Drama: Make-believe/The Last Ship vs. Real Life: The Ebola Outbreak

I’ve been watching “The Last Ship” a new drama series on television. I binged watched eight episodes in two days. It was the beginning of my vacation and I was trying to “veg out” from all the stress of my job, particularly in the last month. So why was I watching a show about a spreading global pandemic?

For the last month at work, I have been intensely dealing with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. This dreadful disease has become an epidemic. There is no known cure for the virus that in the past has claimed the lives of 90 percent of its victims. The outbreak in 2014 has been the largest outbreak of Ebola in history and it happens to be in the region of the world that I have responsibility. I have been in constant conversations and meetings arranging flights for evacuation, dealing with death and attempting to calm fears. This has been the order of my days lately. That and seeing the increasingly horrible details in the media of riots at health facilities, health care workers not returning to work, death and more death.

The bright spot in this very difficult real life drama is that I have the pleasure of being accompanied in these task by two wonderful teams: the Global Mission Madagascar, West/Central Africa Team and Diakonia. We have been working together to build a response strategy for the ELCA that helps the crisis and holds up hope for the people in the region.

As I write, this Ebola outbreak has claimed over 1400 lives in Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Nigeria has the fewest cases at 12 with 5 deaths thus far. This is due, in part, we believe because of the preparedness of health care workers and facilities in Lagos.

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Dr. Scott from “The Last Ship” collecting samples.

On the make-believe show, “The Last Ship” millions of people have died all over the world from an airborne virus that no one has a cure of a vaccine for. One big plot line includes a female doctor, Rachael Scott, who is initially on the naval ship Nathan James through false pretenses. It is eventually revealed that she is on the ship to collect samples from birds who scientist believe are the initial carriers of the disease. Dr. Scott is collecting samples from places like Antarctica where they believe the virus originated so that she can develop some sort of treatment. Coincidently, the ships trip causes them to be away from the places where this airborne disease is spreading rapidly.

One thing that makes me profoundly grateful is that the Ebola virus is not an airborne disease. The Ebola virus is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected person: blood, vomit, urine and other waste.Scientists believe that the virus originated from people eating wild infected animals specifically fruit bats that for some are a delicacy. The good news is that sitting next to someone who is infected is not a huge risk, but on the flip side caring for someone with the virus could be deadly. That is why many health care workers have become sick.

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Worker being decontaminated in Liberia

Unlike the modern and advanced technology that they have on the television show, health facilities in Liberia and Sierra Leone are not so well equipped. When the first cases were discovered in February there were no hazmat suits, no isolation wards and sometimes no latex gloves for health care workers. Health care workers in many of these facilities in West Africa still have very little protection and have been hesitant to return to work. Many organizations including the ELCA are responding to the crisis by helping to secure and air freight some of this personal protective equipment.

On the ship, on the television show, six volunteers were asked to be guinea pigs as a vaccine is tested. They are isolated in a well built isolation ward on the ship. All the doctors and anyone helping in the ward have pristine white hazmat equipment. The volunteers are injected with what is thought to be a vaccine; then they are injected with the virus. There are of course many plot twists and turns. The result of this activity is that one of the volunteers dies, but by the end of the episode the other five are recovering and Dr. Scott announces that she has found not only a vaccine, but a cure. The finale is on Sunday and I will miss the episode where they attempt to take this vaccine, this cure back to the United States where people have been isolated from one another and that has been pure chaos.

The finale of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has yet to be determined. Advisors from the World Health Organization (WHO) says that it may be anywhere from three to six months before the virus is contained. We who work for the church are hopeful; we are praying for God’s healing and restorative  grace to show us how to pray and to respond. Will you pray also? Will you donate to the ELCA Ebola Outbreak Appeal? Help hasten the end to this virus. It will not be as easy as eight 50 minute episodes, but with God’s help…….

Who Decides? Race, Skin Color, Ethnicity – Part II

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Chimanandu Ngozi Adiche, Nigerian born writer and activist uses Ifemelu a character in her book Americanah to talk about race. She writes, ” I became black when I came to America.” This character tells about her experience as an African National in America and how her race consciousness was developed. I suppose growing up in Nigeria this character never had to think about the color of her skin, but coming to America her blackness, her race was ever present.

