Thank God for Women — A Conversation with Courtney O'Connell

Courtney O'Connell

Thank God for Women is a blog series rooted in gratitude for the strength, courage, and incredible capacity women demonstrate.


After living and working in South Africa and Zambia, Courtney O’Connell came to World Relief in 2011. With a master’s degree in International Development from Eastern University, Courtney took on the role of Savings for Life (SFL) Senior Program Advisor, supporting program staff in the nine countries where World Relief implements SFL. She loves living in Rwanda, close to where Savings for Life is being implemented, and when she's not working, Courtney can be found running and biking throughout Rwanda's beautiful countryside. Recently, Cassidy Stratton, World Relief’s Marketing Coordinator, had an opportunity to catch up with Courtney to hear how she’s seen World Relief’s Savings for Life program empower women around the world:

Cassidy Stratton: You noted that you had already lived in Africa for 3 years. How did you specifically get connected to World Relief?

Courtney O’Connell: When I was job searching, I knew I wanted to do economic development in Africa with a Christian organization, and so I just went to some of the big names that I could immediately think of. World Relief actually had my current position posted, so without even thinking, or even proofreading, I submitted my resume. And, by the grace of God, I got it.

In my previous work overseas, I had seen organizations that claimed to be Christian on the website, and when I went to the field to see their programs, there was actually nothing Christian about them. And I was not sure if World Relief was like that since I had not seen them overseas. So I reached out to a professor of mine who was writing a book for which Stephen Bauman, the president of World Relief at that time, was submitting a chapter. She forwarded me Stephen’s chapter, which was all about working with the church and the heart and soul of what World Relief is about. As I read it, I said “Man, that sounds really good! And if they are who they say they are then I would totally be in..”

As I left the U.S., I thought, “I’m not selling my car until they prove that they are who they say they are.” Not that my car was nice; it was my Grandma’s hand-me-down Buick. Well, I moved to Rwanda in July of 2011. And I immediately, I fell in love with the way we do our work. Everything Stephen wrote about was true. There truly is a partnership with the local church, and the desire is to see the local church shine, not the organization. And to really infuse and integrate biblical beliefs into programs. To me, that was so unique. I was, and still am, thrilled to be a part of an organization that cares for the vulnerable in the way we do.



CS: Can you tell me more about your current position?

CO: I am the Savings for Life Senior Program Advisor—a program that forms community-based savings groups, where people pool their own money together in order to give loans to each other, charging interest. And after a set period of time—approximately 9 - 12 months—everyone takes back the savings they had put in, plus the portion of interest that they earned. So then it’s a very useful amount of money that a family can use to pay for school fees, invest in their farm, start a business, repair their house and the like. The best thing is that it is all their own money. It’s not like a loan from a bank. And when they go home at the end of this cycle for savings, they have in their hands probably the most amount of money that they’ve ever had at one time. It’s such an empowering program, and it’s great to be a part of it.

World Relief is running this program in 10 countries, and my role is to work alongside the program managers and field staff that are actually running the program. My role is to support them, help set strategies, prepare proposals, and make sure they have all of the tools to run a successful program. It’s cool for me because I get to be pretty close to the action, and I get to walk alongside the staff, the real heroes who are doing the work. Sometimes I feel like a cheerleader, cheering the programs along and helping teams to see what’s possible.



CS: What role have you seen women play in the Savings for Life Program?

CO: In most of the context where we’re working, the women are the glue of the society. They are the strong one’s in the family who make things happen. Unfortunately in most of Sub-Saharan Africa, the traditional gender roles are that the men are the ones who make all of the important household financial decisions and are the controllers of the money. The women are the ones who are tasked to provide for the family on a daily basis, yet they don’t have a lot of authority or even their own money to make things happen.

We hear a lot of testimonies from women saying that it’s embarrassing because they have to go and—they use the word “beg”—their husband in order to get money to buy salt, buy oil, etc. in order to prepare food. If she can’t prepare food then she is not doing her gender role. But in order to do her role within the family, she actually has to ask her husband for help. So it’s this huge power dynamic struggle.

The Savings for Life program worldwide is 80% women. And we see that women are the ones that benefit from this. They say now they do not have to beg their husbands because they can provide for themselves. They have this glow about them—this empowerment, this hope—because they feel like they are now doing the role that they are designed to do. Not only that, but they are also starting new businesses and paying school fees for their children, all things that had only been a dream before.



