A Kindred World
Obama at Prince Wms Fairgrounds, Manassas, Va., Nov. 3, 2008. Photo by Chicago Tribune's Zbigniew Bzdak.
[AUTHOR'S NOTE: What to say the day after? The foreword to The Gospel of Father Joe was written last year, but in U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's call for unity last night I heard the resounding echo of Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.]
A KINDRED WORLD
by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in foreword to THE GOSPEL OF FATHER JOE
Roused by compassion, we awake to life as God created it, as Jesus expressed it, as the Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad taught it. We see the holiness imbued in all humanity. It doesn't matter if you're African, Asian, Arab, European; Christian,
Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, or something else. It doesn't matter the denomination you pledge or if you pledge. We are God-shaped and God-filled. Affluent, poor, American, Iranian, Somali, Ethiopian, Israeli, Palestinian. The Divine is our common bloodline and birthright. It's our bond in Goodness. We're kin in that way, but we often miss that part. We don't always view our shared space and shared responsibilities from the Divine's perspective.
We lose focus; attention wanes. Or we forget, as the Rev. Dr. Joe Maier reminds us in these pages, which draw attention to a perpetual blind spot. I suspect that some of us would prefer to keep this book closed, continue to feign ignorance, go on with our comfortable lives, and forget the uneducated, neglected children in our charge. They are difficult to see if you choose to never look.
Read on, however. Open your eyes; stare at reality. You will see possibilities realized and feel delightfully inspired by the power Goodness in a world pregnant with change. You may even be moved to join in.
The story of Father Joe and the Bangkok squatter land he calls holy is a critical chapter in the modern-day memoirs of humankind. His Mercy Centre is more than a refuge and grassroots education system for children caught in the bramble of our new prosperity; it's the vivid expression of God's will for how we are to treat family. In effect, it's the Bible for how best to lift families from the poverty that kills millions of children every year: you plow the ground with textbooks and local muscle.
I know of no aid dropped from a helicopter or dictated from afar that has ever taken root. Whenever Jesus entered the slums, he came on the back of a donkey and in a cloud of dust, face to face with poverty. Biblical scripture attempts to focus our attention on the poor and the downtrodden more than two thousand times. We're told explicitly how to treat them. No wiggle room is left for moral interpretations or federal treasuries stretched by war. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us, "As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me."
How, then, can we forget?
In 1990, near the onset of the West's unprecedented economic growth, wealthy nations pledged that all poor children by the year 2000 would have access to at least a basic education. At the United Nations World Summit for Children in New York City, seventy-three governments signed a declaration that made the goal a global imperative. The Cold War had ended, and a new world order was looking toward greater cooperation and an abundant sharing of resources across international borders and economic lines. On the summit's final day in the General Assembly Hall, U.S. president George H. W. Bush told his fellow world leaders, "All children must be given the chance to lead happy, healthy, and productive lives." He acted outraged that "education is a mystery for one hundred million children" in the poorest parts of the world.
"Saving one child is a miracle," he concluded. "As world leaders, we can realize such miracles, and then we can count them in the millions."
One hundred million children fell through the cracks of that broken pledge. The reasons and excuses are complicated. So in 2000, the pledge was renewed as one of the eight Millennium Development Goals. All UN member states signed a pledge declaring that by the year 2015, "children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling."
When Father Joe agreed to collaborate on this book in 2005, there were still one hundred million children with no access to a basic primary education. The UN had begun sounding alarms, calling the year a crossroads for the state of human development. Slight improvements have occurred in the years since, though not nearly enough.
The vast majority of our uneducated and neglected reside in the shacks of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, children like those in Father Joe's slums who miss school for lack of shoes and milk money. Because even as cheap airfare and broadband Internet erase borders and distance, our mightiest barrier is being reinforced. The ever-widening economic divide defines us as strangers.
But I maintain great confidence in humanity. I see the Divine in its grand swells of compassion. I bear witness to its manifestation after aberrant hurricanes and tsunamis rip life and limb from the U.S. Gulf Coast to South Asia. I am encouraged by the grassroots activism that today draws millions of volunteers to the cause of global poverty. And I am delightfully inspired by the kindred spirits that endure the rubble of squatter land that Father Joe knows to be holy.
If you look, you will see what he sees: shared responsibility. Family.
Political bodies may be hampered by self-interest and wear blinders of bias, indebted as they are to districts, constituents, and lobbies. But what politicians cannot or will not achieve, I have faith that individuals can and will. God-shaped and God-filled.