Lenten Deep Dive

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My proclamation a few weeks before Lent began –  that I was giving up grumbling for the six weeks – was probably a relief for the people who live in my house. While everyone else was depriving themselves of chocolate and soda, I was going to simply stop whining and groaning about every little winter thing that had been crawling under my skin for the past three months. Cold weather is becoming my cranky catalyst, and it had gotten so bad that even I was tired of listening to myself.

Having settled the question of what would be given up, I was ready for Ash Wednesday. Then, the Sunday before Lent began I ended up at a venue in Oklahoma City with a group of passionate advocates who had gathered to talk about the immigration and refugee crisis. I was tagging along with my husband who was interested in how his law degree could be put to good use on behalf of this particular population. I was happy to take a short road trip on a Sunday afternoon. It would be fun. We’d drive and talk, and after it was over we would find a quaint coffeeshop.

For six years, I’ve had my head, heart, and sometimes my body in Ghana, working to help provide income sustainability and education to marginalized women and children in tiny rural villages spread across the West African country. The issue of immigrants entering and living in our country, and the global refugee crisis was something I had only seen out of the corner of my eye. I began to pay closer attention to it during the presidential campaign as the rhetoric increased, culminating in the president’s travel ban in February, 2017. But still, I was too distracted to realize that something was building.

At the event, we heard from refugees, DACA recipients, advocates, immigrants, and those who were helping to resettle and serve people newly arrived to our country. I was given some facts and statistics, along with a few harsh realities. I got angry and sad. And then, when I realized how little I knew about an issue that was swirling in front of me, I got  motivated.

Also, I won a book. This is significant because this never happens to me. I don’t win stuff. Ever. I’m the one who drops her name into the bucket and it’s never drawn and I’m never surprised. This time my name was called, and I was handed a tote bag with the words “Daring Hope” and a book with the title, Seeking RefugeI took it as a sign. If I had been lucky enough to win this book, then I had better read it. I flew through it in less than 48 hours, but I needed to know more. I decided that for the Lenten season, I should do more than just give up grumbling.  Instead, the six weeks would be spent doing a deep dive into the immigration and refugee crisis.

I immediately began building my own syllabus. It would include books, articles, Google alerts, documentaries, TED talks, historical documents and podcasts. In addition, I would observe ESL classes, meet immigrants and refugees, and listen to their stories. I signed up to receive the UNHCR Morning Brief by email, and researched the countries where conflict was driving people from their homes and into camps along with other forms of displacement. I discovered the Pew Research Center and spent time studying charts, graphs, numbers and statistics.

The Catholic activist Dorothy Day said, “our greatest danger is not our sins, but our indifference,” to which I humbly offer the possibility that our indifference is the sin. This Lenten season I discovered that moving from indifference to informed can be a spiritual experience, and for me it is the prerequisite for any calling that involves doing the work of justice. So is prayer, lament, and meditating, which became more necessary as I read the stories of what people are enduring in conflict areas and refugee camps, and what they are facing daily in our own communities.

At the beginning of Lent, I was given a bookmark with forty verses from the Bible. These verses center around God’s love for immigrants and refugees, and include clear commands on how the Israelites were to treat the “stranger.” Those outsiders who found themselves in the midst of a chosen people were to be treated as if they, too, had been chosen, because they had. Beyond the commands, this is what always moves me toward action: that all people have been been created with dignity and purpose, and all deserve to be treated as such. All are chosen. After six weeks of deep-diving into the issue, I’ve been heartbroken to discover that the radical inclusion that God desires isn’t playing out so well right now. There are fearful, angry voices and harsh action at work. And there is plenty of  indifference. But there are other voices speaking up as well, and these are the welcoming, inclusive ones. I’m joining those voices.

My work in Ghana continues as Rising Village provides resources so people can rise up and out of the margins. But I am also paying attention to what is happening in front of us – in our own community. My Lenten deep dive has moved me to join the courageous voices here, and then, in the spirit of my favorite African proverb, look for ways to “move my feet”.

In case you are curious about the Lenten Deep Dive syllabus I followed, I’m posting it below, acknowledging that it is not a definitive list of resources, or even the best. It did allow me to hear from a wide range of voices and see the issue from varying angles. All are trusted sources and I found them to be incredibly informative. I’m continuing to learn, so if you have resources to suggest, feel free to post them in the comments. 

