The Colors of Small Town Poverty

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

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

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

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

The Stresses of Poverty

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

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

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

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

Going to the Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

Ways to Move Forward

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

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

From Rural to City Life

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

I would add:

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

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

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

Faith in Crisis and Easter Hope

“Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists,” writes Andrew Sullivan. “Ignore them,” he says, “and embrace Him.” His provocative essay appears in The Daily Beast and Newsweek.

Another commentator writes that politicians have reduced the evangelical tradition to a “pathetic caricature,” subordinating a “rich tradition of social justice to a narrow and predictable political agenda.” Michael Gerson writes in his Washington Post column that politicians are giving religion a bad name.

E.J. Dionne, also in the Post, adds his voice of concern: “I want to suggest that what should most bother Christians of all political persuasions is that there are right and wrong ways to apply religion to politics, and much that’s happening now involves the wrong ways. Moreover, popular Christianity often seems to denigrate rather than celebrate intellectual life and critical inquiry.”

The Changing Nature of Faith

On one hand, it’s notable that this discussion about the nature of faith is occurring in public media. Only a few years ago, it would not have happened. It’s also notable that the commentators are not professional theologians but persons of faith writing about faith and culture as they experience it in their daily lives.

Sullivan’s claim is deeply compelling, especially in light of research by the Barna Group and United Methodist Communications that confirms that young adults are turned off by the captivity of the faith to dogmatism and judgmentalism. Faith has been co-opted and collapsed into political and economic ideologies, and this causes people to turn away from the church and even to reject the faith.

And yet, as Sullivan notes, we yearn to understand the mystery of the universe and our place in it. At the root of this yearning is a search for the holy. We are asking why we are here and how we find meaning and purpose. These are faith questions.

Religious Truth Expressed in a Reasoned Way

As I have been writing these past few days, I believe this presents not only a challenge to the mainline denominations but also an opportunity. The mainline groups have long expressed values that are born of faith, in ways that appeal to people of different faiths and no faith. The mainlines have an ability to express religious truths in a reasoned way that translates to the secular culture. They are concerned for the common good.

United Methodists have discovered that providing people with a way to act on their desire to serve others encourages those outside the church to reflect on the meaning of faith and how they might relate to a faith community. Doing this also results in outward bound mission for those in the church and gives them a way to actively express their faith.

When this is done in a strategic way, communicating in a way that interprets the faith and the faith community, it serves the wider culture and energizes local congregations as well. It provides a way for the church to demonstrate active, meaningful faith absent dogma or politics. It’s about service and the common good. It’s about being present in the culture.

Pessimisim vs. Hope

There’s a lot of pessimism afoot today about the church and faith. I even sense in some quarters panic and desperation. It’s true that Christianity in the United States faces a crisis for all the reasons these commentators list and more, but I’m not pessimistic about the future. Not, that is, if the church embraces its place in society to seek the shalom of God and to be the servant people God calls us to be.  The message of Easter is a message of resurrection and hope; it is a message of renewal and new life.

As Christians consider the dark day of suffering that is marked by Good Friday, looking toward the hope of Easter morning, I am reminded of Paul’s admonition to the Christians in Philippi:

Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God. Carry the light-giving Message into the night… (Philippians 2: 14,15)

 

 

 

Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century

I have been concerned about the growing absence of voice of  the church in culture today when communications has never been more integral to our lifestyle.  My thoughts around this subject have spawned a soon-to-be -published book called We Must Speak:  Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century.

I see this book as a call to the leadership of the mainline communions and to my colleague communicators to rethink communications within the mainline denominations.  Is there a loss of voice?  Should we elevate communications to a strategic level?

I invite you to download a preview of the book here.  I welcome your thoughts on communications as an integral strategy for the church.

You can also view a short excerpt from a webinar here in which  I recently participated with fellow communicators.

 

A Saturday Evening Before Palm Sunday Meditation

The blind lady played the tambourine. A man shuffled forward using a walker. A shy little girl stepped to the front. And the lady who seemed a little out of touch came alive and beamed as brightly as an evening star. The impromptu choir at 61st Avenue United Methodist Church had formed and they were ready to lead a rousing rendition of Swing Low Sweet Chariot on the Saturday-evening-before-Palm-Sunday worship service. And sing they did!

Bodies came alive. Energy filled the room. Folks swayed and some, ever-so-slightly, allowed themselves to dance. This congregation of  people knows hard times. Some live on the street. Most struggle to get through each day. For them, life is not kind.

