Archive - April, 2011

The Buddha Was Wearing a Rolex


The Buddha was wearing a Rolex. He was filling my room. Expanding slowly but steadily. I could not get my breath, and I felt as if he were suffocating me.

I was in a hotel room in Cambodia shortly after the Pol Pot regime had fallen and Vietnam had invaded. I had read a story in National Geographic prior to travel in which a Buddha in the ancient city of  Angkor Wat had been defaced by someone who scratched a crude image of a Rolex watch on his wrist. I’ve never actually seen this Buddha, but the image stuck in my subconscious.

A couple of days earlier, our film crew had stood at the edge of a killing field, the mass graves of victims of Pol Pot’s murderous reign, as a worker unearthed human remains and counted skulls. The grass was ankle high, and I was eaten up with mosquito bites.


I had contracted malaria.
I recall awakening throughout the night feeling hot. I lay on the tiled floor of my hotel room because it felt cool to my cheek. In the morning my colleagues got me to a health clinic run by a humanitarian organization, and I was given medications that soon brought me back to a more normal state. The Buddha left. But I’ve never forgotten him.

I was fortunate. My co-workers recognized the signs of malaria and got me to medical care quickly. The medications and a skilled physician were available. Unlike the circumstances that confront millions of people sick with malaria on the African continent, neither cost nor travel were barriers to getting treatment.

Many of those who deal with the disease, particularly mothers, don’t know what causes malaria. They have no access to medicines or health services. Lacking knowledge, they act too slowly, if at all, and their loved ones die. Others seek out herbal healers who proffer remedies that risk damaging the kidneys or livers of the sick.

Bishop Nkulu Ntanda Ntambo says in the documentary, “A Killer in the Dark,” the deaths that result from this lack of knowledge are so common that his family simply considered the rainy season the season of death. The family, living in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, moved from one village to another when death struck.

But “A Killer in the Dark” also shows how community health workers who train families to use bed nets, clean up their environment and reduce standing water can stem the progress of this disease.

It also shows how the disease can be overcome as it was during the construction of the Panama Canal. The French abandoned the canal due to the toll of malaria on workers. When research finally connected the disease to infected mosquitoes, abatement measures were carried out that allowed workers to complete the canal.

The effort to combat this disease is continuing, and the documentary shows how the efforts of faith-based groups are making a vital contribution to reducing its deadly toll.

Moreover, the methods they use empower whole communities to act so they can enhance and improve community life. No more will these communities accept with resignation that malaria deaths are a natural part of the changing seasons, a part of the cycle of life and death over which they have no control. It is possible to imagine no malaria.  And to make it so.

Pauley Perrette, of NCIS fame, provides the narration for the United Methodist upcoming TV special called “A Killer in the Dark: An Extraordinary Effort to Combat Malaria.” The program, which will air on many NBC affiliates May 1 (check local listings), documents the daily struggle in Africa against malaria and highlights the work of Imagine No Malaria to wipe out a devastating disease that’s killing 2,000 people every single day. The program is presented by the National Council of Churches under the auspices of the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission and is produced by United Methodist Communication.

 

Storytellers on the Front Lines

As I lay on the hood of a Land Rover, propped against the windshield and gazing into the marvelous night sky above Luuq, Somalia, I heard a swooshing sound followed by an explosion that shook the earth. My reverie was quickly broken.

My friend, cinematographer Burton Buller, came out of a tent and exclaimed, “They’re shooting at us!”

They weren’t shooting at us, and he was joking, but they were shooting over us at a bridge not far away.

We were in a refugee camp situated between opposing Somali forces in the Ogaden rangelands, documenting conditions the world cared little about and would as soon ignore.

I thought of this as I considered the deaths of British photojournalist Tim Hetherington and Getty photographer Chris Hondros in a mortar attack in Libya yesterday. Two other journalists were injured.

Getting the story, even under circumstances that are life-threatening, is a driving force for many journalists. They are drawn to the power of storytelling, the conviction that the world must know what is happening, especially in places where life hangs in the balance.

