Thursday, October 27, 2011
I saw my daughters’ faces in the faces of the children I met during my travel to Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania. I witnessed my hopes for my own children in the proud, determined faces of mothers and fathers working hard to improve the nutrition of their families. We are indeed members of the one family of God.
In each country, we met with staff of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), with local national officials in charge of improving nutrition, and with Catholic Relief Services and other local non-governmental and faith-based agencies which partner with USAID. It became clear that the good work that we saw in the local village in Malawi and in the other places was the result of national and international collaboration.
Children in the first 1,000 days of life, from conception to age two, are like the proverbial “canary in the mine.” Their health is an important indicator of the health of the whole society. Children of other ages and communities as a whole also benefit as parents adopt better nutrition and sanitation practices. But they cannot do it alone.
These African communities are literally dirt poor. They need to adopt different eating, planting and sanitation practices. This requires knowledge, training and modest investments in better seeds and basic equipment, like foot pumps for irrigation. Ultimately, Africans are the ones who teach one another, irrigate their fields, and diversify their crops. They can do it. They just need the training and tools.
My trip made me proud to be an American and a Catholic. Our taxes support the effective international assistance programs of USAID and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Our contributions support Catholic Relief Services (CRS). CRS partners with the U.S. government, leverages private support, and works with the local Church to build sustainable programs.
So what can you do? As Congress debates deficit reduction, encourage policy makers to resist making further disproportionate cuts in the 1 percent of the federal budget that goes to lifesaving, poverty-focused international assistance. And contribute directly to the work of CRS. Also check out USCCB's site about global poverty here.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
As a father of two daughters, I wondered about the role of fathers in improving nutrition for their families. My first encounter with a father was in the Pediatric Malnutrition Ward at the hospital in Lusaka, Zambia. He sat beside the bed of his malnourished daughter. Beside every other bed sat mothers, but his presence reminded me of the important role of fathers in improving nutrition for their children, especially during the critical 1,000 days from conception to age two.
At most hospitals in Africa, the hospital staff can only provide diagnostic and medical treatment. Family members provide basic care and feeding. They even cook the meals. This lone father smiled broadly as we approached. His daughter was improving.
Most of the mothers in the hospital ward had other children who were at home being cared for by their fathers and other relatives. The fathers were also tending the subsistence farms which provided food for the rest of the family.
At a village in southern Malawi we witnessed the role of fathers up close. The village was organized by WALA, the Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement program supported by U.S. international assistance through a grant to Catholic Relief Services, into care groups of ten to twelve families. One parent was elected from each group to learn and then teach the others about how to improve nutrition. The 16 care groups are headed by 10 mothers and 6 fathers.
The involvement of fathers in a traditional mother’s role was deliberate. Some strategies required the involvement of men in the village, e.g. planting more diverse crops, irrigating the fields, and building latrines and hand washing stations. The latter interventions are critical to preventing diarrhea and other diseases that compromise nutrition and health.
The fathers involved as care group leaders helped encourage other men in the village to adopt these important practices. We heard the story of one household which had resisted the new practices, only to adopt them when the village successfully avoided a cholera outbreak in the region. The father built the best latrine and washing station in the village!
My final blog will explore what we can do to support the 1,000 days movement to improve nutrition and save lives.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
The human and social costs of under-nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life, from conception to age two, are staggering. In Zambia 45 percent of children are stunted; the rates are similar in Malawi and Tanzania. Malnutrition brings disease, impaired academic performance, and lost productivity. But my experience in a village in southern Malawi gives me hope. U.S. international assistance and Church action can successfully improve nutrition and bring life.
Upon our arrival, the women were dancing and singing in traditional African style, but the words were different. They chanted, “Is there nothing that WALA cannot do!” WALA is the Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement program funded by U.S. international assistance through a grant to Catholic Relief Services that is being implemented by the local Diocese of Chikwawa.
