Archive for the 'Poverty' Category

Law and Order? Outlawed Pigs in an Outlawed Land

The New York Times ran a feature on Mokattam and interviewed a couple of my friends in Cairo among the garbage city with the recent order to slaughter the entire pig population in Egypt in scare of the swine flu.  This order was given despite no recorded cases of the swine flu in Egypt, and the fact that pigs do not transmit the disease to humans.

In other words, my brother who closed down the school of which he is principal in southern rural Wisconsin had more actual dealings with H1N1 than the folks in Egypt who decided Wilbur and friends can’t play with Charlotte in the barn anymore because they have a date with the butcher.

So why in the world would the Egyptian government do such a thing?

I don’t know the certainties, but I can certainly can speculate.

The government is responding with the line that they are “trying to make things more sanitary for the Zabeleen.”

I’m sorry, but political rhetoric belongs with the organic waste being eaten by the pigs. Perhaps the officials have more in common with them than they thought.

The truth is the land where the Zabeleen live is attractive, and beginning the systematic removal of a people for the expansion of tourism by first dismantling their income source is the most strategic way of enabling their removal.  But covering it up with lies is disgusting.

It’s sad when power is abused to silence voices without power, but even worse when those in power use lies (actively telling falsehoods) and deceit (passively – concealing the truth for the purpose of misleading) for the sake of maintaining power and suppressing what might actually expose the truth.

If you are an American reading this, your privilege is all the more apparent and I’m grateful for those we honor on Memorial Day who have provided it for us. Thank-you to our service men and women who continually provide freedom for us.

But if you were among the Zabeleen, an oppressed minority without access to power, how would you address this issue?

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Slumdog & Oscar: The Danger of “Awareness”

When Slumdog Millionaire came out in theaters, at first I was very excited to see it.  Some of the students I took to Cairo to live among the poor organized a reunion around the film so they could see it together – I couldn’t make it, so I told them to enjoy it themselves without me.

Then things with my late-Grandma Lois became the priority in my life, and seeing a movie was pretty low on the list.  Finally, I just up and saw it a couple weeks back.  I was preparing myself for it, mainly because I thought the shock value would be something that would remind me of my experience living in the slums of Cairo and continue to remind me of my commitments I’ve made to live as an agent of God’s justice, his shalom, in a broken world.

And it did. The shots in India and the subtle exposing of the caste system is something that is important.  The scene where you see the children collecting garbage and the ones who are stolen by the villain – that location could easily have been shot in Mokattam with no one knowing the difference.  

I was brought back to Mokattam once again for glimpses. The way my memory works is that emotions and imagery tap thought trails that cause me to relive experiences again.  Slumdog did that for me – it was a rush of sensations back to living among the poor, seeing their smiles and saddness, laughter and tears, sights and smells, recalling stories and statistics.

Yet at the same time, I was incredibly bothered by the overriding premise of the film that interwove itself into the gameshow, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”  While it is an incredibly effective device to create a sense of anticipation and excitement with the question, “Will he win?” I was more concerned that it created a false hope that people get out of this through such fanciful ideas.

Hollywood does a good job of exposing people to just enough of the problems of the world to make us feel a little more informed s0 we care a little more about what happens. But then the lights go up and we leave the half-eaten jumbo popcorn and box of raisinettes on the ground for the kid paid minimum wage to pick up, who makes more than some families combined and would be glad to enjoy the popcorn and raisinettes we leave behind.

Here is what is interesting to me: Slumdog Millionaire had a production budget of $14 million.  It has a current worldwide box office gross at $153 million.  Now, I don’t know about you, but a profit of $139 million is pretty incredible in a down worldwide economy.  I know that Slumdog has likely brought to the attention to people around the world more about child slavery, forced prostitution, human trafficking, slum communities, and other problems of the world.

But awareness is not our issue anymore. We are aware. We need more than awareness these days – we need real, tangible efforts and dollars to make real change. People need to be aware that awareness isn’t enough, and awareness without action is worse than ignorance.

