A Wake like Vultures

Vultures. Yes, vultures. They get a bad rap. Words such as ugly and macabre emerge. There’s even the expression “hovering like vultures” – not typically used in an endearing way. Many vultures do, indeed, have a non-traditional look with their bald heads and bare necks. Their eating habits lead many to look away for something more pleasing to the eye. Even one of their group names, a “committee” of vultures, does little to enhance their reputation.IMG_7069-1_edited-2 copy

But when they soar…

Have you seen them soar? Really seen them soar? Have you watched them join a thermal, perhaps briefly flapping their enormous wings (up to a six-foot wingspan), before soaring on the air beneath them? The metaphor is usually “soar like an eagle,” but I, for one, argue for a shift to “soar like a vulture.” They ride and soar and float.

The physical appearance puts many off, but perhaps their negative connotation comes less from their looks and more from where they go. They smell and seek death – not exactly where crowds are drawn. Not only do they seek death and decay, but they go there – they dive on in and take on the toxicity. They enter the realm of death willingly and with a purpose. They find death and they transform it. This story sounds familiar.

They do not succumb to death. Well, they haven’t. Yet.

Spring in Iowa means the return of the turkey vultures – Cathartes aura. Cathartes from the Greek katharsis (purifier) and aura (golden). Golden purifiers. (I’m guessing the committees around here would prefer that name over the generally used turkey vulture moniker.) They are purifiers, cleansers. In fact, they are indispensable in the containment of disease. Somehow, these birds can eat what other animals cannot. Anthrax, cholera, botulism, salmonella. They can eat dead carcasses that would kill other scavengers. They rid the environment of disease – purifying it – redeeming it. Creating, once again, the conditions for life. Without these vultures, these purifiers, death lives on.IMG_4521 edited

And yet, their existence is in peril. Just 15 years ago, there were millions of vultures in India. Those numbers have declined 97-99.9% due to a veterinary drug introduced to cattle back then. When these already sick cattle die, the vulture responds to its call – and in its attempt to bring renewal, becomes sick from the drug and dies. While vultures decontaminate our world, we are contaminating theirs.

And without them, death lives on…

A tree full of vultures might not be noticed unless you’re looking for them. They inhabit a stillness of being. Watching. Being present. They are awake. A wake. Feeding in a group,  golden purifiers are called a “wake.” This name seems more holy. They are a wake – awake. Awake to death. Awake to life. Awake to transform death to life (at least for now.) Are we?

May we choose to soar, awake.

IMG_5381_edited-1           Like vultures. Yes, vultures.

Shari L. Miller

(Photographs by Shari L. Miller)

Immigrant Children from Central America — Who are the Parents?

Grace Des Moines Peace

Guest Post from Dr. Jan L. Flora and Rev. Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz

Our chickens are coming home to roost with the large numbers of unaccompanied Central American children making the life-threatening journey from Central America through Mexico and across our southern border.  Perhaps a better metaphor would be to say that we fail to recognize our collective paternity of the children undertaking this dangerous trip.

Some readers may remember the Contra War under Reagan, but the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala by the Eisenhower Administration is little known here.  The CIA orchestrated the overthrow of Arbenz’ elected Guatemalan government in 1954 and replaced him with Col. Castillo Armas.  Arbenz had sought to peacefully change the extremely unequal land ownership patterns in that country.  Our support of right-wing governments triggered a 36-year insurgency. When indigenous peasants joined the fight a quarter century later, General Rios Montt’s regime (1982-83), according to Amnesty International, massacred 70,000 civilian women, children, and men. Although the U.S. wrung its hands at these grizzly human rights violations, military aid continued to flow to Rios Montt.  The current president Otto Pérez Molina was the general in charge of the army unit in El Quiche responsible for genocide in that area.  Currently, Guatemalan communities opposing mega projects (e.g., mining, hydroelectric dams) are being repressed when they opt instead for local and sustainable development.

