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The Colors of Small Town Poverty

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffweese/4140879948/

Poverty in small town America is often overlooked, and the children of small town poverty are ignored. This fact was brought home to me several years ago when we moved back to my old, very poor neighborhood in a small town in central Oklahoma. The move was necessitated by the need among our elders for care as they experienced declining health. We settled into my grandparents home which had for years been the family base. It was a grand old farmhouse, in need of significant repair, that had been moved into town in the early 1900s. (Actually it was the amalgam of two old houses, but that’s another story.) The neighborhood had fallen even further downward than when I lived there as a child and it wasn’t exactly upscale even then.

The adjacent lot where our neighbor–one of the town’s more colorful characters–lived was overgrown with waist high weeds entangled around a half dozen rusted hulks of old cars, tractors, pickup trucks and assorted farm implements, all beyond any hope of restoration. Rusting skeletons. Just down the road, the first elementary school in town, abandoned and partially caved in on itself, was used by another town hermit as a residence. Across the street in mid-block an abandoned house was surrounded by overgrown vegetation. A 1930s era pickup truck sat in the yard on bare rims, rusting away. Across from that lot an old city fire truck, driven there perhaps forty years ago by a collector who had long since moved away, sat in a collapsed garage with a full grown elm tree thrusting through its bed.

Our neighbors to the north kept a hog for slaughter and our neighbors to the south hunted deer in season and fished, not for sport, but for food. A block south was a 1950s motel with individual one room cabins. Located on Route 66, it now served as short term rental accommodations for those who could afford no other.

This was small town poverty. Its color is rusty metal red and weed brown.

The Stresses of Poverty

At the end of the workday in early evening I would go out on the front porch and often I would hear shouting and screaming from different places in the neighborhood. The police were frequent visitors as the shouting sometimes turned into fighting. Mostly domestic violence. Sometimes late at night it would awaken us from sleep. The sound of poverty is yelling and shouting. People stressed to the breaking point. Day in, day out and especially at the end of the month.

This remembrance occurred as I read the Annie E. Casey Foundation report on children living in poverty. It says concentrated poverty, defined as areas where 30 percent or more households fall below the federal poverty threshold, is on the rise. The 2010 federal poverty threshold is $22,314 per year for a family of four.

The report estimates 7,879,000 children in the U.S. live in poverty, and the number has increased from 9% to 11% over the last decade. The number in concentrated poverty has risen 25% since 2000. These statistics make my heart ache. As the Casey report says, families with children living in poverty “are more likely to face food hardship, have trouble paying their housing costs, and lack health insurance than those living in more affluent areas. Children living in areas of concentrated poverty are also more likely to experience harmful levels of stress and severe behavioral and emotional problems than children overall.”

For the nearly 8 million children under age 18 living in areas of concentrated poverty in the United States, critical resources for their healthy growth and development – including high-performing schools, quality medical care and safe outdoor spaces – are often out of reach. The chance that a child will live in an area of concentrated poverty has grown significantly over the last decade. — Data Snapshot on High Poverty Communities, Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Going to the Mountain

I was talking to a little boy who lived next to the firetruck with the tree growing through it and he told me his grandmother was taking him to “the mountain” to ride his bike that evening. We were in central Oklahoma where there are no mountains, so I was curious. I questioned him, “What mountain?”

“You know, the one down by the big lake at the bottom of the hill in the woods,” he said.

After a few more descriptive tidbits, I realized the mountain was the rubble from city excavations dumped alongside the city sewage treatment facility at the edge of town. This was his playground. And, in fact, I recalled having played there myself at his age. But things should have changed for the better since then.

And that’s what make my heartache. Things, apparently, haven’t changed that much, at least not for the children who live in neighborhoods trapped in poverty. They are invisible. And in the inflamed rhetoric so prevalent today, they are viewed with disdain, not with concern. Added costs, a burden.

For me, the church was a way out of that neighborhood and the debilitating conditions it harbored. The people of the church encouraged, nurtured, supported and provided opportunities that helped me to see a world beyond the “mountain” by the edge of the sewage plant. But today in my denomination we’re talking about small local congregations as ineffective, inefficient and a drain on resources. And it makes me worry about the children who know the local police officer better than they know the local pastor. They know the angry words and violent behavior better than they know lovingkindness and peaceful living.

