Oprah on Belief

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 9.11.54 PMIn a conference call on Monday night, Oprah Winfrey told the 800 people who connected that her calling is to share ideas through storytelling to connect people.

The call was designed to promote the series Belief that she produced and will air beginning Oct. 18 -24 on the OWN channel.

The series was three years in the making and tells stories of faith from around the world. She said “the way to connect people to their own life story is to allow them to see their story in another’s story.”

“Stories help us to understand what makes us unique but also show us the beautiful things that we have in common,” she said.

The series is built on the belief that the thread of love is the same across all the world’s major religions. When we hear stories of love, we understand each other differently and find out we have more in common that we knew before, Oprah said.

This isn’t a new concept but it comes at a time when religion is being used to divide us and spread hateful rhetoric that does harm.

Jim Winkler, President and chief executive of the National Council of Churches told the group the individual stories illustrate the power of faith for good in the world. He cited the Civil Rights movement as an example of a movement built on moral and spiritual values.

He said the interfaith stories on Belief had inspired him to consider extending interfaith dialogue through the NCCUSA to include conversations with Buddhists and Hindus.

The thought that stories of belief can connect us is a helpful corrective to the pervasive cultural narrative of individualism and isolation in Western societies that has been documented by Robert Putnam and Shirley Turkle.

It’s particularly notable that faith is being presented as unifying. The isolation fostered by technology in common spaces increases our sense of loss of community and connection. For example, sit in an airport public lounge and see how common space has become more atomized as we turn to handheld devices to avoid the invasive ads, noise, and television monitors that distract and annoy us today.

Religious belief offers us many helpful tools, but one of the most distinctive and constructive may be that it provides us with a sense of connection with others and, at its best, a unifying spirit in a world of diversity.

The Belief team is calling on people to organize watch parties and conversation groups and to promote the series on social media.

By using her resources and celebrity to encourage a more unifying spirit and reinforce the thought that belief can have value if it teaches compassion and offers healing, Oprah is giving the world a valuable and timely gift.

Aylan, When Did We See You?

NY Times Page (1 of 1)I awoke this morning from what I thought was a dream, or nightmare. I had dreamt I was profoundly sad and on the verge of tears.

I saw in my mind’s eye the photo of a little boy who was a refugee.

He had drowned. His body washed ashore and was picked up by a Turkish gendarme.

I touched my arm and realized if I was dreaming I was now awake and the scene was not a dream, it is reality.

The body of 3-year-old Syrian, Aylan Kurdi, lying lifeless on a beach has galvanized the world to become aware of the refugee crisis in the Middle East.

News reports say his mother and sister died as well when their overloaded boat sank in rough seas. They were trying to get from Syria to Europe.

11 million Syrians have been displaced by war and more than 2,600 Syrians and Africans have died this year trying to make the crossing.

The most conservative estimate I’ve seen is that 20,000 people have lost their lives attempting to reach Europe from the African continent through extrajudicial means in the past two decades.

The Global Crisis

Opinions about the crisis abound. World leaders, particularly European politicians and policymakers, have ignored the humanitarian tragedy that’s been underway for years.

The U.S., neighboring Middle Eastern countries, and other civil leaders could have done more, sooner.

I am complicit, too. I wrote to leaders of my own religious community meeting in Europe asking them to speak publicly and they chose not to. And I did nothing more.

At that moment, I became part of the problem. One more inattentive, distracted, distant person whose empathy means little if it does not lead to action.

I awoke this morning to the guilt of my own complicity. And it’s painful.

There’s enough blame to go around. But blame won’t solve anything.

Nor will guilt. Guilt isn’t enough. It’s only useful as a motivator.

I hope the visual awareness that comes from that stunning photograph is motivation for millions to do more than feel guilty for a brief moment.

Global Citizenship

I hope, for example, that for those who, like me, try to follow the values that are in the teachings of Jesus, recognize that we are called to be citizens in a different way.

We are citizens of what Jesus called the kingdom of God. It is much greater than our neighborhood, state, region or nation.

To be in this kingdom is to be called to global citizenship, caring for and taking responsibility for how the dispossessed, vulnerable and voiceless are treated, no matter where they reside.

In this kingdom we are connected, and responsible for one another; even in the conflicted, messy, complicated, and difficult to understand world we inhabit.

The image of a lifeless child lying on a beach reminds us of the consequences when we forget this connection.

Jesus was clear about what it means to follow him. It means to live into this understanding of our global responsibilities and to act on them.

