Entries with tag faith matters .

How Do Homeless Kids Get Ready to Go Back-to-School?

As the new school year gets underway, parents and children know the anticipation and excitement that accompanies the first day of school: the simple joy of a new backpack, a new outfit, new shoes, or a clean notebook. Yet for many parents and children across the US, these items are luxuries they can’t afford.

It’s something we all know – that there are poor and homeless families who live in our own cities and towns.  But most of us don’t realize just how bad the situation is. 

Across the United States, homelessness and poverty are at unprecedented levels.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports that since 2007, family homelessness skyrocketed by 20%. 

It’s important to define what is meant by “homeless”.  When we think about homeless people, most of us think of bums living under a bridge or winos begging for change.  But this is not an accurate picture of the homeless today.  Sure, there is a “chronic homeless” population that mostly lives outdoors, but the majority of people who are homeless today are working individuals and families with children who cannot afford to rent or buy a permanent home. 

According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness in every city, county and state nationwide.  A study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that there is no jurisdiction (no town, city, county or state) in the United States where a working family of four, earning the poverty threshold wage of $24,000 can afford even a one-bedroom home at fair market rates. 

So where do these families live?  Where do you go if you’ve been bankrupted by an illness, lost your home to foreclosure, or just don’t earn enough to rent a suitable home?  Many cities offer family homeless shelters where families can stay together.  Other families live in motels, trailer parks, or camp grounds.  Families often live in the basements or attics of friends or relatives, while waiting to hopefully get placed in some sort of government subsidized housing. 

Wherever they stay, it’s not a permanent home and children tend to suffer the most from repeated transitional living.  What school will children attend if they have no permanent address?  How will the kids adapt, manage and succeed in their education if they have no stable place to live?  If parents can’t afford a place to live, how will they equip their children with the supplies, clothes and shoes necessary to attend school? 

About four years ago, FOCUS North America began working with school districts around the country to provide meals to poor children.  Almost every school in America has a free and reduced lunch program that operates during the day when children are in school.  However, over the weekend, many of these kids don’t get enough to eat.  To combat hunger over the weekends when the free lunch program isn’t available to kids, FOCUS packs up meals each Friday and sends these meals homes with the children so that they can feed themselves and their siblings. 

Through our work with school districts, we also learned that homeless and poor families struggle with another major item that they find difficult to afford:  Shoes.  Even a low cost pair of shoes from a discount store can cost $10 - $15.  And even $10 -$15 is a big expense for people who are living paycheck to paycheck. 


Thousands of homeless and underprivileged children attend an Operation Lace Up event in St. Louis on 8/2/14

Based on this, FOCUS developed “Operation Lace Up”, our national back-to-school program that has assisted 252,000 children in 250 school districts across 30 cities nationwide over the past two years.  Operation Lace Up gives children everything they need to get back to school and succeed in acquiring an education: back packs, school supplies, new athletic shoes, clothes, and even medical and dental checkups so that they can go back to school prepared -- and healthy. 

While FOCUS works on creating stability in these families’ lives by offering sustainable and affordable housing assistance (FOCUS helped almost 1,000 people assisted with housing last year) we are addressing the immediate needs that homeless children face each August as they go back to school. 

Each year, thousands of Orthodox Christians, united in faith and joined by a desire to provide action-oriented and sustainable solutions to poverty in communities across America come together through Operation Lace Up and provide much needed assistance to children in need.  Last year, the Metropolis of Chicago Philoptochos helped more than 25,000 homeless children get back to school in Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis.  Throughout California - in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego – and all across America, parishes, people young and old, and communities forged a wonderful partnership that stands as a witness to the practical nature of the Orthodox faith and our combined efforts to live out the commandments of Christ to love and serve our neighbor. 

This year, Operation Lace Up will continue to serve homeless and underprivileged kids throughout the nation.  To learn more, or to volunteer, please visit the FOCUS North America website: http://focusnorthamerica.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=307&Itemid=231

 

Vacation and Paradise

In second grade, at some point in the frozen middle of that Minnesota winter, my parents told us we were all going to Florida for spring break and I began running and jumping through the house for joy.  We'd taken several summer trips before – always a thrill – to the North Shore of Lake Superior but I'd never traveled south.  And by then I'd heard enough about Florida for my imagination to feast the rest of the winter. 

