Monday, May 28, 2007

New Orleans - 18 months after Katrina

This past January I attended the Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Assocation (PHEWA) Biennial Conference in New Orleans with the theme: "Repairers of the Breach" based on Isaiah 58: 12. At the conference our plenary address was given by Bill Quigley, a noted law professor in New Orleans and Director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University.

Quigley has provided updated information on the situation in New Orleans some 18 months later and it is a troubling report that he offers in the recent PHEWA Newsletter. Here are some of the facts:

  1. 18 months after Katrina, a third of a million people in the New Orleans metro area have not returned.
  2. 80% of the 5100 New Orleans occupied public housing apartments remain closed by order of the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Dev. (HUD)
  3. A key figure- Louisiana received $10 billion to fix up housing. Over 109,000 homeowners applied for federal funds to fix up their homes. 18 months later (Feb. 27, 2007), fewer than 700 families have received this federal assistance.
  4. Renters, who comprised a majority of New Orleans residents, are worse off; they get nothing at all. Quigley observes that many in New Orleans do not want the poor who lived in public housing to return at all.
  5. Tens of thousands of migrant workers have come to the Gulf Coast to work in the recover. Most workers tell of being promised good wages and working conditions, and plenty of work. Most of these promises were broken.
  6. Healthcare is in crisis. Charity Hospital, which saw 350,000 patient visits a year, remains closed, as do half the hospitals in the city.

It's a disturbing account that Quigley presents. Where is the kind of national leadership that our President and Congress should be offering the Gulf Coast? This remains a moral and political challenge to our nation, and so far we are not responding.

Quigley observes that "Katrina did not create the inequalities of gender, race, and class; it provided a window to see them more clearly. But the aftermath of Katrina has aggravated these inequalities."

I wonder what the future holds for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. I consider this one of the great moral issues of our day. Increasingly, I believe people of faith must rise to the challenge of mission in the Gulf.

Historian Douglas Brinkley frames the issue well in his monumental account of the week of the flood in New Orleans brought on by Katrina: "I have no doubt that New Orleans will recover, in time, form Hurricane Katrina. But America as a nation will never get over what happened."

(The Great Deluge, Douglas Brinkley, William Morrow Publishing, 2006)

This Memorial Day Week-end is a opportunity to realize that all battles for good aren't fought on distant battle-fields between armed combatants. Sometimes the battles are closer to home and they are moral and spiritual and political, and they will define the kind of people we are as a nation just as surely as other engagements we have entered as a nation.

Monday, May 21, 2007

This Life!

This life, therefore,
is not godliness but the process of becoming godly,
not health but getting well,
not being but becoming,
not rest but exercise.

We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way.
The process is not yet finished, but is actively going on.
This is not the goal, but it is the right road.

At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle,
but everything is being cleansed.
Martin Luther

This past Sunday afternoon, my new friend George, from Michigan
shared the above thought from Martin Luther at the concluding worship gathering
for "Great Plains Pilgrimage #1" at Calvin Crest, our presbytery camp located along the banks of the Platte River here in Nebraska. Actually, he gave this quote to me on a printed page as a parting gift. Something in the words and in the spirit of the giver made Luther's observations come alive for me.

In just a couple of meetings with George, I experienced a grace-filled man who later on in life, in his retirement, has discovered a deep calling to invite others into a relationship with the living Christ. It was just last Tuesday that I met some of the 40 lay and clergy Pilgrimage leaders who flew in from North Carolina, Georgia, Oklahoma, Michigan, Minnesota, and Iowa.
All came at their own expense to offer service and leadership for the inaugural Great Plains Pilgrimage. It's based on Cursillo, a Spanish renewal movement in the church that came to the United States and has been appropriated by Methodists in Walk to Emmaus and by Catholics and Lutherans and Presbyterians among others. Cursillo means a short course in Christian faith.

What I experienced in meeting these Pilgrimage new friends was a deep joy about growing in faith. My wife Cheryl was the Pilgrimage pastor for the week-end and far more involved than I, since I had other commitments. But sitting around a table for lunch even on the first day of the arrival of Pilgrimage servant leaders was enough for me to see how contagious this movement of Christians can be.

