Friday, September 11, 2015

The Risk of Loving

“Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering.... The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies … the pain of the leaving can tear us apart.
Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.”
Henri J.M. Nouwen

The Risk of Loving:

(This reflection is based on the previous post.  Please see here for more info

Recently my husband was in Goma for work and was able to visit with Argentine. He said that she is sad, but that she seems to be doing OK. He taught her to use a smart phone to send email and photos. It is something she has always longed to do. Sharing photos of her life, joining the global community. But it has always been a step beyond her capacity for one reason or another. The technology or the logistics were always just a little too complicated. But this time it seems she has got it. And so I have gotten a bunch of emails and photos from her recently. 

Her most recent message read "Don't tire of praying for me...because my head hurts and at night I can't find sleep. I hope in God alone. I will be well."

When she dreamed of learning to send an email, this is probably not the message she imagined sending. I am sure she had imagined sending happy messages and joyful photos. Or at least that is what I always imagined receiving.

It seemed ironic to me, that now, in this time of struggle, is when she finally, miraculously, learns to send an email. How can she have space in her head for that right now?

But maybe now is the perfect time. Maybe there is an urgency to sending messages urgency you find more in moments of struggle than you find in moments of triumph. After all, when is it that we need our friends and family the most?

I have to say, it is not easy from me. To be connected. I am always happy to hear from Argentine. But I am always also heartbroken. Immediately carried back into her loss, and into my own powerlessness to take away that pain.

I am reminded of the words of Henri Nouwen...

...Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair, we have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking."

Sometimes that risk, the risk of loving, seems astronomically high. Especially in Congo. Suddenly I find myself counting the number of times that every one of the SHONA women's children have been sick. Promese, Prince, Daniel, Daniella, Jonathan, Joashe, Rachelle. They have all been sick far too often. And I can feel myself calculate the cost of loving women whose lives are a world away from mine, and who face countless challenges that I will never be able to make disappear.

But then I think of the risk they take to love. Right there in the midst of it. They love children, and parents and friends in a world that they know is terribly unstable. And they continue to hope. What kind of risk does it take for Argentine to conclude her message with "I will be well"?

And come to think of it, what kind of risk does it take for her to send that message in the first place, to reach out and say "don't tire of praying for me"... to people halfway across the world, who have a million other things calling out for their attention. The risk of loving me, of loving you, when we might just as easily disappear from her life, or just never get the message.

But the messages keep coming. From both sides. When I sent out our last newsletter, explaining Argentine's loss, I got a lot of personal responses from many of you. Sharing your love, and for many of you, sharing a story of your own loss as well. I've gotten countless messages on Facebook asking how Argentine is doing, or saying that you are praying. Many you have also generously donated to the fund in memory of Rachelle. With those donations Argentine is putting a monument on Rachelle's grave, and she is having a closing ceremony, to mark the end of 40 days of mourning. She is also using the funds to contribute back to the community where she has been staying and which has supported her.

But what I want to say is this: thank you. Thank you for taking the risk of loving. I often use the phrase "it makes all the difference in the world". I use that phrase when you buy something from SHONA, and it is true. Your purchase does make all the difference in the world to these women. It puts food on their table, buys medicine when they are sick, and builds homes to keep them warm. So thank you for shopping.

But thank you, for not just shopping, but for giving your hearts as well. For taking the risk to love. Because that too makes all the difference in the world. It doesn't so much change the world, but it changes each of us. It strengthens us, so that together we can conclude every message as Argentine did. We can say to each other... "I will be well".

Friday, July 31, 2015

Being there

Argentine's daughter, Rachelle, died.  She was 2 and a half years old.  It seems impossibly unfair.

It seems so unfair because Rachelle had made it through so much.  Born a refugee, she survived infancy in a refugee camp.  On her way home to Congo a few months ago, she survived gunfire and a riot.  And she made it home to Congo.  And things were going well.  We were building her and Argentine a house.

And it seems unfair because Argentine has been through so much.  More than anyone else I know.  And that was before losing her only child.

But mostly it seems impossibly unfair because Argentine is the most hopeful person I know.  Hope, in the deepest sense of the world.

But what becomes of the most hopeful person you know when they lose it all?

