Together.

Two weeks. Two weeks since I landed in Minneapolis, bleary-eyed after hours of travel, winding my way through customs and immigration. My phone, silent for so many days, now blowing up with received messages, emails, and missed notifications. A stark contrast from the song of my 10 days in Rwanda, and a bittersweet reminder that life here has carried on, day in and day out; the unavoidable yet anticipated “welcome back” to the land I call home.

Coming back is always hard for me. Each time, I search for the root of the dreariness that seems to settle itself over the first few days, and can never seem to find it. Perhaps it’s the end of adventure…perhaps it’s the goodbyes. It could be the fear that what I experienced, what I learned, and who I became over the past however-long–its-been just can’t translate to the present-where-I-am-now…or maybe it’s just the jet lag. Whatever it is, I’m thankful for it. Those days lend themselves to reflection; to thoughtfulness. A sacred time to figure out just what on earth I’ve taken from this experience, and even more difficult, what then will I do with that knowledge.

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This time around was no different. I felt those wheels touch the ground, bounce up again and then settle, right along with the pit in my stomach. My trip was incredible. If Rwanda is a masterpiece, her people are the artists. Strong and beautiful, they are painting their country a home again. Just twenty years ago, the country was devastated by genocide. Neighbor turned on neighbor; friend on friend. Today, hands are linking. Voices are mingling. Shared stories of pain and loss are woven together in a tapestry of healing…a picture of rising hope. The power found in the word “together”.

I knew in that moment, that first bounce up and down on the runway, exactly what Rwanda taught me. Even more than that, I realized just what this entire experience showed me. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect, coming into this trip the way I did, the winner of the #styleforjustice “guest storyteller” spot. I knew I loved International Justice Mission. I knew I loved what I had heard and seen of Noonday Collection. Empowering women? Sustaining families? Providing justice? Yes, please. But heck, you guys. Entering into this “contest to win a trip”, surrounded by entries from hundreds of equally deserving, awe-inspiring, world-changing women. Having to rally my community. To ask you all for help. Well. That. That small little thing. That, my friends, was difficult.

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For the purpose of full disclosure, you should know I was terrified. I was absolutely shaking in my boots. I am, by nature, very competitive (just a little tiny bi…okay actually maybe a lot). Business plan competition? Sure. I’m on it. Race up that mountain? EAT MY DUST, BABY. Volleyball match? Now, do you really want to go there?

But this…THIS. Asking you all to join me…to rally with me and for me…to put this opportunity I wanted so desperately into your hands…God’s hands…WHOEVER’S hands, just definitely not mine. Well now. That was a different story.

Because I am competitive. Because I am prideful. Because I fear failure. Because I am any number of things. Having to choose vulnerability, admitting to you all that I could not do this alone. That I needed you to join me. Hoping, but trying not to hope. Initiating, but relinquishing all control. Terrified. Mortified. Fearful of the unknown.

But you know what? It was beautiful. It was so beautiful. And I was amazed every single day of that darn competition. Because you showed up. You rallied. You stood, with me and for me, joining your voice and your heart with mine. You encouraged me daily with your words and support, friendships were rekindled, and we became a team.

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Friends, although you made it possible for me to have this opportunity and I am so incredibly thankful, I wasn’t the only winner. Even you all aren’t the only winners. The true winners are found in every single voice that joined this cause. Every single woman who had the courage to enter. Each incredible community who rallied with her and for her, lending their voice to the oppressed and in that, bringing awareness to organizations like Noonday and IJM. We had the opportunity to see thousands stand together for the sake of justice. FRIENDS. That is an absolute slam-dunk Michael Jordan WIN. Community. Togetherness. Supporting each other and lending our voice. Linking arms and joining forces towards one common goal. What power that has. What incredible strength.

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Because of this process, watching all this unfold, this idea of community was already swirling around in my brain before leaving on this trip. Mulling around and processing the idea. Trying to truly understand what it means to live in community; to become someone’s community. Of course you can guess what came next.

Rwanda taught me community. She showed me, through her people, how to live and love in “togetherness”. My heart, now tender to this thought, burst. Over and over again. Meeting the seamstresses, employed by Noonday, at the sewing co-op. Women who create such beautiful goods. Designing with them, seeing them run their business with efficiency and professionalism, but working together as a family. Being invited into their homes, sharing meals, and watching them share the joy of creation with one another. Rejoicing together. Aiding each other. Standing with and for each other.

