Kenyan pastors offer young people a token of love

Kenyan pastors offer young people a token of love

NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) On Valentine’s Day, some Kenyan pastors handed out red roses as a sign of love to HIV-positive youth suffering stigma and discrimination.

The gesture was meant as a way to reach out to youth, many of whom feel rejected by the churches.

“We came to show the youth that we care and support them,” said the Rev. Geoffrey Wanjala Munialo, a pastor with Vineyard Church, a Pentecostal congregation in Nairobi.

“We’ve also been teaching them the right perspective of love,” he added. “The right perspective helps people care and eliminate stigma and discrimination in HIV.”

Widespread stigma prevents many youth living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from coming forward and acknowledging their condition.

“Most parents prefer the status of their children remain unknown,” said Munialo. “They fear guilt by association.”

Mary Mutua, who is HIV-positive, said she blames the church for not giving greater priority to people like her.

“The church does not want to talk about it,” she said, because it means acknowledging that young people contract the virus through sexual intercourse.

“Many are comfortable supporting those who got it at birth because they feel it’s less sinful,” she added.

AIDS is the No. 1 cause of death among adolescents in Africa, according to a UNICEF study that showed the number of teenagers dying from AIDS has tripled since 2000, while the number of new infections in other age groups has slowed.

Girls subject to sexual violence, forced marriages and trafficking, and gay and bisexual boys who use drugs are especially vulnerable.

The Rev. James Muhia, the parish minister at the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in Ruiru near Nairobi, acknowledges that churches have not always done the right thing by young people.

“Forgiveness will open the doors for the church to accept and embrace them,” Muhia said, referring to young people.

Jane Ng’ang’a, the program officer for the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV-Kenya, urged churches to work to become safe places for the youth and others.

“There are some wounded youth who have come to church,” said Ng’ang’a, “but they do not feel safe enough to share their condition.”

(Fredrick Nzwili is an RNS correspondent based in Nairobi)

 

 

 

President Obama designates historic civil rights sites including black churches

President Obama designates historic civil rights sites including black churches

(RNS) In one of his last official acts, President Obama has designated Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and other civil rights landmarks in Birmingham, Ala., as the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.

The designation protects the historic A.G. Gaston Motel in that city, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders had their 1963 campaign headquarters, as well as Kelly Ingram Park, where police turned hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters.

And it includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls died in 1963 after Ku Klux Klan members detonated more than a dozen sticks of dynamite outside the church basement.

“This national monument will fortify Birmingham’s place in American history and will speak volumes to the place of African-Americans in history,” said the Rev. Arthur Price Jr., pastor of the church, in a statement.

Obama’s proclamation also cites the role of Bethel Baptist Church, headquarters of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and St. Paul United Methodist Church, from which protesters marched before being stopped by police dogs.

In his proclamation Thursday (Jan. 12), Obama said the various sites “all stand as a testament to the heroism of those who worked so hard to advance the cause of freedom.”

In other acts, all timed to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which will be observed on Monday, the president designated the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Ala., and the Reconstruction Era National Monument in coastal South Carolina.

He cited the role of congregations in all three areas — from sheltering civil rights activists at Bethel Baptist Church to hosting mass meetings at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., to providing a school for former slaves at the Brick Baptist Church in St. Helena Island, S.C.

The designations instruct the National Park Service to manage the sites and consider them for visitor services and historic preservation.

“African-American history is American history and these monuments are testament to the people and places on the front-lines of our entire nation’s march toward a more perfect union,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

 

 

Rocking the Label: A Closer Look at the Millennial First Lady

Rocking the Label: A Closer Look at the Millennial First Lady

Millennials are the largest generation since their parents, the Baby Boomers, and already are making their mark on society and the church. As many young women are marrying and beginning their new lives, some will also take on the responsibility of first lady—the wife of the senior pastor—in their respective churches, a role with much spiritual and moral weight.

While the traditional idea of a first lady remains the same, many young women have a more contemporary view of how their lives can impact other women in their congregation.

