Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sharing ourselves with others

Who dares make light of small beginnings? (Zechariah 4:10 NET)

The other day, on a crowded subway in Mexico City, I watched a mother buy a pack of flavored gum for her two-year-old son from a vendor passing through the train cars. The two-year-old delighted in opening the gum packet and eating a piece. Then his mother did an amazing thing.

The mother instructed the boy to share his gum with those of us sitting in the same area on the train, and he did! Smiling and laughing, he made his way up and down the car offering gum to each one of us, all of us smiling and laughing in return. What a joy to watch! Such a small act of generosity with such a large impact!  

This is how I often find myself feeling when I see MCC’s work around the world alongside our partners. A relatively small contribution can often make such a large difference in peoples’ lives.

In the village of Tepatlaxco about 90 minutes outside of Mexico City, Aulas de Desarrollo y Esperanza (classrooms of development and hope), with just a staff of two, serves a dozen children with physical and developmental disabilities. MCC helps with a small grant to Aulus. When you see these children smile, you know something good is happening here. 

The 50 or 60 children that Aulus has touched in the last six years is only a small percentage of the children who could use its services. “The children feel at home here, and yes, these children have disabilities, but sometimes, it’s other people who create the barriers for them,” the director, Maribel, told us. Maribel wants to encourage more families in the nearby villages to use Aulus’ services.

In Mexico City, we are staying at Casa de los Amigos (House of Friends), another MCC partner organization. Marco Antonio, the director, sees his ministry as one of hospitality, not just for people like us passing through, but also for the 65 migrants who have also stayed here during the past several years. Tonio estimates that 250,000 migrants will pass through Mexico this year, about 200,000 from Central America and the rest from other parts of the world.

The 65 migrants Casa has hosted represents a very small number of the many people in need, but it is a faithful witness. Tonio believes about 10 of
the 65 migrants made it into the United States, legally or illegally, and another 20 decided to stay in Mexico. Who knows, he says, what happened to the rest, but he think many probably are in the northern Mexico border region trying to get into the United States.  

Tonio says the migrants who made it as far as Mexico City are the lucky ones. Violence is a regular occurrence on the journey north where migrants are seen as “merchandise to be sold” as cheap labor, mules for the drug trade, forced into prostitution or their bodies’ organs harvested to sell.

Tonio says, if it wasn’t for the humanitarian network that Casa and MCC represent in the country, this would be even larger humanitarian disaster.

Mexico is a country with one of the highest levels of corruption in the world. Communities organize themselves to live off the migration traffic. Both Mexico and the U.S. have learned how to benefit from the corruption. And the Mexican mafia also preys on the people fleeing north from violence or for economic or political reasons.

We met with a group of Mexico City pastors from Anabaptist denominations who tell us about the increasing violence around them, largely, they believe, because of the demand for drugs in the United States. They see the political corruption and the human trafficking effecting their communities. “We have a tremendous challenge,” one leader tells us.

We are realizing, says one leader, that being a church of peace is not about being like our neighbors or how big our church is, but about how much we are sharing ourselves and sharing our food with people in need.

The Prophet Zechariah imagined a day when small beginnings would bring about the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem. May we also imagine a day when our efforts will bear much fruit in communities and in peoples’ lives all over the world.

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Building stronger communities

A gift opens doors; it gives access to the great. Proverbs 18:16

We slogged through the mud to the village of Dia, about three hours northwest of Hanoi in the Tan Son district. The people here are an indigenous ethnic group called the Muong. Their ancestral home and former livelihood is now in the nearby mountains, a national forest no longer available to them. The Muong and their Dao neighbors are left to make their way as farmers. New gifts and new skills to use the land do not come naturally to them.

The new farmers are learning to grow vegetables in the winter in addition to the two crops of rice they grow throughout the year. MCC works here in six villages in two communes, or townships, working and learning alongside the Muong in agriculture and education projects and in peacebuilding workshops.

The village of Dia includes 55 households, about 200 people. With MCC’s help, Ha Phi Chung is raising rabbits. In the past six months, she has been able to sell several dozen rabbits and earn about $4 million dong ($200 USD) and is still able to give away six rabbits to another family, the same number of rabbits she first received.

It is not enough income, Chung tells us, because she wants to build a house, But it is enough to earn money for food and to keep members of her family from traveling to other communities to earn more money to send back home. Chung’s neighbor has been trying to raise chickens, but the village is too close to the forest and snakes have been feasting on the chickens.

