Thursday, January 31, 2013

First year

I was thinking about Eva Shephard today. I do many days when I see the black stone carving of a shepherd and a sheep on my desk. She gave them to me. She was a missionary in residence at the church I served as assistant pastor in Western New York. I was a freshly minted seminary grad and I was ready to put what I learned into practice. Eva had never married and she was retired from active missionary work. She lived in a small apartment. She was the reason we had a pipeline to the African students at the nearby university. She was still doing missions only now Africa had come to her doorstep. She had been a teacher in Zaire (name changed to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997) for many years. Then she kept in close contact with people from that country who were doing grad work in Buffalo. One of the men served on the deacon board of the church. His family lived near the campus and were at church every Sunday.

The church had a large college age group. One of my jobs on the staff was to work with this group. We began a summer institute of Christian studies which sounded like a lot more than it was. There was another pastor in the area whose downtown Presbyterian church was a big supporter of Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship. The pastor was older than I and had more books in his office than I had ever seen. We became friends. He taught a course and I did, too. We taught the book of Acts and a church history course. At the end of those courses, our church sponsored one of the college students as a local missionary serving Urban Christian Ministries, a downtown Buffalo outreach. UCM did tutoring, after school care, and distributed meals, clothing, whatever. Through our summer intern there the church became involved in the inner city.

My relationship with the downtown Presbyterian pastor led to a friendship with the local Inter Varsity staff member. Inter Varsity engages students intellectually. They have a publishing arm that speaks Christian truth to the campus academic world. My IVF friend introduced me to the authors IVP was publishing and we discussed many of their books. One of the authors we liked a lot was Tom Hopler. He was doing work in cross cultural missions. His books were exciting to both of us. We attended one of his seminars. I was shook up when I heard Tom had died of a heart attack soon after. He was running after a lecture at one of the retreats he was speaking at. It was not the last time a servant of God would die at a young age but when it does happen I wonder why. Tom seemed to have so much more to offer the kingdom of God. Another trip my IVF friend and I took was to Toronto to spend a day with Clark Pinnock who was an internationally known theologian. He taught at a University in Toronto. Clark began in the Evangelical camp but over the years many Evangelicals distanced themselves from him for his views on open theism and other ideas. I have always found his thinking to be refreshing and stimulating (he died in 2010).

We have owned two homes in our pastoral wanderings. The first one was in the Buffalo suburb of Kenmore. That first church offered us a housing allowance. It was a small house near the church. Soon after we got in the house a young man started coming to the church who had a lot of problems. One problem was he had no where to live. So we took him in. When he drank he had a hot temper. My wife was afraid of him although I didn't know it at the time or I wasn't listening. Probably the latter. It was one of our first attempts to "fix" someone and it didn't work. He got drunk, trashed some stuff and went outside to beat up a tree. That didn't turn out too successfully either.  Soon we told him he had to move out. After that my wife's grandmother visited us from Chicago. I am reminded by her granddaughter to this day how she wore her mink coat all week because I was trying to save money by keeping the heat down. I guess I wasn't listening too well then either. 

Our first son was born that year. I played basketball with a group of guys every Monday night. We were in a young couples Bible study group. I led the youth group, as well. Our big event was a weekend at a church camp. We had several adult leaders and a couple van loads of teens. We also had a couple cases of beer some of the kids sneaked on board. After we went to bed the kids got the beer out. A couple of them had a little too much and their cover was blown. The senior pastor was not too happy probably because two of his kids were on the trip. He let me have it in the next Sunday's service. It was clear where the blame lay. I didn't agree but there was no discussion. I also did not choose to stay in that position much longer. It was a great first year of pastoral ministry though.

Summoned from the margin

Lamin Sanneh's story is an interesting one. He is professor of World Christianity at Yale and the author of several books including his recent memoir. Sanneh grew up in a Muslim family in Gambia, West Africa. He was educated through high school in Muslim schools. He was intrigued by the character of Jesus who appeared in the Koran. He tried to find out more about this prophet who was killed and then rose from the dead. He asked some of his Christian acquaintances who only made him more curious. After high school he moved to a bigger city to find work. He met some other Christians there. One Christian family who he roomed with was uncomfortable with his Muslim prayer rituals and asked him to leave. One colleague from a Christian charismatic background tried to evangelize him and gave him a Bible but he was put off by her emotionalism. He never opened the Bible. Yet, the question of Jesus still nagged at him. Who was he? What did he want from Lamin? He wondered about it every waking moment it seemed. Finally, he came to the point where he submitted his life to this presence of Jesus which was so persistent and so real. He told some of his Muslim friends who thought he was crazy. Christianity was not respected in that part of the world. It was seen as a weak faith that attracted weak people. Some younger Muslims followed him and threw stones and rocks at him. He decided he needed to be baptized and join a community of faith. There was a Methodist, and Anglican and a Catholic church in his town. So he went to the Methodist Church and told the pastor he wanted to be baptized. The pastor sent him to the Catholic Church where the priest seemed less than excited to fulfill his request. No one knew what to do with a convert from Islam. No one wanted to have anything to do with one who had. His Muslim friends said, see they don't even want you so why do you want them? Good question. He wanted to follow Jesus but he didn't figure his first steps would be this hard. He had an acquaintance who lived in Germany and he decided to visit him. So, he had a plan - baptize me, he told the pastor, and I will get out your hair. I am going to Germany! And that's what he did. Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African is the name of his book.

