Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Too Much Loss

In the last two weeks, we have had two acquaintances lose their babies. One, a six-month old boy, did not even have a name yet. He died when his lungs filled with blood. His parents do not have enough money to bury him in a coffin, and so he will be buried, wrapped in one of their blankets. The father spoke with his eyes on the ground, his face tight with unimaginable pain. We gave him some money to help with burial fees, and then I promised to pray for them; the dad looked at me with pleading eyes. "Please do. Please pray," he whispered.

It was during these weeks that the attempted break-in occurred; the six-year old boy who had already lost his parents, who came to our house every day for an apple. It turns out that Chifundo had stolen from two of our neighbors, as well. It is terrifying to look at this child and think about his future. If he steals from the wrong house, he could end up getting very hurt. While traveling outside Lusaka, Joel witnessed an old man stealing from a grocery store. The man was caught and severely beaten in front of all the customers, including Joel. Last week, a man was beaten to death in the compound where we go to church. He had been trying to steal a car stereo when he was caught and killed. What can we do to help Chifundo stop making these awful choices, choices that could end with him being terribly injured?

What poverty does is horrible; it is awful; it is unimaginable for most of us. It forces mothers and fathers to bury their babies in a blanket, children to say good-bye to loving parents, elders to steal and face brutal beatings. What do we do about these things? How in the world can we stand by? We love people through their pain, but if we are not loving people in a sacrificial way, are we truly loving them at all? Shouldn't we give until it hurts, so that other people can hurt just a little less?

My language partner, a remarkable and loving woman, works at a clinic in one of the compounds. She is a nurse and a mother; gracious and wise and patient. And she cares deeply for Chifundo. Two days ago, she told me that the clinic has a Zambian therapist, who is there to help traumatized children. She was hesitant to suggest it, but she is going to talk to Chifundo's aunt. Perhaps he could go to this therapist? Perhaps he could get counseling and help? Perhaps he could slowly heal, and make healthier, safer choices as he grows... Chifundo has a loving aunt and uncle, and a community of love surrounding him. There is hope for him; I am excited about this possibility for healing and care.

I have had a stomach ache for the last little while; I just don't know how to process all the pain I see. But I do know that I need to do more; Jesus did not ask us to be comfortable. Jesus asked us to follow him, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to love the prisoner, to comfort the mourning, to work for justice. So we cannot sit in our sadness. We cannot give into hopelessness. And we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that this is not our problem. We have work to do. Together, all of us, we have work to do.

Without faith in a God who is much bigger than I am, I would be paralyzed. But I do believe in God. I do believe in God's power to do something; to do something in and through you and me. And so there is hope, there is power, there is healing. And it is time to wipe away our tears and step forward in faith, giving until it hurts, so that others will hurt less.

Please pray for Chifundo and his family, for the two families that just lost their babies, for the man who was beaten, for the man who was killed, and for our family, as we stumble along this path...Thanks for walking with us.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The theft, the broken window, the 6 year old boy

A few days ago, our family came home to discover Johnny's bike in the front yard. When we left that morning, Johnny's bike was behind the house. And so began the investigation that ended with a six year old culprit.

We walked to the side of our home, and found that the window, leading into the boys' bedroom, had been broken. There was a tool box lying on the ground, next to the broken window, and tools were scattered on the grass. The burglar bar was bent inwards, and the tools had clearly been used to crack the window and bend the bar. It was obvious, however, that no one had been able to enter our house, as the bars were not all the way bent, and the scattered tools indicated that the person trying to break in had been abruptly halted.

Joel walked around the house; in the back yard, hidden in some bushes, he discovered two six-year old boys, one of them, Chifundo, a playmate of our children. We were quite sure they could not have done this; after all, they were kids. They wouldn't have tools. The boys convinced us that they were just waiting for Frankie and Johnny, and went to play soccer in our front yard. Chifundo's friend ran off after a few minutes.

As we were discussing what to do, my language partner arrived. We explained our situation, and she called over to the Chifundo. In gentle Chichewa, she asked what had happened. She put her arm around him, spoke to him softly, and soon discovered the truth. He had stolen the tools from our neighbor's car, and then used them to break our window and bang on the burglar bar. He and his friend wanted to break into our house and steal Frankie and Johnny's toys.

