Archive - July, 2009

Could U.S. unemployment reach 10%? The people hunger for hope

If the recession is easing, as this morning’s headlines suggest, we still have a long way to go. Today, I read that U.S. unemployment is on the rise yet again. Columnist Bob Herbert recently wrote the effective unemployment rate–counting those who’ve given up seeking work, those working part-time but seeking full-time jobs, and those recently laid off–could be as high as 16.5 percent. Staggering.

If the official rate reaches 10 percent, which is possible, it could set off yet another economic contraction. Anxiety is high. People seek sources of hope.

At the 2008 General Conference, Bishop Mary Ann Swenson called The United Methodist Church the “cup that runneth over.” As people hunger today, are we sharing our bounty of hope? The hope we know in Jesus Christ? Are we going out into our communities to reach people who fear the worst, to be the community Jesus calls us to be even amid despair?

As everyone knows, church membership in North America is in decline, and spiritual seekers are looking elsewhere. It is a trying time for we who hold dear the Wesleyan principles. But it’s also a time of opportunity. We must seize this as an opportunity to do what God calls us to do … to leave our church buildings and go to the people who hunger for hope.

United Methodist Communications is trying to do our part. We have invited the people of The United Methodist Church into a conversation to Rethink Church. Its goals include gaining the attention of spiritual seekers, to engage, invite and offer the message of hope that United Methodist Christians believe in.

If unemployment worsens, people will be desperate for connection, community and, perhaps, evidence that God is present with us, and that this makes a difference. In community we embody that hope, and through community we live the evidence. How might we share it?

A Good Week

It’s been a good week. I traveled to Geneva with United Methodist, Lutheran and United Nations Foundation colleagues to meet with staff of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. United Methodists and Lutherans are partnering with the United Nations Foundation and the Global Fund to raise funds to eliminate malaria. The conversation was stimulating and exciting. I have more hope that the world can conquer malaria than I’ve ever had. The goal is 2015, a date called by UN General Sec. Ban Ki Moon. It’s great to leave a meeting feeling more excitement and hope than when you began.

Sen. Bill Frist and Larry Hollon A day after this, Sen. Bill Frist and a colleague came to our offices. Along with two of my staff colleagues, we had a very hopeful conversation about common concerns in global health. Since leaving the Senate he’s devoted his time to global health and poverty. We discovered several places where our interests intersect. And I learned that he played a key role in creating the Global Fund. Along with him, I believe the Global Fund is one of the greatest hopes the world has for significantly reducing the human toll of these three major diseases.

We also discovered we share relationships with people and organizations working on health and communications. The role of communications is often overlooked in addressing poverty and disease. But the challenge of getting life saving information to people, especially in underserved remote, rural regions where poverty is endemic is a function that deserves our careful consideration. I’m glad we were able to talk about it.

All in all, at week’s end I looked back and reflected; it was a good week.

Video update from Global Fund Summit


The power of partnership


As I fought off jet lag this afternoon, my mind raced with ideas. The meeting with executives from the Lutheran denominations and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was more stimulating than even I had expected, and I was hopeful going in.

The whole day was a lesson in the effectiveness of partnership. Together we can make good things happen. We can save lives. In Global Fund lingo, it’s about scale. Combine resources and skills with a strategy for national coverage and you can make a dent, a significant dent, in the diseases of poverty.

Ethiopia has reduced mortality from malaria by 50 percent in a just a few years with national bed net distribution. Other nations are seeing similar dramatic life-saving change. This happens when resources and skills are aligned, a national plan is created by those who will implement it, and adequate funds are made available. When this happens at scale, the effects of the diseases of poverty can be reduced, if not eliminated.

United Methodists and Lutherans bring much to the table. We are present in remote areas far beyond the end of the road. We’re in rural, under-served villages that lack financial resources but have deep community connections. The people in these villages, our brothers and sisters, are United Methodists and Lutherans. They are us, and we are them. One global community.

I was reminded of this system we United Methodists call our connection. And I kept thinking about what a transforming potential it holds. When we align, focus and partner with others at scale, we can change the world. Even if you’re addled by jet lag, that’s exciting to consider!

Fighting A Deadly Foe


If the world is to eliminate malaria by 2015 as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for, it will require a massive, systematic effort. No single agency or group can do it alone. And independent acts of compassion, while commendable, must be integrated into a systematic plan of prevention, region by region, country by country.

The malaria parasite is a wily foe. In the 1950s it appeared to be all but eliminated, and the world let up on a global plan only to have the parasite come roaring back with a vengeance. We can’t allow this to happen again. Today the parasite is resistant to the medicines used in the ’50s and stronger than ever in some areas.

