HOPE for vulnerable women and children

“And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?”
– Micah 6:8


In the Great Lakes region, there’s an epidemic we don’t hear much about. Women and girls are suffering rape in great numbers, sometimes at the hands of gangs, and these women and girls then suffer the subsequent shaming that comes with rape. Many end up shut out of their families, giving birth to unwanted children, and mothers and children alike are ending up on the streets.

Haven’t heard about this in the news? Oh, perhaps you thought I meant the Great Lakes region in the United States? If that were the case, we North Americans would likely hear more about it. But this Great Lakes region is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Now before you decide to stop reading because you’re weary of atrocities in other countries far away from your own world of problems, I beg you to read this story and search your heart to see how God may be calling you to help.

The prevalence of rape in the DRC
The DRC is about a fourth of the size of the United States, and its vast wealth of minerals and other resources help explain the wars that ravage the country. Especially in the eastern part of DRC, the Great Lakes region I mentioned, rebel fighting continues with threats from neighboring Uganda and Rwanda never far enough away. Just this past Sunday and Monday, the city of Goma on the eastern edge of DRC was shelled in fighting that involved UN troops and rebels.

Yesterday, I met Maguy Makusudi, who is spending her vacation here in the United States raising awareness about her organization HOPE (Humanitarian Organization for People Empowerment).

She lives in Kinshasa, the capital of DRC, where she has lived since fleeing her home region of Kivu in eastern DRC in 1996 to escape war there. She still has family, including two sisters, who live in the eastern DRC and remain under threat of violence. Because of the prohibitive cost and difficulty of traveling from Kinshasa to her home region, Makusudi is rarely able to make the trip.

Makusudi traveled to my part of the United States thanks to a college friend of hers, who happens to be a member of my church (and who teasingly calls me one of his American nieces). Together, they are telling her story to all who will listen. It’s not an easy story. But I know that he is not only my African uncle but also my brother in Christ, and she is my sister in Christ, and as God’s family, we are called to share each others’ burdens.

The birth of HOPE
When Makusudi first arrived in Kinshasa, she saw the effects of war in the number of displaced children living on the streets: from abandoned children to child soldiers discharged from the army. She helped form HOPE in 2002 to aid these displaced children in retracing their families and negotiating with the families to reunite with these children.

It is better for the children to be reunited with their families, but this, she explains, is not always easy. Children born of rape are unwanted, and often the women themselves are cast out by their families instead of receiving comfort and care from them. Another mouth to feed is a burden many families are simply unwilling to accept. Makusudi also points out that many of these children are orphans, and it is the aunts or uncles who have no place for them and no willingness to take responsibility for their survival.

Accusing unwanted children of being witches is a common way of getting rid of them. Families take these children to local “churches,” where they are beaten or exorcised and then abandoned. Can you imagine this level of evil and negligence toward vulnerable children? Makusudi assures me it is the reality in the Congo.

A 2006 UNICEF census identified 20,000 children under the age of 18 living on the streets of Kinshasa alone. Makusudi says the problem has only grown worse as the cycle continues for girls growing up on the streets, being raped, or entering into prostitution to feed themselves and then also their children born into this horrific situation.

Where reunification is not possible, Makusudi works to place children in foster homes, a rare possibility in Kinshasa. For the others, HOPE’s center houses the children and provides schooling, healthcare and psychological counseling for them. HOPE partners with another organization to provide vocational training such as sewing or hairdressing classes so that the girls can gain skills that will give them a way out of life on the streets.

Even in the desert, a rose can bloom
Through the years, HOPE has seen its share of accolades and visits from prominent dignitaries. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan visited the center in 2006, and Unicef Italy recognized the center with a prize in 2002. Makusudi spoke of the award, a piece of sculpture depicting a desert rose. She explains, “Because even in the desert, a rose can bloom. Even in very hard situations, you can have a smile. You can have hope.”