Ways to Move Forward

Overall, the poor are overlooked in our society. The rural poor are invisible. The Casey report makes several proposals for addressing poverty. Mostly it refers to urban poverty, but never the less these are steps in the right direction:

  • Promoting community change efforts that integrate physical revitalization with human capital development through public/private partnerships to create mixed-income communities;
  • Leveraging “anchor institutions” to build strong, supportive communities for children and families such as hospitals, universities and other “anchor institutions” to create cradle-to-career pipelines that improve opportunities for disadvantaged children;
  • Promoting proven and promising practices in the areas of work supports, asset building and employment with intensive, employment-focused programs targeting working-age public housing residents through United Way, community colleges and other organizations for integrated delivery of education, employment training, work supports, financial coaching and asset building services;
  • Connecting neighborhood improvements to citywide and regional efforts. Increasingly, families must look to the surrounding metropolitan region to access opportunities;
  • Increasing access to affordable housing in safe, opportunity-rich communities for low-income families, particularly families of color. Strategies for achieving this goal include inclusionary zoning, tenant eligibility guidelines that prohibit discriminatory admission practices, marketing to attract a diverse applicant pool, and housing mobility programs for families with Section 8 vouchers.

From Rural to City Life

These do not fully address the dilemma of rural poverty. As we rush headlong toward urban, suburban and exurban living, the rural poor, as rural life in general, becomes less visible and more neglected.

I would add:

  • strengthening regional community colleges and expanding their training to include technical skills;
  • installing broadband into rural areas and making it accessible through public schools and libraries;
  • strengthening public education.

The rural and small membership churches are, or can be, local anchor institutions that make a difference. Considering a more expansive role for small membership churches could move them from being viewed as liabilities to assets. This, too, is discounted in much of the conversation about how and where ministry should be carried out today. And it begs the question that Jesus was asked by some of his followers when he told them how he wanted them to behave: to care for the sick, ill, imprisoned, thirsty, and poorly clothed, those who are overlooked. To care for them is as if they were caring for him, Jesus said. But his followers asked, “Lord, when did we see you?”

I’d hazard a guess he would say to me, “When you spoke with the little boy who was going to play near the city sewage yard. That was me.”

What do you live for? What would you die for?

“What are you willing to die for? Because you’re doing it right now.” Those fourteen words on Twitter set Dewitt Jones to thinking. Jones is one of the most creative photographer-writer-thinkers we are blessed with today.

Surprisingly, he said he had never really thought about it. And in giving it thought he comes to a belief that he’s a seeker of beauty. His photography demonstrates this in spades. He’s one who shares beauty. He decided to post a photo a day on his Facebook page with a commentary that reveals beauty.

Jones’ column in Outdoor Photographer led me to reflect on the same question. But I’ve considered this question many times before. What am I willing to die for? It’s occurred to me when I was gathering stories in places where circumstances were risky and the outcome wasn’t quite certain. I recall having to sign a release to climb aboard a UN flight into Mogadishu years ago. The release made clear the destination was unsafe, that I was aware of the risks, and I would not hold the UN accountable in any way in the event of my death. That focuses your mind rather clearly.

As we landed and prepared to depart the plane, a guy from Oklahoma working for the U.S. government put on a flak jacket. More focus.

My takeaway from Jones’ wonderful column is that there are things we live for and things we’re prepared to die for. And it’s good to know what they are.

I’ve always told myself in dicey situations that I’d rather die telling a good story than from a heart attack while waiting in line for a Big Mac.

Storytelling is a act of faith. It’s an attempt to connect, to bridge the distance that sometimes causes us to forget that we’re all in this world together, and that we have more in common than we realize.

When we discover our shared humanity we understand life differently. If we are wise, we see other perspectives and understand both our differences as well as our similarities. We discover our shared humanity.

Annette Simmons writes that a good story simplifies our world into something that we feel like we can understand.

To live in this world we must find meaning and purpose. Stories help us to discover who we are in relationship to others, what is important and what gives us meaning. From this we can find our purpose and seek to live more fruitfully.

