November 23, 2014
I’ve been reading a book on Fair Trade. Although there are many issues I could offer regarding the Fair Trade model, the ultimate concern for many of us, including the author of the book, is that “Fair Trade” is not achieving its goals. Fair Trade started as a movement to address the injustices that began under colonial mercantile systems primarily by providing a living wage to producers. Its purpose was, and is, noble, and there are really good folks engaged in the fair trade movement, some of whom are experiencing success. However, categories of Fair Trade products such as cotton, coffee, and cocoa, have been less successful. We pay extremely high premiums intending to do the right thing, and yet little has changed for the local producers. In some cases, producers have even abandoned their Fair Trade contracts to seek better prices on the open market. As I ponder the issues pertaining to Fair Trade, and my own involvement in the movement (I, too, sell Fair Trade products such as coffee and chocolate in church-based fundraising events, and often make a point of purchasing products labeled as Fair Trade when I shop), I have to ask myself why so many of our well-intentioned efforts, such as this one, seem to go awry.
When Muhammad Yunus received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in micro-finance, many of us shifted into gear and started developing and/or supporting micro-lending enterprises. Today, research such as that by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo published in Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, explains that micro-finance has had little impact or failed miserably in many places. In fact, in some cases the poor have been badly abused by lending systems, and many are now nothing more than indentured servants as they are unable to repay the loans they were encouraged to take. Their research, for example, showed that in India when poor people need money, many have returned to working with local loan sharks. The interest rates in micro-loan programs have been exceedingly high, ranging from 30% – 70%, investors such as hedge funds have entered the market simply to make a profit off of the poor, loan programs are often based on the assumption that everyone wants to be an entrepreneur (and has the necessary training to do so), and much like in the one-third world, individuals have been cajoled into taking loans greater than they can ever repay.
We like to talk about self-help and often note that many believe a hand-up is better than a handout, as the former is more likely to address the underlying issues of poverty whereas the later simply creates dependency. So, for example, at one point agencies provided high-yield seed, access to small farm loans, and access to needed farming equipment … particularly in Africa. But the US and Europe have continued to provide large farm subsidies for their farmers, artificially lowering the market price on commodities like cotton and corn, and ultimately undercutting the ability of poor African farmers to make a profit selling their produce in the market.
Many of us have seen and heard the research on child slavery in the cocoa industry. We’re aware that approximately 70% of all cocoa comes from slave plantations. Children are sold by their poor families believing the promises that they will have access to a good paying job and possibly be able to provide needed support for the family someday. Others are kidnapped and/or sold into slavery by slave traders. Many of us talk about the issues and encourage our friends and family to buy slave-free chocolate. And yet our actions have had little impact on the likes of the Hershey Company, one of the largest chocolate distributors in the world, and which knowingly continues to buy roughly half of its cocoa from slave plantations.
Now that I’ve noted a number of ways in which those of us living in the one-third world of wealthier nations seem to have lost our way and/or failed at our attempts to make the world more equitable, I’d like to keep things balanced and make it clear that we’re not the only ones who fail. I’ve known missionaries who gave years of their lives to build up hospitals to bring quality medical care to the poor … only to learn after their departures that hospital funds were diverted to other programs and local medical staffs pillaged hospital supplies. I know people who have created and staffed mobile clinics in extremely poor regions, providing basic medical services and donating large quantities of medications to meet the needs of those with chronic illnesses … only to return and discover that people weren’t taking their medicine, because the local nurse who was placed in charge of distribution was selling the medications to embellish her income. I’m well aware of church-based grants for orphanages, AIDS programs, and the like, that have purchased automobiles for diocesan staff, repaired and replaced diocesan facilities, and provided the funding to build someone’s home instead of the funds being used as donated. I know of foundations created to channel needed resources into poor communities across the globe for schools, clinics, and low income housing, only to discover that few, if any, of their donated dollars actually made it to the projects they were funding, but rather found its way into community leaders’ pockets.
Again, I’m not implying that all of our efforts are fruitless or that everyone is a cheat. Nor am I suggesting that becoming involved is a waste of time. Not every program is a failure or has some element of corruption. My friend, Bob Lange, for example, has been very successful in Tanzania teaching people how to build energy-efficient cook stoves. Locals have created a cottage industry selling supplies for constructing the cook stoves, people using his design see a dramatic reduction in respiratory ailments, and ultimately, he is saving the forest (from becoming cooking fuel) and reducing their carbon footprint. And that’s just one program. We all know there are many others, some of which are of the types critiqued above … micro-lending that has brought women out of poverty like the program Trinity Church runs in Cali; Fair Trade practices that have been successful among coffee growers in Nicaragua and El Salvador, or among indigenous artisans; and organizations like Ten Thousand Villages that have opened markets for artisans in poor communities around the globe.
The fact remains, however, that a good many of our best efforts go awry. Why? What can we do better? How can we educate ourselves and those with whom we engage to be more successful? Is this “awry affect” an inevitable outcome of capitalism? … I don’t think so. Do we keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome? … Isn’t that the definition of insanity? Do we throw up our hands and cry “uncle,” as if nothing we try will ever work? … Isn’t that just an acceptance of the status quo?
It’s both an honor and an awesome responsibility to serve in mission. If we’re honest with ourselves, we appreciate that we need to be asking ourselves these kinds of questions when we step out in mission … be it short, medium or long-term mission engagement. Will our work and projects go awry? Will we make a bad situation worse? What can we do effectively and what’s outside of our scope? Will our work enable us to take a step forward together with our new friends and colleagues, or will we take a step backward, increasing dependency and dysfunction?