LaToyia Ledbetter, 32, is a first lady at Mt. Pisgah MBC in Chicago. Her husband, Rev. Ernest Ledbetter III, is a third-generation pastor, so she is familiar with how the term “first lady” has evolved over the years.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the title … People just want to find a way to respect you as the pastor’s wife,” she says. “But I don’t want you to put me on a pedestal. We are all supposed to be working in the body of Christ … and bringing souls to Christ. We don’t want it to be like, ‘This is the pastor and first lady. Rise when they walk in.’”

Katie Windley, a millennial first lady from North Carolina, says she prefers to be called by her name rather than “first lady” because it’s simply a title, something she says pales in comparison to the moral role at hand: setting a godly example.

“To me, you should represent your spouse, carry yourself to a standard where others can look up to you. You should always carry an attitude of faith and not of anger, attitude, or animosity, but love and kindness, but you should never allow your being a first lady to become arrogant,” she says.

Katie admits that being a first lady is “challenging, but most desirable because God gives you the strength to handle things.” Many of those challenges also come from the pressures to live up to a position that many women regard as a real-life example of the Christian walk, something that LaToyia believes is every woman’s duty.

Rocking the Label

LaToyia Ledbetter poses with her husband Rev. Ernest Ledbetter III of Mt. Pisgah MBC in Chicago.

“At our church, we say that everyone is the first lady in her household,” LaToyia laughs. “You should be the first lady in your house, so technically, there should be a ton of first ladies. I don’t think the title ‘first lady’ [defines] a great woman. You can be a great woman without being called a first lady.”

“My responsibilities do make me feel different, because I have to set myself apart from others, even the ones that are my age that attend church or family members,” Katie says. “I can’t [be effective] in this role if my living doesn’t match up, but I am still down-to-earth and love to laugh and have fun.”

Regardless of the labels we use, LaToyia says there are major keys to being married to a pastor that all women must keep in mind.

“You have to love God for YOURSELF,” she says. “Have a personal relationship with him and a STRONG prayer life. That will get you through the toughest of situations, especially in those beginning years when learning to balance ministry and marriage.”

She also reminds young women to respect their husband’s calling, by always ensuring he has time to himself to pray, study, and listen to God’s voice—never make him choose between God and you.

Katie also emphasizes pursuing your own calling while you support your spouse. “I make time for my dreams because you have to. You can cause yourself to be mentally and physically depressed trying to follow right alongside your husband’s dreams. You still have to live for yourself and accomplish all you set out to do.”

LaToyia also points out that a first lady must have a congruent personal and spiritual relationship with her husband.

“I tell women who are dating ministers, go listen to a sermon while dating. You may love his company and think he’s a great guy, but you can’t be with half of him. If he is teaching something that you as a Christian can’t agree to or respect, then you should reevaluate and pray as you will have to support both the man and the ministry in marriage.”

The New-Aged First Lady

While the role of first lady in the church is an important one, millennial woman are increasingly independent and putting marriage among their generation on hold. In fact, only 27% of millennials are tying the knot nowadays compared to 36% of Generation Xers, 48% of baby boomers, and 65% of traditionalists at the same age.

With more millennial women holding out on marriage and pursuing personal goals, where does the concept of being a “first lady” fit into life? By definition, a first lady is “the leading woman in a particular activity or profession.” This means the status of first lady is not directly tied to courtship, as many of us grew up hearing.

“I think women of past generations have seen themselves through the lens of patriarchy, i.e., they saw themselves as helpmeets to those whom they married, and they worked within that space—but never out of it,” says 20-something believer Kristina Redd.

Photo Courtesy of LeToyia Ledbetter

“Women have conceptualized the power to be leaders outside of their husbands’ work. Now, marriage isn’t the requirement to be a first lady. The dynamic has changed where it’s understood that women may be married or single, but their passions and dedication to their own work is commendable and glamorized.”

Some millennials also agree that being a leading lady isn’t confined to being the bar-none, most excellent person in your field. For many, a first lady is someone who gives 100% of her effort, and doesn’t exalt or separate herself from her fellow women.

Student Kathryn Turner says she believes that “the millennial first lady can be the last lady in her profession, class, or whatever it may be as long as she performs to her best abilities. She understands that all people are different and will not judge anyone.”

Kristina chimes in that women of past generations have often “distanced themselves, so to speak, from [the women] they lead. A millennial first lady is admired more for her approach instead of being a figurehead. She rolls up her sleeves, and she isn’t afraid of the first lady crown to fall off while working.”