WALA’s strategies are profoundly simple and profoundly effective. Mothers are taught the importance of good nutrition, especially from the beginning of pregnancy, of exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, and then of gradually adding complementary feeding as they continue to breastfeed until the child is two years old.
WALA introduced improved seed varieties that are more drought resistant, encouraged diversification of crops to enhance a nutritious diet, and provided a pump that enables them to draw water from their deep hand-dug well to irrigate their crops, especially new seedlings. The pump is operated by two men on what looks like a Stairmaster built for two.
Women come together periodically to prepare a porridge that is more nutritious than the traditional maize-only porridge. When we were there they proudly explained the benefits of adding in various flours that they had hand pulverized from dried beans and other crops. To remind themselves of the importance of a diversified diet, many of the women and men of the village wear dresses and shirts with a large logo depicting the various food groups.
In my next blog, I’ll say a bit about the role of fathers.
Monday, October 24, 2011
On October 6-17, Stephen M. Colecchi, director of USCCB’s Office of International Justice and Peace, traveled to Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania as part of an ecumenical delegation of Christian leaders sponsored by Bread for the World. This is the first of a four-part series in which Dr. Colecchi shares his experiences of Africa, where he witnessed firsthand the plight of poverty and malnutrition faced by many people, especially children.
The contrast could not have been starker: tiny listless children, two in each hospital bed, attended by their concerned mothers; jubilant women chanting and dancing as smiling children angled to get their pictures taken.
I encountered both poignant scenes during a recent visit to Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania with an ecumenical delegation of Christian leaders sponsored by Bread for the World. In a way the two images capture both the problem and the solution to mother and child nutrition. Our delegation visited these African countries to learn more about the 1,000 days movement, which aims to improve maternal and child nutrition during the critical first 1,000 days of life from conception to age two.
Our visit to the Pediatric Malnutrition Ward of the University Training Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia, illustrated the problem. These were the “lucky” children whose parents got their malnourished children to the acute care hospital in time to bring them back from the brink of death. Under-nutrition causes more than death. Especially during the first 1,000 days, it causes permanent life-long damage—physical stunting, increased vulnerability to disease, and intellectual impairment.
But in all three countries we also encountered a solution. Our visit to a village in southern Malawi, where we were welcomed by the chanting women and their children, provided powerful evidence of the effectiveness of U.S. international assistance and the work of the Catholic Church. The Diocese of Chikwawa, with the help of Catholic Relief Services, is implementing the Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement program (WALA).
WALA uses simple, cost-effective techniques to improve maternal and child nutrition and reduce disease. Mothers and children are healthier, and the village has not had a cholera outbreak in more than two years, even when a neighboring village suffered cholera. That was something to sing and dance about and they did. In my next blog post I’ll explore what worked and why.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Moreover, our policy discussions should be framed in secular terms, and decisions about public policy should be based on secular considerations. Whether it’s abortion, same-sex marriage, the death penalty, or stem cell research, we should keep matters of faith out of the discussion.
Thursday, October 13, 2011
There seems to be a new unwritten reg at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It’s the ABC Rule, Anybody But Catholics.
It showed up in a letter from HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to advise the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Office of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) that it would not receive a grant to continue its services for victims of human trafficking.
The USCCB program excelled because of its anytime-anywhere approach. It had extraordinary reach, something valued by people who work to free men, women and children from slavery. Because of USCCB’s organizational capacity, MRS could respond immediately. Should an Immigration Enforcement official find a vulnerable child, for example, a call to the MRS program got safe housing immediately. There was not the delay of weeks that one associates with programs that lack such a network.
The program worked well on the ground. but not so well for distant administrators promoting the abortion and contraceptive agenda, who bristle at the fact that in accord with church teaching, USCCB won’t facilitate taking innocent life, sterilization and artificial contraception. MRS anti-trafficking programs ran successfully for six years in harmony with these moral convictions until the American Civil Liberties Union brought suit against the government for not forcing the USCCB program to provide these services as a part of the program. The suit’s outcome is pending, but ORR apparently has made its own decision apart from any judgment of the court. So much for the Administration’s guarantee of conscience protection.
