Beyond the Dirt and the Sign

Contributed by Rev. Angel Sullivan

shutterstock_130231589Every day on my way to and from work, I see dirty, gaunt, matted-hair people—some with bikes and pets, other with backpacks and grocery carts—but all of them with a cup and a hand-written sign that reads, “I am hungry—I just lost my job—Will you please help me?” For a time, I would give those that I saw the loose change I had in my car or an extra apple that I had left over from lunch. But after awhile, I found myself having less loose change, and fewer leftovers to give, due to my own financial circumstances. While I knew that an extra apple and a quarter or two from me wasn’t making a drastic change in a person’s life, I still felt bad that I was not able to give, and I felt a deep desire to be able to help in some way. Soon I found and joined an independent ministry which was, unfortunately, short-lived, but it was powerful. It allowed me to be able to connect with the homeless in ways that I may not have otherwise.

Once a month, every first Friday, a group of women and men collected clothes, prepared warm stews, and made sandwiches. At dusk we hit the streets of Tampa to give out to the homeless what we’d prepared and collected, along with bottles of water, and at the same time we had conversation with them and tried to encourage them. It was during this time that I was able to hear first-hand the stories of homeless persons.

I learned that some were skilled laborers who had gotten hurt on the job and did not have health insurance or benefits; the expense of their medical care and their inability to work eventually left them unable to afford to pay rent. Others were escaping abuse and left everything behind just to find freedom. Some had moved here from different countries without the support of friends or family, hoping for a better life but unable to find secure work. Others were veterans, or people suffering with addiction, and some were mentally ill. They were various ethnicities, religions, genders, and ages. To my surprise, I met a few who were well-educated college graduates like me, but who had fallen on hard times. I have to admit, I had made the assumption that those who were homeless might not have had educational opportunities because, of course (I reasoned), if one were educated one would naturally be able to find employment. However, I learned, that is not always true.

After speaking with the people that I met through this ministry, I realized that each person has a story and, more importantly, each person has a life beyond what the signs and dirty clothing told. I came to the realization that if I were to lose my job today and was unable to quickly find another job at the same wages, I would not be able to pay my bills. I would be living on the street. I would be the one holding the sign. And I am not alone.

While reports from 2013 have shown that the decline in homelessness has decreased by 0.4%, there is still much work to be done.

  • There was a decrease in all homeless sub-populations, with the exception of persons in families.
  • The largest decreases were seen among individuals identified as chronically homeless (6.8%) and veterans (7.2%).
  • The size of the chronic homeless population decreased from 107,148 in 2011 to 99,894 in 2012. The size of the veteran homeless population decreased from 67,495 in 2011 to 62,619 in 2012.
  • The national rate of homelessness was 20 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population. The rate for veterans was 29 homeless veterans per 10,000 veterans in the general population.
  • A majority of persons identified as homeless were staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing; 38% were unsheltered, living on the streets, or in cars, abandoned buildings, or other places not intended for human habitation. The size of the unsheltered population remained basically unchanged between 2011 and 2012.
  • The number of people in homeless families increased by 1.4% between 2011 and 2012; however, there was no change in the total number of homeless families.
  • While the overall homeless population decreased between 2011 and 2012, it increased in 29 states.

After reading the statistics, the issue of homelessness is overwhelming to me. However, after listening to the stories of the homeless persons I’ve met, I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot let my fear stop me from trying. I have to match my fear with my faith, knowing that when we all work together for the greater good of humanity, God’s power will manifest positive change.
(Statistics are from http://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/the-state-of-homelessness-2013)

AngelSullivan2013smRev. Angel Sullivan, chaplain, serves as the events coordinator on the national leadership team of AB GIRLS, American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

Registration is still open for “Break Every Yoke: Homelessness,” May 5-9, 2014, a virtual mission encounter sponsored by American Baptist Women’s Ministries. This virtual mission encounter offers the opportunity for participants to explore homelessness from a faith perspective. What are the causal factors? What are the risks? How can we support those who are homeless? How can our congregations, or we as individuals, engage in ministries of prevention, support, and advocacy? Each day’s focus will be explored as it has impact upon youth, adults and families, and seniors, with suggestions for advocacy around a range of issues throughout the week. For more information, visit www.abwministries.org/vme.

