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.
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.