mission trip update

This is the text of an e-mail I sent out last night to a variety of friends and family members. I got a few bouncebacks, so if you think I might have tried to send you one it might be that I have an out-of-date e-mail address for you in my files.

If you would like to be included in further updates, please let me know and I will add you to the list for future updates.

Friends, family, and mission trip supporters:

I have good news!

First, a little bit of background, because I think I am sending this to some newer acquaintances as well as old friends. (If you’d rather not receive future updates, just let me know.) From 2003 to 2010, I took a series of mission trips through a small, non-denominational organization called LEAMIS International Ministries. I went to Nicaragua, Bolivia, Costa Rica and five times to Kenya. I had already decided prior to the 2010 trip that it was time to give my supporters a break, and then the 2010 trip ended up coinciding with Mom’s cancer – I found out she was incurable on the morning I left for Kenya.

By 2013, however, I was talking with LEAMIS’s executive director and co-founder, the Rev. Debra Snellen, about going to West Africa — specifically, Sierra Leone.

I started raising money, and many of you receiving this e-mail were generous enough to give. But the trip had to be postponed – at first, it was scheduling problems and a family situation involving our host in Sierra Leone, the Rev. Gregory Bangura. Then, the trip was rescheduled, although this time Rev. Bangura was going to bring us into neighboring Liberia instead of Sierra Leone. Then, the Ebola crisis shook both countries (as well as nearby Guinea) and we had to postpone the trip again for safety reasons.

Now, with the Ebola situation finally quiet, we are moving forward, and have set new dates for the trip – which is now back in Sierra Leone. The trip is now scheduled for Nov. 16-30. (Yes, I will be out of the country and will miss Thanksgiving.)

Unlike some of my trips, this will not be a big team trip – just me and Debra. LEAMIS has a program called The Jethro Project (named for Moses’ father-in-law, who gave him some good advice about not spreading himself too thin) which conducts Bible-based leadership training for native pastors in developing nations. Many of these pastors have had only some rudimentary Biblical training, but haven’t had any practical training in leadership skills or principles. LEAMIS’s curriculum uses concepts from recognized authors like John Maxwell, along with tools like personality tests.

We’ll also teach some practical skills which the pastors can share with their congregations in various parts of Sierra Leone and Libera. One of these will be SODIS, a system for sanitizing water by leaving it in the sun in plastic soda bottles, where ultraviolet rays can kill harmful bacteria. SODIS (you can learn more at sodis.ch) only works in cases where the water is clear; muddy water won’t work. But it’s cheap, easy and practical, even in the most remote settings. We may end up teaching some cottage industry skills as well. Debra tells me that Rev. Bangura is more of a type-A personality than some of the host pastors we’ve worked with and will likely make the best use he can of us during our short time in Sierra Leone.

Debra and I have been a two-person team once before, during our 2007 trip to Bolivia.

During my initial fundraising, thanks to your generosity, I turned in $2,100 to LEAMIS, and that money has been sitting in LEAMIS’s accounts waiting for the trip. I never did have a hard-and-fast cost estimate on the trip, and I think at one point I thought it was going to cost a total of $3,000 including air fare. Fortunately, the air fare to Sierra Leone is going to be less than what we were told several years ago, and while some aspects of the trip are still being firmed up it looks like most of what I have to send LEAMIS is already taken care of. There still may be some additional costs depending on how those final arrangements come together.

This next paragraph is not directed at those of you who have already given to this trip. I am not asking any of you to give again. But if you have not yet supported the trip and you — or your church, Sunday School class or other group — would still like to make a contribution, I will probably have some other trip-related expenses between now and November – such as a $160 visa fee just to enter Sierra Leone (that’s three times more than any of the visa fees charged by other countries in which I’ve worked), travel insurance, and so on. Depending on what cottage industry workshops we end up doing, I might have to buy some supplies to take with me.

In order for your contributions to be tax deductible, you can still make them payable to LEAMIS, and I can get LEAMIS to reimburse me for legitimate and documented trip-related expenses. Checks made out to me are not tax-deductible, but that’s up to you.

You may mail your check directly to

LEAMIS
P.O. Box 104292
Jefferson City, MO   65110

or give it to me and I will forward it to LEAMIS. If you submit directly to LEAMIS, please let me know so I can thank you promptly.

Now, here’s the fun news. I almost hesitate to mention it, because it makes me sound like a tourist instead of a missionary. But I can’t help myself. You all know that I take this mission work very seriously, as does Debra. But LEAMIS always tries to leave a day at the end of a two-week trip – especially for team trips, but usually even for two-person or three-person trips like this – for participants to debrief each other on the experience, discussing what we learned and processing how our hearts were touched as we unwind a little bit in a pleasant environment before returning to the U.S. Usually, this is done in-country. On four of my five Kenya trips, I had the opportunity to visit wildlife parks on our debrief day. In Bolivia, we visited a city that had a zoo and a beautiful cathedral – although there was a record cold snap on the day of our arrival, which led to a miserable, bit-by-bit 24-hour delay in our departure for America.

But Sierra Leone – much smaller and poorer than Kenya – doesn’t really have a suitable place for us to hold debrief. So instead, we’re going to take advantage of our layover on the way back. When you fly from the U.S. to Sierra Leone, you change planes at Charles DeGaulle Airport … in Paris. So we’ve arranged the itinerary to give us a day in Paris on the way back, and we’ll debrief and unwind while seeing a few sights. Seeing Paris – even though I won’t get to see much of it! – is a bucket list item for me. On my first Kenya trip, we changed planes in London – another city I hope to see one day – and it was so frustrating not to be able to leave the airport!

I just had to share that.

Anyway, please keep me, Debra, and the trip in prayer. I appreciate all of your prayers, thoughts and encouragement over the years.

Memories of Kenya

When I got to Regan Aymett’s class at Learning Way Elementary this morning for my weekly hour of volunteer service through “Raise Your Hand Tennessee,” she and the kids were working on a little story book in which the main character decides to take a trip to Ghana.

I excitedly told Ms. Aymett that I’d been to Africa five times and was planning another trip there this September. I figured she’d just mention the fact right then, while they were working on the book, but instead she suggested I show the kids some photos, presumably next week.

So, tonight, I’ve been digging through photos of my past Kenya trips, trying to pull some that would be suitable for a relatively-secular slide show for second graders.

I have found some good photos. The story book today mentioned African women carrying things on their heads, and I have a photo from our 2005 trip in which the women of the church in Ndonyo carried our luggage up a steep hill to where our van was waiting for us:

2005-12

I will not, however, be showing the second graders this photo, from the hotel where we stayed during the 2009 trip:

P7280094

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.