I've been mourning Rachelle all week.  But I've also been mourning Argentine.  It felt like there would simply be nothing left of her after this loss.  Argentine and Rachelle were a pair, just the two of them making their way through this world.  And Rachelle was the light of Argentine's life.

Indeed, I couldn't even talk to Argentine the first few days after Rachelle death.  She has been out of her head with grief, unable to hold a conversation.

But I spoke to her today.

And as I talked to her my heart felt a little lighter. Because I found that she was still there.  Still Argentine.

Her voice was faint and she couldn't talk for long, but she took the phone and did exactly what Argentine always does.  She launched into a litany of thanks.  Thanking me for calling, thanking you for praying for her, thanking Mapendo, Riziki and Solange for being at her side for every minute since Rachelle's death... and the list went on.

Vintage Argentine.

And she ended exactly the way she always ends a conversation.  Asking us to pray for her.

How amazing is that?  To talk to a person in the midst of the deepest grief imaginable, and find a seed of hope still lives.  To find that they somehow, miraculously, still remain...

She encouraged me and strengthened me, just by still being there.  By still being Argentine.

It strikes me that is all any of us really have to offer in life.  To still be there.  To still offer ourselves to eachother.

It is what Mapendo, Riziki and Solange have been doing all week.  Being there.  When Argentine fainted again and again, and couldn't bear it, they were still there.  Even with their own hearts breaking inside, they were there.  And I have no doubt that encouraged Argentine.

To be present in mourning is something Congolese culture does well.  Family and friends arrive...and they don't leave.  For days and days.  In fact it is a part of the culture that I have sometimes been frustrated by.  It can be an economic hardship on a mourning family when suddenly dozens of people need to be welcomed and fed.

But perhaps they understand grief better than I.  Perhaps they understand the power of simply sitting with the midst of grief and in the midst of life.

When I posted on Facebook the other day about Rachelle's death I was encouraged by all of our SHONA friends responses.  All the love.  But what struck me was that out of 38 comments, only 2 or 3 were people that know me, friends or family of mine (I didn't post it on my personal page).  Everyone else was people that I have never met...but people that have come to love Argentine through her sewing with SHONA.  I was particularly struck by one comment that said "I remember how joyful we were when Rachelle was born. What a celebration..."

Something about that seemed beautiful to me...that there was all of you... this intangible "we" who had celebrated with Argentine and who now mourn with her.  Who know her.  It strikes me that there is this whole collection of people spread across the world who can stand with Argentine in her loss, because they have traveled her joys with her as well.  It means more... to know that the person who stands with you in that darkness, also remembers the life and the joy.  

Thank you to all Argentine's friends, for being there, in celebration and in mourning.

Saturday, Argentine will go back to the Center for People with Disabilities in Goma.  It is the place I first met her, and a strong community for those with disabilities.   They will have a special prayer service in honor of Rachelle.  I am encouraged by the way the community has rallied around Argentine.  It will be a large turnout and that will mean a lot to her.    The prayer service will be at 10 in Goma which is 4 in the morning on the East Coast of the US.  And still I mention it because I know that Argentine has no shortage of friends who might want to wake up at that time to pray for her.  

Also, if you would like to help defray the cost of welcoming and feeding all those who have come out in support of Argentine, here is the link.  Argentine's mother and siblings will remain in Goma for several more weeks to continue to be with her. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Bag from Home

Last month Argentine, her daughter Rachael and her little sister Aline returned to Goma.  We are so thankful.  She is the last of the SHONA Congo ladies to return home.

 Argentine fled Goma when over 2 years ago, when she was about 5 months pregnant, and very, very scared.  She made it to a refugee camp and give birth in a foreign country.  

She often wondered how she could survive on her own, so far from family.  

She wondered how she could provide for her little girl.

 But she kept sewing and your purchases kept her going.   

A month ago, as war threatened to break out in Burundi, Argentine decided to flee again.  But this time she was fleeing from the refugee camps, back home to Congo.  On her own, with her baby girl, and her younger sister Aline (a little girl of 9 years old) she packed up all work that she had been sewing for the past 2 months.

And Aline carried it on her head...along with Baby Rachel.


While Argentine made her way on crutches behind. 

They hoped to mail the finished SHONA bags as they passed through the capital of Burundi.  But by the time they made it there, tensions had escalated and everything in the capital was shut down in fear of war.  

