This category contains 62 posts

Building The New City: St. Basil’s Social Vision « In Communion

Building The New City: St. Basil’s Social Vision « In Communion.

Ain’ters Gonna Ain’t

I realize that social media is an inept form of communication. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for vitriol, divisiveness or exclusion.

A recent posting of one of my “friends” in which they promoted the Christian faith of  “one of [their] favorite presidents.” After which they say, “Haters, please don’t comment.”

The posting and use of words, of course, is completely non-shocking. We see this type of comment on social media all the time. (We see it on Obama and on Bush and on everything across the polemical gammut.) It is common, and that is why it should be all the more disturbing.

We could critique the actual statement that affirms the president’s Christianity on the basis of his stated belief in Jesus or his attendance of church or the prayer he has prayed – a statement that may implicitly give the president blanket approval, without evaluating how the particular president’s actions cohere with Christian faith. We could critique that.

We could also critique this form of communication that claims the soapbox or the pulpit for one’s self and for one’s self alone. The exclusive right to speak assures a monolog. Or it assures a dialog only with those who think like you. And that limits any liklihood of learning or change. It says I want to talk but I don’t care about lisenting. It says my voice is important and yours is not. In larger society, this is counter the value of “free speech,” which their favorite president presupposably supports. In the church, this is the equivalent of silencing the prophet, whose contemporaries would have called “hater.”

And that leads to the real problem with this statement. It is easy to throw around words like “hater.” It’s not just that this is simple “name-calling.” It demonizes the other. It’s not that you have a different opinion than I; it’s that because you have an opposing opinion, you are bad. And because you are bad, no one needs listen to you. Worse, your being a “hater” justifies my violence against you, whether that be denying you the right to be heard or by inflcting other harms on you.

So, let’s take a line from The Interview, a film which has become a metonymic image of threatened free speech and violence to another’s point of view. Actually, we’ll take just the second half of James Franco’s character’s line, “Haters gonna hate an ain’ters gonna ain’t.” Let’s be ain’ters, refusing to demonize the other as hater and refusing to shut down those with views contrary to our own.


The Situation in Romania 2014

ImageEvery few years I try and compile some general statistics that give you an idea of the situation in Romania. I have compiled the following from various news reports, surveys, studies and government reports. I hope this provides you with a window through which you can understand a little bit of the context in which we serve, the challenges we face, and the reasons for doing what we do.[1]

While there may be progress, development or improvement in some areas, I present here a perspective from the lower class and the most vulnerable. Our hope and prayer is that their situation will change than they will experience a better future.

The Government

Our vulnerable friends’ experience with the government is listening to the campaign promises and then waiting another four years to see them again.

Street protests against economic hardship, corruption and government authoritarianism in 2012 led to the collapse of the governing coalition. In addition, the government has gone through the turbulence of repeated attempts to impeach the president Traian Basescu. We will have a new president this year. Elections will be held in November. Only recently has the investment grade risen after years of political turbulence. Hopefully, a semblance of stability will continue even in the face of regional conflicts and the harsh rhetoric that has ensued.


Romania placed 69 out of 177 countries on the corruption index.[2] The Romanian parliament voted to exempt themselves and several other government officials from anti-corruption laws, which refer to actions such as abuse of office, bribery, and conflicts of interest by public officials, the law would no longer apply to them. According to the anti-corruption prosecutor’s office (DNA), 28 members of Parliament have been convicted or are on trial for various corruption charges. In addition, 100 mayors and vice-mayors are being investigated for such crimes as awarding contracts to family and friends.[3] In our daily experience, there are still frequent implicit requests for bribes by medical practitioners, government officials, police officers and teachers.


Romania is a strategic partner in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and it has provided significant contributions of troops, equipment, and other assistance in Afghanistan and Kosovo.[4] Romania has agreed to host elements of the U.S. Phased Adaptive Approach to European missile defense in the 2015 timeframe. The two countries signed a ballistic missile defense agreement in 2011 allowing the deployment of U.S. personnel, equipment, and anti-missile interceptors to Romania over the next five years. The United States and Romania also have adopted the bilateral Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century. The strength of NATO is now being tested in Romania and other countries on the alliance’s eastern border, as it faces the crisis in Ukraine.

The Economy

Picture2Romania’s original target date for adopting the Euro was 2015, but the president stated that it was unfeasible. Romania’s GDP is between 50% and 55% lower than the Eurozone’s average.[5] For the past few years, the government has continually overestimated economic outputs, resulting in budget deficits. But in the first quarter of 2013, Romania’s economy began to expand, although less than the government forecast. It grew by 3.5% in 2013 – due to a bumper harvest – with a predicted 4.2% growth in 2014.[6]The country’s inflation rate in 2013 was 4.4%, Europe’s fastest, but is forecast to fall to 3.5% on average in 2014 as gradual government deregulation boosts energy prices. Currently, the country is authorizing and protesting policies concerning gold mining and land and water fracking. S&P recently upgraded Romania to investment grade after the economic crisis of 2008.[7]

Picture3The average individual income is less than 350 Euros a month. In 2014, the minimum wage is being increased in two stages to RON 900, from the current RON 800 (USD$245). After several years of strong growth in the 2000s, Romania has been hit hard by the 2009 global recession and the Eurozone crisis, which have revealed systemic weaknesses in its economy.

