‘Tis the Season to Forget

Most of us can remember a Christmas or a Thanksgiving or a Hanukkah or even a 4th of July long ago that is forever anchored in our mind as the best holiday ever. The right people were there. The conditions were perfect. The right gifts and foods and words were shared.

Those are the memories that bring us to a warm and happy place as we anticipate the holidays ahead.

Unfortunately, for many people, those happy thoughts are violently derailed by intervening events that fracture our anticipation and instill dread in place of joy. The death of a loved one. The serious illness of a friend. Divorce. Financial reversals. Relocation to a new city. Conflict between and among family and friends.

Tragically, for those who face these challenges, the blessed memories stand no chance against the fear we have that we will never be able to recapture the same warmth and happiness. As a result, we try to forget. And worse, we become resolved not to attempt to make new, happy memories. After all, those sacred moments might suffer the fate of the earlier ones. There is simply too much heartbreak at stake to try again.

What we must do this season is forget.

Not the good times, of course. Nor even the bad times, necessarily. Instead we must forget — even if it’s just for a moment — ourselves. For when we really analyze those old, wonderful memories, they are bound tightly to those people who surrounded us and who made them so good.

More importantly, we must remember that it is our presence — our smiles, our laughter, and sometimes even our tears — that make warm memories for others. And in doing that, we celebrate these holidays, these holy days, as honored guests of our King and our Creator.

May you enjoy wonderful holiday memories — both old and new!

Day 9 – Reset

With our landscape rapidly shifting behind us from Rwanda to Kenya, our team began the traveler’s necessary task of reorienting and redirecting. I found a great deal of comfort in walking to the Octagon multi-purpose building on the Made In The Streets Ministry outside of Nairobi, the meeting place of the Kamulu Church of Christ. Where better to reorient and redirect than in worship and Bible study? I could also sense a great anticipation from all of the team, as we approached this time to reset our priorities and meet new friends in a place so far from our homes.

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Our Sunday morning adventure didn’t disappoint. For the first time, we were able to gather with nearly 100 children who had been invited to leave the tough streets of Nairobi to enter the world of Made In The Streets and a future marked with hope.

We were overwhelmed by this opportunity. The worship was different from our experience in Kigali just seven days before. But although this sanctuary didn’t feature giant sound systems, multiple choirs, and a huge crowd, the spirit and the enthusiasm was there. Seems like you can always see that when God is in a place.

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Much of the singing was in Swahili. You haven’t experienced worship until you sing in Swahili — made all the better when you have Malcolm McGuire and Betty Gilmore joining in at your side. We were surrounded by Kenyans and moved by their desire to welcome us into this holy place. Holy place? Not just the church service. The holy place that emerges whenever people come together to do good.

Our gang of peacemakers and travelers were, just moments before, weary and somewhat leery of what was to come. Our shift in training was from adults to children. And, these children. Could we connect with kids who have been through what these have? Living on the streets of Nairobi. Many involved with drugs and crime. Plucked out of a desperate place and dropped here. Here. Right in the lap of people who loved God and, thus, loved them.

Our trial session came that afternoon. Malcolm and Aaron took the lead. For two hours they stood before the recent graduates of Made In The Streets. These 18 and 19 year olds were about to be sent out to jobs they had been trained for and into a world that was waiting for them. And, thanks to Malcolm and Aaron, with some conflict resolution skills that would serve them well.

IMG_1165

As the sun went down in Kamulu, we knew that we had been given this day to reset our outlook and our priorities. In the words of a song we would sing with the children in the next couple of days, “this was the day that the Lord had made” . . . for us.

Day 8 – Contrast

The private bus was waiting for us as we trudged up the hillside at ALARM Rwanda. We loaded our luggage and said goodbye to the ALARM staff already on duty that Saturday morning. Our dear friend and the Alarm Rwanda National Coordinator, Ben Nkusi, was there with a big smile and, if I read them correctly, eyes that were a little sad. There is something that touches the deepest part of our hearts when we see that kind of contrast.

I tried to say goodbye to Ben, but he waved me off. “I’m coming with you to the airport,” he said. When I tried to tell him that wasn’t necessary, he simply asserted, “You are my responsibility. It is my duty to see you safely out of Rwanda.”

And so we all boarded that bus. The driver, his helper, Ben, and seven tired, but incredibly blessed travelers. We were closing out an incredible chapter of our journey and we were already beginning to fill the ache of leaving friends who had just recently been strangers. We were seeing the contrast between our lives before and after we had experienced this wonderful part of Africa and had come to know the people.

At the airport, we said our goodbyes to Ben at the security checkpoint. We had a little extra time — Betty had to look for her passport. But then, papers in order, we filed in, filled out more forms, and negotiated passport control.

The first bit of business was coffee and souvenirs. Our busy itinerary while in Rwanda had not allowed a time for shopping and we all had lists of people we wanted to include in our travel experience. We were soon on board RwandAir Flight 400 to Nairobi. More coffee, a surprisingly nice breakfast, and air-conditioned comfort.

Through passport control in the capital of Kenya, we claimed our bags and made our way to the front of the airport to await our ride with Jackson to our new destination, the Made In The Streets Ministry in Kamulu, just outside of Nairobi.

Photo: Betty Gilmore

Photo: Betty Gilmore

Jackson came in his family vehicle. With luggage and seven of us, we joked about being overloaded. Jackson remarked, “We have room for 6 more Kenyans.” And, despite the cramped quarters, we came to believe that there probably was. The traffic was even crazier than what we had seen in Rwanda. Including the necessity of dealing with “cows doing what cows do,” as Jackson would say.

