Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Boys

So, if you missed my last post about the garbage dump, you might want to go read it so that this post makes sense.  The garbage dump in Korah (Ethiopia) ripped my heart out.  Or, maybe I should say the people who go to the garbage dump every day or LIVE there ripped my heart out.  Garbage is garbage, but the people who are left with no choice but to frequent this hell hole are not. 

The day we walked through the dump I knew we were going to give food to the boys who lived there.  But you just can't prepare yourself for something like that.  You can't understand the stench, the filth, the grime that these boys live in until you see it.  Until the smell hits your nostrils and turns your stomach.  Until you try to scrape off layers of muddy filth from hands that have been searching through the garbage for unfound "treasures".

 Until you struggle to see what's in front of you because of the hoards of flies buzzing all around.  Until you step in the excrement that is everywhere.  Until you take in the faces of the ones who live in it all day every day.

My friends Yemamu and Sisay who grew up scavenging in this dump, intentionally continue to walk through it to find children just like the ones they met above.  They want to bring them into the feeding program they run and help provide for their basic needs and education.  Understand that NO ONE goes into the trash dump if they don't have to.  But Yemamu and Sisay choose to go.  They no longer have to, but they are compelled.  Much like Jesus who went to the forgotten, the outcast, the people deemed worthless - the least of these.  He sought them out.  There was something precious Jesus saw in the people that the world had turned their backs on.  And let me tell you, there is plenty that is precious about the boys above too.

We took these 12 boys who live in the garbage dump back to the Hands for the Needy center to profile them for the program.  I want to protect their exact identities, but here are just a few snippets from some of their stories...

Boy #1: Not in school. He and his father live at the trash dump.  Mother was murdered. His father had to relinquish his other 5 children to government orphanages because he could not afford to care for them. This boy wants to go to school and be a doctor.

Boy #2: Not in school. Has a mother but is not living with her because she is a beggar and lives on the street. He wants to be a pharmacist.

Boy #3: Age 16. His parents died when he was 5 and he lived on the street. He lives at the dump now and from what he makes from the metals he collects there, he pays for himself to go to school. He wants to be a teacher.

Boy #4: Age 14. He stopped school last year. He has a mother who lives in Korah but he left to go live at the dump because she was abusive, but he wants to go back home and live peacefully with her. He wants to be a teacher.

Boy #5: Age 11. Not in school.  His parents died when he was a young child.  He has had no one to care for him and has lived in the trash dump ever since. He wants to be a doctor.

As we heard from these boys, each of their stories was more raw and painful than the last.  Yet the way these boys cared for each other was beautiful and amazing.  Talk about a sense of community and brotherhood...these boys had it.  But as a mom I just wanted to gather them all up and hug them and never let go. 

The boys find everything in the dump - including their clothing.  They find clothes, wear them for two weeks, then throw them back in the dump once they find "newer" clothes.  It's disposable clothing in the truest sense of the word.  And their shoes...

NONE of their shoes fit them, and few of them actually matched.  They just used what they could find.  I think about all the sharp things I encountered in the dump and I look at the flimsy plastic boot on the boy above and I cringe.  Everyone on my team did.  So, we decided to do something about it. 

We decided to pack up all twelve boys into a taxi along with our whole crew for a total of 22 people in this small "bus".  It was can watch a video of us piling everyone in HERE. And we took all 12 boys to the Mercado to buy good, sturdy shoes that actually fit them.  On the way, some of the boys from the dump discovered the wonders of my iPhone. :)  By the end of the bus ride I got an error message from my iPhone that it needed to "cool down" because it was overheating from use. :)

We got to the shoe store.  I'm not sure there are words to describe the looks we got when walked in.  At this point, the boys were still in their clothes from the dump.  It was their first time in a store ever to purchase something for themselves.  All of us looked a little bewildered at where to start, including the staff.  We did the boys by groups - youngest first then the oldest.  It was seriously so fun to watch their faces as they waited to be fit. Let's just say we brought a special smell with us into the store. :)  Because of that, the store owner made the boys wear plastic bags over their feet when they tried the shoes on.

Everyone walked out of there with a new pair of shoes.  I can't tell you how big the smiles were and how much my heart wanted to explode at how happy such a simple thing made them.  Meanwhile, it took so long to get 12 boys fitted for shoes that our taxi driver (Yemamu's brother) resorted to napping :).

