Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Reached peaks for African leaders: The last word

Below are two accounts from the perspectives of a former Eastern Graduate Program student, Stephanie Nitschke (IDEV '12), and a currently enrolled student, Timothy Paulson (IDEV '13). Both were/are in the MA program for International Development (IDEV) and participated in the Kilimanjaro ‘Reaching Peaks for African Leaders’ Climb.

When Dr. Beth Birmingham and I arrived in Tanzania we could see Mt. Kilimanjaro surrounded by a flat landscape with clouds looming around the peak.  Suddenly the mountain was more daunting than ever before, and the magnitude of what we were about to do was setting in.  I turned to Beth and told her it’s not often we see a visual picture of the challenge in front of us. 

When I think about the most challenging experiences of my life, I never entered with a full picture of what I was taking on.  I seem to cope best when I just throw myself in and figure things out as I go.  Admittedly, my education with Eastern was no different.  When I began Eastern’s IDEV program I had no idea what an online class would be like, and even though it had been explained to me, I really didn’t understand the format of hybrid distance learning and residency classes.  At the beginning of my studies I was completely overwhelmed and ready to turn back, but there were people to assure me I could get through it.  After the initial gauntlet of first month of coursework, I was able to break everything down step by step.  Each step was taken with a prayer, a pep talk from me or a friend, and the virtual support of my classmates.  

The catch phrase on Mt. Kilimanjaro was “polepole” – Swahili for slowly, slowly. Our guide would make sure our pace was manageable, and as friends we would keep a close eye on each others' status. There was no shame in knowing your own limits and sharing that.  There was nothing to prove, as the mere attempt at such a challenge merited respect in its own right. No matter how the trek ended we all left with a higher level of admiration for one another.    For me, the key to getting through grad school and making it up that mountain was taking one step at a time.  Reaching out to other members of the community for assistance in my weakness made all the difference.  The whole picture would often get overwhelming, but when I kept a steady pace and stayed in the moment the task became manageable. 

The region leading up to Africa’s highest peak is awe-inspiring in its beauty and scope. I recently endeavored to climb this, the world’s tallest “free-standing” mountain; I was accompanied by a classmate, Stephanie Nitschke, and one of my professors, Dr. Beth Birmingham. The journey took 5 days and covered several miles of hiking. As we progressed through Kilimanjaro’s varied climates and ecosystems, the air became thinner and the challenges became heavier. Increasingly, I had to take one step at a time without allowing my mind to fully engage with the enormity of the task before me. During the last leg of the upward journey, the stretch between Kibo base camp and the summit, the mental battle came to a sharp focus. Every plodding step felt like a challenge, and despite our snail’s-pace, I was breathing as if I was running mile 10 of a marathon. As my heart beat wildly like a bird in a cage, I had to continually shift my hiking pole from hand to hand so that I could warm up my free fingers in my pocket; my gloves were totally inadequate for the cold and the tendons and muscles in my hands became less responsive as I fought off numbness.

Tim and I were in agreement that the most difficult part of hiking to the summit was the section from Kibo base camp to Gilman’s point.  It was a 5 and a half hour hike at a very high altitude which began at midnight.  We were just under 4 miles in the sky.  The trail was steep, and the ground was mostly sand.  As I hiked up I struggled to get air.  I became sleepy and struggled to keep awake propping each step with my trekking poles.  I would stop for breath, but couldn’t catch enough.  It took me awhile to register what was going on.  It wasn’t until I recognized the feeling of my lungs being on fire that I decided to take a puff of my inhaler.  It took the steady pace of our guide, the support of a friend, prayer, and a bit of swearing to keep going at that point.  The mental battle was equal parts to the physical challenge. 

Prior to our midnight stroll, I read Romans chapter 5.  The verse that got me to the top was “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand.” I encourage you to read the whole chapter so I don’t offer a misunderstanding of the text.  The nugget of truth I held onto was it is only by the grace of God I stand anywhere, and no matter where I end up standing it is due to an act of God’s protection and provision.

Two hours and four puffs later, I was at Gilman’s Point.  Our guide was reluctant to encourage me to keep going, but with only 90 minutes left of hiking, I decided to keep going even if I had to go back down the mountain on a stretcher.

I remember praying intermittently as we climbed, trusting that Jesus was hiking alongside us. I even laughed to myself as I thought “We got ourselves into this Lord, but we need your help getting through it!” As Stephanie fought through asthma and lack of oxygen, I prayed for her and feared that she would have to turn back. Going on without my climbing companion was not an enjoyable prospect, as we had already been forced to see Dr. Birmingham turn back because of the conditions.

