Learning from Undaunted Women

Three figures forming a heart. Image by VectorFrenzy / Shutterstock

Sitting in Prajwala's small conference room adjacent to a chaotic market, I asked Sunitha where the strength came from to charge ahead into danger, violence, and sometimes even rejection by the women Prajwala served. I don't remember her exact words - but the gist was that the strength came not from herself, but from faith in her own experience of God. Not a God owned by some religious denomination, but the real One. That One who never let Sunitha down when it was time to pay the staff, deal with the mob, handle corrupt police, or remain resolute in the face of failure.

I have been blessed and humbled to have met these three women and remain inspired by what they do, particularly their commitment to empowering other women and girls. Sunitha told me to not just show up and feel sorry. Send money if you are inclined, but most importantly, speak about sexual slavery and trafficking to everyone you know. Don't allow anyone to pretend it isn't going on in your own community. Only when all men are vocal about this and intolerant of any abuse of women will things improve.

I pray that I may develop a sliver of the courage Anna, Anna, and Sunitha model.

Short Takes: Anastasia Uglova

1.  How would you describe Akilah Institute’s goals for its students and alumnae? Rwanda today is a far cry from the genocide-torn country that most think of when they hear about it. Rwandans have a vision of a knowledge-based economy, and Rwanda is fast becoming the region’s leader in information technology and new business development. And yet, only 1 percent of Rwandans attend university, and just 30 percent of these are women. We want to make sure that young women have a part to play in building the country’s future.

Akilah’s unique model of market-relevant education empowers young women to launch professional careers and assume leadership roles when they graduate. During their three years at Akilah, students develop English fluency, leadership, public speaking, and critical-thinking skills.

2. Why does Akilah feel young women specifically have needs that must be met through education? Akilah’s nurturing environment creates a culture of community where students can heal from some of the trauma of their past, and no one struggles alone. Of the overwhelming majority of young women in Rwanda and Burundi, an estimated 95 percent will never enter the workforce. Ultimately, we hope that empowering these young women to take control of their future pays dividends generations down the line. Educated women tend to marry later in life, have healthier and fewer children, and are able to disrupt the cycle of poverty for themselves and their families.

3. What makes Akilah unique in the education it offers women? We admit only the most promising young women. But our admissions process is unique in that we don’t just look at academics. We are much more interested in fit, potential, and passion. What’s special about Akilah is that it is extremely career-focused, assessing students’ career interests and rigorously preparing them to find meaningful employment and launch their own businesses.

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'God Always Provides'

REV. KHALIL JAAR is a warm, passionate, and energetic man—and he needs to be. As the spiritual leader and “go to” guy for the 150 Iraqi Christian refugees living in his church in Amman, Jordan, he needs all the energy he can get.

When I met with Father Jaar at St. Mary, Mother of the Church congregation in Amman, it quickly became obvious how much he loves the refugees who now call this church home. Jaar, himself a refugee, knows something about the trials and tribulations of being forced to leave your home. He is the son of Palestinian refugees of Honduran descent. (His birth name is Carlos and he took the name Khalil when he became a Catholic priest.) He also knows something about the terror of war. Shortly after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, he was abducted in Baghdad where he was serving, and “only by the grace of God was I freed,” he says.

Jaar is especially dedicated to the education of the Iraqi children forced to leave everything they knew, including their schools. In his overcrowded office, full of stacks of papers and files, Jaar pulls out a large binder. This is his personal reference book, with a page for each child in his care. It includes a photo, a short history of their family and background, their education to date, and also notes about their extracurricular activities and likes, such as soccer and music. It is important to know as much  as possible about each child, he says, and make sure that they continue their education.

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'Nuns on the Underground Railroad'

The way forward railway. Photo via hxdyl /

While some people may have heard of the great work of Nuns on the Bus to engage people on pressing social issues, there’s also the “Nuns on the Underground Railroad”—a quiet movement of nuns working together to restore dignity and healing for victims of labor and sex trafficking across the nation and the world...

For several years now, Catholic nuns have been proactive in preventing sex trafficking before, during, and after major sporting events like the Super Bowl by raising public awareness and conducting personal visits to hotels to alert them to the signs of human trafficking. Nuns have also placed full-page ads in airline magazines to educate the public about the dangers of child trafficking.

A fundamental theological and scriptural principle for Christians is that each human person is made in the image and likeness of God. This belief in the imago Dei helps us to see the face of God even when the person doubts her own beauty and worth because of oppression. “Nuns on the Underground Railroad” seeks to restore a person’s sense of dignity and beauty through two rails of freedom: healing through programs and shelters and empowerment through education and employment.

As we move toward the Lenten season, the prophet Isaiah reminds us: "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?" (Isaiah 58:6)

How is God moving your heart as you awaken to the stories of human trafficking victims? What action can you take for your enslaved sister and brother? What will you bring to your faith community to stir up concern? One single action to educate others and liberate the oppressed strengthens freedom throughout the world. As our mission affirms, “Ending slavery is everyone’s work.”

Faith Groups Take a Stand for Global Education

People of faith can play an important role in helping each child of God realize his/her potential. Join us in standing up for education by signing the #UpForSchool petition, an urgent appeal to get every child into school—no matter who they are or where they are born.

