What Climbing Kilimanjaro Taught Me About Refugees

On March 8, 2016, International Women’s Day, I reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. At an altitude of nearly 20,000 feet, it’s the highest peak on the African continent, and the tallest free standing mountain in the world.

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The fifteen of us who climbed had a single goal: to raise awareness and funds for women suffering in warzones. In conflict regions throughout the world women face extreme poverty, gender-based violence, trauma from loss and grief, and a level of vulnerability and hopelessness that leads to despair.

But the organization with which we climbed—One Million Thumbprints—partners with grassroots organizations offering vulnerable women emergency food relief and shelter, trauma counseling, health care, education for their kids, and long-term economic empowerment projects.

Climbing Kilimanjaro was the hardest thing any of us had ever done. But just before the climb we visited women in the Democratic Republic of Congo who were victims of brutal rape used as a weapon of war. Their stories compelled us to climb and to drawn world attention to their plight.

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Everyday at 6am, when we crawled out of our tents exhausted and cold, and looked up at that mountain, we thought, No way! There is no way we can get there from here! But each morning we pictured the women we’d just met, and the peak appeared a tiny bit closer.

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When we finally reached the summit at 7am on the fifth day of our climb—after leaving our final base camp at midnight and snaking up the final freezing ascent in the dark—we were almost too exhausted to feel exhilarated.

Almost, but not quite. We did manage a touch of exhilaration! We had done it! We had conquered that mountain!

We drank a cup of hot sweet tea provided by our guides, snapped a few priceless photos, and reminded ourselves again of the daily struggle and courage of the women for whom we climbed.

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Throughout the entire experience I’d been determined to keep my eyes and heart open—to hidden beauty, spontaneous conversations, hard-earned lessons, or profound insights. Was there something unique and unexpected I needed to see or understand or ponder?

As we broke camp on the last day—after a day and a half hike down the mountain—it hit me. As we met with our guides and porters for the last time, I suddenly “got” the deeper message the climb had for me.

The deeper message was about the other side of the story—the side that climbers seldom talk about.

Yes, it’s true we fifteen climbers worked really hard to summit Kilimanjaro. We trained diligently and prepared ourselves as best we could, body, mind and spirit. Yes, we pushed ourselves as hard as we could and accomplished something we never dreamed we could do.

But we didn’t do it alone. Not by a long shot. As heroic as we felt at times, the truth is that it took sixty—yes 60!—African guides and porters to get the fifteen of us Americans up that mountain!

That’s embarrassing to admit. But true.

Our African guides and porters–many of whom were AMAZING women–were essential to our success.

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Here are just a few of the things they did for us:

They set the pace and kept us on the right path.

They carried our sleeping bags, tents, down jackets and duffle bags with all our clothes. (We carried small daypacks with water, snacks, jacket.)

They carried food, cooking and serving utensils, and potable water for all of us for all six days of the climb.

They carried medical supplies and oxygen in case we needed it.

They cheered us on when we thought we couldn’t keep going, talked us through the symptoms of altitude sickness, and on occasion, literally carried some of us along.

They woke us each morning at 6 and brought a hot drink to our tent. At 7 they served us a hot breakfast and filled our water bottles.

When we started hiking at 7:30 they broke camp and hoisted everything onto their backs. An hour or so later, we heard them racing up the trail behind us. Quickly we sidestepped so they could pass us, then we watched them sprint into the distance.

By late afternoon, when we dragged ourselves into the next camping area, they had our tents already set up. After serving us a hot and leisurely meal complete with fresh produce they’d carried up the mountain, they briefed us for the next day, then sent us to bed—in the sleeping bags they’d already arranged in our tents.

One afternoon, when we stopped to pray for the women we were climbing for, the guides even joined our circle and our prayer.

If you ever plan to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, I heartily recommend the Tanzanian-owned company we used—The African Walking Company. I could write a whole book of praise for them. We loved them!

But for now I just want to make one point:

We absolutely could not have done it without them. Without their help we wouldn’t have made it one mile up that mountain. No matter how hard we worked, it wasn’t enough. We needed them.

On the final morning, as we met with them for the last time, I had an unexpected thought.

I thought about the millions of refugees around the world facing daunting mountains demanding everything they have to give—and more.

Some refugees are climbing the mountain of security, crossing country borders in the middle of the night—often with bullets chasing them—in search of safety.

Others are facing the mountain of healing, seeking relief from physical and emotional traumas most of can’t even imagine.

Some are facing the mountain of economic viability, having lost everything and trying to start over in a strange place with no safety net.

Unlike us, they didn’t choose to climb these mountains. They have no choice.

