Start at the Resurrection

A Reflection for Easter by Associate Director, Rev. Caroline Hamilton-Arnold

Light streams in the dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Light streams in the dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

In the fall of last year, I had the opportunity to travel with a Global Ministries delegation to visit many of our partners in the Middle East. The itinerary was full - four countries in less than fourteen days. Most of our days were spent witnessing the work and receiving the stories of partners who are working to provide trauma care to children, to equip young women to organize on behalf of their communities, to ensure refugees have the supplies they need for the coming winter, and to stand in witness against abuses and atrocities. Though we spent little time exploring "holy sites," it was a deeply sacred experience.

On our last morning in Jerusalem, we decided to participate in a tradition that stretches back centuries and make the pilgrimage along the Via Dolorosa - the journey Jesus made between Pilate's court and the cross on Golgatha. The path, which people have walked in some form for hundreds of years, traditionally begins at the site of Jesus' conviction at ends at the site of the garden tomb.

We discovered, however, that on the day of our travel, the Allenby Bridge between Israel-Palestine and Jordan would be closing early for observances of Rosh Hashana. In order to make the pilgrimage and still reach the border crossing before it closed, we determined to walk the path in reverse. Rather than begin at the approximate site of the Pilate's court and travel west, we would begin at the end, so to speak, at the garden tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Inside the church, built on the site that tradition identifies at the tomb where Jesus was laid, are six unique chapels for the six branches of orthodox Christianity. As we were there on a Sunday morning, services were held in these chapels. Coptic songs blended with Armenian chants and Roman Catholic liturgy, all mingling in air perfumed by incense burned by the Greek Orthodox priest. The candles of thousands of worshipers and pilgrims lit the space with a holy, dancing light. Protestants and Roman Catholics refer to the place as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, meaning the church of the holy tomb, but in that moment the Orthodox name seemed more fitting - the Church of the Resurrection.

It was from this sacred space, where Christians from around the world converged to praise the Risen Christ, that we began our pilgrimage-in-reverse. The inverted order is theologically appropriate, in a way, for the message of Easter, of life overcoming death, upends our expectation of the way things progress. We expect beginnings to precede endings. Yet, the resurrection declares that (to quote the popular hymn) "in our end is our beginning." The cycle and sense of the Christian story is of beginnings and endings and new beginnings.

As we made our way along the Via Dolorosa, each stop and encounter filtered through our experience of beginning at the end. The incense clung to our clothes, bringing the perfume of the resurrection into the moments of suffering and grief. We did not avoid the other parts of the road or the story. We confronted the death, the betrayal, and the corrupt and brutal systems that condemned Christ to the cross, but we did so from a place of the profound hope of Easter morning.

Our world can feel like one, long via dolorosa, a never-ending way of suffering. The work of Week of Compassion puts us in proximity to and relationship with those who are struggling most severely. Human corruption and conflict drive people from their homes and exacerbate shortages of food and water. The oceans are rising, and rain patterns are changing, putting vulnerable populations at even greater risk. Children continue to live in hunger; parents continue to live in fear of what tomorrow may bring.

We come to this work, however, having first been to the place of resurrection. Which means, we come to this work with the perspective of hope, of faith in what God is doing and can do. Amidst the terrors of war, our partners are cultivating peace - through art in Bethlehem and education along the Syrian border. In the midst of conflict and severe drought in the Horn of Africa, people receive life saving food and water. Along with the stories of hunger are the stories of orange trees planted in Nicaragua, now bearing abundant fruit.

To start at the resurrection is to begin always from a place of life rather than death, a place of hope rather than resignation, a place of anticipating abundance rather than fearing scarcity. In this blessed Easter season, may you experience the hope of the risen Christ, and may your journeys start at the resurrection.

Fire in the Plains

Early last month, while ranchers in the heartland of the country were working hard through the height of calving season, wildfires broke out and rapidly spread across the plains of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Northwest Texas. Within days, over 700,000 acres had burned in Kansas, setting a new record for fire damage and threatening the livelihoods of many. 

