Archive - June, 2007

Phantom Dreaming: The Schwinn Phantom

It was sleek and sensual. Chrome fenders. Swooping black frame trimmed in red with white pinstripes. It had a tear drop light, wide white wall tires and a wrap-around reflector on the rear package tray. A horn was mounted inside the frame tank and it featured cantilevered suspension by a chrome, spring-mounted front fork. It was beauty on wheels, that Schwinn Phantom.

I’ve always been attracted to things with wheels, toy cars and trucks, motorcycles, trains (models and real ones), pickup trucks and bicycles. Not just every wheeled thing, however. They must be uniquely designed with eye catching lines, flowing and liquid. The first Mustang and T-bird, for example. The Zephyr passenger train (see below). The first BMW R100 RS motorcycle (also below). The PT Cruiser.

But the Schwinn Phantom was more than an attraction, it inspired a love affair. The bicycle was classic. It was to bicycles what the Burlington Zephyr was to passenger trains, the culmination of design with function. A work of art.

I got my Phantom as a hand-me-down from my cousin. But used or new, I reveled in the beauty of the machine. In truth, I doubt my eleven year old sense of esthetics amounted to little more than, “Wow, that’s neat! Look at that chrome.”

What I lacked in sophistication, however, I made up for in pure, intense emotion. I loved that bike.

In fact, the Phantom was too tall for my short legs. It was tough to pedal a too-big bike. I was glad the roads around our house had just been paved. Before this, one roadbed was rocks and the other was sand on hard clay. Neither were bike friendly. But on pavement I could glide. That I had to sling my small body from one side to the other didn’t matter, it was beautiful and it was mine. I reveled in my great fortune. Life was good.

We lived in a small town in a shotgun house on a corner. It stood out like a sore thumb, every side visible to a street or alley. So there was no place to hide anything, no garage or outbuilding. I parked the Phantom behind the house and, alas, after a few days it was stolen. I was heart-broken. I experienced grief for the first time. I remember being unable to concentrate in school, and asking over and over why anyone would steal from another, and why this happened to me? I learned the hard lesson to not fall too deeply in love with things for they can disappear in the dark of night. And I learned there is evil in the world. People do bad things to other people.

I got over it, of course, but I pined for the Phantom. Occasionally I rehearsed the story of the lost bike to my wife, reminisced and left it at that. Years later, I saw one in a bicycle shop in Seattle and rushed in to discover a restored Phantom in pristine condition sold for, gulp, $2,500. Too rich for my budget no matter how warm the memory.

That was years ago, a lifetime, in fact. Last week I came home from a trip to find in the hallway, a Phantom! I let out a yelp and immediately dropped my suitcase and sat on the bike. Sharon and Jinny had ordered a reproduction. It’s green and white but never the less it’s the same classic styling. It’s also got multiple gears, which the original, to my recollection, didn’t have. (But a “mature” Boomer needs that extra help.) It has the same tear drop headlight, horn in the tank and sweeping lines. It, too, is a work of art.

So I immediately took the bike out for a spin. It was pure joy. My heart pumped and it wasn’t from lack of exercise.

When I returned, I brought the bike back inside the house. Sharon looked slightly puzzled and a bit surprised. Wary, she asked, “Where are you going to keep it?”

To which I replied, “In the bedroom, of course.”

Global Mistrust versus Global Partnership: Muslim-Christian Cooperation Bridges the Gap

The news that the U.S. faces more distrust
highlights the importance of global partnerships such as the pact just signed by
United Methodist Committee on Relief and Muslim Aid.

The world is more distrustful of U.S. leadership according to a survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project and the image of the United States continues to decline, a process that has been in motion for the past five years. In addition, attitudes toward President Bush continue on a downward trajectory.

Coming two days after the signing of an agreement between two of the leading humanitarian relief organizations in the world, one Muslim and one Christian, to cooperate on humanitarian service the importance of their pact stands out even more. Muslim Aid and The United Methodist Committee on Relief signed the agreement in the House of Commons on Tuesday with host MP Stephen Timms presiding.

