The story Inside us: part one

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hudson Photography

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hudson Photography

“There is no greater agony,” says poet Maya Angelou, “than bearing an untold story inside you.” It has been five years since Lynne Hybels and I, along with five friends met a woman who asked us to tell the world her story. It is good to reflect on how her words, given to us in a painful and yet beautiful moment, have become a mandate.  Her story takes place in one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman: The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Rich in minerals and natural resources, yet the poorest country in the world, a woman in the Congo is raped almost every minute. In a country plagued by decades of war, rape is cheaper than bullets.

Yet Congo’s crucible has produced hauntingly beautiful stories of hope too. We traveled with World Relief on a mission originally called Ten for Congo. How could we know that an original ten would multiply exponentially into what is now One Million Thumbprints, our grassroots movement to help women who live in war zones?  Sitting on the concrete floors of the rebel occupied, mineral rich territory of Rutshuru. we listened for hours to stories of women who survived brutal rape. It was here we met Esperance, whose name means hope. “Tell my story,” she implored, "Tell my story to the world."  Then signing her name on a release form in the most human and personal way she knew how, by dipping her thumb in ink and stamping her plea on a page with her name printed underneath.

Upon meeting her, our eyes took in only the obvious: orange shirt stained with work; pink and blue tie dye skirt wrapped around a very tiny waist; white head scarf with a grey bow; and neon green flip flops with white daisies. High cheekbones, deep set eyes, her lips pulled tight, her feet planted and calloused like the roots of a tree. She was the first of 11 to speak. Eyes downcast, hands folded at her abdomen, she told us her name, her age, and the number of children under her care. She is 50. She has four children. She unfolded her story, slowly, opening each sentence to the light that filtered through the windows of the remote village church where we sat.

Esperance and her husband had set out to find cooking wood. “It must be done,” she said, “even though it is dangerous.” They met militia soldiers in the bush; each man carried a machete tucked inside his fatigues, and each man had a gun. In a clearing, the soldiers bound the hands of Esperance and her husband, when her husband resisted, she instinctively threw her hands to the top of her head in surrender. She knew what the soldiers would do. First they shot her husband and then they threw their fists at her face. She was thrown to the ground, stripped her clothes, and raped. When they were done, they left her in the forest, where she remained for three days — torn, bleeding and unable to walk.

She did not say how she was eventually found. She did not say how she struggled at the hospital with the month-long treatment for the prevention of HIV, pregnancy and STDs. She said only that the violence she endured was so physically devastating it could not be fully repaired with surgery. She would have despaired if it were not for pastors who sent a local caregiver, Mama Odele, who co-leads a recovery program with other volunteer counselors. The counselors cleaned her, clothed her and took her to the hospital for a rape treatment. When she returned home, they visited her, brought her children food and helped her find work. She said it was their kindness that reminded her she was still a human being.

As she finished her story, the shadow of pain slowly eased, and the tightness of her lips relaxed into a smile. Still human. Still a woman. Still a sister.

Five years later, still inspired by Esperance’s mandate and thumbprint, we not only support women suffering the affects of war in DRC and South Sudan in partnership with World Relief. More recently we are supporting Syrian refugees, all women, living in the crowded, makeshift camps of Beqaa Valley in Lebanon.

What kind of support do we give? Glad you asked!  Our response revolves around two kinds of “currency” that power our work; two ways that you can make your mark for women in war zones:  thumbprints and funds.

Make Your Mark with Thumbprints

To date we have collected nearly 10,000 thumbprints; we're just beginning. Why thumbpints?  Thumbprints are the “currency” that drives our advocacy. A thumbprint represents YOU, your story of support for helping women in war zones survive, stabilize and eventually sustain grassroots peace. Like Esperance, giving your thumbprint is giving part of yourself to identify with the pain and joy found in the stories of women living in war.  When Esperance gave her thumbprint, we added ours, and then those of our friends, then family, and so many others. We have collected thumbprints from women’s groups, book clubs, bake sales, Colleges and Universities, church events, seminaries, recovery groups, conferences, student from Kindergarten to graduate, boy scouts, girl scouts, Rotary Clubs, athletic teams, and even my personal favorite—a group of Nun’s! (We call them our “nunprints”J) When you give your thumbprint, you join thousands of peacemakers who are fighting one of the most difficult problems we face in the world today— violence against women caught in conflict.  One Million Thumbprints began with one thumbprint, and will end with millions. But your thumbprint is not just a message of solidarity.  Each time we reach a milestone of thumbprints collected—10,000, 20,000, 100,000 and more--we will share with the members of the USAID Office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment as well as our US Ambassador to the UN. Our desire is to “break the silence” and encourage the US and the UN to actively renew their support and work towards the goals defined in the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security established by the recently defunded US Department of State Office of Global Women’s Issues, as well as the defunded Office of .  Your mark will advocate for the tangible change only the way such a valuable and personal currency can.

To date, we have raised well over $250,000.00 to fund programs through well vetted, local, grassroots implementing partners in three of the most dangerous places to be a woman - the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Syria. The programs we support must meet our three essential criteria:

Protecting women and ensuring the care of survivors.

Providing women a seat at the peacemaking table to help bring stability.

Promoting sustained educational development and economic empowerment for women in conflict zones.

Our implementing partners help ensure survival for women experiencing violence in war zones through emergency relief in the form of immediate food, clothing, and shelter. Because sexual violence is often used against women during war, emergency relief also includes rape or sexual violence treatment, trauma assistance and medical support. Protecting women and ensuring the care of survivors is essential.  They actively train women leaders within their communities in conflict resolution skills, trauma care, mediation techniques as a means of stabilizing their community and preventing future violence against the vulnerable. If women are not included in this peace building process, gender-based violations in times of conflict will not be given proper attention and consideration. They promote sustainable, long-term solutions for peace in war-torn regions must include economic and educational development opportunities that empower women. Programs often look different in different conflict zones, even in the same geographic region.  They include community micro-savings, microfinance, farming co-ops, agribusiness, as well as refugee care and education leading to resettlement.   