For me, this is where my faith comes in. I’d like to think what I’m doing is beneficial and will have a lasting effect, and that I’m not creating problems or causing damage that in itself will have a long-term effect. Regardless of what I’m doing, I do it with intentionality (and, yeah, I’m aware that the road to hell is paved with good intentions), an on-going openness to God and the Holy Spirit, an on-going willingness to collaborate, and the hope that there is a possibility I can make some kind of difference for the better … no matter how small or large. And I also do it with the trust in God’s grace and the hope that I’ll be forgiven if and when my efforts go awry.
October 22, 2014
Monday I was reading about Jerzy Popieluszko, a Polish Roman Catholic priest. While no fan of the communist system, Fr. Jerzy also wasn’t an activist. But when the Gdansk shipyard workers went on strike, and the Warsaw steelworkers went on strike in solidarity with them, in August, 1980, the strikers requested that a priest come and celebrate Mass at the factory. Fr. Jerzy was available and went. During that service Fr. Jerzy came to understand that the strikers’ struggle for justice and freedom was a spiritual struggle. Arguably, it was in that moment that he found “his voice,” requested that his bishop allow him to become chaplain to the striking workers, and became an active voice in the Solidarity movement that eventually led to the end of communism in Poland. (Unfortunately, he never lived to see the end of communism with the elections of 1989. He was found dead on October 20, 1984, after being abducted by secret service agents the day before.)
In my prayers, reflecting on the death of Bishop Tom Shaw, I’ve thought about our many conversations. As others have noted in recent publications, +Tom was a relatively quiet person, living the life of a monk. It wasn’t his tendency to speak, but more his tendency to pray and ask for guidance regarding the work God wanted him to do. It was that guidance that led him to run for bishop in Massachusetts, though he’d never really considered it until that time. Similarly, as bishop, journeying in prayer he found “his voice,” standing up for Palestinian rights, gay rights, marriage equality, and the needs of inner-city youth, among others.
As I think about their witnesses and the finding of their voices, I wonder about my own voice. In some ways, I’m constrained by location. I can endanger myself by what I say publicly. Also, when I speak it reflects on the church in Colombia as well as the entire Episcopal Church, whether or not that was my intention. That said, I still wonder about my voice. Yes, I speak in the U.S., sharing my experience of mission engagement in Colombia and elsewhere. Yes, I’d like to think I speak truths from the pulpit when I preach. But I also know there is so much more I could say.
In a recent meeting, we discussed the realities of cocaine trafficking in Colombia. It was noted in the meeting that 34 million in the U.S. will try cocaine … recreational one-time users. To meet that “recreational” demand, however, the cartels kidnap children and force them to work in the cocaine industry. To deter their desire to return home, their families are killed, often during the kidnapping so the child knows their family is gone and there is nothing to which they might return. On other occasions, we’ve shared about the indiscriminant spraying of fields funded by U.S. dollars that is poisoning children in the countryside. (It’s kind of like the father who spanks all of his children to make sure he gets the right one.) We’ve also discussed and are actively involved in programming to support displaced persons, the 5.2 million people who have lost their homes through para-military violence, political inaction and/or dysfunctional policies, and natural disasters.
When I’m back in the States, I wonder what it will take for me to challenge people to question the U.S. government’s funding of indiscriminant spraying, or whether I’ll have the courage to try and educate young people about that one night of college fun that didn’t just cost them a few hundred dollars for their purchase of a snort of cocaine, but rather the lives of many Colombians and the ruined lives of their kidnapped children. I wonder if I’ll find the voice to speak compassionately and respectfully about those in Colombia forced from their homes, many of whom are still homeless, when people complain about having to deal with dysfunctional banks and their respective system for home mortgages.
I don’t know what God has planned for me, nor do I know how my “voice” may evolve in coming years. I can only pray that like Fr. Jerzy and Bp. Tom, I will have the courage to hear and respond appropriately to what God has to say to me.
September 10, 2014
It’s been my experience that when it comes to mission there are some topics that few want to discuss … sex and healthcare are among them. I’ll leave the former to someone else’s discretion and stick to the latter.
I think we shy away from talking about healthcare for a number of reasons. For one, no one wants to think about the possibility of getting sick, particularly when diseases like Malaria, Ebola, and Yellow Fever are on people’s minds when they travel to less developed areas around the globe. We know that there are many places that lack potable water, mosquitos can transmit malaria and dengue fever, and illnesses such as Chagas disease, among other parasites, can be transmitted by bugs, in water, by interaction with infected people, or through soil. And I suspect, precisely because of that knowledge, and the fact that health issues are often considered very private and taboo for public conversation, we don’t discuss them.
The reality is that missionaries are exposed to a good many potential infections. As such, healthcare is actually an important topic. I, for example, have had more vaccines than most, having traveled to a good many areas around the globe. I had become friends with the medic at the travel clinic in Brighton … and learned that her brother is a priest missionary. I have a yellow international certificate of vaccination that I keep with my passport which notes a list of vaccinations and dates, verifying that my yellow fever, typhoid, and tetanus vaccines are all up to date. While abroad, I carry malarial prophylaxis, Epipens and steroids to address allergic reactions, and a couple different antibiotics. I’ve also probably had more parasitic infections and blood viruses than most. As a testament to my experiential history, I once met with a specialist in Boston while seeking treatment for an infection I picked up in Ecuador. She asked me to tell her my story, finishing with an explanation of my current situation. When I was done she said, “I’ve never met anyone with such extensive medical knowledge for travel … you could have a graduate degree in infectious disease.” Unfortunately, she was probably right.
