Archive - January, 2005

Spongebob, Say It Ain’t So!

Spongebob is a gay advocate, according to Dr. James Dobson, head of the conservative Focus on the Family and advisor to the President about religious issues. Spongebob joins Tinky Winky, the Teletubby outed by The Rev. Jerry Falwell in 1999 as a threat to children and families.

Dr.
Dobson issued the warning in Washington, D.C. the night before President Bush
spoke at his inauguration about spreading freedom and liberty around the world.
Spongebob appears in a video produced by the non-profit We Are Family
Foundation
, whose intent is to promote tolerance and
diversity.

I was tempted to pass on
this. It’s the kind of story that causes those who don’t see the world through
the same lens as Dr. Dobson to sit back, perhaps laugh, and go about their
business. I was tempted to do the
same.

But it grates on me that the
CNN headline says “Christians
Issue Gay Warning on Spongebob video.”
In the short-hand language of
headlines, all persons of faith are painted with the same brush. And I can’t
acquiesce in this.

I was in meetings
last week with several groups of church persons who were wrestling with how to
fund important missional programs of The United Methodist Church–how to create
healthy congregations, how to raise funds for tsunami relief, HIV-AIDS, malaria
prevention and other urgent human needs. Spongebob’s sexuality was never
mentioned.

While Dr. Dobson drew
headlines for a warning about a troupe of cartoon characters, these Christians
dealt with substantial issues of life and death–issues that have traditionally
been at the heart of the Christian gospel. They labored outside the limelight
to solve problems and to serve people in the world faithfully. And this is why
I take more than passing interest in this small
flap.

Those of us in the old line
denominations are too reticent, too reserved and too inexperienced to attract
media coverage to our concerns. Dr. Dobson, on the other hand, knows how to do
this. In the absence of the quiet voices of Mainline leaders, his positions can
appear to be representatives of a wider constituency than is actually the
case.

Apparently I’m not alone in this concern. The public discussion about values is leading other Christians who are concerned about poverty, hunger, peace and justice to speak and act more forthrightly. In a profile in the New York Times recently The Rev. Robert Edgar of the National Council of Churches says, “We’re people of faith, too, and we’re going to talk about what the Bible says about poverty. When nine million children are living in poverty, that’s a moral value.”

The
crux of the issue is which values from Christian tradition inform and shape
Christian faith today–the selective, politicized values of the right, or a more
comprehensive set of values that are rooted in the fullness of scripture? And
how do we talk about these values in a compelling
way?

According to David J. Frenchak,
president of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education, an
evangelical organization, “We’ve let not evangelicals, but the right wing
determine what moral values
are.”

Frank Thomas writes in What’s the Matter
with Kansas?
that the cultural battles of the right-wing backlash are
non-winnable. They amount to taking offense conspicuously, even flamboyantly,
but they result in a greater feeling of disempowerment. “It [the cultural
backlash] offers no resolution, simply reminding us we can never win.” (p.
123.)

So, perhaps we should thank
Dr. Dobson for his flamboyance. In an unintended way, he is helping us to
participate in the national dialogue. But we need to find the messages and the
methods to speak more clearly and simply to more people. We can’t leave it up
to Spongebob to speak for us.

Not All Broadband Services Are Equal

I learned something new this week about broadband services. They are not “equal.”

While
attending meetings in Houston, after posting successfully from Tokyo, Singapore,
Indonesia and California, I ran into a service that not only refused to allow me
to publish (for technical reasons, not editorial) it also corrupted the blog so
that it was off-line sporadically this past
week.

I discovered a technical
report that explained the problem. In its simplest explanation, I logged onto a
service that did not have the full features that others have. (Still charged
the same fee, however!)

So, if you
tried to check in and were unable, that’s why. After considerable pulling of
the few hairs I have left, I’m back now. Thanks for your patience.

Photos

No Proselytizing, Please

San Diego — A report from Sri Lanka in this morning’s New York Times about Christians from the U.S. proselytizing while offering humanitarian aid concerns me deeply. In my opinion this is not acceptable for many reasons.

I need to be clear that I am writing
personal opinion. I am not speaking for, or on behalf of, my denomination. I
do know, however, that this behavior is avoided scrupulously by all the major
aid organizations with religious ties.