HOPE is bringing smiles and hope to as many girls in Kinshasa as possible, currently housing girls from ages two through 18, with younger boys sometimes accompanying older sisters or mothers. The priority for acceptance at the center is given to very young girls and older girls who have babies, but for those who don’t get to come to the center, HOPE’s healthcare workers go out to the streets to treat women and their children when possible.

In addition to schooling and shelter, there are also games and team sports at the center, an attempt to give these children elements of a normal childhood. A pastor visits some Sundays, and when the center can find a van to rent, the girls will attend church two to three kilometers away, an outing they look forward to.

HOPE for the future
Makusudi has many hopes for her organization’s future growth. She’d love to expand services to the eastern part of the country, where she sees great need among the women ostracized from their communities and left vulnerable because they can no longer work in farming that leaves them open to more attacks. Micro-loans, healthcare and therapy, vocational training and a safe community for these girls and women can help them improve their lives.

HOPE is currently housed in buildings owned by another organization, and though HOPE owns land, there aren’t funds enough to begin building yet. Eventually, HOPE plans to build shelter, a healthcare center and a school for the girls they help.

Among these plans for HOPE’s future, you can see Makusudi dreaming of a better, safer Congo. She tells me that these are the ways you and I can help:

  • First and foremost, pray for the Congo in general and for peace in particular there. With peace would come renewed safety and opportunity for work, as well as a chance for families to rebuild.
  • Pray for the gang-raped women and girls.
  • Support HOPE with your gifts and service.
  • Visit Kinshasa to see how HOPE is at work saving the lives of these girls, giving them hope and helping them transform their lives.

We sat in a coffee shop bustling with people as Makusudi told me her story and her hopes for the organization. I thought how incongruous her visit here must seem compared to the daily heartbreak she witnesses in Kinshasa. She came here, though, because aren’t we all connected and called to kindness and justice and care for those who are more vulnerable than we are? Aren’t we all called to offer one another hope?

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked her to tell me what is most beautiful about the area of the Congo where she grew up, and she smiled large as she told me of the beautiful lakes and volcanoes (a few still active) and the beauty of the land that wows even European travelers. And I thought, this love of place connects us, too, this love of the beautiful world we call home. A place we should all work a little harder to make safer for our children.

Maguy Makusudi and me (taken by Joe Mabiala)

Maguy Makusudi and me (taken by Joe Mabiala)

I share her story with you because God charges us to act with mercy and love and “to do justice” (Micah 6:8). Will you help in Makasudi’s fight for justice for the children of DRC?

Want to learn more?

Makusudi is currently working with friends here in the United States to create an English-language website for HOPE, and I’ll share that link here as soon as the site is up and running.

In the meantime, here’s the contact information for the organization:

HOPE International
39, Bld Lumumba, Q/Immo-Congo
Commune de Kalama/Kinshasa. Congo DRC

By phone:
Tel: +243 818110833; +243 815258301

A good aunt’s back-to-school advice

It’s back-to-school season, and I thought I’d put on my “good aunt” hat for a few moments and share some advice with you (most of it fitting whether you’re a child, a teenager, a young adult, a student, a parent, a teacher).

On starting college
Two summers ago, I wrote a blog post for two beloved young people in my life who were heading off to college. There’s a fresh batch of young people I know starting college this year. I know you’re busy finding where your classes are and trying to decide whether you like your roommate and figuring out how many times you can text your mom and still be cool. But I hope you’ll take time to read what I wrote. Everything in it is still true today.

On texting and driving
If you drive yourself or your children to school (or anywhere else), please take 35 minutes today to watch this film on texting and driving. Called From One Second to the Next, this film brings us the accounts of people whose lives were changed in a split second because of a driver’s decision to text while driving. For any of you with a driver’s license and a car, please watch this video. Commit to checking your text messages once you get to where you’re going. Commit to refusing to ride in a car with a driver who is texting. Commit to waiting to text a friend who is behind the wheel. No one should die because of an oh-so-important message: “LOL.” “Running late.” “Almost there.”

