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