We had brought some second hand clothing from the States, but quickly realized we didn't have anything for the majority of the boys, so we also took them to buy pants, underwear, socks and sweatshirts.  Because there were so many of us and because the prices for things go up substantially when the shopkeepers at the Mercado see white skin, we girls stayed back in the taxi while Yemamu and Sisay bartered.  Some of the older boys were with us in the taxi waiting their turn.  I looked back and saw one of the boys taking it all in from the taxi window. He sat there gazing outside...

 I wondered what he was thinking as he watched all the people scurrying into shops and buying the things they needed.  I thought about how when he needed something, he went scavenging through a trash heap.  He was usually one of the people who watched all the taxis drive by as they walked to their destination.  Yet here he was sitting inside of one observing things from the opposite standpoint for the first time.  I honestly can't imagine what was going through his head. 

Once everyone had purchased all that they needed, it was dark.  It had taken hours to accomplish all the shopping.  My stomach was hungry and I looked around at the boys.  Yemamu leaned over and asked if we could take the boys out to dinner.  Um...YES!!!  So we went...all five of us crazy white people and a trail of 12 boys from the dump.  The boys hadn't changed into their new clothes because we wanted them to shower first, so they were still in their clothing that reeked of trash.  The looks we got all filing into the restaurant were priceless.  I'm quite sure they didn't know what to make of us all.  I wanted to stop and take a picture of the people looking at us, but figured that would be rude. :)  Here's the view from one end of the long table...

We ordered everyone Cokes, which was a big deal for the boys.  Actually, scratch that.  Just being at a restaurant was a big deal for the boys.  For most of them, it was their first time.  Can you imagine?  So, after we ordered dinner and Cokes we did what any ignorant Americans would.  We offered them hand sanitizer.  I wish I had video of THAT!  Ethiopians eat with their hands and often hand feed each other as a sign of respect and love.  So, we Americans are thinking the boys could use some hand sanitizer considering they spend all day in a garbage dump.  We pull out our bottles and start squeezing it into the boys' hands.  Yemamu and Sisay start explaining that it's just like soap and like washing their hands.  All the boys are smiling and laughing's where the ignorant part comes in...all of the open cuts on their hands start stinging from the alcohol that's in the sanitizer.  I'm sitting there watching all their eyes get really wide and they tell Yemamu that it hurts their hands.  So we Americans show them how to wave their hands in the air so that it will dry quickly and the burning will go away.

Then they all promptly got up and went to wash their hands. So funny. :)  We had a GREAT time at dinner, as you can imagine.  The boys were smiling and eating.  Sisay got up and was hand feeding some of the older boys rather large handfuls of food. :) We even talked a few of the older boys into showing us what traditional Ethiopian dancing looked like...

It was a fabulous day.  It felt good to use our resources (which many of you readers generously donated!) to help provide for the boys in such practical ways and it was pure joy to see their faces have these first time experiences.  There was so much laughter that night.  I'll remember it for the rest of my life.  Now, dropping the boys back off at the dump that night is another blog post altogether...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Garbage Dump (AKA... hell on earth)

(Disclaimer: Let me just say that as I read back over what I have written below I realize that I can't begin to adequately describe this place.  Several times while writing this I wanted to just delete the whole post because my attempts felt so futile. How do you find words for a place that has completely broken your heart? I don't think I just know that as you read there is so much more behind each word.)

Oh the stench.  I kept myself from gagging as we hiked up the steep, slippery mud trail and crested the top of the hill.  It was almost as cruel on the eyesight as it was on my sense of smell.  But, I guess that's what it was supposed to be.  I was, after all, walking through the city garbage dump in the capital city of Ethiopia.  I scanned the surroundings.  There were vultures everywhere.  Gigantic, nasty birds just waiting.

This wretched garbage dump is tied to many of the people who I got to meet a few weeks ago in Ethiopia.  It's important to understand what the dump means to the people of their lives are connected to it.  I heard so many people talk about "the dump" as they would share about their daily lives.  I had to experience it for myself.  Here in the States, probably the only way that someone would go into a garbage dump is if they were driving a truck or bulldozer of some sort.  At first glance, it appeared that there were only bulldozers and trucks at the dump.  But then I looked closer.  What I thought were actually garbage piles were people. There are at least 11 people in the picture below that would be easy to miss at first glance. 

