Living with the poor

This morning brought an e-mail from a former bishop in Rwanda, The Rt. Rev. Venuste Mutiganda, of a marvelous article published today in the New Times of Kigali. The article tells the story of two British diplomats – the High Commissioner to Rwanda, Ben Llewellyn Jones, and the Director of the Department for international Development (DfID), Elizabeth Carriere – who spent three days living with rural families in Rwanda.

Why?

So they could experience “firsthand what it means to live off less than one dollar a day.”

Fortunate Ntawoyangire, left, wife of Theophile Manayiragaba, center, and Ben Llewellyn Jones, right, the UK High Commissioner, sharing a light moment with his hosts. (By D Umutesi of the New Times of Kigali)

The article, found here, explores how these two high-ranking diplomats got to know the people, and what their lives are like, first-hand.

This was no “grin-and-grip” visit, whereby the officials showed up in big cars, looked around, shook some hands, hand their photos take and then left.

This was life – real life – experienced at its most basic. Llewellyn Jones, the High Commissioner, got up at 5 in the morning and tilled a field with a hoe and then planted some beans. Carriere, the Director of DfiD, stayed with two sisters whose parents were killed in the 1994 genocide.

The visits were arranged and facilitated by ActionAid Rwanda, an NGO that is a “country programme of ActionAid International (AAI) – an anti-poverty agency working with poor and voiceless people and communities and with like-minded partners worldwide. ActionAid is a non-partisan, non-religious development organisation that has been working in Rwanda as a full country programme since 1997 to eradicate poverty and injustices with focus on tackling the root causes of poverty rather than just meeting people’s immediate needs.”

In other words, in order to lift people out of poverty through charity alone, ActionAid works on helping people lift themselves out of poverty.

One way to get out the message: Getting high-level diplomats, many of whom have never quite experienced deep poverty, to go live among the people, and develop relationships with them, at the most basic level.

We are all called to do this: to development relationships at the most basic level. To live together, to eat together, to work together, to struggle – together. When we do so, we no longer look at people as “other.” When we have shared a small space, tilled the land by hand, gathered water and lived in extreme poverty – when we have done that personally – we no longer see the world as “us” and “them.”

Then, we see the world as “us.”

When the visit was over, Carriere and her host both “cried uncontrollably.”

A new relationship was born, a relationship based in our common lives together.

This is what mission is all about, folks. It’s not about “saving” people, or simply handing out our treasures. It’s about relating to each other as God relates to us – in love.

Living with the poor – as they live, experiencing their lives every day – takes us outside of our own lives, our own perceptions (and misperceptions) and helps us to see all people as God’s beloved. Far too often, we see the extreme poverty of the world, we see people – from a distance – who have so little, and we throw up our hands and say, “Well, the poor we’ll always have with us.” Or we wonder, sometimes aloud, sometimes right in front of those poor people, why they haven’t done more to help themselves.

But living in poverty is not a sin.

Poverty itself is the sin.

Not for those who experience it, but for those of us who have enough and allow others to not have enough. That’s the sin.

Will these little visits change everything overnight in Rwanda? Nope.

But will they help two high-ranking British diplomats view the world differently? Most likely.

Relationships do that to you. They change you.

These relationships, this change, has all the hallmarks of the good mission into which God calls each of us.

 

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It is past time to listen to God

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice,

to love kindness

and to walk humbly with your God?

(Micah 6:8)

In just one week, the U.S. government could come to a crashing halt.

Really.

All because our Senators and Representatives have not bothered to do their jobs.

Since receiving, in January 2010more than a year ago, mind you – President Obama’s proposed budget, Congress has managed to pass no spending bills. That’s right. Not one. All our representatives have managed to do is pass continuing resolutions, leaving for tomorrow what they could have done today – or yesterday, for that matter.