At the school, just a short way down the road, several women are preparing a lunch for the children. MCC has shared its resources to help the community build a school kitchen. The children can now stay at school over lunchtime. The children have enough to eat, their parents can keeping working in the fields and the children are more likely to stay now for the afternoon school session.  

We meet a young couple who attended two MCC peace trainings and are now prepared to share their skills to mediate community disputes, many of which involve overconsumption of alcohol and domestic violence. Inaccessible roads, little or no electricity and not enough work to grow the food they need for their families all contribute to unhealthy home lives. Each of the six villages where MCC works has a community mediation group of five men and five women who are now available to respond to community disputes.

We later meet with government officials who ask MCC to expand our resources to work with other villages and communes in the region. Small gifts from MCC have opened doors to help build stronger communities and relationships. When we share our gifts, they are shared with others.  

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A heart to learn and a heart to care

Exodus 34:7 (GNT)
I will not fail to punish children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for the sins of their parents.

Paul and Esther Bucher are two of seven foreigners living in the Quang Ngai province of Vietnam. Esther is an occupational therapist. We watch her work and play with children at the Vietnamese Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) day care center in Pho Duc.

In the 60s and early 70s, during the “American” war in Vietnam, the U.S. military
sprayed millions of gallons of the herbicide and defoliant Agent Orange on the countryside of Vietnam. The purpose was to eliminate ground cover, destroy crops and force civilians into the cities so that the resisting Vietnamese forces could be killed more easily.

Instead, more than 400,000 people were killed or disabled by Agent Orange and, since then, a half million more children have been born with disabilities caused by these chemical toxins. American soldiers serving in Vietnam during the war have been disabled by the chemicals as well.

With MCC’s help, VAVA works with families and children affected by Agent Orange. Another project provides a cow to 20 families who have a family member with an Agent Orange disability. A cow will supplement the family’s income after the first calf is shared with another family in a similar situation.

We visited Nguyen Thi Sun who received one of the cows. Her son, Phuoc Han, age 14, was born with severe disabilities caused by Agent Orange. Eight months ago, Thi Sun’s husband died. Even though her son, Phuoc Han, can’t sit up in his chair by himself and sometimes falls out of it, his mother still has to work in the fields and tend the cow. She has no choice.  

Thi Sun gave her cow’s first calf to another family and she is hoping her cow can produce another calf soon.

Nguyen Thi Du is the person who received the calf from Thi Sun. Thi Du had to sell the cow she had previously owned because her
husband was sick with Agent Orange. Thi Du says her husband is always sick. Thi Du has a small plot of land where she plants two crops of rice each year. She has enough rice to feed her family if the weather is good, but last year, her land flooded out and she was not able to harvest the second crop.

Thi Du has had her new calf for just three weeks. The calf was only five months old when she received it, and she says it was small and weak, but Thi Du says the calf has already grown stronger and she has hope that the calf can help provide additional income for her in the future.

At the VAVA day care center in Pho Duc, both Esther and Paul are working as MCC volunteers alongside the VAVA staff. Paul works on special projects, like the organic garden he is planning, and Esther continues her occupational therapy with children and adults and she trains other staff as well. At lunchtime, we watch the children interact with each other and feed themselves, something Esther says could not have happened, even several weeks ago.

“In my heart,” says Esther, “I care for all people, like my father taught me, because each person is different and special, and each one is loved,” Esther says that if people have a heart to learn and to care, change can happen.

When we leave the daycare center, we visit the father of one of the children. Pham Van Trinh was exposed to Agent Orange as a nineteen-year-old soldier in 1971. He shows us his leg that still itches from the exposure to the toxin. He has built a railing outside his home so that his disabled daughter Minh can exercise. He tells us of two other

families in the neighborhood who have children disabled by Agent Orange.

As I watch Esther and Paul interact with these families, I am reminded that God’s love runs deep, as we read in the book of Exodus, but God also holds us responsible for our sins, even the sins of our parents.  

Exposure to Agent Orange during the war more than 40 years ago, has brought anguish today to thousands of families in Quang Nai province of Vietnam. As American Christians, that sin is ours.

The prophet Ezekiel tells us that the children will not share the guilt of their parents when they do what is right and fair.  Paul and Esther give me hope that, in the future, we will be able to do what is right and fair for the people of Vietnam.

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Building bonds of friendship

Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. – I John 4:21

Cuban farmer Hernan Hernandez owns 300 mango trees on 20 hectares of land in the village of San Miguel de los Banos. Last year, a severe drought decimated most of his crop.  