Esperance’s story was the first we heard that day five years ago. To date, have listened, noted and told in some form over 100 women’s stories. They each share an unfolding story that gives us hope and confidence in our response. Esperance was given immediate emergency relief in the form of clothing, medical care, and shelter.  She receives trauma counseling and hopes to be trained as a trauma counselor in the future. She and those supporting her are directly involved in providing stability and ongoing sustainable progress in her community. She represents the hope fueling our desire to see more women protected and empowered to bring peace to their communities. 

Stories that end like this bring great joy to our community of peacemakers!

Our blog will be a nerve center for answering our mandate to tell women’s stories to the world.   The stories inside us transform from debilitating agony to power houses of change when they are heard, felt deeply and shared widely. We pray you will become an agent of change as you share, give, advocate, and make your mark.

seeking higher ground

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hudson Photography

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hudson Photography

Climbing Kilimanjaro was a pinnacle experience for all of us at One Million Thumbprints.  But the mountain was only the beginning. Follow us on social media for new news from our programs partners, including stories of strength from our recent visit with Syrian sisters fleeing the violence of war. We'll also be taking about an important opportunity for you to join our Advent Advocacy push. 

Someone said, “If you lose your way, find higher ground.” As I watch today’s news and speak with our global sisterhood, I worry the world has lost its way. But what can do something; we can help the world seek higher ground.

Click on the links below to follow us, share with friends, and let’s rise up together for the sake of our sisters in war zones:

Facebook at One Million Thumbprints

Twitter @1MThumbprints

Instagram at onemillionthumbprints

 

 

International Woman’s Day: 1 Year from the Mountain by Joy Beth Smith

I remember we were living above the clouds for days. I remember beginning to climb in the middle of the night with so many layers I had to shuffle rather than step. I remember having to wipe blood from my oxygen tubes because the dry air was battling with my weak lungs.

 

But more than anything else, I remember getting to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and collapsing, crying, and reaching immediately for the other women around me. Four days earlier 14 women embarked on this journey to climb the highest freestanding mountain in the world, and on March 8, 2016, 14 women made it to the top. And in our packs, on our backs, in our hearts, and on our minds were the thousands and thousands of other women we were climbing for.

 

We climbed for the women who experience gender-based violence. We climbed for those we met in the fistula hospital. We climbed for the victims of sexual assault. And we climbed for each other, for the belief that when 14 women come together we’re not competing—we’re complimenting. That when women fight for other women, instead of against them, mountains may not move but they can be conquered. For the hope that in doing this crazy thing, in climbing a mountain to raise awareness and funds, we were, in some small way, going to change the world.

 

I was never one of those children who grew up wanting to be an astronaut or a ballerina. I had modest goals, and even when I was young, I wanted a small life—I wanted to be a teacher, like my aunt, and I wanted to write bad poetry and raise a few kids. But somewhere along the way, that small life wasn’t enough. That small life didn’t take into account the children waiting in group homes to be adopted or the women who have given up dreams of a small life because survival takes priority. My life had left me content, and my complacency was a threat to my ability to live out the gospel.

 

Some people like a full faith, one with tendons and arteries and flesh and muscle. They spend years developing a robust understanding of theology and Greek and Hebrew. But I have always been drawn to a bare-bones faith, one that teaches me to love God and love other people, and that’s about it. But in the past year, I’ve learned that love often takes unexpected forms—such as protests, calls to congressmen, scratched dining room tables, and training in a low-altitude mask.

 

Love asks me to give up my small life, my shortsightedness, my pride, in order to love other people. Love demands that I trade my apathy for empathy. Love requires me to kill my self-preservation and hopes for the American dream. And love dares to believe that 14 women climbing a mountain and traipsing around Africa can actually make a difference.

 

In the months since the climb, I’ve only had sporadic contact with many of the women, but our hearts remain knit together. Because of One Million Thumbprints, we belong to each other now—they truly are “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” And perhaps that’s been the difference all along—One Million Thumbprints carries a message that says we are responsible for fighting for justice for all, not just for ourselves. Our stories and lives belong to each other, and they should not be held lightly. So, we climb, and we rally, and we love.

 

And in many ways, we know we’ve just begun. There is much left to fight for as women continue to experience sexual abuse and violence at the hands of men. There is much left to teach as women are hungry for knowledge about finances and eager to start their own businesses. There are many left to love as we gather around tables and break bread and listen.

 

The trek to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro was not a triumphant ending to a great story—it was the beginning of the only story that’s worth telling. Love was fostered and held and born at the top of that mountain, and I’ll spend my entire life taking that love out into the world, by whatever means necessary. And that may require me to climb the mountain again, but I’ll do so gladly because I’ve seen the view from the top of Kilimanjaro. I’ve watched the rays come through the clouds at sunrise. I’ve seen the weary faces of my sisters basking in the glory of God. And I know that on mountains, miracles happen. On mountains, friendships are forged and purpose is understood. On mountains, we’re reminded of what’s worth climbing for.  

 

Mountains are beautiful and terrifying, fierce and lovely to behold. And on International Women’s Day, I can think of no better prayer for the women I know and love. May we all be beautiful and terrifying, fierce and lovely to behold. And may we continue to cling to a faith that moves us, no matter the cost.

Joy Beth Smith is a writer and editor, often overheard discussing singleness and sexuality, and her first book is due out early 2018 with Thomas Nelson. Follow her at @JBsTwoCents.

What I Remember the Most by Ruth Bell Olsson

It is commonly purported that smell is the most sensitive of our senses and has the strongest connection to memory. When I put myself back into that room of the hospital, it is the smell that hits me first. Perhaps the disorientation began with the smell, but maybe it was the surprise factor. Was this visit on our itinerary? Did I miss it? Was there an announcement or a description of the place that I overlooked? Was the group prepared somehow in my absence?

