Saturday, August 14, 2010

choosing fear?

Ramadan began this week. A year ago I was in London getting a crash course in religious pluralism and the basic tenets of all the major religions with 29 other religious young people from around the world, as well as gearing up to fast for Ramadan alongside my new Muslim friends. I can’t believe that was a year ago. I am so grateful I decided to fast last year. It was one of the most powerful times of my life for learning and growth spiritually. It hurts me when Christian leaders come out with statements saying Christians fasting alongside Muslims is pointless and should only be done if the goal is conversion. Well, my goal was friendship and learning and opening myself up to a religious community that embraced me when they didn’t have to, with wide open arms, just as I was. I will be forever grateful to my dear Muslim friends who fasted alongside me every day, and encouraged me to figure out the value of fasting within my own tradition. I did (see Isaiah 58). So, Ramadan Mubarak to all my friends fasting this year, I hope you feel spiritually enriched and encouraged in the next 30 days, and that you experience God in a whole new way. I respect you all so much, and am cheering you on from the sidelines.

And I have been thinking a lot about the Cordoba House controversy. If you have not seen Jon Stewart’s reflections on it from The Daily Show when he interviewed Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, it is worth 7 minutes of your time. Watch it here. It seems we are at a very important moment in America. Particularly for those of us who identify as people who love and follow Jesus, these could be some of our finest hours. We are presented with a chance to demonstrate that we are not afraid, that in fact we can embrace difference, and that we can welcome people who identify as Muslim to practice freely their religion as they choose. We can show we can love them without ulterior motives, and engage in dialogue with these people about how we can work together across faith lines to better the American community around us that we all care about. We need to stop seeing them as “other,” and instead simply extend our hands in friendship. We need to understand each other as American citizens, and not isolate the Muslim community. I think Christians, myself included, often see things we don’t understand and instinctively fear and react poorly. Well, here is our chance to write a different chapter, one that shows a different Christianity. This Christianity is one that unashamedly loves and follows Jesus, but that reflects this through tolerance and openness to those who see the world differently, and is not afraid of words like “other” and “Islam.” Come on people, I don’t mean to be cliché, but don’t you think that is what Jesus would have done? I do. And that is how I am attempting to live.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Atheists and Mosques

I have a friend named Chris who writes a fantastic blog called Nonprophet Status. He self-identifies as a queer secular person working in an interfaith context to unite religious and non-religious communities together around issues affecting humanity. As someone who openly doesn’t believe in God, Chris still discusses frequently how he sees and respects the value religion has for billions of people. Even though he does not agree with them (or me, I guess I could say), he doesn’t consider himself to be “more evolved;” just someone who has chosen something different. We were on a radio interview together a few months back, and I flinched when the DJ identified me as an evangelical Christian. Chris asked me why, and I explained that the evangelical Christian community is so often known for what they are against, and I want to talk about things I am, and I think Jesus would be, for instead of against. He told me that he thinks that is even more of a reason to identify myself as a Christian who follows the teachings of Jesus. He talked about how his voice is needed in the atheist community—the voice that says “I am not anti-religion, and I think we can work together instead of throwing rocks at each other.” In the same way, voices like mine (and my Jewish friend Rebecca’s and my Muslim friend Nadeem’s) are needed within religious communities to challenge the status quo, build relationships with people who disagree with us, and just generally represent a different version of faith in action. A version that unashamedly believes what they are following is true, but values things like love, tolerance, and service, and uses religion as a bridge to work with all sorts of people, not a wall to keep people out.

Also, do any of you have feedback on what is happening with the mosque at Ground Zero? On Eboo Patel's Washington Post blog yesterday, an evangelical pastor from Texas was the guest writer and he shared his thoughts about it. I like when the media portrays stories like his that reflect a positive view of the religious. Even if you don't agree, it is encouraging for me to hear someone who is a conservative Christian leader, unashamed and open about his faith, still discussing the value of religious freedom for everyone; and not feeling threatened by Muslims. I hope to see more stories like that in the weeks and months to come. You can find the article I am referring to here.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

