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Adam Hamilton on How to Talk with Congregations About Controversial Issues

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-2-27-06-pmFor faith leaders, talking with our congregations about controversial issues is very challenging — and very important. How can we provide moral leadership and address the issues that affect our communities while remaining nonpartisan and not alienating people?
I hear a lot of people struggling with these questions. Fortunately, some wise leaders have found ways to strike a balance while speaking out. Rev. Adam Hamilton of Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, has led his ideologically diverse congregation through dialogues seeking common ground on some of the most divisive issues of the day, from gun laws to immigration.

That’s why Faith in Public Life is holding a special 1-hour clergy conference call with Rev. Hamilton next Thursday, October 13th, at 4pm Eastern. You can register here.

Please sign up here.

Rev. Hamilton will share his story of how he approached this project and talk about lessons learned. We’ll also have dialogue and Q&A.

With the 2016 election around the corner, it’s more important than ever to approach our public leadership in a spirit of boldness and wisdom, not fear. I hope you can join us!

WHAT:     A clergy conference call with Rev. Adam Hamilton, and FPL CEO Rev. Jen Butler
 
WHEN:    Thursday, October 13th, at 4PM  Eastern.

HOW:      You can register here and Faith in Public Life will send you the dial-in information.

Unity, Schism, or Something In-between?

The bishops of The United Methodist Church proposed a path forward that forestalled debate on human sexuality when they offered a plan of action to the delegates of the 2016 General Conference of the church in Portland.

The plan includes a call to an extended time of prayer, review of the sections of the church’s law book referring to human sexuality, the creation of a commission to consider how to move the church forward and the possibility for a called session of General Conference at some future date to consider how the church manages its conflict over human sexuality.

Exclusionary policies regarding homosexuality spelled out in the law book of the church, called the Book of Discipline, are the source of the dispute.

I watched as an outsider after having been part of the general church staff for a number of years.

Parliamentary procedure became a proxy for action in a session that looked like the church was slowly unraveling. Delegates called for multiple points of order and made amendments to motions that brought the proceedings to a standstill.

One delegate even made an unprecedented request (at least I can find no precedent) to ask the bishop presiding over the session to step down due to “bias” and allow another to take his place.

This was an indication of how brutal the situation has become and how deeply entrenched are the different factions.

A Theological Problem

At root, this is a theological problem of great importance. But it also a cultural issue. And even some conservatives who are holding fast to exclusion concede that it is a battle lost. The church is fighting over values from a world that is already past, but not yet fully accepted by some.

It seems reasonable to say that there is no theological solution to the division. The differences are too great. The hurts too deep. The positions too fixed.

The denomination, once a cornerstone of mainline theology, has become irrelevant in the public conversation about human sexuality in the United States due to its exclusionary policies and practices.

On this issue, it is now in league with theologies that are more accurately situated in 19th and 20th century fundamentalism than in the traditions, teachings and practices of Christian faith over the centuries.

For a lucid discussion of this, see a statement by Timothy Eberhart, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ecology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Assistant Professor of Theology and Ecology at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

Only time will tell if the proposed commission can provide alternatives that keep the church from making a formal split. On the other hand, it may determine that a split is preferable to the theological differences that are eating away at the church’s mission and witness.

Revisiting Regionalism

Past proposals for reorganization into semi-autonomous regional bodies will likely be given greater consideration. This would, in theory, make it possible for the church in different parts of the world to follow the theological perspective most acceptable to that region—schism without calling it schism.

What it would do to common mission and witness is open to question. What it would do to the nature of the community and how United Methodists view themselves in the world is worth considering as well.

Discipleship and the Kingdom of God

The call to discipleship is a call to see oneself in relationship to the whole world that is God’s good Creation. It is not a call to sectarianism, chauvinism, or cultural isolation.

In fact, these are the very things that are tearing the world apart, many of them under the guise of religious extremism.

