Saturday, December 12, 2009

White as Snow

Snow fell this past week in Lancaster, PA. It glistened on the branches and hedge in our front yard. Drifted deep over the field across the road. Covered over the unraked leaves and brambles along the creek bed behind our house. Sparkled back the reflection of Christmas tree lights from a window. With candles in windows, wreaths on doors, Moravian stars twinkling a welcome from porch eaves, and the occasional Amish buggy on the road, it is as beautiful as a Thomas Kincade painting. This isn’t our first snow since moving from Miami and points further south to Lancaster, PA. We’ve had flurries and a couple good stick-to-the-ground snowfalls in the last three years. But it usually comes in later January and February, not during the Christmas season. I am a tropical bunny with a firm conviction that if humans were meant to live where that cold, wet stuff falls from the sky, God would have created them with fur. Accustomed to lush greenery and lighted palm trees at this season, it has been hard to see any beauty in a northern Christmas with its desolate, barren landscape and raw, icy winds.

Until snow fell.

The unnecessary extravagance of it is what boggles imagination. In the darkest, dreariest season of the year, God takes the effort and some frozen H2O, transforming dead, brown earth to pure, sparkling white. And for no crucial reason or scientific necessity that I can see—except to delight His creation with its sheer beauty.

And perhaps as an illustration of just what this Christmas season is about. In the darkest, deadest winter of human desolation, God stepped into our world, and through the coming of Jesus Christ blanketed the ugliness of our sin and despair with the pure, clean beauty of God’s love and mercy and redemption. As Isaiah tells us in chapter 1, verse 18, ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.’ That’s the true promise of Christmas.”

Wherever you are living at this time, whatever climate--whether green or brown or white--you may be enjoying, may God's ultimate gift, His Son Jesus Christ, shine joy and love into your hearts in this season of thanksgiving and celebration.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Finding Hope in Kenya, Africa: Littworld 2009

I've always been quick to insist I am neither pessimist nor optimist, but a realist. Unfortunately, a realistic assessment offers a dark picture of this world in which I find myself. Materialism and self-centeredness of 'have' nations. Poverty, starvation, despair of 'have nots'. Corruption, injustice, and greed on all fronts. Wars and rumors of wars. A planet gasping under the weight of human wrong choices.

Our Creator has been kind enough to give us a sneak peak at the end of the story (Revelations 21-22). I have no doubts the war is won, the last page written. But the immediate battle looks desperate, casualties piling high, the enemy huge and powerful. And my small candle lifted high to shine God's love and Word into that darkness seems too dim a flicker to make any impact.

Except realist that I am, I should be the last to forget my candle is not raised alone. Or that one tiny flicker adjoined to another and another can add up to a full bonfire of light. Participating in Littworld 2009 this past week, Nov. 1-6, in Nairobi, Kenya, I caught a glimpse of just how bright our pooled light can be against the darkness. And I came away with revitalized assurance that if the final war is not lost, nor is the immediate battle.

What is Littworld?

Littworld is a global conference held every three years (formerly every two years) by Media Associates International (, a ministry that develops and mentors indigenous Christian publishers and writers to reach their own cultures with the written word. Talented men and women from close to 100 countries have participated to date.
This year for the first time, the continent of Africa hosted Littworld at Brackenhurst International Conference Center in the mountains outside of Nairobi near Kenya's famed Rift Valley. Some 150 delegates from all five continents came together for six days of workshops and networking. The theme: 'One in Word'.
This is my fifth Littworld (I have been privileged to train and mentor Christian writers around the world for more than a decade). My own involvement included several workshops, mentoring with fiction writers, and networking with international publishers regarding translation rights for our own ministry curriculum. All of which exceeded expectations. Far more so did hearing what God had been doing in lives and countries around the planet since we'd last all met face to face in Sao Paolo, Brazil in 2006:

Kenyan ambassador and keynote speaker Bethuel Kiplagat shared how his personal faith in Jesus Christ has impacted a lifetime career in conflict resolution and reconciliation work around Africa.

Alexander Flek, Czech Republic, presented the culmination of a fifteen year vision and his own labor, publication of the 21st century translation Czech Bible.

Sookit Li, Hong Kong, shared new publishing opportunities and challenges in mainland China.

Claudinei Franzini, Brazil, told of 1.2 million Avon ladies carrying Bibles and other products of Editora Mundo Cristao, where he serves as sales manager, to Brazilian households.

As for the majority contingent of publishers and writers from across Africa--Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Angola, Benin, Zambia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Congo, Malawi, Camaroon--their life stories and vision give ample reason for hope in that great continent's future.

And so much more . . .

Hakuna Matata
Wednesday included an outing to the Rift Valley, one of the most beautiful spots our Creator has dreamed up for this planet. The Disney movie Lion King was based on the Rift Valley, as its music and famed saying 'hakuna matata' (no worries) was lifted straight from Kenyan culture.

Today the valley contains far more humans than the movie would indicate. But we saw giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, walked the shores of Lake Naivasha, witnessed flamingos taking flight and hippos chatting. As special bonus, we watched the sun set over a spectacular piece of the Rift Valley still so empty of human presence we might have been overlooking the original Garden of Eden claimed by some to have been on this spot.

A visit to Kenya wouldn't be complete without its music. Who would have thought staid and proper publishers and editors from across five continents could get down and boogie Motown-style? But the highlight of Littworld 2009 was definitely seeing old friends and making new, fellowshipping together, the oneness in spirit of a common bond and faith. Everywhere and at all times, people-huddles dotted the Brakenhurst grounds, talking, laughing, sharing ideas, visions, triumphs, life stories, contact information.

The conference ended with what has become a Littworld tradition, a candle-lighting ceremony to the lyrics of an old hymn: 'Bind us together with chords that cannot be broken . . . Bind us together with love." The symbolism was unambiguous. For six days we'd basked in a blaze of collective warmth and light. Now it was time to carry our own individual flames back home, to raise high a light wherever our outbound flights carried us.
But if saying goodbye to one more Littworld is invariably difficult, there are always Facebook and email. As John Maust, president of MAI, commented during the conference: "Once you've been part of Littworld, you can't get away. You are forever member of the ongoing MAI family around the planet."


A family of likeminded brothers and sisters in faith, lifting high the flame of God's love, bound as one in God's word, a blaze in the darkness.

Now that's something of which I'm thrilled to be a member.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Afghanistan: No Easy Solution

How to change a nation, bring about peace instead of war, transform hatred and greed to compassion and unselfishness? Whether Afghanistan or Iraq, Somalia or the collapsed Soviet Union, on-lookers shake their heads in baffled frustration. Despite trillions of dollars in aid and military expenditure, too much shed blood, and the best of intentions, how is it that introducing principles of democracy and freedom around the globe has produced so little lasting peace or prosperity?

A better question: can outsiders ever truly purchase freedom for another culture or people?

I wrote a blog column leading up to Afghanistan's August elections, questioning 'Do They Matter?' After all, regardless of who squeezed out the most votes, Afghanistan would remain a fundamentalist sharia regime with minimal freedom of worship, speech, or media, under the thumb of a warlord-infested government ranked among the planet's most corrupt. And with incumbent candidate Hamid Karzai dominating media access, writing his own election code, and personally appointing each member of the so-called 'Independent Election Commission', not even Karzai's increasingly reluctant Western allies had delusions any of 40+ opposition candidates had a chance. Spending over 200 million dollars of American taxpayer money to mount this election seemed more an exercise in futility than any faith in democracy.

