Scope the Power

I have traveled to many countries over the years, and sometimes had frightening mishaps. Like the time a tire blew on a three-wheel passenger plane while landing in a village in Africa.

Shooting 1
But yesterday, I was in my hometown when gunshots rang out. A beautiful blue sky, taking my time at the Kroger gas pump while getting the last few cents out of each remaining gift card I’d been given. Enjoying life and not feeling rushed. Then, the shots. A gunfight in a public shopping center, and looking straight at one of the vehicles from which the shots came. I hid, best I knew how, behind a brick column. I wondered if I would know if I got shot, after just reading about Bobby Kennedy’s assassination on the 50th anniversary of his death the day before.

Shooting 2I was witness to something that has become a norm in the United States: gun violence. I don’t believe that God put me there for a reason, because I have a hard time believing that God orchestrates our lives like that. Nevertheless, I’ve had something on my mind for quite a while that I must now write about – not taking for granted another moment.

Pathways to Peace

Churches, mosques, temples can all be found easily throughout the U.S. A common core of religious beliefs is the attainability of peace, yet how do we promote peace in practice?

What if every house of prayer in the US became a place for turning swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4)? What could that look like? How might religious practices become deepened and integrated into daily life?

Three visions.

Mental illness would be destigmatized. Depression recognized. We would accept our human condition as fragile, and the condition of the soul as filled with hope – not despair. We would become links within our communities for getting the help that is needed. When mental health access isn’t available to those living in poverty, we would pull our resources together, community by community to ensure help is attained. We would advocate and also practice the fine art of compassion and understanding.

 

Anger management would be integral to preaching and teaching, so anger is not seen as a sin but instead a sign that something is not right. We would help the young and old understand restorative justice in all manners – large and small. People would not become throwaways when they have acted wrong from anger. We would work to turn even our prisons into places of transformation – where peace and reconciliation become more than lofty dreams.

 

Our houses of prayer would become places for gun amnesty – where weapons could literally be  turned into plowshares. Where those who have done wrong and want to live changed lives can learn skills that take them above minimum wage jobs that will always tempt them to lives of crime. People of faith would divest from gun manufacturers and instead invest in the gift of life, here and now – not just the afterlife.

None of this would be effective without a communications campaign to build unity and offer interfaith public service announcements that help reform society to live peaceably with one another.

We are not helpless. We must scope the power we do have and use it wisely. Legislation will never be the only solution to violence within the United States.

Human beings have more in common with one another than we think. We are all capable of love, and when we turn towards that together, miracles happen. It can start today.

Neelley

 

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Love Builds Bridges

Correspondent Irmiya Jenis Manni reports on the United Methodist Women of Northern Nigeria’s Women Arise campaign.

Societal Rejection

Stigmatization is a cancer that has been spreading within society throughout the world. It is a degrading attitude that discredits a person or group because of illness, deformity, color, tribe, nationality, religion, etc. It is said to be as old as man since it was present in early days when health issues like leprosy resulted in exile. HIV and AIDS may be one of the most stigmatized medical conditions in humankind’s history.

Nigeria has experienced a rise in stigmatization due to rape, which is having a devastating effect on people and the country at large. The victims suffer physically, socially and psychologically. Their participation in society’s development and productivity has dropped drastically and further harms the economy.

A Faith-Based Approach

In Christianity, stigmatization is discouraged and preached against. The Holy Bible encourages Christians to love their neighbors as they love themselves.

Mrs. Doris Adamu

Mrs. Doris Adamu, the Women’s President of the Northern Nigeria Episcopal Area started a sensitization program by first reaching out to victims of stigma. She stated, “My heart bleeds whenever I observe a case of stigma, especially when the victims are young people. That was what motivated me to embark on such an outreach to help victims and make them feel loved and cared for.”

 

The Victims

One of the victims, Mrs. Margret John, expressed her excitement about the program and shared the story of her daughter.

Ladidi

Ladidi was a victim of rape that resulted in HIV infection which cost the young girl her life at an early age. People distanced themselves from her, like she had the plague. Mrs. John felt inferior and rejected until her meeting with Doris. Others heard about Ladidi through social media and reached out to offer comforting messages. Mrs. John said she never expected people she didn’t even know to care. She thanked all those who recognized her situation, sympathized with her, and she prays that God will bless everyone accordingly. She added that it means so much to her and the rest of the family, and that they will forever remember this show of togetherness.

Another recent case of stigma in Northern Nigeria involved  a Muslim girl of only three  years old who was violated by a man over 40 years old. Because the girl was so very young and couldn’t say much, her mother spoke for her, sharing that no one identified with them in their time of crisis. They felt rejected and discriminated against. On our encounter with them, the mother said, “I am really overwhelmed by this kind of love and care. It beats my imagination that the people around me that I expected would stand by me abandoned me, and now people from another religion are the ones showing me love and concern. May the great Allah reward you abundantly for this selfless service and compassion you have shown to us and may Allah sustain the unity among us as one in spirit regardless of religious differences.”

It has been observed that the coping behavior of affected persons results in internalized stigma. This perceived or internalized stigma by the victim is equally destructive, whether or not actual discrimination occurs. The victim feels discriminated and inferior, thereby sidelining themselves from others to avoid stigmatized look or mockery. Sometimes they have suicidal intentions which they think is the only way out from the bondage of stigma.

Women Arise

To eradicate this menace and put a stop to this act, people need to be oriented on the need to care and associate with affected people. We need to help them feel loved and cared for. This can reduce the level of negative effect on them so they become socially and psychologically sound, and feel free to associate with others. This can also boost their confidence level by helping them socialize and attain the height of their goals. They can soar higher and be celebrated for the betterment of our societies, peaceful living, advancement and achievement in unity and love worldwide.

Editor’s Note: Doris is an integral part of Harper Hill Global’s international team who is supporting her in this work. Your prayers and financial gifts help make this possible. Please share this article and donate!

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#MeToo

Some issues benefit from silence. This is one that does not. 33 years ago this month, I was raped. I don’t need consolation, pity, or questions. The only reason I share this now publicly is because of the work I am doing with Congo Women Arise/Arise from Stigma. We live in an age where no woman has to feel alone…digital technology can make known issues that become normalized if they otherwise remain secret. As Brene Brown says, “Shame requires silence in order to grow.” Internalizing a tragic event casts blame on oneself instead of the perpetrator. Some of the general public believes what it wants to believe in order to profit from that silence, but women who’ve suffered must learn to support one another publicly. We can turn the tide. Our daughters, granddaughters, nieces and friends can live better lives if we do.
Looking back on my time in East Congo last July, I think about the three brave survivors who came forward publicly: Georgette, Rosalie and Bibiche. Rosalie is getting ready to be on radio there, and my prayer is that someone will hear her story and come forward with news of what happened to her daughter who was taken from her. I pray that she and the other women will be supported and grow within the community and become leaders within them. I stand in solidarity with Rosalie. I stand with the women who’ve come to me to share in private their stories. Please pray for a new day to come. God is with us!
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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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