I don’t know if Slumdog Millionaire is giving of their profits to end the problems they filmed and made a bunch of money on.  I hope they have. But if they haven’t, then I think it would be exploitative to get rich off of filming poverty and making a whole bunch of people feel better about themselves for becoming “more aware.”  Again, I hope this isn’t the case and would be happy to be shown otherwise.

It’s hard for me to imagine my friends in Mokattam among a group of people dressed in the best clothes they’ll ever wear, walking on red carpet with the paparatzzi, enjoying fine dining and waiting for their names to be called, walking to the podium giving an acceptance speech about how thankful they are, and then getting cut off by the orchestra in mid-sentence. The talking heads celebrate and say, “Wow, what a great movie. Such an important work.”

Important work? But what about those whom you portrayed? They don’t get picked up for red carpets and game shows, and they need our help. Do we choose to or not?  

If not, then we should really consider that our Oscars belong with the grouch in the trash. At least the real “slumdogs” could have their just reward.

Neither Riches nor Poverty: Food and Friendship

Several years ago I was impacted when a friend of mine transformed the way I look at the world through a simple prayer at a meal.  He prayed something along the lines of, “God, thank-you for the privilege of having the opportunity to choose what we have to eat today. We ask for you to provide for those who don’t have food.”

Another of my friends prays, “God, thanks for providing and help us to fight for justice for those who don’t have.”

It’s true. In our consumerist society, when food is plentiful and more Americans are on diets than ever, we often first think of poverty in terms of providing food and other resources.

But as this thoughtful video shows, it’s not really just about food and resources.

Over the last year as I eat with friends, I’m often asked to pray for the food (even the non-religious folks think this is still appropriate).  I have learned that we become who we are in large part because of those we call friends and family.  I now thank God for food and friendship, and to provide both for those who don’t have today. And if we tell the truth, there are more friendless people with full stomachs than we’d like to think.

How to Make a Real Inaugural Statement

Whether it’s Rick Warren giving the invocation, Gene Robinson praying, Oprah, and whoever else is going to be at the historic celebration, it’s the final cost in the coffers of costly candidating celebrations.  The costs of predefined celebrations are as follows:

  • Cost of Democratic National Convention: $120 million
  • Cost of Republican National Convention: $82 million
  • Cost of Inauguration: $40 million
  • Fed Government allocation for inauguration security: $49 million
  • Cost of 2008-09 Political Celebrations: $291 million

What can we do with $291 million? Well, I suppose we can feed the US Political Economic Machine.  I’m sure some political economist can arrange the numbers to show me how good this is for the American economy to spend this kind of money on self congratulatory parties.

$291 million could sure write a lot of nice thank-you notes like this one to our child laborers.

But what kind of inaugural statement would it make if we tackled a few of the bigger problems on the planet?

Need ideas? I have some.  Tackling these problems would make for change we can believe in, and would be an historic occasion.

Mourn with those who Mourn: Mokattam Rockslide

Rockslide at Mokattam

I’ve got much to share with you about the conference I was recently attending in Egypt with the IFES, but that must pause for a much more urgent matter.
Less than 72 hours after my visit to Mokattam, a rockslide has killed at least 20.  Lots of things come up for me in this – part of me really wishes I was there, another part of me was grateful to not have to endure such suffering.

I’ve heard back from my friends that all seems to be OK with them, but nonetheless it’s a preventable tragedy.  Governments turn blind eyes to slum communities like Mokattam because it’s the easiest way to deal with the issue.

“We are following the case step by step and providing the care and comfort for the residents,” Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said in a statement. “We would like to remind people the danger of building informal housing in dangerous areas.”

The former engineer in me winces when I hear things like this.  When tragedy can be averted through simple bricks and sticks, my blood boils.  When I walk through Mokattam, my old skills flash back to me in thinking in how to build trenching for sewers, provide safe water, even using solar heating to do so.  And others have done the same.

But my anger burns on this…when those who are powerless and marginalized lack justice by those who receive power through a corrupt system live in luxury and rule incompetently and refuse to repent because of losing status…yeah, I need to stop writing now and put my anger before God.  Because that is the only place where it can be used for good.

Please pray for those who mourn in Mokattam.

