Archive - April, 2007

Religious Bloggers in the Philippines

Religious bloggers in the Philippines are
debating the role of religion in upcoming elections.

I’ve commented on the difficulties faced by religious people in the Philippines. Those who work with the poor are being targetted and killed under circumstances that are suspicious. So many have been killed that the conclusion is drawn by many responsible observers that the government is complicit if not directly involved.

I’ve gotten comments from both sides in this blog. One respondent wrote me to say he was writing anonymously because he feared for his life from certain religious groups! That turned the situation on its head.

My experience has not been that Christians are killing pro-government citizens in the Philippines. In fact, this seems so implausible that it looks like a charge designed to deflect attention from the current realities.

Global Voices Online carries several religious bloggers commenting on Philippine elections. As you will see, they take vastly different positions. What seems interesting–if a deadly situation such as this can be called interesting–is the willingness of some conservative, evangelicals in the Philippine religious context to identify with the established order. These are, in some instances, people who would be at risk if they raised their voices in opposition because they are economically marginal themselves. But they don’t appear to be coerced. Their political views seem genuine. That’s what makes their political values interesting.

I don’t know what drives these values. However, I find the variety of views from Global Voices fascinating. And I continue to think we must stand with our brothers and sisters in the Philippines who are in the thick of this dangerous ministry, and seek changes in how governments relate to the current administration in the Philippines.

The Day After Malaria Awareness Day

Malaria Awareness Day was a success. The
important question, however, is what do we do the day after? The challenge
remains.

It’s the day after Malaria Awareness Day, and by any measurement, yesterday was a success.

There is a reservoir of goodwill, never fully focused, that harbors a deep yearning to make a difference in the world. The response to American Idol is but one small measure of this yearning, and it is not to be minimized merely because it is media driven.

I believe beneath even this, there is something deeper. It is a yearning for connecting with people whom we don’t know, yet understand that we share our time with on this earth, and that something is seriously wrong about how the resources we are given are distributed.

I was deeply moved that staff colleagues at United Methodist agencies in Nashville attended a soup and crackers lunch at the United Methodist Publishing House and contributed $3,500 for bednets to prevent children half a world away from contracting malaria. We are only a few hundred people, but a significant number came and made contributions.

I heard a report from Bishop Thomas Bickerton who was in Miami speaking on behalf of Nothing But Nets, that events there, starting with a breakfast meeting of local leaders, to a “boot camp” training event for young adults in the afternoon, were well-attended and very encouraging.

The viewers of American Idol were treated to two hours of song and inspiring storytelling about people living in extreme poverty, children who head households, parents in the U.S. who struggle to ensure their children get the education that they were denied, and mothers in Africa who want only to protect their children from dreaded diseases. And those same viewers anted up more than thirty million dollars for the various charitable organizations that are attacking these problems.

There is this deep yearning to make a difference. And that is yet another challenge the day after. How do we give this yearning concrete form and expression to bring deeper change? Yesterday was a great day, but it was only a start. The problems, of course, remain. They are being addressed, but there is so much more to do. One remarkable day filled with learning events calls attention to them, but it will take a generation, perhaps a lifetime, to turn around suffering from the preventable diseases of poverty, education for all children, health care for everyone, and the myriad other challenges we face in the U.S. and globally.

And yet, days like this feed my optimism. I know the emotions fade quickly enough. But I am moved by this yearning, not yet fulfilled. To make a difference. And this, as much as the problems so manifest in the stories told last night, we must remember. For, if we channel this yearning, we will someday celebrate different stories, of lives changed, children saved, mothers rejoicing in the accomplishments of their young ones.

Won’t that be a great day?

Malaria Awareness Day: American Idol Gives Back

Today is Malaria Awareness Day and tonight
American Idol Gives Back is an opportunity to contribute to ending extreme
poverty.

Today has been proclaimed Malaria Awareness Day by President Bush. It is connected to the global Africa Malaria Awareness Day. This disease claims a life every thirty seconds, and most are children under five–that’s 3,000 kids a day. More than 250,000,000 people contract malaria each year. The costs swamp developing economies and patients overwhelm already inadequate national health systems.

