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What’s your name? My “One-Story”

During the course of building a short film about our experience in Africa I asked each member of our team to submit a “one-story” – A short interview about one thing. Maybe a brief moment that involved a profound human connection that may have stood apart from all others. Here’s my “one-story”:

It was our 2nd day in the village of Bugenyuzi where we, along with a team from Harvest for Christ – Burundi, were assisting the Batwa people with some building and VBS type activities. The scene, from the time we arrived, was chaotic (in a loud/ fun/ adventurous way). From the moment we stepped off our small bus and started walking the trails into the mountainous village, there were people – crowds of people. Most seemed glad to see us, some were maybe just curious but everyone seemed very excited to have visitors. They followed us everywhere, closely. They wanted to touch our skin and shake our hands. Some would ask for food, or money or just find humor in the fact we didn’t understand their language. It was always a little noisy, lots of chatter, even singing and laughter! And everyone loved to have their picture taken and then gather around to look at the result. I believe that many of them have never seen their reflection or image before. As someone who was responsible for filming I always had a camera with me and usually a small group of people close by – always. The African culture seems to have a different understanding of “personal space” than we have in the west – and for good reasons.

As someone responsible for filming, I found myself often observing my surroundings thru the confines of the lens more than experiencing the journey. And in a way I guess it acted as shield or buffer sometimes. I think the camera often distracted me emotionally from the devastating poverty and pain that was just, well, – everywhere.

On this day, however I found myself a little restless. I’m the type of person who values solitude. Sometimes I just need to be alone and get quiet with my thoughts and feelings, to process, go for a walk and meet with God. It seemed quite selfish but, I found myself wanting to break away from the village and look at the countryside, and walk, and just think and be alone for a few minutes. But that probably wasn’t a very safe idea.

So in the afternoon I looked out across this open area and saw a large rock that was about as tall as I – maybe 50 yards out. I tucked my camera away in my bag and when things quieted down I slowly walked out to this rock. And amazingly no one followed me. I saw a few villagers along a nearby trail. I waved, smiled, and greeted them with “Amahoro” which means peace. They politely smiled, waved, replied the same and went about their daily activity.


I got to the rock, leaned back against it, and just gazed out at the mountainous horizon. It was beautiful. I then lost it a little, emotionally, as the harsh realities of my surroundings began to sink in a little deeper. I asked God what it was I was supposed to be learning here. Just then I glanced down to my left side and noticed a boy who looked to be about 8 years old, quietly standing next to me, his little hands tucked in his dirty pockets, just leaning back against the rock with me – quietly looking out at the mountains. And we just stood there, the two of us, taking in the mountains and the air.

After a minute or so, I again looked down and he looked up, smiled, and in simple English with a French accent he slowly said “what’s your name?”

I said “Gary”. And he carefully repeated “Gary” as if to make sure he had it right.
I then asked “what’s your name”? He said “Rafael”.
Struggling for something else to say, I asked if he was having fun building the house. (I don’t know if he understood but he smiled and looked over toward the construction site). Then, using the only other Kirundi words that I knew, I pointed toward the building where my son was working and said “Umwana Wanje” which loosely means child mine. And before I could finish my sentence he said “Zach”? He already knew who my son was and remembered his name!

Then within a few seconds an old villager approached and chased Rafael away. I don’t know if he thought the boy was bothering me or if he was looking out after the boy’s safety. Either way I never saw Rafael again and couldn’t pick him out of the large crowd that gathered as we left the next day. I desperately wanted to say goodbye, but I couldn’t.

This whole encounter at the rock seemed like it only lasted maybe 2-3 minutes but had a profound impact on me. There was a child who appeared to be searching for some solitude and just wanted to hang with me. It’s as though he got the whole Psalm 46:10 thing that says “be still and know that I am God”. There are times when we need to stop and just release things. “Be still” means to let go. Understand that God is God and I’m not. Find comfort in His care and oversight.

So I pray for Rafael. In my mind I think maybe he could someday become the “person of peace” of this village. That calm leader who listens for God’s voice and brings hope and healing to an otherwise hopeless situation. My prayer is that he grows up with a loving heart and a care and concern for his people – to lead them toward the God of the Bible and the love and grace found in Jesus Christ. Maybe that’s what this trip was about. Maybe this boy needed to see that some one cared enough to travel half way around the world to just listen and “be.”


