Category Archives: Poverty

Kindness Is Not Optional: Creating an Interfaith Covenental Community

vk dinner

Here is a text of my keynote speech at last night’s annual Vision Keepers dinner of Interfaith Action – a faith-based direct service organization that serves the hungry and homeless population of my hometown of Evanston:

I’d like to begin my remarks tonight by sharing you with one of my chronic pet peeves – and I’d like to apologize at the outset to my congregants and loved ones, who are probably getting very tired of hearing me complain about this:  I really, really don’t like the saying “Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.”

Now I say this with all due apology to any of you who might have this bumper sticker on your car – I mean you no disrespect.  And believe me: I am a huge fan of encouraging kindness and beauty. It’s just that personally speaking, I would argue the exact opposite. I would argue for “non-Random acts of kindness and mindful acts of beauty.”  After all, if by kindness we mean simple human respect and dignity – qualities that are essential to the core of our basic humanity – I think we would all agree that there should be nothing random about it. Kindness shouldn’t be random – quite frankly, it should be mandatory.

In its way, I think this slogan reflects something very profound about contemporary American culture. As a society that values individual initiative, it is natural that we will view compassion as a random, voluntary enterprise.  We act compassionately whenever we feel compassionate. And yes, we might well feel a great deal of compassion: for our loved ones, we may even feel compassion for people we don’t actually know. But the problem with this approach, of course, is that feelings cannot be guaranteed. They come and go. Feelings are, by definition, elusive and transient.

Biblical tradition provides us with a different model.  Compassion is not random – it is an imperative. Even love itself is commanded: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “You shall love Adonai your God.” “You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” In other words, feelings are wonderful, but feelings are not enough. Kindness and compassion should not be relegated to random feeling – they should be cultivated as a mindful, ongoing conscious practice. We have to teach ourselves how to be compassionate even if we are not feeling particularly compassionate – even if we are too overwhelmed to feel compassionate. Compassion is, for lack of a better word, a discipline.

In the Bible, kindness and compassion are complex and profound concepts. In fact, there are many different Hebrew words for compassion. The most well known word, “rachamim,” comes from the root rechem, or “womb” and suggests the kind of unconditional compassion that comes with parental love. More broadly, we might understand rachamim as the kind of compassion that we show toward those with whom we have a unique personal connection. The word “chen” is usually translated as “grace.”  This form of compassion generally refers to gestures of favor or goodwill.

And then there is  “chesed,” a word that is usually rendered as “lovingkindness.”  As I learned back in my Rabbinical school Biblical Hebrew class, “lovingkindness” is probably not the best definition for chesed.  It’s a little too general, a little too mushy.  Most contemporary Hebrew scholars suggest that a better definition of chesed is “covenantal loyalty.”  Indeed, if we look at the way this word is used in the Bible, it has less to do with a feeling of lovingkindess than a deep sense of responsibility that comes out of sacred relationship. God shows chesed for the Israelites – and the Israelites for God – when they remain loyal to the mutual covenant they established together at Sinai. In another example, Ruth is praised in the Bible for the chesed she demonstrates to her mother-in-law Naomi when she remains loyal to her promise to stand by her side.

In Jewish tradition, this abstract notion of chesed was applied by the ancient rabbis to the everyday life of the community. Chesed societies, for instance, were the prototypical communal welfare institutions that were the cornerstone of Jewish communities for centuries. They too were guided by the central ethic of covenantal loyalty – “commanded compassion,” if you will.  At my congregation, as at yours, I’m sure, we have a committee of members helps members in need, usually due to illness or the loss of a loved one.  We call it, naturally, the Chesed Committee. And the members who participate in it will surely at attest that they don’t participate out of a desire to be randomly kind, but rather out of the sense of responsibility that comes through belonging to a community. Probably more often than not, the members of the Chesed Committee serve people they don’t even know personally – and that, of course, is precisely the point.

So in its way, chesed presents us with a compelling and important way of understanding collective compassion.  It is intimately connected to the concept of covenant and mutual obligation. Chesed is the kind of love and compassion that comes from a deeper sense of communal accountability. When a people live in a covenantal context –with chesed – it is with the fundamental understanding that the community is accountable to the individual just as much as the individual is accountable to the community.