Let me first state that I
understand the genuine desire of people who have found Christian faith to be a
life-changing experience of the goodness of God’s grace and their desire to
share this good thing.

I also
understand an overflowing sense of gratitude that is rooted in this experience
that results in a desire to reach out and relate to others and, more, to serve
others, particularly the poor, the vulnerable, the lonely, the imprisoned and
those in grief.

This makes faith
vital.

But the scriptures also say
that to everything there is a season. A humanitarian crisis is not the season
for proselytizing (if there is ever such a
season).

Dropping into a crisis
area, sharing faith in a way that is upsetting to local sensitivities, bundling
faith with humanitarian aid, and flying out in a week or two is, to put it
bluntly and as kindly as I am able, a bad idea. You can read into this language
that I feel a bit more strongly than just “a bad idea,” but I’m trying to remain
charitable here.

Here’s why: It’s
insensitive to the religious sensibilities of people who are already faithfully
practicing Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions at a time of great
vulnerability.

It’s also insensitive
to those persons of the Christian community who reside in the affected area and
who must live there long after the proselytizers are gone. They know the
culture, they know the people of the community, they know how to get important
work done. To behave as if Christians were not already present is disrespectful
at least. To make their lives more difficult is simply
unconscionable.

Whether intentional
or not, such behavior can put the good work of aid agencies related to Christian
religious communities at risk even if they do not engage in this practice. It
leaves the appearance that humanitarian aid is tied to a particular religious
perspective and this can leave the appearance of coercion. It can create
difficulties for them with local authorities who already have their hands full
attempting to meet basic needs, coordinating emergency services and absorbing
volunteers and material aid. This can be an overwhelming
task.



And finally–and most important–this
behavior puts lives at risk. In many areas affected by the tsunami religious
tensions exist. In a few places there have been incidents of property damange,
and in fewer still, outright conflict resulting in death. To exacerbate these
dynamics is irresponsible, not only in the present but in the long-term future.

Local Christians will continue to
live in these communities. They will continue to face minority status. And try
as they might, they will find it difficult to separate themselves from those in
the Christian community from outside who have engaged in these practices. So,
perhaps I’m not as charitable as I intended at the outset.

It’s enough to offer food to the
hungry, water to the thirsty, comfort to the bereaved, medicine to the sick,
hope to the hopeless. But in this situation no proselytizing,
please.

Pledges Made to Rebuild Churches

San Diego — After the report of the delegation to Indonesia was presented to the Connectional Table, a new coordinating body created by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church holding its first meeting here, two pledges were made to re-build churches in the Aceh region.

The
Banda Aceh Methodist Church will be re-built with financial assistance from the
Indiana Conference of The United Methodist Church. Bishop Michael Coyner, area
episcopal leader, pledged $50,000 to the
church.

It is reported that 80% of
the city of Meulaboh was destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami. The Meulaboh
Methodist Church sustained heavy damage. The area has been virtually
inaccessible to all but helicopters and
airplanes.

It has also been the most
under-reported of damaged areas due to inaccessibility. But the human needs and
dislocation are extreme. Meulaboh is closest to the epicenter of the
quake.

The Rev. Carl Schenck, senior
pastor of First United Methodist Church, Manchester, Missouri pledged $50,000 to
underwrite re-building of the Meulaboh Methodist
Church.

During morning prayers one
participant voiced thanksgiving for another gift to tsunami relief. This gift
came from the DuPage County, Illinois women’s prison. The women contributed
$24.00 from their prison wages to UMCOR.

Six Projects in Development

San Diego — The Rev. Randy Day, speaking to the Connectional Table of The United Methodist Church in its first meeting, outlined six projects responding to tsunami victims in the Banda Aceh region and other areas of Indonesia.

Pharmaceutical distribution. Pharmaceuticals will be distributed among eleven camps for displaced persons with a total population of 8,600 residents. These camps around the city of Bireuen are in an area that has not received the same attention and level of response as the city of Banda Aceh. UMCOR is requesting local churches to contribute to its Medicine Boxes program.

