The stories of the elders

Yesterday, in our meeting of the House of Bishops here in Alaska, we were treated to two conversations with elders of the Athabaskan people. One, a 96 year old woman who told us of her life in the seasonal Fish Camps and sang to us songs she had composed to mark important moments in her life. The other was an Episcopal priest and tribal chief who had served a community for years and now in his mid-eighties was an institution in the diocesan and the region.

As we listened the elders tell their stories, we were also taught by younger leaders from the villages how to listen to what they were saying. We were reminded that sometimes the elder will pause before answering a question – often because the elder’s first language is not English and they need to work out an answer and then translate it for us. And we were told to recognize that the elders often answered a question with a story – a story that might not seem to be related to the question that was asked. When that happened, it was important to listen carefully because the story answered the question in a way, and sometime carried with it a gentle critique of the question itself.

I was struck by the deep respect and reverence that native people we met had for the elders in their community. They had learned to depend on the elders to keep the community’s history and traditions, to pass along it common wisdom, and most importantly to allow it to survive in the harsh climate. The elder’s stories and songs teach the people about how to care for the environment that they depend on for their subsistence lifestyle. (A lifestyle that, as the older elder said to us was “hard” but not a “hardship”.) The stories taught the people how to manage the harvest, how to care for the herd, and how to respect the rivers. It is the accumulated wisdom of the nearly ten thousand years of experience. The stories are truly the life and death wisdom and knowledge of the Athabaskan people.

I’m reminded of the Church’s stories too. We have thousands and thousands of years of history and wisdom. We have stories that are told in response to questions asked that don’t seem, at first blush, to answer the question either but upon reflection contain incredible richness of thought. We have stories that contain the experience of God’s people with the God they worship and follow – and these stories are just as critical for our survival as are the stories of the elders to the native people of the Arctic.

And I’m quite taken by the reverence the community has for the elders – and the way the elders live selflessly for the community. We prioritize things differently in most Episcopal congregations these days. I’m not sure we’re doing that right.

Fairbanks via Seattle

The Fall 2017 House of Bishops meeting is being held in Fairbanks Alaska this year. Held in Fairbanks is sort of a misnomer. We’re spending part of our time in Fairbanks, and the main meeting site is in Fairbanks, but Alaska being Alaska, we’ll be spending time away from the city – far away – too. Some of the bishops are going to be loaded on to mail planes I’m told, to fly out to villages along the Yukon that are only accessible by air, and will visit small Episcopal congregations to worship and talk with the communities they serve.

We’ll be talking about climate change and how it is creating pressures for the people in Alaska. We talk about the same topic in Rhode Island, and are even thinking about which church building will be imperiled over the next few decades, but what we’re facing in RI is nothing like the major dislocating changes that are coming the Artic region and the people who live around the Artic Sea.

The Episcopal Café has some pretty good background published on their site if you’re looking for more information.

I’ve never been to Alaska – and never imagined that my first visit would be as far north as Fairbanks. I admit to hoping for clear skies and an active solar magnetosphere. (I’ve never seen the Aurora Borealis.) I wish I had found space to bring my good camera with me. (I’ll try to make do with the camera in my cell phone.) Keep us all in your prayers this week as we listen and learn and pray.

I’ll post pictures as I get them – and impressions as I receive them.

Episcopal Migration Ministries: why it matters so much

We had a power presentation made to the bishops of the Episcopal Church earlier this week during our annual Spring meeting. The travel ban and the associated complications in the refugee resettlement process are affecting all of the nine organizations in the US that manage the resettlement process. Of the nine agencies that work in refugee resettlement, five are faith based.

I’m hoping to have more to say about this all soon – especially here in Rhode Island. But for the moment I hope you’ll take a minute or two to watch this latest video from EMM:

If you’d like to make a donation to support EMM, and they really could use your help, you can find out how to do that here:

The mission of education in Taiwan

Today, my first full day in Taiwan as part of the House of Bishop’s meeting, was spent taking a tour of St. John’s University. The university was originally planted in Shanghai by the then bishop of Shanghai – The Rt. Rev. Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, one of my favorite heroes on our Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints.


