On the mountain

When the Rev. Amanda Diamond first e-mailed me about the possibility of me lay speaking at Morton Memorial United Methodist in Monteagle, I was thrilled – I have a number of friends at that church, and many memories of attending LEAMIS board meetings and team training events there. It’s a beautiful stone church, I think one of my favorite church sanctuaries.

But the reason Rev. Diamond needed a lay speaker was because of a trip she and others from the church were taking to the Holy Land – a trip that would include my long-time Mountain T.O.P. and LEAMIS friends Kylene McDonald and Bob Willems, among others, as well as Wayne Bradshaw, a new acquaintance with whom I worked earlier this summer on the “Fan the Flame” district laity event. So they wouldn’t be around for me to see.

Several other good friends who didn’t make the Holy Land trip were kept away this morning by family and health issues. Gail Castle was under the weather, while Reed and Deeda Bradford have been giving care to their son Tom through a serious illness.

As much as I would have liked to have seen all my friends, I can’t complain. The congregation at Morton made me feel right at home, and I was well-received. Peggy Partin, who led the parts of the service that I didn’t read, and her husband Richard did not remember me, but I remembered them from previous visits to Monteagle – I know they attended, and may even have hosted, a reception for Rev. Paul Mbithi that I attended.

I was shocked and dismayed, during the prayer concerns, to hear about Bobbie Joy’s cancer diagnosis. Bill and Bobbie attended Morton when they lived in Tennessee, before moving back to Ohio, and the folks at Morton still consider them family.

I’ll put my sermon from this morning up as a separate post in just a bit.

A long day

It’s been a long day but (for the most part) a good one.

The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration started yesterday, but the evening classes – which are the big, showy, public part of the show – began tonight. I had to run out to the show grounds early this morning to drop off a USB drive for the official photographer to put some presentation shots on, and so while I was there I naturally had to stop and bring back a dozen world famous Optimist Club donuts. I had to wait 20 minutes – which was a good thing, because it means I got donuts hot from the fryer. They were still hot when I got back to the paper. I had one donut myself and wandered around giving out the other 11.

But that’s nothing compared to what my co-workers did for me a couple of hours later. We had a fund-raising luncheon for my Sierra Leone mission trip. My father and Ms. Rachel attended as well. We raised $580 in donations, which is wonderful. I need to see if Debra’s made any progress with the airline tickets; I need to know what the final cost is going to be so I know exactly what my target is.

Tonight, of course, I was at the show. I went down to an empty box on the rail to get a picture of the flag horse, and I saw a couple of people waving at me, trying to get my attention. Not to drop names or anything, but it was a Grammy-and-Dove-Award-winning Christian music power couple. I stopped by their box a little later to say hello; I wish I could have stopped and chatted a bit, but I had other stops to make and wanted to let them enjoy their first show on their own. It thrilled me to death that the recognized me and wanted to say hello.

The Celebration is controversial, of course. The difference of opinion is whether or not the bad trainers – like the one in that video that “20/20” showed a few years back – are the exception or the norm. I know people who have horses, and I like to think that the bad trainers are the exception, and that the industry has made progress in the last couple of years in dealing with them. In any case, the Celebration is a big community event, a major fund-raiser for a lot of our school and civic organizations, a chance to see and be seen, and I always just love being there.

Ms. Rachel has had a box for years, and I went and sat with her and Dad for a while.

I had to use my phone to take video tonight. It’s still going crazy. I’m hoping the warranty replacement arrives tomorrow. They will check the phone I’m sending back for water damage, and I worried about having the phone in my pocket tonight when I was so sweaty. I swear, they raise the press box by 20 feet a year, and I had to climb all of those stairs, up and down, three or four times tonight.

I was anxious to see what my Fitbit recorded in terms of flights of stairs and total mileage walked. Unfortunately, at some point in the day my Fitbit seems to have left me. I’m not panicking yet – it may turn up in my car or at the office tomorrow.

Other than that, though, it was a really nice day. I think I got some good video, even on the sick phone, and I’ll post it to the Times-Gazette web site tomorrow morning.

Turkey after all

Our last plan for the Sierra Leone trip involved leaving the U.S. on Thanksgiving, which I reminded Debra would a terrible day to be at the airport. (I would also miss Thanksgiving dinner, but that had been my understanding ever since I first agreed to go on the trip. I just didn’t think we’d be leaving that day.)

