Shine: The Welcome That Is God, the Welcome That Is Good, by Kathy McCullough

I have quite a treat for you on Shine today! Like many of you, I came to know fellow blogger Kathy McCullough and her partner Sara when they were in Haiti during the aftermath of the terrible 2010 earthquake that left more than 1.5 million homeless. Kathy’s posts brought home what it was like to be on the front lines of disaster responseafter the reporters and cameras leave and people begin to put the pieces back together.

What you may not know is that Sara has spent more than 20 years in international disaster response. She has worked on earthquake recovery in Gugarat, India following an earthquake that left an estimated 600,000 homeless,  in Afghanistan as one of the first aid workers following the fall of the Taliban, and in Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands in the region.  More recently she spent a year in Vietnam, before directing the housing recovery project in Haiti.

Needless to say, Kathy and Sara have racked up some frequent flier miles. When I asked Kathy if she would like to write about some of their experiences and sacrifices in doing this work, leaving their comfortable home in Kentucky and traveling thousands of miles away to places that had been devastated, she quickly responded that there was no sacrifice, just reward. Please give a warm SHINE welcome to Kathy and Sara.

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By: Kathy McCullough

My partner Sara is an international aid worker who does disaster response, a woman who, on the anniversary of 9/11, posted a remembrance on her Facebook page that articulates more than merely a memory of that tragic event.  Its meaning is larger than that.  In it, she shares, by implication, how her passion for the developing world has, in fact, enriched her, made her more than she was before:

Ten years ago today, I watched the world change.  But I was not alone.  I was in a room with national leaders from 80 plus developing countries.  We offered our prayers together with joined hands and shared tears.  Against this horrific backdrop—in that room, hands held—I witnessed the good in mankind.  It’s that good that I honor today.

It’s hard to say it better than that—to more clearly articulate how Sara’s work in some of the poorest places on the planet has changed us, marked us—made us better, richer, fuller—showing us the best humans have to offer.

Kathy and Sara in Vietnam

Generally, however, folks commend us for the “sacrifices” we’ve made for Sara’s work.  But the fact of the matter is, rather, that Sara’s following her passion to serve in the developing world has given us more than it’s taken—gifted us in ways we’d never imagined.

She’s shared many stories with me, but the following about living in Afghanistan articulates best one way this work has affected, even blessed her.

Soon after the fall of the Taliban, Sara entered Afghanistan from Uzbekistan with tens of thousands of US dollars strapped in a money belt around her waist, since then there was no banking system to speak of in the country.  She was a woman alone entering a country where only months before women were unable to even leave their homes alone, and when they were escorted to the market by male relatives, they did so buried beneath the burka.  Oppression still hung heavy in the air—a thickness.

Sara with tribal leaders in Afghanistan

When Sara visited villages that looked exactly as they had more than 2000 years before, she went to negotiate with tribal leaders, whose shiny wrist watches were the only indication they were living in a modern age.  Yet, whenever possible she also made a point to visit the women of the families still sequestered inside the walls of their houses.

During one walk through the narrow village alleyways, she saw a hand motioning to her from inside a doorway—inviting her to visit, she supposed.  Ultimately the middle aged woman, dressed in traditional garb, head covered, of course, pulled Sara along and into a room where the women of the clan had organized a party for her.  There was no furniture in the space, only twenty or so women, with children, sitting on hand-woven rugs, where food was spread to share with her—tea served in miss-matched cups, bowls of pomegranate seeds, sweet pastries—the very best these poor women, who lived in domed mud houses without electricity or indoor plumbing, had to offer.  Playing tambourines, the group sang and danced and shared their hearts with her.  Without a translator that day, Sara communicated with these women wordlessly—laughing, dancing, breaking bread.

Sara lifting some heavy loads.

She says today that this was not an experience that required sacrifice on her part—that, in fact, these women, who had next to nothing, sacrificed of themselves to share with her.  Sara says she learned the meaning of true hospitality in places like Afghanistan—giving what you don’t have to give—sharing of yourself in the physical act of eating or dancing together—a sacrament of hospitality—in its most genuine, basic, and organic form.  Sara says she eventually learned to see beyond the veil—that it ultimately became invisible to her—that she saw into the eyes of these women.  She saw their hearts, the hand of God in a doorway gesturing to her.  Come.  Share.  Love.

She tells the story of being in India, visiting houses built for families who had lost everything in the 2004 tsunami.  During the spring of 2006, after a long day, visiting hundreds of homes, she stopped in a small village outside of Pondicherry.  At dusk she toured the home of a disabled man, whose entire sea-side village had been wiped out by the tsunami and relocated more than 100 meters from the coast.  Not much more than a meter tall himself, the man in his mid to late twenties, who supported his extended family by making and repairing nets for nearby fishermen, proudly showed Sara his new house.  Built of reinforced concrete his entire home, elevated above the flood plain, was no larger than the average American living room.  As he enthusiastically spun around that single room, delighted with the opportunity to open his home to her, his crutch slid out from under him, and he collapsed flat—face to floor.  But Sara says he immediately sprung himself up off the tile, laughing in what seemed undeterred delight.  At that moment and others like it, Sara insists with tears, she saw the very best resilient human beings have to offer, the eyes of God smiling—the cleanest, clearest, purist face of grace imaginable.

She says that this is the gift her work offers—the opportunity to watch real people lift themselves miraculously up off the floor despite disaster and seeming defeat—smiling the face of God even in the midst of losing everything—their homes, their families, and sometimes nearly their own lives—beaming grace in the face of it all.

The work itself, Sara says, has become that hand in a doorway gesturing—a welcome that is God, a welcome that is good.

