Olympic Overcomers: Three the Hard Way

Olympic Overcomers: Three the Hard Way

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.

An African Lent

An African Lent

Here’s an idea for Lent that will do more good than giving up desserts: Read a book about contemporary sub-Saharan Africa. It’s not a penance, though it can hurt. And seeing how much of the rest of the world lives sure does put a lot of our minor irritations, and even major problems, in perspective.

Consider reading a novel or memoir by an African author, such as …

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
Tsotsi by Athol Fugard (South Africa)
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah (Sierra Leone)
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin (Zimbabwe)

Or read a journalist’s first-person account, like …

What Is the What by Dave Eggers (Sudan)
Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder (Burundi)
The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński (post-colonial Africa)
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch (Rwanda)

Or, if you’d rather watch a movie, try one of these …


The Devil Came On Horseback (Sudan)
Tsotsi (South Africa)
War Dance (Uganda)
Hotel Rwanda (Rwanda)

What do you think?

Are there books or movies that you’d recommend as aids for spiritual reflection during this Lenten season?

2011 News Highlights

2011 News Highlights

POLITICS

Protesters descended on cities across the country to make their cases for the preservation or elimination of federal programs.

1. In politics, the battle over the federal budget raged all year.  Lisa Sharon Harper offered thoughts on a Christian approach to it,  others debated whether or not to lift the federal debt ceiling, and former New Jersey Secretary of State Rev. De Forest Soaries offered his thoughts on a potential deal, which some described as a Satan Sandwich.  As a  government shutdown loomed, a congressional “super-committee” failed to compromise, and the battle rages on.

Sparks flew with Herman Cain on the campaign trail. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

2. The 2012 presidential race heated up and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain briefly emerged as a Republican dark horse. We looked at his viability, asked if his candidacy was good for Americarealized he wouldn’t be easily written off, and lamented the scandal about which he may or may not have sung as he exited the race. Meanwhile, Michele Bachmann speculated that blacks may have been better off under slavery and Larycia A. Hawkins offered the congresswoman a bit of advice. Texas governor Rick Perry limped along, but it seems his ‘Rainbow Right‘ coalition didn’t help him much, and fleeting front-runners Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul were such long shots that they had nary a mention here until now.

3. Meanwhile, the Tea Party partied on and we talked to African Americans about the movement. First singer, author, and activist Loyd Marcus assured us that there are black Tea Partiers, then Tea Party activist Jesse Lee Peterson threatened to protest the NAACP’s annual convention and Hilary O. Shelton responded. Finally, LaVonne Neff reminded us that Tea Partiers need government programs too.

The Occupy Movement spread across the country.

4. From the other end of the political spectrum, the “Occupy” movement emerged and encamped across the country, but we asked: Is it too white and is it time for churches to take up the cause?

5. According to members of the Religion Newswriters Association, the biggest religion story of the year was the faith response to the assassination of Osama bin Laden.  Here at UrbanFaith, Todd Burke pondered what the terrorist’s death says about America.

INTERNATIONAL

Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was arrested and sentenced to death in Iran because of his Christian beliefs.

In international news, 1.) dictators Kim Jong-Il and Moammar Gadhafi died. UrbanFaith editorial director Ed Gilbreath provocatively asked if Ghadhafi was a martyr and Helen Lee, daughter of a North Korean refugee, shared her thoughts on what it means to love an enemy like Jong-Il. 2.) The Arab Spring captured our attention and historian Kurt Werthmuller offered lessons from the revolution. We covered 3.) various crisis in Africa, including those in  SomaliaUganda, Malawi, and Sudan, and 4.) we wondered if race played a role in the London riots that preceded the European financial crisis. Finally, 5.) DeVona Alleyne reminded us that real persecution is that which is faced by believers like Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to death for his faith.

CULTURE & SOCIETY

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial opened in August.

On the cultural front, 1.) the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial finally opened, though not without controversy and not without delay.  2.) Historian Charles Marsh reflected on the death of Civil Rights icon and pastor Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. 3.) Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs’ also died this year and Jelani Greenridge meditated on the entrepreneur’s wisdom. 4.) The nation solemnly observed the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and dedicated a memorial at the World Trade Center site, as the war in Iraq that those attacks spurred finally came to an end. 5.) The 150th anniversary of Civil War went largely unnoticed, but not by us. And sadly, 6.) legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired amidst a scandal over assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged pedophilia. Wil LaViest, Julian DeShazier, and I responded to the horrific news.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

After 25 years Oprah Winfrey says goodbye to her talk show.