 

Advertisements

Easter Sunday

Contributed by Virginia Holmstrom. This is the final post in our Lenten/Easter series. Scripture readings for Easter Sunday are Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10.

HeQi_036-medium

“He Is Risen,” by Qi He. Used by permission.

Christ the Lord is risen today! Allelujah! Easter Sunday is Resurrection Sunday. On Easter we celebrate Christ’s victory over suffering, sin, and death itself. And through faith in Christ, we declare our victory over sin and death and we claim the Christian hope that we, too, shall one day be resurrected into new life one day, to live eternally with God.

It’s easy for me to think of Easter Sunday as “Grace Sunday.” We approach the day with gladness and gratitude that God did not abandon his son after all. I admit that I’m right there in the story, at the head of the line, anticipating the same welcome by God to receive me when my earthly days are done. Easter Sunday means grace! We are victors over sin and death!

In so doing, I am realizing my own reluctance to heed the rest of the Gospel story: Jesus called his followers to follow him to the cross: to not only stand at the foot of the cross, but to hang with Jesus on the cross. What a personal risk! Dare I give up my comfortable life and practice such radical discipleship? Yet how much more profound the Easter story would be for me, if I were nailed with Jesus on the cross.

Jesus emptied himself of every divine privilege; he took the form of a human being, humbling himself, and was obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:7-8). Jesus taught, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” (Matthew 16:24). Over and over, Christ calls us to give up the privileges that cause us to rely on ourselves and less on God. He tells us that the first shall be the last, and the last shall be the first. He pronounces grace and forgiveness to the woman about to be stoned, not to the crowd upholding the law. He restores wholeness to the bent-over woman on the Sabbath, and condemns the religious leaders trying to keep the Sabbath day holy. I am beginning to notice in these Gospel stories how in reaching out to persons that are suffering, Jesus is lifting them from the “cross” from which they hang: his grace restores their life. These are good news stories that mirror the Easter resurrection story!

As you serve God in the coming days, you will surely encounter individuals that are suffering physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The resurrection story is especially for them! Extend grace to them. Be the hands and feet and voice of Christ to release them from the cross they bear.

If the resurrection story has been your story, as it has been mine, then perhaps we need to hear anew Christ’s call to follow him to the cross, forsaking ourselves to become more like Christ. Ponder the upside-down-ness of it all: The last shall be first. The first shall be last. It’s the Gospel truth.

Virginia Holmstrom -colorVirginia Holmstrom serves as executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

Palm Sunday

Contributed by Patti Stratton. This is the sixth in a series of blog posts for Lent. Scripture readings for the sixth Sunday of Lent, Palm Sunday, are Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 21:1-27:66. This blog post pays particular attention to Matthew 23:37.

"Entry of Christ into Jerusalem," by Wilhelm Morgner (Used by permisison)

“Entry of Christ into Jerusalem,” by Wilhelm Morgner (Used by permisison)

Lent…a time for reflection, repentance, and meditation; a time when the church turns her collective heart toward Jesus and his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. Then, 40 days and six Sundays later we encounter Holy Week. The week begins so well! Triumphantly Jesus is heralded as a king, entering the gates of Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna” and “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” The crowds welcome him with joy and singing. They waive palm branches, the traditional symbol of recognition of a conquering king, while literally laying their coats on the

road so that the hooves of the donkey on which Jesus rides will not have to walk on the pavement! It soon becomes apparent that not everyone is happy to see Jesus. As Jesus begins teaching and preaching in and around the Temple, the religious leaders become angry and upset. Conversation, debates, and encounters between various groups of the religious ones and Jesus lead to confrontation. Ever wondered why the religious ones don’t care for Jesus? I encourage you to read Matthew’s account in chapters 21 through 27. Jesus, speaking as God Incarnate, tells them clearly what he thinks of their for

m of religion, their form of godliness. He speaks plainly: too plainly for his own good.

