Combating Stigma through Communications

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Over 50 women gathered at the “No Stigma” workshop held in Kindu, Democratic Republic of the Congo on July 17-20, 2017. The event was sparked by the Congo Women Arise initiative that is combating stigma against survivors of rape in East Congo, and was sponsored by Harper Hill Global, the WiseHeart Foundation, and the East Congo United Methodist Church.

Initially planned as a workshop for leaders of Congo Women Arise, survivors of rape heard about the workshop and came – joining the group by sitting in the back of the room. When I greeted each participant personally, it was evident who they were. Unlike others in the room who welcomed me with bright smiles and eyes, these women did not raise their heads but stared at the floor instead. I knelt down to look them in the eye, and welcome them.

Gertrude Bwanahali Baisicha works with the Maniema Province on gender issues. She provided background: “During the war, men and boys stayed home to prevent being killed, or captured as soldiers. As families remained indoors for safety, women eventually left to go look for food, coming face to face with attackers.” When women returned home battered and broken, they were blamed for what happened and cast out from society. To some in the room, this was eye-opening; to others, it was their story.

On the fourth day of the workshop, three survivors came forward to speak openly.

Georgette, Rosalie and Bibiche each shared unique and heartbreaking stories. Georgette had been a midwife, but began staying away from others after she was gang raped by militia. Rosalie was attacked with her 15-year old daughter sixteen years ago. Her daughter was taken, and to this day she doesn’t know if she survived. When Rosalie returned home after the rape, her husband threw her out of their home. Bibiche is 18, and was brutally raped by four men when she was 15. Her father rejected her, and she has not been able to attend school since. The reactions were visceral: many in the group did not know their stories. Some wept. Signs of love and acceptance were given.

The affirmation they received in that moment will continue to be embodied in Congo Women Arise which seeks to provide physical, psychological and spiritual care to survivors through a women’s center in Kindu. In addition, Harper Hill Global is working with the East Congo United Methodist Church on a regional communications campaign to combat stigma that includes television and radio broadcasts, social media and mobile communications. This communications campaign can affect attitudes towards survivors in other parts of the country where programs are lacking. We hope to replicate the “No Stigma” workshop in other parts of the East Congo region to mobilize leaders and amplify survivors’ voices.

When women are safe, families and communities thrive. I give thanks to Bishop Gabriel Unda for giving priority to this program in his episcopal area, and for the women in leadership who continue to live out the lessons from the workshop each day. They are certainly a “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.” I believe they will change the world.

You can participate by donating to the communications campaign, or to building the women’s center in Kindu. Follow activities at www.facebook.com/CongoWomenArise.

By grace,
Neelley

*Photos courtesy of Melissa Wheatley.

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When Dreams Become Reality

Have you ever seen something in your mind? Something that you can only describe to others until the day it becomes reality?

This has happened so much in my life. I can see something as it can be, just taste it…describe it to others…tell them what it will take to get there…and then, well, then I wait for a response. Some of the things I’ve heard: “How are you gonna do THAT?” “You can’t help everybody.” “You’re being reactive.” But I’ve also heard responses like, “Sure, we can do that!” “What is the budget we need?” “Put it into a plan, and let’s make it happen!” “Of course!”

CWA Logo.FINAL2I’m living in a space right now where not just my dream, but a shared dream is becoming reality. A year ago, I volunteered to co-lead an initiative (with Rev. Bill Lovell) that requires $350,000 to build a women’s center in East Congo. I’m passionate about this because of who the center will serve: women who are survivors of brutal sexual assaults, who’ve been ostracized by family and community because of the assault they survived. I joined other dreamers – Bishop Gabriel Unda Yemba, United Methodist Women of East Congo, and Bishop Bill McAlilly and Bishop Grant Hagiya – who believe this can and should become reality.