For Jones it’s finding, capturing and sharing beauty daily. For some of us, it’s telling stories. For others, it’s a myriad of interesting, exciting and challenging pursuits. And the answer doesn’t have to be found faraway, it’s as close as we wish to pursue in our daily lives right where we are.

For me an exciting paradox lies in the question, “What are you willing to die for?” The paradox is this: when we discover what we’re willing to die for, we also discover what we’re willing to live for.

Thank goodness for beauty and for stories that guide us on the journey.

What are you willing to die for? What are you living for? These are wonderful, fascinating and exciting questions to pursue. And thank you Mr. Jones for putting them before us.

Living Faithfully in a Post-Religious Age

When Bono spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast a few years ago, he spoke about the need for the world to put an end to poverty and to tackle the diseases of poverty. He spoke with a clarity that got headlines and an op-ed in the New York Times.

 Bono did not speak as a member or participant of a religious group. In that sense, he was a non-religious advocate for values and practices that are compatible with most religious groups, particularly Christian.

Bob Roberts Jr. says the primary story of the future for the church will be the non-religious follower of Jesus. (“Glocalization: How Followers of Jesus Engage a Flat World,” Bob Roberts Jr., Zondervan)

Melinda Gates

Four years ago, I attended the Gates Foundation Malaria Forum where Melinda Gates addressed professionals working to end malaria. She sent shockwaves through the audience when she called on the world to eradicate malaria. Only minutes before she arrived, the group had debated whether malaria could be eradicated or eliminated, the latter defined as controlling the disease within a specific geographic area. Eradication means ending it globally, once and for all. It was a “no-no” word until Ms. Gates issued her challenge. After that, it became the goal.

A few days ago, Ms. Gates, at the second Gates Foundation Malaria Forum, cited the work of the people of the The United Methodist Church who have made it their business to take up the fight to eradicate malaria.

The prophetic voice not only challenges but also affirms, and in these instances the prophetic words call the world to claim a “God-sized” vision to put an end to poverty and eradicate a killer disease.

Living beyond religious language

We’re in an age in which voices outside the religious community challenge us to heal a hurting world. This is a biblical imperative. And for Christians, it’s a call to follow the teachings of Jesus, but it’s not phrased in religious language.

Some scholars say we are living in a post-Christian era, but that term is a misnomer. Perhaps we’re in a post-institutional era (and I’m uncertain about even this phrase), but faithful living is even more necessary. The teachings of the Bible are more relevant than ever.

To Micah, it wasn’t complicated: “But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what GOD is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously– take God seriously.” (Micah 6:8,9, “The Message”)

Similarly, as recorded in Matthew 25, Jesus makes it clear how his followers should enter into the world: “… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. …Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25: 35,36. 41, “The Message”)

Micah and Jesus talk of justice with compassion and humility. They say faithfulness involves serving the poor, sick, dispossessed and oppressed. It’s about connecting with others. And from this connection grows the recognition that we belong to God and that God is reaching out to us in a gracious embrace that is life-giving.

Catching up with God

To follow Jesus is to find where God is at work and try to catch up. It is living in the assurance that under the pain and beyond the chaos of life lie meaning, fulfillment and abundance – not abundance as in the material world, but abundance as in a life rich in connection with others, coherence, creativity, hope and positive action. Faith helps us find this place, and finding it requires us to serve. When we serve as Jesus called us to serve, we discover it’s life changing and potentially world transforming.

It’s a world of connections and engagement, collaboration and partnership between religious and non-religious. In the new horizontal world of global interconnections, faith is viral, passing from person to person, multiplying and becoming an expansive, transforming movement that reveals both our mutual needs and strengths, and, to our surprise, we discover the kingdom of God in our midst.

The World Cries for Economic Justice

While paying for groceries in Pine Mountain, Ga., recently, I heard another customer say, “It’s hard times right now. Hard times.”

I turned to see a young man, perhaps in his early 30s, dressed in soiled blue jeans and a cotton shirt, telltale signs his work is physical and dirty. It was the end of his workday.