 

When our team of American peacemakers and mountain climbers entered the fistula hospital, it felt wrong.

The hospital blindsided me. I have been to some terrible places and I have sat in clinics in Africa with bodies stricken with advanced HIV disease, but that hospital was beyond anything I have experienced.

Of course we were there to advocate for women like the ones lying motionless on cots, but our very bodies felt way to loud—to big, too bright, too much. We lumbered through the gate and across a courtyard in plain view of an assortment of men, women and children who sat on plastic chairs staring at us. We were the anomaly, the strangers visiting their misery.

The smell began at the entrance and increased as we made our way into one of the buildings on the hospital’s property. This smell of incontinence, blood and dust was overpowering. Like a haze, it made it hard for me to focus. I was toward the back of the group and tried to smile and wave to the bystanders. I did not want them to think that we were simply a foreign mob of voyeurs, but maybe we were?

Our guides shepherded us into a relatively small recovery room where several women occupied beds tucked against every wall and corner. A doctor was describing each of the patients and how the hospital addressed the profound surgical needs they presented. Our group was so large that there was no room to spare, so he would pivot his body and point to each of the women while describing their particular horror. One woman had endured multiple surgeries to her “front side” and they still had not been able to address the “other side.” He lamented that the surgeries thus far did not appear to be particularly successful.

She lay listening to him describe her body’s injuries in a language she did not understand while fifteen odd, white faces stood over her taking in this information.

Why was he doing this? Why were these women being subjected to this kind of objectification? Wasn’t it enough that they had been brutally attacked by multiple men while simply tending their garden, walking to the neighbor’s, or hiding in the kitchen cupboard while militia solders hunted them like animals?

Wasn’t our presence just adding to their humiliation and degradation?

And, to think that these women were the lucky ones—the ones who had connections to medical care and the privilege of being in this place.

My senses were on overload: the smell was so strong I could nearly taste it as I tried not to gag, the sight of these bodies (ravaged by both the violence of men and the tools of surgery) was more than my eyes could contain, my ears were burning not only with the words that were being shared by the doctors and aid workers but also with the moans of women in pain, and then I was touched.

My back was to a woman on her cot. This was not intentional, as I was straining to hear the doctor above the din of the hospital traffic. She was calling to me, and then reaching for me. She was desperate to tell me something. I turned and saw her sad eyes and how much effort it was costing her to try to get my attention. I tried to respond with kindness, “jambo…jambo sana…” I then frantically tried to find a translator. I grabbed the arm of one of the World Relief staff and said, “this woman needs to speak with me, but I can’t understand her!” I felt a sudden urgency.

“Winnie*,” he said, “she is telling you her name.”

Here I was so torn with whether or not it was right or ethical to even be in that room and I was questioning the verity of being an observer of such pain and torment. Yet, a woman who had been subjected to this pain and torment was trying to tell me her name. She was putting a name to a face, and a name to the horrific violence in Eastern Congo. She was flagging me down in my self-absorption and mental-gymnastic-hypothetical-ethical dilemma to say: I am right here, look at me.

A shift occurred for me in that moment. I became a genuine witness. An eyewitness. Through a translator, Winnie’s story emerged and my heart broke again and again and I felt her desperation, discrimination, and torture.

And then we turned to her daughter. The precious, smiling girl rolling around at the foot of the bed. I had assumed her age to be around three. But, no, her mother said that she was five. Her name was Grace*. She was the product of Winnie’s first rape. They had both been brutalized this time and had both undergone surgery.

I wanted to hold that child so badly; her mother physically couldn’t. And as I watched Grace pitch back and forth on the dirty blanket in a paper-thin dress, I just wanted to make her better (whatever that meant). I was warned not to pick her up because of the damage done to the lower part of her body. This sent a shiver up my spine. Oh, right, she is here because of damage; someone (or multiple men) wounded her tiny body so ferociously that she needed to be here with her mom.

Winnie encouraged me to ask Grace what had happened to her. I couldn’t. How do you ask a five-year old to re-tell of the most horrific violence imaginable? I know in my head that re-telling trauma has a healing effect for the person traumatized. Yet, I was the one not sure I could handle it.

I held her tiny hand for the rest of our time at the hospital. I kept telling her how loved and precious she is. I kept thinking of how God must see her—as one of his most beloved. I wanted her to know deep in her bones that she is not a mistake, that God made her and loves her and wants a bright future for her. But, the reality is that her circumstances are bleak beyond words. The world she inhabits is an angry, ugly one—especially for a girl.

Holding this juxtaposition felt like holding a bowling ball with a spoon. Too much…just too heavy and too much.

So, I prayed. I prayed because that is the only thing I know how to do when the situation is too much. I choose to trust that God is not surprised by the events of this world. That God is the ultimate mother.

I choose to have stubborn hope in the face of utter desolation.

I choose this because I will crumble if I don’t.

The 1MT campaign is one of solidarity. I might live in comfort in the United Sates, but I have sisters facing insurmountable odds in places like Eastern Congo, South Sudan and Syria. To raise awareness of their plight, to raise funds for places like the fistula hospital, and to pray desperate prayers for God to work Divine glory in the midst of such suffering, is to be a part of this solidarity movement. This is also in invitation. Everyone will not climb a mountain or even write a blog post, but we can each do that next, right step in solidarity for women like Winnie and girls like Grace. We all suffer when we stop caring, stop moving, and stop praying.

