Crossing Borders

By Wolfgang Fernandez.

It is not apparent in the news yet for the last few months I have continued to watch in horror and disbelief at the further deterioration of society in Venezuela.

It is estimated that more than 4 million Venezuelans have left the county in the last five years. First, were those with enough resources to buy plane tickets relocating to Europe, the United States, and beyond.

Now it is the turn of those taking buses and walking the rest of the way. The numbers crossing the bridge that links Venezuela and Colombia in the city of Cúcuta continues to overwhelm anyone’s imagination. It is estimated that over 100,000 Venezuelans are in Cúcuta alone at this moment with more coming every day.

The same is happening to the south in Brasil. The difference is that going to Brasil means going through the Amazon jungle. Boa Vista, a city of 250,000 is the first urban center. Having done their best to receive the newcomers, they are now desperately trying to figure out how to attend to them. The state’s governor has declared a state of emergency.

In this environment, all forms of human exploitation is thriving. Abuse is rampant and so is victimization of those who escape a desperate situation to another where their worth is treated with disdain.

In the other hand, being designated “ Refugees” can be problematic because such immigrants can’t return to Venezuela; President Nicolás Maduro has called them “traitors” of the state yet many say that as long as Mr. Maduro is in power they have no reason to return.

On top of all of these challenges, diseases like Malaria and Yellow Fever which were under control are now thriving. A recent report from the Venezuelan Health Department revealed 275,000 cases of Malaria. Our partners in LivFul have the product that can contain insect borne diseases but we need funding to get the product over there.

At the moment, together with Nexus, our partners in Venezuela, we are working on ways to support groups of churches that are stretching their resources to serve Venezuelans.

These Venezuelans continue to swell the 65 million around the world who wander, seeking a place to live in safety and decency.

-Wolfgang

Hope for Venezuela

Growing up in Venezuela I was accustomed to abundance. Caracas, the capital city had everything one could want. This prosperity, unfortunately resulted on general “careless” mindset. There were abuses at every level and at the highest levels of governments the abuses were greater. Everything has changed in the last 40 years.


The resulting abuses and injustice created a space that President Hugo Chavez decisively filled in 1999. He defined his leadership as a rally point for the poor to demand what was unjustly taken from them. Chavez became the undisputed leader of the country winning with overwhelming majorities the elections three times. He changed the constitution and even the name of the country.

 In 2008, the last time I was in Venezuela, I saw a lot of progress and could sense that real positive social change had taken place at many levels. People were generally happy and a sense of prosperity was palpable everywhere.

Chavez then, began to project his message beyond the borders of Venezuela becoming a messenger of justice and a “savior” to the poor everywhere. He began by providing badly needed oil to Cuba and other poor Caribbean islands. He even provided cheap oil for the poor in the USA through one of Venezuela companies in the country.

Step by step he changed his role as a solution bearer to one of confrontation against “imperialism”. He weaponized the country purchasing sophisticated arms from Russia. His message began to be diluted as he became obsessed protecting his new found image and  maintaining his grip on power.


His dreams were cut short as he contracted cancer eventually passing away in 2013. In his place, he left Nicolas Maduro, an inexperienced crony who has mismanaged the national resources and has alienated even those who supported Chavez.
Life in Venezuela today, is one of the worst in the whole world. However due to governments information restrictions there is no accurate data since 2016. Last year the Health Minister released an update on the nations health and he was promptly sacked and today is living in exile.


These statistics for 2016 showed infant mortality, or deaths of children aged 0-1, climbed 30.12% to 11,466 cases last year. The report cited neonatal sepsis, pneumonia, respiratory distress syndrome, and prematurity as the main causes.


Maternal mortality, or death while pregnant or within 42 days of the end of a pregnancy, was also up, rising 65.79% to 756 deaths, the report said.
There were also 240,613 cases of malaria last year, up 76.4% compared with 2015, with most cases of the mosquito-borne disease reported in Bolivar state.


Cases of Zika rose to 59,348 from 71 in 2015, reflecting the spread of the mosquito-borne virus around Latin America last year. There was no data for likely Zika-linked microcephaly, in which babies are born with small heads, although doctors say there have been at least several dozen cases.


Inflation is at 652.67% (compared to last year) making it one of the highest rates in the world. This means that the average monthly salary, of those who have a job, can only buy food for a family of 4 for one week.

Venezuela’s inflation

Government restrictions have made assistance to Venezuelans an impossible feat. Corruption at all levels has made individual approaches very complicated.