Still, even my pessimism was taken aback at the blatant dishonesty and violence that ended up marking the elections. As much as one-third of all votes cast turned out to be ballot-stuffing by Karzai underlings, including election officials. Less than 10% of voters turned out in some regions, while in others ballots added up to ten times all registered voters. Meanwhile Karzai screamed Western plot at any suggestion of irregularities in the voting process. More than one American diplomat has resigned in protest. Violence has surged against a government increasingly seen as illegitimate, both by the Afghanis and foreign nations currently paying the bills.

All of which has been rather awkward for Karzai's chief ally, the United States government, which was counting on a reasonably clean stab at democracy to justify a continued outpouring of funds and troops into Afghanistan. Under extreme pressure Karzai has now agreed to a November 7 run-off, less than three weeks after the final vote tally. The short time frame hardly permits any serious campaign to be mounted or issues of fraud and security to be addressed. Nor does even run-off opponent Abdullah Abdullah expect any other outcome than a handy Karzai win. Which makes this second round little more than a face-saver for Karzai and his Western allies--along with another sizeable expenditure of funds by American taxpayers.

So where does that leave the future? An election run-off may rehabilitate Karzai's public image enough to justify continued Western support of his regime. But it doesn't address the issue of rank corruption, the wealthy growing wealthier off foreign aid contracts while widows and children continue to starve in Kabul streets, a growing insurgency fueled by the frustration of ordinary Afghanis, who have given up hope of promised freedoms and a better life and who see NATO and American forces as complicit with an illegitimate and dishonest regime.

A top-ranking American general in the zone has suggested a simple solution. Forget nation building. Forget any serious attempts at democracy or rule of law. The West needs to recognize Afghanistan is at least twenty years behind Pakistan. If the American people and military will just commit to the long-run, another twenty years or so involvement should bring Afghanistan up to where Pakistan is today.

And exactly where is that?

Currently Pakistan is a fundamentalist Islamic dictatorship that routinely uses sharia-based blasphemy and apostasy laws to imprison and execute Christians for their faith. It is also a terror-sponsoring state, whose ISI (military intelligence) worked with the U.S. to develop and arm the Taliban against the Soviets back in the 80s, while siphoning off billions in American military aid to finance their own operations, including Muslim extremist terror networks working to overthrow neighboring 'infidel' India.

Worse, they are a nuclear power, their weapons developed in defiance of the same international proliferation laws being raised against Iran; in fact, Pakistani nuclear scientists have been heavily involved in Iran's developing nuclear industry. Beyond all this, like Afghanistan, Pakistan is ranked as one of the planet's most corrupt governments.

So let's see if we have it straight. If we commit ourselves to the long run in Afghanistan, continue to pour out American taxpayer dollars and the blood of our sons and daughters, in twenty years or so we just might get--another Pakistan? Not even considered is where any accountability for human rights or religious and personal freedoms fit into this equation.

Left unaddressed is the underlying assumption that it is up to America or NATO to win in Afghanistan. That if the right decisions are made, enough troops and money poured in, a strong enough commitment is made, then peace and stability must inevitably follow like a correct answer popping up on a calculator screen.

Unfortunately, winning this war isn't up to America or NATO, but the Afghan people. Unless the Afghanis themselves are willing to make a stand, not just against the Taliban, but against the corruption, unjust law, Islamic extremist thinking, oppression and violence that permeates every level of Afghan society, no amount of good will, aid, or military intervention can produce a long-term peace and stability.

Afghanistan's current leadership has proved more than happy to leave security issues to foreign troops while they count looted aid dollars behind well-guarded walls of their ornate Kabuli mansions. The Afghan National Police, many of them rehabilitated warlord militias and currently rated the most corrupt institution in Afghanistan, are too busy squeezing largesse out of their countrymen to secure their streets. The new Afghan army is rated slightly less corrupt than the police, mainly because they have less day-to-day contact with the locals, but shows little willingness to risk their own necks and a tendency to go AWOL any time the fighting gets serious.

Meanwhile, redefined American military strategy in Afghanistan includes falling back to concentrate on providing security for 'major population centers'. Sounds good. Except America doesn't have enough manpower to patrol our own inner-city streets against gangs and criminal activity. Nor was our military ever designed to provide ground security for an unwilling foreign population. The very fact that eight years down the road from liberation it is somehow now assumed to be American responsibility to secure Afghan population centers shows how far askew the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has drifted.

And if by some miracle and enough military presence, it proves possible to reduce somewhat the daily murder and mayhem currently reigning in Afghanistan, what global difference will it make? Islamic extremist groups shift easily across the entire Muslim world. Al Qaida is only one of countless factions with similar ideology and goals. Do we invade Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, even Mindanao in the Philippines?

Because in the long run, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not just about extremists opposing the West. It is part of a much larger and long-term civil war within the Muslim world itself between fundamentalist Islam and the corrupt, extravagant aristocracies who have funneled oil revenue and other resources into their own pockets. Surely Cold War history should have taught us the futility of stepping in to prop up one corrupt regime out of fear the alternative might be worse (Iran, Iraq, Chile, Paraguay, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, are a few places we've done so and are still paying the price). America has neither enough money, troops nor will to step in and compel the entire planet or even entire Islamic world 'be good' and 'play nice' with the other.

So what is the answer?

Nothing simple. Certainly nothing that can be accomplished by a few thousand more troops and trillions more dollars in aid, much though I wish it were otherwise. I wish that following the latest strategy suggestions, propping up Pakistan one more time, sticking it out with corrupt local allies offered a long-term hope of success.

Above all, because a lot of genuinely good intentions have been invested in Afghanistan. American and NATO troops have fought courageously and well. Plenty of individual Afghanis have worked hard to make a difference in their country. I have not met a single long-term humanitarian worker nor many Afghanis who want American and NATO forces to abandon Afghanistan. But nor have I met any who believes that the current course--especially in collaboration with present Afghan leadership--will bring about long-term success.

There is an answer. It is not easy nor quick, but it is simple. It is, in fact, the theme I address in my most recent Tyndale House Publishers release Veiled Freedom, set in Afghanistan. With the best of intentions, one cannot impose freedom from without. It must be the choice of a people.

You see, change that truly transforms society comes through changed hearts, not circumstances. And hearts change only when they are restored to personal relationship with their Creator and heavenly Father through the love of Jesus Christ and transforming power of the Holy Spirit. When God promised restoration to an idolatrous, wicked Israel, He described it this way: "I will give you a new heart . . . I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36:26).

And therein lies hope for Afghanistan.

Because despite all the dismal headlines, hearts are being changed across Afghanistan, quietly, daily, under the radar and despite lack of freedom and oppression, through individuals coming face to face with the love of Isa Masih, Jesus Christ as lived out by Isa-followers willing to risk their own lives to share that love. And when enough individual hearts change from hate to love, cruelty to kindness, greed to selflessness, their society will never be the same.

Change a heart, change a nation.

And that includes Afghanistan.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Afghanistan Goes To The Polls

Afghanistan goes to the polls tomorrow amidst growing violence and little enthusiasm. Many of you have undoubtedly been following the drama on the news. For both Western governments and Afghanis, the toss-up seems to be the continuing rule of Hamid Karzai, which has been characterized by corruption, incompetence, and escalating violence, and 40 or so other candidates, none of which can muster enough votes among them to compete with the incumbent.