On appreciating your teachers and other school staff
Did you hear yesterday’s story of a school clerk who talked a gunman into putting down his weapons and letting police arrest him before he killed anyone? The photo at the top of the story shows a good aunt reaching out for the hand of her nephew, one of the precious children the school clerk helped save yesterday. The clerk, Antoinette Tuff, said, “I’m not the hero. I was terrified.”

I don’t agree with Tuff. Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Tuff is a hero. She overcame her terror and put her own life on the line to save the others in her school and community.

Appreciate your teachers, even if you don’t enjoy their class or teaching style. They may be the single thread that protects your life in a moment of terror.

On working hard
“School is hard.” This profound bit of truth comes from an eighth grader I know.

For some of you – I’m thinking especially of the high school seniors and college freshmen among you – there may be a temptation to play a little too hard. Just remember why you’re in school. First and foremost, you’re there to learn and to work hard. Learning how to add in the rest (the fun parts) is the first step toward becoming a well-rounded adult while also discovering the parts of life that fuel your passions.

On finding joy
While some of you parents out there – and even some of you students, too – may be overjoyed at the prospect of a new school year, others of you will have to work a little harder to find joy in school. But it’s worth the effort to find something you love about school. Try a new activity or class, or try out for a team or the school play. These extras give you an opportunity to learn more about yourself and forge strong bonds with friends new and old. School may be hard (see previous category), but it doesn’t have to be miserable.

On keeping the faith
Whether it was Vacation Bible School, a youth mission trip or just fun, relaxed summertime visits at church, you may have experienced some great “mountaintop” moments in your faith while school was out. Look for ways to carry those moments with you into the school year, and if you’re a college student, I encourage you to get tapped into a faith community near your college – even if you really, really loved your home church youth group and think you’ll come home every weekend to see your familiar friends there.

When I was in college, my faith was sometimes the only thread that held me together while it seemed like everything else was falling apart around me. Give yourself a gift of a community of faith wherever you are. Keep looking if the first place you land doesn’t quite fit. Faith and a community of believers will strengthen you in ways nothing else can.

For those of you past your own school years, do you have any advice for these young ones going back to school?

For those of you going back to school, do you have any advice you’d like to get from my readers?

If so, I hope you’ll add it to the comments below.

The good aunt on Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is Sunday, a fact that wouldn’t have escaped you if you’ve been to a big box store or the grocery store or even the drug store, or if you’ve watched the least little bit of TV or had newspaper department store flyers fall onto your lap as you sit at breakfast.

I’ve seen plenty of blog posts this week about motherhood and mothering and wonderful mothers and mothers in need. I also saw (thanks to Ann Voskamp linking to it from her own blog) a blog post from a woman decrying the practice in some churches of honoring mothers by asking them to stand up during the service. Not because she thinks mothers don’t deserve a special day and a special honor, but because she wants church to feel like a safe place for all women, and some women are non-moms (her term for herself), who need an extra bit of compassion on Mother’s Day.

There are plenty of reasons to love Mother’s Day. Maybe you have a wonderful mother who is still living or you’re a mom of little ones who anticipate making you breakfast in bed and giving you homemade cards with little handprints and too much glitter.

But there are plenty of reasons not to love Mother’s Day either. You’re torn between seeing your own mother or spending time with your grown children. Your alcoholic mother abused you. Your mother is in the late stages of dementia and no longer recognizes you. Your mother is no longer living. You’re just not that close to your mother. Continue reading

Celebrating the good aunt


Today marks the end of the good aunt series here on my blog, though you’ll probably still find me posting about the topic from time to time. But first …

A prayer for those in Sandy’s path
Before I launch into today’s post, though, let me say a quick prayer for those in the path of Sandy: Father God, we know you are more powerful than the most powerful hurricane, and we ask you to protect those in Sandy’s path. For those who are afraid, please give them a sense of calm. For those who are weak, please give them strength. For those who are facing loss, please give them friends and family to comfort them. For those who are thrill-seeking idiots, please send them a guardian angel and keep the brave folks who try to save them from harm. Thank you for keeping us in Your loving hands during life’s storms. Amen.