U.S. support of the Somoza dictatorships in Nicaragua (1932-1979) and right wing governments in El Salvador and Honduras led to insurgencies in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, and pervasive human rights abuses in Honduras.  Only Costa Rica, which never had such unequal landholdings and which had a mild-mannered revolution in 1948 which resulted in the elimination of its military and regular democratic alternations in power of competing political parties to the present day. The Sandinista movement in Nicaragua came to power in 1979, prompting our fomenting of a bloody civil war there to forestall another Cuba in our hemisphere, though neither the Soviet Union nor China provided support to the guerrillas in any of the three countries.

Once the U.S. and its rightist Central American allies brought the insurgent groups to the table to negotiate a peace agreement in 1996, our development aid plummeted.  Our narrowly defined interests had prevailed, which somehow absolved our government of any need to build more just societies.  Formal democracy returned and has been unbroken in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, but the four Central American countries we “aided” in the 1980s are as impoverished as ever.  Absent significant economic development, right-wing regimes in El Salvador and Honduras offered an ideal setting for narco-traffickers to operate.  El Salvador, after a series of right wing governments, has finally elected progressive governments twice in a row, but inequality remains great. The deportation of Salvadoran gang members from Los Angeles has strengthened gang violence in that country.  President Obama, to his credit, ultimately decided not to block the election of a former FMLN guerrilla leader and his party to the Salvadoran Presidency earlier this year.

Honduras, from which the U.S. coordinated its Central American anti-guerrilla operations in the 1980s, had an abysmal human rights record. As a member of a Central American human rights task force of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in 1986, the first author visited Honduras with two other LASA scholars.  We verified the Honduran government’s human rights shortcomings and corroborated U.S. knowledge of those violations. Missionary friends recently returned and currently in Honduras indicate that that record remains problematic.  In 2006, Manuel Zelaya was elected President. He came to be modestly progressive, raising the minimum wage, aiding small farmers, and offering free public education.  The U.S., in contrast to most Latin American countries, ultimately gave its blessing to a bloodless coup in 2009, which stopped progressive government action.  Add the gang activities and it is not so surprising that child migration from Central America (especially Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador) is on the upswing.  This year, 75% of the unaccompanied children arriving on our southern border are from these three countries; most of the rest are from Mexico.  The Pew Hispanic Center analyzed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data showing that thegreatest number of unaccompanied children come from San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second city, where the homicide rate is 38 times that of New York City!

The UN refugee commissioner (UNHCR) recently interviewed a representative sample of 400 Central American and Mexican unaccompanied children ages 12-17 apprehended in the U.S. Forty-eight percent of the youth recounted being personally affected by organized violence from drug cartels, gangs, or state law enforcement personnel.  Twenty-two percent indicated having experienced abuse or violence by their caretakers at home. The UNHCR estimates that some 58% of the unaccompanied youth merit protection from returning home.  The DHS examined the origins of unaccompanied Central American children who came during the first 4 ½ months of 2014.  They concluded that “…many Guatemalan children come from rural areas, indicating they are probably seeking economic opportunities in the US.  Salvadoran and Honduran children… come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of travelling along to the US preferable to remaining at home.”  The Center for American Progress shows that lax border enforcement (the mantra of Sen. Grassley and Rep. King is “secure the border first”) is not a factor, since the amount spent on border interdiction has increased along with numbers of unaccompanied minors apprehended.  The numbers of such minors doubled from 2011 to 2013 and likely will double again from 2013 to 2014.  Border Patrol agents doubled between 2002 and 2013.  The $18 billion we spend annually on immigration enforcement dwarfs what we spend on health and development assistance ($198 million in FY2014) in all of Central America.

We provide military aid to Central America ostensibly to fight the drug wars.  A failed U.S. drug policy (failed because it has neither slowed drugs from south of the border nor reduced demand in the U.S.) strengthens the Honduran National Police with a suspect human rights record.  The Los Angeles Times on July 9 reported that an elite unit of the Honduran national police trained by the U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit to interdict drugs and arms, is currently assigned to keep Honduran children and families from crossing the border into Guatemala on their way to the U.S.  This immigrant interdiction program, “Operation Rescue Angels,” and has been in effect since VP Biden’s trip to Central America.  This aid is part of the $642 million spent since 2008 on security assistance to all seven Central American countries. $176 million was proposed for FY2014.

