RUNNING FOR HIS LIFE: Lopez Lomong. (Photo by Paul Merca)
During these exciting London Olympics, there has been a little something for everyone: unexpected victories, unexpected disappointment, scandal, and comedy. That’s why we love the Games so much, right? Many inspirational and moving moments have emerged that encourage us to consider the strength, power, and resolve associated with the human mind, body, and spirit.
Countless stories will surface framing the many successes and failures of these competitors from all over the world. But three under-reported stories of hope that grabbed my attention this week were those of Lopez Lomong, a 27-year-old Lost Boy of Sudan competing in the 5,000-meter race for the U.S. track and field team; Afghani female sprinter Tahmina Kohistani; and 22-year-old judo champioin Kayla Harrison of the U.S.
A Lost Boy’s Discovery: Lopez Lomong
In an article posted at Christianity Today, contributor Cornelia Becker Seigneur tells the moving story of Lomong’s long road to triumph in her feature, “Lost Boy Olympian Lopez Lomong Runs to Save Lives.”
Lomong’s journey began in 1991, when rebels in the second Sudanese civil war attacked his home village of Kimotong. “I was 6 years old when I was abducted at church, which met under a tree,” Lomong said.
“They ripped my mother’s arm from me, throwing me and other boys into a truck; they blindfolded us, then drove us to a prison camp that trained rebel soldiers.”
Lomong and 80 other boys were beaten and forced into a life of fear and abuse. He speaks about his daring escape, when he and three older boys whom he calls his “three angels” ran for three days non-stop to safety.
“The savannas are very tough. [My] legs and feet were bleeding,” said Lomong. “When I wanted to stop, my angels carried me.”
Lomong never returned home to his mother or his village, instead he and the three other boys “hobbled into the United Nations-sponsored Kakuma refugee camp near Nairobi, Kenya,” where he remained for 10 years.
“They brought me from harsh wilderness to the Promised Land, then disappeared like angels,” he said. “They are my inspiration for what I am doing now. God was with them to help me.”
When Lomong turned 16, he heard of an opportunity that afforded 3,500 boys a chance to move to the United States, all they had to do was write an essay about their lives. Lomong wrote his in a style of a prayer to the Lord asking that He would guide his footsteps in the long journey that awaited him. Lomong was selected and relocated to the United States. There he was placed into the foster care of Robert and Barb Rogers of Syracuse, New York.
He had long dreamed of becoming an Olympic runner. After an impressive career at Northern Arizona University, where he won an NCAA championship in 2007, he would compete in the 2008 Beijing games and now in London.
After finishing 17th in his first ever-Olympic race in 2008, he formed his own non-profit organization called the Lopez Lomong Foundation. Now a Christian, he has also partnered with World Vision to form a new Sudanese charitable foundation called 4 South Sudan, which seeks to provide clean water, healthcare, education, and nutrition for the South Sudanese.
“When I run now, I keep thinking about the children who I had to leave behind, those who did not have the opportunity I had,” he told Christianity Today.
“Running is a talent that God has given me,” he said. “In the Bible when you are given a talent, you can put it in your pocket and not use it or you can use it. I am trying to use mine.”
New Vision for Afghan Women: Tahmina Kohistani
BREAKING DOWN BOUNDARIES: Tahmina Kohistani of Afghanistan. (Photo by Oliver Morin/Newscom)
Another compelling story of triumph is that of Afghani sprinter Tahmina Kohistani. In a post at Yahoo! Sports, reporter Les Carpenter writes about the hardships Kohistani faced on her road to the Olympics.
In a society driven by religious and cultural affiliations proposed by Muslim men, it is against societal rule for any woman to exercise, let alone compete in an athletic event. Kohistani is different because she resists her country’s traditional ideals and embraces more liberated ones. She is the only female competitor from her country participating in the 2012 games.
Carpenter writes that “in many ways [Kohistani] is the ideal of a new Afghanistan, one molded in the months after the initial U.S. invasion during which years of the Taliban’s oppression of women was washed away.”
“It’s difficult to be a woman in Afghanistan,” said Kohistani. “Every second 10, maybe more than 10 women are killed in every province of Afghanistan because they have a lot of illness,” which she believes is due to a lack of activity.
“Exercising is the best way to keep them healthy,” Kohistani said. Her uncle, Hasibullah Kohistani said that although he loves her “stubborn determination,” he’s proud of her accomplishments thus far and believes that she is fighting for something big, writes Carpenter.
Her father, who is an Afghan politician, didn’t approve of his daughter’s running at first, but after seeing how much she loved it, he became a supporter. Though he worries about his daughter’s safety and security, he also does not want her will to be broken.
