Nestled amid tea fields in a valley outside Byumba, Rwanda, a group of 28 farmers, grocers, and tailors gathered in a small Anglican church. We heard the group before we saw them. They sang with gusto, beating their drums and stomping their feet in worship as we filed inside. Even our most-reserved visitors could not help but join the rhythm of dancing and singing.
After introductions were made, we settled in to observe the group. They studied Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, discussing how they might better practice community. “But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up,” they read. “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” They then made savings contributions. Together, they had saved close to $500 USD over the past 12 months and had lent far more out to each other in small loans to grow their livelihoods, pay for school fees, and improve their homes.
And then they began sharing their stories. Every year for the past decade I’ve visited groups like this one in the communities where HOPE works around the world. To be frank, I’ve grown almost immune to the power of these stories. But not on this visit.
One group member stood up and shared, “I was depressed and alone before joining this group.”
Another stood and said, “I was ashamed and invisible before joining this group and now I have an identity.”
Still another member stood up and she said, “I used to be a backyard person only. I would not leave my house.”
This group member—a mother and wife—described how isolated she once was from her neighbors. How alone and ashamed she felt because of her poverty. She described how members of the group invited her to join their group. And how that invitation changed her life.
“I was saved at this church,” she shared. “And I now have people who can pray with me.”
The isolation she experienced is not unique to rural communities in Rwanda. It is not even unique to rural communities on the continent of Africa. Across the world, loneliness is endemic. Over the last 30 years, even as our wealth and technology have boomed, the “percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20% to 40%.” Studies have shown that feelings of isolation increase poverty and are “linked to cardiovascular disease, dementia, and depression and, according to some researchers, its effect on mortality is similar to smoking and worse than obesity.”
We are connected to everyone but truly known by very few.
She sat down after sharing her story. I stared out the front door of the small Anglican church to the hilly Rwanda landscape and beyond. Across the world, HOPE and our partners serve 550,661 savings group members in 32,789 groups like this one. Together, these groups have $11.9 million (of their own money) in savings accounts. But their impressive financial accomplishments pale in comparison to their isolation-fighting work. In these savings groups, men and women are known, dignified, and served.
No longer confined by her shame, this woman from Byumba, Rwanda is now a front yard person. She goes out into the world with confidence, feeling known and supported. Her savings group has not freed her from all hardship, nor fully eradicated the effects of poverty in her life. She may never have a big house nor the latest iPhone. But she has people who see her, pray with her, and depend on her.
I began 2017 with a confession about 2016: I was a grump that year. And, I entered 2017 committed to being less consumed by the scandal du jour and more consumed by the people and places closest to me. And, I’m happy to report 2017 was a much better year. Though 2017 was difficult, of course, it was filled with untold joys, adventures, new places, and books. It was replete with making new memories with people I love and shaped by new habits and routines.
Here are a few of my favorites from the past year:
Best new book: Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch. No book shaped our family more this year. Crouch helped us “put technology in its proper place.” We haven’t torched our phones and laptops, but we have established much better boundaries. Because of this book, we watch far less television, keep our phones in their “parking spots” when we are at home and are much more cognizant of technology’s insidiousness.
Best not new book: The Chronicles of Narnia. We read this series aloud to our kids before bed. And, we all loved it. Eustace, Reepicheep, and Jill Pole captivated our imaginations and pointed us to the big story unfolding all around us.
Best articles: In 2018 and beyond, parental advisory warnings may need to preface news broadcasts. Vulgarity dominated 2017. From politicians to celebrities, each day brought new ugliness about men abusing their power. These stories create an environment for Christians to reimagine how we might practice our faith and serve our neighbors. Two articles I read in early 2017 framed the moment. The first, a New Yorker profile on Russell Moore by Kelefah Sanneh, painted the opportunity for the church to embrace the posture of a prophetic minority. The second, an essay written by Wesley Hill in Comment, offered a challenging invitation for Christians to rediscover our call to hospitality.
Best new habit: I read Deep Work this year with my coworkers. And, Newport’s research struck just the right tone for our modern work environment. He names the ways our always-available work culture drives us toward shallow and unfulfilling hamster wheeling and away from deep, meaningful work. Because of the book, my team has instituted “deep work Fridays” where email, instant messaging, meetings, and social media are strongly discouraged, allowing us the space to think and work deeply.
