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Monday
Aug252014

Anita and Naomi: A Tale of Heartbreak and Hope

Anita & NaomiAnita is twenty-two, although she looks and acts much older. Traced across her taught face are lines of care and deprevation. Her little girl, Naomi, is two months old. I wrote about her in an earlier post. When I saw Anita today, she hadn’t eaten in the last 24 hours. Naomi was crying for milk, but it became evident that Anita had little to give.   

Anita is a widow. Her husband was a Congolese soldier and went missing in the fighting around Goma, in the northeast of Congo. After a lengthy investigation, it was confirmed that he was killed in the line of duty. When he fell, she was carrying their second child.

A widow in a war-torn region, she returned to her parents in the north of Burundi. She is a member and regular attender at Pastor Timothy’s church in Rugombo, where we held the conference this year. Her only means of support is the slight widows’ pension she receives from the Congolese Army, although she has rarely actually received any funds.

In order to collect her pension, she must travel to Congo DR. Unfortunately, the price of travel there and back consumes the entire amount of the pension. In order to try and make things work, she enlisted a “friend” who was to collect the money for her so that she could make the trip once every three months. This still eats up a third of the funds, but it is better than nothing. Not surprisingly, the “friend” proved to be dishonest and absconded with all the cash. (Amy is sitting next to me as I write this. At the last sentence, she shook her head and whispered emphatically, “That is…absolutely…unbelievable.” I told her the sad truth is that it is all too believable.) 

Anita

If one would think that Anita’s parents would be there to support her, one would be wrong. Her parents aren’t believers. According to Timothy, “They are drunkards.” Instead of turning to Christ, they trust the local witchdoctors. What little money Anita can scrape together, they bully out of her for drink. 

To make matters worse, she has been diagnosed with tuberculosis. We believe little Naomi also has TB as she was born with a cough. Anita is unable to buy food, let alone purchase medical care and prescription drugs. I confess that her bleak future has tugged at my heart all day. I must regularly pause when I speak in order to regain my composure. I keep turning my back on those around me so I can wipe my tears. 

I learned long ago that a believer shouldn’t pray about something about which they are unwilling to be involved. As James teaches,

Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16 NIV84)

When I held Naomi in my arms at the baby dedication, I prayed earnestly for her. Can I now say to her mother, “Keep warm and well fed,” and do nothing? The answer is obvious. Amy and I each arrived at the same conclusion without speaking to one another. When we shared our thoughts, we were of one mind. If we could help, we would. 

So Amy began searching the internet (slow work here in Burundi) for treatments for TB. I began investigating how much money would be involved in feeding Anita and her little boy (about two years old I think), who appears to be the only healthy one in the family. Here’s what we discovered.

The governments of central Africa are united in providing free TB testing and treatment to all people. They recognize that TB spreads so rapidly that they need to be proactive to prevent an epidemic. Amy’s connection at the clinic proved to be invaluable at this point. They knew all about the free clinic. 

Flory and I made arrangements to have Timothy bring Anita and Naomi to Bujumbura on the bus. They made their way to the clinic where Amy is volunteering and Anita collapsed on a bed. Little Naomi was lying beside her. When Flory and I arrived, I went in to wake her. She was drenched in sweat, and you could tell it took everything she had to struggle to her feet. Timothy helped to steady her as she made her way to the consultation room where Amy and Jackson examined her. 

Naomi, two months oldWhile Anita was being examined, I went to the bed where Naomi was lying. She was fidgeting and restless, which I took to be a good sign. At least she wasn’t on death’s door as I feared. No, Noami was merely hungry. I picked her up and held her close. I began singing the only song I know in Swahili. 

Yesu anapenda watoto. Yesu anapennda watoto. Ni Yesu, Bwana Yesu. Alikufa qua mtu, qua sababu ya zambi. Yesu anapenda watoto.