This is the same thing that Abdou said to me as he told me the story of coming to the US in the 1970’s. He was born in Senegal and he never had to think about the color of his skin. This changed  when he came to the US to go to college in Louisanna. There he learned how the color of your skin sets you apart from others. Abdou was taught this by way of a painful lesson. He ran track for the university and liked to run everyday through the same neighborhoods that his white team mates often ran through. As he ran he was attacked by a dog and while he was being attacked people in the neighborhood stood around and watched. No one came to his aid. As a matter of fact, some of them pointed and snickered. He made it back to the university, got treatment and was scolded by his coach. His coach told him that he should have known that because he was black that he could not run in that neighborhood. How could he have known? No one had ever explained.

Abdou’s real life lived experience, the reality Adiche’s puts in the mouth of her character is the experience of many who grow up in Africa and come to the US. Until they are here there is no consciousness about the color of their skin. This experience is a much different experience then being born a descendent of Africans on US soil. For those of us born in the US— very early on in our lives—race, the color of our skin is an ever present reality.

I do not remember a time when skin color was not a topic of conversation in my growing up. Whether we were playing sidewalk games and reciting “if you’re brown stay around, if you’re black get back.” We learned to judge each other according to skin color. Our folklore, our history, our stories are full of this. Everyone growing up “black” in the US knows about the paper bag test. If your skin tone was the shade of a paper bag or lighter you were offered access to clubs, and institutions that your darker cousins could not gain access. Whether I was at work where my slightly darker hue set me apart from my co-workers, or standing with my friends where my lighter skin was noticed, I have always been conscious of race and skin color and thus my place in the scheme of things.

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” They tell us race,” Adiche writes as Ifemulu, “is an invention, that there is more genetic variation between two black people than there is between a black person and a white person.”  I wonder is this really true. I have read scholars who say that race is a social construct. If race is simply a social construct then why can’t we deconstruct it? How do we overcome some of its affects? Besides that, how should we define who is related to whom? And who is Black?

Throughout history the answer to the question, “Who is black? varies depending on where you are in the world. In the United States of America, it is clearly defined. There is what is called, “the one-drop rule.”  According to F. James Davis in his book, Who Is Black? One Nation’s Definition, “. . .  a black is any person with any known African black ancestry or. . . a single drop of “black blood” makes a person a black.”  As time has passed all who are born and raised in the United States have come to accept this. Broadly this is a concept that has been internalized through socialization. Whites and Blacks alike adhere to this concept.

So what does this mean as we move around the world? As we become a more global community? As people of all hues and shades visit the shores of the US?

Let’s keep talking. As always, I am westafricabound.

Race, Skin Color, Ethnicity …. Across Continents Part I

Bantoura, Toubob, Pulaar…..

I have been called each of these things in the last few months. Bantoura means white person in Hausa. This is what a group of children yelled as Dana and I visited a school in Nigeria. I thought they were just talking about her, until they ran up to me rubbing my skin.

Andrea and Dana in Nigeria

Andrea and Dana in Nigeria

In Senegal, I was referred to as Toubob, that means foreigner and most often is used to talk about those of European ancestry. But not exclusively, it can mean someone from somewhere not Senegal. I didn’t mind this so much once I understood.

In Senegal, I am also sometimes mistaken for someone who is Pulaar. This happens especially when I am dressed in brightly colored African clothes. I was in a fabric market in Dakar with Rebecca and Anne buying cloth and a man came in and began speaking to me in Pulaar. Of course, I didn’t know what he was saying and Anne laughed because she understood him and engaged in a dialogue. I have been given the name Penda Baa, by my Pulaar cousins in Linguere. They have owned me, adopted me and said I belong.

The issues of race and belonging are issues that I struggle with as I do this global work. I believe these are struggles of many of us of the African Diaspora. Am I African? Am I American? Am I both? Can I self define?