Leading Ladies of Tomorrow

While many millennials still believe the first lady role is a symbol of personal and professional success, many point to personal qualities that set a leading lady apart from the crowd, making her more than just a profitable working woman. Compassion, supportiveness, and humility were frequently cited as key traits.

“She’s someone who had a first-hand experience and clearly bounced back—a survivor of some sort,” says 24-year-old Jacquelyn Segovia, who also says many people want a first lady to “act right,” so it’s important that she stands up for herself and be a people person.

“She’s also a go-getter! Anything with Christ, she can do!” Jacquelyn adds.

Kathryn says the millennial lady is particularly unique because she doesn’t aspire to fit into a category, but instead “helps other women create their own category free from persecution or criticisms by others who have not learned to live as confidently and as comfortably in their own skin as she has. She brings women together, celebrating both their differences and common ground without attempting to overshadow or remold one another.”

Kristina points out that a first lady should be a dynamic person who understands her influence. Her faith is vital because her growth is based on a desire “for God to empty her fully so she can commit herself to the void her life was written to fill,” she says.

Most importantly, many young women agree that the life of a first lady is marked by interactions with her peers. Being a testament to God’s love and strength goes a long way in making today’s woman a first lady.

“A millennial first lady can look like and be any woman,” Kristina says. “She is present in the lives of those she cares for, and has expectations for those whom she gives her heart to. Any woman can be the leading woman of her life and for the story God has written her into.

 

Here’s why MLK Day is more than just another day off

Here’s why MLK Day is more than just another day off

Since 1986, the third Monday of January has been reserved to commemorate the birthday, life and legacy of one of the nation’s greatest leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King—a Baptist preacher, scholar, and arguably the greatest leader of the Civil Rights Movement, selflessly fought for the equal rights of not only African Americans, but all people.

In a time when Jim Crow and legal segregation were the law of the land, Dr. King became the face of a movement that sought to dismantle the institution of racial injustice. He advocated for persons in poverty, spoke against the Vietnam war, and worked to ensure that all Americans had equal rights and protections under the law. Nearly 50 years after Dr. King’s assassination, his legacy lives on.

Although MLK Day is a national holiday, the ways in which people choose to celebrate—or not—are endless. Many schools and organizations across the nation will have the day off and/or host an MLK Day program, while others may participate in a community service project or attend city-wide marches and rallies.

In Chicago, the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago will lead volunteers in organizing food for distribution to the Senior Food and Nutrition Program in partnership with Catholic Charities. In Kansas City, Missouri, Turn the Page KC will host a book give-away at Southeast Community Center. Atlanta, the hometown of Dr. King, will have many volunteer opportunities including the 7th Annual Street Team for Energy Efficiency and Climate Resilience, hosted by the Center for Sustainable Communities.

“I will be giving 15 keynote presentations at MLK events over the next two weeks.” says Erin Jones, a 25-year educator, public speaker, and former State Superintendent candidate of Washington State. “[However,] I would like to think I celebrate his birthday every single day by living my life devoted to equality and opportunity for all, especially those who are most vulnerable in our communities.”

Just Another Day Off?

As our nation continues to fight issues of social injustice and racial tension, many question whether or not the ideals memorialized on MLK Day—a day of peace and tolerance—hold true throughout the year.

“We need to understand as a country that what [Dr. King] fought for still needs to be fought for today,” says Thomas McElroy, long-time musician from Seattle Washington. “The path towards a country united under the principals he laid down for all of us still need to be worked on.”

So, the question becomes, does MLK Day hold any true meaning in present-day society? Or, has it been reduced to a day off from work and school?

According to Erin Jones, “We have turned the day into an opportunity to rehearse the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”

“I can honestly say that, personally, I have never celebrated the holiday and have taken it as a vacation day,” says Elisabeth Scott, a recent college graduate of Western Washington University. “It wasn’t until going to my current church, that I participated in an MLK service. Had I not sung [during service], I probably wouldn’t have attended.”

However, Sergeant First Class Derek White, a 16-year member of the armed forces still sees the value in MLK Day, and what it means to the future of our society.

