Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Is there hope?

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive is, "Is there hope?" "Do you have hope that things will change?" Is there hope is a short but profound question: one question that every person of faith should try and struggle with.

I know that I have struggled with this question on many occasions. On one hand I feel there is little to no hope that lives will change from the violence of hunger, disease, malnutrition, and death. There are approximately 84,000 deaths per year of HIV/AIDS and approximately 250 new people are infected every day. This translates to Malawi being the 8 most vulnerable nation in the world for women and children.

On the other hand I also feel a deep sense of hope in God's presence and activity in places of extreme poverty, suffering, and death. We met women who were able to live through and care for their children even with the meager resources of food and shelter available. And men, and women, and children praising God and Christ for their very lives and the power of the Holy Spirit. For me this is HOPE! This is the power of the spirit to give strength to people who live in these hardest and most desperate of human situations. If God was able to work life out of the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross then surely God is able to create life out of the suffering and hunger consuming the communities in Malawi. The incredible will to live of the women and children was a revelation for me of the power of God in chaos. And the power of the HOPE that fills us with the will to live and to work with God to make things new.

It was our final day being among the people. We picked up Mary and Agnes, our treasured angels, and headed out to Mtandile. This is the village of Agnes. We were excited to meet her people. This community was a hustle and bustle of activity. Many street vendors selling their wares, music playing, and people were out and about. This was very different than all the other locations we had been at and Agnes was smiling from ear-to-ear. It was a special day for her bring the azungu. She most especially wanted us to see her school, meet her teacher friends, and meet her husband Godfrey and her daughter. We pulled into the school yard - it was a locked school area and all the children were there along with the women to greet us. They sang to us and brought us into a school room. This was the first school that we saw that actually had buildings for the various subjects - reading hall, administration, etc... In the center of the small courtyard was a playground. It was run down by our standards - there weren't any swing seats on the swing set; the teeter totter was rusted and unsafe, the slide looked like it would collapse at any moment but the children were having so much fun playing and laughing it was easy to overlook the conditions and focus on the joy of the sounds of children playing. One of my most favorite sights is to watch a child soar like an eagle on the swings and watching their face scrunch right before they get the courage to jump off and land back on the ground...the look of wonder and accomplishment at themselves as they brush their knees off to go and do it again makes me feel that I've eaves dropped on a moment and I tuck it away in my heart. As I watched the children in this school play on their one tire swing I knew that I was eaves dropping on special child's play and I have tucked it into my heart. Children inspire me to be more than I think I can be; children, no matter what, hold hope in their hearts.

Some of our group stayed at the school while the rest of us went into the village to visit some who were not feeling well. We had one of the Doctors with us and he was going to pay a few house calls. We visited a critically ill man. While Dr. Skelton was examining him we waited in the outter area of the house... many children had heard the azungu where there and they came to see us. They smiled and shook our hands. I felt in the middle of beauty and heartbreak and I wasn't sure how the two could coexist.
As we traversed the village we added new friends to our journey along the way. We prayed for the sick. We chatted with families. We got so much more than we received - openness, graciousness, kindhearted, loving, joyful all of it unconditionally. Every where we went the owner pulled out the sand colored carpet for us to sit on while they sat in the dirt. Do you do that for your guests, do you give your guests the best you have? really? OH, and strangers at that. I want to say I do but I don't think I really do. What is it that causes a person who has nothing (by our standards) to give everything and yet a person with everything (by our standards) gives nothing? Matthew 18:4 says, "The greatest person in the kingdom of heaven is the one who makes himself humble like this child."
Alas our time in Agnes' village came to an end. We had to get back to Somebody Cares headquarters to pick up a gentleman that was going to take us out to a youth program in Nadzuluwa. My ears perked when I heard that. Youth? I hadn't see any teens other than at the soccer tournament and I was excited to have the opportunity to chat with them. We drove for miles and miles through villages and markets and desolation on a dusty bumpy road to reach our destination. It was worth it!
The youth were just arriving when we got there. They had a structure about the size of a 1 1/2 car garage. There were cement rows on the ground for us to sit. The youth pastor immediately appologized that some of the girls would have babies with them because they are the primary caretakers and had to bring them. Why was he appologizing for that? Having babies on the backs of young girls had been common place for us and we didn't question this. There are so many orphans and vulnerable children and teens that have had to step up to be the head of households it was not uncommon to see this and I felt bad that he felt the need to explain. And then it happened.... they started singing; what an amazing array of musical notes strung together in perfect harmony reverberating in surround sound over the very core of my being. I was awe struck. I looked at Cheryl and she was smiling ear to ear. Finding my place in the back I taught a young man how to video and I sat and watched and I could have stayed there the entire day and night listening to this amazing group of youth worship and praise God with all they had. They all had bibles and I could see that each bible was loved - with crumpled pages and floping binding - these bibles were treasured for sure. I don't know how to describe the feeling of watching youth praise God with babies on their backs, with no shoes on their feet, with no jackets to keep warm, and with one meal a day. They praised God for what they have; they descibed ways they had seen God in their lives; they have hope in God and they know He is the way. WoW!

