I live with these human eyes, and with these human eyes of mine I label. I label one thing as good and one thing as bad. I label moments as blessing or burden. And I forget that all this labeling, it is not my right, not my place, not mine to do. To declare what is a gift in my life and what is a curse is to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, to sit in the garden full of abundance and beauty and choose the forbidden. The knowledge of good and evil, that was never intended for me. Could I, like Jja Ja Maria just quit my labeling and say, "Whatever God wants. Whatever HE wants!"

Because God IS. “I AM.” He tells Moses and still today He IS. And if every good and perfect gift is from above, and a Good and Beautiful God can create only good and beauty then these moments that I choose to label as loss and suffering, they are really good and beautiful, perfect gifts?

“See now that I, I am He, and there is no god besides Me; it is I who put to death and I who give life. I have wounded and it is I who heal.” Deuteronomy 32:29

Suffering, pain, loss, shame – all these things I have blamed on a broken world, Satan even. But can’t a broken world and even Satan only give what God allows? Suffering, pain loss and shame are only these things because I label them as such. Because I, a sinner, choose to eat from the tree, choose to turn away from nail-scarred hands and ignore the grace and miss the gift. He is beautiful and everything He creates is beautiful and if I choose to label it suffering I am choosing to miss the beauty that is freely offered me.

On Friday I got a call from Jane’s birth mom that she had gotten her leg stuck in the chain of a bicycle. Five hours later I walked into a hospital room where she lay sedated, her heel bleeding and her tendon exposed, but untouched. The nurse saw my appalled, grief twisted face and shook her head. “God is good,” she whispered. “God's grace...She could have lost that foot.”

“God’s grace,” I thought, and I wondered what if she had? What if the tendon had been ripped clean through and she never were to walk again? What of when she was ripped from my life and left with a woman who doesn’t even care to supervise her and so she lays here hurt and bleeding and so far, far away from me?

What if God’s grace is not when He saves us, but that He saved us.

“Surely, just as I have intended, so it has happened and just as I have planned so it will stand.” Isaiah 14:24

Just as He intended. Even this, planned by God.

And if this is what He intended (and it is), then that means that every moment – the moment when my daughter’s tiny fingers were pried from around my neck, the moment in that hospital room, the moments when I hold babies and watch as they breathe their last and their mothers crumple to the floor and the moment when a dear grandmother hears that her son has been shot, and the moments when the laundry piles over my head and the children bicker and hurts from their past make them do the unspeakable and I don’t even know how to parent – every moment is His grace, a gift. Could I look and say, "whatever He wants, this is my gift for today."

God, who is Good and who is Beauty, and who saved us, even me undeserving, He can only give grace.

And I have a choice. I can let those wounded hands pull me close and I can choose to see the grace in this moment or I can again label, choosing to ignore the gift.

I see it deep in Jja Ja’s eyes, she knows. Even this suffering, He did this. He did this, not because He doesn’t know the ache – He does. He did this, a gift to me.

For the good of me. For the good of her. For the good of us, those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. For the good of all this world and the glory that is His.

And I know in that moment, I can choose to label the ripped open heel and the ripped open family or I can choose to count it as a gift, God’s grace. And the beauty is not in the circumstance or the label but the fact that in His graciousness He is here with me anyway, regardless of the circumstance or the way I choose to view it. The grace of being near to Him in trial, as long as I can chose to see it, is certainly the greatest grace of all.

This is what Jja Ja knows and this is what I am learning. God’s grace is not blessing, earthly reassure, our security or even the security of our children. God’s grace is not that all is “well” and right in my eyes. God’s grace is not when He saves us but that He saved us.

Here I am face to face with Jesus in the dirt and all I have to do is choose to see, accept the grace offered freely. His compassion and His mercy, this Grace, it never fails. Each moment each breath, is a gift simply and only because I get to spend it with Him.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23

Whatever He wants. And I am thankful.

May He...

Waiting Room at an AIDS clinic I visited in Uganda
 May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships - so that we may live deep within our hearts. May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people - so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace. May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war - so that we may reach out our hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in the world - so that we can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.  Amen.
(Franciscan Benediction)