Sunday, September 11, 2016

Stand Sunday - A Day to Stand Up for Foster Children



There's a movement rising up...

A movement that will address a huge issue in the US. 

An issue that affects over 400,000 children each year.

400,000 plus children and teens. That's more than the population of New Orleans. 

The issue? 

Foster care.

For many years now, Christians around the world have dedicated one Sunday a year to address the issues of orphans around the world. This Sunday is Orphan Sunday - dedicated to the over 140 million orphans around the world.

I've been blessed to participate in Orphan Sunday in my local church for many years now. I love speaking about this issue. I love calling the Church to rise up and "defend the cause of the fatherless".

Well this year a new movement has begun. 

It's a movement to call the Church to continue to rise up for orphans - the "orphans" in our cities, our communities, our own backyards. The local "orphan". We know them as foster children.

I've had the pleasure of working with a fiery pastor from Texas that's been working for the cause of foster children for decades now. Bishop Aaron Blake, pastor of Greater Faith Community Church is the kind of man who does more than preach sermons about the cause of foster children in his community and around the country. 

He lives his sermons.

Bishop Blake and his wife Mary have opened their home to several young men over the years -- young men that very likely would have bounced from foster home to foster home. Or they may have landed in group homes or shelters. Instead, the Blakes opened their home. They have loved these young men, trained these young men and raised them as their own.

Bishop Blake has called his church to do the same. Aware that not everyone is called to foster a child through the state system, he has challenged his church members to do something for foster children in their community. Every year he makes a fervent call to his members, asking them to "Stand Up" for children in local foster care.

One such Sunday, he posed this question to his congregation: "Who will stand with me to defend, care and support abused, abandoned and neglected children in our community?"

At the end of this charge each year, Greater Faith church members literally stand up - one by one. They commit to foster or adopt. They commit to support other families that foster or adopt. They commit to serve foster children through local ministries. They commit to pray. 

They commit to CARE.

A new movement has grown out of this passion to care for foster children - STAND SUNDAY. Stand Sunday is an Initiative newly formed by the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO). Stand Sunday will coincide with Orphan Sunday on Sunday, November 13 this year, and will provide churches and Christians with a heart to serve children in US foster care a platform, resources and a message.



So... I end this post with the same question that Bishop Blake posed to his congregation...

Who will stand with me to defend, care and support abused, abandoned and neglected children in the United States?

Will YOU stand?


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Diversity and the Olympics

In July I shared a post titled "The US Racial Divide - Where Do We Begin?" that began with these words, "This week was one of the most discouraging in our country in some time." I wrote this post in the aftermath of glaring racial tensions around the country. In the aftermath of several African American men gunned down by police officers. In the aftermath of police officers being murdered in the same city streets they had sworn to protect and serve.

Since that posting, there have been more mass shootings, more hatred and more racial tensions in our country. More lives have been lost in senseless violence. We are a long way from solving these issues.

Yet today I wanted to share some good news in the midst of all the horrible.

Last week I was excited to share a perspective of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games that I'd heard bits and pieces of leading up to the Games. I love a wonderful foster care or adoption story, so in "Foster care and the Olympics" I shared the backstories of Olympians Simone Biles, Tori Bowie and Carlin Isles. Backstories that include time spent in foster care during their childhoods. Backstories that also included loving people that came alongside them to raise them, love them and become the parents they were all desperately needing.

And now I must state the obvious. EVERY child needs loving parents. 

EVERY. SINGLE. CHILD.

I won't rehash last week's post again today, but I do want to illuminate something else I've noticed about the Olympics this year in Rio. It's something else I'm very passionate about. Something that our country forever struggles to get right.

It's something that even the Church doesn't get quite right. Something that Christian nonprofits struggle with even more, with minority people hugely underrepresented in most Christian nonprofits, especially in leadership roles.

The thing I want to discuss today? DIVERSITY and the Olympics.