So by now you’re probably asking yourself why I’m taking about healthcare and infectious diseases. No, I don’t have an infectious disease … at least not one of which I’m aware. I have, however, been sick recently, which is what prompted this blog entry. As luck would have it, lunching with a friend on a Saturday afternoon I got a bad case of food poisoning … a REALLY bad case. I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, though, that I was VERY sick. I ate almost nothing for 4 days, ran a fever, and was so ill that I had to have a friend take my dog, because I was unable to care for him.
One of the real drags of being a single missionary is going through the experience of being sick all alone. We all like to be pampered and cared for when we’re sick. That cup of chicken soup is not just about physical nourishment as much as it’s about someone caring for us. In my case, worrying about having a reaction to a medication, getting so sick that I needed emergency care, and so on, created yet another layer of stress given I had limited choices for getting immediate help.
In the States, we all take emergency rooms for granted. For the most part, they are reasonably close and only a car or ambulance ride away. In the ER, we’re reasonably confident there will be someone available with whom we can talk and explain what’s happening and the details of any complicating medical conditions. I happen to have an overly sensitive body that tends not to like medications. The last thing I wanted to have to do laying in a bed in a hospital was explain to a nurse or doctor why I can’t take certain medications … in Spanish! Fortunately, I am blessed with a friend in the area who is a nurse. While I was reluctant to ask someone for help, I mustered my nerve and contacted her early Sunday morning, explaining that I was sure I was in trouble. She asked a bunch of questions and within 30 minutes was at my door with medication and liquids, including sports drinks with electrolytes. After seeing me and learning more details of my situation, she strongly encouraged me to contact my doctor as soon as possible.
Thankfully, I have a great doctor who has told me to call her anytime … 24/7 … and also happens to be bilingual. While I have been blessed with good medical care in the States, I have to say that I’ve been exceedingly impressed with my medical care in Colombia. People often assume that doctors in other countries lack proper education, skill, and adequate tools. (As an aside, I remember going to a doctor in Paraguay in 1978. As he started screwing on a needle to a syringe, I decided I was much better!) My doctor here has always asked all the right questions, doesn’t order a bunch of unnecessary tests to protect herself from medical malpractice, nor does she have to justify her decisions and recommendations to a dysfunctional health insurance system. She makes appropriate assessments, listens carefully to me while asking clarifying questions, and then presents her analysis and recommendations. On this occasion, I called her on a Sunday morning and by afternoon we had made some decisions, she had ordered medication, and had the medication delivered direct to my door. In addition, she called me or requested I call her daily to check in, and occasionally recommended changes to my care plan.
Being sick is never a picnic, but is even more complicated and stressful for those living abroad. I give thanks for the blessings of good friends and the care of a good doctor.
August 14, 2014
While it’s normative to note the realities of cultural difference early in a mission experience, whether short or long-term, I find that after nearly 3 years in South America I still think about cultural difference. It’s a reality that’s embedded in our daily lives. From buying groceries to meeting people on the street while walking the dog, I encounter and live cultural difference daily.
I’ve experienced a great deal of cultural difference in the context of having a dog. For example, I use a lead for walking my dog that goes around the snout and connects to a leash under the head. I learned many years ago from a trainer that this type of lead provides greater control, particularly for training, and in the case of Springer Spaniels, notorious for snatching edibles off of the street, it also helps the walker keep them from eating street items that might make them sick. I find I have to explain the lead to someone just about daily. Some people do everything they can to avoid us, because they assume that anything that’s placed near the snout means your dog is vicious. People ask me all the time if my dog is “bravo” (angry), the common term used for an aggressive dog. Still others feel the need to stop and lecture me about how cruel it is to use that kind of lead, saying things like, “Can’t you see he doesn’t like it?” On one occasion, someone stopped me … I thought to pet the dog … and actually pulled the lead off of the dog’s snout!
Another interesting discussion I’ve had with people has to do with neutering. If you’re not planning to breed, most dog owners in the U.S. will have their pet neutered (male or female) at a young age. If you get a pet from a shelter, it’s typically already done or is a requirement for adoption. Advantages of neutering (or what’s referred to these days as de-sexing) include the reduction of behaviors such as mounting, urine spraying, and some forms of male aggression due to the decrease in hormone levels. In addition, it can reduce or eliminate other undesirable behaviors such as separation anxiety and barking, and also pretty much eliminate the chance of ovarian or testicular cancers (there’s always a chance of some form of stump related cancer, though extremely rare). Every time I’ve mentioned neutering Wilson, I’ve had pretty heated discussions. I’m told it’s cruel, he’ll get fat and lazy, he’ll have emotional problems, and any number of other things. On one occasion, as I tried to explain the reasoning behind neutering a dog, including health and security benefits like not running off to mount a neighboring female in heat, the man I was talking with quickly retorted, “If it’s so healthy, then why aren’t you neutered?!” (And, of course, I had the wit to respond, “Because I’m not a dog!”) I’ve discovered that in some instances, resistance to neutering is a convenient cover for not wanting to spend the money for the surgery. In others, it’s plain ignorance about neutering (which, of course, is universal and not unique to Colombia or any other country). But even more culturally relevant is the perspective based in natural law. The Roman Catholic Church holds the view of natural law provided by St. Thomas Aquinas particularly in his Summa Theologia which is that it’s a system of law that is determined by nature. I’ve been told more than once that it’s “natural” for my dog to have testicles and that I’m going against nature, hence the will of God, by neutering him.
On another occasion, I asked a colleague if he could look after my dog for a day. He responded that he “didn’t have a balcony at his apartment.” I had to think about that one for a minute to determine why that had anything to do with what I was asking. I’ve since learned that one way in which people care for their dogs here is to put them “outside” for the day when they go to work … as in on the balcony. Keep in mind that most balconies couldn’t hold more than a chair or two. I guess that might make sense to an apartment dweller here in Bogota, a city of 12 million people with high rise apartments being the norm. It just never crossed my mind that caring for my dog would mean leaving him on the balcony for the day. I suppose it’s doable, just not an idea I’d ever considered. … I guess that is yet another cultural difference. (I would have been happy to have him use my apartment for the day, but it was clear he didn’t consider that an option.)