CS: Can you recall a specific success story of a Savings for Life group?

CO: I remember visiting a savings group at the beginning of their savings cycle, and they said to me, “We’re just poor people and can’t save, so can you give us money?” And then I actually went to visit that same group 9 months later when they were having the day of distribution. They literally had a table mounted with money. You could just see the joy, the hope, the empowerment, the confidence beaming out of them. And they were able to say, “This is our money, and no one helped us do this.” To me, this is what we’re here for. That’s the success. When people say that we can set our own goals and no one else has to do it for us.


CS: Is there a specific woman that has impacted your work?

CO: Another story I want to tell you about is about a woman named Adele. She lives in Burundi, one of the poorest countries where we work. It’s a beautiful country and has a lot of resources, but it also has a lot of poverty and corruption. Adele lives way out in the middle of a village, and Savings for Life comes that way, and she decides that she is going to join. During her first cycle of savings, she was able to buy a goat. This was the very first goat that her family owned. A goat out in the village is first a huge status and second a long-term savings. She was so happy to buy this goat. And by the second cycle of the savings program, she was able to buy a cow. Her family was able to use this cow to plow their fields. The savings group was impacting multiple areas of her life.

A few years after she joined the savings group, the community staff member approached her and asked if she could be a volunteer for Savings for Life, and she accepted. She got trained on how to be a volunteer village agent, and then she went out and started other training groups. Now she’s working in her own community and neighboring communities, helping to teach other people about this program that has been so impacting for her.



CS: How have you seen the savings groups also serve as support groups?

CO: The social aspect of the groups really help. There was a woman in a savings group that became a widow. She ended up moving back to her family, but she had a lot of relational problems and it wasn’t healthy for her stay in the household that she grew up in. And so her savings group actually built her a house. It was their own initiative. World Relief was not part of it at all. It was that this group of women cared for each other so much that they saw their sister in need and did something about it.

To me that is just really powerful how the social aspect of the savings group helps the women walk alongside each other to achieve their goals financially. And to just have social capital and strength. It helps relationships go way deeper.



CS: Have there been any women in your life that have influenced your work and the way you engage with women around the world?

CO: The small group that I’m a part of. There are women here in Rwanda that we meet on a weekly basis to walk through life together. There are challenges of living abroad, and being away from your home culture, and sometimes there are just frustration of life, and to be with other people who you know want the best for you and care about you and ask how they can help you. I have been impacted by that and have found a lot of solidarity and strength from these women.

I liken that to the solidarity and strength other women can get from their Savings for Life group.
  


CS: Why do you Thank God for Women?

CO: I thank God for women because I see the strength that they provide for their families and the hope that they provide for their children. Women are the ones in the family that are able to change course. Their family might have been living in poverty for generations and generations, but if a woman has hope, and has the confidence and the empowerment, then she can change that course for the generations to come.

And I think the real strength in rural communities, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, are the women who are holding everything together, making changes for their families and their kids. I think women are the changemakers in our world.

 

Give today to create a better world for women. 

Kenya Update: On the Horizon of Hope in Turkana

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By Christina Klinepeter
World Relief VP of Marketing 

With millions of people on the brink of starvation, Africa is facing the largest food crisis since 1945. While antecedents to the people’s hunger vary based on their specific context and location, one of the contributing factors to the hunger in Kenya’s northern part of Turkana county has been the lack of significant rainfall over the last two years.


A Land of Beauty, Resilience and Need

Turkana county, where I recently visited, is a land of beauty and resilience. Its vast, low-profile landscape set amidst the arid and extremely hot climate of Kenya sits along the longitude of the Equator and is sparsely populated by a pastoralist and semi-nomadic people, living off the land and their animals. Colorful beads layered around the women’s necks, bodies wrapped in vibrant material, and tiny hats sitting atop the men’s heads, distinguish their ancient culture’s traditional fashion from the skinny jeans worn by hipsters in modern cities around the world.

World Relief, has been on the ground in Turkana since 2011 when the region experienced its last food shortage. At that time, childhood malnutrition had reached one-third of the population. Through mobilizing networks of churches and local leaders, as well as through coordinating supply chains, that number was cut in half.  

Now, in spite of our collective efforts to prepare the region to endure famine-like conditions, that number has once again skyrocketed to over 40 percent of the population. The lack of sufficient rain has simply lasted too long.


Two Girls and Their Goat

In an emotionally gripping moment during our team’s recent visit to the area, we came across two young girls, no older than 10 years old, who wisely stopped on the side of the road in order to slaughter their family’s goat before it died and the meat became inedible. We watched as these sisters worked together and harvested the meat to take back to their family. I couldn’t help but think about my 10- and 11-year-old sons and how they and their peers’ average day in the U.S. compares with the stark reality of children in Turkana. And yet these girls exhibited their strength, wisdom and capacity while carving away the fur of the goat, carefully organizing the goat’s skin, bones and meat into resources to be used in their own right, nothing wasted. Unfortunately, more than 60 percent of the region’s goats, sheep and cattle have succumbed. And the people know that when they’re animals die because of the dire conditions, that they are next.
 

Most Recent Update

More recently Ric Hamic, Disaster Risk Reduction Advisor, visited Turkana North to help roll out World Relief’s disaster response project, as well as identify and register beneficiaries. He reported back, sharing a bittersweet story after meeting Mama Lobek and a compassionate, generous, hard-working woman in her thirties named Ngasike.

Mama Lobek and her surviving five children are victims of the food crisis in Turkana North as well, and like other pastoralist families in the area, the drought has killed their goats and completely destroyed their livelihood. Lobek’s husband abandoned them years ago when she experienced some illness, leaving her as a single mother to both provide and care for the family. And now with the current environmental conditions, Mama Lobek is starving.

Months ago, Lobek and her children walked for days from her home village to reach Nakitoekakumon. Even though she had no family there, she thought the family would be able to find food because it is a bigger village. The first day she arrived, she met Ngasike. Ngasike saw how the family was suffering and was immediately moved to help them.

Asked why she took in Lobek and her family, Ngasike replied “I had compassion for Lobek because I am a Christian and because I was an orphan myself.  I have suffered before, and I know what it is like.”

But Ngasike is also a victim of the drought and has limited resources, herself. She runs a very small shop, selling some small goods to her neighbors. “When I sell something, I am able to buy food for Lobek.”

A mother of four children and supporting others in need, Ngasike worries that she won’t be able to provide for them all.  “When I don’t sell anything, I am not able to purchase additional food because I am fearful my children will go hungry, too.”

At this stage of chronic undernourishment, Lobek is able to talk and to stand, but not much else. “It is only hunger that has made me sleep like this,” says Lobek. Still struggling to get food, she now weighs less than 84 pounds. Ngasike has committed to continue caring for Lobek until she recovers or until she dies, a likely outcome due to the food crisis in Turkana North. Of course, both women hope that doesn’t happen. “I will accept God’s will for me, but I hope to see my children grow up” says Lobek.


On the Horizon of Hope

Through our work on the ground and with our local church partners, both Lobek and Ngasike were recently enrolled in World Relief’s project for emergency food assistance. Soon they will start receiving a small monthly stipend, designed to help vulnerable families like Lobek’s and Ngasike’s decrease hunger in their households.

Also, some rain has fallen in Turkana North during the last few weeks. While it created temporary flooding because the ground was too dry to soak in the rapidly falling rain, thankfully the people in the region have experienced a bit of relief from the water. Still, the rain that came was not enough. With dry weather and food crisis conditions expected to remain through the rest of the year, limits to available resources will determine how long these families can be assisted. Ultimately, with increased funding, World Relief could expand and extend the food assistance project, and is committed to recovery activities toward the end of the crisis to help people re-establish their livelihoods and regain self-sufficiency.
 

Where do we go from here?

In the West, it can be easy to operate out of the busy pace, be consumed by social media, the news, the divide in our country, and forget that people across the world don’t have access to basics like food and water. Hearing first-hand accounts of the reality on the ground in places like Turkana North can be overwhelming and leave us to wonder if there is a way to make a dent in the enormous need from an ocean away. Admittedly, I have never felt the helpless ache of true hunger, wondering in desperation if I would ever eat again. I have never looked into the eyes of my wilting children as they wonder why I won’t feed them. This is the reality of the unearned privilege that most of us reading this were born into.

The question now becomes, what is our collective responsibility? What should our response be?

The first answer to that question must be to spread awareness. In this time of political division, soaring rhetoric and accusations of scandal, it’s difficult for any message to break through the noise. This is understandable, but unfortunate nonetheless. And still, we must find a way to spread awareness. That starts with each and every one of us.   

Secondly, this can be an opportunity for all of us to lend a helping hand. World Relief is working around the clock to serve Turkana’s most vulnerable, but the truth is that humanitarian efforts in the region are vastly under-resourced. There is so much more that could be done to deliver lifesaving essentials to those who need it most if we only had the means to do so. I would encourage everyone reading this to consider giving, if and when you can.

Thirdly, we can put pressure on our leaders in Washington and at the UN to step up their response to the crisis. USAID-OFDA and the UN’s humanitarian operations are unequaled in size and scope of funding, and they are instrumental in resourcing and coordinating local NGOs with staff on the ground in affected areas. While they are certainly aware of the famine in East Africa, they too must prioritize where they deploy their attention and finances. The more our collective attention is on Africa; the more they see news reports and articles about the crisis; the more people are talking on social media; the more likely they are to act with urgency.

It is important to stress that the people of Turkana North are highly self-sufficient people. They aren’t looking for handouts, yet many have come to the painful realization that if the rains continue to fail them, or if outside help doesn’t come quickly, they simply won’t make it. But because of World Relief’s long-term commitment to the people of Turkana North, our objective is to see them through to recovery.

To learn more about the food crisis in Kenya and Africa at large, visit this page, and consider donating to further our capacity to change the trajectory of children, individuals and families in Africa.


Christina Klinepeter is World Relief's VP of Marketing. Before joining World Relief in 2015, Christina worked at SOM, the global architecture, engineering and urban planning firm, spent time at CannonDesign, helped launch Hard Hat Hub and ran her own design consultancy.

Thank God for Women — We’re Hiring

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Thank God for Women is a blog series rooted in gratitude for the strength, courage, and incredible capacity women demonstrate.

No one in their right mind would apply for a job that had no vacations, no pay, and a workload that more than doubles around the holidays—especially a holiday in your honor.  More than any other holiday, Mother’s Day evokes the full range of emotions in people.

The propensity for a vast pendulum swing of sentiments is both deep and wide when it comes to Mother’s Day because mothering has so many different stages and phases.

There are the mommas that are in their first few moments of mothering. They are new to the journey and deep down inside they are wondering will I ever sleep again.

There are those in the trenches with little ones that wear the badge of food stains and puke on their shirts wondering, “will I ever take another uninterrupted shower in my life?”

There are those wading in the choppy waters of the testing years of motherhood. You have colored many grey hairs and your knees are wobbly and skinned from praying that your children would find a path that leads them to wholeness and freedom.

There are the single mom’s that are more than deserving of adorning themselves each morning in a super woman cape as they shoulder the responsibilities of being both parent and provider outside of a partnership.

There are those rejoicing with vibrant and fulfilling relationships with their children.

There are those mourning in the grief of a miscarriage, failed adoption, or loss of a child.

There are those walking the desert road of infertility.  Feeling alone and discouraged choking back tears at every other woman’s baby shower and birth announcement.

There are the adoptive moms, foster moms, mentor moms, and spiritual moms that pull children into their hearts and homes and love them as their own.

There are those who experience disappointment, heartache, and distance with their children and this day highlights and underscores the ever-present ache that you carry.

There are those who lost their mothers…and the missing of their own Momma vibrates through their being.

There are those who experienced abuse at the hands of their own mother—and they feel conflicted, challenged and even confused as to how to hold their range of emotions within their being.

There are those who are single and long to be married and mothering their own children and they try to hold their head high on this day when their heart feels tender with unmet desire.

There are step-moms, maneuvering their way through the intricacies of blending families together.

There are those who placed children up for adoption that still hold that child in their hearts.

There are those whose nests have become emptier and they are now steering a new ship with less cargo and the shift in weight has left them feeling unbalanced and uneven.

There are many more categories and complexities and certainly not enough sections in the card department for all the different “mothers” in this world.


Today on Mother’s Day, where we celebrate a job well done, a job that is often thankless & profitless and rarely deposits resources into our retirement funds.

Let’s choose to celebrate one another instead of comparing one another.

Let’s choose to delight in one another and the distinct ways in which we mother instead of disregarding our differences.

Let’s sprinkle praise and blessings and encouragement on all mom’s everywhere instead of remaining silent and secluded.

Let’s see and celebrate our children…. All children that we have the privilege to mother as sacred teachers sent from God that bring with them a spiritual curriculum to grow our souls to deeper levels of perseverance, character, hope and love.

Here’s to you Moms, may you delight in all the beautiful benefits from this crazy job called MOTHERING.

 

       

       

Jeanne Stevens is one of the lead pastors of Soul City Church in the dynamic West Loop neighborhood of Chicago, IL. Jeanne has had the opportunity to teach, pastor and speak in to the lives of thousands of people across the US and around the world. Her passion to develop leaders, encourage people to live from the fullest part of themselves and to live boldly give her a unique voice of hope and challenge. You can follow Jeanne on Instagram & Twitter – @JeanneMStevens and become her friend on Facebook – Jeanne Stevens.

Transforming Lives and Communities Through the Local Church

transforming communities world relief

by Tim Breene
World Relief CEO
 

For years governments and humanitarian organizations have poured money and effort into global aid. With the state of our world today, it’s no wonder people ask, “What has this accomplished? Is there a better way?”

Over seven decades, World Relief has operated in more than 110 countries alongside governments and other humanitarian organizations. Over these years, the successes and failures of our efforts have become clearer.

Humanitarian organizations bring essential emergency aid to those caught up in natural and man-made disasters. They make meaningful contributions to lifting people out of material poverty, reducing preventable diseases and increasing access to education.

However, too much of the public’s focus and money is consumed by crisis interventions and progress is rarely sustained after the initial response. And too often, interventions address only symptoms of vulnerability rather than root causes. They stop at the front door of the home and don’t address what goes on at a familial and relational level. Too often they lead to cultures of dependency, incredible waste, and even fraud and corruption. For all the progress, 1.3 billion people are still living in extreme poverty and—according to a recent World Bank report—these people are becoming far harder to reach.

World Relief believes there is an answer to these challenges. And it lies in engaging the local church and leveraging it to do what neither governments nor social enterprises nor multinational corporations are able to do.

The story of Dr. John Snow, the father of modern public health, is a most illuminative example. During the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, Snow became convinced that the disease was spreading through water contaminated by human waste, but he needed the help of local clergyman Reverend Whitehead to engage with the local community to map the households where cholera had occurred. This legendary collaboration reflected a shared commitment to the health and well-being of all people and an appreciation of the value of trusted relationships and community support in affecting change. It became the basis for modern-day epidemiology and pointed the way to the collaboration we so often need today.

Today—even with scientific and technological progress—the church still has a crucial role to play as it follows Jesus’s command to love “the least of these.”

Most people will remember the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa and the ripple of fear that went around the world. We all applauded the courage of medical workers who bravely served on the front lines and the work of scientists and doctors to develop a vaccine in record time. But less well known, perhaps, was the critical role that faith leaders played to complement and extend the impact of government and humanitarian aid organizations, convincingly documented in a 2015 Report, “Keeping the Faith” by Christian Aid, CAFOD, Tearfund and Islamic Relief Worldwide.[1]

In Liberia and Sierra Leone, the majority of the population are practicing believers, and faith leaders enjoy significant trust and respect. Unfortunately, there was a significant delay in engaging these leaders at the start of this most severe Ebola outbreak in history. As the disease spread, draconian measures were taken which went against cultural values and religious practices, resulting in a widespread public denial of the disease and even hostility towards those who were seeking to contain it. Many of those with Ebola chose to remain with their families and burials were undertaken in secret. As a consequence, the disease continued to spread. Government messaging on the cruel medical realities of Ebola spoke to people’s intellect, but did not create behavior change; rather, such messaging served to push care of the sick, as well as traditional approaches to burials, underground.

Later, once faith leaders became involved, they played a transformational role. Using religious texts, they preached acceptance of Ebola workers and survivors and role modeled this acceptance in religious services. They also helped to drive out the stigma that was destroying community cohesion. Where Ebola-control practices were considered irreligious, it was the participation of religious leaders alone that enabled an acceptance of the necessary changes to curb the spread of the disease.

The HIV/AIDS crisis provides another and perhaps even more compelling example of how critical it is to work with a deep respect for, and understanding of, traditional belief systems in order to impact sustained change. Twenty years ago, most people in Africa believed that AIDS was a plague from God and that it targeted sinners, who were merely “reaping what they had sown.” But then church leaders mobilized, and through the efforts of PEPFAR’s Track 1.0 AIDS Relief Program, they led their communities in reducing the demonization and stigma associated with the disease, encouraging care and treatment of HIV through voluntary testing, counseling and wide antiretroviral [ARV] distribution. Today 10 million people in Africa are on ARVs—a remarkable number when one considers that a mere 12 years ago there were almost no patients enrolled in official ARV programs. (For more details on the role of faith based organizations in combatting HIV/AIDS, see The PEPFAR Report, A Firm Foundation.[2])

Three attributes of church leaders make their influence in these situations particularly effective. First, they are highly motivated to support their communities and do so out of a spirit of compassion. Second, they usually have unparalleled access to, and knowledge of, their communities, especially in hard-to-reach areas where many of the world’s most vulnerable are concentrated. Third, they are trusted by these communities because of their moral voice and long-term presence and commitment. Unlike traditional NGOs, churches have no exit plan.

At World Relief, we truly believe the local church is God’s primary answer to the broken world, and his preferred plan to bring redemption—whether physical, spiritual or social—to his people.

Ephesians 3 states that “His purpose was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.”

Through the church’s responses, we see God revealing his wisdom and redemption, pushing the darkness back. We are the hands and feet, but the power and the glory are his.

The same strengths that have made the church such a powerful force for good in the examples above do not stop there. Our experience convinces us that these same strengths, when properly harnessed, create a unique platform for the alleviation of poverty, for long-term community development, for the welfare of women and children, for peace and reconciliation, and for developing resilience to recurring disasters like drought and hurricanes.

Our experience convincingly demonstrates that long-term sustainable solutions are more likely to be truly transformative when we recognize the importance of local ownership and the unique position and moral authority of the local church; when we recognize that poverty is not just economic but that it takes many forms; when we recognize the crushing weight of despair and the power that comes with hope and the restoration of dignity; and when the church acts in unity to serve its community.

This is why the local church is at the heart of our theory and praxis of change. Not only because it is our calling, but because we have seen and been touched by the concrete evidence of its transformative power—physically, socially and spiritually—in our work around the world.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where we are operating our innovative Church Empowerment Zone models, the impact of our work has multiplied throughout villages and even entire communities. We rely on the local church to carry messages concerning health, agriculture, savings, family strengthening, and child development to their neighbors. Our unique model empowers churches and their leaders to realize and fulfill their God-given potential to serve the most vulnerable in their communities, working collaboratively across tribal and denominational lines, and joining in unity with a common vision for their communities.

By building the capacities of church leaders and their congregations, and by enabling them to identify the unique needs and harmful beliefs in their communities, we ensure sustainable transformation comes from within and can multiply and expand once World Relief exits. In this way we are helping to move whole communities from despair to hope, from dependence to self-reliance, from broken relationships to thriving families, and from isolation and loneliness to shalom. We are also ensuring that the local church is not just a convenient delivery mechanism for our services, but the essential foundation of our work—pivotal in how we create real and lasting transformation that integrates physical, spiritual and social development, both individually and at the community level.

Of course, none of this undermines the importance of government and humanitarian NGOs.  In fact, public/private partnerships have never been more important given the multitude and scale of the challenges we face in the world today. And we need to stay open to collaboration with new social enterprises which bring much needed innovation to longstanding and previously intractable challenges.

Just as Dr. Snow and Reverend Whitehead discovered over 150 years ago, each of us have a role to play in seeking the well-being of all people, and we are stronger and better when we work together.

Over the coming months, we will be sharing a series of posts, entitled Perspectives, that demonstrate the extraordinary effectiveness of our Church Empowerment Zone model and how the principles that make it so powerful can also be applied to issues such as economic development, peace and reconciliation, disaster resilience, and maternal and child health, to name a few. These pieces will reveal that there are few other models capable of the kind of impact and leverage that we see when we harness the power and potential of the local church.

 

[1] Keeping the Faith (reliefweb.int)

[2] A Firm Foundation (pepfar.org)


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Tim Breene served on the World Relief Board from 2010 to 2015 before assuming the role of CEO in 2016. Tim’s business career has spanned nearly 40 years with organizations like McKinsey, and Accenture where he was the Corporate Development Officer and Founder and Chief Executive of Accenture Interactive. Tim is the co-author of Jumping the S-Curve, published by Harvard Publishing. Tim and his wife Michele, a longtime supporter of World Relief, have a wealth of experience working with Christian leaders in the United States and around the world.

Agents of Peace Amid Despair

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by Maggie Konstanski
World Relief Middle East Programs Technical and Operations Coordinator


Last month, I stood in Iraq while looking out over Syria. My heart was heavy. New challenges emerged by the hour and all of our efforts felt insufficient when compared to the immense and ever-growing needs. As I stood in one land and looked out over another—both of which are entrenched in horrific conflicts, my frustration grew. I was overwhelmed by the news cycle that day: violence, terror, hate, persecution and unimaginable atrocities perpetrated against children. And, as violence continues to cause mass displacement around the world, this same news cycle showed many countries adopting increasingly restrictive policies that result in closed doors, preventing the persecuted from finding refuge.

At the end of most days, I find myself crying out questions of why and how long people must be left to languish in such circumstances. I struggle with the knowledge that we’re too often paralyzed when confronted with suffering at such magnitude—oftentimes believing there is no hope, that there is only darkness and that the dawn will never come. Today, too many of us have come to believe that the darkness is impenetrable, the conflicts too entrenched and that our resources are too small to make a difference.

But there is another story. It is the story of a small but persistent church body, isolated and under-resourced, yet powerfully engaged. It is a story of hope and light amidst the darkness.

The Middle Eastern conflict and disruption has been devastating for millions of men, women and children. Yet, this terrible struggle has also given the church an unparallelled opportunity to reach out to their vulnerable neighbors. Though these churches are usually small and often face significant challenges, their leaders deeply desire to serve faithfully and extend love, compassion and refuge to the thousands of suffering around them.

Today—perhaps more than ever—the church in the Middle East has the opportunity to break down damaging historical perceptions and cultural stereotypes, and foster restored relationships in their communities. And as the world looks to see how the global church responds to this conflict, its legacy will be one of love and welcome. It will be a “light for the world.” A town built upon a hill that gives light to everyone and shines a path forward, one of hope and of peace.

I have seen enough to believe that there is no place secluded enough, no place dark enough and no place disguised enough to keep the oppressed hidden from a God who hears their cries. I have seen the church reaching the furthest corners of the most vulnerable communities, identifying the neediest for emergency assistance and connecting them to the services and resources they need. I have seen them reaching the unreached in fearless and compassionate service.

This is a place where I know morning will come. The dawn will break upon us. The sun will rise. Darkness will be vanquished. This is a place where the church is truly stepping out in faith as the hope and light of the world. And I have already seen this light.

I see it in the faces of children who laugh, play and show compassion to others in our kids clubs and safe spaces programs. I see it in the displaced community as they seek to serve one another and make sacrifices for others. I see it in parents here who give up their own lives and comfort in hopes of providing a different future to their children. I see it in families who welcome the refugee, the stranger and share their homes and dinner tables. I see it in the person who forgives words said in anger and frustration, and extends undeserved grace. I see it in the grace, forgiveness and kindness that have been extended to me by so many.

And above all, I see it in the church that chooses to boldly and compassionately reach out, even when they themselves are under pressure and persecution.

We may not be able to end all conflicts. We may not be able to meet all the needs on our doorstep, but we can answer God’s calling and follow the church's lead to love those in front of us. We can work through the church to push back the darkness in our own spheres of influence. We can advocate for more action. We can show compassion. And we can be peacemakers.

Across the Middle East, the church is bringing light to places of great darkness. In the valley of the shadow of death, churches are agents of peace, light and reconciliation in communities entrenched in conflict. To witness their love in action and commitment to guiding the region towards a path of peace inspires me with renewed hope each day.


Maggie Konstanski has been a part of the World Relief team for over 4 years, and currently serves at the Middle East Programs Technical and Operations Coordinator. With a passion for international human rights, Maggie often uses work-related travel as a platform to tell the powerful stories of the vulnerable families and communities we serve.