Debra agreed, and she asked Pastor Gregory if we could push the trip back a week. So now we’re going to leave the U.S. on Dec. 5, which should be a lot better.

Now, I just have to get my vacation days changed. Everyone at the paper has been terrifically supportive – they’re having a luncheon for me in another couple of weeks. I still feel sheepish that this is the second or third time I’ve had to change my vacation request.

Best of all, this now means I’ll get to have Thanksgiving dinner with the family.

The binder

I was looking for something else tonight and, in passing, decided to grab the three-ring binder from my last foreign mission trip, in 2010, in case there was some information in it that might be relevant to the trip I’m taking this November to Sierra Leone.

I found two things in it I wasn’t expecting.

One was my yellow vaccination card. I’d already gotten the Vanderbilt International Travel Clinic to replace it. They were really nice about it, but the replacement only listed my yellow fever vaccine, not any of the other vaccines I got there in 2002 and 2003 when preparing for my first and second trips. The yellow fever vaccine is the one that you’re most likely to have to show to immigration officials.

Some of those vaccines probably need boosters (which may be why the Vanderbilt clinic didn’t put them on the replacement card), but the clinic has gotten way too expensive and won’t take insurance (or wouldn’t the last time I went there). I need to find an independent doctor who does travel medicine.

The other thing I found was tucked into the plastic cover of the three-ring binder.

It was one of Mom’s hospital bracelets. She was suffering from her pancreatic cancer at the time of that 2010 trip, and I’d saved one of her hospital bracelets from right before the trip and tucked it into the cover of the notebook as a point of contact.

I’ll think about that bracelet at Relay For Life next weekend.

Finish the fight

I don’t know how many lives cancer took today.

I only know about two of them.

Obviously, I never met Roger Ebert. But I admired him greatly as a writer. Most people knew him from TV, but he was a newspaperman first and foremost, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a living symbol of the Chicago Sun-Times. When cancer took his voice and reshaped his face, he kept on going, both in print and on television.

In recent years, his online presence allowed him to write, in thoughtful and brilliantly-expressed views, about a wide range of subjects unrelated to movies. He policed the comment sections under his blog posts, and they consistently drew a high level of spirited but respectful discussion. I often agreed with him and always respected him.

The other life lost to cancer today was Mary Margaret Willems. Her, I knew. We’d been halfway across the globe together as members of a LEAMIS International Ministries mission team. I saw the love in her eyes and the cellophane gloves on her hands as she handed peanut butter sandwiches to special needs kids from Grundy County as part of Mountain T.O.P.’s Kaleidoscope program. How many hours did she spend in the dining hall kitchen at Cumberland Pines, feeding kids, teenagers or adults? There’s no way of telling. I’ve stayed with Bob and Mary Margaret on several occasions when LEAMIS was holding a training event or a board meeting in Monteagle.

Mary Margaret and my mother were both breast cancer survivors. The pancreatic cancer that claimed my mother was, we were told, completely unrelated to her breast cancer. But I believe the cancer that took Mary Margaret was a holdover, an enemy thought vanquished but only lying in wait.

Damn, I hate cancer.

I had a long day of work today, but tonight I’m doing the work of Relay. Bob knows, and Mary Margaret knew, about the American Cancer Society Relay For Life. They were participants, there in Grundy County. They donated to me the first time I did Relay.

On my way back from working for our sister paper in Marshall County, I stopped by House of Prayer Ministries here in Shelbyville to take photos of the dress rehearsal for the annual “Hee Haw & Howdy” revue, a cancer society benefit here in Bedford County since the 1970s. Opening night for this year’s “Hee Haw & Howdy” will be April 12. That was the birthday of another cancer victim: my mother.

After leaving the Hee Haw cast to their hilarity, I had to drop by my father’s house to pick up the strawberry cake he has baked for the Times-Gazette’s Relay For Life bake sale tomorrow. Now, I have the first of two loaves of home-baked bread proofing on my kitchen table, ready to go into the oven in a few minutes. Those loaves will also go into the same bake sale.

Even if you didn’t know Mary Margaret, or my mother, and even if you weren’t a Roger Ebert fan, you have lost someone to cancer. You also know someone who has beaten cancer, almost certainly with the help of advances derived from American Cancer Society-funded research.