As I continue to think about cultural difference, I also find it helpful to reflect on it in the context of other activities. In a recent conversation with a friend we were discussing a number of things related to getting work done in Colombia and he used the word “incompetence” in the context of my indicating how a particular task might get accomplished. While that wasn’t the word that came to my mind, and my immediate reaction was that he was speaking from his own (North American) cultural perspective and associated expectations, it got me thinking about how we define those things and what they say about our thinking. Is a particular behavior or action necessarily a sign of “incompetence” or is it a reflection of “cultural difference”? How do we decide? Aren’t those distinctions both culturally defined? If so, in what ways do they reflect culturally defined expectations? Might something I think is a sign of “incompetence” just be a reflection of my own cultural perspective and expectations? At the same time, at what point do “culturally defined” and “cultural difference” simply serve as an excuse and avoidance of the reality that a behavior or action may, in fact, be a reflection of incompetence? Is our unwillingness to name something as “incompetence,” and/or to hold others accountable and to a particular standard, actually our fear that we’re being neo-colonial, culturally hegemonic, paternalistic, and so forth? When do we stop being knee-jerk liberals and begin treating others with dignity and respect, which includes being willing to hold them to similar standards to which we hold ourselves, at some level of expectation that we can mutually define and agree upon?
Is everything challenging just a matter of cultural difference, or are there things on which we can agree are wrong or need to change in some way? For example, if our governments create trade agreements with certain economic behavioral expectations, is it enough for one party to renege on those expectations on the grounds that, “Well, it’s just a matter of cultural difference”? At what point can we justifiably have expectations of one another? How do those expectations get defined? … by whom? … and for whom? At what point do we stop beating ourselves up, or allowing others to beat us up, over our paternalistic, colonial, and imperial pasts? In what ways is it healthy for us to continue to journey in our understanding about these issues, and in what ways is it dysfunctional for everyone involved to allow that journey to dominate our relationships and interactions? In what ways can and should we engage one another regarding issues of expectation and cultural difference?
… and maybe none of this has anything to do with the price of tea in China, and I need to stop being the sociologist and get on with caring for my dog.
July 24, 2014
Recently, I was out for a morning walk with Wilson, my Springer Spaniel. As it often happens in the early morning, we passed a homeless man on the street. From across the street he spoke to me, though I’m not quite sure what he said, and I simply nodded my head in acknowledgement that he was speaking to me but, essentially, ignored him and continued walking. On our daily walks, most often the first walk in the morning, Wilson and I encounter many homeless people. You see feet sticking out from under vehicles or other locations, bodies bundled up in alleys, alcoves, and doorways. On a given morning, during a 30 minute walk, it’s likely we will encounter at least six to eight homeless men. Some will still be sleeping, others will be digging through the trash, and still others will be making their way down the street with a bundle of belongings over their shoulder or pushing some kind of makeshift cart. It’s pretty easy to distinguish who is homeless, as I live in a middle class neighborhood and these men not only look out of place, but are usually covered with layers of dirt, have matted hair, are wearing ill-fitting clothing, and if they have shoes they’re usually in pretty bad shape. And, of course, those are just the obvious people. As most of us know, not all people surviving on the streets are readily identifiable and many make themselves invisible. For example, it‘s estimated that over 5,000 children live under the city of Bogota. In an attempt to protect themselves from further victimization, most only come out at night.
As I passed the man on my walk with limited acknowledgement of his existence, I found myself pondering whether or not I am becoming desensitized to poverty. I see a great deal of it every day. One day, during this cold rainy season, I passed what appeared to be an elderly woman curled up in blankets sleeping in an alcove. On another occasion, I saw a bundle in the corner of a building. As I got closer, I noticed the bundle had feet. On yet other occasions, I’ve passed middle-aged women begging for support for their children, men defecating in a public park, and men digging in trash cans looking for anything they can eat, reuse, or sell. Even if I don’t see people, I see signs that they are in the neighborhood–scattered trash, for example. Yes, there are many stray dogs in the city who could be the culprits. But it’s been my experience that in the majority of cases the trash has been scattered by humans, not animals.
One time I was walking Wilson and a woman came running up to me in tears. She was running between people on the street … to anyone and everyone. She said she had a young daughter who was ill and didn’t have the money to purchase her medicine. She seemed frantic, so I couldn’t help but reach into my pocket, though I tend not to carry much money on me. I explained that I only had ~$10, and handed it to her. She grasped my hand, thanking me, and ran to the next person on the street.
Each time I as much as look at a homeless person when I’m with my colleagues and friends, they rebuke me. They say it’s too dangerous to give anything to someone on the street. You attract the attention of others living on the street when you give a hand-out. Sometimes people will follow you home. You might also find yourself being pursued by thieves, having just demonstrated that you have sufficient money on you that you can give some away. You may be attacked by someone who is mentally unstable, or who wants to take greater advantage of the fact that you have disposable funds. The list could go on, but you get the idea.
It breaks my heart to walk past people who look innocent and in great need. I feel guilty for what I have, and also guilty for treating people like they’re invisible. But I’m aware that my friends and colleagues have a point about the dangers, and am also aware that I’ve given my life … or at least a few years of it … to try and make a difference in some people’s lives. While my work is in an office, it’s in service to the poor … single mothers, political refugees, children, those displaced by injustice, political conflict, and natural disasters. And intellectually I know I can’t help everyone. But it doesn’t make it any easier to see poverty daily, to not be able to respond to it all of the time, and to know that in some cases there is probably nothing I can do. It also doesn’t make it any easier as I ponder the possibility that I may be becoming desensitized to the poverty around me through my daily encounters. I guess all I can do is pray for God’s help in keeping my eyes open and aware of the poverty around me. I also pray that God gives me the strength to do what I can do, and the grace to accept what I can’t.
