The Road

It’s 8am and I climb into our Justice Rising truck and for the fifth time in a week we head out of the city to a nearby village where we’re building the next JR school.

The village is about 2 hours away on less than desirable roads. My body aches before the drive even begins, almost in anticipation for what’s coming and a final plea of “dear God, not again!” The road thrashes you on every turn, every bump. Though agonizing, I’ve become quite used to it and sometimes even pull out a book to make the journey feel quicker (a sight that makes some car sick just to see!). But without fail at the end of the journey, no matter how long or quick it feels, the pain in your neck and the queasiness in your stomach stay with you, sometimes for days.

Not only is the road rough by physical standards but by no means is it in the UN’s outlined  “safe zone” that they so kindly provide for the expats in the country. The route has been a target for bandits, abductions and minor outbreaks of war. Although I’m not sure if any outbreak of war is ever “minor.”

About an hour into our drive a barricade stops us. A few young boys, maybe in their early 20’s, hold up a string to stop cars from trying to pass. We roll down our window and they make their case, “Yesterday along the road violence erupted and our friend was shot and killed. The funeral is in two days, can you spare some money for his burial?”

Shot and killed? Yesterday? We were on the road yesterday.

At 6pm? We traveled at 5:30pm.

We are forever reminded that the war zone we live in makes exceptions for no one and our safety is a miracle, not to be taken for granted.

We carry on with our journey but not before whispering another prayer under our breath “Oh Jesus, keep us safe.”

Arriving in Kingi, the village cheers when they see us. This week we brought in a tractor to flatten our land and prepare to lay our school’s foundation. It’s on the top of a hill so we had to make the site even and pull out the random tree stumps. Due to the location, we also had to build a road to actually get to the site in the first place. This was VERY exciting for the village! The tractor gave them one of their first “major” roads and now every time we arrive they sing and dance saying “The wazungu has come! The wazungu has come! We’re so happy that the wazungu has come!”

(wazungu meaning --us)

They look at us and see development and hope; two things their war torn village has had very little of.

A population of 40,000 people lives here in mud or grass hut houses that cover three hills on the edge of Virunga National park. In this community about half the population are children and they have four schools to service the entire community. Four! That means that if every school could hold 5,000 then all the children would get the opportunity to go to school. However, most schools hold about 100-200 students and out of these four schools I know that at least one of them doesn’t have a full roof and holds only about 40 children and sends them home when it rains.

We’ve been to the village enough times to have friends that regularly greet us and we know on a first name basis.

Patrick is 20 years old and dropped out of school in the fourth grade. He told us when war came to his village he had to flee to Goma but lost everything in the process. When he and his family arrived in the city they didn’t have money for a new house and they took on the label “displaced”. The UNHCR gave them a tarp and they rounded up sticks from the nearby area to make a frame. In just a few hours their home was built, the size of their old bathroom and a little bit of change.  This became the residence for his entire family. They lived there for 10 years.

Last year he returned to his home village feeling like he was grown up and wanted to start building his life back where it started. But he has always regretted not getting a chance to go to school.

We hear story after story of how people missed out on their education.

“War came and I had to run,”

“I moved to an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp,”

“I was taken as a child soldier,”

“My family simply had no money,”

Whatever is the case, they now live with the dream of one day returning to be a student.

We finished surveying the land but unfortunately had issues with some soldiers nearby and weren’t able to move to the next phase of laying the foundations as we had hoped. So we push the work to Monday and tell everyone we’ll be back.

A long trip; very little success. One-step forward, two steps back.

Back in the car and my neck demands that I rub it a little before the journey starts again.

Down the mountain, two more hours, prayers go out for safety and the journey on the road begins again.

Untold Stories of Syria

The first night we arrived in Syria, I climbed into bed exhausted from travel and the emotions of the border crossing. No sooner had my head hit the pillow than I could hear the crashing of the bombs starting outside. Welcome to Syria. Sometimes it felt so close that my room would shake.

I debated for a second—do I get up? Or do I turn on music so I can go back to sleep? I left it at first and then decided with the latter—just something to drown out the explosions. This wasn’t my first rodeo. Many times in Congo, we’d often gone to bed to the sound of gunfire or with the knowledge that bandits had tried multiple times to enter our home just that night. It comes with the territory of working in war zones, I guess.

When I woke up in the morning, however, I assumed the bombs would have ended. I was wrong by a long shot. Our whole hotel shook with each crash as fighter jets now zoomed overhead dropping the bombs a little louder. A little closer.

“Don’t worry, Cassandra, don’t worry.” Our new friends told me with a little laugh over breakfast, “Don’t be afraid.” This was their normal. War raged just a few kilometers away and it has been this way for six years. “Ok, I’m not afraid, but when should I become worried?” I thought it was a fair question.

“We don’t know. We don’t know when they will strike. When a bomb comes and you feel it hit the house, that’s when it’s a concern. But we don’t know when that will be. So we keep living. All we know is that God is good. Even still. He is our protector.”

With this in mind, we packed up our things and we did indeed head out to carry on with life. It was my first time in Syria and everything was new. I felt like I had a million questions to ask and things to learn about. Before coming, I had assumed that so much of the country had been destroyed and that life had slowed almost to a halt. But now here we were with our new friends (who were hilarious and fun). Everywhere we looked, people continued to go out for dinner and picnics and, in the midst of ongoing conflict, had stories of so much hope and resilience.

After leaving the hotel we started making house visits. I wanted to see it for myself, I wanted to hear the stories and meet the families that, until now, I’d only heard about secondhand.

We started with coffee and cookies (that, as it turns out, are Syrian staples), and met with family after family who had lived through the war.

One of the most impactful days was when we got to sit with a headmaster from Aleppo who drove down to meet with us. He’d heard that we build schools in war zones, and he wanted to discuss education projects. He had started a school through his church years before the war began, but when the conflict escalated, his school was destroyed. He reached out with his stories as if we were his last lifeline. His students were traumatized, his best teachers had fled as refugees, money was hard to come by, and each day, they weren’t sure if it would be their last. But in the face of an uphill battle, he knew he couldn’t quit. So he rebuilt.

“It wasn’t easy,” he told us. “After the war everything was damaged in a critical way. All the furniture was stolen. We had nothing. But we knew the power of education. That is the greatest tool to end terrorism is to build schools. So we restarted and opened up our classes. We are growing a generation that knows what the word ‘love’ means.”

It felt like he spoke the exact words on my heart. This man had given everything to stand for peace.

“A bomb crashed into my neighbor’s home one night,” he told us. “It was so close we couldn’t tell at first if we were also hit. My son ran and came into our room and I just held him. ‘Can we please leave? Can we please live like refugees somewhere else, anywhere else?’ he asked me. I told him we were called here to help those who have no other choice than to stay. Every night, he still comes into my room and I hold him until he falls asleep.”

Every house we visited we seemed to find individuals who were rising up in the midst of conflict, having a stare down with war and coming out with an attitude that said, “I’m not a victim to this situation, but an architect of it.” *

We stayed in Damascus, and there we met a group of women being a bright light in the midst of a dark storm. At a time when many fled the country, these women remained. Some of them had tried to get refugee status and were denied. Others just weren’t ready to leave. “We would rather die in our home country, than live somewhere else.”