Hernan says that most years there is plenty of rain, but last year, there was almost none. MCC partner CCRD (Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue) helped Hernan purchase new seeds and seedlings this year and MCC provided an irrigation pump.  

There is a bountiful crop of large, succulent mangos on the trees this year. Unfortunately, the state mandates that farmers sell most of their crops to the government for a low price, but this year, the truck that was supposed to pick up the mangos broke down and wasn’t able to pick up the mangos. Hernan will receive no income.  

After he showed us his crops. Hernan shared a cup of mango juice with 
each of us.
Since the Cuban government also controls the country-wide system for processing mangos, there isn’t much that Hernan can do with his mango crop except sell a few of them if he is able to his neighbors and watch the rest of the crop rot on the trees. 

Hernan seems resigned to knowing there will be another difficult year ahead. 

Just a few miles away, outside of the city of Cardenas, Hector Correa owns 23 hectares of land with his three sons. For 31 years, Hector and his family have combined the work of farming and pottery making. Standing outside his pottery shop, Hector tells us that when either farming or pottery isn’t going well, he always has the other to fall back on.

But last year, the drought was even more than Hector and his family could weather. Like Hernan, Hector also received similar support from CCRD and MCC.  

Hector feels blessed to have three sons who understand that it is possible to live well on the land they own. Hector and his sons grow coffee and green beans and any other product they feel might have a market.

Hector says he mostly sells his pottery and his produce to the large tourist hotels in the beach communities. He makes oversized pots which are hard to dry in his kiln, but these pots are in high demand from the hotels and they will make arrangements to come pick them up. Recently, Hector began growing green beans because he discovered that beans are one crop in short supply in the hotel kitchens.  

Empowering rural communities is only one part of CCRD’s work. The Center responds on behalf of the churches to community emergencies, provides pastoral counseling, trains leaders in conflict resolution and brings the community together to address a multitude of social issues.

It is no small secret, CCRD leaders tell us, that there is a real issue of access to food in Cuba. Thirty percent of Cubans live in poverty and those in poverty are disproportionately located in the rural communities. Almost 70% of arable land is not being used. CCRD believes that training small scale farmers can make a big difference in peoples’ lives.

Pastor Samuel of the Second Baptist Church in Cardenas participates in a pastors’ circle coordinated by CCRD each month. He says that before the circle the community pastors and churches had very little contact with each other. But now, in their peace working table, Samuel say the pastors pray for each other and talk about important issues in the community.

Samuel says the peace working table is a way for the pastors to recognize the work of God in the community, to work together and to build strong bonds of friendship.  

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Walking in God's way

Be strong and courageous and keep the charge of the Lord your God – I Kings 2:2

Since the revolution in the 1950s, the churches have had to find their way in Cuba. More recently, national policies have become a little less restrictive and the Cuba Council of Churches now includes about 50 member churches.

Council president and Presbyterian pastor Joel Ortega Dopico says the Council’s purpose is to help the Cuban churches be more effective in their mission. He says the church can never lose sight of their two fundamental responsibilities – developing church leaders and serving the community.

Pastor Luis Hernanez has been the national president of the more than 150 Brethren in Christ (BIC) churches for less than a year. While the BICs are not a member of the Council of Churches, Pastor Luis demonstrates his commitment to these responsibilities as well.

Pastor Louis earns about 300 Cubanas each month (about $12 USD). For his salary, Louis is the director of the national church, the administrator of a teaching center and the pastor of a local congregation in Palmira.

Sunday morning, Pastor Luis welcomes the congregation and many of the 17 BIC pastors of the Cienfuegos region who have assembled here for our conversation later. He shares from John 17 about Jesus’ desire for his followers to be one. He tells the congregation that they should be prepared because God is calling them, too.

After the service, we talk to the pastors. Many walked for hours, bicycled or shared a ride to get here. One pastor says he’s supported by the community, even though they don’t have the resources to do so. Another couple says their primary ministry is to help the poor, be involved in the community and win them for Christ.

The pastors meet together each month to support each other and to be accountable to each other. One pastor tells us that our visit is a real joy for the churches and that the churches have been praying that we would be able to visit them. “Through MCC,” he says, “the churches here can touch people in need all over the world.”

Another pastor tells us that the BIC churches are poor and they may not be able to share food with people in other parts of the word, but they can offer words of encouragement and share what they have.

One pastor says they need to struggle for their land, but they are thankful to God that they live in Cuba. We prayed for these pastors and asked God to give them strength for their leadership of the churches and for their work in these communities.