August 6, 2014
Out on our morning walk, I decided to stir things up a little. My initial purpose was to get Wilson out of “auto pilot” mode so he’d pay a little more attention to my commands … one of those puppy training tricks. But as we shifted to the other side of the street, I began to realize that the world looked a little different than it did from the initial side of the street we usually walked on. I began noticing things I’d never noticed. Gardens I had never really seen before … doorways that looked entirely different up close or further away … entire buildings that took on a different appearance from a new vantage point … and so forth. It was like we were taking an entirely different walk.
I remember reading something years ago about how one of the best ways to stimulate your thinking was to drive a different way to work every once in a while. The idea was that you would have to think about your trip to work, rather than simply go through the motions of your everyday commute, which subsequently would turn on your brain and stimulate your thinking. I tried it, and it seemed to work. So for years I would walk or drive a variety of different ways to the office as a way of stimulating my early morning thinking.
So walking down the other side of the street got me thinking. While there is a very literal aspect to seeing the world differently from the other side of the street, as I’ve stated, there is also a metaphorical aspect to my comment about perspective. Living somewhere else enables the same affect … you see the world a little differently than you might otherwise while being in the same place. For example, many of us note the dysfunction in our political system in the States. But by living outside the U.S., I also see the dysfunction in political systems all over the world, and likely, in a different context.
I’ve noticed that many pundits, academics, and authors have been talking about the rise of “crony capitalism” and the failures of capitalism. We’ve seen, they note, tax systems that favor the rich, government regulations that protect companies over consumers, abuses in financial systems, and election to the U.S. Congress as a ticket to wealth and membership in the upper class (or what some today refer to as the “political” class). In the States, political pundits on the left decry all of these issues and more as a failure of capitalism. And while they may have a point, you don’t have to look far to see that it may not only be a U.S. manifestation, and it may not be capitalism that’s failing, but democracy.
Politicians around the globe benefit from crony capitalism and political corruption. Politicians vote themselves top salaries while in the same breath try to justify the need to cut social programs. Their staff and family members become millionaires during their time in office. To use an example, it’s estimated that since Cristina Kirchner’s husband, Nestor, was elected President of Argentina in 2003 through a period of her own presidency (up to 2010) their net worth grew from $2.5 million to $17.7 million (not a bad return on 7 years in office). In my mind, the wealth of politicians begs the question, “Do the rich become politicians, or do politicians become rich?” And while these need not be mutually exclusive questions, it seems that they raise a bigger question regarding the relationship between political power and economic wealth.
Many of us have joked about “the grass being greener on the other side of the fence,” expressing a certain point of view that reflects looking at other people’s lives and maybe seeing things we like, but don’t have. While walking on the other side of the street helps me see a different perspective, I find it helpful to note that the grass isn’t necessarily greener on either side of the fence. In fact, in my not so humble opinion, the world is overdue for a major renewal. Frankly, to use a Western expression, Rome is burning. Just look at Libya, Egypt, Syria, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, and the Ukraine … the murder rates in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala … the political violence in Rwanda and the Central African Republic … the rising tensions between Asian neighbors … and the list could go on. Our political structures and institutions, social structures, and economic systems are all failing us. Capitalism has been twisted and perverted by cronyism and greed … a $6,000 shower curtain, anyone?
Democracy has been so distorted in parts of the world that it makes a mockery of any semblance of political representation. A variety of socialist systems have tumbled down due to corruption, cronyism, and mismanagement. Monarchies and Parliamentary Monarchies haven’t fared much better. But before we despair and prepare for the second coming, we’d do well to remember that we’ve been here before in the past and not-so-distant past. The fall of a number of world empires, The Dark Ages, The Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and two World Wars all come to mind. The struggle for women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, and anarchism reflected times of great social turmoil and upheaval, and arguably, were the results of the Industrial Revolution. And it wasn’t so long ago that the U.S. was struggling with the assassination of a President, the embrace of civil rights, facing the political corruption of Watergate, and dealing with a very unpopular war (Vietnam). And then there’s the fact that a fair amount of what we’re seeing and experiencing globally today has everything to do with the failures and downfall of colonialism. For example, borders throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East were arbitrarily drawn by departing colonial powers, leaving behind messes like we see in the Middle East such as with ethnic Kurds spread across four different national boundaries (Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria).
We’ve seen failures and abuses of structures and systems throughout the years, all of which have led to upheaval, refinements, and eventual changes. Empires and tyrants have fallen, monarchs have been deposed, political revolutions have raged and fizzled, political systems have collapsed, and economic systems and structures have had to be transformed. In 1637 there was the Tulip Mania Bubble that had a major impact on the emerging world economy. In the 1790s there were multiple post-war financial crises in the U.S.. And then in 1929 the crash of Wall Street led to a world-wide economic meltdown that we know today as the Great Depression.
History is replete with examples of socio-cultural, political, and economic messes. As I ponder the various turmoils of today’s world, I’m reminded of my metaphor of Rome burning. According to historical records, Rome burned for 6 days and the fire took with it over 70% of the city. In the weeks following the fire, some blamed the Emperor Nero while Nero took the opportunity to blame a relatively small group of Christians living in Rome who he subsequently fed to the lions. But when all was said and done, Rome bounced back into a glorious city of marble and stone, and eventually into a city, ironically, that became known as the home of the Pope … Bishop of Rome, Holy Father, Vicar of Christ and leader of the world-wide Roman Catholic Church.