15 seconds

My year as a Faiths Act Fellow officially comes to a close on Monday. It has, without a doubt, been the most formational year of my life. We were all chatting with Eboo Patel earlier this week at our alumni launch, and he asked us at what point during this year did we realize we had become interfaith leaders. I shared how, for me, it was the moment I realized I had a story. And that story is one that is compelling, and worth sharing. I can recount times in the Fall sitting down with people over coffee who had never heard of interfaith work before—in fact were quite hostile to the idea—and by the time our coffee cups were empty they were asking when our next event was so they could attend. That is a testament to the power of Rebecca and I embodying what you are passionate about (or trying hard to do so), and knowing the reasons why you are doing something. I had the privilege of speaking to Tony Blair on skype at our closing dinner as Fellows on Wednesday night, and I shared that with him. I basically said, “Here I am, an evangelical Christian who had never even heard of interfaith work a year ago, and I now consider myself an interfaith leader, and these ideas about collaborating across religious lines have been woven into the basic fabric of who I am.” He kind of sat back on camera in his hotel room and told me that what I said was very inspiring and encouraging to hear. He said he is often meeting with people trying to tackle some of the world's toughest problems, and sometimes he wonders if it is even possible. But then he thinks about young people like all of us, and remembers that his ideas aren't impossible. He was inspired and encouraged by what he has heard from us. That is something else I have learned. I am part of a much larger movement, spanning over 70 countries. People from all walks of life dedicated to their perspective beliefs, but willing to work with others to better the world. This is not some world peace pipe dream from the mouth of a ditzy beauty contestant. It is leaders of the world coming together, and grassroots activism showing the innovative next chapter in religious participation and dialogue; and I have been able to be a small part of it the last eleven months. I am unable to walk away the same.

And did I mention the people I got to do this journey with? The 29 other young people from the US, UK, and Canada who are wise beyond their years, and incredible leaders in every sense of the word? We like to jokingly refer to ourselves as “malaria ass-kickers.” The final numbers are still coming out, but it looks like we raised around $140,000 though our networks. This is 14,000 bed nets, or 3000 families saved. And that is before Tony Blair matches it. Our supervisors estimate 40,000 people had personal discussions with us during the year about our work, and there were 10,000 event attendees. All this to say, I have worked with some INCREDIBLE young people this year, who have inspired me daily with their faith, passion, and ability to fulfill our crazy vision. And if I have learned anything, it is that we were not the first to step into this work of interfaith cooperation and malaria eradication. There are huge shoulders we stand on, and I am sure incredible people will come after us to continue the fight. And we won’t be stopping either. We are alums of this program heading off to pursue all sorts of various epic things, but I know we will continue to raise awareness and fight to eradicate deaths from malaria. For me, part of being a leader means that I need to be committed to caring about issues that might not affect me personally where I live, and that impact people who don’t always look or act like me.

I heard this week from another Fellow that the UN is considering changing the statistic from, “Every 30 seconds a child in Sub-Saharan Africa dies from malaria” to “Every 45 seconds a child in Sub-Saharan Africa dies from malaria.” Never in my life, did I ever think that 15 seconds would mean so much to me. Children are still dying from malaria. All the time, in fact. And it’s completely preventable. But if because of all the work that has gone on in the past 5 years, the international community is making a dent, I think I am entitled to sit back for a second and feel satisfied that I was a part of something that impacted people’s lives for the better. Then I will get back to work.

This is just the beginning. My generation is just getting started. I know the other Faiths Act Fellows would agree with me.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

God speaks

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.


This is fitting for me right now. I don't think I can explain it any more than that. The poem speaks for itself. At least to me. Hopefully it speaks to you too.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Sometimes fighting malaria seems like trying to change the direction of the wind. I feel like I have sat a lot this week. Rebecca and I have put together a traveling art exhibit featuring diverse original art pieces to commemorate World Malaria Day, and it has been touring around different universities and congregations in the Chicago area. It is a silent auction to raise money for Malaria No More, and a lot of our time has been spent driving to venues, setting up the display, participating in panels and talking to people about the art and malaria, and sitting by the art. This started to get frustrating to me yesterday, because I was thinking about how I wanted to be in the trenches, actually fighting for lives ruined by malaria, and this felt sort of anti-climactic and un-glamorous after all my training. Then we screened a film by Bobby Bailey called "When the Night Comes." I have seen it multiple times already, but I found myself crying when it came to the scene where a boy named Ivan dies in front of the camera from cerebral malaria, and the doctors look on hopelessly--having tried all they could. My mind was instantly flooded with the faces of people I met in Tanzania. Godlisten-10 months old. Chubby cheeks and bright eyes. Was on his third trip to the hospital with malaria. Don-22 years old. Bragged he could do push-ups anywhere in the world, even though he has never left his village. Laughed when I asked if malaria could be ended. "It is just here. We will always suffer from this." Happiness. Brilliant 40-something female doctor working on the malaria vaccine trials. Had a family member die from malaria.