How have our public officials responded to child migration?  Not well. President Obama seeks additional funds for Health and Human Services to house unaccompanied minors, but proposes to change the 2008 law that prevents summary deportation of unaccompanied children all countries but Mexico. The Administration is now working on a proposal to grant refugee status to a limited number of Honduran children and youth in Tegucigalpa, but that is not likely to stem the tide of unaccompanied child immigration. The Administration seems to be as embarrassed by the appearance of these refugees as Republicans should be for failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the single most important factor in unauthorized migration to this country.  Reps. Latham and King and Sen. Grassley have stood up for “strict” adherence to immigration law, while blocking comprehensive immigration reform. Such reform would diminish problems generated by and for the youthful sojourners who risk life and limb to escape an intolerable social situation in their countries of origin and/or to be reunited with parents they may have not seen for many years. It does appear that – in the short term — the Pharisees speak louder than those who embrace the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Governor Branstad has steadfastly refused to collaborate with other Iowans in helping Iowa’s share of these brave, ragged children to be housed here while it is sorted out which have relatives where in the U.S., which should be eligible for asylum, and which could safely be deported back to their home countries.  Governor Branstad seems determined to take an anti-Obama stance, when he should be taking a pro-Governor Ray stance – welcoming refugees from troubled parts of the world.  Governor Branstad distinguishes the child refugees from Central America and those who came to Iowa from Southeast Asia in the late 1970s, by saying that the latter came legally.  That is a distinction without a difference.  The bill proposed by the Senators from Arizona to allow a modest number of child refugees from Central America, also proposes to immediately turn back all those who would continue to arrive at our borders.  The irony of the anti-immigrant hysteria among certain of our political leaders is that immigrants who have arrived in Iowa since the 1990s, first mainly from Mexico, now increasingly from Central America and other war zones around the world, have enriched our culture, stabilized the population of certain declining rural counties, and expanded Iowa’s youthful population as Iowans of European descent continue to age.  Those of us who will one day qualify for social security should be thankful for the young families – and indeed the unaccompanied children – that have migrated to our country and will pay the taxes that keep us healthy and happy in our retirement.

What to do?  The most humane way of dealing with these unaccompanied children is for the U.S. to “harmonize its immigration law with domestic child welfare and international law by … requiring U.S. officials to consider the best interests of the child as primary in all … decisions regarding immigrant children.”  (Center for Gender & Refugee Studies and Kids in Need of Defense 2014).  The study, A Treacherous Journey, financed by the McArthur Foundation, further recommends:

  • No child should appear in immigration proceedings without legal representation; the Attorney General should appoint counsel skilled in child immigration matters.
  • An independent child advocate should be appointed for all children wanting to stay in the U.S.
  • A new form of immigrant relief should be enacted to prevent children from being deported when returning home opposes their best interests.

Our government over the years has helped create conditions that make these children refugees – by supporting the right-wing dictators who fought savagely (often with weapons paid for by us — U.S. taxpayers) to maintain the privileges of the military and the landowning class over and against another group of children, women, and men who committed the profound error of being born into a system that was rigged against them.  Should we not demonstrate Iowa values once again in welcoming the stranger as we did in the aftermath of the Vietnam War? Come on, Governor Branstad, have a heart.  After all, THEY ARE CHILDREN!

Dr. Flora is Professor Emeritus at Iowa State University.  He worked for the Ford Foundation in Spanish-speaking South America and in Nicaragua from 1978 through 1980.  He published a paper on “Roots of insurgency in Central America” (1987) and a book on the same topic. Rev. Alfaro-Santiz a U.S. resident, is the Immigration Specialist for the Central District of Iowa United Methodist Church and a Pastor of Las Americas United Methodist Faith Community. He is a native of Guatemala. References used in the paper are available from the first author (floraj@iastate.edu).

