If you were to choose a topic for cordial, evidence-based dialogue, it probably would not be religious approaches to family planning. Yet that was on the agenda at the Ouagadougou Partnership (OP) meeting in Conakry, Guinea last week. Some 19 religious actors and leaders were among the 350 participants at the sixth annual meeting of the Partnership. It brings together the governments and civil society representatives of nine francophone West African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Togo) with key donors, USAID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation among them, and various “partners” (mainly nongovernmental organizations and firms). The religious actors are slowly coming to be recognized as important players in this critically important effort to make family planning services available in the region.
Sister Agatha Chikelue exudes both determination and warmth. She’s a force of nature. Quick to smile, she minces no words when it comes to her mission, which turns around women, justice, and peace. She is visiting the United States (from her home in Abuja, Nigeria) wearing the hat of Executive Director of the newly renamed John Cardinal Onaiyekan Peace Foundation. She works closely with the remarkable Cardinal John, who himself is one of the beacons of hope for peace and above all more harmony among Nigeria’s complex and often fractious religious communities.
I am among the countless women moved by the recent news deluge about flagrant predators to resurrect memories, sometimes long buried and sometimes fresh and unvarnished. For me the central question it provokes is how (not whether) we can, collectively, do better to bring about change.
Every year, 30 times now since Pope John Paul II brought religious leaders together in Assisi in 1986, the lay Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio organizes an ambitious meeting that they call a prayer, or a pilgrimage, for peace. The meetings draw a cadre of recognized world religious leaders: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Shinto, Buddhist, and so on. World political leaders also attend. The meetings combine a never-ceasing flow of inspirational and aspirational words, warm and symbolic hugs among different leaders, some intellectual challenges and grist, moving personal witness, countless back channel efforts to address bitter conflicts, and pageantry: there is music and large candelabras that travel from place to place. This is a phenomenal organizational effort by a unique group that is deeply Italian in origin and verve but truly global in its reach and vision. Literally thousands of volunteers care for each invited guest, translate the events into at least six languages, smile when it rains, and facilitate networking by bringing people together.
Many unsung heroes in international organizations contend daily with problems whose global and human impact is all too often distilled into mind-numbing statistics. Dr. Luiz Loures, a Brazilian physician who works in the United Nations AIDS program (UNAIDS), is one of them. His career has focused on the HIV and AIDS pandemic, starting when he practiced medicine in Brazil in the epidemic’s early days, now as a UN civil servant in Geneva. Lessons he draws from his experience are well worth taking to heart.
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” Exemplified in Jesus’ compelling call in the Sermon on the Mount, working for peace is vital to many religious traditions. But what is involved? Who in our complex modern world is a peacemaker?
“Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” James 2:17
“Where is the moral outrage?” A questioner at a recent Washington event demanded some explanation for the seeming indifference in the United States to hunger that affects tens of millions of people in Africa and the Middle East. Is it lack of knowledge? Citizens numbed by an unending deluge of horrifying news? A hardening of spirit accompanying Americans’ turning inwards?
An extraordinarily demanding agenda will face the leaders of the G20, the world’s richest and most powerful nations, when they meet in Hamburg, Germany in early July. The global response to the crisis of forced migration belongs right at the top of their agenda. And the G20 leaders should take some lessons from the example of world religious communities, both in their common concern for refugees and in their practical commitment to action that will move us beyond the current grievously inadequate global response to the crisis.
There’s a palpable sense of urgency as leaders of the world’s largest economies prepare to meet in Hamburg, Germany early next month for the G20.
Mental health is something of a frontier zone in public health in many world regions. I have heard people scoff at Western preoccupations with the topic as a luxury of indulged societies. But mental health is a universal challenge, accounting for an estimated six to seven percent of the global burden of disease. It causes untold suffering, with effects that ricochet across societies. Stigma and discrimination accentuate the problems, arising both from lack of understanding and the grip of ancient beliefs and taboos.