That’s the climate which allowed ORR to dismiss the USCCB proposal and instead award grant money to the United States Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, (USCRI), Heartland and Tapestri. ORR even awarded more money than it said it would in the original proposal.
ORR earmarked most of the money for USCRI. Eskinder Negash, current director of the ORR, had been vice-president and chief operating officer at USCRI before joining ORR in 2009.
The ORR’s request for proposals had stated that agencies receiving the money were to be fully operational ten days after being awarded the grant. That would have been October 10. One wonders how that could have happened since USCRI and Heartland reportedly were posting ads seeking to hire staff just a few days before that date. None of the three organizations has much depth of experience in monitoring and providing services. USCCB staff were given a number to call for a smooth transition for the people served by the anti-trafficking program. Those who called it found no one could answer their questions.
Trafficking of human beings is one of the great modern-day scandals, but at least until now, the U.S. government sought to sincerely address the issue. It asked USCCB for help when regional programs weren’t reaching victims outside the usual hotspots for trafficking. USCCB created an extraordinary program in conjunction with several partners, Christian and secular, including Lutheran Family Services, Jewish Family Services, Salvation Army, YMCA affiliates, domestic violence shelters, World Relief and others. Only one-third of its subcontractors were Catholic-affiliated, but with the USCCB infrastructure they reached virtually everywhere in the USA.
Now ORR seems to have yielded to abortion politics. It has undercut a worthy program, limiting the numbers served, while increasing the time and money it will take to serve them.
Apparently HHS rules about the benefits of experience and cost effectiveness can be waived. So can rules about being fully operational by a certain date. What can’t be waived is the new, albeit unwritten rule of HHS, the ABC rule – Anybody But Catholics.
Friday, October 7, 2011
The year 2011 marks the 40th Anniversary of the creation of a national office to serve Hispanics/Latinos at the headquarters of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Washington. The office was originally established in 1968 in San Antonio, Texas, as the Division for the Spanish-Speaking under the Department of Social Development National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). In 1971 the office was moved to Washington, D.C. The charge of the national office was to assist the Church in its response to the pastoral and social needs of a growing number of Hispanic Catholics. Fifty years later, Hispanic ministry nationwide finds itself at a crossroads. The following are the opening remarks given by Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin, Texas, at the “Emerging Hispanic Catholic Leadership: A Process of Discernment with National and Regional Organizations” meeting last week in San Antonio.
Welcome on behalf of Bishop Gerald Barnes and the members of the Bishops Subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs. We thank you for accepting our invitation to make a stop on the journey, and take a moment to discern the best way for your organizations to continue their mission of service to the Church in the United States, particularly among Hispanics/Latinos.
The year 2011 marks the 40th Anniversary of the creation of a national office to serve Hispanics/Latinos at the headquarters of the Bishops’ Conference in Washington, DC. This national office made it possible for the process of the Encuentros to take place. In 1975, the office became the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs and Regional Offices for Hispanic Affairs were established to assist the Secretariat promote the development of Hispanic ministry at the local level. The Mexican American Cultural Center, established in 1972, became the primary agent for the leadership development and formation of Hispanic Catholics leaders across the country.
This structure for Hispanic ministry coordinated the process of the II and III Encuentros, and prepared the way for the National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry in 1987. The National Plan significantly advanced the development of Hispanic ministry in the local churches. Many more dioceses opened offices for Hispanic ministry, which in turn led to the establishment of Hispanic ministry at the parish level.
Today, Hispanic ministry is present in more than 4,500 parishes across the United States, and 85% of the 195 dioceses have an organized Hispanic ministry. In some dioceses Hispanic ministry is well established, while in others is just in its beginning stages, but there is no doubt that Hispanic ministry is an expanding reality in the local churches. The vision and growth of Hispanic ministry is also evident in the many pastoral statements and resources generated by the U.S. Bishops on Hispanic ministry, and the countless resources for catechesis, liturgy, pastoral juvenil, theological reflection, family life, and many other ministerial areas developed by publishing house, catholic institutions and organizations such as yours.