Best movie: Hidden Figures hit all the right notes. It beautifully wove together themes of vocation, race, virtue, and faith. And, it featured a killer soundtrack. The character who made me laugh hardest this year was the affable narcissist, Batman (Will Arnett), who starred in Lego Batman.
Best story you haven’t heard: One of the best parts of my job is reading the annual “Thurman Award” nominees. These stories–submitted by our staff from the 900,000+ men and women we serve across the world–remind me of all the things that are going right in the world. This year’s winner, Savera, is one of those heroes who won’t make news headlines but should. Formerly homeless, Savera now employs 50 people in farming, construction, and real estate businesses. With her success, she’s adopted eight orphans, she pays for her vulnerable neighbors’ school fees, and has built clean water wells for her neighbors.
Several times over the past few years, I have visited the Rwandan genocide memorial in Kigali. The first exhibit in the memorial displays an ominous image. At first glance, the picture is innocuous enough. It is far less grisly than many of the pictures throughout the rest of the memorial. But it is far more haunting.
In the picture, a Rwandan man sits in an examination room. A Belgian examiner measures the width and length of the man’s nose with a metal caliper. He then measures the eyes of the Rwandan man, contrasting and comparing the shape and size of the man’s eyes to a chart of various cultural eye shapes.
We now know that the Belgians sent scientists to Rwanda, wielding “scales and measuring tapes and calipers, and they went about weighing Rwandans, measuring Rwandan cranial capacities, and conducting comparative analyses of the relative protuberance of Rwandan noses.”
These tools, though far less violent than the machetes and guns used to perpetrate the genocide, are far more barbaric. When walking through the genocide memorial, jarring images of soldiers and militants line the walls. But it is this seemingly benign activity—a scientist wielding a caliper—that created division and preceded the slaughter of nearly one in ten Rwandan people.
First the calipers and scales were dispensed. Soon, the common physical appearances of the Hutus and Tutsis codified. Then, government officials mandated Rwandans record these divisions and differentiations between Hutus and Tutsis on identification cards. As the genocide unfolded, the perpetrators used these cards and physical differentiations to separate neighbors from each other. To separate friends and groups of students from their peers. To determine who lived and who died.
At the memorial, the second floor exhibits the terrible realities of genocides committed across the world and across history. In each case, division precedes violence. The Nazis forced Jewish men, women, and children to adorn their clothing or an armband with the Star of David. Turkish military and government officials organized the genocide against hundreds of thousands of Armenians who were identified as Christians on their national identification cards.
Earlier this year, we lived in the Dominican Republic for a few months. There, we learned about the history of Hispaniola and some of the horrific massacres carried out against ethnic groups on the island. In 1804, Haitian dictator Jean-Jacques Dessalines murdered all French residents who were unable to sing a Haitian nursery rhyme in Creole.
In a horrific turnabout, in 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo commanded his troops to round up dark-skinned people living near the Haitian border. Once they did so, journalist Michele Wucker recounts that the soldiers held up sprigs of parsley and asked, “‘What is this thing called?’ The terrified victim’s fate lay in the pronunciation of the answer.”
If the victims were unable to get the Spanish just right, they were killed and thrown into the Dajabón River, known commonly as the Massacre River in commemoration of the thousands of people who were killed because of their inability to say perejil—parsley—correctly.
Massacre River flows between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. This geographic divide is emblematic of the many symbolic divides we create between ourselves. Caliper or nursery rhyme. Badge or identification card. These create borders between us, separating men and women from each other, signifying those who have more (and less) worth. These are of course heinous examples, but this evocative history gives us a glimpse into the human heart. And Christians are anything but immune.
Jesus says our oneness is the way that others will identify us as his followers: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Yet as clearly as Jesus prioritized unity among his followers, we are quick to disregard it. Our natural inclination is to splinter. For Protestants, protest is in our very name. In our tribe, when disagreements emerge, we split.