But when the Rev. Paul Slentz asked for a song request and “Swing Low” was given, the place came alive. He invited anyone who wanted to be in the choir to come forward. Normally there is no choir. And ten or so people made their way, some haltingly because of physical limitations, to the front of the room. The pianist hit the keys and the music gushed forth.

They sang with as much energy as I imagine those who shouted encouragement to Jesus in Jerusalem did two thousand years ago. One lady in particular beamed with joy. It was a transformation from her earlier downcast manner. Then it had seemed as if she were detached from the world but now her face was one big smile.

This morning as I re-read Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, I happened upon this description of her experience in worship when Renola, an African American lady embraced Kenny, an emaciated young man dying of AIDS, from whom Renola had kept her distance.

Lamott writes that during the singing of “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” Ranola watched as everyone stood but Kenny. He was too weak to stand. She melted. She went to his side and “lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow. She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang.”

And Lamott puts into words what we felt last evening at 61st Ave. UMC. “I can’t imagine anything but music that could have brought about this alchemy. Maybe it’s because music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.”

We’re broken and battered, some more than others. Sometimes our wounds show, sometimes not.

Swing low sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home. Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down. But still my soul feels heavenly bound.

Our hearts beat for that heavenly place we call home. Safety from the storm. Respite from the struggle. Sweet sounds without the noise. Last evening at 61st Avenue United Methodist Church, the noise quieted, hard times were forgotten and tender hearts came home.

 

Trayvon Martin and the Muted Voice of the Mainline Church

On Wednesday, the staffs of the General Board of Church and Society and the General Commission on Religion and Race of The United Methodist Church donned hoodies and carried Skittles to protest the killing.

When the story of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin broke, I had a conversation with a friend who told me he had repeated “the talk” with his college-age son. My friend said he had been stopped driving while black, he’s had experiences walking while black, even eating while black. He reminded his son about how to act in case he were stopped by the police while engaging in normal activities.

My friend was troubled by the apparent silence of the churches. In fact, this was a misperception born of the lack of visibility of the leaders in the mainline tradition who had spoken out. For example, the Florida Council of Churches had expressed condolences to the Martin family, called the death of Trayvon unwarranted and said deadly force should not be tolerated in Florida. The council called for justice.

On Tuesday, the president and staff of the National Council of Churches also expressed condolences and issued a statement saying “this tragedy has been compounded by unexamined stereotypes on both sides, and especially by the systemic racism that is pervasive throughout the very fabric of our society, infecting our institutions and individuals alike.”

Also on Tuesday, Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life, appeared on the Roland Martin show on CNN and expressed concern about the so-called “stand your ground” laws and the need for us to consider the results of these laws. These laws are, in fact, a moral issue. They sanction deadly force by expanding traditional legal constraints on self-defense. Coupled with so-called “right to carry” laws, they represent a clear danger to public safety, in the opinion of many.

During the show, Roland Martin called out white evangelicals for not speaking about the sacredness of life in this case. In contrast, African-American clergy appeared on cable television shows, some defending the shooter and others, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton on his MSNBC program, calling for the resignation of the Sanford, Fla., police chief and for justice for Trayvon Martin’s family.

On Wednesday, the staffs of the General Board of Church and Society and the General Commission on Religion and Race of The United Methodist Church donned hoodies and carried Skittles to protest the killing. This was backed by a statement that said, in part, “Youths of color are routinely assumed to be violent criminals, and thus face the constant threat of random acts of violence.”

The importance of media savvy

There are two issues of importance in the muted voice of the mainline groups. The first and most difficult is that because they don’t work in the media landscape in a strategic way, the mainlines are infrequently considered by major media as a source when events of this importance occur.  In contrast, media-savvy speakers were appearing in major media.

The second concern is related to the first and follows from it. Absent media coverage, the mainline groups are left to issue statements and distribute them within their own networks. With the exception of Ms. Butler of Faith in Public Life, the mainline response was very traditional. I applaud the public witness of the mainline groups, but there’s a difference between offering a pronouncement and participating in the ongoing conversation.

The latter requires media savvy and a desire to inject values into the culture. It involves offering interpretation about the underlying values and forces at work in the culture today, forces that are sometimes so subtle or complex that they go unnoticed, such as racism and its multiple coded behaviors.

A tragic absence

I’ve been writing about the absence of the mainline from the media and the tragedy it represents. The mainline denominations are concerned about the moral values that undergird society. They are concerned about race, human dignity and the value of human life. The tragedy is that their concerns are not receiving the attention they deserve, primarily due to this lack of visibility in the communication landscape today.

