The Astounding Impact of Innovative Technology in the Developing World

Nathan Myhrvold’s TEDTalk,”Could this laser zap malaria?” is an eye-opening look at how computer science and technology can help address an ancient and persistent disease that is responsible for 655,000 deaths each year. To think that it’s possible for a laser to not only kill mosquitoes in mid-flight, but determine from their wing beat frequency whether they are females (which potentially carry malaria) or males (which do not bite) is downright astonishing.

Yet even technology that’s far more accessible than what Myhrvold describes is changing the game in Africa — not only aiding in the fight against malaria, but opening a whole new world. Mobile technologies make it possible to have access to information that is transformative, whether it’s tracking disease outbreaks or educating children.

Once I was in a remote village in northern Senegal where there were no telephones or even electricity, disconnected from the rest of the world. Back home in the U.S., my son was in need of emergency surgery and my wife, Sharon, was purposefully trying to get a message to me.

It took her an entire day to find someone who would agree to go to the village to locate me. It took a another day for that person to reach me by car — then yet another day for the two of us to navigate the poor roads to the nearest town with a post office that had phone service. Once there, I had to make an appointment to come back to use the phone the following day. By the time I was finally able to speak to her, my son was already recuperating.

Mobile technologies are empowering those who were once isolated and transforming the ways they communicate.

That’s what life was like in rural Africa before cell phones and satellites. Today, cell phone usage in Africa is commonplace, with more than 10.7 million mobile phones in Senegal alone. Mobile technologies are empowering those who were once isolated and transforming the ways they communicate.

Improving – and saving – lives

Pierre Omadjela, director of Communications and Development for the Central Congo Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, is using FrontlineSMS to share health information and increase awareness about malaria prevention (a major focus for The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria initiative). FrontlineSMS is free, open-source software that can be used to send text messages to groups of people without an Internet connection that is being used in a variety of ways to improve people’s lives.

Using automated messages to mobile phones, Omadjela says they have already realized a 5 percent decrease from the work they are doing teaching people in the Democratic Republic of Congo ways to prevent malaria.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Blantyre, Malawi, for a meeting of The United Methodist Church of Malawi. During a workshop on Transformative Communication, which included presentations from leaders at Inveneo and Medic Mobile, one workshop leader asked the group of 85 participants how many owned and use mobile phones. Virtually every hand in the place was raised.

Later, at another training conducted in Madisi, Malawi, on how to use FrontlineSMS to communicate with key groups of people, local church personnel and caseworkers who work for ZOE Ministry, a program that helps empower orphans and vulnerable children in Africa, were in attendance. As one woman sent her first FrontlineSMS text message, she shrieked with wonder. “It worked!” she marveled.

While 75 percent of the world has access to a mobile phone, smartphones make up only 15 percent of the global market. biNu is a platform that allows those with feature phones to have a smartphone-like experience through cloud-based apps and services, providing them with immediate access to email, news, books, health information and social features.

That means the world’s information library is available through not only smartphones, but also conventional mobile phones. Children are able to read books they could not afford and have access to educational information they otherwise would not.

‘All about potential’

Access to information is also giving people the means to have more control over their circumstances. In Kenya, I watched as two women used a teacup-sized satellite receiver plugged into a boom box get audio digital information that was then translated into text, allowing them to check the market price of beans so they could negotiate a fair price for their own crop. No longer must they rely solely on the price quoted by a distributor.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says, “The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.”

Remarkable new information technologies are unlocking the potential of developing countries in ways that are not only empowering, but revolutionary. As new innovations and new possibilities continue to be presented, the digital future is becoming the digital present. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

 

Malaria battle is not lost, but we must redouble our effort

The BBC story “Bed Nets for Malaria: Losing the Arms Race?”, which aired on NPR, created a flurry of questions about the progress against this persistent disease.

Are bed nets continuing to be effective? Are bed nets the solution? Are we in danger of falling back and giving ground to a more virulent form of the parasite?

These questions are important and deserve a careful response. They are especially relevant to United Methodists who are closing in on raising $75 million for the Imagine No Malaria campaign.

