Monday, September 17, 2012

Lovin' The Kids of Refilwe

They all wanted to touch and play with my hair.

The children of Refilwe are incredible kids. Imagine being bounced around in the foster care system, or being taken from the only parent you've ever known and left in a strange place.

Refilwe godparents have as few as two children in their home, or perhaps as many as 6 or 8 kids in their care. Every single child is fed, cared for, and loved. They are taught values and morals and that Jesus loves them and has a plan for their life.

Not only did I work in the community preschools, but I also got to work alongside the fabulous teachers in the Refilwe preschool. Those women love those little ones, and their care and education is the top priority. The kids arrive at school in the morning and they're fed a yummy breakfast. They spend their morning singing songs, reading stories, doing art projects, playing, and being loved.

After lunch they finish their studies and take a nap. Awww...the perfect afternoon.

The day before I landed in Johannesburg, another young man from Fresno had arrived. Ryan Moore immediately set about to find his place as a volunteer. Everyone has a place at Refilwe. Ryan made plans for a Saturday day camp and by the weekend, the new project was up and running.

This place gets under your skin, and it's difficult to shake its effect on one's heart and life. I know people who visited Refilwe years ago and a huge piece of their heart remains to this day in Johannesburg. 

Giana and 'Neesa

In the last couple of weeks, Giana has decided to return to Refilwe after her holiday home visit. Her financial needs are great, and your support is very much appreciated. 

Send donations to:

Northside Christian Church
Attn: Giana Stoeckel- Africa
2709 East Nees Avenue
Clovis, CA. 93611

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Unimaginable Poverty

What is poverty?

The online dictionary gives this definition:  The state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; condition of being poor.

How many of you have met people who are truly poor?  I mean - NO money, NO goods, and NO means of support?  It's overwhelming to look into the eyes of an impoverished person not because of what is seen, but because of what is not seen - hope. 

Here in America we've become dependent on the government. If we're poor, we depend on food stamps, Medicare, subsidies, and giveaways. The middle-class and wealthy do the same thing - we depend on the government to take care of the poor! Here in California, public schools have continued to provide breakfast and lunch to many of the state's poorest children during the summer months. Money that could (and should) be going to actual education goes to feeding the poor (who are rich by third world measures).

What has happened to our hearts? When did we stop caring for one another, checking in on our neighbors, helping family members in crisis, and reaching out to the poor and indigent? To those who complain about the "bleeding heart liberals" and the government giveaways, let me ask you; are you doing your part?

The government in South Africa is widely corrupt. I visited a couple of the poorest communities and I traveled past many, many more and they get little or no help from the government. The poorest live in aluminum sheds that are roughly 6 feet by 6 feet square boxes. Some are slightly larger - perhaps 8 feet by 8 feet.

I saw a 2-year-old boy named MoFo who can't walk. His disability? Malnutrition! I'm so ashamed of us. People around the world are dying of completely preventable diseases like malnutrition, starvation, water-borne illnesses, and AIDS while we complain about slow internet connections, or what kind of music we should sing during our church services.

I spent a couple of days working in the community daycares. Imagine 12-15 three and four-year-olds sitting in a tiny shed to learn and eat their lunch. It's heartbreaking.

Refilwe is not just an orphanage, but it is a conduit for education and change. The South African government policy of racial segregation known as Apartheid was officially denounced in 1992, although Nelson Mandela worked tirelessly (even from prison) for many years prior to promote racial equality. Refilwe teachers work alongside the community teachers to break the cycle of education inequality and to reverse the stinkin' thinkin' that Apartheid instilled in the minds of South African blacks.

For many generations the best that South African blacks could hope for was just enough education to get a job working for the wealthy white Afrikaans. It's taken a while for some blacks to understand the importance of sending their children to school. The teachers at Refilwe work tirelessly to break the cycle of poverty, and are invested in the hope for a better life for all South Africans - black and white.

To donate to Giana and Refilwe:

Northside Christian Church
Attn: Giana Stoeckel - Africa
2709 E. Nees Ave.
Clovis, CA  93611

Monday, August 13, 2012

Putting Community Ahead of Self

Colleen, Me, Eleni,
Nomvula, and Chloe

I'm so glad that Giana has the opportunity to work side by side with Christian people who actually put Community ahead of self. I experienced it with her in Malawi, and that same kind of "others" thinking was evident at Refilwe from day one.