Each morning they have to get up and put one foot in front of the other. Despite how impossible the summit looks, they can’t stop. Their loved ones are counting on them. There’s no turning back, no escape, no place to return to.

The stakes are life and death. They have to keep going.

But here’s the thing: they can’t do it alone. No matter how hard they work, or sacrifice, or suffer, they can’t do it alone.

They need their version of the African Walking Company to come alongside them. To point them in the right direction. To help them carry the load. To provide them food and shelter. To monitor how they’re doing and what they need to keep going. To cheer them on when feel overwhelmed. To pray with and for them. To stick with them for the long haul, all the way to the summit.

And who is the African Walking Company that millions of refugees need? It’s us! It’s Christians! It’s churches! It’s ordinary people like you and me who consider it an honor to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

The refugee crisis is unmaking the world. There’s no question about that. The tainted seeds of fear and hatred are yielding an unprecedented harvest of death and displacement.

Millions of people have lost everything and they believe they’ve been forgotten.

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But have they been forgotten?

Three years ago a pastor I’d met via Twitter asked me a question that redirected my life and ministry. “You’ve traveled extensively in the Middle East,” he wrote, “so you have friends there. Maybe they know people serving Syrian refugees? I saw a news report that broke my heart, but I don’t know what to do. Can you help?”

I did have friends in the region, and they did know people on the ground—local NGOs and churches—who were serving refugees. After gathering information and carefully vetting groups, my Twitter friend and I started a small fundraising campaign to help support the grassroots heroes we’d discovered in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

Some months later I traveled to the region and met with some of the groups we supported. They introduced me to Syrian refugees living in massive refugee camps or in urban slums. I heard horrific stories of loss and looked into vacant, hopeless eyes.

But I also saw moms find the energy to face another day because of a bag of food offered by a local pastor’s wife. I saw kids laugh while they kicked a soccer ball or drew a picture in a child-friendly space in a church parking lot. I met women who were earning money for their kids’ medical care through a soap-making business a local NGO helped them set up.

I saw hearts beginning to heal. I saw shafts of light in the darkness and flickers of hope.

I saw the power of God’s love—lived out by God’s people—beginning to remake the world for refugees.

I saw men, women and children finding the help they needed to climb the mountain in front of them.

I know that for each of them the summit seemed distant and the path endless and dark. But with courage they put one foot in front of the other. They didn’t give up because they couldn’t.

Since my first trip to the region those refugees have been joined by millions more facing the massive mountain of an unknown future.

The question is: Will they get the help they need to reach the summit?

Will we show up?

Will we be their African Walking Company?

Will we be the guides and porters who come alongside to show the way and help carry the heavy load?

In Mosul and Aleppo and Homs–and throughout the region–the need has never been greater. And the swirling, bitter winds of winter have already arrived.

Are you willing to climb a mountain with refugees? If so, here’s what you can do:

Some of the best information on how to engage with the Middle East refugee crisis, both locally and globally, is provided by We Welcome Refugees. This is a developing movement, empowering the global church to be a key agent of hope and compassion in this crisis. Believing “now is the church’s moment,” We Welcome Refugees provides tangible ways for individuals and churches to support refugees and partner with churches on the frontline of this humanitarian crisis. Their website features educational resources, practical ways to engage, and giving opportunities via several key organizations, including the following:

Preemptive Love Coalition has been in the Middle East for over a decade and is uniquely positioned to reach those who are most vulnerable–on the front lines in both Iraq and Syria serving families fleeing ISIS and other violent militias. Peruse their website to find a wealth of hopeful information and numerous ways to make a difference for refugees. Here’s an example of the kinds of stories you’ll hear from Preemptive Love: stories of hope rising–even above the horrors of Aleppo.

Questscope has been giving at-risk people in the Middle East “a second chance” for over three decades. Now they are first-responders, providing critical and long term assistance for thousands of families literally on the run for their lives in Syria. Just this week, Questscope is rescuing 4000 women and children from Homs, Syria. You can give desperately needed funds for those families here.

World Relief works through churches in the US as well as throughout the Middle East and Europe to provide emergency and long-term assistance for refugees. Check out their website to see how your church can get involved.

World Vision provides vital emergency resources for refugees in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey.

For information on additional great organizations, check out this blog I posted last Christmas.

Or give generously to your own favorite NGO.

Kilimanjaro is a walk in the park compared to the mountains faced by the world’s refugees.

Let’s show up and be their African Walking Company. Let’s give them the help and the hope they need to keep climbing. Let’s join them for the long haul so we can hear them say, We did it! We conquered the mountain! Let’s pour the hot sweet tea and celebrate!

Photos by Lynne Hybels, Chelsea Hudson and Christine Anderson.

