Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Kate LeMasters: Intern at West Africa AIDS Foundation in Ghana

Kate LeMasters '15

Washington and Lee University

International Poverty

West Africa AIDS Foundation

Ghana, Africa

About Kate

Hometown: Abilene, Texas
Majors: Economics and Global Politics
Extracurricular Involvement:
  • Bonner Scholar
  • General's Development Initiative (GenDev)
  • Student Consulting
  • Planning For a Globalized Tomorrow (P4T) Leader
  • Generals Christian Fellowship
  • Chi Omega Sorority
  • Appalachian Adventure Trip Leader
Off-Campus Experiences:
  • Spring Term Abroad in the Netherlands 2012
  • Shepherd Intern at Caritas of Austin Summer 2012
  • Spring Term Abroad in Belize 2013
Why did you apply for this particular internship? I knew I wanted first-hand experience in a developing country and most of my research has been based on Sub-Saharan Africa. I've become more and more interested in Global Health, so working for the West Africa AIDS Foundation was an opportunity to delve deeper into my interests from a hands-on perspective.
How did your work apply to your studies at W&L?  I was able to draw from my Global Politics major by trying to parse out the workings of the Ghanaian Healthcare System, I was able to draw from my Economics major by conducting a pilot research study on 'What Factors Impact Disclosure of HIV Status,' and I was able to draw from my Poverty Studies minor by simply working here. I was able to take experiences from my classroom and apply them to situations I was facing every day at the NGO and the clinic. It also gave me a perspective of the nuanced issues of Global Health that is not possible to gain from a textbook or lecture. I was faced with issues of food security, stigma, disclosure, and many more by working at WAAF that go far beyond what can be taught in a classroom.
What was the most unexpected aspect of your Shepherd Alliance experience? Before my first day, I had not spoken to anyone working at WAAF. I had no idea what my tasks would be, if I would be at a desk every day, doing field work, or talking to patients. I quickly learned that the most unexpected aspect was simpler than my tasks: it was the environment. Adjusting to working at an NGO that has a clinic, an NGO in a developing country, an NGO that has projects in 4 regions of Ghana, and an NGO that was completely open to what I wanted to do, leads to chaos. There is no schedule for the day or week; flexibility is key.
Favorite W&L Memory:Going on the Outing Club Spring Break trip to Utah and hiking through the ice-cold Narrows at Zion National Park.
Favorite Lexington Landmark: The view from the top of House Mountain.
What professor has inspired you? Professor Dickovick. He has taught me more than I can ask for, from classroom conversations at W&L, to what to eat in Ghana, to how to conduct a research study at WAAF. 
In the wee hours of the morning I'm awoken by roosters crowing far before dawn, women sweeping their patios of endless red dirt, and laundry being done outside before the heat of the day. By the time my alarm goes off at 5:30, most of the neighborhood is bustling before the sun rises and my fellow Shepherd intern, Alex, is getting ready for her commute to downtown Accra that should take about 20 minutes, but takes up to 2 hours with traffic. I start my morning run along the dirt roads of East Legon, the label of our neighborhood in Accra and the closest thing to an address that I have encountered. Along my route I see the man who runs in a ski vest, women roasting corn on the side of the road, children in their vibrant school uniforms, and the never-ending pile of burning trash that is used as a substitute for a landfill.
When I return to Mummy's house--I don't even know her real name, she insists we call her Mummy--she sends me off to have a "blessed, blessed day Auntie Kate." Now begins the trek to work. After about 5 weeks, I've finally mastered it. I begin by taking a 30-minute walk to Okponglo Junction, an intersection on the main road into and out of Accra. I do my best to avoid falling in the open, 3-foot deep drainage systems on the side of the road; I've been successful so far. Little children yell "Obruni, Obruni!" meaning, "white person, white person!" and I wave as they giggle and applaud each other for their courage. Taxis constantly honk, thinking that the only Obruni in sight must be lost. When I tell them I am going to the Tro-Tro, they are caught by surprise. The Tro-Tro is the public transportation system in Ghana, if you can call it that. It is a van from the 60's or 70's that violates just about every vehicle standard in the books. It seats 12 people, but usually crams about 15 and has a 'mate' hanging out the side and repeatedly screaming the final destination. There is no schedule, no map, no set rate, and no English spoken. I take the Medina Tro-Tro to Atomic Junction and then the Haatso Tro-Tro to the bus stop or Total Filling Station and then turn right at the big dirt road. Try being told that on your first day of work.
I arrive at the West Africa AIDS Foundation and read the 'schedule of events' that is the white board. I never know when I'll find my name next to a trip that only says the town of destination. Only en route have I realized that the bus ride over pot-hole filled roads would be 13 hours, that I would give a presentation in a tuberculosis training for peer educators, or that I would speak to 500 high-school aged girls on reproductive health. The developing world comes with a work culture that has no agenda for business trips and no adherence to meeting times. For now, the sporadic, weeklong trips to the northern and western regions of Ghana have seemed to cease, so it's back to life at the office.
