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“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.

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.

Bono’s Search for the Soul

Rock Singer and humanitarian activist Bono asks about the state of our souls in this time of great change.

In a Sunday op-ed he recounts Easter worship on an unnamed island and discusses the need for new beginnings. He writes affectingly about his search in scripture and religion to discern the state of his soul and shares ever so briefly his need to experience redemption at the death of his father. He raises questions about capitalism and globalization and affirms the value of the debt forgiveness policy known as Jubilee.

But what piqued my curiousity most is his closing comment. He recalls the benevolence of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Jr., both of whom he assumes are agnostic, and Nelson Mandela who doesn’t describe himself as religious. Recognizing their contributions to social good, Bono says not all soul music comes from the church.

His comments are perfect illustrations of a post-modern, post-religious commentary. His narrative is ambiguous enough that it can be interpreted in many ways. It’s positive toward worship and religion. It reveals experiential understanding. But his closing remark can also be taken as a jibe at the church. I don’t think it is. I think it’s more theological than critical.

He’s correct that not all the music of the soul originates in the church. If the source of the music is the Creator, and the Creation is being renewed and healed with or without the church, then Bono’s line reflects solid theology. What those who are believers call God is bigger than the human containers we construct to describe God. God is not limited to our containers, no matter how fervently we promote them.

An important function of faith is apprehending where God is at work in the world, with or without us. I think that’s what Bono is saying. What do you think?

Del McCoury Sings of a “Forgotten America”

Moneyland by Del McCoury“Over the last couple of decades, you have turned Rural America into a scene of devastation which can now best be described as ‘Forgotten America.'”

This is the opening sentence of the liner notes on Moneyland, a new bluegrass collection assembled by bluegrass master Del McCoury. It is directed at Washington politicians under a heading of “Obligatory Disclaimer.” The words stake out strong territory, territory once inhabited by Woody Guthrie and later by Pete Seeger. It’s the role of social prophet in a musical voice.

The prophet hears the voices of the oppressed and forgotten and lifts them up, but isn’t necessarily obligated to offer a prescription for social change. The prophet seeks a hearing and calls for justice.

It’s the politicians entrusted with the responsibilities of governance who ought to serve the people and Moneyland makes it abundantly clear that politicians have failed working folks wholesale.  It frames the case in an interesting way. The opening and closing cuts are taken from Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats.

Roosevelt began his chats in 1933 when the country was in the throes of the Great Depression and radio in its infancy. The chats revealed his remarkable ability to communicate with the masses, especially working people, despite his patrician background. To put it mildly, it’s an ability that’s been long absent among politicians with roots in Roosevelt’s social vision and belief in progressive government for all the people.

Sterner and more angry voices today call the treatment of working people contemptuous neglect wrapped in hypocrisy and exploitation. And these themes are vocalized in Moneyland.

McCoury sings of greed and forgotten people. As if to nail down the point, the same week the album was released former Sen. Phil Gramm said we’re a nation of whiners concerned about a “mental recession.” He virtually ignored the real, down-to-earth dislocation that is tearing apart lives in the heartland.

Also included is Merle Haggard’s What Happened?, an unsparing critique of popular culture that asks where the America we once knew has gone.

Haggard says mainstreet has gone the way of Walmart. Jobs have gone offshore. Houses and double wide trailers are going back to the mortgage companies, and more and more families are going bankrupt. And it’s seemed as if no one is listening.

A poignant report in the New York Times by writer Michael Powell recounts the experience of Jeana Brown, a Georgia woman working two jobs. She tells Barack Obama about the sacrifices she and her husband are making to keep up payments on their double wide trailer after they went from $670 to $1,378.

Powell contrasts Ms. Brown’s story with the dissonance of Obama going from this conversation to fundraising events in elegant surroundings with wealthy patrons. Obama wrote in the Audacity of Hope it’s difficult to stay in touch with the hard edge of life when wealth provides both a cushion and distance.

It’s this disconnect that McCoury focuses on with clarity and sharpness. Both McCoury’s album and Ms. Brown’s story hint at something stirring in the heartland. It’s the stewpot of betrayal that a lot of people are feeling–economic exploitation, hypocrisy, greed, a toxic culture of consumption and unresponsive politicians.

I heard a man say recently, “This is not the country I grew up in.” When McCoury and Haggard put this disaffection into song it means there’s an audience for it. Something’s afoot.

Ms. Brown told Powell she hasn’t voted in 32 years, but she’s going to vote this year. Now that they’re being directly affected by the greed and neglect, folks who have felt they weren’t being heard and have little stake in the civic process are sounding like they’re ready to join in making change.

Whether it’s hope or desperation, it doesn’t matter, this is a time of opportunity that could re-energize the democratic process if this renewed interest can be harnessed and given active expression.

But it’s not only politics that has failed these folks. (I know this essay is too long and I’ll stop after this.) Much of the mainline religious community has been equally neglectful, sometimes even holding them in disdain, our only contact being when they repair our air conditioners or tune up our cars–despite the fact that some of us are them. We are working class but we got educated and got above our raising, as another Haggard song puts it.

In the process, mainliners lost the the ability to talk with working people and they figured out that mainline churches were no place for them and, maybe, religion was irrelevant anyway. Those who did reach out to them (fundamentalists, evangelicals and religious entrepreneurs) offered biblical interpretation devoid of social justice alongside a privatized expression of faith that was in some cases coopted by political operatives who wed right wing politics to conservative religion and claimed it was family values.

