American Pride

Two events this past week have garnered my interest enough for me to attempt to figure out why they matter so much to me in the first place and whether they are connected in any way. The first was the Women’s World Cup match between the United States and Japan, in which the U.S. lost to Japan in penalty kicks. The second was the breaking news about the drought and famine crisis in the Horn of Africa. Besides both being national headlines, I dug deeper to find why I have been mesmerized by these two seemingly unrelated events.

For starters, everyone by now knows the names “Hope Solo”, “Abby Wambach”, and probably also “Alex Morgan”. Many are calling them household names because of their incredible performances on the United States Women’s National Soccer team. Americans have come to appreciate Abby’s headers and Hope’s unbelievable saves. Though it may still be surprising that Twitter broke its record for most tweets per second (beating both the royal wedding and the death of Osama Bin Laden!) during the World Cup Final, in which Japan beat out the U.S. in penalty kicks[1]. As the United States team watched on while the Japan team danced and cheered for their victory, Americans worldwide could agree on one thing: after so much devastation and loss after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, this Japanese women’s team deserved this glory.

A few days later, the United Nations declared a famine in the Horn of Africa, specifically Somalia. I picked up a few key facts about the crisis on, which follow.  The cause of the famine is a severe drought in Somalia that is forcing Somalis to flee in search of food and water to reach refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. The U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia estimated that around $300 million was needed in the next two (yes, two!) months to alleviate the famine. 3.7 million people are now facing famine, with estimates reaching up to 10 million people who could be at risk. The U.S. has pledged $28 million in funding for the famine refugees. Yet, Oxfam has issued statements on the crisis pointing to the developed world’s failures, “ ‘The warning signs have been seen for months, and the world has been slow to act. Much greater long-term investment is needed in food production and basic development to help people cope with poor rains and ensure that this is the last famine in the region’”.[2]

Oxfam, a group of organizations working to find solutions to poverty and injustice worldwide, is pointing to the importance of sustainable practices and tools for farmers in developing countries. The unfortunate part is that the situation spiraled out of control and now what is needed in emergency relief. This type of relief is certainly more costly and ineffective for the entire world, and certainly the U.S.  As the U.S. government currently broods over what to do about the pending budget deadline on August 2nd, this type of crisis may not take first priority. This is why organizations, like ONE, are preparing to focus on the famine and how to keep it on the government’s radar.

Fortunately, I was able to sit down with a member of the policy team here at ONE a few weeks ago and get debriefed on global agricultural policy. Interestingly enough, one of the first points that was brought up was the shortcomings of current food aid. I gleaned some important shortcomings of the food aid system in place today. The process of delivering food aid is known as the “iron triangle” in agricultural circles. It involves the farmers who farm the product, then ships that transport the product, and the non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) that deliver the product. The process can be inefficient and ineffective because it is generally more expensive to buy the food in the U.S. and then ship it rather than buying the food locally. The reason the U.S. does not favor buying locally is because this would undermine farmers here at home. Therein lies one of the greatest obstacles in food aid: the U.S. farmers’ interest plays heavily into what we do overseas. The challenge is in convincing Americans that it is important (and beneficial for the whole world) for developing countries to create and sustain their own food production.

This is where I begin to make a bit of a stretch in my thinking, but just stay with me. Something that I have become aware of at ONE is how much I have believed in the “exceptionalism” of America my whole life. I have been so proud to call myself an American, where going to school is a right, not a privilege, and where I can speak my mind without fear of punishment by my government. I realize that I need to change my thinking from America as an exceptional and superior nation to America as a nation that has the resources and capacity to help other nations. I have fallen into the trap of “idolizing” America. The U.S. women’s soccer team’s loss to Japan was upsetting as an American, but it was also humbling. Here was a team that had brought home its first women’s World Cup victory ever and it had done it the same year its country lost so many of its people to a natural disaster. I would be so bold to say that many Americans wereproud for Japan. I certainly was. Sometimes feeling this sort of pride for another nation can be the most rewarding kind. This pride for Japan is a sign of hope that the U.S. can overcome its exceptionalism, which in effect could be very helpful if applied to agricultural policy. The urgency of the situation in the Horn of Africa demands Americans to realize the value of pride in other nations. This sort of crisis not only needs immediate relief, but also long-term investment. I think it would be worthwhile to revisit global agricultural policies, specifically food aid and sustainable practices to figure out how to best help farmers in developing countries to lessen the blow of future climate challenges. If this can be done, then perhaps one day, Americans could be proud to see how far those nations have come.