By the same token, all of us in the room tonight – we are part of a covenantal community as well. All of us: the congregations that make up Interfaith Action understand on a deep, spiritually cellular level, that we have an abiding sense of covenant with the Evanston community. The Interfaith Action soup kitchens, the warming centers, the homeless hospitality centers, the Producemobile, are much, much more than mere direct service projects – they are expressions of our sacred sense of commitment to the city in which we live – and of the conviction that our compassion for every single member of this community must not be regarded as random or voluntary. On the contrary, we are compelled to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless out of a collective sense of sacred, covenantal imperative.

In this regard, I want to honor the work of our honorees tonight – and all who participate in Interfaith Action – for the sacred work you do.  I know you don’t do it just because it makes you feel good. I’m willing to bet there have been plenty of times you went over to soup kitchen when you were tired or just plain didn’t feel like going. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say there may have been times that you went even while you were doubting that your actions even made a difference. But in the end, you did go – and you continue to go – and you are here tonight because you know that at the end of the day, kindness should not be optional.

I’d like to go a bit further now, however, and offer a few thoughts about what an even deeper covenantal obligation might look like for our community.  I’ve always believed that religion is at its best when it not only comforts the afflicted, but challenges the oppressive status quo that afflicts them. What does it mean when we literally feed the hungry, but fail to challenge a system that countenances hunger in its midst?  Is it enough to provide warming centers, or should we also see it as our religious obligation to ask whether or not our city is also doing everything in its power to provide something as essential to life as heating for all its citizens?  On an even deeper level, shouldn’t we be finding ways to challenge an infrastructural reality that makes “warming centers” even necessary in the first place?

I believe that religion is at its best when it manages to balance what I would call the “pastoral” with the “prophetic.”  In other words, when our Biblical tradition demands that we clothe the naked and feed the hungry, this is a pastoral imperative. And when we are commanded to speak truth to powerful Pharaohs, to create societies of fairness and equity, to proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof – this is a prophetic imperative.

And so I’d like to take this opportunity to ask those of us in this room – those of us who act on a deep and profound sense of pastoral commitment to the Evanston community: what would it look like for us to create a similar kind of covenantal coalition out of a prophetic commitment?  More to the point: do we believe that our city of Evanston is doing what it must to ensure that its citizens are not going to bed hungry, that they have roofs over their heads and heat in their homes?   And if the answer is no, then I believe we must ask ourselves: do we believe that holding our own city accountable is just as much a religious obligation as running soup kitchens and warming centers?

Now I know that there are a myriad of complicated policy discussions to be had on these kinds of issues, and I obviously don’t intend to parse them all right now. But I do think that too often we hide behind a mantra of “it’s complicated” to avoid dealing with some fairly simple truths. And just as often, I think, we shy away from policy debates because we feel as though we shouldn’t be mixing religion and politics.

But at the end of the day, however, it’s really not all that complicated.  There’s nothing complicated about food, shelter and heat – these are among our most human basic needs. And when it comes to mixing religion and politics, I’ll repeat again: religion should not only about comforting the afflicted – it’s also about afflicting the comfortable. It’s about challenging the attitudes of those who view the world with a scarcity mentality that claims there is only so much to go around – and that it’s not our problem if there are those who will inevitably go without.

I hope that gatherings such as this will redouble our resolve to both the pastoral and the prophetic aspects of our faith traditions. I hope that as we go forward with this sacred work, we will find ways to open conversations about what a truly covenantal Evanston faith community might look like. And I hope that in doing so, we might provide a truly prophetic voice of conscience.

Thank you again for all you do. Congratulations to our honorees tonight. May all of our efforts continue to transform the lives of others – may they ultimately transform our world as well.

Amen.

Our Journey in Rwanda: Final Thoughts

JRC’s service delegation to Rwanda, July 2012

The week before our delegation left for Rwanda, the New York Times ran two newsy features on the country.  The more positive piece explored Rwanda’s improved state of the nation’s health care. By distinct contrast, a more ominous feature described the growing reports of human rights abuse by President Paul Kagame’s regime.

In Rwanda, it seems, it is the best of times and the (not quite) worst of times.

As our youth participant Ben Feis pointed out in his post last week, signs of Rwanda’s success are everywhere. The infrastructure is demonstrably more substantive than our last visit four years ago and NGO’s such as WE-ACTx report that health care is currently reaching more and more Rwandans – particularly women and children.

And yet, as Ben so eloquently wrote, there is something of a veneer quality to these successes. Despite the obvious economic growth, we met many Rwandans struggling just to survive. Though the horrors of the genocide are now part of the past, many believe that deep tribal enmities still lurk just beneath the surface. Though Rwanda is one of the safest, cleanest and and least corrupt countries in Africa, many believe that Kagame’s iron fist rule could ultimately inspire more – not less – conflict in the  future.

As ever, the real heroes on this trip were the ordinary citizens and organizations working tirelessly – and often against all odds – to bring a life of hope and dignity to their communities. The young man with HIV who now teaches yoga to HIV-infected children. The wife, infected by her husband who died of AIDS, who kept his family from taking her house away from her. The expectant mothers who met in order to learn how to keep their babies contracting HIV – and eventually remained together to form a jewelry making cooperative. The ex-poachers who now earn and income through environmental conservation and cultural preservation.  As my fellow participants would attest, this list of heroes could go on and on and on.

As a Jew, I think a great deal about what it means to a community to heal and rebuild after experiencing the trauma of genocide. While the Rwandan example is different in many ways, I can’ t help but believe that certain experiences are quite universal – not least of which is the desire to face up to a painful past without becoming consumed by it.  In the end, despite all the challenges and potential pitfalls faced by the Rwandan nation, I believe the courageous efforts of her citizens – and those who support them – have much to teach us all.

I’ll end with the eloquent words of Lesley “Liora” Pearl, who also blogged during our trip.  Her description of one home visit perfectly sums up the abiding joys and undeniable challenges we witnessed during the course of our journey:

(The) bus drops us and we are swarmed with locals, fascinated by the muzungus – the wealthy, white folk. Lilliane fetches us and we cross a rickety bridge into her neighborhood. I feel like I am in the bowels of the Old City in Jerusalem where streets are like a cobblestone maze and no one speaks English.

We arrive at her home, 3 rooms. We sit in the main room that has a couch and two chairs, a table and a chest that holds a radio and I am guessing, a television that is often mentioned. I am told that for Lilliane’s child’s birthday, 40 people crammed in to celebrate, with food for days.

Mama Lilliane arrives (Parent’s call themselves like this. Mama and Papa and insert name of one on your children.) Mama Lilliane is a vision in yellow – skirt, top and head wrap. Tall, elegant. She is quintessentially French. She greets us with three cheek kisses and many Oh La La’s. We dress R in Lilliane’s African sari and take photographs. I show Lilliane what we learned at dance class and she and I break into impromptu dance in the dark house.

There is a stove outside and a public toilet somewhere in the neighborhood. I had been directed to pee before coming and am glad that I do not have to go now. Mama Lilliane tells us that the government is buying her home and that she will receive a small sum of money to relocate. They are razing the neighborhood to build new homes. We tell her that this happens in Chicago too. She seems nonplused. She has lived through so much worse than this.

Heartfelt thanks to JRC member and organizer Elaine Waxman yet again for her visionary guidance and leadership on our trip. May we all be worthy to live up to the lessons we’ve learned these past two weeks.

Now, for some parting images…

 

Left to right: Ben Feis, Sara Fox, Katia Waxman, Rachel Pinkelman and Seth Fox, posing after painting and assembling the new WE-ACTx children’s library (Katia’s Bat Mitzvah project).

WE-ACTx youth yoga program, Project Air.

An artist at work at the Ivuka Arts Center

Saying hello to the students at the primary school of Bumbogo, Kigali

Home visits with AJESOV, Nyamata

Caroline and the students of AMORHO’s English/Drama workshop, Kucyiru, Kigali

A bit of cultural immersion at Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, Volcanoes National Park

Celebrating the Creative Spirit of Rwanda’s Children

On Friday afternoon, we visited another CHABHA-sponsored neighborhood association, AJESOV (an acronym for “Association des Jeunes Volontaires Pour Les Soutien Aux Orphelins du VIH/SIDA” or “Association of Volunteer Youth Helping Orphans Affected by HIV/AIDS”).  After breaking up into groups and going on more home visits, we return back to the AJESOV office in Nymata for lovely English language and musical presentations by youth program participants. Afterwards we made a presentation of soccer jerseys that were collected and brought over by delegation participants for the AJESOV children (above and below).

Saturday was dedicated to the AMAHORO association (located in the Kucyiru district of Kigali, more home visits, and later, a truly astonishing visit to a local primary school that serves as the location for AMAHORO’s English/Drama program.  We were treated to yet another presentation by participants, though truthfully, nothing could have prepared us for the nature of this particular performance.

After greeting us, the young people of AMAHORO put on a drama presentation that utilized specific situations as the centerpiece for their original skits.  In one, a teacher dealt with an unruly student by punishing everyone but the actual culprit. In another, a new student (named “Shut Up”) brings his misbehaving dog (named “Trouble”) to class. (As you might guess, Abbott and Costello hijinks ensue). In still another (below) a restaurant patron discovers too late that he doesn’t have the money to pay for his meal, so he tries to get off for free by putting a cockroach on his plate. (He doesn’t succeed).

I’m not exaggerating when I say the skits were utterly hilarious – almost worthy of Second City. It was so clearly obvious that the dialogue was written through the improvisatory efforts of the students themselves, which made their performances all the more inspired. Their humor – and spot on comic timing – quite simply left everyone doubled over with laughter.

Considering they have only been learning English since March, their performance was truly something to behold. This remarkable achievement was due in no small measure to their enormously talented teacher, Caroline, who later explained to us that she strongly believes in helping her students learn English by appealing to their own innate creative talents. The children’s love for this program – and their teacher – was palpable. It was yet another example of the inspiring efforts currently being invested in a new generation of Rwandans.

Below, the class poses with Caroline (front row, middle).

Contradictions and Complications: A Guest Post from Rwanda by Ben Feis

As promised here is a guest post from one of the youth participants on our trip.  Ben Feis, 18, is a recent graduate of New Trier High School in Winnetka, IL and will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.

My experience in Rwanda thus far has been truly remarkable and eye-opening. At first, I was struck by how developed certain parts of Kigali are – I suppose that like many, I was expecting a dirt runway at the airport, very few automobiles, and certainly no tall buildings. This is simply not the case. Parts of urban Rwanda actually have quite a bit of infrastructure.

As the days have gone by, though, it has become more and more apparent that there exist two worlds here. You may walk through a suburb of Kigali and find that directly across the street from a newly-constructed mansion (by African standards), a single mother is trying to raise eight children in a tiny room buried among hundreds of others in a filthy shantytown. Our home visits have shown us firsthand the extreme poverty in which so many Rwandans live. Many of WE-ACTx’s  peer parents themselves, who manage to dress nicely and carry a sunny disposition by day, return to the slums at night, where sewage runs through the alleys and electricity is considered a luxury. As if this isn’t enough of a hardship, many of the people we have met are suffering from HIV/AIDS.

What I find most amazing, however, is the ability of a surprising number to remain positive despite their setbacks. In a country that was ravaged by vicious genocide and pure hatred less than two decades ago, so many Rwandans we have met are incredibly genuine, kind, earnest, and polite. Whenever we enter a room, every single person, young and old, is there to extend a hand and welcome us. Most are quite soft spoken, but as they have shared their life experiences with us, I feel that I’ve developed a personal connection with each and every one by the time we have to go on to the next house.

Not everyone is able to maintain such a positive outlook on life, though. As we were visiting several homes today in one of the rural, mountainous regions, we met one woman in particular who seemed on the brink of despair. She could not bring herself to smile and appeared in pain as she told us of the financial difficulties of putting food on the table and sending her children to school. Mind you, the cost of sending one child to secondary school for a year might be around 36,000 Rwandan francs (or $60). Still, these costs are often too much for a family to handle, and so the children are left with nowhere to go but to continue the cycle of poverty.

As we were leaving this woman’s home, she asked us, “Now that I have told you about my family and our circumstances, is there anything you can do to help us?” Most families we visited did not have the audacity to come out and pose such a direct question, but it is indeed the reason we are here. David (from CHABHA) assured her that several of the NGOs in the area would try to implement some type of economic self-sufficiency programs in the near future, but I can’t help but think that most of us would have wanted to hand her a $20 bill (or the equivalent in Rwandan francs) right then and there. But therein lies the fundamental problem of what it means to be charitable in a third-world country: is it better to give a man a fish, or teach him how to fish? Fortunately, there are already a number of organizations doing excellent work here in vocational training, co-ops, and so on.

Clearly though, it’s not enough. I’ve said it again and again over the past week: this has been the experience of a lifetime. I’ve learned an incredible amount about what the world is really like on this trip. But has it truly been a life-changing trip? As I return to my cushy lifestyle on the North Shore, the question still remains: how am I going to make a difference? If learning about the world for my own sake is all I take away from my experiences, then I really have accomplished nothing. Judaism teaches the value of Tikkun Olam or repairing the world. I would argue that not only is it a value that should be encouraged, but a responsibility that each and every one of us needs to own.

Until this problem is fixed, we cannot sit idly by and expect others to take action. It is everyone’s duty and I can assure you, there is much work to be done.

Coaxing Dignity Out of Despair

On Thursday we shifted our volunteer efforts to CHABHA (“Children Affected by HIV/AIDS), an international NGO that supports grassroots projects in Rwanda and Burundi that care for orphans and other children affected by HIV/AIDS. In Rwanda, CHABHA works with three neighborhood organizations: AMOHORO, which is located in in Kucyiru, Kigali, AGAPE, in Kicukiro, Kigali, and AJESOV in Nyamata (about an hour south of Kigali).

On Thursday morning we first met with the remarkable CHABHA staff: Executive Director David Loewenguth (above right), Coordinator of Associations Micheleine Umulisa (above left), and Patrick Nimubona, who coordinates the Bright Future Program for CHABHA. Bright Future International is an independent NGO that serves underprivileged children around the world. BFI partners with CHABHA, who provides the children for their programs in Rwanda. (Untangling the enormously complicated international NGO/local organization partnerships has been a popular subject of conversation on our bus rides…)

One of CHABHA’s most important functions is to accompany association workers on their regular home visits to the families they support. These visits help CHABHA and local association staff to track the status, needs and conditions of these households – on a deeper level, they clearly enable workers to establish deep and lasting relationships with those they are serving. In some ways it seemed to me that these regular connections provided nothing short of a spiritual life line to these families.

For our first series of home visits, we traveled to the AGAPE association in the Kicukiro district of Kigali and and accompanied CHABHA staff person Micheleine (above left), AGAPE administrative assistant Anna-Marie (middle) and AGAPE worker Grace (right). It’s hard to describe the emotional impact these home visits had upon us – and we’re still having a hard time sorting through the intensity of visiting these families, home after home.

On our first stop, we visited a single mother of four. Her home, like almost all the homes we visited, was made of mud brick. She welcomed us graciously and our group crowded in her small, very dark living area. Her home only had one other room – a smaller bedroom area separated from us by a curtain. Anna-Marie spoke with her and Micheleine interpreted for us.

The mother and her children were all HIV positive. For her regular job, she washed clothes for her neighbors, but at the moment she was too ill to work and as a result, she has no food to feed her children. (Malnutrition is a huge problem for individual with HIV/AIDS because the ARV medications do not work if they are not taken with food.) She also told us that she used to have some rabbits (that CHABHA supplies to be raised, bred and sold for food) but they were recently stolen.

We were overwhelmed with the enormity this mother’s despair. At the same time I couldn’t help but be struck by her innate sense of dignity. Though she was clearly feeling unwell, she was deeply gracious to us and obviously wanted us feel welcome in her home. At the end of our meeting, Anna-Marie said a prayer for her and her family in Kinyarwanda. I asked if I could say a short prayer for her in Hebrew; Anna-Marie said of course. After I concluded a Mishabeirach (Jewish prayer for healing), the mother then offered a prayer for us.

We five more homes before we finished. By the end, we were overcome by familial circumstances more dire than any of us could ever comprehend. While it sometimes felt as if the support offered was but a drop in the bucket of in terms of their sheer need, by the end we came to realize that NGOs such as CHABHA and local neighborhood associations such as AGAPE are the real front line heroes in addressing the scourge of extreme poverty. Anne-Marie, for instance, is far more than a neighborhood association worker – she is clearly is a spiritual matriarchal figure for the families of AGAPE.

There are many more similarly powerful stories I could tell about out myriad of CHABHA home visits that we made between Thursday and Saturday and I hope perhaps I’ll try to add one or two more before I’m through blogging our trip. (One postscript about our first visit: at the end of the day, we returned to the CHABHA office. When we told David about the mother’s situation. He said that in extreme cases like this – i.e., in which families were unable to feed themselves – CHABHA workers revisited immediately with emergency food provisions).

After lunch one of our groups visited an organic learning farm and agronomy class run by CHABHA in partnership with (yes, yet another international NGO), Gardens for Health. The garden and class were located at a school on the edge of Kigali. Getting to the site was an adventure in itself, bouncing up and down in a truck up and down a winding rutted road until we reached the school in the Bumbogo district.

We met with Samuel, the agronomy teacher, who showed us their learning garden (above), which was lined with rows of beets, cabbage and carrots. The ground was dry and rocky, but the crops appeared quite lush. Samuel (back row, middle) said that as part of their organic farming curriculum they raise local livestock and use the manure for composting. Though few of these children have much land to speak of at their homes, the intention is for them to take this knowledge and cultivate kitchen gardens for food and income generation in their communities.

We then went into the school yard with Samuel to sit in on the class. (It took some time getting there as school was just letting out and we were immediately engulfed by excited young students. By the time we got to the class, Samuel had just started the lesson, the subject of which was eggplant. (One student explained to us that there are two kinds of eggplant – and that in Rwanda they grow the smaller kind for local consumption and the larger purple kind for export.)

Samuel shared their very extensive agronomy curriculum with us, after which the students introduced themselves to us one by one. More than a few explained that they were taking this class to help their communities with their new-found skills. We were then asked to introduce ourselves to the class – and asked to mention our favorite vegetable. (Elaine: swiss chard, Rich: cabbage, Me: tomatoes).

During Q &A, Rich Katz, ever the passionate Middle School teacher, asked the students too divide up into four groups and decide among themselves what they thought were the most effective methods for retaining moisture in earth after watering. (One boy looked at me, smiled, and said “No problem!”) They came up with a variety of spot on answer: spreading leaves next to the crops, using plastic, using drip irrigation, etc. By far our favorite Q &A moment occurred when they were asking us questions. One boy, maybe thirteen or fourteen asked Liora if she was single. As you might expect, hilarity immediately ensued.

While we were in Mubogo, the other half of our group stayed at the CHABHA office, where they sat in on classes with Project Independence, CHABHA’s after school vocational training program. Another smaller group went back to Nyaconga, to put the finishing touches on the WE-ACTx jewelry coop space. There was, needless to say, much to share around the dinner table on Thursday night.

Friday morning, we’re visiting AJESOV, another CHABHA-supported association located in Nyamata. On the way we will be visiting two well-known genocide sites that are now maintained as memorials. More on this in my next post.

Creative Women’s Empowerment in Rwanda


Tuesday began with another return visit: this time to the Ineza Woman’s Sewing Cooperative in the Ramera district of Kigali. Ineza was founded in 2006 by WE-ACTx, who helped group of women with ten sewing machines to create an income generation project for their community.  They were initially supported by WE-ACTx, who helped connect them with the Latin School in Chicago and eventually Ineza dolls were sold at (of all places) the swanky Barney’s store in Chicago’s Gold Coast for $50.00 to $100.00 a piece.


Now a thriving women’s craft cooperative, Ineza sews a variety of items out of beautiful African textiles, including handbags, clothing, laptop cases, wallets, etc. They have now grown to the point where they are financially independent of WE-ACTx and maintains their own bank account. Their gorgeous merchandise has also become available via the internet through Manos de Madres, so as soon as you finish reading this post you should check them out and buy their products.

After lunch, the youth members of our delegation joined the young people of the WE-ACTx youth program for the afternoon while the rest of us volunteered at another WE-ACTx  income generation project – a new women’s jewelery cooperative in Nyaconga (below).

The women of Nyaconga make lovely glass beaded bracelets as well as recycled paper necklaces and earrings. Right now their work space and showroom is located in a large drab space that does little to show off their beautiful work.  So with the help of our new artist friend William (who designed the mural painted last Friday at the WE-ACTx children’s library) we were mobilized to paint the walls of the space in colorful shades of light purple, pink, green and yellow (below).

I have to say we’re getting pretty good at painting – and it’s been enormously satisfying to help support these economic empowerment efforts in this way.  Four of us will return to the showroom on Thursday to finish assembling the showcase and arrange the large amounts of jewelry inside.

Our teenagers reported that they had an amazing, joyful afternoon with the WE-ACTx young people. I’m going to try to coax one or more of them to write guest posts about their experiences. Stay tuned…

Rwandan Youth Ending Stigma

Our Sunday began with a visit with the leaders of the WE-ACTx “Peer Parent” program. Peer Parents were created in 2010 with the hope of creating youth leaders from within the ranks of WE-ACTx youth, creating constructed family units of children and young adults with HIV-AIDS who could provide bonding and support in nurturing group settings. There are currently 12 groups ranging in age from 10- 15 – there are also some groups for younger adults from 24-30 as well.

The Peer Parents themselves are clinic patients at WE-ACTx as well, which gives them the ability to serve as very real role models for the children: healthy, strong young adults who can can their trust, educate them on the importance of taking their ARV meds, and give them hope about their future. The Peer Parents are truly an impressive community unto themselves – smart, charismatic young people with remarkable leadership skills and sensitive understanding of how to live with a serious chronic illness with dignity and purpose.

Since it was Sunday, we meet with all the Peer Parents for their “Supervision Sunday” session, which they devoted wholly to a discussion with our group.  Each of them spoke with us openly and honestly about the challenges and joys of being a “parent” to their “families” – helping them to open up about issues such as stress, depression, family issues, drug abuse, and the importance of taking their meds regularly.

Our session ended with the Peer Parents leading us all in a group game similar to the one we did on the previous day. In my previous post, I referred to the “power of silly games.” I know now they were much more than that. These kinds of exercises built trust, skill, self esteem, and most of all, I think, as sense of safety in a group that becomes an important surrogate family for many of these children.

After lunch we visited Islamic Center in Nyamyrambo, (one of the sites we visited four years ago) where WE-ACTx rents the extensive grounds for many of their ongoing youth programs. We brought along forty yoga mats that we brought from home, as WE-ACTx has recently began a successful youth yoga program, Project Air. Due to a shortage of mats, the younger children could only do standing poses – so our arrival with forty five mats occasioned no small excitement among the children.

They watched as we laid them down in rows; when we were done, they lept on them as if they were jumping into swimming pools. They then were led in a fabulous yoga session by Joseph (top clip) a Peer Parent and extremely talented youth yoga teacher, who clearly knew how to make yoga real and fun for young children.  It was almost as much fun for us to watch – especially knowing that many of the kids were clearly relishing the opportunity to show off their skills for their guests.

Immediately afterward, our group met with several of the Peer Parents who were part of self-created support/awareness group called YES (“Youth Ending Stigma”).  Because of their common experience of HIV/AIDS, these young people have experienced all too often the stigmas associated with this disease in Rwandan society. They formed YES in order to give support and strength to one another and to raise awareness as role models of healthy living with HIV.  They are also collaborating to write about their personal experiences in a narrative project in a work-in-progress book that they hope will demystify the issues around HIV-AIDS through personal testimony. (In the pic above: Peer Parent and YES  member Aime, who himself was once a part of the WE-ACTx youth program.)

I can’t say enough about these young leaders, possessed of formidable skills attained against all odds, now mentoring the children of their own community. As is sadly the case in so many communities throughout the US, I can only begin to imagine how far they’d go in applying their gifts if they lived a society that afforded them greater opportunities.  In the meantime, they’re making a very real and transformative difference, child, by child, here in Rwanda. And that in itself is truly an inspiration.

Below, two more amazing people who truly inspire us: WE-ACTX’s Mardge Cohen (Left) and Mary Fabri (right).