I’ve been trying to figure out what will happen next week, when the government does shut down. You can go on-line and find all kinds of analyses about who will be considered essential (um, our representatives, the leaders of government, claim this for themselves) and who will not be (um, those would be the people who actually do the work of government). The people who make sure Americans get paid? Non-essential. The people who make sure contractors get paid? Non-essential. The people who fill out the forms that ensure that Americans receive their benefits? Non-essential.

This list goes on and on, but you get the idea. In the minds of our representatives, they are essential. Most every else? Not so much.

So I wonder, as I have many times before, how our representatives are meeting God’s injunction to us? How is shutting down the government over ideology doing justice? How is it loving kindness?

\And how, pray tell, could anyone think that this massive power play – mirrored by the one playing out in Wisconsin right now – has anything to do with walking humbly with God? (Posturing instead of caring for the people entrusted to them shows a distinct lack of humility, I believe.)

In all this grandstanding, no real efforts are being made to trim the budget or lessen the deficit, because only small portions of the budget are actively in play. And the parts that have been put into play? Why, those would be the parts in which the poor, the needy and the forgotten are cared for. Those would be the parts in which women are treated with respect and dignity, in which children who have had the bad fortune to be born into poverty are fed, in which our veterans are cared for by a grateful nation that thanks them for their service. Those are the parts the so-called fiscal conservatives are chopping. Defense? Never on the table. Poor people who don’t contribute to campaigns? They are being ignored and forgotten.

Jim Wallis over at Sojourners wrote an excellent article yesterday on the God’s Politics blog (click here or look under “Articles you should read” for the link). In it, he points out that all this posturing is not about money, not about deficits, but about politics, ideology and hypocrisy.

In closing, Mr. Wallis writes:

“Let me offer a word to those who see this critique as partisan. I’ve had good friendships with Republican members of Congress, but not the kind who get elected by their party anymore. But let’s be clear, when politicians attack the poor, it is not partisan to challenge them; it is a Christian responsibility.

“This is wrong, this is unjust, this is vile, and this must not stand. Next week, thanks to your support, look for a full-page ad in Politico signed by faith leaders and organizations across the country that asks Congress a probing question: “What would Jesus cut?” These proposed budget cuts are backwards, and I don’t see how people of faith can accept them. And we won’t.”

Our elected leaders are not doing their jobs. Instead, they are playing games – and getting paid, handsomely, to do so.

Just as we want these leaders to listen closely to what God has to say through the prophet Micah, so we need to listen as well. If we want justice done, if we truly love kindness, and if we are willing to walk humbly with our God, then we need to step up as well. That’s what has been happening in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana for the past several days: The people have turned out in force, claiming their voices, claiming their rights.

If we want to avoid another government shutdown fiasco – which, by the way, will ultimately cost us billions, according to estimates – then we need to speak up. We need to make sure our Representatives and Senators understand that it is time for them to set aside their agendas and ideologies and do the right thing, which is to be responsible, to be caring, and to serve the people entrusted to them.

Shutting down the government serves no purpose other than to harm those most in need, while those with the most suffer not at all.

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The art of the possible

“Politics,” I said to a 20-something friend recently, “is the art of the possible. It is not evil. It is about how we work together to do the most good for the greatest number of people at any given time.”

The 20-something was surprised.

“What did you say ‘politics’ is?” she asked.

“It is the art of the possible,” I told her. “I may not get everything I want, and you may not get everything you want, but in the end, if it is done correctly, if we are faithful, together we achieve the best result possible at that moment.”

The 20-something was excited to learn this. She had never thought of politics in that light before, and frankly, I’m not surprised. She’s grown up in an age when politics is so partisan that it’s hard to remember that both sides of any given argument are even discussing the same thing, much less striving to work together.

As I watch what is happening in this country right now – particularly the budget debates taking place in Congress and the union-government showdown in Wisconsin – I wonder if those who are professional politicians remember the definition of their jobs, to care for the people.

Instead of standing up and taking responsibility for what they have done, veteran lawmakers in Congress pretend they have had nothing to do with the last 10 years of running up the deficit to the point that it endangers all that we do, and now threaten to slash and burn not just the budget, but many of the good things our government does.

