Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Welcomed with Open Arms!

Since early July Kristi and I have been on the go!  We have visited 36 churches, 2 presbyteries, actively participated in 6 conferences, trainings and gatherings, travelled to 17 states and slept in 39 beds.  We have given our presentation 25 times, I have preached 13 times, and we have shared with all types of groups in various ways.  Not surprisingly perhaps, with all this activity, at times we have hit lows, feeling tired and wanting to be finished, yet we press on. 

Significantly, in the midst of this busy schedule of travel and speaking, Kristi and I have been blessed by the ways we have been received, welcomed, cared for and loved.  It often feels like we are stepping into holy ground as we stay with families and spend time with churches.  Just this last week we stayed with a family whose 96 year old matriarch, Dee, made sure we ate sliced apples in the afternoon and waited up for us like a mother goose when we were out at the movies.  On Hilton Head island, our hosts, Charlotte and Steve White, welcomed us into the life of their community as we enjoyed together live music and comfort food cooked for all on a gorgeous fall evening.  We also visited my friend Colin from High School whose family prepared a “Low Country Boil,” a fun/informal meal of shrimp/potatoes/corn and a few other things tossed in for good measure.  In Birmingham, Marty and Leland Keller treated us to dinner and the symphony with their close friends.  In Johnson City, Tennessee, we spent hours on an enclosed sun porch with Jerry and Sally Nagel in their home, sharing stories and enjoying good fellowship.  In Albany, Georgia, members of First Presbyterian treated us to the Waffle House where we enjoyed lighthearted conversation but also had meaningful dialogue around local issues tied to race and injustice.  In Beaufort, South Carolina, Corky cooked us delicious meals three times in the span of less than 24 hours, then he and his wife grabbed our hands and prayed deeply for us as we departed.

In Clover, SC, Pat and Marianne treat us to lunch in their 200+ year old
home, once belonging to their grandparents

The “Low Country Boil,” prepared by the Hawkins family
Hilton Head, SC

Dale and Lenora Williams welcome us again into their
peaceful, wonderful home in Gettysburg, PA

These are just a few snippets from our travels – many more stories could be told!  Indeed, we have been welcomed with open arms.  We have been fed well, our needs have been tended to (even laundry!), and we have felt the warmth of God’s people.  Not having a home here, these families visited have given us a temporary home, welcoming us into the family rooms and intimate places of their lives.  For that, we cannot adequately express our gratitude.  God has given us grace and strength for the journey, and He has done that through the hands and feet of His people.             

** Note to all who hosted us but who were not mentioned in this specific blog post, please know that we appreciate all you did for us!  We cannot and will not forget you.     

“On the road again…” we sing along with Willie Nelson -
c’est la vie! 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Request for prayer

This past week, violent clashes erupted in Kananga, the city that where we live in Congo. A militia group from the tribe near Tshimbulu who experienced an attack a few weeks ago that we described here came to Kananga, and attacked the airport and fought with military. A reuters article this week reports that the death toll was 49 people. Many of the tribal militia were using machetes and clubs, and there are many people wounded. The situation seems to have calmed down, although schools are closed this week and the atmosphere remains tense.

For us, one of the most concerning aspects of this was that the center where the children in the Ditekemena (HOPE) program live is very close to the airport where the attack took place. In the midst of gunfire, the caregivers took the children into the woods and surrounding homes to hide for a couple of days. They have now been moved in a few different groups to homes closer to the center of town. In the midst of the attack, their food stores at the center were looted and they will not have funds to resupply for at least a few weeks. Please pray that local churches in Kananga will be able to help to provide food and care for the children in this midst of this crisis.

Children and caregivers in the Ditekemena program, in December of last year.

Please continue to pray for peace in Congo, and for successful resolution to this particular conflict. We think of all of our colleagues and friends in Congo, and pray that even in this turmoil, they would know and live out God’s hope and love. We grieve that so many areas in our world are experiencing tragedy and fear right now. We pray Psalm 62:1-2 for our friends in Kananga and these hurting people and places all over the world:

“My soul finds rest in God alone;
my salvation comes from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.”

Monday, September 19, 2016

DR Congo, a political update

As we are moving towards an interesting and polarizing November election here in the United States, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which also has a scheduled November election, is moving closer to the brink of chaos and upheaval.  The President, Joseph Kabila, finishes his second and final term on December 20th, but all signs point to him clinging to power and not stepping down from office.  Opposition groups are raising their voice, and it feels like there is not even enough political goodwill to move a chair from one side of the room to the other.  The government planned and hosted a “national dialogue” with opposition groups, but the opposition chose not to participate because their demand for the release of all political prisoners had not been sufficiently met. 

