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USAID and ZunZuneo

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 1.48.04 PMThe news that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) surreptitiously sponsored a text messaging service in Cuba created a storm of criticism last week when the service stopped and the secret sponsor was revealed. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said it was “dumb, dumb, dumb.”

It was also duplicitous and damaging, if not dangerous to others attempting to deliver humanitarian services.

Those who provide humanitarian aid, such as nongovernmental aid organizations – including those of religious groups – meticulously maintain a nonpartisan stance within the countries where they work. This is especially important where partisan conflict is rife and where governments are suspicious of such aid being used for partisan purposes. These agencies are compromised when they are viewed as extensions of U.S. foreign policy.

Humanitarian agencies cannot operate in a country without consent of the host government. Such duplicity adds to the perception that they are agents of external forces.

This cuts both ways, of course. Where governments are not popular and rule by coercion and force, the humanitarian organizations must also be seen as  functioning independently. It’s often a delicate dance.

This nonpartisan stance can be a matter of life and death. If  humanitarian workers in conflicted settings are viewed as agents of partisan agendas, their lives can be put at risk. Examples of kidnappings and murder of aid workers underscore this risk.

Beyond this life-and-death reality, the ZunZuneo texting service, as the Cuban SMS service was known, proved to be unsustainable. Sustainability is a key outcome of successful development, but perhaps ZunZuneo failed because development wasn’t the driving mission. The technology was implemented for other reasons.

In other difficult social situations, open-source texting services have been put to use in local contexts, and with adequate training and support, they have achieved much greater success at a much lower cost. These were implemented by small nonprofit organizations operating on shoestring budgets. Perhaps there’s a lesson here.

USAID has been an effective partner for humanitarian and nonprofit organizations, including The United Methodist Church, in different parts of the world. Let’s hope this episode is an anomaly and that USAID will make the adjustments needed to ensure that its mission and work are not compromised again.

College Debt and the Search for Financial Freedom

I am concerned that the debate by politicians about student loans is actually distracting us from the critical need for financial aid for deserving young people who lack the resources and experience to achieve higher education. The debate focuses on the mechanics of loans, interest rates and what types of educational enterprises should be eligible to offer loans, while it minimizes the need for loans for deserving persons.

Thinking about this takes me back to my own college days and my struggle to survive financially, and it highlights why, for some, financial aid is critically important.

My family made no provisions for me to go to college, much less seminary. If you are the first generation of your family to go to college, no one in the family has any idea what it takes to pay for tuition, fees, room and board, books and other living expenses.

To get to college in the first place, I worked summers at all kinds of jobs. I’ve hauled trash, mowed weeds on the roadside, been a lifeguard.  When I got to college, I sold subscriptions door to door to make ends meet. These jobs did not provide a reliable source of income.

Church aid makes difference

In those days, I was hungry a lot of the time. I gave up my meal ticket in college because I couldn’t afford it.

If I went home on the weekends, I would bring back whatever food I could, but in those days before there were dorm refrigerators, I would buy a bag of cinnamon rolls and try to make them last all week, allowing myself only one in the morning and one at night.

8.19.13infographic-design_1After my freshman year at a private university, I had to transfer to a less expensive public university. I took an appointment as a supply pastor and commuted 50 to 60 miles a day so I could live in the parsonage and save on room and board.  I’d leave at 4 a.m. and wouldn’t get back home until 10 p.m. And later, when I attended seminary, I took a position as a student intern with a paid salary.

But the critical difference came in the form of United Methodist student loans and scholarships that helped my wife and me to get by. A United Methodist student loan was the most affordable loan I could get, and it filled in the gap between the individual scholarships I received and the income I was able to earn.

That loan made it possible for me to get an education. The term of the loan was long enough and the interest rate low enough that the payments were manageable on a pastor’s income after graduation.

Education must be affordable

The United Methodist Church has a long history of helping students reduce college debt through scholarships and low-interest loans.  In fact, the 146-year-old United Methodist Student Loan Fund is the oldest student loan fund in the United States.

In a sense, this track record is a prophetic public witness to the need for accessible financial aid for deserving but resource-limited persons. The scholarship and loans were vitally important to me, and I’m deeply grateful that I was able to get them. They made all the difference for me, but the church can’t do this alone.