Newcomers to Congress act as though they have no responsibility for any program that existed before they arrived inWashington, and that they do not care for the outcome of any action they take … as long as the deficit is reduced.

Now, threats swirl throughout Washington about another federal government shutdown, which we haven’t seen since the mid-1990s. No one seems concerned about the economic impact of a shutdown, either on the government, on the people of this land who would be directly affected, or even on the hot-dog vendors on the street, who would lose their income as well.

The Speaker of the House, when told that his recommended budget actions would mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of federal jobs – this at a time when the unemployment rate is still at 9 percent – shrugs his shoulders and says, “So be it.” (Does the Speaker know that this is the English translation of “Amen,” which comes from the Hebrew Scriptures? Is he aware that in saying, “So be it,” he is endorsing “job-killing,” which he claims to be fighting?)

I think it is safe to say that every single one of us in this country knows that we have to do something about the budget and the deficit. But this slash-and-burn approach has nothing to do with the art of the possible.

Instead of working together to achieve the best possible results, both sides seemed locked in a battle of egos, with the American people suffering the consequences.

How does intransigence fulfill the art of the possible? What good does it do to continuously say, “Read my lips”? (Doesn’t that remind you of children on the playground, saying, “Am too! Am not!”)

Leaders do not lay down ultimatums while simultaneously refusing to listen to anyone. Leaders make the hard decisions necessary to care for the most people – that, after all, is government’s purpose, to make secure the lives of the people.

There’s a hard-and-fast deadline coming up that means that something has to be done, and soon. If our representatives bothered to work together, they could achieve the possible.

We know that is possible to cut spending, to balance the budget, to lower the deficit, because all of that happened in the Clinton administration. Of course, first we had to go through that shutdown during that same administration.

So what would it take to move from stubborn “Heads-I-win-tails-you-lose” gamesmanship that serves no one to a dance that actually will lead to the best possible solutions for everyone?

How much longer will it take for everyone to realize that all things indeed are possible – but only when we remember to follow the instructions we have received from God, and not from polls, not from lobbyists, not from people more concerned with advancing themselves at the costs of others?

Is there waste in the federal budget? Absolutely. Some of the rules are so convoluted that of course we are paying too much to implement them.

But it is not faithful, to God or to the people, to slash and burn simply to make a point, or to get back at someone  you don’t like.

This country right now is faced with the ultimate opportunity to achieve the possible, to work together for the good of the people.

After all, isn’t that why those in office ran for office? So they could care for the people of this land?

McClatchy-Tribune New Service, 2011

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How to do your part in Haïti

Last weekend, I participated in the 92nd Council of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, where I did a presentation on Haïti and how we can be involved in partnerships there.

The joy of learning in Haiti

At the presentation, I showed a movie I have made, Bondye di ou: Fè pa ou, m’a fè p’am (“God says to you: You do your part, I’ll do mine). It is a 12-minute video on the history of the Diocese of Haïti, and how that Diocese is leading the way in helping the nation recover from the devastating earthquake of 12 January 2010. It also describes the ways in which parishes, other institutions and organizations can become partners with the Diocese of Haïti, the largest diocese of The Episcopal Church.

The video is available for free for anyone who is interested in seeing it or using it themselves. Simply go to

http://gallery.me.com/merelaurens/100031

and you can see it, and if you want, you can download it and make DVD copies of your own.

Haiti video

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Who said anything about ‘gentle’?

I woke up this morning with Advent on my mind.

I was replaying in my head messages from friends and various Advent resources calling this moment in our lives a time of “gentle waiting.”

“Gentle waiting!” I thought. “Why are we engaged in gentle waiting?!?”

I’m fear that we are trying to tame Advent when we make this call. And I don’t think Jesus wants us to do that.

We need to give them clean water.

I mean, what’s gentle about the Gospel lessons we hear in this season? Jesus tells us to keep awake, therefore, for we do not know on what day our Lord is coming. (Do we really imagine that the owner of the house was waiting gently for the thief to come in the night?)

