Reflections on the Hunger Challenge

We’re in the final stretch of the Hunger Challenge and the topic of the day amongst those of us who participated is what we’re going to eat tomorrow.

“A big cheeseburger. And no one’s going to stop me,” declared Mark.

Me? I’m celebrating with a giant, warm cinnamon roll for breakfast at 8:01 a.m.

While we all agreed we missed our comfort foods this week, none of us found the challenge to be overly difficult. In fact, Chelsey went so far as to say she was disappointed that the amount of money we were allotted wasn’t less. Some of us have decided to continue certain aspects of it, like eating less sugar or sticking to a smaller daily food budget. Now that we know it’s possible, we feel inspired to give more and eat less.

Hunger Challenge participants
World Concern staff members (l to r) Mark Lamb, Erin Lamb, Chelsey Chen and Cathy Herholdt, participated in the Global Hunger Challenge this week.

Here are some other thoughts from World Concern participants.

“Erin and I have begun training for a half marathon. It’s actually the first race that we’ve trained for together for, but we’ve both run regularly since we married. As I ran tonight I began to think about the millions of people around the world without enough food to make it through the day, and I was ashamed.  I was ashamed because I recognized that my consistent exercise has always been primarily about burning off the extra food that I eat each day. I have to run to reduce the side effects of eating more than my share. Embarassing. I eat more than my share while others go hungry.

Reducing the amount of food I eat is only a small step, but donating the extra money I would save to organizations like World Concern will make a significant difference in someone’s life” – Mark

“Bored with my food is how I would describe it. I was never hungry, always had what I needed, but was bored with eating the same thing day after day. This feeling of being bored actually made me feel really ashamed. How blessed am I to eat tuna or peanut butter and banana every day, when people around the world are eating the same rice?

The fact that I was bored, made me realize how much emphasis I put on food—what kind of food will I be making? Where are we going to go out to eat? I look forward to eating meals and look forward to trying to cook new things, or trying out new restaurants. These things make me happy. These things are luxuries—luxuries most of the world does not have.

Someone asked me the other day what comfort foods I missed during the challenge. This question made me really think. That’s the thing: I often eat out of comfort, not necessity. Doing this challenge, I had all the necessary food I needed; I was not starving. It made me realize that so many times a day I make decisions out of my need to feel comfortable. Why do I even feel the right to feel comfortable? God did not call us to feel comfortable.” – Erin

For us, this challenge has come to an end. For millions of people, the challenge is a daily reality. If the purpose of the Hunger Challenge was to raise our awareness about food insecurity, it definitely did just that.

Lost Freedom in Eastern Chad

Ache stands inside a hut in Chad.
Ache faces a daily struggle to survive in the Djabal refugee camp in Eastern Chad.

Ache is a strongly built woman. The skin around her eyes is smooth in spite of the graying braids that lie half hidden under her head covering. Her face wears a look built out of determination and survival and years of waiting. She has been in this camp in eastern Chad since 2004. She knows she may never go home.

In Sudan, she tells us, she lived in a large and prosperous village. She had a beautiful life: fields of millet, sorghum and peanuts along the wadi, gardens rich in choice, and an irrigation pump to lighten her work. Her three children were free to go to school, and together the community built a preschool so mothers could have time to rest and socialize.

Her house was made of adobe, with a metal roof: safe from fire, a good place to store her dowry chest and gold jewelry. She would travel to weekly markets in nearby towns, selling grain or vegetables and bringing home clothes, shoes and school supplies. Her husband traveled to the big cities and returned bearing sacks of sugar. In Sudan, Ache was free.

And then, everything changed. Ache’s face goes still and hard as she thinks about the hate campaign that started the troubles.

“The janjaweed came to our village with guns and fire. They stole our cattle, slaughtered our donkeys and burned our fields. As they broke down our granaries and houses we ran for our lives, scattering into the bush, I in one direction and my husband in another,” she said. “So many of our neighbors and our family members didn’t escape. Men and women, elderly and babies; their bodies lay untended, unburied for days. When the janjaweed finally left we buried the dead in pits and mass graves. I had only my clothes and my children. I had only the hope of reaching some other village before we were lost to hunger and thirst.”

Eventually, trucks came from the NGOs. They rounded up batches of refugees and drove them several days to the camp. Bewildered and traumatized, Ache’s family waited under plastic tarps. “But there were no guns. There was peace, and a place to rest,” she recalls.

