Sunday, November 28, 2010

archive: justice for the congo

It’s a place where justice often takes a backseat to survival; a place wrought with chaos and hurt; a place where rape is commonplace, but often leaves women with broken spirits and bodies permanently damaged. This place is Goma, in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

(Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters) (photo from here)

Goma, along with many other African cities and villages, has seen violence and corruption that has shaken the very foundation of the justice system that was designed to protect it. The conflicts in Congo and nearby African regions are causing a loss of life quickly approaching that of the Holocaust.

There often seems to be no hope for such a war torn country, but hope is very present in a group of American lawyers thousands of miles away from this small African region. Hope that justice would be in the hands of men and women devoted to protecting those left in their care.

(Photo from here)

A group from Watermark Community Church in Dallas was well aware of the injustices in Goma and were looking for ways to help. Van Beckwith, a leader of the Watermark Justice team and the Watermark Operations team, didn’t imagine he would be packing his things and traveling to one of the most dangerous places in the world to buy a group of African lawyers dinner. But in the fall of 2006, he was boarding a plane with a group of Watermark elders with plans to do just that.

In the months before the trip, Van had spoken with a friend about issues of justice and Christianity, and was pointed to a book by Gary Haugen, founder of the International Justice Mission, entitled The Good News About Injustice. IJM’s focus is on working with local governments to seek justice for those who have fallen victim to slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression.

“I started reading about how God is a God of justice, and I immediately began seeing the parallels between that principle and being a lawyer,” he said. “Gary talks about the fact that God doesn’t have another plan other than us being here on this earth. There is no Plan B. We have to be the hands and feet of justice.”

When invited to accompany a group of elders going to Goma, Congo, on an exploratory trip, Van did not accept immediately. The team’s purpose was to see the needs in Goma and to pray about how and if Watermark should be working with the leadership of the country. He didn’t know much about the region, so he did some research.

“It seemed like a very far off, mysterious kind of place,” he said. “I went to the U.N. and State Department websites and found out that Goma was not really a place you should be going. At the time, the largest U.N. peacekeeping force was there. 17,000 of what they call ‘blue helmets.’”

After his research, and despite the danger involved, Van accepted the invitation to travel to Goma – on one condition. He wanted to meet with judges and lawyers there to talk about what they could do to improve the justice system in their country.

“It seemed like a very lawless place,” he said. “And it seemed very logical that if there were Christian lawyers and judges – or even nonbelievers – that would stand up and be about justice, it would make a huge impact. It would perhaps make a bigger impact than anything else.”

With the help of ALARM (African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministry), a group of local lawyers and judges gathered for dinner. Van’s hope was to encourage them to take a stand to right the injustices occurring in their country, and to let them know they were not alone.

He didn’t know what to expect when he walked into a room of about 40 young Africans looking at him with eyes full of discomfort and skepticism.

“They had their arms crossed and were just looking at me like, ‘What’s he trying to sell?’ or ‘What’s he trying to take?’” he said.  “I told them flat out, ‘I don’t have a book. I don’t have a video. I don’t have anything to sell you. I just wanted to buy you dinner.’ And you could see they all started to relax.”

Van and others presented the Gospel to this group of justice professionals. They talked about how God loves justice and how Christians are called to care for orphans and widows.

“In the course of a few hours, we saw these people come alive and realize that they could make a difference in this lawless land,” he said. “These are people who are laying their lives on the line if they’re going to do what we’re asking them to do.”

This was the first time these judges and lawyers had been brought together to talk through some of the issues they faced every day. It was a breakthrough that was needed to spark a conversation about what it means to be a lawyer and a Christian.

When Van arrived back in the states, he approached several other lawyers in the Watermark community, including Rick Howard and Jeff Ward. He spoke with them about his experience and encouraged them to start thinking about going to Africa to build on the progress that was made.

“We needed to get another group of lawyers over there and see if we could build something that will out-sustain us,” he said. “We want Africans to run Africa.”

In the fall of 2007, another group of lawyers traveled to Goma to shepherd the men and women struggling with their faith in a broken system. Jeff Ward, Watermark’s director of external focus, was stirred by Van’s experience and traveled to Goma on a second trip. Jeff practiced law in Dallas for about 14 years before joining the Watermark staff. He was just as passionate about encouraging young African lawyers to be about God’s calling for justice.

(Photo from here)
Jeff met with members of the International Justice Mission’s field office in Kingali, Rwanda, and spent some time with a group of Christian lawyers.

“We talked through some of the things that they struggle with on a daily basis, like bribery,” he said. “They struggle with what it means to be a Christian and a lawyer when your clients expect you to bribe the judges and the judges expect to be bribed. If you’re not part of that practice, you’re practicing law behind the eight ball.”

In response to their questions, Jeff said they told them what they knew was truth.