Books:

Seeking Refuge by Matthew Soerens

The Middle of Everywhere by Mary Pipher

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence

Stranger: The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era by Jorge Ramos

Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Documentaries/Forums:

The Human Flow (Amazon Prime)

Dadaab: The Documentary (YouTube)

From the Frontlines: The Global Refugee Crisis (YouTube)

Historical and Reference Resources:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Refugee Act of 1980

Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees

Pew Research Center  (search immigration/refugee)

The Refugee Brief from UNHCR (weekday morning news brief)

Ted Talks:

David Miliband: “The Refugee Crisis is a Test of Our Character

Alexander Betts: “Our Refugee System is Failing. Here’s How We Can Fix It.”

Luma Mufleh: Don’t Feel Sorry for Refugees, Believe in Them.”

Websites:

worldrelief.org (World Relief)

www.rescue.org (International Rescue Committee)

wewelcomerefugees.com  (We Welcome Refugees)

Blogs:

Living in the Upside Down Kingdom: dlmayfield.com

The Redeemed Intersectionalist: mekdeisha.org

Loving the Stranger: lovingthestrangerblog.com

 

 

Let’s Lean in Close and Listen

On this day, I feel like I should say something instead of just staying silent. I would prefer to stay silent, however, because the moment I open my mouth about this I’ll be slapped with a label, shoved over to one side of the culture war, have my spirituality questioned, and be viewed with wariness (or pity) by certain people – and if you’re one of those people, you’re hearing clanging alarm bells right now. All good reasons to end this post here, but I’m trying to learn courage and this will be a good push.

I have gay friends. Some of them are out and others are still inside. Some are single, and some are married. All of them I love dearly. Right now you might be focusing on the first three sentences of this paragraph, but please listen to the last sentence. I love all of them dearly. Many of them I have known since college, so we have a long history of friendship that goes way beyond their sexual orientation. We have laughed together, cried together, and talked openly about what it means to grow up in a part of the world that isn’t friendly (and often cruel) to gays and lesbians. We’ve talked about God and church and I’ve watched their pain and witnessed the hurt they’ve endured at the hands of people who claimed to “hate the sin and love the sinner.” They aren’t fooled. They know that there are plenty of people who identify the sinner as the sin. If I didn’t have these friends, maybe I would keep my mouth shut about this. But I have these friends and because I love them I’m speaking out.

I’m tired of this war. I’m weary of those who claim to be defending God’s position against homosexuality. I’m done with hearing about battles and the things we must fight against. There is a line in a U2 song that says, “Stop walking God across the road like He’s a little old lady.” Can we? Please? I think perhaps God sheds tears over how little we love and how much we preach. In his essay titled It is Time for the American Christian Church to Surrender the Gay Marriage Fight, Apologize, & Share Love, Ian Ebright writes:

What would it mean to those individuals willing to share that being gay is all that they’ve ever known, if members of the church would respond by wanting to hear more of their story rather than rushing to tell them its the wrong story to have?

Could it be time to close our mouths and listen? Maybe our gay friends have a story to tell and we should lean in close and listen carefully. Are we brave enough to do the leaning in? And do we love them enough to hear what is being said? It’s amazing what happens when we listen. I have a framed quote in my office that says, “It’s hard to hate anyone whose story you know.” The quote is attributed to Doris Bresnick-Perry who was born before the Holocaust in a small town with a large Jewish population in Eastern Europe. Maybe she knew something about slapping on a label without hearing the story.

It’s time to end this war. Time to stop shouting, preaching, and trying to help God cross the road. He’s already crossed it, far ahead of us. He’s leaning in closer than a heartbeat and listening to the stories of those He loves. And He’s waiting for us to catch up.

Follow the Clothes, Part Two: The Purge

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It’s been closet-cleaning season at the Tresch house this week. To begin with, last Tuesday I filled two huge bags with clothes and hauled them to the Caring Center, which lends itself to an amazing story, but be patient. Then, last night I went to that pesky book study again that I love/hate. This week we are examining ALL our possessions to see just how tied to them we really are. Of course, I already knew my answer: too much. Not only do we discuss our personal issues with possessions, but we talk about what Jesus has to say about all this stuff-love. Ouch. And then, as if that weren’t enough, we are supposed to come up with a plan for what exactly we’re going to do about each week’s excess. This week, three of us decided to purge 30 items a day. And yes, I willingly signed up for this.

