Monday, November 23, 2015

Loving your neighbor—far and near

By Alessandra Trotta

Alessandra Trotta

On the closing day of the most recent UMCOR International Disaster Response and Risk Reduction regional training, in Freudenstadt, Germany, the Rev. Alessandra Trotta, president of the Italian Methodist Church, offered the reflection below, calling on Christians to show love for the stranger who is far away and for the one who lives nearby, even next door. She based her reflection on I Cor. 13: 3-7; 13.

In September, the European Methodist Council met in Bulgaria, and significant time was spent in conversation on migration “in the face of the reality of hundreds of thousands of desperate people crossing the borders of Europe, fleeing conflict and persecution, and seeking the possibility of a future for themselves and their children.”

The Methodist representatives from all over Europe decided to send a pastoral letter to our Churches, in which we stated, “We recognize how the understanding and practice of the obligation to radical Christian hospitality and love is challanged when God confronts us with unexpected neighbors, and we face the temptation to be selective of our neighbors.”

Unexpected, surprising, unrecognized neighbors, such as those reavealed by Jesus in the story of the final judgment in Matthew 25: 34-40.

In the same way, Paul challenges us when he refers to love in this very famous, wonderful text of  1 Corinthians 13.

The word “love” and the expression “God is love” or  “Jesus loves you” are often reduced to slogans, stickers on a car window, or a pendant on a nacklace, so dangerously abstract as to become banal.

There is nothing abstract and nothing banal in the love that Paul talks about, love according to the Great Comandament, as even the actions that often are considered the highest expressions of love, perfect and close to holiness (giving all our goods to the poor and sacrificing even our life for others or for a good cause) can be performed without a real love.

Real love, greater then faith and hope, the love that never ends, is, in fact, the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ; a love that is universal but at the same time particular: this love sees, meets, touches, speaks to people in their uniqueness and in their real life, and so teaches us that there is no love for humanity that does not go through love for flesh-and-blood human beings.

There is no room for a philanthropy that regards the other as a human category (the poor, the drug addict, the immigrant…) and not as an actor with whom to start, in a spirit of trust, a relationship on an equal footing, based on openness, listening, debate, exchange, sharing and even inclusion in a renewed project of community to be built up together.

In Christ we are called to accept the risk of true relationships with real persons, the people right before our eyes, those who are closest: people we can “smell”; those who more than others distract us from our comfortable, tidy ordinary world; people who bother us and disturb us and call into question our habitual behaviour, challenge our certainties and threaten our defences; people we recognize at the heart of our deep identity.

In Christ we are pushed to live a full humanity by recognizing in all other men and women whom we meet on our way our own condition as guests in a land that is not our property; people who are vulnerable and weak and so dependent on one another. We also live that full humanity by sharing the condition of creatures made in the image of God, sons and daugthers beloved, welcome, renewed.

We have to admit that it is not always easy to accept this risk; sometimes we may find it more comfortable to assist those who are far away.

In the famous romance “The Help”, set in a little town in the  Deep  South of the United States, at the time of segregation, the good Christian white women of the local women’s charity organized generous fund raising events in order to help the poor “negro” children in a far African village; meanwhile the “negro” children of the black women who served in their house (victims of daily violence and cruel racism) suffered hunger, cold, and exclusion from education.

They were not seen as human beings to love and respect, although they were so near. Or perhaps because they were so near.

Some years ago, I accompanied a small group of sisters and brothers from a church in central Italy, who were visiting the Diaconal Center in Palermo (Sicily) of which I was director at that time.

I had just finished talking about how our center often found itself  surprisingly involved in assisting African women and men who miraculously survived risky voyages across the Mediterranean, when so many of their fellow passengers had drowned. A woman from the group cried out in delight, "How lucky you are here in Palermo to have all these problems to make yourselves useful! Where we come from, nothing happens!”