1.) In arts and entertainment, Oprah Winfrey ended her talk show after 25 years and we revisited the “Church of Oprah.” No need to fear a loss of black media power, however because 2.)  Forbes named Tyler Perry the richest man in Hollywood. We covered elements of his media empire here, here, here, and here. 3.) The Help opened in cinemas amidst plenty of debate about its merits or lack thereof. 4.) Controversial Gospel music crossover success stories like that of Tonéx got Jelani Greenridge thinking and we mourned the death of cross-over artist Jessy Dixon. 5.) Lastly, BET’s successful relaunch of The Game deserves a mention, even though our commentator didn’t care much for the values of the show (or lack thereof).

CHURCH & FAITH

Bishop Eddie Long and Rev. Bernice King before she left his church.

In church and faith news, 1.) Bishop Eddie Long agreed to a financial settlement with four young men who accused him of sexual misconduct, Bernice King left his church in the aftermath, questions continued to swirl about the allegations, but Long didn’t step down from the pulpit until his wife filed for divorce this month. In better news, 2.) The Hartford Institute for Religion Research reported that the black church is bucking a wider trend toward congregational decline, and 3.) the Southern Baptists got serious about diversity with the election of  Rev. Fred Luter as their first African American vice president. We also reported on other denominations that are pursuing diversity. 4.) Pastor Rob Bell stirred up a theological hornet’s nest with his latest book and conservative authors responded. 5.) Finally, Rev. Zachery Tims met an untimely death in a New York City hotel room.

What do you think?

What stories did we miss? Which ones will you remember? What do you think will top the news in 2012?

Rwanda Revisited: Awakening Empathy

Rwanda Revisited: Awakening Empathy

REMEMBERING THE TRAGEDY: A Rwandan genocide survivor visits the Gisozi memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, where he views pictures of some of the 800,000 people killed in his nation's 1994 massacre. (Photo: Radu Sigheti/Newscom)

When I studied abroad in Rwanda in July, friends and family expressed concern for my safety. To them, Rwanda conjured images of genocide that tore through this small African country in 1994.

Now, after learning about what happened during the genocide, their concern seems terribly ironic. Because if anything like the genocide were to happen again, my American passport would have gotten me a seat on the next plane home. I never would have been in any danger.

But I can’t say the same for the people I met in Rwanda: fellow students I took classes with, pastors I interviewed, street children I gave food to, and the leaders and scholars who lectured for our class. People who were like me, sharing my passion for ministry or my hope to make a difference, but without the American passport.

When the Rwandan genocide began in April 1994, Americans and other Westerners were immediately evacuated, while the most vulnerable people—the Tutsi being targeted, and the Hutu moderates who stood up for them—were abandoned.

The international forces that poured in to evacuate foreigners could have stopped the genocide right then if they’d teamed up with UN peacekeepers and other nearby troops. But they didn’t. And 100 days later, a million people were dead.

Seventeen years after the genocide, Rwanda is now one of the safest countries in Africa. But in other parts of the world still experiencing conflict, this scenario is not so far from the horrifying truth of what could happen when crisis hits: foreigners are saved, and Africans are not.In Rwanda, the killers were sharpening their machetes and waiting for the evacuation team to do their job, so they could close in on their victims without interference. The message to Rwandans was disturbingly clear: you were only getting on a UN rescue truck if you had that passport—or, in plainer words, if your skin was white.

“Mass slaughter was happening, and suddenly there in Kigali we had the forces we needed to contain it, and maybe even stop it,” UN General Romeo Dallaire told journalist Samantha Power in The Atlantic’s “Bystanders to Genocide.” “Yet they picked up their people and turned and walked away.”

ABANDONING RWANDA: The extremist Hutu militia killed 10 Belgian soldiers at this site to scare Belgium out of Rwanda. Belgium pulled its soldiers from the UN peacekeeping mission, severely reducing its force. The bullet holes are still visible at this former military camp, now a memorial in Kigali. (Photo by Tyler Hutcherson)

You can’t help but ask the difficult questions: Why were foreigners saved and Africans abandoned, when their lives are just as valuable? Why didn’t the rest of the world pull their troops together to save a million lives, rather than just rescuing the Westerners, calling the mission a success, and getting out?