Who am I?  What I am? are questions I have been asked while on the continent of Africa. I have shown photos of loved ones and some are surprised, others say of course….because my loved ones come in varying shades from the lightest, light to the deepest brown…..My son and grandson are a perfect pecan brown, while my beloved grandmothers are one a deep coffee color and the other the color of the cream for that coffee.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to speak to those gathered for the synod meeting of the Lutheran Church of Senegal. As I spoke to them about their strength to overcome the obstacles they faced, to be self reliant. I talked about my experience. I told them about my coffee colored grandmother and the strength of a community descendant from those enslaved.  I told them I was a descendant  of those who were taken from Africa’s shores. I said that those who survived the middle passage, my ancestors, were known for the strength to withstand obstacles.

Speaking at Lutheran Church of Senegal Synod Meeting

Speaking at Lutheran Church of Senegal Synod Meeting

As they looked at my light skin, this puzzled them; so I told them that my ancestors were also Europeans, those  who owned the boats and traded in people from the African Continent. This is the truth of our lives, those of us who are called African America.

I would like to explore some of these realities. Please walk with me as I discuss some of the issues of race and belonging from across continents.

I am westafricabound.

Dust

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Driving through Nigeria in the middle of the Harmattan, I am struck by the starkness of the landscape. Everything is dry, dust is like a heavy film everywhere on everything. At first it is hard to breath; then your nostrils and lungs become use to it. There is hardly the sight of green anywhere. Experiencing this barren, starkness reminds me that Lent is approaching. Ash Wednesday is at hand and the marking of foreheads with dusty ashes in the shape of a cross will soon take place.

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Ash Wednesday was always an intense time for me as a congregational pastor. It was the day when there was a steady stream of people coming into the church. There was usually two services, one at noon and then one in the evening.  In between the services, random people who hadn’t been to church in a long while would come in and ask “pastor can I get some ashes.” Why would anyone want to be reminded of their mortality?

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

The day was particularly challenging and emotional during the part of the worship liturgy when the young people would come to the altar rail. Children that I had baptized,  teenagers that I had confirmed, would come–even mothers would bring their small babies to have that cross of ash etched on their foreheads. It was a solemn moment for me, these were my kids, and here I was reminding them of the inevitability of …. well you know. Using my thumb to mark this cross on their foreheads was different than marking a tiny forehead with oil at baptism. It was different than that fragrantly traced mark that held the smell of oil of clove and cinnamon and signaled a beginning–an entering into a new life. This dusty stark mark was a reminder of death.

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

As I sit writing, the reality that we are fragile, mortal human beings is right in my face. I am thinking of and praying for those who I have come to know in this short time working globally and how many of them are experiencing the fragility of life. I think of those who are holding the hands of loved ones attempting to stare down disease and sickness. I pray for those who are experiencing the struggle of getting to the other side of hardship. Tears fill my eyes just as they did when I marked the foreheads of those babies, my children. My heart breaks at the thought ………

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Yet, as I sit in this early morning darkness, I am reminded not only of life’s fragility, but the meaning of the cross.

Yes, Ash Wednesday, the forty days of Lent serve as a time for us to remember our mortality, our fragility, our helplessness in the reality of sin and death. Yet that sign, that mark on our foreheads, that cross is a promise of life, of love of a future. Yes, we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return; we also remember the life given for us on a cross.

Driving through Nigeria, at first glance  all I can see is desert, bareness, hard solid rock formations, dust all around, but even in that dust there is new life.

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I am westafricabound.

The Power of Story

In the past month I have had a number of experiences that have reminded me of the power of story. First, I traveled with colleagues to Mexico City for an experiential meeting. In this meeting, we used what is called in the Latin American community “participatory process” to discover new ways of working together. This process begin with each of us telling stories of our past, preferably, as we were instructed, things that no one else knew about us. There were stories told of  college pranks, family issues, trying times, unique encounters and the like. These stories gave us all an opportunity to be drawn in to the personal side of our colleagues, a side we may not see from day to day in our office cubes. It was insightful and helped me to have a better appreciation for those with whom I share a common purpose.