Arriving late on Sunday afternoon with a couple of vans to pick up these new friends and drive them to the airport, I had the delight of experiencing the closing worship celebration. Joyful music, inviting worship leaders, an embracing feeling of fellowship and hospitality all drew me in. And imagine this! Hearing Presbyterians getting up and briefly speaking about their faith and experience of grace over the course of 3 1/2 days of a renewal week-end. I heard and saw all this and thought, this is the kind of discipleship experience that I want to have with other followers of Christ.

Luther said it well, in the quote my friend George shared:

We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way.
The process is not yet finished, but is actively going on.
This is not the goal, but it is the right road.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Report from the Border

Rarely a day goes by that Lou Dobbs of CNN Broadcasting doesn't feature a piece of advocacy journalism on immigration from a very biased perspective. Build a wall is usually his recommendation. Deport illegal immigrants is another argument. The issue is much more complex and politically and economically charged. What role does faith play in this national conversation?

This week the Mission Committee of Missouri River Valley Presbytery made a conference call to BorderLinks in Tucson, AZ to speak with Michael Plank who is spending a year along the border with Mexico as part of a Presbyterian Church (USA) mission internship that sends recent college graduates all over the world. It's an exciting program and we wanted to talk with Michael about his experience. Michael is from Omaha, Nebraska where we made our call. First a word about BorderLinks.

BorderLinks is headquartered in Tucson, AZ across the border from Nogales, Mexico. Founded in 1987, BorderLinks is a bi-national non-profit organization that offers experiential education seminars along the border with Mexico focusing on the issues of global economics, militarization along the border, immigration, environmentalism and health issues, and concerns of oppression and violence. The web site is

Mexican immigrants crossing the border into the United States put their lives in jeopardy to find some kind of economic opportunity for themselves and their families Michael told us. We grasped that. As one member of our committee said, if the restaurants in West Omaha had to let go all their immigrant workers most of these eating establishments would close. It's a controversial issue. Some argue that immigrants are taking jobs from Americans. Others maintain that the jobs most often taken by immigrants are jobs no one else wants.

Michael described the dangerous journey across the desert into the United States that immigrants usually take over the course of 3-4 days with little water or food or medical supplies. Since 1994 an estimataed 2,500 deaths have occurred during the crossing. I can hear Lou Dobbs voice now, saying, no one forced them to take such a risk.

What would you say to Dobbs, I asked Michael. First, Michael observed, migrants are people who are desparate to work to feed their families. They are not criminals. They are sons and daughters, and mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts and family members just trying to survive in a global economy. Secondly, Michael commented, militarization along the border isn't working. We need to adddress the root causes of migration and work with the Mexican government to urge them to find ways to improve economic opportunity. And we need to partner with them to help that process.

Michael spoke about humanitarian efforts to offer assistance to immigrants, such as the Samaritan patrols into the desert to offer first aid, food and water and medical attention. These teams consist of one Spanish speaker and a doctor. Water tanks marked by a blue flag are also placed at strategic passage points in the desert.

How is border security and enforcement currently working, we asked Michael. He told us that som 2,000 people per day are being arrested for illegal entry. But he estimates that this is only 25% of the total who are successfully entering. Those who cross are often preyed upon by coyotes transporters who charge signifant fees to smuggle immigrants. Other criminal activity is occurring with human trafficking for sex and trafficking for what amounts to indentured servitude. There are many justice issues at stake along the border.

BorderLinks offers experiential learning seminars to groups who want to learn more about the complexity of the immigration issue and related concerns of life along the border with Mexico. Michael shared with us that a typical size group would be 10-15 participants who might come for 1-6 days for a customized seminar. Many groups are college age students or high school students.

BorderLinks is an ecumenical group with the goal "to give participants the opportunity to personally experience" all the complex of issues that are part of the border debate and "to develop their own opinions" about these concerns. If you go to the site you will see a calendar of groups from all over the United States coming to experience first-hand the crisis of the border. It's a pressing issue of public policy and a serious matter for people of faith to consider. The controversy isn't going away. In fact, it's building.