I think of watching Beyond the Gates, a fictional movie about the Rwandan genocide, and listening to a white journalist compare her experiences seeing death in different countries. “When I was in Bosnia, I cried every day,” this character said. “I looked at the white faces of women dead in the gutter and thought, ‘That could be my mother.’ In Rwanda, I look at the bodies and I think, ‘It’s just dead Africans.’”

Looking back at what happened in Rwanda, I can’t help but wonder if a similar lack of empathy enabled the rest of the world to turn its back on Rwanda, reasoning that the people they left behind after the evacuation were “just dead Africans.” Has American culture become so numb to the suffering of Africans that it sees their continent as a lost cause? How can we help Americans see Africans as brothers and sisters in Christ, people who could be our family?

As I left the genocide memorials, I often felt empty, dead inside. I wasn’t sure I was capable of feeling even a fragment of the horror that happened there—let alone put it into words. Because there are some things that can’t be put into words, that are so mind-blowing that to even begin to describe them would be to trivialize the truth.

In such moments, it can be tempting to shut down emotionally, because although we may feel empathy, it seems that there’s not much we can do to put it to use. And so it’s all too easy to discard it, and move on.

I wonder what would happen if we instead clung to our empathy, aching and trusting that God can understand even when we have no words and don’t know what to do. As Romans 8:26 puts it, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

Because if we hold on to our empathy and cry out to God when we feel helpless, maybe we won’t give up so easily. Maybe we’ll open our eyes and see that a million lives could be saved. And then maybe we’ll use our voice as a church to do something about it.

CONFLICTS IN AFRICA TODAY:

South Sudan’s foreign minister is warning that Sudan and South Sudan are “on the brink of war” after border violence, and the UN said Tuesday the fighting has displaced about 417,000 people. If that conflict explodes, it would easily become the largest conventional war on the face of the earth,” wrote George Clooney and John Prendergast in a TIME article about famine as a weapon in Sudan.

• In Somalia, 250,000 people are still facing famine. The Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab has worsened the crisis, recently ordering 16 humanitarian aid agencies to leave Somalia, including the World Health Organization and UNICEF. The New York Times has disturbing photographs of the crisis—and one glimpse of hope, a photograph of one child giving another child a drink.

What’s the duty of the American church now? Is your church taking action to help stop violence and famine in Africa?

‘Machine Gun Preacher’ Poses Tough Questions

‘Machine Gun Preacher’ Poses Tough Questions

"Machine Gun Preacher" Sam-Childers

RADICAL MISSIONARY: Sam Childers at the New York premiere of 'Machine Gun Preacher,' which is based on his action-packed life story.

Machine Gun Preacher, a new film starring Gerard Butler and Michelle Monaghan, poses challenging questions about just how far a Christian should go in the pursuit of justice for the world’s most vulnerable members, in this case children who were kidnapped in Sudan by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, also known as the LRA.

The biopic is about Sam Childers, a Pennsylvania drug dealer whose radicalism was redeemed by Christ and redirected toward preaching the gospel and saving orphans in East Africa. In the process of rescuing those orphans, Childers engages in gun battles with LRA soldiers, but he also manages to pull hundreds of children from either death or the murderous grip of the LRA.

The movie is a cross between The Blind Side and Rambo. For a faith-based film, it certainly doesn’t shy away from Rambo-style action. But The Blind Side might be the even more apt comparison, since both it and Machine Gun Preacher are based on true stories that navigate tricky racial issues. In fact, The Blind Side, just like this summer’s The Help, reignited the ongoing debate about films featuring benevolent white heroes who come along to help needy black victims. When I spoke to Childers at Machine Gun Preacher’s New York premiere, he insisted he was no “white savior” going into an African nation to save black children.

“If anything the children saved me,” Childers told me. “The children gave me a purpose. I wasn’t always a good person in life. I believe probably the only good thing that I ever done and stuck to doing was helping the children of Sudan.”

Machine Gun Preacher is a unique faith film in that it is R-rated and its main character is not sanitized either before or after his conversion. Its realism in this regard is its greatest strength. Too often our heroes are portrayed as one-dimensional converts who go from bad to good in one fell swoop. In Machine Gun Preacher, the converted Childers character has a crisis of faith and takes it out on everyone around him as he struggles to raise funds for a ministry that eventually threatens to consume him. Its strength may also be its greatest weakness, because it fails to adequately address the questions it raises.