Malaria is easily preventable. It’s been eliminated from the U.S. but it continues to affect Africa and parts of Asia due to lack of resources and education–the results of poverty. It’s carried by mosquitos. One net hung from the ceiling and spread over a bed can save the life of a child. And the cost of nets makes them easily affordable in mass quantities. Ten dollars buys a net and the distribution costs and training to use it effectively.

Nothing But Nets is an effective distribution system for many reasons. It gets the nets to the right people–mothers–and it offers them training. But most importantly nets are distributed as part of a United Nations program to immunize children from measles. This means outreach to both mothers and their children is possible, for only pennies.

It’s a program worthy of our support and I hope today’s attention makes more people aware of ways they can combat this disease and put an end to the death of a child every thirty seconds.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is providing a $3 million matching grant for contributions to Nothing But Nets. The United Methodist Church is calling on its people to skip a lunch and buy a net. The Skip a Lunch program is featured on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website this morning and the Malaria No More website.
Elizabeth McKee, executive director of Nothing But Nets, provides very useful information about U.S. government support for malaria prevention. Her blog is here .

Tonight, American Idol Gives Back will offer viewers the opportunity to contribute to ending extreme poverty. In a two-night broadcast on this blockbuster program five major programs working to end extreme poverty are highlighted..

Among the highlighted efforts is Nothing But Nets. This is a partnership of the people of The United Methodist Church, the United Nations Foundation, the National Basketball Association’s NBA Cares Foundation and Sports Illustrated. The broadcast is a generous programming gift by Fox and Idol, and a remarkable opportunity for us to make a difference.
An overview that caught my eye about the events of the day can be found on the website of Christian Today.

When the Marketplace and the Media are One

When entertainment is the tactic and making money
the driving force behind media truly serious discussion of the important
concerns of the human community get pushed into the background, or
forgotten.

Watching the devolution of relatively free media in Russia is a reminder that democracy depends upon open discussion of all points of view even those critical of the ruling class. The Putin government has decreed that 50% of the news must be “good,” and, of course, good is defined by government regulators. The effect of the new ruling hearkens back to the communist era when government controlled the media.

It’s an oft-repeated truism that free media are one important bulwark of a democratic society. But as with most principles it’s harder to put into practice than to talk about.

In the U.S. we contend less with heavy-handed government regulation than another form of pressure. We have acceded to the use of broadcast and narrowcast media as vehicles for commercial messages. This puts its own set of standards on media behavior. Entertainment is the tactic, making money the driver. This is the value that rules many of the decisions about media content today.

Thus our media present a folk culture that identifies meaningful living as individuals consuming products. This synergistic relationship with commerce is the life-support for media in the U.S. Imus benefited from this but it came back to bite him. A lot of other shock jocks test the limits as well. But what brought Imus down was not government regulators, it was corporations that recognized he was offending sizable chunks of their customer base and he could affect their bottom line. If Imus alienated their customers, why put money into his program? And why risk being identified with his offensive language?

In this single incident the marketplace brought corrective action. But it hasn’t led to an outbreak of restraint and responsibility. It was only hours after the shooting at Virginia Tech that one radio show staged a “humorous” enactment of one of Cho Seung-Hui’s plays, Rush Limbaugh mined it for political advantage and Michael Savage laid the killings at the feet of liberal scum who handcuff police. We are left with a dilemma and a challenge.

The challenge an open society faces when dealing with the Imus virus, as Bob Herbert of The New York Times names it today, and these other intemperate voices is how to contain the spread of the cancer of racism and diminishment when words are used as weapons. And the dilemma is more complex because we assign media restraint to the marketplace coupled with our constitutional value of free speech. This makes it unlikely we will protect the innocent and vulnerable. Imus not only unfairly characterized the Princeton women, he also used a powerful medium to demean them and without well-seasoned allies and a spontaneous revulsion that spread nationally, they could not equal the power of his voice on the far-reaching medium of broadcast radio. And that’s why the current use of these powerful media is so frustrating to me.

They are not as inclusive as they could be and sadly meaningful inclusiveness and comprehensiveness depends upon grassroots activism. It was once thought that the media–broadcast and digital–could encourage responsible conversation about the issues and concerns that we all confront together–care of the earth and preserving our habitat for future generations, for example. But this requires a sense of responsibility to the whole community including those who are not within the demographics of commercial sponsors. And the likelihood of this happening in our marketplace media environment is nil.