In Lane County, home of First Christian Church Dighton, at least six homes were destroyed, and many others suffered smoke damage. In Reno County, at least ten homes were destroyed, and several dozen homes suffered damage to wells, water lines and electrical lines. Across the state, ranchers lost grasslands, fence-lines, and cattle. 

Rev. Aerii Smith pastors two Western Kansas congregations-First Christian Church Dighton and First Christian Church Utica. Both towns were affected by the fires. Pastor Aerii knows Week of Compassion is "built for disasters" and quickly reached out through the Kansas Region to coordinate support. She was pleased that the process "was simple and easy" and, within three days, congregants who had damage to their properties received support.

With the recovery process only in it's nascent stages across multiple Kansas counties, Week of Compassion has been coordinating with Rev. David Dubovich of Park Place Christian Church in Hutchinson, to support long-term recovery through the Reno County VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster). The church was able to receive and distribute Church World Service clean-up buckets arranged by Week of Compassion and deliver a Week of Compassion grant to the VOAD to help restore water and electrical access and begin other repairs. One retired couple with limited means received assistance with the reconnection of their electrical box. When a VOAD team visited their home to check in and deliver cleaning supplies, the couple remarked, "Thank You is not even a [big] enough phrase to thank everyone for what they have done to help us."

Rev. Smith notes that the most daunting part of the recovery is restoring the scorched land; "It won't be good for grazing for months at least, and maybe years," she explains. This means the long-term impact on the community will be extensive. Despite the challenges, Rev. Smith has seen God acting in her community in the weeks after the fires. "People from neighboring states and communities have been donating hay to sustain the surviving cattle, and the recent rain has readied our community to safely receive it." These events are reminders "that God is here and with us."

The churches she pastors are also taking an active part in reflecting and spreading God's love in the aftermath of the fires. Motivated by their faith and desire to be more active in mission, her congregations typically take fifth Sundays to participate in service projects. At this end of this month, they plan to serve those who lost fences, homes, or other property in the fires. 

Although there remains much work still to be done, Disciples have already made a positive difference through the support of Week of Compassion and the presence of local Disciples congregations in Kansas. For Rev. Smith, the Week of Compassion grants helped her congregations feel "some small sense of hope from our larger Christian community, from our larger Disciples of Christ family." In turn, they and other Disciples across Kansas are offering a sense of hope to their neighbors.

Painting Futures in Morocco

Splotches of white paint stand out brightly against the rich blue of the men's jumpsuits when we meet them at the church in Casablanca. With paint-rollers still in hand, they greet us and introduce themselves. Modestly, at first, then with increasing confidence, the five men display the products of their work--the church parsonage, beautifully repaired and repainted.

In each room, the man responsible for the work draws attention to a detail, from the stucco around the fireplace in the living room, to the creatively repurposed newsprint wallpaper in the guest room, to the doorframes and molding in the entryway. As they guide us through the house, Freddie, their teacher, explains to us through a translator that the men are about to complete a professional formation course in house-painting. The month-long course is part of the Hand-Up For Migrants aid program operated by the Evangelical Church of Morocco, a Week of Compassion partner through Global Ministries.

Thousands of migrants and refugees come to Morocco, some from the Middle East and most from Sub-Saharan Africa. They come hoping to escape poverty and violence, and possibly to continue their journey into Europe. Just 9 miles of ocean separate the Northern tip of Morocco from the southern tip of Spain. The crossing is an expensive and risky endeavor, in rickety boats helmed by smugglers. All four of the men we met had tried to cross more than once--one man had attempted the journey no less than ten times before deciding to stay in Morocco.

Though many migrants come with the hope of a better life in Morocco or of passage to Europe, they often find themselves trapped in a life of poverty and persecution. Unable to continue to Europe, unable to return home, and faced with barriers to employment and few job prospects, many resort to begging on the streets to meet their basic needs.