When I interviewed Childers, he said his son “was killed” a number of years ago, but there is no mention of a son in the film. Instead a friend dies of a drug overdose and this too fuels his rage. At the after-party, Childers said his son had died from heroin.

Michelle-Monaghan-and-Gerard-Butler

ON THE RED CARPET: Michelle Monaghan and Gerard Butler at the 'Machine Gun Preacher' premiere. Butler and Monaghan portray Sam and Lynn Childers.

The intensity of the character is well served by Gerard Butler’s bold performance. When I spoke to Butler, he said he was raised Catholic, but that he had tapped into his Scottish heritage more than any religious faith to bring Childers to life on the big screen.

Michelle Monaghan, who plays Childers’ ex-stripper wife, Lynn, was also raised Catholic, and described herself as “a very spiritual person” when I inquired about her faith.

“I definitely think there’s someone out there greater than me,” she said.

Machine Gun Preacher is Monaghan’s first faith-based movie, she said, and she is “incredibly proud of it.”

“It’s faith based, but I think it’s something everyone can really identify with. … I don’t think anybody can see this movie and not be impacted by it in a positive way.”

Monaghan spent time with Lynn Childers and sought to honor her in her portrayal.

“I consider her the quiet giant of this relationship. Without her strength, I don’t know if Sam would be able to pursue the things that he does on a daily basis,” Monaghan said. “I wanted to understand who she was as a person, and what I’ve realized is, still to this day, her faith is what guides her. She really believes that he’s doing God’s work.”

Monaghan used her interviews on the red carpet to encourage the public to support the Childers’ Angels of East Africa Foundation. As the film was introduced and again as guests exited the theatre, they were encouraged to support the ministry.

Angels of East Africa took in close to $878,000 in 2009, according to its IRS tax form 990. The filing says that the organization runs one of the largest orphanages in South Sudan, serves 1,800 meals a day in Africa, runs a medical clinic, and has reunited over 1,500 orphans from displacement camps with their families.

The ministry is an outgrowth of Shekinah Fellowship, the church the Childers founded in Central City, Pennsylvania. Although the church website lists Sam as its pastor, he said Lynn is now the pastor. Their daughter Paige Wirick accompanied Sam to the premiere and said at the after-party that she works in the children’s ministry and that her husband Justin is the church’s youth pastor.

Although the film portrays the strain Sam Childers’ devotion to Sudanese orphans put on the family, Wirick said she supports the work.

“Every young girl eventually goes through where she needs her dad, but I don’t hold any grudges,” said Wirick. “I think everything I went through has made me who I am today, and I completely back my parents on everything that they do. I even want to run the ministry along side of them. I don’t take anything to heart where it pushed me away.”

She was born after her father’s conversion, she said, not before, as the film suggests.

And that’s not the only instance of artistic license that the filmmakers take with the story. The film version of Sam Childers’ life “amped up” the violence, he said. And while he doesn’t condone violence, Childers asked me what I would want him to do if the child he was trying to save were mine?

I posed a similar question to Christian peace activist Shane Claiborne when I interviewed him before he co-hosted the anti-war Jesus, Bombs, & Ice Cream variety show in Philadelphia on September 10. To hear what Claiborne had to say about the appropriate use of “redemptive violence,” listen here.

Childers’ question is a good one. Another is: how does a lone American citizen engage in armed conflict in another nation and continue traveling freely into and out of that country? Is it ever appropriate for a Christian to do so?

Tell us what you think. Is there a place for “redemptive violence” in the life of a Christian? Do you plan to see Machine Gun Preacher when it opens this weekend? If so, please come back and share your thoughts.

UPDATE: Christianity Today reports that Sam Childers is accused of neglecting children at the orphanage he founded in Sudan.

“Witnesses have said that the children at Shekinah Fellowship Children’s Village are malnourished, unhealthy, and unhappy. Several locals — including pastors, government officials, and a high-ranking member of the military — tell Christianity Today that Childers has exaggerated or outright lied about his work in the African nation,” the article said.

Childers denied the accusations, saying they ultimately stem from an employee he fired for corruption and theft.