When they first arrived in the camp they were lent a small plot to farm, but without access to water it failed. Now her husband spends most days looking for day labor in town. Sometimes he is lucky. Sometimes they resort to selling part of their daily ration. Her 16-year-old son has left the camp to look for work somewhere unknown—probably back in Sudan, although at last news he was still in eastern Chad. One day she will find him, if she can get the money to travel after him.

She focuses on the blessings in the camp: her daughter spreading sorghum from the distribution rations to dry in the sun; the gate into her neighbor’s yard and the gourd plant that reaches over it. She wonders whether she will ever again have the chance to plant and reap her own fields.

“What I wish for,” she says with a trembling voice, “Is a chance to work. Last year, when World Concern was here, I worked on the rock lines. I had money to buy a pot and meat to share with my neighbor. We are not the same tribe, but we live together. We shared out my work days and the money.”

“Thank you,” she says, “for coming so far, for leaving your families and coming to help mine. Surely God will bless your generosity.”

Story by J. Gunningham, World Concern Program Support Officer, Djabal, Chad

We Love You, Haiti! Sincerely, Washington State


A school desk bound for Haiti
World Concern Haiti Country Director Christon Domond inspects desks with Susan Talbot during a visit to our headquarters last month. The desk is one of dozens being loaded today into a shipping container bound for Haiti.

It’s like an enormous care package for Haiti from all across Washington.

Today, just south of Seattle, a 40’ shipping container is being packed with a variety of supplies to help children in Haiti, just in time for the new school year. We’re loading up dozens of desks, uniforms and school supplies for more than 1,300 kids. All of the items were donated – most by donors in Washington.

Eighty-seven desks from a Washington State University dorm in Pullman will be put to use in classrooms in Haiti, and a Port-au-Prince hospital will receive 25 patient tables and cabinets from an assisted living home in Bellevue.

Imagine the delighted smiles when 1,320 kids open packages filled with school supplies, hand packed with love by donors and churches around the Puget Sound region. The Kids’ Healing Kits also include soap, toothpaste and other hygiene items, as well as stuffed animals and other toys to help the youngest earthquake victims heal from emotional trauma.

Volunteers and homeless men hired for the day are helping World Concern pack the 40’ shipping container inside of a warehouse in Sumner. From there, the container will be trucked to a rail yard, then loaded on a train bound for New York. The final leg of the trip will be on a ship, the MSC Austria, which is scheduled to arrive in Port-au-Prince on Aug. 29.

We’ve put some thought into what we’re shipping. Our staff in Haiti has either requested these items, or has found areas where these items will fill a critical need – an important piece in making sure humanitarian aid helps communities, rather than hindering the healing process.

Thank you, donors and volunteers, for making this giant care package possible!

To read more about what we’re doing in Haiti, click here.

The Cross and the Poor: A Good Friday Meditation

Crucifix from Oberammergua
Crucifix from Oberammergua

The Cross and the Poor: A Good Friday Meditation

 

 

 

  But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” John 12:32

 For most of my life, when I read this verse, what really went through my mind was “But I, when I rise from the dead, will draw all people to myself.”  Good Friday slipped by quietly, a whistle-stop on the way to Easter. I identified with the joy of Easter. In our family, we triumphed in the empty cross.

 And, after all, it is triumph that draws people, is it not? Surely Jesus, had his thoughts not been haunted by the imminence of his death, would have realized that it the victory of Easter would draw people to him and not the horrendous pain, betrayal and abandonment of the cross. Don’t we flee from blood, torture, injustice, suffering and death? Those of us who grow up with little suffering, as I did, cannot understand the attraction of the crucifixion but eagerly embrace victory. Embracing the crucifixion threatens to drag us down toward death but the resurrection lifts us up to a life even better than the good one we enjoy now.

 But then I went to live among the poor, like those with whom Jesus lived, and began to realize that Jesus’ words were incisive, not short-sighted. Preaching only the triumph of Easter among the poor often stirs up only the hopes of Palm Sunday-of enemies defeated, of riches obtained, of a good life-hopes that are dashed between Sunday and the next Friday. Drawn only to a god of triumph, they are betrayed.  

 But a God on the cross, one who understands their sufferings because He too, has suffered and still draws their pain and sin into himself-that God is one whose love they can receive .

 I think back to a wood and thatch house raised on stilts over the stinky river that flows through Phnom Penh, Cambodia. With my hands on the shoulders on Chup Ly, a Vietnamese young woman in the last stages of AIDS, I prayed quietly as the Vietnamese pastor prayed aloud. Chup Ly, sold into sex work by her parents, had been drawn to Jesus and placed her belief in Him. As I prayed, I thought, “Shall I pray that I somehow take some of her suffering into myself and perhaps lessen it?”  The answer came back, “Meredith, I’ve already done that and am doing it now. You are too small a person to bear such pain. It’s not your commission.”