The people in Korah are so poor that often their only source of food is from the garbage dump.  The dump also provides them a way to earn money.  They spend all day collecting plastics and metals that they then sell so they can survive.  You can see in the picture above that a garbage truck had just arrived and dumped "fresh" garbage.  Typically, the garbage dump is covered with people scavenging, but this day was a Holiday so there weren't as many people there.  The "best" trucks to watch for are the ones from the Sheraton and Hilton Hotels as well as the one that comes from the airport.  These trucks have the leftover food that is thrown out.  Anything and everything is fair game.  The dump is frequented by people who have no other options.  I mean, really...would you even go to this god-forsaken place if you didn't have to?  The stench alone is enough to keep you away.  But all kinds of people come here trying to find ways to survive...

Teenagers scavenging for metals and plastics...

Elderly women trying to find plastics to sell to earn some money...

Men looking for food...

We had just come from a woman's house down the hill in Korah.  She was house bound because she had lost her leg.  She had stepped on something sharp in the dump while she was scavenging and didn't have the money to get her foot treated for the wound.  That foot wound infected her leg and eventually turned into gangrene.  She became very ill and had to have her leg amputated as a result.  It is maddening that such a simple thing like a cut foot ends up taking someone's leg and ultimately, their livelihood.  That would never happen here in America, yet it happens every day in Ethiopia.  My friend Abbey, who is a nurse, was with me on this trip and EVERY wound she cared for was a foot wound.  Every single one.  You can't imagine the types of plastic shoes that people walk through the dump in - they are completely unprotected.  People contract HIV by stepping on needles that have been used to treat an infected person.  People wear bloody clothes that they find in the dump from hospitals.  They walk through all sorts of feces and bacteria.  This garbage dump is so much more than a place that holds trash.  It is a place where the people who come start to believe that they are the very garbage they are there to collect. It is oppressive, dark and hopeless.  These are people without choices - because of their poverty, because others who could help have chosen not to care about their plight and because people just don't know it even exists.  We don't know this kind of life is what many people wake up to day after day after day.

Walking through this dump was like watching a nightmare unfold.  And just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, Yemamu pointed out the two small structures across the way in the garbage dump.  

The people in those structures (I can't bring myself to call it a house) were the reason why we had come to the dump in the first place.  We wanted to bring them food on New Year's that they wouldn't have to scavenge for.  They walked across the dump to greet us.

They were boys.  Some of them orphaned.  Some of them there because their family in Korah couldn't provide for them. My mama's heart started to explode at what I was seeing. The boy in the tan leather jacket lived with his father at the'll hear more about him later.  We greeted the boys and they took us down the path to their "house".  This short video clip will give you a glimpse into what it consisted of on the inside.  As I stood there filming the inside of their house (which they had welcomed me to do), the tears started sliding down my cheeks. I kept thinking about the inside of my own house.  I kept thinking about the lifestyle that my own children live.  I kept thinking that the boys standing in front of me at that trash dump were God's children. I kept thinking that this couldn't be real.  And my heart literally ached.  I wanted to scream.  It was all so wrong.  This was never how things were meant to be.  Children weren't made to live in garbage dumps.  Seeing it all was so painful.  I can't imagine how living it must be. 

But seeing is crucial for us.  We MUST choose to see.  Honestly, there is a part of me that wishes I had never walked through that garbage dump, because now I know.  And it hurts to know.  Some days it eats me up to know.  Some nights I lay my head on my pillow in my warm, comfortable bed and all I can think of is that nasty, filthy, fly-infested tarp where those boys lay their heads.  But I would do it again and again because becoming aware of other people's realities is what leads to compassion and ultimately, change.  I know not everyone can go to Ethiopia and see what I saw first hand.  But my prayer is that you will choose to see through stories and pictures, the people in this small corner of the world...  that you will come to know the boys who live in this dump not just as statistics but as precious human beings who are important and valuable. I hope that you will start to see the kind of difference that people like you and me can make for these boys and others like them.  I pray that we can shake our comfort off long enough to take a look at the situations our brothers and sisters find themselves in and be compelled to do something about it.

Proverbs 24:12 says: "Once our eyes are opened we cannot pretend we do not know what to do. God, who weighs our hearts and keeps our souls knows we know and holds us responsible to act."