Romania relied on a 20 billion-euro loan from the IMF between 2009 and 2011 to help it emerge from a two-year recession and withstand external shocks from the global financial crisis. As part of the loan agreement, the government cu public sector wages by 25% and raised the value-added tax from 19% to 24%.

Picture4The official unemployment rate is 7.2%.[8] The lack of jobs is one of the primary drivers of people migrating out of the country. Still, there is an estimated 2.3 million Romanians working on the black market, more then a third of those legally employed.[9]

In Galati, ArcelorMittal Sidex, the steel factory and largest employer, has not registered a profit since 2008 and has laid-off 19,000 workers in the past 11 years. So, the economic outlook for Galati is not great.[10]


Picture525 years have passed since the fall of communism and the restoration of property confiscated by the communist regime to their owners is still in process. Approximately 3 million hectares of arid land out of the 12 million has not been restituted, and almost 5 million of the hectares are split up in sections smaller than 1 hectare. This shows a lack of a united vision and efficient planning of agricultural land.[11] So, although Romania has the capacity to feed 80 million people, it continues to import most of its food. The question remains: if the land was managed efficiently, who would cultivate it? The average yields are less than half of that of the EU. For its agricultural development, 300 million Euros are being loaned to Romania.[12]


Absolute poverty declined from 35.9 percent in 2000 to 5.7 percent in 2008.[13] Still, Romania is the European Union’s second-poorest state. Some 9.5 million people, or roughly half of the population, are receiving welfare, unemployment, housing and central heating aid, or other supplemental benefits on a monthly basis. That equates to a national expense of $3.2 billion a year.[14]

One-fourth of young adults (ages 18 to 24 years old) live in relative poverty, the highest rate in the EU. 40% of this age group are at risk of social exclusion.(DPC report).[15]Because of their lack of buying-power, youth are forced to live with their parents into adulthood, thus increasing the family size. About 45% of those with full-time jobs still live with their parents, compared with 38% in the EU.[16]

Emigration and Migrant Orphans

Shortly after the 1989 so-called “revolution,” Ryszard Kapuściński said that the people abolished the dictator, not so that they could turn to the building of democracy, but so that they could open up the borders and leave.[17] According to the latest census that was taken in 2011, Romania lost 2.68 million inhabitants in the last 10 years.[18] The greatest loss of population in all of Romania was in Galati, which dropped 22.56% – from 298,589 in 2002 to 231,204 in 2011. It is now the 5th largest city in the country.

Romanians abroad are expected to send about USD 3.6 billion to their home country in 2013, making it the third largest volume of remittances to a developing country in the region (behind Poland and Russia), according to a recent World Bank report. The amount sent to Romania in 2013 is expected to be almost flat on 2012, and smaller than in 2011, when it reached USD 4.5 billion, as well as from 2010, when it stood at USD 4.9 billion.[19]

Over the past year, there was much negative press in the UK as they removed travel restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians. Although they expected to be overwhelmed by the flood of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants, the total of 140,000 citizens from Romania and Bulgaria employed in Britain between January and March represented a decline of 4,000 when compared with the 144,000 in work in the last three months of 2013.[20] Still, the stigma on Romania immigrants remains in many circles.

Picture6According to the Soros Foundation, Romania has about 350,000 children who are left without parents. The Romania Authority for Child Protection’s figure is much lower, stating that at least 82,000 children have at least one parent that has gone to work abroad. There have been reports of children as young as 12 killing themselves after their parents left.[21] Some of these children also suffer from mental illnesses such as depression and often have trouble in school. Many drop out of school. Additionally, some may turn to crime and drugs to cope with their issues. Recently, new laws have been passed in Romania which will place fines up to 2,500 Euros for parents who do not leave children with appropriate guardians.[22]

Children in Poverty

In the 1990s, Romania had over 6.6 million children. Today, due to a lower birth rate, there are 3.7 million children.[23] As the birth rate falls, the life expectancy has increased, resulting in there being 1 child to every 2 adults in the 1990s to 1 child for every 4 adults today.

Over half of Romanian children are at risk of poverty and/or social exclusion, and one third lives in persistent poverty.[24] The rate is highest in families with many children or with a single parent. About one in 10 children live in homes with no working adult. The rate of material deprivation is 3 times higher than the EU.[25]

Poverty exists even where parents are working. One in three children live in poverty even where parents are working. One in every five families that have working adults still lives in poverty, and this rate is rising.[26]

About 12% of rural households have no income other than the state subsidy for children. [27] 10% of these children go to bed hungry and 12% are missing school so that they can work.