A friend of mine was in Swaziland last month and in one of her Facebook posts she praised the people in the village where they'd set up camp for the way they worked together as a family and team. It's as God would have it to be. I haven't experienced too much of that here in America, and I suspect it's because we simply have too much. We dump our friends without thought, knowing there are new friends right around the corner. Business owners can mistreat employees because there are dozens of people anxious for a job. On and on it goes.

We absolutely need one another here in America, but we are often just too selfish, jealous, independent, or just plain mean to acknowledge or recognize that fact. 

I've said this before, but it bears reiterating here. One of the reasons I'm drawn to Theatre is because it's a place where people from varying walks of life, differing beliefs, and a wide range of philosophies all come together and work in harmony for the good of the whole - for the purpose of doing good work. 

My friend Rhonda told me she didn't need me because she had other strong women in her life and I wasn't strong enough. After fifteen years of friendship I was now expendable. Because she didn't need me, she undermined my reputation, made assumptions about my motives and character, and was a major factor in me loosing my job, my circle of friends (I thought they were friends), and eventually being told to leave our church home.

Oh sure, there's drama among the people in Africa - they are human after all - but where the needs are the greatest, the love, acceptance, and tolerance is also the greatest.

St. Francis of Assisi said, "Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words." I see this philosophy lived out in other parts of the world, but here in America most Christians talk the talk far better than they walk the walk. That is my personal experience, so please don't accuse me of generalizing.

I was once passed over for a role in a church production. I was told that since I co-wrote the piece it wouldn't be "fair" for me to also get an acting role. I completely respected the ministry leader for his decision. 

A few days after the production cast list was posted I got a call from the woman who got the role I auditioned for. Karin told me she'd harbored bad feelings towards me and she wanted me to know that she'd been so upset with me that she'd gone forward during prayer time to deal with her anger. She said, "My husband told me they were going to give you the role in the production, but I told him that wasn't fair.  I asked for prayer and I just want you to know that I'm no longer angry with you. God is good."

What!? In one phone call I learned that I had been considered for the role but it was my friend who'd convinced the powers that be that it wouldn't be "fair", and that instead of being happy for me she was angry with me for something her husband had told her.  But, I was supposed to be grateful because she'd "prayed about it" and now it was all good. Everything about that exchange was in direct opposition to what Jesus taught us about relationship, conflict, and resolution. I was broken, but she was spiritually cleansed. Ugh.

The same kind of thing happened a few years ago on the last night of my first trip to Africa. We'd had a GREAT three weeks of relationship building with some of the most needy yet happiest people I'd ever met. Daniel was a student leader on our team and he asked to talk to me.

Daniel:  Liz, can I talk to you?

Me:  Sure, come on in.

Daniel:  During our study time tonight, God revealed to me that I've had anger in my heart toward you, and I need to confess it and make it right.

Me:  Oh Daniel, I'm so sorry. What did I do to make you angry?

Daniel:  Nothing. You just bug me. God showed me that I needed to tell you I wasn't mad at you anymore. Bless you Liz.

I was left sitting in the middle of the room - devastated. He manipulated scripture to show his spiritual pride, while at the same time crushing me. There are a number of scriptures that teach conflict resolution, but not liking someone is a personal conflict, and should've been handled personally. 

I've seen this again and again and again. Christians use the Bible as a weapon to kill and destroy those that get in their way, "bug" them, or who have specks in their eye, while all the time failing to see the plank in their own eye.

1 Corinthians 13 is widely known as "The Love Chapter" and its words are often recited at weddings.  Let's all say it together, "Love is patient; Love is kind; Love does not envy or boast..." yada yada.  That particular chapter of the Bible is actually an admonition. The Corinthian Church had become proud and they considered themselves better than everyone else.  Not only did they note all the specks in everyone else's eye while ignoring the planks in their own eyes, but they didn't want the old speck-eyes anywhere near the country club they called "church".  

