A woman’s insight on perseverance

•June 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

A guest post from Pam Walter.

How can a woman who has suffered so much be thinking of others? This is the question John’s asking in the face of Vimulia’s story. Well, in thinking about the answer, I recalled a conversation I had recently with my friend, Rena, as we returned from an afternoon of lunch and movie-going at the mall. Benign activities on the surface, shallow even, but our conversation took us to the Congo, to the work of She’s My Sister. Rena’s response was, “I want to go, I want to help.” I told her it’s a dangerous place for women, not like traveling on vacation in Ireland. She said, “I have nothing to fear, Pam. The worst thing that could ever happen to a person has already happened to me. What do I have to fear?”

Rena is a single mother of an only child. Last fall, her son died unexpectedly, tragically, rocking her world on its axis. Like Vimulia, her worst fear became reality. Now, as she looks to the future, she reacts to the pain of others with a desire to act, to help. Her reaction seems to echo the response of Vimulia, who has endured the worst and yet thinks of others. How can you explain such a thing?


Perseverance, your name is Vimulia

•June 18, 2012 • 1 Comment

Goma, DRC, 14 June 2012 — One of the hardest things for an American to do is to sit patiently, expectantly, and listen. And listen. And listen. Maybe I am overgeneralizing based on my own persistent midwesternism, but I don’t think so.

It helps to have women with us on this trip, especially as we listen to that which makes us deeply uncomfortable. Distressed. Enveloped in grief for those who suffer. And so we listened to Vimulia, who told us her name means “perseverance.”

Vimulia doesn’t like her name. She thinks it more curse than blessing, that it has brought her to this place of despair rather than helping her survive through:

  • Gang-raping by eight men
  • Seeing her husband shot and killed as he tried to come to her aid
  • Finding her way to Goma and medical care, only to end up in a camp for displaced persons and having her few remaining possessions stolen. Twice.

Her aunt and others took her in. Helped her get to the clinic that is, for the time, her home. Her request to us, even though hungry and without any resources, was that we would make sure that other people like her would get the help they needed.

The title of this blog is “Abundant Nothing.” Here we marvel at the strength and courage and graciousness of those with little who reach out to those with even less. Vimulia has nothing, yet her mind was on her sisters still “out there,” needing help “in here” where she was fortunate enough to find care, and love, and maybe even a bit of hope.

Vimulia, whose name means perseverance, we commit to carry out your wishes. We strive to help those who are hurting. And we know that is insufficient.

During this visit, in which we came to listen and learn, apply and validate, we heard one more strong admonition from the community. Leaders from the region looked across the table filled with Westerners and said: “You are from powerful nations. These twenty years of war could not have continued without your allowing it.”

Memories of Patrice Lumumba aren’t all they draw on in this statement. No, these memories are much more recent. See Chapter Five (“Onion Layers”) of Jason Stearns’s book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. Or these United Nations reports from recent weeks.

Right now, eight twenty-somethings are doing their part to make visible this long-running conflict. They have heard these stories. They have declared “She’s MY Sister” and have mounted their bicycles for a near-2000 mile ride across the U.S. As they speak in churches, youth groups, campgrounds along this route, those who hear will face a choice . . .

Ignore and deny. Or listen and respond as able. We can choose our path. I choose the path suggested by Vumilia. In the midst of her agony, her thought is for those still “out there.” Does it take us losing everything before we can see and hear? Or are we able to respond from abundance, and prove ourselves worthy to sit in the same room as Perseverance?

Our outliers

•June 18, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Pam Walter lives with her husband John and their four children in Northern Virginia.

A guest post from Pam Walter.

Unlike the women of the DRC, my girls “play” the Hunger Games in our yard, running around the flower gardens pretending to evade each other and the hunters who are after them. They carry bows and arrows and shriek happily in the afternoon sunshine when they’re caught and “killed.” Our youth pastor explained the fascination with the Hunger Games this way: in a world where others make all the rules and change them whenever it suits them, the message of the Hunger Games books resonates powerfully with kids. I understand this on some level, but really, they are the safest children in the world.