So where will our struggles lead us this time? … to electronic democracy?… to direct democracy? … to benevolent dictators who evolve into new forms of tyranny?… to new economic structures and systems? … to the development of a new kind of “world” bank? How will (or will we) share the world’s resources? … How will we think about global warming and climate change? … What role will emerging technologies play in the future of governance? … in the future of daily economic activity?
For me, personally, it always comes back to my faith stance. Before I’m anything … Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, Capitalist, Socialist … I’m a Christian. And part of my faith stance is my sense of hope and a belief that all will work out as God intends and in God’s time. In the meantime, I’ll continue to do what I’m doing … live out my faith in the best way I know how, live out my baptismal call in service to others, do my civic duty as best I can working for the greater good, and continue to discern God’s purpose for my life, the church, and the world.
… and all that from walking on the other side of the street.
July 4, 2014
I suspect most North Americans are either engaged in Independence Day activities or thinking about them if they’re experiencing the impact of Hurricane Arthur. It’s also an appropriate day to be thinking about mission, though. Today we remember the 4th century bishop, St. Martin of Tours. As legend has it, while serving as a Roman soldier in France one winter, Martin encountered a shivering beggar dressed in rags. Having no money to offer, Martin removed his cloak and used his sword to cut it in half. He gave the beggar half and wrapped himself in the other half. According to the stories, that night he had a dream in which he saw Jesus wearing that part of the cloak he had given away. The next morning he decided to be baptized.
Many of us who engage in mission would express a similar sentiment to what Martin experienced in his dream. We, too, would say that we encounter Christ in the form of the poor. Through our various mission efforts, we provide food to the hungry, housing to the homeless, medical care to those in need, and so forth. Most global mission efforts tend to focus on these types of activities. We facilitate medical mission teams … we build housing, schools, and churches … we develop potable water projects … we provide assistance and seed money to start sewing cooperatives … we facilitate micro-loan projects for self-sustainability … and more.
The last weekend of May was the convention of the Diocese of Colombia. Convention began with a Eucharist and business matters on Friday night and then shifted into programming and presentations on Saturday morning. In one of the first presentations, several non-Episcopalians invited by Bishop Duque gave a substantive presentation on a number of justice issues, presentations on gay rights and women’s rights. As we heard about and discussed women’s rights, we had discussions about issues such as reproductive rights, justice and equality in employment, family planning, and domestic violence. In the presentation and subsequent discussions about gay rights, we heard about public and domestic violence against gay people, the internalized conflicts that many experience living in a homophobic culture, persecution and marginalization in society, persecution in housing and employment, lack of medical care due to the inability to be honest about sexuality and related medical needs, and the lack of ability to form healthy households.
As many Episcopalians are probably aware, Archbishop Welby spoke about the violence against Christians in Africa and the link between it and rising violence against the gay community. While I’ll leave the commentary on the Archbishop’s statement to Bishop Robinson (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/04/13/what-the-archbishop-of-canterbury-should-have-said-about-gay-rights.html), I will share that the gay community in Colombia, and I suspect elsewhere, would say they are experiencing increased levels of violence that they believe is in direct response to new rights and equal marriage decisions in Western countries. In other words, for better or for worse, they believe their experience directly relates to the consecration of gay bishops, the ordination of openly gay people, and the ability of gay people in many Western countries to get married. In some cases, the violence they are experiencing extends to entire communities such as the church in Africa (and, again, I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with statements made by folks such as the Archbishop, but simply sharing my observations of a 2/3 world perspective, the term my friend and mission colleague, Titus Presler, would use to represent all those who are not part of the 1/3 of wealthy, developed nations.
As I ponder all of the above, two things come to mind. First, what many of us perceive as “mission,” and second, the ways in which we are connected that we tend not to admit. As I reflect on the many ways in which we all engage in global mission, I find myself pondering things like human rights, social justice, economic justice, peace activism, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia/heterosexism, and sexism. Is our mission work … the church’s work … about something more than building a school, digging a well, and so forth? Is it about something more than just serving the poor (which also begs the question of how we define “the poor”)? Yes, these are rhetorical questions, because I think we can all agree that God’s mission, which is or should be the church’s mission, is about all of those things. But the real questions for me are if and how they are reflected in our mission actions in the world.
As for the second issue, can we ever really believe that our actions are just our own? Do we have some kind of responsibility to others around the globe as we nudge the arc of justice in our own environments? Can we really believe that our actions don’t have an impact on others … again, for better or for worse? To use a U.S. example, I would suspect that most gay people living in states with equal marriage bans would say that their lack of ability to get married had everything to do with the court’s 2004 decision in Massachusetts. In direct response to that decision, bans were enacted throughout the country. Similarly, the striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act (or DOMA) by the US Supreme Court, it could be argued, was the stimulus and motivating influence on more recent court cases striking down equal marriage bans as unconstitutional.
While a resulting impact or backlash should never be the reason for holding back the arc of justice, I think it’s irresponsible to move forward without an appreciation for the many ways in which we’re all connected. We have a responsibility, at the very least, to acknowledge the broader impact of our actions. As I sat and listened to the presenters at convention, I pondered how our global mission activities could reflect this reality by engaging in more than the practical and offering some kind of hope and assistance for addressing the larger systemic issues of injustice. I understand these issues are complicated, and I’m the first to say that it isn’t my place to step out into the world with the mindset that “my way” is the right way or the only way, which is how addressing injustice in another culture could appear to some. In fact, you may recall that I struggled with this very issue in an earlier post … http://tedabroad.wordpress.com/2014/02/06/systemic-injustice. While we may not be in a position to start a social movement, maybe we can provide funding for a women’s program such as the one in Soacha, or an outreach program to the gay community like the one in Cali.