Jan L. Flora

1902 George Allen Ave.
Ames, IA 50010
floraj@iastate.edu
Cell:  (515) 451-9693
 Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz
Las Americas United Methodist Faith Community 1548 8th St Des Moines, IA 50311
aalfarosantiz@iliff.edu 
515-450-1621 cell 515-288-4056 office

 

God sides with Michael & Trayvon

Our children are our future, they are our hope and they hold our hearts in their little hands. When they grow up, they are still our children and we still want to protect them. If there is one basic human feeling that we should all understand in guts its the common human desire to protect our children and their future. No matter what culture, language, race or nationality we all seek the good of our children and would do anything for them.

We have this common basic desire and yet, how we struggle to see this in each other. We see the differences between us and get scared rather than have compassion.

In Ferguson, Missouri a community is grieving because one of their children (yes, 18 year olds are big kids, but still kids) was murdered with his hands up in a sign of surrender by someone who had sworn to serve and protect. Would any of us be calm if our 18 year old was killed in such a way? Would our community? And the man who shot him was not arrested, but is protected. The reputation of the victim has been smeared. The community stands in protest of this injustice and the police takes the stance of a militaristic, oppressive force. Who will say that this is not OK?

Psalm 82:2:
How long will you judge unjustly

and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;

maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;

deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

God says its not ok to treat people as if they are nothing. God says we have to give justice especially to the weak, the lowly, the poor and the needy. God will judge us if we do not stand up for the Michael Browns, the Trayvon Martins, the children who study in broken down schools, the children with not enough to eat, the children judged by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character.  They are God’s children, and God will hold us accountable to how we did or did not stand for them.

Everyday we have an opportunity to stand for others, on the side of God. With our words, actions and attitude we can make a difference and fight racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and injustice wherever we find it. We can say to each other that it is not OK to judge people by skin color, religion, or nationality. We can say “no” to those who would have one group be better or more powerful than any other. We can say “no” to the swastika, the Confederate flag, and to hateful speech that belittles and demeans. We can stand up for all children. God help us make the world a safe place for every child.

Iowa churches and pastors I beg you: Talk about Ferguson.  Talk about how it would feel to lose an 18 year old of your community in this way.  Talk about what we expect from our police and how they should be accountable when they make a mistake – they are human beings too.  Talk about racism.  Talk about how God made all of us a rainbow of colors that is beautiful in God’s eyes.   Talk about our baptismal vow to “accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”

I had a visitor come to our Lakeside (Boat-In) service this past Sunday.  She wrote me an email after the service talking about how she was hoping, yet not expecting, for a message about Ferguson because the white church has disappointed her so many times before.  I was scared, but I talked about it.    She was relieved and filled with hope because of what she heard.

Be bold, be strong, the Lord your God is with you!

SarahRohret

Rev. Dr. Sarah Rohret is an Elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Calvary United Methodist Church in Arnold’s Park, IA and is the Chair of the Iowa Board of Church and Society.

Drop the Script

ServiceShirtMason City, IA hosted this year’s Pyrotechnics Guild International convention. Our house is about 2 miles from the North Iowa Events Center and this week has been one long percussive symphony of pops, cracks, and sizzles as the various fireworks demonstrations have lit up the night sky.

This has also been one long week of bad news and violence. War, suicide, and another few names on the litany of those who have died via inflamed passions mixed with the trigger of a gun, those bigger deaths, publicized and amplified, seeming to drown out the more intimate personal violence which claimed the life of someone close here to home.

Media responses to these situations have been exactly as one would predict; reinforcing stereotypes, pointing fingers, and insisting that there is some sort of alignment we can choose to cover all situations: as though your geo-political, social, and familial relationships are simply blanks to be filled out on your voter registration card.

As the fireworks shows started to sound more and more like anti-aircraft fire, I wondered when my imagination stopped seeing strobe lights and loud noises as entertainment and started feeling them as the specter of violence which seems to be hanging over the world.