According to Carpenter, Kohistani dreams of bringing other Afghani women out of their houses after this Olympics and into the nearest gym and recreation center. “She is going to get them running and exercising and living [the] lives they were told they could not have,” he writes.
Kohistani realizes that she stands little chance in winning the 100-meter race, however she believes that she’s doing something that will make a difference. Says Carpenter, the end result of her race is not what matters; what matters “is the message that will come with the simple act of settling into the starting blocks.”
Making History: Kayla Harrison
COMEBACK KID: Judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison.
One last story that represents true courage and perseverance is that of Olympic gold medalist, Kayla Harrison. Harrison is the current reigning champion in women’s judo and the first American ever to win a gold medal in the sport. In a remarkable match Thursday night, Harrison put on an impressive display of skills to subdue her opponent, crowd favorite Gemma Gibbons of Great Britain, in the 172-pound women’s final.
But Harrison has not always experienced a life of triumph. Starting at age 13, she was sexually abused by a former judo coach who is now serving a ten-year prison sentence. According to NPR reporter Karen Given, after Harrison’s mother found out about the abuse, “she saw judo not only as the means by which an abuser had gained access to her daughter, but also the means to her daughter’s recovery.”
In another article about Harrison’s historic victory, USA Today sports writer Gary Mihoces describes how at age 16 Harrison began working with a new coach, Jimmy Pedro, who began “lifting her spirit and honing her skill.” The result was a world championship in 2010 and a bronze medal the following year.
Harrison now credits her coaches and family for their support throughout tough times in her journey. She says her goal now is to help other kids like her realize their Olympic dreams. “I want to help kids overcome being victims. I want to help change people’s lives.”
If nothing else, the stories of these Olympic athletes should encourage us to remember the unwavering ability of the human spirit to dream, mend, and persevere. Lomong, Harrison, and Kohistani have proven that they were champions long before they set foot into a gym or onto a track.
You’re an adult. You hear of or even see another adult sexually abusing a child. It could be at your church or school. It could be next door or in your own home.
What would you do?
You would do everything in your power to stop it, or at least call the police, right? Especially as Christians who take seriously God’s command to protect “widows and orphans” (in other words, the most vulnerable in society), there’s no way you would let another adult abuse a child. So, why is there likely an adult near you in position of leadership such as, a priest, pastor, coach and mentor, who is abusing a minor?
It’s estimated that one out of three girls and one out of six boys in the U.S. is molested by an adult annually. The abuser is usually someone close to them, such as a family member or coach on their team. There are an estimated 493,000 registered sex offenders across the nation. Many of them were child abuse victims.
The Penn State University tragedy, where former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky has been charged with 40 criminal counts of child molestation has returned this issue to the forefront. Sandusky denies molesting several boys in his Second Mile mentoring program, during a 15-year period. The revelation that has only this year come fully to light, has led to the resignations and firings of top university officials, including the president and legendary head football coach Joe Paterno. The Penn State community is in shock. Sounds like the church.
Child molestations perpetrated by men of the cloth have been well documented. How do molesters go unnoticed despite other adult Christians being around? The signs are there but not easy to detect. A search of several websites yielded molester profile clues such as:
• Adults who prefer jobs where they have access to children
• Men who seem to love children and to whom children are drawn.
• A person who is either extremely authoritarian or passive.
Basically, the only near certainty is that most molesters are men (though based on recent media coverage there seems to be a growing number of women offenders as well). Anyone — teacher, coach, priest or pastor — can be a child molester.
But adults don’t always want to see the signs, either. Adults have jobs and reputations to protect. If we blow the whistle, it could lead to a firing or losing that next promotion or pay bonus. Adults put other adults on pedestals; when our icons are accused of wrongdoing, we identify personally and go into denial. Adults build and worship institutions that become our identity. We pride ourselves in attending a prominent school or church. This is in part how priests and pastors have been able to molest minors with impunity. But eventually as we put more value in the institutions than in the caring for those most vulnerable among us, the institutions, like all idols, must crack, even fall. They can never bear such weight that is reserved only for God.
Still, sometimes adults sense the sin, and just don’t know what to do. The American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry advises to do the following if a child hints that they’re being abused:
• Take them seriously and show that you understand and care.
• Don’t be judgmental, but encourage them to talk freely.
• Tell the child the abuse is not their fault
• Tell them you will protect them and act to prevent the abuse
• If you’re a family member, report the abuse to the local Child Protection Agency
• If you’re outside of the family, report it to police or the district attorney.
God reserves a special place in his heart for children, and he views their innocence as a virtue that we must all embrace. Recall, for example, the words of Jesus in Luke 18:
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
The Bible doesn’t specifically address child molestation, but it’s clearly a sin. Doing nothing about it is a sin, too. James 1:27 reads:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
The Penn State community is asking itself, “How did this happen to us? Why didn’t we do more? Why didn’t we see the signs?”
