Archive - March, 2006

Immigration Reform and Community Radio

Yesterday several thousand demonstrated in
the streets of Nashville against the immigration reform measures proposed by
Republicans, including Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee. Underneath the larger
story is another, the role of radio stations serving the Hispanic population in
the region.

Yesterday several thousand demonstrators took to the streets of Nashville to protest proposed immigration restrictions favored by Republicans and Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee. Beyond the main story–that this many people are prepared to fight for basic freedoms and human rights on this issue–is a subtext. This is the role played by radio stations serving the Hispanic community, which is among the largest of the population groups voicing concerns about this issue.

The turnout, it seems to me, demonstrates that for some populations, radio is far from dead. In fact, it was used as tool for informing, mobilizing and framing the demonstration. It was radio in the public interest, in so far as it served the interests of the communities most affected by the proposed changes in immigration law.

In the broad definition, this is community radio because it targets a specific community, hears their concerns and responds with relevant information that empowers them to express their voice. This is what radio was before Howard Stern and corporate takeovers. It’s refreshing to know that it is still what radio can be when done as a service to the community.

A Nashville Story

Nashville Story

Living in Nashville offers its own unique experiences. Yesterday I preached at Edgehill United Methodist Church, the local church we attend, which is only a couple of blocks from Music Row. I had one of those uniquely Nashville experiences. (Parenthetically, I’ve put the manuscript here as someone asked me for a copy.)

In the sermon, I refer to the Hank Williams classic, “I Saw the Light.” The words connect well with the interplay between light and darkness in the Bible, an interplay that leads in many different directions.

The conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus as reported in the third chapter of the Gospel of John, is one more illustration of this intriguing interplay. The commentary in the Interpreter’s Bible enlarges on this and was helpful.

After worship, a friend came to me and said, matter-of-factly, “I talked with Sarah Cannon about that song and she told me she sat with Hank in the back of a car one night riding to an appearance and asked him if he had seen the light. He said he hadn’t, but wouldn’t it be wonderful?” And, my friend continued, “She said in a wistful voice, ‘I don’t know if he ever saw the light.'”

For those who don’t know, Sarah Cannon created the country comedy character known on-stage as Minnie Pearl. She was a friend and confidant to many country music stars. She achieved fame in the late 1940’s and remained a staple of the Grand Ol’ Opry for decades. She died in 1996.

Where else but Nashville can you talk after church with someone who had a conversation with Minnie Pearl who, in turn, tells about a personal moment with Hank Williams, and not be name-dropping? It was the just telling of a fond remembrance.

I then spoke with another person in the congregation who is connected to the music and he reflected upon the way songs such as “I Saw the Light” reveal the personal struggles the musicians are going through. Hank Williams wrote it in 1948 when the music was even more autobiographical than it is now.

It was a choice experience to have these two brief conversations after worship about music and how we react to it. This kind of music points us to ourselves and our experiences of life. It doesn’t stand for something else, or represent anything else, as Michael Bugeja writes. It simply is. And, if it’s true that Hank didn’t see the light, we’re saddened because we all want to see the light, and I think we care if others see it too, whatever the light means to each of us individually.
The music somehow gets to our common ground and speaks to us in a deep way that becomes both personal and unifying.

Just a passing thought about living and worshipping in Nashville two blocks off Music Row.

A Confession

Sometimes you goof. I did. It’s

By not paying attention and asking the right questions I have to confess that I’ve gotten myself into an embarrassing position. I’m part of a group that agreed to meet with the treasurers of the annual conferences. To readers who aren’t familiar with the United Methodist Church, annual conferences are the regional judicatories by which the denomination is organized. We are to listen to their concerns about The United Methodist Church, specifically, its economic health. Sounds benign so far, doesn’t it?

The treasurers wrote a memo a few weeks ago stating that the budget process of General Conference, the governing body of the church, is out of control. They also proposed that the budget should be fixed before General Conference, in effect, disenfranchising delegates from the debate and negotiations that result in a budget and giving them, instead, the option to rubber stamp a budget prepared beforehand by others.