A Cape Town Folk Art Artist

Now, jump from Georgia to a downtown craft market in Cape Town, South Africa. I am talking with a young artist-vendor who says, “It is difficult right now. If I sell one or two paintings per day it is a good day.” His small folk art paintings sell for US$30. He emigrated from Zambia hoping for a better life here. If he sells at this pace for a year, his income will be equivalent to US$10,000, in a city with living costs equivalent to those of a typical U.S. city.

Now let’s move to Harare, Zimbabwe, where Kubatana, a nonprofit organization, is attempting to offer interactive telephone services to low-income Africans. Brenda Burrelle explains Freedom Fone is for people who can’t afford broadband and those who can’t read.

UNICEF and Freedom Fone are creating a two-minute audio drama series to educate women workers about how to deal with unwanted sexual advances by supervisors. However, each cell phone segment will cost 43 U.S. cents airtime. For a Zimbabwean worker earning US$30 per month, it’s too costly. (In township lingo in Cape Town, the cell phone is known as “bleed me dry.”)

Three anecdotes do not prove a trend, but when considered alongside several recently released studies of global economic conditions, they illustrate the growing gap between the rich and poor, the need for meaningful work, and the need for economic and labor policies that favor job creation. This need is global, and it’s spiritual.

The Widening Gap Between Rich and Poor

The rich are getting richer, faster than ever, according to a report by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, summarized in The Guardian. High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI), defined as those with more than $1 million in free cash, have enjoyed a 10 percent increase in their wealth in recent years. They now control $42.7 trillion.

As governments around the world implemented austerity measures and politicians in the United States called for tax breaks for the wealthy to stimulate the economy, the wealth of HNWI surpassed the peak reached in 2007 at $40.7 trillion.

At the same time, the U.S. Census Bureau reports the number of poor in the United States grew by 2.6 million in the last year, creating the highest poverty level (15.1 percent) since 1993. Worse, the poverty rate for 18- to 24-year-olds is at its highest level since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “war on poverty” in 1964.

The issue isn’t that wealth or the wealthy are evil. It’s that economic policies that favor wealth creation but do not also favor job creation and economic justice produce evil results – results that, in the long run, are harmful to all.

The Need for Meaningful Work

I heard an Irish woman recently say if her wages and purchasing power got worse, she would be working for free. Young people in Spain are going to the streets to protest unfair employment policies in a distressed economy. Portugal is experiencing out-migration of skilled young adults to former colonies such as Angola and Brazil because they can’t find meaningful work in their home country. Much of the Arab Spring has been about educated young adults frustrated at the lack of meaningful work and by unresponsive, corrupt, authoritarian governments.

In a special report on the future of jobs, The Economist (Sept. 10th-16th, 2011) says the number of officially unemployed stands at 205 million people worldwide. This is 19 percent of the global workforce, many of them young, educated adults in countries with a “youth bulge” in their populations.

A Gallup survey cited by The Economist says 12 percent of the global workforce is underemployed, and the International Labor Organization claims 1.53 billion people in 2009 were in “vulnerable employment” working for themselves or in underpaid family jobs.

In each nation, policies differ, but one thing is clear: in a complex, interconnected world the simplistic rhetoric of trickle-down economics needs to be retired. No matter where this economic ideology is employed, it creates unacceptable gaps between the rich and poor. It creates injustice, hardship and concentration of wealth that fosters social instability. It creates winners and losers. It does not create jobs.

Creating a Better Future

In a more positive vein, there is an opportunity for those concerned with economic justice to advocate for policies that will encourage innovation, immigration reform and job creation, writes The Economist. Those concerned about education must continue to press for reform and support quality universal education.

And we must all consider the changing structure of work in the global economy. The nature of work itself is changing. The need for new skills comes at a faster pace. We are less likely to find long-term employment in a single company and more likely to have “serial careers.” We will utilize online education more than ever. And we’ll have to be even more responsible for marketing ourselves. Some employment experts say we’re moving toward fluid, flexible work as individual contractors.

In “The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here,” Lynda Gratton of the London Business School says we will need to build a “posse” of 15 people to whom we can turn when work life gets difficult. These are people we can trust and work with effectively in the new workplace.

Gratton says we will need to stay mentally fresh by following a “big-ideas crowd,” stay in touch with talented, open-minded people, and spend time in thought-provoking conferences.