And so in the face of difficult circumstances, these women banned together and would find some of the poorest, most desperate families and do whatever they could to support them.

“We all need each other. Every day, we take what we can and try and help someone who needs it more than we do. Whether that be food, clothes or assistance to get work. Many times we don’t have enough, but God provides. We have received aid from other NGO’s and people that care, they have helped us expand what we do.”

Every day, I was so humbled by the families we met. It’s like we were given a tour of heroes of our time, believing for the restoration of their country. Living the kind of love that lays its life down for others.

“I stay and teach because my country needs me,” said Sarah, a primary school teacher, who told us how she’d stayed this long. “Why leave now? I meet students every day who are traumatized. They are fine one day and the next there is bombing on their street and they need someone to help them through the difficulties.”

When we think of Syria, may we not just think of the war and violence but may these be the stories that remain on our minds. The resilience and courage of the people living everyday finding hope, peace, and standing with one another.

 

 

*Quote from Simon Sinek

The Journey of Processing War

Some days I try to slow down as much as possible.

I pause. I sit in silence. And I go over war stories trying to see how they’re influencing my perspective on life.

This is probably a strange thing for a day off but something I’ve become accustomed to while living the life that we do.

Every event in our lives has a way of tinting the filters through which we see the world. Sometimes it’s for the better, to see the best in humanity and development,  and sometimes… simply put, it’s not.

I remember driving through Iraq a few weeks ago and local friends pointed out the window, “Over there we used to have a factory; over there as well—because of the war though, they are destroyed. Over here are the remains of an ISIS base… same with here on the left.”

Empty buildings lay in ruins, telling the story of destruction. I closed my eyes for a second remembering a similar experience in Congo, driving through the jungle, grasses taller than our car, “…a village used to be here. Before the war we had many people living along this road.”

From one corner of the world to another, war leaves its mark. And why am I searching for it? For a moment it was like I was having an out of body experience watching this blonde girl, a long way from LA, driving towards an ISIS held city. What was I doing?

 The silence is rarely without noise. Sitting in Congo I hear drums in the distant, my dog freaking out at a stranger passing by... but it’s quiet enough to hear the hard thoughts.

Have I fully felt Syria? Have I fully gone through the stories? And now coming to Congo, the poverty and war, feeling just as bad if not almost worse at times.  Am I self-protecting so it doesn’t hurt as badly? At the end of the day, what are the thoughts I’m left thinking and why?

My greatest fear circles around again, “If I fully feel it, then what if I can’t fix it?”

Sounds silly when I say it. Of course I can’t fix it. I’m not expected to.

But in the midst of ongoing war, if I feel it enough for it to break my heart, and the sounds of the cracking and shattering from within me makes its way back to the west, back to the churches in America, what then if nobody answers?

Everyone is called to love. And we can’t judge what someone else’s expression of love looks like.

But sometimes I wonder. Would we love louder if we stopped long enough to feel it a little greater?

What if we had all met the child who tried to play soccer in the schoolyard in Syria only to find the ball wasn’t a ball after all but someone’s head, now missing it’s body,  that had been left in the playground.  

Would we be quicker to lower our walls and build a bigger table if every night we also went to sleep listening to the explosions of bombs and wondering if they would crash on OUR children and not just on theirs?

My heart struggles to pull out the files of fear stored in the cabinets of my mind and lay them at the feet of Jesus.

I’m not the savior. You are. You felt it first. It was the breaking of YOUR heart, the shattering and the cracking that YOU experienced that called me to war zones in the first place.

I’m simply responding to  the love that I saw in You first and then trying to reflect that love back to the world around me.

Sometimes poorly; sometimes really poorly.

But it’s not my job to fix it. It’s my job to feel it. Because You do. And then respond in love. Because that’s what You did.

Love is so messy; so uncomfortable and so costly.

But it calls to us. Deep calling unto deep. To fill up and be poured out.

Love sees all things and hopes all things, believes all things.

That means it sees murders, the mass murders, yet still believes in the goodness of humanity because we have a good God. A perfect God. Whose love trumps evil, every single time.

So what does the silence reveal? A bizarre excitement.  Even if our filters become soiled with the experiences of life, His goodness still washes it clean.

Even though we can give everything, laying out our lives until we have nothing left to give, His response will always be to give back and to give more than we even thought we had the capacity to hold.

So in the silence, I’ll feel it,  sometimes fearless and sometimes through my fear. Because I’m called to reflect the Son and that’s what He did first.

(If you're interested in joining the journey, check out www.justicerising.org and sign up for our newsletter, host an impact dinner or become a monthly donor. Annnnd, be watching for the next blog coming next week) 

Girl Boss. Period.

In Congo, women and girls show all new meaning to the word “strength.” They work non-stop—cooking, cleaning, and child rearing—all without electricity or running water! They also have very limited access to basic amenities like soap, lack variety in their cooking or diet, and are without other basic household items.

They are my heroes.

So do you ever wonder, in the middle of the jungle, what girls do while they’re on their period? They can’t just run to the store and pick up a pack of tampons.

As a part of our WaSH program, we train girls and women how to stay clean and safe during their monthly cycle.

This month, I loved getting to sit in on the training. Here are some golden moments from our trainees during the lessons:

"When you look down and you see your period for the first time, you can be proud! You can say—‘I am a woman. I am courageous. I can carry children!’ Having your period is not a shameful thing. Talking about your period is not a shameful thing. You must be proud of who you are!”

It’s estimated that one in ten girls miss school because of their period. By some estimates, this equals as much as twenty percent of a given school year. (UNESCO / World Bank)

"See, you must be courageous as a woman. Courageous and clean. You are so special with all the things your body can do. You must make sure to take care of it. Make your pads and don't let it hold you back. Don't let it keep you out of school."

Instead of instructing our girls to buy pads, which are expensive and often hard to find in the villages, our trainers teach them how to make their own pads out of things they can find in the market.

It usually involves a small, inexpensive piece of mattress/sponge-like material, fabric, and string to sew with. They make their own reusable pad out of a pattern we give them. During the lesson we also give them everything they need to make their first pad, including needle and thread!

"Water is your best friend when you have your period. What's your best friend?”

 “Water."

This was stressed many times throughout the training. Many girls don’t know how to properly clean themselves during their cycles, either. It’s usually shameful to discuss, so women don’t talk to each other about it. They don’t talk about it with their daughters, and when their cycle arrive, they just stay home and wait until it passes.

“Now that you know how to make your pads, you can wear it knowing you are protected! You can go to school. You can go to the fields. There is no need to miss anything! If you ever need help, you can courageously talk to your female teachers, or other girls in this groupwe are all in this together!”

It was actually really incredible watching our team work. They crossed into culturally uncharted territories, and every girl in the class loved it, and hung on every word they said.

In Congo, it’s also very difficult to go to school if you are girl, and there is a clear discrepancy when it comes to literacy education. The literacy rate for girls sits at just 50%, while the literacy rate for boys in the DRC is nearly 80%. Teaching girls about something as simple as how to take care of their bodies while on their periods can help keep girls in school throughout the year and lowers dropout rates as they grow older.