Friends, we are not swimming in safe water. It is pretty poisoned and polluted, and it may even be toxic to the skin. The way we don’t talk with one another, but instead allow facebook, twitter, CNN, Fox News and AM Radio to carry our messages back and forth for us is bad.  They don’t have the capacity to carry complications, and it is to believe in a lie if you believe that these situations and experiences we face are easily conquered, or can be simply realigned into the appropriate categories of Black, Purple, Brown or White.

Our lack of trust in one another is bad. I am not saying that trust will necessarily be rewarded, but mistrust breeds only evil and spawns hells in our neighborhoods.

Its other name is fear, and we are called to cast out all fear. It is bad to build walls around ourselves and create or uphold laws and ordinances which oppress the widows, aliens and strangers living amongst us. Instead, Jesus’ Disciples practice generosity and openness of heart, hearth, body and soul. Even naïve Peter says to us, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?  But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.'”

While “common sense” may be telling us that we must take up arms against a sea of troubles, over and over again, our Great Book tells us to “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

To be a witness to faith in this time means to drop the script that has been handed to you. You have an opportunity to turn down the part, to improvise yourself out of the bad lines, even to walk off the stage in the middle of the performance and refuse to refund the ticket.

God asks better of us, believes better in us. The Lifegiver has endowed us with such gifts with which to encounter one another and this good creation in which we are blessed to live, I cannot comprehend why we are so happy to go along with the story we are being fed.

Life is not you against me or us against them. Life is all the parts knowing themselves to be irreplaceably precious members of the Whole.

Survival is not being the last living contender standing on this planet. Survival is letting go of your power so that others might live.

Joy is not in finding the originator of the wrong. Let’s face it,that blame goes all the way back to the beginning of time. It is in regaining that which was lost.

We will not become righteous by choosing the right opinion to have. We will not win a war. Ever. We will not be able to vote back the bullet which killed Michael Brown or reform Robin Williams back to life. You and I know that. It is time we started to speak and act like we do.

The Sacred Worth of Women and Girls

Katey ZehGuest Post from Katey Zeh, Director of Healthy Families, Healthy Planet Initiative of the United Methodist Church:

When I began writing this piece, I was stopped abruptly by the amazingly weird sensation of the right side of my belly leaping upward.  I’m currently thirty weeks pregnant with our first child, a daughter. For years I’ve dedicated my ministry to advocating for women and girls, but now as a soon-to-be mom of a daughter, my passion has deepened in ways I never imagined.

Very early in my pregnancy I was reflecting on the story of Hagar (Genesis 16).  The slave of Sarai and Abram, Hagar has no agency over her own body. When her owners struggle with infertility, she is used as a surrogate, and Hagar becomes pregnant with Abram’s child. Sarai becomes so abusive toward Hagar that she runs away, risking everything in search of sanctuary back at home in Egypt. In the midst of my own pregnancy-related nausea and fatigue, I thought about the enormous amount of inner strength Hagar must have had to venture out alone into the wilderness.

But Hagar is never really alone. Along her journey an angel of God appears to her, calling her by name and assuring her that she and her child will survive. Strangely he also tells her to return to her masters’ house, but he does not do so without first delivering a message of hope and survival.

Hagar is the first person in the Bible to give God a name, “El-Roi” meaning the God who sees. Perhaps for the first time in her life, Hagar knows that her masters do not define her identity.  Ultimately she is not a slave; she is a precious child of God.

In our world today there are so many women and girls like Hagar who are objectified, reduced to meeting the needs of others and at the expense of their physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual health.  How many of them are waiting for a voice of hope, an assurance that God is with them in the wilderness? How many have dreams of escaping but have no way out? How many simply wish to be seen, to be heard, and to be called by name?

The question that I ask of each of us is: what would the church look like if women and girls were seen as children of God with sacred worth? This question is not meant to be rhetorical or theoretical. It is a call to transformation! Our calling as the body of Chris is to follow the example of the one who reached out with hands of healing and compassion; who saw women as full human beings worthy of his time and attention; who came that all might experience abundant life here and now.