To get further involved:

  1. Give a gift and add your thumbprint
  2. Follow us on Twitter (@1MThumbprints), Instagram (@onemillionthumbprints), and Facebook
  3. Pray that Grace* and Winnie* will find emotional healing in the Lord and that He would use them to empower women in situations similar to theirs

 

*Names have been changed for obvious reasons

Ruth Bell Olsson is an activist at heart. After over a decade of HIV/AIDS advocacy, Ruth now pours her energy into changing the world’s approach to the global orphan crisis. By focusing on the globe’s most vulnerable children and finding loving homes instead of institutions for their care, Ruth believes we can influence a generation for peace. Ruth earned her Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from Wheaton College and her Master of Arts in global leadership from Fuller Seminary, with a concentration in biblical peacemaking. Ruth writes and speaks on a variety of subjects and loves to wrestle with the deep mysteries of living a life of faith in a complicated world. Ruth and her husband Jeff are founding members of Mars Hill Bible Church and they live in Grand Rapids with their three children: Zinnia, Oskar and Kagiso.

 

 

Spirit by Leia Johnson

We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.

—Thich Nhat Hanh

 

            On some level, it took several weeks for me to wrap my mind around the spiritual aspect of climbing the mountain. In the moment, my physical needs overwhelmed. In trying to articulate the spiritual lessons, I come back to one word over and over again: interdependence.

            I find myself drawing connections between myself and the Other, that which is not me. Me and the rest of the team. Me and the World Relief staff. Me and the women we met in the DRC. Me and my village back home. Me and the African Walking Company. Me and God. Everything I am—all my thoughts and feelings—are at once mine but also inextricably bound to the relationships I have with the Other.

       I believe wholeheartedly in shared agency or collective intentionality. In my relationship with God, I’m motivated by the belief that God is love and wants all human beings to be loved and know they are loved. That I am moved to love and be love to everyone around me is my deepest calling, one rooted in God’s intention for creation. If I am made in God’s image, we’re in this together.

          Whether we were on a bus driving through Goma or on the side of the mountain, the thing that kept our team moving was this same shared intention. We laughed and cried together, shared snacks and chapstick, and bolstered one another in moments of weakness. Joy Beth had perfect timing—every time my mouth started to feel dry, I’d hear her voice behind me yelling, “Sippy, sippy!” Krista tore pages from her journal to share with me, so I could write a letter to a friend back home who had sent daily messages for me to open as we climbed. I shared my crackers and extra can of Easy Cheese with Alyce when it was the only thing she wanted at the end of the descent.

         While these moments may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, caring for each other in these very physical ways was in fact spiritual. Meeting physical needs tells the Other that she matters in tangible ways.

          This entire undertaking started with shared agency with a higher power. The intention was strengthened with the support of my family and friends. Assembling with the team was confirmation that this was bigger than my individual quest to end violence against women, but the biggest lesson I learned about shared agency came from the work of our guides and porters of the African Walking Company.

         Again and again, I watched their sacrifice, perseverance, and strength and thought to myself this is how we should all live our lives.

         Every morning on the mountain started at 6:00 with a light tapping on our tent from our porters. We unzipped the door to receive our tea with or without sugar—our porters quickly learned our preferences. After tea came the “washy washy,” a bowl of hot water for each of us to use to wash our faces and hands. Jen used it one day to wash her hair, a somewhat pointless effort that made her feel better about the grime we’d collected along the way and had me shivering just thinking about how much colder I would be if my hair was wet.

         Next, we would gather in the tent where the AWC had filled the table with bread and fruit and some kind of grainy, warm breakfast soup much like malt-o-meal. They made special accommodations for some of our team members who were gluten or dairy intolerant. Nothing was left unnoticed. After breakfast, we’d load our packs for the day’s hike, and the porters would break down the entire camp, hoisting our duffels and tents on their backs and on top of their heads to continue our journey.

        During our hikes, they would ask us how we were feeling, offering snacks and medication if needed. They sat with us while we told stories on our breaks, offering their own stories when we asked. They rubbed our backs when we cried, gave us advice about blisters and headaches, and reminded us that we were strong enough to keep going when we doubted.

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hudson Photography

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hudson Photography

            At the end of each hike, we would gather again in the mess tent, the table covered with platters of popcorn and peanuts—appetizers before dinner. Our dinners were generous piles of carbs—rice or pasta—with meat and vegetables in tomato sauce. For dessert, we had pineapple, mango, and watermelon. Even when I was weary, I knew that our guides would take care of us every step of the way.

            When we stopped at Kibo Hut, the last camp before summit, my porter, Joel, greeted me with a large brush in his hand and started dusting off my pants and boots. I couldn’t help but think of the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, a humbling act of service for the people he loved most.

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hudson Photography

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hudson Photography

I want to be the African Walking Company for the world. I want to serve in this same way—selflessly, with regard to the needs of the person who needs me, with love and honor and respect. I want to shock people with unexpected kindness.

           The African Walking Company is the perfect metaphor for what it means to be the best kind of human. I have been blessed with a family that loves me unconditionally in a supernatural way, a group of friends who know what I need to be the best me, and a God whose quiet voice whispers to me daily I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. It is not out of obligation or a need to prove something that I give from my abundance. What is life if not the opportunity every day to wake up wondering how I can make someone else’s day a little brighter?

           Opportunities abound if we are paying attention. The prophet Isaiah encourages us in a chapter marked with the words, “Invitation to the Thirsty.” Isaiah says, “You will go out in JOY and be led forth in PEACE; the MOUNTAINS and the hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”  (Isaiah 55:12, NIV)

I am thirsty.

I want to live a life of joy and peace.

I want to make the mountains sing.

 

How should you get involved?

Leia Johnson is the president and co-founder of Somebody's Mama, a grassroots 501(c)3 that exists to bring awareness to issues affecting women across the globe, to create a community of people who care deeply about finding real solutions, and to turn ideas into action. Somebody's Mama focuses on four areas: maternal healthcare, education, economic empowerment, and ending violence against women. Leia is a storyteller at heart and loves speaking and writing about global women's issues, the struggles and joys of being a military spouse, and life as the mother of practically perfect children. She is at work on her first book.

When she's not working for Somebody's Mama, Leia spends her time substitute teaching and dog sitting, playing Skip-bo with her Air Force pilot husband, Scott, wrestling and/or reading with her sons, Will and Ben, and eating unhealthy amounts of cheese.