The next day, we visit one of the BIC house churches in La Havana. A family has contributed part of their house for worship for this church community. As we stand in the front area of the small worship space and talk to the pastor, we can look through the entrance into the rest of the living space and see family members going about their daily routines.

Despite all the challenges, Pastor Luis says, the churches here share what they can with each other and with their communities and they will continue to share. 

He says that, as a leader, God simply asks him to walk in God’s way, and to be strong and courageous, just as King David instructed his son Solomon. Being strong and courageous is how I would describe Pastor Luis, too.

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Republic of NGOs

“How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.” – Psalm 133

It is difficult to overstate the challenges the people of Haiti have faced. During an era of colonization in the 1600’s, for a period of time, 48,000 slaves each year were sent into Haiti, each one facing an average life expectancy of just five years. When Haiti finally became the first black republic in 1804, France demanded an indemnity of $21 Billion which was paid off through 80% of Haitian revenues for 100 years.

Today, the average Haitian lives on $800 each year and 24% of the people live in extreme poverty with only 17% having access to latrines. 92% of the schools are run by non-state actors. The promise of democracy since 1990 has largely been disappointing.

And then in 2010, an earthquake was responsible for 220,000 deaths and almost 2 million people were displaced from their homes. More than 90% of families lost a family member in the earthquake.

When you look at the history, says MCC Haiti country representative Paul Fast, “Perhaps the appropriate question is how has Haiti done as well as it has?”

Post-earthquake, Haiti has become the Republic of NGOs with more than 20,000 international organizations working there. MCC is one of only 243 officially registered with the government, but unlike many others, MCC has been working in Haiti for almost 60 years. In the larger context, MCC is a very small player, but it is well respected. MCC Haiti country representative Rebecca Fast even serves on a coordinating committee for NGOs.

During the earthquake, more than 300,000 homes in Haiti were destroyed. Through its partner, ITECA (Institute of Technology and Animation), MCC has helped to rebuild 80 homes in one community in Port-au-Prince.

Unlike many of the rebuilding efforts in Haiti, ITECA helps people stay on the land where they previously lived. While this has created a lot more work and cost, it has helped guarantee a much greater level of success with the families. The rebuilt homes cost under $15,000 each and ITECA has even begun manufacturing a new kind of interlocking cinder block to build the homes. In six years, ITECA has rebuilt 800 homes with 400 families still waiting.

ITECA director Chenet Jean Baptiste told us, “It makes a great difference whether we are building homes for people or with people.” He said that MCC has been a good partner and a great friend of the community who cares about the dignity of the people who are served. “MCC’s  ideas and values match up with ours,” he said.

In the community, ITECA takes time to build solidarity among communities and neighbors. “We are helping people build homes, but ultimately, we are helping people build community,” Jean Baptiste told us.

With ITECA and other partners, MCC has helped to rebuild 900 homes and provided financial assistance for thousands of families. Training in earthquake resistant construction, trauma healing workshops and job skills training are other ways MCC has responded to the earthquake.

In addition, MCC has sent 38 shipments of blankets, food and school kits to Haiti valued at more than $3 million. MCC staff told us that MCC canned meat has become a valued brand and that the labels of the cans sometimes need to be torn off so that the they aren’t pilfered and resold.

Paul and Rebecca Fast are new MCC Haiti country representatives and that has given them an opportunity to view MCC’s work in a fresh way. They say MCC is well respected in Haitian communities because of its long-term approach, its flexibility, its insistence on working without armed guards and its willingness to serve communities no one else is serving. They said the respect MCC has in communities is the envy of other peer organizations.

Rebecca said that future ideal projects would be ones that work with the Haitian government and with local NGOs and that build up from the community.

One morning MCC Haiti staff led us in an opening devotional from Psalm 133. Estere Alveno, national staff administrator, told us that “the dew of Hermon which falls on the mountains of Zion” is like God’s love coming fresh to us each day.

MCC staff in Haiti are bearers of the love of Christ in the areas of relief, development and peace building. How good and pleasant it is indeed when sisters and brothers live together in harmony.

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

We give God the glory

Praise the name of the Lord. (Psalm 135:1)

It is only a rocky road cut into the side of the mountain, but for the communities of Biket and Rondo, high in the hills above Desarmes, Haiti, and several hours north of Port-au-Prince, the new road is making a difference in the lives of the people who live there.

Less than five kilometers long, the road gives the several thousand people in each of these communities access in the valley below to the village markets, schools and emergency health care. What was once up to four hours journey on foot can now be traveled in 20 minutes by modo.