They have an unexpressed desire to make a difference, especially for those who lack the means to tell their own story. They enable others to speak of their experiences, hoping that perhaps the world will care, the policymakers will work for change, the guns will be silenced and the people freed to pursue their lives.

We need the storytellers. They remind us of both our capacity for inhumanity as well as our capacity for human decency. They hold before us the mirror of our humanity. And in doing so they remind us of our worst, and best, perhaps, in the unexpressed hope that by knowing each other more deeply and fully, we can become more truthful, just and dignified. We can become the people we say we want to be when we are at our best.

But to tell this story they must be in harm’s way, for it is in these places, places of extremes, that the drama is played out graphically and with the risk of ultimate resolution – where life or death weigh in the balance.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says 16 journalists have died this year – 44 in 2010. Journalists are under attack in Libya. Throughout the Middle East Spring, they have been among those who pay the price for the wrenching changes that are being pressed on authoritarian, corrupt regimes.

Yet they continue to tell the stories. They continue to remind us who we are and who we aspire to be. Let us pray for them all and be thankful they are reaching out to us, holding up the mirror of reality, and sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice that we may see and know, and care.

 

 

“O For a Thousand Tweets”

As some of my readers know, I always travel with enough technology to ensure that no matter where I am, I am never out of touch with what’s happening in the world or back home.

John Wesley on horseback

John Wesley reportedly logged more than 250,000 miles on horseback during his career, traveling around England to share the Gospel. I can’t help but wonder, what would the founder of Methodism have done if he had all of the high-tech tools that I have today?

The man who viewed the world as his parish would be delighted at how easy it is to connect with Methodists in far-flung places like Mozambique or Vietnam. With his Facebook account, Wesley would have thousands of friends. Of course, since he wrote his journals in code, he might be tempted to do the same for his Facebook page, which could be challenging for the rest of us.

I have no doubt that Wesley would be ahead of most clergy in using the Internet and social media. A man who knew the power of the printing press, he would ensure that all of his churches had a Web site. With his love for the music of the church, he probably would have an iPod loaded with Bach and a ringtone on his phone that played, “O For a Thousand Tongues.”

One thing is certain: Wesley knew the power of communications and made the most effective use of the media of his day.

Methodism’s great communicator would be using every tool at his disposal to spread the faith, build up people and speak prophetically to the issues and injustices around him. In the 18th century, he excoriated slavery in his writing, but today, he could use video storytelling and new media to attack this blight on humankind. With Twitter, he could tell people in real time about the conditions he encountered in the coal mines of England.

Twitter would also enable Wesley to share ongoing updates from the road, apprise his followers of upcoming sermon topics, and exhort truants to attend Sunday school or class meetings.

And can you imagine what Wesley could do with video conferencing? He could potentially address multiple churches at a time on Sunday mornings, hold Bible study on a mass scale and give a keynote address at the next Council of Bishops meeting.

Being the founder of a connectional church, Wesley would immediately see the value of using LinkedIn to build a network of believers. An avid reader, he would carry his extensive library around with him on an e-reader such as Kindle or the iPad.

If I could meet Wesley, I would show him one of my favorite new gadgets, the Livescribe smart pen. This handy device enables me to record meeting conversations and keep digital notes for use in my blogs.

Perhaps I could get him to sing a few measures of “O For A Thousand Tongues.” John Wesley singing Methodism’s signature song – now that would be a ringtone.


Malaria is No More. Say What?

I got up this morning to an email that referred me to an article in the NY Times in which a representative of Malaria No More says the organization is about to close up shop. Why? Because malaria is coming to an end. Say that again? No more malaria?

Yes, according to the spokesperson for Malaria No More, their mission is accomplished.

No, the mission is not accomplished.

The fact is, children are still dying of malaria at an unconscionable rate. The provision of bednets over the past decade is reducing the incidence of malaria, and for that I am grateful. But bednets are no panacea, and they certainly have not ended this disease of poverty. What happens in three years after the current nets have deteriorated and are no longer effective?