I confess that my blood ran cold! It seemed to me that this was a case, not a rare one either, of love for a cause more than for flesh-and-blood human beings. I tried to tell her that Sicilians would have preferred to have fewer problems and that the Diaconal Center would have been happy to go without this “usefulness.”

I also invited the sister to “look” more carefully at the reality around her, to “see” real people, starting with those she met every day, even her next door neighbors, perhaps even her brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ in her congregation.

Then followed a rewarding discussion among the whole group about the problems of the city where they lived. Their town proved to be anything but free of need and hardship for many of their neighbors there.

I confess that it was not—and still is not—easy for me to confront the reality of a love that knows only the “general,” and I am not content with gestures or words that don’t start by looking at a person and seeing him or her.

How often have I noticed the emptiness of assistance given without really “seeing” the person I was dealing with—because of lack of time or laziness, because of embarrassment, because of fear—something I only came to understand with time and experience?

But—and I thank the Lord—I too have felt the extraordinary blessing of strong ties in an absolutely surprising way—with an embrace, meeting someone’s eyes, sharing a little time, stories, sorrow, joy.

And I felt there was no effort, or sacrifice, or tiredness, but only full humanity and solidarity. And I discovered I was enriched, that I was more loved, more free, because the humanity of the other had increased my own.

Charity without compassion acts without genuine interest in the person, without looking him or her in the face; it leaves the persons where they are, and does not suffer the injustice and does not enjoy the truth. Such “love” is sacrifice; it is an effort that liberates neither the person receiving it nor the one giving it.

May our God give us always the blessings of his concrete love, encouraging us to  take the risk of entering into full, authentic relationship with our unexpected neighbours, close to us every day.


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Flood of Hope

Children at Camp Noah each made and decorated an Ark. At the end of the week, they brought home all their art work in a nice portfolio, and also received a backpack and blanket. Photo: Becky Wilson. 

By Rev. Becky Wilson*

Where had I seen her, this laughing child before me? I had just arrived in the basement of Trinity Faith United Methodist Church in Northwest Detroit, Michigan, for the closing celebration of Camp Noah, a week-long program sponsored by Lutheran Social Services that travels to communities impacted by disaster. She looks so familiar…but somehow different.

Camp Noah Detroit was a collaborative effort of United Methodists in the area. With training and funding support from UMCOR [United Methodist Committee on Relief], the Northwest Detroit Flood Recovery Project (NwDFRP) had opened its doors in April 2015 to respond to the nation’s worst natural disaster in 2014. The project provides disaster case management to flood survivors from an office at Second Grace UMC, as well as construction and volunteer housing and coordination. I serve as coordinator of the project, which is funded by UMCOR and supported by the Detroit Annual Conference and Renaissance District.

When the NwDRFP was originally approached about hosting Camp Noah, I regretfully declined. Given the responsibility of coordinating a recovery project in an area where some 43,000 residents applied for FEMA assistance…and where more than eleven months after the disaster basements still need mucking out and sanitation…and where families spent a very cold winter without a working furnace, I did not think I could add Camp Noah to the calendar.

When Camp Noah called a second time, I replied that if I could find a local congregation to host and assist with coordination of the program I would happily welcome the opportunity. My first call was to the pastor of Trinity Faith, Rev. Jan Brown. She passionately said yes to the congregation hosting and coordinating.

Camp Noah staff arrived in Detroit Saturday, July 25, after an eight-hour drive from Pennsylvania. The team included a leader and fifteen college students serving as counselors. Calvary United Methodist Church, just miles from Trinity Faith, also in the Northwest Detroit area, housed the group for the week in their newly-upgraded volunteer hosting quarters.

Sunday, the group began turning Trinity Faith into a safe, caring, fun environment for children in Northwest Detroit whose lives were affected by the flooding of August 11, 2014. Although this disaster is the largest on record for 2014, it remains under the radar. In total, 38 campers participated in Camp Noah. Carol Lee, a member of Trinity Faith, served as the local site coordinator. She worked closely with Camp Noah to publicize and organize the event. With the help of church members and community partners, such as the Salvation Army, she coordinated breakfast, lunch and snacks for each day.

