The World Needs our Help

Nearly 60 years ago, I received a letter from my twin cousins who were attending college in  Florida.  They were very involved with sit-ins in restaurants and “five and dime” stores to encourage management to allow black people to visit their establishments. Jim and Dan were asking for financial support so they could continue their social justice work without having to have part-time jobs. I was fascinated by their dedication and impressed with their bravery (they were injured and jailed for their efforts), but I was also in college and unemployed. I sent them what I could.  (I found out decades later that I was the only family member who gave them financial support.) Their efforts fired up my life-long interest in social justice and activism.

Recently I went through the many requests for funding that fill my mail box, trying to decide what I could afford to give.  Reading the detailed stories of the work of all these organizations broke my heart.  I can’t give them much money, but I can share some of the work they are doing with you:

Southern Poverty Law Center – defended the voting rights of people with disabilities,  made a case for restoring the Voting Rights Act, distributed more than $11,000,000 through their Vote Your Voice programs to 55 different grass roots organizations, provided a data base on hate and extremism consulted by 4.5 million people, tracked 1,221 hate and extremist groups across the country, freed over 20,00 people from immigrant detention Centers, prompted Department of Justice investigations into the Georgia Department of Corrections’ treatment of LGBTQ people – and much more.

Doctors without Borders provides medical care to refugees and displaced people all over the world. 48 million people are internally displaced or forced to move within their home country. 30.3 million people are refugees forced to flee their home country. 41 million people are seeking asylum and waiting for a decision on their refugee status.  In 2017, Myanmar security forces launched a campaign of violence targeting the Rohingya ethnic minority group. Roughly 700,00 people fled across the border into Bangladesh where they settled in already overcrowded refugee camps. Doctors without Borders manages ten facilities in the Cox’s Bazar camp, providing specialized healthcare to tens of thousands of refugees each month as well as improving sanitation by building sustainable latrines and wells where residents can access clean waters.

According to the Carter Center, just 15 human cases of Guinea worm disease were reported in 2021, the lowest number ever recorded. When the Carter Center started leading the global eradication campaign there in 1986, there were an estimated 3.5 million cases in 21 countries. In addition nations on opposite sides of Africa have reported milestones in the fight against river blindness. Transmission has been eliminated in several states and regions.

Feeding America maintains a network of more than 200 food banks, 21 statewide food bank associations, and over 60,000 partner agencies. They have provided 6.6 billion meals to tens of millions of people in need last year.

USA for UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) provides services to refugees and displaced people fleeing desperate, life-threatening circumstances in Ukraine.

World Central Kitchen – fed an island after Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico. They fed tens of millions struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic. They put boots on the ground when a blast devastated Beirut, bushfires ripped through Australia, and a volcano transformed a Spanish island. They were under a bridge with thousands of asylum seekers in Texas, in a demolished Kentucky town after brutal tornadoes, on the Louisiana coast when yet another enormous hurricane made landfall. They are now in Ukraine feeding hundreds of refugees.

These are a few of the organizations that I try to help.  They  need the support and prayers of all of us to continue the work they are doing around the world.  Let me know what groups you support. Let’s spread the word!

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From My Reading – June

“The only people who grow in truth are those who are humble and honest. This is traditional Christian doctrine and is, in effect, the maxim of Alcoholics Anonymous. Without those two qualities—humility and honesty—we just don’t grow. If we try to use religion to aggrandize the self, we will end up just the opposite: proud and dishonest. Humility and honesty are really the same thing. A humble person is simply someone who is naturally honest about their own truth. You and I came along a few years ago; we’re going to be gone in a few more years. The only honest response to such a mystery is humility” (Richard Rohr).

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“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can” (John Wesley).

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“Where is this risen Christ? Everywhere and all around us—in you, your neighbor, the dogwood tree outside, the budding grape vine, the ants popping up through the cracks. The whole world is filled with God, who is shining through even the darkest places of our lives. To “go to church” is to awaken to this divine presence in our midst and respond in love with a yes: Your life, O God, is my life and the life of the planet. . . .” (Illia Deo).

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“Any paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon” (Ikkyu,  Zen Monk , poet, 1394-1481).

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“It is central in the biblical tradition that God’s love for his people should not be forgotten. It should remain with us in the present. When everything is dark, when we are surrounded by despairing voices, when we do not see any exits, then we can find salvation in a remembered love, a love that is not simply a wistful recollection of a bygone past, but a living force that sustains us in the present. Through memory, love transcends the limits of time and offers hope at any moment of our lives” (Henri Nouwen).