Nor was the trip a disappointment when it came.  Boarding the plane, the take-off and flight were like nothing I’d experienced.  And then being in Florida, I was in a state of continuous wonder, first at how I could just have been in snow and ice and was now in such sweet summery air, with sunlit balconied buildings -- their pinks and yellows like something from Dr. Seuss -- rising up from plush lawns and flowerbeds as we drove in the rental car.  Fountains spilled up everywhere, and I couldn’t get enough of the palm trees, their trunks graciously curving this way or that way up to fascinating heights where their waxy fronds burst out from amidst clusters of coconuts.   And all of it against the ever-present background of the turquoise water of the Atlantic.  I’d never seen so much color in my life. 

Five years later when we went a second time to Florida, the experience didn't match the expectation.  I was now in seventh grade.  I have some good memories of that trip too, but I distinctly remember saying to my Mom that I felt let down:  it wasn't as amazing to be in Florida as it had been the last time.  Melancholy had entered upon the scene.  As I would read another five or six years later:  "There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth, and every common sight / To me did seem / Appareled in celestial light, / The glory and the freshness of a dream.  / It is not now as it hath been of yore;  -- / Turn wheresoe'er I may, / By night or day, / The things which I have seen I now can see no more."

The day before yesterday I returned from the Jersey Shore where my wife and I and our three kids spent a week with my wife's side of the family.  The weather was perfect.  The rental house was the best we'd had in a number of years.  A colleague of mine lent me a beach canopy that was fantastic and saved us from all the frustrations of multiple umbrellas.  The kids had a whale of a time with their cousins and grandparents. 

One of the mornings, we’d gotten a sitter for our 19-month-old, and Julie's Mom took our older two out for breakfast so Julie and I could bike along the boardwalk and stop somewhere in nearby Asbury Park for a leisurely breakfast of our own.  It was as we were biking in the freshness of the day, with the sunlight sparkling on the water, that I was aware that here again as at a number of other moments during the week, the gorgeous beauty of what surrounded me -- the surf and the sky, the light, the goodness of being able to spend time with those I loved -- was something I wasn't fully or directly able to come into contact with.  It was all there, I was experiencing it, I was even appreciating it.  But it wasn't transporting me entirely.  It didn’t have the glory and the freshness of a dream.  In the past, this awareness would have bothered me -- everything I'm seeing is so perfect and what I'm doing is so nice, why aren't I in a state of ecstasy, of sublime tranquility?  But this time instead of being bent out of shape I felt that it was all right.  I'm here, enjoying this to the extent that I am (which was a pretty good extent, actually).  Life even at its purported best doesn't always deliver to the max . . . vacation isn’t paradise -- it’s okay. 

Alexander Schmemann once wrote in a journal entry, “Paradise is open to children; it shines from them.”  There were lots of reasons why it wasn’t wide open to me that morning.  There was the constant low-level anxiety that comes with being a parent especially of a toddler.  While I'd been watching Jonathan the previous afternoon he'd started eating Goo (its actual trademarked name) the older kids had brought back from an amusement park in Point Pleasant; he’d gotten ahold of a Superball the size he could choke on; he’d been within a half-second of shattering a vase; at another point he was walking around with the IPad of one of my nieces.  The kind of stress all this sort of thing induces -- and like any parent, I could multiply examples -- has a way of lingering in one's system.  No doubt I still had plenty of it coursing through me as I was biking the next morning on the beach. 

News of atrocities and injustices around the world, somewhere beyond the crisp line of the horizon where ocean met sky, hung in the otherwise exquisite air.  A part of me feels a tug of guilt about anything less than traveling personally to the sites of the worst of today’s unfolding crimes against humanity and putting myself directly in harm’s way to stand up against them.  Though nobody has advised me to do this the tug of guilt (which I think we all must feel or suppress) about not doing it forms an essential part of the backdrop of every earthly vacation and reconfirms that it’s not paradise.  