So, here it is, Day One. And what did I decide to purge? Clothes, of course. Honestly, the purging thing is kind of addictive, but you must be careful that you don’t get on such a roll that you start giving away things that you might need (want). I’ve learned this lesson before, and my mother used to chide me for being too “eager to evict.” So I am going to be careful and particular with what goes into my 30-things-a-day pile. Especially particular.

I’m bothered by the idea that we’re giving away clothes that people in developing countries are paying for. My friend Brian did make some good points in the comments section of last week’s post, but I still tried to choose clothing that won’t add to the giant cubes that are making their way to Latin America and Africa. I really want to concentrate on what we (as developed countries) can do to encourage and sustain growth in the market sector of these (developing) countries. That seems fair, right?

But not easy.

I chose 30 pieces of clothing that were good quality and that I hope will be taken by our wonderful clients at the Caring Center. But here is what I realized as I purged: I must give careful thought to what I purchase at the outset, so that I avoid the cycle of buying cheap sale items on a whim that I don’t really care to keep. This is my problem, and maybe it’s yours. Ladies, do you shop at Target and find great deals you simply can’t pass up? Do you buy several of one type of clothing in various colors because it fits? Do you hit the sale racks at 80 percent off and not even try on the clothes because they are such a bargain? If so, chances are those clothes rarely stay in your closet longer than a year. Or if they do, you don’t wear them because you didn’t give your purchase careful thought and consideration. Do you know where your clothes were made? Some countries have lousy labor practices and the person who stitched your adorable tunic might work 14 hour days with conditions you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

So while I am committed to purging my clothes and getting educated about where they end up, I’m also going to make a promise to myself  that I will stop being ignorant about the process of purchasing clothes. I will find manufacturing companies that treat their employees well, and I will start by spending some time on the Free2Work website.

But as long as I still have this closet full of clothing, I will continue to purge. Maybe great stories like this one will come out it:

Last week, we lost one of our seamstress apprentices in our ACEF Women’s Sustainability Program, and we needed to replace her with another apprentice so that we didn’t interrupt sponsorship. Unfortunately, we needed $100 to pay for the new apprentice’s entry fee. This all transpired on Friday morning, the same day I took my two overstuffed bags of donated clothing to the Caring Center. The good folks who sort clothing there were going through the donations, and they came across a pair of jeans that was in one of my bags. I was volunteering there on Friday, and one of them came out holding up my jeans.

“Are these yours?” Jonalyn asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Guess what we found in them?” she asked, and held up what was in the back pocket.

Two $50 bills.

Folks, this does not happen to me. I almost never find a stray dollar in any of my pockets because I am cheap, cheap, cheap. And so $100 in a pocket of my jeans simply does not compute. But this morning it made perfect sense. And if I had not been doing that pesky book study, I would have never cleaned out my closet. And because those jeans are a size I will not wear again, I would have never had occasion to look in the pocket.

And now, Francisca, our new apprentice in Ghana, has started her apprenticeship and is on her way to a new life. By the way, she is 17, has lost both her parents, and lives in a one-room dwelling with her grandmother and five siblings. I think she needed that mysterious $100 way more than I did.

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So I’m thinking that God has something to teach me as my friends and I work our way through this study: Give it away. Trust me. I’ll provide even if you purge it all.

Well, I’m not going to purge it all, but I am unloading 30 items a day for one week. And I’m expecting more great stories as I continue to unload my excess.

The Seamstress Apprentices

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I wrote in a previous post that I don’t sew. My mother, however, was a dedicated seamstress for our family and she made quite a few of my clothes until I reached sixth grade and put my foot down: no more homemade attire. The wide-legged brown pants she made me that year garnered no compliments but only snide comments from peers concerning elephant legs. I was an adolescent with stocky thighs and calves (still have ’em) and so these were mortifying moments. I put the pants in the hand-me-down bag as soon as I got home and nicely requested to my mother that she not make me any more clothes. As I made my request, I ignored the thought of her hunched over that old black Singer sewing machine that was on the dining room table during sewing weeks. Of course, now that memory makes me only want to hug every homemade article of clothing my mother stitched – if only I still had even one of them.