In explaining what is expected he said, “When you have done it (provided food, shelter, clothing, water, comfort) for one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it for me.” (Matthew 25: 40 Common English Bible)

We have seen Jesus. His body washed ashore on a beach three days ago.

Making Personal Change

What must happen? First, I must change my interior.

It’s too easy for me to distance myself from the suffering of those an ocean away in a culture I don’t understand caught in a conflict so complicated I cannot fathom.

But I can understand the human suffering that results. This is a starting point.

In his current meditation series, Fr. Richard Rohr discusses the practice of tonglen as a pathway to interior change.

In  tonglen we “breathe in” others’ pain, “so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness.”

This builds our awareness and also gives us insight into our own brokenness and need for wholeness. A quick read of his meditation gives a more complete description.

Championing Institutional Change

I believe I must advocate for a change in budget priorities including greater amounts for humanitarian aid and changes in foreign policies that seek peaceful resolution to conflicts over armed force.

In a commentary in The Guardian, Sabrina Hersi Issa writes: “To continue to under-fundundermine and ignore humanitarian fallout from our military actions and foreign policy failings is moral malpractice. To do so because of xenophobia and Islamophobia is an even greater sin.”

There are many worthy organizations at work relieving the suffering. We can take immediate steps to support them with financial and material aid. Others are working on policy. And Pope Francis has called on Catholics across Europe to take in the refugees.

Seeking Wholeness

It’s clear that the systems that allowed Aylan to die are broken.

And it’s also clear that we who live in these systems are broken and must seek wholeness.

The way to healing is to seek change–individually and collectively.

We need not ask, as did those who followed Jesus centuries ago, “Lord, when did we see you?” We already know what we have seen. And who.



What I Did on my Summer Vacation

Juvenile Barred Owl

Juvenile Barred Owl

The headline is tongue in cheek. But since taking leave from my work responsibilities in early May, I’ve also taken hiatus from blogging.

In the next few posts I’ll catch up. So, as children returning to school write about their summer vacations, I plan to follow suit.

I was concerned that in stepping away from the office work routine I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Was I ever wrong about that! Summer has been a time of non-stop activity.

Sharon and I have walked approximately 4 miles daily, mostly in a nature preserve near our home. It’s a wonderful learning experience, a time of meditation and contemplation, and, most importantly, a time to be together.

We’ve made new friends and enjoyed seeing and hearing the narrative of the woods. I’ve practiced refining techniques of wildlife and nature photography and learned a program to process the photos digitally. One of the great gifts has been watching the growth of the juvenile barred owls at Radnor Lake Nature Preserve in Nashville.

I’ve read four books: My Life: Willie Nelson, an autobiography; The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan; The Fly Trap, Fredrik Sjöberg; and Dorothea Lange:A Photographter’s Life, Milton Meltzer. I’m well into Inside a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know, Alexandra Horowitz. I’ve also been re-reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

I’m often asked what I miss most since I’ve left. The only thing I miss is daily contact with the some of the finest staff colleagues I’ve been privileged to work with.

Because I traveled for my work, today every time an airplane flies overhead I catch myself saying, “Thank God I’m not on that.”

I’ve been exploring new growth in spiritual practice and concepts, which I’ll write about in future posts.

I’ve become aware that many of the things I used to worry about in the wee hours of the morning don’t matter that much at all. That worry was wasted time and many of the issues largely irrelevant. That’s biblical. We learn.

Is Saving the Church Saving the World?

Cross at Lake Junaluska, NCEconomist Don House believes if enough local congregations spend enough money on the right things it will put The United Methodist Church on a growth trajectory. It’s a novel approach to the challenges faced by religion in the 21st Century.

House says the church has 15 years to turn around or it’s kaput. His analysis is based on the U.S., not Africa and Asia. The church’s presence in Europe is tiny. For years the U.S. church has carried the financial load.

Urgency for Change

Whether a denomination with the institutional ballast of this church can turn around that quickly is a big question. But the urgency is underscored by recent surveys in the U.S. that show an increase of “nones,” (people who don’t identify with any religion), the “spiritual but not religious,” and growing secularism.

Combine this with decline in mass membership organizations, civic clubs and voter participation and it’s clear we are losing faith in the institutions that once were the glue that bound the society together.

Many thoughtful leaders say the world is at an “inflection point” in history. Something significant is happening but we can’t foretell its outcome.