Paul says now is the time for us to awake from sleep, for salvation is nearer to us than before, and commends us to put on the armor of light. (Who puts on armor and then sits gently?)

John the Baptist bellows, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (How can we prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight if we aren’t doing something?)

Nowhere in those statements do I hear anything about gentleness.

Advent’s  a wakeup call, all right. But it’s an urgent one. It’s a rough shaking of the shoulder to get us out of bed to do something. This is not your mother leaning over you and gently saying, “Wake up, my love ….” This is Jesus calling, and he’s grabbing you and shaking you and throwing back the sheets and yelling, “GET UP!!!! We have things to do!”

And looking at the world around us, we know that is true. We DO have things to do.

There’s the DREAM Act to be passed. And Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to be repealed. Unemployment benefits need to be extended.

The people in Sudan need our prayers and our advocacy, to prevent yet another war.

The people in Haiti need our help to fight cholera and build a nation devastated by the earthquake.

Those who are sick need our help.

There are hungry people everywhere whom we need to feed, thirsty people who need clean water from us, ailing people who need our medicine and our care. There are children who need our love. The blind desire to see, the deaf want to hear, the mute yearn to sing with joy.

None of these things will be accomplished by gently waiting for someone else to step up. We are the ones who are to make the paths straight.

Advent for me is a time for action. It’s a time for us to look at the world around us and ask, “Is this really what we want to give to Jesus as a birthday gift? A world where so many have so little and we allow that?”

I woke up this morning with Advent on my mind, all right.

The call I heard was crystal clear: “Get cracking! Do the work you’ve been given to do – now! There’s no time to wait for someone else to do the work. Hurry! It’s Advent! Do something!”

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Easter in Haiti: Alleluia!

Dear Beloved in Christ:

Easter in Haiti

Easter services here were incredibly powerful today. To be able to proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!” in a place that is still filled with death almost defies description.

Hearing the angel proclaim “He is not here” in Luke’s Gospel brought tears to my eyes, for there are so many — perhaps as many as 300,000 — who are not here with us now. At the English service, I read Bishop Duracin’s Easter message to the congregation. (In Haiti, the Bishop is the preacher in all of our parishes.) In his message, Bishop spoke of how we remember “a relative, a friend, one who was close to us, all of whom, in most cases, were denied funeral ceremonies where we could say goodbye with human dignity. Thus,” he wrote, “crossing the desert has been and still is long and extremely difficult.” Although I had read the message in advance, I still found myself almost unable to continue. I know I was not the only one thinking of friends and family, and seeing again the awful devastation which still remains with us, or the bodies that are still being found.

But Bishop Duracin also told us: “The devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010, does not stop us from singing in joy and gladness, ‘Alleluia, He is risen.’ … We can no longer continue to look for Jesus among the dead, we can no longer remain in tears because of our dead, because, if during their earthly life, they knew love, their place is in the Kingdom with the Lord to reign with Him in His eternal glory.”

His message, and that of the Gospel, reminded us that we have much to celebrate here even in the midst of death, because “God is a God of life, a life that flows from his love for humanity, a love that is embodied in his Son Jesus Christ.”

I drew strength from that message, and from the celebration of the Eucharist, my first Easter Eucharist in this country. At the fraction, I found myself so caught up in the joy of the moment that I repeated the Easter acclamation, a slip of the tongue that brought smiles to all of us. By the end of the service, the joy of the Resurrection was so powerful that I repeated that acclamation again, with great gusto, and with equal gusto, the congregation replied, nearly shouting, “The Lord is risen indeed! ALLELUIA!”

Yes, we are surrounded by death in Haiti. But we are also surrounded by new life, by the new creation that God proclaims. Which is why, especially here, we are proclaiming “Alleluia!” with all our beings.

Bishop Duracin and all of Haiti bids all of you, “Joyeuses Paques!” Happy Easter!

Your servant in Christ,

Lauren

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