On the near side of the horizon were also all the ordinary and inevitable little misconnections of everyday human interaction.  The ones that arise between my wife and me we try to work through.  That level of emotional investment can't occur across the board, though, with everyone.  I'm incapable of being entirely present to the beauty of every person in my life just as I'm incapable of being entirely present to the beauty of the beach on a clear morning (and the former deficit no doubt underlies the latter).  The best I can often do is to know I'm not doing others justice, not encountering them fully.  Hans Urs von Balthasar, a 20th century Catholic theologian, sandwiches a comment of his own between two quotations from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber:  "it is 'the lofty pathos of our fate that every "thou" in our world must become an "it"'; the direct relationship must become 'latent'; 'it is impossible to live in the naked present -- it would devour us.'" To be completely alive to the presence of others is more than we can manage. 

Although I agree with Buber’s idea of the impossibility of living fully in the naked present, I’m also struck by the thought that God’s living in it means that in communion with God I’m able to have access to it, myself.  Of course my communion with God is imperfect from my side:  since I’m not fully present to God I’m not able to be fully present to those to whom He’s fully present; I don’t know others as God does.  But even this awareness makes a difference.  At the end of a day (and not only the end) when I pray to God for another person, I’m essentially admitting that I’m not and haven’t been fully present to him or her as God is.  This is also to say I haven’t loved the other person fully.  People to whom I’ve done nothing wrong, but of whom I’ve had fleeting thoughts that haven’t done them justice or to whom I’ve not given myself fully with all my attention, are that much less distorted, less reduced, less rendered an “It” instead of a “Thou,” each time I pray for them, however modest the prayer.  And if they have in any way distorted or reduced me, rendered me an “it,” I’m able in prayer to forgive them, as I know I’m in need of the same forgiveness. 

Anxiety, suffering, sin, on big levels and small, infiltrate vacation:  no shilling Sherlock!  It shouldn’t be news to anyone beyond about the second grade but it somehow still is to me, yet I also see it’s begun sinking in.  I used to have a harder time than I do now mixing religion and vacation (this year, I wasn’t even too disappointed that our week at the beach fell within the Dormition Fast, although I should say that I didn’t strictly stick to it).  Having once hoped for vacation itself to lift me above every earthly care, I used to resist accepting in the course of it the ongoing need to be unburdened through worship and prayer of what wasn’t ceasing to weigh me down.  As I’ve better come to grips with how vacation in itself doesn’t make me well (any more than, in itself, work does), that there’s a mystery of paradise beyond it, that this isn’t that, the interesting thing is how much more often I’ve been able to be at peace with the lack of total peace, to be reasonably happy with the less than soaring happiness, to appreciate the beautiful surroundings even as I sense that some vital essence in them eludes me.  The perfect, as the saying goes, doesn’t have to be the enemy of the good; the good can be accepted here and now because of the promise of more that it holds.

In another journal entry in which he sought to express his Christian faith in its most basic form, Fr. Schmemann wrote:  “One thing seems clear:  the basic coordinates of this faith are on the one hand, an acute love for the world, for all that is given (nature, city, history, culture); on the other, the conviction, as acute and as evident, that this love itself is directed at ‘the other’ (the ‘all is elsewhere’) that this world reveals.  In this revelation is the world’s essence, calling, beauty.’”

Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Scranton, where in addition to the course on work and rest, he teaches on the Bible, Byzantine theology and the relationship between faith and politics.

Orthodox Health Center Opens in Pittsburgh

Despite the best efforts of many policy experts and lawmakers to bring universal healthcare coverage to all Americans, 16% of the population – 45 million people – still do not have health insurance, a number that is higher in 2014 than it was in 2008, according to a recent Gallup poll. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has exacerbated many of the reasons that people do not have coverage and 2% of the American workforce, more than 3 million people, have lost their employer-sponsored coverage due to loopholes and other consequences of the Act, making the net benefit of the Act debatable.   

But this blog post is not written to discuss why the ACA is, or is not, succeeding.  Rather, it is written to show how Orthodox Christians are responding to a problem in the United States that has been pervasive for decades and will continue with no clear end in sight. 

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, FOCUS North America recently opened the first comprehensive Orthodox health care facility in America. The FOCUS Pittsburgh Free Health Center targets uninsured individuals and provides them with access to quality physical and mental health care as well as pharmaceutical and laboratory services.  In addition, The FOCUS health center is a place where skilled Orthodox medical practitioners can put their talents to good use for the glory of God and in service to those in need right here in America. 

FOCUS North America is an Orthodox Christian faith-based nonprofit organization that provides sustainable jobs and permanent housing solutions for the homeless and working poor families across America.  FOCUS has operations and activities in 50 cities in the US and Canada.

