Monday, January 18, 2010

Haiti and a Unified World ... But Why Did We Wait Until Now?

No obstacle can stand in the face of a world united.

I've always believed that, and I think we are seeing a demonstration of that right now in the streets and communities of Haiti.

Since the tragic earthquake of January 12, the world has come together in a way that to me - and to many others, I'm sure - is unprecedented. Thousands of American troops and aid workers from around the globe. Millions of dollars contributed by governments, humanitarian organizations, and average citizens - men and women, young and old, contributing amounts as small as a few cents and as large as tens of thousands of dollars to the American Red Cross, the What If? Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, Episcopal Relief and Development, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, and countless other groups.

Last night, the world came together in a prayer service for Haiti at Washington National Cathedral. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, was joined by United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, Haitian Ambassador Raymond Alcide Joseph, Cathedral Dean Sam Lloyd, Cathedral Dean Sam Lloyd, and many other interfaith religious leaders - Christian, Jewish, Muslim - in perhaps the most moving service I've ever attended. Hundreds of people from different faiths, different backgrounds, different demographics, and different economic levels all came together to offer prayers for the Haitian people. A magnificent choir, several wonderful soloists, and the cathedral organ added even more beauty to the event.

Wonderful music. Moving remarks by the ambassador. An inspiring homily by the presiding bishop. The light of hundreds of candles in the dimmed cathedral. Inspirational prayers and readings from the Old and New Testaments. The hopes and prayers of a diverse congregation merging into a single petition to God - save, restore, and nourish the people of Haiti. Each of those pieces came together to form a single picture of how tragedy - and hope - can bring the people of the world together.

But through it all, I've been wondering one thing: why does it take a tragedy like the Haitian earthquake to make the world take action as one? The problems in Haiti - homelessness, poverty, hunger, lack of education - have been persistent there for years; they are present here in the United States and Europe and India and all points around the world. To their credit, there are groups, individuals, and foundations that have been working for years to address the problems here at home and abroad.

But there's no large, unified effort on any of them - and the problems persist. As the Haitian tragedy has shown, the world can tackle any problem when it comes together and puts its collective mind, heart, spirit, and resources together to that end. So why doesn't it? Why can't the nations of the world come together to fight hunger, illness and poverty, in its many forms and locations? Is it because we find it easier to deal with problems outside our borders rather than face those in the next street, the next city, the next state? Is it because the nations allow their pride, their self-assuredness, or their stubbornness to get in the way of what truly matters?

Or is it because even now, in the 21st century, we as fellow travelers through this life with billions of other people still haven't discovered what it is that truly matters: loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Legend That Is Jerry Falwell - A Personal Reexamination

It has been nearly three years since Jerry Falwell - old-time Southern preacher, college chancellor, political firebrand, and a man whose legend and legacy has reached near mythic proportions - passed away in his office at the university he built from scratch, nurtured and loved, and even now people are continuing to assess the true scope and ultimate impact of his life and work.

Several new books have come out within the last year which approach him from different angles: Dr. John Killinger's The Other Preacher in Lynchburg, which examines Falwell's impact in Lynchburg, Virginia and across the country through the lens of being a fellow minister in Lynchburg; The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, which explores Kevin Roose's life as a student at Falwell's Liberty University as told by a Brown student and aspiring writer who spent one semester living, learning and worshipping there; and Macel Falwell's new memoir, Jerry Falwell: His Life and Legacy. Of the three, I have finished Killinger's book (fascinating), am nearly finished with Roose's book (a good look at Liberty from the inside), and will soon be starting Mrs. Falwell's book.

I'm sure that some of you who are here regularly may be asking why I, a born-and-bred Episcopalian with a more moderate view on certain social issues, would spend thirty seconds on Falwell let alone invest in three books (and possibly read some of his own work, ghost-written or otherwise). It's a fair question, and I'll be short and direct with my response: I have absolutely no idea. Had you asked me three weeks, three months, or three years ago whether I would be interested in exploring Jerry Falwell's life as a personal study, I would have laughed.

Now, I'm not laughing.

