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Offering Hope Overseas

Women and girls put themselves on the line to bring relief to tsunami victims.

Perhaps you saw television commercials featuring two former U.S. presidents asking for donations to help the hundreds of thousands of people devastated by the mega-earthquake and tsunami that hit the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004. Seeing the pictures and the need, tens of thousands were touched to donate funds toward the relief effort.

But a number of godly women and girls decided to put more than their money on the line. Meet a Phoenix politician, a Chicago radio personality, and a group of teen girls in Pennsylvania who felt God tug at their hearts to put themselves on the line for a mission of mercy to hurting strangers.

Mobilizing an Entire City

In Phoenix, Vice Mayor Peggy Bilsten watched the reports of the disaster. "I was reading in Matthew about Jesus washing the disciples' feet. There's no doubt in my mind Jesus would have been there with these people. I felt God calling me to action. My heart was so broken for them," she says.

Peggy quickly called her boss, the mayor of the fifth-largest city in the U.S., to ask, "What's our city's response?" She recommended they partner with Phoenix-based ministry Food for the Hungry to adopt a sister city in the Muslim-dominated Aceh province of Indonesia.

So, just ten days after the tsunami, Peggy found herself in a delegation of Phoenix officials and Food for the Hungry representatives touring what was left of the city of Meulaboh (mah'-lah-bow). "It was intense. We could smell death all around; there were so many bodies that still hadn't been buried," Peggy explains. She was overwhelmed by the palpable grief that overshadowed the city.

The delegation's objective was to find the town's remaining leaders (40,000 of the 120,000 residents were lost in the disaster) and to ask their permission to provide assistance. "We were welcomed because we represented hope," she says.

The destruction was hard to process. After meeting with Meulaboh's director of education, Peggy learned 164 of their schools were destroyed, 237 teachers (10 percent of their staff) and 3,000 students were lost. Other officials showed her more obstacles in the way of restoring normalcy: Fresh water and soil were contaminated by the saltwater—much of which came inland and never receded. Infrastructure was gone; bridges and streets washed out. People existed in make-shift tents. The need was enormous.

Back in Phoenix, Peggy spearheaded fundraising efforts, netting more than $200,000 from private citizens, associations, school children, and business groups. At first, these funds went toward emergency supplies such as food and medicine. But then the effort shifted to long-term redevelopment.

Peggy and a group from Phoenix returned to Meulaboh in May to help make this transition. City of Phoenix civil engineer Mike Frisbie joined Peggy on that second trip and donated his vacation time to help create a plan to remove standing saltwater from fields so crops can grow again.

Since $200 would set up a local worker in his own small business, the people of Phoenix donated 100 pedal taxis for the poorest families to build, own, and operate. Peggy says it was important the new owners build and paint their taxis rather than building the taxis for them, because it would give them a sense of participation in their recovery. At a dedication ceremony and parade of the new taxis, Peggy recalls, "It was hard for [the new owner-operators] to look us in the eye. They are so low, feeling unworthy to shake our hands. But I hugged them. We shook every hand. They felt the love of Jesus.

"The people told us, 'We don't know why you love us so much, but we are so grateful.'

"The leaders said they were overwhelmed that people across the world would care and love them so much. … What Phoenix residents have provided is a way for these workers to make money, infuse their economy, and get back on their feet."

Putting Her Life on the Line

While Peggy was making plans for her first trip to Indonesia, Michelle Strombeck was in an airport in the Midwest watching reports of the tsunami. "I was heartbroken. I so wanted to help them in some way, but I didn't know how or what I could do," remembers the producer of WMBI Christian radio's "Mornings with Mark Elfstrand."

After booking a radio interview with Kevin Turner, president of Strategic World Impact, another Christian organization bringing teams to Indonesia to provide aid, Michelle's response was immediate: "I wanted to go to Indonesia. I just knew."

The following ten days were a blur. Shots for malaria and typhoid. Standing in line for a one-day passport. Gathering hiking boots, rubber gloves, medical masks, and bandanas. Letting her listeners know about the trip.

She would report in to the station daily to give listeners a better understanding of the relief efforts by SWI, Mission Aviation Fellowship, Samaritan's Purse, and other Christian organizations providing food and essentials to the homeless, wave-shocked people in the Muslim region usually closed to all westerners.