How can Venezuela be saved?
My heart is sick watching the tragedy that has come upon Venezuela. I have been searching for answers and after many conversations found some keys. 
First of all,  we are convinced that the solution must come from the inside through local people who truly care for their communities regardless of their political inclinations.
Secondly, hunger and health must be the first priorities areas where strategic investment must be made. The focus must first be in rehabilitating the rich lands that lay fallow in order to grow nutritious fast growing crops that will feed people quickly. 
New approaches must be implemented in order to stop the speed of insect borne deceases. Children and adults must be protected from bites thus stopping the spread of Malaria, Dengue, Zika and other deadly illness. 
Finally, partnerships must be established between people outside Venezuela and trusted locals that would enable practical solutions to be implemented. 


Currently, we are working with local leaders who truly care for the well being of the people. Through Next Step, we raised $15,000 to purchase 3 hectares of land which are now being used to grow potatoes and black beans; produce that provides basic but important nutrients. 
Last September 400 kilos of potatoes were planted and three months later, early this December 1,500 kilos were harvested. The Back Beans did not produced as expected due to heavy rains during the same time. The produce is being sold locally at a price that covers the costs and allows for new crops to be planted again. Their prices are 20% cheaper that market prices.
They have also planted herbs both medicinals and for food as well as long term crops like Avocados.


We are now also working in partnership with LivFul in order to distribute a product that will provide protection from insect bites. LivFul 100% organic product provides an unprecedented 15 hours of protection per application. We need to raise $40,000 to cover the costs of the first phase providing 200 participants protection for 150 days. After a second phase costing another $40,000, we hope to start producing locally in a for profit venture.


The situation in the country is bleak but the the possibilities are endless. The people of Venezuela are ready for a new start and these local initiatives are ideal to stimulate a fresh entrepreneur mindset in the country.


If your heart is broken like mine is join us and make a lasting difference. You can either help us plant food or help us protect people from insect borne disease. 

Beyond the volcano

As Mount Agung in Bali rumbles, 91,000 villagers living in the vicinity of the mountain have been displaced leaving their homes and their simple belongings under the threat of imminent destruction.

The famous island of Bali, located right on the “ring of fire” is an idilic place and the most visited tourist destination in 2017 according to Trip Advisor. I have visited Bali dozens of times and have enjoyed it’s balmy weather, amazing hospitality, delicious food and beautiful sites, it truly is a place to cherish.

Some of my best friends are locals who love this island and serve those who are negatively impacted by the dark side of tourism. Illegal drugs and sex trade which are also part of the “attractions” offered here, victimize Indonesians that are caught in the vortex of insatiable pleasure. Local people end up as the hidden victims of sex trade and drug abuse, ranking Bali among the highest HIV-AIDS affected communities in Indonesia.

These days, people like Andy and Frans are turning their attention to serve the displaced in the makeshift camps set up by the local authorities. Together with teams of volunteers they are providing basic services to encourage those who are now fearing for their lives.

Children, are among the ones that need a great deal of attention as they are easily bored and can quickly get in to mischief.

Barbers in The Way are committed to serving the community

Frans together with his wife Lydia run The Way, a barber shop in the Uluwatu area. Here they offer great haircuts at affordable  prices while training local barbers to offer excellent service and customer care. Last Tuesday (September 26) Frans and Lydia brought 25 orphans, who live in the region of the volcano to their shop providing haircuts and then taking these kids to the beach.

Andy and his team at one of the temporary camps

Andy and his wife Chika, run Gerasa Bali, a rehabilitation and community development center for victims of drug abuse and HIV-AIDS. Together with their team, Andy and Chika  have gone into the displaced people camps in order to bring a little joy and fun helping them experience care at deeper levels.

Please join us in praying that the volcano’s activity will not bring further chaos and destruction to Bali.

 

Activities for the children are critical during this uncertain time

You can also join us in financially supporting our friends who are serving there right now. You can donate your financial gift to Next Step and all funds will be sent directly to Bali.

1500 Active Loans

Having started two years ago with a small personal investment of $10,000, Ibu Sora, a local lady with a heart for the women in the region’s villages has started a movement providing a qualified mother a loan of $100 which is paid back in 6 months at $5 per week. The basic income of the villagers is $1 per day but since its inception, we have seen in the first year their average income increase to $5 per day with some reaching up to $10 per day.

In this fourth trip to the area, my wife and I visited two of the communities impacted by the program. In Tangung Pura, a typical village in the northern part of Sumatra, we met 20 women who have been implementing their business projects for the last 2 months.