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Help First-Responders Rescue 4,000 Syrian Women & Children–NOW

Questscope is one of my favorite organizations serving refugees and displaced people in the Middle East. I’ve traveled with them, I’ve seen their programs, I’ve met their top leaders as well as grassroots volunteers. I just received the following email update about an immediate and critical need. Would you join me this weekend in giving on behalf of 4,000 women and children. Just $50,000 can lift them from despair to dignity and hope.

From Questscope

4,000 women and children are currently being evacuated from two besieged towns in the Idlib governorate of western Syria to designated areas around the city of Homs – right now, this week. They have lived under siege for more than three years. Our team there will coordinate this move and provide support and shelter.

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The Need

These women and children have experienced three years of siege, never clean water, no medical care, always gnawing hunger. They need everything from doctors to dry, warm clothes. And it is winter in Syria. Like winter in Ohio, only more wind.

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Here’s What Questscope Staff is Doing:

Coordinating safe passage to the safe area
Providing emergency food aid & clean water
Winterizing shelters
Donating warm clothes and blankets
Setting up & staffing medical clinics
Offering trauma counseling
Creating educational activities so children can feel “normal” again

How Can You Help?

We have one week to act. One week to show 4,000 women and children that their suffering is not forever.

We have experienced staff and willing volunteers on the ground.

But we do not have the funds needed to purchase the necessary medicines and medical supplies

Help us surround these 4,000 women and children coming out of a three–year siege with loving life-saving care.

$50,000 would get this going for them – $12.50 per woman, per girl, per child – the price of a couple of Christmas-special lattes!

Wow! What a latte can do!

Do it with us! Please! You can give here.

From Lynne: If you’ve read this far in this blog, I know your heart has been gripped. Can you give $10? $25 $100 $10000? Whatever amount you can give will help us help Questscope do what God has uniquely gifted and positioned them to do NOW!

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Don’t let this be the end for Syrian families!!!

I just donated. Join me? It’s easy. You can do it right now here.

Questscope is a humanitarian organization for people whose lives have been ravaged by war and poverty. For over 25 years we have provided alternative education, mentorship, and emergency aid throughout Jordan and Syria. We are a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization. Your gift is tax-deductible within the guidelines of U.S. law.
615 1st Ave. NE, Suite 500, Minneapolis, MN 55413 │ 612.607.6476 www.questscope.org │ rachelstone@questscope.org

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December–The Quiet Month

I actually wrote this blog a year ago. Called “Confessions of a December Dropout,” I wrote it to give myself–and anyone else who needed it–permission to opt out of the crazy hustle and noise of the season. Turns out I need that message even more this year than I did a year ago. The weariness I felt in December ’15 I feel even more deeply now, and the quietness that beckoned me twelve months ago calls with even greater insistence today. So, here’s to a quiet month, a month of slowed down hours and simple pleasures, a month of deep healing and profound joy and the anticipation of new birth. Join me?

As a child I loved December. I loved the music, the decorations, the gift giving, the church Christmas programs, the family gatherings. Every Christmas Eve my mom and dad, brother and I slept overnight on couches and in sleeping bags at my aunt and uncle’s house. My brother and I loved joining the chaos created by our six cousins—five girls and a boy. Christmas morning broke early and after a slow reading of the Christmas story, the pandemonium of wrappings and ribbons and exclamations of delight began. I loved it! Every year I loved it!

But after thirty years as an adult, managing Christmas in a pastor’s family, I had to admit that I hated December. December = rush. December = stress. December = impossible expectations. December = anything but peace, joy and love.

So I started saying no to December.

I quit sending Christmas cards. Actually I’d quit sending them years earlier. But every year I still bought them, thinking that year I’d send them for sure. Now I don’t pretend. I know I’m not going to send them so I don’t even buy them.

I quit decorating my house for Christmas. I actually love Christmas decorations and I used to spend days decorating the house—with a different, lovely theme each year. But somewhere along the way it started feeling more like work than pleasure. So I started doing less…and less…and less.

This year, whenever the grandsons come over, they pick out whatever decorations they choose from the Christmas boxes in the basement and we display them wherever they choose. We’ve got Christmas stockings hanging in some very interesting places this year, and not much else. We won’t win any decorating awards, but seriously, if it delights the little boys it delights their nana!

I quit hosting parties. One reason I used to decorate so lavishly is that we hosted a big annual party. We’d move furniture out and set up tables throughout the living area of the house, offering a sit-down dinner for international guests visiting the Chicago area. It was lovely, much appreciated, and it made me miserable. I’m not the hostess with the mostest. I tried. It made sense in my heart. But it makes more sense now, with the party hosted by someone else—by a woman who could pull it off with one arm tied behind her back and a smile on her face.