In my work as director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project of the General Board of Church & Society, I work to ensure that women’s sacred worth is honored through the experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Tragically every two minutes somewhere in the world a woman loses her life while bringing new life into the world, Most of these deaths could be prevented with basic medical care and access to safe, voluntary family planning methods.

The Church is called to respond to this needless loss of life by ensuring every woman and girls has the tools and information she needs to experience the life of abundance that Christ promised all. One place to begin is ensuring every girl and boy, every woman and man has information about their bodies, sexuality, and how to care for one another with respect and dignity. I invite you to join Healthy Families, Healthy Planet and the General Board of Church & Society on August 27th for a webinar focused on the intersections of faith, sexuality education, and your congregation. Please visit the registration page to sign up and for more information.

Through the power of Christ’s spirit, all things are possible. We can become places where all are affirmed as children of God with sacred worth. As I prepare to birth a baby girl into this difficult, beautiful world, I could not hope for anything more.

Katey Zeh, M.Div is an advocate, organizer, and writer for global maternal health and family planning. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, she currently serves as the Director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. Katey has written about maternal health for the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, Feminist Studies in Religion, and Mothering Matters. She was named one of “14 Religious Leader to Watch in 2014” by the Center for American Progress. For more information about Healthy Families, Healthy Planet, please visit umchealthyfamilies.org

To Be Disciples

ServiceShirtOn a recent trip across the Northwest portion of Iowa, Pastor David Hobbs, Nathaniel Mason and I visited a number of United Methodist Churches. We simply stopped in for a quick word (or two hour conversation, here and there), and to get a sense for the churches and the communities they serve. I was impressed by the variety of buildings, sanctuaries, and ministries we encountered. One church was having its sanctuary ceiling painted so we talked with the painters and offered them a prayer for safety, which they found rather amusing as clambering like monkeys across sky high scaffolding is a “simple” job for them; no gold leaf, murals, or ceiling art for them in this United Methodist Church-just a few brush strokes and wooden beams to refinish.

Now, I have been reading a lot of books about church health; books about evangelism, worship, and programming; books about the trends of worship attendance and the difference between churches which grow and churches which seem to fizzle out and die. I have been reading about leadership styles and ways of organizing work so that . . . yadah, yadah, yadah. Yet, this trip offered me an interesting puzzle.

Because, there were churches that were getting everything right, and yet they were empty.

Passionate leaders with a vision and lion’s heart for ministry: Check

Visible and cohesive messages of welcome for visitors: Check

Open and inviting gathering spaces which are accessible: Check

Brightly colored and updated Sunday School rooms: Check

Modern sanctuaries with flexible A/V and chancel spaces: Check

Quality musical instruments and musicians capable of playing them: Check

Connections to the school district: Check

Obvious opportunities to serve both within the church building and outside in the wider community: Check

Stories of radical hospitality and generous giving: Check

Evidence of ministry with people who are not current members or active participants in the church: Check

So, why were these particular churches echoing, while others were bustling with life and activity? What does it mean to get everything right and to still be disappearing week by week and pastor by pastor?

In one particular church, I felt such sadness because there was so much potential there. There was so much love, care and faithfulness on display, it made my heart hurt to think it was for nothing-that the people whose lives could be so enriched simply by stepping inside this church’s doors will never know what they are missing.

So I stopped, right there in the gathering space just inside the main entrance and I asked God, “Why? What’s going on here that this church is sputtering out?” And, like a whisper across the top of my brain I heard, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14: 26)

I have been puzzling on these words and that particular church, ever since. I wonder how to share what I heard. I wonder what it means. Is there some relevance for the other churches I have visited that just can’t seem to do more than simply hang on, even though they are applying all the best ideas? I wonder what to do with the sadness and futility that plagues the staff and volunteers whose hearts are giving out because they have been trying so hard for so long, but have not seen their efforts rewarded by flourishing Christian witness and community.

Why, at times, must the Gospel be so hard to hear, and what are we, as disciples of Christ,to do when the words it whispers tell us it is time to give up all we hold dear-our mothers and fathers, our sanctuaries and our memorial gardens, our programs and our histories-and come, and follow him?