So that’s some of the background for this meeting, and it needs to be discussed.

But here’s the kicker for me. The treasurers have chosen to meet in Las Vegas. The United Methodist Church is present in Las Vegas and there are many loyal, faithful, earnest United Methodist Christians there. This is not about them. This is about the wisdom of the venue of Las Vegas for a meeting to discuss the budget of the church. It’s about the symbolism of meeting in a venue noted for something less than stewardship and personal restraint.

Now, if you like to visit Las Vegas, or if you live there, I’m not criticizing you in any way. There are local churches in Las Vegas conducting meaningful ministry and it’s appropriate and relevant for the church to be in the city and it’s wonderful that we are there. Further, I’m not saying you have to believe as I. But I am saying it seems to me to be unusually tone deaf for me to go to a meeting in this venue to talk about the budget of The United Methodist Church. and I’ve embarrassed myself by not being more attentive at the outset.

I’m just saying for the treasurers of the church to select this venue to talk about the finances of the church is a tone deaf thing to do. I am reminded that the General Commission on General Conference only a couple of weeks ago changed the venue for General Conference because Richmond has a minor league baseball team that uses a Native American mascot.

Given the position of The United Methodist Church on gambling and human sexuality it seems equally important to give attention to the Las Vegas venue in light of the positions of the church as to Richmond and its mascot.

Communications Risk Analysis: How Much Fear?

When is it productive to communicate fear,
and when is it counter-productive? Christine Gorman looks at this issue in an
article that discusses communications risk management about bird flu.

When do you cry wolf if the little boy has been crying wolf too often lately? That’s the age-old dilemma, isn’t it?

In a fascinating article about how to communicate about the potential risks of a human epidemic resulting from the mutation of avian flu, Christine Gorman of TIME interviews Peter Sandman, a risk communications specialist, who says a little alarm might be a good thing in this situation.

The article makes me think about the need for those of us who don’t have medical understanding to decipher the warnings and think about how to adapt to day-to-day changes that would be necessary if a full-blown pandemic of human influenza were to occur. Do you have three months supply of food on hand? Do you know how you would care for a sick family member while isolating her from the rest of your family? These are but a few of the scarey, almost inconceivable changes we would need to prepare for.

But it’s all based on the possibility that a mutation of the virus could occur and that’s not a sure thing. So the communications challenge is to warn of the dire possibility while also noting that the worst case hasn’t occurred yet. The risks we face today, given our communications capacity, require us to think differently and to be as well-informed as possible without becoming jaded or inured to potential risk. Developing the ability to filter through pertinent information and take advantage of it is a skill that requires more intentional thought than mere casual media usage allows. It’s a skill that is significantly more important in our present information age.

Collapse: How Civilizations Choose to Fail or Succeed

Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How
Civilizations Choose to Fail or Succeed
is not alarmist but it is deeply
alarming. Diamond writes of hope and optimism about the future of Earth while
examining a variety of societies that have collapsed. His writing is cogent and
engaging, making this book all the more alarming. He goes beyond a presentation
of facts and figures to explain how societies collapsed and what the leaders and
populace might have been facing, and thinking. This makes for a balanced,
sobering thought about whether we will repeat these mistakes, knowing that even
with our modern technologies we might very well behave similarly as

Our consumption in First World societies is totally unsustainable, according to Jared Diamond whose Collapse: How Civilizations Choose to Fail or Succeed discusses how we affect our environment by the way we live on Earth and ultimately decide our fate.

Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA, is not an alarmist, but his discussion of societies of the past that collapsed and those today that are under stress, such as China and Rwanda, lays out in alarming detail just how inextricably we are connected to one another, even if we don’t recognize it. The Earth is a self-contained and isolated unit, Diamond says. “We are tightly and irreversibly connected to overseas countries,” he writes, and he shows us how.