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An architect by training, Sara Coppler began her work in poverty housing more than twenty years ago, volunteering locally for an NGO that today works in more than 100 countries.  Later, during the 1990s, she directed a national project in the southern United States, rebuilding churches destroyed in hate-related arson, before taking on her first international position in Indonesia, where she oversaw a food-for-work project.  Currently she is partnering in the start-up of an NGO, which will build sustainable hospitals in the developing world—so far in Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Honduras.

Coming up next on SHINE: There are many small businesses doing Shine-worthy work. Next time, you’ll meet three of them.  

If you or anyone you know should be featured in SHINE, please let me know: contact  {at}   jacquelincangro  DOT   com.

 

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51 comments

  1. Thanks so much for inviting Sara and me to be a part of your inspiring “Shine” series. We are pleased to be included among so many heart-warming stories about making a difference. Your kind welcome and introduction mean so much to us.
    Kathy and Sara

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    1. Kathy, I have a feeling your post will move people in some way to use their talents and gifts to help others in their community. Thanks to you and Sara for giving us this opportunity to be inspired!

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  2. Oh, thanks for reading, Emily! I have to agree that Sara is special–though I’m not sure she would agree. At first she hesitated about even having me write this about her. She doesn’t like to be the focus of too much attention.
    Kathy

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  3. This post brought tears to my eyes, Kathy. This is a beautiful experience! To look into another and see the eyes of God is pure inspiration. Maybe one day, we will all have this faculty developed. Thanks for sharing, Kathy and Sara. I know it has inspired me to press on.

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    1. How great to hear from you, Maryanne. Knowing that you were one of my first subscribers back when I started the more current version of my blog back in Haiti, makes your comment here all the more meaningful. Thanks for sharing this journey with us, my friend!
      Kathy

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  4. Sara is an amazing human being. How wonderful, to be so fearless! Being a woman and entering these impoverished countries by herself, not speaking the local language…I am astounded by her bravery.
    “The work itself, Sara says, has become that hand in a doorway gesturing—a welcome that is God, a welcome that is good.”
    Lovely writing, Kathy. Thanks for visiting Jackie’s blog, and telling us about your life, and Sara’s. My best to both of you.

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  5. Wow, Cynthia, what a lovely comment. We feel so embraced by your kind words. Though she might deny it, Sara is brave. She inpires me constantly. Imagine what it must be like to be partnered to such an amazing woman.

    Doing this post was pure pleasure–the opportunity to introduce Sara means the world to me–quite literally.

    Kathy

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  6. What a beautiful person she is, for caring so much about humanity and working so wholeheartedly in something she believes in so strongly. This was such a beautiful post, so uplifting….God bless you Sara, for being who you are, and you Kathy for who you are too. Very well written.

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  7. Thanks to all of you who have left such warm and heartfelt comments. I’m so honored that you are sharing in this special post today.

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  8. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Heather. I don’t know why this post feels so near and dear to my heart, but it does–not only because it’s about the woman I love, but also because it’s about work that truly matters–work that not only improves the lives of others, but surprisingly to some, can not help but change those doing the work in a profound way. Thanks, my friend!
    Kathy

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  9. This was beautiful. I am honoured to have found you, your blog, and this post. And what a wonderful venue for it. It’s entirely overwhelming. I can understand Sara’s hesitancy to have a story focus on her, but it helps me (and probably others) understand about the individual role a person can play, and the gifts that one receives.

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  10. Rose, you are dear. These stories mean so much to me when Sara shares them, that it only seems right to pass them on. And what’s amazing to me is that even after so many years, she still can’t tell them without weeping. Thanks for reading, my friend!
    Kathy

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    1. Thanks, Paul. The only thing is that Sara insists there is no sacrifice on her part–and actually I would agree. Believe it or not–we actually gain way more than we give. It’s really a gift to see some of these amazing people living with so little.
      Kathy

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    1. Oh, Renee, I’ll tell Sara what you said. I too think she is a huge gift–she has an enormous amount to offer. But if you were to see the folks we’ve met living in the field with next to nothing (or less), you would recognize that they are the real heros. Thanks for this comment, my friend!
      Kathy

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  11. Thank you all for stopping by – whether you left a comment or not. I’m overjoyed because it’s my heartfelt intention to spread the word far and wide about the wonderful things that all of the Shine alums are doing.

    The work that Sara does with love and grace is a reminder of what is possible. Thanks again to Kathy for writing such a lovely piece!

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    1. Gosh, Jackie, you are so welcome! Truly, the honor has been ours. This series is actually a wonderful service you’re doing, bringing together so many who are trying to make a difference. What a great community! Thanks for including us!
      Kathy and Sara

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  12. Sara inspires me, as well, but I know she’d rather you be more moved by these ordinary folks from India and Afghanistan who inspire her and have made her life so much more meaningful.

    Thanks so much for reading!

    Kathy

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  13. Thanks for taking a look, Lisa. I thought you’d appreciate it. I think if you are going to link to a post about Sara, you should know about this one. It may be better than anything I’ve written about her on my own blog.
    Kathy

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  14. I have always had so much respect for the special souls who do this kind of work. To hear how this work affects them and rewards them in the face of such disaster is something wonderful indeed. I would love to hear more of Sara’s stories about the individuals she meets during her work, especially when they are written so beautifully by you Kathy.

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    1. Oh, I’m so glad this spoke to you, Deb. I think so many of Sara’s stories are touching, that I know how you feel. It’s amazing how working in the developing world can change a person. It’s amazing how much these folks who seem to have so little actually have to give. Thanks for reading.
      Kathy

      Like

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