“Very soon we will find it difficult to sustain the metaphor of the ‘body of Christ,’” said Ajith Fernando, author and Youth for Christ teaching director. “We believe in ‘a lot of bodies’ of Christ … [but] there is one body of Christ.”
There is either one body or there is not. For followers of Christ, “Winning is when we are united, not when one has won and the other has lost,” Fernando argues.
As the culture around us in this country grows increasingly suspicious of and unfamiliar with our faith, it provides a new opportunity for Christians to share and show what we are for. To lead and serve differently. To focus on our unified mission and tenaciously pursue it. To do more together than we ever could do alone.
There is no better time of year than Christmas to model and extol this type of unity. The world around us sings our songs and tells and retells our favorite story. As we surge into Advent, might we eschew every temptation to castigate and embrace every opportunity to love.
The weight of the world felt heavy in 2016. Wars expanded. Terrorist attacks made the news almost every day. Drug epidemics surged in many parts of our country. The election churned vitriol around our dinner tables, in our Facebook newsfeeds, and on our TVs. All around, I witnessed a mix of disdain, confusion, and anxiety.
The weight of the world felt heavy personally. I slept poorly, argued regularly, and felt uniquely high levels of frustration more routinely than I wish.
And yet, on December 28, Alli and I welcomed a healthy baby girl—June Kaarina—into the world. And for a few days, the expansiveness of the world shrunk to the walls of our hospital room, where we held and cooed and awed at the grandeur of this precious new life. For a few hours, the world’s biggest challenges faded, as baby June apprehended our imaginations.
It made me start to wonder how my 2016 might have been different.
The challenges of last year were not insignificant. It is good and right for us to mourn and respond to the challenges around us. But the challenges awaiting us in the decades to come will be no less significant. 98% of the world’s adults now own a cell phone. Atrocities and protests and exposés from everywhere in the world will continue to populate our screens in real-time. 2016 wasn’t an anomaly. It was just the start of our new normal.
I don’t want to be as grumpy in 2017 as I was in 2016. I want to be informed, of course. I want to be critical, when needed. And I want to be engaged deeply in a few issues and causes where I’m uniquely able to do so. But I don’t want to repeat last year. And based on what I’m seeing and hearing from my friends, I don’t think I’m alone. The idolization of national politics, specifically, has reached unhealthy levels for me and for many of my peers.
Though there was reason to lament in 2016, there were perhaps even more reasons to celebrate.
Globally, as Bill Gates wrote in his annual letter, by almost every measure, the state of the world’s most vulnerable people is better now than it was twelve months ago, and perhaps better than it has ever been. Across the globe, literacy and child survival rates are way up. Conversely, rates of disease and violence are way, way down. All told, average life expectancies have nearly doubled worldwide over the past two hundred years.
I have much to be grateful for personally as well. In 2016, I traveled to Rwanda and met amazing people who are writing a new chapter in Rwanda’s story. These stories will likely never make headlines. 2016 was also a year when HOPE took over management of large faith-based microfinance institutions in both Burundi and Rwanda. By God’s grace and through the sacrificial generosity of our supporters, we raised sufficient funds to accomplish this and to meet the needs of our budget.
This year, I also undertook some exciting projects with some remarkable friends. I published the story of a pallet company entrepreneur employing dozens of refugees in his company for The Denver Post. I shared the stories of an inspiring notebook designer and a formerly homeless housekeeper. We welcomed five beautiful foster children into our home. And, with a few family members, I launched dadcraft, a fathering web site. We hosted friends for conversations around our firepit, traveled to new places, and enjoyed the luxury of a warm home, full pantry, and good health.
Despite all this, there’s a lot I lament about 2016. So as we enter this new year, I’m committed to a better 2017.
I’m committed to spending more time praying more for my friends and family than I spend rolling my eyes at things they post online.
I’m committed to spending more time roughhousing with my kids than I spend bickering with my friends.
I’m committed to spending more time caring for my actual neighbors than I spend ruminating about national politics.
I’m committed to reading more words in books than I read in status updates.
I’m committed to savoring beautiful moments more fully, rather than thinking about how to best snap pictures of them.
I’m committed to more unpractical decision-making—to family bike rides in rainstorms, to gardening for the sake of gardening, and to walking more places.