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“To work in the world lovingly means that we are defining what we will be for, rather than reacting to what we are against” (Christina Baldwin).

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” Radical empathy, on the other hand, means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel” (Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents). 

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“Something precious is lost if we rush headlong into the details of life without pausing for a moment to pay homage to the mystery of life and the gift of another day” (Kent Nerburn)

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Remembering My Father

This post from the livingasapprentices archives is re-posted in honor of Memorial Day.

Do you see what we’ve got? An unshakable kingdom! And do you see how thankful we must be? Not only thankful, but brimming with worship, deeply reverent before God” (Hebrews 12: 28 in The Message).

Memorial DayMy father left the church he was pastoring and volunteered to serve as a chaplain during World War II.  He left behind a wife and three-month old daughter – me.  After three years as a medic’s assistant, he was faced with the challenge of his lifetime:  stay with the wounded men he was treating and face certain capture or retreat with the rest of his unit.  He chose to stay. He was captured and eventually liberated. However, he was killed by friendly fire while walking from the POW camp to freedom.

A few years ago, as I prepared to share this story at a Memorial Day worship service, I felt the familiar tug between pride and anger. Here was a man of integrity and valor!  But didn’t he know that when he stayed with his men he left me behind?  And then the truth of this verse hit me. My father believed in the “unshakable kingdom.” He knew that no matter what happened to him he would be safe.  He also knew that I lived in that kingdom as well.  No matter what happened to him, I would be safe.

We all live in a world where fear and the unknown can shake our faith and destroy our dreams. But God is in control of God’s kingdom. And what is to be our response to the wonder of that kingdom?  Gratitude and a life “brimming with worship.”

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This post is a devotional I wrote for the July, August, September, 2013 issue  of Words of Hope, a devotional booklet published Grand Rapids, MI. Reprinted permission. See more of  my father’s story in an earlier post, “Communion in the Corral.”

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Making a Difference

Last night, after trying to absorb a day filled with the news of a mass shooting attack on an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas,  I happened on an article in the Autumn, 2021 issue of Plough Quarterly which focuses on the topic “Beyond Borders.”

The article, Three Kants and a Thousand Skills, by Simeon Wiehler, Dean of the School of Social, Political and Administrative Sciences at the University of Rwanda, centers on his experiences in Rwanda after growing up in the Bruderhof communities in Pennsylvania and England. I highly recommend that  you read the entire piece, but I want to focus on an extended quote in which the author questions our response to the horrors of the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis.

“Dare we peer into  the abyss [of genocide in Rwanda – or gun violence in America] without also confronting the same propensity of our own hearts, the inclination towards evil, where we have marginalized, belittled, undervalued, or hurt others whose lives are equally precious in God’s eyes?

Truly opposing genocide or colonialism, racism or discrimination does not start from moral superiority but through deep humility that sees fallen humanity with all its failings, and recognizes that human fallenness in our own hearts as well. Only then can we ask ourselves if we are the systemic change that this world needs.”

The author then provides a series of questions which I am listing separately below. I encourage each of us to use these questions of examen (I have changed the author’s “we” to “I”) regularly to motivate us to make a difference in this horrific world.

1. “Do I embody a shared willingness to contribute to the common good to achieve what the individual alone cannot?”

2. “Am I a  truth-seeker? Telling the deep truth about ourselves, about our comfortable myths and imagined realities can be uncomfortable, but with truth-seeking, good cannot grow and evil clings on, like mold, in the cracks.”

3. “Have I looked at the world around me and imagined what  might be better and then said so?”

4. “Do the small acts of my daily life help build stronger relationships, better neighborhoods?”

5. “Do my actions strengthen justice and enhance what is good in our communities?”

6. “Do I pursue peace and oppose hate even in the small things knowing that small plus small can get pretty big?”

7. “Will I be able to say when life nears its end, that I planted my feet determinedly on the side of good, that I struggled for what was right, that I joined with similarly-minded people and tried to build a better society?”

As I get ready to publish this blog, the news about gun violence in the U.S. and the arguments about the need to control the numbers (it is reported that there are 120 guns for every 100 persons in the US) and the ownership and the use of guns rages. I feel even more strongly the need for every Christ-follower to think carefully about his or her own responsibility in this issue.

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1,000 Posts!