We stand now at $212,000 due to the gifts of United Methodists who are part of the Tennessee, Memphis and California-Pacific Annual Conferences. Money has been released to the East Congo UMC, who has begun building the center. Just see for yourself!
088a5891-36e2-46b9-b21e-d922462b4d58

The gift I bring is media, messaging and mobile solutions to raise awareness and funds. Together with Rev. David C. Lewis, Disciple Design, Amy Hurd, Lane Gardner Camp, James Kang, and Jerome Mercado through Harper Hill Global, effective messages for the center have been crafted in English, French and Swahili.

The communications that we’ve pursued still further is combating stigma due to rape. Together with incredibly brilliant minds (who I will name later), I’ve been working with Director of Communications for East Congo UMC Judith Yanga on a plan for communications in the East Congo Episcopal Area. Watch for new media and reports to come soon.

Dreams can become reality. Think about who you share your dreams with – you need people who can help you take it to the next level. If your dream is not accepted, again, think about with whom and how you share it. Something else to consider…are you dreaming big enough? Rev. Cayce Stapp says, “Dream big enough that it can only be achieved with God.” A God-sized dream can be realized. Don’t give up!

By Grace,
Neelley

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A Good Neighbor

I first met Roger when visiting Glencliff United Methodist Church with members from Sixty-First Avenue UMC.

IMG_2070Roger lives across the street from Glencliff, but this was his first time to visit. A lifelong member of the Church of Christ, he had a special reason for coming. Reverend Sandra Griggs invited him to speak just before beginning her sermon.

My favorite parable is “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25–37) because in it, you can find the practice of Christian living. That wasn’t the passage she preached on, but it came to mind as I listened to Roger.

Walking with a cane to the center of the sanctuary, he said that he didn’t think he would need a microphone. He began by explaining that he lived across the street, and had heard about the Village at Glencliff. The Village will be a micro-home community providing bridge housing to recently hospitalized individuals who have no place to call home and some of our most vulnerable friends. It’s been met with varied opinions, and some opposition throughout the neighborhood. So, I didn’t know what to expect from what Roger had to say. He began:

Glencliff Crowd“I’ve thought about all the churches throughout America, and that if every church just took on one homeless person, we could solve this situation. I mean, churches are everywhere! I’ve come here because I wanted to thank you for what you’re doing with your property.  I’ve always wanted to work with homeless people, and now I can just walk across the street to do it. Thank you.”

Struck by his sincerity, I realized that the Good Samaritan story isn’t as simple as we sometimes make it. What happened to the guy who helped? What did people think of him for giving his money to care for a stranger? Was his wife angry? Were others who were staying comfortably at the inn mad for having their rest disrupted?

The Village At Glencliff
The Village at Glencliff is a reawakening of this parable – living out before our eyes, with all of the messiness that Christian living can bring. I followed up with Roger after the service, and videotaped our conversation. I hope that you’ll be as inspired as I am. If you like, you can watch it with others and reflect on these questions:

A Conversation

  • When have I been ridiculed or put down for helping strangers in need?
  • How did it feel, and did it change your pattern of Christian living?
  • How were you in ministry with those who were against your act of mercy?

Just about everybody I know is living in some level of crisis or disruption. We don’t always see it on the outside, like we may among those living in poverty in America. God touches each of us uniquely to help one another. Praying that we have the courage, strength, resources and mercy to do so.

By Grace,
Neelley

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Strength

I was struck by the strength that came through her petite frame. As Helene spoke about the work that United Methodist women in East Congo were doing to help survivors of sexual violence, her strength of character was evidenced in the determination of her eyes and the rising of her voice. As she forcefully pounded the dirt mixture into a mold – making bricks one by one – her physical strength was made visible.

“In the construction of this center, women are now in the circle,
changing the lives of many others.”
Helene, United Methodist Women’s chaplain in East Congo Annual Conference

Not only is Congo Women Arise about the survivors of sexual assault arising from horrific wounds…it is about women like Helene in East Congo who are rising up to do all they can to put a stop to what has become ingrained in culture – that women can so easily be abused and discarded.