It put things in perspective for me. We are building a movement. Yes, the sexy events where millions of dollars are raised and celebrities flash perfect smiles for endless paparazzi are important, but so is slugging away behind the scenes. Driving all over a city and teaching Americans who have never heard of malaria what it is, and that they can have an impact as individuals is necessary to this ending. Seeing the shocked faces of 19 year old college students when they realize the scope of this previously unknown disease called malaria, and then watching them make plans to go out the next weekend and do homework under bed nets in a public park so they can tell others about malaria is so so so so gratifying to me. Yes, it is about money. Yes, it is about important leaders making government level changes. Yes, it will take MASSIVE political will. But it is also about 19 year olds deciding to do their homework under bed nets in public places to raise awareness, and young activists driving to wherever people will host them and sitting by an art exhibit and talking to people when they are tired and when they sometimes don't feel like it. I have learned that that is the definition of being in the trenches. Because someone needs to be making noise about malaria. So, if Bill Gates keeps giving grants to creative anti-malaria projects in Africa, and Ashton Kutcher keeps tweeting about bed nets, and the Faiths Act Fellows keep doing grassroots activism, eventually the wind will change directions. And I can say I played my part. And sometimes that meant sitting.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

digging in

Sorry about the long hiatus. I forget I have a blog, then am ashamed over my lack of updating when I do remember I have one. Lately, I have been reading "Mountains Beyond Mountains" about the work of Paul Farmer in Haiti. It is a fantastic read about community development and the impact one person can have by digging their heels in to a community for an extended period of time. He has a great perspective on how change actually happens in third world countries, and does funny things like steal Harvard med school microscopes and take them to his labs in Haiti, claiming he is practicing redistributive justice and helping Harvard to not go to hell. He is fun. Check it out.

Also, I recently did a radio interview with Rebecca about our experiences in Africa and our malaria work in Chicago and Africa. Start at the 5 minute mark, then skip around as necessary. As I have been thinking about digging my heels into a community as Paul Farmer did, the radio interviewer found out I am a Christian, and he asks me several times to name the things Christians are against--a list of negative things. It always has been, and will continue to be, an incredible challenge for me to be asked to represent and/or defend an entire community of people of which I am a part. I have come to the conclusion there is a lot of dignity in choosing a community, warts and all, and saying you are in it for the long haul, and want that community to be known for different things than it currently is. So, as an evangelical Christian, I can easily list the things that are broken and frustrating to me--it would be a really long list--or I can say "Hey, I'm a different type of Christian than what your stereotypes dictate that I am. Here are the things I am for, and I am motivated to be for these things because I love Jesus." People often don't know what to do with that.

It is my prayer today that my community, Christians, would be able to do that more often. Dig in our heels when it is hard and not popular, and write a new story of social action and active justice for the hurting. Unafraid, working with diverse people different from us without judgement of their lifestyles, and openly motivated by our love for Jesus. That would be so powerful. That is the faith I want to be a part of. So I'm digging in.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Half the Sky

I am currently finishing "Half the Sky," a fantastic book about global gender equality by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I just read a section entitled "Family Planning and the 'God Gulf'" in which the authors talked about the difficulty of getting anything done on maternal health and population control issues due to the deep seated distrust and differences between conservative evangelicals, and secular liberals. They say:

"...There is a "God Gulf" in American foreign policy. Religion plays a particularly profound role in shaping policies on population and family planning, and secular liberals and conservative Christians regularly square off. Each side has the best of intentions, yet each is deeply suspicious of the other--and these suspicions make it difficult to forge a broad left-right coalition that would be more effective in confronting trafficking and overcoming the worst kinds of poverty."

