Monday, December 30, 2013

The Pregnant Women, Part II

The pregnant women are no longer laying on a grass mat, on the dirt, surrounded by cows and chickens. I know this, because I saw the new beds and the new building and the new light in their eyes. 

The windows are no longer shattered, the nurse’s home no longer vacant, the roof no longer full of holes. I know this, because I looked through the windows, into a home, full of life and hope.

The cleaner is no longer on her own, to offer basic first aid, to administer medication from a closet, using a large book to determine what drugs to provide. I know this, because I met the nurse, the community health worker, and saw the joy in the cleaner’s eyes, no longer burdened with trying to do it all on her own.

And the pregnant women. They are no longer worried about long, long walks to the clinic, while in labor. Because a home is being built for them, to stay there in their last month, so that when the labor pains start, they are right where they need to be. 

The cleaner told me about a woman, a few months ago; she had tried to get to the clinic, but ended up delivering on the way. She was hemorrhaging, bleeding way too much, on the side of the dirt road, far from the clinic. But her fellow travelers made a stretcher with a chitenge and some sticks, and carried her to this clinic. Both she and the baby were saved. Both of them lived.

With this new home, however, the hope is that no more babies and mothers will lie bleeding in the dirt. They will find peace and welcome as they anticipate the birth of their children.

Rural Zambia has one of the worst maternal death rates in the world. But there is so much reason for hope. When I visited the clinic this time, a year after my last visit, I could not believe the change. There was so much hope, so much joy, so much progress, so much life.

The Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Synod of Zambia, has built this clinic in faith and hope that lives will be saved. They have sustained the clinic, supported the clinic, created new structures so that it can thrive. We do this because of Jesus, the great healer, who wants health and wholeness for all of us. As I see these women, as I experience their smiles, I know that Jesus is smiling, too.

I am so grateful to work for an organization that touches people with the healing love of God. And although there is still so much work to be done, every single mother matters, every single baby matters, every single family matters.

Last year, when I wrote a blog post about my visit to the clinic, it reflected my sorrow and concern over the challenges faced by pregnant women in rural Zambia. It is true that the sorrow and concern are not gone; I still pray for them and ask you to pray, too. But seeing such amazing change in just one year helps me to believe that things are moving in the right direction. It brings me great joy to know that as women bring new life into the world, there are many who care deeply about protecting their lives, as well.

I visited the clinic a few days before Christmas; thinking about another pregnant woman, who traveled far and just needed a place to rest. Another pregnant woman, who ended up in a barn full of animals, who must have worried about delivering a child, who was also poor, also afraid. No bed for her, no space for her, and yet the child came. That child, God-with-us, the light of the world.

As the pregnant women come to the clinic, as they look for a place to rest, as they hope for a bed and a person who will help them, it brings me great joy to know that there will be room at the inn. There will be room at the clinic. There will be a safe place for them to rest and wait and prepare. And when they deliver that child, they will see and know the love of God, in this clinic, a visible sign of God’s great care and compassion.

I think of the long journey, the aching feet, the weary eyes, the extra weight of a child, and I know, at the end of that journey, there will be a bed for the pregnant women. There will be a light for the pregnant women. There will be love for the pregnant women. Because of the light, because of the love, because of the hope that was born in a barn. Because there was no room for him, he has made room for all of us, especially the poor, pregnant women. Like his mother.

The borehole serves the whole community, providing water for the village and the clinic
The kids gave Johnny the chance to pump some water into their buckets
Vaccines are stored in this solar-powered refrigerator; Amayi Nyrenda puts them in small coolers and takes them by bicycle to nearby villages in order to administer the vaccines.
This is the Oral Rehydration Therapy post; this saves the lives of children with diarrhea. 
The clinic offers medication and education for the prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV.
The outhouses that serve the clinic
The main clinic building
The house that is being built for pregnant women
Amayi Nyrenda at her home on the clinic campus

Monday, December 16, 2013


This weekend, we attended a meeting of the General Assembly of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian. The General Assembly consists of representatives from the five synods of our denomination: Livingstonia, Blantyre, and Nkhoma (all in Malawi), Harare Synod (in Zimbabwe), and the Synod of Zambia. These five synods, from three different countries, include people from more than twenty tribal groups, at least seven different languages, and an incredible diversity of economic conditions. Different tribes, different languages, different nationalities, different economic stations, different educational levels, different perspectives on gender and faith. And yet, they are all part of one denomination.