After the service we went outside and Bree organized games to play. The youth pastors are working really hard to break barriers that have been in the culture for generations and generations and so when we played something that was girl and boy it was very awkward at first because they don't do this in their culture. But it didn't take long for them to get engrossed in the game and the gender roles dropped and we were teens just playing a game and it was amazing! Edward, who works for Somebody Cares but works with the youth in the communities, explained that this was the first time that the girls and boys played together. That the youth pastors were really excited and that he felt it helped bridge the gap and they would continue to play these games and little by little he had HOPE that the teens of Malawi would day by day make strides with God's help in transforming their world.
Hope in the dictionary is defined as a promise; a trust. I always answer the question, "Is there hope?" with a firm, emotional, faith-filled - YES! Indeed there is hope. God created all things new in Christ.
"But the needy will not always be forgotten,
nor the HOPE of the afflicted ever perish." psalm 9:18

Monday, July 27, 2009

Show me Your glory...

I'd like you to meet Agnes (on the left). Agnes is a native Malawian woman who volunteers for Somebody Cares - Malawi (Theresa Malila). She spends her days as a Community Leader working with village volunteers within the surrounding villages of her community. She is an angel on earth. Her smile is contagious and her sweet and humble nature is calming. Her energy for her people, especially women and children, is boundless and it is an honor to be in her presence. Mary (on right) is yet another volunteer who spends her days visiting women and children in her community. She, too, is a community leader with Somebody Cares-Malawi. Mary has a little spark to her. She has a keen sense of humor and gives new meaning to joy that is found in everyday life. She is a born teacher and takes every opportunity to help the azungu (white person) understand her culture and people. You will always have a homework assignment with Mary. She is a treasure.

Both these ladies are Angels among us. They glorify God. They do not draw attention to themselves. They work quietly behind the scenes and when the work is done they leave quietly. It is said, "are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?" hebrews 1:14. Agnes and Mary are ministering every day, unconditionally, non judgementally, they are the true epitome of what it means to Glorify God. I am convinced that when I reach heaven I will find these beautiful ladies walking in companionship with Christ Jesus. They bring such joy to everyone who comes in their path. We were blessed to have these two with us every day of our journey and I feel blessed to call them friend.
I woke and asked God to "show me Your glory" today. He sent me Agnes and Mary.
God Bless,

Monday, July 20, 2009

It's ON!

Soccer Tournament 2009 - July 19

Round Rock & Outlaws (MA)


Today was a good day in Malawi. Did you know that these kids only play in tournaments every 5 years? That is all they are allowed because it coincides with Parliament votings and such. Isn't that amazing and mind boggling? Well this day was very special to over 500 kids in Malawi and we can't thank all the people and groups that donated to make this soccer tournament happen we couldn't have done it without you!