In the current debate about financial aid and student debt, my hope is that we can find ways to make higher education affordable for all, especially for young people who lack resources and whose families lack the experience of higher education and its costs.

 

Security of Appointment in Effect Says Fitzgerald Reist

Update: United Methodist News Service has posted a more complete article reporting on this situation here:   http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5259669&ct=11798635

For readers of this blog who are not United Methodist, this will seem a puzzling post. For United Methodist Clergy it will raise great interest.

Apparently, it is the judgment of The Rev. Fitzgerald Reist, Secretary of General Conference, the governing body of The United Methodist Church, that an action eliminating security of appointment for clergy did not receive the appropriate support through plenary vote at the 2012 General Conference.

This letter from Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar of Greater New Jersey is circulating on the Internet advising of this opinion. United Methodist News Service is pursuing the story and will be posting as soon as accurate information can be confirmed.

My posting does not indicate that I am qualified to interpret the legislation as it was presumed to have been voted at General Conference nor that I am in a position to interpret the Book of Disciplne. I am making the information available as it was made available to me.

 

 

A 2012 Reading List

After I commented on a reading list distributed by “Q”, some readers of this blog asked for my list. I’ve been slow to respond. But here is a list of the dozen books I intend to read in the course of this year.

That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelaum. I’ve almost completed this book. Friedman and Mandelbaum write about four challenges that confront the United States–globalization, the revolution in information technology, chronic deficits and excessive energy consumption—through a lens of U.S. power, influence and ideals.

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James Davison Hunter. I’m close to finishing this book also. Davison calls on Christian faith communities to de-couple public witness from political engagement and to practice “faithful presence” for the common good. The latter includes non-partisan, non-ideological expressions and actions for the common good. He bases his case on a theology of the Creation that calls Christians to be responsible to follow the teachings of Jesus to acknowledge the reign of God, be a servant people, act with compassion for all and invite all into the kingdom of God.

Commonwealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, Jeffrey D. Sachs. The book was released four years ago, but I’m just getting to it. Dr. Sachs, the leading voice behind he Millennium Development Goals, proposes a new economic paradigm that is globally inclusive, cooperative, environmentally aware and science based because we are running up against the realities of a crowded planet.

The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark. There’s a new (to me) strain of thought that says early Christianity spread with the cooperation of elites in the institutions of the day, and without this cooperation, the Christian movement might never have achieved the success it has attained. This case says Christian ideas and acceptance needed more than grassroots movements and populist coalitions. The followers of Jesus also needed influence in the institutions that shape culture in order to survive and grow.

Pathologies of Power, Paul Farmer. This, too, is an older book that’s been on my shelf for quite a long time. Dr. Farmer is an advocate for a definition of comprehensive human rights that includes, among others, food, shelter and health. Dr. Farmer is a tireless advocate for those who live without these basic necessities and who lack the voice to advocate strongly for them.

The End of Poverty, Jeffrey D. Sachs. Another of Dr. Sachs’ important works. As the world moves ever so slowly toward raising standards of living in developing nations, it appears that ending the most debilitating effects of poverty is no longer considered a pipe dream. Dr. Sachs, more than any other economist I’ve read, makes this case most clearly and reasonably.

Life, Keith Richards. A gift from my daughter, I’ll do my best to work through this biography of the guitarist and founding member of the Rolling Stones.

The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan. The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression plunged both maternal and paternal sides of my extended family into poverty and pushed them off the land. One grandfather kept life and limb together as a sharecropper, and another lost his farm, and his heart, when he had to move to town and work laying sidewalks through the Civilian Conservation Corps. I have a lifelong fascination with how the people of that era kept their families together (or lost cohesiveness) and made it though this most difficult economic period. It also reminds me that history does, indeed, repeat itself–perhaps not in every detail, but in wider sweeps of human behavior.

The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx. Another oldie, but one I’m interested in because the reviews praise Proulx’s ability to write lean, clean prose, a talent I can only wish for.

A Guitar and a Pen, edited by Robert Hicks. This collection of stories by Nashville songwriters is a departure from their storytelling form of music to narrative. The songwriters of Nashville are the poets of popular culture, and I admire their ability to tell a story about life in all its sadness, strength, joy and humor in three minutes. This is fun, light, pleasurable reading.

There you have it. I’ll no doubt be reading beyond these books, but these will take priority.

