africa

The Christmas Watermelon: When Seeds of Hate Land on Your Doorstep

“Mayberry-by-the-Sea.”

That’s usually how I describe my hometown of Laguna Beach, Calif.

It’s a groovy artist’s colony and bonafide surfing town of about 22,000 souls where everybody seemingly knows everybody else and many of us don’t lock our front doors or cars. It’s a sun-drenched village on the Pacific coast, where the high school sports teams were known for years as “The Artists” (until changing it to the “Breakers,” as in a surf break, in recent years); where there is probably more macrame than there are guns per capita, and where the father of psychedelia, Timothy Leary, lived for a time before he got busted for pot possession the day after Christmas 1968 and split.

Laguna is a place where, generally speaking, it feels as if people don’t care how much money you have (although plenty of our neighbors have plenty of it), what you look like, or what you do, as long as you are kind and trying—in whatever way you can—to make the world a better place.

My husband, son, and I moved here from the suburbs of Chicago in the summer of 2009, drawn to this idyllic place—a progressive blue island in the sea of scarlet red Orange County — not just because of the weather and the vista (both beautiful), but because of the sense and kind of community it has been and is. That our son, who was in grammar school when we moved here, is a black child who was born and spent the first nine years of his life in Africa and would be among the 0.8 percent of the population in town who are black, gave us not a moment’s pause because of how we understood Laguna to be.

And when we arrived, sure enough our neighbors—the kind-hearted Hobbits of our Shire—greeted our little family with open arms.

My son wasn’t simply “tolerated” or even “accepted.” He was celebrated.

When our son left the house to ride his bike or go to the soccer pitch, or, as he got older, ventured down to the beach with his boogie or surf boards on his own, I didn’t worry. Or at least I didn’t worry in the way so many mothers of black children must worry every time they leave the house, and in some places, even when they’re still at home. I didn’t worry about my son’s physical safety, beyond a rogue wave or crossing Pacific Coast Highway barefoot to get to his favorite surf spot.

And when he became a teenager, we gave him more freedom and independence, and a few months ago when he earned his driver’s license and started driving the family car, my heart beat faster and I worried more than I had when he was little, but off he went without incident, insha’Allah, as our Muslim friends might say. We’ve taught him about keeping his hands on the wheel and in plain sight if ever he were stopped by police; how to ask permission to reach slowly for his wallet to fetch his license and registration. And when he’s not coming off the beach in town with his locks full of sand and salt water, we’ve asked him, please, not to wear his hoodie up.

It’s not fair. We know. And it shouldn’t matter. But it does. So please don’t wear it up. We’re just trying to keep you safe. It’s not you. It’s them. We don’t worry about you in Laguna because here everybody knows you. But out there …

And our son complies, without complaint. Because he is a good kid, respectful and kind, and he doesn’t want his mother to worry. Because as a tiny child, he lived alone on the streets of Blantyre, Malawi—one of the poorest cities in one of the poorest countries in the world—and he has a tremendous sense of self-preservation.

Because my son is wise beyond his years—beyond the years of most of us.

While he may be one of (statistically) perhaps nine African-American students in Laguna Beach High School’s 1,140 student body, much of the time he goes about life unmolested and unfettered, largely living the life of a typical American teenager.

And then something happens that reminds us, and not in the good way, that he is not typical. At least not here in Mayberry-by-the-Sea. At least not in the small minds of a few who have let stupidity, arrogance, entitlement, privilege, and hatred take root in their hearts.

On Dec. 27, 2016, shortly before 9 p.m., our family was just sitting down to eat dinner and watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with my brother, an Air Force pilot who had recently returned from a six-month deployment overseas fighting ISIS. This was the first chance he’d had to see his only nephew in more than a year. We watch the comedy classic together every year and laugh at all the same places. My brother wasn’t able to make it to us by Christmas, so we were a few days late and looking forward to tucking into our Thai food and watching Chevy Chase chew the scenery.

Then we heard something outside. Our front door was open, as it almost always is, and we heard shouting. It got louder and some of it sounded high-pitched. We thought perhaps someone was having a fight on the street. I worried it might have involved a woman. All of us adults began to move toward the front door. My husband got there first, just as we heard a thud, and screams that sounded like someone calling my son’s name, Vasco.

My husband, Maurice, turned in the threshold and came back into the house. “We just got punked,” he said, his face ashen. “Somebody just threw a watermelon at the house.”

“A WATERMELON?!” my brother and I said in concert. I immediately looked at my son, who sat silent in front of his Massaman curry. He wore an expression of pain and disbelief.

I called the police and took pictures of the melon shards that riddled our driveway, while my husband and brother talked to neighbors. Within 10 minutes, a police officer arrived at our home to take our statements. She was professional, apologetic, and thorough. When she left, my husband cleaned up the mess outside, while Vasco retreated to his room to write in his journal. He said he wanted to be left alone, which was unusual. He was angry in his quiet way, but he wasn’t scared. If that had been the perpetrators’ goal, they failed.

More than anything, right after the incident, my son’s heart was troubled.

“I don’t understand why anyone would hate me like that,” he said.

There were no words of explanation I could offer. I told him that I was sorry, that he was safe, and that I loved him. I wanted to scream and throw up, quaking with rage.

Not long after we put away the food—who could eat?—my husband mentioned that he thought he saw a sticker on a shard of melon. So I grabbed the fireplace tongs and dug around in the tall waste bin in the driveway until I found it. Maurice Googled the brand and discovered it was locally distributed. I phoned one of the supermarkets in town (we have three) and quickly learned that several boys from the high school (they were wearing various hoodies and other clothing bearing the Laguna Beach High School name and sports teams) had been there perhaps 15 minutes before 9 p.m. and bought a watermelon. A clerk at the store later recalled them discussing whether to buy one or two and when they settled on one, which one. They were blocking the aisle, she recalled—strapping athletes that they are—while they conferred and made their decision to go with just one melon, which one of them held aloft like a trophy.

All of this, we later discovered, was captured on store surveillance video, as was the boys getting into the pick-up truck outside the grocery store. A different security camera caught the truck pulling up outside our home not long after. It takes approximately seven minutes to drive from the store to our front door. They came straight here.

Police continued their investigation with vigor, led by a detective who is the first African-American police officer in the history of the Laguna Beach Police Department. They asked us to keep the incident quiet over the school break—it was the holidays, some folks were out of town, school wasn’t in session and school officials would need to be involved, too—until classes resumed. Then, the police could speak to all five of the boys identified via the video tapes at the same time. We told only a few close family members and friends who we trust to keep a secret, even a terrible one. And to his credit, so did our 17-year-old son, demonstrating the almost preternatural self-control, discipline, and character he has had from the moment we met him by the side of a dusty road in African nearly a decade ago.

On Jan. 9, police and school officials interviewed all five of the boys, some of whom we know, some not. And all five of the boys made statements implicating themselves, police and school officials told us. Through the boys’ statements, we learned more details of the racist incident.

