I have known Paul and Darlene Heller since my days at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Yikes, that’s more than 40 years ago. Paul and I met and became close friends. I never realized back then that we would still be good friends in 2010.
Darlene found Paul (or was it the other way around) when he was in NYC serving an internship at the East Harlem Protestant Parish - a groundbreaking ministry among the poor. Darlene was studying to be a nurse. They fell in love and Darlene came back to Pittsburgh with Paul. Marriage soon followed.
Over the years our friendship deepened. For more than 20 years, ever since my divorce and its brokenness, I have spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas with the Hellers. The kids, Adam, Caleb and Rebekah adopted me along with their spouses Sara and Andrya. We are family and I am delighted.
One time I was visiting and had a nightmare. I woke up shouting, "WHAT ABOUT GOD'S JUSTICE???" It was loud enough to wake the Hellers. Over coffee the next morning, we laughed about my active imagination and theological musings – even in sleep. It became one of those family stories that gets repeated over turkey.
Fast forward to present time. Paul and Darlene leave Plattsburgh, New York with all its snow and skiing for the tropics of Malawi. Yes, for two and a half years, Paul and Darlene Heller, have been in Malawi Africa.
Darlene has been directing the Mzuzu Crisis Nursery. They take in babies who have been abandoned for a variety of reasons. Often their mothers have died in childbirth or there has been some other difficulty in the village. When the babies come, they are mostly in a wasted state.
Paul has been working on the administrative side strengthening administrative practices and securing a more stable financial base. It’s crucial work.
He also has been preaching at the local church where 1000 people regularly attend. That’s right, one-thousand people – imagine! He tells me that worship services often go on for 3 hours and even more. I tell him he needs shorter sermons (chuckle).
The work at the Mzuzu Crisis Nursery is literarily life-saving. It will probably never reach the headlines of the NY Times or the air waves of NPR – although you might easily argue that it should.
Another baby is brought to the Mzuzu Crisis Nursery
Day-in and day-out, babies are being nursed back to health. They come as frightened skeletons and become chubby cherubs. Of course, sometimes a baby arrives too late. All that can be done is hold the little one until she dies. It’s hard work. And I think it takes a lot of soulfulness to do it. My good friends have soul and faith and love.
The same baby after two months of food and care
Take a moment to review their blog. The context is heart-wrenching, but the work is heart-enlightening. http://www.suffer-the-little-children.blogspot.com/
I keep thinking that among the lives being rescued at the Mzuzu Nursery, there are those who will make a difference in Africa’s poorest country. Thank you, Paul and Darlene, for being an answer to my dream – “What about God’s Justice?”
Monday, November 29
Wednesday, November 24
Ever since arriving in Ukraine, I have taught beginner’s English. Most Peace Corps Volunteers have at least one class. Many have several. During our Peace Corps training they told us that while being new in a community, English could be used as a kind of social currency. It gives us something useful that Ukrainians want and it occupies us as we try to figure out what’s going on.
So whether it’s been with children or adults, mothers at the Center or governmental leaders, I have taught English. It’s been fun to introduce participatory classes and get my students talking in English. We progress from simple verb tenses to pronoun charts to prepositional phrases and more. We make-up simple sentences and dialogues about family, friends and weather. Progress is slow and it’s been at an elementary level.
That's why I am pleased to receive an invitation to teach at the Technical School.
"Can you come and be with our advanced English students? They do not have many chances to talk with native speakers. Your presence will be a great pleasure for them,” says Tatyanna, one of the English teachers.
I agree to teach and we begin to discuss particulars - What kind of class; how many students; and so forth? Tatyanna tells me that there will be about 25 students, maybe a few more. "Like I said, it will be a pleasure for them,” she says. And I think it will be very interesting for Tatyanna and the other teachers as well.
We decide to read portions of Taras Shevchenko’s poetry. He is a renowned Ukrainian poet (and painter) who captures the long suffering of his people and the ever present hope for rebirth. His influence on Ukrainian culture is immense.
During Soviet times, his strong patriotism was downplayed in favor of his anti-czarist sentiments. However Shevchenko was always a Ukrainian patriot. He was a serf and stood up for the plight of the poor. Today he is an iconic figure even appearing on Ukrainian 100 grievnah bill. (adapted from Wikipedia)
Also we decide to read portions of Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech. His dream of America living up to the ideals of our Founding Fathers echoes Shevchenko's dream for a just and free Ukraine. I hope this class will add to our cross-cultural understanding. We all struggle for a better life.