The second occurred, when I traveled to Allentown, PA to rendezvous with two women from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Gambia (ELCTG). Rev. Bass and Ms. Luigiasa were visiting  a family who has supported the ministry in the Gambia for years. They were there to share with congregations and organizations the story of this relatively new church that is working to help educate the children, bring hope to the poor and empower the women of the Gambia.

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I witnessed this ministry of the ELCTG first hand when I stopped in the Gambia in October on my way home from visiting the Lutheran Church in Senegal (ELS). The Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Gambia began in 1999 from the efforts of a few people including Rev. Thomas. In the last 15 years he and his wife Rev. Bass have taken a vision of what is possible with God and created a community of Lutheran believers in the Gambia. They have been mentored by pastors of (ELS). With the help of the ELS, the ELCTG is now working toward inclusion in the Lutheran Communion of West Africa (LUCWA) and an official church to church companion relationship with the ELCA.

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While in the Gambia, I heard the stories of the women and saw the work they were doing to achieve economic viability. I heard the stories of the inability to pay school fees for children, from women who went out everyday to stand by the side of the road selling peanuts and other goods. They want so much to provide a better life for their children and they are willing to work harder than you and I can imagine. I heard the stories of twenty-something year old women that wanted to get an education and had gone through tremendous hardship to realize this possibility. When Rev. Bass told me she may be coming to the US, I told her if she got here, I would make my way to visit. So she got here and I went to Allentown, PA to keep my word and support this budding relationship.

In Allentown, I was privileged to hear Rev. Bass’ story and I won’t tell it here, because it is her   story to tell. What I will say is that in what she saw as the opulence of the United States of America, she became hesitant and did not want to tell her story. The people she was meeting, the women that she saw have much more than she does; they live lives with ready access to resources that are not available to most women born in the Gambia. I am sure you can see how this might make one feel.  It was as though she thought her  story made her “less than.” This made me sad.

Yet, she dared to tell me her story. As I listened what I heard was indeed powerful. Hearing this story I was drawn in, mesmerized and amazed at the strength of this beautiful black woman that seemed uneasy in these unfamiliar surroundings. I was taken aback by the strength of her faith and the witness of God’s power in her life. And that’s what I told her.

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When I told her what I thought, her eyes lit up and I could tell she was thinking of things in a new way. At least, I pray that she was and that she will continue to summon the courage that comes from God to speak out of her lived reality. I want her to tell her story, so that you can hear about the amazing things that God is doing through this woman and the community that she has helped to bring into being.

And I pray that we will all continue to listen to the stories of those we encounter so that we might be reminded that our stories are connected and these stories witness to the power of God in the world.

I am westafricabound.

Still Praying for Peace

“Almighty and ever-living God, you revealed the incarnation of your Son by the brilliant shining of a star. Shine the light of your justice always in our hearts and over all lands, and accept our lives as the treasure we offer in your praise and for your service, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.” (ELW, prayer for Epiphany)

It was over a year ago when I offered a prayer and wrote about the silence as it concerns the security situation in the Central African Republic. I can say that there has been some light shone on the trouble and the world is now paying a little attention to this, one of the poorest countries on the continent. World leaders are able to see that the situation of violence in the C.A.R. is an ongoing crisis. Since last year there have been moments of peace and stability, but only moments. In August, violence broke out;  then there was a moment of quiet. Taking notice the government of France sent additional troops. Despite the presence of increased foreign military, this fall, more violence has erupted.

I still haven’t been able to visit the Central African Republic, but have been right at the border in Garoua Baloui, Cameroon. In November, regional representatives from Cameroon, Anne and Willie Langdji,  and Dr. Susan Smith who serves as the education specialist for the church in CAR with other partners of the church from Germany and Denmark were able to have a meeting with the leaders of the ELC-RCA.

The leaders of the ELC-RCA shared with us stories of the tragedies that they have witnessed. These stories were replete with horror, but tinged with the faith that the storytellers held. We were able to pray for peace and share a Thanksgiving Day meal together. I can only hope that this gave the leaders from the ELC-RCA just a slight respite from the instability they have been living with for over a year.                                                        

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It is hard for many of us who live in countries who have not seen war on our shores to understand how those who live in states of violence and chaos can function. I imagine it would be close to impossible for me to get myself together in such a situation, especially long enough to have a meeting. Yet, they were there sharing with us knowing the situation may not be much different when they return. I saw in these leaders of the church tremendous faith, resilience and strength. I can only hope that our presence gave them comfort to know that their partners stand with them in prayer.