Jesus said, "Be careful. Don't think these little children are worth nothing." matthew 18:10

We started our day going to church services. I have never been to an African church service and was very excited. We dressed up and off we went. We drove for ever! I couldn't believe how far it was and I was finding it hard to contain my excitement - how many kids will be playing? Are girls allowed to play? How will be work the bracket? All that stuff that we would think about before holding a tournament. 1 hour later we pulled into the small village that was hosting our church services. There were a ton of people around but I couldn't see the church. And then I noticed, there aligned in front of the worshippers were a row of 16 chairs. All different shapes and sizes. And there, under the big tree, we would worship for the next 3 hours. Theresa Malila led worship with the attending pastor. It was just amazing how exuberant these folks are in their love for Jesus. They sang songs to us and we sang songs to them and it just seemed to click for all of us. I felt honored to be there. I noticed something else I had not seen so far - teenagers! They were all dressed in their sunday best holding a bible and sitting on rocks or the dirt ground. Nobody complaining; nobody talking to each other; and nobody on their cell phones. They were there to worship and that is what we did. It was fantastic and inspiring and beautiful.

When the service was over we started the much anticipated 'football' tournament. Many of the youth leaders came forward to show us their teams. We had 8 teams all together - only the 14-17 year olds played. This was a serious village to village competition. Girls are not allowed. Small children are not allowed. It is just the real men of Lilongwe who will be playing this day. As we set up many people started to show up to line the perimeter of the field. You could feel the anticipation the excitement in the air. They told us that although they were there to worship as one family under God when it came to football they were going to be looking to win. And they were right in telling us that. The guys lined up for the uniforms. They were so excited. Shirts and shorts and socks and shoes... WOW! They couldn't believe it. You could feel the excitement in the air. We didn't share with them that they would get to keep the uniforms right away. They thought they were just borrowing. Each team played. Nearly every game ended in a shoot out. They are very good players for sure. They didn't like playing in cleats and socks. They were way more comfortable barefoot.

While I was on the sidelines filming the big game many of the teenage boys were fascinated with the camera. They called it a TV. I taught many of them how to use it and they really enjoyed it. I met the chief of Misula, a zone in the Lilongwe area. Their team was wearing red and they were cheering them on like crazy. One man turned to me and said that he was so proud because he had never seen the children look so good. It struck me right away. We take for granted that our children have clean clothes every day. These guys have one set of clothes typically and they are very rarely clean. The adults were proud to have their kids in the uniforms and to watch them play. They kids felt empowered to play harder for their village. Once again I was struck dumb in the presence of these amazing people. At the core of our being it is our fondest wish to have our children do better than we did and to see a parent with his eyes glowing because his boy had a uniform and was playing in a tournament... an event that occurs every Saturday morning in my town, was humbling.

Cheryl and I can't thank you all enough for your generous donations. Without you this wouldn't have been possible. I have to tell you that whenever they scored everyone jumped so exuberantly up and down on the field. You gave young men and an entire community joy for a day and a story to tell around their fires that night. Because Malawian's are still oral story tellers this story will be with them for many years to come and it will be passed down to their children and to their children's children. It was good this day for sure.

"I tell you the truth. Anything you did for even the least of my people here, you also did for me." matthew 25:40


Saturday, July 18, 2009

If you judge people you have no time to love them

Day 2 Malawi - July 18, 2009

"We...have joy with our troubles. Because we know that these troubles produce patience. And patience produces character and character produces hope. " romans 5:3-4 ncv

Genuine diamonds are known for both their beauty and their strength. The same is true for strength of character and how this priceless trait is developed takes place through an unexpected process - experiencing joy when you're suffering under pressure. As your character grows stronger so does your HOPE. And this, my friends, allows you to find genuine joy, even in the middle of suffering.

Today Cheryl and I visited the community of Njawa. It was similar in appearance to Deya Center in that it is supported by Somebody Cares but it did not have the same feel for sure. When we arrived the women were dancing and singing for us. It was so sweet to be greeted in such a way. They were smiling and having a good time and you could see their genuine happiness that we were there to help. What bothered me was that I did not see the children right away. I was looking for them but they were not there and that was strange since this was supposed to be a location for widows and orphans. We brought bubbles and books and though the women were singing loudly I was looking for small smiling faces. After we enjoyed the singing and dancing for some time Mary, our community leader, took us on a walking tour of the village. They have a new well so we were excited for that once again, but still there were no latrines.... and as we were walking I realized we had some children following us. I excitedly turned to say Hi! but I paused. The children were not smiling; they were not laughing; they just were there. Curiosity? Maybe. But their eyes told me the entire story and I knew in that instant that I was never going to be the same. You know eyes are the way to see the soul and these childen were telling me volumes without even speaking.