Please pray that someone takes action to care for the marginalized through simple policy efforts that allow for justice to be had by all.  Pray for engineers who will be mobilized to provide plans for civil services like water and sewage.  Pray for funds to be available to implement plans through generous donors who will give.

And, if you are daring enough, be open to being the answer to one your own prayers.

An Emo-Ref 30th: When worlds apart come together.

I’m writing you looking out the balcony at my home for the week – I can’t give the details of my whereabouts for safety concerns, but I can tell you I’m in Egypt and it must be one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The view is glorious.

A quick update from the conference: students from 12 Arab nations are gathered around this conference. We’re tackling some really tough issues – and I’m amazed at their faith. It’s true, two-handed faith that doesn’t take easy answers or pithy sayings. I love this kind of faith.

One student I spoke with just fascinated me. He lives in Lebanon, and in the past three months six of his friends have been killed from random acts of violence. He looks at me, deep into my eyes, and I can see honest and genuine hurt that we men don’t often show unless someone really knows. He tells me that it will get worse with the upcoming election.

I wince.

But I ask him how this affects him, and he gets quite personal. He tells me more that he doesn’t even know how to plan for a future – to buy a home, to raise a family – because he doesn’t know how much longer he will last. The effects of violence are devastating. He works 14 hours a day, five days a week, and makes under $300 a month.

If you do the math (some of you already are) he earns $.50 an hour. The corruption in the government drives up the price of gas and other necessary items for survival – food, water, clothes, etc. He is barely making ends meet to pay for gas and his phone.

As I ask more questions, there is just this feeling inside of me that looks at him and knows that he has seen far too much for a 21-year-old man. I ask him if he would leave his country if he had the chance. He said he would in a heartbeat.

Every part of me wants to tell him to stay, to fight the good fight, that in the end God wins and righteousness and justice will prevail. I want to tell him that God honors those who are faithful, who choose to stick out the hard times, and that his present cynicism will be overcome by hope and we can celebrate victory today for what was already won in the past that has determined the future. I want to be clever and pithy and say faith is knowing that at the end of the song, God wins; hope is the decision to dance to the music today.

But today I can’t tell him that – because, more often than not, I wonder the same things and argue with God about them in my own life. I’d love to tell him that this is different for the people of God, but I’d be lying through my teeth. I’d love to tell him that the church would save the day, but I have far too much experience seeing the body of Christ look more like an ugly whore than a beautiful bride.

How can I say anything different to him? I tell him that I pray God will be with him; really, it’s the only thing He seems to promise.

It’s something when you are hearing stories like this in the news; it’s another when you see them in front of you, a young man who has learned to tell this story well enough in his non-native tongue because he knows it matters.

When the worlds that you thought were worlds apart come near, the world in which you live can never be the same.

I’m getting emotionally-reflective (emo-ref) on this last day of my 20’s and enter my 30’s on the 30th. So forgive the navel-gazing thoughts. But I wonder, at times, what my life would have been like if I had never encountered the worlds I have in the last 30 years.

I wonder what would have happened if I wasn’t a Bilhorn. If I wasn’t the middle child in my family. If Grandma never moved in when I was 1. If Dad’s promising business ventures were amazingly successful. If Jennifer wasn’t killed in the car crash. If I wouldn’t have gotten the scholarship that took me to IIT and instead decided to go to school in Milwaukee. If I went through with my overanalyzed thoughts on not joining my fraternity instead of trusting my gut. If I didn’t take that job with IPM. If the West Side of Chicago was still a scary place because I never chose to live there. If I didn’t come on staff with InterVarsity. If I didn’t take the risk to go to Egypt last summer.

I wonder a lot these days – not just in the past, but in the future as well. I wonder what decisions I will make that will reap lots of consequences like I have so far – enough to prompt me sitting on a balcony in a place I had only studied in my world history textbook, writing a blog entry about a man I never intended to meet, and reflecting on events that if you told me would happen when I was 15 I would have said you were crazy.