I found this plaque in English describing the work of Bishop Schereschewsky and his role in founding the University. We learned while we were there that the alumni have been quite famous over the years, presidents of Taiwan, representatives to the United Nations and even the famous architect IM Pei.


We began with a presentation by the chaplain to the University, a former Math Professor who is also an Episcopal priest. He introduced the student faith community leaders (all Episcopalians) and they described their evangelism efforts and how they try to share the gospel on campus. It was moving and exciting to see how committed they were to telling the Good News in a place where Christianity is a small minority religion.

The rest of the visit involved meeting the University President – one of the few woman presidents in Asia, who is a Electrical Engineer who did her graduate training at Cornell. She talked about the history of the University and expressed her gratitude for the ongoing financial support of the Episcopal Church to its programs and continued growth. We asked about the possibility of forming a theological college to train clergy at the University and what might be needed for that to happen. (It’s needed she tells us.)

But I was most taken by the story of the university’s founding by one of our Episcopal Church’s missionary bishops. Schereschewsky, who also translated the Bible in Cantonese to aid evangelism efforts, founded the school as part of his work to create a new understanding of the role of learning in society, and a dream of having the Christian community in China take a major role in shaping the modernization process that was then underway. The university motto is “Light and Truth” – you would probably recognize it latin; Lux et Veritas. But I was taken too by the school slogan –

Talent serves Virtue; Learning serves Society.

A more Anglican understanding of the work of education would be hard to find.

The president of the University shared her need of Anglican and Episcopal teachers to come to live at St. John’s for a year or two. They would have the opportunity to learn Mandarin by immersion, and they would be incredibly helpful in the work of the Applied English department in training students to achieve functional

(image of the altar of the Church of the Advent – the parish church on campus that also serves as the college chapel.)

Fall 2014 House of Bishops meeting

Tomorrow we will begin this year’s Fall House of Bishops meeting for the Episcopal Church. We’re meeting this year in Taipei, in the Diocese of Taiwan, a diocese of the Episcopal Church. As I mentioned this to people in Rhode Island, there was some surprise that Taiwan was part of our Church – but over the years, as our mission work in the Episcopal Church in the US
took us further and further afield, we have helped to plant a number of church communities in parts of the world beyond the US borders.

One of the hallmarks of Bishop Katherine’s leadership during her time as Presiding Bishop these past nine years has been strengthening of our interconnectedness with the missionary work that is happening around the world in the Anglican Communion and particularly in the Episcopal Church (which is still mostly based in the USA). Relationships have to be attended to intentionally to flourish, and visiting one another is a major part of that work. I’m still new to the House of Bishops, but over the past years, I’m told we have tried to visit a non-USA diocese at least once in each triennium.

I’m looking forward to this visit. There’s much to learn. As I write this, I’m sitting in the airport in San Francisco surrounded by people from countries all around the Pacific. It feels very different that it does sitting in the airport in New York City or in Boston, where you tend to be surrounded with people from nations that border the Atlantic. There’s a westward focus here on the West Coast that reflects America’s role as a Pacific Rim nation, just as there’s an Eastern focus on the East Coast, reflecting our role as a nation state on the North Atlantic. The food in hotel this morning reflected that – salmon, congee and rice along side the typical bacon, eggs and potatoes. (Just as breakfasts in the hotels on the East Coast will often have grilled tomatoes, backed beans – or just crisp breads, cheese and fruit.

Doing the work of telling the Good News requires the teller to be aware of the culture in which one is speaking. Learning to listen to and speak with the people of Asia may well be the great mission field of the Church in the next century. This trip we are taking is a chance for us to get started with that learning. I’ve never been to Asia – I’m excited to learn from the Taiwanese, and hoping to share something of what we are doing in Rhode Island as well. It looks like the schedule of presentations will include briefings on the work and challenges of the Church in Korea, in Pakistan and other parts of Asia as well.

Much to learn! Here’s hoping that there will be time to write and share regularly as well.

The App you ought to have

Do you have an iPhone? An iPad? Do you support the One Campaign?