The Hand-Up For Migrants aid program promotes self-sufficiency and dignity for refugees and migrants in Morocco through emergency material aid, micro-project loans, and vocational training. Freddie, himself an immigrant to Morocco, leads the house-painting course, emphasizing mastery of a variety of skills and techniques. He travels miles from his home, suspending his own business for several weeks in order to teach others the trade of house-painting. The men he trains receive certificates to affirm their proficiency, increasing their prospects on the job-market.

Thanks to the Hand-Up for Migrants program, these men have hope of providing for themselves by their skills, instead of relying on handouts on street corners. For some, this may provide a means to return home. For others, it is a means of survival in Morocco. For them all, it is a chance for independence in a life of few choices. It is a chance to work with pride, the paint splotches on their coveralls marks of the future that is possible. 

FAMINE IN SOUTH SUDAN

The hardened, dry earth, parched for rain, cracks open as if calling out for relief from the drought now into its third year. The earth adds its cry to the cries of people, calling out for peace and for relief from the civil war now into its fourth year. The effects of the drought combined with the pressures and violence of the war have hampered the ability of the Sudanese people to raise livestock, farm vegetables or harvest grains. The result has been an extreme food shortage, officially declared a famine by the World Food Program last month.

An estimated 5.5 million people-nearly half of South Sudan's population-will face life-threatening hunger this year and, in some regions of the country, one in three children are facing acute malnutrition. Additionally, these famine conditions pose serious medical challenges, including a greater risk for infection among an already vulnerable population.

Week of Compassion is responding to the food crisis through our partners: ACT Alliance and IMA World Health.    

Photo Credit:  ACT Alliance

Photo Credit:  ACT Alliance

IMA World Health is working to provide needed medical and health services. Having been working with communities and local and international groups in the area since 2008, IMA World Health has built strong local relationships that are enabling us to respond effectively.  Bout Diang, a Sudanese community organizer who has worked for many years with IMA World Health shares: "Without the support they are giving us, I doubt if we would be receiving any medical care." He also feels that the IMA workers are emotionally supportive. "When we sit with IMA staff, they always tell us that one day things will be ok. We feel emotionally better and stronger to bear the challenges we are facing."   

Through our partners at ACT Alliance, Week of Compassion is helping provide seeds, tools, and other supports to over 250,000 people across South Sudan. We recognize, however, that much more is needed. "We are extremely concerned about the situation," says  Lokiru Yohana, a regional program coordinator working in the ACT Alliance. "We hear of fighting in the Greater Upper Nile Region, Unity and Jonglei state, even the once peaceful and stable Greater Equatoria region, which serves as the main bread basket of the country."   

Though these are serious threats and challenges, a positive difference can be made for the people of South Sudan. International organizations, including the United Nations, are coming together to respond. Stephen O'Brien, UN Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said, "To be clear, we can avert a famine." But, it will take us all, "We're ready despite incredible risk and danger ... but we need the world to respond now."

In times like these, we are called to use our resources to serve those in need. We are not powerless to make a difference, even save lives, when we work together and share the resources that we have.  

Women Strengthen Women Through Economic Empowerment

Today, in Iraq, over 1.5 million Iraqi women are widowed. More than half of these women live in poverty and face obstacles to gaining employment, including having faced severe trauma. To support these women, Week of Compassion is working closely with Propensity Catalyst to help Iraqi widows launch sustainable, women-led businesses in Baghdad.

Over a two-year period, the Women's Empowerment through Business (WEB) program has trained hundreds of women in business and entrepreneurial practices. An initial cohort of 10 women have completed intensive courses in candle-making. Among those women was Hana'a--a widow and sole-provider for her family. Though initially skeptical of the training, Hana'a participated in the courses and was glad of her decision. "I met lovely people, learned a skill which will help me raise my income and support my family and grandsons," she said, reflecting on the experience. "Now I am developing plans to utilize the trainings to earn money."

