Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tightening belts -- and helping others

If you just lost your job, you’re probably not jumping up and down over recent signs the economy might be rebounding.

You’re not alone. More than 340,000 U.S. jobs were lost in May. The national unemployment rate has reached 9.4 percent — the highest in nearly 30 years — and is projected to climb even higher before it begins to fall.

The pain from job losses and other impacts of the recession continues to be felt in countless lives and families — and in financial support for churches, ministries and mission efforts around the world.

Even before the economic crisis hit, overall church giving among American Christians had been trending downward. “Committed” American Christians (regular church attenders who consider their faith important) earn more than $2.5 trillion a year, according to “Passing the Plate” (Oxford University Press), a new study of Christian giving. Evangelical Protestants are the most generous in their gifts to churches, but only about 27 percent of them tithe. More than a third give less than 2 percent of their income.

About 5 percent of Christians supply 60 percent of the money that funds American churches and religious programs. Many others who give do so cheerfully — but from their wallets when the urge strikes, rather than from their checkbooks as a habit.

It’s easy to criticize the stinginess of American Christians, who are rich by the standards of most of the rest of the world. But Christianity Today magazine’s recent analysis of the “Passing the Plate” study highlights a daily reality average folks face even in good times:

“[A] major reason Christians don’t give more is because they can’t. Fixed costs in households have increased from 54 percent to 75 percent of family budgets since the early 1970s.

“‘A mere two buying decisions — the purchases of homes and cars — are enough to lock household budgets into tight budgetary situations for decades,’ [researchers] say.”

The recession has tightened family budgets much more. You’re likely feeling the squeeze. I know I am. While we’re riding out the storm, however, let’s be thankful for living in a nation with an incredibly resilient economy. Many others aren’t so blessed.

The recession is “the biggest development in the global system in the year to date,” reports Peter Zeihan in the Geopolitical Intelligence Report produced by Stratfor, an open intelligence service. “In the United States it has become almost dogma that the recession is the worst since the Great Depression. But this is only one of a wealth of misperceptions about whom the downturn is hurting most, and why … .

“[T]he U.S. recession at this point is only the worst since 1982, not the 1930s, and it pales in comparison to what is happening in the rest of the world.” Yes, the recession started in America, “but the American system is far more stable, durable and flexible than most of the other global economies. …”

What does that mean in human terms? As we tighten belts and cut out luxuries, many around the world are facing a life-threatening crisis.

“Those at the bottom of the ladder do not have far to fall,” notes one analyst for The Economist magazine. “But what happens if you have clambered up a few rungs, joined the new middle class and now face the prospect of slipping back into poverty?”

A recent message from Christian workers in Kazakhstan outlined the financial crisis in that Central Asian country. Currency has been devalued, prices have soared and salaries have stayed the same or fallen. Life has become very difficult for people with creditors to hold off, families to feed, bills to pay.

“In the past, you have been asked to pray about the hold of materialism on this culture,” the message noted. “Many are coming to realize that security is not in material things. Please pray for many who face desperate times. Ask that they will turn to Jesus for hope.”

For others, the situation is even more grim. Baptist Global Response, the Southern Baptist relief and development agency, is supplying grain and vitamin supplements to pregnant women and children in a part of South Asia where up to a third of the people suffer from malnutrition. The “Wise Mother, Healthy Family” project will help at least 500 women and their families with an ongoing distribution of rice, corn and dal, a dietary staple in South Asia.

“A recent United Nations report states that an average woman in this area has five children, that all of her children under age 3 are malnourished, that she works 15 hours a day and is anemic,” said Francis Horton, regional director for the Southern Baptist agency.

“The food situation in this area has worsened dramatically, and this project … eventually could help far more families than the ones currently being assisted,” Horton said. “Their world is becoming increasingly insecure due to economic, political and religious conflict. Please pray that this project would help them understand God’s love for them and that they would experience the full and meaningful lives He wants them to have.”

As we go through our own difficult times, we can pray for those experiencing deeper troubles. We can help them in practical ways. And we can love them as Christ loves them.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mumbai is the urban future

See a multimedia presentation about Mumbai at

Flying at night into Mumbai, India, you see millions of pretty lights glittering along the curving coast, like jewels on the neck of a queen.

At ground level, in the harsh light of day, illusion gives way to reality. The elegant monarch that once was Bombay is dead. Something altogether different — both exciting and terrifying — has replaced her.