They found a bus to carry them over the border to Congo, and piled their parcels on the rooftop of the bus for safekeeping.
But on that bus journey, they ran into a riot.  The population had barracaded the street, and was looting the possessions of everyone on the bus.  Argentine listened to the chaos and held the little girls tight. 

She thought they would die. 

But somehow, just as the angry crowd started to unload the luggage from the roof of the bus, police arrived shooting in the air and sending the population fleeing.
  (Does this sound like an amazing story?  Read the full story here.)

And these 3 little ladies continued their journey home.  

Carrying these bags all the way back to Goma.

And now they are here.  In the SHONA shop.  

They are lovely bags.  I wish I had better photos of them, but maybe the photos below paint the best picture of all.

Ever wanted a bag with a story?  This is it.  

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Argentine On The Way Home...

In my mind this is really the most unbelievable story.  And yet entirely true.

As many of you know most of the SHONA Congo women left the refugee camps and returned home to Congo a year and a half ago. 

But 1 woman, Argentine, chose to remain in the refugee camp in Burundi with her young daughter. As a single mother she felt it was the only way she could keep her daughter safe.

That was until a few weeks ago, when the President of Burundi declared he would run for another term in office, and strong opposition began to take to the streets.  Argentine called and said that she needed to get out of Burundi before the war broke out, but she couldn't find a safe way to leave.

Imagine that... sitting in a refugee camp, having fled the war and insecurity in your own country, only to be threatened by war breaking out in the very place you have taken refuge.


  Imagine sitting in a refugee camp and looking at your 2 year old daughter, who was born in that camp.


Then looking down at your legs, covered in metal leg braces and the crutches that lay by your side. And then glancing at the work you have done for the past 2 months.


  Seeing the 80 bags that you have carefully sewn, and packed, ready to send to America.  And hearing that the roads are closed, and that fighting will break out any time now.

What do you do?

There was a moment of relative calm last week where Argentine saw her opportunity, and fled.  She fled with her daughter and her younger sister, a little of girl of about 8 years old, hanging on to whatever they could.

 They fled  to the capital of Burundi, where they found all the businesses closed and they were unable to mail the giant bundle of SHONA bags that they were carrying with them.  So they just kept going.


Argentine and the 2 little girls climbed on a bus with their possessions and their SHONA bags and made it to the Congo border.  They breathed a sigh of relief as they arrived at a town in Congo where a friend had offered to let them stay for the night.  But they found the house crowded and knew they had to push on, to make it back to Goma.  They borrowed money from their friend to buy tickets on a bus to Bukavu, the town across the lake from Goma.  When they made it to Bukavu they would climb on a bus for the last leg of their journey.

They breathed a sigh of relief as they sat on that bus.  But halfway through the journey that bus suddenly stopped.   Argentine peered out the windows and grabbed the little girls closer as she saw the streets had been blocked by angry protesters.  The population was rioting.  Angry people clambered on board of the bus and began to beat the bus driver.  A few Congolese soldiers happened to have been traveling on the bus.  They slipped out the back and went to look for more soldiers for help.  Meanwhile the angry population began to make its way through the bus, roughing people up, demanding all that they had.  Argentine grabbed her little girls tighter and began to pray.  She had only enough money on her to pay for their boat tickets for the final leg of the journey home.  What would happen if they took that?  The crowd got to Argentine.  They picked up Argentine's metal leg braces, which she had taken off and set to the side for the journey.  Without those braces Argentine cannot stand.

And then somebody said "she's disabled.  Leave her alone."

And they did.

Argentine glanced to the heavens and heard a thump from the roof.  People were on the roof of the bus, pillaging through the luggage that had been tied to the top of the bus.  SHONA's 80 bags, all of Argentine's work for the past 2 months, were up there.

And then she heard shooting.  The soldiers were back, this time with reinforcements and as they fired into the air the crowd began to disburse.  Argentine hugged her little girls tighter.  And someone started the bus again, and they fled down the road. Hoping this time to find an empty road to travel home.

Here is the crazy thing.  This happened in Congo.  Remember how Argentine was fleeing the unrest in Burundi?  She was right to flee.  Yesterday a coup was announced in Burundi and it is unclear what will happen next, but it is hard to imagine that it won't involve continued violence.  But when Argentine fled the refugee camp she fled back to Congo, and as it happened, she stumbled right into another conflict.  It isn't even the same conflict that plagues Goma.  It was local unrest that Argentine could never have forseen.

