“This Religion Thing;” An opportunity to be seized

By Kenneth D. MacHarg

The image of Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, has been tarnished in the last decade or so, primarily through the divisive culture wars.

Not that those issues aren’t important–they need to be addressed. But, they have been approached by violence on the street, hate mail and articles and a general ambience of fighting an issue while forgetting the cause—Jesus Christ.

The result is that many in our society and around the world have disowned Christianity or just plain been turned off from any consideration of the claims of Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, all of the heat generated by these battles has distorted and damaged the message of the Good News and the ministry of those who reach out to the hurting in Christ’s name.

In the midst of all this, there has been some hopeful news and a renewed focus on the healing and serving nature of Christians (and people of other faiths) in a world of such pain.

I was greatly encouraged to read this fascinating article from IPS News about a new openness by development officials and relief groups to the great contribution that religions in general (and, by implication Christians in specific) can make to alleviate human suffering, violence and abuse.

In it Dr. Azza Karam, Senior Advisor for The United Nations Population Fund and Coordinator of the UN Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development says, “The arguments used… to generate positive interest in the role of religious NGOs in international multilateral fora were relatively straightforward. Today they are almost a cliché: religious institutions are the oldest social service providers known to humankind, and several basic health and educational institutions of today are administered or influenced to some extent by religious entities.”

Recognizing that some secular and government agencies have been reluctant to partner with or recognize religious activity, she affirms that now many recognize this work as a valid segment of international developments efforts.

However, she suggests that this recognition is late coming. She writes, “It was only when migrants appeared to ‘flood’ European shores (albeit in numbers which are only a fraction of those ending up in developing countries), that there was a noticeable surge of keen interest by several western governments in ‘this religion thing’.”

Christian efforts to serve others in relief and development work, in hospitals and health care, in the nurture of orphans, the rescue of slaves along with assisting the homeless, caring for the widows and victims of violence were, in fact, part of the reason that the early church grew so quickly and widely.

In his book The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, Dr. Rodney Stark, the distinguished professor of sociology at Southern Baptist-related Baylor University, described the living conditions where early Christian communities developed as a “remarkably filthy existence.”

Stark notes that “the smell of urine, feces, and decay permeated everything.” He added, “A recent analysis of decayed human fecal remains in an ancient Jerusalem cesspool found an abundance of tapeworm and whipworm eggs, indicating that almost everyone had them.”

Stark noted that the followers of Jesus initially appeared to be just another cult emerging in the society. But, it soon became evident in the midst of abject poverty, filth and illness, that Christians became a blessing to their communities not only spiritually but also physically. The simple provision of food and water to severely weakened people often allowed them to recover. Nursing by Christians may have cut mortality by two-thirds.

Stark indicates that the low mortality rates among Christians combined with the influence of Christians on non-believers, (i.e. their social work) attracted many of the early converts to the church.

Or as Marvin Olasky, the editor-in-chief of World magazine wrote: “Christianity grew both numerically and proportionately through the plagues that swept the empire in the first few centuries after Christ. There was martyrdom here as well: for while many were heading for the hills for safety…Christians stayed to care for the sick, exposing themselves and sometimes succumbing to the danger. Through their care many survived, for in many cases what was required was simple nutrition, water, and shelter. This, too, led many to follow Christ. Christianity’s proportion of the population increased also in that they cared for each other, meaning that their relative survival rate was higher than the pagans.”

There have been other recent indications that Christian ministries are having an impact on addressing many of society’s ills and are being recognized for that.

The excellent book Not For Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade–and How We Can Fight It, by Dr. David Batstone, a professor of ethics at the University of San Francisco highlights many organizations that fight slavery worldwide. Most of those that he cites have strong Christian roots.

Then, in a recent article by award-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof,  we find a reference to Cure, a Christian organization working in 29 developing countries to alleviate the problems of children born with clubfeet. 

While we cannot and should not become too self-congratulatory, we must be encouraged by a wider, secular recognition that Christians, as well as those of other faiths, are ministering to those with debilitating needs around the world.

Dr. Karam summarizes her recent article by saying, “…(I)f we are serious about strengthening health systems and universal access to healthcare, enhancing educational institutions, content and accessibility, protecting our environment, safeguarding the rights of marginlised and vulnerable populations, countering social exclusion and ensuring human dignity, then – the argument is – we have to work with those who influence minds, hearts, and continue to provide and manage significant amounts of social services in most countries.”