While Roland Martin was on point, he missed the mark by referring only to white evangelicals. This absence of mainline leaders in the national media is haunting. The nation is having an important conversation, not only on cable television but through newspaper commentary, blogs, radio talk shows and in myriad other ways about fundamental issues of great moral concern (race and justice). An important voice, one that should be helping us come to terms with our understanding of the issues, is missing, and the absence of the mainline churches in the national dialogue is a great loss.

This lack of presence is something that’s been evolving over the past several years, and it renders the conversation less rich, inclusive and substantial. I pray that mainline groups find their place in the media landscape, participate in the conversation, and offer clarifying values and perspective. I believe being present in this landscape today is a necessary part of being faithful.

I also believe it is the media environment in which we do theology. It is the media environment in which we discuss the meaning of faith and its applicability to the hard issues of life that help us discover who we are, whose we are and how we are to live together and flourish as God intends for us all.

And if we are not present, it’s as if we have nothing to say, or worse, don’t care. And that’s not true.

 

Have Mainline Denominations Lost Their Voice?

I was reading Frank Schaeffer’s most recent article on Huffington Post and was stopped in my tracks by these statements:

“Why aren’t the mainline denominations pitching their churches’ tolerant and noble humanistic and enlightened views about individual empowerment, community and spiritual rebirth to the spiritually disenfranchised on a larger scale?”

“If the mainline churches would work for the next few years in a concerted effort to gather in the spiritual refugees wandering our country they’d be bursting at the seams.”

I wanted to shout at my iPad, “Yes, and that is what we are seeing happen in The United Methodist Church when we intentionally reach out to people in our communities.”

If fact, I feel so strongly that mainline denominations have lost their voice in the ongoing media revolution that I recently penned a book called “We Must Speak: Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century”.

Mainline denominations, each for its own reasons, decided to withdraw from the media in the 1980s, at the same time these media were becoming the most influential shapers of attitudes and values in human history.  Amid a revolution in thought and conversation, many of the mainline churches left their place in the discussion to others.

This retreat has caused faith communities to lose their voice in the ongoing conversations that are shaping moral and ethical values.  The result is disastrous.  It is not merely accidental that an image of God is being projected by some religionists that is judgmental, vindictive and the cause of human suffering.

When the church loses its capacity to engage in conversations about faith, it diminishes its capacity to be relevant in an increasingly secular culture. And we’re seeing how harmful this can be.

The irony is that many young adults are seeking a Christianity that is more progressive, less defined by blue state/red state politics and more concerned with the needs of their community, and re-defining who is our neighbor.  They want to hear about healing, hope and redemption. And they want to act on these values, not just talk about them.

The mainline denominations offer that message and the opportunity to act on it, but without a voice in the media landscape, we are destined to obscurity.

In The United Methodist Church, we are reaching out to young adults through a call to Rethink Church, our invitational media campaign.   We are asking young adults to rethink church, not in terms of what it is, but what it could be.  Not just a place to go, or a particular politics, but rather something we do.  By using a variety of media in partnership with local congregations and general church agencies, we are calling young adults to join us in acts of mission.  In 2011, some 4500 churches mobilized more than 500,000 volunteers, serving 4,000,000 people in 16 countries.  Up to 40% of these volunteers were not members of a United Methodist Church, and through this association were more inclined to visit these churches.

Communicating strategically in the global media environment in which we live today is an act of theology. I think we’re answering Schaeffer’s question and a movement is building, but that he is asking the question means we must do more.

For more information on “We Must Speak” and our voice in the culture, click here.

 

White Savior Complex

I think it was 1978 when I first heard African church leaders discuss the “white savior complex” and blame the media for creating images of Africa in perpetual crisis.

We sat in a small, airy, modern building in Dakar, Senegal. It was hot. Dust devils swirled the sand outside. It was my first trip outside the United States and everything seemed noteworthy, even the flat, dry landscape beyond the windows.

This memory was conjured up by the public debate about the “Kony 2012″ campaign and its viral video.

The African church leaders complained to me as if I were representative of the entire journalism profession. They had wanted to unload on someone for a long time, and here I was, so they unloaded. I heard about their frustration that positive stories of Africans solving problems and creating economic progress were of no interest to Western journalists. The journalists only wanted stories of crisis, death, destruction, graft and political corruption, the church leaders said.