I spent time in Swaziland. Many of my friends are either from the Sudan or work with people in the Sudan. Here in Phoenix we have a number of cathedral members who work on the southern Mexican border with Guatemala. In all those places the situation is dire because an epidemic of preventable diseases, lack of basic infrastructure and extreme poverty. The MDG movement is a response to these needs.

The One Campaign is an organization of nearly two million members that are organizing to respond, and more importantly being advocates for a coordinated governmental response by countries around the world.

If you’ve been meaning to get involved in the advocacy work, but haven’t known where to start, and you’ve got an iOS device (or access to one) then you need to grab a copy of the ONE app.

“ONE Campaign is essentially a call-to-action app. It lists a number of political issues or advocacy movements and gives you instant access to proven projects that are working to combat the issues (like vaccines for children, for example). You can then enlist your Twitter or Facebook friends to help spread the word and join movements that are important to you. But the best thing about the app is that it gives you instant tools so you can actually take political action. With a few taps you can call your Congressman or sign a petition to support your cause. The app knows who your Congressional leaders are based on the zip code you enter. So many political action apps are solely news-focused. They tell us the bad things that are happening and leave us angry or distressed. The ONE app allows us to take productive action on an issue as easily as we download a song. ONE Campaign is a free download.”

More here.

It’s time to rethink America’s policy on nuclear weapons.

There’s an article in the Wall Street Journal today by a number of former Cold War leaders (including George Schultz, Sam Nunn and Henry Kissinger) that calls for the U.S. to rethink its M.A.D. nuclear weapons policy. Not a dove among the lot.

While you can’t access that article without a subscription, you can read the open letter at the Here are some of the key paragraphs:

“Today, the Cold War is almost 20 years behind us, but many leaders and publics cannot conceive of deterrence without a strategy of mutual assured destruction. We have written previously that reliance on this strategy is becoming increasingly hazardous. With the spread of nuclear weapons, technology, materials and know‐how, there is an increasing risk that nuclear weapons will be used.

It is not possible to replicate the high‐risk stability that prevailed between the two nuclear superpowers during the Cold War in such an environment. The growing number of nations with nuclear arms and differing motives, aims and ambitions poses very high and unpredictable risks and increased instability.

[…]Recently, the four of us met at the Hoover Institution with a group of policy experts to discuss the possibilities for establishing a safer and more comprehensive form of deterrence and prevention in a world where the roles and risks of nuclear weapons are reduced and ultimately eliminated. Our broad conclusion is that nations should move forward together with a series of conceptual and practical steps toward deterrence that do not rely primarily on nuclear weapons or nuclear threats to maintain international peace and security.”

Read the full letter here.

Having passed the renewal to the START treaty late last year, perhaps we can start to call on Congress and the President to return again to the issue of a Comprehensive Test Ban (CTB). If we sign on, we will have a great deal of moral authority to then urge the sorts of nations we’re most concerned about (Iran, North Korea, Libya(?)) to join the ban as well.

Swazi government threatens torture against “foreigners”.

I haven’t written much about Swaziland recently as the situation in that small country in Southern Africa hasn’t changed very much. But I received this article from the primary English language newspaper this morning.

The short version appears to be that the Swazi King is becoming increasingly frustrated with the low level unrest in the populace. There have been increasing calls for governmental reform as the economic and public health situation has deteriorated. Rather than deal with the reformers directly, the government is suggesting that the real problem is the “foreigners” who advocate for democracy among the native Swazi tribes.

So in response the government is looking to an old tribal punishment, flogging the feet of offenders with spikes and effectively crippling them for a long while. This has the advantage of stopping the protestor and forcing his or her supporters to support him or her while they recover from their wounds. An effective and medieval response.

It will probably be effective in the short run, but totally useless in the long run given that it does nothing to respond to the real issue.

What we can do is get the word out that this is happening, and highlight the violence against peaceful protestors when it does.

Full article after the jump:

Continue reading “Swazi government threatens torture against “foreigners”.”

Learning to listen to the locals

What follows is an essay I just wrote for a Diocese of Arizona project which is collecting reflections from people who have been involved in various MDG projects over the past. Our diocesan MDG committee is going to publish these both in hope that other in the diocese might be inspired to get involved, and also so that local parish and mission committees might use them to guide their own decision making process. (I’ll try to remember to share a link to the full collection once we have them collated.)