That kind of Corinthian mentality is all too common in today's Church. Again - this is my personal experience. The Christian Church is growing in other parts of the world, while attendance and membership is plummeting here in America. I believe it's because we have so much and we do not recognize our need for one another. We've become selfish, independent, finger-pointing elitists.

Is it any wonder I want to go back to Africa where the need is great, and the love is greater? Again, I'm so very grateful that Giana has the opportunity to work alongside Christians who put community ahead of self.

Mikey Cleave - Refilwe Volunteer.  Love!

Friday, August 10, 2012

South Africa - The First Days

A couple of volunteers live in that building. This is the view looking left from Giana's porch.

When I arrived in South Africa on Monday morning I was ready to go to work. That's what I was there for, after all.  Giana insisted I just relax a bit and get the lay of the land.

Refilwe is an amazing place. What images come to mind when I say the word, "orphanage"?  You probably see rows of cribs filled with babies and toddlers with severely overworked nurses and nannies watching over the little ones.  We've all seen those images on the evening news or the tear-jerking television specials. I had an up close and personal experience with just such a place when I was in Malawi, Africa a few years ago.

Refilwe is different.  Refilwe Community Project began in 1991 and has grown from a small healthcare clinic to a 40+ acre facility housing a school, community center, community garden, homes for abandoned children, and more.

The purpose of this beautiful place is to give orphaned or at-risk children a real home, complete with siblings, parents, education, and a yard to play in. Foster-parents (known as "godparents") live on the property and children are placed in their homes. The godparents commit to caring for and raising the children until they're grown - thus insuring they don't get passed around from facility to facility. It's a fabulous environment.

Giana has been there since August 2011 and has worked in the daycare, the office, the kitchen, and teaches a couple of tap dance classes each week. She also nannies and helps with after-school homework.

It's winter in South Africa right now, and it was cold when I arrived.  The daytime temps were actually comfortable - especially considering the 110 degrees I left behind in California. The nights were freezing.  I slept great that first night in Giana's cozy home and then was thrilled to wake up to icicles on the plants, and ice on the small lake and lawn.  It was a perfect morning.


I spent that first Tuesday working with other volunteers to empty rooms in the baby house so that prep for painting could begin.  Refilwe will be working with another organization near Johannesburg called, "Door of Hope", which takes in newborns and small babies and cares for them until they can find god-parents for the child. The beautiful, large house on the Refilwe property is in much need of repair and love, but it will eventually serve as home for abandoned babies until they can be placed with families.

The work was hard, but so satisfying and rewarding. I love hard work and manual labor and it's even better when you're laughing, sharing, and working alongside people with the same heart and goal.


After. Hey, who puts a light fixture in the middle of a wall?  Hmmm...


Northside Christian Church
Attn:  Giana Stoeckel-Africa
2709 E. Nees Ave.
Clovis, CA  93611

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Welcome to South Africa


I arrived at the O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa on Monday, June 11 at 8:30am.  After proving to the authorities that I did, in fact, have a reservation to leave the country in a timely manor, I received the security stamp of approval.

I'm still not sure how it happened, but somehow I was approved at LAX to check two 50lb. bags with no additional fees.  Upon landing in Johannesburg, I faced the somewhat daunting task of hauling the two duffle bags, my backpack, and a purse to where Giana would be waiting for me.  I so appreciate the kind American gentleman who helped me with one of my bags (there was not a cart in sight).

I LOVED seeing Giana's beautiful smiling face. It'd been almost a year and I've missed that face!

We loaded the bags into the teeny tiny borrowed car Giana drove to the airport and we headed north to Lanseria.  It's very disconcerting to suddenly be on the left side of the road.  Giana has adapted so well to the rules of South African driving - even though said rules appear to be mostly optional.  Just two minutes from the orphanage where Gia has been volunteering we were pulled over in a random road check. Although Giana's visa had come through, she still had not picked up the actually physical proof, so the police gave us a bit of grief. Welcome to South Africa!

As we drove down the little dirt road to Refilwe Community Project, Gia informed me that my job as passenger would be to open and shut the gate behind the car once she drove in.