Watch the video. Do you see it? Strength. Vision. Faith in Christ. These women cannot be stopped. They, too, arise.

 

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Who’s Knocking?

 

UPDATE: 2 pm

I just received a call from Covenant Capital Group management and was told that, after Monday,  all tenants were given the chance to extend their leases through May 31st. I’m thankful for this compassionate response, and pray that tenants are able to find affordable housing, good schools and loving community wherever they go.

When I was little, we sometimes got very quiet (pretending nobody was home) if an unknown religious person came to the door unexpectedly. This week, I was on the other side of the door, knocking at Covenant Capital Group. Here’s why:

Tenants of Premier West Apartments are being evicted at the end of their leases, due to the purchase and subsequent upgrades/renovations of the building by Covenant Capital Group. Among their current tenants are families who’ve lived there for years, faithfully paying rent they could afford. Some tenants receive Section 8 assistance. Others do not.

Tenants are asking for four things:

  • That Covenant Capital extend all leases to June 1st, allowing children to complete their school year;
  • That renovations be done in such a way that tenants could stay at Premier West – not necessarily in their current apartments;
  • That rent is not raised more than $40 per month in the lease term, since Covenant Capital has stated the desire to provide affordable housing; and
  • That Covenant Capital would allow Section 8 vouchers to continue in the new building.

Why do I care? My church home is in the neighborhood, and children from the afterschool program (now closed) have lived there. One of our long-term members now lives in White Bluff, commuting to McDonalds on Charlotte Pike – 30 miles away. Working-class housing has been all but wiped out of the Nations neighborhood where 61st United Methodist Church is located. Where are people to live?

I went to a protest at Covenant Capital Group to stand with tenants, and ask Covenant Capital to do the right thing. After much knocking, calling and waiting, the group needed to leave due to after-school pickups. I, in my clergy collar, stayed behind, knocking, calling, and sending messages through their website. After a good while, management came and spoke with me:

  • Since leases end at varying times, each tenant must speak with property management to negotiate a new move-out date;
  • Tenants will not be allowed to remain during renovations due to potential safety hazards;
  • Since the renovated apartments will be rented to middle-income people, they are very certainly going to be more than $40 per month additional than existing leases; and
  • Section 8 will not be determined until renovations are done which are expected to be completed this fall.

I gave this news with Austin Sauerbrei of Open Table Nashville. While encouraged that I was able to speak with management, he shared that tenants have already gone to the property manager, only to be told the decision is in the hands of the owner (Covenant Capital Group). So, it seems this has become a circular discussion. I’ve offered to go with tenants to property management, with Austin, to follow management’s direction. I’ll write about what happens next.

In the meantime, “act justly…love mercy… walk humbly with your God.”*
Neelley

*Micah 6:8

 

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Communicating for Social Good

I’ve been working on my new startup called Harper Hill Global (HHG) whose mission is to empower the human spirit through media, messaging and mobile solutions. I will share more about this when the time is right!

HHG’s first project is with the East Congo United Methodist Church to address the issue of sexual violence against women, and combat the stigma that follows. I have an amazing team of talented people around the world to work with! Communication resources are being developed in four languages to begin: English, French, Swahili and Otetela.

I am happy to share this first video for the effort which I produced with my gifted editor Jerome Mercado in the Philippines:

Please watch and share this effort with friends and family. Go to CongoWomenArise.org to learn more.