Today, my name is not on the board. At first I'm disappointed that there are no big adventures planned, but I'm quickly reminded that a day at the office is never too typical. I quickly check in with the chairman, Eddie, the most energy-filled NGO supervisor that I've ever met, who tells me of all the upcoming meetings, the billion projects he has formulated in his head, and the incredible meat pies that he had last night. I go into the Projects Room and am all too excited when the AC and internet are both working. It's going to be a good day. I look over my concept paper for a grant proposal I've been working on. The proposal calls for USAID to expand HIV services for pregnant women to the community level in multiple districts in Ghana through a public-private partnership with Ghana Health Service. Currently, most funds are given to regional hospitals for state-of-the-art technology for antenatal care, while community level clinics don't have a midwife or registered nurse, much less an ambulance for emergencies. Working at an NGO with offices in four regions of Ghana and with the mission to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS leaves big shoes to fill for an ill-equipped intern. I am in no way accredited to write grants, meet with the Ghana AIDS Commission, or present my grant proposal to municipal health directors. But I've come to realize that my preconceived notions of my capabilities are far less important than the requirements of an agency working towards the elimination of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic.
I take my updated grant proposal to Dr. Naa, the CEO of WAAF, medical director of the on-site clinic IHCC, and the only medical doctor in the whole operation. She is superwoman. While I wait for her to finish seeing patients at the clinic, I hear the cries of an 8-year-old boy with a fungal infection covering his body. He is at stage 3 of HIV and is refusing all food and drink. No doctor, nurse, family member or other child can change his mind. Dr. Naa emerges, obviously discouraged by his state, but hopeful that the grant proposals and projects that she is about to check over will find a large-scale solution to the drastic delays in treatment that result in 8-year-olds with stage 3 HIV, the stage of AIDS diagnosis. A situation that could be prevented by increased HIV treatment for pregnant women and infants.
Next emerges Esther, an HIV positive woman wearing colorful traditional garments and scarves. She is one of the leaders of the Almond Tree Project, an income generation and microfinance group started at WAAF for HIV positive women. Most microfinance institutions won't lend to HIV positive groups because they believe they will be too sick to repay their loan, they may die before their deadline, and the MFI's simply stigmatize against those living with HIV as unworthy clients. I listen to Esther's story of Almond Tree; it gave her hope when she was hopeless and friends when she was abandoned. Finding out her status years ago was devastating. The discrimination in Ghana towards people living with HIV is startling. She and other women at the clinic started to meet under an almond tree as a support group and they began to teach each other how to sew, bake, and make beads. Funders have seen their unbreakable support for one another and we are currently working on expanding their work through skills training, more funding and showrooms for their work.
Ah, lunchtime. I make my way back up the 'big dirt road' to the marketplace and am bombarded by endless stands of waakye (a mix of just about every food possible), roasted plantains, fish heads, fried yams, and fresh fruit. I make my way to the mango stand on the end, where the young girl smiles at me, reassured by my daily return to her stand, and quickly prepares mangoes for the other interns and me.
Returning to the office, it's time to work on my project. In a developing country, it's all too easy to allow too much down time at work, take two-hour lunch breaks for groundnut soup with goat and say "oh, I'll do it tomorrow." For better or worse, I need to be busy. I set up a meeting with the clinical staff to ask what question they want answered. I know this is incredibly broad. However, I know from previous conversations that IHCC and WAAF have many unanswered and pressing questions that they need answered to better serve their patients. For now, they want to know what factors determine disclosure of HIV status to one's partner. The fear, worry and anxiety of sharing this information is often simply too much. It often leads to abandonment, violence and false accusations of infidelity and promiscuity. This is not an easy topic to cover or interview patients on, but Dr. Naa's smiling face reassures me, and I know this is a topic we must address. I prepare myself to interview patients and listen to heart-breaking stories of the fear and violence that the nurses have told me about. In a country that is considered a success for Africa and often overlooked by international organizations for support, the status of HIV/AIDS and the nuanced issues surrounding it in Ghana are hardly a success. Stigma prevents disclosure, fear prevents testing and corruption resulted in a $10 million refund to the Global Fund last year for AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis control programs from Ghana.
I take the long dirt road back to the Tro-Tro stop, this time on the look out for a car yelling "Accra, crrraa, crrraa, crrraa" and desperately hope that I can understand them this time. I carefully get on and off the Tro-Tro, remembering that I've already ripped 3 skirts during this process on the rusted steps. It's the rainy season in Ghana, but usually that just means extraordinarily high humidity and a soaked-through shirt when I take off my backpack. I hear Mummy making dinner in the kitchen and her children, grandchildren and countless other household members ask about our day. I still don't know who all lives in this pink-walled house in East Legon.
It's about 6:00 and I'm ready to call it a day. Alex and I share our daily stories of work and Tro-Tro hassles over dinner after we take off our matching Birkenstocks. We often discuss the option of leaving the house, but never make it past the mental block of navigating the Tro-Tro system and haggling the taxi drivers for a decent rate that isn't an "Obruni price." Today we are planning a trip for the weekend to the Volta Region. Alex laughs as I look through a guidebook and I quickly remember that planning much of anything here is a joke in itself; word of mouth and a flexible schedule are the keys to travel. At this point we watch an episode of LOST and I crawl into bed to read, excited to start my tenth book of the trip. After a few chapters I can't stay awake, knowing that the now-familiar sound of the sweeping of porches will wake me soon enough.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Learning from Christians in India and Syria: Homily for St. Timon Sunday in the Orthodox Church

