New Beginnings

A Confession…

Friends, I have to tell you the shocking truth.

I didn’t always want the Graduate Preaching Fellowship.

I applied because Plan A and Plan B were not working out.  There were days over the past year (note the lack of blogs in February and June?!) when I wasn’t sure that the GPF adventure was working particularly well, either.  In the US, full-time work is how we define our purpose, and a year of travel/guest preaching/ volunteering wasn’t always easy to explain to people.

I like to be in charge of my life, and the GPF was a year of admitting I wasn’t in charge.  I couldn’t control my call process, and I couldn’t control whether or not I received the fellowship.  I couldn’t control the world politics which created angst in the immigration and refugee system, and I couldn’t control the church’s response to it.  I was on a roller coaster ride, and I had a choice to trust God and enjoy the scenery or to close my eyes and wait for it to end.

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Yesterday’s Gospel reading in many churches (including mine) was from Matthew 20.  In this story, workers are literally just standing around waiting for someone to hire them.  Some people are hired early and work all day, others are hired late and work just one hour, but the generous employer pays them all the same.

North Americans really dislike that parable.

But, it hit me in church that my year of waiting for ordination was like that parable.  North Americans feel that if we’re not employed, it’s our own personal fault somehow.  But, the ELCA call process required me to just wait for someone else to reach out and choose me, even though it basically didn’t happen.  I asked for multiple opportunities near my home in Ann Arbor and was denied each of them. I watched friends who began seminary after me get ordained and ‘chosen’ before me.

Whenever I began to doubt my purpose, though, God sent me a generous opportunity.  Like, when I got to preach on vocation and calling at a friend’s church in February:

The year-long Graduate Preaching Fellowship was a daily test of how much I believed that children’s sermon.  Was I still a pastor, even if I wasn’t ordained?  Even if I didn’t have a ‘real’ church?  Was I living my vocation, even if I didn’t get paid for it?

What about when I spent Ash Wednesday in a coffee shop?

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Or, when I preached in Florida, and met one of the pastors who voted for Women’s Ordination a decade before I was even born?

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When I met with a local state representative who is working to make our community safe for Immigrants and refugees:

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What about the time I preached in New Orleans at a bilingual Spanish-English service, and two Nigerian missionaries stopped by unexpectedly?  They were crying because that day was the first time they had heard an Anglo/White person speak out in favor of welcoming refugees and immigrants.

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It should have been easy to live my vocation, to follow God’s purpose during the year of Graduate Preaching Fellowship.  I got to preach over 30 times, to hundreds of people.  I baptized babies and marched for freedom and wrote blogs and prayed on three continents.

But it is in the times when we are most focused on God’s purpose that Satan works hardest for us to believe the lies.  Some days, I believed the lie that I was never meant to be a pastor, and I would never be ordained.  Some days, I believed the lie that I didn’t deserve the Fellowship, and my efforts were a waste of the donors’ money.  Some days, I believed the lie that all of our efforts were wasted, because powerful people would continue to abuse immigrants and refugees.

Throughout it all, God reminded me that the Fellowship was a gift –  a gift which would bless me more than I could ever imagine.  
And I am so grateful for that merciful gift.  

A New Beginning

Thankfully, God does not let the lies win in the end.  God worked through Pastor Kristin in the Greater Milwaukee Synod, and I received a unique call to lead two churches during a time of transition and new beginnings for them.  I was ordained on July 16 in Michigan, and I began my call September 1 in Wisconsin.  (I’ll be officially installed Oct 1).  The ordination was a gift – an opportunity to celebrate with people who have supported me on my journey and who wished to send me off to our next adventure with much prayer and encouragement.

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This is my favorite Ordination Picture. It includes all of my Zion family, really enjoying our time together, like we always did when we worked together.  We’re scattered, now, each serving at a different location, but we’re still serving as God has called us to do.  

The ordination included so many fun parts, but one of them was this video of my path:

Transitions

So, now, I’m not planning any more travel around the world.  The Fellowship is officially over, and I am trying to transition into life as a ‘normal’ pastor in Wisconsin.

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But, after a year of finding my purpose in many unusual locations, I have discovered that pastor-ing is never normal.  Some days I do preach from a pulpit in robes.  But other days, I walk at the zoo to support one of our smallest members.

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No matter what we do next, no matter where God calls me, I pray that I am ready to face the next adventure in faith.  Even if that means admitting I’m not in control.

Thank you for your support, friends.  Thank you for your prayers.  Thank you for your work to support refugees and immigrants in your own communities.  Blessings on your next adventure, wherever God takes you – go in faith.

Hurricanes don’t discriminate (but ICE does, apparently)

Refugees Abandoned

The US has refugees, too.  Except that we don’t have camps, we have detention centers.

When we visited McAllen, Texas and Reynosa, Mexico in April (see post here) we learned more about the specifics of US refugees who arrive via land borders. Regularly, US  Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials (ICE) release persons with official asylum/ refugee status from detention centers to stay with their families while their asylum case is being processed.

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This week, disturbing news came out of San Antonio, Texas.  ICE abandoned 50 refugees outside a closed bus station to wait out a multi-day hurricane without shelter, food, water, or medicine. Even though the bus station gave notice that they were closing, and a local congressional representative notified ICE that the bus station was closing, and 6 of the families left at the station were supposed to travel to Houston (to meet families which have evacuated due to the hurricane), ICE still left them there.  The full story is here and it’s embarrassing.