I arrive early for the class. I can tell that the teachers are nervous - a little for me, but more for their students who they hope will do well and that I will have patience with them. Tatyanna confides, "They have never had such a class."
Students arrive. It is a full house. Extra chairs are brought in from across the hall. Unlike most of the classes I have taught, young men outnumber the women here.
I ask, "Do you speak English?" And I am pleased to hear a loud response, "Yes, we speak English." The class proceeds with readings from Shevchenko’s poignant poem. Some have read it before in Ukrainian, but now we read an English translation.
…Break then your chains, in love unite,
Nor seek in foreign lands the sight
Of things not even found above,
Still less in lands that strangers love...
Then in your own house you will see
True justice, strength, and liberty…
…Then all the shame of days of old,
Forgotten, shall no more be told;
Then shall our day of hope arrive,
Ukrainian glory shall revive,
No twilight but the dawn shall render
And break forth into novel splendour....
Brother, embrace! Your hopes possess,
I beg you in all eagerness!
Taras Shevchenko, Viunishcha, December 14, 1845
We continue with King's speech and note the similarities of these two patriots from countries half a world apart. We discuss a little about justice and freedom and how liberty is justice with freedom. We are having a substantive class and discussion in English. It’s great.
As we wind down the class, I have a surprise. I show the words of a 1960s song. It's a song I sang often with other volunteers when I first tried the Peace Corps in 1967. Now more than 40 years later, I am teaching If I had a Hammer to Ukrainians. Who would have thought it possible?
...it's the hammer of justice, it's the bell of freedom, it's a song about love between my brothers and sisters all over this land....
Sunday, November 21
>>>One morning on my way to a Marshuka, I spy a old babushka emerging from the tree-line that surrounds an open field not far from my building. I give her a causual glance and begin to turn attention elsewhere when I notice four goats following her. They grab my attention.
The goats are grazing on a mixture of leftovers from the field and weeds. The babushka is bent over gathering some of the same weeds, maybe herbs.
Even when she stands up, she is still bent over. It's a common sight among older woman who, no doubt, have had years of back-breaking work - literally. She's dressed in a peasant skirt, heavy stocking to her knees, layers of sweaters and an overly large coat. Nothing matches. A colorful scarf wraps her head. Slowly and deliberately she moves plucking weeds and using her walking stick for balance. The goats follow. I stare. It’s another National Geographic moment.
>>>Synergy is a neat word. Don’t you like the way the syllables roll around the mouth before emerging? And even neater is the way it keeps showing up.
I am sitting in the audience while Hearts of Loves second charity auction unfolds. Last year I played a central initiating role, but not now. Plans for the auction were well under way before I knew it. The idea of local fund raising has taken root.
This year a group of university students volunteered to help. They reached out to businesses for donations and orchestrated the entire evening complete with music, entertainment, auctioneers and lovely "Vanana White" type young women who parade among the audience with each item for bid. It’s a charming sight.
I think they are feeling bad that I do not have a larger role this year. They are wrong. When I am asked to share a greeting, I say how proud I am of these young leaders. Everyone applauds.
Last Spring these young people were among those who shared in my Leadership Seminars. Now they are joining Hearts of Love to raise more money for this year's heat. Synergy is happening in Konotop.
>>>Anton, my young Ukrainian friend, tells me a family story. When his father was his age, nineteen, a Soviet military recruiter came to their small village. At the time, the Soviets were involved in a in a blood draining war. The place was Afghanistan.
The young men of the village were rounded up. There were 35 of them including Anton’s father. On that day, everyone was scheduled to go to Afghanistan. After paper-work, they would be packed in trucks for the long journey away to war. I can hardly imagine the impact this must have had on a small village.
Anton’s Grandfather knew that if he could delay his son’s departure by a few days, he would likely be assigned to Kazakhstan and not Afghanistan. So he acted to save his son.
On the day of the round-up, he brings a hog and a lot of vodka to the recruiter. He says something like, "my son is needed at home. Can he go next week?" It works. The paper-work is misfiled. Anton’s father is passed over for a few days.
As Anton tells me this story, I get a chill. I realize that without his Grandfather’s action he would probably not be here. Of the 34 recruits sent to Afghanistan that day, only 5 returned.
Probably most people are not faced with dramatic situations like this one. Yet I get to thinking that kind and generous actions, even small ones, can make a difference from this generation to another and another.