Feeding hope

It seems an odd thing to admit during Advent, but—full disclosure here—the last number of years I’ve sometimes had difficulty hanging on to hope.

Maybe it’s partly the line of work. After all, as the media continually reminds us, we are no strangers to things falling apart.


A woman bursts into tears during the morning meeting at the village which was shelled during an overnight artillery raid outside Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine. MCC Photo by Sergey Ponomarev

Every day we read accounts of people displaced by conflict and war. Personal stories coloured by sickness, loneliness, and loss. Reports of broken political systems and structural injustices our governments do too little to rectify. Admittedly, the chaotic spin of the world can leave me feeling off-kilter, unnerved, and groping for answers…

We say that God’s peace will come to its fullness.

But sometimes the price of our experience is high. As a person committed to the Christian story, perhaps my hope is not supposed to wax and wane. Yet there can sometimes be an unbearable mismatch between predictable theological explanations and the unpredictability of our lived realities.

But this Advent season, in spite of (or maybe because of?) this dissonance, I am on a personal journey to retrieve hope. It’s a journey that is leaving me at once fascinated, inspired, and befuddled in equal measure.

What exactly is hope? Is it endless optimism under-girded by a certainty that “things will work out”? A mental or emotional state? A gift that comes from holding tight to a particular theological narrative?

Is hope practical—a pragmatic tool to help you navigate the muck-and-mire of life? Or is it about shattering the practical so that new possibilities can be dreamed, imagined, and birthed?

For all its mystery, I know that hope is important. I know because I’ve wrestled with the apathy, resignation, and despair that befriend you in its absence.

“Hope,” American poet Emily Dickinson famously penned, “is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul,/And sings the tune without the words,/And never stops — at all.”

There is something really beautiful about this image of hope as a winged melody-maker—a constant friend that “no storm” can break, and that keeps you warm on “the chilliest land,/And on the strangest sea.”

Hope is always present, she says, and “yet never, in extremity…asked a crumb of me.”

This, truth be told, is where Dickinson loses me. In my own eye-of-a-storm, swimming-upstream, wandering-in-a-desert (or whatever other metaphor) kind of moments, I’ve often waited for hope to arrive, crossing my fingers that it might spontaneously re-emerge somehow.

Well, perhaps waiting is not my forte, but more and more I believe that hope does ask something—often a lot (and usually more than just a “crumb”)—of us, particularly in our darkest moments.

Hope, I think, is participatory.

In my own preoccupation with hope, I’ve been trying different images and metaphors on for size. I’ve imagined hope as a habit that must be practiced. Or as a muscle that must be flexed—a muscle that, admittedly, I’ve let atrophy in recent years. I’m still exploring what practices help me rebuild that muscle, what tools might challenge the muscle memory of cynicism (built up over years!), which can quickly pull me back into old stories and habits of thinking.

To circle back to Dickinson’s metaphor, I believe more every day that for hope to live, thrive, and be resilient, I need to feed it. After all, what you choose to feed gets stronger.

CandleIn the world of advocacy, quite frankly it isn’t hard for me to feed my cynicism. When years of political engagement result in only minor improvements to policy, and new world crises quickly overtake existing political agendas, one’s hope can be tried. Transformative change is a long process that often takes years or even decades to bear fruit.

Yet we are still called to enact hope in a world that isn’t always entirely hospitable to our dreams—to say “yes” (or even just “maybe”!) to possibility….to the surprises of the Spirit.

This is the mysterious dimension of faith—we are in relationship with the divine that admits to no easy or quick resolution for all of life’s challenges. Sometimes things change for the better; other times we don’t see a way out. And this tension is made all the more pointed, depending on what side of privilege we are on.

An honest faith must live through these “gaps,” and move forward through the shadows. This, I’m realizing, is precisely where hope lives—deeply entangled within all of life’s messy rhythms.

As American novelist Anne Lamott wrote, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work; you don’t give up.”

Though for me it requires more than a dash of vulnerability and a pinch of risk, this Advent season—the season of light birthed in the midst of darkness—I am committed to giving more than a crumb to hope.

Jenn Wiebe is the Interim Ottawa Office Director

A light to the nations

This week’s guest writer is Carolyne Epp-Fransen of Winnipeg. Carolyne and Gordon Epp-Fransen serve as MCC Representatives for Jordan, Iraq and Iran and live in Amman, Jordan.

“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”  Isaiah 42:6-7

It’s a privilege – a conflicted privilege, to be sure – to meet and visit with refugee and displaced Iraqi families who are so destitute and then to go back to our plenty. Our lives are not worth more than theirs and so we do need to step into their lives when we can.

Iraq IDP

Internally displaced persons living in Enshika camp, NW of Dohuk, Iraq, where an MCC partner distributed food rations recently.

In October we met Christian families displaced by the sudden and brutal advance into northern Iraq of the group that calls itself ISIS. These displaced families are still in shock. They are grateful to be alive. They are living in conditions they could never have imagined. They are realizing that homes, businesses, and livelihoods are gone. Their hopes and dreams for their lives and the lives of their children are, at best, uncertain.

It is here, among these displaced families, that I am learning about what it means to be a light to the nations.

The Chaldean and Syriac Catholics are a small minority in Iraq, the cradle of civilization. Their faith and language (neo-Aramaic) descend not from recent missionary efforts but from the time of Jesus. They have lived peaceably with their neighbours – Sunni, Shia, Yazidi, Turkman – over centuries. They want to remain in Iraq among these others to be a light. Despite decades of war and the violence and hatred it breeds, the Church wants to stay.

Carolyne and freinds

Carolyne with new friends, Christian refugees from Mosul and Nineveh, living in a church yard in Ankawa, Iraq.