          My trip to India was fascinating in ways too many to count.  With cows, water buffalo, and goats wandering the streets, which are filled with several lanes of totally insane traffic, you know immediately that you are not in Texas anymore.  One of the great blessings of my trip was to meet Indian Christians, a small minority in a country with a vast population and a wide range of cultures.  Christians are by no means a dominant group in India; nonetheless, they live in peace with their neighbors and do their best to show the love of Christ to the needy and suffering people around them. 
 For example, the evangelical group with which McMurry works there runs a home for orphans and other children whose parents cannot properly care for them, as well as a school and a ministry to lepers.  When it comes to those lepers, literally no one else in the city has anything to do with them.  I also visited St. Thomas Seminary of India’s Orthodox Church, which traces its heritage back to St. Thomas the Apostle.  The seminary has the feel of a monastery, as the students begin their day with prayers at 5 am, have permission to go into town once a week for a few hours on Sunday afternoon, and otherwise live a disciplined communal life that few Americans would accept.  Adjacent to the seminary is a home for mentally retarded children which provides a residential education for vulnerable kids who are easily neglected and abused.
By doing this kind of work to the outcasts of their society, Indian Christians proclaim the love and mercy of Jesus Christ not only by their words, but more importantly by their deeds.     In a society where religious conversion is complicated and it is often a real accomplishment for different groups simply to live in peace, the Christians quietly seek to treat everyone as the Lord treats us all.  Their practices will not make them rich, famous, or powerful, but they are signs of obedience to the humble, selfless way of our Savior who came to serve, not to be served.
The situation of Indian Christians reminds us in some ways of that of Christians in the Middle East.  In both places, they are a small minority that seeks harmonious relations with others and ministers to the needy.  For example, International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) is the most active philanthropic organization in Syria.  Apparently trusted by both sides in the conflict, they are able to show compassion to those who suffer from the effects of a brutal war, regardless of their religious or political affiliation. 
Especially as Antiochian Orthodox Christians, our thoughts and prayers are with our brothers and sisters in Syria.  Two bishops have been kidnapped there, one of whom is the brother of our Patriarch.  Metropolitan Saba of the Diocese of Hauran, our sister diocese, reports that he is able to visit only one of the communities under his care.  At his diocesan headquarters, he has set up a kitchen that feeds one hundred families every day.  Inflation is very high and so many people have lost their livelihoods and their homes.  They are caught between two warring factions and simply trying to survive with hardly any resources.
We think of Syria especially today, for it is  “St. Timon Sunday Day” in our diocese, when we remember Timon, one of the seventy apostles sent out by Jesus Christ and one of the original deacons mentioned in the book of Acts.  He became the bishop of Bosra in Syria and eventually became a martyr.  All Christians are in his debt as a pillar of the early Church.   He converted many Arabs to the Christian faith, and especially we Antiochian Orthodox should remember him with great appreciation.  For he played a crucial role in building the mother church of which we are a part and of evangelizing the part of the world where our faith began.
            So it is fitting that in the last few of years our diocese has established “the Hauran connection,” a way for us to help our impoverished Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters in southwestern Syria.  Life is impossibly hard now for everyone in Syria.  In a revolution or civil war, it does not matter what you call it, everyone’s life is at risk.  Along with people of other faiths, many of our Orthodox brothers and sisters are now refugees with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
            We sometimes forget how blessed we are to live in a country where, despite our many problems, there is not civil war or ongoing physical violence between political and religious groups.  Hunger and poverty certainly exist here, but not as they do in a war zone or a society where people have to flee for their lives.      
            None of us controls world events or the policies of our government.  If we think in worldly terms, there is not much that we can do about the problems of Syria or any other nation, perhaps including our own.  But as Christians we should not think in worldly terms for Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.   We are not called to lord it over others or force them to do our will, but instead to offer ourselves and our blessings as best we can to the Lord for Him to do with as He sees fit.  And that is why we take up a collection here at St. Luke each summer for “the Hauran Connection,” especially for our sister parish of the Dormition of the Theotokos.  I hope that you will put what you can in the collection plate today or next Sunday to help our struggling brothers and sisters in Syria.     
We can learn from Christians in places like the Middle East and India that we are not in charge of the course of human events.  We probably struggle enough just to deal with our own personal problems, much less to set the world right.  All that we can do is to offer what little we can to the Lord for His blessing with the humble trust that He will do the rest.
            That kind of offering is at the very heart of our worship in the Orthodox Church.  A couple of loaves of bread and a cup containing wine and water.   By themselves, they might make a decent snack, but not even a full meal.  But in the Divine Liturgy, we pray for God’s blessing upon the bread and wine.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, they become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the menu of the heavenly banquet.  We receive more than a mere meal, but the forgiveness of sins and life eternal in our communion.   We are nourished with heavenly food and in communion with our Savior and His Body on earth and in heaven.   
            Yes, God works miracles upon the small gifts we offer Him. He requires that we do our small part and then He does the rest, making our tiny gifts far more than they could have been on their own.  We often say in the Church that we are not simply to attend the Divine Liturgy, but to live it.  All of our life should be an offering to and communion with God, as well as with all those created in His image and likeness.  Now is the time to make whatever offering we can to the Lord for the poor people of Syria.  Like the Christians in India, let us show the love and mercy of Jesus Christ to the suffering not only with our words, but also with our deeds.  No, we do not run the world, but we are called to live peaceably and faithfully in it, doing what we can to show the love of our Savior to those who lack what we so often take for granted.     