 

 

Open leaders have open meetings

When Bishop Warner Brown said at the United Methodist Council of Bishops meeting yesterday that bishops need a “safe place” to discuss issues they are uncertain about, he was raising the dilemma many leaders of public organizations face in this new world of horizontal communications. Public discussion is often beyond our control. And that is unsettling, sometimes leads to inaccurate attribution and puts the speaker on the defensive unfairly.

Bishop Brown pointedly looked at the journalists in the room and said he could not speak tentatively or test new thoughts in their presence, for these very reasons. That’s the dilemma.

He wasn’t helped, however, by the first response of Fred Miller, the consultant who is advising the Interim Operations Team about how to re-organize the general church. Miller was advising the bishops about how to become a “leadership group.”

He outlined a strategy that at times sounded manipulative and concealing. Miller told the bishops to present their most inconsequential and boring material in such an exhaustive way the press would get bored and leave the room, and then the bishops could get to the meaty subjects they really want to discuss. He said this is his advice to boards of public organizations.

In a wide-ranging conversation that included a call to honesty and open leadership, courage and perseverance, this wasn’t the only bad advice Miller gave the bishops. He also told them one way to deal with conflict is to escalate the complexity of the issue so that the opponents get confused and the issue so muddled that the original disagreement gets resolved in the fog.

Not exactly a prescription for open leadership in the 21st century.

Miller did seem to comprehend the dark chasm he had stepped into with regard to journalism and much later expressed support for the fourth estate. He told the bishops the best way to deal with Bishop Brown’s concern was to be transparent and put everything on the web for all to see. Then, he said, it’s possible to assess such things as metrics, by looking at trends and avoid referring to the personal failures of individuals, or discussing opinions. This fact-based approach de-personalizes the discussion and  gives data for discussing disputes, he said.

This is a more healthy way to assess much that we care about in the church. What was not spoken in this discussion is the fact that the Council is allowed to operate under its own rules of procedure with regard to the open meetings provision of Paragraph 271 of the Book of Discipline, the book of church law by which all church entities operate – though it is expected “to live by the spirit” of the paragraph.

The council has the option to go into executive session pretty much at will, and it uses it often. The day following this exchange, for example, the council spent the day in executive session.

Why closed meetings?

Sometimes, it’s not clear why this leadership group chooses to meet behind closed doors. When they launched the very important “In Defense of Creation” study, instead of streaming their discussion on the web as a way of showing why creation care is a crucial faith concern and how they were struggling with it, they went into executive session. They missed an opportunity to share with the whole church how they connect theology and faithful practice to protecting the Creation.

Even as a journalist, I’m sympathetic to the need for leaders to have a way to discuss nettlesome matters they must deal with. We need the ability to think out loud without being locked into positions that we raise in a speculative way. We don’t want to be misquoted or held to some position that we don’t really support merely because we asked a question about it. And that happens.

But it happens whether the journalists are in the room or not. It happens when people gossip. It happens when leaders speak to staff and staff read between the lines and make assumptions. It happens when we make a jocular comment in a hallway conversation that ends up on Twitter as a more definitive statement than we could have imagined. It’s the horizontal communications world we live in.

Leaders in a public organization lead public lives. At United Methodist Communications, we offer training to episcopal leaders and others about dealing with the media. We offer resources for creating social media strategies. We offer crisis communications management training. We offer support for strategic communications planning. Few bishops take us up on these offers.

Changing the climate

The current climate in which we live is a climate that starts with skepticism. We’ve been worked over by institutions that had harmful agendas. We’ve seen 20-plus years of mismanagement of sexual abuse cases by the Roman Catholic Church, and religious figures from many backgrounds fall to the same private practices they publicly condemn. We’ve seen politicians lie, business leaders abuse trust, and our public institutions and corporations abandon the people who depend upon them. Trust is broken.

Sunshine is the best antidote. Honesty is still the best policy. We’re all human. We’re all anxious and afraid. We all need a safe place. A community of trust that allows us to be human will be based on openness, honesty and accountability.

And we desperately want leaders to take us there – leaders with open hearts, open minds and open doors.

Renewing the Church: The Leading Causes of Life or the Tsunami of Death?