At the end of the women’s health and safety classes, we also gave each participant a new pair of underwear, and a package of Kotex with instructions for how to use them. In our group for child mothers, many had never been taught this before. Some girls already had one, two or even three children, and yet, they had never previously discussed their periods or basic care and hygiene during their cycle!

We are so proud of our team’s boldness and the work they continue to do with respects to women’s health and girls’ education. Period.

A throwback to my brief time in Zataari Refugee Camp

Lately I’ve noticed that every time we discuss the refugee crisis or Syrians or those trapped in conflict, I’ve gone from my “knowing head nod” to straight up tears. They pull so tenderly at every single heartstring I have, as the love I feel towards them kind of catches me off guard.

I know my time with them was short but I can’t get them out of my head.

So with the theme of “throwback Thursday” I’m reposting an old blog I wrote. My random processing from my short time with some beautiful refugees living in Jordan.

May God open more doors soon for us to build schools in the Middle East. 



"Wow. Here I sit, in a coffee shop in Jerusalem, finally able to try and wrap my mind around life. Refugees, torture, war, bombings and the beauty of heaven’s invasion in the midst of it all. Wow.

I don’t even know where to start. I feel so blessed. So absolutely privileged to have had the opportunity to sit with Syrians who had recently fled the terror and sheer horror of war and see Jesus come and embrace them. Wow.

Walking into Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan felt like a dream. We were told the entire time prior that it was closed and we wouldn’t be allowed in, but then favor showed up and the waters parted. A camp with over 150,000 people. 150,000! It was surreal and hard to comprehend at times. Syria is being emptied of Syrians one dangerous trek across the border after another.

As an Iris Relief team we connected with some men in the camp (and eventually the UNHCR) and they became our tour guides as we visited families who’d recently fled the war.

Most camps are structured that you can’t bring in informal supplies and Zaatari was no different. So once we passed the army guards clutching their AK47’s, we had nothing to give but love.

““As-salam alaykum!” (Hello!)

We’d greet a family and then enter the refugee camping-like-tent and sit with an inquisitive family. We’d say we were there to listen, to pray and bring hope, and then… the stories would flow.

“Our city had a massacre of 400 people”

“Our city had a massacre of 500 people”

“In our home town, children were used as a human shield against the opposing side and 250 were killed, most under the age of 10 years old”

WHAT?!

“My husband went to the market and never came home”

“I was captured and tortured for information I didn’t have”

“I was taken and locked in a room, no bigger then this tent, with 100 other people. Body, was on top of body, on top of another body…”

The stories went on as we discovered more about the blood spilling out from Syria. Looking into the hopeless eyes of so many refugees I couldn’t stop what was bubbling up from inside me “THERE’S HOPE!” I would blurt out almost uncomfortably sometimes. Really uncomfortably at other times.

“There’s hope and it’s tangible and he’s ALIVE!”

Those are the moments that if you don’t back it with action, you look like, well, a jerk. These people have had war in their country for the last two years. Massacre after bloody massacre. Their homes have been blown up, their bodies at times ripped apart, and then this random group of people shows up and says “There’s hope”?!.

But it felt like second nature. Listening to their stories half of me wanted to cry while the other half couldn’t silence heaven’s cry of response.

So, we would invite Holy Spirit and he would make sense of that controversial four letter word.

 “If the gospel doesn’t work in a war zone, it doesn’t work.” God's not just good for middle class America, he's good in the trenches of war. And we can stand on that.

In one tent praying for a man his knee was completely healed from pain. The first of many miracles. Backs, heads, hearts. Blank eyes were revived with life, laughter filled the mouths of children and echoed everywhere we went.

We were hopeful going on the trip but to see as much response as we saw, I think we were all quite shocked! Haha. Hope to such hopelessness is TANGIBLE. You can see it, touch it.

You can walk into a home of those who have never desired Jesus but within moments of a few sips of tea, or disgusting Turkish coffee, they could see what you have and reach out on their own for the love that you carry.

It was amazing. I felt like I came alive all over again with a little hand tucked in mine, walking through a sea of tents. This is what the gospel looks like; compassion to action, leaping into unchartered territory and finding heaven’s already been there waiting, longing to break forth in love.

Though Syria is still contracting with the pains of war, after our time in the dirt, I couldn’t be more confident standing with papa and his dreams for peace. 

The Process of Moving Stories

I’m back! Sitting in my very white apartment with ceilings that touch the sky, at the moment I'm amazed that they never end.

I got back and have been so enjoying every minute with my husband. I don’t think I realized just how hard it was being away from him until we’re now back together again. Amazing how crazy you can be about someone —he’s a pretty incredible human.

I knew I wanted to blog right when I returned so it would be fresh. The stories and moments I heard, I didn’t want them to be forgotten. So many of the things happening in Congo go unshared to the world at large, my jaw is still skimming the floor as I think about the horror.

One of my biggest wrestles right now as I sit with the stories from our dear friends who have suffered so greatly from the massacres in Congo is— 

“Where is everybody?”

Why is nothing being done to end this?

Sometimes the stories of war can go to your head. You feel like you’re the only one carrying them and you carry them constantly. Everything you say and do reminds you of one of their faces.

This morning as I pour cold water on my 3 minute soft boiled eggs, I paused at how absolutely blessed I am. Food and water at my finger tips and I thought back to a common story we would ask during our sessions—

“How often do you get to eat?”

The malnourished toddlers playing around our feet as we discussed, still a fresh memory in my mind.

“Maybe 3 or 4 days a week I’ll find food,” 

The most frequent answer we heard.

The other day I sat at the feet of Jesus and brought him the stories of war. A very very regular thing for us and one that I’ve shared about in blogs in the past.

The process of moving the stories from your head to his feet. “Letting go” and not trying to play the role of God by carrying pain alone.

Some of the hardest stories for me has still been the women who lost their husbands. Worse yet, how they heard or saw them being slaughtered. Many had to identify their soulmates bodies who, after being chopped into pieces, were put back together by the mortician in order to be recognized. 

The distant look in the women’s eyes as they shared a little of what that felt like. My heart still aches as I remember them recalling the flashbacks of the images of the bodies that haunt them in their sleep.

In a sea of tears and tissues I lay them before my God one at a time. The anger is not mine to carry. The pain not mine to hold on to. It’s there I see a picture my God holding them. First he comforts the mamas. The widows. From children lost and husbands lost. The hearts that so desperately need mending.

From there I see what I can only imagine as the victims of the massacres. The men that were described to me over and over again. The father’s that won’t see their children anymore, the sons that can no longer take care of their mothers. And I saw them with my papa God. Smiling and celebrating in a place where pain and sorrow are no more. 

The beauty of heaven overtakes them. And my heart finds relief.

Our God who takes care of the orphan and the widow. It’s as if I knew in that moment, not only could those men rejoice because they saw the full goodness of our papa, but also because they knew that that good God was so faithful to watch over their families. 

The more war I see, I feel like my heart gets pulled in to God. Though I do often stay with questions, I feel like rather the more I fall in love with my good good father. 