We also need “regenerative communities” to maintain emotional balance, including time with family and friends in the real world apart from the world of work, people with whom we can laugh, share stories and relax.

A Concern for People of Faith

As we enter the emerging work world, we are reminded that self-esteem is embedded in the work we do. When it’s meaningful, we experience fulfillment and self-esteem. At root, this is the spiritual side of work. I believe faith is about how we understand our place in the world in relationship to God and to each other. Work is, or should be, a concern to religious believers because it so intimately connected with human dignity and justice.

When work is reduced to job skills and economic indicators, we lose this perspective, and we also lose sight of the values embedded in work that affect our well-being and contribute to justice for all.

As I’ve traveled the past few weeks, I’ve heard a common theme worldwide, a cry really, for meaningful work and justice. From Pine Mountain, to Harare, to Cape Town and beyond, the people of the world yearn for fulfilling work and economic justice.

_____________________

Faith Media + Culture is pleased to release the first of a series of surveys on contemporary issues surrounding media consumption, changing culture and our faith.  To find out more about American perceptions of global involvement, read our 2011 Global Involvement Study.

To download a copy of the report, please click here.

 

Billy Shore on “No Kid Hungry”

A Guest Post by Billy Shore

As the school year draws to a close and summer stretches out before us, America’s poorest school children find themselves at even greater risk than usual.  Because, when the school’s doors close so does the prospect of meals for many kids who rely on school lunch and school breakfast.

More than 20 million American children get a free or reduced price school lunch, and although all 20 million are eligible for meals in the summer too, only 3 million get it.  That’s because not enough school districts take the necessary steps to establish alternative sites.  The irony, and this may be Washington D.C.’s best kept billion dollar secret, is that the federal government reimburses 100% of the cost of the meals served, which means budget strapped state and local governments could also benefit from dollars that come in to buy milk from local dairy farmers, bread from local bakers, and so forth.

The real problem is that these children are not only vulnerable, they are voiceless. They don’t belong to powerful membership organizations or have highly paid lobbyists.  They depend on average, caring citizens like us to be their voice. That’s why Share Our Strength has committed to spend $1.6 million this summer in 35 states to help establish summer meal sites and raise awareness among parents so they can ensure meals for their children.

Everyone has a strength to share, and everyone has a role to play in our No Kid Hungry campaign.  The need has never been greater. The recession has left 48 million Americans living below the poverty line and more than 22 million children on food stamps (which we now call the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) for the first time in the history of the country. Go to www.strength.org to see how you can get involved.

This guest post is from Bill Shore, the founder and executive director of Share Our Strength®, a national nonprofit that is ending childhood hunger in America. Shore is also the chairman of Community Wealth Ventures®, Inc., a for-profit subsidiary of Share Our Strength that offers strategy and implementation services to foundations and nonprofit organizations. Shore founded Share Our Strength in 1984 in response to the Ethiopian famine and subsequently renewed concern about hunger in the United States.  Shore is also an author.  His most recent book is The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men, published in November 2010, which documents the lifelong efforts of researchers to end malaria.

 

“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.


What Do The Homeless Need? Charles Strobel Knows.

Recently I met a man I’ve long admired—Charles Strobel, a longtime advocate for the homeless and founder of Nashville’s Room In The Inn ministry. Room In The Inn partners with more than 170 local congregations in the Nashville area—including 34 United Methodist churches —to provide shelter for more than 1,200 homeless individuals from November to March.

It Started With An Open Door.

Back in 1986 when Charlie first decided to open the doors of Holy Name Catholic Church to the homeless, he knew the decision was a pivotal one. One cold evening, he briefly thought to himself, “If I let them in tonight, I may end up doing this for the rest of my life.” He did indeed foretell his future.

One question people ask Charlie repeatedly is, “What do the homeless need?” His answer?

“They need everything I need—everything you need. Of course, there’s Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs starting with the fundamental things like food, clothing, shelter and basic personal things. And then they need education, social support, recreation, employment and those things on the next level.  But then Maslow talks about the highest level of need is the need to find meaning in life and purpose in living—to resolve the riddles and mysteries of our world and our life. I don’t have to understand them anymore than I need to understand myself. If I understand what drives me and what are the obstacles and roadblocks in my own life, then it’s easy to understand the homeless. We’re not that different.”