New forms of human organizations and religious communities will arise. And if sociologist Thorsten Veblen was correct, by the time we create something suited for today, it will be outdated by tomorrow.

Culture, social connections and technology, will have moved on, he says. The challenge is across the culture, and it’s deeper than how groups are organized, or even what they do.

Status Quo is Unsustainable

The dilemma facing the Boy Scouts of America is instructive. The counsel President Robert Gates gave the Scouts is similar to House’s comments to the church. Maintaining the status quo is unsustainable.

And these things–social interactions, economic pressures, and technological changes–all influence religious values and beliefs. Equally important, they affect how the faith community is perceived.

So far the conversation about the House proposal, as it has been reported, hasn’t focused much on these challenges. It’s been presented as a spending plan and less as a theological document.

Plans for a more engaged ministry are being formulated. They include addressing poverty in 30,000 schools and reaching 1 million children with life-saving health interventions (not a real stretch but a good idea), creating a culture of call, and training in discipleship.

Will this be enough? I don’t know. I hope so.

But as it stands right now it isn’t awe-inspiring and it doesn’t sound like the transformation of the world that is called for in the second half of the United Methodist mission statement–to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Faith Gives Meaning

Religious faith is the means through which we define meaning and purpose in life. It connects us to our Creator and to each other.

It helps us to act responsibly toward others and experience dignity ourselves. It demands justice.

It’s what guides us to treat the Creation with respect and leads us to understand the sacred in our midst and to reach for transcendant values that cannot be captured in mathematical formulas nor scientific propositions.

In this transcendant reach we find a vision for life that takes us beyond our limits, our fears, and the finite frustrations that confound us.

The Great Challenge

And in this lies the great challenge to the church, to give us a vision of life that is brighter and more hopeful than the conflict-riddled, hungry, hand-to-mouth survival, job-loss threatening, gritty world that all but the privileged few live in.

It’s not the challenge to save itself. It’s the challenge to present the biblical vision that life is sacred, filled with meaning, and to be lived purposefully.

This challenge involves communicating with people who are oblivious to, perhaps even unbelieving of, their sacred worth.

It involves addressing the fear that rapid changes are passing us by, making us irrelevant, robbing us of purpose.

We are challenged to address a lifestyle that traps us in a consumptive quest for meaning that fills recycle bins but not the soul.

Christians are challenged to translate the teachings of Jesus in the sermon on the mount into a compelling and inviting narrative for lost souls in the 21st Century, for in this lies saving grace.

A formula for spending might be a good starting place, but it’s far from the full effort necessary to address the challenge. Christians must tell us where they see God at work in this mess and how we fit into God’s future. And invite us into it.

They must offer us reason to believe and something to believe in.

Dying to Get From Africa to Europe

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 12.00.15 PMThe immigration crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean is hard to watch. It brings to mind mass migrations by sea of Haitians and Cubans in this hemisphere in the 1980s and 90s.

But with an estimated 900 fatalities when a boat sank this week off the coast of Italy, the toll is even greater.

I’ve felt a particular burden, even from a distance. For many years I’ve traveled to Africa and on many of those trips I’ve been implored by young people to help them emigrate. Some requests come quietly. Some are insistent. All are poignant.

The refugees who drowned, and the hundreds who preceded them on dangerous crossings, are not among those with the wherewithal to emigrate legally. They lack the contacts and the legal justification required for state sanctioned immigration. They are the invisible people.

There are myriad reasons for wanting to leave their homelands. Most seek relief from oppressive poverty. Some lack opportunity in their home countries, while others face oppressive regimes that make life unbearable. And some, such as Somalis and Syrians, live in countries where daily survival is a dangerous, risky thing.

These migrants are the poor and desperate. For too long Europe has turned a blind eye to those who risk life and limb in the vain hope that they will find security, prosperity and opportunity to the north. If they survive, most find confinement in a camp that is poorly equipped, only to be returned in a revolving door of frustration and risk.

But the neglect is not only European. The developed nations view the world through the strategic lens of security and threat. Until a major crisis erupts, or an insurgency develops that presents a global threat, the response to poverty at scale is often limited, and slow.

It’s abundantly clear that poverty is a breeding ground for instability and desperation. And desperation is a motivator for civil unrest, and a tool in the hands of manipulative radicals seeking to overthrow weak, corrupt and oppressive governments.

The failure to address poverty with a consistent, long-term approach has consequences. It is a strategic as well as a humanitarian failure.