“I think that MLK being observed most definitely holds weight for both older and the younger generations. One way to ensure that our past does not repeat itself is by honoring people like Dr. King and his legacy and what he fought for and stood for.”

The Importance of Generational Knowledge

As an educator, Erin Jones argues that celebrating MLK Day does not have the same significance for young people today.

“Students have no context to understand the gravity of what Dr. King and his peers accomplished,” the educator says. “That being said, I believe it is our responsibility to communicate the value of this holiday, which is why I agreed to speak at so many schools.”

As a professional mentor to students, Jessica Crenshaw believes in giving back to the community, but admits that she does not celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day—for much different reasons.

“I do not celebrate MLK day as a holiday because I feel the significance of the day has been diminished,” Jessica says. “I feel it has been cheapened down for a “get-off-of-work-free card”.

For Jessica, authentic celebration of MLK Day should include not only service to the community, rallies, and celebration events, but should serve as a day to reflect and organize for long-term change.

“I feel as if people should really take time to reflect over what Dr. King was trying to accomplish, and actually sit down and have planning meetings to plan out actions to make sure that his dream gets fulfilled,” she says. “Concerts and protests are good, but if you don’t continue to do this work after January 16th then you’re not doing it for a real reason.”

Retired Ugandan bishop seeks restorative justice for former child soldiers

Retired Ugandan bishop seeks restorative justice for former child soldiers

by Fredrick Nzwili

(RNS) A retired Anglican bishop in northern Uganda is agitating for restorative justice – which emphasizes forgiveness and truth-telling over punishment – in a region where the wounds of a brutal war unleashed by the Lord’s Resistance Army persist.

Bishop Macleord Baker Ochola II, 84, has been responding to community concerns that the modern court system may not deliver justice for the people who suffered in the complex conflict.

In 1980s and ’90s, the LRA rebels, led by Joseph Kony, terrorized civilians in northern Uganda, abducting children and forcefully recruiting boys as soldiers and girls as sex slaves.

Kony turned child soldiers into killing machines against their own community.

By 2005, the LRA had abducted over 60,000 children and killed more than 100,000 people, while displacing 2.5 million people.

Ochola buried the dead, walked with returning child soldiers and at one point was forced into exile.

The conflict took a toll on his family. His wife died in 1997 after a land mine blast hit a car she was traveling in. Ten years earlier, his daughter committed suicide after being gang-raped by the rebels.

But Ochola has refused to remain bitter, choosing to promote peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation among his people.

“If there is no process of reconciliation, there is no healing, and if there is no healing there is no restoration and justice,” said Ochola, who served the Diocese of Kitgum.  “Healing and restoration brings transformation of life for those affected.”

The International Criminal Court in The Hague indicted five top leaders of the rebel group in 2005.

Last month, it put on trial Dominic Ongwen, a 41-year-old former rebel commander who was abducted at age 10. He faces 70 charges, including murder, attempted murder, rape, torture, sexual slavery and forced marriage. He is the first former child soldier to appear before court.

“In the name of God, I deny all these charges,” Ongwen said in court.

 

Dominic Ongwen, center, a senior commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army, sits in the courtroom of the International Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on Dec. 6, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Peter Dejong/Pool

Ochola has been urging the court to carefully reconsider the circumstances under which children-turned-commanders were trapped in LRA captivity.

 

While he does not deny the court’s charges, he fears the court may not offer restorative justice but is seeking punishment or retribution. He is also concerned it will divide the community, which is in dire need of unity in the aftermath of LRA atrocities.

Like many other cultural and religious leaders in Uganda, he stresses a traditional justice system known as “Mato Oput,” which he thinks is more holistic.

Centered on forgiveness, it involves truth telling, compensation and a ritual in which food is shared and the accused drinks bitter herbs.

“It brings restoration to broken human relationships, transforms lives and heals the hearts of those involved,” said Ochola. “The court system, which is retributive, promotes polarization, alienating both sides.”

Mato Oput mirrors many of the forgiveness and reconciliation efforts central to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa and the Gacaca courts used in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.

Mato Oput is the justice system of the Acholi people of northern Uganda, the community most affected by the LRA conflict.

The LRA left northern Uganda in 2005 and is now believed to operate along the border region of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The LRA is still at large and they are still fighting … so we must continue with the work,” said Ochola.