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I saw community in the support groups run by IJM. Mothers, whose children have been victims of sexual assault, gathering together weekly. Teenage girls were victimized themselves. Weeping with each other. Sharing each other’s burdens, reminding each other that they are not alone. Offering a tissue; extending a hand. Simple acts; but oh so powerful.

“I’ve been there.”

“I understand.”

“Sister, I stand here with you.”

What a joy…what a gift to know that we don’t have to weather this life alone. What a relief to know that we, if we can just get over ourselves…just get over our pride… can reach out a hand when are feet aren’t quite as steady and grab a lifeline. We can trust others with our vulnerabilities and our uncertainties, knowing they have our back if we fall…and hoping they know we’ll do the same for them. We live for and with each other, linking arms and binding hearts.

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We all struggle…we all need help. We all need the strength found in community, because Lord knows we can’t walk this road alone. These women…these precious Rwandan sisters… showed us their hearts, and the true community lived out within them. I hope and pray that someday I will live with their hope, their grace, and their joy. I hope that I can replicate their sense of community, the commitment to a life lived for “togetherness”. I hope I can stand for others the way you all stood for me, and continue to stand for me. I’m so thankful. So thankful for you all. You will never know how deeply you and your support touched my heart.

Community is a gift. An incredible blessing. It’s something I will never take for granted for the rest of my days. Embrace your communities, and invest in them deeply. Join in each others’ sorrows and triumphs, and all the little things in between. Hold each other up, and let yourself be held.

And together. Together. We’ll find our way.

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*Want a way to get involved with communities of passionate women looking to empower others around the world? Host a trunk show or become a Noonday ambassador. Click HERE for more information.

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The Magic in a Book

When I was a little girl, I had a tendency to get lost. To daydream, hoping that someday my Hogwarts letter would come and I could finally enroll in that Transfiguration class. To adventure through far-off lands, truly believing that I was carrying the Ring with Frodo and had to make it to Mount Doom to destroy it in time. To be caring and courageous, loving with Mother Teresa and Amy Carmichael as they cared for precious soul after precious soul. To go back in history to different exotic places, dancing in the Russian ballroom with little Anastasia, journeying into Narnia and meeting Aslan.

Not in real life, of course, but I believed it to be. No, I would get lost in my books; I lived hundreds of lives through the stories of others. Stories of courage, of great hope, of sadness, of mystery.

My nose was constantly stuck in a book, soaking up stories that moved me; taught me. Stories that struck me right in the heart. Stories that still, to this day, I pick up over and over again and open that cover, to get lost for yet another time in the magic of the words covering each page.

 My parents joked that my best friends were my books, and it’s true. It would seem that “I was born with a reading list I will never finish”. It’s still true. Books take me where I cannot go. Books open doors to our future. Books inspire me to be greater than I am. Books show me that there is so much about the world that is more important than myself. And the ability to read? Seeing squiggles and scratches on a page of paper transform themselves into strings of words and sentences right before my eyes is something more magical than anything I’ve ever experienced in my vicarious adventures with Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

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Reading is empowering. Education is empowering. We take that for granted every day. Each time we are handed an informational flyer, we glance at it and toss it aside. Every day we read street signs, menus, notes home from the teacher. We read. We process. We write. Over and over again.

There are millions around the world who have never been taught. To millions, those squiggles and scratches don’t magically transform themselves into words and sentences. To millions, those incomprehensible symbols represent the impenetrable barrier to education that they cannot even dream to overcome. Girls who believe that, because of social stigmas, they are not worth the time and resources an education requires.

But the time has come. The world is shaking, crying out for change. Hope is rising from all corners to tell them “You are worth it. Your education is important to me. Your future is important to me.”

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My dear friend Caroline has been working for the last couple years with an organization in Pakistan, an organization that works to empower young women with an education. In places where gender inequalities and minority prejudices threaten to destroy the hope of education, Primary Education Project works to provide opportunity. They work to empower. They work to provide this hope.

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Education should matter to you. Everyone deserves this chance. Everyone deserves this hope. But what can you do? Fight for awareness. Educate yourself. Watch films like Girl Rising. Read books like Half the Sky. Understand why education, and the empowerment it brings, especially for girls, is so important.

Follow organizations like Primary Education Project. Support them in their work and share their story. It matters.

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Today is May 7. The time is now. There is an incredible opportunity today to have any gift to the organization increased by 30%, thanks to a matching gift. Share their story today. Join in the fight for equality, education, and empowerment around the world. It’s an uphill battle, but it is a hopeful battle. Join us. Join them. And hope. Hope for day when everyone can get lost in the magic of a book. 

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”- Mother Teresa

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