  “But I, lifted up from the earth, draw Chup Ly to myself.”

 I think of the fright of a five-year old child in a village in Mozambique watching as his older brother convulses in a sweat-soaked bed from malaria, grows still and finally cools into death.

 “But I, lifted up from the earth, draw this bewildered child and his brother to myself.”

 I think of the helplessness of the father, waiting beside the road with other laborers, hoping that someone will come and exploit his labor for the day so that he can feed his children.

 “But I, lifted up from the earth, draw this helpless man and his family to myself.”

 I think of the resigned pain in the eyes of the mother who watches her infant suckle ever more weakly at breasts withered from starvation.

 “But I, lifted up from the earth, draw this starving mother and child to myself.”

 I think of the twelve year old girl sold to sex traffickers, who alone, enslaved and abandoned, waits in terror in a small, dingy room as the approaching footsteps of the first man ever to have bought her echo in the hallway.

 “But I, lifted up from the earth, draw this terrified and soon to be violated girl to myself.”

 On this Good Friday, as I remember Chup Ly, dying of AIDS in Phnom Penh, I know with deep certainty that I must embrace both Good Friday and Easter.  “What is our calling then? We are called, simply, to hold on to (the risen) Christ and his cross with one hand, with all our might; and to hold on to those we are given to love with the other hand, with all our might, with courage, humor, self-abandonment, creativity, flair, tears, silence, sympathy, gentleness, flexibility, Christlikeness. When we find their tears becoming our own, we may know that healing has begun to happen….” (NT Wright, For All God’s Worth, pp 98-99)

Fighting Poverty in a Violent Place: Sri Lanka

Ragu was killed while helping the poor in Sri Lanka.
Ragu was killed while helping the poor in Sri Lanka.

9/11 is a date that will always be associated with violence. For most of us, we think of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon but there was another act of violence on that day. On September 11, 2006, Ragu was killed-shot down as he worked with World Concern to serve the poor in Sri Lanka.

 Ragunathan (Ragu) was one of the field workers, working with community members to get their homes rebuilt and also to rebuild their lives and livelihood after the tsunami that devastated Banda Aceh, Indonesia washed ashore in eastern Sri Lanka. .

 After the tsunami struck the Government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers crafted a fragile truce. In August 2006, the truce fell apart. One of the hotly contested areas was around the port city of Trincomalee, built on the largest protected natural bay in all of Asia.

 On September 11 2006, during the course of his work near Trincomalee, Ragu stopped his motorcycle beside the road to answer his cell phone. While he was talking, he was shot dead. To this day nobody knows who did it. Was it a soldier thinking that Ragu was reporting information to Tamil fighters during this time of war, or a Tiger assassin, mistaking Ragu’s development work for collaborating with the government? Or was it a targeted killing because of a dispute going on in Ragu’s village at the time? Nobody knows-even now.

 When I was in Trincomalee last year, I passed by the spot in the road where Ragu was killed. I wanted to find out more about this man who had died while helping others.

 Ragu, a Tamil, was a father of five, three daughters and two sons. His last born, a son, was only four days old on the day Ragu was killed. Ragu was the poorest of the World Concern field workers. Though he was poor enough to qualify for a rebuilt home for himself and his family, he removed his own name from the list. Others needed homes so much more than he.

 When he attended staff meetings and training events with the team involved in rebuilding, Ragu asked the practical questions, always with others in mind. “Why is the supply of concrete delayed?” “When will the supplies be transported?”

 Ian McInnes who later led the Sri Lanka office once listened to Ragu talking with farmers who had received a house and were now were asking World Concern to give even more things-things that they could now provide for themselves.

 “You have a home now. Now is the time for you to pick yourselves up and rebuild. And, if you are thinking of fleeing the area, make sure that you give this home to someone else, just as it was given to you.”

 Ian wrote a letter to affirm and praise Ragu. Ragu carried it in his rear pocket wherever he went.

 The World Concern family in Sri Lanka and around the world rallied around Ragu’s widow and the children. All of Ragu’s children are able to go to school. Ragu’s oldest child completing secondary school at a local Catholic boarding school and the youngest will celebrate his third birthday on September 11, 2009.  