I feel like I am in both of these worlds right now. In some ways I feel a part of both of these groups (there are people I love and respect who strongly represent each side) and I feel like I can envision a world where they could work together on this issue. But it is so sticky and difficult. Kristof and WuDunn go on in the chapter to give examples of each side's excellent work, as well as pitfalls. At the end of the chapter they say:

"If there is to be a successful movement on behalf of women in poor countries, it will have to bridge the 'God Gulf.' Secular bleeding hearts and religious bleeding hearts will have to forge a common cause. That's what happened two centuries ago in the abolitionist movement, when liberal deists and conservative evangelicals joined forces to overthrow slavery. And it's the only way to muster the political will to get now-invisible women onto the international agenda."

I agree whole-heartedly. And here I am, feeling like I am in both of those camps at the same time in different ways, and all it seems I can do is make everyone confused by "what side I am really on." Is it completely impossible to not take a side? For these sides to acknowledge their differences, yet find common ground in education? In saving the women's lives that they can?

Diverse groups waging war on social ills instead of each other. Eboo Patel talks about that a lot. Many people I respect talk about that a lot. I talk about that a lot.

Is this idealism, or a real vision of what the future is? I pray I can do my part to help to make the latter the reality.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I feel such an urgency today in my work. I know reading this blog that my talking about malaria is probably similar for you to beating a dead horse, but I have come to re-realize recently how important this is. I was re-reading this article by National Geographic, and it put into perspective again the enemy I am up against.
It talks about how some scientists think one in every two people in history have died of malaria. How there are parts of Zambia where for every 1000 kids, there is 1335 cases of malaria. That was not a typo, it means kids get malaria multiple times. The virus is smarter than we are in a lot of ways, and the ultimate answer for eradication will likely have to be a vaccine.

So, here I am in snowy inner-city Chicago in a heated office, surrounded by a thriving metropolis of people--most of whom don’t know anyone who has had malaria and might not even know what malaria is, or that it has killed more people than Spanish influenza, the plague, scarlet fever, measles, and polio. Combined. And I think about the accident of geography. How I was born here, ate a nutritious breakfast this morning, drove to work today, and have never had a family member suffer from malaria (other than myself, and I got it because I flew 7500 miles away from where I grew up). How I arrive at work every morning and think about Godlisten, Patrick, Agnes, and others who live by accident, coincidence, or fate in a place where they can suffer from cerebral malaria and die any day of the week. And that would be considered sad, but normal.

And the vast majority of people here are largely silent. This is not a guilt trip, it is just an interesting fact I think about a lot. That things that do not affect me or those I care about I simply do not pay attention to. If I did not have a relative currently suffering from Alzheimers, I probably would not want to give money for research for the disease, and I would have loved the movie The Notebook. But instead I do give money, and the movie makes me feel horrible and sad. Unfortunately for my family at this time there is not a vaccine for Alzheimers, and it is not treatable and preventable. But malaria is treatable and preventable. And vaccines are in the works. And 1 million people die every year from malaria. Kids. Pregnant women. People with futures.

That is why I get up every morning, drive to work when I am tired or it is snowy or I just don't want to, and talk about malaria and the importance of interfaith work in the solution with everyone I talk to, even if they don’t want to hear it. Because I am fighting. One of the most formidable foes in the history of health in the world. Because my voice has an impact, and I told my friends in Africa that I would say something, and that this disease would not always be a reality for them.