People also ask Charlie if he ever wishes he had some other “problem” than advocating for the homeless.

“They’re not a problem. I wrote once that they present a million problems, but they’re not a problem. Isn’t that what parents mean? I used to hear my mother say, ‘You all are driving me nuts! I can’t understand how you can do this and then do that, when I ask you to do this and you won’t do that!’ And  she was telling me that we caused problems, but we weren’t a problem. It’s because love was there. The homeless are not a problem. Love is there. They’re not a problem because I love them.”

This winter there will be anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 homeless men, women and children on the streets of Nashville.  Every city across America has its own version of that same reality. My hope is that every city also has a Charlie Strobel—a kind, loving and gentle soul who was once faced with a life-changing question, “Do I open this door and let them in?”  If he hadn’t, the lives of so many—especially his own life– would have been so different. I, for one, am grateful for the choice he made.

Social Business – Shifting from Selfish to Selfless

Mohammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, founder of Grameen bank and grandfather of microfinance, espouses a new way of thinking about business in his latest book “Building Social Business”.

He sees the world divided into the “me” business based on making money for myself, and a new type of business that focuses on providing profits to do good for others.

Here is Yunus’ definition of social business –

“I define social business as a non-loss, non-dividend company dedicated entirely to achieve a social goal. All profits, or “surplus revenue,” is plowed back into the venture for expansion and improvement. In social business, the investor gets his or her investment money back over time, but never receives dividend beyond that amount. Where would social businesses find their startup investments? An excellent, and probably most sensible, source would be philanthropy money that traditionally goes towards charities.”

Yunus provides many examples of social business such as the fortified yogurt business that he helped found in Bangladesh with global yogurt leader Dannon Yogurt.  The purpose of the business is to provide nutrient rich, affordable yogurt to help curb child malnutrition in Bangladesh.

Yunus argues that by harnessing the energy of profit-making to humanitarian needs, social business brings viable commercial enterprises to the world that can provide sustainable economic growth while meeting real world needs.

He challenges human beings to shift from their selfish side to their selfless side.

Here’s a short video with Yunus explaining his concept:

Social Entrepreneurship Goes to the Movies

How One Group is Funding Blue Like Jazz

Donald Miller wrote a compelling book of essays, Blue Like Jazz, on his reflections on Christian spirituality which has sold more than a million copies.  The book was slated to become a movie, and then it wasn’t.

On September 16th, Miller posted a blog that despite a strong screenplay, a stellar cast, and rave reviews, Blue Like Jazz would be put on hold indefinitely – because there was insufficient funding. When the blog was noticed by two fans in Nashville, TN, Zach Prichard & Jonathan Frazier launched an appeal to all Blue Like Jazz fans everywhere to step up to the plate and raise at least $125,000 so the film could be made.

These enterprising young men worked with Kickstarter.com to launch a fundraising effort to make the movie a reality.  Thus was born “Save Blue Like Jazz”, and on October 25, I received a “last day” email saying that October 25 was the last day to contribute to the fund that (as of that date) had amassed 3656 backers and $280,715 in pledges.

The project has become the largest crowd-sourced project ever on Kickstarter.com, and the first film to be crowd-sourced in American history.

What is Kickstarter.com?

It’s the largest funding platform for creative projects in the world.  It allows folks like Zach Prichard and Jonathan Frazier to raise money for creative projects from the worlds of music, film, art, technology, design, food, publishing and more.

It’s an amazing example of what crowdsourcing really means and demonstrates the power of believers:   bringing passionate people together around projects that have significance in their lives.

Writings on Genocide, Oppression and Hope

It’s unfortunate but instructive that the body of literature on genocide and oppression is growing. Writers from Afghanistan, Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone and other places are finding their voices, and their writing is powerful. Each in their own way gives us insight into the cost that exploitation, war and poverty exacts on the human spirit, individually and collectively.

Their first person accounts cut through the political rhetoric that obfuscates and minimizes the personal trauma. The novels reveal truth. Policy debates in capital buildings near and far seem irrelevant if you’re forced out of your home with nothing but the few possessions you can carry, hiding in forests, drinking parasite-laden water, eating whatever foraged edible plants you can scavenge.