They only show up when something goes wrong. They take pictures, shoot video and leave. When they leave, the story goes away until a crisis pops up somewhere else. They don’t get the story accurate. They look only at the things they can see on the surface. They don’t understand the culture or the underlying circumstances that lead to human suffering.

They see drought but ignore longstanding issues that have roots in colonial exploitation, roots that create inequity and injustice and keep Africans in a subservient position in trade relationships, lacking the money to build infrastructure, education and viable businesses to compete globally.

But there was more. The African church leaders were also frustrated with the parade of celebrities who come for a day or two, get their picture taken and speak on behalf of Africans. Then they retreat to the most expensive hotels and leave on the next flight out. I heard about white people who come to Africa with a savior complex, as if Africans don’t have the intelligence or capabilities to solve their own problems.

We lack resources, not resourcefulness,” the Africans told me. We don’t need white saviors telling us how to survive. We’ve been surviving here long before white people came and exploited the people and the land. After they leave, we’ll still be here, they said. I got an earful. Welcome to Africa!

All of these themes have come up in the “Kony 2012″ campaign flap. I was surprised by a blog post by a PR professional in the United States who said Invisible Children had deftly managed the public relations flap. Not from what I have read in reactions of Africans to the film. They raise issues that have been percolating for at least 30 years and the fact that the film steps into these troubled waters and stirs them anew is not a sign of deft PR. It’s a sign of good intentions run aground by lack of historical understanding and context.

In reviewing this criticism, I’m not making a case for ignoring the horrendous human suffering caused by Joseph Kony. The criticism does, however, provide perspective. For as long as I’ve been writing about poverty and its effects globally, which is now going on 30 years, I’ve been concerned about the exploitation of children, especially as child soldiers and through sex trafficking. It’s heartbreaking. It makes me angry. It deserves focused, ongoing attention until we’ve put an end to it.

For me, focus and ongoing attention are key. It’s unfortunate that the “Kony 2012″ campaign’s attention got diverted to the accuracy of its claims and the role the storyteller. 

I’m willing to give great leeway to the young filmmaker and his aspirations to put an end to Kony’s reign of terror. I’m reminded of Ann Lamott’s comment in Bird by Bird, “Reality is unforgivingly complex.” I’m grateful that he’s taken on this terribly important issue. And I’m hoping the attention Invisible Children has brought to the issue creates a sustained effort to put an end to Kony and others who exploit children in merciless ways.

This will require a multi-pronged  effort to empower African human rights advocates to press for action by governments in Africa, public support of the kind Invisible Children is creating in the United States and elsewhere to pressure Western policymakers and governments to pursue Kony and others, and to implement aid programs  that include measurable outcomes to protect human rights and prevent exploitation of children, and women who continue to experience rape and other indignities daily in Africa.

It’s been such a long, long time.

Postscript–March 16, 2012: Nicholas Kristof defends the young filmmaker with a compassionate defense. This BBC coverage contains African reaction to the video. David Reiff critiques the advocacy methodology and its outcome (or lack of it) in this article in Foreign Affairs. A tragic turn of events occurred today with the arrest of the young filmmaker. He is in my prayers.

March 20, 2012: Journalist Angelo Izama provides a lucid overview of the political context in which Joseph Kony operates and discusses how this complex context makes it possible for tyrants like Kony to function as proxies for the various political interests that help them to survive.

This collection of posts gives insight into the white savior complex from different points of view.

When Helping Hurts

The controversy that has been stirred by the Invisible Children organization’s “Kony 2012″ campaign has created public discussion about important issues regarding human rights and humanitarian aid that need to be aired. The campaign is valuable in this way, regardless of its stated outcomes. A Foreign Affairs article on Invisible Children’s call for intervention last November makes one of the most damning critiques. Recently Foreign Affairs guest blogger  Joshua Keating charged that the organization “manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) abduction and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony–a brutal man to be sure–as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil.”

Over the past 30 years, humanitarian efforts have become entangled with political realities to a dangerous degree because human rights are invariably a part of humanitarian crises. The record on this entanglement is mixed. The Berlin blockade following World War II led to treaties that attempted to protect aid to civilians in conflict areas from the political and military agendas at work. This meant keeping aid itself as neutral as possible.

However, great human need always occurs within a complex political equation. Helping people in these situations is rarely as simple as it appears on the surface. Those most likely to suffer in natural disasters and war are the poorest and most vulnerable in the population. They live in the least substantial housing, lack the resources to flee to safety and are the least influential in the social structure.