 Mennonite Central Committee built the road as part of its response to the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010. More than $14 million from our supporters has rebuilt hundreds of houses, trained people in earthquake resistant building techniques, sponsored trauma healing workshops and made roads like this one possible.

I was in Haiti this past month with the board of MCC U.S. to learn from communities there about how they have responded in the years since the earthquake. It was heartening to see the resilience we saw in the people we met there.  

Up in the mountain community of Biket, we met with the community leaders of a tree nursery just after they distributed part of the 35,000 seedlings they produce each year to community members. Throughout the region, MCC has assisted a number of communities like Biket in planting millions of trees over a 30 year period.

The trees enrich the soil and provide a source of income from the wood and the fruit they produce, and the trees help insure that the rain, when it comes, doesn’t wash all the soil away. With the new trees, even the birds are back! Around us, we see a rich variety of trees, including cashew, cassia, orange, lime, moringa and more.

One leader tells us, “There was a time when there were no trees here, no wood; but now, it is green and beautiful here once again.” He told us that when MCC came, we didn’t just bring a gift, but we came to partner with them.”

On Sunday morning back in in Port-au-Prince, we worshipped with the Grace Assembly Church. We were warmly welcomed with seats at the front of the congregation and with a meal following worship.

Pastor Ivan recounted the ways MCC had helped the church community and told the congregation, “We give God the glory.” We give praise to you, God, for the opportunities you give us to be sister and brother to each other.

J Ron Byler is the executive director of MCC U.S. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

We need to support each other

You are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world. (Matt. 5:13-14)

“MCC envisions communities in right relationship with God, one another and creation.” I am speaking to a summit for MCC partners in the Ukraine, but I feel like an impostor after hearing “Vadim’s” story (not his real name) last night.

Vadim is a pastor in the eastern Ukraine conflict zone, the occupied territory where bombing is an everyday occurrence and many people have lost their homes.

Yesterday, Vadim spent eight hours waiting at the military checkpoint before he was permitted to drive to Zaporizhzhia for the MCC summit.

In his community, Vadim says the tanks are constantly going up and down the avenue. Young people are risking their lives while the shooting is going on to deliver food and blankets to people in need. He says people even need to be careful what they say to each other because if you are heard sounding sympathetic to Ukraine, you could be arrested.

The violence has brought the churches together, Vadim tells me, because they need to support each other. 

Vadim says he grew up in an earlier era in the Soviet Union in a church that was underground. There were people in prison because of their faith, but their elders taught them not to take up violence.

I told Vadim I had been reading the Psalms each day during my two month sojourn in eastern Europe and the Middle East, but I found myself put off by the repeated whining of the Psalmist. Put off, of course, until I finally realized that the Psalms would sound quite differently through the eyes of a refugee family in Syria or Iraq, or by someone who has lived through the bombing in eastern Ukraine and may have lost everything they own.

Vadim said, yes, the Psalms were important to him, too, because they give evidence of God’s faithfulness to us.

He tells the story of a dozen armed men, weapons drawn, recently coming into his church to search and ransack it.  Someone in the church had been tipped off that this might happen, so some members of the congregation were inside the church praying when the soldiers arrived.

“I asked God to help us look at these men as people in need whom Christ also died for, but that they would also understand that we were here because of our faith and our values,” Vadim told me. The message apparently got through because the men left and church members kept on praying.  

When the occupation began in eastern Ukraine, Vadim says bank robberies increased, stores closed and the economy collapsed. Many people were hungry, and after five months, people were not receiving their pension payments anymore. The church began handing out hot lunches to people in need and community members told the armed groups that if they were going to take power in the community, they also needed to care for the needy.

“God softened their hearts,” says Vadim and the occupiers began to provide some services to the people who needed it the most.  

God is with us through this suffering, says Vadim, and we need to learn how to respond. He says that when I tell MCC’s partners in the Ukraine the stories of God’s presence with people suffering through disaster and war around the world, it encourages and gives them strength.  

“We need to be salt and light here, to serve, and to support each other,” Vadim concludes.

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

They welcomed us

One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. (John 9:25)

She was addicted to drugs for 20 years. She was in prison and her family broke apart. Her child was in an orphanage and her husband died. Because of her substance abuse, she eventually lost her one arm below her elbow. She saw no way out. She had hit the very bottom.

When she came to know God, Natalia says everything changed. She found she had a deep desire to help people like herself and she discovered that her life experiences helped her understand others.