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Thoughts on Christianity in India

           At the risk of drawing overly broad conclusions, I would like to share a few thoughts about what American Christians may learn from their brothers and sisters in India.  A small religious minority in a country with a vast population and a wide mix of cultures, the Indian Christians I met over the last two weeks are under no illusions of being a dominant force in their society, let alone the brokers of political power.  Their faith is not associated with a particular party or interest group; instead, it gives every impression of focusing on bearing witness to the love of Christ and maintaining the practices and attitudes of discipleship.
 One such practice is ministry to the poor, needy, and outcast.  For example, Light Life Ministries in Aurangabad runs a home for orphans and other children whose parents cannot properly care for them, as well as a school and a ministry to lepers.  St. John’s English School serves children from families of very modest means who want a private education superior to that of the public system.  When it comes to lepers, literally no one else in the city has anything to do with them.  The lepers we met included people of different religious backgrounds, but they all experienced the presence of the Lord Jesus in the hospitality shown by Light Life Ministries.  
Outside the city of Nagpur, India’s Orthodox Church (which traces its heritage back to St. Thomas the Apostle) sponsors a theological seminary where the students begin their day with prayers at 5 am, share a disciplined communal life, and have permission to go into town once a week for a few hours on Sunday afternoon.   By our society’s hedonistic standards, that kind of spiritual commitment by young men is hard to understand.   But to prepare pastors who seek God’s kingdom above all else, at least a bit of asceticism is in order.  Adjacent to St. Thomas Orthodox Theological Seminary is a home for mentally retarded children called the Prerana Special School, which provides a residential education for vulnerable kids who are easily neglected and abused in any society.
By running schools, seminaries, and ministries to the weak and marginalized, Indian Christians manifest the love and mercy of Jesus Christ both by what they say and what they do.  In a society where religious conversion is complicated and it is often a real accomplishment for different groups simply to live in peace, the Christians seek to treat everyone as the Lord treats us all.  Their practices count for little by worldly standards and certainly will not make them rich, famous, or powerful.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, because our Lord’s  kingdom is not of this world.  Yes, we American Christians have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters in India, for they remind us to live out what we proclaim with a generous and humble spirit.