(Jesus loves children. Jesus loves children. Jesus is our Lord. He died upon a tree, because of our sins. Jesus loves children)

This helped a little, but what I really needed was a bottle or a pacifier. I’ve seen neither since I’ve been here in Africa. So I did what I did when my children were infants—I used my little finger as a substitute. She began to suck greedily and stared into my face as I sang. I’m not at all sure she had the ability to focus, but she knew someone, at least, was there. Her momma came back in a little bit and took her to nurse. I don’t think she had much milk, but what she had, she gave.

While Anita was being examined, she stated that she had been ill since February, while she was pregnant. She exhibited all the classic signs of TB: night sweats, swollen glands behind the ears, lack of energy, lack of appetite, (severe) weight loss, cough, fever and pain. Since Naomi was born with a cough, it’s nearly certain that she also has TB. With this diagnosis, Jackson wrote out the necessary referral for the clinic, and we all climbed into the minivan. Flory was driving, and his wife Amina came along for moral support, as she knew Anita. Pastor Timothy was there for the same reason, but also to serve as translator from Swahili to Kirundi. Jackson and Amy were there to answer any of the questions the free clinic might have. Despite a complete lack of useful medical skills, I also rode along simply because I was concerned.

When we arrived, we were brushed aside, being told that the person we needed to see had already gone home, and we needed to come back on Friday. Call it hubris, call it swagger, call it American arrogance, call it a combination of the three, but this raised the hackles on my neck. I began saying very loudly that we were not coming back later and that they were going to call in the appropriate people right now! I’m pretty sure I embarrassed Amy, for she began tugging at my arm to draw me away. I was, however, having none of it. I wanted names. I wanted phone numbers. I wanted someone to care, for heaven’s sake. 

The loud mzungu drew the curious and the concerned to gather in the office. I’m not sure if they were speculating about what kind of trouble I could cause or about of what kind of trouble I was about to become. Fortunately someone appeared and assured us that they were accepting Jackson’s diagnosis. The reason we had to return on Friday is because they only dispense medicine once a week. It just wasn’t feasible to open the bottle for every person who came in, evidently because that would spoil the medicine. I could live with that and turned my attention to the immediate problem of transportation and food.

I provided for Anita’s transportation to Rugombo. Timothy called the church and instructed them to purchase food and transportation back to Bujumbura on Friday. So much for the short term needs, but clearly more needed to be done.

After much consultation with Flory and Timothy, we concocted a plan. We all agreed that we couldn’t just give her money for a varitey of reasons, primary among them being her parents would probably either steal it or bully it out of her. So we decided that we would place money on account at a local merchant who was also a member of the church. 

We also agreed not to provide too much food at once. Not only was there the issue of pests and spoilage, there would also be the temptation for her parents to take some of the food and sell it for drink. In her weakened condition, there would be little she could do to stop them. 

So we determined that she should walk daily to the nearby shop and draw out that’s day’s supply of beans and rice. The beans are an important source of protein to make milk and boost the immune system. The rice provides the carbohydrates needed for energy and helps make a more complete protein when mixed with the beans. The plan will cost $50 a month and will keep her and her little boy fed and provide milk for Naomi. 

Amy and I agreed to ensure that she has food for the next year. This should be plenty of time for the medicine to work and for her to regain full health. There is no way we can sleep at night if we sit idly by. We’re hoping that others will be moved by this need and help with her support as well. But if not, we will do it alone. 

All the while I was around Anita, I never saw her smile save for once. All the while she held the vacant, hopeless stare that hunger and disease inflict. It was only at the end, when we were moving her toward the van to take her to the bus station that she smiled. I spoke to Flory. Flory spoke to Timothy. Timothy spoke to Anita. I told her that we were going to ensure that she and her baby got the medicine they needed. And we were going to ensure that she had enough food for the next year. She didn’t seem to comprehend what we were saying, so I told her again.

“Anita, you’re not going to be hungry any more.”

That’s when she turned, faced the wall, placed her forehead on rough plaster…and smiled.

 

If you’d like to help, click on the “buy us a coffee” link (to the left—look for the coffee cup). Add a note about Anita (there’s a spot for that) and we will ensure any money you contribute goes to her.