The multiplication of diocesan offices for Hispanic ministry, and diocesan initiatives in the areas of catechesis, pastoral juvenil and ministerial formation among others, led to the development of national Hispanic Catholic membership organizations in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Many of these organizations are represented here, and for the past twenty five years have assisted the bishops in their response to the Hispanic/Latino presence and the contributions to Hispanic/Latino Catholics to the broader church and society.
The growth of Hispanic ministry at the local level has shifted the focus and role of the USCCB’ Hispanic ministry staff, now housed under the Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church, and of the Regional Offices for Hispanic Affairs, most of which have given way to regional associations of diocesan directors. In the case of SEPI, they have been able to establish themselves as an institution and continue their regional ministry with a strong focus on formation and leadership development. Structures change over the years, but the mission of the Church continues. Difficult times are opportunities for growth as we adapt to new realities.
There are many things that we need to be thankful for during the impressive growth of Hispanic Ministry over the past 40 years, and I take the opportunity now to thank you for all you have done for Hispanic ministry personally and organizationally. We also thank the many publishing houses, religious communities and other Catholic organizations that have walked with us in solidarity over those years. To that number we add Catholic universities like Notre Dame, Loyola Marymount, Barry and Boston College among others, which have become significant partners on Hispanic ministry during the past ten years and promise to be a wonderful resource for Hispanic ministry in the future.
However, we are also aware of the many challenges your organizations have faced in the past, and face today, as you strive to fulfill your mission of serving the people of God. The recent study on the status of national and regional Hispanic Catholic Organizations, commissioned by the Subcommittee, identifies some of these challenges. Many of them are impacted by the present economic situation of the country, while others are particular to the church such as the closing of parishes and reduction of diocesan resources, due to added economic burdens and the growing shortage of priests.
These two days, we gather at MACC once more, to discern the most effective ways to move forward. The contributions of your organizations, both individually and collectively are key to the future of Hispanic ministry and to the entire Catholic Church in the United States.
May these two days be filled with the work of the flame of Holy Spirit burning in our hearts. May we walk and listen to one another in our struggles. May we be ready to listen and recognize Christ walking with us side by side and in the breaking of the bread. And may we get clarity of mind as we discern the best ways to go back to Jerusalem, just as the disciples on the way to Emaus, to proclaim the Good News of Christ.
+Joe S. Vásquez, Bishop of Austin
Thursday, October 6, 2011
The social media phenomenon offers both challenge and opportunity for the church. Social media reaches people – millions are on Facebook and Twitter every day. The church cannot ignore them. They are interactive, however, and don’t work when conversations are one-way. They involve dialogue, something not always welcome by clergy, teachers and other leaders.
“Because I said so” doesn’t cut it in social media, a fact regretted by parents and leaders who for ages have resorted to the phrase when exasperated with the petulant “But …” and plaintive “Why?”
For oldsters, such dialogue takes getting used to. A few years ago I took a course in church social teaching. It was to be an intellectual treat – until I got into the classroom with students who sought to debate the prof. The lecturer loved the interactivity, but I groaned inwardly at each sidestep. A former teacher, I appreciated the back-and-forth that helps minds expand, but I wanted the teaching clear-cut and wanted to soak up all the renowned prof had to offer. It may have been my inner dinosaur peeking out.
The church has a solid history of such top-down didacticism. It has libraries of tomes that explore theological truths. But that is only one part of the church.
Another side of the church – the pastoral side – is open to dialogue. It has validated such conversations as far back as the Gospels (see woman conversing with Jesus at the well). On the one-on-one level, the dialogue that ensues after a “Can we talk?” encounter has been an integral part of the church for years, a comfort to worried parents, frustrated spouses, abused workers and confused children.
Perhaps social media can help the church engage more in such dialogue. It is not easy. It takes energy, especially emotional energy. Talk – or dialogue – is work.