As I watched the US Olympic trials and celebrated with the five girls chosen to flip and twirl on the Olympic gymnastics stage, I noticed something quite beautiful. These girls were a beautiful representation of the various hues, ethnicities and cultures of our country. 


The Amazing "Final Five"
Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian, Aly Raisman. These girls are diverse in every way. They are amazing athletes. They are strong young ladies. They are each amazingly beautiful. 

And I couldn't be happier for them.

Olympic Swimmer Simone Manuel

One more highlight during the Summer Games... another Olympic rock star named Simone.

Thursday night, I screamed as I watched Simone Manuel stroke her way to first-place in the Women's 100-meter Freestyle. I thought she'd clinch a silver or bronze maybe, but that baby girl pushed through the last seconds of that race and tied for a gold.

Simone made history with this win, becoming the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in individual swimming. Swimming has been a largely Caucasian sport for multiple reasons, like those highlighted in a recent BBC article.

The magnitude of her win wasn't lost on Simone who said, "This medal is not just for me, it's for some of the African Americans who have been before me and been inspirations. I hope I can be an inspiration for others. This medal is for the people who come behind me and get into the sport."

Despite racial disparities that still exist in the US, seeing these young people of color represent Red, White and Blue did my heart so much good.

We've got a long way to go, but we've come a long way too.






Saturday, August 6, 2016

Foster Care and the Olympics

I LOVE the Olympic Games - both the winter and summer games. Every two years, I'm captivated by the national pride, physical strength, mental endurance and emotional resilience of the athletes from all over the world. Last night I sat captivated while watching the Olympics opening ceremony. Brasilians* are beautiful, spirited and warm people, and I fell in love with Brasil over a decade ago when my son Kalin and I served orphans and vulnerable children on a mission's trip there.

Another love of mine - following the lives of former foster children. My heart is always moved to hear the stories of people - young and old - whose lives began with so much stacked against them. Inevitably, while hearing the "how did they get here?" stories shared during the Olympics trials, I've discovered some amazing Olympians whose lives have been touched by foster care and/or adoption in some way. 

And you know I had to share... 


Simone Biles ~ Gymnastics

This 4-foot-9 inch powerhouse is all the rage this year. During the Olympic trials this year - of which my daughter Jada and I watched every second - the 19-year-old dominated, finishing first in the all-around gymnastics competition. Simone soars through the air like no other. Her power is undeniable. As she owned the vault during the Olympic trials, sports commentators consistently marveled, "No female gymnast has done this before." 

This girl is amazing.

And yet her life started off much less secure than her standing on the world stage of gymnastics. Simone's biological father abandoned her while she was very young, and her biological mother struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. Simone and her sister Adria, unfortunately landed in the Ohio foster care system. In 2002, Simone's grandparents, Ron and Nellie Biles, stepped up to take in their granddaughters, moving them to Spring, Texas. 

A year later, a 6-year-old Simone would experience another life-changing event. On a daycare field trip to a gym, the gym staff observed her imitating other gymnasts. The gym sent a letter home to Simone's new parents, requesting she join tumbling or gymnastics.

And the rest, as they say, is history...


Carlin Isles ~ Rugby

I must admit, I don't usually follow the U.S. Rugby Olympics Team, so I had never heard of Carlin - until today. I was instantly inspired by this 26-year-old sprinter-turned-rugby player. After achieving great success in football and track, his first year in rugby was only 4 years ago. He has already been dubbed "the fastest man in rugby".

Yet Carlin's life began with heartache. He spent the first years of his life in Ohio foster care, and remembers days that he was so hungry he would eat dog food to survive. He and his twin sister Cambra watched while a police officer drove away with their birth mother in the back of his car. Carlin told CNN his life "was basically survival of the fittest. I had to fight. I went from home to poor schooling - I had to eat dog food. We didn't celebrate birthdays, Christmases or anything like that."

At age 8, Carlin and his sister were adopted by a loving couple, Starlett and Charles Isles. Carlin says, "My parents have always been there for me." No doubt they'll be supporting their talented son as he dominates on the rugby field in Rio.