 Fighting world poverty in places of violence carries a price.  The number of humanitarian workers killed worldwide has continued to climb. Nine in ten die in acts of violence.

Fighting Poverty in a Violent Place: Somalia

Poverty in Somalia
Photo courtesy of the NY Times

Working on poverty reduction is hard anywhere in the world but is harder some places than others. World Concern is one of the few agencies that has worked in Somalia for over three decades. There is no effective central government in Somalia and the areas of our work are sometimes occupied by one of the rival groups and then another, sometimes from one day to the next. Violence in Somalia is always imminent. It is one of the most difficult and dangerous places in the world to fight poverty. We were recently asked by a donor how we are able to work in places like Somalia where there is so much violence.  Here is how our staff in Africa answered.

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Somalia has one of the worst human development indices and the south in particular bears the burden. Due to the protracted conflict and natural disasters there have been an estimated 3.5 million people in need of humanitarian aid and a further 1 million are internally displaced (Somalia CAP 2009).

World Concern has worked in Somalia for almost 30 years. Through that experience, we have developed an understanding of the Somali people, especially in the areas that you referred to in your email. The current program primarily targets the unarmed, marginalized Somalia Bantus, who have small farms, and people affected by leprosy. Because of frequent conflicts with neighboring pastoralists (herders) who come in search of water and pasture for their animals, World Concern expanded the program to address water issues for the pastoralists.

The program is being implemented in an area that is located away from the main trade routes, providing some protection from conflicting groups. The residents of the area are the marginalized Somali Bantus. One of the villages a major settlement of people affected by leprosy. The project is designed to benefit 45,000 people, 24,200 of whom are direct beneficiaries.

The Somali political landscape is very dynamic with frequent changes. World Concern has always worked with and through the community elders and their structures such Community Development Committees, and Sector committees for the various activities. These are manned by the beneficiary community who come from the target groups. We do not deal with the armed groups in any way.

World Concern works with the locally elected central committee of elders which has remained unchanged over the years in spite of the constant shift of power in the area. The Central Committee is in charge of selecting the Community Development Committee. World Concern has continually trained the Central Committee and the Community Development Committees to build their capacity for project implementation.

The present programming is aimed at saving lives and reducing conflict between communities through capacity building. World Concern through consultative meetings with the community leadership has shared responsibilities in the implementation activities.

What would happen if our programs were forced to end either by a decision of the US government or because of violence from the Somali groups in power in our areas?

    1. We would have to immediately cease our activities without any planning or preparation.
    2. It would negatively reflect on the image of World Concern in the community because we failed to honor the obligation of completing the program. This would also make reentry into the community difficult. It would enhance recruitment of militants.
    3. It would negatively impact the work and reputation of our the local partners we work with on the ground.
    4. Most of the resources we and the communities have invested would be wasted because we would be unable to continue the activities essential to securing benefits to the people in the area of our work.
    5. The very fragile local economy would shrink even further because of lack of employment and reduced commerce.
    6. The community would suffer even more.  The already marginalized households and leprosy affected people would suffer greater oppression and be deprived of access to services essential to their welfare. Without our work with both of the competeing communities, conflict between pastoralists and farmers would probably increase.  Because we would not complete our planned activities, many in the area of our work would either lose their livelihoods. It would affect 80% of the pastoralists, 90% of the farmers, and 100% of those who fish as a major part of their livelihood.

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Doing good well is more than simply knowing how to pursue interventions with excellence. Working in places like Somalia requires a strong commitment to the Somali people, patience, great wisdom in complex personal and group relationships. It means that we develop relationships with local leaders who are concerned about their people. It means that we must find local partners who will risk violence and carry on even when there are infrequent visits and interrupeted communication.  It means that our staff must depend daily upon a merciful God and be willing to submit their ideas and action to His direction.  It is only God who nurtures the courage of our staff to work in the face of uncertainly and sudden violence.

World Poverty and Hope

Mid-second week in the Obama administration, hope continues. More than any president in my memory (beginning with Eisenhower), no president has ever entered office buoyed by the expectations and hopes not only of Americans and all the world.

I arrived in Kenya, Africa on my last trip on the same day that the election results were announced and walked into Obamania that probably had no parallel in the world. The recent saying in Kenya that the United States would have a Luo (Obama’s father’s tribe) president before Kenya had come true and all Kenya rejoiced together. My first work day in Africa was scrapped by a hastily called holiday across the entire country.  I too join in the hope that the only president in my memory who had actually worked among the poor will make poverty reduction a priority, not just as a policy but from a heart that better understands.