Yesterday I reflected on this safety as I walked my daughter to her elementary school for the very last time. The year I started that walk with my oldest child was the year two men called the Snipers were terrorizing the Washington suburbs, shooting and killing random people, one of them a woman in my town. In another town, they shot a boy walking into school. For the first time ever, I felt fear in my neighborhood. I said the Lord’s Prayer every day as I walked to school and back. My body hummed with adrenaline and fear, knowing that it was a very real possibility something bad could happen. That was ten years ago, and in reaction, I never let down my guard, walking all four kids to school and back every day through the fourth grade when they moved on to the next school. But safety is also a veneer, because predators are everywhere; a man in our neighborhood was just convicted of molesting two of his daughter’s ten-year-old friends at a sleepover party in his home.

These are our outliers, an occasional breach of the wall of protection we have in a society where women and children walk freely and safely. But in contrast to the Congo, when our outliers crop up, the community goes on the offensive: parents vigilantly guard their children on the way to school, judges put predators in jail.

A girl in the Congo has no rule of law to rely on to protect her from the predators who prowl the bush with weapons and power and evil intent. She’s on her own. I can only hope that, like Haggai, she will come to know the God-who-sees sees her.

Hope in a machine?

•June 15, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Dr. Ahuka Ona Longombe leads the DOCS clinic in Goma, DRC.

While writing my last post, I thought this one would be the story of Vumilia, but I can’t. It’s still too fresh, too hard. Instead, I’d rather start in a place of hope.

After our first visit to Goma in 2010, we agreed as a staff at American Bible Society to contribute to a project at a local clinic treating women. Here, world-class doctors, working in challenging conditions (unreliable electricity, no running water, limited medical supplies) serve the lucky women and girls who manage to find their way here after violent encounters with the many armed groups who use rape as a weapon. In short, they are experts at treating fistulas created by violence. The local Bible Society, working with the clinic, integrated a project of spiritual and emotional healing—along with funds for an anesthesia machine, all to deal with the after-effects of sexual violence.

During this trip, we learned of some unexpected outcomes from our being able to fund this project. Many of the public hospitals in the region failed to pass their licensing inspection because their anesthesia units weren’t up to par. This clinic did pass, and their vital service to the community continues.

Before the doctor slips the mask on a patient, they pray in thanks for the machine and those who provided it, and then for the patient to be sustained through their surgery. The machine is a ray of hope, sustaining a flicker of life that might otherwise be extinguished.

A few people said this project was outside our mission. But hope remained in place because of this work. Hope is sustained by tubes, valves and pumps, and the persistent faith and courage of the medical staff who use them. Sometimes, embodying hope looks like a machine.

(Postscript: As we showed the clinic to some first-time visitors, the staff was proud to point out the lab equipment donated by a U.S. charity. This equipment, though dated in the U.S., is life-saving here, and now other clinics send their samples here because it is the most advanced in the region. Something compelled me to take a closer look. Little did we know that only 24 hours later that very same equipment would be used to quickly confirm an early onset of malaria in one of our team members. The doctor supplied all the necessary pharmaceuticals, and within the next 24 hours the patient was fully on the mend. Without the early detection, her experience could have been much worse. This episode reinforces my first impressions of the clinic team, formed during our visits in 2010. I would let them operate on me . . . anywhere. They are amazing, dedicated, world-class, faithful people.)

No Outliers

•June 14, 2012 • 1 Comment

Goma, DR Congo, Wednesday June 13 2012

The following stories from the front lines of the war being fought in and through the innocent lives and bodies of young girls, old women and all those in between, are not outliers. These are not some extreme cases ginned up to provoke a guilt-driven, financial response.

No, sadly, these are not outliers. Neither are they just stories from the unfortunate past. These stories are of the past, and of today, and if that isn’t bad enough, these are likely to be the stories for the future as well. For little girls in DRC, the dystopian fantasy of The Hunger Games is no fantasy. Their stories are post-apocalyptic reality. Truth is stranger than fiction. Reality outstrips anything a rational imagination can produce.

Welcome to a woman’s Congo, hell masquerading as a place on earth. Usually, I am able to find a thread of hope in even the most dire circumstance. But I came back from this trip much more sobered, for the embers of war kindled here in 1994—almost a generation ago!—remain, fed with fresh fuel and sustained in a cycle of violence. Yes, DRC is getting better, but there is still no end in sight.

