Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Blessing for a Blessing (Part 1)

Mugisha: his name means "blessing"

I want a wheelchair for Christmas.

I want Mugisha to have access to an education.

I want Mugisha to look people in the eye.

I don't want Mugisha to spend one more day crawling in the dirt.

Do you?

So what's the cost for changing a life? 

Four hundred bucks.

Twenty dollars from twenty people.

And Mugisha gets a wheelchair for Christmas.

A blessing for a "blessing."

And if you're the generous kind, you already know that by blessing him, twenty dollars is nothing compared to the abundant blessings you'll get in return.

So who are my twenty? Actually, nineteen. I'm already in. 

Are you?

UPDATE: Mugisha--AND Ngabo--have wheelchairs! Read part 2!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Come with Me to the UCC

While visiting the beautiful country of Rwanda, you see people in need and wonder what you can do to make a real difference. The best I could come up with was handing out candy to kids. But Frederick Ndabaramiye and Zachary Dusingizimana, on the other hand, are two native Rwandans moving mountains in the Land of a Thousand Hills.

Although I had heard about the Ubumwe Community Center (UCC) for years, I was still blown away when I visited the center in person. We passed it by the first time, my husband noting, “Wow, that place is nice.” Backing up to enter the gates, we saw manicured landscaping, and more beautiful were the people who greeted us as we stepped out of the vehicle. They were all so eager to welcome the fish-out-of-water Americans to the community that had welcomed them. 

Nshuti, showing us head, eyes, ears, nose, mouth . . .
We met Nshuti who had lost both parents and was now cared for by his elderly grandmother. We were introduced to a five-year-old boy who, every day, crosses the border from the Democratic Republic of the Congo with his seven-year-old “big” sister; she drops him off at the center on her way to school. And we sat in the classroom with brilliant deaf children eager to converse—if only they could teach their inept American students how to speak their complex language.

Sewing class teacher, also "handicapped"

In Rwanda, a person with a physical or mental handicap typically is left to lead the life of a beggar. Fortunately, the UCC's co-founder, Frederick, doesn't believe in “disabilities.” Instead, the UCC embraces those who Frederick calls "people like me" and offers hands-on workshops that teach marketable skills, such as sewing, banana-leaf crafting, and knitting. During the trip, we later visited a small shop started by graduates of the UCC, where we bought an African tunic, dresses, and other souvenirs. Because of the UCC, these once-dismissed members of society are now business owners.

At the community center, deaf children attend class and have a teacher who takes them to “normal” schools in the afternoon. There’s a classroom for mentally challenged children, where a loving instructor guides them to learn vocabulary and math. There are outreach programs that make home visits to those who are homebound and sometimes neglected by family. Zachary explained that many times they just need soap or clothes or someone to talk to. Every member of the community center gets a daily lunch too. 

Most importantly, though, these once social outcasts have found a home at the Ubumwe Community Center, a place where they are surrounded by “people like me.”

Frederick with the new preschool, under construction

The newest project for the UCC is the construction of a preschool, where up to 100 “disabled” children and children of those already a part of UCC will receive free education and be integrated with “normal” children at an earlier age. Zachary feels that this will help both the challenged and mainstream students to accept one another more easily in the long run. 

If you have ever wanted to truly make a difference but didn't know where to start, start here or here.

I've seen it. 

It’s real. 

And you can be a part of it.

I have no doubt that they’ll find a way without our help. But do you really want them to?

Like the Ubumwe Community Center's Facebook page for updates on the center.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Worship in Rwanda

These beauties came to visit during the service.
On Sunday, we attended Frederick’s church, and in many ways, it was much like an American church service. There were announcements and a choir, babies crying and late arrivers, microphones and musical instruments, praying and tithing, and of course, that one inevitable cell phone ring. We listened from long wooden benches that held about twelve people hip-to-hip. By my best guesstimate, there were about 250 people in attendance that day. 

I couldn’t help but notice the differences too. There wasn’t just one choir—there were five! About a third of the church was involved in the choirs, and they each had a turn at leading praise. It was everything you’d expect: vibrant rich harmonies and a clapping rhythm I could never seem to catch. By the time the fifth choir took its turn, I could really feel the heat from the tin roof overhead, but as if on cue, a cooling rain came to pitter-pat our relief.