As I traveled throughout Kenya during the following week, however, I realized anew that the hope placed in Obama would not soon translate into hope that will reach the people I visited.

Later on in the American election week, I stooped down to enter the narrow and low doorway  of a traditional Maasai hut. Making my way through semidarkness I sat down in the small central room with the open fire in the center, glowing red and occasionally flaming up through the smoke that filled the essentially windowless room. For about ninety minutes I talked through a translator with the two Maasai women, one a grandmother and the other her daughter—kind of—she was actually her late husband’s brother’s daughter’s daughter–who together were rearing 13 children without a man in the household.  They talked about the complexity of their lives, of how they had to fight off men who would harass them, of the problems of dealing with sickness among the children and their few cows and goats, of the second woman’s own birth son and how her husband who had deserted her had come back to try and take the son in order to sell him off to others as a laborer. When I asked about their daily joys, they said it was to see the children grow and know that they were enabling them to do it.

As we prepared to leave, the older woman who had never gone to church before suddenly and without prompting not only announced that she would begin to attend but also that she would stop brewing pombee the local and illegal brew. We were all surprised because we had never specifically suggested that she begin to attend church, and did not even know that she was brewing local beer.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

She said it was because we (the World Concern project) were the only ones helping her with her physical needs who also sit, listen, inquire and give her a chance to share her story.  The others just plunk down whatever they are giving and go. And at this point we had given her nothing. We had only come into her house, drunk her tea and listened to her for an hour or so, following the example of the church volunteers, trained by our program, who also visit and listen and bring practical assistance.

President Obama will, I hope, continue the assistance to World Concern and other agencies that enable us to help combat poverty in Africa. But not all help is the same. As Christians we really believe that each man, woman and child is created by God in his image and worthy of respect and dignity. When this belief is transformed into practice—in showing a Maasai widow and an abandoned mother that they are people of value by receiving their hospitality and listening to them—respect animated by the love of Christ—we go beyond assistance, powerfully inviting lives to be transformed in hope.

So, yes, I share the hope of many in the nation that President Obama will bring positive change. But transforming change is truly brought about by men and women who follow Christ and become his hands and feet bringing assistance, see the poor through his eyes and speak his words of life.

Why a Poverty Blog?

Bangladesh--Where this story began.

In January 1977, just over 32 years ago, my wife, Kendra, my daughter, Heather, who had just celebrated her first birthday, and I arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh to begin what we thought would be a two year assignment but stretched to seven.

Our shipment of supplies, dishes and things turned up about three months later just as we were moving into our field assignment in Kamalganj, a rural area in northeastern Bangladesh. As we carried boxes of paper diapers, kid’s toys, clothes and other things that we had shipped into a small house that had originally been built for leprosy patients we began to see our world and our place in quite differently.

I am the son of a Baptist pastor and grew up in Portsmouth, Virginia where he pastored a small church. Kendra, a missionary kid was born in Barbados when it was still a British colony and grew up there and in Grenada. Neither of our families were rich by American standards—probably on the basis of money alone, we would have been lower middle class. We grew up thinking of ourselves not as poor but certainly not as rich either.

As we moved in that day, all that we owned in the world fit on the floor of one of the four 100 square feet concrete rooms that comprised our new house—almost without stacking. As our possessions disappeared into the house, however, what seemed to us minimal in the US suddenly seemed excessive. With a start we realized at a gut level that we were rich. With that personal revelation, much around us began to change. Previously we were able to read biblical instruction concerning possessions without guilt, sometimes subtly seasoned with self-righteousness. With the new recognition that we were rich, the same passages became acutely uncomfortable. Beginning with that discomfort, a two year assignment also slowly transformed into a lifelong vocation, and for over thirty years we have led others in ministry to God among the poor.

We quickly came to realize that simply providing money and goods would not in itself change the culture of poverty. If the ship bringing our shipment to Bangladesh had sunk in the Indian Ocean, we would not then have been poor, only inconvenienced for a period. Neither life nor even wealth is actually measured by the accumulation of possessions alone.

In the years since, our family lived seven year in Kenya and I have traveled to dozens of impoverished countries. None of my travels have moved me to romanticize poverty—it is terrible, rooted in injustice and eats slowly away at all that a person is meant by God to be. But I have also been transformed by thousands of hours of conversations with the poor, especially those who are my brothers and sisters in Christ, and come to new understandings of God’s heart.

That is why I am writing this blog—not to give answers but to chronicle my journey especially during this leg of the trip with my colleagues at World Concern.

Meredith