Rev. Marva Pope, pastor of People’s United Methodist Church, also located in the area, served as the camp mental health professional. Her role was to provide emotional and spiritual support to campers as they shared their flood stories. For these children, the flood is just one of many disasters impacting their lives.

At Camp Noah, each child made a flower and wrote out their hopes and dreams. All of the flowers were hung on a bulletin board and together became the Seeds of Hope Garden. Photo: Becky Wilson.

As I took my seat, I wondered at my surroundings. A bulletin board-turned-garden, where each flower petal included the campers’ hopes and dreams, hung near the door. “I want to be a princess…go to college…drive a corvette…be happy.”

That’s where I’d seen her! The first home on the NwDFRP case load I visited reflected the serious, unseen impact of the flood. In May, the home still had water and sewage in the basement. Mold was growing up the walls. Could the little girl smiling and laughing in the church basement be the same little girl I met on her front porch? The change was profound. While volunteers with Mennonite Disaster Service, who along with All Hands Volunteers is one of our partners in this recovery effort, carried wet debris from her basement to the curb, she stood watching. She was neither smiling nor laughing that day. No one was smiling or laughing that day.

The campers, divided into groups, sang and danced as part of the closing celebration. David Hershey, Camp Noah leader, gave an account of the week’s activities. He talked about the biblical story of Noah. “Noah and his children,” he began, “discovered gifts and talents they did not know they had … because of the effects of the flood.”

The August 11, 2014, flooding has been a lesson in discovery for many. Flood survivors have discovered their strength and resilience. Responders have discovered the need for preparation and planning. United Methodist congregations have discovered new ways of being in ministry with their community. I, a deacon, have discovered new understanding of the call to Word, Service, Justice, and Compassion. Children have discovered new voice and rhythm. And through Camp Noah, we have all discovered new hopes and dreams.

New reasons to laugh and smile. 

*Rev. Becky Wilson is a deacon serving the Detroit Renaissance District of The United Methodist Church, including as project coordinator of the Northwest Detroit Flood Recovery Project (NwDFRP). 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Aliza Stands Up for Her Education

Aliza Aluat, 19, is a proud participant in UMCOR’s Girls’ Education in South Sudan program.
Photo: UMCOR South Sudan

Two years ago, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) initiated its Girls’ Education in South Sudan program in collaboration with the Government of South Sudan and the Department for International Development (DFID) of the United Kingdom. You can read about it here. The program, which uses mentoring sessions and other tools, to encourage girls to stay in school, has made strides. They include spurring the courage a young woman named Aliza Aluat, who, despite her fears, convinced her father to allow her to continue her education. Here, Aliza tells her story:

I am by name Aliza Aluat. I am 19 years old and in class 8 at Maper East Primary School here in Aweil town. I felt lucky during a mentoring session this month because it was conducted by a female staff member of UMCOR. She told me that with education I could compete with men and they would respect me, because I can do anything they can do.

Before I attended the mentoring sessions, I would shy away from expressing myself. Even in class, I did not have the courage to challenge my fellow male students. I had this belief that as a woman I am not supposed to compete with men as we are not equals. During the mentoring sessions I gained courage to face my fears; I got the freedom to share my troubles with the mentors and my fellow girls. We realized that sharing our difficulties brings us together and enables us to find solutions amongst ourselves. 
Two months ago my father told me someone had asked for my hand in marriage. I was shocked, troubled, and scared. I went to the house and cried and cried. I tried to talk to my mother. I asked her to help me talk to my father [and convince him] to allow me to complete school, but she was scared. In our culture, as women we are not allowed to defy or question our fathers.

