Life Lessons Learned

Catherine Powers | April 9, 2014

New Khin Thein in 1990 in at Mae Po Hta refugee camp. Photo: David Bower/CWS

New Khin Thein in 1990 in at Mae Po Hta refugee camp. Photo: David Bower/CWS

“For I know the plans I have for you…”

After more than 32 years of employment with Church World Service, I’ve “graduated” to another life-stage known as “retirement.” Milestones such as this often present themselves as times to reflect upon one’s life journeys, achievements, discoveries – of which I have many during my tenure with CWS.

Reflecting back to 1981, when I was offered an administrative support position in the Church World Service Minn-Kota Region, then located in Fargo, N.D., I knew this was the call to ministry I had been praying and waiting for. Little did I know this call to an organization I had never even heard of would become my life-long ministry setting!

More than ever, I am so very proud of the work CWS does globally through our staff and partners. Having witnessed a bit of our global international work first-hand — Southeast Asia in 1990 and Kenya/Uganda in 2005 — I’ve seen how we are making a difference one-by-one-by-one with those most vulnerable in places where others do not venture.

Recalling those travel experiences and the people I met, life lessons learned were of such profound significance they remain with me today.

Life Lesson One: Even those with few possessions have much to give.

Imagine having to flee your home with only what you can carry after your entire community is destroyed by soldiers. Imagine walking for five long days in search of safety with your husband and three small children through the wild animal-infested jungle with nothing to point the way. At the end of the journey, imagine being welcomed to a make-shift village of several thousand others who arrived before you, and making a new home in a thatched-roofed grass hut.

Such was the fate of New Khin Thein, a woman of the Karen ethnic group who had fled her ancestral home in Piduku Village after Burmese soldiers destroyed it.

When I met her, she had been at Mae Po Hta Refugee camp, just inside the Thailand/Myanmar (Burma) border, for four years. Many in the camp, she told me, had been there much longer. As difficult as it was to leave her homeland, she was grateful her family had medical care, adequate food, a garden plot and safe place to live, provided through support from CWS. Looking around the sparsely furnished one-room thatched-floored hut while listening to her story, I remember thinking she had virtually nothing. Ah, but I was soon to learn her riches were far beyond material. As we said our goodbyes, New Khin Thein walked with me up the steep hill away from her village carrying my backpack. A true gift of accompaniment!

“For I know the plans I have for you…”

Life Lesson Two: Hope exists even when all seems hopeless.

For months rains had eluded the remote semi-arid Pokot Region of western Kenya. After a five-hour, bone-rattling drive across dry river beds and barren land, my fellow travelers and I arrived covered with the earthen red dust of the Region. A sight to behold, no doubt. Yet as we reached Kotulpogh village in northwest Pokot, women dressed in their finest waving leafy branches held high, swayed to the rhythm of their song of welcome and blessing: May God our father creator of heaven and earth bless you. Father bless them, bless them always.

Still singing, the women, with their laughing children in tow, led us down a steep rocky cliff toward a dry river bed. What we saw next was simply amazing. WATER. Life-giving. Life-enhancing. Life-saving. WATER. Trapped and filtered clean by the sand dam the village men, women, and children had built through their own sweat equity along with some technical expertise and materials provided through CWS partners.

After celebrating this “gift of life” with more singing and dancing, we slowly walked the dry river bed back to the village. Suddenly, I felt a small hand grasp mine. Surprised, I looked down only to see a wide-eyed child of perhaps ten years. Chepto, I learned, was her name. Her boldness encouraged me to ask how her life had changed since the source of clean water had come to her village. Without hesitation she replied, “Now I go to school instead of walking all morning to get water for my family. And when I get home from school, because I’m not so tired, I help my mother in our garden to grow food for my family to eat and to sell at market. We have extra money now to buy medicine and pay for school. Someday I will be a teacher at my village school so that other girls and boys can learn, too.” Through the eyes of this child, I saw hope where there seemed only to be hopelessness. If that isn’t hope, then I don’t know what is!

“For I know the plans I have for you…”

Life lessons learned. Who knew what lay in store for a mother… for a child… for me.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV)

Catherine Powers, Director of Regional Fundraising, Retired, Church World Service