Neither you nor I can help every young person who seeks help to leave his or her country, but we can encourage public policy that addresses food insecurity and long term development. We can encourage public policy that rewards good government. We can tell our representatives that we favor proactive humanitarian policy as a preventative to military action that results from social instability. We can provide financial support and volunteer to work for those humanitarian organizations on the front line of human need.

Here are four things we can do:

  1. Become informed and speak out about the current immigration crisis so that developed nations cannot ignore the poor and desperate until they die in tragedies like the ship that sank off Italy’s coast this week.
  2. Support the work of groups like the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church, and others like it, Bread for the World and Church World Service who advocate for just public policy and provide humanitarian services to ease the burdens of poverty.
  3. Support the Global Food Security Act to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, strengthen maternal and child nutrition, and build capacity for long-term agricultural growth.
  4. Support global health initiatives including efforts like Imagine No Malaria which improve quality of life in regions where under-served people face hunger and disease without proper health care.

We can be persistent in attempting to improve life for those who otherwise are willing to risk their lives in a dangerous journey to improve their chances to find dignity, opportunity and prosperity.


This article, now two years old, remains a pertinent, practical overview of the immigration crisis in Europe with clear policy recommendations.

About Retirement

 Tail of the Dragon on U.S. 129 with 318 curves in 11 miles. Deal's Gap, NC

Tail of the Dragon on U.S. 129 with 318 curves in 11 miles. Deal’s Gap, NC

I never expected to live beyond the age of 50. Strange as that sounds, I came to accept that death would catch up to me by that time. Insurance would take care of my family and I would be gone.

There was sound reasoning for this unusual thought. In those days I was traveling the world to report on humanitarian disasters—famine, armed conflict, natural disasters—for Church World Service and the National Council of Churches, USA.

I was chasing death around the world.

Not that these organizations put me in unsafe situations. They didn’t. But great tragedies are by nature uncontrolled. Things happen.

A team I was heading was told to leave Somalia or our compound would be bombed. A rival warlord didn’t want us in town. We negotiated to no avail. But we stayed and the bombing never happened, although we did have to leave a few days later under cover of darkness.

Somalia had just slipped into anarchy, a condition that it’s still trapped in.

I was in a Soviet-made passenger jet once that landed on a rain-filled runway in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It hydroplaned, sliding sideways and throwing us around like bowling pins. I thought my time had come. But the wheels grabbed and we straightened and came to a safe stop.

After I lived past the age of demise, I got depressed for lack of longer term planning. I’ve since learned this is not as unusual as I thought. Others tell me they have had similar thoughts.

And after I figured out that I had to get on with it, I moved beyond depression to the next step in my working life.

I tell you this, because I reached the age of mandatory retirement for my current position this year and I was forced to accept it.

In fairness, I requested to leave a few weeks earlier than planned for various reasons and I’m grateful this was allowed.

But the rule itself is an arbitrary holdover from the past. Retirement is being re-defined. The old concept of sitting on the beach all day lolling in the sun, or playing golf is looking like an anachronism for a lot of people. But stereotypes die hard.

A young man who doesn’t know me well told me I looked so much younger and relaxed after my planned retirement was announced. If I looked younger and relaxed it wasn’t for the reason he assumed.

Those who know me know I don’t embrace rules with a loving caress. I’m offended when anyone tells me what to do, even if it’s a doctor who’s telling me for my own good! But I abide most of them. This one is inescapable.

I understand that some people enthusiastically embrace retirement, or at least they embrace doing their own thing on their own time without the constraints of workplace rules. They take retirement as soon as possible.

I resist the rule and I resist the stereotype. In her book on her retirement Mary Lloyd writes of those of us who have reached this age. She says, “We’re stereotyped as out of shape, in need of huge amounts of medical attention, and focused on our grandchildren and finding the right retirement community.

…We need to see the truth—that when you leave, you may have as much of your life to live as you spent in the workforce.

…There’s so much life left in us when we reach this point. There’s so much to gain by claiming it. If we live our lives authentically after we ‘retire,’ we will be healthier physically, emotionally, spiritually. But, more importantly, we will be on fire with life.

…We need to change the way we undertake this transition. Our assumptions and expectations of the years after we retire need to change—individually and as a society. Those of us who have gotten that far, need to stand up and say confidently, ‘No, that’s not me at all.’ And then go out and be who we really are.”

