20 February 2017

this ain’t yo’ great-aunt mildred’s definition of pro-life.


That is not the first time Billy Joel has been quoted on this blog. His lyrical relevance persists. A cursory read of news headlines and social media sharing suggests our world - and in particular the current state of the U.S. - is at a cataclysmic nexus point. Some days Ashley and I really do feel this way, wondering if we are actually living in "real life." But we are trying to keep our chin up, especially in light of welcoming little Fiona into this world! 

The reality is everything is not all doom and gloom. Global living conditions are steadily improving. A headline will seldom shed light on this fact, because news is shared one event at a time. A broader, more long-term perspective is needed.

source: our world in data

Yet, even if conditions in our world are improving, we cannot hide behind statistics. If we truly wish to see a better world, we must recognize that personal and social transformation go hand in hand. If we wish to improve life, then we must not only be life-giving, but also actively promote and accompany communities that share this same unwavering commitment upholding the dignity of all life. 

It is an awesomely wonderful time to live a values-led, mission-driven life. For us this means becoming energized by the mission of communicating life to others with a special preference for marginalized persons and communities. This is our vocation, not only as Maryknoll Lay Missioners, but also as conscious Catholics and global citizens endeavoring to bring about greater solidarity in an increasingly globalized yet fractured world. Make no mistake about it: we are inspired by the life of Jesus to live and work in ministry at the margins. But the will and yearning for a more just and compassionate world is not limited to Christian ideology, and we invite others to deeper personal reflection regarding how each of us as members of the global community can be an agent of transformation in a restless world longing for peace. Goodwill alone is insufficient, for even goodwill on its own has contributed to many tragedies. 

Over the past four months, Ashley and I took and completed an online graduate course called Ministry on the Margins through Saint John's University School of Theology and Seminary, based in Collegeville, Minnesota. The hope was to gain a deeper understanding of our role as missioners working in a ministry with marginalized young women in Tanzania, but the course implications ran much broader, speaking to anyone working with poor and vulnerable persons in the United States or abroad. Through extensive reading, writing, and online discussion groups, Ashley and I were afforded the sacred opportunity to enter into deeper reflection regarding how we may become agents of transformation through mutual partnership in communities suffering from marginalization and oppression. Such communities exist the world over, and we would all benefit from creating the time necessary to ponder our contributions - be it action or inaction, advocacy or silence - that either perpetuate or transform such a state of being. None of us is an island. Even Hugh Grant's character, Will, learned this in the film, About a Boy.

One of the course readings was Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. In it, the pontiff writes, “Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others.” This call is particularly gripping against the backdrop of a world marked by extreme inequity, construction of walls, and abandonment of vulnerable refugee and immigrant families. We may not always agree with everything coming out of the Vatican, but we are  positively stirred by Pope Francis' message, and recognize that his words are not meant for a select few, but for all of us.

It is difficult to believe we are nearing the end of our three and a half years in Tanzania. As much as our mission has focused on accompaniment - entering into the reality of life of the local community and remaining present with them - it has also been about capacity building: empowering Tanzanians with added tools, training, and resources to further promote locally-led and locally-driven, sustainable solutions for poverty. But of course, it is easy to think that we have the resources and they have the needs. However, the Tanzanian women we work with in our ministries are not empty vessels needing to be filled. They have inherent resources and strengths, and we continue our ministries in the same way we entered them: confident that God is already at work in each one of the young women with whom we partner. These women are not an impact statistic to us. We have been privileged to be their host and their guest. We know them each by name. Such a mindset would not have been possible without leaving security on the shore and setting off beyond our comfort zone to give, receive, and share life with those we previously did not know or understand. Relationship is the game-changer.

Fear, hate and mistrust are taught, and depend on continued ignorance and lack of relationship to survive. Who among us hates the one we call by name? By deliberately encountering the stranger, they no longer are a stranger, and when he or she is known, how difficult it is be remain against. And when we become for the other, the entire spectrum shifts, for life is not defined by a moment or circumstance, but transcends the multicolored, multicultural, multilingual, inter-religious tapestry of human existence. And to be for life is to support the complete dignity of the total spectrum of life of a human being. Fr. James Martin, SJ captures our perspective on the dignity of life rather well.

source: millennial journal

It has and continues to be an honor living as Catholic lay missioners in a cross-cultural setting in East Africa. Tanzania and its people have been a catalytic force of spiritual formation in our lives, and we go forth in Tanzania and beyond with a continued respect and special concern for the most marginalized, vulnerable, and persecuted members of the global community, joyfully and relentlessly striving to help create a more just and compassionate world.