When we invest in schooling for all children, lives are transformed for generations to come. For example, closing the education gap for girls reduces child marriage rates, leads to more income later in life, and lowers the rate of HIV/AIDs. Access to equal education is not only essential to building stronger economies and a healthy society, but it honors the God-given dignity of children. 

My mom would agree: education is empowerment. It provides freedom and a better future—and no child in the world should be denied it.

Let us all pray that every child can go to school.

And let’s join other faith communities to make sure it happens—sign the petition now.

3 Reasons I Wouldn't Send My Daughter to a Christian School

Stephen Kiers /

Public or private? Stephen Kiers /

In the past few months I have come to a rather substantial conclusion: I cannot slow down time. Try as I might, my oldest daughter is now four and a half and is practically sprinting her way to "big kid school." My wife and I have been discussing this next phase of our daughter’s life. Sadly, school districts are falling into massive debt, being subjected to low performance in the classroom and even apathy in educating the next generation. Schools have become too focused on state test scores and benchmarks and have removed the art of learning from many classrooms.

Now private schools are becoming more mainstream, offering alternatives to public education, more flexibility, and more opportunities to the students. For many private schools there is a common element: they are associated with a religious group or Christian denomination. These schools started out as an extension of the ministry of the church as a way to respond to the needs of the community. But over time many popped up as a rejection of the educational system and their "removal" of God or prayer the school. Many parents see disconnect between the mainstream educational system and their Christian households.

But I see a certain danger in some of these Christian alternatives. It might sound counterintuitive for an ordained Christian minister to say, but there are a few reasons I would not send my daughter to some Christian schools.

Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church and Reformed Theological Seminary to Launch NYC Campus

The Reformed Theological Seminary campus in Jackson, Miss. Photo courtesy of Reformed Theological Seminary/RNS.

Redeemer Presbyterian Church, one of the most influential evangelical churches in the country led by author and speaker Tim Keller, has partnered with a Mississippi-based school to form a seminary campus in New York City in 2015.

The partnership between Redeemer and Reformed Theological Seminary fits in with the desire of evangelicals to plant their flag in large cities such as New York. It also reflects the influence of Reformed theology on evangelical thinking, as well as the impact of megachurches on theological education.

And while many seminaries are still suffering declining revenues since the economic crisis of 2008, the model of building campuses in major cities has proved successful for the Mississippi flagship seminary.

Students in the New York City campus will be trained to start churches by pursuing a two-year master’s of arts degree in biblical studies at $430-450 per credit hour before receiving another year of pastoral church planting education from Redeemer. The campus will likely launch in Redeemer’s offices near Herald Square in Manhattan.

Cradle-to-Prison vs. Kindergarten-to-Graduation

FedeCandoniPhoto /

High school dropouts are 8 times more likely to interact with the prison system. FedeCandoniPhoto /

With a new school year upon is us it's appropriate to take a closer look at the troubling and complicated relationship between our nation’s public schools and its criminal justice system.

Growing up in an economically challenged neighborhood in Detroit, it still pains me to remember the sheer number of kids, disproportionately African-American boys, who passed through the juvenile detention system and would later go on to either spend time in prison or who are still in prison now. America’s criminal justice system was omnipresent.

The sad fact is that not much has changed. It’s actually gotten a whole lot worse. America represents less than 5 percent of the world’s population but we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Since the 1970s our prisons have grown by 700 percent. This growth has been most explosive and disproportionate among people of color. Looking at males over the age of 18, 1 out of every 15 African-American men and 1 in 36 Hispanic men in the United States are currently incarcerated. Meanwhile, only 1 in every 106 of white males over 18 are behind bars.

It’s tough to ignore the glaring racial disparities at the center of America’s prison industrial complex. As an African-American woman, Christian, and mother, it breaks my heart and, at times, even tests the limits of my faith. But I also believe in a faith that can move mountains. When it comes to our nation’s criminal justice system, we’ve got mountains to move.

A Teacher in Kabul

Zekerullah going to school in Bamiyan. Photo courtesy Kathy Kelly

Zekerullah going to school in Bamiyan. Photo courtesy Kathy Kelly

Here in Kabul, one of my finest friends is Zekerullah, who has gone back to school in the eighth grade although he is an 18-year old young man who has already had to learn far too many of life’s harsh lessons.

Years ago and miles from here, when he was a child in the province of Bamiyan, and before he ran away from school, Zekerullah led a double life, earning income for his family each night as a construction crew laborer, and then attempting to attend school in the daytime. In between these tasks, the need to provide his family with fuel would sometimes drive him on six-hour treks up the mountainside, leading a donkey on which to load bags of scrub brush and twigs for the trip back down. His greatest childhood fear was of that donkey taking one disastrous wrong step with its load on the difficult mountainside.

And then, after reaching home weary and sleep deprived and with no chance of doing homework, he would, at times, go to school without having done his homework, knowing that he would certainly be beaten. When he was in seventh grade, his teacher punished him by adding 10 more blows each day he came to school without his homework, so that eventually he was hit 60 times in one day. Dreading the next day when the number would rise to 70, he ran away from that school and never returned.

Now Zekerullah is enrolled in another school, this time in Kabul, where teachers still beat the students. But Zekerullah can now claim to have learned much more, in some cases, than his teachers.