(I ask people more often now if they think I am crazy…and one responded, “Andy, crazy people don’t ask if they are crazy.” True, but neurotic people do…and they also make up words like “emo-ref”…)

This morning I reflected on Jesus’ comments to those who called out his disciples for not fasting compared to John the Baptist telling his disciples to not. I would have skipped over it, but it came up again in this evening’s seminar that I listened through my new best friend in Egypt: my translator. I asked God to speak to me today, so I figured this might be more than coincidence.

Jesus, in typical cryptic form to weed out the superficial folks, tells one of those weird parables that tends to make no sense to 21st Century Americans. He says,

No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’ “

Cryptic, eh? Jesus is calling the old religious institutions like old wine in comparison to what he is bringing. The old religious system of rules and regulations just doesn’t fit his new way of living. Fasting doesn’t work with celebration – there is indeed a time for it, just not now. And the old system just doesn’t work for the changes that are coming. New wineskins = new system. Old wineskins = old system. New wine doesn’t fit in old wineskins. Jesus doesn’t fit in old religious system.

Change is required – on the inside, not just on the out. New wine is really good; but it requires change.

Change and the presence of God are the only constants I’ve come to bank on in this life. To adapt to change, I think I need new wineskins as often as I change my underwear – daily. Cyncism must be replaced with expectancy; skepticism must by supplanted by hope. If God is indeed good, new wine, and we are in need of change, it’s not only the environment around us that will change; it’s the stuff within us. It’s the stuff within me.

The difference in change is that we have the choice to change what’s inside; we don’t have a choice on what’s around us.

My friend from Lebanon gets this – he is outside, playing soccer like a madman. I imagine him scoring a goal, celebrating like a madman despite the circumstances to which he will return. It’s a bit of heaven breaking into a hell-filled world. He’s chosen to hope.

Will I?

So, here’s to choosing new wineskins for some new wine for a thirtieth birthday celebration. Small problem, however – I’m at a student conference in a Muslim country, you can probably bank I won’t be enjoying any wine today…so drink a glass in my stead and celebrate the opportunity to change.

Saalam.

Out to Egypt I have called my son…

My Luggage

My Luggage

When I left Egypt last year, about 13 months ago now, I wondered when I would return.

Note when, not if.

When I was at the airport saying goodbye to all of our friends, I didn’t necessarily think that I was saying goodbye forever. In fact, I felt like I should have been much more emotional since I really had such deep feelings for them.

Turns out my instinct was right – I would return to Egypt. I’m sitting in my living room, with two carry-on bags, getting set to make my return to Egypt. I’ll be serving at the conference with the Middle East and North Africa with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES).

When I was asked to go, I went primarily because I knew I wanted to return to Egypt. So I asked God if he didn’t want me to go, he should stop me.

Gently, of course.

So here I am, sitting in my living room, with an empty fridge and a brand spankin’ new passport…singin’ leavin’ on a jet plane by John Denver (don’t ask me why…it’s just in my head…)

Have you ever been on a trip, knowing that something would happen, but you didn’t know what was going to happen? I love this feeling. It’s this weird sense of wonder, anxiety, curiosity, fear, expectation…all in one. I love it. Love it love it love it.

Pray for the folks in the Middle East and North Africa. It is arguably the most difficult place to be a Christian on the planet, where heavy restrictions, fear, and isolation lead them to fear that they are “a minority of a minority of a minority.” Even those who are ethnic minorities in our country, I’m not sure if we in this country can comprehend the amount of fear they live under.

When I am among people who are oppressed in the world, whether it be my neighbors on the West Side of Chicago, poverty in Latin America in Belize and Mexico City, my experience among those ravaged in Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army, my time in the Garbage Village of Mokattam, what continually draws me to wonder how often those who are oppressed and poor have so much to teach me of who God is.

As one who has straddled many different worlds, I continually love to see how the poor educate me on the nature of faith. I like to think I’m brighter than your average bulb, but I’m humbled by real, authentic, genuine faith. We have resources abundantly that we can consume whenever we want – whether it be food for eating, knowledge for learning, or entertainment for enjoying – it’s around us all the time.

When I limit myself to just these two suitcases right in front of me, traveling gives me the opportunity to simplify enough to be able to hear Jesus in fresh new ways.

Would you pray for me?

I need ears to hear, a heart to feel, and a mind to know, and the guts to act.


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