Frentorish "Tori" Bowie - Track

I can't tell you how much I rooted for this young woman during the Olympic trials. I hadn't heard about Tori until the trials, but she's not the kind of athlete you forget. And as much as I love Allyson Felix, who made her mark in London during the 2012 Summer Olympics, I couldn't help but scream for Tori when she edged Allyson out of the 200m trials by .01 second. Her 3rd-place win secured 25-year-old Tori's spot for the 200m in Rio.

Like Simone and Carlin, Tori also spent part of her early life in Mississippi foster care - albeit brief. As a 2-year-old toddler, Tori spent a short time in foster care, when her mother was unable to care for her and her sister Tamarra. Her grandmother Bobbie Smith took her young granddaughters in, taking over for their troubled mom and a dad that was mostly absent from their lives. A natural athlete, Tori played basketball and moved on to track in high school, being named All-State Basketball and Track. Incidentally her father reentered her life when she began her track career, which was great timing since he had excelled as a long jumper in high school.

Her loving Grandmama might be as responsible for Tori's road to Rio as her speed and athleticism. "I encouraged them to go to school, don't think about boys at a young age, and to do good," Tori's grandmother told NBC. "And they took my advice." 

Great advice. 

And my advice to you? 

Don't miss Tori or Simone or Carlin during the Summer Olympics in Rio.




* Native Brasilians spell their country with and "s" instead of a "z".


Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Racial Divide: Where Do We Begin? Part 2



Yesterday my heart was so grieved over the tumultuous events throughout the week, that I felt I had to share my heart here. So I posted The Racial Divide: Where Do We Begin? yesterday, hoping to encourage us as Brothers and Sisters in Christ to love one another well during these times.

Love digs deep. Love is costly. Love calls us to live not only for our own benefit and welfare, but for the benefit and welfare of others.

Yesterday I felt called to call us all to LOVE one another during these times. It's what I believe our Father expects of us, now more than ever.

Today, I feel called to inspire us to do one more thing. This is perhaps the most important thing we can do right now. This is perhaps the real starting point. I believe I took it for granted that God's people were already doing this. I took for granted that it didn't need to be said.

Then I read a Facebook post from a man I call my "Big Bro". His words were poignant and powerful. His words reminded me that these are times when nothing can be taken for granted. All truth must be said and shared - LOVE.

Here... His thoughts:

"I have read the news articles and posts here in response to the news of recent days. I have read of suggestions for protests, marches, recalling our legislators, add and modify legislations, calls for "dialogue", sensitivity training, additional training, body cameras, youth centers, prison reform... whew... NONE OF THESE WILL EFFECT A LASTING AND POSITIVE RESULT. To my friends who believe in Jesus Christ, the ONLY solution is prayer. The Bible says "and the government shall be upon His shoulders...", not the other way around. As much as I love and respect social justice as a ministry I believe that this country, and down to our community are in need of a focus that has not been experienced in quite some time. Therefore I am asking my preacher friends to point out to their congregations scripture that will (1) get us through this period and (2) offer solutions based on prayer and supplication. I no longer have faith in our government... to effect change in our quality of life. 'MY faith is built on nothing less...'"

As my Brother has said, we must run to the Father, His Word and Prayer like never before.

HE is the answer.

Today.

And always.

Amen and Amen.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The US Racial Divide - Where do we Begin?



This week was one of the most discouraging in our country in some time.

Sure we've lived through deadlier weeks - soldiers falling while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, 9/11, the Boston Marathon Massacre...

And yet there's something that darkens the heart and minds of Americans when we witness fellow citizens - especially our young African American males - gunned down in the street and during routine traffic stops. 



There's something that oppresses the human psyche when we witness police officers, charged with the oath to protect and serve, gunned down and murdered by a gunman motivated by hatred and racism. (And as a military veteran that served in Afghanistan, possibly out of mental illness and PTSD.)



There's something hugely wrong about weeks like this...