The reductionist, entertainment-driven methods that turn complex, serious human concerns into sick humor, political nastiness and eye-catching graphics feed what Thomas de Zingotita calls our “civic laziness.” In a mediated environment that caters to our individualism, measured by our consumption, perhaps small forays like the Imus affair are all that we can mount in the secular marketplace.

Here is where religious values, for me, take hold and provide hope. In community with others seeking meaning and purpose I find myself defined as more than an individual consumer and I can consider values more enduring than bumper sticker rhetoric or racial, gender putdowns. (And I don’t mean religious groups that act more like political parties than authentic communities searching for meaningful life under God’s grace. To paraphrase a popular hymn, you will know they are Christians by their love, not by their political platform.) I concede this might not be for everyone, but it works for me. I just cannot yield to the proposition that verbal assaults on human dignity must be measured by their risk to commerce. All that I have learned, experienced and believe from a Christian perspective leads me to a different place.

When the media and the marketplace are one, I think we as a society are in a very tenuous place, as Imus found out This lays upon all who would like to change the tone of the conversation to say so, as many NBC employees and others did. It’s clear enough today that the only restraint on trash talk in the media is the grassroots putting pressure on the marketplace. I think that’s sad, but I also think it’s true.

The Amnesia of the New Social Entrepreneurs

I’m a bit tired of hearing new social
entrepreneurs lay blame for poverty at the feet of foundations and non-profit
do-gooders. At best, they demonstrate amnesia and, at worst, ignorance of the
social history they now boldly claim they will change.

Posts like this always get me in trouble, but a throwaway line by Thomas Freidman in a recent column championing an enterprise in Tanzania set off my reaction. Friedman wrote that Africa needs more capitalists and fewer foundations. I thought it was a cheap shot, but it represents a prevailing attitude toward non-profits and foundations that needs to be challenged. So here goes.

I’m tiring of a blame game that lays poverty at the feet of foundations and non-profit do-gooders. Not withstanding the legitimate critique William K. Easterly makes in The White Man’s Burden, this attitude ignores important historical realities that continue to vex the best economists and planners even today. It also diminishes the legitimate role the non-profit sector has played supporting social change and keeping people alive when they were faced with horrific conditions. It seems to leave no room for creative, innovative partnerships, the kind Easterly says could be effective if risk-taking non-profit visionaries were free to explore. And most importantly, the conversation is missing a key concern many non-profits keep foremost–justice.

References in the Fast Company magazine over the last several months denigrating non-profit efforts to create social change as ineffective charity while advocating the benefits of social capitalism feed the fire of my discontent.

It’s not even that I disagree that social entrepreneurs are a sign of hope; in fact, some are. But we’ve had global corporate capitalism for years, and it hasn’t necessarily transformed developing nations. Easterly provides ample devastating evidence that the so-called “structural adjustment” policies imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund haven’t exactly turned developing economies around, either.

A recent examination of U.S. food aid by Celia W. Dugger in the New York Times is extraordinarily revealing. The article contends current U.S. policy not only slows immediate response to hungry people, it also feeds fewer people than could be fed by purchasing grain closer to the affected area. The program is as much about capitalism as it is about food aid. As it gets implemented, the program lines the pockets of U.S. producers and shippers more than filling empty bellies. It’s serving fewer people today than a decade ago, yet costing more.

Dugger writes, “Over the past three years, the same four companies and their subsidiaries — Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Bunge and the Cal Western Packaging Corporation — have sold the American government more than half the $2.2. billion in food for Food for Peace, the largest food aid program, and two smaller programs, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Shipping companies were paid $1.3 billion over the same period to move the food aid overseas, the department’s figures show.”

Money that could be used to purchase food locally, stimulating internal markets and supporting local farmers, is going to U.S. producers, processors and shippers, and food can take six months to reach hungry people. When asked about de-coupling these funds from payments to U.S. corporations to allow local food purchases, Congressman Tom Lantos of California told Dugger it’s “beyond insane.” Why? Because, according to shipping lobbyist Gloria Tosi, “There’s no constituency for cash.”