Feliciana Domingos and her daughter, Sarafine Lorenço, take shelter beneath a mosquito net at their home near Malanje, Angola, in 2006. Forty-six percent of all the deaths in Malanje are related to malaria. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

Feliciana Domingos and her daughter, Sarafine Lorenço, take shelter beneath a mosquito net at their home near Malanje, Angola, in 2006. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

From the outset of the current initiatives against malaria, it was clear that bed nets would be effective for a period of two to three years. It was also clear that resistance to existing medications and pesticides is one of the most frustrating capacities of the malaria parasite.

So the questions raised by the BBC story have been anticipated by malaria specialists for a number of years.

However, in my view the story emphasizes the importance of continuing to raise funds for several angles of attack against this resilient parasite. Bed nets do need to be replaced. Therefore, continuing to fund the manufacture and replacement of nets is part of the whole approach necessary to continue the fight. It’s not the only part but one of the multiple steps that need to be taken.

Research and education are needed

In addition, it’s important to continue to fund research into various prevention methods. Research at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and facilities in Seattle among other places must be continued and strengthened. These approaches range from finding ways to alter the reproductive abilities of the female mosquitoes that carry the parasite, to altering mosquito DNA and even to immobilizing the parasite itself through creative genetic manipulation, which goes beyond my layperson’s understanding.

It’s also necessary to continue to educate people in malaria-affected regions to keep their environment free of standing water and trash that serves to catch rainwater.

It’s important to educate children (and adults as well) about wearing clothing that will protect them from mosquitoes when the insect is most active in the morning and evening. This, along with environmental cleanup, is known in the malaria world as behavior change communication.

Those who are fighting this disease have been addressing behavior change for many years, reinforced by the communications efforts of United Methodist Communications. The task is ongoing.

It’s important to continue research into more effective pesticides because the parasite has shown an amazing ability to adapt and resist. This may be the greatest challenge.

Artemisinin resistance was identified by the World Health Organization in some regions several years ago. The agency warned of the spread of the parasite into new areas and called for increased containment efforts.

Health workers in the field need to continue their efforts at quicker diagnosis and treatment of those suspected of contracting malaria. The sooner appropriate medications can be provided the more likely the worst of the disease’s effects can be addressed.

And research must continue into effective drugs for treating the disease. These efforts, as others I’ve listed above, are taking place in many locations around the world.

Lives are at stake

One of the reasons this disease has persisted is its ability to adapt, but the effectiveness of these various inputs from the highly sophisticated to the most rudimentary have resulted in significant progress in reducing deaths and suffering in recent years. But the battle is not over, and it certainly isn’t lost.

We must continue the fight, keeping our eyes wide open to the challenges the BBC has accurately identified.

And we must not lose heart and yield to the thought that the disease cannot be conquered. To do so is an invitation to an even greater calamity. The world experienced that about 30 years ago, when progress against the disease was made and the fight was abandoned prematurely.

The result was that the parasite came back even stronger and was more difficult to contain, causing many more deaths and posing a challenge that was far more difficult to treat.

The fight against this disease is challenging, but what is at stake are human lives. We have seen many places around the world, the United States and Panama for example, where malaria once claimed lives with impunity but is now under control.

This is not the time to let the challenges cause us to hesitate. It’s time to redouble our efforts to enjoin the fight.

Sandwich Race and Hungry Kids

Sandwich RaceIt was both fun and inspirational to read the social media posts yesterday from United Methodists in Georgia who had committed to making sandwiches for hungry children across the state. The Georgia United Methodists partnered with major corporations and Action Ministries to provide 200,000 healthy lunches to children in communities across Georgia. According to John R. Moeller, Jr. of Action Ministries, 800,000 children qualify for free or reduced fee lunches when school is in session but don’t get the same nutrition over the summer. As a result, Action Ministries is working in 22 north Georgia communities feeding hungry kids five days a week.

A secondary fun goal in this Rethink Church event for United Methodists was an attempt to break the world record for the number of sandwiches made in one hour as verified by the Guinness Book of World Records. In a more serious vein, the church was also demonstrating that Christian faith has an active expression. As Sybil Davidson of The United Methodist Church said, this event was an effort of United Methodist Christians to get outside the walls of the church and meet the needs of the communities through acts of service.