I believe that often we can learn more about the goodness of God in the midst of sorrow than in the midst of joy. You get to feel first hand how his love can carry you when you can’t get up on your own. You see that when pain feels so great, his hope is even greater. The fact that there’s any hope sometimes is a miracle as I think back to the long pauses between some stories, as if the vivid memory of the machete stays at the forefront of their minds.

My biggest pondering of late is “how can I do more?”  

For the direct victims of the most recent war, we funded those individuals to start small businesses and feed their families. As we shared the news with them on a patch of grass that we called our “office”, they instantly broke out in cheering and one woman threw herself to the grass and kicked her legs in the air, laughing like a giddy school girl.

Hugs were given all around as we took names and went over protocols and procedures. Thank you so much to everyone who gave and made their jobs possible. Their squeals and meals are because of your generosity. 

If you’re interested in being a part of their story, you still can! I know I often read blogs of the raw realities and I get frustrated if there’s no outlet for me to help. 

Please know that by giving on the website you’ll be receipted and become a part of the beautiful process of rebuilding war affected nations.

Not all who wander are lost

Over a month back in Congo! Officially. And what an incredible gift every day has been. Except for maybe last night when I violently threw up for almost 5 hours…

Thank God for rock star roommates who cleaned up my puke bucket every 20 minutes with the little bit of water we had left over. They make my life wonderful!

We just got back from an AMAZING trip to a village called Beni. If you see my previous post, I talk about the attacks and the slaughter happening in this region.

We’ve never worked there before, but Justice Rising is constantly seeking out the hardest places, with the worst war and greatest conflict.

So when we heard about the injustice last year, we started monitoring it and asking questions. Now as the raids still occur with no real let up to the killings (some even 3 nights before we arrived) we felt like it just made sense to respond.

During our time we sat with seven appointed leaders who will be our point people and mentors to our new projects. Our team has known them and trusts them with our lives. Those seven then went out and gathered some of the worst cases they knew and our team had the incredible privilege to sit with and do “Story telling” (see projects) with over a dozen individuals.

Our first story was a mama. Now, it’s been a while since I was fully in “counseling” mode and I think I was taken off guard. She had the most beautiful baby girl and as I looked into their eyes, immediately noticed severe signs of malnutrition.

As she started talking she spoke of her husband and how they use to live in a small house with a large piece of land that they would farm. They had one child and were pregnant with their second. As the rebels started to invade their village they fled, but as they were running realized that they had no food and if they were hiding in the jungle for a while, they would need provisions. She ducked down in the grass and her husband returned from some supplies. Unfortunately, it was then that he was captured and the nightmare unfolded.

She went on about his death and how they tied him up. She heard each time the machete chopped at his body and recounted his cry and how she’ll never forget the screams he made has he was hacked to death.

I was anything but professional as her story went on.

Eight months pregnant she and her toddler ran delirious for four hours to the main road.

Images of the blood that soaked her husbands body still imprinted in her mind.

The more I tried to talk, the more tears rolled down my cheeks.

I kept hearing the scripture “pure religion is this… take care of the orphan and the widow”

I imagined my husband and how I couldn’t begin to think what I would do if something happened to him.

She went on to say how she settled in the city but had no money to care for her kids.

Every week she waits outside of a shop that grinds palm oil seeds. As the machine grinds the seeds into oil, she collects the loose seeds from the ground and saves them. She says at the end of the week if she collects enough to mash into oil, she sells it herself for about $3 and buys whatever food she can.

I tried to encourage her. I tried to tell her that her husband would be so proud of how she delivered that baby by herself in a strange town and how beautiful he would think his new little girl was.

I wanted to say how amazing it was that she walked 4 hours to safety after such a horrific death.

To tell her what an amazing mother she was to work so hard to feed her girls.

The fact that she wakes up everyday and gets out of bed with sun and simply carrys on, is amazing enough.

But I couldn’t. I just gave a weak smile and told her how sorry I was she had to go through that. Tears rolling down my cheeks I bit my lip hard so I wouldn’t break out into a blubbering sob.

They say you shouldn’t cry (or in my case weep) during sessions or people won’t feel like you’re strong enough to handle their stories. You want to make them feel safe and like they can be free to open up without having to worry if they need to be comforting you.

I bit my lip harder and whispered out a prayer.

The next story I did a little better, as was the story after. After a while I was nervous I would bit right through that lower lip of mine but I felt like I was at least of better use to the women and girls that sat before us.

Yes, girls. I lost it again as we chatted with a young orphan that had to identify the chopped up bodies of both of her parents.

The entire time my heart felt like it was being ripped in pieces. I understand why God tried to emphasize “PURE RELIGION guys! This is it!!” He sees every mama who runs from the machete. Every wife who watched her husband be killed. Every child who walked mile after mile all alone.

What a stunning father to highlight them and say “These ones to me, are where it’s at. To care for these ones is what sums up the gospel”

I could go on forever but this is getting long.  I’ll share more later about the job opportunities that we’ve created and how that side of life is planning on growing.

Just know, the next post ends well. Really well.

 

Dreams for the forgotten

Some images are burned into my mind.

A video. Three women, on their knees, hands tied behind their backs. Pushed to the ground by 3 men, with machetes. The video goes on and for almost two minutes, though I can’t stomach that long, and shows these 3 women being hacked to death.

It’s a video done by rebels, much like ISIS, but these men are just north from us and don’t get nearly the attention of the middle eastern group. Here these rebels filmed themselves to put terror into the hearts of the victims’ neighbors and the international community at large, though I doubt the video has gone very far.

Their hundreds of killings hasn’t spread much outside Eastern Congo, let alone left the continent of Africa.

The rebels go from house to house, they kill and rape and mutilate. No rhyme or reason though rumors spread that it’s a religious battle of Muslims vs. Christians, no one is quite certain why the murders are so brutal and why they’ve gone on for so long.

My heart aches tonight. I sit in front of my computer and debate how to share the stories. Enough that readers understand the gravity of what’s going on but not too much that the stories I tell are written off as too heavy.

But instead of sharing more stories of devastation, I want to instead whisper dreams of hope.

As many who know me, this comes with no surprise. Justice Rising was founded on going into the worst places so when I heard the terror happening north of us it felt natural to start asking the questions “What do they need? How can we help?”

Well, right now, the resounding echo that keeps bouncing around our team is the need to stand with the women survivors. Those who have gone through rape and have witnessed the majority of their family killed. Now with no home or field to cultivate, the women are left with questions of what’s next with little answers for where to begin picking up their lives.

An opportunity has come up where we can fly to Beni (where most of the attacks are happening) and work with a handful of ladies there. Our plan is to begin self sustaining work for them and connect with locals we know who can oversee the group and begin counseling and a healing process.

Right now we’re short about $2,000 (USD) for project costs. If you’re interested in giving, please check out the donation page (www.justicerising.org)  and stand with us for Beni and the violated women of war.

The potential dates for our trip is mid-July, probably the 16th or 17th so there is a bit of a time crunch on this.

Please be in prayer with Edison and I and the team as we strategize and plan how to best love these women.

The Whisper of Silence

I sat with a woman yesterday who due to the trauma of rape, was nearly mute.