The participants of that original cohort are passing their skills on to an additional 100 women. Another 100 women have been trained in sewing and are currently expanding their knowledge to jewelry-making.

Of course, running a successful business takes more than artisan and entrepreneurial skills. It requires access to capital and markets, so WEB blends rigorous, hands-on business and vocational training with start-up financing and connections to local and international markets.  

This model has had significant impact. Iraqi women trained in candle making have produced almost 5,500 candles for the Akkadian Collection, [akkadiancollection.com]. These candles have been shipped to the United States for sale and have generated over $107,000 in revenue, allowing women micro-business owners to increase their incomes, on average, by 58%.

Beyond money, human relationships and well-being are at the heart of this program. Prosperity Catalyst also provides support for women's personal needs, including ongoing psychosocial support and through the program women build community with one another. As Hayam, a Candle-Maker and Trainer involved with the program explains, "This program makes much more sense than any previous ones. We feel that we're not left behind after being trained, as had happened before with other programs."

Given the successes of this program, Prosperity Catalyst is beginning new programs focused on serving women who have been displaced from their homes, known as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), in Erbil, Iraq, where many newly arrived women face obstacles integrating to the new culture. This new program offers women economic opportunities to bridge the transition process. At least 600 migrant-women In Erbil will take courses in business skills and receive vocational training in various industries such as textiles, candles, jewelry, and other products. This program will help them support themselves in their new environment, develop relationships with one another, and settle into the new community.

One Iraqi mother of two who has participated in the program has a message for what this program has meant to her and her fellow women:. "For years we have been living in a very tough situation, fighting stereotypes and a male-dominated society," she told us. "What the world must know," she continued, "is that Iraqi mothers are heroes."

Your support of Prosperity Catalyst through Week of Compassion is an investment in empowering Iraqi women who heroically strive to provide for their families even after tragedy and despite gender-based obstacles. With your support, these women find independence and hope as they begin to earn a livelihood and build community with one another.

 

When we give from a place of joy and purpose, the act of giving gives back much to us.

Seven year-old, Jonah, from First Christian Church of Wheeling, West Virginia reminded his family and community about this powerful truth during the Week of Compassion Special Offering.

FCCW hosted a coloring contest focused on this year's Special Offering theme: You Are Here. Children, youth, and adults alike were invited to reflect on what it means to "be here" in the places where people are suffering and to "insert themselves" standing with these brothers and sisters in need.

Their pastor, Rev. Kenny Hardway, admits FCC Wheeling enjoys a little good-natured competition, especially when that competition supports a good cause. To stir-up some competition around the coloring contest, an anonymous donor gave $50 for the winner to donate to Week of Compassion. And it worked!  At least 25 people entered drawings into the competition.

Jonah was excited to participate. He remembered Sunday School conversations about children who have to walk miles each day for water, and he thought giving to Week of Compassion would be a great way to help. With this in mind, Jonah decided to draw wells and water.

During church that morning, when the youth and children selected the winning drawing, they selected Jonah's! He was thrilled to be able to give to Week of Compassion to support access to water all over the world.

Despite being a smaller-sized congregation, FCCW is often among  the top-100 congregations for denominational offerings. They recently joined the Circle of Compassion, a group of congregations who have made sustaining gifts to the Week of Compassion Endowment Fund through the Christian Church Foundation. The congregation gives almost a quarter of their annual budget to ministries outside their walls, and they talk frequently about being a church engaged in mission. This culture of generosity inspired Joshua.

After winning the competition and talking with his Dad about how the money he won would be used, Jonah collected all the money he had saved from past birthdays and Christmases: $80 in total. Then he brought it back out to his father, and handing it to him said, "Will you make sure this goes to help people?"

Jonah wanted to give everything he had.

His generosity, and that of FCCW, challenges us all to consider how we can give more. It reminds us that when we give and act from a place of abundance, we inspire others to do so as well.