The event brought media focus to an important need that is easily overlooked in the summertime. Mark Hellman of Action Ministries says that social workers tell Action Ministries some of these children return to school 15 t0 20 pounds under weight when school begins and he notes that this can affect their ability to learn. This is the underlying reason for the Smart Lunch, Smart Kids campaign conducted by Action Ministries with volunteers from Georgia churches.

Nationwide, Bread for the World, an ecumenical citizens action group, is calling attention to the on-going problem of hunger in the United States through Preaching to End Hunger workshops by the pastor emeritus of Riverside Church, The Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Jr. Dr. Forbes is preaching and leading homiletics workshops across the country to call attention to the problem and provide pastors with resources to address it from the pulpit.

Bread provides a fact sheet on the effects of budget sequestration on hunger and development programs funded by the U.S. government. The fact sheet makes clear that not only children but vulnerable seniors and others are at risk of hunger and related health problems due to Congress’s inaction to address the budget in a more careful and responsible way.

The efforts of Georgia United Methodists to both address the problem of child hunger and call attention to it through the Smart Lunch, Smart Kids partnership carries a message I hope legislators hear. Christian people don’t want to see children go hungry and they are doing what they can in different ways to change this reality. In Georgia on Saturday they took direct action. In meetings around the country they are focusing on how to talk about ending hunger with theological and homiletical training, and through Bread For the World advocacy they are attempting to influence public policy. Each method is needed and provides strong witness to the values of Christian faith.

And by the way, while it’s not yet official, the Georgia United Methodists believe they crushed the existing sandwich record by making over five times more sandwiches than the current record. Way to go!

 

 

 

 

What is a Disciple?

Disciple

There’s an interesting conversation beginning in The United Methodist Church about the definition of “discipleship.” It’s important because the church says its mission is to make disciples. Disciple-making is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. In the Gospel of Matthew, in his final instruction to the eleven remaining disciples (Judas has betrayed him), he tells them to go into the world and make disciples of all nations. (Matt. 28: 19) In Christian theology it’s known as “The Great Commission” and it’s a basic tenet of Christian teaching. Its importance for Christians cannot be understated.

While the word “disciple,” (or its equivalent in the language of the day), may have been understood more clearly in Jesus’ time, in the modern day lexicon of faith “discipleship” is less clearly understood and according to research by United Methodist Communications, this lack of clarity leads to confusion, lost communication and a weakening of the connectivity of the United Methodist community of faith.

Because the word discipleship and the work of making disciples is so central to the mission of the church, lack of clarity about what it means is a crucial issue. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote definitively on the subject of discipleship in 1937, but his work is not widely known today.

In response to a report on this research that I gave to the Connectional Table yesterday, Bishop Michael Coyner of the Indiana Episcopal Area offered a definition the Indiana Conference developed that’s an excellent overview.

“A DISCIPLE is a person who

experiences the

forgiveness and acceptance of God,

follows the life and teachings of Jesus Christ,

demonstrates the fruit of the Spirit,

AND WHO

shares in the life and witness of a community of disciples,

including Baptism and the Lord’s Supper,

serves in some form of ministry every day,

participates in God’s suffering and transformation of the world,

anticipates a future life in the presence of God,

AND WHO THEREBY

yearns to lead others to become disciples.”

Do you have a definition? Does the Indiana Conference definition capture your understanding of a disciple and the work of discipleship?

 

As World Malaria Day Approaches, HBO Movie Raises Needed Awareness

This weekend, I watched the HBO premiere of “Mary and Martha,” a compelling story of two women of different ages from different countries who are drawn  together by the common experience of having their sons die from a threat they never expected: malaria.

As the pair struggle to come to grips with the untimely loss of their sons, Mary (played by Hilary Swank) and Martha (Brenda Blethyn) forge a deep friendship and become advocates in the fight against a deadly disease that kills 655,000 people every year, most of them children.

As I watched the drama unfold, I couldn’t help but hope that the movie’s message reaches people who are currently unaware that children are dying from a preventable disease at an unconscionable rate. I hope that it moves them to action.

Hassan Sesay and his wife Amindalo Sesay sit with their children Falmota, Marianne and Alice, in front of the new mosquito net they received as part of the Imagine No Malaria campaign at their home in the Gbo Chiefdom outside Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose.