Everything on the drive seemed crowded. The clean streets and green hills of Rwanda had given way to the dust, the litter, and the throngs of people and cars. Another contrast.

When we arrived at Kamulu, Jackson unlocked the gate to the housing compound. We were beginning to understand that we were in a far different place. Heavy iron gates. Ten-foot walls with wire netting extending 4 feet beyond. A guest house with bars on the window and steel doors with massive bolts. And Jackson’s admonition to keep the doors locked at all times.

In truth, we were very safe and secure. But we were safe because the routine here demanded vigilance.

Our hosts, Charles and Darlene Coulson, soon dropped by and oriented us to the operation of the guest house. That included a lesson in flushing the toilets. We were all quick studies when it came to the bucket flush.

2014-09-27 08.44.15After we had settled in, the Coulsons took us on a tour of Made In The Streets Ministry. We walked down dusty dirt streets and took in not one, but a number of compounds. We saw the learning center, the girls living area, one of the boys living areas, the

Photo: Aaron Horn

Photo: Aaron Horn

chapel. And dusty roads. As we watched the little clouds of dirt around our feet, we were told how fortunate we were that it wasn’t the rainy season. The dust turned to sticky mud and everyone wore heavy overshoes — gum boots. In fact, just in case, there were boots in the guest house.

We were eager to meet the children and we soon begin that process. But even with that excitement, we were dealing with the contrasts brought on by our short plane ride from Rwanda and Kenya. And those contrasts and these kids would touch the deepest parts of our hearts.

2014-09-27 07.54.13

Day 7 – Common

Friday, September 26, was our last full day in Kigali. We began the day with breakfast prepared by the wonderful kitchen staff at the ALARM Rwanda facility and entered our last day of training with the executive staff of ALARM. As a team, we had begun to see and understand what we truly held in common with these wonderful Rwandans and with each other.

Aaron Horn coordinated most of the training that day. In addition to conflict resolution topics, the staff had asked for assistance in business management skills and planning. Aaron’s service played an important role for ALARM Rwanda as they looked forward to submitting their own strategic plan to their board of directors in the next week.

And, the change of pace allowed the rest of us to begin organizing our belongings for our short move over to Nairobi the next day. As is traditional in these settings, the ALARM staff had planned a closing ceremony at the end of the day. We gathered together for one last moment. Our African friends sang for us and we prayed with them — to the One we have in common.

We weren’t quite done. Raymond, the executive director of the Kinyinya District, invited us out to dinner. So we made our way to a nearby hotel where Raymond proudly showed us a pilot project — a beautiful housing subdivision and a model for the rest of Kigali.

Allison in BedWe were blessed. We had so much in common.

We returned to our rooms at ALARM Rwanda and prepared for bed and our next adventure — KENYA!!!

Day 5.1 – Anticipation

The Seeds of Peace Conference Center was in a beautiful spot, as we realized in the daylight. Lake Muhazi was literally at our doors and it lie still and quiet. Our anticipation for the events of the day grew.

The proximity of the lake also explained the exponentially higher number of insects we had encountered through the night and the carpet of dead bug carcasses stretched out at our front door the next morning. photoAlthough I had evaded the mosquitos, I had a couple of unexplained bites on my arm, likely spider — including one that had created a large bruise from the anti-coagulant injected.

2014-09-23 23.55.20Several members of our group had been excited about the opportunity to visit Seeds of Peace because it held out the possibility of a hot shower with plenty of water pressure. I’m not sure about anyone else, but Malcolm and I had hot water galore. I vaguely remember some noises about plenty of pressure but no heat. Since I was happily clean and accompanied by Malcolm, who had experienced the same success in his respective room and bath, the sad stories of Robyn and Betty about their showers didn’t hold my attention very long.

When we reached the little dining room that had been reserved for our breakfast, we learned that Dan and Allison had become ill during the night. Dan had managed to make it down to the breakfast in search of sustenance for himself and fluids for Allison. Our spirits were dampened as we worried about them. And then we considered the news that Robyn’s congestion had worsened during the night and that she was battling a significant upper respiratory infection. Anticipation, coupled with anxiety, began to fuel our thoughts.

Our breakfast proceeded in this suppressed mode and, as we finished, we one by one gathered outside to await news about Allison. When the decision was made that we would leave her at Seeds of Peace to rest while we went on to the refugee camp, we were torn. We were pleased that she would have a place to recover. We anticipated unknown stresses ahead from the journey and from the events to unfold at the refugee camp. But we were disappointed as we contemplated the fact that Allison, perhaps more than any of the rest of us, had looked forward to this visit with such passion. Indeed, the majority of the military duffel bags filled with items for distribution in the back of the bus had been thoughtfully packed by her. And, there was just a little something disturbing about leaving one of our team behind and alone without any reliable means of communication.

With spirits dampened, we boarded our bus and again began winding our way through the hills of Rwanda, stopping several times along the way to ask for directions. At a wide spot in the road, we turned left, circled a number of locals waiting for transportation, and headed up a washed-out, but dusty road. Passing through several villages, we slowly made our way up to the refugee camp. Anticipation grew.

We had been told that the camp had about 500 souls — with about 150 children.

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore

As we closed in on the headquarters for the camp, we saw more and more of the Congolese refugees. We would later learn that more than 6,000 children resided there and 3,000 women. We never heard an estimate of the number of men. But they were definitely in the minority.

The further we moved up into the camp, the larger the hordes of children and adults grew. Our anticipation gave way to excitement, coupled with just an edge of anxiety.

(Note: With the exception of a few pictures of our training sanctioned by the refugees camp administrators, we were not allowed to take photos inside the camp.)