Leia participated in our Kilimanjaro climb, and Somebody's Mama generously raised over $20,000 for the campaign.

 

"Uhuru" Through the Climb - Chelsea Hudson

I see the world in snapshots. Frozen moments in time. Besides having a photographic memory, I am also a documentary photographer, or a “storyographer” as I am more apt to refer to myself. On the inaugural One Million Thumbprints Climb For Peace up Kilimanjaro a year ago, my role was “chief image capturer.” My teammates left their cameras at home and trusted my eyes and my gear. I tried to stay open and ready to capture the stories that would unfurl before us.

Looking back over the entire twelve day experience, from the Congo to Kilimanjaro (which feels like two separate but equally challenging and amazing journeys), a couple of “snapshots” emerge as the most transformative moments for me.

The Congo

Courtesy of Chelsea Hudson Photography

Courtesy of Chelsea Hudson Photography

When I think of our time in the Congo, all I see is Esperance’s smile. It radiates throughout my memory, almost blinding me to everything else. There were so many experiences, feelings, and observations packed into our three days in the Congo, but meeting the Esperance- the Congolese powerhouse of a woman who initiated this whole movement with her story and her thumbprint- was and is by far the highlight of my time in the Congo.

I remember it vividly.  We walked into a dark, village church and were greeted by a chorus of voices singing and dancing to welcome us. We all sat in our places. I roamed the span of the room capturing faces, angles, light. I kept scanning the crowd looking for her face. And then she smiled. With the help of an interpreter, Belinda, One Million Thumbprints' founder, was speaking to the group. She singled out Esperance, a tiny fierce woman in her fifties, who got up and walked to Belinda to give her a huge hug. Seeing this sweet reunion, tears blurred my vision. The woman who told her story and the woman who then carried it to the rest of the world. Partners. Sisters. Freedom fighters.

After this time, we sat with the women, listening to and receiving their stories. They were so full of pain. And violence. The violence was astounding. I captured the storytelling, emotive frame by emotive frame: pain, hardness, sadness, fear, anger.  And then joy, smiles, gentle laughter. Yes, joy in the healing and community they had found in each other. Conflict and courage. Pain and joy. Healing and hope. This is what we witnessed that day. Esperance’s story was no less violent than the others, and I saw the pain in her eyes as she recounted the details. But then, she smiled. I will never forget this smile. Here she was, healed and healing, offering this same hope and healing to others. “She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future” (Proverbs 31:25).

Kilimanjaro

Remembering Kilimanjaro is a gift…. and also a chore. So much to remember, to recall, to feel. How do you boil down a once-in-a-lifetime multi-day trek into one or two “snapshots?” But, again, when I close my eyes and remember, I see a couple of images that bring me back to that mountain. Both from our brutal, painful, unending, unforgettable summit day.

I wouldn’t ever recommend starting an eight and a half hour, two thousand foot climb at midnight. Especially after an entire day of “walking across Mars” (called “The Saddle” in Kilimanjaro terms. Have you seen the movie The Martian? If so, that is what “The Saddle” looks like… and feels like) to get to basecamp. Brutal really is the only way to describe that dark, middle-of-the-night assent. And unless I can physically show you, I don’t know that you will ever understand how painfully slow we went, how excruciatingly tired we were, and how endless the trail felt. "Pole, pole" we were told, “Slowly, slowly” in Swahili. And so it was one slow step in front of the other, straight up the mountain.

Courtesy of Chelsea Hudson Photography

Courtesy of Chelsea Hudson Photography

And then, right behind my back, almost without me noticing, it happened. Sunrise. At this point, I was listening to an audiobook on my phone, just trying to stay awake and keep moving. I remember the moment I stopped and noticed how I could see more around me (and down! Yikes! And up! Ugh…..) and then I stopped, braced myself on the trail, and turned around. This was the only moment on the assent that I pulled out my “big camera” (a Canon 5D Mark II) to take a shot. I felt very unbalanced, a bit dizzy, and quickly took a photograph of the stunning and invigorating sunrise, capturing some teammates walking up behind me. After stuffing the camera back into my camera pack, I stood still and just soaked in the light and energy. It wasn’t quite what I expected…there was no instant boost in adrenaline and energy. I was still beyond exhausted and now that I could see how far we still had to go, I thought “Hmmmmm, maybe climbing in the dark isn’t such a bad idea after all!”

But slowly, the light and warmth did its magic on my heart, soul, and even my muscles. A gathering wave of anticipation and excitement rushed through me, and before I knew it, we had reached the first summit, Gilman’s Point.

At this point, you think you are going to be spent. Completely done. Ready to descend. And for some that was the case. For me and a few of my teammates, the adrenaline of reaching the first summit far outweighed any physical tiredness or pain. I knew I wanted to continue on to the furthest and highest point, Uhuru Peak at 19,341ft. Even with the adrenaline, though, we were slow moving. "Pole pole"…even at the top. It took another two hours to walk around the rim to reach the final summit.

This is the second snapshot memory I have of this day... I was walking right on the heels of our guide, trying to keep his "pole pole" pace, but hoping that my breathing down his neck would will him, and us, to move faster. The sign was in sight. He paused to look back to see if we were all close and moving along. He met my eyes, smiled, and said, “Go ahead! You can go!” Folks, at 19,341ft. I dropped my pack, and I ran to the sign. I ran. And when I got there, I was alone and didn’t have anyone to take my photo at the the sign. So I did what any modern girl would do…. I took a selfie at Uhuru Peak. And it is one of my favorite moments of all time. I can’t really put into words how it feels to get to the end, to finish, to be able to say, “I did it!” I am still working it out for myself. A myriad of emotions flooded my system in the moment and continue to even a year later.