Those of us in the U.S., western Europe and Japan consume 32 times more resources, such as fossil fuels, and generate 32 times more waste than inhabitants of the developing world, he says. We are depleting resources faster than they can regenerate. We’re using trees faster than they can be replaced, consuming water faster than it can re-generate, and altering the natural environment in ways that are limiting the capacity of the biosphere to replace that which we’re consuming.
And we’re exporting our toxic waste to those places that will receive it as part of their economic quest to achieve a First World lifestyle like ours. That’s even more unsustainable.

Diamond also documents how some societies such as Tokugawa Japan in the period from 1603 to 1867, have succeeded in changing behavior that threatened to cause collapse and he offers these as examples that we, too, can pull out of the downward direction we’re currently in. He says it’s not too late and he’s cautiously optimistic that we can come to understand our need to change.

I take hope in his hope. I confess to being more of the consuming society than I want to be. And I tend to be more pessimistic than he. But our choices are becoming clear, and anyone with a concern for the short-term future would, I hope, choose to change. Doing that, however, won’t be easy.

At root, this is an issue about how each of us lives on a daily basis. In a society that has been led to see life as a journey of endless consumption, we’re caught in a system that has altered our values and our perspective about what constitutes a meaningful life. If we now must decide to do with fewer things, not more, can we make that transition? This is a fundamental question of values that remains to be tested. In the Christian community, the evangelical coalition on global warming is one positive step in the right direction, but the easy acceptance by Christians of the consumer culture and the marriage of capitalism with Christian faith, must inevitably lead to some deep, quick soul-searching, I think. I’m not convinced we’re up to it. But, according to Diamond, our future hangs on the decision.

Seminary Graduates but not Pastors

Graduating with an advanced degree from a
seminary does not necessarily mean the graduate intends to serve as a pastor of
a local church according to an article in the New York Times this

Attending seminary is not necessarily a track to the local church pastorate, according to an article in this morning’s New York Times. The article notes that an increasing number of seminary students don’t intend to enter parish ministry, but plan other vocations unrelated to administering the sacraments and preaching.

Actually, I was surprised that the numbers are not greater. When Boomers started seminary at the height of the Vietnam War many students intended to find positions in community organizing, teaching, social services and counseling. That the trend is increasing today comes as a bit of surprise since I thought it had been moving in that direction for forty years.

In my seminary days (which was before the Internet was invented but not before electricity) students were heavily encouraged to enter local church ministries. However, virtually all of my close friends chose to go into specialized ministries or take non-church employment. I have always thought this was not such a bad thing. I believe these colleagues are principled, informed and perhaps even more effective at influencing public attitudes about important human concerns than they could be in a local church.

I also think the tent-making ministry of these colleagues is valid and important. So the fact that seminary enrollment is up but commitment to local church ministry is not correspondingly increasing doesn’t seem to me to be problematic. In fact, it could be a good thing. If it results in leaders in the profit sector who bring theological sensitivity and depth to the practice of running businesses and who are professionally competent in ethics, we might see a much different world. Hopefully, one in which religious values are applied in a beneficial way for all and not for partisan political gain. That would be refreshing.

Holding the Baby for Security

According to a BBC report this morning, an
Israeli hospital held a baby as security for payment of a hospital bill. As
onerous as it sounds in this case, it’s a common practice in some nations in
Africa. There, the reasons are economic. In the case of the Israeli hospital,
it’s also economic but it occurs in the wider context of the Israeli-Palestinian
divide that results in the dehumanizing of all involved. When our common
humanity is not the bottom line, our individual humanity is

I remember hearing a Kenyan health official tell of mothers dropping newborn babies from the second story windows of hospitals in her country because the mothers couldn’t afford to pay their hospital bills and they were held until payment was received.

It sounds like a story by Charles Dickens. But it happens.