This was a typical weekly gathering where they meet each other, review their experiences, and exchange tips and ideas. They also receive input from the team and discuss new concepts. This meeting also serves as the financial accountability checkpoint where they pay their loan back and pay into a savings account which provides them with a security they’ve never had before.

The ladies of PERTIWI (the cooperative) are different than most village women. Through their own hard work, they have earned a sense of dignity and security which now define them as active assets for their family and community.

Through our program, they learn to spend money only on what is necessary, thus avoiding the consumerist mindset prevalent in our culture today. They also learn that their word is their greatest asset. Finally, we also teach them the priority of paying off their debts so that they can be free from financial burdens.

As their income increases, these women are able to send their children to school, breaking the cycle of poverty that keeps these communities in bondage. They also are able to improve their living standards by acquiring clean water and homes with sufficient ventilation.

The number of loans has now reached 1,500 and we aim to add another 100 per month for rest of this year. While we are happy with this growth, the needs are far greater than this. Currently, we have 1000 ladies ready to join the program.

We are looking for partners that will join us and help bring practical and lasting change to these communities. Will you join us?

Take a closer look at the Pertiwi Microloan Project here.

Loving our Neighbors

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…” These opening words of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens reflect the many realities we face in the United States.

Our recent visit to Ocean Beach, CA, gave me a glimpse of some of these best of times, ages of wisdom, and epochs of belief. We were invited by Clayton and Jessica Connolly to meet some of their friends with whom they serve in this cool, relaxed beach-side community.

Clayton and Jessica introduced us to amazing Ethiopian food

Clayton and Jessica introduced us to amazing Ethiopian food

The Connollys are a family devoted to each other and their neighbors. They serve locally in their community to solve problems face-to-face and with individual people. Their home is open to anyone to come and share life with them; the small 800 square foot home is often a busy hive of activities.

More than 60 people responded to the invitation and shared stories of the amazing ways that people are encountering God in the local bars, tattoo parlors, and New Age Fairs. One such way involves inviting passersby to come in for a spiritual reading which often ends up in prayers for healing and deliverance. A prayer room has been established along local shops to meet people needs everyday.

In Ocean Beach

In Ocean Beach

It was evident that these folks have a clear attitude of humility that acknowledges that we don’t have all the answers and that it is okay to identify our own doubts and fears. One of the participants explained how the spiritual landscape is being leveled as those who follow Jesus recognize themselves as being just further down the road then those who are yet to follow.

The folks we met here are committed to identifying needs in Ocean Beach and finding ways to meet them. Those who benefit become an expression of community and also are part of fresh entrepreneurial models of business.

People are seeing their needs being met. They are gathering as communities and businesses are being established, which enables sustainability, unlike the more commonplace model of starting churches, which require member donations to operate.

Good friends learning from each other

Good friends learning from each other

A few days after our gathering, Clayton reported that Stasi, an Episcopal minister and our host for the gathering, said “You want to be a big deal for God? Go down. Not up.”

Stasi said that when these words were spoken, she decided to decline the job she’d been offered at a church. “It was my first honest-to-goodness, titled-and-paid ministry offer. It was the first rung on the ladder of clergy success…and I realized I just didn’t need it”

Stasi explained “I have rarely felt more free or excited about the ways God is using me. I simply have too much kingdom work to do to take a job at a church right now. God’s blowing apart all the boxes I thought my gifts and passions fit me in, and instead inspiring me to work that is simple & satisfying because it flows right out of me with no effort at all.

This is what it means to take a leap of faith. As I said in Sunday’s sermon, “Even if we don’t land, we shall mount up with wings.

Christmas in USA

Yesterday I went to Houston, TX… a quick 24 hour trip but in many ways it was like a trip to a another planet.

Don’t take me wrong, it is not that Texas is such a far off place. Texas is part of the Union and for all it’s eccentrics there are plenty of nice folks there.

Let me explain…

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Two worlds in one place

I was visiting Muslim friends from Pakistan who fled to China for their lives… while there, they waited for almost seven years to be accepted by any country… the USA opened wide their generous arms and they were resettled in Houston, Texas!

My friends now live in a large complex mostly inhabited by Pakistanis. I spent the night with friends north of the metro area, they  are Texans of many years and told me how Houston has changed. I was not quite prepared for what I was about to see. As I drove towards my Pakistani friends home, I passed blocks and blocks of Chinese signs, a truly confusing experience. According to Rice University, Houston has become the most racially diverse megalopolis in the US! Who would have thought…

When I arrived, there were three ladies visiting, as I walked in they covered their heads with their scarves and I was escorted to a bedroom. I was not allowed to be in the same room with them.