The Pew research compliments an earlier survey about attitudes between Muslims and Westerners published last year. This survey reveals a great divide in understanding with Muslims feeling marginalized and unfairly characterized. They are frustrated that in the minds of many they are defined by the fundamentalists who capture headlines but don’t represent the mainstream of Muslim society or Islamic belief.

What I find remarkable about the agreement is that it comes not from visionary thinking alone, it also comes from extraordinarily hard-won experience. The two forged this cooperation on the ground in Sri Lanka over the past several months during civil conflict that put Muslims, Christians and others at risk of life and limb. However, I wouldn’t downgrade idealism. As MP Shahid Maliki said to the group, “Vision trumps division.” Idealism is important. It is rooted in the faith of the two great religious traditions that have given birth to these two organizations and they express their faith traditions in practical action.

This pact was birthed in blood and guts practice. Field staff from both organizations faced death threats as they met human needs in Sri Lanka. Rather than abandon the people they were working with they chose to engage with each other and continue humanitarian service. They didn’t pull back and seek safe haven when violence came. To hear the reports of the field officers of the two organizations is to hear heroic action which I don’t think they fully comprehend because they were too busy meeting human needs. It’s only upon reflection after the fact that the deeper significance of their actions becomes clear.

By working together they were more effective and inclusive than they would have been working alone. Their common mission–to serve–led them to collaborate in ways that identified commonalities rather than differences. Without intending it they witnessed to interfaith cooperation that opened doors and helped quell dangerous disputes among suffering people. They turned divisiveness on its head. This understanding is captured in the London agreement and the Pew research reveals how badly the world needs it.

We need to know that Christians and Muslims share belief in compassion and justice. We need to know we can work together to serve others. We need bridge the divide caused by stereotypes and mischaracterization. Of course we have our differences and we must acknowledge them, but not by neglecting what we hold in common. The Abrahamic faith traditions share many core values that lead to humanitarian service and concern for the poor. These common values can be the basis for conversation that could lead to a more tolerant global society.

I believe the agreement signed in London has the potential to start a global alliance that can led to wider action and promote peace and tolerance. It can help us see that what we have in common is powerful and healing. And we may learn that our differences need not divide us.

UMCOR-Muslim Aid Partnership Launch

A partnership between the United Methodist
Committee on Relief and Muslim Aid was launched today in the House of Commons,
London.

Signing Ceremony
Mr. Saif Ahmad, CEO, Muslim Aid, Mr. Farooq Murad, Pres. Muslim Aid, Hon. Stephen Timms, MP, Gen. Sec. Randy Day, UMCOR, Bishop Edward Paup, Pres. UMCOR

A landmark partnership between the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Muslim Aid was signed today at the House of Commons in London. The agreement formalizes cooperation already reflected in their operations delivering emergency assistance to victims of civil conflict in Sri Lanka.

In concrete terms, it could result in approximately $15 million additional for humanitarian assistance in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, but the history-making agreement opens the door for interfaith cooperation as part of strategic planning, not as an after-thought, according to Farooq Murad, chairman of Muslim Aid.

Chief Secretary of the Treasury, Stephen Timms, MP convened the signing ceremony in a meeting room in the Parliament building. Timms said this partnership demonstrates a better way to solve conflict than bullets and guns. He said the interfaith partnership will serve as a model for others.

After the signing ceremony MP Shahid Mahlik chaired a panel that included two dozen non-governmental organizations. Shahid said, “We’ve become experts at inclusiveness and that’s wonderful, but it’s not enough. We in this room know we must go further. We know that inclusion is wonderful but we come together because we have much in common. This (partnership) brings us closer together and holds promise for the world to see that we as a global community have more in common than we recognize.”

Shahid represents a district that included one of the young men who bombed the London underground and a transport bus several months ago. Referring to this event he said, “When people do evil things we must call it evil.”

He said evil challenges religious people is to uphold human dignity and assure that everyone has a voice in order to build a more tolerant community. Acts of violence betray the faith traditions partnering in this agreement, he said.