Afghan culture dictates throwing in with the perceived winner, and many warlords and regional and ethnic leaders have already promised Karzai their followers' votes. So much for individual democracy! Karzai, the master of compromise, has brought back two notorious warlords as his vice presidential candidates, promising top government positions to local leaders who come over to his side.

Meanwhile many rural areas don't expect to vote at all. Ironically, in extremely conservative areas where women can't vote personally, women outregister men two to one (registered, of course, by their menfolk with no proof necessary of their existence) where in areas where women can actually leave their homes, men outregister women two to one. All to say no one is expecting any honesty in the vote. But American observers are already saying that if the vote is within even 10-20 percent of what is considered fair, it will be counted a success. Interesting, considering such an election in Iran was roundly denounced. Let's not even talk about what would happen if 10-20 % off was counted in the U.S.

Is there any point to this election? Rather than repeat myself, let me direct you to two earlier op-eds on this subject.

Meanwhile, we should not throw up our hands in hopeless dismay. On the contrary, this is time to raise our hands in fervent prayer. How can we be praying as Afghanis go to the polls in just a few short hours on the other side of the globe?

*Pray for God's sovereignty and will in this election, regardless of the result.
*Pray for a move towards individual freedom and human rights, especially rights of worship, speech, and women's equality, none of which the Karzai government has honored under the current sharia legal system.
*Pray for followers of Isa Masih (Jesus Christ) who must worship underground but are growing in numbers and faith.
*Pray for the safety of American and other coalition soldiers in harm's way as they try to provide security for this election.

And if you have not yet read Veiled Freedom or know someone wanting to know just what is going on in Afghanistan--and what is the true Source of freedom--this is the perfect time. Here is a wonderful new review that came out today.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

On Hold

I'm ready to admit it. I am a terrible blogger. Not because I don't continue to care passionately about the issues I've written on to date in this blog. Freedom of speech and worship. Justice on a national and international level. The consequences of actions made in fear or ignorance on my own nation's future as well as that of billions around the world. The suffering and courage and awesome fortitude of spiritual brothers and sisters whose lives have crossed mine around the world.

No, my problem is that I clearly do not have the compartmentalized brain necessary--well, let's say to be the president. Like Winnie the Pooh, I am a bear of very limited brain. When I get into the zone of a major writing project, every other focus is shut out. With magazine issues (see for the on-line version of BCM World) and other ministry writing that is non-negotiable, you can guess what gets pushed to the bottom of the pile. This blog.

The good news (at least for those fans eagerly waiting) is that I am in the midst of massive rewrites for Veiled Freedom's sequel, Freedom's Furnace. From my POV, also good news is I've decided to stop stressing about one more writing task needing done as I bury myself again in Afghanistan and the incredibly complex situation of its upcoming elections, disintegrating liberties, and hidden ugliness as well as hope that is the background of this sequel.

Yes, my limited brain power is desperately needed elsewhere. So I am placing this blog on hold at least until my manuscript is turned in. I hope you will tune back in this fall when I can again think coherently beyond the pages of Freedom's Furnace for a blog posting worth reading. Meanwhile, I will be posting occasional links and comments on Twitter (@jeanettewindle) and Facebook if you are interested in following the Afghanistan situation and the implications of decisions being made now on the future of all freedom around the world. So if I do not yet count you as a Twitter and FB friend, I hope you will join me there.

Until the last page is written.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Writing Tip #3: Unforgettable Characters from the Eccentric, Unusual, and Just Plain Ornery

How do you come up with your characters? It’s a question every writer receives on a regular basis. The answer—everywhere and everyone. But a recent interview featuring my new Tyndale House Publishers release, Veiled Freedom, added a twist. What strange real life incident inspired a scene in one of your novels? My mind took instant wing south of the equator.


The advance copies of CrossFire, my first adult political/suspense novel set in the U.S./Bolivia counternarcotics war, had just arrived in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where my husband and I served as missionaries and he pastored the International Church. I was enjoying a celebratory lunch at one of the city’s finer restaurants with the American consul, regional heads of World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, and other non-profit personnel when we were joined by an eager and somewhat distraught young woman.

She was American, early twenties, a veterinarian grad student working as a volunteer with Bolivia’s endangered species program. Animals seized from poachers or brought in with injuries were treated, then released back into the wild. If rehabilitation was not possible, such animals would end up in the Santa Cruz zoo for an exhibit or breeding program.

Our young volunteer wanted advice from the more experienced expatriates sitting around the table. Something strange was happening in her program. Valuable animals were disappearing, all high-demand specimens for the rare animal black market and too many to dismiss as coincidence. Now she’d come into the city to bring a female jaguarundi into the zoo, its leg injury proscribing rehabilitation, but perfect for the breeding program. But when she’d returned that morning to check on it, the rare jungle cat was gone. No one would admit to who had given orders for its removal.

She shook her head in bewilderment. Local colleagues on her non-profit organization’s payroll had access. But surely their passion for the environment would never permit such criminal behavior. Glancing around the crowded, upper-class eatery, she lowered her voice to barely above a whisper. She wasn’t so sure about the zoo’s director or the local Minister of Environment, both powerful political figures whose mansions in the city’s most elite neighborhood certainly didn’t come from their government salary.

Duh! was our mental response. Anyone who’d been any time at all in Bolivia knew how corrupt its government systems were at all levels, the flood of expatriate non-profits simply offering new pockets from which to build one’s own personal fortune. The guilty could be zoo director, minister, colleagues or most likely all of the above. Definitely not coincidence.

And now she presented her dilemma. Should she go to the police and demand an investigation? Or perhaps, with kind understanding and lack of a judgmental attitude, she should go to these men herself. Explain to them just how important these animals were to Bolivia’s eco-system. Plead with them to abstain from any further depredation of their country’s wildlife. Which option did we at the table feel she should pursue?

None of the above, we unanimously assured her. But when an acquaintance called her away, we exchanged our mutual dismay. Were non-profits really letting volunteers that green and naive out on their own without a babysitter? As to what she should do, we were also in unanimous agreement. Keep her mouth shut and accept the loss of an occasional endangered animal as the cost of doing business in Bolivia. Or go back to the United States before an embassy alert informed us she’d been found floating in some local river with her throat cut. Corrupt and wealthy Bolivian politicians didn’t take kindly to being lectured on changing their ways by young and female expatriate volunteers.

My husband and I with our four children left Bolivia that same week to Miami, where we worked throughout Latin America for the next five years before, so I never saw the young woman again nor was able to follow up on her. But I wondered often over the years if she’d survived her own naiveté to make it back home alive. And since I never found out the end of her story, I chose to write it myself.

Fast-forward several political/suspense novels to my first Tyndale House Publishers title, Betrayed, released March, 2008. Anthropologist Vicki Andrews is researching Guatemala’s “garbage people” when she stumbles across a human body. Curiosity turns to horror as she uncovers no stranger, but an American environmentalist—Vicki’s only sister, Holly.

Read Betrayed, and you will meet that earnest young veterinarian volunteer, right down to the sunburned, round features and actual conversation around that table as well as my own dismayed reactions played out in the mind of protagonist Vicki Andrews.

Holly is just one of the many characters who have wandered out of real-life encounters into the pages of my books. A jungle village chief facing off with a condescending female environmentalist (The DMZ). A good-looking and arrogant drug lord heir racing around town in his red Ferrari (CrossFire). A nasty coca-growers union leader I killed off in print to cheers from DEA friends who’d longed to arrest him without ever dreaming the man would weasel his way into his nation’s presidency (FireStorm). A supercilious six-foot-four Special Agent in Charge determined to intimidate a five-one female civilian-me! (The DMZ).