Why did FOCUS extend its services into healthcare? Because it’s not much good to give someone a job or a place to live if they are not healthy enough to maintain them.  It is very difficult to sustainably transition a person or a family from homelessness, poverty and dependency to a life of self-sufficiency without providing for their health.  Offering free comprehensive healthcare and health-related services is a natural fit with FOCUS’ work to transform the lives of the homeless and working poor in America.

Why Pittsburgh?  Because western Pennsylvania, and specifically the 10-mile radius around the City of Pittsburgh has an extremely high, and increasing, population of working-aged people who are uninsured.  According to a study by the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, there are approximately 142,000 working uninsured individuals and family members in the greater Pittsburgh region, with approximately 70,000 living within 10 miles of Pittsburgh.

The FOCUS Pittsburgh Health Center is organized and managed as a Volunteer in Medicine type clinic, which is specifically designed to provide care to uninsured working adults that fall through the cracks in today’s health care system.  In today’s environment, there exist government programs, such as Medicaid and CHIP, that provide healthcare to all children, the elderly, and to adults receiving public assistance.  On the other end of the spectrum are those people who have employer-sponsored healthcare insurance.  The FOCUS clinic specifically targets and serves working adults caught in the gap between these groups, ensuring that they have access to regular and high-quality healthcare. 

But the FOCUS healthcare initiative is about more than just numbers and gaps.  It is about the faces, names and stories behind these statistics.  Each day we meet men, women and families who are struggling to get by. We meet people like Linda, whose life was upended by a medical condition that turned deadly.

Linda and her husband Kevin were working full-time, he as a janitor, she as a nursing aide. With three children, they were barely making ends meet. The children qualified for free health insurance through the county, but Linda and Kevin weren’t eligible.

Kevin suffered from hypertension, but without insurance his condition went untreated. He died suddenly, at age forty, from a heart attack that could have been prevented by routine checkups and hypertension maintenance that is available to anyone with insurance.  With Kevin’s income gone, Linda was unable to pay the rent and so she and her children were evicted from their apartment. When the family came to FOCUS, they were living in their car.   It was our encounter with Linda that set FOCUS on the path to establish a free health center, understanding that health is equally as important as job or a house.

The FOCUS health center model addresses psychosocial, physical, mental and spiritual aspects of care. Rooted in the Orthodox Faith, we understand that all of these are essential to a person’s total wellbeing.  By capturing all aspects of care, and making the FOCUS health center an easily replicable model, we hope to expand an Orthodox Christian presence in health care. 

While the FOCUS health center in Pittsburgh is designed to operate five days per week, the model that FOCUS built was specifically created so that a health center could be replicated and operated on an intermittent basis in many different types of facilities, such as a church hall, office building, or classrooms, serving as a witness to the Orthodox faith and providing care that is desperately needed to those that live nearby. 

FOCUS health centers are staffed by Orthodox Christian volunteer physicians and other health care providers.  Medical malpractice liability protection under the FOCUS model is provided by the federal government and the Federal Tort Claims Act for free to any physician or medical staffer serving at a FOCUS clinic. 

Using this model and all its advantages, FOCUS hopes to launch more health centers in areas where Orthodox physicians are available to donate their time and skills to serve the uninsured and working poor.  We all know that our faith teaches to love and serve those in need.  The FOCUS health center model is just one way that skilled Orthodox medical practitioners can put their talents to good use for the glory of God and as a witness to the practical teachings of our Orthodox Faith.  

Bombs, Borders and Bodegas: Caring for Our Neighbor

As daily consumers of breaking news, it seems like cable television and newspapers have no trouble fulfilling our hunger for scandal, controversy and conspiracy. What has largely made this possible is our remarkable ability to communicate with others and to instantly share with them global news and events in real-time. The vast quantities of information that we digest each minute of each day has, however, reduced our attention span and have rendered us seemingly helpless when it comes to processing and retaining specific details.