A history of brutal leaders

Northern Uganda, where Kony operated before taking refuge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been in turmoil for longer than young Invisible Children filmmaker Jason Russell has lived. The people of the Karamoja region, home to 1.1 million, have long endured drought and political and social instability. Since its independence as a U.K. protectorate, Uganda has experienced a succession of despotic leaders who plundered the country and ruled by terror. Its first president after independence, Apolo Milton Obote, suspended the constitution and ruled under martial law, creating tribal conflicts and insurgencies that brought the country to ruin.

Obote was overthrown in 1971 by a military coup that implanted the infamous Idi Amin Dada, whose quixotic and deadly leadership has been well-documented in popular culture in the book and movie “The Last King of Scotland.” Civil war erupted and continued from 1979 through 1986. Government troops carried out genocidal raids that terrorized the region known as the Lewuro Triangle.

Obote returned to power in 1981, and some Ugandans say his second term was even bloodier than Amin’s. Yoweri Museveni became president in 1986, and he has brought relative peace and stability, except in northern Uganda. While he instituted progressive programs to combat HIV/AIDS, he is criticized on human rights by many international observers. Uganda is particularly harsh in its rejection of homosexuals today, for example.

A volatile mix

Reliefweb says the Karamoja region has the “lowest human development indices in the country.” The Reliefweb assessment also points out that 80% of the population faces food insecurity exacerbated by drought and lack of sustainable jobs. More than 1.1 million internally displaced people have returned to their homelands or have resettled to new locations after a peace agreement reached with Kony’s insurgency, but their ability to earn a living is still hampered by the broken economy across the region.

It is into this highly volatile mix of historical and contemporary political, economic and environmental currents that Invisible Children has stepped into and is suggesting military intervention. The Obama administration has put military advisers into Uganda to aid in locating Kony. However, their value is also being debated.

Looking past the fact that the assessment by Invisible Children is flawed (which should be enough reason for caution), it is also questionable how introducing yet another military operation in a region plagued by instability for the past 30 years could contribute to stability, especially when it would inevitably involve cross-border operations into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Kony is said to be operating now.

Sometimes doing good is not as simple as it seems from the outside.

From Invisible Children to Viral Video

A young filmmaker’s chance encounter with armed militia in northern Uganda nine years ago has resulted in a media storm that today is capturing attention around the world and reinforcing claims about the power of social media. It’s also created healthy debate about the most effective way for concerned people to affect humanitarian issues half a world away, and whether advocacy and awareness are sufficient responses to a longstanding conflict.

I’m writing of the viral video by Jason Russell, a 24-year-old filmmaker who went to Uganda as a student to discover a story he could tell through film. He found the story. It was about children conscripted against their will into the Lord’s Resistance Army run by the sociopath Joseph Kony.

Russell began telling the stories of children who sought refuge in common places where their numbers gave them strength to resist forced conscription. They would leave their homes to sleep together at night in buildings or other places so they couldn’t be abducted one-by-one at home.

Now a video posted by Russell’s organization, Invisible Children, has millions of viewers and is the subject of debate. The debate asks whether the information presented in the video is accurate. Kony’s militia is no longer operating in Uganda but is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and it numbers  hundreds of conscripts, far fewer than the alleged 30,000 implied in the film. And while the militia is still doing great harm, the concern of critics is whether the film’s questionable information is a solid basis for useful action.

Other critics point out that Invisible Children spends only 30 percent of the funds it raises on direct services to children. And still others ask if a misinformed public can have meaningful influence about a situation in which a better solution is to assist local persons to resolve problems on their own doorstep.

The challenge of awareness

Over the years I’ve observed that some organizations are better at marketing development and empowerment than actually doing it. Invisible Children seems unabashed about its role. Russell tells the New York Times no one wants to see another boring documentary about Africa, so he decided to make one that is “pop” and “cool.” His most telling comment is that Invisible Children strives to be the Pixar of human rights storytelling. Which begs the question: To what end? Pixar produces content for entertainment and diversion, not for social change.

This is at root the challenge of awareness created through social media. Does awareness lead to action? What kind of action? Can a campaign built around celebrity, bracelets, pledges and donations lead to meaningful action? A new word, “slacktivism,” has been coined to describe this online activism.

A different approach

In stark contrast, outside the chatter of social media and as the Invisible Children video was going viral, the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church was training a group of college students face-to-face in Washington, D.C., about global health issues. The board was preparing the students for visits to legislators to discuss the church’s concern for health programs around the world, specifically focusing on the diseases of poverty and the church’s campaign against malaria known as Imagine No Malaria. The two methods of engagement could hardly be more different.