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Hearing and Obeying Christ's Call to "Follow Me": Homily on the Great Martyr Kyriake in the Orthodox Church

          Today we celebrate the memory of the Holy Great Martyr Kyriake, who gave the ultimate witness for Jesus Christ by refusing to worship pagan gods and giving up her life after suffering brutal persecution from the Romans.  A beautiful virgin girl, Kyriake came from a wealthy family and refused the offer of a marriage to the son of a magistrate who wanted their money.  That’s why the magistrate denounced the family as Christians to the Emperor Diocletian.  Even when offered great wealth and marriage to one of the emperor’s relatives, she refused and miraculously survived horrible tortures from four different rulers.  The Lord healed her wounds; her prayers destroyed a pagan temple and the wild beasts to which she was thrown would not attack her.  Immediately after praying before she was to be beheaded, Kyriake gave up her soul. 
            St. Kyriake’s story reminds us that the twelve disciples are not the only ones to whom the Lord has said “Follow me…”  They are not the only ones who have left behind a conventional life in order to follow Jesus Christ in the ministry of the Kingdom.  How odd, then, that of all the people who lived in those centuries long ago, we remember people like Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Kyriake who abandoned the things of this world in order to seek first God’s reign.  Christ said that “whoever desires to save his life will lose it and whoever loses His life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mk 8:34-35)  They were hated and killed by the powerful, but remained steadfast in their commitment to the One Who conquered death and they now share in His glory.  They were treated as the least by earthly kingdoms, but now are they are among the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.  
            The application to our lives is clear.  Though the particular path of discipleship to which we are called is probably very different from that of the Great Martyr Kyriake, we learn from her example that God will not abandon us when we are steadfast in our commitment to Him.  It is through such unflinching commitment that we will become our true selves in Christ.  The Lord sustained her through beatings that exhausted her tormentors, and through being suspended by her hair for several hours while being burned with torches.  The worse the torture, the more courageous she seemed. How amazing for a young virgin girl from a privileged family who had probably experienced little hardship previously.
            We all know of the kidnapping of the Orthodox bishops in Syria and of the killing, torture, and persecutions that our brothers and sisters in Christ endure today there and in so many other places.  Of course, people are murdered and abused for all kinds of reasons around the world.  No matter who the victim is, these are terrible crimes.  Even as we pray for innocent victims and do what we can to help them, we must not allow fear of anything or anyone to keep us from responding faithfully to the call “Follow me” that our Savior brings to each of us.  Faithfulness is not reserved only for those who are called to give the ultimate sacrifice of physical martyrdom.  Instead, their example should inspire us to become free of whatever nets have entangled us and held us back from following Jesus Christ as He calls us to follow Him here and now.
            In order to that, of course, we have to take our faith and our Lord seriously.  For example, if we do not get in the habit of attending to Him in prayer on a daily basis, we won’t be able to hear Him say “Follow me” in our own situation.  If we do not practice some kind of fasting or self-denial, we will probably be so addicted to our own pleasures and desires that we will find it impossible to put Him before ourselves.  If we do not take Confession and Communion on a regular basis with serious preparation, we will lack the spiritual strength to persevere in following Him.  We must embrace the basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian life if we want to live faithfully, even in the relative comfort and ease of our society.
            Otherwise, we will become spiritually lazy and morally weak, and without realizing it we will end up living according to the dominant trends of our culture.  Instead of being good stewards of our resources and generous to the poor, we will worship “the Almighty Dollar” and what it can buy.  Instead of pursuing chastity, purity, and fidelity, we will fall prey to hedonism and immorality. Instead of realizing that our enemies and nuisances provide our greatest opportunities to love Christ, we will turn away from Him by condemning them.  In these and many other ways, we will really come to believe that we simply have more important things to do than to take up our crosses and obediently follow our Lord.
            And in case all this sounds too dramatic, think about the challenges that we face every day.  It often doesn’t take much to inflame our passions against another person, even someone whom we love.  It doesn’t have to be a situation of life or death in order to be a situation of great spiritual significance that shapes us and others in decisive ways.  Every act of selfishness, dishonesty, thoughtlessness, or gossip weakens us in our ability to hear and obey our Lord’s calling.  When we focus on the past or the future in ways that distract us from the here and now, we overlook the only possibilities for the faithfulness that currently exist.  Just like daydreaming keeps us from hearing what someone else is saying, giving our attention to fantasies of any kind is dangerous because it draws us away from reality.
            In many times and places, young virgin girls like St. Kyriake have been thought to be unimportant and surely not of any great significance spiritually or otherwise.  But this young lady was able to stare down emperors and endure torture because, as St. Paul wrote,  she had put on Christ in baptism, in Whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek…neither slave nor free…neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  She had the dignity and power of a true child of God, as one who inherited by grace the great blessing and salvation fulfilled in our Savior. 