10 comments:

  1. I commend you for avoiding the excesses of the pro-life one-upmanship competition currently raging on facebook, which is beginning to look more and more like the tolerance one-upmanship competition which has been going on in our culture for a decade now, particularly (and lamentably) between different branches of Christianity. Great Aunt Mildred, at risk of appearing woefully behind the times, may at least claim that her understanding of pro-life is concerned with those who are being actively killed in the womb, at the rate of 320,000 per year in the U.S. alone. Whereas those who lack adequate housing or generous childcare, etc., are at least alive, with numerous existing programs supporting them and hundreds of billions a year spent. This is not to disagree with or take anything away from those who genuinely are concerned with all dimensions of life, but merely to defend Great Aunt Mildred, the target of some rather petty attacks lately.

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    1. The point is to say that to look at it from Great Aunt Mildred’s perspective alone is woefully incomplete, and that equal care, compassion and energy must be applied to protecting all of the unborn and all of the born if one is to claim a commitment to a pro-life ethic and be a change agent for a more just and equitable world.

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    3. I understood your point. I am merely saying that Great Aunt Mildred's perspective makes some sense when you consider that the active slaughter of unborn infants is far more horrid than people not having living wages or affordable health care. I might draw a comparison to the "Black Lives Matter"/"All Lives Matter" debate. All Lives Matter puts forth the argument, "Shouldn't we care about all lives, not just black lives?" While Black Lives Matter responds, "Well, of course we care about all lives, but black lives are under a unique, violent threat. So we will focus our concerns on them in the near term, before worrying about everyone else." I think this is basically a sound argument, either for BLM or for the pro life issue.

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    4. Pro-life is inextricably a perennial political ticket issue, and broadly comes in a package that consciously ignores and disregards the unique needs of the most vulnerable, neglected and marginalized already-born members of society while simultaneously promoting policies that serve to foster greater inequity. Black Lives Matter is a movement rightfully seeking to affirm the respect and dignity owed to consistently mistreated members of society; it is not a singular political ticket item asking you to choose and defend which form of life is most worthy of special protection. Black Lives Matter speaks to the dignity and value of all lives while at the same time giving voice to lives that are under a unique, violent threat. Pro-life is used politically to speak to the dignity and value of the unborn while at the same time failing to consider what more is needed to cascade a pro-life ethic throughout the spectrum of life. Comparing the tragedy of abortion to persons without a living wage or affordable healthcare, and saying that the former is far more horrid, is unhelpful and inappropriate, and is in fact the definition of Great Aunt Mildred's pro-life. Both situations are horrid, and must be recognized as such, and until that happens our society will continue to place unequal value on the lives of people. Only from a place of privilege can it be said that to live without a living wage or healthcare is not a horrid thing. I am motivated by the Gospel of Jesus which instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first, which encompasses a multitude of groups of people not to be compared - be they unborn or born - for all lives are worthy of compassion and the fully dignity of life.

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    5. I am not going to answer your remarks that I am speaking from a place of privilege, or that what I am saying is unhelpful or inappropriate. I do want to defend the pro-life movement against your attacks, which seem especially directed at people who vote for Republican leaders. (A little ironic perhaps, since I voted Democrat last fall.) Often it is said that if one supports minimal government, one is ignoring or disregarding the vulnerable, etc. Let me say that I have respect for those who vote Democrat for these reasons. But voting Republican does not mean not supporting the poor; it rather means choosing not to support the poor *through government*. A crucial distinction. One can wish to help the poor, but be cynical of government's ability to do it. Since you mention the Gospel of Jesus, I happen to think that Jesus teaches us to help the poor voluntarily, from our own initiative, not to enlist Caesar's help in making everyone help the poor whether they wish to or not. Studies have compared how much Republicans and Democrats each donate to charity on average; I think you may be surprised at the results. This is not to say that one side is better than the other, but rather that there are two philosophies, two approaches to how to help people: one through government, the other through private charity. And of course there are genuinely selfish people on both sides as well. It is helpful though to understand why a good person might vote a different way than you do. I also think that when government attempts to help people on a massive scale, it often (not always) creates dependency and saps initiative. This is not to say that government shouldn't "promote the general welfare," as it says in our Constitution, but rather that it must do so carefully and the best answer isn't always more money, bigger programs. So I hope this paints a more complex picture. On a more personal note, I think that if you really want to help people, you will attract more supporters by focusing on who you want to help and how, rather than getting into politics and attacking people who may be working for other Gospel-inspired ends and who, for whatever reason, may see the picture a little differently than you. We are one body, but with many parts; whoever is not against us is for us. Peace.