I’ve seen the refugees when they are left at the bus station.  They have nothing.  If they brought anything with them to the border, it’s taken from them in detention – no backpacks, no water bottles, no baby bottles or formula, no diapers, not even shoelaces are allowed.  Even when ICE approves their refugee status and releases them from detention to meet up with family members, they don’t get their stuff back.  Aid agencies like Catholic Disaster Relief and Lutheran Social Services provide food, water, showers, backpacks, diapers, clean clothes, soap, shoes, maps, and phone calls to the refugees stranded at the border when ICE is done “helping” them.

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Friends, these are women and children who have been cleared by the US government to live with their families.  They aren’t a security risk, they are refugees.  And, in the midst of a natural disaster, our government is ok with letting them die at a bus station.

Immigrants Intimidated

While millions of people are trying to evacuate the path of the hurricane, ICE is more concerned about checking passports than saving lives.

It’s now federal policy that the ‘border’ is within 100 miles of the actual border.  Within this range, border patrol can stop anyone at any time and demand proof of US citizenship or legal residency from anyone, without a warrant or reasonable cause.  This range is considered a ‘reasonable distance’.  66% of the US population lives within this range, including all of Michigan (apparently, lake Michigan is also a ‘border’ even though it’s all US states on all sides of it??!!)

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A significant part of Texas is in this zone, too.  Which means that ICE regularly sets up checkpoints along freeways in that zone. A checkpoint means that everyone driving down the road has to stop (think toll booths) and present proof of citizenship and consent to a search of their vehicle without cause.  A California Teacher recently refused to do that, and she was arrested.

So, even though a hurricane was hitting a huge metropolitan area, affecting millions of people, ICE refused to close their checkpoints.  This slowed all of the evacuees, and it meant that families with even one undocumented person in their household were unlikely to evacuate – making the rescue efforts more difficult for first responders.  They only closed the checkpoints after the roads were closed.

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These kinds of policies give the very clear message that the US government does not care if undocumented people die in a hurricane.  State and federal governments paid to evacuate 4,500 prison inmates, but refugee families were left behind to die.

Meanwhile, Mexico is offering to help Texas relief efforts, just like they helped NOLA after Katrina – by providing military personnel, food, medicine, and clean water.  Seriously.  Because, as Mexico’s president said, “That’s what neighbors do.”

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Maybe one day, the US government will partner its power with kindness.  We can hope.

In the meantime, there are still ways to help Hurricane Harvey victims in Texas (even if you’re not in the Mexican Miltiary).  Pray, donate, and support efforts from Lutheran Disaster Response here.

International Hospitality: Celebrating in Denmark!

Last year, we started our Graduate Preaching Fellowship with an adventure.  We spent days traveling around the world, and when we got to the front door of this small Danish Church camp building, David looks at me and asks, “what do we do now?” and I said, “I have no idea. But our friends sent us here.  Let’s go!” We went because some friends of ours in Ann Arbor introduced us to their friends in Denmark via facebook.

You can look back on our week here (and, check out the other July posts from 2016 to see even more pictures and stories!) The entire event was in Farsi, with some Danish Translation.  For the big events, we had super cool UN-style headset translator machines:

 

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But, there wasn’t always a ‘professional’ translator available.  Thankfully, we made some great friends, including Julie and Thomas – the adults in this picture – who translated for us all week.  Julie speaks Danish and English, and Thomas speaks Farsi and English, so basically, whomever was talking all week, they could interpret for us!

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Just days after camp was over, Julie and Thomas became a facebook-official couple.  We like to think that helping us all week was one of the ways God got them to connect 😉  But, we know that whether we had visited or not, God was planning for them to be together!  We stayed friends via facebook all year, and guess what?  We got to end our GPF adventure year by celebrating their wedding!

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And, since they were a little busy 😉  we had translation machines for the wedding, too!

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The wedding was more American than Danish (they told us – what do we know?!) In that the couple designed many parts of the ceremony.  There were two pastors, a gospel choir, a cry room for kids, a videographer, and a translator!

It was very fun to be at an international wedding, and to celebrate with our friends.  Their hospitality made it possible for us to attend and enjoy the day – which is exactly how they welcomed us last year.  I hope, someday, to be able to extend the kind of hospitality that our Danish friends taught us.

Blessings on your wedding, friends!

 

Hidden in Plain Sight: Tanzania’s Refugee Response

Where are the Refugees?

We didn’t get to visit any refugee camps in Tanzania.  This is because I had erroneously thought there weren’t any camps in Tanzania.  The Prime Minister has banned refugees from entering earlier this year, and I read this outdated article  (or something like it) which implied there were only a few thousand refugees hiding in the capital city.  One third of ELCA synods partner with a sister synod in Tanzania, meaning that dozens of my friends and colleagues have visited there – but none of them could tell me anything about Tanzania refugee camps.

God often speaks to me through my mistakes.

Through the wonder of networking and emails, I had scheduled two meetings with refugee workers in the large capital city of Dar es Salaam (where I thought most of the refugees lived). In speaking with them, I learned that there are several refugee camps in Tanzania, mainly along the border of Burundi and Rwanda:

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In 2014, the newly elected government was working to close most of the camps, and was trying to get paperwork for camp residents – many which had been in country since either the early 70s (Burundi revolution) or early 90s (Rwanda genocide).  They had just about managed that… when Burundi had another crisis.

Now, there are almost 1 million refugees in the camps in Tanzania, almost all of which arrived in 2015.  Those folks have limited access to clean water, which means hydration and sanitation are difficult.  The UN is only providing 62% rations this year, meaning most of the people are starving.  And, to make matters even worse, the Tanzanian government often uses outdated figures to convince other countries (or, apparently, people like me), that there isn’t a refugee problem any more.

Christian Agencies fill the Gap

Thanks be to God, at least 2 great agencies are working to provide dignity, sustainable solutions, and self-governance to the refugees of Tanzania.

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Asylum Access is in a small office building, with a sign so hidden we almost missed our meeting.  This international aid organization, based out of California, has offices in Latin America, Thailand, and Tanzania, with plans to expand to Syria soon.  They mainly provide legal assistance to refugees and asylees within Tanzania.  They also advocate in the Human Rights commission and Tanzanian government, encourage Tanzanian businesses to hire refugees and schools to admit refugee children.  In many ways, their work mirrors that of Justice for our Neighbors and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, both faves of mine in the US.

We got to meet with Nondo.

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Nondo was a Congolese Refugee, arriving in a Tanzanian camp in the 90s.  Because of charitable organizations, he was able to attend school in the camp.  But, due to Tanzania’s restrictive refugee policies, he wasn’t allowed to leave the camp to work or attend university.  Thankfully, Asylum Access helped him win scholarships to university for undergraduate and graduate studies, as well as a legal permit to work in Tanzania as an asylee, and now he works as a social worker and legal advocate of sorts for Asylum Access.  His presence alone speaks volumes about the work they’re doing, but he also gives hope to dozens of people he personally helps each year.

Tanganyika Christian Refugee Services has been working in Tanzania before it was even a country!  (That’s why it has the name “tanganyika” – which was the country’s name before it incorporated the Island of Zanzibar as part of its borders and changed its name to “tanzania”).  This amazing organization is part of the ACT alliance and Lutheran World Federation, and it works with refugees in at least 6 camps, as well as asylum seekers in cities like Dar es Salaam.  They have a large office building in the capital, where many of their nearly 600 employees work. In the camps, they employ hundreds of refugees.

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We got to meet with several employees who see firsthand the impact of ELCA support and US donations.  Because of American contributions through Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief, TCRS has built 24 wells in camps, and runs hygiene workshops, distributing soap to prevent disease.  Girls and women receive sanitary products (often reusable ones, sewn by women’s groups in the states), families receive quilts, and students receive school supplies.  These are directly from the donations of US churches, groups, and individuals.

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These directors took time out of their day to meet with me.  I am thrilled, and humbled.  I didn’t personally make any quilts or pack any kits last year. My congregation(s) haven’t promised any financial support for next year.  Still, they know how important it is to say thank you.  Maybe one of you, dear readers, has made a contribution or donation.  Maybe one of you will.  Now that I’ve seen their impact firsthand, I want to ensure that I’m contributing in the future.

Now my dream – to encourage, motivate, inspire, etc. the ELCA groups and individuals who visit Tanzania each year to visit with the refugees and refugee workers.  I think that it’s important for us to know how important our prayers and support and contributions are to the folks who receive them and rely on them.  It’s also vitally important to recognize our brothers and sisters in Africa who are called to such an important ministry.  Do you have ideas, dear readers?  How can we make great connections going forward?  Let me know your ideas!

Tanzania: Paradise found, and lost

Tanzania is Beautiful

We only got to see the beaches of Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, and we were seriously wowed.  We hear that the national parks, full of wildlife and natural beauty, are even better.

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This is the view from our dinner in Dar es Salaam.  

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This is the view from our breakfast in Zanzibar.

I can see why people want to vacation here.  (Mainly Europeans, we noticed.  Americans, check it out!)

But there’s a troubling History

Zanzibar used to be a slave trade port.

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Just steps from the beautiful beaches, Zanzibar has a church dedicated to the history of the slave trade, honoring the victims and exposing the ugly truth.  Here’s some of what we learned:

The East African tribes were in a period of transition in the 15th &16th centuries, trying to determine alliances and establish kingdoms, just when the European and Arabic traders arrived. This instability was ripe for exploitation – prisoners of war were more easily traded and transported than one’s own citizens.  (Basically, pirates would simultaneously offer to remove POWs from your village and gift you items which made your life easier, and most village chiefs seemed ok with this exchange.)

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Zanzibar & Tanzania are the east coast of Africa; marked by the top blue line on the right. Slaves from Tanzania area were taken by Portuguese and Arabic traders to farm in Madagasgar and traded in Brazil or Caribbean Islands.  

This is a really embarrassing, and distressing history to discuss.  It would have been easier to just stay on the beach, drinking coconut juice (or eating Ethiopian food at a great tourist restaurant).  It is especially awful to consider that “Christian” nations were the ones doing this slave trade.  But, ignoring the history and the truth of how awful it was doesn’t make the history go away.  As soon as England outlawed slavery, a British missionary helped to raise a church on the exact spot in Zanzibar City where slaves had been  bought and sold for generations.

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Today, that church shares communion at the place where slaves were whipped.  Nothing we can do will erase what happened.  Instead, that community chooses to honor the victims of the slave trade, and tell the truth of those events.  Reconciliation can only come through Christ’s forgiveness.

(Note:  we visited Zanzibar several days before the events in Charlottesville, VA, USA.  I was proud to hear that clergy were working to stop the violence there, too.)

Legacy

After slavery, you’d think that the Europeans would abandon the African continent.  (and, to a certain extent, many businesses did leave.)  But, some countries stayed.  Today, we aren’t exactly sure if they were being altruistic, trying to help the countries they had devastated, or if they were looking for a new way to make money off of those peoples. European colonization of the area was intended to help the Africans with modernization, industrialization, foreign investment (in goods, not people), and military protection. Along with roads and schools and hospitals and foreign trade, European Colonies brought Missionaries to Tanzania.

Lutheran Missionaries.

Germans were only in East Africa for about 20 years, but they managed to establish Lutherans in the country.  60% of Tanzanians are Christians, and 1/4 Christians in the Country are Lutheran.  (By contrast, Lutherans are only about 3% of US Christians).

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Azania Front Lutheran Church, downtown Dar es Salaam (capital),  Tanzania 

Today, English Lutheran Worship in Tanzania is pretty similar to Lutheran Church in Mexico, or the US, or Denmark.

 

And today, the issue facing Christians in Tanzania isn’t slavery.  It’s refugees.  Other countries’ wars and famines bring refugees to their country, and they need to figure out what to do about it.  Their response is eerily similar to the US and UK responses.  More on that in the next post.  Stay tuned, friendly readers!

 

A Day in the Life: Pastoring in Uganda

Going ‘rogue’:  leading without a plan

Uganda is not for the faint of heart.

I sort of knew this, before we even planned to travel here, because the only Americans I know who travel to Uganda are missionaries.  Besides my missionary friends, who I told you about last week, my friend Rev. Vicky Lovell has also done much work around Kampala, Uganda.  (Check out her story, here).

Their stories are amazing.  Rachel and Daniel are leading a Ministry School and an animal husbandry project.  Pastor Vicky partnered with a new Chicken Farm and also ran a Women’s Conference.  All of these things happen in God’s timing, with significant Ugandan leadership, and there isn’t an easy way to explain to Americans why they’re happening without much of a plan as to how we will get where we’re going.

I am not them.

I preach with a plan.  I travel with a plan.  I have outlines, and schedules, and ideas of how things will go. I follow the rules, and do things in a ‘real’ church structure.  I also really enjoy it when animals are at a distance.

Uganda has none of those things.  I was seriously out of my comfort zone.

 

A lifetime of traveling, a year of preaching, and a heavy dose of the Holy Spirit prepared me for this time in Kampala.  

We arrived to Uganda at the invitation of Pastor Vicky’s friend, Professor Larry from Stawa University.  Even though we had been emailing back and forth for 3 months, this is literally all I knew about my two days there:  I will be the ‘keynote’ speaker at a refugee conference, where I will have 2 presentations of up to 90 minutes each, and also the ‘preacher’ at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new Lutheran church where I can speak for up to 60 minutes.

No idea where the university or church is located, how we will get there, whether translation will be needed or provided.  No information about how many attendees, the time of the events, what to bring, or what to discuss.  No agendas, schedules, maps, worship outlines, or meal plans.  No packing list or housing reservations.  And definitely, no concerns about when to tell us this information.

A few years ago, I would have freaked.  Totally stressed.

But after a year of this Graduate Preaching Fellowship adventure, I was a little more prepared that Uganda was going to be “out of my comfort zone”.

 

So, this is what really happened in Uganda:

Where I was the Keynote Speaker, blessed some pigs, baptized a baby, and opened a new Lutheran Church

We arrived and literally could not find the University.  It was not at either location on Google Maps, and no one had heard of it, and my contact was not connecting with me.  We tried to walk to it, we tried to drive to it, we tried to call it, etc.  Eventually, our friendly Uber driver asked 3 different people on the street to find an unmarked gate where only one employee was there.

We arrived at 9am, which was about 2 hours earlier than everyone else.

But, we got to meet with Rafael while we were waiting.

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He was another presenter at the conference, and he spoke about Internally Displaced People (IDPs).  More about that in a future post.  (IDPs are like refugees inside of their own country.  Think Hurricane Katrina folks who fled to Mississippi or Texas.)

Eventually, we figured out that I was one of 4 main speakers.  There were also a handful of other pastors and music leaders. Around 20 Stawa students and 50 refugees came to the conference.  It lasted 6 hours, in the same room.  The hosts would invite different speakers to come forward, and lunch was served to us in our seats.  I did have 60 minutes or more to talk at a time, but that had to be translated, and spoken very slowly (so, frankly, it was about the length of a standard sermon).  I also spoke after 3 hours of other speakers, to a group that was very hot and hadn’t eaten lunch yet.

Frankly, most of the sermon I had planned was not going to work.

Thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit used all the effort I had done to prepare that sermon, all the sermons I had already given, all the presentations I had already created, all the stories I had already shared, all the children’s messages I had spoken, to create a message that worked in that time and place.

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We don’t have video (because, honestly, who wants to hear 90 minutes of me?) But David got some great photos.  The translator was also a pastor, and he even translated my hand motions!  The scriptures were read in English and French.  I spoke in English and he translated to Swahili.

We talked about how the Bible is a story of refugees.

How God used a refugee named Moses to rescue the Hebrews from Egypt.  And how the Pharaoh King did not listen to the refugee, and didn’t even listen to God.  And how, even when they were free of Pharaoh-King, they still spent 40 years in a refugee camp.
How God came to earth as a refugee, a little baby far from his heavenly home, snuck into Egypt to escape the Herod King, an earthly king who thought he could kill God.

We talked about how a Pharaoh King did not listen to the refugees.
We talked about how the Herod King did not listen to the refugees.
We talked about how the Kings today do not listen to the refugees.

 God Listens to the Refugees.  God is a refugee.

We talked about how my US passport is not a Golden Ticket.  It is made of paper, and it can be taken from me tomorrow.  The US President is no more powerful than Pharaoh or Herod – and will eventually be destroyed.

We talked about our baptism.  How our baptism made us all refugees, because Heaven is our home, but we still live on earth, and church is like our refugee camp, where we’re trying to make the best of this situation until we get to the Promised Land.

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The message resonated with the attendees.  Many of the Ugandan students at Stawa University had never thought of themselves as refugees, and much like my friends in the US and Europe, were trying to be charitable.  Many of the Congolese and Sudanese refugees had not been heard in so long they had almost forgotten they had a voice.

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This group includes 3 refugee youth and 2 adult university students.  

The next day, Professor Larry took me on another Adventure.  We drove 90 minutes west of Kampala to learn more about his work with Stawa University, including a farm.

Here, they are raising pigs, goats, chickens, and maybe a cow.  University students can purchase a baby animal (a pig is only $40), and tend to it on the weekends (a hired farmer is there every day), eventually selling the animals for a profit which will cover their school fees.

Larry knows all of the families near the farm.  Most help him to raise the animals.  He is also hoping their children will soon attend the Stawa Primary School.

I was asked to Baptize baby Bridget, just two weeks old.  (I think she was born at home, and there is no church for miles.)

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Bridget slept through the baptism 🙂 her mom didn’t speak any English, and I’m not sure she understood what was happening.  But the Holy Spirit does what she does, whether I am in a church with a font and a piano and a liturgy, or not.

Then, after lunch, we went with several Stawa students to the newest Lutheran Church in Uganda, meeting in the home of Ms. Faith, and led by Ms. Blessing and Ms. Hannah  (Also pictured are Prof. Larry and Alice, from Stawa U.)

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They wanted me to teach them about Lutheranism.  Who is Martin Luther?  What makes a church Lutheran?  How do Lutherans run church?  We did a very basic non-communion liturgy, with African songs acapella, and a sermon on Ephesians 2:8-10, all about Grace and Faith and Salvation.

None of that is what I had prepared for my 13 page sermon.

I had prepared to speak with dozens of people in a large building with a ribbon cutting and microphones for over an hour.

Of course, what God prepared was better.  Talking as friends about how a German Priest 500 hundred years ago translated a Bible and wrote a catechism, never knowing that an American Pastor and African Evangelists would begin a church in Kampala Uganda.  Blessing each other with prayers and songs and scriptures.  Feeling a glimpse of what heaven might be like, to all be together someday.

Stepping out of my comfort zone literally included stepping off the road.  

Professor Larry – a Ugandan I had just met 24 hours before, and I still don’t know his last name – drove us to a rather sketchy part of Kampala, with no roads and no road signs.  He asked me to get out of the car and follow his assistant, Alice (also don’t know her last name) as she walked through a rutted alley.  It took every ounce of faith I had to step onto that road:

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That is a step which began 20 years ago in Mexicali, Mexico, when my youth leader said it was ok to enter a pastor’s shack in a tiny village and lead them in prayer.
That is a step which began 15 years ago in Segovia, Spain, when my professor said it was ok to take a ferry to an African port city in Morocco for the day.
That is a step which began 10 years ago in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I realized that I had to follow God to a foreign country even if it meant leaving home.
That is a step which began 5 years ago in rural Wisconsin, when my first seminary class involved a high ropes adventure course and trust falls with strangers.
That is a step which began 2 years ago in Pinckney, MI, when my pastoral mentor said I could do it, even without a plan or outline in place, and that God would give me words.
That is a step which began 18 months ago in St. Paul, MN, when a group of professors decided I could go on this amazing Graduate Preaching Fellowship journey.

That step, out of a stranger’s car, onto a strange alley, to open a Church in a strange place, all because God wanted me to do that – that step was not so difficult to make.

It was just the next step in the adventure.

 

 

 

 

When the Truth makes you a Target

 

Uganda & Refugees

Despite Uganda’s extreme poverty, they do have some fairly open refugee policies.  (check out this link for more information) Basically, refugees are welcome to arrive, but they won’t get much help.  Refugees are allowed to live, farm, work, attend school, and drive in the country (in theory); in practice, there’s a drought, very high unemployment, and unreasonable school fees affecting Ugandans which doesn’t make them particularly charitable on an individual level.

Uganda’s prior refugee policy used to work.

Now, up to 8,000 people per day are entering Uganda.  Not because of their particular policies – most of those arriving have no idea what the policies are.  But, rather, because their border countries are creating some of the largest refugee populations in the world.

Uganda is the part of Africa in between DR Congo and Kenya:

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This map is older (2012).  As of 2017, there were over 1 Million Refugees in Uganda – more than in all 28 European Union Countries put together.  And 8,000 more arriving Daily.

Pastor Benjamin’s Story

While we were staying with our friends in Soroti, Rachel took me to visit a family of Sudanese Refugees which had just recently moved in to a village nearby.  Another missionary family had told her about them (I think).  Pastor Benjamin was incredibly candid with us, especially considering he had never met us before.  I got the sense that he’s told his story before, and Pastors often know how to tell stories very well.

This one is a little long, and a little gruesome, but I think it’s worth it.

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Benjamin lives with his wife, 6 kids, 2 nephews, and one grandchild.  They are currently living in a small house with no furniture, electricity, running water or cook-stove; they eat and wash outside.  He wants the kids in school, but with no money for school fees, they’re all helping to farm the land around their house.  Despite these hardships, he was so happy to be in Uganda.  His family can sleep at night, he says, because they are safe and free.  He feels that they might have some hope in Uganda.

Benjamin wasn’t always a pastor.  As a young man, he was a soldier in the army (likely during Sudan’s 1990s conflict).  He did well, and was promoted to rank of general.  But, eventually, he grew tired of fighting.  Somehow, he heard God’s saving grace changed his life, and he retired from the army.  Soon, he was leading others in his church, preaching and teaching them, as well as raising his own children.  Then, South Sudan’s conflicts began again in 2013.

This time, Pastor Benjamin would have none of it.

He warned his sons, the men of his church, the men of his village, anyone who would listen:  do not fight this war.  Benjamin felt God had called him to be a prophet, preaching peace.  He had survived his years in the army, but then God had changed his life.  What kind of Christian country would they be, he reasoned, if they kept killing each other?  He wouldn’t let his sons or nephews join the newly announced civil war.

For his public stance on peace, Pastor Benjamin was arrested.  The new government felt that his  message wasn’t a patriotic plea, but rather a bold treasonous stance.

Pastor Benjamin was a target because he preached peace.

He and others like him were tortured in prison for two years.  Their families were also tortured back home.  While he was in prison, soldiers sexually assaulted his daughter and murdered his brother.  Faced with that much hate, it is a miracle that he kept his faith in peace. Most would have joined the fighting, I’m sure. Instead, Pastor Benjamin is grateful he was able to escape to Uganda with his wife and children. (he didn’t give many details on the how or when of that, and I didn’t press him, because it likely isn’t an easy explanation to share).

Now, Benjamin is hoping beyond hope that somehow, he can also get his nieces and nephews out of the country.  As he’s not their legal guardian, he can’t legally take responsibility for them in a foreign country (their parents were murdered, but as he’s an ex-con in a country engulfed in civil war, it’s not like he can fight a custody battle).  He also can’t help them file for Asylum without birth certificates and adoption certificates, which he doesn’t have.  But, somehow, he is determined to start an orphanage in Uganda for children whose parents have been murdered in the conflict in Sudan.

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I’m not exactly sure what to do with Pastor Benjamin’s story. Over a million refugees, mainly from Sudan and Congo, have fled to Uganda, each with a horrible story to share.  LWF and UNHCR are doing the best they can do.  Churches in Uganda and Kenya try to support refugees and other displaced people.  But a region in poverty and drought can do little to help those also displaced by armed conflict and genocide.

Until God shows me what to do with Benjamin’s story, or how to help him or others like him, I will keep praying.  I pray for peace, because I believe that God can make peace.  I pray for healing, because I believe God’s word can heal people.  I pray for miracles, because I do not see how peace or justice or healing or safety can come to these nations, but I believe in a God of miracles.

Rev. Jemma Allen wrote this Peace Prayer 

In the face of war and rumours of war,
We cry: peace, peace, peace.
When there is talk of fire and fury,
We cry: peace, peace, peace.
In communities mourning violent deaths,
We cry: peace, peace, peace.
In broken relationships and with broken hearts,
We cry: peace, peace, peace.
We are your people and we long to hear your word of peace:
“Peace, peace to the far and the near”
Be pleased, O God, to deliver us.
Lord, make haste to help us!

(Scripture references: Matthew 24:6, Isaiah 57:19, Psalm 70:1)

Amen, Amen, let it be so.

International Friends

Soroti, Uganda

Rachel and I became friends when we were both in Mexico City together 7 years ago.

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This is Rachel at the Monarch Butterfly Reserve in Michoacan, Mexico.  She, David, and I all visited together in winter 2010.  

Our time together in  Mexico was short, but God used that time in many ways for both of us.  Since then, we’ve stayed in touch (thanks, internet!), and we got to visit Rachel and her husband Daniel in Oregon just after their wedding. Finally, last week, we got to visit again in Uganda!

Honestly, it was an honor to be able to join them at their wonderful home, and spend time with friends during our Africa journey.

First, we had to get to Soroti, where they live.  I’m pointing to it on the map, below.  The capital, where we started our day, is the red dot on the lake to the left of my hand (labeled “Kampala”).  We could either drive forever on lousy roads, or take a short little flight!

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We opted for the flight.

Thanks to Missionary Aviation Fellowship, we got to ride in the smallest plane ever (think 12 tiny seats) straight across the country!  This was a beautiful way to appreciate the country.  It’s called the “Great Lakes” region of East Africa, and we could see why.  Except for the mountains, it reminded me a lot of Michigan, with all the trees.

We got to spend time in Soroti doing normal things – like visit Church, and church school, and church projects, and talk about church things.  Ok, normal for us!  Church workers talk ‘work’ a little too much, even when we’re having fun.  But, we really had just flown across Uganda to see what our friends are up to over there!

First, we got to visit Calvary Chapel Soroti, which is building a new church building, and has already started a Ministry School:

One day, we got to join ministry students for their opening devotions, and join them in singing and praying:

The church also has a hospital next door:

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IThen, we got to go out to see some pigs, chickens, goats, and other animals being raised.  They were SO clean!  Everything I know about pigs I learned from the county fair and Charlotte’s Web, so granted, I’m not an expert, but seriously, these pigs were clean AND adorable!

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The little piggies didn’t really appreciate all the paparazzi, though.  They weren’t scared so much as totally annoyed.  Maybe I was bringing in too much dirt?

These animals are a huge deal.  They help the students and other local folks survive.  Daniel is a veterinarian, and together Daniel and Rachel are missionaries with a focus on “sustainable, spiritually-integrated community development through training and facilitation.”  Sustainable development, in this part of the world, means raising cute piggies (amongst other things).  Many of the students at their ministry school will not be paid for leading a church, like I will be.  They need to learn ministry skills as well as farming skills, in order to support a family while leading a church.  This is what “bi-vocational ministry” looks like in the developing world.  So, while I’m negotiating health care costs for 2018, these folks are learning how to raise animals.  Puts my life into a lot of perspective, friends.

Maybe I’m not really explaining it super well.  (because, let’s be honest – what do I know about animal husbandry in any country?!) Maybe this video explains it better:

 

If you want to know more about their ministry, please check them out at www.danielandrachel.net  They’re doing amazing work!  Consider supporting their work, too, if you’d like to get regular updates about what they’re doing.

BTW:  while in Soroti, in between eating Rachel’s amazing food, and meeting Daniel’s students, we also got to meet with a refugee who is also a pastor.  His story is in the next blog post!  Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

Smile, you’ve been to Kenya!

Put Nairobi on your bucket list!

Only about 100,000 Americans visit Kenya each year.  That’s a shame, because we had a great time.

I get it, Kenya is really far away.  But 500,000 Americans went to Hong Kong last year, and that also is very far away.

I get it, there are scary diseases in Africa.  But, we are vaccinated against the worst ones, and most of Africa is actually disease free.  (This map is outdated, but still interesting.)

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I get it, only 10% of Americans go abroad at all each year, and maybe you really want to get to London or Cancun or Tokyo with your hard-earned money.  Do that, too.

But, since we get to go to East Africa for this fellowship, we were thrilled to be tourists for a few days in Nairobi.

The most popular things to do in Kenya are about animals!

First, we watched some Elephant babies being fed at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

 

You can sponsor an elephant for just $50 a month.  These are all orphaned elephants – their mothers were killed for ivory or other reasons, and it can take up to 3 years for new elephants to adopt an unrelated child into their herd.  So, the caretakers raise them until they are about 5 years old, and then spend up to the next 3 years introducing them to mama elephants who might adopt them.  It’s like elephant foster-care.

Next, we got to feed some giraffes. at the Africa Fund for Endangered Wildlife center.  

This center is designed to protect a particular species of Giraffe which was nearly extinct in 1979.  Now, there are a few hundred of them in national parks in Kenya.  These like to eat pellets, and you can feed them directly on their very slimy tongue.  They do not like to be petted, though.  Just fed 🙂

Around both the giraffes and the elephants were a few warthogs, eating scraps and not really bothering anyone.  (And not really caring if we took their pictures, either.)

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Hakuna Matata (no worries), I guess!

After both of those fun, hands-on experiences, we also went to the Nairobi National Park.  If you have a driver or a car, you can do a three hour mini-safari, driving through the open park, where you can see wild animals with Kenya’s skyline in the background.

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This isn’t our picture, btw.  It’s a promo from their website, and it’s all over Kenya.

Since we didn’t have a car, we walked through a different part of the National Park, specifically designed for walking groups to visit animals.

It was mainly a zoo, with too many silly monkeys, but it was amazing to see Kenya animals in Kenya!  We also had to duck under cover during some brief rain, and heard some Kenyans and Australians singing together.

Finally, after a long day of enjoying animals, David wanted to eat them.

I am not joking.

We went to a restaurant for tourists called Carnivore.  

I am still not joking.

There is a huge barbecue in the center of the restaurant (see right picture, glowing red).  The servers bring huge sticks or platters of meat to each table and serve you whatever you’d like.  We tried pork, beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, rabbit, and ostrich; there were multiple kinds of a few types (we had 10 different meats).  Thankfully, no elephant or giraffe or monkey or zebra, as I had just seen each up close.

But my favorite part of the fancy restaurant were the two house cats which liked to eat my scraps 🙂

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Seems I’m just as carnivorous as the other humans… I just prioritize by cuteness factor.

Even at the National Museum, we mainly enjoyed the wildlife.

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We loved our time in Nairobi – but we didn’t super love the downtown.  It was crowded, like any major city, and there wasn’t much to see there.  We were then so glad that our Air b&b was an easy uber ride just a few minutes outside of the city center!

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We finished our city tour with a very fancy meal at a former coffee plantation.  It was so fancy they wrote our names in chocolate on our dessert plates!

 

We had a great time in Nairobi, even though we didn’t get to other parts of Kenya.  If you like camping in the states, or even staying in wilderness cabins, there is a type of Safari for you.  But, city-folks as we are, we were happy with the weather, shopping, eating, and wildlife viewing we got to enjoy while we were there!

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Kakuma Refugee Camp, Northern Kenya

A story about a tiny plane, Lutheran school teachers, soccer teams, and the power of strong-willed women

So, friendly readers, we got to visit the 3rd largest refugee camp in the world:  Kakuma, in Uganda.  This was a year-long dream come true.  (Actually, the first dream was to visit Daadab, the largest refugee camp in the world.  But it is too dangerous for us to visit there.  The second dream was to visit Al-Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan, the oldest refugee camp in the world.  But it is impossible to get a visa to visit there. So… this was the third best dream!)

Kakuma is in the far northwest corner of Kenya.  It is 76 miles from the nearest town, Lodwar, (which only has 50,000 people) and there are basically no roads from there.  This map will help:

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Thankfully, we did not have to drive 8+ hours from Nairobi, or even the 76 miles of non-road from Lodwar.  We were able to fly a UN plane from Nairobi directly to the Kakuma camp, thanks to the Lutheran World Federation, which works with the UN.

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This is a tiny plane – room for about 30 people.  Only 8 of us were on the morning flight. But, it had hundreds of pounds of supplies:  parts for Toyota vehicles, medications in coolers, boxes stamped with international aid organizations’ logos.

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The reason that the UN runs a plane from Nairobi to Kakuma is because it is so large, and it has been there so long.  The camp is over 12 square miles, it houses over 200,000 people, and it has been there for 25 years.  Because the roads there are so difficult, it is often easier and cheaper to get workers and supplies in via plane.

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This is the view from the road leading into the camp.  Lots of aid signs.

The camp was opened in 1992 to help with Sudanese refugees fleeing their war.  Now, the camp is about 50% Sudanese, 30% Congolese, and 20% other (mainly Ethiopian or Ugandan). Because it has been there so long, there are young adults who have lived their entire lives in the camp.  (Because of mountain ranges, Congolese can travel through Uganda to this camp, but Rwandans often have to stay in Uganda camps – check the map again, it will make a little sense, I promise!)

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Camps are, by nature, incredibly boring.  The people are crammed into small tents, so there is no room to do anything inside.  There is a 6pm-6am curfew, when they aren’t allowed outside their tents.  There are no plots to farm, and no employers outside the camp which will hire them. This boredom perpetuates the hopelessness they already feel. Most people are suffering from PTSD from whatever trauma  they are fleeing; most have lost loved ones and many have seen their family members murdered in front of them.  Poor sanitation, malnutrition, and infectious diseases are rampant (as are too many pregnancies and miscarriages).  Fewer than 1% of refugees will ever be resettled to a stable country.  Kenya will not allow them to integrate into their country.  And, as long as the war continues in Sudan and Congo, they cannot go home.

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Lutherans are changing lives in Kakuma Camp.  

Thanks to Lutheran World Federation, this camp is basically a small city.  It has shopping districts, schools, sanitation facilities, elected leaders, restaurants, and a soccer club.  (Check out more information about soccer and other fun facts in this article:  https://www.sbnation.com/a/kakuma)

Lutherans run 20+ schools with 90,000 students, including 2,000 children who were formerly homeless.

 

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This man runs a school with over 2,000 primary students, including 60 with severe mental needs.  They run it with camp kids and town kids (refugees and residents) mixed together.  The students learn in English to take the exams to enter secondary school.  Lutheran World Federation donations cover school supplies, school lunches, special education teachers, and school uniforms for hundreds of those students every year.
Lutherans run elections in the camp, and empower male and female chiefs and elders to manage all minor disputes through democratic leadership.

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I met with the chief, retired chief, and elders for one section of the camp.  Since 2014, ELCA donations have helped this team (with several staff and volunteers) manage 2,000 vulnerable children within the county (that includes areas outside of the camp).  These children were forced into child labor due to abandonment, abuse, or poverty.  The Lutherans worked with the elders to get the children enrolled in school, and help the parents to find work OR to help the children enroll in boarding schools/ orphanages.

Rose is one of the moms whose children were helped. (She is seated, in a red shirt)

 

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Rose has 6 children, and she is pregnant again. Last year, none of her children were in school, because she couldn’t afford the fees.  Lutherans enrolled 4 of her children in school.  They gave her a micro-loan of $150, with which she opened the restaurant in which we are sitting for the picture.  She has space to feed maybe 10 people at once, and she works from 6am to 5pm to make tea, porrige, and beans and rice for the dozens of people who visit her restaurant.  When we visited, her children were home on summer break from school, and she was making them help her with the restaurant, so they learn the value of hard work (and they can use their math skills they learned!)

Literally, we changed her life.  She was completely hopeless last year.  Now, she hopes to build a second restaurant, and with her children to run both of them.  Oh, and by the way, she has malaria and she is pregnant, but she still managed to give us an interview during her busy lunch rush!

Lutherans run a 16-team soccer league and provide uniforms, bottled water, and transportation for youth to play.

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I didn’t get to see the teams while we were there, but the super cool article linked above gives lots of details.  Literally, the Lutheran World Federation makes it possible.

I know I’m bragging a little here, and I don’t mean to do that.  Of course, I didn’t actually do anything worth bragging about. The LWF did all the work, through their 300+ Kenyan employees and 2,000+ refugee employees who do the work in the camp every single day.

When you are able to make a small donation to Lutheran World Federation, please know that you’re making a difference.

Fifty cents can be a bottle of water for a soccer player.
Five dollars can be a school uniform
Fifty dollars can be a bicycle
One hundred fifty dollars can be a new restaurant
Five Hundred dollars can be a training.

https://www.lutheranworld.org/content/donate

I know most of you won’t get to visit with Mary, or the village elders, or the school teachers.  But your donation, your prayers, and your support makes their lives possible.  When we get to heaven, I’ll introduce you.  I’ll tell Mr. Paul, the headmaster, here is my friend, who paid for your students’ uniforms, and I’ll tell Mary, the restaurant owner, here is my friend, who prayed  for your restaurant, and I’ll tell the chief elders, here are my friends, who supported the missionaries who told you about Jesus and they will say, Thank you!  Because of you, my life was changed.  Because my life changed, I had hope again.  Because I had hope, I could hear God’s word healing me.  Because I was healed, I could change my world for peace.

Thank you, friend.  Thank you.