I also wrote in a previous post that I was traveling to Ghana in honor of my mother. That first trip I took last May had my mother’s memory wrapped all around it for reasons I could not really explain. Now, I think have an explanation.

I returned to Ghana exactly two months ago and was sitting in the Methodist church in the village waiting for the services to begin. One of the pastors came to speak with me before the service to let me know that she had arranged a meeting of women who were interested in learning a skill: sewing. Word spreads fast in African villages and she had heard that we were interested in helping women begin small businesses that might help bring steady income to their families. “There will be many women here on Friday at 10 a.m. We told them you were looking for women who wanted to sew.”

That was true, but we were hoping to quietly find a couple of women we could match with experienced seamstresses who would help them learn to sew. We didn’t have a program yet, so we didn’t want to promise anything. However, it now seemed that a large group of women would be convening at the church in five days expecting something. I tried to explain our dilemma to the pastor, but she shook her head politely. “I’m sorry, the meeting has already been set.” Later in the week I tried again to cancel the meeting, but the pastor did not budge. The meeting, she repeated in her very measured and polite voice, “has already been set.”

I prayed, telling God that we had nothing to offer these women and that the meeting should be cancelled, but I could only hear the pastor’s voice again: “I’m sorry, the meeting has already been set.”

So I gave in and decided that we would move forward because it seemed clear that the meeting had already been set.

On Thursday, the pastor told me that she had been called to another village for a meeting and would not be able to attend the Friday meeting with the hopeful seamstress apprentices. “I can’t speak Twi,” I reminded her, as if she needed me to point that out. “I’ll need a translator.” She promised she would arrange to have one there. In my mind, I threw my hands up in the air even further. This was beginning to feel like a disaster. Eighteen women were going to show up and expect me to offer them some process to start a sewing business. We had nothing to offer. We had made a connection with only one professional seamstress and her apprentice slots were already filled.

There is that moment when you realize that something is completely out of your control. These are hard moments for me, because I mostly have a death grip on control – or at least I think I do.

At 10 a.m., on Friday, eight women were seated in the Methodist church waiting for me. And so was Isaac, the young man that the pastor had called in to translate for me. He was seated at the front of the church at a small desk with a notebook in front of him. He introduced himself and from that moment the ACEF Seamstress Apprentice Program has rolled forward with a strange momentum that I can neither take credit for, or claim to understand. It seems that we did have something to offer these women, and that God has delighted in the idea of this long before I ever knew anything about the village of Ankaase. He was preparing Isaac to take the reigns of this and coordinate the program and He was preparing two women to be our first apprentices. They chose the same seamstress to work under, and so we now have our entire apprentice program under one small roof. And God brought two of my friends to partner with these women as their seamstress apprentice sponsors. One of our sponsors is my mother’s dearest friend, Diana. Yes, it seems the meeting had already  been set.

On January 7, Afia Asantewaa and Doris Boakye will begin their seamstress apprenticeship in the shop of Felicia Lumbor in the village of Ankaase, Ghana. They will be supported by my friends Diana and Janet. And through the sale of our Ankaase bags, Isaac will be able to purchase each of them a chair, scissors, measuring tape, machine oil, and pins, and a black Singer sewing machine just like the one my mother used. She never upgraded her machine, and now I’m thankful. Sometimes the very best gifts don’t come wrapped up in packages and tied with a bow. Sometimes we don’t even recognize them as gifts. They might come in the form of a meeting that “has already been set”, a tiny sewing shop on the red-dirt streets of an African village, and two friends who opened their hearts to two women they might never meet.

If I could sew, I would stitch a pair of brown pants on my mother’s old Singer in honor of the Ankaase Seamstress Apprentice Program. And I would wear those wide-legged pants proudly.

Apprentice Afia Asantewaa
Apprentice Afia Asantewaa
Apprentice Doris Boakye
Apprentice Doris Boakye
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Seamstress Felicia Lumbor

World AIDS Day: Remembering Our Girl and an Unknown Victim

It’s World AIDS Day.