Sex Workers/ Child Trafficking

Girls and boys left without their parents are extremely vulnerable to being trafficked. Romania is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and women and children subjected to sex trafficking. Romania has become a major transit for the sale of people into the European Union. Victims as young as 12 years old are trafficked into Romania from destinations as far-reaching as Honduras, Afghanistan, the Congo, and China. Once they reach Romania, many of these victims are assigned for passage beyond into Western Europe. While Romanian law officially prohibits all forms of human trafficking, the country’s strategic geographic location — a crossroads between East and West — makes it a source, transit and destination country for the people trade. The country’s 2007 admission into the European Union brought more relaxed border regulations and enhanced its attraction for international human traffickers.[28]

According to the US State Department, Romanians represent a significant source of trafficking victims in Europe.[29] Romanian men, women, and children are subjected to forced labor in agriculture, domestic service, hotels, and manufacturing, as well as forced begging and theft in European countries. Children likely represent at least one-third of Romanian trafficking victims. Traffickers recruiting and exploiting Romanian citizens were overwhelmingly Romanian themselves. Frequently, traffickers first exploited victims within Romania before transporting them abroad for forced prostitution or labor. The Romanian government reported increasing sophistication amongst Romanian criminal groups, including the transportation of victims to different countries in Europe in order to test law enforcement weaknesses in each. The Government of Romania does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government reported the identification of 1,043 victims in 2011.[30] The government made strong prosecution efforts during the reporting period: the number of anti-trafficking prosecutions pursued was amongst the highest in Europe (480 prosecutions with 276 convicted in 2011), and built on partnerships with governments in destination countries to increase accountability for trafficking offenders. The government also conducted creative anti-trafficking prevention efforts to sensitize the population to trafficking in persons. Nevertheless, services available to protect and assist trafficking victims were very weak. For a third consecutive year, the government provided no funding to anti-trafficking NGOs, imperiling civil society’s victim protection.

There are high numbers of Romanians caught in the commercial sex.[31] Although the government proposed legislation to legalize prostitution, it was not passed. Still, sex is sold on street corners, truck stops and the many erotic message parlors throughout the country.

Orphans and Child Abandonment:

In 2001, Romania placed a moratorium on international adoptions, and officially banned the practice four years later, citing widespread corruption in adoption practices across borders. Romania has no formal national assistance program for orphans after they leave state institutions. Most must leave at age 18, when they become legal adults. Few of the country’s 75,000 orphans know how to managemoney, find an apartment, prepare food or search for a job. Many end up homeless and turn to crime, like prostitution, when they age out.[32]

Picture7The number of children abandoned in maternity wards dropped from 5130 in 2003 to 1315 in 2010.[33]28% of children abandoned are Roma. NGOs claimed that the official statistics underestimated the problem, and that many children living in state institutions were never officially recognized as abandoned. Poverty, child marriage and mobility are the primary causes of child abandonment. But most potential adoptive parents refuse to adopt Roma children.[34]

According to the Ministry of Labor, Family, and Social Protection, there were 63,847 children in state care. Of them 39,212 were in professional foster care, 1,878 in alternative care (with guardian), and 22,757 in public or private residential care.


Although contraception is accessible and inexpensive, the abortion rate remains high, with 52.7 reported abortions for every 100 live births. Still, this rate is 7 times lower than the past two decades.[35]

Children on the Streets

According to the Directorate for the Protection of Children, at the end of September there were 1400 homeless children nationwide. NGOs working with homeless children believed there were actually two or three times that number. Some estimate that as many as 2,000 children live in tunnels that run under the city.[5]  The collapse of communism, which negatively impacted the economy has forced children into poverty. As a result, these children resort to begging and stealing to survive.[5] Romania is aiming to end its reputation for neglect of children and is hoping to close large orphanages. As a result, children are returning to violent homes or ending up on the streets.

Picture8Children living on the streets suffer from social exclusion, and life on the streets usually results in serious health problems, chronic undernutrition, lack of schooling, illiteracy (around 50%), sexual and physical abuse, drug abuse, discrimination, and a diminished access to social services.

Education and School Drop-out Rates

Child Protective Services states that 56,000 children are not enrolled in the school system. Others, however, estimate the number at 100,000 children between 6 and 16 years of age that have dropped out of school.[36]

Children living in rural communities are at greater risk of abandoning school. Also, with the state raising the mandatory grade that all children need to complete to 10, the drop-out rate has risen.

Child Abuse and Child Labor

Child abuse and neglect continued to be serious problems, and public awareness remained poor. The media reported several severe cases of abuse or neglect in family homes, foster care, and child welfare institutions. For example, within a period of six months, child welfare services identified 5,665 cases of child abuse, of which 570 involved physical abuse; 716 emotional abuse; 292 sexual abuse; 63 work exploitation; 24 sexual exploitation; 40 exploitation to commit criminal offenses; and 3,960 neglect. Of the reported cases, 2,732 were boys and 2,933 were girls. Most cases of abuse occurred in the family.

The government has not established a mechanism to identify and treat abused and neglected children and their families.