“I remember what God did in my life and I have hope that God can touch other peoples’ lives and give them new life, too,” Natalia tells me. In Nikopol, Ukraine, she and Olga and Valodya, both of whom have similar stories to tell of their own, began New Life Charitable Fund a half dozen years ago to help people in prison, or who have drug or alcohol addictions, are HIV positive, homeless or for some other reason need a helping hand.

Ukraine has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world. Substance abuse is of epidemic proportions. The number of people in prison are three times the proportion in Western European countries and a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.

“When people come to us, we help them find housing, get the documents they need to access social services and hospital treatment and find jobs,” says Natalia. She also believes people need spiritual rehabilitation and New Life helps people get reacquainted with God.

New Life helps about 1,500 people each year. With the conflict in the eastern part of the country, New Life, an MCC partner organization, also provided the same kind of services to about 400 displaced families last year. They work alongside a variety of churches including Orthodox, Catholic and Baptist. These days, government social services comes to New Life for assistance with people in need. That’s something Natalia says she couldn’t have imagined happening when she was on drugs herself.

New Life has repurposed an old building as a dormitory to house nine displaced families. “They welcomed us,” several women tell me about Natalia and New Life. Several women tell similar stories of fleeing the bombing in Donestsk after their houses were destroyed, traveling the 200 kilometers to Zaporizhzhia, reporting to city administration there and Natalia coming to pick them up. “This is our home now,” the women tell us.

We visit a house for women who are former drug addicts, ex-prisoners or who otherwise are in desperate need of help. One woman at the “mercy house” tells us her parents drank, she was left to grow up in an orphanage and then she followed her parents’ example. After two of her three children ended up in social care, she knew if she didn’t change her life she would lose her third child as well. New Life has provided a place for her to stay and she thanks God that her life is being restored.

We visit another family in an apartment rented for them by Natalia and New Life. Both spouses have had a difficult time and they were fearful their child was going to be taken away from them. The father tells us he had difficulty with his sight and couldn’t even physically see his young daughter for two years. Then New Life paid for surgery and he can see again.

“One thing I know, I can see again,” he says. He wipes the tear from his eyes as he describes what it was like to be able to see his daughter for the first time after two years.

The husband tells us he has talked to his former employer and he hopes to start work again in a couple of weeks. He wants to be able to earn money again so that he can pay back New Life for all they have done for him.

Natalia tells me that when she works with people who are homeless, have HIV/AIDS, are in prison or have lost their homes in the war, her heart is changed as well. 

Ron Byler is executive director for MCC U.S.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Will anyone help us?

I would rather take refuge in you, God, than rely on people. (Psalm 118:8)

“If you cannot open your doors to my people, help my people stay here,” Father Douglas Bazi tells us.

Father Douglas provides oversight and leadership to Mar Elia, just one of the 14 refugee camps, or what he calls “centers,” in the Chaldean Catholic diocese of Erbil, Iraq. He says four Catholic and other church dioceses disappeared overnight when ISIS swept through the nearby Ninewah Plain in August 2014. Over 11,000 Christian families fled the Mosul region for Erbil and the surrounding area.

The Christians are a small part, perhaps about 10 per cent, of the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Christians and other minority religious groups who suddenly found themselves homeless because of the war in the northern Kurdish region of the country. 

The rise of ISIS is only the latest misery suffered by the people of Iraq in a long line of wars, economic sanctions and repression, and then, the American-led invasion. MCC evacuated Baghdad in 2005 during the war and then reestablished its work in Iraq in Erbil 2007 where one of its primary partners, the Chaldean Catholic Church, also relocated a number of its institutions.

Bishop Bashar says his people have been deeply affected by trauma. He remembers the recent time when displaced families from the Mosul region were living in tents in the church yard. Two years later, the church is still paying many thousands of dollars each month for rent assistance and food for these families.  More than 5,000 families have already left Erbil for Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

MCC is assisting the church and other partners with trauma training and relief aid in several of the camps. MCC’s work in the Kurdish region and elsewhere in Iraq in humanitarian assistance, agricultural and livelihoods development, education and peace building is among both Muslim and Christian groups.

In the northeastern city of Suleimaniyah, MCC works with REACH, a local organization assisting displaced communities and vulnerable Iraqis. The attention of many larger NGOs is already beginning to move on to more recent global humanitarian disasters, but MCC continues to support its long-term partner’s work with water access and other rural livelihoods projects, as well as more recent work assisting displaced communities.

In Erbil, one of MCC’s partners is Kid’s House Kindergarten where their early childhood education now reaches out to 375 children, about double in size since the influx of displaced families two years ago. The Mar Elia refugee center is adjacent to Kid’s House.