I don’t know where I gathered the courage—but maybe it is because of the mentoring sessions. I asked to talk to my father and he agreed. I told my father I did not want to defy him; I wanted him to just listen to me and then make a decision. I told him that I did not have a problem with getting married, but that I felt it was not the right time for me. He told me that I was old enough and reminded me that my mother was much younger when he married her. I told him I wanted to finish school first and explained to him that if he allowed me to finish school, he would get more cows for my hand in marriage because I will be more knowledgeable and rich men will be interested in marrying me. He said that was a good thought, but he did not have the money to pay for my education. I told him that should not bother him as my education was being paid for by the government through the GESS project and that I received money to buy books and my uniform.

He looked at me and asked me where I got the courage to talk to him. I just laughed and told him that we are taught so many things in school nowadays. I don’t know if he pretended to be okay with my idea or if he [really understood]; all I know is that for now I am not getting married. My mother did not believe how I made my father change his mind.

*This blog is based on an interview by UMCOR South Sudan staff with Aliza Aluat, a participant in UMCOR’s Girls’ Education in South Sudan program in Aweil, South Sudan. Read more about UMCOR’s work in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

In Italy, A Migrant’s Story

Waving her UMCOR food vouchers, Mariama praises God: “He will surely provide for me,” she told Graziella of Pellegrino della Terra. Photo: Pelegrino della Terra

By Pellegrino della Terra*

The rough journey of so many migrants to Italy is hard to describe. Earlier this month one survivor, Mariama, a migrant from Nigeria, spoke to Pellegrino della Terra about her ordeal.

The ship Mariama voyaged in was destroyed at sea during a storm; she and her two small children were among the survivors. She described the shipwreck as “God’s intervention to save lives.” Mariama said the storm had felt like an epic battle between God and the devil.

“I saw how the sea can engulf many people at a time whenever there is storm,” she said. “People were shouting and calling on the name of God.”

Mariama explained, “I was travelling with my two children. They were crying because they hadn’t eaten for two days. I gave them only water to drink; the sea took all our belongings.I lost everything except these children that the Lord gave me,” said Mariama.

“We faced a lot of difficulties passing through the desert, but the Lord was with us,” she continued. “That was the only hope that kept me alive through the storm: The Lord would bring me out of this storm and save my children. And really he is faithful!”

Mariama told us this story as confirmation of her faith that the living God never abandons us in the midst of danger. And she continues to rely on her faith, as her present situation in Italy is full of challenges. The reception center where she lives cannot provide adequately for her and the children as available resources are tight. There are thousands of migrants in this region, and unemployment is high here, so there is little to share.

Mariama visited our office earlier this month and told us she has not even been able to buy milk and pampers for the children. She is a single parent, and we really understood her situation and how she struggles to make ends meet.

When we told her about the Temidire project, which is sponsored by UMCOR [United Methodist Committee on Relief] to assist recent migrants in Italy, her face lit up. As she received the UMCOR food vouchers Mariama started singing: “He is my provider; He is my sustainer; He will surely provide for me.”

Surely, UMCOR has changed the situation of many people, and they are giving a living testimony.

* Pellegrino della Terra is a Sicilian voluntary organization that is partnering with UMCOR to provide food relief for recently arrived migrants in Sicily, Italy.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Youths Support Flood Recovery in Rocky Mountain Conference