She’d reply quietly when I asked her basic things but mostly, her lips remained tightly sealed as we sat on the edge of a plastic covered bed at a hospital here in Congo.

I leaned forward to grab her hand and as the mattress crinkled below me, the woman next to her whispered that the girl was from Beni.

Unfortunately, that makes sense.

Beni is an area just north from where we are in Eastern Congo. A trader’s city parallel to Uganda.

There was very little I could understand from her. She was raped. How, where, when, I don’t really know. Her fistula was torn, a tear that only occurs during violent sexual assault or traumatic prolonged labor. I know she comes from Beni, whether her family is alive, I don’t know. How she got down to Goma, I don’t know. Whether she wants to go back home… I don’t know.

Beni right now is a target of repeated conflict and violent attacks. They estimate roughly 30 people every week are being slaughtered, hacked to death by machetes.

The more I heard the stories the more everything stirred inside of me that we had to do something.

Arriving back in Congo, our Pastor was returning from two funerals up in the area and flew in the same day we did. The stories were fresh on his mind and my heart was eager to hear.

He uncovered layers to the conflict that helped me slightly comprehend the silence from our dear one in the hospital.

“I met many who were raped in Beni. A whole group of them meeting together. Rebels came to their family’s fields as they worked the farm. They killed their whole family with the blows of a machete. To the neck, to the chest. Not even babies less than a year old were spared. They killed everyone, except these women. The women, after witnessing the atrocities, were then raped. Just when they thought the nightmare was almost over, the soldier would ask for a drink, and then dinner. Through the pain, through the horror, the women were forced to prepare a meal for the rebels to eat.”

My heart aches.

I sit in the dark with my computer on my lap, my housemates in bed and I breathe in the breath of my papa God.

A week back in Africa and we’ve had a mini roller coaster ride of emotions. We’ve heard so many war stories on so many levels. The group of women that our head Congolese director met are still meeting but are in need of something more. Counseling? Jobs?

I think of the eyes of the woman in the hospital. I think of the crackling plastic and how it was the loudest noise that she made.

I was born into such privilege. I am a woman, yet I have a voice. I have rights.

My brain has been on overdrive with so many thoughts about the rapes and the beheadings I could go in so many directions at this stage but instead, for this post I’ll turn back to my papa. It feels like the stories have landed in my heart but not bruised it like they do so often.

It feels like I’m safely tucked in the heart of God as I go from injustice to injustice, feeling the pain but then giving it back to Jesus to bear. I try to use it as fuel for the future and my return to the west (end of July) rather than let it shift to anger or a hardened spirit.

Processing injustice is always a journey of “passing through the valley” but never remaining there. May the women of Beni, those the direct target of such horrific violations, also pass through that valley and find Jesus and hope and laughter in the midst and on the other side.

 

Thank you for following my journey. We’re posting every Tuesday on our Justice Rising blog if you’re interested in different voices sharing with different topics from our work in war zones. It’s more project focused than emotions focused I’d say. ;)

Sometimes the best moments happen with a soldier in a brothel

He was walking down the path on a rampage. And a rampage is probably an understatement. 

We saw him from a ways off. Green rubber boots, a big stick and eyes that spit bullets of fire. (No joke. Lol.) We were coming from the soccer field, we'd just had a great time with our Leadership League and we were off to the brothels to meet with some ladies we’re friends with who are working as prostitutes.

The man was a terror, yelling and shouting, we couldn’t understand it at first, all we could see was his aggressive movements that made people literally leap out of the way into the grass to avoid being trampled by him. As he got nearer to us we could finally understand his shouting as he screamed "I'm a solider!! I'm gonna beat you all and then I'm gonna chase you outta here!!! First though,"  He had now reached us and was infringing on some definite personal boundaries "First, I'm gonna take these white girls for my wives! I'll start with this one." his finger pointed inches away from me.

I had already gently hustled the girls on my team behind us and I tried not to loose ground or give in to fear as the man stood about a foot away from me. 

The best moment came next. Calmly yet so very sternly, our Congolese director, Mboto, didn't move a muscle but instead, pulled the soldier’s attention toward him and said "I have a better idea. Fall to your knees and we're going to pray that God gives you a clean mind and a pure heart"

I felt like I was in a movie.

Without even a second of hesitation, the man fell to his knees and cupped his face with his hands.

The presence of God then woosh’d in, shooting from our toes up our legs, through our arms, into our chest and releasing in a giggle that couldn’t be contained. We then all gathered around and began praying for the soldier. After a while when we finished, he stood up and his whole demeanor had changed. 

"Thank you! Thank you so much! I'm a soldier and I live on the hill in the barracks. Thank you for praying for me!!"

My jaw literally dropped. ‘You’re kidding right?’

"Do you have a church? You could go to the one on the opposing hill" Mboto smiled.

"Yes! That's a great idea! And here," pulling out a 500 Franc bill "here is my offering that I owe for church! Next month I will tithe at church, but this month—I will give it to the missionaries!"

They chatted a bit and I could only laugh when the man walked away and  we turned around to where a widow was sitting behind us and we handed her the 500francs. (About .50cents)

A small line then formed as women came forward for prayer. We started praying for healing for those who had various pains and sicknesses and began a little dance party as pain left their bodies.  (remember we're still in the village brothels)

Walking away later, in the light of the setting sun, we literally had to stop and say with a laugh "Wait, what just happened?!?!" It happened so fast and effortlessly- from the man, and the falling on the knees and then the women getting healed….

The simplicity of papa God is so beautiful. The power of our meager yes and his massive heart to show up. Love trumps fear. Always. So stunning.

 How sweet it is, just another day, walking in the dirt and stopping for the one in front of us. :)

(Sorry no pictures! Internet is just way. too. slow!)

From jungle to jungle

Every morning I wake up excited. It’s as if the day were planted with 100 possibilities and it’s just my job to walk through it and pick them like wild flowers.

I’ve written these blogs before. My first re-entry blogs. And like this one, they’re usually plugged with pure cheese and a deep sigh of “It’s so good to be home.”

I feel like I savor my moments. Every hug from our kids, every Swahili greeting, every handful of local “fufu” (ugali) that I mix with sauce for dinner. My heart is so happy to be back.

It’s a quick trip this time. Two weeks in the Congolese jungle before I return to the concrete jungle.

During my days before I left, we planned and schemed how to best spend every minute I’m here. We didn’t want to waste a single second of these precious days. Now on the ground though and the result looks like generally, more meetings then I know what to do with!

Normally meetings can get semi-tedious, but I think because of the hype, I don’t feel that this time. I go to bed in eager expectation for the next one. Each is carefully thought out and strategically communicated on how we can continue building healthy foundations to expand and be ready to hold more kids, more staff and more funds. How can we impact beyond our current capacity? It fires me up.

Though, the side story. (Always a side story, right?) While trying to speed through two weeks, I feel I’m faced more bluntly with the “in your face” moments when my heart is bigger than my day-planner or my bank account.

My boys come to me “Sandra, we need new shoes. Our current ones are worn through to the ground.”

“Sandra, they cannot complete their studies well until they have a candle at night to work when it is dark.”