Now, still on fire with life, I have the opportunity to respectfully lay aside the Book of Discipline, the law book of the church that requires mandatory retirement, and say, “No, that’s not me at all.” And then I will go out and be who I really am.

There are still many roads to ride, many words to write, many photographs to take, many human needs to be addressed, much injustice to confront, and much more to learn. There is a future to be grasped.

Most importantly, there is a life to be lived authentically.

And by the way. I’m not retiring. The rule says so. I say, to hell with the rule.


A postscript: According to Age Wave research more than half of the Boomers who are turning 65 at a rate of 10,000 a day view retirement as a time to re-set, not as the occasion for winding down. Colleges and Universities are beginning to recognize this age group as a potential new market made up of those pursuing “capstone” careers.

We Must Be As Persistent as the Parasite

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 5.11.41 AMA few years ago I heard a Navy physician speak about a particularly difficult drug resistant strain of malaria in Cambodia. He was a specialist in malaria research. He speculated that the strain had developed during the U.S. war with Vietnam.

Malaria was rampant in the region. People affected by it took medication haphazardly to relieve the symptoms. But if the full course of treatment is not followed, the parasite can develop resistance.

He theorized this had contributed to a more virulent parasite. It’s resistant to artemisinin, currently the most effective drug to treat malaria. His concern was that the parasite could spread.

The Parasite Spreads

Now it appears this may be happening according to a study in the medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases. The parasite may be moving to a wider area, or reporting and documentation may be locating more cases.

In either case, the study points to the need for persistence to contain and prevent this parasite from spreading. The risk is that this strain could reach beyond Cambodia to India, Africa and other parts of southeast Asia.

If this were to happen it could reverse the enormous gains made against this disease in the past decade. This has happened before and the result was an increase in deaths and loss of productivity across whole regions of the world.

The study rings an alarm bell.

Continuing the Fight

We must continue the fight against malaria. The full range of technologies must be used:

  • continuing research to replace artimisinin where resistance occurs;
  • bednets to prevent night exposure;
  • effective education to assure people use medications properly;
  • getting counterfit drugs off the market;
  • residual indoor spraying for interior protection;
  • research to potentially alter the mosquito host and the parasite;
  • enviromental cleanup and water management to control mosquito breeding areas;
  • repairing broken, inadequate health systems.

Most importantly, donors, researchers, and health care providers must remain as persistent as the parasite.

Malaria is not a fad from which we retreat when it’s no longer the cause of the day. If the disease rebounds, the death toll will be worse than before, and that would be tragic.

Sustained, ongoing, dogged determination to contain this disease is the best approach. It’s not the easiest approach, but we know the results of doing less: needless suffering, lost productivity, countless deaths.

Campaign anticipates misuse of bed nets

Teresa Ad‹o Jo‹o (second from right) receives instructions about the proper use of her new mosquito net from Ilda Nanjembe during a 2012 distribution by The United Methodist Church's Imagine No Malaria campaign in Bom Jesus, Angola. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Teresa Ad‹o Jo‹o (second from right) learns about proper use of a bed net from Ilda Nanjembe during a 2012 distribution by The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign in Bom Jesus, Angola. UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Bed nets intended to prevent malaria are used in fishing communities in Zambia to fish for food, which is sold in the local market, according to a report in the New York Times. The nets also trap fingerlings necessary for future stock. This decimates stocks and causes environmental harm.

The issue highlights an unintended consequence of the global effort to combat malaria, an effort that has reduced the death toll by half in the past decade.

The net distributions I have seen by the Imagine No Malaria campaign anticipated the problem of net misuse.

Before a distribution, community health workers and volunteers were identified and trained. During a pre-distribution education period, they learned how to prevent malaria, request permission to enter homes to hang nets, and explain proper use and care of nets.

Media campaigns, community meetings, fliers and word-of-mouth alerted local people to the future distribution. Communities were prepared in advance to welcome health workers and volunteers into homes. The trained volunteers hung nets and demonstrated how to use them.

As followup, health workers were assigned for six months to sectors to monitor net use and record the use rate. This identified issues for future distributions and reinforced behavior change practices that are critical for regular net usage.  For 9 to 12 months after a net distribution, there are regular check-ups to ensure proper use and care of the nets.

In the Bo District of Sierra Leone, for example, health workers determined 98 percent of the nets were in use six months after installation. In addition, Imagine No Malaria nets were not distributed around fishing communities. The use of nets for fishing is likely localized to those communities.