We followed up on the story, going to our neighbor's house, where he discovered that his tools, indeed, had been stolen from his car. The neighbor also treated the child with great compassion, and by the time we reported the incident to the registrar, the little boy had been hugged, his hand held, and his head rubbed. During the entire afternoon, this child was treated with enormous compassion. It was a bit jarring, really. If at 6 years old, he could steal tools from a car, and then use them to break into another house, what would he do at 16? And while it was lovely to see him treated with such compassion, how was he to learn about the consequences of such behavior? These questions rattled in my mind.

Chifundo's parents died two years ago. He lives with a very kind family, his aunt and his uncle, who are both pastors, with 5 other children. They live very close to us, just down the road, and his uncle is currently studying in the United States for a year. Chifundo's aunt does not know what to do about his behavior; she is trying to complete a graduate degree, while pastoring a church, and raising 6 children without her husband present. As one can imagine, it is an overwhelming situation.

Compassion can be hard to figure out. How is one compassionate in this situation, when doing nothing can reinforce the terrible choices of this little boy? But, as Frankie said, "His life has been terrible." Certainly, this young child faced horrible loss, losing his parents at such a young age, struggling with poverty, wanting what he cannot have.

As I watched my Zambian sisters and brothers hug this child and hold his hand, I was confused, surprised, and moved. And frankly, I still am. But that evening, I sat with Chifundo's aunt, and listened to her concern, her worry, her hopes for the boy. And then together, we prayed for Chifundo, and I felt a love for him that overwhelmed me. He is bigger than any mistake he could make. We all are. Even if he had been a 16 year old, I hope I could have come to that conclusion, too. We are all bigger than our mistakes, all worthy of compassion, forgiveness, and grace. Whether the culprit is 6 or 16 or 46 or 66, he is a beloved child of God.

There are still gray areas: consequences, learning, change, growth. But one thing is not gray for me. I love this little boy who tried to break into our house. And I am grateful to my Zambian brothers and sisters for modeling this love in such a powerful way.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Chess, art, gymnastics, and karate. Oh my!

One thing that I love about living in Zambia is that life is a little less frantic. I do not have night meetings all that often, I usually have time to pick the kids up from school, and we always, always have family dinner together, all four of us sharing our highs and lows. I work a healthy number of hours, and  it leaves me plenty of time to watch the boys play soccer with their friends, to read stories while snuggling on the couch, to dance with my children in our living room, to sit back and enjoy some tea and biscuits with Joel. It is a very good life, and we are so happy and blessed to be here.

And so, when the boys mentioned their strong desire to sign up for after school activities, I was hesitant at first. Do we really need extra activities? There are so many fun things to do on our campus: climbing mango trees, swinging at the park, picking mulberries, playing soccer, practicing Chichewa with friends... But Frankie and Johnny were insistant, and so we agreed.

Johnny is doing art classes and gymnastics, and Frankie is in chess and karate. They are very happy, and it is actually really a blessing. Both kids are doing a great job of making friends both at their school, and here on campus, and it is good for them to develop relationships with children in both locations. 

The two groups of kids couldn't be more different. Parents who send their children to LICS pay about $10,000 per year in tuition. The parents who live at Justo Mwale often have a hard time coming up with basic school fees for their kids to attend public school. The kids at LICS have birthday parties with inflatable bounce houses, clowns, tons of sweets, and piles of presents, while kids at Justo Mwale don't get presents because their families simply can't afford to give gifts.

It is an interesting reality, living where the differences are so stark and so unescapable. When we lived in the United States, we could feel "just like everyone else" with nice birthday parties and pricey vacations. But here, we know how other children live. So, do we spend extra money on Karate classes and chess club? Do we buy extra art supplies and a gymnastics uniform?

All of these questions are complicated for us, but I think they are for everyone who seeks to follow Jesus. Where do we put our money? Where do we find balance? How do we resist guilt, while embracing responsibility? 

This morning, a man showed up at our door with 50,000 kwatcha ($10). A month ago, we had loaned him the money, not expecting to see it again. But Mr. Banda appeared with the bills in his hand and a smile on his face, and returned the loan in full. Yesterday, Mr. Phiri borrowed 200,000 kwatcha ($40), in order to take his driver's exam, in hopes that he might be able to become a driver. Next month, Mr. Phiri will do some gardening for us, and help us grow our vegetables. By the end of the month, he will have repaid the loan, we will have a good garden, and he will hopefully have a drivers' license. It is so fun to do these things with money, to see the way that loans can be repaid, relationships developed, and hope affirmed.