Hassan Sesay and his wife, Amindalo Sesay, sit with their children in front of the mosquito net they received through Imagine No Malaria at their home outside Bo, Sierra Leone, in 2011. Photo by Mike DuBose.

Like Mary and Martha, too many people are simply not cognizant of the impact of this killer illness.

My own connection to malaria runs deep. I’ve had it twice, first in the 1980s, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when I walked in ankle high grass around a killing field while doing work on a film about Cambodia shortly after Pol Pot. I had another bout with the disease in Gondar, Ethiopia, a year or two later.

In both cases, I was fortunate enough to be able to get to a doctor and receive medication as soon as I began to feel symptoms—chills, fever, and listlessness.

I’ve also seen dozens of children die from malaria, and I’ve seen the grief etched on the faces of parents who have lost their children.

I recall a young mother in Honduras who brought her semi-conscious infant to a clinic, after walking miles from a small village in the rural mountains. By the time she arrived, the baby – only a few months old – was in serious danger, and the clinic lacked the medicines for an infusion for the child. As the mother sat before the nurse who attempted to treat her child, the baby died.

In a tent clinic in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where dozens of people staggered in after a severe famine, I saw a grandmother carrying a comatose baby. Breathing heavily, the baby clearly was in desperate condition. A doctor started an infusion of medication through an IV, but it was too late.

These images are emblazoned in my memory. I cannot forget them.

Those were only two children, and those scenes are repeated in similar fashion every single day. In Africa, malaria takes the life of a child every 60 seconds.

Our children, our responsibility

In the movie, Martha stays to help for a while at the orphanage in Mozambique where her son, Ben, was a teacher. When she decides to leave, the children give her a collage that says, “We are all your children,” as a parting gift.

“We are all your children.” That’s a striking statement. The children of the world are our children. Imagine what we could accomplish if everyone made a commitment to take some responsibility toward providing a healthy life for all of God’s children.

INM_WebBanner_300x2501Programs like The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria initiative and its partner organizations are making a difference, producing life-saving results. Malaria’s impact has been cut in half in just a few short years, but the battle is still far from over.

Millions of nets have been distributed, but millions more are needed before we are able to cover every child in every village at the end of every road.  And nets are not enough. More lasting solutions are required. More health workers must be trained to recognize and treat symptoms at the outset of the disease. More health clinics are needed. More mothers and fathers need to know what they can do to prevent it.

This week on April 25, we will observe World Malaria Day. There’s no better time to join a movement that is saving lives. My prayer is that one day, there will be no malaria. My hope is that day will come soon.

For more information, visit ImagineNoMalaria.org.

Digital Technology: The Future in Present Tense

Fasten your seatbelt. No seatbelt? Well, Hang on.

Fasten your seatbelt. No seatbelt? Well, Hang on.

A few days ago I was in Haiti. We traveled in public transportation, a small pickup truck called a “tap tap” with a wooden passenger compartment built onto the truck bed.

Our “tap tap” was not up to the task of pulling some of the steep grades in the mountains and on several occasions we had to hop out and push. Unloaded, the driver would creep to the top of the mountain and wait for us. Invariably, I arrived huffing and foot sore. But this is Haiti. And I was having a blast.

WIFI in the mountains

One night we turned from a paved road onto a nearly trackless path that wound upward. In the dark it looked more like a rutted, rocky wash than a road. We got out and pushed often. Walking on the rocks and stepping across the gouges cut by water was difficult by flashlight. Eventually, we arrived at the grounds of the Haitian Artisans for Peace International (HAPI), a group providing women artisans with training to make and sell craft goods.

After a good night’s sleep and a pleasant breakfast outside, four children settled in at the large table under the shelter of the sleeping quarters. They were on break from school. They carried a laptop and a tablet. They began to surf the internet, play games and eventually play YouTube videos.

One little girl was proficient at a tablet game that required considerable dexterity and quickness. Another was intent on a children’s website. Eventually they both pulled down a YouTube video of a little girl singing a children’s song in French. It was a circular tune. Each time it repeated, they changed gestures, facial expressions and body movements.