Finally, after what seemed like days of laboring in increasingly cold conditions, we made the top at Gilman’s Point in a last scramble over ice-encrusted rocks. As the glacier-cooled winds buffeted us, I turned and looked down on the constellation of moving lights representing other climbers far below us. Then I looked up to see the vibrant stars above, closer and brighter than I ever remember seeing them; as if I could simply reach up and grasp those cold, unwavering points of light. Then I began to laugh. The laughing brought tears of joy – joy that we had made this arduous climb and I stood there in triumph over the challenges faced below. From there (to my dismay) we had to walk another hour to the actual peak. This was truly the most difficult part for me, mentally. I had just ascended the mountain and seemingly finished, only to face another long walk through blisteringly cold winds. I simply put my head down and placed one foot in front of another, following Stephanie’s lead until we arrived at Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the continent.

As we walked back down the mountain in triumph, much refreshed and energized by our accomplishment, I thought about the personal implications of what I had just done. The verse that first came to mind is from Hebrews 12:11 and says “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” I had just undergone the most painful physical self-discipline exercise of my life, and it yielded a sense of accomplishment that I have not often felt in recent years. I also began to comprehend the metaphor represented by the climb. Every season that life brings has times where I must simply put one foot in front of the other and believe that the next step will not be my last. Rather, the next step is one closer the goal. Even as I am blindly following the guide in front of me, I know that I can trust that guide and must push through the mental (and spiritual) rollers that threaten to push me back or drown me. Every time I stumble or slide on a loose patch of gravel, even as I gasp for breath, there is one to grab me and put me back in step with Him. 

The challenge of Kili was one we chose to take on.  Unfortunately there are many challenges in life that we face without choosing to. The financial challenge of school is a large barrier to education for many African students. They don’t have the same available resources of loans and grants for a private graduate education.  My hope and prayer is that this experience will help in breaking down financial barriers for African students seeking to continue progressing as agents of change. I know there are leaders being raised up for a specific time and ministry.  We trust that financial partners will rise up to walk with these leaders.

When thinking about education and this endeavor to raise awareness for the assistance of African leaders, I know that there will be adversity and challenge. Achieving a good education is difficult, and I am still in the middle of a M.A. program that promises plenty of challenges in the year ahead. Aspiring African leaders face even more challenges: high tuition rates, little government or financial assistance, language and communication barriers, etc. I am glad that Eastern, with the leadership of Dr. Beth Birmingham, has begun to raise awareness of the fact that there are many African students eager to learn and, in turn, to use that education to become leaders in their communities. Just this year, our Eastern University cohort learned that two of our African brothers would not be able to complete the program this year because of financial difficulty. I pray for those brothers and others like them who have the gifts and desire, and only lack the means of accomplishing their dreams. With God’s help, they too can overcome mountains of adversity and take the lead in the transformation of their communities.

I'm going to seize this opportunity to steal the last word.  On behalf of Beth, Tim, and many more in the Eastern SLD community; it is our deep desire to support our African brothers and sisters in reaching not only the peak of completing their Masters, but also the peaks of building their communities, and ultimately the kingdom of God. It is only by God's grace we stand. May we be faithful with what we are given and give out.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The next to the last word: Don't second-guess your journey

After the climb up most of Kilimanjaro last week and lots of time to reflect on the way back down.... these thoughts seemed appropriate to share.  And I'm guessing some points of connection with your journey as well.... when the path takes an unexpected turn.

Years ago I applied for a full time faculty position at Eastern but the job went to someone else.  I was so disappointed, but God had a better plan.   Had I taken that post, I would have never had the opportunity of a two-year teaching assignment in South Africa, would have never had the privilege of learning with brilliant students like Lloyd Williams and Bryne Joynerwood, how poorer my life would have been without this.

Upon return from my two years teaching in Africa, my Assistant Dean role had been dissolved, I was returning to a faculty hiring process, new colleagues and a lot of unknowns.  I was disappointed and anxious, but God had a better plan.  As a full time professor, I have the privilege of walking alongside, learning with, learning from, the most incredible doctoral and graduate students from around the world, and overseeing the Africa programs and their students every year, THESE are my true mountaintop experiences.