“Sandra, the children are studying but the classroom is not big enough. Some sit on stones.”

I wish I could fit in more home visits to each one to encourage them. Keep pressing on! You’re not alone!

I’m always impacted by how much you can do with so little.

For just over $100 we can buy every child in our village school a notebook.

“It is important that they have a new notebook” – my team tells me.

For some new kids to the school, this will be the first notebook they’ve ever had.

When we arrive at our city schools we look around and see the new desks we purchased for the teachers before Christmas.

Every educator now proudly grading students tests on it.

To us, a small detail, to them an entire shift in how they conduct their classroom.

It has been really fun to see our students lately. They’re doing so well. Some of our kids are at the top of the city in academics. Our children, whom many have been the first of their family to attend school like this, are thriving in their studies. Once displaced, most are the first generation that have settle in the city after running from war.

It’s like gasoline to our fire, and I wish you could join us at our kitchen table, drinking tea and dreaming how wars can be stopped. We plot school expansions, vocational training facilities and our upcoming de-traumatization meetings, believing that the small things will have big effects and that the cycle of conflict that has been repeating itself in Congo, or Iraq or Syria, won’t be passed on to the next generation.

Again- we’re dreamers. We can’t help ourselves. Testimonies are our crack.

Tomorrow our team is heading to the bush. Again- restricted by my day planner, the original 5 day trip is now minimized to THREE. I don’t dare blink in fear of missing it all. The far trek up the mountains is to our sweet village to check on everything, host more meetings and “extend my greetings” before my next flight.

Prayers appreciated as always! More stories and posts to come soon! 

Words for those who work with people.

I go back to Africa tomorrow! I should have written sooner. I’m suppose to be packing now and instead I’m blogging—opps.

I was also suppose to be blogging every week for the last month though, another oops.

A few explanations. One—it was the holidays. It’s tough to focus through the blasting Christmas music and food comas.

Two- Post holidays, it was actually a pretty hard month. I wasn’t going to blog about the difficult parts but I don’t do well with glazing over my emotions. In her books, Dr. Brene Brown (one of my favorites) writes about being raw and how we weren’t meant to compartmentalize vulnerability. Being real about one thing and masking another, it doesn’t fully work and we end up with an unauthentic, watered down version of who we wish to be. (the general gist)

So, I won’t go into details to what happened, but in the end, in a moment where adjusting to my American life was feeling difficult, (sometimes it’s a larger culture shift than I anticipated) I was blindsided with an unfortunate betrayal. Or backstabbing, I guess. Am I aloud to say that?

Again- no details, but within the last couple of years I feel like I’ve been surprised with these issues a few times. And with my heart strewn across the floor, I got the privilege again, of picking up the raw pieces but couldn’t seem to organize them for a blog.

My turning point came the other night. I had one of the most healing moments of the last month just sitting down to dinner with a dear friend and aid-working veteran, sharing war stories. Not literal war stories, (which is also a common occurrence in my life) but talking about life’s imperfections and unexpected pains.

When I first got married (like… yesterday. Haha.) I kept asking married couples “What’s hard about your marriage? What are your differences? Your ups, your downs?” Because suddenly I was married and faced with “Oh my gosh, marriage is better than I ever dreamed BUT, as two strong individuals- we have a lot to learn!”

This felt similar. Sometimes when we’re navigating unfamiliar waters, or in this last month’s case- hurt and well… irritation, sometimes we’re just desperate to hear someone else say “It’s normal. It’s happened to me. You’ll be ok”

So for a quick second, if you don’t have that kind of dinner date scheduled, —for anyone who has felt knocked down, if you’ve tried and felt like you’ve failed, if you’ve been betrayed, backstabbed, lost everything, been robbed, bankrupt, or fallen down and are afraid you can’t get back up….

It’s going to be ok. You’re going to be alright.

And not only that, you won’t just come out alive, you’re going to be better than you would’ve been before, as the wisdom and humility you’ll gain is worth much more than the pride you would have kept without these lessons!

It was interesting hearing my friend talk about moments in her life that knocked her down. And I mean like, beat her til she was unconscious (not literally) and my first response was an instinctive- YOU ARE SO BRAVE. The courage it took for her to get back up was more impressive than had everything gone smoothly from the beginning. And with the experience she gained in navigating her heart, the things she learned from seeing what works and what doesn’t and preparing for the next round, she’s now developing a foundation that is more solid and life changing than she could have had before.

People are messy. And everywhere in life there are people. You can’t control whether the young prostitute returns to sell her body, even if you did risk everything to rescue her. You can’t control the young soldier who returns to fight in war, you can’t control the homeless man who just took your dollar and used it to buy alcohol and you can’t control those around you into making honoring decisions. But you can control your heart. Your response, and how you rise again, to risk it all and say yes to love.

“Failure” is such an inappropriate label. Stamped on our hearts so often when things don’t work out like we planned.

If you risk great, you could fall great, but that is not failure.

This month actually wasn’t that terrible. Papa God has been such a boss in his response. It just made me ask a lot of questions, and in disappointment choose how I was going to respond to betrayal now and the lingering taste from it before.

A semi-strange blog right before going back to Africa, but before I reach my excited “Everything is wonderful and I’m so excited to be back in the Congo!” I wanted to give you a taste of both sides to a complicated story.

This is getting long so I’ll stop rambling, but I hope that in whatever capacity you lead and live, that you never stop loving greatly, believing whole heartedly and dreaming unreasonably.

Strategy for: Changing the world...even on a rainy day

I’m amazed. Some days I wake up, totally inspired and other days… I wish I could stay in bed and watch never ending episodes of Parenthood or something. (Just being honest)

Today was one of those days. I woke up and the cloudy, rainy sky seemed like a perfect recipe for a hot tea and PJ day, but unfortunately I knew that wasn’t an option.

“Find the motivation, Cass. Just go on and find….the…motivation.”

My self-talk gives me nothing.

So I open up the news reports to remember why some days are spent behind a computer. “Child soldiers in Central African Republic more than doubled, says charity”

Excuse me!? DOUBLED?! “Up to 10,000 boys and girls are now fighting….”

10,000

 That’s a lot.

But truthfully, when we hear big numbers in the hundreds or thousands, our minds seems to graze, so I try and personalize.

I think of the first child soldier I ever saw.

It was in Congo many years ago, and when I think about, he probably wasn’t the first. But his it’s tender eyes that are still stuck in my brain, so he was obviously the one who made the biggest impact.

I first saw him from behind and even from that, he looked like a little boy. He was small in stature and his frame looked fragile. He had a Kalashnikov hanging between his shoulder blades. I stared at him for a little bit squinting, trying hard to guess his age. He had army pants on but just a tattered shirt and flip flops to complete his “uniform.” He was also wearing a baseball hat that he had pulled down low on his brow.

I called out trying to get his attention “Jambo!” he turned to my Swahili greeting and looked shocked to see the blonde girl walking over to greet him. At first he seemed shy and sweet. Fighting a smile, his eyes were curious and I tried to open up a conversation. No more than a sentence in though and his commander came up and he dodged off like a scared puppy.