Singing

Children singing along with a YouTube video

It was a memorable scene. In a place where physical access is difficult, wifi signals, beamed across the mountain and pulled down to computers powered by solar energy, were connecting these children to the outside world. They don’t yet have computers in their schools, but they are coming. Meanwhile, The Haitian Artisans for Peace International is installing a community technology center that will make it possible for local people to use computers in a cyber cafe.

Across Haiti, community-based information communication technology (ICT) centers are being installed. United Methodist Communications is a member of a partnership working toward this goal.

The little girls I saw in Haiti are ahead of the curve. Widespread access to wifi across the country, as in many other parts of the world, hasn’t happened yet. But it’s no longer something in the distant future. Low cost, low wattage computers powered by solar energy, impervious to sand, salt and humidity, along with durable “ruggedized” tablets are being manufactured now for global markets. My hunch is they will be ubiquitous before long.

Technology and Education

In the U.S., digital tools have entered the educational mainstream and they are radically affecting how we go about our lives daily. Cellphones made it possible for Africa to leapfrog over the technology barriers of landline communication. Asia is leading the world in digital technology. The process isn’t slowing, it’s speeding up.

While it’s ironic that it’s easier to reach out to the world from a mountainside in Haiti than it is to get to a place on the mountainside, that’s the reality. It’s happening. The digital future is becoming the digital present. And as the transition takes place lives will be changed. The world will continue to shrink. New possibilities and potential will be presented.

As I watched the little girls at HAPI, I realized I was looking at the future in the present tense.

An Overlooked Issue in the Boy Scouts Debate

Boy Scouts LogoThe debate about allowing gay leaders and scouts in the Boy Scouts has under-played a critical issue. I’ve been told that in some troops upwards of half the scouts are from single parent families, the vast majority of those headed by mothers. And these young people are from the neighborhoods in which local churches exist. They often walk to the building for troop meetings.

My colleague, Gil Hanke, General Secretary of United Methodist Men, which relates to Boy Scouts of America on behalf of The United Methodist Church, tells me “in a typical scouting program, 25% are from the sponsoring church, 25% are from other churches, 50% are from un-churched families.”

Scouting offers these boys interaction with a male figure, provides them with opportunities for learning and for skills that they likely would not have otherwise. Scouting is about values education, the development of a sense of personal responsibility and service to others. And, it brings young people inside the church building on a regular basis.

In my experience as a scout, this range of activities, contacts and values are exactly what I needed growing up in a family that was, at best, dysfunctional. As we moved about following oilrig locations in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Wyoming one of the constants in my life was Scouting. Scout troops were always located in a Methodist church in the small, dusty towns where we temporarily settled.

We moved every six months until I was thirteen and chose to go another way. This nomadic existence was simply a way of life for itinerant oilfield workers and their families, and for me, Scouting was part of the glue that held this transient life together.

It was also a window on the world through which I could peer and see a wider field of opportunities and a future beyond the hard labor of the oilfields. I went on camping trips, floated down rivers, worked on merit badges, and even went to the state capitol and met the governor. These activities expanded my life in significant ways.

Without Scouting it would have been a more difficult, less hopeful existence. I interacted with adults in a different way than in my family setting, which was not altogether positive and certainly not constructive.

A place of haven

When I hear local church leaders, especially pastors, say they will drop Scouting for the modest change that is proposed to allow gay men and scouts to participate at the will of the congregation, I’m perplexed. The church should be a place of haven for youth who are struggling with their identities. They should have the opportunity to come to know they are loved by God and by others. They should be provided the support necessary to see new horizons, have meaningful experiences and envision a newer, brighter future. Scouting provided this support for me.

Moreover, given the fact that Mainline denominations are in decline, it’s ironic that congregations would turn away from a program that serves needs of families within walking distance of their buildings; families experiencing hardship; families with young people in need of positive interactions with adults. Scouting is not designed to be a tool for evangelism, but it introduces young persons to values-oriented civic responsibility that is complementary to the teachings of the church, and it invites young people into the church building. Referring to Gil Hanke’s data begs the question: What church would not want to host a meeting each week in which half the folks present do not have a church home?

While attention is focused on churches that might leave Scouting if the ban is lifted, it’s also possible that churches that have not sponsored troops because of the ban might reconsider and make Scouting even more inclusive.

