I Am My Sister’s Keeper

News from war zones has been particularly tragic this week: A deadly airstrike in Aleppo, Syria. A brutal ISIS attack on a refugee camp in Iraq. A massacre by an extremist militia on innocent villagers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

If you’ve already read this post, just scroll to the end where I’ve provided links to some of my favorite organizations offering help and hope in these regions. These are all organizations whose work I’ve visited and respect.

If this post is new to you, read on….

A century or so ago, an estimated 90 percent of war casualties were male soldiers. Today, an estimated 90 percent of casualties are civilians, and 75 percent of these are estimated to be women and children.

In the early 1990s I traveled with a humanitarian organization to Croatia and Bosnia as those countries were being ripped apart by war with Serbia.

In Bosnia we visited refugee centers filled with middle-class women just like me who had lost everything: jobs, husbands, homes, their planned-for futures. Many had also been victims of the increasingly popular tactic of war called rape, which shatters body and soul.

We visited schools where social workers tried to help grade school kids who were suffering so severely from posttraumatic stress that they sat all day silently chewing their nails to the quick.

It was the first time I had seen war up close and I was stunned by what human beings do to one another.

Leaving Bosnia, I traveled to a little border town in Croatia where I could climb to a park on the top of a hill and look out over Bosnia. I sat there for hours and wept and prayed for the women and children I’d seen.

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While I prayed, an unbidden question repeated itself in my mind: Am I my sister’s keeper?

Am I my sister’s keeper?

And the repeated answer I sensed from God was: Yes. Yes. Yes. You are your sister’s keeper!

Then who is my sister? God, who is my sister?

They are all your sisters, I sensed God say. Croatian Catholics. Bosnian Muslims. Serbian Orthodox. They—and every other woman you will ever meet—are all your sisters. Because they are all part of the human family I have created.

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That’s what happens when you open your mind and your heart to God and to the world. You end up with a huge family. And you realize that every single member of the family is as important to God as you are.

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You can’t possibly meet the need of every family member, but you can never again dismiss their needs thoughtlessly. They’re family.

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And they haunt you. A grim image dances across your vision at an inopportune time. A light-hearted moment is darkened by a disturbing subtext. A chill pierces your heart on a sunny day.

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Yes, you’ll end up haunted. Even more, you’ll end up in despair. There’s no way around it. I can’t remember who wrote that God’s heart is an open wound of love, but I believe it. And I believe our hearts become open wounds, too, when we dare to love this damaged world God loves.

There are two antidotes to despair. One is denial. Pretending you didn’t see that picture. Didn’t read that story. Didn’t hear those screams.

Or maybe you acknowledge the horror of what you saw or read or heard, but you pretend it’s not your responsibility. There’s nothing you can do. What difference can one person make? And where would you start anyway?

Denial works. But it shrinks your heart. It makes you a little less human. It puts distance between you and God.

The other antidote to despair is action—doing something, however small, to address the need.

Seems like every few years I have an experience that pushes me so far into despair that I toy with denial. I start listening to the cynic inside me who asks why I even bother to hope in the face of such a broken world. But I have learned that if I consciously choose action I will find hope.

When I met with women in Bosnia and Croatia in the 90s I did not imagine that twenty years later my personal ministry would be focused primarily on women in warzones.

I hate war. I can’t even watch war movies. And yet in the last year I’ve met with Syrian refugee mothers in Jordan, with Yezidi women rescued from ISIS in Iraq, with women recovering from brutal rape by rebel militiamen in the DR Congo, and with women bravely denouncing violence and working for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Though I have clearly sensed Jesus call to follow him into places of conflict, it’s not been easy. Part of the challenge, of course, is the physical threat. While I travel into regions of conflict as wisely as possible and take seriously the counsel of friends on the ground, I accept that safety is never guaranteed. But I’ve often thought how willing Americans are to send their sons and daughter into harm’s way for the sake of war. Should we not be at least equally willing to send ourselves into the possibility of harm’s way for the sake of peace? I think that sometimes following Jesus requires it.

For me, a far more difficult challenge is the inevitable confusion and complexity that surrounds conflict. Following Jesus into conflict zones requires constant listening and learning. It demands that I humbly place myself at the feet of people with whom I may or may not agree, but who have much to teach me. I’ve not always done that well. Often I’ve had to face and confess my own quick tendency to judge harshly rather than try to understand a perspective I consider misguided. At other times I’ve been misunderstood and criticized by those who think I am wrong to listen to voices with which I (or they) disagree.