In the past, nets distributed without such precautions sometimes appeared in local markets and were used for many unintended purposes. But net providers learned and adapted.

Underlying problems

Secondary uses of netting, as with many other items, are common in many communities lacking resources.

While this doesn’t mitigate the environmental harm, it does emphasize that people are using nets to get food and fish for sale. The root of the problem is food self-sufficiency and a healthy local economy.

It’s compounded by lack of awareness of the harm done to fish stocks.

The story also points to the need for alternatives to nets where practical and for more education.

A greater emphasis on screens and doors in living quarters is proposed. Due to construction practices and cost, this is more practical in some areas than others.

Indoor residual spraying is practical and safe, and it is used in some regions.

Responding to the challenge

Media campaigns can encourage proper use of nets and point out the harm done by this particular secondary use. Local leaders can speak against harmful fishing and build community support for prevention.

Addressing the diseases of poverty is a complex challenge. Solving one problem can lead to others. Unintended consequences reveal themselves.

Disease, poverty, education, food sufficiency and environmental stewardship are interrelated, complex human concerns. We are challenged by them to find life-enhancing solutions.

The story points to the need for thoughtful, comprehensive development to address these interrelated issues of life and death.


This post was edited to remove a sentence that said the NY Times article did not refer to new nets. The article quotes a fisherman who says new nets are better because they don’t have holes.

Ecumenical partners brought healing after Khmer Rouge’s ‘hell on earth’


A worker cultivates rice on a collective farm in 1980s Cambodia. Photo by Larry Hollon.

A worker cultivates rice on a collective farm in 1980s Cambodia. Photo by Larry Hollon.

Today is the 36th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea, known more commonly today as Cambodia.

Shortly after the fall, and after Vietnam occupied Cambodia, I went to the country to produce a film on reconstruction. Cuban hydrologists and Polish veterinarians went into Cambodia under an ecumenical partnership brokered by ecumenical leaders including Paul McCleary, head of Church World Service.

The people were still reeling from the trauma. It’s estimated that up to one-quarter of the population died in the genocide. Led by Pol Pot, the revolutionaries attempted to create an agrarian, collectivist society.

Instead, they created hell on earth.

The killing fields

At first dissidents were killed. But the attacks enlarged to include the educated and even those who wore glasses because they might be intellectuals. Teachers, lawyers and professors risked identification as part of the anti-revolutionary elite.

Under coercion, neighbors, family members and even children reported on those presumed guilty of anti-revolutionary acts or thoughts. Families were divided. People were uprooted and forced to labor in collectives. Mass murders were common.

This was the time of the killing fields.

The country’s infrastructure was dismantled. Telephone lines were torn down. The electric grid was destroyed. Modern technologies were counter to the idealized rural society the revolutionaries envisioned.

The teams put in place by the ecumenical coalition helped to restore the national cattle herd and reconstruct destroyed canals in the Mekong Delta. The canals irrigated rice paddies, which were the basic food source for the region.

U.S. carpet bombing during the war with Vietnam had caused massive destruction to the countryside. The Khmer Rouge made it worse.

Mass graves

The 1978 invasion by Vietnam had freed the country of Pol Pot but added to the damage. But for the Vietnamese administrators, Cambodia was a non-functioning country, driven backward into pre-modern status.

Land mines, laid during the war with Vietnam, were still in the ground, causing injuries and death. A grim census was underway exhuming bodies from mass graves.

Tensions between the occupiers and the Khmer were subtle but strong. Trust was broken. Hatred for the U.S. government was mitigated only by a more intense hatred for the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.

We traveled the country, under a curfew and tight regulation. We went to killing fields. In one particularly disturbing visit, we watched a worker exhume skulls and other bones. The odor of decay made the scene all the more horrific.

At a city hospital in the south, a modern stainless steel sterilizer for medical equipment sat upended on three rocks. Now it served as a boiling pot above a wood fire in a former operating room.

The building was a skeleton of its former self.

Sensitive work

The work of the ecumenical coalition was controversial at the time. Healing after the war between Vietnam and the U.S. was still in the future. But the ecumenical team was doing pure humanitarian work. It was the work of reconciliation and healing.

As in all wars, the suffering is not limited to the combatants. Those caught between the guns bear a tragic burden as well. This was especially true of the Cambodian people.

To enter Cambodia we had to pass through Vietnam. Vietnamese officials were suspicious of our film crew, but the Vietnamese people were hospitable and gracious.