This General Assembly was monumental, in that it was the first General Assembly in seven years. Seven years ago, the General Assembly meeting ended in conflict and anger. The different groups, different synods, different countries, different people, left in dissent and severed relationships. When the General Assembly was due to meet again, it did not happen. There was simply too much anger, too much antagonism, too much pain.

Year by year, the division continued, until some of my colleagues began to speak up. “Are we called to unity in Christ? Are we not one denomination?” They built bridges, listened to frustrations, offered compromises, and finally achieved what many thought impossible. All five synods agreed to meet, bringing together the various countries, various tribes, various languages, various socio-economic stations, various educational levels, various theologies. And this weekend, they all came together.

During the meeting, there were elections, and new leadership was chosen. The newly elected moderator offered a sermon on unity, on the joy that parents feel when their children get along. “When a father sees his son and daughter laughing together, playing together, sharing together, the father feels deep joy. When a mother sees her children loving each other, caring for each other, helping each other, the mother feels deep joy. This is how God feels when we are united; it is precious.” He continued, “But how do you feel if your children quarrel and are cruel to one another? This is how God feels when we refuse to listen to one another, when we refuse to care for one another.” 

His sermon went a step further than I was initially comfortable with, for he declared that in order to really find unity, we have to be willing to give up a part of ourselves. For me, as an American, this statement was a bit unsettling. Shouldn’t we be fully ourselves? Shouldn’t we refuse to give up who we are? Isn’t it wrong to cave in, and offer up a part of what we want, what we believe? I wondered about this, and I am still thinking it over. But the idea that I can bite my tongue sometimes, that I can work with people with whom I disagree, that I can give up a bit of my own dogmatism, in order to find unity, is a powerful and on-going challenge.

So often in America, I spent time only with people who were like me; we had similar political and theological beliefs, similar educational backgrounds, similar careers. For those who were deeply different, especially those with very different beliefs, I had love, but at a distance. I simply did not think I could be fully myself and still find unity. But, perhaps, that was the flaw all along. Maybe I don’t always need to be fully myself...

The denomination I work for, the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, has agreed to work together in unity, despite significant differences and challenges. They have proclaimed that they are willing to give up a part of themselves, in order to move forward together. This challenges me to figure out where I am willing to give up a part of myself, in order to find unity.

I remember packing to leave for Zambia, as we were getting ready to move our family half way around the world, to a place I had never been. I was told I could only wear long skirts, and so, I piled up my jeans, my trousers, my shorts, my tank tops, any skirts that fell above the knee, and dresses that revealed my shoulders. I actually cried as I looked at the pile of clothes that I would not wear again. There was no point in packing or saving them; I would be donating them the following day. I looked at a favorite pair of jeans, at the dress that I wore to my sister’s wedding, at the comfy tank top that had lasted me through many summers, and I felt like I was giving something up. Some sort of comfort, some piece of me that was familiar, was piled up, like so much trash.

That was small, so small, and I am now well aware that I had the blessing of all those clothes to give away, as I live among many who wear ripped and stained garments by necessity. I feel a bit of shame as I remember crying over that pile of clothes that day, wondering what I was giving up, wondering if I was giving up a part of me.

Now, as I wear long skirts and walk with my Zambian sisters, as I wrap a chitenge around my waist, I feel the incredible blessing of unity across difference, the amazing gift of having friends who are different than me, who think differently than me, who believe differently than I do. I get the privilege of sharing meals, sharing lives, sharing stories, with people who choose to love me, even though I am different. Surely, it is worth wearing a skirt!

