Day: November 5, 2012

Luxury, poverty, and the stories we need to hear

It was 2006, and I was fidgety at the table in the Hilton Tower Hotel in Kampala, Uganda. Across from me was an MP’s daughter and a businessman who would, in the next few years, attempt a run at the presidency. As Elizabeth and David chattered on about politics, technical training, and cultural events, I ricocheted between excitement and anxiety. Excitement because Elizabeth and David were discussing ideas that were challenging and potentially vital for their country. Anxiety because they were both wealthy, educated, healthy people. They didn’t need me.

Later, I was expressing this anxiety to the clever Ugandan responsible for my Hilton cocktail hour. I told him that I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell people back to the USA that my time in “darkest Africa” had evolved into brainstorming over drinks instead of pounding the orphanage circuit. At the heart of the conflict, I realized, was my millennial generation obsession with feeling like a contributor. My generation wants to know they are making a difference.

“But that’s what we need from you,” he said, “There are people better suited to work in the slums: doctors, lawyers, contractors, etc. We want you to go home and tell about your experience that was different from the other stories they’ve heard. We want people to believe in the good things that are happening here.” His knowing look completed that last sentence as if to say, even if Americans are not the ones doing them.

Apparently I was not alone in my anxiety. In a recent interview on the TED radio hour on NPR, Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda said, “The rich countries are attracted to Africa’s poverty rather than its wealth, and in the process they end up subsidizing our failures rather than rewarding our accomplishments.” Find the full interview here.

The dots of life have a providential way of connecting sometimes. Moving home to San Antonio felt like a huge departure from the far-flung path I had chased in academic and philanthropic pursuits, but the pull was undeniable. I was sandwiched between another academic research trip to Kampala, Uganda and a genocide-scholar conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and I clearly remember the day walking over Blackfriars Bridge in London and saying to a friend: “I think I just need to move home.”

At that point I figured that development, postcolonial theory, and the political economy of representation would fade into my background like high school chemistry. But I was in for a refresher course.

The San Antonio I came home to was rippling with discussion on history, progress, race relations, and neighborhood identity. The city where my family has lived for generations is now continuing my education, even as I re-encounter Africa, this time from a whole new angle.

Flash forward to the office of the President of Ker and Downey, a luxury travel company that specializes in African safaris. Their itineraries are some of the most exclusive and luxurious in the world. After looking at my resume and quizzing me about my time in Africa on academic, missional, and philanthropic business, David Marek said, “Are you going to be able to handle the wealth of our clients and the way they want to experience Africa?”

An excellent question, Mr. Marek.

I’m an unlikely candidate for accommodating special dietary requests and VIP services. However, as a student of human nature I do know one thing: you cannot love what you do not know.

In graduate school we often talked about “compassion fatigue” generated by the countless adds for NGOs that show the sad eyes and protruding ribs of sub-Saharan children.  When a person sees one million hands reaching up for help and freezes knowing that they cannot help them all, that is compassion fatigue.

But how much more stamina does my compassion have for the places that I love? The poverty within the African continent is real, and it’s not something that we should ignore, choosing only to focus on the majesty and rarity of the Big Five or the South African winelands. But really, can you truly fall in love with a place and not be moved by its gaping wounds? Ker and Downey would say “no.” After 30 years of business on the continent, David Marek is a crusader for various philanthropies, even involving stateside networks in a campaign to provide mosquito nets and clothing to the people of Africa. Every Ker and Downey trip pays tangible homage to the great need accompanying the grandeur.

I feel the same way about San Antonio, a city of many resources and many needs. When we millennials move into town, we need to be fully aware of our place and time. We cannot just come to play, but we cannot just come to help either.  Living in a city requires give and take. Appreciation and generosity.

In the same TED radio hour on NPR, Chimamanda Adichie cautioned against only listening to one story. I would broaden that to one discourse, made up of thousands of stories with one message. We need to hear the diversity of stories. The safari story can bond a heart to Africa as can the medical relief story. It is at the intersection of these experiences that we begin to understand Africa as a real place, not a G8 line item or a safari photo montage.  Africans are people, not statistics, whether they are sitting at the Hilton or fleeing a famine.

When I think about my experiences in Kampala, Bosnia, Los Angeles, and London, I immediately think about my experience in San Antonio. I think about the shroud of mystery over the inner city when I was growing up . Then I think of the recent hype surrounding Dignowity Hill and the various neighborhoods south of downtown. I hear the voices from my academic career joining the critics of inner-city development, calling it gentrification.

San Antonio’s urban core is part of a global conversation on change. The discourses are diversifying. Areas are being shown off and sought after, sometimes for what was already there, and sometimes for what is changing. Voices of preservation are mingling with voices of progress. It’s not a perfect process. We can all think of at least one example of someone who has been overlooked or frustrated by the process.

We need to have these conversations. The people who have lived in the areas for generations and the people seeking to move in and be part of the neighborhood have a lot to offer each other. Perhaps the most valuable gift is that of their story and the way those stories draw us out of our siloes and into community. In the end, I think that it will be this multitude of stories that makes San Antonio stand out among the major American cities as an incredibly stimulating place to live.