Romania law criminalizes adults who force children to work. Still, there is a high incidence of child begging, and the government is struggling to find and prosecute companies or individuals that illegally employ minors for work. The punishment is 7 years in prison. In 2008, 1072 cases of child labor had been reported, from which only 125 had been confirmed. In 2010, the Authority for Child Protection stated that there were only 412 children exploited by work. Although this number, as with the others the I present here, is hard to nail down, Save the Children Centers received 2,405 children who were exploited by labor.[37] An older report states that 70,000 children needed to work instead of going to school, of which only a third who work on the streets are literate.

According to Save the Children, 86% of children are scolded by their teachers when they make mistakes 33% are ridiculed and 7% are beaten by their teachers. 57% of children suffer from anxiety, withdrawal, insecurity and stress at school.

38% of parents admit to physically abusing their children and 63% of children confess being beaten by their parents, while most parents think that smacking and yanking their ears is appropriate.[38]

According to the Authority for Child Protection, the rate of child abuse has increase by 7% from 11,232 in 2010 to 12,074 in 2012. This includes emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, neglect and exploitation through labor or crime.

Domestic Violence

Picture9Violence against women, including spousal abuse, continues to be a serious problem, according to NGOs and other sources. The government did not effectively address it. The law prohibits domestic violence and allows police intervention in such cases. Amendments to the domestic violence law adopted in March 2012 provide for the issuance of restraining orders upon the victim’s request and for the payment by the abuser of some expenses, such as medical and trial expenses, or the cost of the victim’s accommodation in a shelter. While the criminal code imposes stronger sanctions for violent offenses committed against family members than for similar offenses committed against others, the courts prosecuted very few cases of domestic abuse. Many cases were resolved before or during trial when alleged victims dropped their charges or reconciled with the alleged abusers. In cases with strong evidence of physical abuse, the court can prohibit the abusive spouse from returning home. The law also permits police to penalize spouses with fines of 100 lei to 3,000 lei ($26.70 to $893) for various abusive acts. During 2012, 1,857 persons reported being victims of domestic violence, and 440 persons were sent to trial for domestic violence.[39]

Drug Abuse

Compared to other EU countries, Romania has a low rate of drug use. Still, the use of psychoactive substances by youth under 16 years of age doubled in just four years. Heroine is the most commonly used drug, followed by marijuana.

The Elderly

Picture1042% of the elderly are at risk of poverty, which means having an income 60% below the country’s national average.[40]

670,000 elder people and children with healthcare problems receiving government assistance.[41] This is a rise from 80,000 Romanians receiving social benefits in 1992. The increase is due to citizens’ heightened awareness of government benefits.


5.2 children per 1,000 are affected by the divorce of their parents. Where the divorce rate is declining in other European countries, it is rising in Romania. This is partially because marriage is still commonly practiced.

Those with Disabilities and Mental Illnesses

EU funding of at least 24 million euros is propping up 50 residential institutions in Romania. Thousands of people with disabilities were being ‘warehoused’ in such institutions, segregated from society and subjected to inhumane conditions.[42]

Today, the majority of children with disabilities (over 95%) do not live in state institutions. Still, the lack of school participation for children with disabilities is seven times higher than other children.

There have also been reports that some personnel in state institutions mistreated abandoned children with physical disabilities and subjected children in state orphanages to lengthy incarceration as punishment for misbehavior.


HIV/AIDS wrought devastation in Romania in the 1980s and 1990s. The victims were mostly small children infected in hospitals. Poor sterilization facilities and dubious medical practices, such as infected blood transfusions, were largely to blame. Those that did not die were often ostracized, and many were abandoned. Antiretroviral treatment is free and available to those who need it. Death rates have plummeted. In fact, Romania is now often cited as an example to other poor countries with major HIV/AIDS problems.

Yet a substantial number of Romanians with HIV still don’t know it. The generation infected in the 1980s and 1990s is now at reproductive age, and new cases are still appearing across the country, often years after infection. Health workers say sexual transmission is now the most common method.

According to official statistics, 11, 581 patients diagnosed with HIV and AIDS were registered as of December, with 741 new cases reported between January and December. Societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS occurred, and many persons with the disease dropped out of school due to stigmatization, discrimination, or disease. In December, on International HIV Day, the National Union of Organizations of Persons with HIV/AIDS launched a campaign to increase awareness of HIV infection.[43]

Medical Care

Picture11Romania spends just 5 percent of its gross domestic product on health care, about half the percentage of GDP Western European countries spend. 30% of medical professionals, about 10,000 people, have migrated out of Romania in order to work for better pay in western countries.[44]

Only those with employment or who pay for health insurance have access to doctors. Medical care is supposed to be free for children. However, the children are often sent to the pharmacies to buy the necessary medication. Bribes across Romania accounted for $1 million a day in 2005, according to a World Bank report; more recent estimates are not available.