It is a challenge for me, where to bend, where to change, where to bite my lip, where to speak. But I think that for Americans, the biggest challenge is a willingness to give up a bit of ourselves, a bit of our dogmatism, a bit of our certainty, so that we can find true unity, walking together, working together, worshipping together, loving each other. For this is not only pleasing to God, as a parent who watches laughing children, but it is also pleasing to us, as our lives open, as our hearts open, as our worlds open.

Congratulations, Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, on a successful General Assembly meeting! Thank you for choosing unity and love over dissension and division. May we all follow your example.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Longest Night, The Longest Day

I served for twelve years as a parish minister, and one of my favorite services was The Service of the Longest Night. We usually held it between December 20th and December 23rd, marking the Winter Solstice, when the day is short and the night is long. It was a service to acknowledge the pain that can accompany the holidays, and to lift up the hope of God's light, shining in the darkness. The service involved candle lighting and readings, songs and silence, and usually ended with hugs and tears. For those who are mourning or alone or just rudderless, The Service of the Longest Night was a reminder that God's light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Here, in Zambia, we are in the middle of summer. It is really, really hot, and we are approaching the longest day, instead of the longest night. And yet, for some reason, I keep returning to that service, to that chapel, to the little tea lights glowing across the altar, representing both hope and pain, loss and gratitude, sorrow and strength.

Sometimes, the longest night happens when there is gray slush everywhere, and the chill is so strong your back aches. But sometimes it happens when the sun is brutal and you have to carry the water, carry the charcoal, carry the babies, carry the burden of wondering where the food will come from today, and tomorrow, and you just won't think beyond that.

In Advent, we are waiting. Waiting for hope and joy and wonder. Waiting for something spectacular: God's love made flesh. But, in the words of my friend, Rev. Alice Townley, some of us "are numb by waiting too long in the cold night."

Ann Weems, who lost her 21 year old son, writes this poem,
"In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life, 
there is a deafening alleluia
rising from the souls of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.
If you watch, you will see
the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one
Yesterday's Pain
Some of us walk in Advent
tethered to our unresolved yesterdays
the pain still stabbing
the hurt still throbbing.
It's not that we don't know better;
it's just that we can't stand up anymore by ourselves.
On the way of Bethlehem, will you give us a hand?"

It helps me to remember that the story of the first Christmas is a story about life in the real world. Mary discovers she is pregnant. Joseph plans to break the engagement. She will be alone and shunned. He feels betrayed. The angel comes; but still, this is no easy time for the family. Their country is under Roman occupation and the rulers are known for cruelty. These are not ideal conditions for bringing a child into the world, especially a poor child, especially a child conceived before a marriage.

The baby comes, and in the midst of Mary and Joseph's joy over the safe birth of Jesus, a new crisis looms. King Herod orders the death of all children under two and so they have to flee as refugees to Egypt. Children are killed, women are wailing, the world is turning upside down with violence and loss and pain. Unimaginable horror. This, too, is part of the Christmas story.

But Jesus grows up, and God-with-us remains, through unspeakable acts of cruelty, and through the everyday sorrows of human life. God-with-us remains, even when the cross comes, even when the nails come, even when the mother watches her son take his last breath. God-with-us remains. Even if we are numb from waiting, even if we are sick from sorrow, even if our eyes are too puffy to open, and we just can't see that tiny flame of hope.

And so, whether you are approaching the longest night or the longest day, whether you are full of joy, or struggling with sorrow, I want to share one more poem in honor of those who trudge through Advent, putting one foot in front of the other, hoping that God-with-us will help ease the pain, praying that God-with-us will bring some peace, waiting for God-with-us to carry the burden for awhile. May it be so.

The Thing Is
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you've held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again

Ellen Bass, Prayers for a Thousand Years