To bring in a key theological point that I came across in Church, State, and Citizen: Christian Approaches to Political Engagement, a common trend lately is how “Americans tend to view history and the place of Christians in it through the glasses of the history of the United States- the lead nation of freedom, prosperity, and democracy- rather than through the glasses of the coming of God’s creation-wide kingdom in Jesus Christ” (Joireman, 66). As a Christian and an American, it can be easy to fall into thinking that God has a special place in his kingdom for Americans because of their achievements at home and abroad. It may sound obvious, but it is easy to forget that God’s kingdom does not favor Americans. I will always be proud of America and grateful for the life I am fortunate to have because of its liberties. But as a Christian, I will continue to challenge myself to believe in the possibilities and future of every nation.

My biggest hope right now is that Americans tap into their pride for other nations, either by raising awareness about this growing crisis in Somalia, or by getting involved with one of ONE’s partner organizations on the ground. For more information on the famine and how to help, go to:

Lessons in Stories

Stories: the tales of our lives. How powerful they can be. How amazing is their ability to animate a historical event and paint a vivid, dream-like picture. Their recollection of the past possesses the ability to inspire, to celebrate, and even to mourn. They enable us to see friends and enemies in a new light. Stories promote understanding and compassion, revealing our human interconnectedness in their raw emotion. This week, they have made me cry, laugh and ponder in silence. Even amidst the monotony of daily work here at the office, I have had the privilege of hearing, reading, and experiencing powerful stories of triumph, sorrow and adventure.

This week I have been working on a comparative study of the Loudoun Literacy Council (LLC) adult literacy program and our own Nuestras Esperanzas in Nicaragua. I have been studying the LLC curriculum, observing classes, and interviewing teachers and administrators in order to find commonalities and learn from LLC’s successes. While academically I have picked up a lot of valuable information about how to implement a literacy program, what has been the most impactful for me has been hearing the stories of students and teachers.

This past Tuesday, I walked into a classroom to observe a beginner adult literacy session and I beheld a beautiful thing. A small group of people from a variety of countries, ages and socioeconomic positions were learning to speak, read and write English together. Though their skin color and native languages were different, they acted as a small family unit, helping each other to learn. Beth, a board member of Loudoun Literacy Council described the environment as being “like a mini U.N.” She explains, “we all learn from each other’s experiences and cultures and it creates a sense of empathy and camaraderie.” Beth has taught many literacy classes such as the one I observed and she often asks her students to come up in front of the class and talk about their own story and the country they grew up in. Presenting gives them practice, confidence and helps the students to learn from each other. Once or twice she has had refugees or immigrants in her class who come from countries in conflict with one another. By the end of the class season, their political tension is replaced with a new understanding of their peers. Beth says she has been blessed to hear some of their stories and to become a close friend. A refugee named Selamawi Asgedom and his family hold a special place in her heart. Selamawi or “Mawi” has an incredible story that he recounts in his book Of Beetles and Angels: A Boys Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard. As the title alludes to, Mawi came to America as an Ethiopian refugee and through his hard work and angelic disposition, he is now a Harvard alum, a world famous speaker, and has even appeared on Oprah. His story is one of triumph, loss, faith and legacy. Beth had the privilege of being a part of this amazing journey as she taught members of his family to speak English through her ESL program many years back.