A modest move

There are ways to monitor adult interactions, conduct due diligence when selecting adult leaders and safeguard children. These are issues for all congregations regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of adult leaders. They’re pertinent for Sunday School, youth groups, choirs and other activities involving youth. So it’s difficult to understand why a congregation would consider banishing children in scouting from the building when it’s the mission of the church to reach out to them, especially when it’s so explicit in the teachings of Jesus that we are called to bring the little children to him.

The decision the leaders of Boy Scouts of America are considering is not a radical leap forward. It’s a modest half-step toward inclusion. But it’s one that should be supported and affirmed, for the sake of the children, boys and young men for whom Scouting is a helpful guide to a better adulthood.

Continuing the Fight Against Malaria

Training Community Health Workers to install bed nets. UMNS photo by Mike DuboseA World Health Organization report raises concern that lack of money will weaken efforts to combat malaria. This is disheartening news. Great progress has been made against this disease and it has produced life-saving results.

Last year more than one million children were saved as increased funding made it possible to provide more bednets, diagnostic kits and medicines. However, distribution of nets dropped sharply according to the WHO from 145 million two years ago to 66 million last year. As more children are born and existing bednets wear out, this drop will result in an increasing number of children left unprotected. The result will be more deaths and debilitating illness.

This is bad enough, but a hidden result concerns me even more. In the past, when the world cut back on funding malaria treatment and prevention, the malaria parasite spread rapidly and developed greater resistance to existing drugs. An even stronger parasite evolved making it more difficult to contain and control.

A particularly strong parasite has been identified in parts of southeast Asia in the past decade and some malaria specialists believe it could spread to Africa with devastating results.

The WHO estimates the disease could be contained with an expenditure of $5 billion per year globally. The cost of the war in Afghanistan to the U.S. is $3.6 billion a month. Tackling malaria is not beyond the capacity of the world’s governments and non-governmental organizations.

The fight against the diseases of poverty–HIV-AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhea, and polio among the many–is a longterm fight. They all deserve funding and a comprehensive approach to global health is within the world’s capacity.

The tendency of politicians and others to focus on a disease for a season, or with a short-term view is inadequate and dangerous. It provides opportunistic diseases the time to develop into more virulent strains which makes the task of combatting them more difficult. The result in the loss of life and debilitating, costly health problems for more people. NPR is providing a comprehensive overview of malaria in a series called Malaria: Pushing Back.

The effort to contain and significantly reduce malaria is a longterm struggle. If the world reduces the funding to support this struggle, the result will a stronger foe in the future, and a more costly one.

Our short attention span can be deadly. Over 100 global health advocates from The United Methodist Church last month delivered the message to their representatives that we want to continue funding the fight against malaria, for the sake of children who deserve the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life.

In addition,United Methodists and members of the ELCA continue to raise funds to combat malaria. The United Methodist effort is Imagine No Malaria. It’s necessary to take a long view toward this life-saving struggle as the Rotary Club International has done in its fight to end polio. Today, the disease is limited to regions of India and Pakistan. It has taken twenty five years, and Rotarians have been consistent and committed for the long haul, an admirable commitment in light of the difficulty the effort faces as it approaches its successful end. Let’s hope this commitment under hardship inspires governments and non-governmental organizations as well.

The risk of failure is too great. And too many lives are at stake to pull back now.

A House Big Enough for All the Pain

When the church bells ring across the nation this morning it will be a time to honor those who have been lost, and more. The sounds remind us of a house big enough for all the pain.

Speaking of the pain his community is going through, The Rev. Mel Kawakami, senior pastor of the Newtown United Methodist Church, told journalist Art McClanahan, “The church becomes the community to hold that pain and to allow people to feel that pain.”

In a society that seeks diversion and palliatives, denial and avoidance, often to mask pain or run from it, these words are more than pastoral, they are prophetic. As some call for the arming of teachers and the potential use of even more lethal force, Rev. Kawakami issues an invitation to bring your pain into a house where it can be expressed, and shared.