As I try to put my thoughts into a theological framework, I’m drawn to the fact that we’ve just celebrated Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. Isn’t Pentecost a sign of both our unity and diversity … a sign of a unified and diverse church? Doesn’t it point to the fact that we’re all connected? Doesn’t it call us to account in some way other than building a school or digging a well?
I thank the ecumenical presenters at diocesan convention for the reminder and challenge that mission … the work of the church … is not just about serving those we understand to be economically poor, but about so much more.
May 15, 2014
On May 15, 1130, Isidore, a Spanish peasant farmer, campesino, passed away after an ordinary life. Isidore was born in Madrid and lived in Spain his entire life. He was a farmworker for a wealthy landowner, as many were at that time. He was married, and he and his wife were blessed with one son, who died in childhood.
Isidore was what some might call “a fool for God.” He attended mass daily, and was known to pray in the fields while he worked. He once felt sorry for hungry birds, and gave away half of his bag of corn as feed. Isidore and his wife opened their home to people more unfortunate than themselves, even though they were poor and had very little to offer. Others would often follow Isidore home for a meal and end up eating better than Isidore and his wife.
Isidore had a profound faith that was attended by visible signs and wonders … miracles, if you will. Stories (and complaints) about this peasant farmer and his piety were common. His colleagues complained that he didn’t work very hard, wasting time praying when he should have been working. Then there was a story about the time he gave the corn to the birds. Many chastised him for feeding the birds, only to learn that when he arrived at the mill his bag was full. Other stories included the sighting of angels assisting him in the fields.
He was clearly a simple farmer, and yet not so simple. In 1622 he was canonized a saint along with four others. He wasn’t of noble birth, nor did he have a high-end education. He didn’t come from a famous or extremely wealthy family. He wasn’t a big name church father. He was a humble, pious, peasant farmer. And the church, in its wisdom, chose to honor his piety and the stories of miracles in the life of this ordinary, and yet not so ordinary, man. Ironically, the list of other saints with whom he was canonized reads like a Who’s Who of famous people … St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier, St. Teresa, and St. Philip Neri.
Although some find it a rather childish hymn, I’ve always liked The Saints of God …
I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew. And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green; they were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.
They loved their Lord so dear, so dear, and his love made them strong; and they followed the right for Jesus’ sake the whole of their good lives long. And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast; and there’s not any reason, no, not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too.
They lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, in church, by the sea, in the house next door; they are saints of God, whether rich or poor, and I mean to be one too.
One of the reasons I like that hymn is due to its reflection of the saints among us. Isidore is my idea of a saint, and was definitely a common man among us. People like Isidore give me hope. He tried his hardest to live into his faith, praying and serving God in his daily life. I’m sure many thought him a fool, praying in the fields when there was work to be done, feeding the birds from his sack of grain, and taking in those in need when he had so little for himself. But I have to ask myself, “What’s a fool? And who gets to decide?” Who knows, maybe I’m a fool, too, living and working in Colombia instead of laboring to climb the professional ladder of culturally defined success in the U.S. Maybe I’m a fool for holding up Isidore as a role model. Well, if that’s a fool, then so be it. I’m happy to take Isidore as my model and guide any day.
May 4, 2014
Sometimes God provides pleasant surprises, or at least some of us choose to see them that way. Last week I was sitting in the waiting area of the veterinarian’s office with Wilson, my Springer Spaniel. Another man came in and sat down and we struck up a conversation. After speaking in Spanish for a few minutes, he asked if I’d prefer to speak in English. It turned out he attended a bilingual university here in Bogota and was quite fluent in English. In addition, he was quite articulate. In the course of our conversation I learned he is a speech writer for President Santos (presidential elections in Colombia are scheduled for May 25).
We talked a little about the mood of the Colombian public and some of the potential results of the May elections (which will probably end up in a run-off election on June 15 before the choice of president is finally decided). Most of us in the States are aware of the on-going political and military conflict with the FARC, the Leninist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and are aware of the peace talks that have been taking place over the past year and a half. While many of us may cheer the possibility of peace, we not appreciate that not all Colombians are enamored with the peace process. And, of course, as we noted in our conversation, Colombian political perspectives are multidimensional and not just based on the peace talks.
What occurred to me is the fact that we could have a political discussion that wasn’t based on our personal political perspectives, and the arrogant stance that “of course, one of us was right and the other wrong.” It was delightfully refreshing. Soon we found ourselves moving beyond the political environments of the U.S. and Colombia and talking about bigger picture political issues.
Some of you have heard me use the expression, “the demise of democracy,” as I believe our current problems and the geo-political transformations taking place are expressing something about evolving perspectives on governance and bringing into question the validity and legitimacy of democratic institutions. In our discussion, my new colleague used the more accurate and articulate expression, “The crisis of legitimacy facing Western democracies.” What he had to say was fascinating and put a number of socio-cultural and socio-political issues in perspective. Regardless of any of our personal political bents … right, left, center, or anywhere else along the spectrum, I think we’d all be wise to pay heed. We have a tendency to see things in the immediate, and as if answers are all clearly black and white, rather than in an historical perspective and much more gray than we’re usually willing to admit.
In our conversation we were pointing to a crisis period in global socio-political development. The democratic institutions we’ve built and trusted are failing us, and some might say are no longer functioning. As scholars have noted, crony capitalism has become the norm in today’s democracies, leading to what many economist are now calling a tragic level of income inequality (though, again, our politicians don’t seem to be listening).