Super bowl distractions

It must be Super Bowl Sunday again because the media blitz is 24/7. We have learned superstar linebacker Ray Lewis may have used a banned substance found on deer antlers to speed up his recovery from a torn bicep ( I have passed every test Lewis protested. Hmm where have we heard that before?). QB Alex Smith who was playing well and then lost his job when he had a concussion is taking his demotion for telling the truth and losing his starting job like a good sport. While, his supersub named Kaepernick is trying to patent the "Kaepernicking" position which is similiar to "Tebowing" only with a biceps kiss rather than a posture of prayer which is assumed after a superplay. Some of the hard hitters among the massive lineman and muscled linebackers have been asked about their feelings on the accumulating evidence of concussions on their long term health. Acknowledging the growing possibility  of early onset dementia or depression or both, most said, "we know what we signed up for", or "whatever happens is worth it for the opportunity to play in the NFL" or "I am ok with it but I don't think I will let my son play football" (this from Bernard Pollard who routinely knocks some opposing player into next week during a game).There have been new or renewed revelations of past indiscretions of current and former players. We learned the happily married with six kids (so he said) former superstar QB Dan Marino fathered a child out of wedlock in 2005. Dan will be one of the many CBS commentators on Sunday's game. And the list goes on. Somewhere in the midst of the media blitz which digs up all the dirt it can find there will be a game. But with all the commercials and commentary and concussions I'm thinking there have to be better options for spending a Sunday afternoon (here in AK the game starts at 2:30pm).

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Pro Life and guns

This past Friday marked the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade. Thousands of people marched in Washington in support of finding a way to end legalized abortion. More than 60 Catholic priests, nuns and scholars signed a letter to Congress this week asking people who are "pro-life" to do something about the "epidemic of gun violence" in our nation. Several of the key Republican leaders like John Boehner and Paul Ryan are Catholics who are "pro-life". The Evangelical leader Ron Sider wrote a book in the 1980s titled,  Completely Pro- Life, in which he argued a pro- life stance covers abortion and other social issues such as the death penalty, euthanasia, programs for the poor and children and by definition, I'm sure, he would have applied it to gun reforms, too. Surprisingly, Evangelicals who are mostly anti - abortion are also anti- any form of gun restrictions. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 2/3 of Evangelicals who call themselves pro- life are also overwhelmingly opposed to stricter gun control laws (33% of those pro- life Evangelicals favor them). Among Catholics who say they are pro- life almost 61% favor some gun control reforms. Catholic bishops have gone on record to support the effort to renew the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. Almost 3/4 of the Evangelical leaders on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals believe the government should increase gun regulations but they have not taken a public stand as an association.

Recently there was a report in the NY Times about an urban church in Ohio that had a gun buyback program on a Saturday. The pastor got the church to come up with $4000 to buy back 40 guns from the neighborhood around his church. The pastor who had been there for 40 some years was tired of doing funerals due to gun violence. After they took in 145 guns he had to close the doors because he couldn't afford to buy back any more. Critics of this program said probably a lot of people used the money to upgrade their guns. Some said it was naive to think it would make any difference in gun violence. Maybe so, the pastor said, but it if means one or two less gun deaths because a gun was not available when a situation spiraled out of control that was good enough for him.

This church's program could be seen as hopelessly ineffective against the culture of gun violence today but at least, they were doing something when mostly what's going on today is people from either side of the gun control debate shouting at each other while gun sales are off the charts.  The presence of guns in our communities affects every one of us. When I went to school in rural New York State, some of my high school buddies brought their hunting rifles to school so they could head out and hunt after school. That sounds incredible today. This is a different time. What does it mean to be pro life at this time? How do we live out a pro-life ethic in our daily lives, in our communities?