My first startling impression of Swaziland came when I stepped out of the airport into the darkness of the night into which we had landed. The car to pick us up was not there waiting for us, and the airport was closing down for the night. The guards told us that we could not wait inside the compound, so we gathered up our luggage and started walking out to the main road hoping to either meet our ride there, or find a phone to make a call.

In the darkness, with gravel crunching underfoot, I looked up. It’s something I do reflexively as a former stargazer. Seeing the stars in the familiar positions makes me feel centered no matter what is happening around me. Their slow progress across the sky is always a touchstone of stability for me when I’m not feeling particularly secure. Except this time. When I looked up, things were all our of sorts. It was a combination of my first time to the Southern Hemisphere, with new constellations, and the effect of seeing all the familiar constellations upside down. It took me moment to recognize Orion. There he was, warding off Taurus the Bull, backed up by his faithful dogs, but he was standing on his head!

The idea of the familiar standing on its head became sort of repeated theme during my visit. Things that appeared familiar turned out, when more closely examined, to be topsy-turvy according to my expectations. Things that seemed totally foreign to me turned out to actually be closely to related to things I recognized once I took the time to see.

This was driven home as I began to speak to people around the country-side who were involved in Swazi Hospice at Home, the NGO I had come to support during visit. The program allows people who are dying of HIV and AIDS to die relatively comfortably at home surrounded by their family and friends. This is not just important to them, but to the whole health care system in the country because if the dying are not cared for at home, the all too few hospital beds in the country would be wholly given over to these patients and not by people who, frankly speaking, have a chance of recovery. In a country where 250,000 people have access to only one small clinic (a two room 1500 square foot affair) with 2 beds, this is a matter of life and death for many.

My immediate response to seeing this desperate shortage of hospital beds was to begin to plan some sort of response that would raise sufficient money to open clinics all across the country. But that wouldn’t be much help without trained medical personnel, medicines, equipment, transportation, or just electricity… In speaking with the local healthcare providers, and with the local committee who were charged with expanding the existing clinic, I learned how great the challenges were, and how little effectiveness throwing money at the problem would have. Much important was to listen to them explain why a Hospice program made so much more sense to their community.

There were numerous reasons. First and foremost was that by a number of different methodologies, it appeared that something between 35 to 45% of the adult population was HIV positive, and expected to develop full blown AIDS and likely die within the decade. The anti retro-virus drugs simply aren’t available in the Swazi countryside, and even if they were, the people suffering from AIDS couldn’t afford them, and wouldn’t have access to the necessary medical monitoring. Better people should live out their last days as comfortably as possible, and give those who are not infected with the disease, especially the children, an opportunity to access what health care is available, than to have even more people die unnecessarily because the inadequate health care system becomes overwhelmed. The second reason was not one I would have ever imagined…

Most of the land in Swaziland belongs not the individual but to the tribe. Families are allowed to live on plots of land as long as they are farming it and giving a portion of the crops to the chief, the King and to the tribal council. If they are not able to produce from the land, it is taken away from them and given to someone who can. Most often it is given to a member of the chief’s family. As long as an adult with children is able to remain on the land, the children can farm the land. If the adult leaves, the children would mostly likely have to as well, which would mean they would lose their families land and any means of independent support. There is no effective social safety net in Swaziland so losing the ability to raise their own food means that the families children are likely to die soon after their parent or parents.

Caring for people at home rather than in the hospital in Swaziland is less about the emotional needs and dignity of the dying as is the case in the developed world and more about trying to keep the whole of society from collapsing.

I only learned this by learning to listen to the local people who were doing the actual hands on work that our MDG group was supporting. It was the quintessential experience of the familiar standing on its head. I think my reflection on these sorts of experiences have informed my own continuing work on the Diocesan MDG committee and my coordination with that of the Cathedral’s committee. We must learn to allow the people on site to propose their own appropriate solutions. Our western solutions won’t alway work, and will sometimes make the situation much more dire.

Learning to listen in this way was for me one of the great and primary gifts that I received from my involvement in that project back in 2002.