My motto as a writer when eccentric, annoying or even nasty people cross one’s path is simple and effective. Don’t get irritated or even. Just write them into your next book!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Veiled Freedom: An Interview

Veiled Freedom hits stores today. A literary baby that has taken almost two years of research, writing, rewriting, then months of waiting during the editorial and publishing process, is now birthed. I watch my child take its first wobbling steps in bookstores and on-line catalogs with delight and some trepidation. How will this offspring that tore out my heart and soul and brain in its conception fare out there in the vast daunting world of book sales and marketing?
[Featured publicist is grandson J.J. Windle touting Veiled Freedom at Colorado Christian Writer's Conference]

Fortunately, like any author by the time their latest release actually hits shelves, I am far gone enough in my next manuscript, in this case a sequel, Freedom's Furnace, to be distracted from hovering over my child's every move. Meanwhile, many are asking what motivated a political/suspense novelist with roots deep into Latin American politics and culture to write a novel set across the world against the stark, forbidding backdrop of modern-day Afghanistan?

So before I pull myself away from gloating through the nursery window at my newborn and get back to writing its upcoming sibling, may I invite you to pull up a comfortable chair, pour a cup of coffee (or your beverage vice of choice), and listen in on a recent interview:

Why did you write a book about Afghanistan?

Despite the ugliness of war, I rejoiced in the post-9/11 overthrow of Afghanistan's Taliban, believing it presaged new hope for freedom and peace in that region. Neither freedom nor peace ever materialized. Instead today's headlines reflect the rising violence, corruption, lawlessness and despair. The signing of Afghanistan's new constitution, establishing an Islamic republic under sharia law--and paid for with Western coalition dollars and the blood of our soldiers--tolled a death knell for any hope of real democracy. And yet the many players I've met in this drama have involved themselves for the most part with the best of intentions. The more I came to know the region and love its people, I was left asking, "Can outsiders ever truly purchase freedom for another culture or people?"

That question birthed Veiled Freedom. A suicide bombing brings together a disillusioned Special Forces veteran, an idealistic relief worker, and an Afghan refugee on Kabul's dusty streets. The ensuing explosion will not only test the hypocrisy of Western leadership and Afghanistan’s new democracy, but start all three on their own personal quest. What is the true source of freedom--and its cost?"

Your research for this book took you to Afghanistan…what was most shocking (or surprising) to you about Afghanistan?

The most shocking was how little has changed, despite eight years of American and NATO occupation and trillions of dollars poured into the country. People are still starving, streets thick with beggars, mud-brick hovels the norm, while less than six percent of the country has electricity. After the initial hopes for freedom the 2001 liberation had raised, most women are back in burqas, in fear of their own men-folk, not the Taliban. Hundreds of girls schools built by foreign aid are once again shut. Islamic sharia law trumps any pretence at freedom and human rights. People express far more concern over the corruption and brutality of the local police and government officials than Taliban. In Kabul, an estimated 1/3 of all salaries are siphoned off by the bribes authorities demand for every service--or just to be left alone.

In stark contrast are entire neighborhoods of turreted, gabled and towered mansions, many owned by government ministers, representing hundreds of millions in squandered aid money and opium. Add to that the high-priced malls, shops, restaurants catering to Afghanistan's new aristocracy and the expatriate community, where a cappuccino costs more than the average Afghani makes in a week. It is easy to understand why so many lash out in anger and violence. Ironically, even at the height of Taliban fighting, 90% of the country was open to aid work (I met many expatriate families, even with small children, who were there throughout the Taliban era). Today with all the foreign troop presence, that figure is reversed with 90% of Afghanistan closed off to aid work because of security concerns.

What shaped your story the most after being in Afghanistan?

I came away above all with a recognition that true freedom will only come to Afghanistan, or anywhere else in our world, through the love of Isa Masih [Jesus Christ] changing individual hearts. Change enough hearts, and you will see change in a nation. Without changed hearts, all the guns and aid are futile.

Are there parts of your book that are total non-fiction?

I can say honestly that little in Veiled Freedom is completely fiction other than the main characters, who in themselves are an amalgamation of so many I've come to know in Afghanistan, whether humanitarian, private security, embassy, military, who are true-life counterparts to my characters. The prison, Mansion Row, expat life, and other details are all as described. The women prisoner's stories are not only based on real cases, but nowhere near the worst I came across. In truth, so much evil and violence, and not just to women, was too graphic even to include in the book. But the love of Isa Masih [Jesus Christ] is also not fiction, and that is why Veiled Freedom is a story of hope, not despair.

What do you want your readers to take away from reading VF?

I would like readers to close this book with a better understanding of Afghanistan and the entire Muslim world and how vital and interconnected events there, especially such issues as freedom of worship, speech, human rights, are to our own country's future and security. Even more so, I want every reader to come face to face with the Person of Jesus Christ, the only true Hope of lasting change and freedom for our world.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Good, Bad, or Ugly?

Good won a battle this past month in India.

For those who haven't been keeping close tabs on national elections in the planet's most populous democracy, that's understandable. I didn't see much on American cable news, though I would hazard that the BBC did a more thorough job. Suffice it say, over seven hundred million citizens qualified to cast a vote made India's recent elections the largest in human history. Much was at stake. Some would say India's very claim to be called a democracy.

Battling it out for supremacy were the subcontinent's two most powerful political parties. The 'UPA' or Congress party ran on a platform of a secular, democratic India with guaranteed freedom and protection for religious minorities. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s platform's has been simple, unwavering and distressingly popular. 'Hindutva', or a forced return to Hinduism and caste rule.

Orissa area village

A decade ago, the BJP dominated India's federal government. In 2004 the UPA knocked them out of national power. But their control of states like Orissa led to the violence this past year that left hundreds of Orissa Christians dead, upwards of 100,000 burned out of homes, and virtually every Christian institution from churches to schools and orphanages razed to the ground (see Orissa Burning). So concerned Christians inside and outside of Orissa have been watchfully monitoring Indian elections.

And praying.

But even those with great faith and hope were stunned by this last week's announcement of election results. In parliamentary elections, the UPA won 2-1 over BJP, giving the moderate secular party a sweeping majority. Meanwhile in Orissa itself, not a single BJP candidate won a seat at either state or national level! What is significant is that neither India's Christian community nor its sizeable Muslim minority combined has a voting bloc large enough to determine the outcome of the elections. BJP's sweeping defeat was only possible because India's 80% Hindu majority voted overwhelmingly against 'Hindutva' extremism and for a secular state.

Orissa area church service

So today Christians--and Muslims--are breathing a little easier in India. Which doesn't mean all concerns for continued violence are gone. Just in the last two weeks, Hindu extremists have attacked Christians within Orissa's remaining refugee camp. Two days ago in Nepal, a Hindu monarchy declared a democratic republic just last May, a church bombing killed two and injured dozens more. Still, the decision of India's voters at the ballot box has been a huge step forward for true democracy and freedom for all its 1.2 billion citizens.

Orissa pastor's wife, husband arrested by Hindu extremist authorities

About the same time, another incident received a whole lot more North American media attention. Whether good, bad, or ugly won, you'll have to decide. It was a book burning. Not just any books. A collection of Bibles. No, the bonfire was no action of Hindu or Muslim extremists. It was carried out by orders of U. S. government personnel. You may have followed the case. An American church, unaware it was against military regulations, raised funds for Bibles in Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan's most common languages. The Bibles were shipped to a church member serving on Baghram Air Force Base north of Kabul, command center for U. S. Armed Forces in Afghanistan.