Earlier on the night of Dec. 27, the five boys who are, just like our son, students and athletes at Laguna Beach High School, ate dinner together at a local restaurant and planned their evening. They drove to that grocery store where the video cameras captured them purchasing a watermelon and other items — including toilet paper, eggs, and an eggplant — to be used in their acts of vandalism and hate. They chanted our son’s name in unison as they drove up the hill and down the street to our house, where they stopped and called Vasco’s name in an apparent attempt to lure him outside. Then one of them hurled the watermelon across our driveway where it smashed into pieces and landed inches from our open front door.

You could see our Christmas tree clearly from the street where they stopped their car near the lip of our driveway long enough to hurl the heavy fruit and at least one expletive and racial epithet—“F— you, n—-er!”— before careening back up the hill back into the night like the cowards they are.

So much for Mayberry-by-the-Sea.


The author and her son looking at Victoria Falls in Zambia in 2013. Photo by Iris Bourne (www.irisbourne.com).

This is the part where I am supposed to say I was surprised by the attack on our home. But I can’t.

Shocked? Yes. Surprised? Sadly, no.

That’s not meant to be a commentary on the particular community where we live. Rather it reflects an awareness of both the current zeitgeist in our nation and its troubled and troubling history with race and racism.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time Vasco was targeted in a racist incident. It was the second. The first happened last spring in a classroom at the high school where three students made remarks to our son that were, he and we felt, racist. Words were exchanged. Video clips from Django Unchained and Captain Phillips were thrust in his face in a classroom where a substitute teacher had lost control. When that happened, we were outraged. The school handled it swiftly. Parents were notified and punishment was doled out internally.

We knew one of the boys—he and Vasco had been friends when they were in grade school but, as children do, had drifted apart when they hit adolescence. The other two were unfamiliar names and faces. We never heard from any of the parents offering apologies or anything else, which we thought was odd at the time. But life moved on quickly and so did we, figuring we had learned some hard lessons from the incident and so had the boys.

Sadly, we appear to have been wrong. Two of the boys from the incident last year also were involved in the incident on Dec. 27 at our home. And let me just call it what it was: A racist attack.

It also was an escalation from last year, when only words were exchanged. This time, the incident took place off campus. The boys planned, conspired, targeted, and came to our HOME. They lobbed a heavy object—with its obvious racial connotations—at the door, after unsuccessfully trying to lure our son outside. One of the boys involved in last year’s incident is the thug who yelled, “F — you, n —!” as they drove away like an elite suburban lynch mob.

History tells us that if left unchecked, this kind of behavior tends to continue to escalate. And while our son is physically unharmed, there are plenty of children in this country who look like him who are not — who have been harmed, who have been killed, who have been physically harassed, and beaten; who have been shot. And we want to do whatever we can to nip that kind of progression in the bud, name it for what it is, call it out, and try to stop it.

Some of the boys involved in carrying out those acts in December we know, and we know their parents. The parents we do know are not frothing-at-the-mouth bigots. We can’t imagine their sons learned racist ideas at home.

But they learned them somewhere.

Racists and bullies aren’t born. They are made.

I’m not going to lay the blame at the feet of any particular celebrity or public figure, candidate or politician, although the President-Elect’s public speech and actions are not doing a single thing to model the kind of behavior most of us would want our children to emulate. I agree wholeheartedly with Meryl Streep when she said in her Golden Globes speech the night before police interviewed the five boys in Laguna:

“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.”

With our children in particular—even if you have people at home saying to them, “That is not how we behave; that’s wrong”—such blatant disrespect, incivility, and hatefulness permeates the air like sarin gas. We all breathe it.

We are blessed to live in a community where the prevailing culture says racist attitudes and behavior are neither acceptable nor tolerated. Despite what happened two days after Christmas, we still believe this to be true. The scores of neighbors who have reached out to us directly or indirectly and spoken out publicly to express support for our son and condemnation of the behavior of the five perpetrators are a testament to the prevalence of “higher angels” here.

But here’s the thing about racism that makes it so dangerous: It hides. It secretes itself behind wealth and privilege. Behind gates and reputations and influence. Behind bullies of all ages and threats spoken and unspoken.

The racism that lives here is the most pernicious kind.

I was born and reared in Connecticut, the granddaughter of immigrants from Ireland and Italy, the child of educators (my father spent nearly 50 years of his life teaching in one of the most prestigious public high schools in the nation.) Our family was solidly middle-class then as mine is today, but I always have been well acquainted with the rich and powerful. They were neighbors and friends. They still are.

The town where our family lived throughout my teen and college years, just a few miles away from Newtown, is fairly Norman Rockwellian in terms of New England ideals. And yet, when I was a junior in high school, just as my son is now, a neighbor in our quaint Connecticut town, became the “imperial wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan—the “top klansman” in the nation.

It was a fact so incongruous to the values and culture in which my brother and I grew up, that I thought it might be an apocryphal memory. It’s not. While his racist wizarding days have come and gone, contrary to my memory that he was “run out of town” when neighbors discovered his bigoted proclivities, the guy, now in his 80s, still lives in my childhood home town.

I guess that story telegraphs the most important point I’m trying to make in writing this: Racism is perhaps most dangerous, pernicious, and destructive where people assume it doesn’t abide.

I learned long ago that racism doesn’t stop on the southern side of the Mason-Dixon line. It doesn’t seem to care whether the company it keeps has a billion dollars or two cents, a PhD or a GED, a white collar, blue collar, or no collar at all. It’s alive and well on the East and West Coasts, just as it is in big cities and tiny villages all across these United States.

To think that it is not is to do a disservice to ourselves and, most importantly, to our children.

In the nearly three weeks since the racist incident at our home, a line from the little-seen Roland Joffé film There Be Dragons has run through my mind when I’ve considered the five boys and why they chose to do what they did:

“In a child’s heart many seeds are planted. You never know quite what will grow.”

All of us must be vigilant. When racism or any other kind of hatred rear their ugly heads, we must call them out, name them and shame them publicly. We must do our best to prevent their seeds from taking root and bearing ugly, horrifyingly strange fruit.

We have heard that a few of the boys involved in the watermelon incident are trying to parse their culpability. They were “just passengers.” They were “uncomfortable.” They “felt terrible” immediately afterward—and yet didn’t step up to admit what they’d done until confronted by very unhappy police detectives, school administrators, and coaches.

I have a lot of things I’d like to say to all the boys, but to those who believe they were somehow “less involved,” let me remind them of the words of British philosopher John Stuart Mill in his 1867 inaugural address at the University of St. Andrew’s:

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”


 
The author’s son standing in Lake MacDonald in Glacier National Park not far from his adopted Jewish grandparents’ home in Montana. Photo by the author.

“Don’t forget, Vash, you have to stand in your power and use your voice—only you can do that.”

That’s what the woman who takes great joy (as do we) in referring to herself as “Vasco’s Jewish grandmother” told him by phone from her home in Whitefish, Mont., last week.

A week or so before the watermelon landed on our doorstep, Ina Albert and Allen Secher (her husband, a rabbi, who is our son’s joy-filled “adopted Jewish grandfather”) became the targets of alt-right neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic hate groups who posted their names, likenesses, and contact information online. They were harassed, threatened, and called the most awful names.

