Sunday, June 29, 2008

Encounters with "Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Jo Hunter Adams

(My recommendation of an amazing book, and one that gives the reader infinite opportunities for thought, and new ways to think about Nigeria in the 1960s)

"There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable"

Half of a Yellow Sun describes the lives of three people in the midst of the Biafran war of the 1960s.

Adichie readily acknowledges that this is firstly a novel, and only second a snapshot of an actual historical period, one of the most painful and poorly understood wars in African history.

Historians often ask: "what is the best way to teach history?" It's clear that history books that are only read by a few people have an important place, particularly if the process and multiplicity of voices leads to truth and spirit that filters down into our daily life (our response to our histories) and literature (and vice versa). But what if these accurate books never gain traction? If an imaginary history is lived as reality and passed down for decades, does that history get power despite not representing truth? Absolutely! Lies and truth are quickly mixed together, and are used to empower those who control it.

I mention this because there is a tension between representing history in depth for a few people, and representing history in the form of a story, for the masses. In a way, the second relies on a deep level of comfort with the first (the ways that people are juggling different sets of facts).

Adichie uses her talents powerfully to make one dimension of the Biafran war accessible to those far removed. I am not sure whether the history in Half of a Yellow Sun is fully accurate, but what if the history that we need to understand most is the history of relationships in the context of the war? If so-- and I believe it is-- then that is the most potent part of this story.

I recommend the book for a specific reason, also. It's very difficult to understand what changes when someone is displaced (or what doesn't change). I have spent a lot of time with refugees (with the qualification that a "lot of time" is very relative to my age), but I have never known someone before they were forced to move, during and afterwards. A fictional character can never be completely animated, but Adichie's words allowed a longitudinal view of individuals, in a way that is incredibly challenging to do in real life.

Perhaps this was most powerful because the three main characters, and their relationships with one another, did not seem too far removed-- history that makes us understand one another might always be better than history that makes us alien and exotic to one another.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Beginner's Guide to Vermicomposting (with photos)

Jo Hunter Adams

Living in a small apartment, I've wished that there was a way to create compost and avoid throwing away peels, scraps, and other easily degradable trash. As a result of a bad (smelly) composting experience in our house in UWC (Morgannwyg, you guys remember what I'm talking about), I didn't think there was a way to do this indoors unless I was really, really uh... alternative.

I discovered that this process was a lot easier than I thought. Essentially, you need good aeration, some worms, a non-extreme temperature, and you'll have compost in as little as a couple of weeks! I decided to have two containers that I expect will full up about every 4 weeks. Ideally, while one fills up, the other will sit, so that I might have a continuous supply. It may be too late for this to be a great benefit to our garden for this year, but I heard that there are people who go around the neighborhood with a little compost, "guerilla composting" if they have too much for themselves. So it won't go to waste!

What can you put in your compost?
You can put almost all non-animal related scraps in the compost. This includes clean eggshells but you should never put in scraps of meat or dairy, because they'll smell really badly. You can put in paper towels, or if you find yourself with a paper coffee cup at the end of the day, you can also tear that up and put it in (the worms will eat everything except the wax, drastically reducing the size of the trash ending up in a landfill). And the things you would expect-- vegetable peels and ends, bread crumbs, old greens, etc.

Remember that the smaller things are, the more quickly they can be digested down. If something is larger, the worms may wait longer for it to rot before starting to work on it. So if possible, do some of the work for the worms.

Although you can put almost anything in the composting bin, there should be a variety in the bin at any time. For example, the worms will happily digest orange peels, but if there are too many orange peels in the compost bin, this may make the bin very acidic.

What tools do I need for this process?
You need four main tools for this process:

1) A container with a lid. I used a 16qt container, which cost me US$2.99. The container doesn't need to be very big, but you want it to be wider than it is high, as the worms don't like to travel vertically as much as they like to travel horizontally.

2) Worms. You specifically want red wiggler worms. These worms are really great for working through soil. I got these from the local bait shop, where they cost $2.50 for 24. I bought two containers-- I'll have to see if this seems enough or not. These worms don't sleep, they eat all day and all night.

3) Paper I used some newspaper-like junk mail.

4) A drill to make holes in the container. I want the worms to have plenty of air, so I made holes about every square inch, with about my fifth smallest drill bit (1/8). I wanted to make the holes so that they were only slightly too small for the worms to get out.

Next steps: Making sure the worms are not too warm, have enough air, moisture, and food.

1) Shred the paper Remember it's easier to go with the grain to make long thin strips.

2) Set about half of the paper aside.

3) Wet the remaining paper
Dip the paper in water, and then wring it out. You don't want it to be so wet that it's dripping everywhere.

4) Add whatever scraps you have onhand
This doesn't need to be much, you can add scraps as you go along.

5) Add your worms

6) Add the remaining dry paper, to give the worms added air.

7) Snap on the lid and put the compost bin away!

Total Cost: US$8 (or about the cost of one fairly cheap restaurant meal in Boston)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Justice Part 3

There seems to be every indication that wealth is a awesome gift before it is anything else. This is the first theme in the Lazarus at the Gate Curriculum.