Today, Monday September 19th, planed political protests have transpired in Kinshasa, the capital city.  We have viewed images of smoke from burning cars and tires, alongside angry crowds.  Most schools and shops are closed in Kinshasa, and most people are staying home to avoid unrest.  According to a recent BBC article, 17 people have been killed, including 3 police officers, one of whom was burnt alive.  From the US State Department website, we have learned that the US Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa, Tom Perriello, was physically blocked and verbally threatened at N’djili International Airport after ten days of seeking to promote dialogue amongst a wide range of actors in the current political impasse. 

Protest, Kin 2 (Sept 19th)
Hundreds have taken to the streets (photo, Reuters)

burned out car, Kinshasa (Sept 19th)
a burned out car in Kinshasa (photo, AP)

Protest, Kin (Sept 19th)
Burning a billboard of President Kabila

Right now it is difficult to know what the short term and longer term picture of Congo will be.  In a recent article, the International Crisis Group, an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, contends that what is needed in DR Congo is a firm but nuanced political approach.  Though frustration with the lack of will by the Congolese government to move forward regarding the democratic process is understandable, what is needed are international actors and partners who are able to provide a consistent stance which provides open communication channels with all parties, including the government, the opposition, and civil society groups, helping all move towards a peaceful transition of power in line with democratic principles. 

Please pray with us for a peaceable path forward for the Democratic Republic of Congo.  While we may be caught up in the wiles our our own election cycle, eventualities feel much more grim for people who live in a land we have grown to love.  Thank you!    

Monday, September 12, 2016

Crisis in Kasai

A few weeks ago, a conflict erupted between a tribal chief and government military near the city of Tshimbulu, about 70 miles from Kananga. Many people were killed – the estimates range between about 30 to more than 150, including both military and civilians in the village. Homes and schools in the village were destroyed, and many people have fled. As people fled the violence and families were separated, many unaccompanied children were brought to Kananga and temporarily housed in the Kananga jail (which is already overcrowded and has deplorable conditions). Several organizations, including Ditekemena (or the Hope project for street chidren) were asked to temporarily care for some of the children while they await reunification with their families. This conflict did not make the international news, and we did not hear of it until a few colleagues told us. If you want to read a local French report, it is at http://www.radiookapi.net/2016/08/13/actualite/securite/kasai-central-le-chef-kamwina-nsapu-est-mort-dans-les-combats-contre.

If you have been following the progress, of the 23 children originally with the program since 2014, 11 children have been reunited with their families, one new child was added, and now 13 await reintegration with families. The process is slow as they seek to provide follow-up and adequate support for families who are welcoming back their child. When this recent crisis arose, the CPC (Congolese Presbyterian Church) leadership agreed that Ditekemena could temporarily care for these displaced children, but the program is already stretched thin with resources.

Ditekemena - Betty and Andre with familyFrancois, one of the Ditekemena staff, visits the home of Betty and Andre
after they have been reunited with their father. Their mother has passed away.

Would you please pray for all of these children, for them to know God’s love and provision in the midst of this crisis. Pray also for Pastor Manyayi and the other caregivers, for discernment, love, and sensitivity as they care for the chidlren and look for the right situations for all of them. Ditekemena is in need of funds to care for these children, including for food, education, and the process of placement with families. If you would like to help wtih financial support, you can do so by either sending a check or donating online. Please read through all the steps to ensure it gets to the right place.

To donate online: 1. Go to http://www.presbyterianmission.org/donate/e864116/
                             2. Choose the option on the right (give to Presbyterian Community of Congo)
                             3. When you enter the payment information, there is a ‘comments’ section.
                                 In the comments box, enter “CPC/Ditekemena program for street children”
                             4. Let us know that you have donated so we can alert our colleagues in Congo.

To donate by mail: 1. Write a check to Presbyterian Church (USA) or Presbyterian World Mission
                              2. Put “E864116 – Ditekemena” in the memo
                              3. Mail it to: PO Box 643700, Pittsburgh, PA 15264-3700
                              4. Let us know that you have donated so we can alert our colleagues in Congo.