It wasn’t until the next morning, as we thanked our guides, that I found out what the word “Uhuru” meant: freedom. And the tears blurred my vision yet again. Freedom. Wasn’t that what this whole trek is about? We intentionally ascended on International Women’s Day, using the freedom our privilege, platform, and place this world gave us, to advocate for the freedom of all women, all girls. Freedom from violence and oppression, from war and famine. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).

That Uhuru moment made such an impact on me that I tattooed it to my wrist. FREEDOM. It is always worth the work, the effort, the pain, the training, the striving, the sacrifices, the running…always.

Follow us on social media for updates on the movement! Twitter @1MThumbprints; Instagram @onemillionthumbprints; and FaceBook @ One Million Thumbprints.

 

Chelsea Hudson is a wedding, portrait, and humanitarian photographer and passionate abolitionist. Chelsea's journey into activism began about five years ago as her eyes, mind, and heart were opened to the atrocity of human trafficking, occurring both domestically and abroad. As a suburban American mother, she struggled to find her place in this critical fight for justice. Inspired by Sir Edmund Burke's quote, "No man makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he can do only a little," she started the Do A Little Good to curate and share creative, simple ways the everyday mother, woman, or person can engage with larger issues of justice.

As a mother of three young girls, she has a passion to see women around the globe free to love, care for, and empower their daughters without fear of violence or exploitation. Chelsea resides in suburban Maryland along with her husband, John, and their daughters Adelaide, Sydney and Nadia.

One Year Down...

Greetings to friends and followers! My name is Mackenzie Jones; I am an English major at Covenant College, near Chattanooga, TN. I am honored to be the curator for the One Million Thumbprints blog for this season. At One Million Thumbprints, we have one goal, which is to connect you with the stories and lives of women experiencing gender-based violence in countries like Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as the lives and voices of women and men who support them worldwide. It's often so easy to take for granted the liberties and comforts we are afforded, especially if you don't live in a war zone. We can't overlook women who live in constant danger due to the oppression of war.

These women are deprived of the security and confidence necessary to live as respected and treasured individuals. In Galatians 3:26-28, the Apostle Paul urges us to remember we are all equal in God’s eyes and should not have to endure discrimination due to gender or race. Having been created in God’s image, we should rest in the assurance that our Heavenly Father wants us to treat our sisters with respect and dignity.

With today’s unrest, it is as important as ever to enter into the global conversation regarding the safety of women and children. To guide us into these conversations, a host of guest writers will be sharing their stories about ascending Mount Kilimanjaro last year. Our founder, Belinda Bauman, recruited several women to tackle this challenge. The bloggers who climbed will be voicing their reflections and experiences throughout the journey-- what they learned and how they were impacted.  On International Women’s Day (March 8th) 2016, this group reached the top of the summit to emphasize the following mission: honor the strength and courage of the women living in the most dangerous places to be a woman. These women are persevering through and actively resisting adversity. They believe that something will change if enough people know what is happening to them.

Here, at One Million Thumbprints, we are dedicated to telling the stories of brave women world wide. Why? When these sisters tell their story of overcoming, and we bare witness to it, we become identified with each other, both in our strengths and weaknesses. We just can't stand at a distance any longer-- we become bone of each other's bone, flesh of each other's flesh.  In Genesis 1:28, God gives Adam and Eve dominion over the earth. God intended for this “dominion” to result in guarding and keeping the earth. However, in too many areas of armed conflict today, we see women-- considered the heart and soul of the village, town, community-- caught in the middle of horrific violence, becoming what has been called “the most effective weapon of war”. This is not God’s desire. This is not God’s plan.  As sisters we rise up to join  brave and beautiful women in some of the most dangerous areas of the world-- letting them know we hear their stories, we see their faces, we know their names  and we stand with them.

We plan to post weekly on Wednesdays, so follow the One Million Thumbprints blog and stay tuned for our next post! Soon we will be exploring the various stories of the women who climbed to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro to shout at the top of the world, “VIOLENCE AGAINST THEM IS VIOLENCE AGAINST US.”  Come be a one in a million thumbprint for the sake of your sisters! We can’t wait to tell you more…  For more updates, follow us on Twitter (@1MThumbprints) and Instagram (@onemillionthumbprints), and like our FaceBook page!

 

The Congo - Stories of Conflict and Courage

Post by Chelsea Hudson - 1MT Climb for Peace Kilimanjaro climber, 1MT volunteer and humanitarian photographer.   Originally posted on ChelseaHudson.com.   

** All photography copyright Chelsea Hudson Photography for One Million Thumbprints **

 

I have been sitting on this post for some time…

Most of you know that our team visited the DRC and Rwanda before going on to Tanzania on the Kilimanjaro climb. So many people have asked about this time and I have struggled with how to possibly share in a way that does proper justice to the experience, the women, the story .

How do I share about such an intense experience in a way that doesn’t overwhelm my audience, but rather “agitates” (to borrow a term from my teammate Leia) them into action?

How do I share about the topic of violence against women in warzones without it getting lost in the noise of every other major world issue that needs to be addressed right now? 

How can my peers relate to an issue that doesn’t directly affect them?

I think the answer is in the concept of STORY. 

I could throw statistics at you all day long. Did you know there are about 17 million women worldwide affected by the violence of war? Yes, this is true. But does that number help you understand the issue any deeper? Can you relate to that number in any way? No, probably not.

Let me tell you a story instead. 

I have written about Esperance. I have posted her photo a few times and shared brief snippets of her story. I have discussed the courage she had to entrust her story to another, and not only that but the blatant hope she had that if the world only knew… if they only KNEW what she and her (17 million) sisters had gone through and continue to go through… the world would care. It would act. Respond.

(photo: World Relief)

But knowing about someone and meeting someone face to face is a completely different animal.

I was unprepared for the waves of emotion that washed over me after I looked at Belinda (who had met Esperance 3 years ago, and who was the founder of One Million Thumbprints) as we were walking into a church in a village 3 hours inland from the border and asked “Wait, are we meeting Esperance right now?” Her eyes welled and my eyes welled as she nodded quickly and composed herself.