Many business leaders boast they have a web presence, but don’t take questions and avoid interactivity, though they might send an auto-reply: “Thanks for your message.” Better they post comments on a billboard, with the honest implication that they don’t want feedback. To be genuine on social media you have to answer questions. You have to discuss. You have to accept and even embrace being challenged.
At the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, we have Facebook and Twitter accounts. They offer opportunities to share, but also give rise to points of contention inherent in all dialogues. Some people agree with you, some don’t. Some want to fight. All of them, however, belong to our virtual community and so deserve respect. Some people who post ask the community to share in their sorrow, perhaps over the death of a spouse. Others muse on the feast or Scripture reading of the day, giving others a new twist on a moment in the church. Some are ready for a fight and evoke the urge to push “delete.” We try not to do that since the whole point of the virtual community is dialogue. If a virtual scrimmage breaks out, we hope all, including virtual bystanders, come away more enlightened. It is a risk worth taking. Virtual conversations grow in importance as church attendance decreases and fewer have relationships with a parish to which to tether themselves in life’s storms.
The Internet, of course, cannot replace the community at Mass, where you know strangers by the pew they choose and as their children grow. There’s nurturing warmth even in the nodding acquaintance with those with whom you pray every week.
Social media has a place in the 21st century church, though some oldsters may have to be drawn into it, collars, veils, rosaries and lapel crosses askew. Facebook, Twitter and other social media can be worthy instruments of the Gospel to nurture our faith life, though some are just warming up.
Monday, October 3, 2011
There are many reasons to oppose the death penalty. It is applied disproportionately to minorities, and there are more white prosecutors to seek the death penalty than black. The process demeans us as a people. Seldom do John Donne's words, "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind ..." ring so true. The death penalty is a statement of hopelessness, perhaps the ultimate sin for Christians since it denies that people can be redeemed.
But my number one reason is simply that we can be wrong.
The number of persons from death row who have been exonerated shows how easy it is for our society to be wrong. One estimate puts the number at 138 exonerations since 1973. We've had so-called eye-witnesses, who are absolutely sure a man committed a crime - until DNA evidence proves them wrong. They weren't liars. They just remembered wrong, something we all do all the time though in less serious matters. Sadly, "Oops, we made a mistake. Sorry," is pretty inadequate in this instance and cannot undo a mistaken execution.
At times, gripping witnesses and zealous prosecutors have convinced people to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed. Some of the witnesses turned out to be wrong. Some prosecutors did not play by the rules. Some judges were swayed by political pressure. All of which is to be expected in our fallible world and all of which ought to put the death penalty off the table because the result of mistakes and weakness of character can result in the taking of God-given life. The fact that we are all fallible human beings should outlaw the death penalty.
There have been 1,268 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Can anyone say the years since them have been made safer? Nor has America's spirit been especially uplifted. Right now there are some 3,200 inmates on death row.
Contemporary Catholic teaching opposes the death penalty. The Catechism of the Catholic Church finds it acceptable only when there is no other way to protect society from a dangerous criminal. With the invention of prisons that moment arrived. Digging a tunnel through a cell wall is the stuff of "Shawshank Redemption," a movie about a prisoner's escape from a corrupt warden, not the stuff of today's supermax prisons.
The death penalty is vengeance and a penalty to be reserved to the One who doesn't make mistakes. Those of us who make mistakes big and small have no right to decide on ultimate penalties.
Some argue that the death penalty is allowed by the Catholic Church. That may be right in theory but not in contemporary practice. Some argue that abortion is verboten because it is the taking of innocent life but the death penalty is acceptable because it is the taking of life deemed non innocent. Yet how can they be absolutely sure?
Some criminals inspire a lock 'em up and throw away the key approach. Some crimes are so horrific as to require it. Some persons are so damaged as to put all of us at risk. Thus the need for prisons.
The death penalty, however, is a step too far. And in the political games it becomes one more foul, error, offside. That's all right for the stadium, but with executions the error is fatal.