Saturday
Aug232014

They Took My Temperature and Gave Me a Rooster

It’s Saturday and I’ve slept most of the day. Don’t judge me, you’d be tired too if you had been with me the last two days. My congregation has given a significant sum of money to help build a brick and mortar church in the Walungu area, so Flory and I decided to head out there to have a look at the progress. Along for the ride were three other pastors: Charles, pastor of the REMAC church in Uvira, Congo DR; Timothy, pastor of the REMAC church in Rugombo, Burundi; and Brother Rabbit, pastor of the REMAC church we were going to visit.

Brother Rabbit?

There is a story behind the name.  Prior to my second visit to Africa, I had downloaded some Kindle children’s books in Swahili as a language-learning strategy. I mean, after all, they teach children that way, so it might work for me. The first book was of the “run, rabbit, run” variety. It just so happens that rabbit in Swahili is sungura. On that trip I met Pastor Sunga and made a joke about his name. I promptly changed it to rabbit. He’s been known as Rabbit inside REMAC ever since. 

You might think that a cruel thing to do to a person of dignity (for such is Brother Rabbit), but he brags about the name. He had to look up what a “rabbit” was. The burrowing, gregarious, plant-eating mammal with long ears, long hind legs, and short tail indigenous to North America has no cousin here in Central Africa. In his research, he read of the rabbit’s insatiable appetite for grass. He then decided the name fit him, for he had an insatiable appetite for the Word of God. So whenever I’m around, and he stands to speak, he brags about the name I gave him.  

Border Crossings

At any rate, we left from Bujumbura for the trip. This involves leaving Burundi and entering Congo DR, arriving in Uvira and traveling north. Then leaving Congo DR and entering Burundi along the road, then leaving…well, you get the idea. You can see the border crossings on the map to the left. Just remember each crossing entails leaving one country and entering another. In other words, dealing with officials and paper work for the country your leaving and doing it again for the country your entering. Coming back involved a similar process. 

It was at the Rwanda crossing near Bukavu that I realized how serious the Ebola scare is here in Africa. It was about 20 years ago that the first Ebola case was diagnosed. It was found in Congo DR. Since that time it has moved from country to country, wreaking havoc wherever it appears.

Even though Liberia is far away (Africa is a big, big place), no one here is taking any chances. At the airport in Addis Ababa, all the shop keepers were wearing latex gloves. When I inquired I was told that people pass through from all over Africa and nobody wanted Ebola.

You might find this a bit surprising, but I kind of…stand out…as I move through the crowds. I’m guessing my sunburned face brought alarm to the Rwandan border official because he shoved an Ebola form at me. After I filled it out, he took my temperature with a laser heat sensor of some sort. The readout came up yellow with the word Caution! in bold type. I looked concerned, but he just smiled and said I was normal.

When we got to the church, we were greeted with song. “Karibu” means “welcome” and the chorus was “karibu, karibu, karibu, karibu,” with other words thrown in the verses themselves. The drums were banging out the complicated rhythms that I’ve come to love, and some of the excited women would shout out the high-pitched “lululululu” that is common here (and in the Middle East) as a expression of excitement and joy. The song continued as we made our way down from the street to Brother Rabbit’s house. The congregation followed us inside, and the singing continued. (Note: I intend to post a video of this later on, but the internet connection here in Africa just won’t handle the strain.) I was surprised how many people could fit inside such a small space. When the song of welcome finally subsided, the choir was asked to sing. Just to be clear, the choir of any church is always asked to sing here. Then came the words of welcome from members of the congregation. They were genuinely moved that Pastor Flory (a very important man) and I would make the long trip to visit them. 

I suppose I should make mention of the road to Walungu. I was genuinely concerned that the road would be terrible and an ordeal for my bad back. That, as it turns out, describes perfectly the road to Kazekazi that we traveled earlier. (That report must wait for another day.) This road was much better. Not good, but definitely better. It was like most dirt roads in America. Note I didn’t say most gravel roads. No, this was nothing but dirt. That means that the hills (a mountain range runs through this part of Congo DR and Rwanda—“the land of a thousand hills.”) were like washboards, and each passing car threw up a shroud of dust. The 80-kilometer trip from Bukavu wasn’t good for my lungs to be sure, but my back held up pretty well.