After they left, I was offered a scrumptious Pakistani meal. I enjoyed their cooking, Pakistani food is amazing! As I ate my friends told me about life in the USA… hard work, taxes, busy and busier… they also shared how they fondly remember their lives in back in a village… a long gone experience.

As I took all this in, I thought… only in America… only in America. Thank God for this generous land which welcomed me and still today welcomes so many.

Christmas is about the greatest gift ever given, the King of King who came in a manger to bring life to all creation.

This King said… when we welcome the stranger we welcome Him.

Merry Christmas!

Mentors are a Rare but Needed Sort

I was 15 in Caracas when I encountered Sam Olson, a local pastor who was just taking over a church his Dad had started. He was an innovator and started the first home for drug addiction recovery in the city. As one of the initial volunteers, Sam taught me to think outside the box. As I moved on, I met other men from various walks of life who deposited precious knowledge in me which have formed the person that I am today.

Since then, I have understood that mentoring is an intrinsic part of becoming a mature person, one who is able to expand the capacity and gifts one has been entrusted with.

Camping on the Great Wall

Camping on the Great Wall

The years that I lived in China were filled with relationship-building with many young people who had gone there with dreams of grand impact and meaningful contribution. It was exciting to hear their stories and see their dreams come to fruition in this land of unlimited opportunities.

The greatest personal deficiency that we most often saw among several of our young friends was that of the lack of Mothers and Fathers in their lives. They had their natural parents but often their parents had not nurtured them. So, we opened our homes, our ears and hearts, and our refrigerator and we shared life together.

My wife and I always received as much as we gave and often more.

 

There are three lessons I consider invaluable in this process:

First, one must be willing to be vulnerable and ask the difficult questions that we would rather avoid. I usually ask, “How is your love life?” and I have heard many tales but always have received a thanks for asking the questions that no one dares to ask. To enter into these topics one must be willing to share even those shadier sides of our lives.

Secondly, one must be willing to give people permission to make mistakes. To do this, one must both learn and teach others through the mistakes we’ve made. In giving permission, one must be prepared to “pay for their mistakes”.

Finally, I have learned that one must hold these relationships with open hands. No one is required to do what we say or follow the way we live. It must be left as a choice. This requires an awareness that one’s fulfillment must always come first from an internal satisfaction that we are doing what we are called to do.


AIDS Day

While in Indonesia recently, I met Maria (not her real name) she was glowing as she told us her story. A couple of months before, she was in a crowded hospital bed wasting away. She had contracted the HIV-AIDS virus. All alone, her hopes for life were then fading away.



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Like Maria, many girls come to the island of Bali in hopes for jobs but end up working in places where they easily get involved in the sex trade and often end up infected. Their families usually abandon them and in often, very short periods of time these girls die. Sadly their last days are filled with great pain and hopelessness. Fortunately for Maria, she met Andy and Chika, who turned their attention to her bringing hope and a reason to fight for her life.



Andy and Chika, our partners in Bali, serve people living at the edges of society like Maria. They successfully overcame addictive lifestyles and now have been serving people living with HIV-AIDS, drug addiction and prostitution for several years. Their work is often filled with disappointment as they regularly bury some of those whom they have embraced as family members.  People like Maria, however, encourage them to fight on.



Steve and I were deeply touched as we met Maria in the community house where she now lives and thrives. She has been declared AIDS free and now lives a life of service to others. Her next goal is reconcile with her parents, which is part of the healing process practiced by the “Extreme Community” the name, as Andy and Chika’s group is known here.     The global battle against HIV-AIDS is seeing many successes as we learn how to deal with the virus. However the battle is far from over, a new United Nations report on HIV-AIDS reveal that several countries in Asia now have infection rates 25 percent higher than they were a decade ago.



One of those countries is Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation. The health minister, Nafsiah Mboi, called the U.N. findings “so embarrassing,” especially in light of large expenditures on prevention programs in Indonesia. The impact of HIV-AIDS also continues to affect people in the USA. A recent report on PBS revealed that more than 1 in 4 infections happen among 13-24 year olds yet 60% don’t know they have HIV. In the USA 72% of the infections happen through sex between young men and older males.


DSC02527 This is Andy and Chika and their own two kids


People like Maria know that the love they have received from caring people like Andy and Chika turns the tables on this virus no matter what happens to their life. Maria has reconciled with God and now seeks to live life the way it is meant to be lived. She respects herself and now goes and tells of her hope to those still trapped. This is real hope… this is what Kingdom life now is all about.