The Relay For Life motto is “Celebrate. Remember. Fight Back.” As we celebrate cancer survivors, and remember those we’ve lost, let’s not forget the third part of that equation. Get a colonoscopy. Use sunscreen. Exercise. It’s not too late to form a Relay For Life team, wherever you are, but if that’s not in the cards you can donate to a team or individual. Drop by your local Relay; it’s not just for the registered participants. There will be concessions, and fun activities, and a moving luminaria ceremony.

He’s right. Let’s make some noise; let’s finish this fight.

A cup of water for a child

The death of children is always shocking – when we hear about it and are reminded of it.

Around the world, 800,000 children under the age of 5 are killed by diarrhea each year. That’s 2,200 each day. The key cause is lack of safe drinking water. 

Depending on the source of your statistics, somewhere between 780 million and 1.1 billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water.

I’ve obviously posted about this many times over the years, but not in a while – and when I started explaining it in a comment over on one of Katherine Coble’s Facebook posts, I decided it was time to come back here and give you an update.

When I go with LEAMIS International Ministries to Sierra Leone in November 2013, one thing we’ll do is install a water chlorination and filtration system. This is a major emphasis of LEAMIS, under the name “Project 10:42.” The name is a reference to Matthew 10:42: “I assure you that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.” (Common English Bible)

Who came up with that name, you ask? Modesty forbids an answer.

LEAMIS attacks the clean water issue from two different directions. In cases where relatively-clear, relatively-clean water is available, individuals and families can easily use a process called SODIS to disinfect it. SODIS is as simple as putting water into a clear plastic soft drink bottle and placing it in the sunlight for a designated amount of time. Ultraviolet rays kill the germs. (Plastic soft drink bottles, and I say this with some measure of regret, are available worldwide.)

But I’ve seen people in Kenya dipping water out of muddy ponds. SODIS only works on clear water. So LEAMIS works with the host church in any community we’re serving to install a water purification system at the church. This is a combined system, based on research by pillar-of-the-ministry and former Navy oceanographer Bob Willems.

DuncanFirst, the water is filtered, to get rid of sediment as well as larger parasites. This is accomplished with a series of four 50-gallon drums. The first drum, which must be higher than the others, is your source tank, where the water is collected. The second drum contains gravel and the third contains sand. The top layer of the sand, after a bit of use, actually develops good bacteria and becomes a “biofilter,” making it even more effective. The water is fed by gravity through the gravel filter and then the sand filter and drains into the fourth tank, where it is held for chlorination.

Chlorination kills off the microorganisms too small to be caught by filtration. LEAMIS originally used the McGuire chlorinator, and it’s a good product, but starting with the last trip I took, in 2010, we began using the Hays chlorinator, which is smaller, simpler and less expensive, making it better for the type of projects we do.

Both work on the same principle: electricity is passed through salt water to liberate the chlorine gas. The McGuire unit produces a stream of chlorine gas which you can bubble through a tank of water, or install inline so that it bubbles through running water.

fullpackageThe Hays unit, by contrast, produces a very strong chlorine solution – similar to your favorite bleach, but without any laundry-related additives – which can then be added, in small quantities, to a tank of water. The chlorinator itself is about the size of a softball. In a complete kit, it comes with a small battery and a solar panel with which to charge the battery. In a pinch, it can also be run off a car battery (a common power source in developing countries where not everyone is on the grid).

The complete Hays unit costs less than $600 – a pretty small price to pay, considering it can serve as many as 5,000 people a day.

Consider supporting a missions group that’s involved with clean water, or you can give directly to the producers of the Hays or McGuire units to help them make their products available. Or you could support someone who’s going on a mission trip in the next year or so. (Suffice it to say I have a suggestion along those lines.)

Other countries have elections, too

There will be a major election Saturday in Sierra Leone, the country to which I hope to travel on a short-term mission trip a year from now.

Better the election take place now than a year from now. My last mission trip, to Kenya in 2010, took place just weeks before a big constitutional referendum in that country. Our host pastor – a man I dearly love and respect – had strong feelings about the issue and talked constantly to Jan and me about them. While I was, from a very intellectual standpoint, somewhat interested, I really didn’t have a lot of background to know which side was right, and hearing about it quickly got old. It wasn’t my election, after all.

Of course, I get tense around political discussions even here in this country. Because of my work as a journalist, I don’t feel it’s right to wear my political heart on my sleeve. (Some journalists feel differently, and have good arguments for their position.) So when I am off-duty, and hear friends, family or fellow church members getting into intense, opinionated political discussion – at either end of the spectrum – I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t want to argue or agree; I just sit there feeling uncomfortable, or (if appropriate) I find an excuse to leave the room.