More lasting solutions are required

  • Income generating work is needed so that people can afford to replace the nets.
  • Environmental reclamation and water management are necessary so that mosquitos have fewer breeding places.
  • Continuing research into potential immunization and effective treatment is still needed.
  • New medicines are required as the parasite develops immunity to existing combinations.
  • Training of community health workers to recognize and treat symptoms at the outset of the disease must be carried out.
  • More community health clinics are needed.
  • Rehabilitation of underfunded hospitals and national health systems and support for their overworked personnel is required.
  • Topping off salaries of competent health personnel so they don’t seek jobs in the developed world is necessary.
  • Communications programs to inform mothers and fathers about how the disease is contracted, what they can do to prevent it, how to recognize it before their children are too sick to respond to medications are needed.
  • Preventive measures such as residual indoor spraying are needed for those times when people are not in bed and under nets.

The Malaria No More spokesperson called this organization’s efforts “a project.” No, a project is making a garden planter. Ending a disease of poverty is a lifetime commitment. Preventing the deaths of 5 million children a year is not a project in which you decide after you’ve tired of it, you claim victory, fold up shop and go on to something else.

I can only imagine what those researchers who have dedicated their lives to this disease are thinking about today’s proclamation.

And this raises another significant point. One-off projects that appeal more to the self-interest of the donor than to the larger problem are not the solution to long-term diseases like malaria, diseases that have plagued humankind since we started walking upright. This is why I’m very skeptical of the anti-institutional rhetoric that surrounds entrepreneurial, individualized social do-goodism. You know, one person can change the world stuff. Maybe, maybe not.

Institutions are cumbersome, bureaucratic, frustrating and maddening. I’ve criticized the institutional church as much as anyone. But it gets the job done at scale when it comes to missions such as ending malaria. It will be present with dying children and weeping mothers for the long-term, long after I’ve gone, long after the disease du jour has passed. And with strategic partners, the institutions we call mainline denominations have the capacity to cover a continent. This is scale that will make for lasting change. In this battle, nothing less will do.

Institutions Provide Scale, Sustainability, and Systemic Change

So, hate ‘em or love ‘em, institutions are necessary because they are the way we organize to achieve scale, sustainability, long-term presence, endurance and systemic change. It’s fun and easy to kick them in the shins, they are so vulnerable to such attacks. But one-off projects that don’t seek to create lasting change, empower people to develop their own solutions, and create a living wage so they can enjoy a measure of security are just one-off projects. They vanish as quickly as the fog in sunlight.

The real risk here, however, is that a premature claim that undermines the current progress to end malaria is dangerous to the extreme. This happened once before. In the 1950s malaria was almost wiped out. The world pulled back and decreased funding. A strain of malaria developed in southeast Asia that was more virulent than the prevalent strain. This new parasite ravaged the developing world, gained a foothold and has been depleting Africa of its children, its economic gains and its health care systems for the past sixty years.

We cannot pull back from this fight and allow that to happen again. It would be disastrous.

And so friends, don’t think for a moment that the fight against malaria is over. I hope I’ve even motivated you to join this fight that takes the life of a child in Africa every 45 seconds. I hope you go to the Imagine No Malaria website and send $100 or more to help The United Methodist Church train community health workers, create and train hospital boards of directors so they can re-create more effective hospitals and health delivery systems, purchase and distribute more bednets, create agricultural development and similar programs to help people earn a living wage, educate parents about preventing malaria and recognizing its symptoms, provide medications to rural clinics at the end of the road where poor people have no other healthcare.

This fight is a long way from being over, and it isn’t a project. It’s a commitment to a healthy life for all of God’s children. And we need to see it through–to the last child, in the last village at the end of the road, and beyond.

(April 2, 2011–An afterthought. How could such a claim as this escape the fact-checking and editorial process at the New York Times?)

(April 5, 2011–Since I posted this on Saturday, April 2, the staff of Malaria No More issued a statement saying the organization has never claimed “mission accomplished,” is not closing its doors and will only close after the goal of of ending malaria deaths in Africa has been accomplished.)