You know that feeling you get when you are about to meet someone famous or important or someone you have looked up to as a hero of some sort? 

That is how I felt about seeing and meeting Esperance. She is an ordinary Congolese woman living a hard but normal life in rural Congo. But she is also a hero. A legend. How many Congolese women have birthed an international movement of grassroots peacemakers? Esperance has. I was acutely aware that it was her courage to give her story to another and her hope that drew all 15 of us  together with the aim of climbing Africa’s tallest mountain in her honor and for so many others like her. We were there because of her. We were there because of how her story had left such a deep and lasting mark on Belinda Bauman, who made the choice to lean in and not turn away.

Stories grab us. They change us. They move us. If we let them.

I watched as Belinda scanned the room and caught Esperance’s eyes. I saw Belinda’s eyes well again. I saw her swallow them (out of reverence to the Congolese culture where public crying is not appropriate). I photographed the hug and how they clung hard to one another.

Two women whose stories have now converged and are together birthing a new story of hope, peace and transformation. 

When we arrived, Papa Marcel (head of World Relief DRC church mobilization and empowerment) introduced our team. He looked at the Congolese women and said, “You are the teachers. They are the students. They are here to learn from you.” Truer words could not have been spoken. 

Thirty-three women who had been or were part of World Relief’s sexual and gender based violence support groups (SGBV), volunteered to meet us and share their own stories of trauma, rape, violence and survival. We split into two groups to facilitate as many of their stories as we could in our limited time. I did not hear most of the stories in their entirety as I was quietly moving around the room behind my camera and only caught bits and pieces. But I watched my teammates’ faces and saw the pain they were hearing.

I did hear more of Esperance’s story. And it was even more horrific that any of us had previously known. Three years ago, when Belinda first met Esperance, she told Belinda that [after watching rebels kill her husband in front of her] she had been “damaged beyond repair” when the men raped her and left her for dead in the woods. This time, she told us the raw truth (a sign of her healing to be able to speak it out). Two men raped her with machetes. Let that sink in. Don’t turn away. Just sit with it. And please hear this… hers was not the only story of being raped with machetes and guns. This is the truth of what is happening in the Congo. This is the story she needs you to hear.

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Some local women found her, naked, in the forest and brought her back to the village. A World Relief team (all Congolese) had been trained in trauma care in this village and she was treated at the hospital, and given clothing, food and shelter. She was then able to receive trauma counseling and now, three years later has been trained to be a trauma counselor. She is a strong, tiny, fierce woman whose smile absolutely lights up the darkest of rooms. I will never forget that smile. 

You see, I understand the concept of “violence against women as a weapon of war” now in the context of a fellow human being who has experienced the worst of it. She is a mother. I am a mother. She is a grandmother. I had grandmothers. She is a woman. I am a woman. Although I have never and probably will never experience a fraction of the sexual violence she has endured, I can empathize on the account of a shared humanity. I can imagine. Can you?

 

Over the next few days we heard from several other groups. We met with pastors of all different  denominations voluntarily choosing to work together for the good of their communities. Choosing to care for the widow, the SGBV victim, the sick and the hungry together, rather than arguing about doctrinal or theological differences. Yes, they are the teachers. We are the students. We asked if they could come to America and teach our pastors, our religious leaders how to choose peace and service ahead of doctrine and power and status.

We met with a group of Village Peace Committee members who are actively working to stem the tide of conflict and violence on a very basic grassroots level. These VPC’s are made up of women and men, and representatives of all religions and tribes of a given area. They are trained in conflict resolution and peace building. And they are the only recognized entity that actually helps diffuse volatile situations and resolve conflict without bribes. So in essence, the VPC’s are economically empowering their communities as well.

Our 1MT Climb for Peace team with the Village Peace Committee women. 

Our 1MT Climb for Peace team with the Village Peace Committee women. 

Lastly, we met with a Savings for Life group who enacted a SVL meeting from beginning to end. The attention to detail, cross checking numbers and figures, cheering each other on as they contributed (singing a song for the person who contributed the most) to the fund was something to behold. They even donate towards their own benevolence fund to help others in their community. They are the teachers, we are the students. We have much to learn from this kind of accountability, diligence and generosity. 

Each member of the group has a ledger book that records every cent donated and received. 

Each member of the group has a ledger book that records every cent donated and received. 

The money gets counted multiple times, with the totals being called out loud. At the end of the session random people in the group are questioned as to what the total amount deposited and the total amount given to the benevolent fund. Everyone has to know in case they are called on. This is another level of accountability. 

The money gets counted multiple times, with the totals being called out loud. At the end of the session random people in the group are questioned as to what the total amount deposited and the total amount given to the benevolent fund. Everyone has to know in case they are called on. This is another level of accountability. 

The accountant meticulously records each and every amount of money deposited and debited. 

The accountant meticulously records each and every amount of money deposited and debited. 

The money counter calls out the amount given and is confirmed by a second money counter. 

The money counter calls out the amount given and is confirmed by a second money counter. 

The box actually had three separate locks with three keys that stay with three different people. 

The box actually had three separate locks with three keys that stay with three different people. 

Our time in the Congo was so helpful for all of us climbing Kilimanjaro to have the WHY of the climb seared into our hearts and minds. Faces. Hugs. Stories. 

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It was also not without some Congolese excitement. On the second night, as we were preparing for bed at the Catholic Sisters Guesthouse, I heard what sounded like firecrackers. But I didn’t see any firecrackers. I was staying in a tiny little room in the outer courtyard while the rest of the team were in rooms in the inner courtyard. There were several UN workers staying in the rooms next to me and I listened to see if they were acting nervous or agitated, as I suspected it was gunfire that I had heard. They were speaking in French but didn’t seem concerned. So I continued preparing for bed. Belinda came knocking on my door soon after and smiled sheepishly and confirmed that it was automatic gunfire and that we are “most likely fine and safe” but that I might want to pack a little “getaway” bag in case anyone comes knocking on my door so I could just grab it and run to the inner courtyard rooms. Welcome to the Congo, yo. The next day, we found out that the shooters were bandits trying to rob the very vehicle we had just been traveling in that day. Our driver and a local pastor ducked heads and sped past the bandits.