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Another article by Dr. Karam on a similar topic can be found here:

 

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In other news…. Covering the world in the age of “All Trump all the time!”

By Kenneth D. MacHarg

If I could produce one television or radio news program, it would be titled In Other News.

Not that we don’t have plenty of quality broadcast news now. Several major all-news cable channels, network newscasts each morning and evening, NPR news and public affairs all day. Sometimes we seem to be saturated with news.

Yet, I would suggest that what we hear and especially what we watch on television is the same half-dozen news stories repeated hour after hour ad nauseam.

U.S. politics, tornados and floods (with an occasional hurricane thrown in for good measure), police-related shootings, celebrity news, sports, entertainment, and, oh yes, did I mention U.S. politics?

With all of the news on television and radio as well as in print or online, one would think that we would be better informed.

In fact, there are numerous important and fascinating things going on around the world that we miss because they are bumped by the same news stories day after day. (Click on the color shading to access the original news story).

Take for example the horrendous death toll in Congo. Certainly over 3,000 deaths in the past six months and more than a million people displaced would warrant a report on the evening news.  If it was carried there, I missed it. But the story is worth taking a few minutes to read.

Congolese security forces and a militia fighting them have killed at least 3,383 people in the central Kasai region since October, the Catholic church said on Tuesday, in the most detailed report to date on the violence.

The United Nations says more than 1.3 million people have fled the fighting.

Or what about the wave of persecution of Christians in Eritrea? With a long history of Roman Catholic and Lutheran congregations, that country has recently turned against freedom of religion—in an area that ought to be of concern for all of us.                                

Eritrea has stepped up its crackdown on Christians in the country, according to a Christian charity which has now launched a campaign opposing the persecution.

Release International said Eritrean security forces have recently arrested 200 Christians in house-to-house raids, ripping children apart from their parents.

Next, I might have missed them, but I have not seen any reports about the horrible outbreak of cholera in Yemen where over 1,000 people, mostly children, have died and the number of cases is skyrocketing.

Seized by violence and teetering on the edge of famine, Yemen is grappling with another danger that threatens to outpace them both: cholera.

“We are now facing the worst cholera outbreak in the world,” international health authorities said in a statement Saturday.

Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF, and Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, say that “more than 1,300 people have died — one quarter of them children — and the death toll is expected to rise.”

They suspect that is because Yemen now has upwards of 200,000 cases to grapple with, and that number is growing quickly — by a rate of roughly 5,000 cases a day.

On a more positive side, check out this story about how a program to supply bicycles to refugees in England is helping those recent arrivals to get an education or a job.

On a balmy, breezy afternoon in south London, dozens of people tinker on secondhand bicycles inside a small workshop, preparing to give them to the several refugees waiting nearby.

As the evening sun lingers, the growing crowd spills onto the quiet leafy street, where asylum seekers eagerly don high visibility vests and helmets to test ride their new gifts.

“I will use this bike to go to college where I can learn English so I can move forward with my life,” said Syrian refugee Khalib, 44, at The Bike Project, a charity that donates bicycles to refugees, along with helmets, vests, lights and basic cycling training.

On the lighter side, here’s a story about Golf in China, and the growing opposition to golf courses on the part of the government—bad news if you are a golfer.

Thirty years after Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong labeled golf a sport for the bourgeois and banned it from his worker’s paradise, his successor gave the sport another try.

It was January 1979, and President Jimmy Carter welcomed Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping on a historic trip to the United States. Deng came seeking U.S. help to open China’s economy, which had been ravaged by decades of Mao’s violent political campaigns. But if American executives were to invest in China, they would need to travel there. And if they were to travel there, they would need a golf course.

Finally, here’s an interesting peek into the future of cities. Which cities do you think will be among the world’s largest in ten years?

New York City is still in the top 10 ranking, with its nearly 8.5 million people. But in the next three decades, that’s going to change.

While population growth in the US and Europe stagnates, the number of people living in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa is going to skyrocket.

Today, Tokyo is the most populous city in the world, with about 38 million residents.

So, that’s just a peek at all of the news stories that you probably missed in the last week or two. They would be most interesting to see on a program like In Other News.

 

Please feel free to leave comments on this site. Those comments posted through the button on this page will be posted if appropriate. Comments sent directly to me are welcome and I will respond, but they will not be posted. Also please forward this link to others who might be interested in this blog. To receive notification of future posts, please click on the “follow” button at the top of this page or write to missionaryjournalist (at) gmail (dot) com. If you no longer wish to receive these announcements, please let me know at that same email address.