There were several opportunities to tithe, during which steady streams of people would walk to the front to give—at least one lady (Dan noticed) went forward several times. The one crying baby I could see was alerting his mother that he was ready to be untied from her back, a sight that amazes me no less each time I see it. The babies and toddlers are tied on so neatly, so securely, so contentedly that you’d never even know they were there except for the little feet sticking out in the front or the little head peeking out in the back (if not covered).

The main difference, of course, was that the entire service was in Kinyarwanda. (Well, except for the very brief interval when they asked their American guest to come to the front and say a few words.) Yet I had no problem understanding the passion of the message. The pastor spoke fervently about “changing your testimony” (as was whispered to me), using the examples of Daniel reading the writing on the wall and Joseph interpreting the pharaoh’s dreams. I read the verses in my English Bible as he preached and pleaded in Kinyarwanda. And while I couldn’t literally understand very much of the service, there’s just something universal about the power of praise and the reverence of prayer.

As the pastor brought the service to a close (about three hours in), everyone turned to look at the three Americans seated toward the back. I immediately wondered what cultural faux pas we had committed, but Frederick quickly explained: the pastor was asking our family to carry greetings from their church in Gisenyi back to ours, at home in the United States and wherever we may travel.

So, from the beautiful, worshipful church in Gisenyi, Rwanda, I send you all the greetings of universal Love.

Rwanda: First Impressions

When we stepped off the plane onto the runway, the first thing I noticed was the smell. It was the rustic, welcoming scent of burning wood, and I realized it was dinnertime in Rwanda. It was dark, but I could tell we were surrounded by hills from the artificial stars that rose up all around us in the distance and stretched far into the darkness.

Another striking impression was the pride Rwandans seem to have for their country and their president. Our server at dinner, Clarence, later saw us wandering around the hotel and offered to show us around Kigali. As we walked, he proudly pointed to the new construction and quickly noted the old buildings that would be torn down as the country's Vision 2020 plan was implemented. It wasn't the first time I'd heard about the plan--or the last. Both Frederick and our driver, Charles, have spoken of the plan and how President Kagame wanted to “do something special in Africa,” as Charles put it. Or in Kagame’s words, “As I tell our people, nobody owes Rwandans anything. . . . Rwanda is a nation with high goals and a sense of purpose.”

There’s also a certain problem-solving ability, a “Rwandan ingenuity” (to hand down an American phrase that no longer seems to fit so well). When a beggar came to our window, the driver explained, “You don’t see many of them anymore. The government has taken them off the streets and sent them to school to learn trades they can use.” I had noticed the same proactive ingenuity about Frederick, who takes what most would write off as a debilitating condition and uses as a way to serve the world.

A certain efficiency happens as a result of this problem-solving approach. The “land of a thousand hills” isn’t what you would think of as a prime agricultural location, but they make it work. They have to. Many of the people depend on crops for food or to trade for other necessities, so they’ve covered their thousand hills with pole beans and coffee, pineapples and potatoes, tea, avocadoes and bananas. (Oh, the bananas!) And I didn't see just a row of banana trees. Surrounding the tall banana trees are smaller plants, such as coffee or beans, to maximize the productivity of the land.

To make this work smoothly requires a great sense of community purpose. Many communities harvest together—not operating under a “yours or mine” method, but a “let’s work together till we get it all done” mentality. We just happened to arrive the day before the entire country came out to put their community approach to work. When we were making plans with our driver, he told us that nothing would be open until about noon on Saturday. Once a month, the whole country closes their businesses and stops what they’re doing for a nationwide clean-up day. We had to see that for ourselves. And sure enough, as we roamed the streets, they were quiet, except for the swish of a broom or the splash of tossed water.

But there’s so much more than that: it’s the people walking—to and from everywhere—with crops and goods on their head--with babies tied on their backs. It’s the fresh, pungent flowers in the hotel lobby and restaurant. It’s the sweet bananas. It’s the way they wave or the children cheer “Umuzungu!” as you pass. (Umuzungu means “white person,” but not in a derogatory way. It’s how we’d say, “There’s George Clooney!” J) It's how they use their horns to communicate what they're about to do, instead of chastising what the other driver did. It’s the way they light up when you shake their hands and bumble out, “Muraho,” the one word you can manage in their language, in their country, while they've spent years learning yours. And the service: let’s just say that if I were to tell the hotel clerk that I’d forgotten my cat, I think he would fly to the United States to get it.