Helping Haiti

When I went on a short term mission trip to Haiti many years ago, I recruited people who wanted to do something, people who were committed to making a difference in one of the poorest countries in the world and one that was so accessible to us. How could we not do something? So several men and I made preparations for our trip. One of the men had a brother in law who was a missionary in Haiti. It seemed like a good fit to contact him and have him help us determine what we would do. He was enthusiastic about our desire to come but he told us not to come with any plans except to visit. No plans? Wasn't that a waste of time? And money? How could we raise funds just to visit? As it turned out, each of us paid our own way. We raised some money to use for projects we found down there. I have thought about that trip many times. The missionary we visited in Haiti who showed us around - taught us - a great deal about cross cultural mission trips. We had a lot to learn although most short term missioners don't get that. Amy Wilentz in Farewell, Fred Voodoo writes, "here's how the narrative goes: Haitians are desperate. We come down to help. They are nice people, maybe, but they're so disorganized, uneducated, untrained, corrupt. We give; they steal. We are upright; they lie to us. Despite all of our best intentions for them, our work here is thwarted and eventually ineffective. It's sad, but there is something wrong with them. Unless we work completely outside the bounds of Haitian culture, and the country's government, and economy, we get nothing accomplished."  Trained for so many years to expect help from the outside they become dependent on outsiders and can do little for themselves, so the narrative goes. The tendency for outsiders is to go down there prepared to help because that is what they do best and for Haitians to receive that help, thankfully, because that is what they do best. And if we only have a week or two to do this it is best if we just do what we've come to do. Give us a mess and we will fix it. In the process, we will feel good about ourselves for helping some unfortunates. We will have some great stories of poverty to share when we get home (Wilentz calls it "poorism"). People, including Christians, have related to third world countries like this for years.

As I read Wilentz's book, I am grateful for our American missionary friend who went to Haiti with the support of his church (which later withdrew their support leaving our friend and family to support themselves) and worked under a Haitian pastor (almost unheard of for a white man to work under a Haitian). Our friend worked mostly behind the scenes handling the sound technology for the outdoor services his Haitian pastor spoke at. Our friend knew we had good intentions but didn't have a clue what to do. As we visited several places in the country, met pastors and people, saw some of the hospital and agricultural work that American Baptist missionaries had been doing for years and years, we started to get it. What works best in Haiti is what is Haitian. Amy Wilentz who has visited and lived in Haiti for many years says the Haiti - the place created by Haitians for Haitians - is always a less exotic place than the Haiti created by outsiders for Haitians. She writes, " the farther you are from the people who are not Haitian, the more you can see the value of what's Haitian." She mentions community, humor, hierarchy, respect, deference, generosity. What has changed Haiti and changes Haiti is mixing the outside world into the Haitian brew, Wilentz says. Once you add, "possible access to instant cash, future jobs with aid organizations, possible visas, et cetera, into a mix whose essential broth is penury... then the corruption enters in." "To a Haitian a white outsider doesn't look like a Pollyanna but like a dollar sign in a cartoon", (when I was down there and it was discovered I was a pastor in the US I had many Haitian pastors explain to me how our church could support their work) Most Haitian pastors are supported from the outside.  Wilentz quotes a Haitian journalist who said, "every Haitian has his own white man," meaning many Haitians believe that is what a white person is for - to give him money.  It all leads to confusion Wilentz says, "the outsider waving money almost never can see Haitians clearly, but always through a veil of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Similiarly, it is a rare Haitian who percieves an outsider with full clarity."

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The tragedy of Haiti

The last tragedy in Haiti was the 2010 earthquake unless you count the flooding from storms and hurricanes that have touched the island since then. There is also the cholera epidemic which seems to have begun when foreign aid workers introduced a new strain of cholera into the country - post-earthquake - so that now the few reliable drinking water sources are not reliable. A couple of new books have come out recently that document what's been going on in Haiti since the earthquake. Unfortunately, it seems like not much good given the millions of dollars raised.  Jonathan Katz and Amy Wilentz are the authors, both journalists, who have spent a lot of time in Haiti. Wilentz, who has lived there, has written of Haiti before in The Rainy Season (1989) which covered the fall of Jean Claude Duvalier. Her latest book, Farewell Fred Voodoo, is a bit of  history, some culture, some reporting about earthquake relief or a lack thereof, some stories, and more analysis since she understands the country and - what she doesn't understand - much better today. She gives us the facts: 3/4 of the people live on less than $2.00 a day, 50% of the people have no access to potable water, 50%-70% unemployment, 2/3 of the people have no access to sanitary facilities, only 10% have electrical service, 95% of the country is deforested, 4/5 of the college educated live abroad. It is a depressing sketch. And that was before the earthquake. Things are worse now with the cholera and about a half million people living in temporary tent cities. And thousands more living in so called temp housing that is becoming permanent. She and Katz document the uses and abuses of all the millions of dollars of aid that has been given to Haiti which has really not been given to Haiti but to organizations providing relief and reconstruction to Haiti. There are lots of white folks in Haiti now living quite well on relief and reconstruction money.  It could be argued that the aid dollars have not helped a whole lot although there are people and places that have and are being helped. There are people there to help even if many of the aid organizations and workers have their own agendas. Some of those still there two years after the earthquake, especially some of the doctors, are dug in and doing good work. But now that the water and sanitation services have gone away there is always more to do, not less, it seems.  Reading these books makes you ask why. Why is Haiti still tragic even after all the money and all the people have tried to help for so many years.