I can only wish for such faith, resilience and strength. All I can do is pray and do my job. Sitting on this side of the world it all seems like so little. Yet, as part of my job I have been working with regional representative, diakonia and others in ELCA-Global Mission to see how we can respond to this current emergency. We want to accompany the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Central African Republic as they help the people of CAR. So many are internally displaced and have lost their homes, communities and livelihoods.

What I hope is that you will continue to pray for peace in all parts of the world that are experiencing unrest, and violence. I pray that we can together hold on to faith in the one who promises us light in darkness and hope in hopelessness. I hope God will heed our prayers for our friends in the ELC-RCA and the people of the Central African Republic.

As always, I am westafricabound.

The Joys of SMC

Last week I attended my very first Global Mission Summer Missionary Conference (SMC). It is the time when global personnel from all over the world are on their bi-annual home assignment stay. That means that every year half of the global personnel that are sent by the ELCA out into the world to accompany Lutheran Churches and other institutions are gathered. The SMC which takes place at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin offers fellowship, formation and fun. There were about one hundred and twenty-eight people in attendance which includes most of the Global Mission staff that work at the Lutheran Center in Chicago.thCAE8E71C

Carthage is a beautiful setting; it is right on Lake Michigan. It provides an opportunity to sit on the beach, watch the moon rise and have pleasant walks in the morning. During the conference there is time for worship and reflections. In the college chapel, worship with preaching and eucharist begins the conference and a remembrance of baptism and anointing ends the SMC. Every other day of the SMC devotions are offered as we gather for plenary.

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There is also a chance to hear engaging Lutheran Theologians. This year Rev. Dr. Carmelo Santos and Rev. Dr. Barbara Rossing talked to us about origin and destination narratives. Dr. Santos told us that as a person from Puerto Rico his history included Africans, Indians and Europeans. As he showed us a statue that represented this history, he said that parts of his origin narrative, part of his story is one of violence and oppression. This is the part that no one sees or makes explicit. Thus portions of his history, part of his origin narrative is unspoken.  So the popular story that we hear of the beautiful people on the island of Puerto Rico is an invented story. Because of this Dr. Santos let us know that stories of origin are invented and his origin narrative is broken. He also assured us that being invented does not mean these stories are not true, but if invented these stories can be re-invented. He also told us that a broken narrative can be mended.

The other meaningful part of SMC is simply being with old friends and meeting new people. I welcomed a new long-term missionary that is going to Sierra Leone, Rev. Morsal Collier. I got to hang out with Rev. Dr. James Thomas a professor from Southern Lutheran Theological Seminary. He is going on sabbatical; Dr. Thomas will be teaching for a semester at Good News Theological College and Seminary in Ghana. Other members of the West Africa team, Joe and Deb Troester who serve in the Central African Republic were also there.

Part of the job of Area Program Directors is to meet with global personnel for consultations and debriefing. During this time I had the pleasure of having conversations with global personnel serving in West Africa that I have never met: Mary Beth and Bayo Oyebade and Sarah and Dirk Stadtlander.  The Oyebades serve in Nigeria at Mashiah Foundation and the Stadtlanders have completed service in Linguere Senegal.IMG_2159

At every SMC  there is recognition and celebration at a formal banquet. This year there was recognition of Mashiah Foundation and the supporters of that ministry the Upper River Iowa Conference of the Northeastern Iowa Synod. Also, there was recognition of long-term global personnel completing service through videos and certificates. Although just getting to know the Stadtlanders, I was able to thank them for their service and tell the gathered community of their deep and abiding banquet SMC Stadtlanderlove for the people, the culture and country of Senegal.

It was an intense but good week. I look forward to many SMCs and getting to meet wonderful people who serve all over the world.

I am westafricabound.

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