I’m never really sure what I am supposed to do on these days (Earth Day, World Cancer Day, World Mental Health Day, et. al). There is a day for everything, and to be honest I’ve never paid much attention to World AIDS Day. Why? Because AIDS had never hit close to home. I didn’t have a friend or family member die of AIDS, nor did I know anyone who is HIV-positive.

Until now.

We’ll call her Mary. I can’t give you her real name or post her photo because she is a child. She lives in Africa where about 23 million other people are living with HIV/AIDS. Mary is beautiful and has a smile that belies her horrific childhood. We sponsor her through a wonderful organization that is making sure she receives her antiretroviral medicine every day, which, if continued, will give her a chance for a long life. Thank God. Only about half of the people who live with HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa receive antiretrovirals, despite the fact that they are inexpensive ($100 for a year’s supply) and very easy to take (our girl pops a pill in her mouth every day and goes on to school). While the overall growth of the epidemic has plateaued in recent years and the number of new HIV infection has declined, the end of the tragedy is still far away. Meanwhile, entire countries in Africa are devastated by the disease, and millions of children are orphans because of it.

So it might be good to take just a moment on this day as I sit with my healthy daughter (who is about Mary’s age), and think about what AIDS is doing to families and children across the globe. It’s interesting that World AIDS Day falls on December 1, which is the day before Kyle will fly into Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In a more distant way, AIDS also touched our lives here five years ago. During Kyle’s first trip to Ethiopia in 2007, he encountered a woman in a hut, lying on a bed while her sister quietly cried outside. The woman, bone thin and too weak to walk, was dying of AIDS. Kyle visited this woman with a group who regularly checked on the many AIDS victims outside a remote village to do what they could to ease the process of dying.

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The woman, wrapped in white, could barely sit up, and when the group determined that it was time to get her to the village to find treatment for her, one of the workers loaded her on her back and began the trek into the village.

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It was too late for the woman. She left behind a sobbing sister and a young child. This story is still repeated in places all over the world, but most often in Sub-Saharan Africa where the inexpensive treatment for HIV just doesn’t reach many of those who need it. What keeps these anti-retroviral drugs from the people who need them is a combination of many factors that I won’t go into here, but most of them aren’t anything that couldn’t be overcome if enough people stood up and echoed the statement: “Where you are born shouldn’t dictate whether you live or die.” Our own government helps provide these life-saving drugs to people in developing countries, but guess where big budget cuts will come in if we topple over The Fiscal Cliff. Many of us have enough worry about what cliff-falling will do here at home, but if you believe that we are to do justice everywhere, not just in our own backyard, then it should matter that the cuts will take away life-saving drugs from people who need them. You can read an excellent summary (in layperson language) of budget cuts in this article and how they will affect the aid our government provides to the world’s poorest. Oh, and in case you’re worried that our government has been throwing a lot of money at global aid problems and you’re of the opinion we should be spending that money here at home, the money we give to these much-needed world aid programs only comprises .75 percent of the overall U.S. federal budget. Don’t worry, we’re not being too generous.

If I had not seen the faces of these women and our girl Mary (by the way, 6 out of 10 HIV-positive people in Sub-Saharan Africa are women), then this day might slide past me without notice. But I’m noticing, remembering, and taking action. I’m also praying that Mary’s antiretroviral drugs will still be accessible to her if the worst happens and our government, and other governments, make deep cuts to global aid. Suddenly, these things matter. And World AIDS Day makes sense.

Guess what? Your voice is powerful. Somehow we think that we’ve lost our ability to be heard by our leaders, but that isn’t true. We elected them. They listen. Here’s an easy way to let your voice be heard. Go here. It’s the ONE campaign website where you can sign a petition that will be delivered to your congressman and it says this:

Dear Congress: Protect our investment in life-saving development programs, such as those that fight HIV/AIDS, childhood diseases, and hunger, by preserving the International Affairs account.

It takes about 15 seconds unless you type dreadfully slow, and then you might add another five seconds. If you aren’t affected by the AIDS epidemic, say a quick prayer of thanks, and then do something for the millions – most of them “the least of these” – who are.