Another beautiful thing to behold is people of all faiths working alongside of each other to make dreams such as Mawi’s come true. Both Christians, such as Beth, and non-Christians volunteer for this program. Though Beth wholeheartedly points to her faith in God as her number one motivation for serving in this area, she sees many others serving out a pure love for humankind and a passion for the international community. I believe that regardless of religion, we are all designed in such a way that when we help others we find ourselves with that delightful, “warm and fuzzy feeling” in the pit of our stomachs.

However, sometimes we only help people or are compassionate towards them after we have heard their story. I have noticed that I am more likely to take action or feel pity for someone when I am aware of their personal journey. Stories can be powerful for sure, but I don’t believe they should be necessary in order to motivate us to help. In his book Mawi writes,

“… our father told us about strangers. We should always treat them kindly, he said, because they could have been sent by God. He told us stories of how back home in Adi, God’s angels would descend out of mountains and mingle among people. People always mistreated the angels, my father said, because the angels never looked like angels. They were always disguised as the lowliest of beetles: beggars, vagrants and misfits” (29).

Regardless of their pasts, Mawi and his family always cared for these strangers. They acted in the spirit of Matthew 25, “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… ” Jesus essentially says to treat everyone as if they were Him in disguise. As cliché as this may sound, the world would be a much better place if we simply envisioned the strangers around us as Jesus himself or an undercover angel. In turn, we would see our own stories evolve and the pages become filled with new friends and powerful memories.

Poverty and Redemption

This week I started reading When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. I’ll admit that I opened the book with a bit of skepticism after reading the title. “I’ve heard this before” I thought, “this is going to be another pessimist claiming that aid work often does more harm than good.” I acknowledge that some forms of aid are more efficient or successful in poverty alleviation, but being an optimist, I like to believe that all forms of aid help in some way or another. As long as people are giving, that’s all that counts, right? Yet the more I become involved with non-profits and international aid organizations and the more I study economics, the more I see how negative consequences can outweigh the immediate benefits if one is not careful. For example, feeding a whole village for a month may fill the children’s empty stomachs, but in the end it could put the local farmers out of jobs as they cannot compete with free food. So when the end of the month arrives, the people are left with less food than before… and the cycle of poverty continues.

In the End of Poverty, economist Jeffrey Sachs writes about approaching aid from a “clinical” perspective (74). He explains that each case of poverty is distinct and one must diagnose and treat the problem based on the specific region and its unique issues. Fikkert builds upon this idea of individualized aid, further explaining that if “we only treat the symptoms or if we misdiagnose the underlying problem, we will not improve their situation and we might actually make their lives worse” (54). Many people, like myself, are passionate about helping the poor, but even the best of intentions don’t guarantee the best results when it comes to alleviating world poverty.

So what exactly is poverty? My initial reaction is to give the typical, textbook answer, “Poverty is a lack of material possessions and basic necessities such as food, water and shelter. To be poor is to have little money to buy those things.” However, over time I have learned that the answer to that question is much more complex and variable. According to Fikkert, those who have grown up in privileged, North American countries view poverty very differently from those who live in third world countries (53). Whereas Americans generally perceive poverty as purely a lack of material possessions, as I had, those who are actually lacking material possessions also acknowledge the physiological aspect of poverty—the shame, feelings of inferiority, helplessness and the dehumanization that often occur. Poverty can take many shapes and forms. It can present itself as a lack of opportunity, knowledge, political voice, self-esteem, health care, material goods and many other things. The Bible seems to concur with this idea as it alludes to many different forms of poverty. It not only addresses the material aspect of poverty by calling Christians to “share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked to clothe him…” but also acknowledges the internal struggles of the poor, “… seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the fatherless, plead the cause of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17, 58:7).