Wilentz gives some perspective. Haiti was colonized by France. Within two generations of the first white colonizers all the natives were wiped out. Slaves were imported from Africa to work the sugar cane. It was the most lucrative plantation system in the world. African slaves were brought in, worked to death, and replaced with more. In the late 1700's slaves outnumbered their white masters by 10 to 1. In 1791, slaves attacked sugar plantations leading to a full blown slave revolt and in 1804 Haiti declared independence from France. For years after France demanded "retribution payments" for loss of land, slaves and equipment. This enormous debt of 90 million was backed up by threat of a blockade led by the French, British and US. It was not fully paid off until the 1900s. The slave revolt reverberated through the slave economy around the world. Haiti was a pariah state. No one would recognize the new nation and trade with them. US recognition came during our own civil war. The 1900s brought a US occupation by the marines. Then, Papa Doc and Baby Doc.

The 2000s have seen many elected presidents and just as many ousted. Then, the hurricanes and earthquakes. Haiti can't seem to get a break (or all they get are breaks). And no one can figure out how to help put this poor country back together again.

Wilentz tells stories about people who try and mostly fail. There is one doctor who she seems to think is making a difference. She works in a tent office in a tent city and she sees TB patients all day. She gets supplies from Western donors but she takes no salary. She hires no help. She works with Haitians and works the way Haitians work, ie, she works within the system, taking what it gives to her. She helps one person at a time and doesn't seem to care if anyone outside Haiti knows what she is doing. Every morning she cooks 12 pounds of spaghetti and distributes it during the day to patients for whom that is the only meal of the day. Put an bit of mayo or ketchup on it and it's not bad, she says. For all the money going to big projects in Haiti that are failing here is one model that works.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Lance and Manti

Interesting week with the Lance Armstrong interview over two nights and the Manti Te'o story that is continuing to unfold - and no one knows where it will lead. Still, there are similarities between the two stories. Both are famous athletes, each one rising to the top of his sport. Lance is rich and Manti stands to make a lot of money in a pro football career. Both of their stories transcend the sport in which they dominated. Lance was the first American to dominate European cycling and then he dominated charity fundraising for cancer victims. Manti was the face of the newly reborn dominance of Notre Dame football. Now, however, each is sharing in the unwelcome and unpleasant scorning by the same public which so recently adored them - driven by the relentless bright lights of the media upon their sins. Lance's sins are many; lying, cheating, betrayal of loyal friends, adultery; he shattered the Ten Commandments like Moses on Mt Sinai.  Manti's sins are more subtle. What did he do wrong? He seems more the sinned against than the sinner. Was he merely gullible or stupid? Or does he just appear that way? Did he lead on his adoring public in order to make himself a sympathetic choice for college football's greatest award: The Heisman? He has admitted to embellishing his online relationship with a woman we now know never existed. Which leaves the door wide open to wonder, how much embellishing? How complicit was Notre Dame whose track record as a school handling crises is less than credible these days? If it smells like a cover-up, is it? We are a skeptical and suspicious sports public thanks to the nation of sports bloggers like Deadspin.

Both Lance and Manti are getting the full media treatment of ridicule (Letterman's top 10 on creating a fake woman) and criticism on all the sports pages. Every one getting a paycheck to comment on sports has weighed in, it seems. Lance and Manti are our latest sports scapegoats. There is so much wrong to day with college and professional sports: corruption, illegal recruiting, the money, as well as the use of banned substances, that any critic of popular sports culture has an embarrassingly easy target. We could just as well talk about the high level college coaches who leave their programs right before the NCAA violations committee shows up at their doors (Chip Kelley of Oregon is only the latest). Fans are fed up but can't stop watching, they are angry but still want to wear their jersies. So most of us pretend that it is still all about the game. You hope that's somewhere where sport is still pure, maybe when a Butler plays a Gonzaga, or a baseball icon like Stan the Man passes. But that somewhere keeps getting smaller and smaller and if we feel the pain so will someone else. So every once in a while we need these public confessions to make sport seem right again - at least until tomorrow.