To better illustrate my point consider the news cycle over the past five or six months. Five months ago the entire world was concerned about fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Vigil services were held around the world; even the Pontiff offered his prayers for the 227 passengers and 12 crewmembers that went missing. Hundreds of millions of dollars and countless man-hours were invested in the international effort to find and retrieve that all-elusive “black box” from the ocean floor. In almost a blink of an eye, the world shifted its attention from Southeast Asia to Ukraine. Following the aftermath of the Ukrainian Revolution the world worried that we were entering a period of frigid relations between Russia and the West. The papers, cable news, policy analysts, and government officials all made this story their top priority. As expected, news about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 slowly recessed and eventually stopped; people were no longer interested in the missing plane or the fate of the passengers on board.

For almost a month now I have tried to pay close attention to the news as I searched for a story that could inspire my next blog post. This has proven to be quite a challenge! Once I thought I found what I wanted to write about, BANG, some other breaking news would distract me! It was impossible for me to concentrate on just one story, as email alerts and tweets were constantly bombarding and distracting me with updates.

When I finally sat down to write I thought that I would attempt to juxtapose three issues that are proving to be humanitarian crises, namely, the crisis on U.S. borders, the recent conflict between Israel and Palestine, and the conditions of underserved communities in major US cities. I don’t pretend to be an expert in geopolitics, diplomacy, international relations, or human rights, nor do I possess greater insight into these issues than the average person. However, like everyone else, I try to form an opinion about what I read in the papers and hear on the news. From my understanding, while each issue is unique and deserves to be considered alone, when viewed next to each other, they all share a fundamental element, namely, CARE, or the lack thereof.

Bombs: The Conflict Between Israel and Palestine

Over the centuries, the dry lands of the Middle East have become soaked with human blood as a result of human conflict. The causes of the conflict are as diverse as those communities involved. Violence in the region has been sparked by a number of factors, including religious and sectarian ideologies, racial and ethnic differences; however, it is also the case that strife bewtween communities has also arisen through the efforts of people to overcome brutal rulers.

In the case of Israel and Palestine, what is clear is that the two communities have become ever-more entwined in what seems to be a never-ending conflict. Most recently, the kidnapping and murder of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah (three Israeli Jewish teenagers) and the revenge killing of Abu Khdeir (a Palestinian Muslim teen) have led to the latest showering of bombs and missiles upon Israel and Gaza. In just a few days 216 Palestinians (mostly civilians, including four young boys playing on a Gaza beach) and 1 Israeli have lost their lives, countless people have become displaced, neighborhoods and their social institutions have been destroyed, and people—Jewish, Muslim, and let us not forget, Christians—are living in constant fear. The international community, including the United States, is paying close attention to the conflict and it is hopeful that a temporary ceasefire will eventually lead to a permanent halt of the violence.

Borders: Mass Deportations

Since the founding of our great nation, countless people have attempted to make their way to the United States. For individuals longing to enter our country, America represents opportunity, hope, and freedom. While the majority of immigrants have come to America following the prescribed legal procedures, for decades, thousands of people have entered the United States illegally. Most recently, many of these individuals have attempted to emigrate from Central America.

Its important to remember that anyone who has chosen to make the journey into the United States through illegal means quite literally risks everything, including his or her life. These individuals have decided to leave that which is most familiar to them in an effort to escape poverty, violence, and an uncertain future for themselves and their loved ones. They view the United States as their last chance. In the process of integrating within the community, many of them are apprehended, detained, and eventually deported. Deportation has increased to new levels during the past few years. Moreover, until their deportation, people must be kept in confinement; most recently, this has taken place in various towns of Southern California and Texas. A large number of citizens in these areas, as well as their elected officials, have protested the presence of these illegal immigrants and are calling for their immediate deportation. While protesting, people have shouted hurtful messages and carried signs with messages such as: “Illegal is a Crime,” “Return to Sender,” “Deport Illegals.” In many instances those on the receiving end of such words have been minors.

Bodegas: Underserved Neighborhoods

In major US urban centers countless people are suffering from a threat that remains largely unspoken. No, the threat has nothing to do with gang violence or drugs. People—our fellow neighbors—both young and old, have been suffering for decades because they continue to lack access to healthy and nutritious food. In many of these communities, parts of New York City, grocery stores that are common in most communities are few and far between. If you walk through the streets of these communities you will not find Whole Foods, Fairway, Food Town, or Stop & Shop. And you can forget about finding a farmer’s market; they are even harder to spot than a supermarket. You will, however, find “Brisk Bodega,” “BoHo Bodega,” “Silver Deli & Grocery,” and “Don Juan Grocery.”