Because they are Jewish.

Because they have spent a lifetime standing up for what is right, decent, and just. Because they insisted that in their very beautiful, very white, very privileged town in Montana love will always trump hate.

In 1962, as a young rabbi just out of seminary, Allen joined the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Freedom Rider in Georgia. He was arrested in Albany, Georgia. Two years later in 1964, Dr. King called on rabbis to join him for a march in St. Augustine, Fla. Allen and 16 other rabbis headed to Florida, where, the day before he arrived, a protestor had been shot and killed. Allen ended up leading the march, hand-in-hand with a young black woman singing freedom songs.

Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day…

I wish everyone I love could have listened in on that phone call between my son and his chosen grandparents, encouraging each other to be brave and courageous, to stand up for what’s right because it’s not just about them. It’s about all of us. And if we don’t, who will?

While we all are angered and disgusted by what happened, and by some of the excuses still being offered privately by some of the perpetrators, we are not interested in retribution. We don’t want revenge.We are Christians who try daily not to horrify Jesus while we fulfill our duty as the hands and feet and voices and faces of God’s love in the world.

We would like to see the boys who did this held accountable for their actions. Moreover, we’d like to see hearts changed and lives transformed by the miracle of truth-and-reconciliation that our vicar, the Rev. Lester MacKenzie of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Beach—who, when he was the same age as our son, lived as a black person under the apartheid system in South Africa—has taught us so much about. Father MacKenzie is walking closely with Vasco and reminds us that, no matter how quickly many of us would like to rush to kumbaya, we can’t get to real reconciliation until we first have truth.

This is a teachable moment and we don’t want it to be squandered. So we are working closely with school and community leaders to make sure what happened isn’t swept under the rug. Again. We have heard from dozens of neighbors, parents, and students that this kind of thing happens here in Mayberry-by-the-Sea a lot more often than any of us would like to imagine or believe.

You probably would like to know, as so many people of good will and faith have asked in recent days, how Vasco has handled all of this?

Remarkably well. In fact, I’d like to be more like my son when I grow up.

Vasco has deep reserves of peace and calmness that are rare in any human, no matter age or life experience. He’s not perfect. He’s a kid. But he has navigated these fraught waters with characteristic grace and thoughtfulness.

He would like to have the chance to sit down with the five boys and ask them about the choices they made. “I want to know why they decided to do what they did, and why to me,” Vasco’s told us. “I want to understand what they were thinking.”

I don’t believe Vasco or any of us ever truly will “understand” the thought or lack thereof that fuels such horrendous behavior. While he may not get the answers to his questions now or ever, our son is fine. He is brave and mighty, as our prayer and blessing for him has been each day that he’s been our son and long before that.

I am so very proud of and grateful for Vasco’s heart. Being his mother is the greatest honor and privilege of my life.

Every day, though even more acutely on the day we celebrate the life of a man who gave his life so that—generations later—my son could enjoy freedoms he never got to see his own four children experience, Vasco gives me hope for our collective future.

And a child shall lead them…

 

U2’s Songs of Transcendence

Sunday evening I did something I haven’t done in close to 30 years: I went to an actual record store and bought a brand-new U2 album on vinyl, took it home, pulled out the turntable, put on my headphones, sat on the floor, and stayed up way too late reading the liner notes and listening to the songs over and over again.

Lord, how I’ve missed this particular ritual.

When I was a teenager, late Sunday nights were when I indulged my secret pleasure by listening in bed (clandestinely so as not to incur the wrath of my parents for being awake well past my bedtime) to the “King Biscuit Flower Hour” on WPLR, the classic rock station in New Haven that was one of two (the other being a horrendous pop-40 station) that came in clearly on the FM stereo in my upstairs bedroom.

I listened, religiously, every Sunday night for years, hoping to hear a song by one of the British New Wave bands of which I was fond, or, if I was particularly lucky, by my favorite band on the planet: U2.

Sometimes weeks would go by without hearing a U2 song on those late Sunday nights, my ear pressed to the transistor radio secreted next to the pillow on my twin bed. But then, like a bolt of lightning — I’d hear Bono’s voice or Edge’s guitar begin to keen. It was a wee bit magical, although in retrospect today I might call it sacred.

All the waiting and listening was worth it. Always.

There was an intimacy then to the conversation that transpired between U2’s music and my young heart. It was never about the sound alone — I didn’t care if it had a good beat or if I could dance to it — what touched me, leaving indelible fingerprints on my soul, were the stories, confessions, and prayers wrapped inside the sound.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

By the time I reached my room at the top of the unreasonably long, winding basalt staircase that led to the pensione‘s third floor late one night last month in Rome, I was out of steam and both my iPhone and iPad were out of juice. I plugged both devices and left them to charge while I took a quick shower to cool off after a day of hoofing it around the Eternal City in 90-degree weather.

By the time I’d finished my ablutions, put on my pajamas, and climbed into my narrow twin bed (one of the many charms of Roman hotel rooms), the pad and the phone were successfully resuscitated, the soft blue glow of their illuminated screens punctuated by texts and alerts that had queuing during the dormant hours after the batteries ran out.

Sitting cross-legged on top of the duvet, I scrolled through messages and Facebook alerts that announced a surprise: earlier that day in California, U2 had released its long anticipated new album, Songs of Innocence, and delivered it for free to a half-billion iTunes users worldwide.

It took a few moments for that news to compute in my mind. There was an entire album of new U2 music and it was just waiting for me to download it from the (great) Cloud (of witnesses) to listen.

Thanks be to God for a strong WiFi signal.

Thirty seconds later …

I was chasing down the days of fear
Chasing down a dream before it disappeared
I was aching to be somewhere near
Your voice was all I heard
I was shaking from a storm in me
Haunted by the spectres that we had to see
Yeah, I wanted to be the melody
Above the noise, above the hurt

I was young
Not dumb
Just wishing to be blinded
By you
Brand new
And we were pilgrims on our way

I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred
Heard a song that made some sense out of the world
Everything I ever lost, now has been returned
The most beautiful sound I’d ever heard

Cue the waterworks.

U2 had been working on this album for ages. Five years — the longest the lads have ever worked on one LP before gifting it to the masses. (By the way, I have no interest in wading into the shitstorm that ensued about how the new album was delivered, but I will say one thing: whinging about breaches of privacy over the free copy of Songs of Innocence in your iTunes library is a bit like calling the cops on Christmas morning to have Santa Claus charged with breaking-and-entering.)

To my ears (and heart) it was well worth the wait. So much so that I stayed up listening into the wee hours of the morning that first night in Rome before drifting into sleep with Songs of Innocence on repeat. When I awakened a few hours later to attend a papal audience with Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square, “Iris (Hold Me Close),” a song Bono wrote about his mother, Iris Rankin Hewson, who died suddenly of a brain aneurysm when the singer was 14, was playing.