In mid-June, Mike Moore, flood recovery director for the United Methodist Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, reported on the excellent volunteer work accomplished in Colorado by the youth group from First United Methodist Church of Lawrence, Kansas. The group split up and worked on various projects, he said:
One group worked on a home out in Kersey which had been hit hard by the flood. The group tore out damaged fencing and put in new fencing. They painted, cleaned up debris and weeds. The other half of the group worked out at a ranch, painting the bunk house and cleaning debris. They also cleaned a garage and shop for homeowners who live in the same neighborhood. The homeowners they worked for were amazed at the amount of work they accomplished. 
On Thursday, Deb got word that the homeowners from Kersey were evacuating due to impending flooding. Melinda was looking for volunteers to help them move everything from their house, which had just been restored this spring. Deb passed the information onto the Lawrence, Kansas, group. It was late afternoon by the time we got the information to them and I didn’t expect them to be able to provide much help as they had been working all day on other projects. BUT, when these kids learned that this client needed help, they told their youth leader that they needed to go help “save “Flip and Michelle.” This group of teens went and worked until 8:00 p.m., loading household items and moving them out of the home. They helped round up the goats so they could be taken to safety. They passed up their evening showers and dinner to go out to the farm, which was swarming with mosquitoes (due to all the flood waters nearby), and work in the wet and mud to help the family move out.
Tami Clark, the youth leader, said they had been on many mission trips before, to Katrina and Sandy and others. This was the first time that they had ever had homeowners work along beside them and as hard as they worked. The appreciation and caring they received from the three homeowners they worked with was amazing to them and made the week very meaningful.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

In Liberia, helping vulnerable people fight Ebola

By Nyamah Dunbar*
Tienii is a small community (pop. about 4,100) in Liberia, a short walk from Bo Waterside, at the border with neighboring Sierra Leone. The average family size, due to polygamy, ranges between 16 and 25 persons. The vast majority of residents, about 95 percent, are Muslims.Tienii was selected within the fourth Liberian county to benefit from the Ebola Response project of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), targeting the elderly and persons living with disabilities in Liberia.

Clarence D. Fahnbulleh, 68, retired district commissioner, is a lifelong resident of Tienii. He shared the horror of what the onset of Ebola meant for his tiny community, but also praised the quick responses and efforts of residents to confront the virus. “A stranger came to visit a family in early March 2014. He complained of being sick. As the news of Ebola was already on the rise, we quarantined him in the empty school house. He died two days later, and soon, so did the eight individuals in the household he visited,” recalls Mr. Fahnbulleh. The community, already on high alert due to its proximity to the border and the easy flow of people across it, increased its vigilance.

Villagers pick up supplies during the height of the Ebola pandemic, now in steep decline.
Photo: Rev. Jerry Kandea

The response by the community and nongovernmental development agencies was rapid. People were equipped with the necessary health messaging and provided with basic sanitation skills and supplies. However, a key component remained lacking.

“When someone is hungry, they can’t really listen [to a health message],” said Mr. Fahbulleh. “People had stopped going to their farms because gatherings were prohibited due to the onset of Ebola.” Because this is a predominantly farming community, it significantly impacted hunger in the area. Although an earlier food ration had been delivered to certain individuals in the village at the onset of the crisis, nearly half the village did not benefit.

Mr. Fahnbulleh and other residents shared that UMCOR was the first and only agency to focus on groups that frequently are overlooked: the elderly and persons living with disabilities. Musu Gaya, 89, recalls that, “The day the UMCOR food ration arrived, I had no food left in my house, and there are eight persons that must be fed. UMCOR is the only group that has ever given me my own bag of rice and food supplies, and I want to thank them.”

The Ebola response to the elderly and persons living with disabilities was an initiative of the Ministries to the Aged and the Hope for the Deaf at the Liberia Annual Conference. Rev. Anna Kpaan, who heads the work with the elderly, noted, “We may not realize it, but this distribution, in a predominantly Muslim area, is the strongest testament of Christ’s love and the teachings of Jesus Christ.”

Residents received a 50 pound bag of rice, fish, beans and seasoning supplies, along with soap and bleach for their sanitation kits. Manbu Freeman, 80, who usually relies on his adult children in Monrovia, the capital, for his sustenance, applauded the distribution efforts. “I urge UMCOR and the church to continue to keep the disabled community at heart—particularly the elderly who suffer from disability issues,” he said.

Kula Sherif, 85, who also shared his rations with his household of 13 persons, praised the distribution process for its fairness. “At times, during other distributions, people register, but do not receive, or people receive rations by paying bribes to the distributors, or because they are family or friends. But with this distribution, all of us who were registered received the promised allotment of rations,” he said.