This isn’t a defensive invitation to lock and load. It’s an invitation to open up and unload. Give up the fear, the toxic anger, and, yes, even grief; the whole burdened load we feel when we think of the tragic loss of these sweet, innocent young ones and those tender adults who died caring for them–all for whom we grieve–and give it over to a community who believe that in God’s grace we can absorb the fear and pain, take a share of the load and get through together.

I’ve been thinking all day of the words of the Martina McBride song, “Love’s the Only House Big Enough for all the Pain in the World.” “The pain’s gotta go someplace, so come on down to my house,” McBride sings. It’s the song of the church, and the invitation of God. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak softly and tenderly to Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 40:1,2) “Come to me, all of you who are weary and loaded down with burdens, and I will give you rest,” says Jesus. (Matthew 11:28)

Anne Lamott writes in her wonderful reflection on prayer, Help Thanks Wow, “Love falls to earth, rises from the ground, pools around the feet of the afflicted. Love pulls people back to their feet. Bodies and souls are fed. New blades of grass grow from charred soil. The sun rises.”

And so it is in this house. A house whose people believe this love beyond understanding comes to us in human form–in Jesus who meets us with open arms, knows our pain, shares it, and shoulders it. When I hear the bells toll on Friday morning, I will say a prayer for those families in grief, I will remember the lives that ended so violently, and I will give thanks for a loving God whose house is big enough for all the pain.

Faithful Discipleship and Thinking Big

I like big thinking. I don’t mean big for the sake of bigness. I mean thinking about how to transform the world for the better–at scope and scale so that the billions whose lives are a daily struggle can see a better future, and live healthier, more comfortably and safely. Now.

I’m not opposed to small groups and individual action. Early in my pastoral ministry, I helped organize a small support group for parents of terminally ill children and I found it enormously helpful personally.

Our Problems are Intertwined

But as I travel, I see that the problems we face as a global community are intertwined. We’re all affected by climate change, water management, infectious diseases, interrelated economic ups and downs and galloping technological changes. While small groups can tackle some of the effects of these wide-ranging issues, in many instances they are bigger and more complex and we need to tackle them at a level of scope and scale that can truly affect global transformation. We need to work on them together.

Traveling through the mountains of the Philippines last week, a local man riding with me pointed out mountaintops left bare by clear cutting. He told me when he was a child, they were forested with old growth trees as wide as six feet. The global market for exotic wood led to their decimation.

Local groups mounted a protest and the cutting was eventually halted. This complex interweaving of global and local binds us in ways that we sometimes don’t appreciate because the connections are nearly impossible to perceive at each end of the chain.

Making Connections and Confronting Complexity

Therefore, I’m really glad for the likes of Bread for the World  and Sojourners who help connect disparate parts of the complexity. They seek to inform and affect policies and perceptions at a level that achieves scope and scale. When Bread for the World provided an analysis last week of President Obama’s approach to the U.S. budget compared to that of Rep. John Boehner, it was a helpful guide with useful information for a constituent group who can act collectively to influence policy. David Beckman, the head of Bread for the World, said in a meeting recently it’s essential that the faith communities in the U.S. advocate for a “circle of protection for the poor,” a phrase I’m told was suggested by my colleague James Winkler, general secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church. That’s scope and scale. And it’s transformational.

Sojourners is perhaps the most effective ecumenical voice in the faith community today bringing biblical teaching to bear on economic policies and how they affect poverty and human wellbeing.

The Common Good is Global

Such efforts lift our thinking from how taxes and budget cuts will affect me and put the question into a larger context. How will these cuts affect us, all of us, particularly those of us who do not have the same influence, strength of voice and access to policy-makers that the rich and powerful have?

For people of faith, it’s important to recall that Jesus was steeped in Jewish teaching about justice and mercy, community and individual responsibility. Jesus instructs us how to treat each other individually and how we treat each other in the wider community. Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are clear about our responsibility to each other at a level that rises to the whole community. There is a common good, and today it is global.

I am grateful that Bread for the World and Sojourners remind me frequently that a fundamental part of being faithful is seeing the wholeness of God’s creation, beyond the reductionist definitions of life: it’s about me, my house and neighborhood and my tribe and my people.

And more importantly, I’m grateful that they understand that individual transformation and collective transformation are not polar opposites. They are interwoven parts of a whole cloth called faithful discipleship.

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