Once we are born, we begin to forget
The very reason we came
But you
I’m sure I’ve met
Long before the night the stars went out
We’re meeting up again

Hold me close, hold me close and don’t let me go
Hold me close like I’m someone that you might know
Hold me close, the darkness just lets us see
Who we are
I’ve got your life inside of me

Next month will be two years since I lost my beloved father, Muzzy. Bono’s “Iris” viscerally expresses the untenable paradox between grief’s gaping maw and the expansive embrace of hope that I’ve yet to find adequate words for and probably never will.

Bono says Songs of Innocence is the most intimate album the band’s put out in its 38-year history. That’s certainly how it felt and continues to feel to me. That’s why I bought the album on vinyl even though I already had a free copy on all of my iDevices.

I wanted to touch it, to hold it in my hands, feel the weight of the heavy white vinyl albums, and smell that new-album-smell that in a split second transcends the time-space continuum and transports me back to my teenage self, completely enraptured by the music.

Escape. Refuge. Prophet. Solace. Friend.

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Midnight, on the floor of my home office as Sunday became Monday, reading the Songs of Innocence copious (and fascinating) liner notes. This passage from Bono’s essay “Flashbacks 4 Songs of Innocence” slayed me:

We can spend our whole lives searching for cohesion, and in not finding it, turn the world into the shape of our disappointment. Or not. There is no end to grief…that’s how I know there is no end to love.”

Sometimes we have to take inventory of where we’ve been to realize where we are, and where we’re heading. Songs of Innocence does just that. We the listeners accompany Bono, Edge, Adam, and Larry as they trace the path of their youth in 1970s Dublin with its sectarian violence, unbearable losses, the blossom of young love, and unexpected spiritual awakenings that transpired largely outside any traditional house of worship.

My impression is that U2 wasn’t trying to do something new with this album. Rather they sought to create something true — authentic and honest, real and raw. The band seems like it wants to draw its fans close, perhaps closer than it has since its hungry early days, before Live Aid and Zoo TV, before the multi-continental stadium tours and the incessant demands of superstardom created space between us and them.

The photograph on the LP more than hints at this notion. Pictured is a shirtless Larry Mullen Jr., ever the most private and reserved member of the band, embracing his 18-year-old son, Elvis, whose face we cannot fully see but only glimpse in the downy beard of a boy becoming a man.

The image is at once reminiscent of U2’s early albums Boy and War, where an adolescent boy (Peter Rowen, the younger brother of Bono’s lifelong best friend, Guggi) appeared on the LP covers, and a real-time portrait of where and who the band mates are today.

They started this journey together as teenagers (on my sixth birthday, Sept. 25, 1976, by the way.) Now all four men are in their 50s. All are fathers. They’ve grown up but not old. Not yet.

Sonically, Songs of Innocence sounds like no other U2 album. The inimitable roar of Edge’s guitar is largely absent, replaced by more acoustic, intimate guitar styles and keyboards. The influence of some of the artists U2 pays tribute to lyrically on the album — The Ramones, The Clash — can be heard, as well as whiffs of world music, trance dance, and the sacred echoes of African music and other audible exotica.

Among U2’s 13 studio albums, Songs of Innocence is unique.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

If I’m completely honest about it, Songs of Innocence had me at Joey Ramone.

The first track on the album “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is Bono’s telling of his musical epiphany which arrived the first time he heard Ramone sing.

“I sang like a girl … that felt uncomfortable until the Ramones happened to me as they must happen to everyone,” Bono writes in the liner notes. “Joey Ramone sang like a girl, he loved all the great sirens … you could hear Motown, Dusty Springfield, Ronnie Spector. You could hear an echo of your pain in his voice…that’s why you believed him, surfing to the future on a sea of noise.”

In the last verses of the song itself, Bono sings:

I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred
I get so many things I don’t deserve
All the stolen voices will someday be returned
The most beautiful sound I’d ever heard

I found this particularly moving because in my life story, Bono is my Joey Ramone. It’s a story I’ve told in a book or two and that I tell often when I’m asked to speak publicly about grace, but it bears repeating.

One afternoon in the autumn of 1982, when I was in seventh grade, I went to my friend Rob’s house after school. He had older siblings who introduced him to music that the rest of us would have to wait until college to hear. We both loved music and he was eager to share a new band with me.

“They’re Irish, but they’re Christians,” he said, as he took the vinyl LP from its sleeve and put in on the turntable of his parents HiFi. (The “but” still cracks me up, btw.)

The album was October, U2’s second. The song — the first cut on the record — was “Gloria.”

I can remember it vividly. Drums faded in, a bass guitar thumped, and a man’s rogue tenor voice the likes of which I’d never heard before started howling, “Gloria, glo-reeeee-aaah TWO, THREE, FOUR!” as a guitar began to wail.

I try to sing this song
I…I try to stand up
But I can’t find my feet
I try, I try to speak up
But only in you I’m complete

Gloria…in te domine
Gloria…exultate
Gloria…Gloria
Oh Lord, loosen my lips

I try to sing this song
I…I try to get in
But I can’t find the door
The door is open
You’re standing there
You let me in

My soul did a backflip.

The words were familiar—a psalm, a chant from the liturgy, an image of Christ standing at the door (of our hearts) and knocking. I recognized them all from church. But somehow they’d never had that kind of effect on me.

As the next tracks played, one after the other filled with biblical imagery and declarations of spiritual yearning, I was  transfixed by the extraordinary mix of faith with rock ‘n’ roll—a forbidden fruit at my house, where we were supposed to be “in the world but not of it.”

Who were these guys? How were they doing this? And could I do it, too?

Hearing U2’s album October for the first time set my life on a trajectory that continues to this day: finding God in the places some people say God isn’t supposed to be; looking for the truly sacred in the supposedly profane; discovering the kind of unmatched inspiration and spiritual elation elsewhere in culture that I had found that day in Rob’s living room.

It was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard.

And it still is.

Mother Africa: Weaving a Hopeful Future

When I think of weavers, what comes to my mind are the ladies in the back of the knitting store in my Southern California hometown, the ones who hang out on weekend afternoons with their handlooms – weaving cloth shawls, blankets, or the occasional modern tapestry.

Here, weaving is, by and large, a pastime. Some would call it an art form. The ladies in the back of the knitting shop are craft weavers. We might consider them “artisans” and laud them for mastering the truly ancient craft.

In the West, machines do most of the commercial weaving, not people. In Ethiopia, and elsewhere in the developing world, handloom weaving is most often an occupation for men and one that isn’t usually heralded for its artistry. Weaving isn’t a prestigious job and, by and large, those who weave are the working poor.

Traditionally, men are the weavers. I’ve heard what felt like an odd gender role (from my American perspective) explained as merely a function of physiology. Handloom weaving requires the strength – and therefore the physical mass – to batten, which is the term used to describe moving the beater (a long metal or wooden bar that is used to keep the weft thread or yarn in place).

Women spin the wool or cotton into thread that’s loaded onto spools and then strung onto the loom’s warp (lengthwise thread) and weft (the thread that weaves in and out of the warp thread.)

The sound of handloom weaving is unmistakable. The shush of the Flying Shuttle – a small missile-shaped object, often fashioned from dogwood, that holds the weft thread – as it’s thrown through the shed, or warp threads. The slam of the beater. The click of the heddles.