Destruction Clean-up. Banda Aceh and Meulaboh churches were in the center of destruction zones. Debris and toxic mud and water contaminate the environment. Cleanup has already begun in Banda Aceh but it is being carried out by hand and this is very dangerous work because of the risk of injury and contaminated mud. The UMCOR report notes that serious anti-Christian vandalism and personal violence have occurred here in the recent past. In addition, local authorities are repressive toward Christians. The courageous young Methodist pastor is dedicated to serving all his neighbors and he is seeking peace in Aceh.

The report states UMCOR will provide heavy equipment to clear the church property and hopes to resurface it with clean soil within the next week.

Community Services Center. Once the churches in Banda Aceh and Meulaboh are cleaned and their community services re-started, UMCOR will attempt to add storm-safe rooms and community service centers in both cities.

House Replacement. As a first step in what is hoped will become a multi-year housing replacement and income generation project, UMCOR proposes to build 30 houses for members of the church and an equal number for vulnerable persons regardless of creed, race or gender.

Health Care Volunteers. UMCOR is working with the Indonesian Methodist Church to prepare to receive health care volunteers. The Indonesian church has not coordinated a volunteer program of this magnitude before and will need assistance in coordination and logistics. UMCOR is developing a plan for managerial assistance and is projecting a schedule to rotate health care teams as well as Volunteers in Mission for a period of two years.

Pastoral Care. Rapid death, long, intense physical pain, exhaustion, shock and grief contribute to a crisis among the whole population, including pastors and laity. UMCOR will gather pastors and other leaders for theological reflection, grief support, assessment of church leader’s health and corporate planning for recovery.

UMCOR
will be announcing these initiatives in more detail as planning and
implementation develop.

The Digital Age

At first it seemed incongruous to me. What people were complaining about in Banda Aceh was not the lack of clean water. It was not the speed of cleanup. Not lack of basic goods. They were complaining about the lack of cellphone service in parts of the city.

As
an article on cleanup in the New
York Times
makes clear, normalcy in this situation is difficult to
grasp. The article reminds me of conversation within our delegation as we
travelled the streets of Banda Aceh and saw the completeness of the
destruction.

The rubble is scooped
up by front loaders and loaded into dump trucks which off-load it along street
shoulders. It was stacked eight-feet high or more on some roadsides we passed.
Our conversation surmised that reconstruction here could take a decade. Given
the mass and nature of the debris, it is doubtful that some bodies or skeletal
remains will ever be fully
recovered.

It really isn’t as
incongruous as it seems that people desire cellphone coverage in these
conditions. In fact, the ability to communicate across distances, when roads
are impassable and bridges destroyed, is a critical need. The tsunami resulted
in massive dislocation as people fled the rising waters and are unable to return
to their former homes. They are trying to determine who has survived and where
their absent loved ones might be located. The cellphone is the means by which
this can be done most efficiently.



I wrote from the outset that we live in a
digital environment. Cellphones have become important means of communicating
the world over. Some countries have leapfrogged over the wiring of traditional
landline telephony and are dependent on cellular
technology.

When a technology moves
from being an interesting innovation to a necessary tool, it moves into the
mainstream. In this emergency we are witnessing both the adoption of a variety
of digital technologies that are becoming critical tools and at the same time,
we are experiencing our vulnerability without them.

Silent Tsunami

San Diego — The Rev. Randy Day, addressing the first meeting of the Connectional Table of The United Methodist Church, outlined the response that will be followed in the Banda Aceh region of Indonesia by the United Methodist Committee on Relief and issued a warning that malaria could be the next major “wave.”

“Keeping
survivors healthy by providing clean water, food and especially medicines, could
prevent the next wave of death,” he said.

Rev. Day had spoken of the scourge
of malaria long before the tsunami, and he favors a major effort to combat it
worldwide.

Loss of life from malaria
has been called a “silent
tsunami
” by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the UN’s Millennium
Project. As many children die of malaria in Africa in one month as died in the
Indian Ocean tsunami, according to Dr.
Sachs.

With research into new
medications and immunizations, Rev. Day believes this treatable disease might
even become preventable, and hundreds of thousands of lives can be saved.