Two-pack-a-day air pollution. Round-the-clock road wars between vast armies of cars, trucks and auto-rickshaws. Sleek skyscrapers, posh coffee shops and luxury high-rise apartments abound, taking their place alongside the grand Taj Hotel, the monumental Gateway of India arch and other reminders of the city’s former glory. But they’re surrounded by slums, filth, stench, violence and the crumbling remnants of old Bombay.

And everywhere, people.

Greater Mumbai’s population is approaching 20 million. That number is projected to rise to 26 million by 2025. India, the land of 600,000 villages, has joined the relentless human trek toward urban centers as the global economy moves in the same direction. Half of the nation’s more than 1 billion people will be living in cities by 2020, some estimates say.

“South Asia, set to overtake East Asia as the world’s most populous realm in 2010, will contain nearly one-quarter of all humanity by 2025,” reports geographer Harm de Blij. “Consider this: There are more people in Dhaka [Bangladesh] than in Greece. There are more people in Manila [Philippines] than in Belgium. There are more people in Delhi [India] than in Chile. Mumbai will soon overtake Australia.”

On a global scale, urban dwellers will double to 6.4 billion by the middle of this century — 70 percent of the projected human population, according to a United Nations forecast. By that time, predicts a BBC report, Mumbai “will have reached an almost unimaginable size.”

Mumbai, then, “is the future of urban civilization on the planet,” declares Suketu Mehta. “God help us.”

Mehta, author of “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found” (Vintage, 2004), left the city of his childhood in 1977. When he returned two decades later to live there, he barely recognized it. Somewhere toward the end of the 20th century, the bustling but livable Bombay he remembered had become — like Jekyll turning to Hyde — the dangerous, uncontrollable beast called Mumbai.

Mumbai has “hundreds of very different ethnic communities, most of whom heartily dislike one another,” Mehta notes. “They [tolerated] one another for centuries” — until the Hindu-Muslim riots of the 1990s, which left 1,000 dead and drove more than 100,000 from their homes. The riots tore apart the city’s delicate ethnic fabric and fueled extremist forces in politics and society that persist today. The citywide unity displayed after last November’s terrorist attacks encouraged many, but didn’t erase the memories of past bloodshed.

Bombay’s name change to Mumbai, part of a national initiative that renamed several major cities, symbolizes more fundamental shifts. The steady inflow of migrants and merchants seeking a job, a deal or a patch of ground to occupy has become a torrent. Organized crime bosses control major parts of the economy; their gangs attack each other and victimize the public. More than 100,000 women and children work as prostitutes in the city. The police have become notoriously violent and corrupt. The rule of law is nearly nonexistent. City government is dysfunctional. The courts have slowed to a crawl; justice interminably delayed is almost a guarantee.

On a more mundane level, accomplishing anything in Mumbai requires single-minded determination — and money.

“You’ve got to pay five bribes to get anything done,” complains Suman Nabar, an eye doctor who struggled for years to build a private medical practice. She treats her patients all day — and sometimes cleans the office toilets at night to make sure it’s done right.

“I just wish people would do their jobs,” she says with a tone of exasperated resignation.

Yet for all its staggering problems, Mumbai radiates addictive energy and excitement.

“The chaos is what I’m going to miss when I leave,” says Rose Wynn,* a Southern Baptist worker retiring after serving in the city for more than 10 years. “The chaos and the people. I love it.”

She marvels at how people still help one another, regardless of caste or class. If you fall on the street, someone appears from nowhere to offer assistance. If you’re lost, someone shows you where to go and personally takes you there, if necessary.

Somehow, the city keeps going — like its trains, the arteries that move 6 million people through Mumbai every day. And like Mumbai’s renowned dhabba wallahs.

Mostly nonliterate deliverymen, the dhabba wallahs carry some 200,000 hot lunches each work day by foot, bicycle and train from the suburban homes where they are made to the cross-town offices where they are consumed. That’s more than 60 million lunch tins a year. Of that total, they misplace perhaps 10 — an accuracy rate UPS and FedEx have enviously studied (see a multimedia presentation about Mumbai’s dhabba wallahs at )

“It looks like chaos, but it works,” says an amazed observer.

Could the Gospel follow similar paths across Mumbai and other vast megacities, bringing living bread to millions of hungry souls? The time has come to find out.

“I wouldn’t say so much that we’re failing as that we’ve never tried,” says John Wynn,* a Southern Baptist worker in Mumbai, of the Christian movement’s response to the global urban explosion.

“We haven’t had the focus and the vision to reach the urban masses. The only answer is Jesus Christ. We can talk about the problems, the poverty and corruption and politicians. But it all goes back to the darkness they live in.

“They need Jesus Christ.”

*(Names changed)