To its credit, the Bush Administration is calling for the ability to take some of this money to purchase food overseas. It’s not a new idea. In fact, a lot of folks, including non-profit visionaries operating under foundation grants, have advocated local economic control and participation in the marketplace. It’s not entrepreneurial spirit they lacked. None that I know wanted to make people dependent on outside aid nor create a donor-recipient mentality. But they contended with local officials who wanted to control their own people and corrupt government leaders who wanted their cut first. Local people faced problems getting access to land to grow things, buildings in which to store things, and even storefronts from which to sell things. They often faced guns because local militias or national army officers wanted their part of the action as well. I know this because I’ve looked down the barrels of some of those guns (Brazil, Ethiopia), and I’ve been run out of countries (Somalia), threatened with bombs (Somalia again) and had my passport confiscated (Niger). And many of these corrupt governments were aided and abetted by U.S. policies, or a wink and a nod that overlooked their excesses. So, pardon me if I indulge in a bit of defensiveness at the cheap shots about charity and non-profit foundations and their presumed failures. To put it bluntly, the non-profits I know most closely have long operated on the principle that locally designed and run economic ventures are the only ones that have the potential to succeed. Those imposed from outside are doomed to fail.

I know Mr. Friedman argues new technology is flattening the world. But no matter how flat the world is being made by technology, economic models don’t stand alone. They exist inside a social and political context, and they must coexist within this context. Educational institutions, good governance, democratic participation in the society–the freedom to meet, speak and plan–fair trade policies that allow small producers access to markets and give them fair return on their investment and labor, access to information and the ability to communicate, and enough trained personnel to carry out the multiple tasks of producing, accounting, marketing, selling and delivering goods and services are necessary.

Martin Meredith, in a fine, comprehensive history of Africa since the end of colonialism (The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair) points out that in Francophone Africa at the time of liberation in the 1950s, just 16% of the population was literate. In a population of 200 million there were a mere 8,000 secondary school graduates and nearly half of these were in two countries–Ghana and Nigeria. Meredith says less than 3% of the student-age population was educated beyond the secondary level, and there were no universities in the French colonies.

OK, I know it’s been fifty years and we’re all tired of hearing this complaint, and we can’t blame the current situation on colonialism, and no one is served by looking backward. But in thirty of those years the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. deposed elected leaders, propped up tyrants, and contended for favorable position during the Cold War. To protect its apartheid administration, the former white regime in South Africa engaged in systematic destabilization of neighboring states. And even today in some parts of the continent you can’t get to the capitol of the adjoining country by road and when you fly you must first go to Europe and make a connection back. Yes, cellphones are breaking down some barriers, the Internet has arrived (for some) and other technologies hold great promise. And I’m glad, I’d even like to help these technologies grow. But a little perspective is in order, I think.

Jump from Africa to Central America and remember there were voices for fair trade and human rights a long time ago. They called for access to markets, fair wages and prices, and local control of production. They stood for justice. Many of them are buried in unmarked graves in El Salvador and Guatemala. The only allies who would listen to them were a few religious organizations, non-profits and foundations. So, I’m not against social capitalism. I’m in favor of flattening the world through new technology. But I think a little less rhetorical flourish, if not outright hostility to the non-profit world, is in order. A little more recognition of their effectiveness in standing for the right way to accomplish change wouldn’t hurt, either.

The issue of economic justice runs a whole lot deeper than bringing in social entrepreneurs and booting out the foundations. For the most cogent reading on Trade Justice that I’ve seen lately get the current issue of Sojourners Magazine. It came after I started writing this post and offers a wide range of viewpoints. Particularly interesting is an article by Danny Duncan Collum examining how the mainstream media have covered “free trade.” He argues that mainstream journalists, including Mr. Friedman, are at the top of the list when it comes to unquestioning support for free trade policies, so much so that reporting on trade and justice are distorted. See what he says Mr. Friedman confessed to Tim Russert about his lack of knowledge of free trade when he wrote his first supportive column on free trade.

I would argue that many already know the most effective way to move communities from poverty to self-determination. I’ve written, for example, of Zane Ibrahim of Bush Radio in South Africa. Zane, who operates a community-based radio station in Cape Town, says communities must be enabled engage in conversation with themselves to identify concerns and develop the means to address their concerns. But too often this simple freedom of expression has been repressed.

