Grace

Grace died on March 13th. She had been digging in the ground for moles and running around the yard with her best friend Ranger. Cassie the cat was always nearby and the three of them would come when I would call their names and clap my hands five times. When I called and the three of them didn’t come running, I checked the front porch. Sometimes she and Ranger would climb the chain link fence – a feat I never got to witness but can only imagine her determination in stretching and climbing to get to something more than what she could find within the large expanse she already had to explore. 

Somehow, that wasn’t enough. 

By the time I noticed she wasn’t there, she may already have been dead. I spent the afternoon posting on a lost and found pets group in the area and also on the NextDoor app. Driving around, yelling, “Grace!” out the window as if bestowing a blessing on all those within earshot, she didn’t come. I imagined that she might be exploring in the woods and digging and chasing squirrels. I imagined that someone found her and wanted to keep her – just as I did when she came to me and Robby one day over four years ago. 

I went out again that night with my dear friend Karen and when we had no luck we turned to go back to the house. Karen spotted her and my heart leapt with joy. I threw the car into park and opened the door without even checking to see if cars were coming. Then I heard her voice, “She may be dead.” She had been hit and killed by a car and was not so far from the house on this side of the street. Perhaps she spotted something across the road and as her nature was to focus and run, she may have never seen the car coming that threw her into a ditch.

Grace was a companion – always ready to go in the car wherever I went. She loved it when we went to McDonalds or Sonic and got ice cream. She would lick the dish clean! In fact, doing dishes was one of her favorite chores. She would do the hard work and I would finish the job. She loved playing hard – getting Ranger down on the ground with her mouth around his neck. He would lay there and let her win every time. She had just met a new friend Connor – a little Yorkie – and she didn’t know quite what to think about this 16-year old creature. Once, Grace had something horrible in her mouth (maybe a mouse) when Connor approached her. She stood still as a statue with her mouth closed until he passed by, as if to hide her trophy, scared he might want it. She looked at me as if to say, “Please don’t make me share.” She was good to the little guy, sharing the holes she dug but then digging again and carelessly tossing dirt and leaves onto him. 

A Black Mouth Mountain Cur is what one person told me she was. A Boxer Hound mix was another label she had been given. Another dear friend had told me the weekend before that I needed to get her DNA. Having a dog like Grace for the rest of my life may have been the incentive for the DNA desire. When I lost my dog Barkley decades before, I thought that if I got another Cocker Spaniel I could repeat the gift of his life. Twinkie was altogether different and not in a good way! I loved her till she died nonetheless.

Grace was named Grace because she just showed up. She was love in the flesh. Love comes to us every day in many forms, reminding us that we are not alone. It may be a bird chirping, a cat rubbing against our legs or a dog eager to lick our faces. It may be a person. But love comes. This is life in the world that God created. 

The loss hurts so much. Time dulls the pain and prayer can make us attentive to the beauty still around us. The person who hit and killed her missed an opportunity by not having the courage or compassion to call. I would’ve forgiven. 

We live in the in-between world – in between the Garden of Eden and the perfected universe where all shall be made right. I always worried this would be Grace’s fate. Keeping her indoors with me so much wasn’t what she was made for. If I could’ve prevented this from happening, I would have a thousand times over. It’s easy to let our minds try to rewind time, isn’t it? Or even fool ourselves into believing that it’s not real. But death and life are intertwined and perhaps our biggest mistake is not being present in the moment to appreciate what is, right now, for it can never be again. Each moment is unique and irreplaceable.

While I lead Grace so many times on walks, I find comfort in the last line of Amazing Grace, “And Grace will lead me home.” She is now boundless energy – not confined by fences and leashes. She knows something far better than this world can offer. And one day, she may just lead me.

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Artists of Pretend

At the time, I was vice president of interactive media at GodwinGroup in Jackson, Mississippi. I had a beautiful office. I was beginning to ponder how what I was doing to help corporate clients mattered in the whole scheme of the universe.

I had one of my vivid dreams – which I’ve had throughout my life. This one I’ve not thought of in quite a while.

In the dream, I was looking out my office window and noticed that someone had erected a beautiful scenic facade all around the building that those within the building could see. It had a painted sky and would give us a perpetually sunshiny day. I remember thinking, but I don’t want to see what’s not real. I want to see what’s real. In the dream, there was a breaking through of the screen where the sun was and it was brighter and more beautiful than what the artist had drawn.