In Addis Ababa last month, I could hear the weavers at fashionABLE, a faith-based non-profit that has partnered with a local organization that helps women exploited by the sex industry to change their lives.

(Learn more about fashionABLE’s story in video form HERE.)

Founded by American Barrett Ward, who spent a year in Ethiopia after launching in 2005 his Mocha Club – a cadre of activists who pledged to give up the cost of two mocha drinks (or about $7 a month) to fund relief and development projects in Africa.

While living in Addis, Ward, who now lives in Nashville with his wife and two daughters adopted from Ethiopia, encountered the Women at Risk organization and saw how effectively it worked to restore dignity and health (mental, physical, spiritual) to women trapped in prostitution. An estimated 150,000 women work as prostitutes in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capitol, alone – and about 75 percent of those women are HIV-positive.

When Ward learned that one of the mightiest challenges to keeping women off the streets and out of the clutches of the sex industry was work that paid a living wage, the idea for fashionABLE was born.

Working hand-in-hand with Women at Risk, which boasts a 90 percent success rate (i.e. non-recidivism) among the more than 350 women who have passed through its 12-month rehabilitation program since 1996, fashionABLE teaches former sex workers how to spin, dye, and weave cotton into truly beautiful scarves (I’m wearing one as I write this) that are sold in the U.S. at high-end retailers such as Fred Segal in Santa Monica, Calif.

FashionABLE exports to the United States under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which permits the export of certain African goods to the States, duty-free and quota-free. (Under AGOA, Ethiopia has exported $13.8 million worth of goods to the U.S in 2011 – primarily textiles, apparel, and agricultural products such as coffee and khat.)

Each scarf created at fashionABLE bears the name of the woman who made it. It’s a small but radical act, a thread in a new garment the women are trying on for size, a future with ample hope and grace.

Today I am wearing a white scarf with various stripes and textures woven near the tassels at the bottom. The woman who made it is Bezuayhu. She’s 19.

“My parents had passed away and I used to live with my aunts and grandparents,” Bezuayhu says on the organization’s website. “They always wanted me to work and not to go to school. So, I came to the city, and there I came to this life of prostitution.Now, it feels so good to get up in the morning and say I am going to work. It feels so good to have a scarf named after me. I’m so proud to be called a scarf maker.”

Her tag reads: Because of you, I am ABLE to look forward to my future. Thank you.

I had the pleasure of meeting Saba, a beautiful young woman with a warm smile who made the purple scarf I gave my son’s godmother as a gift upon my return to California, at the modest fashionABLE compound in an industrial area of Addis.

With Women at Risk’s founder Serawit “Cherry” Teketel serving as translator, Saba spoke (in her native Amharic) about her life before and since arriving at fashionABLE. Listen to Saba tell her story below:

The message on Saba’s tags?

Because of you, I am ABLE to feel pride in my work. Thank you, Saba

At Muya Abyssinian Crafts, a fair-trade company in Addis that employs about 150 weavers — both men and women — who make high-end textiles for European and American designers, including Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede’s Lemlem line at J.Crew, I learned something fascinating.

Muya, which means “talent” in Ge’ez, the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, also employs potters who make various earthenware vessels, such as coffee pots and intricately hand painted guinea fowl figurines.

Jacques Dubois, a native of France who has lived in Ethiopia for more than 40 years and is co-owner of Muya, told us that when the company first approached the potters about making exportable goods, they balked at the idea. They saw no artistry in that work, Dubois explained, and could not believe that anyone outside of Ethiopia would want to buy them.

The coffee pots and urns were simply utilitarian and those who made them — the potters — at the low end of the pecking order in Ethiopian society, Dubois said.

Why? Because they work with fire and fire is, according to tradition, he said, associated with the devil. Ergo, potters are practically outcasts.

On the wall of the room where several women crouched at their work stations, painstakingly painting white dots on large black guinea fowl figurines, polishing dappled vases, or weaving long grass through the edges of a decorative plate the color of polished onyx, were posters and framed renderings of Christian icons, including the Virgin Mary, who seemingly bestowed their blessngs on the artisans as they worked.

Muya is the first Ethiopian company to obtain membership in the World Fair Trade Organization and is deeply committed to social responsibility, Dubois explained. The weavers and other craftspeople employed by Muya make substantially more than their counterparts elsewhere, and the company helps enroll workers’ children in better schools. The company subsidizes its employees meals so that they can save their money and spend it to feed their families, and also runs a training program for female prison inmates, teaching them spinning, weaving, and other marketable skills so that when they’re released, they can better support themselves.

Dubois proudly introduced me to one of Muya’s “master weavers,” 24-year-old Solomon, who has worked at Muya for more than six years. The middle child of seven, Solomon told me about what weaving at the fair-trade company has meant to him — and his family.

“I am the spinal cord of my family,” Solomon, who grew up and still lives about 1 km from the Muya factory. “It’s not just me,” he said, explaining that the work allows him to support his parents as well as his siblings, three of whom are enrolled in university. His younger brother earned a degree in engineering and is now a teacher.

An obviously bright young man who is tremendously proud and grateful for the work he does at Muya, Solomon is also aware of the tangible effects of the global marketplace and efforts to level the playing field, such as AGOA, have on his life.

“I am grateful to the Europe and North America because now there is a market,” he told me. “I need to work, but I need a market, too.”

Listen to more of my conversation with Solomon below.

Muya’s products are not yet available for purchase online, but you can browse its collection HERE or at J.Crew.

FashionABLE’s scarves are available for order online HERE.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Last month, Cathleen traveled to Ethiopia as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Photo credit: All photos, video and audio by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

Ethiopia: How Foreign Aid Has Helped a Generation

A local woman walks past a field of corn, in a village near Lalibela, Ethiopia. Photo by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

LALIBELA, Ethiopia — You know the images you have in your mind of Ethiopia from 27 years ago? The ones from the nightly news reports on TV about the famine in the Horn of Africa as the death toll and horror stories grew.

Scorched, cracked earth. The carcasses of emaciated, dead cattle lying in the baking sun. Hundreds of thousands of stick-thin refugees wandering in the dust, hoping to have enough strength to make it to a camp that might have water and food. The babies and children with orange hair and distended stomachs — indications that they were in the advanced stages of malnutrition and starvation.

I am happy to report that the Ethiopia of 2012 is not the Ethiopia of 1985.

Thanks to global efforts (Live Aid, etc., back in the day), foreign aid, and the very real efforts of the Ethiopian government and people themselves, the land I saw earlier this month looks nothing like those old images in my mind. In fact, parts of the country that we traveled through were so verdant and lush — farmlands rolling out in various shades of green like a St. Patrick’s Day quilt  — that if you’d blindfolded me when I got on the plane and taken the blind of when I stepped of the bus in the rural area outside Bahir Dar near the Sudanese border, I might have thought I was in Ireland’s County Kerry rather than Ethiopia’s Amhara Region.

Ethiopia is beautiful. In every way. Its people. Its resilience. Its ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit. In the way it cares for its land and its people, and the way they care for each other and their visitors. There is a spirit in Ethiopia I’ve experienced elsewhere only rarely.