The Rev. Randy Day, General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries, the parent body of UMCOR, invited other religious organizations to join in similar partnerships. Rev. Day said, “I hope we will met around a similar table in the future and welcome many more partners as we work to eliminate suffering from poverty and toward a partnership for global peace.”

Christians-Muslims: What Keeps Them Going is Faith

Christians and Muslims were told by Mr. Farooq
Murad, Chairman of Muslim Aid, that they share much in common.

“What keeps us going?” Farooq Murad, Chairperson of Muslim Aid, asked a group of United Methodist Christians and Muslims at a meeting in London today.

“Our faith,” he answered.

The group, representing the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Muslim Aid, is meeting to sign an agreement to cooperate on emergency relief and long-term development to combat poverty. They have already successfully worked together to provide emergency assistance and long-term reconstruction to those affected by the tsunami in Sri Lanka. They intend to build upon their experience to create a global alliance.

Mr. Murad told the group, “We share a common faith tradition that includes Abraham, Jesus, Moses; each taught us that caring and serving humanity are central. We risk having lost this central value today but it is what living faith is all about.

Unfortunately, our world isn’t getting much better. Conflict and poverty are increasing. There is no reason a child should go to bed hungry or without shelter. We are working together to serve and care. I hope all who would see this-staff, leaders, trustees-see it as affirmation of our faith, not as compromise.

I am sure we will face difficult issues but I hope we can address them. Our faith traditions stand for truth, justice and caring for humanity. In the next life the great prophet will say, “I was hungry and you did not feed me. I was ill and you did not heal me. If you had gone [with the hungry and the ill] you would have found me there.” These are the questions we will be asked.

Christian-Muslim Pact

Muslim Aid and United Methodist Committee on
Relief announce partnership agreement.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and Muslim Aid will announce an agreement on Tuesday in London to partner in relief and development. The agreement recognizes work on the ground that is already benefitting tsunami-affected people in Sri Lanka.

UMCOR is the arm of The United Methodist Church that provides humanitarian service for relief, rehabilitation, long-term development and refugee services. The two organizations have similar mandates and serve people regardless of their faith.

The agreement will be announced in the House of Parliament between officials of the two organizations and the British government. I will be part of the delegation from The United Methodist Church and intend to blog from London if time permits.

I’ll be interested in U.S. media coverage of this agreement, if any. It represents an historic step toward Christian-Musim cooperation around humanitarian service that stands in sharp contrast to the divisive remarks of some evangelical Christian and fundamentalist Muslim leaders. It will be revealing to learn if U.S. news media regard an agreement to cooperate newsworthy.

The agreement is covered in the News section of the denominational website, umc.org.

Saving Africa

Joe Nocera asks if a vision can save
Africa?

They wrap them in white linen and lower them into the ground. The small white clumps look like loaves of bread, innocent, clean and lifeless. I’ve stood by and watched as the dead children of Africa are covered with earth. Mothers weep. Fathers hang their heads. Surviving children cling to the legs of adults, their eyes quizzical, sad and filled with fear. I’ve seen it more times than I can count. More hurt than I want to remember. Malaria alone takes a life every 30 seconds. The conditions bred by extreme poverty–malnutrition, water-borne diseases, infections–kill even faster. And it’s the kids who go first. Promise stolen, laid in the ground wrapped in white cloth.

These images filled my mind as I read Joe Nocera’s column today in the New York Times. Nocera discusses the pros and cons of the attempt to end malaria and the vision of Dr. Jeffrey Sachs to end extreme poverty. Nocera asks, “Can A Vision Save All of Africa?” He concludes, probably not. Or, more accurately, he closes his column by asking when the current interest in malaria has run its course and malaria is no longer the “pet cause” in American corporate boardrooms–Nocera is a business columnist–what then?

I’ve heard all the reasons why the vision to end malaria is not possible. In a recent meeting I heard one individual say about ending extreme poverty, “That’s just stupid.” I think for every vision that’s put forth there are ten reasons why it won’t work and twenty people lined up to present them. And then there are those who say we should take care of our own first, and others who say this is not our problem we should be concentrating on something else, and the something else is their pet agenda.