It took two 12-hour plane rides to travel from Los Angeles to Johannesburg, but I slept surprisingly well in the air and was therefore pretty well rested.  I was absolutely ready to get to work.  Instead, I spent most of the day just getting acquainted.

I was already in love with the kids, parents, and staff at Refilwe because they've loved my little girl for the past year. You want to win points with a mom - love her kid!  It was an amazing privilege and gift to finally get to meet the Refilwe family face to face.

I quickly met Giana's crazy and manic kitty cat. Her name is Cabbage, but Gia calls her "Lovey". Lovey immediately made an impression on me and left my arms and hands bloodied.  Awwww....Lovey.

Giana's Refilwe home

More about my amazing three weeks in South Africa to come in later posts.  But let me leave you with this thought - never EVER underestimate the power of love, don't ever give up, and do not stop believing.  Giana is most definitely a walking miracle and she has turned mourning to joy!

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Picture of Us

This pencil drawing hangs in a prominent place in my home. In fact, it's pretty much the first thing you see when you walk into the house, and the last thing you see when you leave.

For anyone who knows my family, you would agree that we don't look exactly like the images in the drawing. However, it holds a most precious place in my heart.

The artist is a man I'll never meet. He's a felon who was at one time incarcerated in the Fresno County Jail. 

It was February 2005 - my 43rd birthday. Our oldest son was in jail, and our daughter was 700 miles away in a Utah drug rehab. Christmas had been almost unbearable and I was dreading celebrating a birthday without two of my three kids. And then this gift arrived from the jail.

What makes the picture extra special is that the artist used two different photos for his model. I'd sent the pictures in a Christmas card to my son. One featured Tom, me, and the boys and was taken the day before our oldest was arrested. The other was taken in Utah during our first parent week at the rehab.

My son knew how sad I was that our family was fractured and separated by addiction and miles and prison bars. He knew that a reminder of how it once was (and how it would surely be again) would be the very best gift he could give me. He was right.

Most families have a professionally photographed picture hanging somewhere in their home. You know the ones - where everyone in the family is wearing a complimentary color and the smiles practically leap off the canvas. It's the image of a perfect family. It's the image we want others to see when they meet us.

The crude drawing hangs on my wall as a reminder of where we once were, how far we've come, and how nothing can separate us. It's the imperfection of it all that I love.

Today, our three kids are scattered hither and yon, but they are healthy, happy, strong, and fabulous. Though there are miles and time zones between us, we're a family. Our hearts are forever intertwined and connected. 

I'll never forget the day I received a gift in the mail from a son who knew the value of being connected.

Monday, April 23, 2012

How To Grow A Bully

Yet another young man has taken his life after being bullied.

14-year-old Kenneth Weishaun, Jr. of Sioux City, Iowa died on April 15 after suffering "intense harassment". An Iowa newspaper decided enough is enough and they dedicated an entire front page to a call to action.

An opinion piece never makes the front page of a newspaper, but the subject is so important, that The Sioux City Journal printed the editorial on the front page. The headline reads, "OUR OPINION. We must stop bullying. It starts here. And it starts now."

A young friend of a friend posted this comment on his Facebook page the other day: "Some people need to be bullied. They need to learn the lesson that life is hard and they need to get tough. Bullying is good for them."

Bullies are not born, they're grown.

The opinion piece in the Iowa paper states, "Now this community and region must face this stark reality: We are all to blame. We have not done enough. Not nearly enough." The author goes on to say, "This is not a failure of one group of kids, one school, one town, one county or one geographic area. Rather, it exposes a fundamental flaw in our society, one that has deep-seated roots. ...we can't keep looking away."

Amen! are my top 5 ways to grow a bully:

5. Encourage and nurture a culture of gossip.

When someone comes to us with a juicy rumor, we can't help but be tantalized. But if the person being talked about is not in the room, we need to shut up! As I said in my last post, I've spent my life working in and around churches my whole life. Other than junior high students, I've never seen a culture with a more veracious appetite for gossip than the Christian community.'s ugly.

4. Reward the snitches.

If you're a teacher, leader, boss, or parent, ask your students, subordinates, employees or children to snitch or tattle on one another. Then, reward the yakkety-yaks with good grades, positions of power, bonuses, or favoritism.