I think it speaks loudly that all Western countries are experiencing political polarity and culture wars, along with significant global economic jolts … both highs and lows … such as the crash in 1987, the tech boom of the 1990s, the tech crash of 2000, and the financial crash of 2008. Any student of economic history will tell you that there have always been economic booms and busts, but few would note this kind of economic activity in such a short period of time. We’ve moved away from what we knew as the Industrial Age, experienced two world wars, and are now in a constant state of war with a massive military complex. Intellectually, we’re in a post-modern environment where things we thought we knew are now open to debate. And for many, our religious faith has been displaced by science, or bastardized by a variety of social forces to the point that the average person searches elsewhere for answers to life’s tough questions. The technologies that drove our intellectual attainment since the Renaissance, such as the printing press, are being replaced by new technologies, and no one has fully grasped the ways in which these changes are impacting the ways in which we think and learn. Among those social forces, our governments and subsequent social programs, which were products of the Enlightenment, are failing us. We’re transitioning into a technological panoptic world in which everything we do and say, and everywhere we go, can be tracked and known by others such as our web surfing, nearly all forms of communication, and GPS on our cell phones.
I think the major challenge for most people today is where do we turn with our questions and from where do we seek hope for the future? … to our faith? … to a government we can no longer trust? … to science which we no longer accept has guaranteed universal truths? … ??? As I noted in our conversation … which, again, was delightful being able to talk about such complex social issues … I, personally, think this is a great time to be a person of faith, and in particular, to be a priest. It’s in the midst of this kind of social chaos that the church has a tremendous opportunity. People are looking for solace and guidance in this period of great change, and the church has the capability to provide both. We have the opportunity to be innovative and respond to cynicism and despair, by providing leadership that reflects the kind of church I think God means for us to be … by doing things like putting our faith into action to develop micro-finance programs and housing for the poor, providing food and advocacy for more effective social programs for the hungry, providing healthcare to the sick and dying who lack adequate care, reaching out to inmates in our overflowing prisons, advocating for human rights, and reaching out to those around us as a reminder that we have more in common than that which divides us. We may not always be that church, but I, for one, am going to keep trying.
March 13, 2014
When was the last time you heard anyone mention Rutilio Grande? … or maybe you’ve never even heard of Rutilio Grande. In case this is the first you’ve heard of him, Fr. Grande was a Jesuit priest in El Salvador. In time, he came to understand his vocational call and God’s expectation of him to be one of self-sacrifice and loving service. As the seminary director of social action projects in San Salvador, he encouraged his students to spend time living among the poor in the countryside learning to understand their struggles and their faith. By empowering the poor to understand their own sense of dignity and their rights as children of God, he became known as a “radical” priest and a troublemaker. Since his ministry was active in the 1960 and 1970s, a picture might be forming in your mind if you have any knowledge of what was happening in Central America at that time. He regularly preached on social justice issues and named the hypocrisy of those who called themselves Christians yet stood by silently while their brothers and sisters were being oppressed. After a particularly feisty sermon in which he denounced the sham of democracy in regard to a Colombian priest who was deported from El Salvador without a hearing he was machine-gunned down in his van that afternoon.
When was the last time you heard anyone mention Sister Katherine Drexel? … or, again, maybe you’ve never heard of her. Sr. Katherine was the daughter of Francis Drexel, an extremely successful banker who died in 1885 leaving Katherine and her two sisters a trust of $14,000,000. Katherine was a generous philanthropist, but was also concerned for those on the margins of the church and U.S. society … specifically the black and indigenous communities. In 1891 she founded a new religious order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People and used her $400,000 a year from her father’s estate to support projects and programs in the black and indigenous communities throughout the U.S.
While I’m assuming neither of these people are on the tip of your tongue, arguably they both had a significant social justice impact. Fr. Grande was a close friend of Bishop Oscar Romero, and his death proved to be the catalyst to move Bp. Romero to become a staunch advocate for the poor (Bp. Romero was assassinated celebrating mass in 1980). Katherine, as mother superior of her order, provided a significant witness in serving the under-served, bringing awareness of the marginalized black and indigenous communities to the fore up until her death in 1955, the same year that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama.
Fr Grande and Sr. Katherine both worked for the greater good, and both died not knowing whether or not their work had had any impact. I think all missioners have to wonder, at times, if what they are doing matters. When we’re in the field, if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we have days when we wake up and wonder if anything we’re doing really matters. We hear stories of people who worked for years in a given community only to learn after they returned home that the community in which they worked digressed. Hospitals deteriorate and are abandoned. Housing deteriorates and is abandoned. Schools deteriorate and are closed. Projects lose their funding. We return to a community after building the foundation for a school only to discover years later that the school is still just the foundation we built. We learn through contacts that Diocesan priorities have changed and the program we and so many were convinced would be the catalyst for significant change in that particular Diocese … is no longer in operation.
While I hope and pray that the work I’m doing, and the approach to development I’ve started, one that does not rely on me, but rather empowers others with tools and training, will continue long after I’m gone, I have no way of knowing what will happen in the future. And the reality is that none of us knows what will happen. We don’t know God’s plan. We may never see the fruits of our labor. We do not know if we’ll one day be called upon by God to do something other than what we’re currently doing. We may never be called by God to lead a social justice movement. Our work may not become the foundation for an internationally recognized organization. But, we do what we do anyway, because what we can do is continue to discern and be the person God calls us to be.
I can relate to people like Fr. Rutilio and Sr. Katherine. They didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize (though Sr. Katherine was eventually canonized by the Roman Catholic Church). Their names didn’t become internationally recognized. They didn’t set the world on fire by their actions. But they did make a difference. They both lived in to who they were called to be, and both did their part in working toward the Kingdom of God. I hope and pray that’s what we’re all doing, whether it’s around the globe, around our home country, or around the corner from our home.