At any rate, I was asked to deliver a short message to the church. I spoke to them of the unity of the body of Christ and how when one member hurt, the entire body hurt. That is why, I told them, that our congregation was eager to assist them with their church. Once again the women exclaimed “lululululululu.” I told them how our church was praying for them and asked them to pray for us as well as part of the same body. Then it was time to see the church.

Walking to the church involved “climbing Mt. Calvary.” Actually it was just a big hill and I did pretty good for a white guy not used to scurrying around the African countryside. The church had the foundation laid and the walls about chest high. I discovered a significant amount of money had to be placed into the foundation. Since the land was on a hill, there was an enormous expense in stones and cement in order to build up the foundation to level. As the pastors toured the construction site, the people continued to sing. When we pastors retired to Brother Rabbit’s house to eat lunch (chicken and some sort of “forest goat” with Foo Foo) the congregation was outside singing. When we spoke of how to move forward with the construction, they continued their songs. In fact, the only time the congregation stopped singing was when we were meeting inside before the tour. For the rest of the visit, they were nearby singing and singing and singing.

When it came time to leave, the congregation was called back inside. Again, members of the congregation stood up to wish us goodbye. As a final act, they brought out a rooster and a chicken. The rooster was for me and the chicken was for Flory. Fortunately, having raised chickens, I knew how to handle the rooster. Let’s just say my sister Amy would have had a more difficult time. We placed the fowl in the back of the minivan and headed back to sounds of singing. Upon my return, I magnanimously gave my rooster to Flory. It’s just the big-hearted sorta guy that I am. 

Pastor Rabbit and the Rooster

At the hotel, I spoke with Joel, one of the African managers. He was very impressed that I was given a rooster and noted that it was a great honor. Roosters are only given as a sign of great love and affection. The groom will give the parents of his bride-to-be a rooster when he asks for her hand. Thus, such a gift is not to be taken lightly. 

For those of you who have never been to such a poverty-stricken country, it’s hard to comprehend the joy displayed by these people. (“Funny” and her husband raise their children on less that $200 a month—and they are considered firmly middle class). You have to be here to see the smiles, to hear the songs, to feel the love they have for the body of Christ. No words of mine can do justice to the simple delight these people have in the Lord. As I listened to their songs in Walungu, I thought to myself, “No wonder I love coming back here.”

 

Wednesday
Aug202014

No Longer a Rookie

I can’t remember how many years I’ve been coming to Africa. Bonnie would know (being at heart a numbers person), but she’s not here. For the sake of discussion, let’s say more than five (a very conservative figure). During those years I’ve learned what might be called “survival Swahili,” wrote a doctrinal statement and had it professionally translated into Swahili, taught that doctrinal statement to numerous pastors, preached to many churches, seen people converted, baptized them, made many friends and have loved the people and have been loved in return. That being said, this trip has been a trip of firsts.

For the first time I’ve officiated at the Lord’s Table. The Lord’s Supper has many names (I’ve just used two), but one of the more common names, “communion,” stresses the fellowship we share with our Lord and with each other at this sacred meal. There is a supernatural bond we feel as we jointly confess our faith in remembering the death of our Lord Jesus and his return (“you do proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”). It transcends culture and language. While this has always been basic to my understanding of the ordinance, it was proved true experientially last Sunday.

I mentioned that I speak “survival” Swahili. That means I can order a cup of coffee, ask the general location and direction of something, say the word bathroom, and so forth. But I’m a long, long way from preaching in the lingua franca. Everything I say and everything said must be translated for me. In fact, the church I was priviledged to minister in last weekend needed my message to be translated first into Swahili and then into Kirundi. But the curse brought about at Babel proved no barrier to the One who indwells us. What a blessed, sacred time it was.