In 2012, I took a class at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan titled Staying Open, Writing as an Act of Faith.  As a 70-year-old gray-haired woman, I joined a class of 20-somethings (mostly male) with no little fear and trepidation. But I was determined to join the technological era in some way, and since I was totally put off by the trivial pursuit of Facebook and astonished by the uselessness (to me) of 140 characters in Twitter, blogging was it!

I didn’t learn much in the class about the technology behind blogging, but I learned a lot about the spirit of blogging, for which I am daily grateful.  (I also learned about two great books which any writer of any stripe should read: The Elements of Story, Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing by Francis Flaherty and Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’ Engle).

After that class I became brave enough to begin writing a blog in 2013, intended for the members of Christ Memorial Church in Holland, Michigan. When I retired as Director of Spiritual Formation in 2016, I figured that that would be the end of the blog, but members of the church strongly encouraged me to continue the blog.  So I did.

Little did I realize that writing two or three blogs a week would make me a disciplined writer with a point of view all my own. Nor did I imagine that the blog would be visited by readers from 170 countries (many of which report only one reader) as far-flung as Brazil, India, Australia, France, and Ghana, as well as some I have never heard of.  And I certainly never anticipated that I would write 1,000 blogs that have been viewed 83,206 times!

Sometime after that class ended, I received an e-mail from the instructor that I have been pondering ever since. He said,  “I have been thinking quite a bit about how writing forms communities . . . .One of the biggest surprises I’ve had as a writer (and a heavy introvert) is that writing publicly has resulted in some kind of beautiful, patchwork community.”

As another “heavy introvert,” I have puzzled all my life about “building community.”  Since I am very content by myself and consider more than three people to be a crowd, I have been always been challenged by the ordinary parameters of community.  But his comment about the “patchwork community” of bloggers made total sense.  How else would I get to know a retired professor in Hong Kong who posts a personal travelogue complete with gorgeous photography in every blog.  Or the missionary in Italy who writes about simple living. Or Brian who describes himself as” a sojourner walking this spiritual path called life.” How else would I be able to spend the summer in Amsterdam visiting cathedrals and markets and learning about the travails of bicycle travel in Amsterdam streets?

Christine Pohl, a Christian writer who specializes in community, writes that the three requirements for community are: hospitality, truth telling, and promise keeping. It’s amazing to find all those characteristics in many blogs I have read and in many I have written. Truth telling is hard to find in in-person gatherings; people are always hiding behind their persona or their mask.  My intention is  to always  be authentic and brave!

And then there is promise keeping.  The very establishment of a blog implies a covenant between an individual and the writer within the individual: I will write and write, and write some more.  There is also a covenant between the blogger and the faithful reader: I will write and you will read and because you read I will write some more.  A blogger who posts consistently keeps a promise to his or her readers to continually dig deeper and find something to write about that is enjoyable or  valuable, and, if he or she is fortunate, even precious to the reader. And the reward for all of this is a “beautiful patchwork community.”

Writing a blog has been more difficult in the past year or two because of my on-going health issues.  But I promise to keep writing and I hope my followers and readers around the world will keep reading and our “beautiful patchwork community” will stay strong.

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Somewhere, Sometime, Someday

There’s a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us, somewhere.

There’s a time for us,
Some day a time for us,
Time together with time to spare,
Time to learn, time to care.

Some day,
Somewhere,
We’ll find a new way of living,
We’ll find a way of forgiving.
Somewhere,
Somewhere . . .”

Recently two friends and I were discussing politics when suddenly it became prudent to change the subject. Somehow we got on music. One person named her favorite Broadway musical and the other followed with hers. It became obvious that it was my turn.  I said West Side Story was my favorite musical and added that my favorite song was “Somewhere.” Then I softly said, “Fred and I always looked for a place for us and a time for us, but it never happened.”  Moments of silence followed and the subject was changed – again.

I thought about the reality of “somewhere” for a couple of days. Fred was a black man married to a white woman (me) before interracial marriages were common. He died in October, 2020, after a long illness which was aggravated, I am sure, by his 69 years of living in a society in that never accepted him or our marriage. He died before we could find “a place for us” in American society, in our largely segregated state of Michigan (blacks lived in big cities and whites populated the small towns),  or even in the Church.

Fred and I met in the late 1980’s.  We both had been married before and had children from those marriages.  As we talked (and talked and talked), I learned about the personal side of racism and he learned that some white people were genuinely eager to know about the black experience. We talked about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the ignorance of the comment “I don’t see race” often proudly stated by whites, not realizing that if they didn’t “see” race, they didn’t “see” Fred.