Faithfulness with wealth doesn't mean feeling guilty about wealth. It seems to me that living really abundantly may mean figuring out where abundance and generosity meet. In every person it's likely to be a different place because God calls us to different things at different stages-- and perhaps different lifestyles make us into growing, strong people. It seems to be essential that when we give (financially or personally) that our giving is not about sacrifice, it's a response to abundance. That guards against looking back with a sense of regret or self-righteousness.

Having a sense of God's blessing on us may be a really good way of enjoying what we have in the moment.

Here are are a few verses from the Bible about abundance:

Every good and perfect gift is from above—James 12:1

Genesis 1
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Then God said, “I will give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.

Deut 28, excerpts
If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth... The Lord will send a blessing on your barns and everything you put your hand to. The Lord your God will bless you in the land he is giving you..

Coming up/Not Forgotten
Health care in the United States
Plant updates-- tips on growing food in a/n (small) apartment

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

MLK on being tied together (and that was in the 60s)

We are tied together in life and in the world. And you may think you got all you got by yourself. But you know, before you got out here to church this morning, you were dependent on more than half the world. You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom, and you reach over for a bar of soap, and that’s handed to you by a Frenchman. You reach over for a sponge, and that’s given by a turk. You reach over for a towel, and that comes to your hand from the hands of a Pacific Islander. And then you go to the kitchen to get your breakfast. You reach on over to get a little coffee, and that’s poured in your cup by a South American. Or maybe you decide that you want a little tea this morning, only to discover that that’s poured in your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you want a little cocoa, that’s poured in your cup by a West African. Then you want a little bread and you reach over to get it, and that’s give you by the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. Before you get through eating breakfast in the morning, you're dependent on more than half the world. That's the way God structured this world. So let us be concerned about others because we are dependent on others.

From Martin Luther King Jr. "The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life" April 1967.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Quote by Garrison Keillor

I wanted to share a quote that I read in Immigrant Medicine (Walker & Barnett, Ed. 2007), particularly as the U.S. begins to resettle many Iraqi refugees. They are subjected to a lot of prejudice and yet have experienced real, recent, trauma as a result of the Iraq war. Although I may be preaching to the choir, I’d like to add my voice to those who are advocating on the behalf of this group of people. They are not terrorists. Many placed their lives at risk by working for American forces.

Garrison Keillor, Newsweek July 4, 1998

Heroes, all of them – at least they’re my heroes, especially the immigrants, especially the refugees. Everyone makes fun of New York cabdrivers who can’t speak English: they’re heroes. To give up your country is the hardest thing a person can do: to leave the old familiar places and ship out over the edge of the world to America and learn everything over again different than you learned as a child, learn the language that you will never be so smart funny in as your true language. It takes years to start to feel semi-normal. And yet people still come – Russia, Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos, Ethiopia, Iran, Haiti, Korea, Cuba, Chile, and they come on behalf of their children, and they come for freedom. Nor for our land (Russia is as beautiful), not for our culture (they have their own, thank you), not for our system of government (they don’t even know about it, may not even agree with it), but for freedom. They are heroes who make an adventure on our behalf, showing by their struggle how precious beyond words freedom is, and if we knew their stories, we could not keep back the tears.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Economic Justice at a Personal Level: Part 2 of Reflections on Lazarus at the Gate

Jo Hunter Adams

A course called Lazarus at the Gate has been helping me think about the contradiction I described yesterday. The course title is taken from Luke 16 in the Christian New Testament (Copied below).

With credit to Gary Van Der Pol, who wrote the curriculum I wanted to share some of my experiences in this group for two reasons. Firstly, to verbalize and make my experiences concrete. Secondly, some of my readers are friends and family in South Africa, and I feel amazed by the possibility for those who feel this is something that is close to your hearts, and want to encourage and support you. In South Africa (as in Boston), the time for economic justice comes every single day.

It’s a twelve-week course walking a small group of individuals through what God has to say about economic justice, and about wealth in general. In response, each individual thinks of one way to live more simply, one way to change one habit to promote justice, and at the end each group chooses to give a certain amount as a concrete step towards economic justice. These are the big possible impacts of Lazarus here in Boston (taken from week 12 of the curriculum):

If each Lazarus group continues to give on a yearly basis, over a quarter of a million dollars will be given to the poor in the next five years.

If each Lazarus group continues to give on a yearly basis and launches one new Lazarus group, over $1 million dollars will be given to the poor in the next three years.

If each Lazarus participant asks their local grocery to carry fair trade, basic items such as fair trade fruit, sugar, and rice could be widely available in stores in Greater Boston.

So at it’s core, Lazarus is about big things being accomplished with baby steps. By August, I will upload an e-book that talks about giving in depth.

In the next installment I will discuss the theme of "Wealth as a Blessing".

The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16)
19"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In hell,[c] where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.'