My favorite phrase is “the leading causes of life.” It was conceived by Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray, and I’ve written about it several times. Gary is Senior V.P. for Health and Welfare and Director of the Center for Excellence in Faith and Health of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis.  Larry is a pastor in the United Church of Christ and Senior Pastoral Scholar for Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare. They co-authored the book, Leading Causes of Life.

Their phrase endures, for me.

But another phrase is making the rounds in conversations in the denomination in which I labor: the “Death Tsunami.” It’s intended to describe the impending demographic change that will happen over the next several years as older members pass away.

It’s meant to be prophetic. Behind it is the thought that if these older members are not replaced with a younger group the days of the denomination itself are numbered.

 

I’ve been bouncing these two phrases around in my head, asking which excites me, gets my creative juices flowing, makes me want to get involved in making things better?

Guess which one does it for me?

I know the death phrase is meant to attract attention to a real problem. But it frames the future in such an inexorable way I just can’t get a handle on how to respond to it. As Gunderson and Pray write, “If death defines our efforts, then it will win every time.”

Hearing this, I want to start singing Joe Diffie’s country music song, “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I die).” That’s about all the energy I can get for this framing of our collective future.

On the other hand, I can get energized about looking for the leading causes of life. It makes me want to search out those places and people who are creating, causing change, moving forward. It’s energizing to seek out what gives us life, makes it purposeful, gives it meaning. We are on a journey toward life.

For too long the mainline denominations have wallowed in their narrative of death. They’ve come to believe it, and they’ve allowed others to confirm it. Well, I don’t.

I believe we belong to each other and to God. This is the essence of our connection. In my denomination this means that the local church, annual conference and general church have the capacity to do more together than any of us can do alone. This gives us the capacity to transform the world for the better if we claim it and live it.

And that leads us to what Gunderson and Pray call coherence. Coherence is that web of blessing that defines our roles as human beings. It calls us beyond ourselves to become involved with others. It gives us life, they write. We are not alone and all about ourselves. We’re in this together.

In a world of rampant narcissism, the Christian faith calls us to become servants to those most vulnerable, in need and without voice. How counter-cultural is that?

And that call leads us out of helplessness and despair to agency. We can change and create change. We are not the inevitable victims of the tsunami of death. We are the agents who can bring, with God’s help, new life, new meaning, new purpose and hope to the dry, arid places that seem without the refreshing waters of renewal and healing.

And when we act in this way–moving toward life and toward others–we are blessed and we become a blessing. We sense that we are accountable to those who have come before, those who will follow and those with whom we share the invigorating journey called life.

So, like Joe Diffie, “I wanna go to heaven but I don’t wanna go tonight.” And “I ain’t afraid of dying, it’s the thought of being dead” that perplexes me. So I’m not giving in to the tsunami of death talk.

Instead, I’m looking for life through connection, coherence, agency and blessing, and I see these at work in the stories of this denomination everyday.

Let’s seek the leading causes of life.

 

"The Final Great Awakening – An Endtime Revival".: The Circuit Rider vs The Televangelist

“The Final Great Awakening – An Endtime Revival”.: The Circuit Rider vs The Televangelist

On Being Re-wired

Until recently, I resisted the idea that we’re being “re-wired” by new media.

After all, at our core we like to say we humans are all the same. We have the same needs, desires and hopes, though our life experiences are sometimes vastly different.

I was skeptical about the claim that superficial media could actually change the way our brains work. I’m less sure today.

Recently, while doing a search online for articles about social media and their effects on human communities, it occurred to me that the act of searching online is a different way of thinking about research. In contrast to my former visits to brick-and-mortar libraries, I can conduct research differently today than in the ancient past of pre-Internet days.

I was sitting at home, late in the evening, tapping a keyboard to get at various sources, not perusing a card catalogue and shuffling though shelves of hardbound books. The latter sounds almost archaic, in fact.

I found Clay Shirky’s “Cognitive Surplus” article and saw that it was expanded into book form and published recently. I read reviews, checked to see if it was on Audible.com or Amazon (available from both) and downloaded it from Audible.

In a matter of minutes, I was listening to the book.

This is only one example of how new media have changed my everyday life. Wherever I am, it is second nature for me to use my iPad or handheld device to check the news, respond to e-mail, share photos and video, get directions, and perform a host of other tasks. Easy access to limitless information has become the norm, and I’m almost always connected.