These commitments won’t change our world. But they’ll help me live slower. A year from now, I pray my soul is more hopeful and less fickle, more sorrowful and less snippy, more rested and less harried.
Over the last month we’ve lost 141 pounds.
Before the challenge began, we all understood how to lose weight. Eat healthy food, watch portion sizes, exercise regularly…we knew the drill. Still, we weren’t doing it. Ten years after graduating from Taylor University, the 12 of us had put on a combined 150 pounds. In those years, we spread out across the country, landed new jobs, wooed wives, welcomed 18 babies into the world (with four more on the way!), and tacked on more than a few pounds.
A month ago, we collectively began a very simple weight loss challenge. We paired off and committed to sending the group weekly weigh-ins each Monday morning (via a cell phone picture of the scale). Our resident actuary mapped our progress on a spreadsheet. All month, near constant notifications from the group popped up on my phone—FitBit stats, words of encouragement, friendly jabs, workout routines, and, most importantly, hacks on how to fend off the magnetic pull of the Christmas party food spread.
11 of the 12 of us, pre-challenge
In one month, we’ve lost 141 pounds and all 12 of us have lost weight. Those weeks of accountability, encouragement, and camaraderie have paid off. We’re feeling healthier and have more energy to fulfill our roles at home and at work.
Considered within the entire course of human history, this feat is, well, inconsequential. But the power we discovered in community, accountability, and shared habits is anything but. In a trusted community, my group of 12 friends were able to do more together than we could do on our own. By instituting simple habits—and holding each other accountable to them—we accomplished what we were unable to do beforehand, despite understanding exactly how to do it.
This concept—that we can achieve more through shared routines in community than we can on our own—is true for weight loss (WeightWatchers is built on community and habits), for beating addictions (Alcoholics Anonymous, the same), and for spiritual growth as well. Jamie Smith asserts “we are embodied creatures of habit—God created us that way—we are profoundly shaped by ritual.”
There is great power at the intersection of community and habits. Take Alphonse as one salient example.
Alphonse grew up in Rwanda. He also grew up blind, in a country where this impairment can be devastating. Alphonse described that he used to avoid going out in public or attending church because of the shame he experienced because of his disability.
But then he met a pastor in his community who had been trained by HOPE to form savings groups—small communities of people who develop common habits of saving and supporting each other. When the Rwandan pastor met Alphonse, he began by telling Alphonse he was created in the image of God. He told Alphonse God had endowed him with gifts and abilities worth offering to his neighbors. And that only through Jesus would Alphonse experience abundant life.
Through the encouragement and training of that pastor, Alphonse and a group of 17 men and women from his community—all blind—came together to start a savings group. In 2012, they began meeting—habitually—each week. This group named their savings group Twisungane which means “Let us lean on one another.”
And they have. For four years, they’ve met weekly to go through a biblically-based curriculum and to save and lend to help meet each other’s financial needs. The group began with each member saving just $.13/week.
Over time, as Twisungane adhered to clear and consistent meeting rituals and routines, the group’s purpose and impact grew. Alphonse borrowed from the group to purchase seeds to plant crops and to buy livestock. He has also launched a small manufacturing business with the members of the group. Together, they make baskets, mats, and soccer balls to sell in their community. He now identifies not by his disabilities, but with the dignity of being “the breadwinner for my family.”
Alphonse and his family
The group today manages $80 in a shared savings account and $180 in outstanding loans to members of the group. When you remember the $.13/week that they started with, one cannot help but praise God for the way God has blessed the group and instilled in each of them the ability to use their talents to support their families, their communities, and each other.
I marvel again and again at the simple power of community and shared habits. From my 12 friends to Alphonse and Twisungane to AA and many more, habits formed within community and reinforced through accountability enable us to accomplish far more than we’re able to do on our own.
It’s the most generous season of the year. On December 23rd of last year, I celebrated how HOPE had met our budget goals for 2015. This December 23rd, though, we still have work to do. If you haven’t yet, allow me to encourage you to invest in the dreams of families like Alphonse’s this Christmas season! Thanks for reading and learning with me another year.