With approximately $12,000 in donations, Michelle's team went shopping in Medan, Indonesia. In less than two days they purchased and loaded on a rickety truck five tons of supplies, including 2,000 blankets, 2,000 sarongs, and cooking supplies—oil, woks, rice pots, stirring utensils, and vitamins—for 400 families in rural villages outside beleaguered Bande Aceh.

While the truck spent 15 hours navigating washed-out roads, the team flew the last leg of their journey. "When you fly into Bande Aceh, you see beautiful country. Beaches, palm trees, mountains. It's spectacular. It's one of the most sought-after vacation destinations in the world," Michelle says.

But the beauty from the air was deceiving. Conditions were bleak. Visitors had to pass a wall where locals posted pictures of lost loved ones, a mass burial mound, freight liners and large fishing vessels run aground miles from shore, whole villages swept clean as if they'd never existed, and blank stares of the shocked and grieving.

The next day, while Michelle's team organized supplies for distribution, members of a rebel faction of the Indonesian military frightened the team by snapping their pictures. Local translators were shaken, telling the team their lives were in danger. Since Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, the thought of western Christians possibly sharing their faith with the villagers had drawn the rebels' attention. The team was alarmed. Yet, they knew God had called them to this place, and despite a long night in fear of kidnapping or even death, they returned to the distribution site in the morning to find hundreds of people lined up, patiently waiting to receive supplies. Their stories and faces haunt Michelle to this day.

On the final day of their week-long relief mission, Michelle's group was invited to the home of the local Imam. "He is sort of the mayor of these four villages, in addition to being the spiritual leader," Michelle explains. "He was so thankful that we came to his country to help that he made a symbolic gesture. He wanted us to take one of his children in payment for what we'd done for his villages. That's how much the relief efforts meant to him."

Daughters Offering Hope

It wasn't just adult women who were impacted by what they saw in the news reports of the devastation. A group of 13- and 14-year-old girls in West Chester, Pennsylvania, wanted to do something tangible to help their sisters in the tsunami zone. When the tsunami hit, the girls were involved in a weekly Bible study group reading the book Daughters of Hope by Michelle Rickett, which describes the lives of persecuted women and girls around the world (including the region hit by the tsunami). When the teens heard of the disaster, they immediately wanted to help the ones about whom they'd been reading.

So, the 12 American girls spent two consecutive Saturdays in January 2005 doing what they could: baking cookies—36 dozen of them—that they sold at church and outside a Christian bookstore. They raised $567, which they donated to a Christian missionary in Indonesia supported by Michelle Rickett's ministry, Sisters in Service. The money was earmarked to help women and girls impacted by the tsunami. When Rickett went to the region with the aid a few weeks later, she encouraged the recipients by telling the story of the teenaged girls in the U.S. who sent their efforts and their love.

Thirteen-year-old baker Stephanie Rodgers explains, "Doing service projects has changed our viewpoint on serving. It's not a chore, but a privilege." After this initial foray into practical service, the girls are now undertaking more ambitious fundraising efforts.

A Changed Perspective

Just as the teenagers had a change in perspective by participating in relief efforts, so did the adult women who saw the devastation firsthand.

Within three weeks of returning to her daily routine, Michelle Strombeck flew to Anaheim, California, to attend a broadcasting convention. Earlier, she and some friends had decided to add a few days of sightseeing to the trip. They visited the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a taping of Wheel of Fortune. This brand of western fun, however, seemed empty after her Indonesia experience. She felt guilty leaving Bande Aceh with so much work yet to be done, but more short-term teams followed to continue the work her team had initiated.

Reconstruction estimates range from five to ten years before the region is cleaned up and rebuilt. That's exactly why Peggy promised local leaders that the city of Phoenix will maintain the partnership with Meulaboh for ten years.

"The situation is still unbearably sad. But it's much better than it was [in January 2005]. Meulaboh is a skeleton of the city it once was. Many are still homeless or living in makeshift tents. It's impossible to imagine the sadness and fear they're living with every day. They need the hope that Phoenix and Food for the Hungry are providing."

Julie-Allyson Ieron is a TCW regular contributor and the author of Staying True in a World of Lies (Christian Publications). You can reach her at joyscom@aol.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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