Monday, September 5, 2016

I am listening

For the sports minded reader, you will be aware of the current controversy surrounding the Forty Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick.  For others, you may have heard headlines and are wondering about this particular controversy.  In short, during the San Francisco Forty Niners preseason games this year, Colin Kaepernick has refused to stand during the national anthem, most recently taking the knee at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.  This behavior, as I understand it, wasn’t even noticed for the first game or two.  However, when it became apparent that Kapernick was not participating in this patriotic gesture, he began making public statements defending and illuminating his actions, being the public figure he has become.  What he has told us is this, “There are a lot of things that need to change…One specifically?  Police brutality.  There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable.  People are being given paid leave for killing people.  That’s not right.  That’s not right by anyone’s standards” (this quote taken from this CBS news article by John Breech, September 2nd).  Carter Evans of CBS This Morning quotes Kaepernick as saying that he, Kaepernick, will not stand up and show pride for a country that oppresses people of color.  As you can imagine, this particular action by Kaepernick has touched a sensitive nerve in our current milieu regarding racial injustice, brought to the fore by public awareness of specific instances of police brutality over the course of the last two years, an awareness now perpetuating national concern and debate, an awareness also forging movements such as Black Lives Matter.

As you can imagine, the response to Kaepernick’s actions have been as charged as the current national struggle and debate over this important issue have become.  On one hand there is great outrage, many believing that Kaepernick has chosen the wrong venue and wrong method to express his political views.  On the other hand, other people believe that Kaepernick has a right to express his views in this manner.  Even President Obama has weighed in on the issue, saying that it can be thorny in relation to the military, but also defending Kaepernick and his right to voice his concerns through this gesture.  Some are openly sympathetic to Kaepernick.  At Qualcomm, fellow Forty Niner Eric Reed also took the knee while Seahawks Jeremy Lane remained seated during the national anthem on Thursday.  This action was met in San Diego with grave defiance and anger.  Kaepernick was booed from the time he ran onto the field until he was pulled from the game at the beginning of the second half.  Chargers fans were relentless, writes John Breech, booing him on all 34 plays of which he saw action.  “While Kaepernick has made a silent protest, it was amplified in San Diego which is a big military town,” notes CBS correspondent Carter Evans. 

As a person of faith, I am seeking to digest and understand this current situation in light of the public good.  Public Theology is “lived theology,” seeing God at work in the midst of the marketplace of ideas while seeking the general Shalom (Peace) of God for our communities and nations.  It has become painfully obvious to me that our nation is at a flashpoint, perhaps no less revealing and painful as that of the Civil Rights era.  This year Kristi and I have spent time reading works by Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and W.E.B. DuBois.  Through these readings we have heard the deep cry of our black sisters and brothers for equality and justice.  We have heard public laments that ravish heart and soul.  Unlike any other period in my life, I have felt a deep empathy and pain for these Americans sisters and brothers who have been largely left out from the American dream and not given a slice of the American pie.  Worse yet, it seems that there has been little done in the way of genuine healing and reconciliation between our races.  We seem to live in parallel universes, one zooming ahead, the other left behind.   

Listening to the voices of these black sisters and brothers, I feel remorse and shame, yet I also feel inspired.  These voices from the margins of our storied past need to rise and give rise to a greater national consciousness of what it means to be American in the truest and purest sense.  Perhaps giving rise to a greater national consciousness is precisely what Colin Kaepernick seeks to help us achieve.  While not standing at attention for the national anthem may feel anathema to some, perhaps Kaepernick’s failure to stand is a prophetic gesture towards helping us identify our failings and seek a greater future, together.  Does standing during the national anthem make one a patriot in the truest sense?  Maybe there are nuances around this issue that should give us pause, encouraging us to listen to the message and not get hung up on the method of protest.  After all, what makes us noble and good is not the act of standing during the national anthem, but rather seeking in all earnestness to achieve the ideals by which the flag and the nation have sought to embody, and if we are failing to do so, we need faithful and responsible citizens to tell us so.   Indeed, if we are failing to achieve our ideals, only the harsh and uncomfortable act of public lament can wake us up from the dream that all is well when all is not well.  We need to listen to the voices from below and from the margins to know this truth, and perhaps Kaepernick and those who are kneeling with him are trying to show us the way.   

Prophets of old in the Biblical witness made public demonstrations of lament.  Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet.  Isaiah went around naked for three years.  Noah built an ark.  Jesus, a Jew, lamented over Jerusalem and even prophesied destruction over a city and a nation who had fallen away from true worship and righteousness.  We need prophets, brave men and women who will stand tall and courageous, willing to weather the boo birds, telling us that we can become better.  If we stop to listen to the message and graciously permit the chosen method, perhaps we will comprehend that Colin Kaepernick has something important to tell us.  Maybe we can actually stop and listen, and in doing so perhaps new paths towards a better future will open before us.  Colin and crew, for the record, I am listening.