Our definition of poverty is vital because it affects the way we try to tackle poverty. For example, if one views poverty as the absence of material possessions, then that person will attempt to fill that void by supplying materials goods. Likewise, if one views poverty as oppression by powerful people, one will seek out social justice. If one perceives poverty as a spiritual emptiness, one might assuage that by introducing the Gospel. One could also believe that poverty is a result of laziness on the part of the people, and so he or she may do nothing at all. Definitions are important because they determine our perceptions of the poor themselves and dictate our future actions. This is why Fikkert writes “we must be careful lest we impose our own cultural assumptions into contexts that we do not understand very well” (108). To be really effective and make the right “diagnosis”, one must understand the culture and its individual needs. I think it was for these reasons that the CFC literacy program was translated and will be taught by local Nicaraguans who understand the mentality, culture and socioeconomic positions of the people. Only Nicaraguans truly understand what poverty is like in Nicaragua and how to best empower the people (though I think that we can still offer help in many ways).

Therefore, despite all my research and interviews, I will never fully comprehend what these Nicaraguans have experienced. I do not know what it is like to be poor—to wonder when my next meal will be, to struggle to find a job, to worry about tropical diseases like malaria afflicting my family. But in other ways, I know what it is like to be poor. I know what it feels like to be yearning for something better—to see injustice and brokenness around me, in my life and in the U.S., and to recognize that “this is not how things are supposed to be.” I see abuse, hurt, loneliness, spiritual emptiness, selfishness and other manifestations of brokenness and relational poverty. According to the Bible, every human being is poor in one way or another. Due to the Fall, our relationships with each other, with God, with ourselves and with creation are broken. We do not experience life and relationships in the way that God originally intended. Fikkert writes that “the Fall really happened, and it is wreaking havoc in all of our lives. We are all broken, just in different ways… and until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good” (64). This is not to downplay the dire situation of the material poor, but to help us realize we are all in need of saving, in more than one way. I believe that the one and only “cure” for all of these ailments which we possess, is Jesus; He is the ultimate doctor, healer and economist who will never make a misdiagnosis for He knows our individual needs. Christianity teaches that His kingdom promises a restoration of the world and its people from “every tribe, tongue, people and nation” (Revelation 14:6).


I realized today that I have been talking extensively about this literacy program we are introducing in Nicaragua without fully defining literacy and explaining what this particular curriculum entails. A literacy program generally refers to an educational course designed to teach students how to read and write. Simple enough. But what makes this program so unique is that it goes beyond mere literacy. Woven throughout the curriculum are discussion periods, life skills development, health and hygiene talks, basic mathematics lessons and an introduction to Christianity. So while the adult students are learning to read, they are also learning how to take care of their family health needs, manage finances and even learn business skills. A crucial aspect of the program is the allotted discussion period where the students engage in weekly conversations about specific topics and learn to think critically about the world around them. This literacy program is truly a holistic approach to personal transformation through education.

This all encompassing, multi-dimensional curriculum aligns with many global poverty reduction models. The UN Millennium Development Goals specifically come to mind: universal education, the end of poverty and hunger, gender equality, child health, maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, environmental sustainability and global partnership. This literacy program specifically addresses almost every one of these aforementioned objectives. The reading and writing portions coincide with the goal of universal education, the health and hygiene sections seek to prevent diseases and infections, and finally the discussion periods tackle cultural issues such as gender roles, community cohesion and even religion. I am getting excited just writing about this program! I genuinely believe that it possesses incredible potential to change lives and communities. The people that I have talked to in Nicaragua recognize this too and seem just as, if not more enthusiastic than I.

Funny enough, I learned today that this program was originally developed with the teachings of Paolo Freire in mind. He wrote the book that I am currently reading, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as well as Education for Critical Consciousness. One of his most revolutionary and keynote ideas pertaining to education in his books is that education should be about dialogue. He says “‘problem-posing’ education, responding to the essence of consciousness—intentionality—rejects communiqués and embodies communication… Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 79). In his view, education should not mean simply memorizing facts and listening to teachers. The learning environment should embody conversation and exploration. He believes that only through this form of education can students be challenged to respond to problems and change their society for the better. That is exactly what this literacy program is seeking to do through its distinct curriculum… encourage dialogue for empowerment.