Argentine had fled her home country, found a refuge, only to find her refuge threatened with war, and as she fled that refuge back to a home that still remains insecure, on the road home,  she stumbled into a 3rd conflict.

And she did all of this with 2 little girls, metal leg braces and crutches, and 80 SHONA bags.

 When they finally did get off that bus in Bukavu, Argentine climbed out and looked at the roof.  And there was the bundle of SHONA bags, untouched.

Argentine asked me to tell those of you who pray, that your prayers matter.  That she should have died.  That she thought they were going to.  That those bags should have been lost.

But somehow, they have made it home.  Bags, and little girls, and mama.  They are back in Goma.  It was a long road home, but they made it.


      The bags that Argentine sewed are her income from the last 2 months.  That money that has carried her home and is keeping her and her daughter and sister fed and safe.  Your purchases matter infinitely.  Support the work of the 4 amazing women from SHONA Congo as they continue to fight for stability, safety and hope in the midst of chaos.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Who is your child's hero?

Who is your child's hero?  In this world of mass-marketed super-heroes, it may seem that there is a different answer each day.  But the truth is, sometimes you are the hero.  Even when you are exhausted, and out of patience, and covered with crumbs, you get to be the hero.  You somewhat miraculously deliver food when the troops are hungry and comfort when a toe is stubbed.  And that makes you a hero for a moment.

This is Mapendo with her 2 sons.  Cooking what seems to be an enormous pot of beans.  I'm not sure what I love about this picture.  But I think it is the way Joashe and Jonathan are looking at their mama.  They are literally looking to her for nourishment, with the little one trying to steal a sip of milk and the older one's eyes glued to her face as she cooks.  And look at the smile on Mapendo's face, as she provides for them.

Because that is where the key lies.  The ability to provide.

Mapendo is disabled.  Her childhood home was destroyed by the ongoing war.  Shortly after her older son was born she had to flee to a refugee camp.

If you were taking a poll of women who were likely to have to "relinquish" their children to an orphanage, she would surely rank fairly high.  All the SHONA Congo women would.  And yet they are such proud mamas. 

For the SHONA Congo women their sewing has made all the difference.  It has empowered them to provide for their children. It has empowered them to be their children's heroes.

It is an experience that perhaps I have taken for granted.  Every time my daughter asks for a snack, and I can give it to her.  Everytime I tuck her into a snuggly blanket and she says "thank you mama" her 3 year old world I am her hero.  I have what she needs.

And that's what I love about this photo.  Look at those little boys' faces.  They are looking at their mama like she is a hero.  It is no wonder she is smiling.

That should be a right of every parent.  To be their children's hero.  Oh I know, children grow and become teenagers and you can't stay a hero forever...or even for an hour.  But for a moment, when they are little, we are.

Sometimes I think we lose sight of this privilege.   We love children.  And in our rush to help other children, especially those in countries torn by poverty and war, we rush in and become the heroes.  We donate clothing, or make a doll, or pay school fees, or visit an oprhanage.

And I don't mean to dismiss those endeavors.  Perhaps sometimes that is the only way to help a child.  But often it is not.  Most children have adults in their lives, families that we can empower.  That is true even of a surprising number of children in orphanages in Congo.  Sure, it is difficult.  But I think there are actually a lot of organizations out there doing this work.

 There are products we can buy that empower adult by creating real jobs in Congo with real dignity. (that's us!)

There are micro-finance loans that you can give small vendors in Congo.  By empowering a woman selling beans in the market to buy more inventory you help her to build a business which will sustain her family.
There are programs that help educate and empower families and communities to support grieving children

There are programs working to empower families to welcome home their children.

There are programs that hire local women, train them and empower them to support each other in the face of sexual violence.

And I am sure this is only the beginning of the list.   Feel free and add more, because I am sure together we can come up with a great list of ways to empower adults in Congo.  And for every time that we talk about children in Congo we should talk about adults.  Because it takes only a second of glancing at Congo to realize that most adults in Congo have children that they care for, in one way or another.  Let's be honest, most adults have many children that they care for.
So let's make some new heroes today.  Being a child's hero is an experience that should belong to us all!