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    6. I certainly agree one can desire to support the poor regardless of political affiliation, be it through government or private charity. This critical distinction is not new to me but a valid and important point to bear in mind. Ultimately I believe that neither government programs nor charitable giving are sufficient. Rather we must, in the words of Pope Francis, "leave security on the shore" and "go into the streets" to immerse ourselves in the reality of the lives of those who are suffering. Expecting the government to entirely fulfill this role or believing financial contributions alone to be enough is, I believe, not enough. We cannot throw money at a social problem, be it through tax-funded government programs or personal giving, and call it a day. As you said, we are one body with many parts, and we all have a stake in what befalls our fellow parts. The picture is complex. I certainly know this and have consciously re-oriented my life to, as you said, focus on who you want to help, how, and I would add "do it." My delve into politics was necessary to distinguish the comparison you drew between pro-life from Black Lives Matter. I do not attack you but did take issue with some of your language (just as you subsequently took issue with some of mine); the ego in us all takes everything personally. Though it may be difficult to discern in this text, I send my peace to you as well.

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  2. Pro-Life your Whole-Life, makes common sense if you want to live like a Christian. Supporting the causes that Father James Martin espouses is easy to do. What's hard to do is doing something about it. I support many causes however don't always do anything about it. It is one of the primary reasons I have joined several other executives in an attempt to form a digital company that will help support all nonprofits no matter what the cause. DonorsUnite.Com should launch by June this year. Yes, it is a for profit undertaking however my investment in its development was not any ROI but instead for supporting the hundred, thousands, tens of thousands of nonprofits that struggle to support their pro-life causes as Father Martin proclaims. Peace be with you Michael, Ashley and Fiona - we all look forward to your return to the U.S. no matter what state anyone thinks it is in.

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    1. I generally prefer a for-profit model, or social enterprise, means of addressing poverty. Such an approach can do more to ensure sustainability and also fuel the innovative practices needed to help transform marginalized and vulnerable communities in line with a locally led agenda. Plus the profits can be reinvested back into the community further empowering social and economic transformation.

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  3. Hi Michael, I'm a recently retired journalism professor in Kentucky interested for humanitarian reasons in promoting solar cooking in Tanzania. I'm indirectly connected to Solar Cookers International in USA, which recently completed a project in Moshi, Tanzania, where about 100 cookers were distributed to families and then data was collected and disseminated on rates of use. (I helped fund that effort in a small way.) Now the question is, How should SCI follow up that effort? The principal investigator of the Moshi project, a Tanzanian who lives in Moshi, reported her findings at a conference in India in January. As it happens, a different presentation at the same conference was made by a man who has spend 22 years building a solar cooker business in Uganda. He received plenty of aid along the way, but in his report he said his business is now self-sustaining. He has set up a plant in Mbarara, Uganda, that produces thousands of low-cost cookers per year, and he has two stores in Uganda where the cookers and related items are sold. Just as important, his company (Solar Connect Association), employs dozens of women who both sell the cookers village-to-village on credit and educate their customers in how to use them. So it's a win-win-win-win situation: better health for customers who burn less wood indoors, more time for girls to go to school instead of collecting firewood, less deforestation, and employment for the women selling cookers. Efforts to date in Tanzania have involved aid agencies giving away solar cookers, as in the recently completed project in Moshi, and such limited efforts will never make a big impact. What is needed is an economically sustainable model, like Uganda's. So I am thinking a great next step for Solar Cookers International might be to try to bring the Ugandan business model to Tanzania. (A project officer at SCI likes this idea, but I think she is counting on me and a collaborator to flesh it out.) As a first step, I offered to fund a trip by the Moshi project principal investigator and a companion to go to SCA in Uganda to learn what they could about the successful business model there. No word back from them, but I am not too hopeful. Moreover, I do not think that Moshi (15th largest city in the country) is the ideal place to launch such an effort. Because of Mwanza's location, it could be a logical nexus in an effort to transfer technology and business practices (and maybe cookers) from Uganda to Tanzania. The problem with Mwanza is I can find no evidence of solar cooking activity or expertise. What I would like to find are folks in Mwanza who are open to learning about solar cooking and who might like to visit Uganda to learn about how things are done there, and who then might like to go into the solar cooker business. So I am writing to you to see if you have any ideas you can share with me. My email is brad.scharlott@gmail.com. Phone 859-426-5309. Thanks, Brad Scharlott

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