“That’s my mother. I haven’t seen her in ten years.” Deep memories of helping the homeless, the refugee, the foreigner

By Kenneth D. MacHarg

I remember the phone call as if it happened yesterday, even though it actually took place 36 years ago.

I had called a member of Louisville’s Laotian Hmong community to seek his help translating for an arriving Hmong refugee woman.

After agreeing to assist, he asked me for the person’s name. When I told him he broke down crying. “That’s my mother,” he told me. “I haven’t seen her in ten years.”

What a joyful reunion at the airport that day. Tears, laughter, joy and a new future in a new but unknown land.

No stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler (Job, discussing his devotion to God) (Job 31:32)

I was reminded of that day when I recently read an excellent article in the Louisville Courier-Journal that allowed several refugees who have settled in the Derby City to tell their own, personal stories.

While none of those people came under my watch, their stories reminded me of one of the most meaningful things I have ever done.

In the 1980s I was the executive director of a multi-denominational agency which facilitated the placement of displaced people from a dozen or more countries.

We received refugees who fled from Southeast Asia after the war—Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and other nations in the region.

In time, the massive Mariel boat lift from Cuba began and we were among the first to accept men, women, children, singles and families from that island nation. There were others as well, including several from Haiti and Romania.

As I read the C-J articles, various pictures came into my head. I remember a Vietnamese man who came to my office shortly after it was announced we had received a grant to help with refugee resettlement.

He carried a photo of his mother. Following the end of the war, he had communicated with officials in every refugee holding camp in Southeast Asia. Finally, he located his mother and wanted to know if we could help reunite the family in Louisville.

It took a while, but mother and son were eventually brought back together.

He never could say thank you enough. Every Christmas for the following decade he would show up at our house with a gift. One year it was Vietnamese candy, another year a briefcase. Each time he gave us an update on how his family was doing, and thanked me profusely for bringing her to the United States

Remember to welcome strangers in your homes. There were some who did that and welcomed angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2)

Then there was the Cuban community which gave clothes out of closets, blankets off of beds and food from refrigerators to help strangers, Cuban brothers and sisters, resettle. One doctor told me of his struggle when he came to the U.S. earlier. Until he could establish himself, he walked the streets of Miami picking up furniture, broken tools and toys and expired food to feed his family. He and his fellow Cubans were not going to let that happen to the newcomers, and therefore, they resettled many.

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

Another image was one of those flash pictures—happening in an instant but making a life-long impression. I was at the Fort Chaffee Army Base in Fort Smith, Arkansas where many Cuban refugees were being housed pending placement.

I walked down the fence line that separated me from those in the holding area. All along the fence people were waving and shouting, “Choose me, choose me.” It reminded me of those horrible photographs of concentration camps in World War II where people were pictured lining the fences begging for a scrap of food or a piece of warm clothing.

I wanted to choose many more, but that selection was not mine to make and I could only take what our capacity to resettle would allow.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25:35-36)

Haiti

Another memory is the little girl who is pictured over my shoulder at the Louisville airport. She and her family had just come from Haiti and were being welcomed into the new city. For her, it was bewildering, frightening, and scary. As people hugged and kissed the adults, she let me pick her up and hold her in my arms. (The photo appeared in either the Courier-Journal or Louisville Times in 1980 or 1981.)

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Were there those who opposed having those refugees come? Of course, we heard from some, but not as many as I feared.

In the long run, we found the congregations of Louisville welcoming, with a compassion to help those who came resettle and become functioning members of society.

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners. (Exodus 23:9)

Why was this ministry so meaningful and fulfilling? Because I was able… to participate in reuniting a mother and a son separated for so many years; to see people who, themselves, had come to the U.S. as refugees reach out to others in a similar situation; to hold a frightened little girl in my arms and tell her that God loves her and had given her a new home where she would be safe and healthy and well-fed; see that God gave me the opportunity to feed the hungry, house the homeless and love the foreigner in our midst.

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (Matthew 25:40)

Please feel free to leave comments on this site. Those comments posted through the button on this page will be posted if appropriate. Comments sent directly to me are welcome and I will respond, but they will not be posted. Also please forward this link to others who might be interested in this blog. To receive notification of future posts, please click on the “follow” button at the top of this page or write to missionaryjournalist (at) gmail (dot) com. If you no longer wish to receive these announcements, please let me know at that same email address.