Posts Tagged ‘Missoula’

“We were just kids just living in wide-eyed innocence, minivan floor like a tenement. We were just kids who believed in more than just dreams, in more than just justified ends to a means” – Switchfoot “Who We Are”

We wanted to help. We did not know what we were doing. We changed the world.

In early 2006, during months a Southern Californian would refer to as Spring, but in Montana the ice is just starting to thaw, I read something that would change my life. The Facebook was limited to college students and prompted status updates (Joshua Fisher is…), so if I recall correctly, it was a post on Shanley Deignan’s Xanga site. There was mention of an organization that had made its way through Nashville advocating on behalf of orphaned children in Uganda. Children in danger of being forcibly conscripted into a guerrilla army comprised largely of child soldiers. I looked up the group online and discovered they had been founded by three kids in their early 20s and had set up their headquarters in El Cajon, CA, the city where I was born.

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Walking from Missoula Valley Church to the Courthouse in Downtown Missoula for the Global Night Commute in solidarity with the children of Northern Uganda (April 29, 2006)

I felt reborn in outrage at the plight of these children and responsible to help both them and my fellow San Diegans in the battle. With that sum of knowledge I found myself dialing the fledgling offices of Invisible Children and asking what we could do to help in Missoula.

I learned that Northern Uganda was in the trenches of a 20 year ongoing war that had left nearly two million people left internally displaced, nearly 60,000 of whom were living in absolute poverty in housing camps. Key to the country’s conflict was rebel Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) comprised of and sustained by kidnapped children, forced to commit terrible acts of violence or have these same acts carried out on them and their families.

By 2006, an estimated 400,000 children nationwide, referred to as “night commuters”, were walking from their rural villages into city centers each night in order to sleep in groups, hoping to avoid the fate of the 25,000 children abducted before them. With a quarter of all Northern Ugandan children over the age of 10 with at least one deceased parent, the kids had banded together for self-preservation. Invisible Children co-founders Jason Russell, Laren Poole, and Bobby Bailey had discovered these children on a 2003 trip hoping to make a documentary on the conflict in the Sudan. Instead they turned their lenses toward this true, untold story in hope of making a positive change.

Armed with a rough cut of their documentary, a non-profit was birthed with a goal of providing resources to the “invisible children” of the world, to inspire and empower the “young and young at heart in the developing world.” A three pronged approach of objectives was formed, to build a grassroots awareness of the war in Northern Uganda and the children it was affecting, to empower individuals stateside to engage in direct action and finally to provide aid on the ground in Uganda.

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Jaime, Lana and Katie get prepped for the Global Night Commute (GNC)

Action step number one would be to “lay down for what we believe in” by participating in a Global Night Commute. Rain or shine, on April 29, 2006, people were asked to both empathize and make a statement of unity with the children of Northern Uganda by walking in groups to their respective downtowns throughout the United States to sleep overnight and peacefully advocate for the end of the war. Late to the game, this gave us in Missoula approximately one month to plan, organize and execute the event. I was put in touch with I.C. National Tour staffer Genevieve Luippold who could have easily told me that Missoula wasn’t a high priority for engagement or participation, but instead matched my enthusiasm and offered full support in getting Invisible Children on the ground in Montana.

In order to gain approval to use the Missoula Courthouse grounds for an overnight peace demonstration, City Officials informed me we would need the approval signatures of the city’s Police Chief, Fire Marshall, City Attorney, County Commissioner as well as the Transportation/Engineering Department and the Maintenance Department’s Facilities Manager. Undaunted and assisted by the relatively small size of the city, I gained all the signatures over the course of a one week period.

We got permission from the Missoula Valley Church to screen the documentary film twice before the 29th and eventually also facilitated a screening on the University of Montana campus. We ordered t-shirts and bracelets to fundraise and set up a church-wide tag sale, which netted approximately $1,400 in to support the organization and sponsor education for the kids in Northern Uganda. I sent out a press release, made a local appearance on the evening news, and made sure our event information was available on the internet. We made signs, put up posters, rented port-a-potties.

It was a whirlwind. With all the wisdom of my 23 years, I had not even viewed the actual film myself until four days prior to our first screening and two weeks before the Global Night Commute. Taking 21 units in my final college semester and working a part-time job as an Afterschool Program Director for the Boys and Girls Club didn’t leave time for much. Adding the responsibility of coordinating an event of this magnitude wasn’t well advised.