I remember a leader saying to me, "I asked a few people to tell me about your activity, and I learned (thus-and-such) about you." Why didn't you ask me?

3. Don't reign in your anger - let it out!

A local man shot and killed his neighbor because the neighbor's dog kept coming into the killer's yard. A young man purposely rammed his car into a Pedi-cab, injuring the bicyclist and one of his passengers.

We see angry raging people all around us. People lash out through road rage and parking lot rage. They yell at the bank tellers, the grocery store clerks, postal employees, and next-door neighbors - anyone that gets in their way or challenges their way of doing things. The bad attitude is infectious, and the bitter disease called, "anger" is spreading. Our children have become infected. Angry kids and angry adults bully the vulnerable.

2. Discriminate. Discriminate. Discriminate.

My step-dad used to call Hispanic people "spics". We lived in a Hispanic community and when we drove down the road, he used to joke that hitting one would give us extra driving "points". It was all "in good fun", but I promise you that I've had to fight against being a racist.

Our kids are not born a racist, homophobe, gay basher, religious zealot, or elitist - they are taught. They watch us, they listen, they observe - they LEARN FROM US!

You want to grow a bully? Plant seeds of discrimination in your own home garden, water daily with sprinkles of sarcasm, and fertilize with hatred.

1. Be a me-monster. After all, it's all about you!

One thing is certain; a bully is selfish, self-absorbed, and oblivious to the feelings of others. They don't care about the big picture. They certainly don't care about the truth! They only care about themselves and what they think, feel, want, and believe.

We live in an "I" world. We've got the iPhone, iPad, iPod...even Wii has two i's.

If you're a parent, teach your kids that it's NOT all about them. Don't bail them out of every little problem, don't fight with their teachers and blame them for your child's bad grades. You can teach them to NOT bully.

If you're a boss or leader, put an end to workplace bullying by pulling the plug on gossip and backbiters. Don't reward snitches. Create an environment of team building and kindness. Address problems. Find solutions.

If you're a teacher, do not ignore bullying. It's out of the control.

This is our problem - yours and mine. Bullying has got to stop. It starts here. And it starts now.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Kids Bully - They Learn From Us

We'll never end teen bullying as long as it still works so well for adults. It's absolutely rampant in our workplaces - and the bullies most often come out on top.

A friend said, "I'd speak out against workplace bullying if I thought it would make any difference, but I don't think it will."

Edmund Burke said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing." Well, I can't do much, but I can speak out.

According to the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute (yes, there is such a place), 37% of employees who are bullied at work are eventually fired, and 33% quit. 70% of bullied employees end up of out of work, and the bully stays employed - often moving up the ladder of authority.

I've written about my workplace bully experience before. In fact, my last post was about the long-term effects their insipid behavior has had on my family. It just so happens that my story is associated with the church, but it is in no way an indictment on Christianity, God, or the global church. I've spent the majority of my life working in, around, and for churches, so that's where so much of my life's story has been written.

I Googled "Workplace Bullying" and came up with 2,670,000 hits. Over two million hits! When I Googled "Church Bullies" I found 5,510,000 references. Five 1/2 MILLION hits!

I ask you, how can we - in good conscience - be leading anti-bullying campaigns in our schools and church youth groups when we continue to model such deplorable behavior in our own adult world?

How to recognize a workplace bully:
  1. Someone who pulls the "authority" card.
I asked my boss why he'd made a decision that deeply and profoundly affected me. His assistant ("Mr. Bully") called me and said, "Liz, you're on a dangerous path. God has put men in authority over you, and you are questioning them. That is dangerous."

He gave me two examples (beside the fact that I was asking "why?"). "You said something about Pastor Smith (not his real name)." No, I reminded him, that was my dad. And I defended Pastor Smith.

"Oh. Well, you confronted Pastor 'Jones' as well." Now I was angry. About a year earlier, one of the staffers - Pastor "Jones" - had done something so appalling to our son Drew that I could have had the man fired. Instead, Tom and I went to him privately (like the Bible instructs) and confronted him. Two weeks later he called from an out-of-state vacation spot and was crying.

He asked us to forgive him for his behavior. We did, and it was done.