In 1997, Ochola was one of the founders of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, an interfaith organization led by cultural and religious leaders that sought to peacefully end the LRA insurgency. ARLPI has been facilitating grass-roots and intercommunal reconciliation and peaceful coexistence.

One aspect of that is trying to help the government and LRA go through a process of truth telling.

“This would involve accepting full responsibility and making public acknowledgment of what one has done,” said Ochola.

One problem, he said, is the government’s lack of political will to dismantle the LRA.

In the case of Ongwen, Ochola had hoped the former rebel would be brought to the community for truth telling. Since that did not happen, Ongwen will likely refuse to accept responsibility.

“As a victim, he continues to be punished twice,” said Ochola.

Sheikh Musa Khalil, a northern Uganda Muslim leader and the ARLPI vice chairman, backs Ochola, saying that with Ongwen, the traditional system could have achieved more.

“It mirrors what is in the Quran and Bible,” said Khalil. “It’s based on forgiveness. We feel he should have been brought to us.”

The bishop believes a change is needed in the general wordview that when a child is abducted — as in the case of northern Uganda — he or she must take full responsibility in adulthood for any crimes committed while a captive.

“For northern Uganda,” he said, “this is wrong because the children had their humanity destroyed.”

(Fredrick Nzwili is a reporter based in Nairobi)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Service Projects have more perks than you think

Christmas Service Projects have more perks than you think

It’s that time of year again! December is here and so are all the many festivities of the season. But, what is all the fuss about?

Why do we do whatever it is that we do every year? What is the real meaning of Christmas? Of course, as Christians, we are aware that Christmas is the time of year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ as depicted in Luke 2:4-19.

However, Christians and non-Christians alike celebrate Christmas in many ways, and the reason behind the celebrations vary from person to person. Some see it as a religious holiday, while others may view Christmas as a cultural holiday.

The way we celebrate Christmas varies throughout families and friends everywhere. Some families may have a grab bag event while another may simply have a potluck dinner and exchange gifts. However, there is one tradition that is starting to catch on and become more popular around the holidays, Christmas Service Projects (CSPs).

As a society, we seem to be more willing to exhibit acts of kindness toward one another during the holiday season, which would explain the growing popularity of CSPs. CSPs are generally designed to give people an opportunity to volunteer to help those who are less fortunate during the holiday season. It is an opportunity for us to “pay it forward” while realizing that the person who is volunteering could very well be in the same situation as the person who is in need.

The concept of CSPs certainly has its perks for people of all ages and is considered a gift that keeps on giving. When children participate in acts of service as an expression of celebrating Christmas, it has a positive effect on their grades, attitudes, and even self-esteem. In fact, research shows that volunteering as a youth leads to a higher quality of life as an adult.

“Volunteering leads to better health… Those who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer,” according to a report by the Corporation for National & Community Service.

Deuteronomy 15:10 (NIV) says, “Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.”

As Christians, we have a responsibility to freely give to others, paying close attention to our attitudes, and the way we give to others. A little further in Deuteronomy 16:17 (NIV) it reads, “Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the LORD your God has blessed you.”

Giving of yourself is a selfless act that is usually beneficial for the person receiving and rewarding for the person giving. Are you looking for CPS ideas for the holidays? Here are a few inexpensive ways to pay it forward in the coming weeks:

  • Make Christmas cards and send them to troops overseas.
  • Gather friends and family to volunteer at the local homeless shelter or food pantry for the holidays.
  • Pick up a few items at the dollar store such as stocking stuffers. Pass them out to the homeless, public service workers, or even a neighbor.
  • Design a card or special treat for the next Salvation Army bell ringer you encounter. Imagine how long they have been standing in the cold ringing a bell to try and raise money
  • Shovel snow for a neighbor, the elderly, a friend or a stranger, without receiving any monetary donation for it.
  • Help an elderly person hang Christmas decorations.
  • Decorate a tree in a populated area for people to enjoy. Don’t forget to take down the decorations when the celebrations are complete.
  • Have each person in your family commit to helping at least 4 people throughout the week. This will generate thought and conversation about serving others. Set aside some time to share your experiences and how you can carry these projects further through the entire year.

 

How will you be giving back this holiday season? Share some of your ideas below.