We were delighted to speak with Michael and learn more about his mission experience with the Presbyterian Church USA. For more information, go to the web site and go to the site search engine alphabetical list and lick on "m" for mission and you can read Michael's letters from the mission field.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Earth's Changing Climate: What is in Store for the Future?

It was raining last night as I walked into the Scott Conference Center at University of Nebraska-Omaha to hear a lecture on climate change. Did the rain deter attendance? Absolutely not! There was a capacity crowd gathered in the conference center, perhaps as many as 500. I looked around the room and saw a broad age range of people - high school and college students, middle adults, and many older adults. The room was energized and alert for the presenter.

The lecturer was Dr. Henry N. Pollack, a native of Omaha, and for more than 40 years a professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan. Pollack carries a reputation as one of the world's leading experts on the temperature of the earth, both today and in the geological past. He's been a consultant with leaders in government and business on climate change. As he remarked, "The idea of a global economy is readily grasped. Why would we deny the existence of global climate impacts by human behavior?"

Pollack began by commenting that no other scientific topic has been so consistently present in the news over the last 10 years. Climate change generates considerable interest. The roomful of listeners last night bore out that claim

In 2007, over the course of recent months, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued 3 major reports on behalf of the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organinzation that detail major new findings that Pollack summarized for us.

Four major questions served as the outline for the lecture by Dr. Pollack:
1. Is the climate changing?
2. What is causing climate change?
3. What will be the consequences?
4. What should be done about climate change?

The first 3 questions are scientific in nature. The last question is primarily political, economic, ethical, and religious in nature.

Question #1: Pollack used power point slides of temperature measurements of the oceans and land masses over the last 120 years to illustrate conclusive proof that the climate is changing and temperatures are rising. 20 of the 25 hottest temperatures on record have occurred in the last 50 years. Most striking was Pollack's powerful use of slides to conclusively show the loss of mountain glacial fields and loss of snow mass on mountains such as Kilamanjaro in Africa.
Ice melt in Greenland and breaking of ice masses from the mainland in Antarctica from satellite photos were also shown.

According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal."

Question #2: What is causing climate change? Scientific evidence decisively points to human agency as the overwhelming cause for climate change. Greenhouse gases are trapping heat in the atmosphere and thereby warming surface temperatures. IPCC asserts that this is a 90% probability.

Question #3: What are the consequences? Take your pick:
* A warmer planet
* Higher sea levels
*Extreme weather events
*Ocean acidification
*Geographic shifts of biota (changing plant & animal life)

Ice is melting and there will eventually be no glacier mountains. This is catastrophic in that 1/6 of the world's population, some 1 billion people, depend on glacial melt for water and for crops.

More dangerous heat waves are coming

Human health will be impacted.

Rising sea levels carry catastrophic impacts. The IPCC projects that a 1 meter rise in sea level in the coming century would displace 100 million people as "climate refugees". Compare that Dr. Pollack told us to our inability to cope with 100,000 refugees from Hurricane Katrina.

Question #4: What should we be doing? First, we must move out of denial! You can't confront a problem without admitting it, Dr. Pollack told us. Enormous denial exists. The good news is increased public awareness is growing. Looking around the room the night of this lecture was proof of that reality.

Here's where Pollack issued a principle of climate change policy:
"Avoid the unmanageable, while seeking to manage the unavoidable."

Another principle is to mitigate or slow and reverse climate change and its consequences. This will be a slow, but determined process for the rest of the 21st century.

Actions to be taken include:
1. Conseration of electricity and other energy fuels.
2. More efficient transportation. We could set a target to drive 500 million cars 5,000 fewer miles each year. Increase fuel economy from 30-60 mpg.
3. Renewable energy sources. Wind power and solar cells must be expanded.
4. Biofuels increased
5. Nuclear power. We haven't build a new nuclear plant in 30 years.

I came away from last night's lecture with a far greater understanding of the issues in climate change and a resolve to learn more and to do something.

Pollack made a strong challenge: "The United States must blaze the trail for others to follow."

I wonder. Will we take up the challenge?