If the church moves toward regionalism and does not simultaneously begin to teach more intentionally that to follow Jesus is to become a citizen of a kingdom that knows no geography, and that demands that one become a globally aware citizen who stands for justice for all and respects the sacredness of human personality, it will have failed its missional responsibility.

The call to be a disciple is the call to rise above the divisiveness that so characterizes religion in these days, contributes to the diminishment of the global community, and continues to do great harm to people around the world.

This is the challenge the church must face.

______________________________

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Gal. 3:28.

______________________________

This discussion by David Brooks of social fragmentation and decentralization is pertinent to the deliberations that will be conducted in The United Methodist Church in the future.

A One Year Anniversary and a New Life

Two Roads Diverged

Two Roads Diverged

In a few days it will be one year since I exited the formal work environment. It’s been a year of reflection, learning, activity and renewal; and the beginning of a new life.

I’m healthier than I’ve been in several years. I get more exercise but for the time when I was a young person active in various sports.

I wake each morning looking forward genuinely excited about the new day. Sometimes I even find myself whistling! That’s a surprise to me.

When I considered making this move, I wasn’t sure how I would use my time. A  job provides its own structure and time commitment. Being out of that environment means you’re responsible for your own use of time, setting priorities, and making engagements.

It’s a self-directed life in which you set your own agenda.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover that on most days there’s not enough time to do all that I want to do. Any fears of boredom or ennui quickly faded.

I’ve taken a hiatus from writing in favor of daily hikes of 3 or 4 miles, concentrating on photography, and being outside in nature.

I’ve met lots of interesting people and had many enjoyable conversations. I’ve discovered new interests and activities.

I also have time to read books and articles that interest me, no matter how unrelated the topics, but not one book on organizational dynamics, leadership, or management.

After positions in which I traveled internationally, most recently about 40% of the time, I haven’t gotten on an airplane but once this past year, and that was to deliver three addresses to a group in Dallas about communicating faith in the 21st Century.

Until Sharon grew tired of hearing it, I’d often say, as a plane flew overhead, “Thank God I’m not on that.”

All of this leads me to reflections on what I’ve discovered as I’ve stepped out of the institution and into the so-called “real world.”

I’ll be writing about this in the next few posts and I’ll welcome hearing from you about your perspectives on life in this rapidly changing, sometimes harsh and difficult world.

But that’s not the whole picture. I’m more interested in how we celebrate life, find the sacred in our daily activities, and discover hope and meaning in a world of great blessing.

So I hope you’ll stop by and engage in that conversation.

Oprah on Belief

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 9.11.54 PMIn a conference call on Monday night, Oprah Winfrey told the 800 people who connected that her calling is to share ideas through storytelling to connect people.

The call was designed to promote the series Belief that she produced and will air beginning Oct. 18 -24 on the OWN channel.

The series was three years in the making and tells stories of faith from around the world. She said “the way to connect people to their own life story is to allow them to see their story in another’s story.”

“Stories help us to understand what makes us unique but also show us the beautiful things that we have in common,” she said.

The series is built on the belief that the thread of love is the same across all the world’s major religions. When we hear stories of love, we understand each other differently and find out we have more in common that we knew before, Oprah said.

This isn’t a new concept but it comes at a time when religion is being used to divide us and spread hateful rhetoric that does harm.

Jim Winkler, President and chief executive of the National Council of Churches told the group the individual stories illustrate the power of faith for good in the world. He cited the Civil Rights movement as an example of a movement built on moral and spiritual values.

He said the interfaith stories on Belief had inspired him to consider extending interfaith dialogue through the NCCUSA to include conversations with Buddhists and Hindus.

The thought that stories of belief can connect us is a helpful corrective to the pervasive cultural narrative of individualism and isolation in Western societies that has been documented by Robert Putnam and Shirley Turkle.

It’s particularly notable that faith is being presented as unifying. The isolation fostered by technology in common spaces increases our sense of loss of community and connection. For example, sit in an airport public lounge and see how common space has become more atomized as we turn to handheld devices to avoid the invasive ads, noise, and television monitors that distract and annoy us today.

Religious belief offers us many helpful tools, but one of the most distinctive and constructive may be that it provides us with a sense of connection with others and, at its best, a unifying spirit in a world of diversity.

The Belief team is calling on people to organize watch parties and conversation groups and to promote the series on social media.

By using her resources and celebrity to encourage a more unifying spirit and reinforce the thought that belief can have value if it teaches compassion and offers healing, Oprah is giving the world a valuable and timely gift.

Aylan, When Did We See You?

NY Times Page (1 of 1)I awoke this morning from what I thought was a dream, or nightmare. I had dreamt I was profoundly sad and on the verge of tears.

I saw in my mind’s eye the photo of a little boy who was a refugee.

He had drowned. His body washed ashore and was picked up by a Turkish gendarme.

I touched my arm and realized if I was dreaming I was now awake and the scene was not a dream, it is reality.

The body of 3-year-old Syrian, Aylan Kurdi, lying lifeless on a beach has galvanized the world to become aware of the refugee crisis in the Middle East.

News reports say his mother and sister died as well when their overloaded boat sank in rough seas. They were trying to get from Syria to Europe.

11 million Syrians have been displaced by war and more than 2,600 Syrians and Africans have died this year trying to make the crossing.

The most conservative estimate I’ve seen is that 20,000 people have lost their lives attempting to reach Europe from the African continent through extrajudicial means in the past two decades.

The Global Crisis

Opinions about the crisis abound. World leaders, particularly European politicians and policymakers, have ignored the humanitarian tragedy that’s been underway for years.

The U.S., neighboring Middle Eastern countries, and other civil leaders could have done more, sooner.

I am complicit, too. I wrote to leaders of my own religious community meeting in Europe asking them to speak publicly and they chose not to. And I did nothing more.

At that moment, I became part of the problem. One more inattentive, distracted, distant person whose empathy means little if it does not lead to action.

I awoke this morning to the guilt of my own complicity. And it’s painful.

There’s enough blame to go around. But blame won’t solve anything.

Nor will guilt. Guilt isn’t enough. It’s only useful as a motivator.

I hope the visual awareness that comes from that stunning photograph is motivation for millions to do more than feel guilty for a brief moment.

Global Citizenship

I hope, for example, that for those who, like me, try to follow the values that are in the teachings of Jesus, recognize that we are called to be citizens in a different way.

We are citizens of what Jesus called the kingdom of God. It is much greater than our neighborhood, state, region or nation.

To be in this kingdom is to be called to global citizenship, caring for and taking responsibility for how the dispossessed, vulnerable and voiceless are treated, no matter where they reside.

In this kingdom we are connected, and responsible for one another; even in the conflicted, messy, complicated, and difficult to understand world we inhabit.

The image of a lifeless child lying on a beach reminds us of the consequences when we forget this connection.

Jesus was clear about what it means to follow him. It means to live into this understanding of our global responsibilities and to act on them.

In explaining what is expected he said, “When you have done it (provided food, shelter, clothing, water, comfort) for one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it for me.” (Matthew 25: 40 Common English Bible)

We have seen Jesus. His body washed ashore on a beach three days ago.

Making Personal Change

What must happen? First, I must change my interior.

It’s too easy for me to distance myself from the suffering of those an ocean away in a culture I don’t understand caught in a conflict so complicated I cannot fathom.

But I can understand the human suffering that results. This is a starting point.

In his current meditation series, Fr. Richard Rohr discusses the practice of tonglen as a pathway to interior change.

In  tonglen we “breathe in” others’ pain, “so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness.”

This builds our awareness and also gives us insight into our own brokenness and need for wholeness. A quick read of his meditation gives a more complete description.

Championing Institutional Change

I believe I must advocate for a change in budget priorities including greater amounts for humanitarian aid and changes in foreign policies that seek peaceful resolution to conflicts over armed force.

In a commentary in The Guardian, Sabrina Hersi Issa writes: “To continue to under-fundundermine and ignore humanitarian fallout from our military actions and foreign policy failings is moral malpractice. To do so because of xenophobia and Islamophobia is an even greater sin.”

There are many worthy organizations at work relieving the suffering. We can take immediate steps to support them with financial and material aid. Others are working on policy. And Pope Francis has called on Catholics across Europe to take in the refugees.

Seeking Wholeness

It’s clear that the systems that allowed Aylan to die are broken.

And it’s also clear that we who live in these systems are broken and must seek wholeness.

The way to healing is to seek change–individually and collectively.

We need not ask, as did those who followed Jesus centuries ago, “Lord, when did we see you?” We already know what we have seen. And who.

 

 

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

Juvenile Barred Owl

Juvenile Barred Owl

The headline is tongue in cheek. But since taking leave from my work responsibilities in early May, I’ve also taken hiatus from blogging.

In the next few posts I’ll catch up. So, as children returning to school write about their summer vacations, I plan to follow suit.

I was concerned that in stepping away from the office work routine I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Was I ever wrong about that! Summer has been a time of non-stop activity.

Sharon and I have walked approximately 4 miles daily, mostly in a nature preserve near our home. It’s a wonderful learning experience, a time of meditation and contemplation, and, most importantly, a time to be together.

We’ve made new friends and enjoyed seeing and hearing the narrative of the woods. I’ve practiced refining techniques of wildlife and nature photography and learned a program to process the photos digitally. One of the great gifts has been watching the growth of the juvenile barred owls at Radnor Lake Nature Preserve in Nashville.

I’ve read four books: My Life: Willie Nelson, an autobiography; The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan; The Fly Trap, Fredrik Sjöberg; and Dorothea Lange:A Photographter’s Life, Milton Meltzer. I’m well into Inside a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know, Alexandra Horowitz. I’ve also been re-reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

I’m often asked what I miss most since I’ve left. The only thing I miss is daily contact with the some of the finest staff colleagues I’ve been privileged to work with.

Because I traveled for my work, today every time an airplane flies overhead I catch myself saying, “Thank God I’m not on that.”

I’ve been exploring new growth in spiritual practice and concepts, which I’ll write about in future posts.

I’ve become aware that many of the things I used to worry about in the wee hours of the morning don’t matter that much at all. That worry was wasted time and many of the issues largely irrelevant. That’s biblical. We learn.

Is Saving the Church Saving the World?

Cross at Lake Junaluska, NCEconomist Don House believes if enough local congregations spend enough money on the right things it will put The United Methodist Church on a growth trajectory. It’s a novel approach to the challenges faced by religion in the 21st Century.

House says the church has 15 years to turn around or it’s kaput. His analysis is based on the U.S., not Africa and Asia. The church’s presence in Europe is tiny. For years the U.S. church has carried the financial load.

Urgency for Change

Whether a denomination with the institutional ballast of this church can turn around that quickly is a big question. But the urgency is underscored by recent surveys in the U.S. that show an increase of “nones,” (people who don’t identify with any religion), the “spiritual but not religious,” and growing secularism.

Combine this with decline in mass membership organizations, civic clubs and voter participation and it’s clear we are losing faith in the institutions that once were the glue that bound the society together.

Many thoughtful leaders say the world is at an “inflection point” in history. Something significant is happening but we can’t foretell its outcome.

New forms of human organizations and religious communities will arise. And if sociologist Thorsten Veblen was correct, by the time we create something suited for today, it will be outdated by tomorrow.

Culture, social connections and technology, will have moved on, he says. The challenge is across the culture, and it’s deeper than how groups are organized, or even what they do.

Status Quo is Unsustainable

The dilemma facing the Boy Scouts of America is instructive. The counsel President Robert Gates gave the Scouts is similar to House’s comments to the church. Maintaining the status quo is unsustainable.

And these things–social interactions, economic pressures, and technological changes–all influence religious values and beliefs. Equally important, they affect how the faith community is perceived.

So far the conversation about the House proposal, as it has been reported, hasn’t focused much on these challenges. It’s been presented as a spending plan and less as a theological document.

Plans for a more engaged ministry are being formulated. They include addressing poverty in 30,000 schools and reaching 1 million children with life-saving health interventions (not a real stretch but a good idea), creating a culture of call, and training in discipleship.

Will this be enough? I don’t know. I hope so.

But as it stands right now it isn’t awe-inspiring and it doesn’t sound like the transformation of the world that is called for in the second half of the United Methodist mission statement–to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Faith Gives Meaning

Religious faith is the means through which we define meaning and purpose in life. It connects us to our Creator and to each other.

It helps us to act responsibly toward others and experience dignity ourselves. It demands justice.

It’s what guides us to treat the Creation with respect and leads us to understand the sacred in our midst and to reach for transcendant values that cannot be captured in mathematical formulas nor scientific propositions.

In this transcendant reach we find a vision for life that takes us beyond our limits, our fears, and the finite frustrations that confound us.

The Great Challenge

And in this lies the great challenge to the church, to give us a vision of life that is brighter and more hopeful than the conflict-riddled, hungry, hand-to-mouth survival, job-loss threatening, gritty world that all but the privileged few live in.

It’s not the challenge to save itself. It’s the challenge to present the biblical vision that life is sacred, filled with meaning, and to be lived purposefully.

This challenge involves communicating with people who are oblivious to, perhaps even unbelieving of, their sacred worth.

It involves addressing the fear that rapid changes are passing us by, making us irrelevant, robbing us of purpose.

We are challenged to address a lifestyle that traps us in a consumptive quest for meaning that fills recycle bins but not the soul.

Christians are challenged to translate the teachings of Jesus in the sermon on the mount into a compelling and inviting narrative for lost souls in the 21st Century, for in this lies saving grace.

A formula for spending might be a good starting place, but it’s far from the full effort necessary to address the challenge. Christians must tell us where they see God at work in this mess and how we fit into God’s future. And invite us into it.

They must offer us reason to believe and something to believe in.

Dying to Get From Africa to Europe

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 12.00.15 PMThe immigration crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean is hard to watch. It brings to mind mass migrations by sea of Haitians and Cubans in this hemisphere in the 1980s and 90s.

But with an estimated 900 fatalities when a boat sank this week off the coast of Italy, the toll is even greater.

I’ve felt a particular burden, even from a distance. For many years I’ve traveled to Africa and on many of those trips I’ve been implored by young people to help them emigrate. Some requests come quietly. Some are insistent. All are poignant.

The refugees who drowned, and the hundreds who preceded them on dangerous crossings, are not among those with the wherewithal to emigrate legally. They lack the contacts and the legal justification required for state sanctioned immigration. They are the invisible people.

There are myriad reasons for wanting to leave their homelands. Most seek relief from oppressive poverty. Some lack opportunity in their home countries, while others face oppressive regimes that make life unbearable. And some, such as Somalis and Syrians, live in countries where daily survival is a dangerous, risky thing.

These migrants are the poor and desperate. For too long Europe has turned a blind eye to those who risk life and limb in the vain hope that they will find security, prosperity and opportunity to the north. If they survive, most find confinement in a camp that is poorly equipped, only to be returned in a revolving door of frustration and risk.

But the neglect is not only European. The developed nations view the world through the strategic lens of security and threat. Until a major crisis erupts, or an insurgency develops that presents a global threat, the response to poverty at scale is often limited, and slow.

It’s abundantly clear that poverty is a breeding ground for instability and desperation. And desperation is a motivator for civil unrest, and a tool in the hands of manipulative radicals seeking to overthrow weak, corrupt and oppressive governments.

The failure to address poverty with a consistent, long-term approach has consequences. It is a strategic as well as a humanitarian failure.

Neither you nor I can help every young person who seeks help to leave his or her country, but we can encourage public policy that addresses food insecurity and long term development. We can encourage public policy that rewards good government. We can tell our representatives that we favor proactive humanitarian policy as a preventative to military action that results from social instability. We can provide financial support and volunteer to work for those humanitarian organizations on the front line of human need.

Here are four things we can do:

  1. Become informed and speak out about the current immigration crisis so that developed nations cannot ignore the poor and desperate until they die in tragedies like the ship that sank off Italy’s coast this week.
  2. Support the work of groups like the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church, and others like it, Bread for the World and Church World Service who advocate for just public policy and provide humanitarian services to ease the burdens of poverty.
  3. Support the Global Food Security Act to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, strengthen maternal and child nutrition, and build capacity for long-term agricultural growth.
  4. Support global health initiatives including efforts like Imagine No Malaria which improve quality of life in regions where under-served people face hunger and disease without proper health care.

We can be persistent in attempting to improve life for those who otherwise are willing to risk their lives in a dangerous journey to improve their chances to find dignity, opportunity and prosperity.

 


This article, now two years old, remains a pertinent, practical overview of the immigration crisis in Europe with clear policy recommendations.

Campaign anticipates misuse of bed nets

Teresa Ad‹o Jo‹o (second from right) receives instructions about the proper use of her new mosquito net from Ilda Nanjembe during a 2012 distribution by The United Methodist Church's Imagine No Malaria campaign in Bom Jesus, Angola. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Teresa Ad‹o Jo‹o (second from right) learns about proper use of a bed net from Ilda Nanjembe during a 2012 distribution by The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign in Bom Jesus, Angola. UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Bed nets intended to prevent malaria are used in fishing communities in Zambia to fish for food, which is sold in the local market, according to a report in the New York Times. The nets also trap fingerlings necessary for future stock. This decimates stocks and causes environmental harm.

The issue highlights an unintended consequence of the global effort to combat malaria, an effort that has reduced the death toll by half in the past decade.

The net distributions I have seen by the Imagine No Malaria campaign anticipated the problem of net misuse.

Before a distribution, community health workers and volunteers were identified and trained. During a pre-distribution education period, they learned how to prevent malaria, request permission to enter homes to hang nets, and explain proper use and care of nets.

Media campaigns, community meetings, fliers and word-of-mouth alerted local people to the future distribution. Communities were prepared in advance to welcome health workers and volunteers into homes. The trained volunteers hung nets and demonstrated how to use them.

As followup, health workers were assigned for six months to sectors to monitor net use and record the use rate. This identified issues for future distributions and reinforced behavior change practices that are critical for regular net usage.  For 9 to 12 months after a net distribution, there are regular check-ups to ensure proper use and care of the nets.

In the Bo District of Sierra Leone, for example, health workers determined 98 percent of the nets were in use six months after installation. In addition, Imagine No Malaria nets were not distributed around fishing communities. The use of nets for fishing is likely localized to those communities.

In the past, nets distributed without such precautions sometimes appeared in local markets and were used for many unintended purposes. But net providers learned and adapted.

Underlying problems

Secondary uses of netting, as with many other items, are common in many communities lacking resources.

While this doesn’t mitigate the environmental harm, it does emphasize that people are using nets to get food and fish for sale. The root of the problem is food self-sufficiency and a healthy local economy.

It’s compounded by lack of awareness of the harm done to fish stocks.

The story also points to the need for alternatives to nets where practical and for more education.

A greater emphasis on screens and doors in living quarters is proposed. Due to construction practices and cost, this is more practical in some areas than others.

Indoor residual spraying is practical and safe, and it is used in some regions.

Responding to the challenge

Media campaigns can encourage proper use of nets and point out the harm done by this particular secondary use. Local leaders can speak against harmful fishing and build community support for prevention.

Addressing the diseases of poverty is a complex challenge. Solving one problem can lead to others. Unintended consequences reveal themselves.

Disease, poverty, education, food sufficiency and environmental stewardship are interrelated, complex human concerns. We are challenged by them to find life-enhancing solutions.

The story points to the need for thoughtful, comprehensive development to address these interrelated issues of life and death.

_____

This post was edited to remove a sentence that said the NY Times article did not refer to new nets. The article quotes a fisherman who says new nets are better because they don’t have holes.

Relating to Cuba

Doctors attend to newborn in pediatric hospital in Havana

Doctors attend to newborn in pediatric hospital in Havana

A nurse slowly squeezed a manual respirator to keep the newborn breathing. Two physicians worked quietly and methodically on the distressed child. We were in the critical care unit of the central pediatric hospital in Havana, Cuba. It was more than 15 years ago, but as I hear criticism about the normalizing of relations with Cuba today, it makes me wonder how much has changed since then.

A Grave Situation

I was photographing medical care for children at the invitation of a pediatrics official as part of a visit with friend and colleague Joe Moran of Church World Service. We were documenting the humanitarian work of Cuban Christians and others. Cuba has long emphasized quality health care and many South American nations send patients to the island nation for care.

As I concentrated on photographing them, I was not aware of the gravity of their efforts. An X-ray negative was taped to a window. It revealed the baby had been born with a single lung.

As I looked through the viewfinder, concentrating on focus and composition, one doctor stood erect after having leaned over the child’s bed. The nurse put down the respirator. The three laid their equipment aside and looked toward me. The child had died.

I leaned against the wall, shocked and humiliated by my lack of awareness. Tears welled in my eyes. And these people who had just completed heroic efforts to save this child came over to console me!

Embargo Results

As we talked, they explained the difficulties of caring for the child. His chances of survival were dire. One of the challenges was a lack of needles small enough for the tiny veins of  newborns. As with many other medical supplies and equipment, they attributed the shortage to the U.S. embargo that had been in effect for the past 30 years.

Except for case-by-case humanitarian exemptions, medical supplies made in the U.S. were blocked from entering Cuba. And this had recently been extended to equipment under U.S. patent. This meant that materials from third party sources could not be imported if they were patented in the U.S.

This was only one of the hardships visited on the vulnerable, like this infant, that resulted from the embargo. The Cuban economy was anemic. Travel to the U.S. was  prohibited. Remittances from family in the U.S. were limited. Trade with the U.S. was restricted.

Tourism from other nations was just beginning to attract foreign exchange, but a dual economy–one for tourists and one for locals–only highlighted financial inequality.  Life was hard for most people.

Putting the Past Behind Us

I thought of this experience when I heard of the agreement to normalize relations between Cuba and the U.S. I thought of the Cuban people: the children in the pediatric hospital, the pleasant old woman in a senior residence who told me with a smile as I was leaving, “Remember, you have a grandmother in Cuba,” the teachers and children in the schools I visited, the farmers and the health care workers.

They are everyday people seeking to live meaningful, purposeful lives like you and me, under difficult circumstances made unnecessarily more difficult by political differences that have festered now for a half century.

I understand the Cold War ideology. I lived through it: the missile crisis, the political detainees, the human rights violations. But this baby had nothing to do with that. He was simply born into this world of hubris and hatefulness, without a fighting chance for survival.

Things have changed since my visit, but slowly and incrementally. And not enough to greatly improve the lot of most Cubans. The normalizing of relations will notch up the change. But it does not end the embargo. That requires an act of Congress.

It will be a political struggle. But this, too, must happen. So long as it continues, it undermines our best values, and punishes the innocent.

______________

The National Council of Churches in the U.S. and Cuban Council of Churches have issued a joint statement about normalization nd future steps: http://nationalcouncilofchurches.us/news/2014-12cubastepsforward.php

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