Love, joy, and the pursuit of happiness

It’s fascinating to me that I get to live in a country (the U.S.), and quite possibly the only country in the world, that was founded (and literally created from scratch) from a printed legal document. Unlike most countries in the world it’s one, that from it’s inception, established a democratic government ruled by a highly organized, thought-out, and collectively approved set of rules, and rights, and guidelines. One that seems to work well for a highly literate written culture born just a few hundred years ago. A country, that in addition to holding personal rights and freedoms to a high regard of unparalleled level, is one that even has, in it’s Declaration of Independence, a right to the “pursuit of happiness”. – Not a right to be happy, but a right to “pursue happiness”.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

And boy, do we lose it sometimes when we’re not happy. Or things don’t go our way. Or we don’t feel listened to or given the respect we think we deserve. The ongoing quest for “happiness” can be like a drug buzz that’s short-lived and needs to be followed up by more. That’s because happiness is a temporary condition not a goal that can be reached. It’s momentary – a bit like a dog that spends a lot of time and energy chasing its own tail. Which leaves us with what to do in between. Just because pursuing “happiness” is something we have a “right” to do doesn’t mean it makes a very rewarding or wise occupation.

Below is a clip of some very happy and joyful folks that live day in and day out in some of the most extreme poverty in the world. Check out the power that 4 deflated soccer balls can have on a group of people who literally exist on less than $2/ day:

Now that’s some happy people! (and they hadn’t even got the balls pumped up yet.)

But I get a clear sense that they know that the excitement of the new balls will wear off. The balls themselves will wear out, leak air, and get lost or maybe even be stolen. The joy they experience is not dependent on or a result of the gift of soccer balls. The joy is a product of the hope that is represented in the relationships surrounding the gift of the soccer balls as an expression of love.

Joy, it appears to me, is really important. Joy is what lives inside us irregardless of our circumstances, pain, successes, failures, or “happiness index”.

Although joy and happiness can/do co-exist, one ought not view them as synonymous because in reality joy and sadness can also co-exist. It seems my tendency is often to somehow equate wealth with joy, or peace with joy, or even happiness with joy. Although, I’ve never seen anyone that I would consider wealthy, peaceful, or happy, that didn’t, at the core of who they appeared to be, possess joy, these things in and of themselves don’t generate joy. Joy comes from something else. Joy, comes from a thankful heart and primarily from a self-sacrificing love.

I believe that the foundation of real happiness and security is joy and the root of joy is hope that results from love. It’s loving the way God loves. Love produces hope. It’s loving without the expectation of return or reward. It’s loving those who can’t or won’t love back. It’s loving those we may not know or even like all that much. It’s about loving people who don’t always fit our mold or behave the way we wish they would. It’s about forgiving others for the hurts and let-downs and the failure to live up to our expectations. Forgiveness and Love go hand in hand.

Joy comes from loving for love sake. And that involves grace and forgiveness. But it brings about a hope and peace that nothing or no one can take away. When we have joy, happiness is  free to pursue us – for as long as we live.

Burundi, poverty, and God – Welcome to Disneyland

Well, here I sit in my office. Recovering from some jet lag, a nasty sinus thing, and a weird mix of emotions and thoughts from my recent experience in Burundi, Africa.

A big part of my role on this team was to listen closely, film and document our activities and help bring back a story to my church of how to best help an impoverished village in a distant part of the world. This morning I gazed over about 1000 clips of video and probably another 1000 still shots and I must admit I’m overwhelmed. I don’t really know where to begin. I mean this wasn’t exactly a vacation – far from it. And it’s more complicated than showing some exotic poor place or sad pictures of cute kids with dirty clothes and distended bellies.

The story here is much bigger and deeper than I had imagined. I realized this trip had less to do with raising money, sending food, or even building shelters than it did with building long-term relationships, fostering a sense of dependable partnership, and imparting some dignity to a population of people who desperately need to be heard and loved. They have some serious trust issues. And given the recent history of genocide and poverty in this region, it’s easy to understand why.

Burundi is a small land-locked country in central Africa. It’s about the size of the state of Maryland. It’s population is around 10 million. It is estimated to be one of the 3 poorest countries in the world with 80% of the population living in poverty. We went to serve the needs of the Batwa – a shunned people group that make up about 1% of the population. (Twa means Pygmy, Ba means plural, Ma would mean singular). They’re basically allowed to live in the undesirable areas along the side of mountains where the ground is not conducive to sustainable agriculture.

My observations and experience last week left me with following initial take-aways that I’m sure will be refined and developed over the days and weeks ahead.

