Friday, October 21, 2011

What I Learned on Safari

On Saturday, I returned from a vacation to Kenya. My first visit to Africa was unforgettable, the game parks were lovely and the safari rides thrilling. But, I am haunted by the images of the cities, villages, and reservations we passed through on our way to the game parks.

Like many tourists, we visited a Masai village. We sat in a mud and cow dung constructed hut, little bigger than the office I am writing in now, that housed 10 people in two beds. We watched mothers nursing newborn babies, covered with flies. We were told about teenagers, both boys and girls, going through circumcisions and women having babies attended only by their mothers-in-law. When I asked, I was told that “only” about one in ten women in the village die in childbirth. The cities outside of Nairobi we drove through on barely passable roads were filled with children begging when our 4 by 4 vehicles stopped for traffic, with corrugated aluminum tiny homes dotting the roads.

These so-called optional tourist excursions broke my heart and brought home the reality of the need to address poverty, maternal mortality, and access to family planning. It provided me with a renewed commitment to the Religious Institute’s Rachel Sabbath Initiative to engage religious leaders and faith communities in working for U.S. support to reach the Millennium Goals worldwide.

I know that Kenya is not the poorest country in Africa, and compared with its neighbors, it is relatively peaceful. But, still, one in 38 Kenyan women will die in childbirth, 26% of women will marry before adulthood, and female genital mutilation is still widely practiced.
The average woman in Kenya has six children, while her desired family size is four, although in the Masai village I visited fertility was much higher -- yet this marks substantial progress from an estimated 8.1 children per woman in the late 1960s). Fewer than half of Kenyan couples use contraceptives (46%), although that marks a significant increase compared to the 39 per cent reported in a 2003 study. According to the CIA World Factbook, the urban population in Kenya is “growing at an alarming rate as many Kenyans migrate from their rural homes to urban centers,” which has led to a scarcity of jobs and opportunities.

World population growth stops being an abstract idea when confronted with individuals and whole communities suffering without enough food, shelter, sanitation, health care, and economic opportunities. At the end of this month, the world's population will reach 7 billion. It was 4 billion when I first started working thirty five years ago.

The Bible calls us to be stewards of the earth and caretakers of our neighbors. I hope you’ll join us in rededicating ourselves to living out our faith through renewed action on behalf of all the people of the world.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Speak Out for LGBT Youth

This morning, for the second year in the row, the Religious Institute, is calling on the nation’s clergy to speak out in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth at services near National Coming Out Day, which is October 11th. The recent suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14 year old gay youth who in the spring made his own It Gets Better video, demonstrates the sad urgency of this call to action, which remains as necessary as it was in the wake of multiple teen suicides in September 2010.

All of us have teens and young adults who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender in our congregations, many who are suffering in silence and are at risk. One study found that 14% of teens in religious communities identify as something other than heterosexual. Almost nine in ten of them have not been open about their sexuality with clergy or other adult leaders in their faith communities.

Studies show that almost six in ten clergy from mainline denominations support the full inclusion and acceptance of LGBT persons, yet other studies have found that eight in ten of even the most progressive clergy don't have programs in their congregations to support LGBT youth.

We have known for more than thirty years that at least one third of all suicides to teens are to gay youth. Our young people are dying because we are not speaking out for them. Ask yourself honestly, do the LGBT youth in your faith community know that you welcome and support them? What have you done to make sure that these youth know they are loved and supported, to demonstrate that you understand that they, too, are God's children?

The Religious Institute has created new worship resources in support of National Coming Out Day. They include a responsive reading, prayers, a collect, a prayer litany and more, available at

Can you work with your local rabbi, minister, imam, or lay leaders to speak out for LGBT youth in the next few weeks? In this case, silence can equal death. Please help.