Also for the first time I presided over a wedding. In fact, the wedding was for ten couples at once! What was particularly interesting about this wedding is that many of the couples had their children with them. Momma Marta, for example, had her six (!) daughters, ages 29 to around 12 (I’m guessing), beaming with joy at the wedding of their parents. No, Momma Marta and her husband, the pastor of one of the REMAC churches, weren’t living in sin. Evidently the common practice is to be married by the state and then to have a church wedding if desired. For whatever reason, about half of these couples had the civil union without the blessing of a church wedding. (Note: many churches in the US are considering moving to this same practice. No longer willing to be the agents of a state that constantly redefines marriage, these churches see this practice as a shield against legal intrusion.) So there stood before us ten couples, some with a consumated marriage and some without. 

What also made this wedding unusual was the kiss. We had the couples exchange rings at the same time. Each groom held his bride’s hand above their heads and when the time came, in unision they all rammed their bride’s rings down on the appropriate fingers. But the part, “You may kiss the bride” was individual. We moved from couple to couple as the congrgation elbowed one another for position to take pictures (think roller derby only slightly rougher). So much is pretty normal. But each bride—every bride—even Momma Marta with her six children—looked like they’d rather be shot in the head than kiss in public. They all leaned forward gingerly as if expecting a static electric shock. And the kisses were so brief and so faint I swear in some cases only a couple of molocules actually made contact. Flory told me that kissing is actually a western concept. I find that difficult to comprehend, especially with the abundance of children you see everywhere. But then again, what do I know?

For the first time I conducted a baby dedication. I can’t honestly say how many mothers with children came forward, but they were many. I started to count when my eyes fell upon a woman who was dangerously thin. If you would see her in the US you would immediatley think of anorexia. Here that’s not a problem. Here the issue is poverty. My eyes moved from her to her little baby, and my heart broke. All the pastors gathered around and took a child in their arms. I moved to her and took her baby from the pastor standing in front of her. Little Naomi was so very small and appeared listless to my grandfatherly eyes. I held her close and quietly wept as I prayed diligently for her. There was nothing I could do, of course. Any help I might give would be used up quickly, and there is a vast company of such women. Still, the scene was heart rending and one that I will not forget quickly.

Finally, for the first time I helped dedicate a church. What made this special is that much of the funding for this building came from the selfless giving of my congregation and other like-minded friends. The floor is dirt. The platform is dirt behind a retaining wall of stones. There are no windows or doors. The tin for the roof is only partially complete. This made my teaching similar to an afternoon game at Minute Maid Stadium. We kept moving the lecturn and the benches to stay clear of the sun as it traversed the sanctuary. Still, we set this humble dwelling apart for the sole use of God and his people. We prayed that this holy ground (Note: “holy” means “set apart”) would never again be used for common purposes. 

The president of Slavic Gospel Association, upon hearing that I baptized when ministering in Russia, commented, “When you’ve baptized in Russia, you’re no longer a rookie.” Considering all that the Almighty has allowed me to do these past two years, I feel I can honestly say I’m no longer a rookie. I’m not claiming veteran status…yet. But, God willing it, I’ll get there. 

Wednesday
Aug132014

Gas Lines and a Nurse Named "Funny"

My sister Amy spent her first day in the clinic today. I tagged along to scope out the operation with the full understanding that I would be of little help. It’s a good thing that I was there because Amy had a little trouble, in the beginning, in getting past the accent of those who spoke English. In fairness, this is her first trip to Africa. For those who have never been there, being in a foreign country with no means of communication can be more than a bit daunting. So when Flory left for other business, I stuck around for moral support. After about an hour, Amy had tuned her ear and communication came easier. By the end of the day she had made friends and was eager to return.

It’s hard to communicate the essence of a place: the smells, the sounds, the texture, all the sensations you’ve experienced before but never in the unique concentrations or combinations of a particular location. This morning I was struck by the smell of the maternity ward. It consisted of a single bed, a lamp, and a pole for an IV. It had the smell of a room cleaned as well as soap and water could clean it without the benefit of antiseptics. Right now, as I sit in the café and write, there are songs being blared over loudspeakers across the street. It’s a Pentecostal church holding midweek service. This afternoon Flory and I fought the traffic and finally (after five previous tries) found a gas station that still had fuel to sell. People jockeyed for position in line, afraid the supply might be exhausted before their turn. We filled up for our trip to Rugombo tomorrow.