Overcoming my reaction instantly, I smiled and said hi and I as I bent down and shook their tiny hands one of the women spoke to them and they ran off. I was confused and in that moment I put my video down and just walked and looked and listened and watched. Mary asked if we would cook the meal and of course we said yes. We went into a small room with some young girls and they showed us how to cook the fortified porrage for these orphans only meal. I stirred the huge pot on an open fire pit and the smoke was so thick I couldn't see and my eyes burned so bad. While the porrage cooked we went and got some water from the well. Cheryl and I filled the tubs with water and the young girls asked if we wanted to put it on our heads and of course we said yes. They were allowing us in to their life and asking us to see the daily chores of their lives and so two girls lifted the bucket and placed it carefully on my head. UNBELIEVABLE! I could not believe how heavy that bucket was. I seriously thought my neck was going to break. We walked for about 25 feet ever so slowly because there was no way I wanted to spill the water and the young girl stopped me and took it from my head. Now you must know and I am ashamed to tell you, but that young girl took that tub of water and put it on her head and as she turned I saw a baby on her back too! It was so humbling. We washed the cups and by then the porrage was done and we filled 92 cups 1/2 full with porrage. Smiling and excited because we accomplished a chore for these sweet women - maybe even eased their life for a moment when Mary came in and told us we did not have enough. Are you kidding me? That isn't a choice and in that instant we bowed our heads and prayed that God would multiply those cups. We counted the children again...but while counting more children kept coming and we were getting nervous and I could feel my chest start pumping - this is their only meal! are you kidding me? Where is the food? I was telling myself not to panic or make a scene they were watching me. I had cooked everything they gave us to cook. The head teacher had lined up the children and they were watching us; starring at us with huge eyes filled with hope for their daily meal. Cheryl and Bianca were pouring some of each cup into more cups to make enough for everyone there. The children waited and watched. There was no shoving or pushing. There was no shouting or excitement...they just waited and watched. I watched and listened and prayed there was enough. Cheryl, of course, was not going to accept anything else and I watched her and I trusted her that she would make it happen because for some reason to me she was going to be the miracle worker. She looked at Mary with hands open as if to say, "Come on lets get these children fed" Mary got more cups and filled them with the scrap from the bottom of the pot and while the last child waited for his 1/2 filled cup of food for the day we found the amount we needed at the bottom of that pot and handed it to this young man and he said, "Thank You" I know that I was not breathing until that moment. Praise God! He fed the children for this day.

Sandi, Operation HOPE's manager of operations, had a HUGE bag of lollipops. YEAH! After they ate we got to give every child and mother a lollipop. They thought they were funny. They had never seen anything like it before. Isn't that funny? While they were eating them, Cheryl was blowing bubbles and they were laughing and having a good time. Cheryl has glasses that are reflective and so she thought the children were curious about her because they kept starring at her and following her, but what it was they were looking at themselves in her glasses! We laughed about that. They have never seen themselves before it was so interesting to watch them and Cheryl was so wonderful with them because she would just bend over and let them look. I just wonder what they thought about that?

After that we went on a home-based care walk and visited the community and their sick people. I did an interview with an aging gentleman. He was super sick and I obviously don't have the skills to know with what but luckily we are with doctors here and so we sent a note to Somebody Cares and they are going to get him to our Doctors. That was fabulous. We talked with a woman who lives is a concrete house with not a stick of furniture. She was so happy to bring us into her home. She has AIDS. She has 7 children and her husband left her. We fetched water for her from her borehole and washed some dishes and then sat and chatted with her. She didn't have food. That was her biggest problem. She needed to find a way to get food for her and the children. We seriously need to work on getting the communities a means to get food for their children. It is not a question of whether or not they want to work it is just a matter of not having the resources and tools to grow food. After our visit with this wonderful lady we visited a 14 year old girl with Malaria. She was laying on a straw mat covered in blankets. It was stunning to see this sick young woman laying in the dirt on a straw mat and feeling so sick and everyone just going about their business around her. It is a way of life here in Malawi. What choice do they have? We talked with her mother and tried to talk with her but she was too sick and so we just prayed over her.