I was stressed out and the stress carried over into my relationship with my wife. Jaime was willing to help to a larger extent, for this to be a joint work, and I had not yet learned how to relinquish control over my what I considered my projects.

I got some pushback from church members who were uncomfortable with the idea of the church organizing a social justice event or screening a film with moments deemed questionable.

I received tough questions I did not know how to answer and pretended to be more knowledgeable than I was, fooling no one. I still recall trying to navigate in a public forum how my support for possible U.S. troop involvement in Uganda differed from my opposition to the U.S. military intervention in Iraq.

But throughout the process we did our best to help. We were encouraged. We grew.

The conversation between Jaime and I about how to balance responsibility and ask for help is one we continue to this day raising four children and being pulled in many different directions simultaneously between family, work, social and church responsibilities.

Where my knowledge of the situation faltered I did research and also learned an important lesson that it is okay and often preferable to admit I don’t have all the answers.

For every brother or sister who was skeptical of our commitment to peacefully demonstrate, I was pleasantly surprised by many more who stepped completely out of their comfort zone to offer support and show up. Even more, I was thrilled to meet the cohort of folks who were eager to show solidarity and lend their support for the cause in the face of their antipathy for the church. I learned when the church expands out of the building to meet needs in the community, whether local or global, new faces who will not approach stained glass stand ready to side with the values of God’s Kingdom.

Missoula, MT Global Night Commute (April 29, 2006) at the Missoula County Courthouse

Missoula, MT Global Night Commute participants (April 29, 2006) at the Missoula County Courthouse

Over 100 people showed up, from as far away as Edmonton in Alberta, to our Global Night Commute in Missoula to offer encouragement, write letters to lawmakers, pray on the hour for the children, share in each other’s company under streetlights and eventually get drenched in our sleeping bags overnight.

I will never forget Lana (McCrary) Miller on the morning of April 30, shivering after little sleep, covered in cold Montana spring rain, saturated sleeping bag in hand, smiling.

We were smiling because Invisible Children had provided us an opportunity to put our faith into action, to start being the change we wished to see. It was an opportunity relished and capitalized on by many, but especially by 20-somethings over the course of a decade of work.

After Jaime and I relocated to Connecticut we remained active in Invisible Children’s work highlighted by participation in another overnight commute in 2009. The Rescue in New York City resulted in Jaime (five months pregnant with Shepard), myself and 19 month old Clara sleeping outdoors with friends, family and strangers in Brooklyn Bridge Park raising awareness for the continued troubles of our Ugandan friends.

Via continued advocacy efforts such as Give Peace a Tri, the #Kony2012 Campaign and the Fourth Estate Conference, a 92% reduction in LRA killings has been achieved in the last three years. 1.8 million displaced people have returned to their communities. 2,659 people abducted by the LRA have returned to their families since 2010. 11 Ugandan schools have been rebuilt and more than 6,000 Ugandan scholarships awarded. Two bills were passed in Congress and signed into law contributing to the peace movement.

Invisible Children's The Rescue in Brooklyn Bridge Park (April 2009)

Invisible Children’s The Rescue in Brooklyn Bridge Park (April 2009) with Karen, Chantelle, Garrett, Jaime and Clara

With so much achieved, as of December 31 2014, Invisible Children has officially closed down their media and movement offices. The focus of all remaining resources and future raised funds will be on only the most essential programs in order to complete the mission of liberating every captive man, woman and child from the LRA.

At the beginning we envisioned a full-length feature film to be released by the end of 2006 and a quick end to Kony, the LRA and the need for night commuting. We spoke of expanding the organization to help all invisible children across the globe. We encountered adversity, personally and organizationally, but all hardships only strengthened the foundation for continued advocacy for the thousands of us who learned alongside each other.

Sometimes our visions do not come to fruition. But in the end, we realize that dreams bigger than ourselves are always worth pursuing. That even if we never reach our initial desired ends, perhaps we plant seeds along the way, means of accomplishing much more.

Thank you Invisible Children. Thank you for your willingness to help. Thank you for inviting our assistance. Thank you for changing the world.