As we began our journey together in a racist society, Fred was very apprehensive. I was full of optimistic dreams.  Reality dawned on our wedding day, August 17, 1991.  The pastor, a good friend of ours, was beginning with the vows when suddenly my mother stood up and shouted, “How can you do this to me?” and ran from the room sobbing. The audience drew a collective huge breaths.  The pastor and Fred both looked at me, and I calmly (somehow) said, “Go ahead with the vows.” Soon we were officially a couple, but reality hit us both hard.

Looking for a home together was the next jarring experience.  We lived near Flint. We soon learned that if we saw an ad located in the city of Flint, Fred had to inquire about it.  If we learned of a home in the Flint suburbs or another town, I had to check it out.  We learned this because we each found a possibility for housing and went together to check it out.  In both cases when the landlord saw a “mixed” couple standing at his door, suddenly the apartment  that was available a few hours ago had just been rented.

I eventually found a nice house to rent in a small town near Flint. I signed the papers and wrote the check, and Fred and I happily moved in.  You should have see the look on the home owner’s face when he saw my husband for the first time.  Eventually he and his wife divorced and we were forced to leave the home because she wanted to live there. We eventually had to purchase a mobile home in a small town outside of Flint – which we really couldn’t afford. This way nobody saw us until the house was moved on to the lot. After the truck left we drove in the driveway.  It was, once again, too late for the shocked manager to do anything about it.

At that time I was the director of an adult literacy program and Fred was attending computer school.  He had also convinced me to get a computer for our literacy program so he could teach my students about computers. Our office was in the basement of the County Library which was on the same property as the County Jail.  One day Fred was leaving my office in the evening after backing up the computer when he was accosted by a policeman. He stopped Fred and asked, “Where do you belong?”

“I belong right here. I work at the literacy center,” Fred politely responded.

The cop looked skeptical.  “You know how to use a computer????? he said. Fred said, “Yes,” and started walking again.  The cop reluctantly let him go.

Eventually we moved, mobile home and all, to a small town in West Michigan. It was a return to my home town, but Fred had never lived outside of the Flint/Saginaw area, and he was pretty worried. I now understood the issues we were facing, but I couldn’t wait to take him to the church I had attended before moving to the Flint area. We were just leaving the service, when a woman came up to him and said, “You must attend the seminary in town, right?  Fred looked at me, puzzled. (I learned later that he didn’t even know what a seminary was.)

Finally, he said, “No.”  Then the woman said, “Well, you must be from Africa.  Why are you at our church  if you aren’t attending the seminary?” We just looked at each other and were spared from answering by a friendly greeting from an older man. He welcomed us and then said to Fred, “We have a second service. Lots of people from the neighborhood come.  I’m sure you would be more comfortable there.”

Fred looked at me. Then he said, “I attend the first service with my wife. I like that one.”  The man’s jaw dropped. “You two are married!?” he asked.  His wife pulled his arm and they quickly walked away. Fred did not return to church.

He did, however, join a church group on a mission trip to South Africa.  He had been told that one task was to build a computer lab, and, since he was now a computer network administrator, he was excited to work on that project.  However, when the group arrived in South Africa, he was told that a high school senior who knew about computers would work on the computer lab and that Fred was to join the work of building coffins.  He told the project manager that he worked on computer projects everyday, but knew nothing about building.  That made no difference. On the day before the group was to return home, Fred learned that the high school senior did not know how to finish the project.  Did Fred really know enough to help?  He said he did and he would.  He stayed up all night to finish the task, almost missing the plane home, but never was thanked for his contribution.

Our life together was difficult and challenging, but the rewards were great.  Although, like Tony and Maria, the mismatched couple in West Side story, we never found the “someday” or the “some place” or the “sometime” when life together was easy and uncomplicated, we learned a lot about each other and our respective cultures and loved our way through life in a world that would rather not even look at us, let alone help us find our place together.  I pray that the mixed race marriages of today have an easier time.

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A Hope and a Future

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.This promise has been my lifeline for decades. But when I read it this week, I saw something new.

My life is filled with infections and dangerous skin conditions, along with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. In addition, I now also have a “history of falling.” Regular readers of this blog may remember that I had to move to my son’s home last fall for several months because I was consistently dizzy and confused and often fell. After months of this, my cancer doctor, with great trepidation, removed an oral medication from my chemo “cocktail.” And within two weeks the dizziness and confusion disappeared and the chemo kept working.  (I was, however, left with a permanent worsening of “word salad” – mixing up words and forgetting words, especially when I am eager to share something).  I am still unsteady and need a walker, but at least I wasn’t falling.