One thing that Freire does not address, however, is the faith aspect of change. We can probably all agree that education is crucial to the transformation of lives and communities. I wonder though, what role faith plays in this educational arena. As I briefly alluded to in the beginning, also incorporated into this literacy program’s curriculum is an introduction to basic Christian theology. You may find yourself asking what the rational is behind this inclusion of religion into a literacy program. My answer is that Christians with whom I have interacted thus far strongly believe in the importance of faith alongside of education. I would like to quote from a teacher in Puerto Cabezas named Javier who put it simply, saying, “knowledge plus God equals transformed lives. You need both.” Like Javier, my personal inclination based on experience is to think that the inclusion of a spiritual element adds more depth and strength to any transformation because it penetrates to the core: the heart. Over the remaining course of this internship though, I intend to further explore this question. Perhaps my observations of the differences between a secular literacy program taught in Loudoun County, Virginia and the spiritually infused literacy program in Nicaragua will shed some light on the matter. While only time will reveal the true quality of transformation, I hope to be lucky enough to get a glimpse of it during the next few weeks.

The Power of Many in ONE

Browsing the ONE Sabbath website, I found that a large part of mobilizing the faith communities in support of ONE’s agenda is showing them how crucial their role is on the global stage. This realization is also tied in with realizing that various faith communities have to come together and work as one (no pun intended) to effect positive global change. I have yet to see this type of faith in action on the ground level, but I can try and give my own insights into the value of this type of alliance.

Growing up, I was always aware of the existence of other religions. This was not because other religions were discussed at church, at home, or in school (I went to a secular private school). It was because I had friends who were Jewish. The only thing I knew that was different about me and my friend Jane was that her religion did not hold that Jesus Christ was the son of God. That was such a small difference to me then. For this reason, I honestly had a hard time understanding just why we had to distinguish our religions. As a child, it is obvious why I would try to promote similarities between myself and a friend because being different could be alienating. Yet there is something to be learned from my naïve, younger self. As an adult Christian (it is still scary that I consider myself an adult now!), I am more prone to point out the differences, rather than the similarities, between my religion and those of my friends. With a declared major in Religious Studies, the main focus of my study is delving into the various aspects of different religions and examining their differences. My question is: is it possible to recognize these differences and their value while alsoentertaining the naïve idea that my religion really isn’t all that different from another one? It sounds contradictory, which is why many people would answer:  “Absolutely not! Christianity is fundamentally different from Judaism (or Islam, or Hinduism, etc) so it is useless to highlight the similarities.” Miroslav Volf’s recent book Allah: A Christian Responseaddresses this question. He posits that not only do Christianity and Islam, commonly believed to be radically different religions, share a common God, but that this similarity is so valuable that it has the unique power of uniting the two faiths for a common purpose. He explains,

When Christians and Muslims turn from each other and look around,
they quickly realize that the problems they face together are bigger
than the problem they present to each other- abject poverty of millions,
scarcity of freshwater, irreparable degradation of the environment,
widespread disease, and more. Instead of merely facing each other to
quarrel or reconcile, can we stand shoulder to shoulder to tackle
together these grave ills of humanity? (213)

For Volf, the idea that Muslims and Christians share the same God means that they also share a responsibility to help solve worldwide problems. A common God implies a common idea of what it means to love. Volf explores various possibilities of what constitutes love and how Islam and Christianity, in particular, deal with love. He comes to the conclusion that there is a commonality between love in Islam and the type of neighborly love found in Christianity, the “love thy neighbor as thyself” type of love. Because of this common love, he believes “there is no reason why they should not join forces and care together” (213). This brings me back to ONE Sabbath and how it effects change by harnessing this very idea. If various faiths can rally around a common cause, then the differences between them seem to diminish. This is not to say that the differences between faiths don’t matter, because I certainly believe they do, and I think Volf would say they do as well. But they should not get in the way of a chance for faith communities to come together and use their power (and ultimately, voices) to effect change in the world. This is the kind of alliance that ONE depends on and it is the kind of manpower that is needed to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. Like I said, I don’t have experience on the ground about this kind of alliance. But I want to. This is why this past week I reached out to my local pastor to set up a conversation regarding my church’s potential involvement with ONE and collaboration with other faith communities. I want to take part in this kind of inter faith dialogue and I want to harness the energy that is available because I know it is there.