Hate speech disguised as political rhetoric (and sometimes not) isn’t mere entertainment, as it is often rationalized in the U.S. These writers show us it has direct consequences in the form of rape and murder among other indignities. From “cockroach” Tutsis in Rwanda or Burundi to economic refugees left to die in the Arizona desert, hateful characterizations of human beings open the door to unspeakable suffering.

Once, long ago, I actually thought the world could learn from these horrific experiences and prevent them. They are bred in economic inequity, racism, class exploitation and injustice; in fact, injustice is a word that merely adds redundancy to this list. I was overly optimistic. The world is better at cleaning up after the mess has erupted, blood has flowed and lives lost. And sometimes we’re not especially good at that.

This is the stuff about which religious faith could be an ethical guide, and to which it should be especially attentive and relevant. Some writers of the more recent popular literature on genocide and war have been moved to find religious meaning in their experiences, but not all. Religion is too often employed as if it blesses oppression, if not genocide. Some religious leaders see the connection, but not all. Religion is about our individual relationship to the Creator but it is also about our responsibility as global citizens and as people who seek to bring the Kingdom of God into perspective in practical, down-to-earth ways.

There is hope in this dismal reality. It’s the strength of the voices being published. Their outlooks, as varied as their experiences, reveal a common theme, triumph over forces that could have robbed them of their humanity. Too often we fall into cliches about the triumph of the human spirit and real victories become trivialized behind this facade. It’s true the human spirit does triumph, but the phrase is a vessel far too superficial to hold the depth of experience and meaning that individuals pass through in these depraved conditions.

What strikes me is a couple of traits. The first is the magnanimity of some survivors to forgive and attempt to move on. And if they can’t forgive, they adapt. They adapt to the reality of living with such terrible history, and in some instances, with neighbors who have participated in violence and death against them and their families. It’s an amazing ability.

Writers are telling this deeper story and it’s gripping, depressing, inspiring and hopeful in its breadth. Here’s an eclectic list of readings that lead me to this reflection. Not all are about genocide. Some are about political and economic oppression, the greed of elites, racism and tribalism, and a couple are about the dislocation of emigres in a new land.

Strength in What Remains , Tracey Kidder. The story of Deo Gracias, a third-year medical student in Burundi displaced by Hutu-Tutsi conflict that led to genocide in Burundi and Rwanda. Captures the cultural, internal and interpersonal conflicts that result from oppression. The Burundi genocide is not as widely known as Rwanda, but it was as deadly and socially destructive. Gracias has returned to run a hospital in his homeland. An inspiration.

The Kite Runner , Khalid Hosseini. The first novel of Hosseini that reads like biography.  The experience of an Afghan immigrant in the U.S. who returns to his homeland to attend to the son of his childhood friend and discovers much more about himself, his family and the political consequences of Taliban rule.

A Thousand Splendid Suns , Khalid Hosseini. Hosseini’s splendid narrative of generations of Afghan families through the resistance to Soviet occupation, the rise of the Taliban and the U.S. war. Reveals the cultural and economic practices that oppress women. Remarkably well written.

Children of the Revolution , Dinaw Mengestu. A novel about the experiences of an Ethiopian immigrant adapting to life in Washington, D.C. It reads like a first person account about cultural adaptation and its limits.

A Long Way Gone , Ishmael Beah. The horrifying story of a 12-year-old in Sierra Leone displaced from his family, recruited into the army and drug-induced soldiering, and eventually brought to a UNICEF facility for traumatized children. Beah is a young writer with unusual skill.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda , Peter Gourevitch. First person accounts of the genocide in Rwanda. These are deeply affecting stories. Among the many  important lessons to be learned from these stories is to not take hate radio lightly. Rwanda’s radio stations were tools for mobilizing mass killing.

Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust , Immaculee Ilibagiza. Sometimes we find God in the places we’d least likely expect. Ilibagiza’s first person narrative is one of the most emotionally moving accounts of one person finding a deep connection to God, and forgiveness, after enduring loss that could otherwise rob her not only of her compassion, but her humanity.

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