If you have never entered a bodega before it is difficult to understand why this is such a big deal. After all, can’t you buy the same groceries at the local bodega as you can at Trader Joe’s? Nope! In general, one will usually find products with long shelf-lives, which means that they are full of preservatives. Also, candy, chips, soda, and cigarettes can be found throughout. Perhaps one will be lucky to find some bananas, tomatoes or a head of lettuce. Such limited options will often contribute to the rise of chronic disease in these communities, including diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

So, absent local supermarkets, most people (including the elderly and those with infants and small children) are forced to do their shopping at their local bodegas. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with bodegas per se; they have, after all, tried to serve the needs of local urban communities for years. Fortunately, according to a New York Times article, owners of these local bodegas and JETRO (a major wholesaler which provides most products stocked in bodegas) are taking things into their own hands. JETRO has begun to offer healthier food products and bodega owners are dedicating more space on their shelves for such items. 

Conclusion

One may wonder how these three stories are related. The truth is, when we view them separately, bombs, borders and bodegas have nothing to do with each other. However, a closer reading, under the prism of Christ’s calling to love our neighbor, soon uncovers for us that element common to all three crises, namely, human indifference.

In all three instances, we are dealing with members of communities that are victims of circumstances outside their control, largely, the origin of their birth. One can never choose his parents and he can never choose where he is born. And if this alone wasn't difficult enough to handle, local and global indifference exacerbates their suffering. Yes, we can and should accept that indifference is as bad, if not worse, than actively causing harm.

Many of us think that the government is solely responsible for coming up with a solution to the problems. While elected officials are specifically tasked with caring for their citizens, this does not mean that the rest of us are allowed to sit back and become mere spectators. Grassroots efforts are as important, if not more important, than government-sponsored initiatives. The message sent to the world is far stronger when there is solidarity on the ground. We see this happening, already. Jews, Christians and Muslims throughout the world have come together and have refused to accept violence as an acceptable path toward peace and reconciliation; responsible local business owners have decided to become more concerned about the overall wellness of their patrons and have begun stocking shelves with healthier food choices; and countless U.S. citizens have demanded that local and federal governments take steps to preserve the human dignity of undocumented immigrants and to find ways to assist people in their effort to enter our country. 

What can we do? How can we make a difference? We should first take time and learn what is going on around us. When we have a firm grasp on the facts, we should then speak the truth in love; we should become advocates, sharing the story of those in need with others. We should also pray for the helpless. Prayer for those in need is embedded in everything we do as Orthodox Christians precisely because we are all in need of God’s mercy. If prayer is too difficult for some, then we should at least remember those in need. If we are willing to remember our neighbors then maybe the next time we set our alarms at night we will think about our brothers and sisters who are startled in the middle of the night by bomb sirens; the next time we cross a bridge we will think of those who risk everything in life to help pave a brighter future for their families; and the next time we enjoy our third meal of the day we will think about of the child who goes hungry all day or has little else to eat than a candy bar and a soda. Perhaps if we can remember our neighbors we will begin to care for them.

No Room for Lukewarm as Mideast Christians Die: Doing No Harm, Doing Nothing, and Doing Something

Last week, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) held its annual Religion and Foreign Policy Summer Workshop.  Headquartered at the corner of Park Avenue and 68th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the CFR, publisher of the venerable Foreign Affairs, is part of a small, rarified group of organizations whose weighty effects on international relations are widely recognized by global policy cognoscente.  Eight years ago, the CFR launched an initiative to bring together foreign-policy practitioners and “religious and congregational leaders and thinkers” whose ideas, experiences, and interactions can give purchase into understanding the role of religion in world affairs and as a variable for U.S. foreign policy.

At this year’s event, I bumped into many friends and met a raft of new people—preachers, academics, diplomats, think-tankers, journalists—from every point on the political spectrum and from a kaleidoscope of religious traditions.  In between the discussions about the efficaciousness and evolution of RTP (“Responsibility to Protect) in international relations—there remain serious deficits in systematic application of a consistent standard which can require collective action, whether economic, diplomatic, or sometimes, military, by the international community in order to protect populations from crimes that their states are unwilling or unable to stop—and the analysis of challenges posed by social media as a tool for religious radicalization, mobilization, and action—religious extremist groups are using Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook with unprecedented scope and sophistication, as echo chambers to amplify hate and provoke violence—I couldn’t help but wonder: Why has the international community demonstrated no sense of responsibility to protect the Christian communities of the Middle East, given the mounting evidence that very existence is becoming ever-more tenuous because of the crimes perpetrated by jihadi extremists who are uploading 72-hours-per-minute of real-time horrors from the killing zones of Syria and Iraq?