To which some might say “It’s hopeless, and we cannot change anything.” To which I ask only this: If this were you, your daughter, your wife, would you understand the one who turned away from your pain? Imagine the stew of despair and hatred this would cause in you. Now, if you still can, consider turning your back.

Tomorrow: Vumilia

It’s a Family Affair . . .

•June 13, 2012 • Leave a Comment

My Bake Sale heroes are (L-R) Kara McFall, Annabelle Walter, Meredith Davis, and Faith Walter (suddenly camera shy).

A few Thursdays ago, our middle daughter Annabelle came home from school and announced that she was going to do a bake sale for “She’s My Sister” on the next day. She had spent the day at her public middle school talking this up with the girls with whom she’d started a small Bible study group. They were agreed—Friday was the day!

Of course, we didn’t have all the baking essentials we needed, so my wife—ever vigilant for growth opportunities for our children—did what she had to do to make it work. After some baking and cleaning, calling and buying over a Thursday afternoon and evening, they were ready.

Annabelle’s school lets out the earliest. She walked through the door at 2:45, and by 3:30 she and her friends were set up with a table and donated cookies, brownies and other stuff I’m no longer supposed to eat. Their location? Right across from the elementary school where her youngest sister attends. All the families and kids that walk home have to pass that point, and in a few minutes they’d cleared $50.

What really caught my attention, however, was their earnest and simple statement of what they were supporting. Without any coaching from me, they had all internalized that they could do something to help their sisters in Africa. They might not know the details of what happens with sickening frequency, but that didn’t matter. A sister was in trouble, and they could help. Without intending to, their work provided a glimpse to a harried hassled Washington DC world a glimpse of the church as she is meant to be.

In these girls’ simple and heartfelt gesture, I was reminded of one of the most significant sources of hope I know: a whole generation that sees what is, and says “no more.” Thank you Kara and Meredith, Annabelle and Faith.


A final note: What didn’t get sold in that mad rush of after-school walkers on Friday got sold in front of our house Saturday morning. The total collection? $82, which I promptly applied to the credit of the amazing Australians already halfway across this country on their bicycles, riding for their Sisters.

Where there is life there is pain

•November 9, 2011 • Leave a Comment

There is great pain in the world today. I just came from the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), called by some the “rape capital of the world.” There, that pain is heard in the cry of the girl, the young woman, the grandmother: “Where was God when this was happening to me?”

There is great pain in the world today, whole communities rendered mute and powerless, ground into the dirt, under the great weight of a burden of pain. We invest in international development, micro-enterprises, human capital, but how can a people really develop if they are in a perpetual state of post- and present– traumatic stress?

There is great pain the world today. Consider its causes, and how many places in the world where those are present:

  • Political wars (North Africa, for example)
  • Ethnic conflict (Sri Lanka)
  • Natural disaster (floods in Thailand, tsunami in Japan)
  • Economic dislocation and unease (US, Europe)
  • Sexual violence (DR Congo)
  • Trafficking (too long a list to single out an example)
  • HIV/AIDS (leaving a trail of orphans and lost potential)

I write this from Rwanda, where the consequences of the genocide — now fifteen years ago! — manifest themselves in ways described as:

  • Demons
  • “Being collapsed in on oneself,” not able to bathe, care for oneself or even for children
  • Self-medication thru substance abuse
  • Anger
  • Hatred
  • Self-destructive behavior

Economic growth and financial success are not long-term antidotes to emotional and spiritual trauma. Bring to mind any of your “favorite” celebrity family for evidence of that. Investors beware — economic growth disconnected from cultural rifts and unaddressed PTSD puts that investment at risk. A job helps, but it cannot cover up festering rage, anxiety or despair.

There is pain in the world today, and it blocks those who suffer from it from achieving spiritual and cultural and economic wholeness. The pain in the world costs us all, not just those who suffer from it. To live life is to know pain; to ignore pain is to block life’s signals for growth. Development doesn’t bring healing, but healing can bring development.

(NEXT POST: From Pain to Purpose).