 

The next morning, after driving the 3 hours back to Goma, we stopped at a local fistula hospital  World Relief is helping to support. We were ushered into a tiny room with 4 beds in it, each with a patient who was recovering from recent fistula surgery. I think each of us had a panicked moment of “WHY ARE WE IN HERE? SURELY THESE WOMEN DON’T WANT US IN HERE!” I mean in our American culture, we hide in our pain and discomfort. The last thing we want is for another person to see us at our lowest and worst. I assumed they felt the same and although I will not pretend to know the ins and outs of Congolese culture nor presume to know the thoughts that crossed these womens’ minds, I will only say what I saw.

I saw a woman in the corner nearly levitate off the bed with outstretched arms to us. Her face lit up. She was the only one next to a window and so light filled her face when she tried to sit up a bit for us. The staff at the hospital explained to her who we were and who we were with. They asked if she would like to share her story with us. She said yes.

 

Another woman on the far side of the room also said she would like to share her story. Isaw a small little girl sitting on the end of her bed and my first thought was “I am so glad her daughter can be here with her.” Then I noticed the IV piece taped to the little girl’s hand. NO. It can’t be. But upon hearing her mother’s story, we found out that her 5 year old daughter, Mary*, was also a patient. She had just been raped the week before. Her mother had been raped twice while tending her garden in the village. When I asked if she had any family or neighbors to support her post surgery, she shook her head and said, “No one wants anything to do with me because I keep getting raped.” We tried to ask some sensitive questions about her daughter and she told us (through an interpreter), “She can talk. She is 5. You can ask her.” And that is when I nearly bolted out of the room to hide the tears that I just couldn’t keep back. No 5 year old should ever have to be asked those kinds of questions. I sat there and thought about my own 5 year old daughter and I couldn’t stem the tide of emotion. Gut-wrenching. About an hour later, I asked if there was anyone that could help that woman and her daughter. I kept thinking, “Please don’t send her back. Don’t let her go.” I was told that when women like her come through the doors at this hospital, they are automatically put into a vast system of care and support. After surgery, there is physical therapy and trauma therapy for her and her daughter. There are vocational training programs and other forms of support and assistance. Although my heart breaks every time I think about her, I feel better knowing she is surrounded by  those who can ultimately help her rebuild her life and heal.

*Her name has been changed for privacy reasons. Also, if this little girl’s spunk is any indication ,she will grow up to be a mighty woman of courage and resilience. She gave us the best high 5’s and fist bumps.

*Her name has been changed for privacy reasons. Also, if this little girl’s spunk is any indication ,she will grow up to be a mighty woman of courage and resilience. She gave us the best high 5’s and fist bumps.

And then we ate lunch and walked across the border and into the land of a thousand hills, Rwanda. After Congo, Rwanda looks like a first world nation. Rwanda’s roads, the tin roofs, the clean paved streets make Congo look and feel like what the Wild West must have looked and felt like. Rough, harsh, lawless, violent. And yet, I keep coming back to the stories of healing, transformation, peace and courage that we heard from so many people. It is a place of unfathomable conflict… and also of unmatched courage. 

Tons of kids were hanging out around the doors and windows for the three days we had meetings at the church. We hope and pray the messages of hope and peace and restoration and healing that they were overhearing would sink deep into their hearts and minds.

Tons of kids were hanging out around the doors and windows for the three days we had meetings at the church. We hope and pray the messages of hope and peace and restoration and healing that they were overhearing would sink deep into their hearts and minds.

As the women shared their stories with us that first day in the Congo, they kept talking about finding these groups of women who were sharing their pain  with each other and that their healing was birthed through the sharing of their stories. And now they have entrusted me, my team members with these stories in hopes that when the world hears and understands, they will respond.

As a "thank you" for taking the time to meet with us and share their story, each woman was presented with a bundle of high quality Congolese fabric. The women burst out in song and dance. Some of the fabric would become dresses the ladies would make and wear on International Woman's Day (in honor of our Kilimanjaro climb no less!! ) and some would be sold at the nearest market for money to provide for their families. 

As a "thank you" for taking the time to meet with us and share their story, each woman was presented with a bundle of high quality Congolese fabric. The women burst out in song and dance. Some of the fabric would become dresses the ladies would make and wear on International Woman's Day (in honor of our Kilimanjaro climb no less!! ) and some would be sold at the nearest market for money to provide for their families. 

I don’t think the world is going to respond to statistics and numbers and news reports of rape and pillage, trafficking and conflict. But I do think that the world will respond to a story of a fellow human being who has suffered. I do think our stories are what will elicit awareness, empathy, action and change. And in the telling and hearing of these stories, perhaps we fan the flickering flame of hope. Hope for peace. For equality. For security. For all of our sisters around the world.

 


 

Has someone’s story resonated with you? Esperance? The Village Peace Committees? The Savings for Life programs? The women at the fistula hospital? Hold on to it. Don’t turn away. Do something. Today. 

 

Have you given us your thumbprint yet? By giving your thumbprint you are telling us, and eventually the UN when we present our petition to them, that this matters to you. That as a concerned citizen of the world, you want to see more being done for women like Esperance, women in fistula hospitals, women caught in the web of violence in war zones.

 

 

Would you consider donating to One Million Thumbprints? Perhaps you have a tax refund coming (yes, I just went there)?? I have personally seen the kinds of programs we are funding with World Relief in the Congo and these programs also exist in South Sudan and in Syria/Iraq. These programs are saving lives (as in the case of Esperance) and helping women and men restore their lives after the devastation of war. We would be so grateful for your financial partnership.

Donate here.