I was shocked. After a small and harmless chat with his superior, my team and I walked away back to our house. “He looked SO YOUNG.” I kept repeating. I couldn’t believe it. A baby and really big gun. That sucks.

Since then, I’ve seen a lot of boys with AK’s slung on their backs. Our sons have a similar past and now laugh at the times they fought for food. (Though it’s never really funny)

A lot of our projects begin with moments like this. A broken heart to a global injustice. THIS ISN’T RIGHT. We process it and chew on it, sometimes minutes, sometimes months. “Jesus, what’s your strategy!?” and then 9x out of 10… a random idea feels like it’s whispered through the airwaves into our hearts. And it fits.

I remember walking down the dusty streets of Goma town (where we’re based in Congo) and I was mad. We had just received more reports of increased abductions of children from our village and I was angry. Bouncing ideas back and forth- talking to Jesus, talking to my other leaders, avoiding the pot holes and trash heaps and then back to open dialogue, we all somehow stumbled across a verbal processing of our entire Freedom Boys program. Relocation. Sponsorship. Foster Housing. Mentoring. Education. That’s it! Somehow simple.

It took us at least a year of walking it out and it’s still not like we’ve figured out a “magic formula,” but our boys are happy, healthy, safe and all in all—doing really well.

Sooo why the ramblings today? I guess because it’s not rocket science. Maybe to some people, but I’m not a scientist. And I want to motivate others to start asking questions, start letting your dreams get the better of you and go after the thing that scares you. It doesn’t have to be rescuing child soldier. Our team just believes in who God says he is and believes he can really, really use our “yes”. Is there something that’s frustrating you? An inequality, prejudice or discrimination? There’s a beauty in passion and love, and letting it bubble up into activation that throws us into the seas of injustice. (That was a mouthful. haha)

Nevertheless. What are some projects you’ve been dreaming up and what would you say is the biggest hurdle you have to overcome to accomplish them?

(Feel free to start a dialogue in the comment section below!)

And I Stop.

It’s 7am. I sit at my computer with a cup of tea and a box of tissues, listening to TED talks and Christmas music, catching up on emails from the other side of the world.

My heart is a mess, though not necessarily in a bad way. A mix between being completely inspired for the future, oddly pensive for the present and yet slightly devastated with the past. (raw moment, stay with me)

Most mornings lately, I wake up with a message in my inbox about beheadings, people being set on fire and “…hacked to death, worse than animals.”

No joke. It’s not a random newsfeed or the BBC, but emails from my family in Congo. They’re heartbroken and confused. “AGAIN!? We fear for our lives AGAIN.” I stop for a moment and let my heart feel, tears running down my cheeks. This isn’t a statistic, a movie, these are real people and this isn’t right.

It’d be easy for me to read it, reply a quick, sympathetic yet comforting email and go on with my day. But instead I stop. To give honor to the innocent. For those who unjustly lost their lives to a blade. For the millions living in war everyday, leaving their belongings to run for safety. I stop.

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This morning before my early cup of tea I lay in bed with my husband (because I have one of those now!) reading the email and then writing and rewriting Instagram posts I was trying to concoct to attempt to communicate the war happening right now. How can I be their voice? Everything I typed sounded too cliché. I was terrified that people would read the phrase “children beheaded” wince and pass on as quickly as possible, not actually thinking who that child was or how their death affected their family.

But my mind raced: “How can I communicate that this child had dreams!? They had a mom who loved them and made them breakfast every morning. They had a few goats that THEY were in charge of herding and bringing to a small patch of grass. They had favorite pass times and were never late for school.”

Feeling flustered for a moment, I ended up settling for a more uplifting post. Something without the word “hacked”.

But it still sits with me. How can we share Micheal’s story, Emmanuel’s, Juliette’s? All students in our schools. All waking up not knowing if it will be their last morning to see the sun rise.

I refuse to sit with that and believe that I am powerless to do anything.

Justice Rising builds schools in conflict zones to reach children and shift the situation for the current generation and generations to come.

So between emails I watch this. An inspiring TED talk communicating again, the epic importance of education and how it’s a game changer in war zones.

"All refugee children tell us education is the most important thing in their lives. Why? Because it allows them to think of their future rather than the nightmare of their past. It allows them to think of hope rather than hatred"

“Hope rather than hatred”

To give education is to give love. To give peace.

To be a Peace Movement, so we don’t just watch history unfold, but we take a part in writing it.

SO, as my second week in my journey of weekly blogs…. I give you this; the talk that made me pace the floor and write this post.

I hope it stirs you the same way it did me.

 

Melissa Fleming:

Back to Blogging

It’s been just over 2 months since my last post. A whirlwind of an 8 weeks to say the least with just a couple glorious life changes since then.

Turns out wedding planning doubles as a full time job, (!!) one that we couldn’t have done without my amazing housemate who made the wedding the most beautiful day. (www.disregarden.com) I wanted Africa and Southern California somehow mixed together, and they did it!

It really was the best day. Most people describe their wedding as a blur that they barely remember, which I can say about the week before, but the actual day went by without a hitch. We were all relaxed and just enjoyed ourselves, with small “breather moments” just between Edison and I throughout the day so we could stop and take it all in. Even during the light rain through the entire ceremony…(oh yes!) For those reading from say, Seattle or Vancouver, you don’t see anything out of the ordinary, but for us in Southern California… we’ve been in drought for almost a year. When we first planned an outdoor wedding in November we didn’t even think of weather. But the sweet presence of Jesus was so evident. We broke the drought with vows and some dear friends praying over us and our marriage and by the time he “kissed the bride” the rain was finished and out came the sun and a beautiful rainbow.

It’s been a glorious one month of marriage since. I love living with my best friend and not having to say “goodnight” at the end of the day. We’re enjoying the cheesy moments like ‘groceries together’ or ‘laundry’ (I know that may not last long, but for now, it’s still new and special) Our greatest challenge has possibly been decorating, which isn’t much of a mountain but his neutral tones to my gold glitter, seem to bump heads now and again. ;)

We came home from our honeymoon in Costa Rica and officially moved into our flat. I love it. It’s within walking distance from some of the best DTLA coffee shops but also right in skid row. (see previous blog for more details) Walking from one to the other last week we suddenly noticed an abundance of flies surrounding us out of no where. Scanning the area it didn't take long til we saw the buzzing was due to large amount of human feces everywhere.

Lovely story, I know—but I feel that describes our area a little bit. :)

But anyway, I have some exciting news. (lol)

Turns out my husband stirs in me even wilder dreams than I had before, something I knew was possible but somehow exploded since marriage. The great thing is however, that mixed with his passion it brings to light a whole other angle to our projects and changing the world. (The beauty of marriage right?)

So with that we’re announcing a Justice Rising internship project we’re launching in LA. February- June 2015 with a phase two in a war zone. Email me for details at: admin@justicerising.org

Space is limited and applications close January 10th 2015

Life is slowly starting to return to normal, (just in time for the holiday craze) My goal is to blog every week about balancing marriage, the streets, war zones and Los Angeles…. Stay tuned for the  glorious journey of pursuing normal. 

I Jump You Jump Jack Part II

There’s an inside joke I have with Jesus, usually said before I’d go into some of the worst places we could find, one of us would whisper to the other “I jump you jump jack”

It’s our way of saying “we’re in this together”.