25"But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'

27"He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, 28for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'

29"Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'

30" 'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'

31"He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' "

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Progress report on Tomatoes and Strawberries

Economic Justice at a Personal Level: Part 1 of Reflections on Lazarus at the Gate

Jo Hunter Adams

If you’re like me, you are trying to work out how to live your ideals in the context of the constraints on your time and money. For me, a rift developed soon after I finished United World College. As a Christian, there didn’t seem to be a way to combine my faith with all that I had learned at United World College.

What did I learn at UWC? It’s hard to summarize, but it was a kind of awakening—I discovered Christians weren’t the only ones working for justice, in fact, historically there seemed to be evidence of the opposite—Christians as perpetrators of injustice. I was young enough for this to result in fairly deep confusion, and I held the two ideas in tension without really resolving them. In Wales (and beyond) I had the opportunity to serve in different ways—usually with people who had genuinely different beliefs. Looking back, this began an inconsistency. Apart from with a few close friends, in justice settings I kept my faith fairly a little removed, and in faith settings I kept my feelings about injustice—and what I felt was the correct response—private.

There’s nothing wrong with this, except that I believe God is justice. Justice (and mercy) are God’s agenda, not only the domain of a bunch of people. And so justice and faith should interact. That doesn’t mean that people who have a heart for justice need me preaching to them. Nor does it mean that I take this agenda to all faith interactions. I think it means that there’s no contradiction within myself, and the rest will work itself in time.

Over the next few days and weeks, I'll be thinking about a course I recently took part in, and the types of things it's made me think about. Up to now a lot of my thoughts on economic justice have been at a structural level (how do we change the system) whereas recently my thoughts have been more focused on starting small-- economic justice as acted out as an individual. Please join me on this journey!

P.S. And I hope to keep updates on the plants going, as well as a few other things...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes by Robert McAfee Brown (1984)

Jo Hunter Adams

If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has his foot on the tail of the mouse, and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality (Desmond Tutu)

A summary in one sentence: developing a perspective on economic justice from the Bible. For those of you who are coming from different place spiritually, please feel free to let me know what you think. I'm just learning how to express my faith as it relates to economic justice, so if it is alienating, please bear with me. I'll get better at it!

This book was written during the Cold War by a North American, and that comes through in the book. It is also clear that it was written during the eighties, when certain terms (including "Third World") were used but have since been replaced by new words.

Leaving Egypt (Exodus 1:8-14; 2:23-25; 3:7-10)
The beginning of the book described the Israelites oppressed as slaves in Egypt. It is clearly a story about justice, struggle, and where God stands in situations like this. McAfee Brown makes four really clear points, extrapolated from this text:
1. A class struggle is going on.
2. God is aware of the struggle.
3. God takes sides in the struggle.
4. God calls people to join in the struggle.

Important and powerful stuff, right? From here it's definitely important to think about what "taking sides" and "joining in" means in our lives and in our family and community's lives. Even if it's not clear what to do next, it's very powerful to remember this reason for changing our lives or behavior, even before we know exactly how to change. That is, justice is God's agenda before I knew what justice was.

Personally, in our lives this June/July, this means deciding where to give money and how much to give away each month. I'll speak more about this later this week.

There were two points in this book that I thought would be great to repeat:

Nathan and David
The story of Nathan is a powerful one in the context of how we respond to things that are clearly wrong. I'll summarize the story as told in 2 Samuel 11 and 12:
David sees Bethsheba on a roof, and he wants to sleep with her. There aren't a lot of details about how it happens, but basically, he gets what he wants. Her husband is away fighting in David's army when Bethsheba becomes pregnant. Rather than face up to what he's done, he decides to bring Uriah home for a visit, so that it won't be clear that the baby is not Uriah's. However, Uriah doesn't feel write enjoying time with his wife when his army is in battle. So he doesn't sleep with her during his time at home. David, fearful and threatened, orders Uriah to the frontlines of battle, where he is killed. Then David brings Bethsheba into his home.

Nathan, a prophet at the time, knows all of this. He has incredible wisdom to know how to bring David's wrongdoing to David by telling a story. Through the story, he confronts David and puts his life at risk. He does it in such a way that it is clear the wrongs that have been done. David realizes fully what he has done, and changes completely.

The message here is that when there is a clear case of wrong, God uses people to take this message to those who have done wrong, so that they can once again be in relationship with God. They use those without power to tell those with power that they have done something wrong.

Blessed are the poor... in Spirit?
Luke 4:18-19 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release of the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."

In today's church, we tend to look to the sermon on the mount and think of the phrase "blessed are the poor in spirit" rather than "blessed are the poor". For those who aren't poor and want blessing, the former is an easier promise. However, with the concept of jubilee, it's clear that Jesus is also saying the latter, very pointedly.

I sometimes wonder in response to this promise of blessing-- why are the poor still suffering? I'm not totally sure, but I think Jesus is acknowledging the dignity and humanity of each individual, with special reference to those who have/are suffered/ing. I think we're also seeing a promise for the future. And, perhaps, the blessing that is on each of us if we are part of that vision to bring the acceptable year of the Lord (jubilee) a little bit closer.

Progress Report: Our Garden

Pictured below: Lemon balm, tomatoes, bell peppers, spring mix, strawberries, mint, eggplant