But both seek to engage young adults in critical issues of consequence in our hyper-connected world. There is hope in this effort. I take hope in the debate about the effectiveness of the method associated with Invisible Children. The questions of how to effectively advocate for human rights, affect government policy and empower local people to solve local problems all deserve wider discussion and action.

Each of us will decide whether Invisible Children’s method of online activism is sufficient and if we support it. I hope it feeds the kind of substantial engagement supported by the Board of Church and Society that will in the long run create skilled, effective influencers who will effect change in the long term.

If the Kony2012 campaign contributes to a meaningful consideration of how we can effectively advocate for a better world, then it is serving a useful purpose. And for lasting change and long-term influence, the model practiced by the Board of Church and Society offers a proven track record of effectiveness.

 

Time to Rally Around The Global Fund

Several months of turmoil have set back the efforts of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Self-initiated investigations have uncovered financial abuses by local representatives of the organization in a small handful of the many countries the fund serves.  Yet, Bill Gates has called this worthy international organization one of the most effective entities to which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributes.

Today, 25% of all international funding for HIV/AIDS-related programs, over half for tuberculosis, and almost three-quarters for malaria worldwide comes from The Global Fund. An estimated $15 billion is needed annually.

Gate’s support was further affirmed by an unbelievable $750 million promissory note, announced last week in a story in the New York Times. Before his announcement, Gates wrote a cogent op-ed piece calling for continued support for foreign aid.

Since 2000, malaria deaths have been reduced by 20% giving children a future.

Reduction in malaria deaths

The Global Fund is a funding mechanism, a bank, if you will, that makes grants to governments and non-governmental organizations that submit program plans in advance at a scale sufficiently broad to have national and regional impact. It fell a billion dollars short of its needs last year, causing it to suspend its grant-making.

This is particularly harmful because the grants are built on a two-year planning cycle, so the suspension of funds means a potentially deadly delay in treatment and prevention for the people who depend most on the fund’s work. Since 2000, malaria deaths have been reduced by 20 percent, according to the Times report. The time lag could set back these gains, resulting in increased human suffering and even deaths.

Amid the global economic crisis, the news of fund abuse was doubly harmful. For economic reasons, and in reaction to the misuse of funds, some donor governments withheld new pledges or did not fulfill past pledges. This meant programs and people unrelated to the misappropriated funds would not get much-needed prevention and treatment programs for these three diseases of poverty. It is important to note that the diseases targeted by the Global Fund take an unconscionable toll on the world’s most vulnerable and resource-deprived people.

Fragile progress 

The measurable progress that has been made in treating and preventing deaths from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis is well documented. But it is fragile, and interrupting it is even dangerous because these diseases can easily blossom and return with a vengeance. The parasites and viruses through which they’re transmitted are adaptable and resilient. This is not a time to slow down or turn away.

The funding abuses also gave opponents of humanitarian assistance a talking point to call for reducing aid from government sources. Governments are the largest donors for humanitarian assistance. Nongovernmental organizations can never hope to fill the gap.

A call to the faith community

As supporters and partners of the Global Fund, I believe it’s critical that members of the United Methodist and Lutheran faith communities not only continue their support but also advocate on behalf of the fund.

The diseases of poverty will not be addressed at scale without governments, foundations, nongovernmental organizations, religious organizations and corporations working together and providing funds. If ever there were a strong witness for continuing to support this worthy organization and its vitally important mission to fight the diseases of poverty, the Gates endorsement was it.

The Global Fund was as transparent in investigating and reporting internal abuses as any organization I’ve seen in years of writing about international development. This forthcoming approach speaks well for the organization and its credibility. The fund has also prosecuted and achieved convictions against some of the culprits, who sit in prison as I write this. This comes at some risk to the fund in the host countries where offenders have been prosecuted.

Last week, the fund’s board reviewed the duties of the executive director and changed the responsibilities of the position. The board appointed a manager to run the daily affairs of the organization. Executive Director Michael Kazatchkine resigned.

My hope is that, in the future, the fund will regain the ground lost these past few months, recover from the economic downturn that has reduced its funding, and receive support from donors large and small to continue the march to end the suffering caused by these diseases.

At the end of the day, we are talking about people, vulnerable people, many of whom are without voice, suffering exclusion and discrimination as well as the effects of terrible diseases. Without the programs made possible by the Global Fund, their suffering will only increase. Many will die. And that is an abuse that all of us must not allow to happen.

 

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