We live in a gray area, where we spend too much on karate, and spend too little investing in the lives of our neighbors. But every time we do, I see the returns, and I just thank God that for every small amount we give, God can make it into something big and beautiful. I certainly can't wait to see my garden grow!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Something Ugly

It is beautiful here; the rains have come and everything is green, with brilliant blossoms of pink and red and orange popping up all over. In fact, for the past few weeks, I have just been overwhelmed with wonder: snorkeling in Lake Malawi, ascending a mountain in Zomba, standing at the base of a gorgeous waterfall, watching baby monkeys play in the trees, playing peek-a-boo with baboons, standing on a mountain peak, with villages stretched out in shades of green and brown. How blessed I feel to see this beauty, how filled with wonder and awe and gratitude, as I consider the majestic works of God.

Certainly, the beauty does not just encompass the things I have seen, but also the people I have met recently. The young woman awaiting her pastorate, whose voice belts out praise and beauty on Sunday morning. She will soon leave her home church in Lusaka, to travel to a new place, a new church, and begin her ministry. Her warm spirit, her powerful voice, and her brilliant smile exude beauty. And there is the perfect stranger who got out of his car today, and stood in the pouring rain, to help me drive down a particularly rocky road. And the friend who has malaria, but insisted that I stay for tea and conversation this morning. The women of Mandevu, taking up a collection in their church, so that they can visit the grieving, and bring them money, mercy, and compassion.

There is great joy in witnessing the beauty of God's world, the glory of God's children. And it is so important to stand in awe and say "wow!" But sometimes, we want to just focus on what is beautiful, to ignore that which is ugly, to pretend that suffering and violence and poverty just don't exist. For those of us who live lives of privilege, it can be far too easy to close our eyes and ignore some of the terrible realities in our world.

But God calls us to respond to suffering, to do something about injustice, to fight oppression and to end violence. And we cannot do anything if we ignore suffering, if we accept injustice, if we deny oppression, if we are too scared to look violence in the face.

In my recent travels, I visited a home where violence occurs on a regular basis. It was a small home, with walls made of mud, and a roof made of grass. Inside the house, there was one mat for sleeping, three wooden stools for sitting, and two plastic buckets for washing. That was all. And during the visit, I discovered that the man of the house was not home. He had left when he saw us coming, because the previous night, he had beaten his wife. It was dark in the house; there was no electricity, and so I didn't see the bruises on her face and forehead until we stepped out of the house, into the sunlight. She explained that he gets drunk and beats her; there is nothing she can do. There is nowhere she can go. She cannot feed her family, and so she endures abuse, so she can remain at home, to grow what little food peeks up in her garden.

All over Zambia, there are billboards about domestic violence; the government is working with UNICEF to protect women and children. Some of the billboards are very ugly; one of them shows a young woman who has been beaten, her wounds are raw and terrible. The reality is that violence is here, just as violence is everywhere, and those who are most vulnerable are suffering. It is ugly and real, and many of us want to turn away.

After the very troubling home visit, I couldn't stop asking myself what in the world I could do for this woman. What can I do when extreme poverty is accompanied with domestic violence? I spoke with a church leader, who assured me that he was doing everything in his power to help the family, but there was little that he could do. The layers and layers of struggle and oppression all compound to make this situation so overwhelming.

We must face the violence. We must keep our eyes open and look straight on at that which is ugly and troubling and terrible. And we must do something; we must respond; we must keep trying, even when it feels too overwhelming. Because beneath the ugly bruise on that dear woman's face was a precious, beautiful, sacred soul; a child of God, a sister, a daughter, a mother.

I know that the church is going to keep reaching out to this woman, and I know that she is not alone. So, I ask you all to pray for her, to pray for the church, and to pray for this world, that violence will be no more, that poverty will be no more, that hunger will be no more. And as we pray, let us also work, through advocacy, donations, and volunteering, to spread peace and justice in our world.

God can transform something ugly into something beautiful; let us be a part of the miracle, as we give, as we work, as we pray.