That’s not the fault of non-profits and foundations. It’s often been the direct result of cozy relationships between repressive leaders and foreign powers, unfair trade policies and the rest of the entangling web I’ve cited.

We need to treat our amnesia with a little dose of historical fact. Doing this might uncover strengths and skills in many sectors that would be beneficial to effective change. The non-profit sector and social capitalism are not mutually exclusive–if both seek justice. Partnerships that build on the best knowledge of both could result in innovation and creative new efforts to end the suffering that results from the economic disadvantage that continues to put world’s most marginalized peoples at risk.

Celia W. Dugger writes a followup article this morning about a food aid meeting in Kansas City this week that pushed the conversation further, and she illustrates how a creative non-profit with social vision is already making a difference. Maybe we need to free up some folks, not run them out or run them down.

Guess What? The United Methodist Church Isn’t Down for the Count.

My hat is off to the General Council on Finance
and Administration of The United Methodist Church for giving the church a useful
statistical report on the current state of the church.

My hat’s off to the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA ) of The United Methodist Church for providing the church and the world with a statistical report that offers richly textured material for analysis, conversation and reflection in a new format. This report includes statistical information and a study guide that local congregations can use to discuss their own context in light of the comprehensive statistics collected. This not a minor change.

The Council has stepped out and offered a whole new frame for discussing a mainline denomination. I commend Council leaders and staff. You’ve done a service for The United Methodist Church, and more. I believe this work will be instructive to others considering how to to collect, assess and, perhaps, act on such datum in a more constructive way. This is important because this kind of information is used to tell the stories of the Mainline denominations. If these historic communities are to reclaim their place in the social and cultural currents flowing in this post-modern age they must tell their stories more effectively and with greater care for information such as this. This applies particularly to United Methodists in North America. The Methodist Movement was born in an era of great indifference toward religion, skepticism and social upheaval.

I’ve been critical in this blog about the way the Mainline denominations frame their tallies of giving, membership and attendance. They’ve presented figures without context. Numbers alone are almost meaningless. Contextual information is vital. Journalists receive the numbers, frame their stories almost by rote, and you know the rest–these denominations are in decline, they’re not holding their own, they’re threatened dinosaurs, yada, yada, yada. In fact, a casual observer could conclude they’re on life-support.

But this grim diagnosis isn’t accurate. Many factors contribute to the health of denominations. Of course we need to ask why they’re not growing, especially United Methodists who believe that we are challenged to reach out and invite others into the faith community. But unlike the obnoxious, primitive highway signs one sees here in the South: “Turn to God or Go to Hell,” these denominations are about being concerned for all persons, reaching out to everyone, especially those who are marginalized and forgotten, and welcoming them into the community of faith. The Mainline denominations don’t peddle fear and individual self-preservation. We offer community.

The United Methodist Church is about hospitality as a means to support those who are seeking a deeper relationship with God and with others. It’s about inviting those who wonder how Christian faith can inform and order life for fulness and wholeness. It’s about teaching an understanding of Christian faith as our response to a loving God whose intent is that all people flourish and live meaningful, purposeful lives. It’s about a personal commitment that results in liberation, assurance and the embrace of a loving God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

But we don’t stop with personal holiness. Our Book of Discipline which contains the legal code, organizational rules and theological teachings that bind us together (we call this our Connection) says, “Scriptural holiness entails more than personal piety; love of God is always linked with love of neighbor, a passion for justice and renewal in the life of the world…there is no religion but social religion, no holiness but social holiness” (Discipline, par. 101, 2004). But I digress.

The Mainline denominations, including United Methodism, have been tagged as limping along, tottering toward their demise. Nothing could be further from the truth! The GCFA report reveals that:

  • The United Methodist Church is growing globally–13.7 million members in over 50 countries;
  • contributions have been steadily increasing–5.86 billion dollars were contributed in 2005 alone; (That’s not “chump change.”)
  • 34,106 weekday ministries serve 1.2 million people every day;
  • United Methodists gave over $200 million to disaster response and $475 million for other benevolent giving;
  • the smallest congregations (73 active members) shrank in membership by 8.73% per congregation;
  • the largest churches grew by 40% on average;
  • but professions of faith are almost the same between small and large membership churches;
  • in 1974, 36% of members attended worship;
  • in 2005, 45% of members attended worship;
  • United Methodists in the U.S. volunteered their time to over 600,000 leadership positions in church schools, and over 138,000 United Methodists lent a hand working in over 11,000 United Methodist Volunteer in Mission groups.

These are hardly signs of a dying community. Never the less, the report isn’t about cheerleading. It doesn’t ignore hard facts. It points out that 41% of local congregations in the United States did not receive a single member by profession of faith. In The United Methodist Church a profession of faith is the first public expression of commitment to the faith by an individual. This statistic reflects the church’s commitment to reaching out to our own children and youth, and unaffiliated persons who have never before expressed their commitment to Christian living. It’s not about transferring your membership from another denomination or UMC congregation, nor about renewing a commitment you made and forgot. It’s about the first time a person acknowledges commitment to Christ and pledges to live the Christian Way.

This is an alarming statistic–in my opinion–because it reveals a lack of urgency for reaching out to people and inviting them in. It may reveal lack of training in how to talk to people about faith, or lack of openness to accommodate new people, or even whether we want people different from us in our local congregation–or none of these. But the report gives us the basis for starting that conversation. And that’s what’s refreshing and challenging.

This new framing opens the window for us to take a fresh look at ourselves. It gives us data to make a course correction. It might even lead us to ask if we’re asking the right questions, or measuring the right indicators. It could help us to ask ourselves what we’re doing well, what we need to change and how relevant we are to the culture–or not. That could be an exciting conversation.

So, my hat’s off to my colleagues. You’ve served us well. Thank you.

Can Blogs Influence Decisionmakers?

A forum to discuss the influence of blogs on
decisionmakers will be held in Washington, D.C. on April 24.

Christine Gorman asks, “Do blogs influence people in high places?” Christine writes the Global Health Blog and the Health Media Watch blog. She’s speaking at a forum on April 24 at the National Press Club giving attention to the strategic value of blogs in shaping public policy.

Christine wrote about health and medical topics for twenty years at TIME and estabished the TIME Global Health Blog two years ago. Her perspective from inside a major publication gives her an interesting vantage point to view how new media are influencing mainstream media, especially mass audience publcations.

How influential are blogs? It’s an open question and no doubt a range of factors go into answering it. I’ve been surprised to receive comments in face-to-face conversations that refer to entries in this blog, primarily because I don’t try to market it heavily and I write it as a personal enterprise, as opposed to a function of my work. And I’m even more surprised when someone writes from Africa, Asia or Europe. But this happens as well.

I often talk with staff about bloggers and how to incorporate blogs into the work we do to disseminate information or stimulate conversation. We take bloggers seriously. But I think the individual, personal side of blogging doesn’t necessarily lead directly to influencing public policy. Reflecting on personal experiences and voicing one’s opinions, as most bloggers do, doesn’t result in policy suggestions. And most of the bloggers I know in the religious community make it clear their blogs represent personal opinions, not the positions of the congregation or other entities in which they work. That’s a delicate balance.

Moreover, the solitary blogger, even one connected to a larger community, does not sustain a movement agenda without considerable effort. I read advocacy blogs and I’m impressed by those that make the link between individual action and systemic change. It’s difficult.

I’ve come across information in blogs that led me to act. And I’ve been part of blogging coupled with public events to inform groups of people and give them an avenue for action. I was pleased with the blog posts Elizabeth McKee of the United Nations Foundation wrote from Angola and Nigeria updating the visit of a team observing bed net distribution. I passed those posts along, as did many others, and the result was financial support for Nothing But Nets. So, I know that blogs work under the right circumstances.

I’m glad conversations are occurring that explore this question in more depth. As blogging matures we need to keep the medium under review. It’s a valuable tool and we need to continue to examine how we’re using it, how to make better use of it, and how to become better bloggers.

Progressive Christian Bloggers

How Wars are Fought: With Children

In too many conflicts today children are the
soldiers of choice.

In too many conflicts today children are the soldiers of choice. In a touching first-person account of his experience as a child soldier, Ishmael Beah provides a remarkable, gut-wrenching account of terror, death and redemption in A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.

It’s impossible to understand how adults can shanghai children and press them to inflict terror and death, but it’s depressingly common today. Ishmael Beah was an innocent twelve-year-old who often mesmerized his village in Sierra Leone with evening soliloquies from Shakespeare until war came. Fleeing the war with a small group of friends, Ishmael was able to avoid conscription by hiding in the forests and scavenging food. But the boys learned soon enough that the mere sight of a group of young men was enough to put them at risk with villagers because young conscripts in the insurgency and the national army were known for carrying out the most extreme brutality, and eventually they were conscripted into the army.

Separated from their families, the boys were cast like driftwood on turbulent waters, existing in the hell that gripped Sierra Leone for ten years. The war brutalized the nation, leaving thousands of people separated from loved ones, whole villages slaughtered and untold numbers left maimed by physical abuse and torture.

It’s also hard for those of us who haven’t lived through such terror to understand how the facade of civil behavior can descend to the depths of incivility and inhumanity. How can innocent children be turned into feared killers?

Perhaps the greatest insight Beah offers us is how this descent occurs, and once established, how terror can be used to corrupt young minds and hold entire populations in fear. Mix poverty, economic injustice and dehumanizing prejudice and the ingredients for social disintegration are sown.

Beah’s account of his own brutalization is disturbing, yet deeply human. He moved from repulsion at violence to addiction to it, unable to conceive that he could exist without the ability to terrorize and kill. Violence became as addictive as the stimulants, marijuana and cocaine his military superiors made available to their conscripts to steel them for battle.

Beah was rescued by a United Nations repatriation project for child combatants. It was a stormy relationship, no less difficult than his descent into violence. The steadfast UN counselors, however, eventually helped Beah locate an uncle and progressively re-enter a more normal life.

Despite the violence, this is a story of humanity, gentle in outlook. It’s well-written by a bright young man who is now an advocate for human rights and a spokesperson for children at risk. Now 26, he graduated from Oberlin College and lives in New York. His story is important, and his voice is compelling.

The Morning After

It’s the morning after and my position on kidney
stones remains the same–bent over.

It’s the morning after and my position on kidney stones remains the same–bent over.

One stone removed, another on deck. And the judgment to remove it was solid. (OK, I’ll stop, but how many kidney stone puns can you cram into one paragraph?)

The stone was larger than the exit, so I would have ended up doing the surgery later anyway. (Had to try one more.)

I don’t recommend this. Those pesky little pieces of calcium–or other combinations–can ruin your day. And removing them is no picnic.

I’ve been gently advised the most recent method of dealing with them is to manage pain and let gravity take its course. Well, I still hold to a more aggressive method. If I had waited, I would still need to go through with this “basket retrieval” method while continuing on pain medication and altering my life with the same result. It’s not that I think I know more than the specialists. But I do think I should have had the opportunity to discuss my concern with them, and they should have heard my past experiences. I enumerated some of them in yesterday’s post. But that simple courtesy was denied. We are admonished by television commercials for pharmaceuticals to “talk it over with your doctor.” But what if the doctors won’t talk it over? What if they have a fixed path with no room for individual variables?

Fortunately, I have a primary care physician who is thoughtful and who does listen. And lest you think I’m suggesting the patient should be able to dictate care, let me challenge that thought. In my mind this was about a simple conversation between the physicians and me taking into account history, context and experiences in order to arrive at acceptable “management” of a kidney stone that was tearing me inside out. That didn’t happen at the emergency room.

An additional point. It’s interesting to experience two remarkably different institutional cultures in a short time. I’m sure the medical care is equally proficient at both hospitals, but the staff at St. Thomas Medical Center project an entirely different sense of concern. From the receptionist’s desk to the surgery holding room, this personality shows through. Staff at the organization where I work produced a video called “Beyond Thirty Seconds.” It points out that people form an opinion about the local church they are entering within the first thirty seconds. If you don’t demonstrate welcoming and hospitality in those crucial seconds, it’s likely you’ve lost them. This is true in other settings, I suspect.

So, dear reader, I promise this is the last of my posts on kidney stones. I’ve got to go now. No, really. I’ve got to go now.

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