By Grace,
Neelley

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The Cross

The Cross

a symbol
of betrayal
and pain
anguish
and death.
a self offering
for atonement
and reconciliation.

the tomb awaits.
  a mother weeps.

old friends
flee
a criminal
believes.
Christ’s
saving power
even on the cross
leads a path
to paradise.

the tomb awaits.
  a mother weeps.

the messiah
a son beloved
dying,
the prophets words
real now
old testament verses
felt and seen
not read.

the tomb awaits.
  a mother weeps.

his garments
now shared
the woven tunic
of a high priest
divided by lots
four soldiers
the days work done.

it is finished.

the tomb awaits.
a mother weeps.

a hurried burial
to honor
the law
the customs
the sabbath.
a rich man’s grave
perhaps,
care by faithful women
and men of courage.

the tomb is sealed.
a mother weeps.

dawn of the
third day
the stone rolled away
angels instead
prophecy
fulfilled.
God’s power
shines
in the living
Christ.

Christ is Risen!

by friend and colleague in ministry jackieshields

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Meeting Ahmed Kathrada of South Africa

Image result for Ahmed KathradaI am deeply saddened this morning to learn of the passing of Ahmed Kathrada, a true hero of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.  For those that don’t recognize the name, he was sentenced along with Nelson Mandela and others at the infamous Rivonia Trial in 1964 to life in prison, even though he was not a member of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC.

If you saw the film Mandela, you saw Kathrada being portrayed, especially in the absurdity of being allowed long pants in prison as an Indian while Mandala, Sisulu and the others had to wear short pants as black prisoners.

One day after Mandela became President I attended a formal dinner in the Parliament of South Africa.  Kathrada was there.  After we ate, my fellow Parsee, Frene Ginwala, the Speaker, asked all the guests to follow her for a tour of the Parliament. I noticed Kathrada stayed in his seat and so I decided to as well.

When all the others left, I walked over to him, introduced myself and asked if I could ask him a question.  I asked him if the jailers on Robben Island really didn’t know that papers written by them were being hidden in the cleaning closet or if they knew but let it happen.  He was intrigued that a foreigner would know enough to ask such a detailed question. It began a conversation that has lasted in my memory to today.

Other than giving me a blast about the Canadian Government’s attitude towards a visa for him (a matter he was quite angry about), we had an extraordinary discussion about history, apartheid, what happened at Robben Island, the personalities of his colleagues and the future of South Africa.

At the end of it, as we sat completely alone in the large room in Parliament, he offered to give me a memento.  There was no one to ask for anything so he wrote a note to me on a napkin in a red pen.  I have always had a personal policy of not asking for anything from the historical figures I have met (I must be the only person on the planet who met Mandela but have no photograph with him) but that napkin, which was a very encouraging and personal message to me, I treasure.

Ahmed Kathrada came out of 26 years of prison a profoundly calm man.  He was one of the very few, perhaps the only person, who never asked for anything after apartheid was extinguished for his years in prison. It is a remarkable lessen in humility and selflessness.  It is a mark of a truly extraordinary man who understood the meaning of sacrifice with no other motive to achieve a goal.

By Firdaus Kharas,  a social entrepreneur and media producer who uses video and animation to better the human condition around the world.

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Learning to ROAR

Last week I wrote about channeling my anger for good during the Trump administration. I said:

The hateful rhetoric and falsehoods that propelled our current president to power strikes at the core of who I am, and against the foundations of my faith tradition.

I came up with a method (ROAR) to keep me focused, and now I’m working it. I thought I’d take some time to write about my experiences. For sure, I’ll make missteps and will share those too. This week is “Relate.”

Relating to people of differing opinion has grown more difficult in the digital age. We now have a president who has regularly used Twitter to bully and oppress, and whose following is so large that his behavior is somehow condoned. We have to remember that a large number of people also condoned lynching, stood by silently during the Holocaust, and cried for the death of Jesus Christ. Numbers alone don’t mean much.

Here’s where the rubber hits the road. Do I have faith enough to act on the things I believe, even if it makes me really uncomfortable? And can a small number of committed people make a difference?

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I reached out to someone whose political views are radically different from my own, and who uses them to bully others. I asked if we could host community gatherings together – the purpose would be to get to know our neighbors, and the issues they face. These gatherings could take the emphasis off of a national leader and help us focus locally on things that could unite us. So far, my first effort was only met with the other person doubling down in divisiveness.