When I awoke, I thought about all of the poverty surrounding that building at One Jackson Place. Just down the street were the shotgun shacks rented out to people who could never afford owning a home. Theirs were the dwelling places of pain and lost hope in whether they could even survive the nightly gunshots, drugs and generational poverty passed down to them as other ancestors pass down family wealth. In my awakening, I realized that I really did want to see what was real instead of surrounding myself with a facade to keep me numb to the difficulties of this world.

What does this dream teach me today? As I read the news yesterday and saw that Tennessee state legislators are prohibiting players of state universities from kneeling during the national anthem, I see some wanting to build the sunshiny facade even still, preventing them and others from seeing the pain of the oppressed people in our society. 

Seeing what’s real can help us all break through to the true beauty of light. Light that reveals what is and what can be. That what we should be working towards is not hiding pain but getting to the root cause of it and having faith enough to change that which causes it. Then we would be working towards protests becoming unnecessary. All would be living in dignity and equality. Instead of being artists of pretend and erecting those facades, leaders would become true leaders – showing what can be if we only have the courage to look into the light and let it shine through us – radiant and bright.

It’s not a dream to be dreamt at night. It’s one that must be lived in the light.

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In the late 1990s I felt God calling me into becoming something new.

The way this new stage of my life unfolded was through becoming a faith leader in the United Methodist Church. At the time, I was married with a young daughter – only in the 1st grade. I was also a vice president and director of interactive media at an amazing advertising agency (GodwinGroup!) in Jackson, Mississippi.

Following this prompting wasn’t without difficulties.

I was the breadwinner in our home. Financial security at the time meant that I could pay our mortgage, provide health insurance – the basics in life. To follow a new way of living meant that I had to give up certain things to do new things.

I went back to college to complete the degree that I began in my teens before I could go on to get a masters of divinity degree – what would be required within the church for ordination. Going to night classes and working fulltime proved to be too taxing on the role I prized the most – being a mom to my daughter Marissa. The church hired me as a mission intern so I could find more balance, still being able to provide the basics financially.

Nearing the completion of that degree, we began planning the move to Nashville, Tennessee so I could attend Vanderbilt Divinity School. My husband was struggling with treatment for bipolar disorder and I began to question my path. Should I get on another path that would be easier on him and our family? Should I take divinity school off my list?

The night before I met with the director of a local program that would allow us to stay in Mississippi, I had a deep dream – one that remains with me today.

In the dream, a woman had been murdered – stabbed to death with words written in her blood on the walls. This woman was sooo loved. She was a free spirit who people loved dearly. Somehow, I was invited to rewind her life to see who murdered her. To identify the killer.

I remember that it wasn’t just me following her – I was with a group of people. A gray room with a door facing me to the left revealed a hallway and when I heard someone coming, I said, “Everybody get down!” I knew that this was the moment of the attack. When I got down, I saw the knife and thought if I got rid of it, I could save her life. I picked it up and threw it over my shoulder only to realize that she was behind me and I had struck her with the knife. In an effort to protect her, I killed her.

This dream was strong in my spirit as I sat listening to Rev. Bert Gary describe what I would need to do to stay in Mississippi and become what was to me a smaller form of what God was really calling me to be. At the end of our session, I embarrassingly shared that I had a dream I wanted to tell him about.

After describing the dream to him, he looked at me pensively. He asked, “So, do you want to give me back all that (the info he had given me) before you kill her?”

My whole body sank into the chair. Yes, in an effort to protect myself from the hardship of following my call, I was about to kill who I really am and who I’m meant to be.

Today, I remember this dream and the hard path I recommitted to following that meeting.

What are you avoiding today? Going through it rather than around it may bring the greatest joy to you and the world. Be courageous and brave. The real you awaits.

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An Open Letter to Tennessee Legislators


While some states in our nation are seeking racial equality and justice for all, Tennessee is demonstrably stuck in reverse. Today’s vote to keep the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in the Tennessee State capitol building illustrates this tragic reality which is morally unconscionable.

As a faith leader, I cannot step aside or be silent.

For far too long, symbols of hate have continued to be heralded as historic treasures within the southern states. The truth is, they are vapid symbols of a lost cause – a cause that should have never been and a cause which should bring shame instead of pride. Would anyone even consider erecting a monument to Timothy McVeigh within the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City? He is inextricably a part of their history. Yet, just as surely, Nathan Bedford Forrest and other Confederate “heroes” sought to tear apart our nation, bringing death and despair to masses. 

Racism continues to bring death and despair to masses – generation to generation. It is a threat to the constitution of the United States. It should not be allowed in any of our political parties, nor should it be catered to. Elected officials are meant to lead us towards the ideals espoused in our founding documents. 