Although the infant mortality rate decreased from 26.9 in 2990 to 9 deaths per 1000 in 2012, it is still high – the highest in the EU and twice as high as the EU average. Romania also continues to suffer from transmittable diseases that can be prevented by vaccines. Tuberculosis is six times higher than the EU average, with Romania representing 25% of all TB cases in Europe – 15% of which are children.


Eight percent of Romanian children live in absolute poverty, compared to 35 percent among Roma children. 40% of Romani children are undernourished.[45] 75 percent of Roma children do not complete the 8th grade. Roma children are significantly behind in education compared to non-Roma.[46] Romani children were effectively segregated from non-Romani students and subject to discriminatory treatment.[47]

Picture12Discrimination against Roma continued to be a major problem. Romani groups complained that police brutality, including beatings, and harassment were routine. Both domestic and international media and observers widely reported societal discrimination against Roma. Major human rights problems included police and gendarme mistreatment and harassment of detainees and Roma, including the death of three Roma at the hands of police and gendarmes.[48]

Observers estimated that there were between 1.8 and 2.5 million Roma in the country, constituting approximately 10 percent of the total population. However, the preliminary results of the most recent official census, taken in fall 2011, counted 619,000 Roma, or 3.2 percent of the population.

Stereotypes and discriminatory language regarding Roma were widespread. Journalists and several senior government officials made statements that were viewed as discriminatory by members of the Romani community; the CNCD fined some individuals as a result. Anti-Roma banners, chants, and songs, particularly at large televised sporting events, were prevalent and widespread.[49]

Romani communities were largely excluded from administrative and legal systems. According to surveys in 2007 and 2008, the latest data available on this matter, between 1.9 and 6 percent of Roma lacked identity cards, compared to 1.5 percent of non-Roma. The lack of identity documents excluded Roma from participating in elections, receiving social benefits, accessing health insurance, securing property documents, and participating in the labor market. Roma were disproportionately unemployed or underemployed.

The legal age of marriage is 18, although girls as young as 15 may legally marry in certain circumstances. Illegal child marriage was reportedly common within certain social groups, particularly the Roma. There were no public policies to prevent child marriages or government institutions that dealt with the problem.


[1] Some of the statistics are up to two years old as not all statistics are measured annually.













[14]The Adevarul newspaper


[16] Eurostat 28

[17] Behr, Kiss the Hand that You Cannot Bite, xiii.




[21] Stracansky, Pavol, “Bringing Up a ‘Lost Generation'”.


[23] Eurostat 7

[24] Eurostat

[25] xviii UE27

[26] Eurostat footnote 11






[32] Meghan Collins Sullivan, ‘Painful Lessons from Romania’s Decade-Old Adoption Ban’, Time, March 15, 2013.



















A Brief History of the Roma People

Do More For Jesus

Donating Blood in Dracula Country

vlad tepesI know that Galati is not officially in Dracula Country. We are just a port on the Danube that Braham Stoker’s characters use to access the region, before riding west across the mountains to Transylvania. Still, the blood-fanged menace has come to be associated with all of Romania, and we too sell the Dracula souvenirs in Galati.

The spirit of Dracula is alive and well in our medical system. Last week I finally figured out how to donate blood. This was a big step for me since I cringe at just hearing words like blood, clot or transfusion. Still, it is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long while but had never made the time to do it. I know that there is a serious need for those with medical illnesses or emergencies. I figured that this is a practical way to participate in my local community and invest in its health and survival. I’m attracted to the idea of being able to give of yourself in order to bring life to others.

There is a blood bank not far from my home. Because they receive donations every day from 8 to 10, I assumed that there wouldn’t be many donors. I checked my coat, received a number and was ushered up the stairs to a large waiting room. The room was packed. At first, I thought it was full of people there for blood tests but I soon learned that they were all donors.

I registered and then waited in line to get my blood pressure checked (I’m a healthy 13/8). Then, I waited in another line to consult with a doctor about my recent medications, operations and sexual history. Then, I waited in line to have my finger pricked and my blood checked. The nurses noticed my name and my nationality, and they asked me to tell them my life story. That took me a whole 2 minutes. Then they asked me how much money I made, and if it was enough for me to live on. The nurses couldn’t understand what motivated me to donate blood. It was only later that I realized that all my fellow donors were quite poor.

Then, I moved to another line and waited to donate.  As I stood there, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around to see Coco and Gabi’s mother – two children that had been a big part of our Community Center’s early activities. They had left the programs a few years back, and it had been a long time since I had seen them. Their mother and I caught up on the whereabouts of our mutual friends. She told me that she was there to get some blood tests – something that the blood bank provides for free when you donate.