Still, the essence of a place is its people. Lost people always behave as lost people. But with those with whom share the same Spirit, the people of God, there is a link which those on the outside simply don’t have the ability to comprehend. Amy worked with Jackson, the nurse who sees people initially. He is an extremely pleasant man who smiles quickly and often. But his smile, broad by US standards, doesn’t hold a candle to one of the other nurses.

Her given name is Françiose, but she’s earned the nickname “Funny.” She explained that she always smiles and likes to laugh and that’s why everyone agreed on her new name. She sat down next to me and, with a conspiratorial smile, told me that since I smiled and laughed so much that should be my name as well. So she started calling me “Funny” from that point forward.

You’d think that with a name like that, her life would have been easy. But that’s seldom the case in central Africa. She was a refugee from the violence in Burundi and was taken to Tanzania as a little girl. It was there that she learned English. She moved back to Burundi after going to school to be a nurse. Currently she has six children ages 2-15. Her husband is a plumber, and she loves him very much. Considering her past, she feels extraordinarily blessed.

Some people travel just to travel. They enjoy the unique sensations of new places. People like that seldom come to central Africa. For me, the joy of travel is to connect with God’s people. It’s getting to fellowship and share in the joy of other members of the Body of Christ. There’s no denying that ministry is hard. But the rewards are great as well.


Wednesday
Aug132014

The Good and the Bad

I’m sitting here in the café at the Hotel Dorado in muggy Bujumbura, Burundi, reflecting on the events of the previous day and the events of the day before us. Amy will be taken to the clinic today for some initial orientation. I’m traveling to Rugombo tomorrow to start the conference.
The highlight of yesterday was the extended witnessing I did on the plane. The first flight (from Washington to Addis Ababa) was 12 hours long. Me being me, I roamed the plane and struck up a number of conversations. I had the joy of speaking to a number of individual missionaries and at least one missions group.
But it was on the flight from Addis Ababa to Bujumbura that I had the opportunity to share the Gospel. I was seated next to a pretty young woman from Austria. She was about my daughter’s age. Me being me, we quickly struck up a conversation.
The Gospel came up when, after a wide-ranging discussion of Icelandic horses, mules (of course), language, and so forth, I asked her if she had a young man. She said no. “Men don’t want to act like men anymore. They are all metrosexual and in touch with their feelings.” I asked her what she wanted in a man. She mentioned the fidelity of her father to her mother, a marriage of 40+ years. I told her that Bonnie and I had been married almost 33. Then I told her that the only way to achieve such fidelity was to have a sense of permanent and unchanging right and wrong. And from there we went into the good news of Jesus Christ.
We talked about that for a long time. When I was finished, I asked her if she had ever heard this before, she said, “no—never.” It was like nothing she and ever heard from the churches in Austria. They were places of fear. She said my story of forgiveness was beautiful. I asked her what was stopping her from trusting Christ right now. The problem was, she just couldn’t wrap her mind around the concept of faith, of trust, of reliance on the work of Christ.
We ended the conversation as the plane landed. I gave her Washington County Bible Church’s web site and told her to start with the sermons on Mark. I told her if she wrote me (I didn’t give her my email address on purpose so she would have to go to the web site to get it), I would send her a copy of my book. She seemed genuinely interested in that and even excited. We’ll see what happens. Her name is Christine if you want to pray for her.
Other than conversation, not much has gone right. I fell pretty hard the day I left and wrenched my neck and back. I’ve fallen twice since I’ve been here and banged up my left hand pretty badly. We have one lost bag from the trip with ALL of Amy’s clothes. (“I know I should have divided them between the suitcases…I just forgot”) The money we wired down here for expenses won’t be ready when we thought it would be. 
Still, I got to give the Gospel to an open heart yesterday. So that made it a good day, all things considered. 
Oh yeah, Flory thinks I’ve lost weight from last year and that my Swahili is much improved. That’s good too! :-)