I’m guessing much of that stems from how much these people really love their country. They just want you to leave this country with the same love of Rwanda they feel every day.

And you know, they may just get that wish. They’ve certainly earned it.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Beautiful Monday

I couldn't help but think of Christmas when these little Monday beauties caught my eye.

Of course, I tried to fix it by removing the wrinkled brown leaf (upper right) and snapping another photo. But somehow my edited version of beauty wasn't as, well, beautiful.

This Monday taught me: come as you are, with what you have. Don't meddle with the gifts you've been given.

Have a beautiful Monday. . . .

Monday, October 22, 2012

Beautiful Monday

Stones River overlook

I captured this beauty on a Monday, during my morning walk. This is my halfway point, a little overlook by Stones River, where Civil War battles were fought and soldiers crouched in fear to fill their canteens.

But this morning, there was only peace and beauty, a little preview of heaven nestled between a greenway and a golf course.

Have a beautiful Monday. . . . 

Friday, October 19, 2012

You Don't Know Jack (How God Got Me to Rwanda, Part 2)

(If you haven't read Part 1, start here.)

Zachary, me, Frederick - October 2011
Frederick and I have stayed in touch since that first phone call. We've talked about our countries, our families, the weather, but all along, we both knew that God had brought us together for a purpose.

In October 2011, I met Frederick and Zachary, the Ubumwe Center's co-founder, for the first time in Columbus, Ohio. Almost a year later, this September, Frederick and I met again to make it official.

Because we were staying in the same hotel (with our own living rooms and kitchens), we were able to spend a lot of time just hanging out. He taught me how to make Rwandan vegetables. I taught him how to make guacamole. He showed me the passage in Psalm 88 that gave his life purpose. I met his childhood friend.

veggies, Rwandan style
reading Psalm 88
making guacamole
But the big meeting was with Jack Hanna, two attorneys, and our agent, Bill Reeves. Frederick and I were going to sign our agreement, and Bill wanted to "gauge Jack's enthusiasm" for the project. 

Ha, I thought, he doesn't know Jack.

When Jack entered the room, he began talking about Frederick with the same passion he had years ago. Then he stops and looks at me, "Have you been to Rwanda yet?"

"No," I explained, "but we're writing the proposal, and the trip will come out of the publisher's advance." I tapped the agreement to indicate that it had all been decided and written in legalese.

He went on about Frederick, Rwanda, and the Charlie Gibson video that we had to watch. We did. And I think it reiterated to everyone why we were sitting in that room.

As Jack wound down, he turned to me, "But you haven't been to Rwanda yet?"

"No," I explained again, "but when we sell the book--"

"Well, couldn't you write a better proposal if you had actually been there?"

"Yes . . . but . . ."

"Look, you can talk on the phone for a year, or you can just go to Rwanda."

Mouth open.

"Erin, go write Amy Parker a check. . . . Get Frederick's flight schedule. She'll fly back to Rwanda with him."

"But JACK," I spat, "I don't even have a passport!"

"As soon as you get home, go to the post office, send your information to John [the attorney], and he'll have ya a passport in three days."

Mouth shut.

It was pretty much a blur after that. I hugged Jack and told him he was crazy. Frederick and I signed our agreement. (Fortunately, I have a photo to remember that by.) And we all said our goodbyes.

As Bill and I descended the stairs, I pulled it together enough to ask, "So, were you able to gauge Jack's enthusiasm for the project?"

"Yeah," he laughed, "I think I got a pretty good idea."

Turns out, he's not the only one who didn't know Jack.

Please pray for my family as we go on this God-trip. Pray for safe travels, calm nerves, and awakened senses. But most of all, please pray that I am able to live up to, and complete with excellence, this responsibility that I've been given.

How God Got Me to Rwanda

Frederick & friends
I'm going to Africa. I'm going to AFRICA!

I still don't quite believe it's real. It's been on my heart for years now, and one week from today, I'll be in Rwanda.

Here's how God got me there.