As the Ebola crisis in Liberia continues to diminish, the people of Tienii are proud that they were able to contain the virus from spreading beyond the initial contact family. They remain vigilant that their personal efforts, combined with those of partners such as UMCOR and The United Methodist Church, will reinforce their ability to overcome any challenge.

*Nyamah Dunbar is a consultant supporting UMCOR’s work to confront Ebola in Liberia.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Why the Church is Visible in the Midst of Cholera

By Rev. Betty Kazadi Musau*

There has been an urgent response and action taken in Bukama Health Zone in Katanga province, Democratic Republic of Congo, since cholera was reported in the region in February 2014. The church has supported the government’s effort to create a space for cholera treatment in Bukama, which is located along the Congo River. The church, through UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief), decided to be present at the local level to heal and save lives. It responded by being visible. To be effective in healthcare, it rehabilitated the cholera treatment center that will accommodate not only Bukama residents but also those who come to Bukama from surrounding villages to work at their small businesses.

 Odette Malondo, former nurse and midwife, recalls the dire situation of cholera patients before the Cholera Treatment Center was rehabilitated. Photo credit: Betty Kazadi Musau

Ready to light the household fire and prepare lunch, Odette Malondo looked at the people coming towards her. Her house is located close to the Cholera Treatment Center. Odette works at the central office as a cleaner, but for 35 years, she was a midwife and nurse at Bukama General Hospital.
“I can say that the new Cholera Treatment Center is really a space of grace,” she says. Last year, before it was rehabilitated, she recalls, “patients were sleeping on the ground in tents when getting cholera treatment, but now this center is a safe space not only for patients but also for me. Cholera outbreak does not choose patients—even I can fall sick,” she says.

Malondo remembers how the tents were resistant to damage for an entire year, but later gave in during the rainy season, when they oozed water with the slightest breeze. “They got torn as we continued to admit cholera patients. Within those tents, I could see children and women dying in front of me. [The new center] is an opportunity for patients to be valued and get well quickly,” she says. “This center with beds, curtains, mattresses and buckets will help not only cholera patients but also me as a former midwife and a cleaner now at the administrative office. The CTC structure now holds the beauty of the hospital.”

It is a well-designed structure for urgent response for patients as they will sleep on beds, within a permanent building with doors, beds and bed sheets, a functioning water system, an incinerator and functioning and clean latrines. The building’s rooms are assigned according to gender and age.

Malondo comments, “We are happy to see beds and the bed sheets that cover them. I can picture cholera patients in this clean place with curtains, with nurses and medical doctors, and I am sure that all this will reduce cholera deaths.”

Dr. Ngoie Manyamba comments that Bukama has never had a space so well-equipped for cholera treatment over the past ten years. “The space is quite assuring, even to patients, and facilitates healing,” he says. “We were abandoned, and no one thought of rehabilitating an old building to provide a suitable space to treat cholera cases, and people were simply treated in tents on the grounds of Bukama General Hospital. Now, medical staff in Bukama can speak up and thank the church that, through UMCOR, is saving lives in Bukama.”

“This equipped center is an unforgettable legacy. May God bless the donors,” Malondo says. “Within this center, you see healing on the way, and lives will be saved.”

This year UMCOR celebrates 75 years of being with those in need. UMCOR’s country office in DRC was instrumental in the rehabilitation of the Cholera Treatment Center, having coordinated and managed funds, procured and transported building materials, and hired the company that did the rehabilitation work, in partnership with Bukama General Hospital.

Katanga is currently experiencing a new cholera outbreak since the start of the new year, affecting 16 of 68 health zones in the province. UMCOR’s International Disaster Response unit, Advance #982450, has provided funds to help meet the challenge.

Your gift to Congo (DRC) Development Projects, Advance #198400, will support UMCOR’s ongoing work with the Congolese people.

*Rev. Betty Kazadi Musau chairs the North Katanga Health Board of the North Katanga Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.