Last week I set out to climb Kilimanjaro, all the way to the top (Uhuru Peak).  On Wednesday, at the 14,000 foot mark, altitude sickness ended my efforts to reach the final peak.  I was (and am) so, soooo disappointed and showed it through the long sobs in the arms of my climbing mates Tim and Steph.  But God has a better plan…

After the crying ended, there in the “saddle” on the mountain, and as the reality of all of it set in, two thoughts came to mind:

-- There is a bit of beauty and poetry in the professor watching her former students press on to achieve something she won't.  Shouldn't that be what the professorate is all about?

--This wall that I've hit, that felt insurmountable, probably feels quite like the wall of obstacles my beloved students from Africa, from Asia, from Latin America feel when trying to complete or continue their leadership development for the difficult work of serving the poor that God has called them to.  And wasn't that what this climb was all about in the first place?  (are you listening Francis?  Are you listening Emmanuel? – a bend in the road does not mean the end of your journey).

After the long, long journey back down, a third thought came to mind:

--This was never about the three of us climbing a mountain.  The mountain was a metaphor for the uphill climb our students from around the world face.   I came up with this idea of a fundraising climb in 2005, and in this past year have been able to tell you of the challenges our African leaders face in preparing them better to end poverty and restore shalom in their countries.  If you haven’t had the chance to help them in this effort, I would humbly ask that you join us in “this climb” and do so right now…. Any small (tax deductible) contribution goes a LONG, LONG way…


I don't know what God's "better plan" is in all this for me, but I do know this.... David Greenhalgh, a colleague who completed this journey some years ago, suggested I be ready with a hymn at the top to sing with Tim and Steph at Uhuru Peak.

At 9:15 Thursday morning, as I was still dragging my sore and sickly body down to base camp, my guide got a text from Stephanie and Tim's guide… they had successfully made it to Uhuru Peak, Africa’s highest point, healthy, happy, safe and sound.  I started to cry again, this time with joy, and then came the hymn…

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee
How great Though art, How great Though art
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee
How great Though art, How great Though art

Stay tuned… the Final Word on this blog is for my climbing mates, Steph and Tim, my Peak reachers, my heroes, my friends.

Beth B.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

5 Key Questions to Ask Your Guide

5 Key Questions to Ask Your Guide

Next week we start our climb up Kilimanjaro.  Part of our team is the guide for the trip.  After teaching my leadership classes earlier this week, some questions for the guide come to mind (said with smile)…

1.  Have you traveled this way before? 

While its never possible to know all the twists and turns in the road, a good guide will have experience in navigating a variety of different terrains and contexts and know how to handle the inevitable unexpected circumstances.  Experience counts in this as most things.

2.  Do you know where you’re leading us?

Without a clear view of the peak in mind, we’re just a happy band of travelers on a good long walk.  The good guide has at least some vision of the end goal in sight, while the journey to get to it may have some twists in the road, there needs to be a clear vision of what “arrival” looks like.

3.  Do you know who is on your trekking team?

A good guide will get to know their team, know their strengths, weaknesses, their ability (pace) and aspirations.  Maybe everyone isn’t interested in reaching the peak, but happy to enjoy the view from a lower vista, its helpful if your guide knows this ahead of the journey.  Perhaps some may need to move at a slower pace or are able to move at a faster pace, a good guide will moderate the pace accordingly.

4.  Will you tell us regularly how we’re doing?

Communicate, communicate, communicate!  Your followers will follow (and stay highly motivated) if they feel informed and included in the progress updates about the trek.  Ensure your followers are “with you” both physically and mentally.

5.  What’s your philosophy of success?

A good guide knows that rarely a team (or organization) will succeed if only a few individuals succeed.  Success means the majority, if not everyone, embraces the vision, sees the goal, knows their role on the journey and stays motivated to reach their destination.

How about you?  Know any good Guides in your life?  Well now is your chance to honor them.  As part of the Kilimanjaro fundraising climb, we’re giving you the opportunity to publicly “honor the guide” in your life.  With your contribution to our African leader scholarship fund, you are not only lightening the load for our African leaders but your honoring that special person in your life who has been that model leader for you!  Contribute and then write me about it.  Your “guide” will receive a letter telling them all the reasons you’re grateful to be making this journey together! 

For more details see the Kili Climb site:
http://www.alumni.eastern.edu/reachingpeaks and click on “honor a porter or guide” at the bottom of the page.

Onward and upward!
Beth Birmingham