Finally, after 2 hours, I was called in to give blood. Now, I have had my blood taken many times in order to check my thyroid levels. Usually, they take the whole vile. One time, when I was 12, they filled 3 viles and I fainted on the way to check out. So, with all my experience with syringes, I approached the bed and I saw a small sack connected to a tube. The pack was quite a bit larger than the viles I was used to. Next to me sat a tattooed man, dutifully opening and clinching his fist as his bag filled with red juice. I started to panic. I wondered if I had enough fluid in my body to fill that thing. But what could I do? It took me 2 hours to get to this point and there others waiting in line behind me. I felt like the kid who waits in the long line up the ladder to have his turn going down the slide, only to look down, get scared and climb back down the ladder over the others that are hanging on. Wishing that I had eaten breakfast and at least had something to drink – at least 2 liters of something – I laid on the bed, the nurse rubber banded my arm, and she yelled at me a couple of times to keep my arm straight. Then she told me to open and close my fist. I cringed. I sweated. I looked at the clock. I kept rubbing my eyes and my vacation goatee. The nurse asked me a couple of times if I was ok and assured me that I was almost finished. As I felt the blood drain from my hand and some weird pulsing sensations in my arm, I hoped that she was right. Of course, I couldn’t look at my arm. Finally, my 450 ml bag started beeping and the nurse disconnected me. I sat there for a few minutes, remembering when I fainted as a child. I made sure everything felt ok, stood up, and got yelled at again by the nurse for not keeping the cotton pressed tight enough to my arm. Then I stood to wait in another line. I signed out and they gave me about 20 dollars worth of food vouchers. That, for me and my fellow donors, was the price of our lifeblood.

The following day I returned to the blood bank to collect the results from the blood test. After seeing all the donors from the previous day, I expected to wait in another line. This time though I was alone in the room – not even Coco and Gabi’s mother.

I realize that no one is being paid money for blood and that some benefits are welcome encouragements for blood donations, but essentially, the food vouchers represent an income for those who make less than $150 per month. I’m sure that there are some like me who do not come from poverty that chose to donate blood, but the motivation of the overwhelming majority is their need for the food vouchers every 70 days. If the motivation for the donation is acquiring the voucher, then this is wrong. Sadly, we are not even asking ourselves the ethical question about turning blood into a commodity or a currency. This is the same mentality that has convinced the poor to donate kidneys and other organs for money and has led to organ trafficking and ultimately to human trafficking.

SONY DSCJust as Dracula fed on the blood of others in order to live, the Romanian medical system feeds on the blood of the poor in order to provide transfusions for those that have access to medical care. Today there is lots of complaining about the wages of medical workers – and maybe they do not get paid enough – but how do we compare a reasonable working wage for medical professionals with a reasonable compensation for blood? What is the price you put on blood? How much is it worth? There is an irony in the medical workers refusing to work because they do not receive enough pay while the blood, which is cheap, is given by those who do not have access to the services of the medical system that they are donating to. Wouldn’t it be better to give each donor access to the medical system’s services if and when they need it? Shouldn’t everyone have to invest in it in some capacity, whether by coin or by blood, to insure one’s self and one’s community? Maybe then we could move from being a nation known for Dracula to a nation known by its practice of Eucharist.

Public Faith in a Pluralistic Society by Miroslav Volf

Remnants of Communist Art

IMG_2537Today it is a discotheque called VIP. The building holds a restaurant, a film developer, and a copier, among other stores, but it used to be one of the cinemas in Galati. The art on the front of the building reflects the communist era in which the cinema was constructed.

The communist art is controlled by its geometric shapes. The machinery is manipulated by a human being, which says something of a humanizing vision. But the technology, in its projection of the face of its technician, disfigures the human being. In the projection, humanity is controlled and reduced to geometry.

We are reminded of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image that was reflected in the pool, not realizing that it was only a reflection. Here the woman has constructed her own reflection. She is the center of the piece and is the largest feature. And she gazes at herself as the camera projects her light in every direction.

The question is whether this woman represents the self-enthronement of humanity as in the communist vision or are the echoes of Narcissus and of a flattened out human image a subversive critique of communism?


The Poor as a Point of Meeting

“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:9

A few years back in Kolkata, I was working at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying where I met another American who had just finished his doctorate studies in Ireland. The theme of his studies was the politics of peace. His desire was to work with the United Nations for the establishment of peace policies, but he wanted to come to India to get some experience working with people. I thought that India was an interesting place for him to come because of the dire poverty, the threat of different forms of violence, and the variety of faiths, cultures, languages, and histories. I asked him if in his doctorate studies he had ever seen a place where policy-making had successfully created peace. He said that policy-making never created peace; it could only create space for dialog or create structures that maintain peace.

I told my new American friend about an organization that I had visited a day earlier called L’arche that cares for people with handicaps. I told him that it was a hopeful model of people from different backgrounds living together in peace. Though the organization was founded by Christians, they accept people from different faiths, and in India that means people from the Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian faiths as well as others. The name of this particular home was appropriately called Asha Niketan “Home of Hope”, and that is what I saw it to be. There people came together each day in prayer to be closer to God and to serve those with handicaps. Though we may criticize the lack of persuasion to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the community exists in self-giving love. There they make peace. They do not curtail conflicts in the name of peace, but they work through them for the sake of peace. That is because peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice and love. And love, justice and peace are fruits of the Spirit and not the fruits of policy-making.