As a native of Lynchburg and someone who spent the first 22 years of my life in that town (a town that I still love), I and everyone else were perpetually in Falwell's shadow. Even today, when I tell folks where I come from, they invariably respond, "Oh! You make Jack Daniels!" And just as predictably, my answer is always, "No, we made Jerry Falwell." It seemed that the two were inseperable: Lynchburg was Jerry Falwell, and Jerry Falwell was Lynchburg. I can remember from a young age the Sunday morning broadcasts of The Old Time Gospel Hour that were invariably running in the background as my family got ready for church, whether we were watching or not, and I can still remember Falwell's booming baritone going up and out from behind the pulpit at Thomas Road Baptist Church. In fact, that is precisely the reason I chose this particular picture to accompany the post - it is from the period in my life containing my earliest awareness of who he was.

Remarkably, in 22 years in a town the size of Lynchburg, I only saw Falwell in person three times: once at an annual performance of TRBC's Living Christmas Tree; once at a Sunday morning service at TRBC (where I witnessed perhaps the greatest repeat passing of collection plates and baskets during a sermon that I have ever seen); and once as his great, black SUV nearly ran a friend of mine and I into a ditch as the good reverend was pulling out of a carwash just minutes from Liberty University. The once-every-every-seven year sightings are even remarkable now when I consider that I went through a phase where it seemed that every young lady I asked out on a date (some successfully) was a student at Liberty, attended TRBC, or both.

So again, the question comes up: why am I doing this now? I still don't know; perhaps it's part of a larger reexamination and review of my life in Lynchburg, a life where Falwell was always lurking on the edge of things. Perhaps it's part of my exploration of other denominations and faiths outside of my own Episcopal background - and no single denomination or faith was bigger in Lynchburg than TRBC (25,000 members, if I remember correctly). Or maybe it's a subconscious desire to move beyond - after nearly 40 years - some subconscious notions that have built up, to at long last decide for myself whether he truly was a sinner or a saint, a hero or a villain, a priest or a charlatan, a man who really loved his hometown or who simply saw the advantages of being able to build an empire by never leaving his hometown.

I can't say where this is going - I only know that I'm going to enjoy the ride.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Where Has the Time Gone?

January 1, 2010 - can the past year, much last the entire decade, have already passed that quickly? It doesn't seem like it's been 10 years since A. and I were camping with friends in rural Georgia, wondering if Y2K would really lead to the downfall of civilization and leave our little merry band around the campfire as the future of mankind (okay, nothing so dramatic; we were really wondering whether the gas stations would be open so that we could drive home). The past decade has certainly been eventful - for the country and the world, yes, but especially for my family.


September 11, 2001 - One of the days people will remember years from now by asking, "Where were you when you heard?" I was working as district representative for a member of Congress from Alabama, and on that particular morning I had left to travel the district after seeing the aftermath of the first plane in New York. Everyone knows how the day played out, but it is still vivid for me - the drive back to the office, the total silence as we all watched the events unfold on television, A. and I going to our favortie hangout that evening and listening to President Bush's speech while the entire bar was utterly silent.

2002 - My first boss in Congress announces his retirement, and my chief of staff runs for and wins the seat that November. It marked a big transition for me, from district representative to press secretary - and an entirely new world of opportunities.

April 2003 - A. and I leave Mobile, Alabama and move back to Northern Virginia so that I can embark on the next phase of my congressional career. It's the beginning of a great - and final - four years working for the public.

January 2004 - Our first daughter is born, and our lives are changed forever.

January 2007 - As a result of the changeover in the majority in Congress, my position is downsized, and I find myself out of work. It's the beginning of an eight-month period of unemployment, and one of the most stressful points of my life. The only welcome break?

February 2007 - Our second daughter is born, joining her sister as two bright spots in a very difficult career period for me and A.

August 2007 - I am blessed to be hired to work for a fantastic trade association in Washington, and I make a whole new set of friends (and professional contacts) and learn a lot about the hospitality industry.

April 2008 - I'm hired away by a large conglomerate to serve as their media and government relations director in Washington. Another big professional boost, and a whole new world of opportunities is opened up for me and my family.

And now, here we are at the beginning of 2010. I can honestly say that I have absolutely no idea of what the future holds; truthfully, had you asked me ten years ago what I thought would have unfolded in my life, I wouldn't have identified a majority of what is listed above. But that's been part of the joy and challenge of the last ten years - the surprise of how things have unfolded.

Here's to 2010, and an entirely new year - and decade - of joys, challenges, and surprises.