Unfortunately, before the phone call to us, Pastor "Jones" had asked Mr. Bully for advice on handling the situation. He couldn't have known that my workplace antagonizer would then use the situation against me.

Listen, Jim Bakker told Jessica Hahn that God had put him in authority over her too, and look at all the trouble that caused! Being submissive to authority does not mean we lose our right to say "no", or to ask "why?"

2. Bullies run in packs.

Remember Scut Farkus in "A Christmas Story"? He knew he was more intimidating if he had people backing him up. The scary flock of bullies confronted Ralphie when he was alone and vulnerable.

Mr. Bully was my friend (I thought), until we started working together. He quickly convinced a few people to turn against me....and I was alone.

3. A bully's accusations often reflect his or her own insecurities/weaknesses.

Psychologists tell us that people who speak adamantly against, or draw dramatic attention to certain behaviors are often privately struggling in the very same areas. We hear on the news about the governor who heads up a crackdown on prostitution, but is, in fact, a frequent customer. Ted Haggard was an outspoken opponent of homosexual sin, but it was revealed not long ago that he had a gay lover.

I once removed myself from a casting decision, and left it up to Mr. Bully. I was directing a play, and Tom (my husband) wanted to audition. Fearing a conflict of interest, I left the final choice up to Mr. Bully.

After the initial audition, it was determined that we needed callbacks. A few hours after the audition, Tom flew out of town for business. He returned home less than two hours before callbacks.

Mr. Bully gave the part to Tom.

Then the phone rang. "Liz, I feel as if you manipulated me into choosing Tom for this role."

I didn't want Tom to be in the play in the first place! It would mean that the kids would have to be with us at rehearsals. Late nights, early mornings, homework issues - not at all appealing. Tom, however, wanted to take the chance.

Mr. Bully made his case. "At the audition Tom was 'green', but he was much better at the call-backs. I think you coached him and I feel I was manipulated into choosing him."

I assured him that wasn't the case ("Well, if you say so I have to believe you.") I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, "Where did THAT come from?"

Some time later, one of Mr. Bully's minions attacked me and assaulted my character using every kind of emotional weapon imaginable. She said, "You were once walking towards me in the hallway and when you saw me, you turned and walked the other way. I have no choice but to assume you're jealous of me."

I was accused of being manipulative and jealous. I was neither. I can't speak for them and I can't possibly know their hearts. I do, however, know my heart.

4. Bullies WILL steal your friends.

Both my husband and my best friend sat with me one day when I confronted one of my bullies. I had every intention of clearing the air, making amends, apologizing where an apology was necessary, and reconciling with my one-time friend. It didn't work out that way. The woman sat across the table, pointed her finger at me, and ripped my heart to shreds.

Nothing she said was true, but I asked her to forgive me - as restoration was my goal.

Tom, my best friend, and I were blown away. We'd NEVER seen the woman behave that way. After the meeting, my bf called me to tell me she would "invest in" the woman, find out "why she behaved that way", and "help to restore" the relationship.

I ended up losing my best friend to my workplace bully.

When a parent loses his job because of bullying, the children suffer. They may experience financial loss. The family may have to relocate to another city or state to find work, which forces the kids to change schools and make new friends.

In our case, we had to leave our church. One of our basic rights - the right to freedom of religion - was denied us. At 11, 12, and 14 our children were forced to leave their friends, and start over. They decided to NOT invest in relationships at the new church. Why would they? They watched as their mother's "Christian friends" turned against her with false accusations and outrageous bullying.

My kids lost their faith.

Workplaces have rules against bullying, but employees do it anyway. The church has The Bible, but that book is misused again and again.

How do we teach our kids to stop bullying? We must model anti-bullying for them. Our kids are learning not from our words, but from our deeds and actions.

Perhaps speaking out against workplace bullying will NOT make a difference, but it's all I can do.

In "A Christmas Story", Ralphie stopped Scut's bullying when he beat him up. Grown-up Ralphie says, "Scut never bullied again. I ran into him years later at school reunion. He tried to sell me life insurance."

I can't go around beating people up, but I have to do something. Evil is prevailing because good people refuse to get involved. Shame. Shame.