About five years ago, I was helping Jack Hanna to write his autobiography (that's another story), when he told me about a boy named Frederick. He used the word unbelievable. A lot. And now I know it was justifiably so. 

Frederick was only fifteen years old when a fateful bus ride made him another victim of post-genocide tensions. He lost his hands that day. But in the grand scheme of things, he was was one of the few fortunate survivors.

"Listen." Jack looked me dead in the eye. "You've gotta tell his story."

And the seed was planted. But if you're familiar with Jack Hanna, you know he has a way of talking so fast that even emphatic phrases need time to sink in.

Fast forward a couple of years (the exact time it took me to get the courage). I awoke at five in the morning (lunchtime in Rwanda) and felt God's not-so-gentle nudge. Call him. Now. So, I nervously picked up the phone and dialed the fourteen digits I had found in a series of Internet searches. (First for the number to the Ubumwe Center, and another on how to make an international call, since I'd never done so.)


"Hi, may I speak with Frederick?"


"May I please speak to Frederick?" More slowly this time. 


Enunciated as carefully as possible, "May I speak to Frederick, please?"

Laughter. "This is!"

From there, we were fast friends. The tone of that first phone meeting has continued throughout our friendship, with me trying to explain carefully and him always ten steps ahead. He speaks to me in my native language--his third . . . or fourth? And just this morning, I was able to string together three whole words in Kinyarwanda

I have a lot to learn.

He speaks of hope and forgiveness in terms that are far beyond my experience (even though he's several years younger). And he has shown me--again and again--that there is no such thing as a disability. Not for him.

Together, we're working to share his story, his lessons in forgiveness, and his contagious hope with the world. But before I can do that, I'll have to see where it all took place. 

That's why I'm going to Rwanda. And part of how I got there.

But stay tuned, friends, there's a part 2 to this story.

Until then, meet my friend: Frederick.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Beautiful Monday

Welcome to Beautiful Mondays, where a wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, author, soon-to-be world traveler ;), takes a moment in her chaotic life to find something beautiful--in a Monday, no less.

This is today's beauty: a whimsical, purple wildflower stretching toward the sun on my walk this morning. 

I'm not even going to take the time to look up what it is. Or feel guilty about not knowing. I'm just going to enjoy the no-strings-attached beauty found in this Monday.

I hope you'll find the beauty in your Monday too. (Hey, you've already got a head start!)

What beauty did you find today?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Don't Miss This Gift

© 2011 Ann Voskamp / Zondervan

I remember the first gift.

I was in a long line of anxious, grabby women. (Your narrator included.)
They were running out of books, and I needed three. Two for gifts, one for me. Hushed and hurried, clutching the three to my chest, I peered around the others to count my place in line, and I caught a glimpse of her, glowing patience amidst hurried, hoardy women.
We were justified in our hoarding. A presenter at Story, Ann Voskamp had just spoken rich, golden grace to poor, parched souls. She teased with hints of finding beauty and fullness in each moment, and we all had to see for ourselves.
Half-expecting fool’s gold, I approached her and held out my three. A warm smile and exchanged words, her hundredth autograph of the day scrolled beauty and grace on the page. Then (even as a trailing, chattering, weight-shifting line awaited) she stopped and laid her open hand on the page. Bowed her head. Lips moved.
Astonished, I blurted, “Did you just pray over my book? Do you pray over all of them?”
A shy (how could she be shy?), knowing smile answered, “Yes.”
Two more times, I watched, and her patient prayers sent me on a careening flashback to my sole line-bearing book signing. At first I neatly personalized and inscribed each with a sentence and signature, but as the line grew, I began crazily scribbling just my name (as if that were a gift at all).
And here was Ann Voskamp, seller of a gajillion books, embracing this one moment, this one, wide-eyed gawker, to stand still in the gold rush and gift me with a blessing.
That was it—the first of a thousand, the first of an infinite stream, a bottomless mine of pure grace-and-beauty gifts.
Please. Don’t judge this book by its cover. The title is One Thousand Gifts. But it’s so much more.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Rest of the Story

Well, the photo probably says it all.

It didn't come easy, but in the end, I had gotten a lingering hug and most importantly, a "Mom, it's obvious that you love me."