            Though it is hard to believe, the same is true of each of us.  Regardless of any of the details of our lives, we are all invited—each and every one of us—to manifest brightly the holiness of the Kingdom of God by responding to our Lord’s calling to follow Him as His sons and daughters.  Let’s not fool ourselves by saying that we will wait to do so until there is some great crisis in the world or our own lives.  Now is the time to follow Him by doing what we know we should be doing.  Now is the time to turn our backs on whatever separates us from Him.  Now is the time to follow the mighty example of the Holy Great Martyr Kyriake in hearing and responding faithfully to our Lord, for He calls us to follow the path trod by her and all the saints into the glory of the heavenly Kingdom.  The only question is how we will respond.       

Friday, July 5, 2013

Homily for Sunday of All Saints and the Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles in the Orthodox Church

           There are many problems in our society and around the world that can easily distract us from what is most important in the Christian life.  Even though they come to us easily, anger, judgment, worry, and fear about matters beyond our control cannot make us holy and usually only distract us from finding healing where we need it in our souls, relationships, and daily challenges.  Christ calls us to play our role in saving the world by becoming living icons of His salvation that attract others to the life of the Kingdom of Heaven in stark contrast to the corrupt ways of the world.  In other to do that, we ourselves must become holy.   Otherwise, we will have nothing to offer the world that it does not already have.
             Last Sunday was the feast of Pentecost, when we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Church.  The Spirit has been poured out richly upon all in the Body of Christ, which shows that God wants to dwell in the hearts and souls of human beings, that He wants to make us partakers of the divine nature by grace.
Today is both the Sunday of All Saints and the Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles.  Now we remember all of those who have been filled with the Holy Spirit, who have been transformed by our Lord and His love, as well as the great pillars of the Church who first answered our Lord’s call to seek the first the Kingdom of God.  The root meaning of the word “saint” is holy, and we are reminded today that the great cloud of witnesses includes both those whose names and stories are celebrated openly in the Church, as well as those whose holiness is not famous.  For the Lord’s blessing is for all in every generation who respond to Him with obedience, faith, humility, and love, whether they are widely known or not.   
Surely, most of our Lord’s most saints haven’t been officially given a title by the Church or had their images put on icons.  But they are known by God and glorified in the Kingdom because in ways, perhaps known only to God, they entered into His holiness, they embraced His love and became beacons of light in our darkened world.
But what does that have to do with you and me, who probably can’t imagine ourselves as saints?  Well, the good news of the gospel is that we are all called to become holy, yes, actually to become saints. No matter who we are, what mistakes we have made in our lives, no matter what our circumstances are, we are all able to find the healing and fulfillment that the saints have known.  We too are able to enter into the holiness of God, to receive and be changed by His love.   He wants nothing more than to make our lives shine with the glory of His Kingdom, right now and throughout all eternity. Of course, it’s a journey, a process for all of us to become holy.  It takes repentance, humility, and a refusal to give up.      Remember that Jesus Christ said that He will confess us to His Father in heaven if we confess Him before other people.  But if we don’t, He won’t claim us before the Father.  If we want to unite our lives to Christ, we must confess Him every day in word and deed in the small details of our lives. 
Do we treat other people with the love, care, and the dignity that we would show to the Lord Himself?  Do we speak to others in ways that are blessings to them, that help them experience peace and joy?  Don’t think only of your friends or those whom you admire.  What about people who don’t like you, who have wronged you in some way, whom you find it easy to judge, or whom you just don’t like?   The real test is how we treat them.  We confess our faith when we live our faith.   If we don’t act or talk like Christians, we deny Christ.  We give the impression that we want no part of Him, and thus turn away from Him and judge ourselves.  That’s not the way of the saints, however, and it must not be our way of living if we want to share in His life and play our role in the salvation of the world.  