  1. Sin: The same desire/ attitude that caused little children to push and argue over something as trivial as balloons being handed out is the same sin that motivates leaders and rebels to kill and rape and burn and destroy. (the same selfish desires/ attitudes that causes individuals to lie on taxes, cheat on spouses, or shoot up movie theaters and school campuses.)
  2. Blindspots: We all have them. In one established village we heard of mothers who secretly took their sick children to the witchdoctor instead of getting free care at the new clinic. Instead of getting a simple anti-biotic for free they felt safer going to what they knew. It’s what they learned growing up, it’s what their parents, grandparents, and great-grand parents did. They view any ailment as “death”. (Sometimes death stays, and sometimes death leaves.) So they pay a witchdoctor to try to cast out the spirit that’s causing the illness. Just like us, they tend to stick with what they know and they don’t like strangers telling them it’s not right. They have a history of leaders, rebels, military, priests, pastors, and missionaries telling them what to do and then being hurt and taken advantage of.
  3. Assess needs: and priorities based on input from village elders. “come along side”. The biggest thing we accomplished was to show the Batwa that even the white man can come alongside and help, get dirty, work hard, and not ask for or take anything. It’s critically important for all parties understand that the Umuzungu (white man) is not God. And God is not some cosmic Santa Claus, who just shows up occasionally with a big bag of stuff.
  4. Holistic Services: – a combination of meeting resource needs such as shelter, food security, and water, with emotional and spiritual support. It must be comprehensive and givers need to be committed for the long haul – willing to return.
  5. Develop Ownership and Sustainability: – Insure buy-in and manageable duplication at the village level. Tie products and services with ownership and productive work that is manageable and reproducible.
  6. Develop Indigenous leadership: within the village before delivering services.
  7. Changing Worldview: to one of care and concern for self and others. Let them know that there is a God (we’re not Him) and he loves them unconditionally. That joy and peace are not directly tied to circumstances or lack of pain. We saw glimpses of laughter and smiles under the poorest of conditions. Conversely, I’m sure we all know people with considerable material wealth that are perpetually negative and emotionally miserable most of the time.
  8. Identify and Disciple: the “peacemaker”. Raise up one person to lead then bring parents along in literacy and introduce the Bible. When possible encourage and allow husbands to be the ones to teach and nurture their families and children.
  9. Allow time for “discovery evangelism”: Let people wrestle with scripture within small groups and give the leaders tools to guide the discussions. Watch for light-bulb moments when leaders and families “get” the gospel, and the message of salvation. They must internalize and own their faith. Otherwise it can be nothing more than rules and memorized ritual. This may not develop until 1.5 to 2 years into the relationship. Can’t just waltz into a village, preach at them, then leave. Remember their history of being talked down to and being oppressed and abused? It relates to trust and God also.
  10. Reconciliation: We heard a story from a worship leader who was abandoned by his mother when he was 2. His father didn’t want him, and his mother’s new husband (a Christian) didn’t want him. There were stories of people seeing their friends, or parents, or families murdered and escaped to tell about it. The weird thing is these were common stories. Most people in this area are survivors of these attacks and either are or know someone who escaped physical death. They realize the only way to peace is to speak about their hurts and forgive others. This only seems achievable thru a Christian world view. Unlike other “great religions” the Christian worldview is one of forgiveness and reconciliation. A love that flows from God to all people.  Imagine what it would take to seek out and forgive someone who you witness kill your father and leave you and your siblings to die assuming that you’d have no sustainable means of support. -Understanding that they, like so many, acted out of a fear and hatred that was born out of ignorance and fueled in great part by radio news propaganda across the boarder. Most everyone in the country understands this now but forgiveness and reconciliation is hard. It’s not what we naturally do. But it’s critically important to any type of survival.  Here, if pride, bitterness, anger, and the need for retribution are not aggressively and intentionally taken control of and replaced by forgiveness, the future of the entire population will be very bleak and hopeless.  Forgiveness matters …a lot.