My prayer is that our eyes become opened.  And that Proverb is right because I couldn't pretend I didn't know what to do if I wanted to.  I KNOW now.  And knowing other people's pain and situations is actually a gift, because along with the pain of knowing, there is great joy in being part of the embracing what we see and throwing our arms wide around it - dirt and pain and all.  Transformation happens and let me tell you, it is pure joy to be a part of.  Wait til you hear what happened next for these's a story I can't wait to tell. :)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Jesus With Skin On

I don't really have the words to describe the kind of love I saw in action the past two weeks in Ethiopia.  I've heard the term "Jesus with skin on" tossed around, but I'm not sure I ever really grasped its full meaning until I watched my two friends Yemamu and Sisay in Korah.  God has uniquely positioned them to minister to this community.  They both grew up in Korah.  Yemamu's parents both suffer from leprosy - his father can't see most of the time and his mother lost her leg to the disease.  Sisay lost his father many years ago to sickness.  They can relate to the pain and the suffering that exists in Korah because they have lived it.  They have scavenged at the trash dump from the age of 12 for food or metals to sell.  You might think this would harden them, but in fact, the opposite has happened.  These men care deeply for the community they grew up in and have chosen to stay and help the people in Korah.

The people in this community are oppressed by disease, death, hunger and poverty. Korah literally means "cursed". These people are outcasts in their own city because of their poverty and disease.  But through their actions, Yemamu and Sisay are helping to break the power of the label that has been put on this community. They are breathing life into dead things, bringing beauty from the dirt, filling emptiness with love and hope.

I was in awe of the humility and gentleness that Yemamu and Sisay exuded.  They were never in too much of a hurry.  They crossed busy streets to greet people, taking the time to ask how they were.  They stopped walking when a little one pulled on their arm, wanting their attention.  They bent low to look the children in the eyes.

They carried with them any leftover food they had and gave it to the beggars on the street - always.  They wrapped their arms around the suffering. 

They gently led blind women to chairs.  They cleaned gaping wounds day after day. 

They looked a young, raped girl in the eyes and offered her hope when everyone around her offered her judgment.  They rolled up the hem of my jeans to protect them from the mud. They walked through a garbage dump to find boys who needed food. 

They gave shirts off their backs and belongings out of their own home to those who needed them.  They went straight to the people who no one wanted anything to do with. 

In a community full of outcasts they were present and engaged.  They radiated love and spoke value and worth to hearts who were convinced they were garbage. 

I witnessed Jesus with skin on.  Again and again.

Before I start sharing stories I wanted you to know where it all started - with two men dedicated to sacrificing for the least of all they are for the sake of the vulnerable, that the "cursed" would have hope and live in the abundance of joy they were meant to have.  Simply beautiful. 

Together, they run a feeding program (and so much more!) called Hands for the Needy Ethiopia.  What God has done in just one year to bring this organization into being is beyond words.  There have been so many hurdles and difficulties along the way, but last week they received the final piece of paper they needed to officially begin feeding the children.  I am amazed, humbled and privileged to be a part of the work they are doing in Korah.  And I know the best is yet to come...

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve — to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. And you will be called priests of the LORD, you will be named ministers of our God. Instead of their shame my people will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace they will rejoice in their inheritance.

- Isaiah 61

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I remember...

I'm back from Ethiopia...well, at least my body is back.  I'm quite sure I left most of my heart there.  I find myself immediately hit with the reality of my life emails to catch up on, grocery runs to make, kids to spend time with, bills to pay, a calendar to manage.  But in the all the scurry and madness that marks our lives here in America, I remember. 

I remember the faces of children being fed more than one meal a day for the first time...

I remember the dirty dwellings falling apart that house people full of joy or in deepest pain...

I remember the garbage dump where people scavenge for food...

I remember the face of a handicapped girl playing soccer with one foot...

I remember the young girl raped and her son who held the dirty bottle that his grandma had found in the dump for him...

I remember the the face of the man who grew up scavenging in the dump, caring for the young orphaned boy who lives there now...

I remember that hope springs up in the most unlikely places...

I remember that I find my life when I'm willing to lose it for someone else. 