Christ tells us that we have to take up our cross and follow Him, as did the Twelve Apostles.  In order to understand this hard saying, we have to remember that our Lord went to the cross for us;  He bore the consequences of all human sinfulness and corruption to the point of death, burial, and Hades  so that He could conquer  them and bring us into eternal life through His resurrection.   That is the ultimate act of love.  If we want to share in the new life that He has brought to the world, we have to keep all our blessings and relationships in perspective and not make idols of them.   Instead, we must offer them to the Father even as the Son offered Himself up on the cross.
We have to bear the cross of sacrificing the idolatry even of our spouses, children, parents, and other loved ones.  For like us, they are simply human beings and not God.  And if we make false gods of them, we will cause them and us many problems by acting as though they are the center of the universe.  We will bend them and ourselves all out of shape, putting more weight on them and us than anyone can bear.  Instead, we must take up the cross of loving others in Christ, for He is the source and standard of all love worthy of the name.  Out of love, the Father gave the Son for the salvation of the world and the Son offered Himself in free obedience. That is sacrifice beyond what we can understand.  And if we share in that love, we must sacrifice the ultimately self-centered illusion that we will find or give other people true fulfillment and happiness apart from Him.   And if we put ourselves, others, and even worthy causes before faithfulness to the Lord, we will end up confessing some false God rather than Jesus Christ.  That’s not the way of the saints, and it must not be our way if we want to open our lives to His glory.
If we really love others in God, we will offer our relationships with them to the Lord as best we can; and by His mercy, these relationships will become holy.  That’s what’s best for others and for us; it works both ways.  For example, parents shouldn’t live through their children or use them to meet their own goals, but instead guide them to become their true selves to the glory of God.  Neither should we indulge our kids as though they are little gods, but we must do everything possible to help them grow into the full stature of Christ, to be those who love God with every ounce of their being and their neighbors as themselves.  We offer our children to the Lord by the example we set for them, how we treat them, how we speak to them, all toward the end that we and they will put God first in our lives.    
The same is true of marriage.  If we have an unrealistic romantic or financial or social ideal about marriage--and think that a spouse will meet all our needs and bring us complete fulfillment in life, we will miss the true calling of husband and wife to make their life together an icon, a living image of the Kingdom of God.  Mutual forgiveness, patience, self-sacrifice, self-control, and steadfast commitment are the signs of a holy marriage.  Faithful spouses pray for and with one another.  Faithful parents do the same with their children.  When families pray and worship and serve God together in His church, they make of their life together an offering to the Lord.  They confess Jesus Christ to one another and the world.  They open their lives to the holiness of God and follow in the way of the saints.
Yes, this kind of family life is a cross to bear in many respects; it’s not easy and we very often fall short of it.  We all struggle to fulfill our calling to confess Jesus as Lord with integrity each day in all that we say and do.  But we must continue fighting the good fight, for these are the crosses that will make us holy, which little by little will purify our souls and open our lives to the healing grace of God.
 Fortunately, we don’t become holy simply by our own power; if that were the case, we would have no hope for we know how weak we are.  Instead, we rely on the power of the Holy Spirit with the strength given us by the boundless love of Christ, Who conquered sin and death through His cross and empty tomb.  Together with all the Twelve Apostles and all the saints, we will know His holiness and joy if we take up our cross, offer our lives to Him, and confess Him in what we say and do each day.

True discipleship is rarely dramatic, flamboyant, or popular and we will sometimes wonder if we are making any progress at all, but it’s the way that ordinary people like us will grow in holiness.  We keep falling down and we keep getting up. But whatever else we do, we must not give up. For through prayer, fasting, and repentance, and seeking first the Kingdom of God, we grow bit by bit into the holiness shared by all the saints.  That is how we will be saved and play our role in the salvation of the world.