Father Douglas Bazi is a priest in the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil, Iraq. He met us in his office in the midst of tents for displaced people on the church grounds. He is charged to meet the needs of over a hundred families. He laughed as he described his unfortunate choice of shampoo for the young ladies. Our meeting was interrupted by a boy about age 8 who came in crying. Father Douglas tenderly cleaned his scraped leg and applied a bandage. Father Douglas said, “My heart is full of pain because I am taking the trauma from the people. This is the time to show who we are (the Church); in 15-20 years I do not want to be ashamed for this time.”

Together with his church, Father Douglas wants to care for the displaced people so these Christians can stay in Iraq and be a light to the nations.

The displaced people of Iraq remind us of what is important – to be alive, to have faith. As we hear their stories, we come to realize the extent of the evil they have fled. We encounter the trauma that they are experiencing. Displaced families, of necessity, must seek out shelter, food and work. The focus of a first generation is on coping, adjusting and transition. The Chaldean Catholic Christians are being encouraged, even in these difficult times, to remember their faith and heritage. They are asked to consider their important role in the greater history of Christianity and the region. The leadership of the Chaldean church sees a calling for Christians to remain in Iraq, to live with, work beside and share with their neighbours.

Advent-2012The displaced people of Iraq remind me of my own Anabaptist history of persecution and fleeing from evil. Only a generation or two ago, my people were frightened, homeless and hungry. Now that we are safe and warm, how are we bringing light to the nations? I fear that we have not always lived up to this part of our calling. Most of us are no longer first generation newcomers. It is time to look beyond our own needs to see how we can be a light to the nations around us.

Advent is a festival of lights. We light candles for four weeks to symbolize core elements of our faith. The lights shine in the darkness of winter. As servants of God we are called to be light to the nations.

“Do you know?” Canada, mining and the global cry of the people

“Do you know?” asked Jennifer Henry, the Executive Director of KAIROS at a recent symposium entitled Mining Extraction and Justice: The Global Cry of the People. It is a question that has been deliberately directed to her as a Canadian, time after time, by KAIROS’ global partners.

“Do you know:

  • about the prominence of Canadian companies among mining corporations all over the world?
  • about the extent to which mining is impacting our water, health and physical environment?
  • about how the expansion of mining operations has resulted in countless forced displacements and greatly increased danger to community leaders who speak out against the industry?”
A group of Ontario young people stand on the edge of the Marlin Mine in San Marcos, Guatemala. The mine is owned by Goldcorp of Vancouver BC.

A group of Ontario young people stand on the edge of the Marlin Mine in San Marcos, Guatemala. The mine is owned by Goldcorp of Vancouver BC.

These questions hit home for participants in the two-day conference, which tackled  Canada’s prominent role in the mining industry, the impact of mining on the daily lives of affected people at home and around the world, and the possibilities for advancing mining  practices that promote human dignity and care for creation.

One of the principle messages expressed at the conference was the need to humanize the process — and to put a human face at the centre of mining policy and practice. This message was repeated by panelists including representatives from national and international NGOs, churches, communities directly impacted by mining in Canada and abroad, the mining sector, parliamentarians, and academics. Through their presentations, we encountered the human face from Asia to Africa to Latin America and back to Canada.

Having just returned from an MCC term in Latin America, where mining is a contentious issue to say the least, I thought of my own interactions with the stories and the faces touched by mining. During a short stint in Guatemala I visited the Marlin Mine in the western highlands, owned and operated by the Canadian-owned Goldcorp, where I experienced my own “Do you know?” moments.

We met community groups organizing protests to shut down operations due to unfulfilled promises, the lack of development programs and degrading health. We also met a family who had refused to leave their traditional lands and, as a result, were at risk from contaminated water and constant tremors from the mine. In both visits, when the local people requested international action and advocacy, everyone looked at me. I was, after all, the Canadian.

“Do you know?” Do we know about the extent of Canada’s role as a major player within the world of mining? If the answer is yes, we must then ask: “What are we doing about it?”

open-for-justice-logo-temp-TRANS.PSDConfronting the injustice perpetuated by the mining industry can overwhelm us, and make us feel both angry and helpless. But in this Advent season, as we celebrate the coming of Christ and the hope Christ brings, we can look to words of hope from the prophet Isaiah. In chapter 40, Isaiah speaks of God’s promise to comfort his people who are suffering. We also look to Luke 4 where Jesus claims the promises expressed in Isaiah 61: to embody the one who will bring good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted and set the captives free.

These promises of hope and comfort also call us to action — to draw strength from and find our place within the many initiatives and campaigns already underway to work for mining justice.

Development and Peace, KAIROS and others groups, through the Open for Justice Campaign, are calling for more accountability of mining companies, and the ability of impacted communities to raise concerns publicly, safely and effectively through an ombudsman with real authority to enforce corporate social responsibility. In line with this campaign, and as a reminder of the personal responsibility of consumers, KAIROS invites all of us to join an Advent Campaign, “All I Want for Christmas is Mining Justice.”

AA-14-11-AllIWantForChristmasThe Canadian Mining Association, which was also represented at the symposium, is standing with Canadian NGOs like Publish What You Pay and Oxfam in petitioning the Canadian Government for more open and robust policies to eliminate corruption and help communities in mining areas around the world access promised financial and social benefits.

And then there are the countless efforts, projects and movements directly supporting local communities in mining areas as they demand truth and justice from mining companies and respective governments.

Together, let’s be inspired and stand with The Global Cry of the People, here in Canada and around the world.

Rebekah Sears is policy analyst with the Ottawa Office.