Now during December I’m big on spur-of-the-moment visits with close friends. Nothing beats a cup of tea in front of the fireplace—a moment of calm—with someone you love but don’t see as often as you’d like.

I quit going to the mall. My shopping list gets shorter and shorter each year. This year, if you’re not one of my grandsons, you’re probably not on my list. Sorry. I’ve never been a good shopper—and I’m especially bad in December.

I don’t do cookie exchanges. Last week 4-year-old Mac and I made sugar cut-out cookies—mostly stars because the star cookie cutters (in multiple sizes) worked much better than Santa and his sleigh (clearly a bad design). Our cookies were neither gorgeous nor delicious. But boy did we have fun! And boy did the red and green sprinkles end up everywhere! Actually, Mac and I did exchange cookies with our initials on them, so I guess—technically—I did do a cookie exchange this year.

So, with all that stuff I don’t do in December, what do I do?

I listen to music really loud. I tend to go heavy on flute and harp. Alternative. Instrumentals. Ballads. Whatever makes me happy on a given day.

I write notes. This is not the same as sending Christmas cards. There’s no list. Sometimes it’s just a fleeting thought of someone that prompts me to write a few words of cheer. I wish I did this twelve months a year, but I don’t.

I sit in a chair and look out the window. Eleven months a year I’m an introvert living a very extroverted life. In December I introvert to my soul’s content. I let life simmer because I need to before I begin a New Year.

I enjoy my aging parents. Last December I visited my mom early in the month and realized her health was failing faster than I’d thought. Because my December was so uncluttered I was free to stay with her in Michigan for most of the month. She died last July and I am so very thankful I had that slowed-down Christmas with her last year. Tomorrow I’ll go to visit my dad, grateful I have the December-freedom to do this.

I lean into the Joy of Advent. I spent much of the past November in Iraq, Israel and Palestine, meeting with war-weary, suffering people. I entered December weary myself, as we all are now. Weary of war and violence and hatred and fear. Weary of wordy politicians and incomprehensible extremists and thoughtless pundits.

Weary. Weary. Weary.

So, I light a candle in the darkness of the early morning, turn to my assorted Advent books, and search for words of hope, for promises of life, for assurances of a better end to our story than what we are seeing now.  Though it looks in many ways like hatred and fear are winning, I’ve seen real-life heroes in frightening places loving bravely in Jesus’ name.

In January I’ll get back to work, hopefully in a way that is true to the Kingdom Jesus brought to earth. But for now, in December, I sit, I wait, I ponder the beauty and joy of that Kingdom—and I allow myself to be refreshed by the mere thought of it.

I don’t expect most people to drop out of December as I have. I’m old and everybody knows I lean toward the counter-cultural, so I manage to get away with it. But maybe you, or you, or you, will at least find a little freedom here to say no to an occasional December demand, or to a particularly draining (for you) expectation. Maybe that will give you a moment, or an hour, or a day to invest differently this December, to invest in a more soul-filling way.

And if you’re one who thrives in the chaotic noise and stimulation and pace and festivities of December, I cheer you on.  I’ll stand in the back and enjoy all that you create and host and send and bake and give and present to the world.  I’ll be your quiet little sister saying, Wow, look at that! Isn’t that great! Isn’t she amazing!

December is a glorious challenge—full of potential and pitfalls in equal measure. My prayer is that with a little thought and decisiveness, many of us will be able to look back in January and say, Wasn’t that a great December!

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What I’m Thankful For

I actually wrote this blog the weekend before the election. I decided that for two days I would shut out the steady stream of negative and depressing political rhetoric and focus on a few things I’m thankful for. Unfortunately, before I could post the blog, my computer succumbed to a severe virus and crashed. But as the negative and depressing political rhetoric continues—and as Thanksgiving approaches—I offer these humble and meandering thoughts. Continue reading

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Hear the Mother’s Prayer: Bring Down the Peace!

The following is a guest post from my dear Israeli friend Lisa Loden. Lisa is a theologian, a leader of contemplative prayer retreats, an advocate for women in leadership…but mostly, she is a courageous and passionate peacemaker who longs to see God’s people living the reality of reconciliation. On October 19, Lisa joined thousands of Israeli and Palestinian women in a March of Hope sponsored by Women Wage Peace. I guarantee you will be inspired by Lisa’s description of the march.

Guest Post by Lisa Loden

As someone who longs for and actively pursues peace, to join a march with thousands of women who share this passion was not much of a question for me. Despite never having taken part in a public march, this one, from the first time I heard about it seemed right. It was more than right; it was a hope-inspiring journey for me. Continue reading

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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…. Continue reading

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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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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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