I’m in Geneva with Bishop Tom Bickerton and the Rev. Gary Henderson, both with The United Methodist Church’s Global Health Initiative, Shannon Trilli of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, two colleagues from Lutheran World Relief and Michael Pajonk of the United Nations Foundation. We’re meeting with leaders of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. It’s exciting.

We’ll be talking about how the efforts by United Methodists and Lutherans to end malaria interconnect with the Global Fund. The meeting has been two years in the making. I’m told it’s the first meeting of its kind.

It’s an outcome of the Global Health Initiative approved by General Conference. I’ll have more to say after we begin our two days of meetings.

Malaria and Hope: Why Domingos Antonic Matters

This is about hope. I ask you to stay with me and I’ll get there. But first I need to recount an experience that put hope to test. It starts with this lead-in to a story in Interpreter magazine about efforts to prevent malaria:

Watching a small child die from malaria is a horrific experience.

First come the headache, tiredness, weakness in the joints and general malaise,

followed by a very high fever.

Then the fever’s effect on the brain causes the child’s muscles to jerk, just before the end.

As I read this lead, I felt my heartbeat quicken and a sense of deep sadness came over me. I’ve seen children die in too many places. Honduras. Cambodia. More places in Africa than I can recall. This story is about 8-month-old Domingos Antonic who died of malaria in Malanje, Angola. One of the thousands whose lives are stolen by a disease of poverty.

But Domingos reminds me that every death is real. A face, a family, and real tears.

As I write these words I continue to feel a mixture of fear, frustration and anger. Fear because it’s so disorienting to see a child, or anyone else, overtaken by the symptoms of malaria and to be utterly helpless to change them. To witness the inexorable, uncontrollable ebbing away of life is fearsome.

Frustration, because this is preventable and treatable if addressed early on. And anger because it’s preventable and treatable, and economically feasible to end it. It doesn’t have to happen. Children need not die from this disease, nor many of the other diseases of poverty. And that alone is enough to cause a simmering boil of frustration within.

I know that emotional reactions are easily spent and sometimes they don’t generate much in the way of real change. I know that good people are doing all they can to bring health and healing to the world. In fact, Sen. Richard Lugar writes in the same edition of Interpreter about his legislation that would increase agricultural aid to combat hunger (Senate Bill 384, The Global Food Security Act). And I know that donors want program plans, measurements and outcomes–rational, systematic and manageable responses. But the Interpreter article set aflame old frustrations.

After all these years children are still dying in the poorest nations for lack of knowledge about preventing this disease and a ten dollar bednet. How many more? For how long?

Reading the article, my mind’s eye recalled the look on the face of the young indigenous mother I met thirty years ago at a health clinic in El Paraiso, Honduras cradling her malnourished infant. Her quietness and deep, brown eyes still haunt me. The memory of the labored breathing of the tiny child lingers. Then I recall a little body wrapped in white linen and laid into the ground in an African village near a river. And the look of pain on the face of a teenage boy in Cambodia, his brain swelling, unable to resist the progression of the disease.

The death of one child, when you know about it, doesn’t fade into the mists of memory to be forgotten. It stays somewhere in the pool of life experiences and comes to the surface with a word, a sound or an image. And the pain it carries is sharp and cuts deep for you know this is not the way life has to be.

Pain and grief are part of what it means to wake up to poverty every day in the developing world, but these conditions aren’t mysteriously inevitable. We can do something about them. They are not immutable reality. Nor should we be unaffected by them, not after looking people in the face and seeing what poverty means.

Hunger and disease are not about huge numbers. They are about one face at a time. Sometimes I think we let words mask our pain or gloss it over too easily. Lubricated with sweetness, they slide from our lips. “Hope never dies. Hope springs eternal.” Stand over your dying child, unable to do anything to wrench him or her from the grips of death, and then come and talk to me about hope.

I remember sitting with a mother in Brazil in a stinking favela talking about her son who was marked for murder by a vigilante group called “justicieros.” She had moved here hoping it would be safer. She was constructing a hut with boards scavenged from a wooden piano crate. We talked of life and hope. She was trapped in poverty. With tears sliding down her cheeks Maria spoke of the fears she had for her son. As she weighed the challenges she said, “But we have a saying in Brazil. Hope is the last thing to die.”

I think Maria’s view of hope is more accurate. When neglected, hope does die. Every day. With Domingos and every other child taken by the diseases of poverty and the injustices of life. That’s why we dare not forget Domingos nor all the others and turn away from them. If we do, we will lose our own humanity and hope will die. Hope, against all odds, is one of those qualities that defines our humanity. We must not let hope die.