In a word I’d call it HOPE. But it’s a hope not based on daydreams and fairytales. It’s a hope based in hard work, smart planning, and forward thinking.

The ONE MOMS/ONE MUMS group I traveled with to Ethiopia this month spent a few days out in the northwest of Ethiopia, visiting hospitals, clinics, agricultural collectives, demonstration farms, and a remarkable group of women bee keepers (but I’ll save that for a future post.)

What those few days in the Amhara region put regal faces, calloused hands, quick minds, strong backs, and busy feet to the statistics we hear so often about foreign aid to the developing world — Africa in particular — and what financial resources from the U.S., U.K., and the rest of the G8 (and their posses) can and cannot do on the ground half a world away.

Let me tell you what I saw: A lot. Epic change. Hope for the future. Plans to avert disasters — “natural” or human-made.

In 1992, the proportion of the Ethiopian population that was undernourished was 69 percent. Today, the percentage of undernourished Ethiopians is 41 percent. That’s still a lot of hungry people, but it’s a dramatic decline in 20 years. Infant mortality in Ethiopia is one of the highest in the world (68 per 1,000 live births) — but that rate dropped 39 percent between 1990 (when the rate was 111 deaths per 1,000 live births) and 2010, according to UNICEF.

Ethiopia also has reduced the under-five mortality rate by 47 percent between 1990 and 2010.

“These achievements are largely a result of Ethiopia’s investment in a community health system and a cadre of 35,000 health workers who provide front-line care,” Dr. Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), wrote in the May/June issue of Frontlines magazine. In a nation where only 10 percent of births occur in health facilities, community health workers — skilled in birth attendance and equipped with affordable tools to save the lives of mothers and newborns — serve a critical role.

“But despite this significant progress, one in 11 children in Ethiopia do not live beyond their fifth birthday,” Shah wrote. “Development is full of problems we have few ways to solve. Helping children reach their fifth birthday is not one of them.”

Here are a few statistics (because I know some of you have an easier time getting your heads around numbers than stories) that speak to the challenges Ethiopia (and elsewhere in the developing world) still face:

  • In 2011, Ethiopia’s under-five mortality rate was 88 child deaths per 1,000 live births (and childhood mortality is higher in rural areas than it is in urban areas.)
  • 29 percent of children under the age of five are underweight, and 44 percent of all children in Ethiopia are stunted
  • Only one in every four children 12-23 months old has been fully vaccinated (according to 2011 statistics) — but that is a 19 percent increase since 2005.
  • Ethiopia has a high maternal mortality rate — 676 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2011.
  • In Ethiopia, 30 percent of all deaths of women ages 15-49 are pregnancy related, and only 34 percent of pregnant women receive post-natal (or antenatal, as they call it in Ethiopia) care from a skilled provider after their most recent birth
  • According to 2011 figures, the most significant barriers in Ethiopia that prevent women from seeking adequate pre- and post-natal care are the distance they must travel to the nearest health facility (66 percent), the availability of transportation to the health care facility (71 percent), and a lack of money (68 percent.)
  • 7.6 million children worldwide under the age of five die every year because they don’t have access to basic life-saving interventions such as vaccines and bed nets
  • 370,000 children are born every year with HIV, transmitted to them by their mothers

OK. So that’s the bad news.

But there’s good news, too, and lots of it, from what I witnessed in person across Ethiopia.

There is a new program, run by the Ethiopian government and funded by USAID, called the Integrated Family Health Program (IFHP). It’s a five-year program (begun in 2008) that ultimately is expected to reach half of the Ethiopian population with training and services to improve health practices both in individual households and in communities at large. One of the program’s big pushes is to get young children fully immunized. So, for instance, when a mother or parents come into a health center or outpost to discuss family planning — Ethiopia is encouraging the use of long-term contraception such as Depo Provera injections or sub-cutaneous contraceptive implants — their child or children can be immunized at the same time.

The USAID’s IFHP works side-by-side with an innovative program of the Ethiopian government itself called the Health Extension Program. The Ethiopian government had trained and salaried more than 35,000 health care providers — the vast majority of them women — and dispatched them to 286 districts in the country serving approximately 32 million people. Most of the people served by Health Extension workers live in rural areas where hospitals and clinics are few and far between. They go out to the villages and make old-fashioned house calls, providing services from prenatal exams and post-natal follow-ups to immunizations and basic health care needs.

I had the privilege of meeting some of the Health Extension workers and they are an extraordinary bunch. Young, ambitious, and seemingly tireless. Their work has been credited with the 28 percent decrease in under-5 child deaths, literally saving the lives of 560,000 children since 2005. Amazing.

MADERA WOREDA HEALTH OFFICE AND NBESAME HEALTH CENTER

Listen to one of my traveling companions, the marvelous British ONE Mums blogger Michelle Pannell (aka @michelletwinmum) talk about our visit to the health centers below as you view the slide show of my photos from that amazing day in rural, northwest Ethiopia.

At the end of 2011, a severe drought began in the Horn of Africa, leading Ethiopia’s neighbor to the east, Somalia, officially to declare a famine in June. The drought is believed to be the worst in more than 60 years, affecting more than 13.3 million people — echoing the emergency and images of the famine that struck Ethiopia in the mid 1980s. But this time, in Ethiopia, the story unfolded differently because of a safety net. After a severe drought hit the country in 2003, with the help of USAID and other foreign donors, the Ethiopian government launched a food security program — the Productive Safety Net Program.

This safety net “ensures families living on the edge are not forced to sell off their assets, mainly livestock, in order to feed their families,” Dina Esposito, director of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace, told Frontlines magazine earlier this year. “The labor, the quid pro quo for those fit enough to partake, is channeled into public works projects designed to improve communities as a whole.”

Watersheds and irrigation systems were built. Canals were dug, and schools and health clinics were constructed or rehabbed by workers who were at the risk of becoming food insecure. According to USAID, today, because of Ethiopia’s safety net program, 8 million people receive assistance in a timely and predictable way, and crises — like the famine of the 1980s — have been averted.

Our group visited a USAID-funded project — Empowering New Generations to Improve Nutrition and Economic Opportunities (ENGINE) — that compliments the Ethiopian government’s food safety net program in Lalibela, a rural district about 150 km from the urban center of Bahir Dar. The program, focused on women and their children, strives to improve nutrition and financial stability by teaching new agricultural and nutritional skills.

We visited what is called a “demonstration farm,” nestled in the verdant rolling hills and farmlands, where goat, sheep, and cow herders passed by on their way to and from pasture land. At the farm, ENGINE workers have planted new crops — such as beet root, cabbage, carrots, chard, and other greens — that are rich in nutrients and vitamins in the hopes of getting local mothers to introduce them into their everyday menus.