Yes, this is an issue about which I’ve posted repeatedly on this blog site, so let me drill down into some specific issues, questions, and suggestions.  I'd like to have a conversation with Orthodox Christians and the Church (my shorthand for all Orthodox Churches, of every jurisdiction, in the United States), about how to respond to the calamitous conditions faced by Christians in the places where Christianity was born. 

Preempting the critics, I should clarify that my focus on Christians and my chat with Orthodox Christians is not a function of sectarian navel-gazing, religious parochialism, or lack of concern with other pressing matters in our world (after all, climate change, natural resource deprivation, and new forms of slavery are but a few of the tribulations that deserve our attention, since they endanger humankind and the planet).  Rather, I return to the issue of suffering Christians in the Middle East for two reasons. 

First, there are the facts on the ground.  Most recently, the declaration of a new Islamic Caliphate whose initial footprint is the swath of territory captured by the extremist-jihadi group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now renamed, simply, The Islamic State, is a gruesome climax to the decade-plus ordeal that has confronted Christians in those states with a dilemma: for some Christians, the perilous flight from their ancestral lands to the uncertainties and degradation of refugee status in Jordan and Lebanon; and, for those Christians unwilling or unable to flee, the daily privations of being kidnapped, facing slow-death starvation, or struggling to pay the jizya, the protection tax imposed on Christians as dhimmi.  There was an ominous symbolism in the fact that the ISIS's terror tactics had emptied Mosul of its ancient Christian population, so that there was not a single liturgical celebration in Mosul's churches on June 29th, the Feastday of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, the same day that ISIS chief Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the new caliphate.  The Christian drama is a harbinger of things to come, for Christians, other non-Muslim minorities, and for Muslims uninterested in living under a militant caliphate (their penalty for failing to pledge fealty to the caliphate concept is displayed in the gruesome photos of public crucifixions of Muslims in Syria by ISIS forces).

Second, the Christian drama (Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Emil Shimoun Nona, has reported to international media that every last Christian has been cleansed from Iraq’s second-largest city since its capture by ISIS forces) is a potent reminder of the universal ambit of human suffering endured by individuals because of their belief and faith.  The examples of religious freedom violations, shocking for their global range and frequency, have been catalogued in recent reports by the Pew Research Center, the Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, amongst other sources.  Emblematic cases include the unrelenting persecution of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar government; the repression of Tibetan Buddhists by the Chinese state; the disturbing spike in anti-Semitic incidents in France and Belgium; and the brutal assaults on non-conforming Muslims and Christians alike by al-Shabaab and Boko Haram across east-central Africa.  The international community's shocking indifference to the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria makes a mockery of the RTP, and sends a message to state and non-state violators of human rights that they are free to act with impunity within and across national borders.  Alternatively, a good-faith effort at collective action to protect the remaining Christians in Syria and Iraq--not a military action, but a combined humanitarian action (foods, medicines, shelter for refugees now living in unsustainable and precarious conditions in neighboring host-countries) and diplomatic initiative (decisive, innovative, and collaborative policies for pulling the plug on support to extremists of The Islamic State and al-Qaeda ilk)--will signal that the international community recognizes that peace is a chimera, absent the uncompromising protection of human rights.  

The approaching July 4th freedom commemoration of the American Revolution provides a moment for Orthodox Christians, living freely and securely in the United States, to contemplate how to make even a modest contribution to improving the conditions of Christians struggling to survive in places like Homs, Aleppo, Damascus, Mosul, Kirkuk, and the Nineveh Plain. 

The necessary first-step in constructive contemplation involves avoiding the trap of reducing the principle of "do no harm" to the default position of "do nothing."  One of the foundational ethics guiding United Nations humanitarian work and international human rights and religious freedom activities, the "do no harm" principle is a kind of normative-material value-added calculus.  In other words, efforts to bring aid and comfort to vulnerable and at-risk populations (in this case, the Christians of Syria and Iraq) must occur only if there is reasonable certainty that action (in this case, both acknowledging the problem and implementing relief policies) will neither worsen the immediate conditions or provoke new threats (e.g. reprisals, retribution) against the already-victimized population.