On this trip we visited:

  • a memorial next to an abandoned gas station to where 100 high-school students were escorted by the school’s director, locked inside, and then burned alive.
  • a Batwa village that has been established and receiving services for approx. 5 years. There are now about 20 block houses built, some education options, food security, and basic medical services thru a small clinic. In addition, a group from Watermission in South Carolina established a pipeline from the bottom of the mountain to the top with a filtration and storage system. Before clean water the village experienced about 6 deaths/month (primarily children under 5). After the water and clinic were establish village mortality dropped to about 3 deaths in two years!
  • a new Batwa village, that has never received services or support until now. We helped teach bible school to children. We helped the village leaders and builders construct 2 houses. (each house will replace a 8 ft. round hut that housed 7-9 people.) We helped the village leaders distribute food to the heads of all of the 100 or so families. ($10 of rice and beans, enough to make meals for 2 weeks).
  • a fabric shop that made purses, bags and other items. The company is operated solely by women who were rescued from the prostitution trade.
  • a small beach “resort” (who knew?) There were bathrooms with a toilet that flushes and beverages that were somehow cooled.
  • a small interactive “Zoo”. (guests can hop into a ring with a live alligator if they wish).
  • a church where we broke into two teams to help lead workshops for local pastors and worship leaders.

Basically, we witnessed and experienced a new approach to missions. Much different than the methods used in the 1950s. The goals are the same which is to reach people with the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The freedom that comes from life-giving power of grace and forgiveness along with the relief of pain and hunger that flows from the giving heart of those who love Him. We saw groups of people helping themselves, caring for each other, and giving thanks to God in their own churches with their own leaders. We saw and heard stories of reconciliation between each other and trust built with outsiders. We saw glimpses of dignity and a renewed desire to live. We spent the week serving with leaders from an amazing organization who are sold out determined to change the trajectory of this entire impoverished country. We sat with a village pastor following a church service up-country who gave thanks and humbly prayed over warm bottles of orange Fanta soda. Nothing is taken for granted.

There’s a difference between being impoverished and being poor. We have poor people and homeless people in our country. For various reasons, they don’t have access to adequate money to purchase and maintain goods and services. In the majority world, impoverished people (their friends and neighbors) don’t have goods and services. Even if they had access to jobs and could get more money, the reality is there is no food, their is no clean water. There’s a loss of dignity and spirit. They live in a daily ongoing condition of hopelessness and helplessness. They have little reason for joy and little reason to try. Many believe no one knows they exist and no one really cares.

Following WWII the cold war introduced the term “Third World Country” which later became synonymous with extremely poor, and non-industrialized nations. It became a stereotype to refer to poor countries as “third world countries”. The term later evolved into “Developing Countries”. More and more we’re hearing the more accurate term “Majority Countries” because the reality is that the majority of the world’s population lives this way.

So as I landed back in Cleveland, OH I just couldn’t help but think to myself “Welcome to Disneyland”.  -Where there are toilets (and most flush), stable electricity most of the time, running water (and even hot water), stop-signs, center lines, and traffic laws, water that’s usually safe to drink, food that’s usually safe to eat, ice cubes for beverages, and the absence of life-threatening mosquitos.


Filming in Africa – The Gear

My son Zach and I were part of a 10-member leadership team that visited the impoverished country of Burundi in Africa. Our main responsibility was to film and document the activities and observations of our trip into the remote up-country village of Bugenyuzi. Our goal was to bring back a comprehensive story to tell our church and area leaders. The biggest considerations were how to maintain a decent quality while being as discrete and respectful to the village and people as possible. Initial review of some of the clips indicate we may have accomplished that goal.

Due to spotty and unregulated AC power, battery conservation became a continuous challenge. Basically we thought about what we needed to shoot before we powered up and took the shot. Gear was constantly powered down whenever there was nothing to shoot.

Additionally, security and transport were assessed. We wanted to be portable enough to take all the “expensive” stuff as carry on luggage and avoid checking. Not so much because things were fragile, but because where we were going it’s not uncommon for bags to get lost, or items to be taken within the airport systems. This presented some anxiety in that we did not know if we’d be questioned about the remote quadra-copter, odd looking batteries, propeller blades etc. We managed to pick up a personal effects policy with our home-owners carrier. It cost about $38.00 to cover approx. $4,000.00 of gear for 12 months. Fortunately, nothing was taken or questioned and we returned with all equipment functional and in tact.


Zach shot w/ a DSLR rig and was primarily shooting close-ups and medium wide shots. (720p @ 30 fps) All his gear traveled in a backpack which he wore while shooting.

I used a GoPro rig w/ various accessories and was primarily responsible for wide, aerial, and specialty shots (setup and b-roll) . I shot in 720p/60 fps, 1080/42 fps, and 1080/30 fps and carried everything in a small carry-on suitcase. Each day I’d take the components that I thought I would need and kept everything with me in one messenger bag.

The people of this country and the village of Bugenyuzi are very kind but the reality is they’re extremely impoverished and desperate. We were cautioned repeatedly never to leave anything lying around unattended. Therefore, we had to shoot and work with all our gear on us at all times.