Women from the surrounding villages come to the farm for classes, learning about cultivation, nutritional values of the new foods, and, perhaps most importantly, how to prepare the vegetables ways that preserve their nutritional content best. This led to one of the more enjoyable outings of our sojourn in Ethiopia: a food demonstration where mothers (many of them with a toddler at their elbow and an infant nursing at their breast) watched as ENGINE workers showed them how to prepare the traditional porridge — a starchy staple in Ethiopian diets, particularly among children — with a nutritional and protein boost by adding legumes to the grains, and then stewed or chopped carrots, greens, beets, etc., to the mix to give it flavor and more vitamin power.

Baby food! It was so simple and yet so brilliant. By adding a handful of ground beans and a soupcon of Swiss chard and mashed carrots to the porridge, children would receive a complete protein in one dish.

At the end of our visit to the farm and baby food cooking demonstration, I was asked to say a few words to the villagers — mostly mothers and girls, but a few men looking on from a safe distance, too. I told them (in English, as a USAID guide interpreted for me) that while we may look different and sound different than they do, we are essentially the same. They are our sisters. Their children are our children. And we care for them, want them to be healthy, and succeed, just as we do our own children.

I said it was an honor  — a blessing, realy — to meet them, that we would share their stories with the rest of the world so that other mothers in other countries who are struggling to make ends meet, feed, and care for their children, would be encouraged.

And I told them that we would remember them and pray for them.

I hope you might join me in that effort, praying for their continued strength and tenacity, and giving thanks for the same. I also hope you will join me in reminding our politicians in this election season that U.S. foreign aid does make a difference. It saves lives. It changes whole communities and can help transform a whole generation.

Let’s do what we can to make sure foreign aid stays safe and that our budgets aren’t balanced on the backs of — or by mortgaging the lives of — the poorest of the poor.

Below you can see a few images from the farm and cooking demonstration.

They are such beautiful people — in every way.

USAID/ENGINE DEMONSTRATION FARM

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Photo credit: All photos by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.

What Americans Think About Foreign Aid Might Surprise You

Ethiopian Orthodoxy, Tawahedo, and ‘Being Made One’

GGNFT (Ethiopia Edition): Teddy Afro

Ethiopia: The Face of God

Ethiopia: Motherhood is Powerful, Precious

Ethiopia: God Is Even Bigger Than We Think

What Americans Think About U.S. Foreign Aid Might Surprise You

Children outside the Anbesame Health Center in rural northwest Ethiopia. Photo by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

In an OpEd that appeared on POLITICO Monday, Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor of Arkansas, and Blanche Lincoln, the former Democratic senator from Arkansas — who together co-chair ONE Vote 2012, a non-partisan campaign to make global health and extreme poverty foreign policy priorities in the 2012 presidential election, wrote about the importance of maintaining U.S. foreign aid to the developing world that has helped make significant improvements in the health and sustainability of myriad nations, including many on the continent of Africa.

They wrote:

We recognize that Americans today are suffering at home from one of the worst economic recessions in modern history. We understand that there might be temptation to cut back on U.S. humanitarian programs and investments abroad. However, the cost of cutting back on such programs is not worth it. Not even close. It would affect too many peoples’ lives and damage American economic and national security interests at a time our world is more interconnected than ever.

It might come as a surprise to learn that less than one percent of the U.S. budget is spent on foreign assistance. It might even be shocking to discover that, despite this relatively small amount, these funds are literally saving millions of lives and improving the lives of many more millions of people.

For example, American investments in cost-effective vaccines will help save nearly 4 million children’s lives from preventable diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhea over the next five years. We’ve also helped to deliver 290 million mosquito nets to Malaria-stricken countries, and put 46 million children in school for the very first time. And thanks to the leadership of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, 8 million HIV/AIDS patients now have access to life-saving treatments, up from just 300,000 a decade ago, making an AIDS-free generation a real possibility within our lifetimes.

A healthier, less impoverished planet is good for all of us.

Read the post in its entirety HERE.

Our friends at the ONE Campaign spent 48 hours asking everyday Americans what they thought about US Foreign Aid.

(Source: The ONE Campaign)

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.

Ethiopian Orthodoxy, Tawahedo, and ‘Being Made One’

GGNFT (Ethiopia Edition): Teddy Afro

Ethiopia: The Face of God

Ethiopia: Motherhood is Powerful, Precious

Ethiopia: God Is Even Bigger Than We Think

Ethiopia: The Face of God

BAHIR DAR, Ethiopia — When I posted this photograph of a beautiful little Ethiopian girl holding a daisy a few days ago, my friend  and fellow author Christian Piatt responded on Twitter with a four-word comment:

 

“The Face of God.”

Christian’s remark stopped me in my tracks … because it’s absolutely true.

The Bible even tells us so.

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. ~ Genesis 1:27

When I look into the eyes of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve met, given high (and low) fives to, fist bumped, hugged, and waived to in the last few days, my thought is always the same: Oh my God, they are so beautiful.

What I didn’t recognize Christian’s profound four words is that Oh my God, they are so beautiful is also a prayer. A “wow” prayer, to borrow an idea from Anne Lamott.

Since Christian called my attention to the face of God, I haven’t been able to look at any of the remarkable souls I’ve spent time with here in Ethiopia without thinking about God’s face.

That Divine Spark reflected in our eyes. Our faces and bodies, hearts and souls all beautifully and wondrously made in the image of the Creator.

Nowhere is the face of God more evident than in the faces of children. They haven’t learned to cover up their divine face with masks yet, like so many of us adults have. Their joy is pure and unfettered, as is their fear and pain.

Below you can see for yourself what I’m on about — the face of God in the faces of a few of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve been immensely blessed to meet on my journey to their truly sacred land. (More on that last bit in a forthcoming post.)

Oh my God, they are so beautiful.

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All photos by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

Cathleen is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.

Ethiopia: Motherhood is Powerful, Precious

Ethiopia: God Is Even Bigger Than We Think

GODSTUFF

CHRISTIANITY AND SOCIAL DRINKING: CHEERS!