Justifiably, the do-no-harm principle has been a frequent fallback for Orthodox Christians in America who express reservations about public calls for action to come to the aid of Mideast Christians.  However, I sense a very concerning tendency, away from the ethical gold-standard and practical imperative of doing no harm, towards the absolutist position of doing nothing.  My nagging concerns on this point derive from the face-value acceptance by a not insignificant cadre of prominent Orthodox (and Roman Catholic and Protestant) Christians in America of the Washington-manufactured twaddle that justifies lack of assistance to Mideast Christians with such political conceits as "they don't even know what they want, they're not united," culminating in the big-lie statement of "Christians in Iraq and Syria do not feel abandoned." 

The explicit statements of multiple Mideast Christian leaders of various denominations that their communities, in fact, do feel abandoned (see comments by Rev. Dr. Andrew White of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, Chaldean Archbishop of Baghdad Louis Sakko, Bishop Elias Toume of Pyrgou in Syria’s Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch) and that they are seeking humanitarian assistance, should be enough to ensure that the legitimate priority of doing no harm does not degenerate unintentionally and unnecessarily, into doing nothing.  Furthermore, While entreating the international community to act swiftly to provide humanitarian relief to endangered Christians, these same clerics demonstrate their clear understanding of the do no harm principle--in their insistence that aid come to all those who are suffering, in their identification of sectarianism as fatal for sustainable peace, and in their unambiguous rejection of Western military engagement as solution for the ailments of Syria and Iraq.

How can doing no harm comport with doing something?  What can Orthodox Christians do to bring aid and comfort to Mideast Christians?  Over the upcoming July 4th solstice,  here are some thoughts to ponder, some very basic, imminently feasible, options for doing something, options for doing no harm while doing some good. 

First, pray and remember.  Every Orthodox church in the United States should be praying for the safety of Mideast Christians--supplications for peace in the world run throughout the Sunday Liturgy, so there is no reason that special prayers for peace, memorial prayers for those lost, and vigils cannot become part of the daily reality of Orthodox Christians here in America.  Second, teach and learn.  Catechetical education at every level of parish life can incorporate teaching about the plight of today's Christians, in Syria and Iraq and, more broadly, in the Greater Middle East.  Orthodox Christians in America can learn about the realities of life for Christians in the lands where Christ and the Apostles spread the Word, the connections between Christians there and Christians here.  Third, act.  Mobilization, organization, and action to raise humanitarian relief (whether clothing, emergency kits, monies) for Syrian and Iraqi Christians without food, shelter, medical care, or jobs, should be a given in every Orthodox parish in America. The Greek War Relief Association's effort (for more on this, see the pathbreaking research of Dr. A. K. Kyrou, also a blogger on this site) during World War Two is a brilliant example of the capacity of Orthodox Christians in America to mount a staggeringly successful, grassroots, international humanitarian effort.  Orthodox Christian parishes in America can easily become a platform for relief support to  the Christians of Iraq and Syria, via cooperation with respected international actors like International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), the International Red Cross, World Vision, and others.  Fourth, discuss and dialogue.  Orthodox Christians in America have a responsibility and an opportunity to share the story of endangered Christians in the historic lands of Christianity's origins, and wherever possible, to participate in ecumenical and interfaith efforts to bring peace to the world.  For guidance and inspiration, think about the recent Holy Land Pilgrimage of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis.  Finally, go and see.  Speaking of pilgrimages, it's time for Orthodox Christians in the United States to visit and to connect with the Christians who continue to live and witness through peace and war, in the lands of the early Church. Security constraints do not rule out pilgrimages to places like Constantinople (Istanbul), Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and if peace breaks out, to other places in the region.

In the final book of the New Testament—“Revelation,” also known as “The Apocalypse”—Christ, tells the Church at Laodicea, in central-west Anatolia, “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth.”  Refracted through the lens of "The Apocalypse," the slippery slope from respect for doing no harm to the error of doing nothing could become part of the treacherous slide into lukewarm. The choices are obvious.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she will be Co-Chairing the new Study Group on the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe.

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