People want to stay in Iraq and not leave the country, Father Douglas tells me, but they also want to know their families can have a meaningful life here. Many of the 1,200 families in the center are fearful of moving back to their original homes because they say it was their neighbors who betrayed them and they don’t trust anyone anymore.  

An MCC worker says it is too easy, though, to simply call this conflict a religious or ethnic one. The truth is more nuanced than that. By imposing sectarian solutions on the conflict, she says the United States and the West are encouraging the very reality they fear. Each of the groups is fractured and each has many different perspectives among them.

“They took our land, our soul and our history,” Father Douglas says of the ISIS invaders. But he also blames America for the war that began the destruction of his country. “Tell your country to stop sending weapons because we’ve already had enough of them,” he tells me. And he rightly suggests that the money that was spent on one day of the war could underwrite the safety and security for all of the people in the refugee centers in Erbil.

Father Douglas wonders, in the future, will anybody be helping them? I am hoping that they can learn to rely on each other once again, as well as God, and that MCC’s work will continue to be strong here as a sign of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this war weary region of the world. 

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Better for everyone to talk about peace

Have mercy upon us, O Lord! Have mercy upon us! For we have had more than enough of contempt. (Ps. 123:3)

Over two years ago, their house in Aleppo, Syria was completely destroyed. The family of six lived in another village for four months, and then they walked six days to the Jordan border, sometimes needing to dodge sniper bullets. They finally made it across the border into Jordan to a refugee camp with not a single possession but the clothes they wore. They feel alone in their new country and they want to go home to Syria.

A second family fled Qaraqosh, Iraq about the same time. They lived in Erbil for two months, and while they weren’t able to get any help with food or shelter, they were able to arrange to
get a visa to go to Jordan. They live in a small makeshift apartment on the fourth floor of another family’s house, but they have no family of their own here. The wife has a sister in the United States but she isn’t able to provide any assistance. The husband told me they’d go anywhere that would have them but they’ve recently been denied entry into Australia.

These two families from Syria and Iraq, and thousands more like them, are part of the reason the population of Jordan has doubled to more than nine million people in the last 15 years. More than one-third of the population of the entire country is refugees, including 1.5 million Palestinians, almost as many Syrians, a much smaller number of Iraqis and refugees and guest workers from a number of other countries as well.

The high number of refugees entering the country has put tremendous stress on the infrastructure of Jordan, including its schools and hospitals. With the economy suffering because of the number of new people, some Jordanians also need financial assistance.  

MCC partner Caritas Jordan is one organization that is trying to help. Last year, it registered more than 90,000 refugee families with almost 500,000 family members for health, humanitarian, housing and education assistance.  MCC projects with Caritas include winterization projects, HIV/AIDS education and material resources.

The Syrian family from Aleppo received a voucher from MCC which they used to buy a gas heater for their apartment. The grandmother told us they had no heat at all before and it had been so cold. She also told us that the carpet we were sitting on in their very comfortable living space had been pulled out of the garbage and scrubbed clean.

The family from Iraq received a kerosene heater and blankets from MCC. Before moving to their upper floor apartment, they lived in a church compound. In Iraq, they had been part of the Syrian Orthodox community.

Caritas Jordan director Wael Suleman told me that they are doing their best to serve people in need, but it would be much cheaper for everyone if all of us, especially our governments, talked about peace instead. He said that we should start where Jesus started by serving the poor.

In the United States, MCC’s efforts in response to the war in Syria have included advocating for increased humanitarian assistance and for stopping the shipment of weapons to all parties in the region.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi and Syrian families are waiting. We pray for mercy, Lord, for these refugee families and for so many more like them who have endured so much because of war in this region of the world. 

Ron Byler is executive director for MCC U.S. He is in the Middle East and Eastern Europe visiting MCC partners and projects for two months.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Choosing a different future

Let your compassion come to me that I may live. (Ps. 119:77)

Just outside Jerusalem in an area designated as “Area C,” a place in Israel and Palestine where it is sometimes possible for Jews and Palestinians to meet and talk with one another, Ali Abu Awaad has offered his family’s land in Beit Umar for exactly this purpose.

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger from Alon Shvut walked to our meeting on Ali’s property and Shaul Judelman, from the nearby Tekoa settlement, got here easily enough as well. Together, the three help lead Roots, an Israeli and Palestinian organization located on Ali’s land, to foster a grassroots movement of understanding, nonviolence and transformation among Palestinian Muslims and Christians and Israeli Jews.

Ali says that when he, as a Palestinian Muslim, meets with Jewish settler groups, he tries to help them break through a barrier to see him as a human being, someone who shares their love for the land. “Even though we live so close to each other, we live in almost complete separation,” he said.

He says that when he met with a settler group the evening before, there was plenty of disagreement in the room, but everyone showed him respect. Ali believes that effective dialogue can only happen when there is a safe place for arguing with each other.

Ali recounted his life as a Palestinian refugee. His mother spent five years in prison and he was also in prison for four years. Ali’s brother was killed by the Israeli army. He says that when he decided not to take up revenge, he wasn’t making a decision to give up on justice. In fact, Ali feels his best revenge is to reconcile with his enemies.

Rabbi Schlesinger nods in agreement with Ali’s commitment to nonviolence. He points to the recent death of a young Jewish woman who was killed by a Palestinian. The Jewish family said they wanted to be able to forgive. Notably, this was the family of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman of the nearby Tekoa settlement.

Rabbi Schlesinger told me the Jews who were first involved in Roots were devotees of Rabbi Froman who challenged the narrative of the exclusive ownership of the land with a religion-based understanding for Jews co-existing on the land with Palestinians.

“The people of Israel belong to the land of Israel, but that is not the same as ownership,” Shaul Judelman told us. He believes that Israelis and Palestinians both experience some of the same fear and pain.

 “But we are not equal,” Ali says. He believes their shared commitment to nonviolence is not about normalizing or accepting the injustice in Palestine. “I am fighting for my people and for justice for them,” Ali says, “But I also want justice for Jews as well.”

All three are hoping the conversations at Roots can become the beginning of a national movement within Israel and Palestine. They say that when they began it was just with a handful of friends, but now, hundreds of people are joining this conversation.

And all three believe that before peace can be a reality in this land, more trust needs to be built between the people. “Even if there was a peace agreement, neither side now believes the other side would honor it; our hopes have been shattered too often by each other,” Ali said.

These three Jewish and Palestinian leaders believe they can help to choose a different future. “We don’t have to build our identity on fighting each other, but on working together to find a common solution,” Shaul said.

“People are fearful and that is partly the result of the lack of engagement with each other. We can choose to change that,” said Ali.

And Hanan concluded, “For many of us, this has to be a religious conversation and many in our communities don’t even understand what the Judaism or Islam of the other community is all about.” 

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Regaining what has been lost

Would you still want to kill me?

After the war in Sarajevo, Amra Pandzo started working with MCC. After some peace training, she decided she wanted to devote her life to help build peace in her country.

By day, Amra is a librarian, but she also started a small organization called Small Steps to work in the public school system. Children receive religious public education at school, but because children are separated for this education according to their background – Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim – the religious education contributes to deepening religious and ethnic divides.

Amra has since created a Handbook for Religious Muslim Teachers. She told me that her goal for the handbook was to do for the Koran what Mennonites have done with the Bible – to look at the Holy Book from a peacemaking perspective. She has helped to train 1,500 Muslim teachers who are teaching religion in the schools.

More recently, she organized interfaith meetings for religious teachers. The workshops encourage teachers of all faiths to teach religion in a way that helps to build peace in the community and strengthens a commitment to non-violence. She says that after sufficient trust is built between the teachers, she can encourage them to ask each other the questions they’ve always been afraid to ask. One time, a teacher asked another: “If we had another war, would you still want to kill me?” Another teacher wanted conversation among the three faith traditions about who would be saved in the next world.

Amra says she’s attracted to MCC and to Mennonites because she observes that for Mennonites, religion doesn’t seem to just be a label, but a way we live our lives. She told me she sometimes tells others that she sees herself as a Mennonite Muslim. I told her I wouldn’t necessarily share that part of the story with everyone I knew! 

We observed together that Christians across the spectrum are so different from one another, and so are Muslims. So many of us expect Christians to just help Christians and Muslims to just help Muslims, but that’s not what either of our faith traditions are about at their core.

Amra’s latest work is with children. She is planning to work with children in 10 different communities, to teach them about peace and to bring them together from different communities and different ethnic groups to learn about each other.

Amra says MCC has been a pillar of her work. She says, so often, other organizations come for two days and think they can tell you what to do, but MCC doesn’t work like that. MCC is a bridge between cultures.

“Sometimes we feel like people from the West are like children; they’ve never had the experience of waking up each day as we did during the war and reading in the paper that so many of our friends have died,” Amra shares with us. She believes so strongly that her work is helping to rebuild a community where so much has been lost.   

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. He met Amra during a two-month sojourn in Sarajevo to visit MCC's programs there.