As I see it, the distance of the mainline from working folks is even more serious than the politicians because it’s a fundamental betrayal of the biblical admonition to stand for justice and express concern for your neighbor, especially the excluded and forgotten. (Matt. 25:35-40.)

So McCoury’s album is a prophetic poke at mainline religion as well. Mainline theologians and preachers could do worse than listen to McCoury, Haggard and others on this album and reflect on its themes. It expresses a deeply human, and therefore, deeply religious yearning for respect, dignity and community that deserves to be heard and given attention.

They also show us how the deepest yearnings of the human spirit can be expressed through story and sound, and in doing so point us toward recovering the ability to communicate with folks who are taking it on the chin right now and about whom we should be urgently concerned.

For some of us, “they” are us, but we need to close the gap.

Meeting Joe Bageant at the National Conference for Media Reform

I’m attending the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis the next couple of days. The conference began four years ago and has evolved into a significant grassroots gathering that helps sustain a movement of media activists. They are concerned about reforming public policy regulating media and taking a proactive role in creating open, accessible media for all people in the future.

It’s a mix of idealism and pragmatism that’s always a wonder to me. Those who lead this movement are gifted, skilled and passionate about the value of media and its influence on our quality of life.

While the event focuses on U.S. media it increasingly identifies the importance of global media and how they connect with poverty, the environment, health and economics, among other things.

The highlight of the first day (so far) was an unexpected meeting with Joe Bageant, the author of “Deer Hunting with Jesus,” which I have referred to in this blog. I’ve also linked to Joe’s website. He’s one of the most perceptive people writing today who understands poor whites and working class folks.

I put him alongside Tex Sample as a clear voice who can help us understand how we have lost touch with a substantial group of people whom we should be communicating with, listening to, advocating for and working with.

I’ve long said mainline churches abandoned these folks and left them to exploitation by the religious right. It’s time to turn that around and Joe and Tex have the insight to help us find the way to do it.

For straightforward critique and sympathetic understanding of the people and the challenges we need to take up to engage with them, you can’t do better than read the works of these two.

Gates And United Methodists Followup

It came as no surprise that a conversation between United Methodist leaders and staff of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would find common ground. But the sense of shared commitment to the claim that every life has value that pervades the Gates Foundation philosophy struck some of us as a strong complement to the religious claim that all life is sacred. So it isn’t just commonality about programs or approaches to confronting poverty, hunger and disease. It’s a shared sense of belief in the value of human life. This became more obvious to me as the conversation progressed. And it made the possibility of partnership seem possible.

Sometimes when I write about values I get a bit defensive because I’m aware of the skepticism about religion that many thoughtful people in the United States feel. And, I’m also aware that religious claims strike many people as having little authenticity. The contentious period we’re passing through makes it more difficult for some to believe these claims and to trust they are genuine. I think this is a bit of the fallout that comes from the close identification of religion with right wing politics and, equally important, the identification of religion with cultural values as if religion and culture are the same. They aren’t of course, but to state even this is to invite criticism of disloyalty to one’s nation in the minds of some.

So, I tend write less about values than I should and when I do, I write more defensively than I should. And honestly, the conversation between the church folks and the Gates folks didn’t even broach this subject in the way I’m writing in this post. But the conversation did lead me to reflect on a growing desire that I believe is afoot. People, religious or not, want to make a difference in the world and to engage the problems that make life so miserable for some.

I take this as a hopeful sign. I’ve been amazed at the way the Nothing But Nets campaign to raise funds for bednets to prevent malaria has taken hold in The United Methodist Church. Every day I get a note reporting another story of commitment and hard work to raise funds for bednets. Some are about children taking up this cause. Others are about youth. And still others are about local congregations, many of whom might have said they can’t be pushed to give more because they’re already stretched to the breaking point financially. Yet, they continue to push to raise funds for bednets.

Despite the current stock market roller coaster ride, the developed nations of the North live in abundance. We are not in a setting of scarcity. I appreciate that the abundance is ill-distributed to the point of being unjust. But never the less, the mainline faith communities exist in abundance, and many in them are motivated to do more than settle into material comfort and forget the rest of the world.

I live in the hope that this percolating concern and emerging good will can be focused into a movement, a movement to improve living conditions and provide the medicines, knowledge and support for ending much of the human suffering that exists unnecessarily around the world today. That’s a visionary hope, I know, and it probably meets with skepticism, but I hold to it none the less. And I wonder what would happen if a global movement took hold to call upon governments and civic organizations to concentrate on saving lives and put an end to the wars, poverty and diseases that are killing children and adults today at a frightening pace. I think I hear the seeds of this movement when I hear young people talk about what they want to do with their lives. And I think I witness it when I hear the reports of people who thought they couldn’t do it, reach financial goals for bednets that make them feel they’ve accomplished something wonderful. And they have.

So these are my ruminations following the much more specific and concrete conversation I was privileged to be part of with the Gates staff. I just keep wondering what would happen if a global movement were to take hold and tackle the diseases of poverty. How many lives would be saved? How many promising children and young adults might live long enough to take up the cause and find ways to unleash life, and turn away from death?
What would happen if people of faith were to take seriously the call of Jesus to live abundantly and to serve others graciously? That would provide a different view of religious faith to the world, it would save lives and it would reaffirm the biblical teaching that all life is sacred. I keep wondering.

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