Running into huts in war zones or staying in $1 hourly rate hotels in brothels, it was this beautiful reassurance that if I was on his lap, and stayed glued to his side—we were good.

But now here I am in the west. Over the last couple weeks Edison, my gorgeous fiancé and I have bought a car, leased a flat and I got my long awaited and coveted visa that will allow me to stay in the states past the usual 6 month mark. 

On the outside, a serious shift from my normal routine of dodging bullets. And honestly, sometime’s I look around and have a small panic attack that my life is going to get “boring”. Where are the plane tickets? The stamps in my passport? The men with AK47’s screaming at me in languages I don’t understand?! (Any other gypsy’s hear me? lol)

But then one day after signing the papers for our beautiful new shoebox flat, (it’s super cute and tiny so I call it the “shoebox”) I heard papa whisper the small phrase: “I jump you jump jack”

Excuse me? I just signed a one year lease in AMERICA. There’s no war around here!!

But he started to speak to me about lifestyle. AGAIN about how being radical isn’t found in your “stress levels” or how far one has jumped off “the cliff” but radical is found in the every day extravagance of loving well.

For putting my marriage before ministry.

For not getting frustrated when people ask me where my accent’s from. Again.

And for choosing to say yes to him, no matter where that takes me. Whether a refugee camp in the Middle East or my cute shoebox flat in downtown LA.

Radical is having the character to take yourself wherever you go.

If you only do missions overseas but are neglecting the poor in the current place you are living, there is a disconnect. A gap that needs to be bridged.

It’s the little things. A soup kitchen, a mentoring program, loving someone around you to point where it costs you something.

So for me not much has changed and Edison and I just officially signed papers and will move into our flat on the edge of skid row after we’re married.

(Skid row, for those who don’t know, is an area of downtown LA and has one of the most dense populations of homeless people in America. It’s been around since the 1930’s and is literally just down the corner, with working girls and drug addicts within walking distance from our living room.)

To this my heart comes alive.

For me, my passion while I’m stateside (for this short though undated season) is to see a fire lit under those with a heart to change the world but aren’t called to full time overseas living. Or at least not right now.

There is so much you can do, and as I blog, I want you to share your stories with me also! How you got uncomfortable and found Jesus on your local park bench or down the sketchy back streets of your hometown. And I’ll post some of your stories to hopefully inspire others. YOUR life of pursuing normal.

Our flat is a complete and total God thing and everything we asked for. As was my visa. After receiving it you must wait 30 days before you can legally marry an American and I had it in my hand at 32 days before we were hoping to say “I do”. (!!)

Now, that doesn’t mean you need to move to Skid Row! But finding ways to love the poor around you and get your hands dirty. To this I want to normalize and help bridge that gap.

Honestly, I still sometimes deep sigh that it’s not a war zone. But as I started to conduct interviews with those possibly moving to LA for our “War Zones Structuring team” (We still don’t really have a name for it) I get excited for what papa holds for us this season!

Normal is what you make it. Let’s just not make it boring.

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So cheers to those who want to lay their lives down and be crazy, sold out and see history shift! Whether in a war zone or in suburbia, let’s get uncomfortable.

The Stories of My Dreams

I’m back in the west! I drink Chai Latte’s, I eat cereal for midnight snacks, I wear shorts that show my knees and I’m starting to get caught up on everything I missed with my friends.

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It’s the most bizarre transition as this season I know my time in the west is extended and I’m not just “popping in” for a quick shower and a shave before heading back to Africa.

Truthfully I go back and forth between being ecstatic over this period of time with “I love my fiancé and my friends and I can’t wait to get marrieddddd!” and then… dropping slightly and just missing my kids. Missing the adventure and house visits and cuddles and hearing their little voices yell “Sandra! Sandra!” whenever I walk between the mud huts.

I’ve only been back a couple of weeks so everything is still fresh and the stories seem like they still happened yesterday. So in order to not forget them all as my mind gets lost in traffic, I decided to blog a couple of them.

One thing that I’m so proud of is the love that our Leadership League boys have for one another. I’m undone watching them.

Again, our Leadership League is a soccer league we have for boys who because of war “spent more time with guns than pencils” we describe it. Some were abducted by the army as children and over the years escaped or were released. Others spent years living in the jungle running from war in fear of those abductions. Either way, the boys have incredible resilience and are now united with us and the common love of soccer.

Well, this time we were there for an extended weekend in their village and we had scheduled an all day Saturday with them. Soccer, games, teachings and mentorship. Brilliant.

But that morning, while western kids would be flipping on the early cartoons, our boys came to us with a game changer.

“A boy from the village was abducted this week” they started… “He was taken by soldiers and told he had to work and cultivate their land for them. The boy was young however and got scared that they would kill him, so he ran away in the night. When the soldiers woke up and saw that he was gone, they were very angry. They couldn’t find him anywhere. So they came to us.

His brother is in the League and they told him that if he refused to work and “pay his brothers debt” by cultivating the land, they would kill him and his family.”

“So” the boys continued, “We are also his family. One brothers burden is all of our burden so we will go together with him to help him cultivate the land of the soldiers. So we are terribly sorry, but we cannot come and be with you until this afternoon.”

I wanted to cry. The emotions of what these boys go through on a daily basis and constant fear of re-abduction is beyond me, but this time I wanted to cry not only because of sympathy but because of pride. Not in anything we had done, but simply in who they are. They love SO WELL.

That morning they went off together and cultivated the land and returned to the base just in time for a surprise lunch we had prepared for them and time together talking, dreaming and praying for their future. They are my favorites.

 

Another story is how Jesus moves so perfectly. Always. One day at the end of a session with our Leadership League, a man came up to us looking very… “down and out”.

His eyes were cloudy and they stayed glued to the floor at all times.

We started asking him questions, basics at first “What’s your name, where are you from?” trying to bring ease to his obviously nervous self.

Eventually his story came forth.

“I’ve been cursed. The witchdoctor’s of the village were paid to put a curse on me and it makes me go blind. Everyday at 6pm my eye sight leaves me and I cannot see until morning. I heard your God might be able to heal.”

Sometimes I have all the confidence in the world that God will heal on the spot and sometimes, I honestly don’t know. I just know that my job is to love and to pray and Jesus does the rest. But this time, looking at this tender man and his mustard seed of faith that God could be bigger than the witchdoctor, I just kneeeeew that I knew, that God had something for him.

So we prayed hugged him and told him to come find us in the morning and let us know what the night had brought him.

Sure enough, waking up at the crack of dawn, we went outside to use the latrine first thing and there was the man waiting to tell us the news.

“6pm came and 6pm went and I could see.”

Jesus is faithful.

Hugs. Laughter. More hugs. And prayers of thanksgiving.

Jesus is bigger than the witchdoctor! And I am so in love with this God who loves to heal.

So though my life feels like just a constant of transition and opposites, I'm holding on so tightly to every moment and savoring the memories of my babies and looking forward to a wedding that is less than 6 weeks away. What a dream life is and if we choose, such a beautiful series of unimaginable wonder!