I haven’t given up hope yet.

Small numbers of committed people can make a difference. Most weeks, I’m part of a gathering pretty much like the one I described above. The group who meets is one big mixed lot. Some live on the streets. Some live in mansions. Some Democrat. Some Republican. Some don’t care to know the difference. We come from a variety of ethnicities, but have found that the common blood of humanity and Christ is enough to tie us together. The place? Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church.

Last night, the fear for loved ones affected by executive orders was palpable in the after-sermon sharing time. Pastor Marie had just preached from Micah 6:8 which says,

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

How do we live out this essential element of faith under this administration?

We can’t let the government define who we can and can’t love any more than we can legislate discipleship. We can’t let the government define who is and isn’t of a particular faith either. And if we who are Christian want to prove ourselves to be outwardly Christian as potential litmus tests are considered – wouldn’t we emulate our leader – Jesus Christ – who ate with the outsiders of his time? Wouldn’t we be the Good Samaritan and not leave harmed travelers by the side of the road?

One thing I know that I can do is host an interfaith dinner – intentionally reaching out to those who are being oppressed. This type of regular gathering could resist profiling’s damaging effect of increased prejudice and hate crimes. It can make a difference.

I will get to work and will write about the experience. I cannot stand idly by.

 

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I Cannot Stand Idly By

gty-womens-march-washington-4-jt-170121_12x5_1600Rallying cries resound from women marching in the streets – stirring something within me that challenges me on many levels. I want to make a difference. But why? How? What difference will my actions make for those I love, for our daughters, our granddaughter and still future generations?

So, being a white, middle-class woman, why do I care? Maybe I’m just now feeling the pain minorities have felt for centuries. The election process, having our nation’s first female candidate, revealed deep prejudice that still exist within our nation, foremost on gender, but also on race, religion, class and sexual orientation. The hateful rhetoric and falsehoods that propelled our current president to power strikes at the core of who I am, and against the foundations of my faith tradition. A few examples:

Body shaming women with derogatory terms like “fat pigs, slobs – and disgusting animals,” this president thrives on the lowest form of human dialogue – often in a public forum where he incites other low-minded individuals. Bragging about sexual predatory behavior showed a deep human flaw of using power over those considered less powerful for one’s own pleasure. We’re in the 21st Century now. Can we just agree that “boys will be boys” doesn’t work anymore…especially for the leader of a nation? The classism and lack of care for the poor that calls for the end to healthcare options means that low-income women and children will suffer. I cannot stand idly by as if I’m alright with any of this. I’m not.

But how do I turn my anger into a productive energy? How can I live in this time and place, fighting injustice that will come and caring for people who will be most hurt during this administration? As an homage to a song often sung during Second Wave Feminism, I’ve written these steps based on the acronym ROAR:

Relate. Become politically active at the local and state level. This means getting to know the people I’ve voted for and attending city council meetings. Make my voice known, and carry the voices for whom I may speak. We also have to relate more to our neighbors. Maybe it’s time for less Facebook and more “face-to-face.”

Organize for justice and compassion. If something I care about is killed at the federal level, work with my local community on addressing fallout from both a compassion and justice perspective. See what is going on with different faith traditions and how, together, we can offer love.

Assist. Charitable giving can provide resources that may be dropped by the government, and it’s tax deductible. Share food with those who may have to reallocate budget to rising healthcare. Provide transportation to community meetings that lift up one another in spirit and circumstance.

Refuse to be silent about oppression and injustice. Use my words, my vote, my dollars to voice what I stand for – doing business with those who support my beliefs, voting for those who have the courage to stand up against injustice, and dialoging about issues faced by those I care deeply about.

We deserve a better world, and I still believe it’s possible. What we do in the United States matters to the world community, whose geographic and party lines were drawn by none other than humans themselves. Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Driving hate out through love is something I can do, by God’s grace. I shall not stand idly by.

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