At the L’arche community, it is evident that the poor have the potential to be a point of meeting for people of diverse cultures, beliefs and histories to come together and serve on their behalf. In a world where violence breeds violence, the poor give us the opportunity to lay down our weapons of destruction and to pick up tools of service. The weakest and most vulnerable provide a place where we can come together, and they show us the potentiality of striving for peace, justice and love. As Christians, we are called to love the poor. But we are not so naive to think that the poor can be separated from the world in which they live – a world of godlessness and idolatry. As we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and as we minister to the distressing disguise of Jesus in the poor, we must soberly engage the whole world with all her “regimes of truth.”

Mahumut Aydin said, “[I]n a globalized world, the duty of adherents of different religious traditions should not be to claim the superiority of their own religious tradition as an a priori entity, but to show in practice how much their faith brings liberation to the poor and how much it contributes to the development of the common good” (“Globalization and the Gospel: A Muslim View”). Many of those living in pluralistic societies share this view and see it as a way in which we can live together while keeping “our religion” private. Though Aydin is saying something important, his statement cannot be normative for the fundamental motivations of the Church’s mission.

We do agree with Aydin that liberation of the poor does point to faith. We recall that throughout Jesus’ life, He pointed to the liberation of the poor as a sign of the coming Kingdom and to point to His Sonship (Luke 7:19-22). Likewise, faith in God does develop the common good. When the God of love indwells His people, His people love. Where His Kingdom is, the world cannot escape the goodness of God. That is why Jesus says that He causes the sun to rise on both the evil and the good (Matt. 5:45), and it is not insignificant that the evil are mentioned before the good.

We must also recognize that Aydin is correct in saying that the integrity of our Christianity can be measured by our relationship with the poor. Jesus says that “Whatever we do to the least of these, we do it unto Him.” If we are not serving the least of these, how are we being Christian? James reminds us that true and pure religion is this: ministering to the orphans and widows and remaining pure in the world.” If we – you and me and not just the institutions to which we belong – are not ministering to the defenseless and marginalized, how is our religion true? One does well to remember that religion (religio) means “to bind” in Latin. This term can have two diametrically opposing connotations: bonding or bondage. When we bond with the poor through solidarity and service, our religion is true; when our religion simply becomes a worldview that saves us or legitimizes our lifestyles, we live in bondage.

We can also follow Aydin in affirming that Christianity is not a religion of superiority. Christ leads us to seek the last place, even the place of death. We are not called to what the world sees as victory but to what it terms victimization. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul outlines how our faith is victorious when it is vulnerable. Unfortunately, we usually reject this place of vulnerability. Desmond Tutu said, “I fear that we have all been so seduced by the success ethics that we have forgotten that in a very real sense the church was meant to be a failing community.” The missioligist David Bosch said, “A church which follows the model of the victim-missionary is one that is called to be a source of blessing to society without being destined to regulate it. It knows that the Gospel ceases to be Gospel when it is foisted upon people.” At the same time, we believe in Jesus Christ because He is worth believing in. We therefore can stand before the world with what Lesslie Newbigin terms “proper confidence” which is a firm commitment to truth. 

As we reject the world’s terminology of superiority and power, so we must be critical about legitimizing our faith through our practice or, as Aydin puts it, “to show in practice how much their faith brings liberation to the poor and how much it contributes to the development of the common good”. Of course, faith and practice are intricately related. Christian belief normatively shapes Christian practices, and engaging in practices can lead to the acceptance and deeper understanding of these beliefs. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Only the obedient believe, and those who believe are obedient” (The Cost of Discipleship). But we must ask with Miroslav Volf, “What grounds what: belief or practice?” (Practicing Theology). Is our service among the poor rooted in our faith in God, or is our faith in God rooted in our service among the poor? Subordinating beliefs to practices, as contemporary popular and academic culture does, leads to the completely functionalizing of beliefs. We as Christians must realize, as Volf asserts, that “adequate beliefs about God cannot be ultimately grounded in a way of life; a way of life must be grounded in adequate beliefs about God.” We identify with God through beliefs, and we encourage practices for the sake of God (Col. 3:23, 24).

Because belief has priority, we must concern ourselves with the disputed truth claims about God and that unambiguously includes the “regimes of truth” of other faiths and ideologies. That means that as we go into the world to preach Good News to the poor, we engage other claims to truth. If we detour these truth-claims, we are not faithful to truth but permissive of lies, and we are not makers of peace but accomplices of injustice. All regimes of truth are critiqued by the Truth which we come to know in the person of Jesus Christ. Truth is a person which demands that we be personally involved. “Truth, then, is available only to the one who is personally committed to the truth grasped. Knowing cannot be severed from living and acting, for we cannot know the truth unless we seek it with love and unless our love commits us to action” (Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence). In response to Aydin that means that we cannot separate our faith and action at any point and that our service (truth-commitment) to the poor is rooted in our belief in God (Truth) who loves and identifies with the poor.