I have a lot to share about this last trip to Ethiopia.  A LOT.  But, I'm going to take my time.  I want to do justice to what I saw and experienced, so I'm going to slow down and allow myself time to process and then share my stories with you.  I can tell you that the past two weeks have been the most humbling weeks in my life.  I have seen what God looks like when He puts on skin and walks around loving people and it has stirred me in ways I didn't anticipate.  Can't wait to share more with you guys...thanks for being patient with me as I process.  Much, much more to come!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Live Your Story

I'm an emotional wreck today...but of the best kind. I'm not sure what it is about today, but my heart is so full... so expectant. 

Two years ago on September 7th I flew to Uganda - my first time setting foot on African soil. Next week on September 7th I will fly to Ethiopia. It's impossible to describe what has happened in the past two years in my life and in my heart. You might call it revelation or awakening. Whatever you call it, it has changed my world, my faith and my desires. It has made me more alive than I've ever been and has brought me into a fuller understanding of who God is. These are not small things. I am not who I was.

I listened to my friend, Tom Davis tell his story last night and was struck with the redemptive beauty of what God creates out of our stories. You and I are stories in progress. "The End" won't be written on our lives until we meet God face to face someday. He is writing our stories. The God of the universe is authoring our lives. Through conflicts, valleys, mountaintops, the mundane...He is writing something amazing with us. And all of our stories are a part of a larger volume that is shaping the direction of the world.

It's been said many times before, but it bears repeating: We are not meant to live our lives on the sidelines, watching a great event unfold. Our lives are to be part of the action, part of the story. We weren't designed to sit in a seat shoving our faces full of foot longs and nachos while the people on the field sprint, kick, push and score. We are not meant to be onlookers! Even Adam and Eve at the beginning of creation were given a purpose! I have been an onlooker most of my life...thinking that what other people were doing was great, but it wasn't something I'd be good at, or it wasn't anything I had a desire to do. So I stayed glued to my seat while the excitement of participating in something important blew right past me.

The past two years have shaken me out of my idleness. There is absolutely nowhere else I'd rather be than in the middle of the the thick of the story. Because God doesn't just write a story to write a story. He writes stories with our lives because He does things through them - through us! He draws people to Him, He brings people out of darkness, He feeds and clothes people, He fills them with joy, He shows people their value, He redeems broken, ugly things and makes them beautiful.

At the crux of being a willing participant in the story God has for us is surrendering. I have had to set aside all of my ideas of what my life should look like and say "God, I want YOU and what YOU want for me more than I want anything else in my life. There is nothing else I desire - just You." I don't want to settle for ordinary, when God is calling me to a crazy, wild adventure with Him. Does it scare me? YES!!!!!!!!!!!! When we look at the people in the Bible who were close friends with Jesus, it didn't end too well for most of them...beheadings, prison stays, beatings, hanging upside down on crosses...being stoned to death. As they walked with Jesus they often didn't know where their next meal was coming from or where they would lay their head or what a single day would hold. BUT. Their willingness to be a part of the story Jesus had for them changed the course of history. A band of 12 men started the spread of the gospel all over the world. They healed the sick. They spoke boldly and did miraculous things in the face of danger because they believed living out God's story for them was more important than anything that could harm their physical bodies.

I want that. Even when the world may look at me and think the way I live my life is crazy and doesn't make sense and that I'm more than a little "out there". I want God's story for me more than I want my own comfort. More than I want safety and security. More than I want the American dream. More than I want to be liked.  More than I want the things that make me happy. My happiness and joy is found in living out the story God is writing with my life.

This trip to Ethiopia is just another chapter in my story, but I have this unshakable sense that it will be a defining one. I have a high anticipation of how God is going to show up...I'm not just excited about the trip - I am expectant and hungry for what God will do and how He will reveal Himself. I just want more of Him. I want people there to experience Him in profound and real ways that leave them no room for doubt. Heck, I want that for myself!!

So, I'm embracing my story - the one that has already been written (despite some of its ugliness and darkness) and the continued story that I have yet to experience. God is good, guys. Even when our circumstances are not, God is. And He's worth everything. It's all trash apart from Him.

Praying that we not only embrace the story God is writing with our lives, but that we pursue it, that we seek it, that we run after it with all that we are.

Psalm 107
Let the redeemed of the LORD tell their story— those he redeemed from the hand of the foe, Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind, for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness, and broke away their chains. Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind, He sent out his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave. Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love!