Today I didn't take any pictures. Today I learned to not judge and just love. I love Malawi. I love the people they are truly warm-hearted. We feel so blessed to have this opportunity. They are so very thankful for anything and so accepting of that which we would never accept in the States. Please pray for them. Please love them. Today my character was challenged. I will never be the same.

God Bless you all.
Peace and Joy,

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Lesson

Azungu Azungu Azungu

First full day - July 15: As we drove into our first community we were greeted with 100 children shouting Azungu Azungu. We were smiling and I turned to Mary, our interpreter, and asked what they were saying and she replied, "white people white people."

We started our day at Somebody Cares headquarters. Theresa Malila is Executive Director. Her team of volunteers are bringing us to the communities that we will be working at. Today we had Mary and Ramsey. I wanted to understand some basic words to say before we reached the community and so Mary helped me with that and while we were driving the entire team got a lesson on their native language - Chichewa. Everyone is taught english in school but this is their native language and pretty much the only language spoken in the communities and villages we are visiting. muli bwanji? How are you?; mwadzuka bwanji Good Morning; ana child; yesu amakukonda Jesus Loves You. We went on and on. Before we got out of the car Mary made me promise to practice and she wrote all the sayings on paper for me but I had to teach it to the team that night at dinner. I of course agreed. Cheryl decided she would wait for the lesson that evening with everyone else.

We went to the Deya Center. This is a location of Somebody Cares and it is where the orphans come for their daily feedings. They have over 100 kids that come to the center every day and then there are those from the village and they never know how many will come day-to-day, but there are a lot! The children were so excited to see us. They wanted to touch us - they don't see many azungus (white people). These children, dressed in rags and all bare footed, where so full of joy it was inspiring. The chidren had to go for their lesson and Ramsey walked us around the grounds of the Deya Center. They have a new well donated by Operation HOPE so the entire village has access to clean water; we were all excited to hear that. However, the latrines where few and far between. There is no electricity at this center or in the community. We walked to the fields where the youth were getting the gardens ready for planting season, which isn't until October. There are these wonderful men who volunteer their time from the community to teach the youth how to garden. It is a wonderful program and incredibly needed here.

After our tour we played with the children who were on break from their lessons. I played soccer. We really didn't have a field so it was soccer random. These children are fast and so quick with their feet. We had a blast. We then, and don't laugh, did the hokey pokey and they loved it! These children are vulnerable orphans but you wouldn't know that by their laughter...it honestly was contagious. Azungu Azungu they shouted over and over again and would laugh and run away when we looked. As I mentioned, we had received our lesson for communicating at a very basic level and so whenever we would say something to the children they would laugh. We thought Mary taught us wrong words but it was actually the children getting a kick out of azungu speaking in their native language.

We then fed the children. It was one 10 oz cup only 1/2 full of cream of wheat type drink. That is their one meal a day and that is what keeps them coming to the center. Now I don't know about your kids, but when mine are playing sports when they come home to eat I know it is more than 1/2 cup full of cream of wheat - oh, and if there is not enough to go around, the teacher must take from other cups to feed the ones that didn't get any. The children never once complained. They wait very sweetly until eveyrone gets their cup. And when the teacher says to eat they all eat. They lick their bowl clean. It was a very humbling experience. These small children show so much grace; so much humility; so much understanding at such a young age it makes your heart ache and rejoice at the same time. The children went back to their lessons and we went into the community to help with home-based care.