Mitt and Billy prove that many evangelicals put their hope in POTUS*, not Jesus


Growing up as an evangelical, voting Republican was a moral responsibility. Democrats were baby-killing socialists whose ultimate agenda included flushing God from the public sphere and eventually outlawing the freedom of worship. Republicans, by contrast, carried on in the tradition of our forefathers: they wanted to bring this nation back to its Christian roots.

It’s tempting to launch into what a Christian nation would actually look like, with the division of property (Act 2:41) and hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:2). Or even to look at the one simple statement that Jesus actually made about civic government (the Roman Empire, not exactly the bastion of moral integrity), “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (Mark 12:17)”, i.e. pay your taxes. But I won’t go there.

It is my suspicion that with a couple of exceptions evangelicals have been played for fools by candidates who realized that they could have the support of an entire voting block if they said the words “Christian nation.” Never mind that the founding fathers they tend to tout, and the ones who actually crafted our Constitution, espoused a sort of deist-Christian hybrid that historian Gregg Frazer calls “theistic rationalism” and were more concerned with the Magna Carta than with the Bible.

Nevertheless, the hardliners among the religious right have promoted whoever the outspoken Christian on the ballot is. Most famously, George W. Bush (who, once out of office, upset many fundamentalists by endorsing some of the more liberal positions on evolution and inerrancy of Scripture, per his Mainline Protestant affiliation).  Meanwhile they have taken a hard stance on the doctrines of Christian fundamentalism such as Creation and the deity of Christ, with their hallmark being unwillingness to compromise.

But now the choice is between a Mormon and Democrat. Regardless of Barak Obama’s religious beliefs, for many evangelicals his party platform means that, as I overheard at a Houston Chick-fil-a, “No man who calls himself a Christian could vote for Obama.” So, Mitt Romney is the default choice of most evangelicals. That’s actually not a big deal to me. He’s pro-life (today), he’s small government (ish), and he likes churches (and temples). All of this jives with the cherished beliefs of the religious right, and most evangelicals in general.

I’m even excited that my evangelical brothers and sisters are voting for a Mormon. I’m glad that they could recognize that personal beliefs about whether or not Jesus is the Son of God don’t have a huge bearing on one’s plans to stimulate the economy. They really don’t. So vote your values, vote your economic policy, vote for the candidate you like.

However, here’s what did finally disturb me. Rev. Billy Graham, like most hardline evangelicals, considers Mormonism a cult. Right or wrong, they’ve been teaching this for decades, I’ve heard it with my own ears. It was not until Mitt Romney’s campaign sought the endorsement of Graham that Mormonism came off the list of cults on Graham’s website.

Ken Barun, in a statement to the Charlotte observer said, “We removed the information from the website because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign.”

Here’s why I don’t buy that: when Barak Obama came out in favor of gay marriage, the organization didn’t take down their page on homosexuality. In fact I’d argue that homosexuality is more politicized than Mormonism will ever be, unless Mitt tries to reinstate polygamy, which I doubt he will.

Do not be mistaken. Billy Graham did not have a change of heart on the subject of Mormonism. Nor has any hardline evangelical. What they have had is something far more profound: a change in savior. What the Graham crusade effectively said is NOT, “We’re willing to endorse this man, even though we disagree about religion.” Instead their action said that “truth” comes second to getting a conservative in the White House. Whether or not you believe that Mormonism is a cult is not the issue. Billy Graham’s organization does. And that would never have come down from his website if Joe and Sally Latter-Day-Saint had come to his door asking him to remove it. It wasn’t a display of tolerance, it was a display of faith in the conservative movement as the hope for America.

Rather than just coming out and endorsing Mitt in spite of the difference in faith, the organization decided to erase the difference. As Stephen Colbert so aptly put it, “All you have to do to be reclassified as a legitimate religion by Billy Graham is field a viable Republican candidate.”

If we Christians really believe what we say about Jesus’s love being the hope of the world, and not whoever sits in the White House, then we are free to vote for the best candidate regardless of his religion. We shouldn’t use religion as a campaign strategy, or edit our beliefs accordingly.

Nervous gulp…

I’ve toyed around with the idea of a blog for a while now, but I was terrified of how I might drift into public demonstrations of my worst habits:



Baseless claims.

Pretentious musings on things like broccoli, laundry, and marriage.

People use blogs as great ways to keep family and friends updated on life in a foreign land. My family all lives in San Antonio with me. People use blogs to document home renovations. I’m not responsible for most of our home renovations, and couldn’t give you any details as to how they happen. People use blogs to share hilarious elementary school journals. My elementary school journals would leave me a friendless paraiah.  Basically, there are a lot of great reasons to blog, and until now I haven’t had one.

But I’ve taken up writing for Talk Magazine and The Rivard Report, which has resulted in significant overflow of articles that have nowhere to live except my Documents folder.  While it may be that they would be better served staying there, I’m going to let them have some air.

If I start documenting the most inane details of my daily life (how long it took me to shower or the consistency of my mucous) you’ll know the project has gone off the rails. But hopefully I’ll remember that I’m not that exciting, and stick to writing things that are of interest.