So imagine my distress several days ago. I was sitting in my leather office chair, intending to turn off the computer, when the symbols on the screen started darting around. And imagine my surprise when after some time had passed (I don’t know how much), I woke up on the floor. I managed to get myself up, but I have not yet figured out how I ended on the floor in the first place. (Maybe I slid out of the chair?)

This  fall was really a shock. I thought I had conquered this problem! I hadn’t fallen in months and I wasn’t dizzy – and I was sitting in a chair!  I managed to get to the living room and sat in my recliner, for the rest of the day – and most of the next day. After all, I figured, it would be really hard to fall off a recliner!

Thus incident brought on a few days of existential issues. What would the rest of my life be like if I start  falling again – especially if I manage to fall while I’m sitting down?  What if they can’t find an antibiotic to cure my infections? Or what if it does cure infections, but I can’t take it because it affects my increasingly worrying kidney function, which means I will have to stop chemo, which means the multiple myeloma will win sooner that anyone had expected. (We can certainly get ourselves in dithers, can’t we?)

I decided first of all that I needed to look again at my “living will.” And then there are the forms from two different agencies waiting for me to resolve the DNR question. Do I want to choose to not be resuscitated? Do I want to go to the emergency room and a probable hospital bed? I can take care of myself now, but where am I going to live if I can’t stay on my feet?

Somewhere during all of this angst, I ran across Jeremiah 29:11: “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” It spoke to me louder than ever! – “I’ve got your back, Karen!  You will struggle but not be harmed. You can have hope in a future.  Start living again in the present. So I stopped stewing and started acting.

First I called my friend, a retired hospice nurse.  She raved about the details in my living will and encouraged me to talk over the entire plan with my son  – which I plan to do once he is finished grading his college students’ exams.

Then I called Palliative Care and asked for the social worker to visit. We talked about the issues around a DNR. She gave me information I needed: CPR can result in broken bones and make everything worse. She didn’t recommend it for someone who will be 80 in October. She gave me a DNR form; it has already been signed by four people and is ready if needed.

She also labeled me as someone “at risk for falling” – and gave me the Medicare definition for falling which is: “A sudden, unintentional change in position causing an individual to land at a lower level.” (Actually she said, “An unintentional change in position causing a descent to earth” which I like much better.)  I asked her, “So if I’m walking past this chair and I suddenly feel that I might fall so I sit down, is that labeled a fall?  She nodded. Hmm, I thought, I’m almost always very careful, but some falls might be inevitable.

She went on, ” Your living will is wonderfully specific and will be very helpful for your son if  you have to be hospitalized.” (My worst nightmare). But if and when you do have to stop chemo, we will work with your doctors and it should be possible for you to go right into Hospice. We will take care of you.”

Today the sun is shining and I am not burdened with fear. But when the door starts closing and decisions have to be made, I trust that God will always remind me that He will always have “plans that will not harm” me and that I can have not only hope, but also a future.

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From My Reading – May

“Life in God should be a daring adventure of love but often we settle for mediocrity. We follow the daily practice of prayer but we are unwilling or, for various reasons, unable to give ourselves totally to God. To settle on the plain of mediocrity is to settle for something less than God, which leaves our hearts restless and unfulfilled. . . . Prayer is that dynamic, life-giving relationship with God by which we grow deep in God’s Word, strong in God’s grace, and free in God’s love to dream with God the unimaginable” (Ilia Delio).

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“Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too” (Frederick Buechner).

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“It is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere. But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. [God] gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on this earth. It is an awesome opportunity” (Cesar Chavez, “Statement by Cesar Chavez at the end of his 24-day fast for justice, 1972).

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“If you were to ask me point-blank: “What does it mean to you to live spiritually?” I would have to reply: “Living with Jesus at the center.” . . . When I look back over the last thirty years of my life, I can say that, for me, the person of Jesus has come to be more and more important. Specifically, this means that what matters increasingly is getting to know Jesus and living in solidarity with him” (Henri Nouwen).

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” The Holy One is with us in all of life. Our purpose for opening the door inward is to help us know and claim who we are so we can more completely join with God in expressing this love in every part of our external world” (Joyce Rupp).

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“Founders are typically generous, visionary, bold, and creative, but the religions that ostensibly carry on their work often become the opposite: constricted, change-averse, nostalgic, fearful, obsessed with boundary maintenance, turf battles, and money” (Brian McLaren).

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