In retrospect, I concede I am being re-wired. Not knowing enough about how our brains work to make a scientific assessment of whether our neuron pathways are being changed, I’ve concluded that at the very least how I perceive and act upon my perceptions, expectations and access to information has changed how I function in pretty basic ways.

Not only has my method of research changed, so has my ability to check trusted sources online to assess the reliability of information, to secure opinions about the value of books and other information, and to act upon my desires or needs and get instantaneous feedback or gratification.

Until I reflected upon this later, it seemed quite normal. But it’s really quite amazing. I am being re-wired. I did not go to a bookstore and buy the book. I did not consult with a friend face-to-face about its content. I expected I could find it in a digital format and gain access to it immediately. I found it, ordered and downloaded it, and began to listen.

What I have not yet fully assimilated, and may never, is what this says about human interaction, trust, business, education and personal fulfillment. There are layers and layers of questions about human development, behavior and community.

These are the stuff of faith and the faith community. They are not necessarily the ultimate stuff, which is our relationship to God. But they come close.

A friend showed me an iPhone application that displays biblical text on-screen as a narrator reads it. This gets closer to how we relate to Scripture and perhaps how we use such tools for better or worse to relate to God.

So, the issue isn’t only that I’m being re-wired.

As if that weren’t enough, I’m discovering my spiritual practices could also be re-framed by these new media. I’m not afraid of this reality, but I am approaching it less casually than before.

The new media do change us in ways that are not merely superficial. This is a mixed blessing, one that I must continue to assess.

Have you been re-wired? Could new media change how you relate to God? Let me know what you think.

FITCHBURG, Mass. –– Faith United Parish, a congregation of The United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ, teamed up with students from Fitchburg State College to do an “extreme makeover” of nearby Longsjo Middle School. The school now has freshly painted classrooms, an operating theater, and the love of many volunteers. See http://fsc.edu/fitchburgeducationfoundation/ott.html

Hearing the cries for a better life

April 17, 2010

Kamina.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has seen its most basic infrastructure destroyed by ten years of civil war. Roads, schools, hospitals and clinics, nearly every basic piece of infrastructure necessary for life is lacking, compromised, or doesn’t exist.

We discovered this in Lubumbashi when we experienced roads within the city that in the developed world would be considered impassable. And we rediscovered it when we drove from the airbase in ru-ral Kamina into the small town. A strip of asphalt in the center, not wide enough for a vehicle, was all that remained of a paved road that once connected the dilapidated base to the town.

But this lack of essential service doesn’t necessarily mean lack of community, nor lack of enthusiasm for improvement. Perhaps the most dangerous result of resource deprivation is the risk that people begin to believe they don’t matter, or deserve better, because they adapt to being without. It’s the risk to human dignity.

But we experienced a surge of community-wide expressiveness that I’ve never witnessed before in Africa in such a place as Kamina. As she did in Lubumbashi, Yvonne Chaka Chaka called people to come forward to the stage as she sang and danced. And a sea of humanity surged forward. Sitting on the stage, I could not see the end of the mass of people who had come to hear her and to learn about malaria.

But it became clear that they already know malaria’s toll. They wanted nets. And they made that clear. One man held up money to demonstrate that he would pay for a net at that moment.

What this said to me is that the education about malaria has been successful. People in Kamina under-stand what causes it, and they want help to prevent their children and loved ones from contracting it. And it says that people want action. They want change.

Unlike the children in Lubumbashi, this crowd was insistent and assertive. They want nets, and they want them now. I began to be concerned about the mood of the celebratory event. It wasn’t menacing in the least, but we had thousands of people standing shoulder to shoulder calling for nets, and we had no nets. An earlier distribution had already been carried out here.

Yvonne managed them well, changed the mood to celebration and hope, and offered words of educa-tion about what can be done even without nets to reduce the risk.

And the community has done significant work already. A canal 15 kilometers long has been dug to drain large areas of standing water to reduce the breeding ground for mosquitoes. Nets have been dis-tributed, not nearly enough for the entire city, but a small fraction at least. And community health workers are accessible, the local hospital is functioning and agriculture development is producing food and generating income.

These are no small accomplishments. And yet blazed into my memory of Kamina is thousands of people crying out for nets. Crying out for the chance to live a better, healthier life.

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