There are many ways to keep hope alive:

  • Give to the Imagine No Malaria campaign to eradicate malaria in The United Methodist Church or the organization of your choice.
  • Participate in a volunteer partnership offerred by many local churches and other groups that provide volunteer opportunities to distribute bednets and provide hands-on labor.
  • Support Sen. Lugar’s Global Food Security Act, Senate Bill 384.
  • Read Nicholas Kristof’s comments in which he says we might get more support for humanitarian assistance by focusing on stories of individuals and opportunities rather than mass numbers.
  • Read Bono’s op-ed this morning and reflect on how we are all connected by our common DNA and consider how the death of any child is a loss to the whole human family.

It comes down to this. Hope is our responsibility. It’s not some mysterious force disconnected from hard realities. But it may, indeed, be written into our collective DNA, activated when we recognize that Domingos and every other preventable death by poverty is a call to us to be responsible for each other. When we care for each other, there is hope.

So you absorb the pain, fear and frustration and carry on. I laid the article down and walked away, collected my thoughts and re-grouped. Then I set about telling this story. I did it because Domingos is inside my brain. Look into his eyes and you cannot turn away your gaze. Domingos matters. And as long as I believe that, I can dare to hope and work to keep hope alive.

A Hopeful Postscript: The people of The United Methodist Church have entered into a campaign to raise $75 million to eradicate malaria. They have contributed well over six million dollars so far.

An article in the NY Times reports that Pres. Obama is asking the world’s wealthiest nations to contribute $15 billion to help the world’s poorest farmers feed themselves and their countries.

Obama in Africa

President Obama’s trip to Africa early in his term is a departure from past Presidents. Most don’t get there until late in their terms. For this reason the Obama visit is viewed with great hope.

In a letter to the President, a group of faith leaders affirmed his visit and called for four changes in U.S. strategy toward the continent.

First, they say the U.S. should speed bilateral and international actions to cancel unsustainable debt owed by African countries and reform international financial agencies dealing with Africa to promote democratization and transparency. They specifically call for closer work with the UN and its policies and "less privileging" of the  the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Secondly, they call on the U.S. to restructure its foreign assistance agencies to encourage cooperative partnerships with other countries and international agencies to address global problems. The letter says the Obama Administration can promote a just approach to development by contributing a fair share to multi-lateral agencies, coordinating bilateral programs with international programs, e.g., the universally agreed-upon Millennium Development Goals, and ensuring the integration of U.S. funded development programs within broader frameworks of regional and bilateral cooperation.

Third, the leaders say it’s urgent to create inclusive approaches to problems regionally and globally and encourage frameworks for broader dialogue between civil sectors in the U.S. and Africa, in contrast to the expansion of military ties on the one hand and trade ties through the African Growth and Opportunity Act on the other.

Fourth, they call the U.S. to reduce military spending and defuse threats through cooperative security measures, arms reduction and multilateral peace initiatives.

The letter points to a basic reality. Africa’s poverty is structural. It’s the result of political decisions, policy choices that favor military expenditures over humanitarian development and economic models that favor big multinational financing over targeted self-development. It also recognizes the need for broader participation in the planning and decisions that affect the countries on the continent. And it calls for the U.S. to engage Africa multilaterally, recognizing the new reality of globalization.

The Obama visit to Ghana could be the first small step toward significant change. That is the hope this visit carries.

Africa Land Grab

Some are calling it an African land grab. It’s led by outside investors with plans for food production, not for Africa but for their own populations. A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says acquisition of African land by outside investment groups has stepped up in the last twelve months.

The UN report questions whether it’s a land grab or development opportunity. However, it also says rural people are being displaced or denied access to land for their own food production. Unfortunately, Africans have seen this before.

The rush to Africa by European powers over a century ago resulted in extractive agricultural products that required fertile land and forests. Among other well-documented results from colonialism, it also contributed to ecological damage and left Africans to subsist on marginal land.

Today the Guardian notes some of the world’s richest countries are buying or leasing land in some of the poorest to satisfy insatiable appetites for food and fuel. Food security, changing diets and a demand for biofuels is driving the land acquisition.

An interesting side note; China is not among the largest investors, contrary to popular conception. India, South Korea, some Arab states and Americans are more heavily invested than the Chinese, according to the UN research.

The report says large tracts of land are being purchased or leased for industrial scale export farming. Some African governments agree to rent-free leases while others provide tax incentives based on perceived benefits such as jobs and infrastructure development.

The issues are amazingly complex. A mix of private ownership, government management and traditional community practices affect land management.

The UN report suggests local communities and citizens groups need a voice in land use because they will be affected directly and significantly by leasing arrangements.

Because they have supported small scale agriculture for local food production, non-governmental development organizations including groups such as Church World Service,  Oxfam and UMCOR have a direct stake in how land use policies are implemented. Many religious denominations, especially United Methodists, have heavy presence in rural areas where subsistence agriculture is the sole means of support for  the people. They have invested heavily in agricultural coops, women’s groups and other community organization efforts. Therefore, land management policies and large scale export agriculture could directly affect their congregants and their communities.

These communities are already disadvantaged, lacking voice, power and money. But the organized groups can provide a platform for them to raise their concerns about land management and access for the people. If development is indeed an outcome of the agricultural leases it should accommodate local input. If not, the community voices ought to be heard to advocate for community interest.

Local congregations and other church organizations that partner with Africans have incentive to learn more about these land leases as well, and to include land concerns in their partnership. To do less is to risk the undoing of much of the work they have been about, in many cases for years. This is a case of policy intersecting with religious concerns in a very specific way.

The Media and Junk Culture

Update : Bob Herbert writes a compelling assessment of the culture that has developed in the wake of the Jackson era. He says Michael mania was the beginning of extreme immaturity and grotesque irresponsibility.

Around three in the afternoon on July 2, three cable news networks simultaneously played and replayed a video of Michael Jackson’s last rehearsal taken two days before his death. California was effectively  bankrupt, issuing IOU’s for the first time since the Great Depression. Unemployment was up and stocks down, depressing hope for the end of the Great Recession. Sen. Kennedy announced a plan for national health care costing far less than those proposed before. But Michael Jackson, whose tragic death is as revealing of the paucity of celebrity culture as anything, led the news.

The video was provided by the company that bankrolled his planned comeback. There was much speculation that it was released as a preview of marketing plans yet to come. The cable networks took the bait.

That we are told more about Jackson’s will and the custody of his children than we are informed about the "public option " in the health care debate, war in Congo or the current state of Darfur , might understandably lead a reasonable person to wonder how the sideshow of popular culture became the main event.

In a provocative post on Alternet, Chris Hedges writes about the compliant relationship between junk culture, junk politics and the media. Hedges says over the years major media succumbed to corporate propaganda enabling corporations to undermine long held cultural values, redefining "American culture" and replacing it with a manufactured commodity culture. We are left with junk.

I thought his thesis severe until I turned on the TV that afternoon and saw it lived out before my eyes. David Shuster even analyzed it as he participated in it on MSNBC.

Chuck Todd, NBC’s chief White House correspondent, spent a quarter hour of Hardball, a program dedicated to politics, on Jackson. Talk about the marriage of junk culture and junk politics.

CBS and NBC led their national newscasts with Jackson. ABC opened with the unemployment figures released that day, the cutback in state government services and comments by President Obama about the state of the economy. To their credit, ABC got to Jackson eight minutes into its nightly newscast.

Hedges claims this  insidious, corrosive process has undermined journalism and traditional cultural values.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about key issues confronting traditional institutions and organizations and their constituencies. I recall research by the Barna Group that says 18 to 34-year-olds say they can’t see a difference between professed Christians and others in the culture. One would assume that claiming the values of faith would distinguish a person of faith from the wider culture, especially if that culture is based on consumption, the attainment of personal wealth and idolizing celebrity.

These cultural values are in conflict with those of Jesus who called his followers to give up their material goods and serve other others, not hoard their wealth, take advantage of others for material gain or seek fame.

When Christianity, or at least those who claim Christianity, becomes indistinguishable from junk culture it has a problem. In fact, junk or not, it’s fair to ask if those who follow the teachings of Jesus can identify with any culture, or must stand within culture and remain in tension with it? If following Jesus is an ultimate claim, a claim that gives meaning to life and reshapes it, then that claim will, at some point, result in conflict with virtually any other system, most especially a lifestyle of consumption, excessive admiration of celebrity and political maneuvering.

It begs the question: What difference does belief make? What difference does it make to follow the teachings of Jesus? H. Richard Niebuhr addressed the issue in Christ and Culture and concluded that dynamic interaction between Christians and culture will change both.

The answer to these questions will be more determinative for the future of faith communities than the current cultural debates dividing them. The earliest followers of Jesus described their faithfulness as following The Way (Acts 19:23). The Way was an active journey through which commitment to God and other persons was expressed. And it brought them into conflict with the existing order. It was about what you live for, and in those early days, what you were prepared to die for.

More than dogma, it was how you lived your life in faithfulness, and it remains so today; ideals that cannot be contained by the smallness and shallowness of a culture of celebrity, consumption and politics.

Hedges holds out a glimmer of hope that a form journalism could emerge that combines rhetorical ideals with authentic storytelling, respecting but not misusing emotion, and it could help us to reclaim a more genuine, humane culture. Communities of faith will require a similar dialogue if they are to re-affirm that following Jesus really does make a difference; faithfulness to a way that is open to new possibilities, expansive, compassionate and committed to justice for all. A faith that does no harm, does good and helps us stay in love with God.

It isn’t rooted in popular culture and it’s unlikely to abide with it easily. But it could be a transformative presence in an otherwise sad and shallow culture of distraction.