They are questions for all of us adults to ponder.
For Additional Info
Check these online resources for more information on Child Molestation Statistics and Tips on Recognizing and Dealing with Child Sexual Abuse.
With the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse back in the headlines, we’re once again confronted with questions of power, dysfunction, and deception in the church. Here’s an inside view of why the matter continues to plague churches, and why our thinking about the issue needs to change.
The sex abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church simply will not go away. Even the Pope himself is not immune. Recent stories have focused on his alleged complicity in transferring a known pedophile in his diocese to another parish after he had been caught in sexual abuse. This happened around 1980 when the future Pope Benedict XVI (then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) served as archbishop in Munich.
That this happened then and that it continues to take place is not a surprise. Much has been written about troubling revelations and staggering numbers of clergy, Catholic and Protestant, who’ve been caught in the snare of sexual misconduct. Little has been written about why sex. Why not, for instance, kleptomania?
A few years ago I participated in a writer’s conference, sitting at a table to represent my publication, when a disproportionate number of aspiring authors who came for critique ended up being pastors’ wives with narratives and poems in hand, their faces wide with tragic optimism. As I read their stories I quickly laid aside the manuscripts and looked into their sad eyes. We ended up discussing not the writing but what had gone wrong in the church that these isolated women must resort to “fictional” narratives about sex and betrayal of clergy husbands. I too had been married to a pastor. I understood them.
One woman at the writer’s conference told me that the man who had been her senior pastor and personal friend had “impregnated a woman he was counseling.” She said, “If I weren’t married to someone I knew to be a man of God, I don’t think I could ever listen to another preacher again. God calls unusual people to ministry. I think you’ll find they usually have family issues.”
Hard numbers are nearly impossible to come by since the nature of the problem is so deeply personal and compromising; those who confess usually do so at the point of being found out rather than volunteering a confession. I dare say that the gifted, devoted, and disciplined men and women who lead religious communities with humility and integrity greatly outrank the number of the fallen. That said, numbers of the fallen are greater than one might presume.
I have written extensively on the topic and cannot include all my research in this post. However, in the course of my work, I spent many hours with a former Catholic priest who had been caught in predatory sexual abuse of young men in his parish. He freely and openly told me his story. Below I render a small portion from an on-the-record interview that explains, twisted though it may be, why the clergy abuse issue is about sex and not kleptomania:
I perverted my own neediness into the delusion that I’m giving something incredibly special to these human beings. Some of the youth themselves felt that way at the time. It was the only kind of love they had ever received. The hardest part of their recovery has been their recognition that, as a man of God, my relationship with them ended up being a form of abuse.
A priest or minister is given constant adulation for the smallest things they do. The minister can easily take on a youthful charm and use it seductively. Even if the seduction is focused on an adult, the minister can be living in an adolescent kind of world. When you do that as a priest of God, you can do immense harm.
Struggles against lust of the flesh in the imaginations of the godly are not new to the landscape of church history. St. Francis of Assisi exhorted his brothers a few years prior to his death: “Don’t canonize me too soon. I’m perfectly capable of fathering a child.” His personal remedy for “impure desires” was to plunge himself into snow banks or freezing streams. (He guaranteed the results.)
Francis knew well the weakness of the flesh. He also knew the temptations of the office. He imposed rigorous disciplines on his brotherhood, understanding the need both for external constraint and internal resolve in order to battle and overcome fleshly forces that assault the spirit. He and his clerics faithfully recited liturgical readings at regular points of the day and night; he ordered them to confess and serve and discipline one another; to do penance and to absolve; and to work with one’s hands to avoid idleness.
We cannot all take the Franciscan vows. But one can, and indeed must, recognize that humans are weak. Men (and women) need constant reminding of that weakness, before God and one another, in order to stand strong against the “heady wine” of spiritual power they exercise over others’ souls. They ought not “to accept any office that may give rise to scandal or bring about the loss of one’s soul,” echoing Francis, who was not speaking in abstractions.
“Clergy sexual abuse,” says hospital chaplain Beth Darling, “comes down to being a matter about the role, nature, and purpose of the church in this world.” Maybe the church today has built itself around a model that is flawed, a model that foists upon mere men the burden of being the sole procurers of grace and bearers of God with no one to answer to. That burden can crush a man. Churches, large and small, Catholic and Protestant, are adept at creating “stories” around personalities and office, and at living those false stories regardless of shadows that may haunt the protagonist.
In all things we, as a believing people, must uphold the promise that God himself chose human flesh to bring amnesty to his fallen race and thus imbue it with beauty and dignity and purity. Despite our temptations and weaknesses, his Spirit empowers us to overcome.