How, then, do we engage the world? How do we come together as human beings to serve other human beings? How do we minister among the poor? How do we become peacemakers? How do we affirm the truth within diverse beliefs while critiquing the false truth claims? I do not want to offer any simple answers to these questions, but I want to provide a platform from which we can respond.

The poor can be a point of unity. When we put aside our own initiatives and selfish motivations, we can come together for the sake of the Other. We can do this together with people from other denominations and religions. Often, in our ministry among the poor, we have had non-believers work alongside us. They are not defining our motivations or direction, but they are participating in this work which we pray is bringing glory to God. Here we are not accentuating our differences but celebrating our common humanity. Behind this base of relationship lies a theology of creation. The Bible tells us that we are all created in God’s image. Yet, we are not primarily looking at our commonness as humanity; rather, we are looking together at the God in whose image humanity was created. Monotheism led to the concept of a single humanity. This is the God of whom it is said, “Hear o Israel, the Lord your God is one.” The one God in whose image humanity is created intrinsically links every person to every other person. But, as I said earlier, this does not mean that we blindly accept one another’s beliefs. What it does mean, in effect, is that we have created a point of meeting where we can mutually challenge one another.

360673052_74314353c4The poor can be an instrument through which God makes Himself known. Some theologians use the phrase “epistemological privilege of the poor” to describe the ability of the poor to understand and receive the gospel. To the poor, the Gospel really is Good News. Likewise, God often speaks and makes Himself known to the non-poor through the poor. Here we recognize a theology of the Spirit of Jesus. When we witness the injustice that the poor suffer, we can find hope in the God that is actively championing their cause. I know some non-Christians who are fervent advocates for the poor. As Christians, we can recognize and affirm the Spirit of Christ that moves beyond the edges of the Church into the world for which He died.

We can come together with all humanity to serve the poorest and weakest. There is a humble place of solidarity in our human frailty and inability. But we cannot come together to offer simple solutions. When confronted with poverty, we are confronted by suffering and dying that exposes our own powerlessness. We can confess that our solutions are exhausted. We take heart in something that Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in Germany during World War Two – a time and place where “the Final Solution” was propagated. Bonhoeffer said that Christians should not base their faith on the scientific method. He said we are not seeking after solutions to problems; we believe, rather, in the redemption of sinful, broken creation. Here lies a theology of redemption. Taking our foothold in God’s action, we as Christians can speak of redemption in the face of problems such as death and poverty. We can witness to a God who suffers with us and who has defeated sin and death.

30 Life Skills

Developing life-skills is one of our major foci in working for better futures for the vulnerable youth at our Community Center. Although we literally have books filled with different levels of and lessons for life-skills, here is a short list of 30 life-skills and action-steps. We work on these in particular through our cognitive development exercises. While some of them may need some elucidation, most of them are self-explanatory.

Life-skill: 1. Mental Picture

Action-step: I will consistently make use of my mental picture process

16. Blur, Break, Recovery

I will be aware of the blur, break, and recovery process related to stress.

2. Motor Match

I will perfect my motor match so that I can see, hear and move simultaneously.

17. Stress Behavior

I will take responsibility for inward and outward tendencies under stress.

3. Warning

I will be trust the “warning light” within me.

18. General to Specific

I will view all things as a whole, and then deal with the specific parts.

4. Process

I will be aware of the processes involved in every learning experience.

19. Adapt

I will be aware of the continuous changes in my environment and adapt.

5. Goals

I will set overall and intermediate goals.

20. Evaluate

I will evaluate all criticism.

6. Challenge

I will deal with all life’s problems and still reach my goals.

21. Value

I will value what I work for.

7. Simplicity

I will break any task down into small enough pieces to complete.

22. Question

I will ask the questions: who, what, where, when, why and how.

8. Success

I will project success in all my activities.

23. Environment

I will study my environment (work, school, home, etc.) and approach it successfully.

9. Progress

I will note my progress and give myself credit for my success.

24. Enthusiasm

I will project enthusiasm by correct use of energy and posture.

10. Praise

I will give and accept praise.

25. Examine

I will frequently ask myself, “Where have I been? Where am I now? Where am I going?”

11. Perseverance

I will keep trying and I will succeed.

26. Cooperate

I will play by the rules to succeed.

12. Mastery

I will master each step before proceeding to the next.

27. Integrity

I will do what is right rather than what is convenient.

13. Stress

I will use stress to enhance my mental picture.

28. Cause and Effect

Most of what happens to me is the result of my own decisions and actions.

14. Control

I will take responsibility for my anger, fear, fatigue, etc. in order to achieve success.

29. Manipulation

I will appreciate others for who they are rather than what they can do for me.

15. Accomplishment

I will always work to a success point before stopping and then enjoy my accomplishment.

30. Sensitivity

I will understand how a person feels by observing his/her actions.

Whenever I teach these skills, I always discover deficiencies in my own skills for life. What about you? Are these skills you have and practice in your life?

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