The consequences of malaria in
malnourished children are grave. Untreated, malaria
is a debilitating disease that attacks the brain, heart and lungs through the
bloodstream. It causes lethargy, fever, hallucinations and eventually death.

In addition to treating it with
medication, a new form of mosquito netting impregnated with an easily mixed
powder that repels the insects is on the market and it is an effective, low-cost
prevention measure. Made available through widespread distribution, coupled
with training in how to mix the powder and soak mosquito nets in it, this
simple technology could save hundreds of thousands of
lives.

Treating standing water to
prevent the incubation of disease-carrying mosquitoes is another simple
intervention that helps. Treatment of standing water in Banda Aceh and other
regions affected by the tsunami is underway. UN officials fear an epidemic of
malaria could result in an additional
100,000 deaths
.

Taken
together, medications, medicated netting and elimination of breeding sources
will prevent the next wave of the silent tsunami.

Wrapping Up

With this post we will take down the link between umc.org and Perspectives. I will continue to blog. Faith, communications and culture are as current as this morning’s news, so I intend to keep apace.

Thank you for stopping by this blog during my visit with the delegation to Sumatra. I hope it has been informative. I hope, further, that you feel welcome to continue to drop in.

It’s
been an insight to see the level of interest the blog generated. My estimate is
that a few thousand people have dropped in the past three weeks. (I added a
counter belatedly and 600 logged in within a couple of
days.)

Some have linked to the blog
and syndicated it. Others have responded to me in person or by e-mail. I
welcome your response, ideas and critique. This blog arises out of my own
desire to engage in conversation about how new technologies are shaping our
quality of life for better or ill. I am committed to viewing my place in the
world from a global perspective; from viewing the human community as having more
in common than in difference; and in seeing the human family as all of us
together, not as “us” and “them.”

New technologies can help us
achieve these idealistic goals, and they can make it more difficult.

Never the less, I live in the hope
that we can use media to “humanize” the global community. By that, I mean that
we can communicate so that we see the humanity of each other, understand each
other better, seek partnerships that result in higher quality of life for all
peoples and create attitudes of inclusiveness and respect for
all.

This blog is my personal
reflections and in no way reflects the official positions of The United
Methodist Church by whom I am employed. As you can read in my commentary, I
have opinions on many subjects and concerns, and I write about many of these
here. I’m also passionate about many things, and, so, I hope I write with
energy about those things.

The
visit to Sumatra was a moving, uplifting experience. The Methodist Church of
Indonesia is doing a remarkable job of relief, and so are many other committed
persons. The people of The United Methodist Church, as well as people around
the world beyond the church, have been remarkably generous in their concern. I
take great hope in this generosity and willingness to
serve.

Finally, while I have written
more about Indonesia, I’m also very aware that the needs are spread across the
southern Asia region. My concentration on Indonesia is a result of my own visit
to one area.

But the church and
the humanitarian needs are much broader than this one area. I keep this in
mind. We must not neglect people in the other regions of southern Asia, nor,
for that matter, in Africa, Latin America or the United States who face critical
need. The people of the Sudan still face urgent needs. Congo remains a tenuous
place. The bottom has fallen out of the middle class in Latin America and a
growing number of people are becoming
poorer.

If you intend to come back,
you may bookmark the blog or include it in your RSS reader. Thanks for
visiting.

Images of Loss

U.S. Army helicopters que for loading and liftoff at the Banda Aceh airport. These flights have saved lives in remote areas inaccessible by road.

At the north end of Sumatra, closest to the earthquake epicenter, substantial homes were levelled along with less well-constructed buildings.

At it’s strongest entry point, the tsunami levelled buildings for miles inland.

The Rev. Paul Dirdak, Bishop Joel Martinez and the Rev. Randy Day pay last respects to victims recovered three weeks after the disaster.

The Methodist Church of Banda Aceh is being reconstructed as a sign of hope for the neighborhood.

Camps for displaced persons offer tent shelter, food and health care.

Camps are a temporary solution to immediate needs but more permanent settlement will be required for the 400,000 Indonesians who have been made homeless. Across the region, displaced persons are taxing the capabilities of governments and non-governmental organizations.

Page 1 of 3123»