Additionally, legislators are elected to represent all people, yet today’s vote skews towards voters who are unwilling to accept complicity in the racism that has diminished, threatened and obliterated black lives since the founding of our nation. Your vote represents not the democracy that our beloved state deserves, but an ethic of personal bias and protection.

Our Creator made all persons with the Divine Image. As a clergy person, I am not exempt from the sins of racism, but by God’s grace, I can repent – turning away from that which is wrong and move towards a future of light and love for all.

I call upon you to do the same – through your job. The systems you create – or keep – will either move us beyond racism or keep us bound to it. One day, history will reflect your choice. 

Rev. N. Neelley Hicks
United Methodist Clergy
Tennessee/Western Kentucky UMC

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Give a Gift, Get a Gift

If you’re like me, you enjoy selecting gifts for others and along the way, a few for yourself! This Christmas, I’ve got a really special gift for someone I dearly love. Let me tell you about her. 

My daughter-in-law, Mallory Hicks, is always easy to buy for because she likes anything that’s shiny, glittery or sentimental. She does have just about anything – including a pig in a tutu! Mallory has Cystic Fibrosis – a “progressive, genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe over time.” Two years ago, she got into a drug trial for Trikafta that literally changed her life. It’s opened up possibilities that until recently she never allowed herself to dream of.

Trikafta has prevented her from countless hospital stays, and increased her wellbeing enough to participate in the Mrs. Tennessee pageant where she launched her role as an advocate for children living with the disease. One thing this drug won’t do? Prevent the flu. In fact, those with Cystic Fibrosis who contract the flu often get very serious infections in their already compromised lungs. Some even die.

The gift I’ll give is going to bring joy, health and love that she can really feel. So, what is it? It’s the flu shot!

I planned to get it earlier this Fall and especially before seeing her on Thanksgiving. I didn’t know that the shot has a two-week incubation period before I am 100% protected, so unfortunately this means that I can’t spend Thanksgiving with her. But Christmas? Absolutely!

There are some groups of people who are at a much higher risk for complications from the flu. One of those groups is CF patients. Others include the elderly, children under 6 years of age, those with asthma and other chronic illnesses.

Here are some flu facts that I didn’t know:

  1. Even if you do not have active symptoms, you can be a carrier of the illness and transmit it to others from even “6 feet away.” 
  2. It can take up to 4 days before some people have symptoms, even when they are already infected.
  3. Although some people may get a low-grade fever and other symptoms, you cannot contract the flu itself from the shot.

Find out where you can get a flu shot near you: https://www.health.com/cold-flu-sinus/free-flu-shots




I got my flu shot today, so now I can look forward to the rest of the holidays with Mallory! It’s the best gift I could give her…and myself!


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Heartfelt Gratitude

On Friday, April 5, United Methodist Women of Brentwood UMC hosted their 11th Singer/Songwriter Night. Harper Hill Global (HHG) was the recipient of this year’s proceeds which will benefit our premier initiative – the Women Arise Network –  who focuses on communicating for peace, dignity and health in DRCongo, Uganda, and Nigeria. From this work, we are developing a model of communications that can be implemented anywhere in the world.

As the founder of HHG, I am overwhelmed by the support shown to us. The venue was packed, the music was superb and desserts…well…my personal favorite was the carrot cake! Can I please have the recipe? I want to personally thank Pat Fleming, who coordinated this year’s event, and the team of unseen angels who cooked, cleaned, decorated, promoted, and sold tickets. Your efforts make it possible for other women (whom you may never meet) to arise from the societal problems they face and live their best lives. Their families and communities are all positively affected.

“Women Arise” was released at the event as the anthem for the Network, and was written and performed by Sherry Cothran and Kim McLean. The verse-stories offer snapshots of the ways that human spirit is diminished by oppression. I hope you all will listen to the song and share it!

Robby Hicks (my sweet husband) brought his great wit, touching lyrics (let’s not think about booger man, lol)  and music. Please be sure to check out all of the artists and follow them on social media!

Thank you, Jason’s Deli (Franklin Road), for giving 15% of proceeds last night to HHG and helping women arise! You modeled how businesses can partner with faith-based groups to support concerns that affect everyone. We need more of you!

The HHG team – here in Nashville and in Africa – is giving their time because they believe in the power of communications to create a better world. HHG – what it is and what it is becoming – is the product of our energies coming together to inform and co-create with God. I thank God for you each day.

Communication affects all we do and become. What we share can help others find peace, health and dignity. How we share in this age is unparalleled with any other point in time. We can reach tens, hundreds, thousands and millions with information that can change their lives. Watch HHG for updates and please share our resources with others.

Be sure to follow us on Facebook to see video and pics from the event.

More love! Neelley

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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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