Good aunts to celebrate
There are several “good aunts” I want to thank and celebrate to close out the series, including a few of my own good aunts. I’ve spoken early in the series about my great aunts, who really were the grandmothers I needed growing up.

In this picture, one of my closest aunts (my mom’s sister) celebrates her wedding day with her new husband, while my great aunt Clare, right, makes her laugh.

My aunt celebrates her wedding day with her own good aunt, there on the right, making her laugh.

My aunt Mary Lou was vibrant and smart and loving, and even though she was busy with a full-time teaching job and three children of her own, she always found time to make me feel special. She taught me to love museums and literature and movies and time with family. Her overseas trips taught me about the exciting possibilities of traveling to other countries and experiencing different cultures, and she often brought a small treasure home for me. She was one of the earliest encouragers of my writing, and I wish she were still alive to read my blog, because I know her insights and questions would continue to make me a better writer.

I’m grateful for the years I got to know her, and I’m so glad she got to meet my husband (whom she liked very much, and not just because he had the good sense to love her niece.) She wasn’t perfect, but when I think of her, the memories of her that flood back most strongly are her smile and her laugh. She was my good aunt.  Continue reading

The good aunt and sticky friendships, revisited

Back in July, I wrote about the struggle women without children have in maintaining friendships with their friends who are moms. If you missed the first post or have forgotten it, you might want to read it and then come back to this post.

I’m revisiting the issue, because so much of what I hear in response to the good aunt series has to do with the difficulty of navigating friendships.

I want to say it again: good aunts want to be good friends to the moms in their life, but there’s sometimes a difficulty in knowing the best way to approach those friendships.

Those of us who aren’t moms know that the job of mom is a demanding, all-consuming, draining, not-always-fun-and-games life. Really, I promise you moms out there, we do know that, even if it’s only in an intellectual way instead of the empathic way your other mom friends can truly understand. And so we know to expect changes in friendships when babies are born. What we don’t always know, though, is how to maintain the friendship and develop a relationship with the new little one, or if that’s even something the new mom wants.

A friend of mine and I sat chatting over coffee yesterday, and the topic of friendships with new moms came up. My friend is in her early thirties, is not yet a mom, and is experiencing that so familiar boom of babies being born among her group of friends.

She voiced what I have felt, too, though I’m farther from the baby boom with my friends than she is: each time another friend becomes a mom for the first time, there’s an uncomfortable shift, as the questions begin:

  • What does the friend expect from me now that she has less time for herself and her friends?
  • If I’m the only one making an effort to connect, is it because the new mom doesn’t need/want me in her life any more? Or is it because she’s overwhelmed and needs me to come to her aid whether she asks for it or not?
  • Does she still value me as a friend, even though I don’t have children and can’t adequately talk through the latest nappies or sleepless night solutions and can’t offer her any knowledge about nannies, or juggling work and babies?

The questions that arise out of this natural separation in a friendship are not comfortable or easy. And each friendship will resolve the questions differently.

Some friendships will strengthen with the answering of these questions, even if the questions are never asked or answered out loud. Other friendships will fade because of different needs and expectations on either side of the friendship. And there doesn’t seem to be a recipe or computer program that will help you determine which friendships will survive and which won’t, no matter how much work you put into them.

So where do we go from here?
If a friendship mattered to you before a child was born (your own child or your friend’s child), then decide if the friendship is worth some extra effort now. The answer won’t always be “Yes,” and that’s okay.

But for the friendships that are worth it to you, the ones that you cannot imagine losing, take some time to make them work. And be honest with each other about what both of you want and need from this new way of being friends. Honest conversation may have to happen in snatches between crying fits and first smiles and diaper changes, but those conversations are the best way to keep a friendship going strong.

Have some great advice for how you and a friend have navigated friendship changes after one of you became a parent? Or a question about how to start that honest conversation? I’d love to hear from you.