“We were diving into scripture and what God has to say about justice issues and how we want to be passionate about what God is passionate about,” he said. “We know from Micah 6:8 that there’s a short list of what God wants us to be passionate about, and at the top of that list is to promote justice. That’s something we can do as Christian lawyers, whether we’re in Africa or Dallas.”

After seeing for himself the need for dialog and instruction, Jeff came back to the states and began planning the next trip to Goma. In March 2008, six Dallas lawyers went back to Goma to continue their work with the judges and lawyers in the trenches of a war on the people of Congo.

“The people of Goma inherited a lot of turmoil from the Rwandan genocide,” Jeff said. “They got the refugees and the rebels who perpetrated that genocide, but they don’t have the leadership to resolve the conflict.”

The group assisted with leadership development training and conflict resolution training in an effort to equip African lawyers and judges to maintain and uphold justice in their courtrooms and in their country.

While important work is being done in Goma, Van and Jeff agree that it is Africans that should be leading Africa.

“To me, part of what I want I want to be remembered for is building into men and women who, over there, can be leaders,” Van said. “The reality is that Dallas lawyers – lawyers with Watermark Justice – are too far away to affect daily change over there. But we can build into people’s lives and tell them that their lives matter and that we love them and that we’re going to equip them. And then we have to leave it up to God to do whatever God is going to do.”

Jeff said he sees in these men and women a group who will do what is necessary to right the wrongs in their country.

"It really is a group of highly-passionate, motivated, strong-believing guys and gals over there with a heart to transform their country for Christ," he said.

(Photo from here)

Monday, November 15, 2010

hello, my name is debbie. debbie downer.

I have stories I want to tell you all, but they're not stories that will make you laugh or smile. I like to make people smile. I LOVE it, actually. I sometimes hesitate to share what's on my heart because it won't make you happy. It's not funny, crafty or entertaining. I sometimes see the really fun and hysterical blogs of other women and I just wish I were those things about 1 million times more than I am. I've stared at my computer and tried to think of things to talk about that will make you want to keep coming back for the same reasons I love reading their blogs. But much of what I REALLY want to talk about are things that are really important to me, but that are more somber in nature. I think they're worth sharing, but I just don't want to be dubbed a Debbie Downer.

But here's the deal. (Yes, we are about to have a DTR on my blog.) My calling in this life is very clear to me. I'm not a doctor, a contractor or a wealthy donor. I wish I could build a house or heal a wound, but I don't know how. I don't have a lot of material things to offer the hurting people in this world, although I know God can and will use me beyond my skill set. I can write, though, and I have a non-negotiable need/calling to tell the stories of the oppressed and hurting. I will give a voice, however small, to the voiceless and be an advocate for the forgotten and abused. And sometimes those stories are not easy to hear. Or easy for me to tell. But I'll tell them anyway, because I believe that you want and need to know about the pain of your brothers and sisters in this world. I believe that your heart will respond like mine does to the hurting. I have to believe that because I believe that there is hope and beauty in humanity.

We live in a culture that has done a fairly good job of hiding the oppressed and victimized people of this world in dark corners. My goal/passion/pursuit is to put the world's outcasts right in front of us, under bright, shiny light, so we can see their faces and understand their pain. To me, the most effective way to encourage someone to sacrifice their comfort for the good of another is to get them face-to-face with a hurting person. I believe that, if you let someone stare into the eyes of an orphan, they will respond with compassion, and that introducing them to a trafficking victim or poor single mother will incite generosity and courage.

So that's what I'm going to try to do. I hope you'll be encouraged and challenged, and I know you will encourage and challenge me as well. This will still be a place of joy and hope, but at times will also be a place of pain and hurt. That's what life looks like - brokenness and redemption.

Well, this post was supposed to be about Halloween. But here we are. I'll be posting a few stories I've written in the past few months. But for today, here a few of my favorite blogs - some cheerful and creative, others hard and challenging.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

veterans day

I'm still not ready to talk about my Yoga fail. Don't ask.

I just can't let this day go by without showing some love to soldiers past and present on Veterans Day. I am so incredibly thankful that there are people in this world who would put the greater good above their own. I often doubt my ability to do so.

Many in my family have offered their service to this country, including both my grandfathers and my big brother. While they would have my respect and my love if they were all interior designers (although I'm thankful they're NOT), my heart bursts with greater pride because of their bravery and sacrifice. It has given more meaning to the small freedoms I enjoy every day.

Mom, big bro Matt, Dad
I hope we can all take this day to remember not only the success stories, but the sad ones as well. The reality is that war wreaks havoc on a person, physically and emotionally. And those are not marks that can always be healed quickly or completely. Many men and women are struggling desperately in this life as a direct result of their sacrifice for us. Remember that today and do whatever you can to thank the past and present soldiers in your life. You have no idea what they have experienced, and neither do I.

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans has posted these statistics and facts about veterans today. Here are the most staggering to me.