I had hoped that some of the political vitriol would die down after the election, and some of it has, but I still have Facebook friends whining or gloating, as the case may be, about the results. Get over it. We’ve all got to work together for the next two years.

Hopefully, the election in Sierra Leone, however it turns out, will be old news by this time next year, or at least enough of a non-issue that no one will feel like bending the American visitors’ ears about it.

Looking ahead a year

Some facts on Sierra Leone:

From the always-useful CIA World Factbook web site (yes, it really is put together by the real CIA):

Democracy is slowly being reestablished after the civil war from 1991 to 2002 that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than 2 million people (about a third of the population). The military, which took over full responsibility for security following the departure of UN peacekeepers at the end of 2005, is increasingly developing as a guarantor of the country’s stability. The armed forces remained on the sideline during the 2007 presidential election but still look to the UN Integrated Office in Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL) – a civilian UN mission – to support efforts to consolidate peace. The new government’s priorities include furthering development, creating jobs, and stamping out endemic corruption.

Muslim 60%, Christian 10%, indigenous beliefs 30%

This will be the first country I’ve visited where Christianity is in the minority. (For the record, my previous trips were to Nicaragua, Kenya, Bolivia and Costa Rica.) However, note this from Wikipedia:

Sierra Leone is a predominantly Muslim country,[8][9][10] though with an influential Christian minority. Sierra Leone is ranked as one of the most religiously tolerant nations in the world.

From the U.S. State Department travel web site:

Lungi Airport is located across a large body of water from Freetown. There are usually four travel options to and from Lungi airport: helicopter, ferry, water taxi, and by car. None of the options are without risk, and Embassy personnel do not travel from the airport to Freetown by car. The cost for the ferry service is minimal, but the service experiences frequent delays. The ferry terminal is located in East Freetown, which has a higher crime rate than other parts of the capital. When the helicopter is operating, the charge is $120 each way (payable in U.S. dollars). Passengers departing Freetown by air should expect to pay an airport tax of $65.00 (payable in U.S. dollars).

Lonely Planet, meanwhile, gives a good explanation for the timing of the trip, which will cause me to miss Thanksgiving next year:

The best time to visit is November, after the rains and before the dusty harmattan winds blow in and paint the skies grey. During the rainy season, washed out roads make travel to some destinations difficult or impossible, though there are some sunny days at the beginning and end. The further you go into the dry season the more heat you’ll have to endure and the less green you’ll see in the countryside.

Mission trip travel is always an adventure.

In which I announce travel plans

From 2003 through 2010, I went on a series of foreign mission trips through LEAMIS International Ministries – one per year. On the morning I left for Kenya in 2010, my father told my siblings and me that Mom’s cancer was inoperable and thus terminal. She died mere weeks after my return.

Obviously, I had other things to worry about at that point. Even apart from Mom’s condition, and some time before I left on that last trip, I had decided it might be time for a break in the mission trip schedule. I’ve had to rely on the kindness of friends, relatives and co-workers to raise money for the trips, and the Africa trips were especially expensive. I did not want people to get sick of hearing from me or cringe whenever they saw my name on an e-mail.

Over the past couple of years, though, people have frequently asked when I was going to take another trip.

I think I have the answer to that question. I left word last night for Debra at LEAMIS to count me in for a trip to Sierra Leone, in West Africa, a little over a year from now, in November 2013. (I will be away over Thanksgiving.)

Sierra Leone is on the opposite side of the continent from Kenya, and it’s different in culture, size and demographics. It should be interesting to see. This will not be a large team trip; it will be a small group of only two to four people. We’ll be installing water purification systems and doing cottage industry and other types of training.

I will be sending out a fund-raising letter later this month to notify my past mission trip partners of my plans; every now and then, people need to make a charitable gift before the end of the year for tax reasons. I anticipate that more of my fund-raising will take place next year. I don’t have a dollar figure yet, but some casual peeks at air fare to Sierra Leone indicate that it certainly won’t be any cheaper than air fare to Kenya was. And there are all sorts of other little expenses – my passport, which I first got in preparation for that 2003 trip to Nicaragua, expired in August, and I need to get it renewed. But if God wants me to do this, I know the money will come from somewhere.