I think returning to my roots in my local congregation may be the largest step I have made so far in bridging the gap between Richard Stearns’ experience (which I mentioned in a previous blog post) and my own. I can’t wait to see where these next few weeks take me!

The Proof Is in the Living

Human beings always want proof, whether it is in the form of evidence for a crime scene, a mathematical proof, or proof that an event actually occurred. Either way, “proof” is an indication that something is valid andtrue. A big part of the job here at ONE is to prove to people that what we are campaigning for is working and will continue to work with continued support and advocacy. It’s hard to convince someone of something if there is no proof to back it up. Which is why ONE started the Living Proof Campaign: to highlight individuals and communities that are thriving because they have received sustainable aid from governments like the United States. As Bill and Melinda Gates explain in the Living Proof Presentation, it’s about time that people heard some good news. So, what is the good news?

I could talk here about the numbers, which are certainly important. Take, for instance, the fact that as of 2008 less than 9 million children were dying each year as opposed to 20 million in 1960. Or what about the fact that nearly 4,000,000 Africans are now on life-saving AIDS medication, what we call anti-retroviral (ARV’s) medication. Or, most astounding of all, that over 1 billion people have been lifted out of the vicious cycle of poverty. All of these facts and more can be found on ONE’s Living Proof website (which I have added below). These numbers and facts are crucial to convincing the American public and other wealthy, developed countries that foreign aid is effective and sustainable. Yet something I learned while at the RESULTS conference last week was enlightening. When meeting with elected officials (or their aides, in most cases), what is important in pushing your agenda is to be human, to tell them stories that will affect them and make them listen to what you have to say. ONE created videos (which can also be found on the website) that highlight real success stories and can be used as talking points when meeting with a member of Congress!

Amidst all of this demand for proof, I find myself wishing that we didn’t need to constantly ask for proof that giving sustainable aid to the world’s poorest is working. This wish is useless though, because in a time when the most important discussion on the table is the economy, people want to know that their money is being well spent and used effectively. However, even if times have changed, the constant demand for proof has not. It is as ancient a concept as any. Even Moses knew that the people of Israel would need proof that the Lord appeared to him. He cries, “ ‘suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say ‘The Lord did not appear to you’’” (Exodus 4:1). In turn, the Lord grants Moses certain miracles to perform for the people to convince them of the truth. Even Jesus was not beyond giving proof of his message. In the Gospel of John, we find Jesus proclaiming to the Jews, “‘If I do them [the miracles], even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father’”(John 10:38).

The Bible shows that demand for proof and the presence of proof is as much a part of Christianity as it is a part of the secular world. I struggle with this idea, that faith alone is not enough for Christians to believe that what is right–such as advocating for the world’s poorest around the globe–does not need proof. I realize that we are all human and Jesus also understood that humans need proof to believe. This doesn’t mean that the proof must be artificial proof. The best way to see this proof is through human lives.  I am not just talking about lives that have been saved, but lives that have been transformed. Miroslav Volf says it best in his book,Allah: A Christian Response (which I will cover next week), which sums up Martin Luther’s view on God and humanity:

God loves human beings not because they are or strive to be godly,
but in spite of the fact that they are ungodly; and God loves them
so as to create godliness in them, transforming them into beings
who reflect God’s love in the world (69).

There is a lot of “God” talk jammed into that one sentence, but even still, it is a powerful comment on how God manifests His love in the world. It makes me look at proof in a new light. It can be something to rejoice in and to be glad about, maybe even to shout from the rooftops! Why shouldn’t we proclaim the good news that is happening every day that is transforming people’s lives? Millions of children in Africa are alive today! Millions of children can now go to school! Millions of Africans are being treated successfully for HIV/AIDS! If this is not proof of God’s love in the world, then I don’t know what is.

To view various Living Proof videos and stories, click here: