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.