Each year during Lent I pay particular attention to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last week, wrestling intently with each event, each movement, and each moment of the passion narratives. The Scriptures move me emotionally and spiritually. By the time we arrive at Easter I am broken and so very ready for the resurrection. But without the passion, there would be no resurrection. Without the suffering there would be no redemption.

This season, as I meditated on Matthew’s account, I was struck by a particular gem found in chapter 23, a verse in which Jesus, speaking very much as God Incarnate, clearly expresses the feminine, motherly characteristic of God:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Coming at the end of a rather lengthy discourse in which Jesus has just warned the crowds about the dangers of being “religious,” this passage reveals the passionate depth of God’s love, even for those who have misunderstood and seemingly missed the mark. The longing of the heart of God is clear. In spite of all the religious misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and rejection, Jesus cries out in mourning, expressing his pain and grief through the image of a hen who gathers her chicks under her wings to protect them. That is how much God loves us, and continues to love even when we turn away, rejecting the care and grace and love that Jesus so beautifully demonstrated to us.

My husband and I raise chickens, so I know this image well. When a hawk flies over the yard, the hen calls and her chicks truly do rush to shelter under her wings. May you respond to the Mother love of God, huddling beneath the cross as we wait together for resurrection.

patti 2013 bPatti Stratton serves as national president of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

“Ubuntu”–We Are Bound Together

This blog post is contributed by Sundhari Rangiah

At Nelson Mandela’s memorial, United States President Barack Obama spoke about ubuntu, saying, “There is a word in South Africa, ubuntu, a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.”

This is what I experienced when I attended the National Women’s Conference of AB Women’s Ministries in Nashville, Tennessee, in July of 2012! The women at the conference were caring and kind towards me and the other women who accompanied me from South Africa. This caring started long before I left South Africa. Sitting through the conference I was in awe of their caring for the rest of the world!

Perhaps I should tell you something about myself. I am an Asian of Indian descent, living in South Africa! How did I come to be South Africa? That I owe to the Lord Jesus Christ, American Baptist missionaries, and a strong-willed grandfather. But I would like to leave that for my next article….

Being invited to the National Women’s Conference was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I am very thankful to God for the experience. I came back to South Africa and asked the Lord to show me a way in which I could translate what I experienced into action with the Baptist women of South Africa.

I realized that because of apartheid (segregation) in South Africa, the various Baptist churches had developed based on race, and were located in segregated areas allocated by race. We didn’t meet one another. It was only the Indian Baptist women who met and had a joint Ascension Day service together.

After much prayer, the Lord laid in my heart that I should invite all Baptist women in South Africa to come and join us for our Ascension Day Service. I did so, and in 2013 almost 400 women attended our first Joint Baptist Women’s Service at the Tongaat Baptist Church. I was so thrilled to see women of all races praising and worshiping God together! It was truly awesome! The different groups of Baptists were given a part in the programme. Dorothy Selebano, former president of the Baptist World Alliance Women’s Department, gave God’s word and the women were thoroughly blessed! I received numerous compliments on the co-coordinating and planning of our function. I definitely tried to emulate the standards set by the AB Women’s Ministries National Women’s Conference in Nashville. I want to thank Crystal Newton [former AB Women’s Ministries national events coordinator] for giving me the necessary guidance to plan and execute the programme and Chris Marziale [International Ministries staff] for planning my trip to the U.S.A. and making my stay in Nashville a very joyous experience!