Finally, there is the ever-present challenge of finding the peacemakers. For that is the primary call that I sense: to find the women of peace. To find the women actively working for reconciliation, caring for refugees, and seeking their own deep healing as well as the healing of other wounded and grieving women. While those are massive challenges, I’ve discovered so many amazing women faithfully meeting those challenges.

Morning after morning they get up to face another heartbreaking day.

Despite their own trauma and grief, they work to create a better life for their kids.

When they’d rather nurse their pain in silence, they tell their stories to give other women hope.

When they’ve paid the highest price a mother can pay—the death of her child to a violent enemy—they reach across those very enemy lines to comfort another grieving mother.

Time and again I have been broken, humbled and inspired by these women.

By these sisters.

It isn’t easy to engage in regions of conflict. But I can’t deny my deep-down conviction that I am my sister’s keeper. And that the opportunity I have to engage with women in regions of conflict is a unique and precious opportunity that I must steward well.

I offer the following information for those who’d like to join me in financially supporting great organizations doing significant on-the-ground work to serve those who are suffering so severely today:

In Syria: Questscope is an organization I partner with in Jordan and Syria. They’ve served vulnerable people in the Middle East for over three decades, so they’re uniquely experienced and positioned to offer help that organizations just entering the region can’t do. I’ve met the Questscope leadership and have seen their work with refugees. They have 1800 staff and volunteers in Syria, and they’re currently one of the largest distributors of emergency food relief in Aleppo. We can support their work in Syria here. (On this link you can make a single donation or become a fundraiser yourself!)

In Iraq: The Preemptive Love Coalition has worked in Iraq for a decade. I’ve visited them twice in Iraq because I love their work with Iraqis displaced and terrorized by ISIS. They’re front-line heroes. Because of their history and network of relationships in Iraq–and because of their commitment to love anyway and everywhere–they go into regions where most organizations don’t dare go. We can support their work in Iraq here.

In the DR Congo: In March I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with One Million Thumbprints, to raise awareness and funds for women in war zones. Our current funding focus is a fistula hospital for Congolese women who have been brutally raped by rebels who consider rape a legitimate and useful weapon of war. Created for the most brutally violated women, the hospital offers trauma counseling, legal help and extensive after-care in addition to multiple surgeries. You can support this project here.

If you have your own favorite organizations serving refugees and other victims of war, by all means support their work. This is a critical time for all victims of violence. We must recognize our common humanity and do whatever we can to offer help and hope.

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Falling In Love With Iraq Via Istanbul

Twice in the last 14 months I was in Istanbul on my way to Iraq. With 8-hour evening layovers, my friends and I decided to make the most of it. Those two brief, whirlwind tours were all it took for us to fall in love with this amazing city where east and west have met for centuries.

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These photos fill my mind this week, as I hear the heart-wrenching news from Istanbul. I think of my friends and I literally running–and laughing–through the unfamiliar concourses in search of visas so we could exit the airport for just a few hours. I think of the kind strangers who gave us directions and the taxi drivers who earnestly (so it seemed) sought the quickest routes so we could maximize our sightseeing potential.

The juxtaposition of what I experienced in Istanbul and what so many others tragically experienced this week makes me literally feel sick. Such unnecessary suffering. Such heartache and pain.

And then in the midst of this comes crushing news from friends in Iraq. In the fighting in and around Fallujah, a convoy from the Preemptive Love Coalition delivering food to desperate, displaced Fallujans comes under attack.

Many of us prayed through the night for our friends from Preemptive Love.

Read this updated report to learn about the danger the Preemptive Love team faced and will continue to face as they help the families of Fallujah who have escaped ISIS only to find themselves starving and shelterless in the desert.

Please consider donating here to help the families of Fallujah.

Do you wonder if it matters when you donate to an organization like Preemptive Love? The following are portraits my friend Christine Anderson took of men, women and children we met in Iraq. All had been as desperate as the families of Fallujah are now. But all were loved and served by Preemptive Love.

For some it started with emergency food relief. Then shelter. Then education. Then trauma counseling. Then small business enterprise. Now, they have hope and joy and a future. These are real Iraqis whose horror turned to hope.

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That last photo shows Jeremy Courtney, founder of the Preemptive Love Coalition. Jeremy and his wife, Jessica, have become my heroes on-the-ground in Iraq. I’ve visited them twice, and will undoubtedly go back again. Not only are they going where most people fear to go, but they’re also inspiring Iraqis themselves–drawing from diverse local populations–to partner together on behalf of their displaced and suffering countrymen.

