Sunday, October 23, 2011


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I believe in moms. Average, every day moms. Busy, distracted, usually a little frazzled.

Which is why a link from an email this week, "It only takes one mom," brought tears to my eyes. Check it for yourself. Can you watch it without tearing up?

I believe everybody needs a mom: a sometimes practical, sometimes sentimental, always available female elder. My mom was my grandmother, strategically augmented by an aunt who was good at listening, some female teachers and professors who helped me get my feet pointed in the right direction, and a generous, gracious mother-in-law.

Everybody needs a mom. And every community needs a mom. Preferably more, but at least one: a doorbell (or cell phone) you can always ring, someone who knows what to do about a bloody nose, a baby who won’t stop crying, or those strange dots that show up on small children just to make their parents worry. Someone who wants to see every kid in sight grow up strong, healthy, cared for. 

My community mom, when my kids were small, was a neighbor named Sheila Allen. She had the answers. Even more, she had the time, and the heart, to open her door and life to young families around her.  When she moved away, she handed off to me: when the first desperate younger mom with a bleeding child appeared at my townhouse door, I thought of Sheila, and knew what to do.

Every community needs a mom, or five, or fifty. Every school, every church.

And yes, - we need dads too. More than ever. But that’s another blog post. So forgive me if you think I’m being sexist and let’s leave that for another day.

I’ve been reading autobiographies of two world-class moms. One, Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, environmentalist and political activist, died last month at the age of 71. The other, Leymah Gbowee, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just weeks ago, along with two other women, for her work in organizing a prayer movement that helped end civil war in Liberia in 2003, and inspired the of the first female president on the African continent.

Both women are far more than mothers. And both struggled with the challenge of caring for children while pursing the paths they found stretching out before them.

But if you listen to what motivated them and kept them moving through fierce opposition and threat of physical harm, it was love of their children, the children who would follow, and the world those children would find.

For Wangari Maathai, the first female Kenyan with a PhD in biology, the presenting challenge was deforestation and the attendant erosion, loss of clean water, and rural poverty. In the 1970s, still a young woman with small children, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an organization committed to planting trees and promoting the rights of women. Under Maathai’s leadership, the movement spread to other African nations and has been responsible for planting more than 30 million trees while helping nearly 900,000 women earn a modest income.

Along the way, Maathai spoke out for freedom in a repressive regime, aligning herself with mothers whose sons had been imprisoned for dissent, living as part of a rotating hunger strike for most of a year in All Saints Cathedral, the seat of the Anglican Archbishop in Kenya, along with a community of other mothers.

She also spent time in hiding, spent days barricaded in her own home, was tear-gassed, beaten, repeatedly imprisoned, consistently ridiculed and defamed. Her courageous work for women, freedom, and the environment helped lead the way to a freer, more democratic Kenya. In 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, a tribute to her work in "development, democracy and peace." When she died, the entire conservation community mourned the loss of “Mama Trees.”

Leymah Gbowee is younger, just 39, the mother of six children, three from an early, abusive marriage that ended as Liberia, Leymah’s home country, was plunging into civil war. After a period of chaos, in her own life as well as the life of her country, she volunteered to work with the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program at the Lutheran church she’d attended as a child. She was trained to work with boy soldiers, newly released from dictator Charles Taylor’s infamous “Small Boys Brigade,” young boys kidnapped and trained to attack schools, villages, churches, markets. Drugged and armed, the boys were part of a bloody regime that killed over 250,000 people in Liberia’s First Civil War, from 1989 to 1996.

Leymah’s work brought her into contact with a group of Mennonite peacemakers who offered her books, training, and experience in conflict resolution. In 1999, as Liberia was descending into its Second Civil War, Leymah was invited to the first meeting of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) in Ghana. Later, Gbowee wrote: "How to describe the excitement of that first meeting...? There were women from Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Togo -- almost all the sixteen West African nations.”

Gbowee went home to enlist other women in peacemaking and to begin an branch of WIPNET in Liberia. One night, she dreamed of a group  of women gathering to pray. When she told others of her dream, and asked who would lead such a movement of prayer, she was told the calling was hers. “The dream belongs to the dreamer.” 

She enlisted friends to help her invite women to pray for peace, reaching across ethnic lines, visiting churches to hand out fliers, approaching women in the markets, inviting Moslem women to join them because “Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim?

The movement grew until there were thousands of women gathering to pray and sing, then to hold non-violent demonstrations and protests, dressed entirely in white, hair wrapped in white headscarves.

Through months of protest, demonstration, and prayer, Gbowee led the women of Liberia, finally convincing President Charles Taylor, in April of 2003, to listen to their requests. With two thousand women praying for her outside the presidential mansion, Gbowee stood in front of the ruthless dictator and delivered her message:
 "We are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, 'Mama, what was your role during the crisis?'"
Taylor agreed to attend peace talks in Ghana later that summer. More months of protest and prayer led to growing international pressure, which in turn brought about a peace settlement and the end of civil war, with Taylor resigning and disappearing into exile. In 2006 he was found and brought to trial for a long list of war crimes. That same year, Gbowee and the women working with her were part of a massive move to register women voters, resulting in the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first and so far the only elected female head of state in Africa.

Both Wangeri Maathai and Leymah Gbowee faced great personal danger, painful sacrifice, and the frequent sense of being in far over their heads. They lived in cultures where women were expected to mind the children and be still, in places and times where powerful, dangerous men made the rules, with little thought for the needs of the weak or poor. Yet, in their love and concern for the generations to follow, they stood strong and spoke out in ways that shocked those who watched them, bringing hope and courage to the women and children who joined them. 

Video of Maathai's Hummingbird Story 
On a recent speaking tour in the US, promoting her book and her continuing work for peace in West Africa, Leymah Gbowee often began, or ended, with the familiar gospel song “This Little Light of Mine.” She says, “For the past 16 years I have done nothing great; just let my little light shine.”

Wangeri Maathai, when speaking about her own work, often told the African story of the hummingbird, a small, seemingly powerless bird that did what it could in the face of overwhelming danger and difficulty. 

Little light, helpless hummingbird. As Maathai's hummingbird story concludes: “I may feel insignificant, but I will do the best I can.”

I confess, there are days when "the best I can" seems less than insignificant. Sign up with the One Mom's movement? Sure -but what will that help? Spend an afternoon with a needy kid? Sure, but what does that change? The dangers that confront us in the west are small compared to those faced by women like Maathai and Wangeri, but the temptations to cynicism, apathy, lack of involvement are great. 
"What I have learned over the years is that we must be patient, persistent, and committed. When we are planting trees sometimes people will say to me, 'I don't want to plant this tree, because it will not grow fast enough.' I have to keep reminding them that the trees they are cutting today were not planted by them, but by those who came before. so they  must plant the trees that will benefit communities in the future. I remind them that like a seedling ,with sun, good soil, and abundant rain, the roots of our future will bury themselves in the ground and a canopy of hope will reach into the sky."  Wangari Maathai, Unbowed, p. 289
I'm praying for that canopy of hope, and looking for ways to plant seedlings that will take root. And thankful for those amazing moms, who changed their part of the world through their faithfulness to the next small step.

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.