Sunday, May 31, 2015

Vaccines: A first world problem?

In the United States, whether or not to give your child vaccines has become a controversial issue.  As a result of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children, diseases that had been previously unheard of in modern times like measles and pertussis (whooping cough) are making a comeback.

Here in Nicaragua, the government does a widespread campaign a few times a year, sending health care workers out to homes to vaccinate kids that have not made it into a clinic to get their vaccinations.  Parents pull out vaccination cards and happily hold their kids while health workers administer vaccines.  Unfortunately, Nicaragua is poor and cannot do as wide a spectrum of vaccines as is offered in the States.

Hepatitis A and B vaccines are only provided through private care physicians and are expensive, even though Hepatitis A and E are among the highest infectious diseases here in Nicaragua.   All versions of hepatitis damage the liver.

Photo: Greg Goodman
Nicaragua has the highest mortality rate of any western hemisphere country due to cervical cancer caused by the human papillomavirus…again vaccines are available, but only through private care.
Nicaraguans, especially poor Nicaraguans, would love to have access to all vaccines but they only have free access to basic ones: polio, tetanus, pertussis, measles, and TB for infants.

In the States, these basic diseases are creeping into society again…mostly because people are afraid of autism.   The study linking vaccines to autism has been debunked again and again.  In one recent study, children who had older siblings with had autism
were given vaccines and still the autism rate did not change.

It seems that choosing not to have vaccines is a first world problem…one that we in the developing countries cannot for the life of us wrap our heads around.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

My Gods have Feet of Clay

Many, many years ago we had a friend who was thinking about moving into our community but she had known us from our work, where we were more guarded...on our "best behavior," you could say.  As she got to know us better and more personally, she decided she did not want to move into community with us and it made her very sad.  Her comment to us was, “I learned my gods had feet of clay.”

Whoa!  When did we ever set ourselves up on a god pedestal?

In the 1960s, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI put Martin Luther King, Jr. under surveillance for "national security" reasons and later anonymously sent him a threatening letter, urging him to commit suicide or they would release information about his extramarital affairs to the press. They tried selling this information to the press, but the story went nowhere -- the press was not interested and the FBI was unable to damage King's public image.

It's hard to imagine that scenario today.  It is almost impossible in today’s society to be private.  With instantaneous communication, it's almost impossible to avoid mistakes.
Now, with social media, there is always some dirt somewhere to dig up on everyone. 

How can we trust those who call on us to be better people when they themselves have dirt in their background?
This is something I fear.  We as a world -- as corrupt, self-centered societies -- need the Martin Luther King, Jrs., the Dorothy Days, the Ghandis, the Joan of Arcs, the Oscar Romeros, the Nelson Mandelas…we need people who, though they are flawed, are brave enough to make us look at what we are becoming.

We need to not let the “powers that be” tear down those who call us to be better.  Those powers know that is a great way to sidetrack an important conversation or derail a movement.  We need to be more forgiving, and not so hesitant to heed the call and to make changes.  

We need to acknowledge that sometimes “my gods have feet of clay” is a great excuse to stay on the sidelines.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sell the silo

Rev. Will Campbell
The Rev. Will Campbell was in his sixties when he stood at the pulpit at a Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference in the Anderson Auditorium in Montreat, NC in the mid-1980s and started his sermon on nuclear disarmament:
Anderson Auditorium
In the 50s I was invited to come speak about the civil rights movement and I said, “If you truly care about the civil rights movement you will sell this ecclesiastical silo and give the money to the civil rights movement.”  In the 60s I was invited to come speak about the war on poverty and I said, “If you truly care about the war on poverty, you will sell this ecclesiastical silo and give the money to the poor.”  In the 70s, I was asked to talk about the Vietnam War, and again I said, “If you care about the peace movement you will sell this ecclesiastical silo and give the money to the peace movement.”  And here I am again invited to talk to you, this time about the anti-nuclear movement… and I say again, if you truly care about having a world without nuclear bombs then you will sell this ecclesiastical silo and give the money to the anti-nuclear movement.

As far as I know, today that “ecclesiastical silo” still stands.

It is tricky to put your money where your mouth is.  The idea of tithing, giving one tenth of your earnings… gross, by the way, not net… is crazy, impossible, and not important.  Why give away your hard-earned money?

Will Campbell told us why… because if we TRULY care, then we sell and give away.  We put our money where our mouths are.  If we don't, then we've proven that we really don’t care that much at all.

The reality is that money is power, which is why we want to keep it.  With money we have choices, we have options, we have influence, we have our needs and wants met… without money, we have only bad or worse choices, few options, no influence, and our needs - let alone our wants - are not met… which is how almost half of the world’s population lives (3 billion people live on $2.50/day or less).
More than how we vote, what we think we believe, or what we say… how we spend “our” money and “our” time tells more about what we truly care about than all the rest of it put together.

If we care about the poor, peace, justice, racial equality, and all those great ideas, then it is time to put our money to good use and make a better world possible.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

When you can take money from rich people...

Dr. Don Coffey
It has been 36 years since the Jubilee House Community was formed and began working with the poor first in the U.S. and then later in Nicaragua.  When we started in both places we didn't know squat and we have learned by trial and error and listening.  Some our most important lessons came from a seminary professor many years ago…Dr. Don Coffey.

When I was in seminary lo those many years ago, Don called me in for an appointment to talk about  my part in forming a community to work with the poor.  Don said, “I am going to give you two pieces of advice.”  I was stunned, because in our counseling courses Don always steered us away from the temptation of giving advice but instead he insisted we should listen; therefore, I listened all the more attentively.