The South African women were so blessed by our joint Ascension Day Service that they asked me to continue this service on an annual basis. My plans for 2014 are already in place and I know that the attendees this year will be greater in number than 2013.

Please continue to pray for the women of South Africa. Thank you for inviting me to contribute to your blog.

(Gallery of photos from the Ascension Day service in South Africa, 2013, and the South African Baptist women’s visit to the 2012 National Women’s Conference)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sundhari RangiahSundhari Rangia serves as president of the Women’s Department, Baptist Association of South Africa. She and several women traveled from South Africa to attend the 2012 National Women’s Conference sponsored by American Baptist Women’s Ministries. For more information about the Baptist World Alliance Women’s Department, of which AB Women’s Ministries and the Women’s Department of the Baptist Association of South Africa are both a part, visit www.bwawd.org.

Fifth Sunday of Lent

00001358-medium

“Mary Kneels Weeping before Christ with Martha”, by J. Le Breton, glass studio of Gaudin, Paris.

Contributed by Grace Martino. This is the fifth in a series of blog posts for Lent. Scripture readings for the fifth  Sunday of Lent are Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45.

As many of us may know, Lent is a time of self-discipline, sacrifice, simplicity, and spiritual growth. Often during this period we give up something we love or may have become accustomed to in order to show God that he is truly all we need.

But is that all? Lent should not only be a time of sacrifice, but should also be a time of replacing negatives with positives.  You may ask yourself, “Where do I start?” or even, “What possibly could I do to make a difference?” Although these questions are hard as you ponder them, the answer is actually simple. God calls us to love and to be compassionate as Jesus was with the death of Lazarus. John 11: 33 tells us that “When Jesus saw her (Mary) weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Jesus saw the struggle and sadness in his loved ones and also in those around him. God calls us to have the same eyes as Jesus as we observe and think about the troubles of immigrants and refugees locally and globally. Jesus was spiritually motivated to act and was distressed by the matter at hand. We should feel inclined to reach out a hand and in some way or another help those who need it.

God is more than powerful and able and, with God, there is nothing we cannot do. In God we do not have to dream small. God is in our favor and with God’s help we can support immigrants and refugees in all different types of ways. By simply declaring God’s promises we can see God’s hand at work. Ezekiel 37:14 says, “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.” God in his time has already given and established these immigrants and refugees with homes. It is up to us to lead this work forward so God may continue to unravel his plans and pour out God’s blessings on his people.

In this season of Lent, exit your comfort zone and stretch yourself to make a difference in the lives of those who need it most.

GraceMartino2013Grace Martino is a senior in high school and an active member of the First Hispanic Baptist Church of New London, Connecticut. Grace serves as Events Coordinator on the national leadership team of AB GIRLS, AB Women’s Ministries.

Helping Hands Change Lives

Submitted by Bonnie Sestito, who traveled to Haiti in late February.

It was good to feel the warmth of the sun upon our arrival in Port au Prince, Haiti. The winter on the east coast of the U.S. has been long and cold. Upon exiting the airport we were surrounded by a group of men wanting to carry our suitcases. Eventually the driver, Joseph, found us. Kihomi had arranged for us to be driven to another airline so that we could fly to Cap Haitien. With a little bit of a layover Joseph stayed with us and attempted to teach us the difference between Creole and French. For example, when you say “good day” in French, it is “bon jour.” When you say it in Creole, it is “bon jou.” In Creole you don’t pronounce the “r.” Well, I thought, that wouldn’t be a problem for me coming from New England!

As our time at the airport with Joseph was coming to an end, we readied ourselves to board the plane to Cap Haitien. We said our goodbyes and proceeded to board the 19-seat passenger plane. Yes, a 19-seat passenger plane! The last time I was on a small plane I cried the whole way. Virginia explained about the airwaves being like the waves in the ocean. Although I left indentations of my fingers in the seat in front of me, it was a great experience. Because there was no door to the cockpit, I saw the sky head-on looking out the front window.

Tent City

Tent city

Kihomi Nwgemi and Nzunga Mabudiga, American Baptist missionaries in Haiti, greeted us at the Cap Haitien airport. They took us to a restaurant where we had a traditional Haitian meal of chicken, rice and beans, and plantains. We visited the eye clinic where Nzunga is administrator, we toured the site where voodoo sacrifices are made, and we drove by areas where water pumps were installed providing clean water to the villagers. The mountains were beautiful. The color of the ocean was magnificent. Then Nzunga told us to look closer at the ocean: It was polluted. There was plastic and Styrofoam floating everywhere. Another place that we visited while in Haiti was the Citadelle, which is a large mountaintop fortress. It was built after Haiti gained independence from France at the beginning of the 19th century. It was designed to keep the newly-independent nation of Haiti safe from French invasion. We were told that you haven’t been to Haiti if you don’t see the Citadelle.

My first impression of the people that we passed by while driving along the road and walking through the marketplaces was that they appeared angry. Even a smile in their direction didn’t make a difference; I wondered if that was possibly due to the stress of poverty or feeling as if they had no hope.

Empowered by education, she now owns her own business.

Empowered by education, she now owns her own business.

We met many women whose lives were changed because of “helping hands.” One of those women now has her own business. She sells 100 lb. bags of rice, beans, flour, and sugar. But before owning her own business she sold charcoal at one of the street markets. Kihomi told us her story: Her husband had abandoned her and she had a young son to support. When Kihomi and Nzunga had stopped to talk with her, they discovered she spoke well. They offered to send her to school and she accepted. She earned a B.A. from the Christian University of Northern Haiti. Today her business is very successful, and her young son is now in his third year at the university.

Another woman we met was the president of the women’s group at her church. They have a sewing school ministry. For a year’s time the school teaches young women to sew. Those that have sewing machines are able to start their own businesses. Those who don’t own their own machines go to work for others. While still in the school, the women can sew school uniforms for a small fee.

DSCF1184

Hearing women’s stories

We also attended a women’s group at the Eglise Baptiste Church where more than half the women received microloans. We heard many wonderful success stories from the women there.

What did I take away from all of this? We have a tendency to take things for granted, never really knowing what we have until we don’t have it. We didn’t always have electricity or water on our trip. Do you know how hard it is to take contact lenses out of their case and put them into your eyes when you can’t see what you are doing? It sounds easy enough, but it was quite challenging. The showers we took were cold, except for one: It was lukewarm. When there was no water in the tank to flush the toilet, a bucket of water beside the toilet was available. It was in the bathroom at the airport that I realized how blessed I am. I came out of the stall to wash my hands and all that came out was a trickle of water. For a brief moment I thought about and stared at the trickle of water. Then I thanked God for what I have.

DSCF1107

Washing in the river

Haiti is an impoverished country. There is still rubble on the streets from the 2010 earthquake. People bathe, wash their clothes, and go to the bathroom in the same stream. Some are still living in tent cities. But, there is hope. The hope is God’s grace. He is using missionaries like Kihomi and Nzunga to teach, encourage, and help through different ministries. He is using the churches to reach out. He is using the Haitian Baptist Convention, that is training women to be leaders. Oh, that amazing grace!

 

 

Bonnie SestitoBonnie Sestito serves as coordinator of Mission with Women and Girls, American Baptist Women’s Ministries. She recently traveled to Haiti with AB Women’s Ministries Executive Director Virginia Holmstrom. For Virginia’s post about the trip, click here.

Your gift to the Women and Girls Mission Fund helps American Baptist Women’s Ministries empower women and girls in the U.S. and around the world. Through Christ-centered ministries of discipleship, leadership development, educational opportunities, economic sustainability, and by addressing injustices such as gender violence and exploitation that oppress women and girls, the Women and Girls Mission Fund helps women and girls discover God’s full potential for their lives. For more information or to donate online, click here