Pondering: A Mountain, A Kayak, An Act of Solidarity
I’m training to climb a mountain. On March 3 I'll begin the ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro—the famous Mountain of Light. Climbing Kili wasn’t on my bucket list. I wasn’t bored and looking for something to do. And I definitely was not in physical readiness to climb anything. Thanks to interruptions and injuries, I’m still not ready. But I’m committed to giving it my best, accepting that I may well be one of the 15 percent of Kili climbers who doesn't make it to the top. Oh well.
I’m climbing Kili with fifteen other women as part of a grassroots organization called One Million Thumbprints (1MT) to raise awareness and funding for women impacted by the violence of war in Syria/Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan. I’ve written about my personal commitment to 1MT and women impacted by war here.
Our goal is to summit Kilimanjaro on March 8, International Women’s Day, hoping to draw international attention to how women are wounded in war and what we can do to help them heal. Funds raised will support on-the-ground initiatives implemented by World Relief, a Christian humanitarian organization I’ve partnered with for years.
Is It Really Worth It?
Some may think it’s a waste of time and/or money to climb a mountain for a cause. Why not just tell stories and raise money? they ask. If you want to climb a mountain, climb a mountain, but call it what it is: a personal dream or goal. Don’t pretend it’s “for suffering women.” What difference will it make to women in war zones if you climb a mountain?
I understand those questions. I’ve asked them. But during the summer of 2013 I found an answer.
On an impulse, a friend challenged me to kayak on Lake Michigan from the coastal town of South Haven, north to the town of Saugatuck, and back again to South Haven—a round trip of 36 nautical miles. If I did it, my friend promised to donate $10,000 to my favorite cause.
On an impulse, I accepted. I’d recently returned from my second trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the deadliest place on earth to be a woman. I knew the difference $10,000 could make for the women I’d met. I wished my friend would donate the money without making it contingent on my kayaking skills. But, that was the deal.
For two months I trained, kayaking along the coastline a bit further each day. Then on Monday, August 26, at 6:45 a.m. I paddled out the South Haven channel and headed for Saugatuck. Local fishermen—the unquestioned experts on Lake Michigan—described that day’s waves as steep four-footers, with winds of 12-18 knots. It was not a great day for kayaking, but it was the only free day I had.
At 9:45 p.m., after paddling for 15 hours straight—and still four miles short of my goal—I had to quit because darkness made it too dangerous to continue. I blogged about the many lessons I learned that day. Here’s a section from that blog that is my answer to the "Is it worth it?" question:
In between the spectacular highs of feeling "in the zone" and the devastating lows of feeling so exhausted I had to fight back tears, there were long stretches when I could settle into a paddling rhythm that allowed for reflection. I found myself asking two questions over and over again: Why am I doing this? What does this matter?
There was, of course, an easy answer to the first question. I was doing this to raise money for Congo. But throughout the day it became increasingly clear it was about more than money. I felt an intensity of intention—I don’t know what else to call it—that went well beyond thoughts of what $10,000 could do in Congo.
I became convinced that if the financial incentive were eliminated altogether, I would still feel that same intensity, that same feeling that "I have to do this for Congo." That surprised me. What was that about?
Throughout the day, I prayerfully recited names of friends in Congo—Marcel, Cyprien, Charles, Dr. Monique, Charlene—and envisioned faces and photos and scenes from my travels there. I wondered what was happening on the streets of Goma, in Rutshuru, at the World Relief headquarters, in the various IDP and refugee camps. Was the violence waning or escalating? Were my friends safe?
To the “why am I doing this?” question I settled on this answer: I am doing it as an act of identification and prophetic imagination. As I beat against the violence of these waves, I am beating against the violence that rips apart Congo. As I set my gaze against the wind, I am staring down the forces of evil and destruction. It is paddling as solidarity.
Does it matter? Does an act of solidarity a continent away from atrocity make a difference? I don’t know. Objectively, I suppose not. I have no illusions that anything changed on the ground in Eastern Congo because I was paddling on a lake in Middle America.
And yet . . . I had to do it. For Congo, I had to keep going. I was shocked by how deeply I felt that.
Since that day, I’ve been thinking more about acts of solidarity. Maybe such acts matter only to the people doing them. I wish that weren’t true, but if it is, I think it’s still worth doing them. Even if I didn’t change Congo by paddling harder and longer than I thought I could, I certainly did change my passion for Congo.
Maybe that’s all I had the power to change and maybe that’s what I was called to change. I will say this: Monday’s experience fueled an energy in me that is still building. An energy to advocate more effectively, speak more loudly, fight with greater intensity—not just for Congo, but for whatever needs fixing in this broken world.
I discovered there’s more in me than I thought and I need to use it for greater good in the future.
I'm still pondering those thoughts as I prepare to climb Kili with a group of women from cities throughout the US. Most of them I’ve never met and won’t meet until we connect in Amsterdam en route to Africa.
But I know something about those women that they might not even know about themselves: that whatever happens on that mountain, they’re going to come home more committed to women in Syria/Iraq, DRCongo, and South Sudan than they can possibly imagine.
On that mountain they will be awed by the beauty of nature, nurtured by the camaraderie of like-minded women, and exhilarated by little successes. But most likely they will also face moments, hours, perhaps days when going on seems impossible and they wonder why they ever agreed to the stupid idea of climbing this mountain.
But then something inside them will click. They’ll remember the women. And for the women they’ll take one more step. Then one more. And one more. And if they make it to the top they’ll cheer for the women. And if they don’t make it to the top they’ll still cheer for the women.
Because they will have given themselves to an act of solidarity with a giant sisterhood of suffering women. And they will be changed by that—as I have been changed and will be changed again.
What about you?
Is There An Act of Solidarity Calling You?
If you’d like to join the 1MT team, there are several ways you can do that: Plan your own 1MT event on March 8, International Women’s Day. Raise and donate funds for the 1MT/World Relief initiatives serving women in war zones. Donate your thumbprint and get your friends to do so. (Seriously, click on the link: the whole thumbprint thing really does make sense!)
Or maybe you’re sensing a nudge toward an act of solidarity that has nothing to do with 1MT. That’s great! Go for it! Whatever taps your passion deserves to have your action. And whatever action you take—however big or small—will bring a little healing to the world, and it will also change you.
Just about everything that’s broken in this beautiful world breaks my heart. But only when I intentionally and concretely take action do I move beyond a passing brokenness to a long-term engagement.
Of course, I can’t do that with every tragedy that breaks my heart. But when I sense God’s spirit saying, “This is yours. You need to get involved,” then I need to do something.
So, I’m gonna try to climb a mountain. At the moment I’m feeling quite overwhelmed and unprepared.
But I think it's worth the effort. And thankfully, I don't feel alone—and not just because of the small group of women climbing with me.
I don't feel alone because I know that all over the world—in war zones and inner cities and suburban neighborhoods—there are women taking action on behalf of those who are wounded and broken, lonely and lost. Those women cheer me on and I hope I cheer them on. And I hope in your own unique way you'll join us.
God, please use the little offerings of our time, our prayers, our money, and our actions to change us—and to give hope and help to our suffering sisters. Amen.