Picture, if you will, a husband and wife — he 60 and she teetering on the edge of 40 — in the back of a taxi rumbling through the streets of an African city at night, frantically searching for mints in a jacket pocket or purse to cover the trace of wine on their breaths.
It’s a pretty silly scenario, but that’s exactly what my husband and I found ourselves doing one night not too long ago. We were on our way back to the home of our hosts, a thoroughly lovely and loving pastor and his wife, and we didn’t want to offend them.
We are what some might call, in the parlance of the milieu, “believing Christians,” and so, of course, were our hosts. But they are teetotalers and we are not.
I don’t think either one of us believed our hosts would judge us or question the authenticity of our faith were they to smell a whiff of Chardonnay on us. Not at all. They are grace-filled people. For us the mints were a gesture of respect, if perhaps an ill-conceived one.
The consumption of alcohol is one of those sticky wickets that can get some people of faith, particularly my people — evangelical Protestant Christians — pretty riled up. The Bible is clear that drunkenness is a no-no, but on the imbibing of fermented drink, it is ambivalent at best.
There are verses that compare the consumption of wine a fool’s folly. Proverbs 20:1 calls wine a “mocker” and beer a “brawler.” And there are verses that praise the Creator for the fruit of the vine (and they’re not referring to Welch’s Grape Juice.) Throughout Hebrew scripture, wine is often a metaphor for God’s blessings. Proverbs 3:10, for instance, says that for those who honor God with their tithes, “your vats will brim over with new wine.”
Although nothing was articulated explicitly, at the home of our wonderfully generous hosts, it was clear that no alcohol was kept in the house and none was consumed on the premises.
We totally get that. Where the pastor and his wife live, particularly in their Pentecostal circles, Christians do not drink alcohol. Period.
They are not alone. According to a 2006 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey of Pentecostals in 10 countries worldwide, an average of 86 percent of Pentecostals in Kenya and Nigeria said that alcoholic consumption was “never justified.”
That Pew study went on to report that, “in most countries, drinking alcoholic beverages is viewed as less acceptable than getting a divorce. In fact, in seven countries, majorities say that drinking alcohol can never be justified. And in every country except the U.S., at least half of Pentecostals share this view.”
Last week, in its monthly (rather unscientific but still intriguing)  Evangelical Leaders Survey, the National Association of Evangelicals asked the question, “Do you drink alcohol socially?” To my surprise, 40 percent of the leaders admitted they did. (Sixty percent said they did not.)
I was shocked the number of admitted drinkers was as high as 40 percent. Many of the pastors I know, of various evangelical and Pentecostal flavors, would not drink socially if for no other reason than to avoid “the appearance of sin” or presenting a “stumbling block” to those in their flock who might struggle with addiction or have a history of alcohol abuse in their families.
Of the evangelical leaders who said they did partake socially, many added caveats such as “in moderation,” “never in excess,” or “on special occasions.” Others explained that out of sensitivity to those who might be offended, they only drink with those who share similar views on alcohol consumption.
That last sentiment was the impetus for our mint hunt. But it still left me feeling a bit spiritually torn. They’re teetotalers. We are not. All of us love Jesus, the same Jesus who, in his first miracle, turned cisterns of water in to copious amounts of good wine to keep the party rolling for a group of surely already well-lubricated wedding guests.
That same Pew survey found that in South Africa, where religious culture has been mightily influenced by the Dutch and their Reformed Christian theology and sensibilities, only 56 percent of Pentecostals said that drinking alcohol was “never justified.”
Jim West, author of the fascinating examination of the history of alcohol and the church, Drinking with Calvin and Luther, dedicates his work to “the hearty heirs of the Reformation,” such as John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, fathers of Reform theology.
“The Reformers not only restored justification by faith alone, but did so while enjoying God’s creation gifts,” West writes. “They exalted wine as a gift of God, but they also censured winos and whiners.”
God’s creation gifts? I’ll drink to that. 

You can call him Al(fred)

In case you missed it, yer man, Bono, had another of his fascinating (and entertaining) op-ed pieces in last Sunday’s New York Times:

AFRICA REBOOTS:

 I spent March with a delegation of activists, entrepreneurs and policy wonks roaming western, southern and eastern Africa trying very hard to listen — always hard for a big-mouthed Irishman. With duct tape over my gob, I was able to pick up some interesting melody lines everywhere from palace to pavement …

Despite the almost deafening roar of excitement about Africa’s hosting of soccer’s World Cup this summer, we managed to hear a surprising thing. Harmony … flowing from two sides that in the past have often been discordant: Africa’s emerging entrepreneurial class and its civil-society activists.

It’s no secret that lefty campaigners can be cranky about business elites. And the suspicion is mutual. Worldwide. Civil society as a rule sees business as, well, a little uncivil. Business tends to see activists as, well, a little too active. But in Africa, at least from what I’ve just seen, this is starting to change. The energy of these opposing forces coming together is filling offices, boardrooms and bars. The reason is that both these groups — the private sector and civil society — see poor governance as the biggest obstacle they face. So they are working together on redefining the rules of the African game.

Entrepreneurs know that even a good relationship with a bad government stymies foreign investment; civil society knows a resource-rich country can have more rather than fewer problems, unless corruption is tackled.

This joining of forces is being driven by some luminous personalities, few of whom are known in America; all of whom ought to be. Let me introduce you to a few of the catalysts:

John Githongo, Kenya’s famous whistleblower, has had to leave his country in a hurry a couple of times; he was hired by his government to clean things up and then did his job too well. He’s now started a group called Inuka, teaming up the urban poor with business leaders, creating inter-ethnic community alliances to fight poverty and keep watch on dodgy local governments. He is the kind of leader who gives many Kenyans hope for the future, despite the shakiness of their coalition government.

Sharing a table with Githongo and me one night in Nairobi was DJ Rowbow, a Mike Tyson doppelgänger. His station, Ghetto Radio, was a voice of reason when the volcano of ethnic tension was exploding in Kenya in 2008. While some were encouraging the people of Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa, to go on the rampage, this scary-looking man decoded the disinformation and played peacemaker/interlocutor. On the station’s playlist is Bob Marley and a kind of fizzy homespun reggae music that’s part the Clash, part Marvin Gaye. The only untruthful thing he said all evening was that he liked U2. For my part, I might have overplayed the Jay-Z and Beyoncé card. “They are friends of mine,” I explained to him, eh, a lot.

Now this might be what you expect me to say, but I’m telling you, it was a musician in Senegal who best exemplified the new rules. Youssou N’Dour — maybe the greatest singer on earth — owns a newspaper and is in the middle of a complicated deal to buy a TV station. You sense his strategy and his steel. He is creating the soundtrack for change, and he knows just how to use his voice. (I tried to imagine what it would be like if I owned The New York Times as well as, say, NBC. Someday, someday…)

In Maputo, Mozambique, I met with Activa, a women’s group that, among other things, helps entrepreneurs get seed capital. Private and public sectors mixed easily here, under the leadership of Luisa Diogo, the country’s former prime minister, who is now the matriarch in this mesmerizing stretch of eastern Africa. Famous for her Star Wars hairdo and political nous, she has the lioness energy of an Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Ngozi Okonjo Iweala or a Graça Machel.

When I met with Ms. Diogo and her group, the less famous but equally voluble women in the room complained about excessive interest rates on their microfinance loans and the lack of what they called “regional economic integration.” For them, infrastructure remains the big (if unsexy) issue. “Roads, we need roads,” one entrepreneur said by way of a solution to most of the obstacles in her path. Today, she added, “we women, we are the roads.” I had never thought of it that way but because women do most of the farming, they’re the ones who carry produce to market, collect the water and bring the sick to the clinics.

The true star of the trip was a human hurricane: Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese entrepreneur who made a fortune in mobile phones.

I fantasized about being the boy wonder to his Batman, but as we toured the continent together I quickly realized I was Alfred, Batman’s butler. Everywhere we went, I was elbowed out of the way by young and old who wanted to get close to the rock star reformer and his beautiful, frighteningly smart daughter, Hadeel, who runs Mo’s foundation and is a chip off the old block (in an Alexander McQueen dress). Mo’s speeches are standing-room-only because even when he is sitting down, he’s a standing-up kind of person. In a packed hall in the University of Ghana, he was a prizefighter, removing his tie and jacket like a cape, punching young minds into the future.

For the rest of Bono’s latest op-ed, click HERE.