Hope for Our Mabaan Sisters and Brothers

“In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day—on that day all the springs of the deep sea erupted, and the windows in the skies opened. It rained on the earth forty days and forty nights.” (Genesis 7:11-12 CEB) The story of Noah has always intrigued me. How did Noah decide which animals got to ride in the ark and which ones were left behind? What must it have been like to ride in the ark for forty days and nights? God wiped away every living thing that was on the land as waters rose over the earth for one hundred and fifty days.

Many people are not aware that a flood of similar epic proportions inundated the country of South Sudan in July 2019 through a unique weather phenomenon called The Indian Ocean Dipole. Raining “forty days and forty nights,” the Nile River flooded, and tens of thousands of Mabaan people have literally been living in water since then because there
is no place to flee.

More than 420,000 people have been internally displaced, hundreds of livestock have been killed, and tens of thousands of acres of crops were destroyed. Even worse, all of the fresh water became contaminated. The lack of clean water, food, and sanitation has the potential to cause diseases such as diarrhea, malaria, and respiratory infections. According to the United Nations, 85% of South Sudan’s population (7 million people) is also at risk for starvation, and $61 million is needed to respond adequately to flood victims.

The Republic of South Sudan is located in East-Central Africa and is the newest nation in the world, having officially gained independence from the Republic of the Sudan in 2011. South Sudan, whose capital is Juba, is a landlocked country, and the White Nile River flows through the center of the country from north to south.

This fledgling country is mostly Christian, but there is little infrastructure, and since the country is sitting on oil, there is lots of fighting, including sexual violence. Several weeks ago, 78 kidnapped women and 50 children were released by an armed group in South Sudan, following efforts by the United Nations to secure their release.

Iowa has a sizeable population of immigrants from South Sudan, especially in Des Moines, Storm Lake, and the Omaha, Nebraska area. A new Mabaan congregation was formed by Pastor Aaron Limmo in July 2015 and began a partnership with First UMC, Des Moines in September, 2018. Mabaan is a tribe, a language, a geographical area (Upper Nile State near Ethiopia), and also a community of United Methodists affiliated with the East Africa Central Conference of The United Methodist Church.

The problem is that much of South Sudan is still flooded. Floods washed out 96% of the roads and airports, and the infrastructure of the country is simply gone. In addition, no one in South Sudan is permitted to talk freely about the flooding, which is why this tragic situation has been underreported in the United States. Many relief organizations work with Mabaan refugees in the United States but have not been able to help the Mabaan population within South Sudan itself. Fortunately, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has recently been permitted to provide flood relief in the country.

God has called United Methodists in Iowa to help our Mabaan sisters and brothers during this time of great crisis. We have set a goal of $200,000 to be raised in 2020 for Mabaan flood relief. As Iowa United Methodists, we understand what it is like for our farms in Iowa to be flooded over the past several years because of intense rain and overflowing rivers. Likewise, some of our United Methodist churches know what it is like to have flooded basements. Flooding affects our state in many ways. Now we are called to reach out to the Mabaan with our assistance.

Pastor Limmo and Maya Dinka will be traveling to South Sudan in May to work with the HDC (Humanitarian and Development Consortium). UMCOR is not active in this area. The Mabaan, which is the least and smallest tribe in Sudan, are comfortable working with the HSC. Our intention is that a Memo of Understanding will be created to guide our relief effort.

In a time of great anxiety in The United Methodist Church around our future, rallying around a relief effort for our Mabaan brothers and sisters in South Sudan is a way of remembering who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ. We can all make a difference in the lives of our Mabaan friends.