When the soldier showed the Bibles to a chaplain, he was informed of regulations against U.S. military personnel handing out Bibles or any other action that could be construed as proselytizing of Muslims. The soldier turned them over to the chaplain, the chaplain to his own commanding officer. Which would likely have been the end of it except someone in the vicinity was filming the whole thing on the camera phone. It got out to the Islamic news service, Al-Jazeera. At which point the U. S. military quickly assured the world the confiscated Bibles had been safely converted to ash.

So why burn the Bibles instead of simply returning them to their donors? Two reasons were given:

1) Regulations require all discarded trash on U. S. military bases to be burned
(I.E: brand-new Bibles are trash).

2) If the Bibles were returned to the donors, they might be given away to some other Dari or Pashto readers (Now I am wondering, back when the CIA was arming Afghan mujahedeen to bring down the Soviet empire, wasn't part of their justification that the Soviets were denying basic human rights like praying, worshipping, reading as you choose to its citizens? Why was it okay to encourage those under communist rule to defy a totalitarian regime, but Americans are now actually helping Islamic regimes deny those freedoms to their own people?).

What is more interesting was the official basis for confiscating and burning said volumes at all, something called a 'force protection measure'. Put briefly, if Muslims even suspected Western coalition soldiers of giving away a Christian holy book, they might be provoked to kill more American soldiers. So let's not only burn the Bibles, but make sure the Islamic world knows, so we're not accused of recycling them. Ironically, in Western news coverage, I saw far more outrage at a U.S. church daring to send Christian literature to Afghanistan than over U.S. military forces aiding and abetting a totalitarian regime in controlling what its citizens can or can't read.

Left unspoken, perhaps because it's a no-brainer, is that no one in all of this has expressed any worries that millions of outraged Christians around the world might resort to rioting, looting, and murder to avenge the burning of their Sacred Scriptures. Imagine instead a Muslim mosque, say, in Egypt, sending a few Korans over to one of its military personnel enrolled in any one of the many Allied Officers exchange programs run on U. S. military bases. I've met plenty of these Muslim-bloc officers, and they have no problem discussing their own faith freely, so this is hardly a far-fetched image. In fact, Saudi Arabia has paid for the building of mosques and dispersal of millions of Korans all over the world.

Now imagine those Korans being seized and burned so as not to offend American Christians. Imagine those responsible announcing this to the entire planet so that no one will get the erroneous idea that a single Koran has survived.

Imagine the world-wide chaos that would ensue!

If that's a hard stretch for the imagination, it's because it just wouldn't happen. Meanwhile, has burning Bibles and then carefully announcing that burning across the entire Muslim world really made our own troops safer? I don't think so--and here's why! In so doing, the American military has sent the entire world--and especially the Muslim bloc--two disastrous messages:

1) Western leadership will bend over backwards to show respect for Islam's holy book, but has none at all for the Book considered sacred by a majority of its own citizens.

2) The greatest military power on earth, that won with such ease in Afghanistan and Iraq, is so petrified of Muslim aggression, it will burn its people's own 'holy book' to appease it. Which in local culture is not interpreted as a conciliatory gesture, but weakness and lack of moral fortitude.

Now personally, while I regret the Bible burning, my outrage is moderate. Why? God's Word cannot be destroyed by burning paper and ink. Totalitarian regimes of all stripes have been burning Bibles clear back to King Jehoiakim torching the prophet Jeremiah's scrolls (Jeremiah chapter 36). The Bible is still here. More Dari and Pashto copies will be printed, regardless of U.S. or Islamic government objections.

Which is precisely why you don't see Christians rioting around the world. I believe with all my heart that such capitulation places our military in more danger in the long term, because Muslim extremists have been encouraged once again that Americans have no moral strength. But I can see why military personnel might feel it was the easiest way out at the time.

Orissa Bible conference, February, 2009

Which in itself is the point. There was an 'easier' way to handle the Orissa situation as well. The BJP, after all, offered Orissa Christians a peaceful solution to their crisis. All they had to do was renounce their faith, reconvert to Hinduism, and promise never to speak of or worship Jesus Christ again, and they would be free to return to their villages and lives.

They chose instead to endure the loss of homes, churches, jobs, lives. They did so without resorting to retaliatory violence. They did so without knowing their steadfast faith and resolve in the face of persecution would send a watching nation to the ballot box to demand an end to extremism.

One has to wonder, judging by recent decisions, if current Western leadership had to trade places with the Orissa Christians, what kind of choice would they make?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Still Sleeping?

The juxtaposition of two news events this past week caused no media ripple, but sends a chill up my own spine as I consider the implications. Receiving greater global attention was the U.N. Conference on Racism, dubbed Dublin II. The U.S. and a number of other Western nations boycotted the conference, and for ample reason. Iran and Libya's presence on the organizing committee certainly offered a clue. Not to mention the invitation of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as keynote speaker (his anti-Israel and American diatribe was vicious enough for a number of other European leaders to walk out).

At issue in the American boycott were two main obstacles in the proposed resolution. Number One, the equation of Israel's very continued existence with 'racism' (meanwhile countries like Sudan, the Congo, Somalia, etc. received no rebuke at all). Number Two, the proposal that criticism of religion should be dubbed 'hate speech' and made a crime.

Criticism of Islam, that is, since no other religion is making such demands. Meanwhile in the Muslim world, where any critical look at Islam is already a crime that can carry a death penalty, leaders proposing said restriction have no difficulty at all with hate speech against Christians and Jews (just check out their children's programming).

In the end, the boycott accomplished its purpose in the tabling of both resolutions. And since no real issues like actual dictators oppressing currently living human beings were addressed, the U.N. Conference on Racism ended as one more colossal waste of international funds. Which doesn't mean the issues have gone away. Let's not forget a certain politician in a Western democracy called Netherlands currently under 'hate speech ' indictment for just such a challenge to Islamic totalitarianism (see While We Were Sleeping, February blog archive).

Meanwhile, unmentioned by the mainline press, came the second event. Those following international news--and national security--are aware of Pakistan abdicating the Swat Valley region along Afghanistan's border to the Taliban rule under strict sharia law. The stated purpose was to pacify the Taliban so they'd leave the rest of Pakistan alone. A decision that instantly sent a chill up the spine of Pakistan's minority Christian community, where we personally have friends and acquaintances.

Under Pakistani secular law, Christians have some protection, one good carry-over from British colonial rule, though proselytizing and conversion carry stiff criminal penalties or even a Muslim neighbor accusing a Christian of disrespecting a Koran (check Voice of the Martyrs for Pakistani Christians in jail for their faith). Muslims, of course, have total freedom to proselytize and convert other faiths. But that beats Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and other U.S. allies where Christian churches cannot exist at all. Strict sharia law would strip meager remaining legal protection away.

In response to Pakistani peace overtures, the new rulers of Swat Valley and environs have already announced their intentions to extend Taliban rule throughout Pakistan. To make clear they mean it, among their first official acts was an attack on the Christian community. Below is the Asia Evangelical Alliance (AEA) report we received from the area:
"Karachi - April 22, 2009: (PCP) The Talibanization of Karachi City begins with attack of armed Taliban on a Christian colony. The attack was well organized and heavy firearms were used by hundreds of Taliban to threaten unarmed Christian elders, women and children. The Taliban chalked slogans against Christianity and to accept Islam on Church walls in Taseer Town in the night of April 19, 2009, which horrified Christian residents.

On April 21, 2009, the local Christians conducted a peaceful procession in vicinity of Taseer Town to attract attention of local administration for protection of residents, but no action was taken nor police guard provided for protection of Church.

On the night of April 21, 2009, more than one hundred masked Taliban intruded in Taseer Colony and attacked Christians with guns. Fearful, Christians locked themselves in their homes. But the Taliban pulled elders out at gunpoint and dragged women by their hair in the streets. They loudly said, "You infidels have to convert to Islam or die. Why you cleaned our warnings chalked on walls of Church and home doors? How you dare to conduct a procession against Taliban?"

In a two hour long attack on Taseer Town, Taliban killed two Christians and beat dozens. The two Christians were seized for resisting the Taliban and killed in execution style before their families.

Nazir S Bhatti, President of PCC (Pakistan Christian Congress) condemned the attack and killing of Christians in Taseer Town and urged government to provide protection to Christians in Pakistan who are unarmed and peaceful citizens. But no action [has been] taken . . .

“Taliban are planning to expand Sharia law of their choice in Karachi, and the Christian colony has fallen first victim on their target.” Nazir Bhatti adds.

Pray for peace in Pakistan."

Surely I am not alone in finding it of concern that while the United States continues to arm and fund Islamic regimes and Western nations scramble to appease them, hardly a mainline voice is being raised on behalf of the Christian community's rights around the world to worship and live freely. If our children and grandchildren are to know what freedom of speech, worship, association is, we cannot continue to remain silent while such freedoms are being whittled away right under our noses.

Speaking of 'speaking out', my marketing team wouldn't be so happy if I didn't mention Publishers Weekly's review of Veiled Freedom this past week. As the premier industry review, they do not give praise lightly, so their positive coverage definitely made my week. Veiled Freedom hits bookstores June 1st, but is currently available for pre-order. REVIEW EXCERPT BELOW:

J. M. Windle—author of the political/suspense thriller CrossFire—taps into current events with her newest novel, set in Afghanistan. . . . Windle's writing sings when she compares the teachings of Isa Masih (Jesus Christ) with those of Muhammad . . . Readers will be enthralled with this penetrating look at Afghanistan and its many mysteries revealed through the lives of flawed men and women. Windle is a top-notch storyteller. Publishers Weekly, 4/20/09

Sunday, April 12, 2009

He Is Risen!

It was a dark and stormy night.

So begins one of my most vivid Easter memories. It had been raining when we'd gone to bed, not the monsoon sheets of full rainy season, but a steady downpour. When my husband and I rousted four sleepy, protesting children out of bed at 4 AM, cloud cover blackened any glimpse of stars or moon, a drizzle still dampening our faces as we piled into our rusted, elderly minivan. I had to wonder why we'd ever agreed to join the church we worked with in a poorer, unpaved neighborhood of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, at the city stadium for the interdenominational Easter sunrise service.

At least at this early hour, there was none of the traffic that usually congested this city of a million. Nor was there any light beyond the twin yellow beams of our headlights jolting up and down through muddy ruts. Sane citizens still slept. Only a few main boulevards boasted street lamps. We made a normal hour drive in less than twenty minutes. By the time our tires touched the cobblestones of the city center, we'd met up with other headlights. Entire buses and market trucks packed with waving, cheering passengers vied with pickups moonlighting as taxis and the rare private vehicle.

By the time we'd found a parking spot some blocks from the stadium, the streets were filled with people hurrying the same direction. The smart ones had brought along lengths of plastic, even an occasional umbrella, to cover their heads against the drizzle. This March night held the warmth of early fall in Bolivia's semitropical lowlands, so our four children had no objection to the damp. Their mother was less complacent, irritated that I hadn't thought to bring tarp or umbrellas. The stadium had no roof. Was there a point to fighting through this crowd, only to discover the event rained out?

But my misgivings were clearly a minority opinion, the trickle of pedestrians becoming thousands as we approached the high, concrete oval of the stadium. Despite the early hours, food venders were out in full force. The savory odor of shish kebabs sizzling on coal grills, cheese empanadas fresh from a fryer, a fragrance of cinnamon that was hot api, a thick, sweet gruel made from purple corn, prompted eager pleas from my family. We paused to add kebabs and empanadas to the fruit and bottled water we'd brought along.

Inside was a reminder why we'd left home so early. The 50,000 capacity stadium was already almost full. The bravest had already been here for hours in an all-night prayer vigil. Family groups and entire congregations staked out sections of the concrete bleachers. Hand-lettered banners identified each church while brightly-painted placards exulted 'Jesus Lives!', 'He is Risen!', 'Happy Easter!', 'Celebrate!' The stage out on the field was currently empty and silent, but church groups with guitars, hand drums and tambourines were vying to out-sing each other around the stadium. Balloons tied to railings and wandering venders offering popcorn and soda in plastic disposable cups completed a carnival atmosphere.

Most of this crowd had come much further than our family, from one of the countless neighborhoods of thatched-roofed hovels and dirt alleys that make up most of Santa Cruz. The churches to which they would return for the regular Sunday morning services would be a larger thatched-roof version of their homes or perhaps a more middle-class church like the one we attended with actual brick walls and a tin roof. Their clothing showed the ethnic mix Santa Cruz had become in the last decade of urban growth. Layered bright skirts, ponchos, and top hats of highland Quechua. Sleeveless cotton dresses and white pants of lowland Guarani. Blue jeans and T-shirts of the urbanized Spanish.

Upper-class professionals stood out with their suit coats and shiny shoes, women in tailored pant suits and high heels. In the outside world of poverty, racial tension, social injustice, and class hatred that was Bolivia, these groups would have little reason to intermingle. But for this hour and in this place, social, cultural, class rifts were suspended. This was one family come together to celebrate a common hope and faith.

The sky was now paling even through the cloud cover, so we no longer needed a floodlight to spot the banner proclaiming 'Iglesia Cristiana Antioquia' high up one bleacher. Squeezing in with the rest of our church group on the damp concrete steps, we shared our food acquisitions with friends, accepted in return a handful of tangerines and sweet buns, still warm and sooty from a wood oven. As I bit into an empanada, melted cheese oozing from the flaky pastry, my resourceful husband produced a thermos of coffee. With the strong, black brew banishing drowsiness, my own enthusiasm rose to match the wild excitement of my children. What better place to be on a soggy Easter dawn than a concrete bleacher in an open South American stadium with 50,000 of my brothers and sisters in the family of God?

The stage was no longer empty or silent. Loudspeakers with far too many amps for even so large a facility crackled the proclamation: "Cristo ha resucitado! Christ has risen!"

Surging to its feet, the crowd roared with the enthusiasm of a World Cup playoff. "Cristo ha resucitado eternamente! Christ has risen for all eternity!"

Triumphant shouts became a song, "Celebrate Jesus, celebrate! He has risen!" As I raised my voice to join in, I realized the drizzle had stopped. The open sky above the stadium was aflame with drifting cloud billows and streamers of reds and pinks and oranges. Even as that joyous exultation rose to shake the stadium, the clouds broke open, and as though an answer from heaven itself, a shaft of light blazed earthward to touch the grass of the stadium field.

The sun had risen.

The Son has risen.

It is a dark and stormy night.

War. Oppression. Injustice. Famine. Grief. Pain. Death. Sometimes the storm clouds seem so many and dark, it does not seem possible light will ever prevail. But this morning I join brothers and sisters in faith gathered in the burned-out shell of an Orissa church, behind closed doors in countries where they dare not raise voices in song, in stadiums across Latin America, on Miami beach and an Amazon riverbank, and in countless church sanctuaries around the world, as we celebrate the reason we have hope. Jesus Christ, who freely gave His life on a cross for our redemption, is risen from the dead! Though the storm clouds may momentarily mask our vision, the light has already triumphed.

The sun will return.

The Son will return.

Happy Easter!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Change a Heart, Change a Nation


A favorite slogan during any election campaign, change is a word we dread as much as desire. We long for change to make things better. We fear change will make things worse. And too often, even when we get the change we've fought for, whether geographical, political, economic, or social, we find ourselves disappointed. Why? Because though our circumstances may be changed, we ourselves are still the same and so are those around us.

Which is why we find ourselves so disappointed when billions are poured into places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, only to see the continuation of violence and hate and cruelty. You see, change that truly transforms society comes through changed hearts, not circumstances. And hearts change when they are restored to personal relationship with their Creator and heavenly Father through the transforming love of Jesus Christ.

When God promised restoration to an idolatrous, wicked Israel, He described it this way: "I will give you a new heart . . . I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36:26). When enough individual hearts change from hate to love, cruelty to kindness, greed to selflessness, their society will never be the same.

These thoughts come to mind as I have been putting together the most recent issue of our ministry magazine. One article comes from the Congo. If you've followed events of recent years there, the violence and chaos make Afghanistan and Somalia seem like Paradise. Africa’s second largest country after Sudan, roughly one-quarter the size of the United States, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, is one of the most naturally wealthy regions on Earth with rubber, diamonds, gold, oil and numerous other mineral reserves.
As memorialized in the Joseph Conrad classic 'Heart of Darkness', human greed and brutality has kept its people among the planet's poorest from the days of slave raids and a colonial era characterized by forced labor and horrific working conditions to the vicious dictators and rebel fighting of its independence era. All-out civil war in recent years has resulted in more than five million dead. News headlines are a constant succession of atrocities, 'boy soldiers' now a dictionary entry. Most foreign ministry and aid organizations have been forced out of the country. Christian hospitals, printing presses, church buildings and schools were largely destroyed.
But though buildings will burn, a changed heart is unstoppable. In the midst of horror and darkness, Congolese Christians are still holding high the light of Christ's love and hope. Which brings me to that article I was editing. A friend, the subject of the article, spent many years in DRC with our ministry organization before having to leave for health reasons. A few months ago she received a letter from Congolese churches she'd worked with, asking for 15,000 sets of teaching material covering the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ--in Bengala and Swahili!
It seemed a tall order. How to get it published, much less into a country where travel was still almost at a stand-still. But God began to open doors. A Kenyan Christian publishing house took on the project. $10,000 were donated for printing costs. An African ministry that uses 4-wheel-drive vehicles to carry aid and the Good News to more inaccessible regions of Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, and DRC agreed to transport the materials for no cost.

It gives me goose-bumps to think that right now those 15,000 series on the life of Christ are flowing into the Congo. Children and adults are learning of a God who loved them so much He left the splendor of heaven to walk the dusty streets of a war-torn world. To set an example of how to love each other and forgive enemies. To give His own life on a cross to take our sins on Himself and pay the price for our redemption and restoration to our Creator.
If those children and adults will but listen, it just might do more to change the Congo than all the guns and U.N. peacekeepers and aid packages. And so I pause to pray for the impact of those small, simply-printed green volumes--and a people crying out for a hope of change.

Change a heart, change a nation.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Afghanistan's Upcoming Elections--Do They Matter?

Can you believe it's been five years already? This August, bumped up from its original schedule of April, 2009, the world will get to watch Afghanistan go through the motions of another presidential election. An estimated 140 million dollars is expected to come out of the pockets of American taxpayers to cover the cost. With Afghanistan falling increasingly into anarchy and violence, the current administration wracked with corruption and ineptitude, will a new go-around make any difference? Well, let's take a little history lesson.

Anyone who followed the news in 2004 remembers Afghanistan's triumphant first run at democratic elections. TV footage of Western favorite Hamid Karzai campaigning with his foreign bodyguards behind him. Voters waving purple thumbs. Women in burqas casting ballots. An easy win with the interim president sweeping more than 50% of the vote against a field of twenty-two opponents.

Here's what you may not know--and I don't mean that purple ink turning out not to be indelible after all! Exactly who thought up Afghanistan's presidential election code seems to be a mystery. Certainly Karzai's foreign backers signed on to it, though it bears no resemblance to their own election rituals. But who drafted and signed it into law is undisputed. Then interim president Hamid Karzai. Among minor red flags, such as that only Muslims can run for any office in Afghanistan, several more controversial provisions stand out.

1) Campaigning is only permitted for thirty days before an election. This, of course, guarantees a huge advantage to any incumbent already known to the people, especially in a country where mass communication is still at a premium. Picture Obama getting elected with a thirty-day window for a campaign.

2) Any would-be candidate serving in government, military, or law enforcement office must resign position at least two months ahead of said campaigning. In other words, are you willing to risk your livelihood on the outside chance you can beat said incumbent?

3) No government resources or connections may be used by candidates in pursuing their campaign.

Not that these sound so bad, if applied equally to all. Now granted, I had not in 2004 done enough research into Afghanistan to be aware of the provisions of their electoral campaign. But since it's on their government website and widely available on the internet, surely Western media as well as occupants of the White House and Capitol Hill were aware of Karzai's check list. His opponents certainly protested at the stacked deck. So why was it never pointed out that the only candidate not required to obey the rules Karzai imposed on his opponents was--Karzai himself?

Not only was Afghanistan's top government official allowed to stay in office through the campaign, we all watched him using the full apparatus of his own government as well as the willing and eager support of his foreign allies in that hugely-televised campaign. Maybe because back in 2004, Karzai's winning was a given to the Western coalition as well as the Afghan people themselves, the election little more than a formality. Bottom line, we didn't want to question the fairy-tale ending.

Five years later, no one is expecting a fairy tale anymore. With approval rating for the 'Mayor of Kabul' (so called because, one, his control only minimally extends beyond the capital and, two, because Karzai rarely leaves home to visit any of the country he rules) at an all-time low, neither Afghanis nor his former Western allies are showing much enthusiasm for another five years of Karzai. The difficulty is finding any alternatives.

At the moment, proposed candidates include any number of former warlords, now cabinet ministers and parliament members. And even some relatively decent possibilities. One contender, the Minister of Finance, has already stepped down from office in order to begin his campaign. But even the most wishful Western experts concede it is unlikely any of them will muster up support in such a short time frame to overcome the advantage of the incumbent. Especially since once again that election code doesn't seem to apply to the man who wrote it. Far from a 'thirty day window', Karzai has already announced his own rebid and is campaigning actively with no intentions of stepping down from office in the process.

The big question is how much difference it makes who occupies Kabul's Gul Khana Palace. As I've mentioned in another blog, elections don't equate with freedom. The United States recently finished one of its more hotly contested election campaigns (no thirty days, but closer to two years!). Were there disappointed people on election night when the final vote came in? Of course, there always is, no matter which side wins. But Americans don't go to bed on election eve scared to death the other party is taking over the next day.

Why? Because while we enjoy the democracy of choosing our leaders, we do so within a framework of law that does not change according to who scares up the majority vote. Win Democrat or Republican, the next day we can still worship God as we choose. We can still voice our opinions. We can still read, dress, eat, drink, move, work as we choose. We are still innocent until proven guilty, protected against unlawful search and seizure.

In a hideous reversal of that, whether Karzai wins out again or some new contender, Afghanis will wake up the next day under sharia law. Just this month, the Supreme Court of Afghanistan ended the last hope of reversing that 23-year-old journalist's twenty-year sentence for printing an article off the internet. Since in Afghanistan, the accused don't get to defend themselves, he didn't even find out the case had gone to the Supreme Court until he was informed they'd confirmed his sentence. Karzai has shrugged off any suggestion of a pardon. Ditto for the two journalists condemned to death for wanting to give Afghanis the Koran in their own language. The TV producer mullahs decided was blaspheming Islam with those uncovered female faces. And so on. And those offenders were all Muslim. Things like freedom of worship are so far under the table, we can't discuss them here.

Still, if Karzai makes no pretence of human rights, not a single alternative candidate has even suggested moderating Islamic law for little issues like freedom of worship, speech, association, or anything else. One might even ask in all the talk of 'American values', which is really more valuable to the average American. The 'democracy' of choosing which leader to administrate unjust and oppressive law. Or a governing framework that offers protection and freedom to every one of its citizens, winner or loser in the last election.
When we trumpet 'democracy' around the world as a prerequisite for global peace and freedom, but whimper apologetically that the framework of law and justice that makes our democracy work is just a personal opinion issue we'd hate to impose on anyone else, we might as well pick up our ballot boxes and go home.

All to say that this time around, let's not get quite so excited at those purple thumbs the media love to show us. As long as Afghanistan's upcoming elections are being held within a governing framework of sharia law and Islamic totalitarianism, we might as well be pouring those one hundred and forty million dollars straight into a hole in the ground.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Where's Diego?

I planned to muse today in this blog on Afghanistan's upcoming elections, a fascinating topic for anyone with a taste for humor, world politics and comic tragedy. But an email containing an unexpected name has carried me to the past instead of the future. I first met Diego when he appeared on a bench in the children's club I ran at a Bolivian orphanage. The children came from the streets, where they'd survived by rummaging through garbage, pick-pocketing, and far worse, some from as young as two years old. They were scabby, scarred, dirty--and adorable.

About ten years old, Diego was unusual, not only his fair skin and light hair that denoted European blood, but because he was clean and healthy and well-fed. His eyes twinkled with mischief as well as intelligence, his grin impish. Unlike most of the street waifs, he already knew the Bible stories and children's songs I taught them, his hand shooting up eagerly at every question. Where had he learned them? How had he ended up here?

I never found out. Within a few classes, Diego was gone. This wasn't unusual. The orphanage was only a holding pen from which children were funneled to more permanent housing, whether one of massive, under-funded state orphanages, as apprentice maid or gardener in a wealthy Bolivian home (i.e. indentured servant), or rarely, in one of the few private Christian children's homes. But Diego had not been transferred. The other children told me he'd climbed over the fence and run away. What had happened behind the orphanage walls to make him run, I never learned. Some children simply can't adjust to rules and regulations after the precarious freedom of the streets.

But this was July south of the equator, the coldest week of the year, the chill winter rains falling steadily. Street children were dying of pneumonia, and I knew Diego had no coat. With my own three small sons safe and warm at home in mind, I went looking for him, searching all the plazas and abandoned lots and sewage drains where the street kids congregated. But to no avail.

Then one day returning from the orphanage, I spotted him clambering over a wall of an empty lot. He was shivering with cold in his rags, smelly, his hair matted with filth. He was also high on the industrial glue street kids sniff to dull the pangs of hunger and cold and loneliness. I could find nothing in those glazed eyes and dejected slump of the eager, little boy who'd happily belted out answers and songs in my class. Coaxing him with me to my car, I found him a jacket that belonged to one of my sons, fed him, and sobered him up enough to coax him back to the orphanage.

A colleague who worked with children at risk found Diego housing in a Christian boys' home. He was excited to go to school, maybe even become a lawyer. He was certainly smart enough. But just a few days later, he ran away again. When found, he was high again on drugs and refused to go back. If I'd ever questioned the addictive stranglehold of drugs, seeing an intelligent, beautiful child turned into a zombie in a matter of days would settle any doubt.

Soon after, my husband and I left Bolivia for a wider canvas of ministry, where we now deal with children at risk among other needs all over the world, some of whom you see pictured in this blog post. But I never forgot Diego. I told his story often when raising awareness of the million of street kids worldwide, prayed for him, wrote volunteers back in Bolivia to see if anyone knew what had become of him.

But he'd disappeared. He must be about out of his teens by now. Was he still alive? Or had he died of drugs, disease, or violence, the three main killers of street kids? Then came the email. It was from the colleague who'd helped find Diego a place in that Christian boy's home. She and her husband still work with street kids in Bolivia. She writes:

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

Arriving at the jail door on Wednesday, my eyes met with those of a young man, obviously a drug addict, pacing back and forth. The guards had refused him entrance to visit because he smelled like alcohol. I had already passed him when he said, “Hermana [Sister] Corina.”

I turned around and looked a bit more closely. Eyes incredibly bloodshot. Arms covered with scars, some self inflicted, others from fights. One wound was still fresh, a slash across his arm, open and crusted with blood. His teeth were all discolored and rotting. My mind raced to try and remember.

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

I looked into his eyes again beyond the glassiness and swollen veins, and I saw a little boy. “You’re Diego."

I do not know whether to cheer or cry at the news. Diego is alive, but it is hardly the happy ending I would write if this were one of my own novels. That I do not possess the power to change that ending, to turn a despairing drug addict back to a bright, smiling child with a hopeful future, makes me want to pound my fists against a brass sky of human futility.

Or am I with that thought preempting another Author who holds the end of every human story in His own capable and loving hands?

Back in those orphanage days, Diego and the other children had one favorite song they asked to sing over and over. A haunting minor melody, it was hardly a typical children's song, its words taken right out of Scripture. 'Mira que te mando que te esfuerzas y seas valiente . . . " In English: "Be strong and courageous; do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.' (Joshua 1:9). I had to fight back tears when they sang, not only because of the faith with which they belted out the words, but because I'd seen the places where many of them would end up. Places to which I wouldn't condemn a dog.

And yet to work with children at risk without losing one's sanity as well as one's heart, those words of song and Scripture must be grasped with the unquestioning faith of those orphanage children. If I do not know where Diego and so many other lost children with whom I've worked have ended up, they have a heavenly Father who knows exactly where they are. If I cannot bring the light and love and life I would like into their lives, the Creator of this universe who made them and loves them far more than I do can do just that. Yes, He really does hold the whole world in His hands. After all, what are the odds of a North American aid worker walking across a Bolivian prison yard just as a grown-up lost boy shows up to visit?

"If you see him again, tell Diego I love him," I wrote back to Corina. "Tell him I've never forgotten him nor stopped praying for him."

Diego, in whatever alley or storm drain you may be sleeping this night, know that you are not forgotten. You are loved. It is never too late. Through the haze of drugs and alcohol, may you bring to mind the stories and songs you once knew so well of Someone who is big and loving and powerful enough to save. 'Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.'