That is what I am thinking about today. The accident of geography and the urgency of acting now.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

National Prayer Breakfast

I just got back a few days ago from the National Prayer Breakfast in DC. I stayed with the fabulous Randa Kuziez, my dear friend and fellow Faiths Act Fellow, who ushered with me at the breakfast. We got to be international hosts and together met people from 16 different countries, then we got to usher in the ballroom for the breakfast. It was really cool to be in the same room as all these famous, powerful leaders from all over the world, and hear some of them talk about their faith, and how it influences their lives and decisions. I feel like people like the Obama’s do not actually exist, but seeing them talking and laughing with a waitress and sharing about their lives with us in the crowd made them seem like real people. I like that. Pres Obama talked about a return to civility, and discussed how people of all faiths should work together. Our country has such a long way to go, but in that moment it was powerful to be in that room with 3,500 others and imagine a world where men and women from diverse faith backgrounds and from both sides of the aisle could wage war on social ills instead of each other. It was cool to be a Christian there with Randa, a Muslim, and share a common dream of our faiths working together to have a positive impact on the world. Definitely a powerful experience, I was so thankful to be there.

Life in Chicago is really picking up steam. The last couple weeks have been a turning point in our work. Really exciting things are coming at us from every direction, and it is hard to keep up. But it is starting to make all those hard days early on slugging through difficult things worth it now as our work begins to pay off with lots of interest from diverse groups of people. It is definitely an exciting time for us here. Also, for those of you who do not have facebook or are not my friend on facebook, I want to let you know that Tony Blair told us in a phone call that he will personally match any donations we receive for bed nets. I think that is so cool! This means that giving $10 can now save up to 8 people instead of 4. If you give through the following website, the money will be recorded by his staff, then doubled. Please consider giving.

In other personal news, I have decided to become a mentor for a teen mom in Chicago. I don’t know who she is yet, my first meeting is next week, but I am really excited about it. A few other girls in my small group are also doing it, and it will be fun to hang out with our teen moms and their babies all together. Maternal health is an issue that is becoming a larger and larger passion of mine, and this is such a tangible way to invest in someone, and meet some new people in Chicago. I will keep you posted. I am sure I will learn a lot.

Back to work, planning events and connecting people on 7 different campuses is time consuming! And fun. : ) And bad for the future of malaria……

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

it goes on.

Life goes on here.

In West Englewood, where my office is, there was a knife fight 2 days ago. Across the street. The people involved were 13 year olds. Why is this happening? It seems whenever the community takes steps forward, it is paired with steps back. So frustrating. There is a guy I have been reading named Gary Slutkin who did work for the WHO all over Africa as an epidemiologist. He studied cholera, AIDS, TB, etc, and is renowned for his prevention methods. He moved back to Chicago recently and discovered violence showed the same “symptoms” as an epidemic disease. He has launched a campaign called Cease Fire to confront violence the same way he did disease, and deaths in some of the worst neighborhoods have been down over 50%. I think the solution to a lot of the world’s most intrinsic problems is creativity. Thinking outside the box like Mr. Slutkin did, and getting incredible, sustainable, results.

As far as work goes, some fun things have been happening. Tony Blair has decided to match all donations we receive toward bed nets, which was an encouraging and unexpected announcement that will hopefully garner a lot of interest in our work. Here in Chicago, we hosted a Hunger Banquet for Haiti this past weekend. This is an event that shows hunger disparity in the world (some people sit on the floor and eat only rice, others get a full meal, etc). It was a smashing success, co-sponsored by over 20 diverse clubs and religious groups at UChicago, and raised almost $500 for Oxfam in Haiti. There was lots of interesting discussion about global poverty and what people can do to connect to issues that are far away (ie, Haiti, malaria, etc). Also, I am now used to always having a layer of weird crust on my shoes from the salt constantly being dumped on the roads; and I am incredibly grateful for the radiant heating in my apartment.

Multifaith cooperation and demonstrating how we all can work openly across faith lines with people different from us without compromising the intrinsic parts of what we believe has been woven into the fabric of who I am. I don’t know what is coming after this Fellowship, but I do know I have the most diverse group of friends one could ever ask for, and the communities they represent I want to respect and defend because of the friends I have within them. I more than ever believe my own faith is real and true, but that does not dissuade me at all from wanting to work with others who think differently than I do. It is fascinating and encouraging for me to hear so many diverse perspectives on why others are motivated to serve, and it challenges me to be a better version of myself.

Also, I have recently become completely addicted to the musician Matt Morris, and am now convinced that Huck Finns in Chicago has the best apple fritters on the face of the earth.

Off in a few hours to DC for the National Prayer Breakfast.

Like I said, life goes on. Thanks for being a part of my journey!