And yet we are a resilient people. We have persevered through many difficult times. We have stood together and marched together, hand-in-hand, in solidarity of heart and mind.

We can make it through these challenging times as well. We can rise up from these ashes - better, stronger, more unified even.

How, you ask?

Well I don't have all the answers or every single step, but I believe our rise begins with one word.

Empathy.

As we examine the cultural-transforming power of the US Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and 1960's, it is impossible to miss the varying hues of people that actively participated in mass marches, freedom rides and sit-ins at "whites-only" lunch counters. African Americans were joined by Caucasian and Jewish brothers and sisters that lent their presence and their voices. They were joined by politicians that fought bigotry and status-quo mentality to lobby for and sign legislation that afforded African Americans the freedoms we experience today.

America will rise or fall as one. We are inseparable in respect to our fate as a country. We will self-destruct if we continue to fight one another. White vs. Black. Police officer vs. civilian. Republican vs. Democrat. 

One way to empathize? We should all respect and support the Black Lives Matter Movement. Doing so does not negate that "All Lives Matter". It only confirms that fact.

We must march together, hand-in-hand in solidarity of heart and mind. We must use our voices to speak against the disparity of our penal system that lands a larger percentage of African American men in jail than any other race.* We must speak against a culture where a person is viewed as a threat simply because of his dark skin. We must speak against a social system that dictates a child's destiny largely because of the color of her skin or the strength of his parents' bank account, assets and financial portfolio.

We must admit that there is such a thing as "White Privilege". Can we just start there?

And in the words of that great philosopher Forrest Gump... "That's all I have to say about that."

This week, I was encouraged by so many of my brothers and sisters of a lighter hue, men and women that spoke out against the violence and injustice of this week. I'd like to share a powerful Facebook post written by a dear sister-friend of mine who "gets it" (and happens to be Caucasian).
"I am shocked and deeply disturbed at the assassinations caught on video of two African American men by white police officers over the past few days. I have no doubt that if they had been white, they would be alive. I can't really describe my disgust accurately with words. Then, the premeditated assassination of 5 white police officers. Horrible. What can we do if we are white? Pray for insight and for courage to speak up for our brothers and sisters of color. Become educated about the reality of the often covert and unrecognized racial oppression in our country. White privilege is invisible to us because it's all we know. I actually had a white, blond haired, blue eyed man deny to me that white privilege exists as recently as 3 months ago. Get educated! And LOVE others like never before. Praying for change and peace in our country." 
I will end this post with my sister's words. We must ALL get educated. We must speak up when others around us are oppressed or denied basic liberties. And we must LOVE others like never before.

Amen and amen.





* According to the NAACP's "Criminal Justice Fact Sheet", African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of their Caucasian counterparts. Click the above link to see even more eye-opening stats like these.




Sunday, July 3, 2016

Farewell Elie Wiesel - Your Words Still Speak


My heart broke at the news yesterday...

Elie Wiesel, writer, professor and human rights activist, passed away yesterday, at the age of 87.

I don't remember when I was first introduced to Elie, but I do remember seeing him interviewed on The Oprah Winfrey Show. I also remember watching footage of his tour of the concentration camp he had endured and survived at the young age of 15. I still remember the pain in his eyes.

I also remember reading his book Night for the first time.



I wept every night as I turned the pages of Elie's retelling of his young life as a young Jewish boy. His sister and mother were killed upon arrival to Auschwitz concentration camp. After being transferred to the Buchenwald concentration camp alongside his father, Elie watched his captors beat his father mercilessly. He also watched his father die before his eyes, his spirit nearly destroyed by the helplessness and shame he felt.

His father died only weeks before Buchenwald was liberated.

Night ruined me. I couldn't fathom the horrors that so many faced during that period in history. I couldn't understand how human beings could mistreat other human beings so. I wanted justice for the bodies and souls lost during the Holocaust. I was furious.

And then I read the rest of the story...