We had to get 'wraps'. It is unacceptable for women to go in the community not wearing a dress, and here the widows sew wraps. Our entire team of 12 ladies bought wraps from the women that are trying to work and are living with (on ARVs) AIDS/HIV. They sang and danced for us. Their joy and obvious love for one another was beautiful to see. We had fun dancing with them in our new wraps. When we were properly clothed we went to the community in teams of 6 (1=community leader; 1= pastor; 4 of us). This home-based care is a program that reaches out to those in the community who are sick and suffering. As we walked the path to these homes I couldn't help but wonder what it must be like in the rainy season; when it was cold; when it was hot; when someone was sick and dying what do they do. It was very disconcerting to know that life is dispensible. It has to be. With a life expectancy of 37 years old what would you hope for? There are no streets as you may know them. There are dirt paths everywhere. The huts are made of straw and pretty much any material they could find. So imagine with me: you are a small orphan child responsible for taking care of your brother or sister...no parents to care for you. You live in a dirt hut and have no furniture. You can't lock a door so anyone can walk into your home anytime they want. The night falls and you are enveloped in complete darkness...no blankets only a cold bug ridden floor. Can you imagine your children handling that? Can you picture with me what must be going through these children's minds? I'm not sure I could handle it with the maturity and matter-of-fact attitude that these children have and they smile every day. It is incredible. They are small miracles full of joy.

I was surely blessed and humbled by childen this day. On the way home Mary had be make sure to continue our lessons. We promised. I wonder if we will?

Peace and blessings to you all.

Ndi makukonda


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

We have arrived!

Hi Friends!

Cheryl and I have finally arrived in Malawi, Africa - The Warm Heart of Africa. It was an adventure getting here for sure - 2 days worth. However, as we were loading our ridiculous amount of luggage (oh, let's just say we had over 40 pieces of luggage so you can imagine the spectacle we caused; I think we were for many this days reality TV show) on the roof of the little car that was taking us to our hotel, a school group of little children, probably the ages of 4 - 8, were having a "field trip" to the airport and there was probably 50 kids. They were dressed in their school attire; some were looking at us with curiousity and others would smile and say hi. It didn't take us long to wipe the sleep from our eyes and defeat the fatigue in our bodies as we watched them skip along swinging their arms and laughing while their teachers tried to keep them all safe and in the group - it was like watching cats being herded. All of us were smiling and laughing as well and it just instantly changed our attitudes and reminded us what it is we are here for.

The hotel is fun. We had the electricity go out about 5 times already. It doesn't last long but it is still interesting depending on where you are in the building. ;o) It didn't take me long to take my small flashlight every where I go!

We are excited to start our work here with Operation HOPE. Dr. Thomas, Sandi, and the medical team are amazing. For now I just wanted to let you all know we arrived safe and sound and ready for God's work! We can't thank you all enough for your support in getting us here. Without all of your contributions - be it time, resources, or gifts we would not be able to help these beautiful people, and especially the vulnerable children. Malawi has a staggering 1.5 million orphans due largely to the AIDS/HIV pandemic - a number we were told this evening will grow if something is not done to over 2 million by next year - remember Malawi is no bigger than Pennsylvania. But also, disease and sickness runs rampant as the water and food crisis continues here. We will be working in the communities with Somebody Cares-Malawi an organization that is run by an amazing woman named Theresa Malila.

Please come back and follow us on this journey. Please pray for us that we can be God's eyes and see what it is He would like for us to see. Our hope is that we can partner with local community leaders - such as Theresa - and assist in the communities to help set up an infrastructure that will provide transformative solutions to empower the people and let them know that we care and that everyone deserves a few little drops of grace during hard times. God Bless.


Monday, July 6, 2009

Every great dream begins with a dreamer...

"Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars, to change the world." Harriet Tubman

It has been a while for drops of grace. We have been working hard and making decisions and praying a whole lot! Our work has taken a detour but now we are back on the road again and starting a new journey. We have shaken the dust from our sandels and are heading to Malawi, Africa in a mere week. We are partnering with Operation HOPE. A group of doctors and professionals who offer their services to those who are underserved. We will be working with Dr. Thomas to assess the needs for a water well at the hospital he and his team work at. In addition, we will be working with Teresa Malila of Somebody Cares-Malawi in the community near the hospital. We are hoping to build a relationship with her and the leaders in the community to work on the possibility of providing sanitation, health & hygiene, and small construction work with schools and buildings. It is certainly going to be a busy time for us.

I will be doing my best to keep you all updated. Please keep checking back and feel free to comment I would love to hear from you too. July 13 is the day we head out. Please pray that we will hear and be able to act on God's call for our group because it is only possible through Him and your constant prayers that we will be successful in providing hope in communities that have lost it. Grace and Peace to you.