So maybe Dr. Sachs is tilting at windmills. Maybe the world can’t partner with Africa to save the lives of the next generation of children. Maybe mosquitos will adapt to the insecticide and another will need to be created. Maybe the bednet will rip. And maybe it’s impossible to cover the whole continent of Africa. And maybe…well, you fill in your reason this visionary idea of saving lives is doomed from the start, I’ve run out.

I’d rather tilt at Dr. Sachs’ windmills than stand in the back of the room and point out why these things can’t be done. At least the worst that can happen is public embarrassment for being hopeful and optimistic.

Oh yes, and one more thing. I wish those who think we can’t end malaria and reduce extreme poverty would get their reasons together, stand at the edge of a hole in the ground where a mother has just laid a white-shrouded body, look her in the eye and tell her why.

Religion Culture and Decline

Two pieces caught my eye this week. The decline
of baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention and the closing of a seminary
preparatory in Chicago.

The closing of a preparatory seminary for Roman Catholic boys in Chicago and the decline in baptisms in the Southern Baptist denomination caught my eye this week. Convervaives have been in the ascendancy in the Southern Baptist church for more than a decade. The purge of liberal leaders was mercilous and very public. Convervatives have been in the ascendancy in the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church for much longer. The irony is that the claim is often made in Mainline Protestant circles that the decline of the protestant communions is the result of liberal leadership. But the accuracy of this claim is

The number of priests in the United States has dropped from nearly 59,000 in 1975 to about 42,000 last year. Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary has prepared teenage boys for the priesthood

Analyzing Media Coverage

Prime Minister Tony Blair says media coverage
today is degrading community life.

The damage
saps the
country’s
confidence
and self-belief
–Prime Minister
Tony Blair

When outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair told journalists yesterday that increasing competition and pressure from rapidly evolving new technology is “unraveling” journalistic standards, he called attention to an issue that resonates.

Blair said sensation, shock and controversy have replaced the attempt to achieve impartial reporting. His remarks are colorful, befitting the claims he’s making. He said journalists in competitive mode act like a “feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits.”

Blair’s key point, however, is his belief that the declining quality of coverage is affecting how issues are perceived and even the spirit of nations to address them.

This is not a new issue, of course. Bloggers have attacked mainstream media for years. Conservatives claim media bias against conservatives, and liberals, conversely, claim progressive positions are left out. It’s important to note that Blair isn’t talking about bias, however. He’s talking about style, substance and standards.

…we are
all being
dragged
down by
the way
media
and public
life interact.
–Prime Minister
Tony Blair

The argument about political bias, while interesting, misses the point. Electronic and digital media serve up inconsequential sensationalism and give short shrift to the information we need to be informed citizens. Moreover, Blair says feral media behavior demoralizes politicians as well as constituents. This is a quality of life issue.

A media study released May 29 by Media Matters proves the point. Media Matters’ research shows that provocative religious right commentators get twice as much media coverage as moderates, who according to Media Matters, are less likely to offer extreme or provocative sound bites. And “celebrity religious leaders” left or right get more coverage than leaders of mainline communities with considerably larger membership bases and much less rhetorical saavy. The conclusion: moderate religious voices are left behind.

When media coverage seeks out the extremes it shapes the debate. It leaves out moderates. To the degree that extreme voices have learned how to use the media, the media are complicit in degrading the public conversation by giving access to polar extremes. The middle is where compromise makes it possible to find common ground. The political dialogue in the past decade, maybe longer, has deteriorated in part because media coverage has provided a platform for the extremes while it has trivialized and excluded the moderate middle.

I’m fully aware that some cultural analysts, even some theologians, claim that the middle is so devoid of passion and energy that the only way to live authentically is on the edge. I’m reading one theologian right now who makes this claim. Well, maybe. Maybe not. Edginess depends on context. Sometimes radical solutions are necessary to break through calcified practices that prohibit solutions to long-term problems. But sometimes extreme positions shut down change. Compromise somewhere in the middle is necessary to move things forward. So the middle isn’t always a bad place. The polarization of issues and constituencies today shuts down consensus and makes it nearly impossible to find common ground on global warming, immigration and health care, for example, not to mention Guantanamo or the war in Iraq.
No doubt Blair will be portrayed as a disaffected politician taking a parting shot on his way out the door. There may be truth in this claim, but there is an equal measure of truth in what he said about reportage and interpretation. As reporters grapple with the demand to build audience in a fragmented media environment and grab our attention when we are flooded with messages, the sensational sometimes works. But it also undermines credibility, and that is a major liability.

Post-modern audiences are nurtured in skepticism. Older audiences, formed in a different culture, expect different standards. They aren’t likely to stay with coverage that doesn’t satisfy their minimal expectations for serious content. This is is a recipe for decline, it seems to me. Before reacting too defensively to Blair’s criticism, media professionals should dissect his remarks and look at their demographics and retention rates. There may be more truth in Blair’s comments than the musings of a frustrated politician whacking the media as he walks out the door. To write him off in this way is to do exactly what he is criticizing, that is, to trivialize serious issues and reduce them to the personal pique of a celebrity politician.

Global Health Perspective

The changing practice of journalism is also
affecting how global health is covered.

When you read a story about a global health issue have you asked yourself, “Who’s the primary actor and who’s the recipient?” Reading Christine Gorman’s remarks to the Global Health Council on her blog, Global Health Report, caught me up short. Of course this is a logical question. It’s also one that gets submerged when stories are framed through cultural lenses. Christine didn’t write that last sentence, I did, and I write it sensitive to the point she makes that often the stories we tell are told from the perspective of those of us in the developed world acting on, if not on behalf of, people in the developing world.

We make the actors heroes and the acted-upon recipients. This doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s happening on the ground, it reflects who’s telling the story and from what perspective. When Peter Fonda was asked in the sixties how he could produce the counter-cultural movie “Easy Rider” by working with a studio, his response was, “Because they have the cameras.”

When journalists come from the developed world, have the cameras, access, and distribution the story gets framed for a particular audience. Christine makes the crucial point that we need more journalists who can tell the story from a different angle; namely, from ground level. We would get a much different perspective if this were happening.

Equally intriguing is Christine’s assessment of the practice of journalism today. With staff reductions and new technology, the craft of journalism is changing in its basics. She explains how this makes it easier to get attention, especially through effective use of search engines and keywords. Search technology cuts through the gatekeeping function that makes it hard to get through, exposing new ideas to a broader audience, among other advantages. Of course, the proliferation of stories makes it more difficult to cut through the clutter as well, but her point is that people with a good story have the opportunity to get it to the journalists who have an interest in it through a more direct line than ever before. And, we can tell our own stories, which is even better sometimes.

There’s much more here, and it’s brief. I know a lot of communicators read Perspectives and I’d suggest you hop over to Christine’s blog and read these remarks. She’s got me thinking about our work, and that’s a good thing.

Bill Frist on Global Health

Sen. Bill Frist says global health is a way to
promote peace.

In an interview in The Tennessean today Sen. Bill Frist says he will work on global health in the coming days and he calls health the “currency of peace.” Frist said he will join Save the Children in a major initiative–yet to be defined–to prevent maternal-child mortality and he will join Bono’s One Campaign to get health issues into the presidential campaigns.

Frist said “health diplomacy” can be an important part of national security and contribute to a better understanding of the U.S. in world opinion.

This is an interesting public stance for Frist. While he has been quietly participating in voluntary medical missions to the developing world for many years, his past support for U.S. policies that deny funds to clinics that provide abortions and distribute condoms has created negative reactions to U.S. “health diplomacy.” His role in the Terri Schiavo case did not enhance his public image among any but the conservative base. This partisanship will certainly cause his critics to ask how he defines health diplomacy today. If it means continuing these policies and politicizing health issues, it will be more of the same. If not, it will be a welcome change.

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