Later Don served on our Board of Directors when we created and operated shelters and to the two pieces of advice he added a third.  We all listened then and here are the three bits of advice:

Photo by Eric Matheson Gruen
The first piece of advice is You can always kiss one foot but never kiss two.” 

This sounds a bit silly but surprisingly it has been a valuable measuring tool for us over the last 36 years when we try to find funding for projects that benefit the poor and when to give in to outside demands and when not to.  “If we do this, are we kissing one or two feet?” we have asked each other over and over again, and if the answer is “two” then we don’t do it.  This simple statement has steered us from many potential disasters and has helped us retain the need for dignity and integrity of the poor.

The next piece of advice came in the 80s.  During a Board meeting we were discussing whether to take money from Martin Marietta, a weapons production corporation, for our shelter work and taking that money felt an awful lot like kissing two feet to us, but Don’s reply was, When you can take money from rich people and give it to poor people, do it!"

Asking for money for this work is difficult for me.  I really have to take a deep breath and plunge into it like diving into cold water.  In one such recent situation, I was reminded of Don’s advice when I apologized to a wealthy friend for asking for funding.  The friend quoted back to me what he had heard Mike say, “When you can take money from rich people and give it to poor people, do it!” 

Don gave us good advice on what to do and where to draw the line…the last piece of advice is on how to stay sane.  In his office in 1979, Don said to me,Remember God’s time is not your time.  God says “I am going to break that boulder and then He sends a drip, drip, drip, drip…in time that boulder will break, but not in your time.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., said  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  We as a community believe that the boulder of injustice and poverty will break…not in our lifetime…but it will break.  As long as we keep participating in bringing justice and ending poverty, we are moving towards justice, though it seldom feels that way.  We find that hope in the drip, drip, drip of kindness, love, and justice.

Thank you, Don.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Alternative Mother's Day

Mothering starts early here.   
 40 to 45% of all pregnancies are to women 14-19 years old  (in the US it is 4%).*
Girls having babies.  At our clinic, we have a program to support new mothers. We have volunteer health promoter “godmothers” who together with our nurse Martha and full time health promoter Jessenia follow the babies until they are one year old while they support the mothers, who as you can see from above need support.   They visit the new moms to promote breastfeeding, weigh the babies and check up on development.  Each of the participating pregnant and new mothers receives a handmade bag with supplies.  
In the 3+ years we've been running this program, we've consistently had 40 women in the program.

Mothers need support.  On this Mother’s Day, support your own mother.  Tell how much you love her and appreciate her and help her do all the work she has to do.  And…

One Mother to Another…this Mother's Day give a gift in honor of your mother to the Nueva Vida Clinic’s new mother support program.  Donate $25 to the program in honor of your mother and we’ll send her a beautiful e-card. 
Happy Mother’s Day, Moms!
*Nicaragua has the highest teenage birth rate in Central and South America; the US has the highest rate in the industrialized nations.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Happy Day of the Worker

As a child of the Cold War and Erskine College alumni…May first had two main images for me.  

When my daddy was in college and seminary at Erskine, I can remember going to the May pole dance as a little girl. Beautifully dressed young women taking ribbons and ducking and bobbing - very gracefully, of course - around the May pole.  This dance came from the European times of the fertility rituals.

The second most vivid image was the “scary, bad communists” showing off their military might.  In the early 1900s Socialists in Europe piggybacked on the already celebrated May First of past fertility rites and pushed for that day to be instead the Day of the Worker in recognition of the Haymarket affair that happened on 4 May 1886 in Chicago.
The Soviet Union quickly embraced May 1st as the Day of the Worker and in my childhood it was a day to show their might.

May 1st is recognized round the world as the Day of the Worker with national holidays, parades, demonstrations, and even today in a few countries a show of military might.  Many of us from the U.S. have no idea what Day of the Worker means…because our own Labor Day has come to mean barbeques, parades, a day of rest, and the end of summer.

The Haymarket demonstration started as a peaceful demonstration protesting the police killing demonstrators who had marched previously on May 1st.  That day had seen massive demonstrations in many industrial cities in the U.S. demanding the 8 hour work day with no cut in pay instead of the work day being 10 hours paying $1.50.

Most of us have forgotten that many of the rights of workers around the world came as a result of our own labor history, our labor movements, and our labor unions…we have forgotten the blood that was shed.

We forget that much of the progress for workers originated in the United States by workers demanding rights…minimum wage, safe work environments, limited hours, child labor laws, vacation time, etc.  We have ignored our history and though other countries like Nicaragua have taken on the call for fair labor laws, our workers are losing ground.

In Nicaragua there is a minimum wage that rises with inflation (still very low), workers have a month’s vacation, receive an extra month's wages at the end of the year, women have 3 months of full-pay maternity leave, workers have paid sick leave and an employer cannot fire an employee while they are sick.  And if an employer lets go of an employee, the employer is required to provide a severance package.

After the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979,
one of their first pieces of art in Managua was a statue of the worker.  As you can see, he is a powerful figure.   He stands there full pride…claiming his own rights.

After the Sandinistas were voted out of office and Nicaragua went through a period of neo-liberalism that almost broke the nation, one of the presidents…a former Somoza youth, Arnoldo Alem├ín...commissioned another statue to the workers' right across the street from the first.  As you can see these workers are bent, beaten and broken.

I fear that this second statue is a better representation of the today’s workers in the United States…the country that in the 1800s led in workers demanding fair compensation for their blood, sweat and toil.  It breaks my heart.