We have developed a plan for raising our goal of $200,000.00. $5,700 has already been given by our Mabaan friends here in Iowa. My husband Gary and I have already donated $1,000 to this effort, and we hope that you will also give generously. If you want to send a contribution directly, please write a check to “Iowa Annual Conference” and include this on the memo line: #53321-MF. You may send it to Iowa Annual Conference, 2301 Rittenhouse St., Des Moines, IA 50321. You may also donate online here. Our plan also includes:

  • A presentation at Laity Day on April 4
  • A sample insert and poster for use in district publications and church bulletins/newsletters available here
  • A short presentation at our Iowa Annual Conference during opening worship on
    June 5.
  • The campaign will conclude on June 30, at which time several people will travel to South Sudan to distribute the funds through HDC. They will be used for tents, medications, food, and mosquito nets.

At the end of the flood story in Genesis 9, God decided that never again would God destroy all living creatures. God also put a rainbow in the sky as a sign of that covenant. May we, as Iowa United Methodists, be similar signs of hope – rainbow people for the Mabaan.  Thank you in advance for your generosity and always responding quickly to needs here in Iowa and around the world.

Iowa and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Some might consider it amusing … until it happens to you. Iowa had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day last Monday. You may be familiar with Judith Viorst’s children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, published in 1972[i]. It has sold over 4 million copies and was one of my children’s favorite books. The quotes in bold are from the book.

You know the story. Alexander just had a very bad day. “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth, and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning, I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

Iowa is a very nice state that woke up last Monday morning, hardly anticipating that the day would not go well at all. It was 1972 when Iowa became the first state to hold a Democratic caucus, with the first Republican caucus following four years later. For almost fifty years, the Iowa caucuses have kicked off the presidential primary campaign season. The Iowa Caucus is a closed caucus, which means that only people of the same party caucus together. As expected, President Donald Trump won the 2020 Republican caucus handily with 97.1% of the votes.

I’m new to caucusing and was eager to participate in the Democratic caucus as a resident of Iowa and a citizen of the United States. Gary and I made sure to be at our precinct well before 7 p.m. and avoided a long line because we had preregistered. 1,600 caucuses were held in the 99 counties of Iowa, all meeting the same night. The sites are often schools, churches, or other public buildings. There were seven staffers at our site, leading the process and keeping us organized. Sometimes, multiple precincts met in different parts of the building.

The gym was packed with three hundred voters. Some people were fortunate to sit in folding chairs. Others sat on the hard gym floor or stood the entire time. Youth were required to be in a separate place in the building so as not to be mixed up with caucus voters. Children under 13 were able to remain with their parents.

After receiving careful instructions, we began. There were many Democratic candidates from which to choose, and one person was chosen to speak no more than two minutes in support of each candidate. Then we voted by moving to different parts of the room that were designated for various candidates. As a reminder, we Iowans have a history of electing the next president at our caucuses.

If a candidate’s “preference group” is not made up of at least 15% of the caucus-goers, that candidate’s group isn’t viable. In the second step of the caucus, these voters can then realign with one of the other candidate groups that are viable and fill out a second preference card. There is time for interaction, as people try to woo other voters to their candidate group. Another headcount is taken, delegates are apportioned to the county convention, and issues for the party platform are discussed.

The Iowa Caucus is democracy at its finest. Gary and I had a wonderful experience meeting people who live in our area of greater Des Moines. Iowans take seriously our responsibility as the first bellwether event on the road to election night. There was tremendous energy in the gym as people mingled and had stimulating conversations. I even met some fellow United Methodists. Of course, it helps when you live in a state where “Iowa Nice” is our most famous slogan. Iowans want to do things right. Our rows of corn are straight, our pork is tasty, and we aim to please. We are agreeable, folksy, earnest, trusting, and neighborly. We even had a “free will” offering to support the school custodian and cover costs of fundraising for local and statewide candidates.

That’s why it’s been so difficult to work through our terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

You see, there was this software glitch. The Iowa Democratic Party was using a new app to report caucus results, but there were issues. The app hadn’t been vetted for statewide use, many precinct chairs did not have adequate training for using the app, and volunteers had difficulty logging in or even downloading the app. Precinct chairs were then asked to call in results, as they had always done previously. But this clogged up the phone system, and some precinct chairs were on hold for up to ninety minutes. It was, indeed, the perfect storm and a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for Iowa.  “Alexander said, ‘I think I’ll move to Australia.’”

As the presidential candidates quickly moved on to New Hampshire for tomorrow’s primary, they awaited final results. The state of Iowa was reeling from this system-wide disaster, and it wasn’t until Thursday evening that 100% of the precincts had reported in and tentative results could be reliably announced. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, garnered 26.2% in state delegate equivalents, which is the metric by which the Iowa winner is determined. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont had 26.1%. However, Sanders narrowly led in the popular vote.

After the Iowa Democratic Party’s release of new results late Sunday, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg leads Senator Bernie Sanders by a margin of 0.09 percentage points, with two more state equivalents than Sanders. Sanders has used his option to ask the Iowa Democratic party for a recheck of the vote count since caucus participants, media, and candidates themselves have all discovered errors in the results.

Meanwhile, the chair of the Iowa Democratic party, Troy Price, announced that an independent investigation would take place to determine “what went right, what went wrong, from start of finish.” Price said on Friday afternoon, “Iowa Democrats demand better of us. Quite frankly, we demand better of ourselves.”

What can we learn from our terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day in Iowa?

  1. Stuff happens. We all have bad days. Sometimes we just wake up with a feeling that something unfortunate is going to happen. Other times we are caught by surprise, as we were in Iowa. It’s particularly painful and embarrassing when the stakes are so high.

“At school Mrs. Dickens liked Paul’s picture of the sailboat better than my picture of the invisible castle. At singing time she said I sang too loud. At counting time I left out sixteen. Who needs sixteen?”

  1. We live in an age when we expect immediate results and instant gratification. We think it is outrageous and have little patience when asked to wait and or when something interferes with our plans.
  2. Technology is not always our friend, despite our best efforts. Technology does not always come through, so it’s important to have a back-up plan. In this case, paper records will ultimately validate the results.
  3. As a nation, we seem to be in a reactive and contentious state of mind right now, especially in the political arena. We are quick to expose flaws, shame others for messing up, spread untruths, and often stick to the party line, even when our conscience may advise us otherwise.
  4. The mark of character is how we respond when things do not go as expected. Rather than become angry or blame others, we should humbly accept responsibility if we are at fault, be transparent, offer forgiveness and grace if others are at fault, make things right, pick ourselves up, and move on.

“The cat wants to sleep with Anthony, not with me. It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. My mom says some days are like that. Even in Australia.”

And yes, even in Iowa.

[i] Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Simon and Schuster, 1972.

It’s Just a Backpack   

It was day five of our trek on the Manaslu Circuit in Nepal. My daughter Talitha and I had been planning our July 2018 trek in Nepal for the previous eighteen months. We both like adventures that stretch our limits, so we couldn’t wait to hit the trail.

After a few days in the overwhelmingly crowded city of Kathmandu, we flew to Nepaljung. We were scheduled for a connecting flight to Juphal, where the Lower Dolpo Trek that we had originally decided upon would begin. Unfortunately, all flights into Juphal had been canceled for seven days in a row because of poor weather. After waiting two days, we decided to cut our losses, fly back to Kathmandu, and find another trek. Patience is not my greatest virtue.

Our Outfitter recommended that we try the Manaslu Circuit, even though this trail was officially closed because of the rainy season. The Manaslu Circuit is a 150-mile trek around the area of Mount Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world (26,759 feet). Our guide was Rajiv, our porter was Bishal, and we hired a driver with a four-wheel drive SUV to take us along the narrow, rocky, high mountain roads to the beginning of the trek. Off we went!

Little did we know what was in store for us. With trekking poles and ponchos easily accessible because of daily rain (mostly at night), we set out. The trail was extremely muddy, rocky, slippery, and steep at times, so we had to take it slow. We crossed occasional streams, and, one time, Rajiv even carried me across a stream on his back!

There was one other slight issue. Eight days before we left for Nepal, I broke my left wrist after a fall while running in the Missouri prairie. I was wearing a splint that immobilized my left hand and wrist. Not being able to put any pressure on my wrist made it tricky to use my trekking poles, but I toughed it out. Advil helps.

Near the end of the first day, Rajiv recommended that Talitha and I consider turning around. “It’s going to stay muddy and slippery for four to five days until we get higher into the mountains.” Looking directly at me, he continued, “You don’t have to keep on going. Laurie. You can decide tomorrow what to do.”

Talitha and I glanced at each other, and I said to Rajiv, “Okay. We’ll think about it. But we’re pretty tough, and we’re probably are not going to turn around.” Which we didn’t.

Overnighting in rather primitive and often cold conditions, contending with mud and more mud, and not having enough to eat because the small family restaurants were mostly closed in off-season, were all challenges. At the same time, Talitha and I reveled in the beauty of Nepal and the joy of children, teenagers, and adults who all bowed, smiled, and greeted us with the word “Namaste” as we occasionally walked through small villages.

The trail dried out the higher we climbed, and on the fifth day we began making good time. I distinctly remember that we had pumpkin soup for breakfast, which didn’t satisfy because what our bodies really craved was protein.

The hike that day was shorter than some of the other days, but it wasn’t easy. We gained elevation steadily and had peeks of the green valley thousands of feet below. We did have to be careful, however, because we shared the trails with donkeys and were warned to stay on the mountain side of the trail.

About an hour and a half into the hike, we took a break, I took of my backpack, and left it at the edge of the path. The two previous days I’d been having issues with my pack not sitting properly on the back of my neck, causing some discomfort. As I turned to walk away, all of a sudden, I heard a “whoosh,” and my backpack disappeared over the cliff.

In a panicked voice, I yelled to Rajiv to come, leaned over and saw that my backpack was lying on top of a group of branches, with the valley thousands of feet below. Rajiv first tried using a trekking pole to grab the backpack handle, but the pole wasn’t quite long enough. Plus, we were afraid that one wrong movement might push my pack through the branches into the void. Then Rajiv laid on the ground and edged over the cliff. With Bashal firmly holding his feet, Rajiv was thus able to retrieve the backpack. Other than me or someone else on the team tumbling over the edge, it was my worst nightmare almost come true.

I apologized profusely and promised never to do such a foolish thing again. My hero, Rajiv, who told me that nothing like this had ever happened to him before, kept to himself for a while, recovering from the shock of what could have been. The rest of the day I was quiet, staying within myself and consid­ering the fact that this trek was difficult enough without making thoughtless mistakes.

The incident prompted me to ponder the nature of loss because it really wasn’t “just a backpack.” My backpack contained everything that was essential to trekking in Nepal. What would I do without my passport, cell phone, rain jacket, altitude sickness meds, snacks, water, and journal? I was so impressed by how Rajiv and Bishal handled the situation. They did not panic, they led calmly, and they used collective wisdom to solve the problem. It was a reminder of how important it is for leaders to be able to regulate their emotions in the midst of stress. Rajiv showed incredible grace to me despite my huge mistake. Do other people see the grace of Jesus in you during the course of your everyday life as you encounter a myriad of issues?

I also learned a lesson about always being prepared to give up the things that I cherish the most. If my backpack had broken through the branches, we would likely never have been able to recover it, and the trek would have been over. How can I learn to let go of my possessions so that if I lost everything important to me, I would still be able to rejoice instead of worry?

In Matthew 6 we read, “If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith? Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:30-34)

This story is part of a book that I have written called Wandering into Grace; A Journal of Discovery and Hope. The book will published by Abingdon Press this month and is available in paperback and e-book. Wandering into Grace is ideal for small groups and contains study questions for each of the six chapters. You can purchase the book here. You can also listen to a podcast in which I share with Art McClanahan, the Communications Director of the Iowa Annual Conference, how wandering into grace has formed and shaped who I am as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Books will be available for purchase at most conference and district gatherings this winter and spring.

How might God be calling you to wander into grace during the upcoming Lenten season and beyond?