After Elie survived the concentration camps and the horrors and pain that accompanied them, after he survived the deaths of his mother, father and sister, after he survived being orphaned following the Holocaust, with no parents or living relatives to care for him -- he made a conscious choice.

He chose to live.

Elie Wiesel chose to tell his story. He chose to teach others. He chose to forgive. He chose to love.

And he chose to fight for justice for other people around the world. He became a voice for those who had no voice.

So much so, that in 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for raising his voice against violence, repression and racism.

When awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Elie shared some powerful and memorable words. In this excerpt, he speaks of the teenage boy that he was, the boy that emerged from the pain of those concentration camps:
"I remember: he asked his father: 'Can this be true?' This is the 20th Century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent? And now the boy is turning to me: 'Tell me,' he asks. 'What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?' And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices. And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent."
He went on to say...
"And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe."
Many years ago, Elie Wiesel encouraged me to take sides. To interfere. To make the place where other people are being persecuted or forgotten - to make that place, right then, the center of the universe.

What side should I take today? Where should I interfere? Where should I go to aid the persecuted and forgotten?

This is a question I ask myself today, in honor and memory of my hero and friend, Elie Wiesel.




Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Father's Day Message to the Fathers That Mourn


I don't fully understand what happens inside.

I can't explain the shift.

But it seems that when we experience loss, our eyes are opened to others around us that have lost as well. We feel just a little deeper for those experiencing pain. We are more empathetic, more sensitive, more aware somehow.

Living through loss can be devastating. I've share a lot about the loss I experienced in 2015, when my Mom and Dad became very ill and passed away three weeks apart from one another.

Since then, I've had days when my grief followed me around like a storm cloud, threatening to send a lightening bolt right through the heart of me.

Days that storms brought thunder that shook the ground beneath my feet, threatening to upend me.

Days that I've moved through the day as if on auto-pilot.

I've also had days, and now weeks, when I can feel God's healing balm within me. Days that I believe I'm stronger and wiser and better than before. Days that I know I've grown, not only in spite of my pain and loss, but because of it.

And yet, I know I'll never be the same again. My perspective is forever changed. I am forever changed. I am somehow more sensitive, more caring for others who hurt.

Now mind you, I've always been a "feely" kind of girl. I tear up quickly. I hurt for perfect strangers whose stories of difficulty and challenge I read, watch or hear about. Watching a touching movie moves me as if I actually know the folks I'm watching. I'm not a pet person, and it still breaks my heart to hear about someone intentionally hurting an animal.

After I lost my parents, however, I became even more connected to others' feelings. I care more. I feel more.

I guess I'm experiencing what the Bible explains in 2 Corinthians, Chapter 1*. When I experience trials and loss, God comforts me. Having received comfort from the Lord, I can in turn comfort others when they experience trials and loss.

So when I heard about the Orlando shooting and the 49 people who lost their lives, my heart broke.

Each murdered and injured person from that nightclub was a son or daughter, a sister or brother, a spouse or friend. Each one has left a wake of people that loved him or her. People that will grieve their entire lives for them. People whose lives will never be the same again. People that are forever changed.

It is to this group of folks, the ones left behind to continue to do life here, that I dedicate this post.

I dedicate this post especially for the fathers that mourn their children - gone-too-soon.

For the fathers of the 49 Orlando shooting victims, I mourn with you.

For the fathers of every victim from the countless school shootings that are becoming far too commonplace in our country, I mourn with you.

For the fathers of every victim of senseless crimes in every city, suburb and rural community around the US, I mourn with you.

For the fathers of fallen US soldiers from every military branch, I mourn with you.

For the fathers of those killed in terrorists attacks around the world, I mourn with you.

For the fathers that have lost a child to illness -- including mental illness -- since last Father's Day, I mourn with you.

The world mourns with you.

You are loved - by us who share this global community with you.


You are also loved by a compassionate, loving God. A God that has not forgotten or disregarded you. A God who sees your pain. 

A God who sees YOU.





* "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God." 2 Corinthians 1:3-4