So when we join Preemptive Love we are also joining local Iraqi heroes. This is a great and rare opportunity. Please join me and many others in supporting PLC and local Iraqi heroes in bringing hope to the people of Fallujah.

You can donate here. Thank you.

Photos by Christine Anderson Photography.

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Summer Sabbatical

Today is the official “first day” of a three-month writing sabbatical. I say “writing” as if I am actually going to write. Maybe I will. Or maybe I just need time to think.

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Fifteen years ago when I turned fifty—after a decade of painful reflection, slow rediscovery and deep healing—I was ready to put the past behind me and lean into life again. Continue reading

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Israeli & Palestinian Women Against Violence

Since 2009 I’ve traveled to the Holy Land two or three times each year to learn from Israelis and Palestinians committed to peace. I’ve met incredible men and women–Jews, Muslims and Christians–religious and secular–who show up day after day to work together for the sake of a nonviolent resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Among these heroic, steadfast people is a group of Israeli and Palestinian women–all followers of Jesus–who have completely captured my heart and earned my deepest respect. Refusing to let the hostility and hopelessness of their respective communities define them, they have chosen the long, slow path of learning each other’s stories and experiences. Continue reading

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A Few Thoughts on Guns & The Armor of Light

I originally wrote this post in February, 2013, when my friends at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism invited me to join the Faiths Calling initiative to help stop rampant gun violence. In the wake of the tragedy of Sandy Hook, they were seeking laws that could make our nation safer. Sadly, such laws are yet to be passed. 

I’ve revised the blog for a new purpose: to support the important documentary, The Armor of Light, showing tonight on PBS at 8/7c. I’ve met the filmmaker, Abigail Disney, and Rev. Rob Schenck whose story is told in the film. Together, they’re committed to creating a new conversation about guns in America. It’s an important film for all followers of Jesus to watch and consider.

Several years ago, when my then 27-year-old son was preparing to sail a 42-foot sailboat around the world, concerned friends and family members asked the inevitable question: will he keep a gun on board?  It’s not uncommon for ocean-crossing sailors to carry guns as a defense against pirates, but there’s an ongoing debate.  Continue reading

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Kilimanjaro #3: Remembering the Mountain, Remembering My Mom

A year ago I took my Mom to the garden center to get flowers we could plant on Mother’s Day. Over the previous two years, as her aging mind had increasingly lost track of much it had once known, this remained: her passion for flowers.

In the early morning hours she was still “the Queen surveying her Kingdom” as she walked between her tiny flower beds.

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Christians, Muslims and the Golden Rule

“Do you think it’s safe to meet with the Christians? I’m afraid they will hurt you. Please text me as soon as the meeting is done, so I’ll know you’re okay.”

These were the words of a junior high-aged Muslim boy when he learned that his Muslim American mother was going to meet with a small group of Christians. He was sure she was entering a very dangerous situation.

The mother shared her son’s words when I asked her what it was like to be a Muslim in America in 2016.

On a wintery Saturday morning several friends and I were gathered with about fifteen Muslim men and women in a small meeting room in a mosque not far from our church. Continue reading

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About Refugees: A Preacher, A Professor, A Rock Star & Me

Each spring for three weeks my church, Willow Creek Community Church, focuses on the work that our church partners are doing in under-resourced communities throughout the world.

Everything in our weekend services, midweek services, and children’s ministries focuses on how followers of Jesus around the world are being the hands and feet of Christ as they address issues like food security, healthcare, clean water, economic stability, education, leadership development, and others.

This annual emphasis is called Celebration of Hope (COH) and it’s my favorite time of year at Willow.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro #2: Why We Did It

5 days. 21 miles. 19,341 feet. 38,680 steps.

That’s a lot of uphill walking!

As you might expect, a fair amount of words accompanied those steps. Fourteen passionate women facing a common challenge for a shared cause do not lack subjects for conversation. And trust me, the Kilimanjaro climbers of One Million Thumbprints are nothing if not passionate!

Still, you can only talk so much. As one of the more introverted climbers, I had perhaps a lower threshold for conversation than some. But even the most talkative among us slid into long stretches of quiet reflection—moments when the rhythmic repetition of slow steps freed our minds to meander.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro #1: We Actually Did It!

Really! All fourteen women climbers with One Million Thumbprints reached our goal: we made it to the top of the highest freestanding mountain in the world, Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro, at approximately 8am on March 8, International Women’s Day.

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