(If you missed the first half of the story, you can read it here.)

How to Make Your Love Obvious to a Seven-Year-Old

Ah, what a warm, fuzzy feeling I was left with this morning as I sent my child off to day camp. I called, “I love you!” to which he responded, “That’s obvious.” (Read with loads of sarcasm.)

My crime? I hadn’t allowed him to replace his water bottle with a CamelBak backpack for day camp. Now, any wiser mom would’ve bitten her tongue and allowed the seven-year-old to lug our water-laden, adult-sized hiking backpack for seven hours in the Tennessee-summer sun. And that would’ve been the end of that. But considering the time restraint of the morning, I just said no. And no. And no. (Ad nauseam.)
Now, we already know the seven-year-old* is a bear in the mornings, but disrupt his best-laid plans, and you’ve got a big, mad grizzly on your hands.
He ran down the road. (Fortunately, a not-busy side road.) He hid behind the CHA unit. He refused to sit and buckle his seat belt (until I told him he’d be paying my ticket). All before the icing, "That's obvious."
In damage-control mode, I was able to get him sent on his way, but needless to say, this type of behavior has to be prevented from ever happening again. (Yeah, I know. Never say "ever.")
As I fumed plotted contemplated the appropriate discipline plan, “That’s obvious,” was still ringing in my ears.
When I returned home, I wrote the following note:

I’m still learning how to raise this hard-headed stubborn independent thinker. I’ll let you know how it goes. . . .

*Those who know the seven-year-old know that he's 95% sweetheart, 5% bear. However, the bear tends to prompt more writing therapy topics.

Monday, February 6, 2012

7 Ways to Survive the Perfect Storm

This morning was a stormy one. 

Last week, the seven-year-old was out of school sick for two days, essentially creating a four-day weekend. (That rarely makes for a cheerful Monday.) And while he was feeling much better today, he was still not at 100 percent. Plus, we had a family Super Bowl party that kept us up past our bedtime. 

Those, my friends, are conditions for that fateful perfect storm. 

(And, much like George Clooney's character who was thrust to the bottom of the sea, the seven-year-old has the will of an iron mule.)

In the past, mornings like this have contained yelling (by all parties), whining (by all parties), threatening (by all parties), and crying (by all parties). But this morning was different. 

Here's why:

1. I didn't yell, whine, threaten, or cry. Even when my child did. (I'm the adult. I'm the adult. I'm the . . .) I sympathetically guided the seven-year-old zombie to walk through the motions. At his pace.

2. I didn't rush. I learned this from wise Hubby a long time ago: rushing when you're late only makes you late and stressed.

3. I listened. Yes, even to the four-millionth excuse about why he should stay home "just one more day." I didn't interrupt. I told him I understood. (Because I did.)

4. I apologized. Yep. I did. I told him that my allowing him to stay up past his bedtime was a bad choice. I explained that we should have left earlier in order for him to be in bed on time. I told him that I realized that my choice only made his morning more difficult. And I told him that I was sorry.

5. I gave an incentive. We get rewards for doing hard things. Why shouldn't we offer them to our children? And if it defuses a potentially combustible morning, it is certainly better than the alternative.

6. I trusted my instincts. I knew we would get a finger-wagging late slip. I knew that I might get odd looks when we even took the time to peruse the Black History Month display in the school lobby. But I know my child. I know that for him, acclimation makes all the difference. And when I switched my concern from what others thought of me to his well-being, it created a better morning for us all. 

7. I prayed. Continually. No, I didn't fall to my knees and lead the family in a poignant monologue. But throughout the morning, I whispered pleas for wisdom, guidance, and just enough patience to make it to school. And if you really want to make an impression, do it out loud, for your child to hear.

After rebuilding numerous ships, here is what I've (finally) learned: piling stress on top of stress causes everyone to crash. (Consider this article about what stress does to our children.) 

Navigating the perfect storms of parenting can seem impossible, but you are the captain. You steer the ship, you're responsible for its crew, and you know its capabilities. You can shake your fist at the storm like a dramatic hero, or you can swallow your pride and calmly, wisely stay the course, guiding your crew through to the other side.

After all, good parenting isn't avoiding the storms; it's teaching your children how to make it through.

Faced any storms lately? What have you learned?