Who are homeless veterans?
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) states the nation’s homeless veterans are predominantly male, with roughly five percent being female. The majority of them are single; come from urban areas; and suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders. About one-third of the adult homeless population are veterans.

How many homeless veterans are there?
Although flawless counts are impossible to come by – the transient nature of homeless populations presents a major difficulty – VA estimates that 107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness. Only eight percent of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly one-fifth of the homeless population are veterans.

Don't forget about this group of men and women. They deserve and need our support!

On a more positive note, you must watch the video below at least 8 times. You might cry. I may have ruined my shirt.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

the unknown

The first time I knew I wanted to adopt, I had just turned 18. I was in Romania, and the team I was with visited a children's hospital in Bucharest. I remember walking into an old, white building near the city center, and was immediately taken by the smell of urine and the lack of light. We walked slowly room-by-room as the nurses spoke broken English and told us about their babies. We ended up in a small room with cribs lined up end-to-end and from wall-to-wall. Most of the babes were asleep, but some squawked their hellos and looked up at us with giant, searching eyes, and I wondered what was going on behind them. Were they afraid? Were they in pain? Would they smile and laugh like so many children I knew? Where are their parents?

In that room with a window to the rest of the city, I met a little boy named Patrica. He sat in his crib, not smiling, but not upset either. I will never forget those big brown eyes that looked like a cave. I was told to hug him and cuddle with him and talk to him. My American mind couldn't understand why they needed us there so desperately, but the nurses told us a story of heartbreak. This hospital was severely understaffed, as are many others in Romania and countries like it. The babies were often left for hours without the love and affection that every child deserves and desperately needs to grow and be happy. There just weren’t enough hands. Even more unfathomable as I looked at the little faces around me, they told us that some parents dropped their children off with minor illnesses and never came back. This hospital was quickly becoming an orphanage.

When I lifted Patrica from his bed, he didn’t fight against a stranger’s squeeze. He looked at me and clung, and I was head over heels. All afternoon, on a blanket in a green courtyard under the trees, we breathed fresh air and held each other. He was quiet, lethargic even, but he sat with his head on my chest and his little arms wrapped around me. My heart was ripped to shreds by this little boy with deep eyes. We laughed and played and I smelled his head (Have. Mercy.), but as the day went on, I was overwhelmed with the reality that, at the end of this day - a beautiful, awful day - I would leave.

I would go back to my comfortable American life, never wanting for love or food or shelter, and I would never see Patrica again. I would never know if he became well, if he would be comforted when he cries, if he had a mama who loves him. This thought nearly broke me. Helpless only begins to describe the feelings my 18-year-old self wrestled with that day. What could I do?

I didn't want him to see me cry, so I began to pray over the little boy in my arms as I paced with him under the trees. I repeated the same words over and over and over as I walked in the small hospital yard with a child I wanted so badly to be okay. "Lord, please bring people into his life who will love him and protect him and teach him to be a man that follows You." It was all I knew to say in a situation I didn’t understand.

I don't know what happened to Patrica. I did leave that day, and I never saw him again. Today, he would be about 7 years old. I don't know if his parents ever came back. I desperately hope they did. But there are plenty of kids in that hospital whose parents never came, and millions more in orphanages all over the world. In reality, Patrica is one child thousands of miles away. But, to me, he is a child I have prayed for and thought about long after the afternoon we sat together on a blanket, and he is also the one I think about when I hear statistics like this:
143 MILLION orphans around the world.
5,760 children become orphans every day.
250,000 children are adopted every year.
But, more than 14 million grow up as orphans and age out of the system without families every year.
These are not just numbers. These are little boys like Patrica, with big brown eyes and hearts that need to be loved.

These are also teenage girls like Lacra, who walked with me arm-in-arm, peppered me with questions about America and who ran to me with a massive smile and a bear hug because we saw each other in our eyes. She aged out of her orphanage in Bucharest shortly after I left. Sometimes, girls like her do well on their own. Other times, they resort to selling themselves because they don't think there is another way. Just like Patrica, I don't know what happened to Lacra after the weeks I spent with her making bracelets and holding hands. I pray that she was one of the lucky ones.

We have to do something. Even knowing what I do and seeing the faces of orphans personally, I have to fight against the complacency that comes with comfort. It’s so tempting to look away because the looking - the active, I-want-to-know looking - is painful. But we have to protect the most vulnerable in our world and do our job as the Church. It's estimated that, in the U.S., there are about 120,000 orphans and 300,000 churches. I won't do the math for you, because I know you get the point. And I'm not going to say that everyone should adopt. There are a lot of reasons why that would be a foolish statement. But there are even more ways that you can care for orphans that are just as effective as adoption. Click here to learn more about what YOU can do, no matter your life-stage or calling. Their lives are at stake. And they are so much more than numbers.