Here’s just a quick breakdown of the capture gear we used. If necessary we also shot stills and spontaneous video with the iPhone4, and Moto Droid Razr.

the DSLR:

  1. Canon T2i w/ 50 mm, 18-55 mm w/ stabilizer, and 100 mm lenses.
  2. Led fill light
  3. Colica WT 1003 monopod
  4. ScanDisk SD extreme high-speed memory cards. (16 Gb x 3)
  5. Ruggard brand SD case.
  6. Tascam DR-40 audio field recorder, AAA batteries.
  7. Sennheiser shotgun mic w/ hand grip
  8. Rode hand grip, windscreen, and misc. cables.

the GoPro:

  1. GoPro Hero 3 w/ iPad and Android Ap.
  2. Smoothee brand Steadicam
  3. xShot retractable mini pole mount.
  4. The ChestR camera mount by Hitcase
  5. ScanDisk mini-SD extreme high-speed memory cards (32 Gb x 3)
  6. Misc. adapters, 220V converters/ adapters, solar battery chargers.
  7. DjI, Phantom remote-controlled quadra-copter (for aerial shots).

Over the next several weeks we will be cataloging and meta-tagging the 800 or so clips in Adobe Bridge CS6 and editing with Premier Pro and After Effects. We plan to eventually make a full length documentary style video (about 40-minutes) in addition to 10, 7, and 4 minute variations for promotions, public speaking talks, website, small group, and church presentations.

Here is just one unedited sample clip to give you a sense of the countryside and conditions.

GOPR0112 – initial visit to Bugenuzi village (Enhanced) from Gary Yonek on Vimeo.

Tech Arts in Burundi – Meet Willie

burundi techDuring part of our stay in Burundi, Africa we had the awesome experience of sharing in a workshop for worship leaders.  We spent 2 days discussing the heart of the artist type topics with about 30 worship leaders from across Bujumbura.  (the capitol of Burundi).  The second day included worship by one of the area worship teams and that’s where I met Willie.

Willie is a young native, maybe college age.  He pulled me aside to talk about tech and gear.  In fact he was the only one in the whole meeting involved with tech.  Burundi, being one of the 3 poorest countries in the world, does not have a lot of resources.  And then here’s Willie, graciously and cheerfully pulling together the best he could with what he had.  He had a basic mixer, some old amps, and some misc. microphones (a couple of real 58s and some Chinese knock-offs).  In fact this outdoor church had a couple of large speakers and even a hefty pair of sub bass.  I assisted in the setup and he even asked for some mixing advice/ ideas.  We traded a few chops and experiences the best we could given the noise (and the fact that I don’t speak French or Kirundi). Willie on the other hand understood my English quite well. It was a joy.

Willie had many of the same questions/ concerns/ frustrations that we all do from time to time:

  • How do you serve the worship team without being demanding?
  • How do you encourage the pastor to hold the mic closer without offending anyone?
  • How do you get volunteers not to abandon the FOH when the band finishes and the pastor teaches.
  • How do you get volunteers to pray with the team instead of constantly fiddling with stuff?
  • How do you make things better with no budget and 2nd hand gear?

It all boiled down to heart, and Willie had plenty – along with a love for God and leading people in the Kingdom.  He wanted to both contribute to a better worship experience and respectfully honor/ yield to leaders. (which is sometimes a delectate line to walk.)  Above all he wanted to glorify God and give his best as unto the Lord.

In the short time we had I tried my best to lead like a pastor and encourage like Todd Elliot.

The only thing I could think to do on our way out is to summon a translator, pull Willie aside and pray in what kind of turned into a benediction.

I asked God to watch over Willie.  I told him that he had a special calling and I thanked God that he choose Willie to champion and lead tech volunteers in his church and the surrounding impoverished area.  I prayed that God would give him a heart to disciple and love those volunteers and that the tech gear and skills would come in time. I told him that there will be times when he feels terribly alone and no one understands him and his needs.  In those times, not to be discouraged or loose heart (or become unkind).  I prayed that he would be allowed to build a healthy relationship with his worship leader and that they would work closely/ have each other’s back as they journey thru life in this ministry.

I’d like to ask all my colleagues in the US to take just a second to pray for Willie and for those you are leading today.

Technical Arts matter. It’s how we communicate to crowds. It’s how people hear the Word. Relationships matter. It’s how we listen and do life with each other.  Be a leader in relationships.  -Blessings.

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