According to a BBC report this morning, an Israeli hospital held a baby as security for payment of a hospital bill. There, the reasons are economic, too. But it occurs in the wider context of the Israeli-Palestinian divide that results in the dehumanizing of all involved.

When the bottom line is money and not healing and compassion, our common humanity is undermined and individual humanity is violated. If we don’t make health care a basic human right and serve everyone in a way that affirms our belief in a life of quality and wholeness, then we will continue to undermine our claim that all life is precious and should be respected.

Stories like this reveal how distant that goal is becoming and it should serve as a call to repent for behavior that denies our respect for human dignity and reveals how we value money over the sanctity of human life. We can do better.

The BBC and the New Environment

The British Broadcasting Corporation, one of
the most solid old-media organizations, is operating under a new charter for the
next decade, a sign of the fundamental change that continues to re-shape the
communications environment.

The British Broadcasting Corporation will soon be operating under a new charter. The BBC is perhaps the most solid and substantial old-media organization in the world. It’s a voice that has always been trustworthy, above the political fray (even when politicians sought to involve it in political disputes) and a continuing source of substantial quality programming and information delivery.

Its World Service, built substantially on shortwave radio delivery, was originally designed to serve expatriate British citizens outside the UK. It has come to reflect local audience concerns as well, but this mandate would be difficult to justify and even more difficult to fulfill, I believe, because audiences have changed along with the technology.

As governments open the radio spectrum to local licensees competition increases. The audience for shortwave has collapsed except during emergencies or political repression when shortwave signals from outside a country are the only way to get information to broad numbers of people inside. Local radio has replaced international shortwave broadcasts, and audiences will continue to move to local radio.

The BBC will, no doubt, need to re-define itself in the global marketplace, a process that it has begun but that will continue as change overtakes media operations around the world.

Oxfam’s Self-disclosure

Oxfam, the international development agency,
uncovered financial irregularities in its operations in Indonesia and announced
them on its own, a sign of integrity and genuine transparency.

Oxfam , the international development agency, demonstrated integrity and transparency this week that should give donors more reason to believe in the organization and its mission. Finding irregularities in its operation in Indonesia, Oxfam not only acted quickly to address the problem but announced the discovery publicly.

I’ve long respected Oxfam for a variety of reasons. Its programs are well-run and consistently in touch with grass-roots people. It concentrates on long-term community development and has refused to engage in the child-sponsorship pandering and other forms of marketing that don’t contribute to deeper understanding of the empowerment of marginalized peoples. And it has coupled its on-the-ground efforts with education among donor constituencies. All of these impress me with the organization’s commitment and mission.

The self-disclosure of problems in its large operation in Indonesia should make supporters more appreciative, not less. I hope that is the case.

The Pew Report on the State of the News Media

The most ominous statement in the Pew Report
on the State of the Media is that in the battle for idealism in the newsroom,
the accountants have won.

The idealists have lost, the accountants have won. “It is not clear if advocates for the public interest are present at all” in many new-media companies, according to the 2006 Annual Report on the State of the News Media released this week by the Pew Project on Excellence in the Media.

This is the most ominous claim in a report that is unsettling on many accounts. In the battle between journalists as public watchdogs and accountants with an eye on the bottom line, the accountants have won, the report says.

Even if you don’t like the so-called mainstream media, this is not an encouraging claim. In fact, it will likely result in even more undermining of mainstream media as critics advance the claim that mainstream media are tools of corporate culture.

Whether you believe this or not, the Pew report raises the prospect that the changes underway in media today will probably make it easier for power to move in the dark and special interests posing as something else to influence what we know. The report worries about the decline of full-time, professional monitoring of powerful institutions and says the rise of alternative media has not filled this gap.

On the whole, the report, in my opinion, raises plenty of issues to be concerned about. It leads me to ponder the role of the journalist in this new context and it leads to the question of who will have the ability and the resources to keep an eye on the powerful and advocate for the powerless. It’s a question that is even more urgent in this new day.

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