The Cambodians were fearful we would make a misstep and cause problems for them with the Vietnamese occupiers.

U.S. authorities had sanctions against both countries. They required special approval for licenses and visas. And they confiscated and held my film for a brief time upon our return.

Eventually, however, the State Department purchased copies to place in libraries around the world as an example of the humanitarianism of the U.S.

Vision for a different world

Imagine how different the region is now. Cambodia is recovering from near-Stone Age conditions that prevailed only 36 years ago.

Vietnam is becoming an economic success story.

Thailand, despite disruptive political divisions, is a strong economic power and a tourist destination.

And Laos continues its reconstruction.

On this anniversary, I’m grateful for the courage of the ecumenical partners who carried out this humanitarian work of reconciliation and healing. I’m especially grateful for leaders who had the vision, perseverance and commitment to see the world differently, through a lens of compassion and reconciliation, and to carry out the vision.

How Would You Like Your News, Mam, On Paper or on Screen?

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 9.16.38 AMWe get two newspapers by home delivery and both have announced a price increase. This comes as no surprise. Costs are increasing. Readership is down. Revenue is in free fall. Readers are growing older and are not being replaced.

The formula is clear. Some day it will be too expensive to distribute news this way. Publishers will no longer be able to print and distribute news on paper, and I’ll no longer be able to afford it.

Millennials get their news in other ways, mostly from the web through social media and websites that package information specifically for them. If they want news in any form, it’s on a screen.

Losing Millennials

Allen Mutter, in his blog “Reflections of a Newsosaur,” concludes that “editors and publishers have only themselves to blame” for losing this generation. They are coveted not only for their current buying power, but because they are the future. Mutter says publishers talked to one another and did not engage millennials to discover their interests, attitudes, and media uses. That’s how they lost them.

To underscore his point, he compares demographic statistics from traditional media audiences to visits to websites that cater to millennials. He used: BuzzFeed, Circa, Mic, Upworthy, Vice, Vocative, Vox and the McClatchy chain. The handwriting is on the wall, or more aptly, on the screen.

The Era of the Screen

We’re in the era of the screen, and screens on various devices result in a sea change. The changes we’re going through are so widespread and disruptive they affect traditional business models, the way we go about our daily affairs, language and culture.

Predicting this would have required an ability to foretell the future with a skill few of us have. Who knew that in 2014 millennials would use four or more digital devices a day, or check their mobile phones 45 times a day? Who foretold that the primary way they would learn about new information is through social media? Or that sharing would come to mean more than letting someone else play with your toy?

The shift from broadcast to hypertargeted media is upending how we communicate. We no longer buy radios because we listen to news, podcasts, and music online, or download them to handheld devices. We watch videos on mobile screens. We select content based on our interests and needs. We’re overloaded with options and we’ve learned to filter out that which doesn’t appeal to our specific interests.

Institutional Change

Institutional authority is changing. It’s too soon to know how this will shake out, but it’s clear that what we’ve known as traditional institutional models must change. And businesses that traffic in information and entertainment such as movies, radio, television, music and news are challenged to change their business models.

Population by Generation

Researchers say millennials want socially responsible information relevant to them. They want entertaining information, often packaged in graphics or video. They rely on friends and sharing to help them filter content options. They are less interested in dispassionate, objective journalism than in writing with a point of view.

Demographics Don’t Define Us

But ad executive David Bohan makes the point that millennials, like the rest of us, are not a lump of demographic similarities. They’re people with distinct interests and lives. Millennials have different interests at different stages of life. They are loyal to brands they trust but also discriminating and savvy.

If there is a message to be gleaned from this complexity it is that we cannot reduce people to their demographic and psychographic profiles. Life is more nuanced than this. We have distinct interests, desires and expectations. Some of us are native to this new communication environment. Others are digital immigrants, subject to the changes that media bring to our lives, uprooting us from the security that institutions provided in the past.

The New Challenge

And if there is a constant in this mix it is that one-way communication has given way to conversation. Multiple conversations, in fact. Communication is about relationships. The new challenge is to venture from the familiar and find a place in the new landscape. It calls for listening and learning. We can talk to ourselves but risk that the rest of the world will pass us by.

The challenge that virtually every institution based on mass membership, mass circulation or mass audience faces today is to find a place in the new landscape and converse with those who inhabit it, and find ways to communicate relevance, authenticity and responsibility. And to do it in an appealing way.

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