Category Archives: U.S. Culture

The U.S. Ebola Crisis

World Health Organization (W.H.O.) warning of an ebola outbreak. “Do not touch dead animals from the rain forest” the sign advises in Congo where “bush meat” is a major source of protein.

It’s been a miserable week. Monday morning at 6 am it began at the Poor People’s Campaign rally with someone reminding me that the Trump administration would that day confirm the transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In protest of the provocative change in U.S. policy and the conditions of their virtual incarceration in Gaza, over sixty Palestinians were shot and killed and 2700 wounded by Israeli troops on the border. Official U.S. response was to condemn the Palestinian support for Hamas as their true representatives followed by opposition to any U.N. investigation of Palestinian unarmed civilians being shot down by the Israeli Defense Force.

As the week ends, the first death from the ebola virus is confirmed in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo where I lived more than two years and have many friends. Monday a friend had posted on Facebook that in the town of Boyeka where he pastors 14 persons, 11 from the same family, had died from ebola back in January and February. Rev. Prosper Elombe’s reports of the deaths to Congolese government health officials had gone unheeded.
Another friend, Dieudonné Boleko, who works in the Disciples of Christ headquarters in Mbandaka wrote on Facebook of Rev. Elombe’s efforts, “No one paid attention to your cries of distress. Finally (with the deaths in the more populated Bikoro area) the national government has awakened and declared the cause to be an ebola outbreak.” On Monday Boleko commented further, “I remember well your warnings and you should now be considered a hero. It’s a disgrace that the health services of the State did nothing.”

Rev. Elombe outside his Disciples of Christ parish church in Boyeka, Equateur Province, Congo

Alarmed by the disease’s potential to spread in the city of one million people, international health agencies have now sent equipment to protect those treating the ebola victims in Mbandaka’s Equateur Province. The Disciples Church administers 6 hospitals, 9 maternity centers and 42 health clinics in the Province and its first hospital, established in Bolenge over one hundred years ago, is located only fifteen kilometers from Mbandaka. To educate the populace on ebola’s symptoms, precautions they need to take, and to avoid the overwhelming of the health services by those wanting to be tested for the disease, Dieudonné Boleko is coordinating a team to present information at churches, schools and markets in the Mbandaka area.

The week concluded with the news from Texas that 10 more children had been shot and killed – by a classmate this time – and 10 wounded. As I sat down to write this, I was distracted by thoughts of how the epidemic of mass shootings had become our ebola crisis in this country. As I compared the response to the scourges challenging our two countries, there was little doubt that Congo was far ahead in stemming the spread of ebola. In this country, those favoring the absurdly dangerous proliferation of sophisticated weapons have halted any progress on diagnosing the cause of the U.S. epidemic of mass killing. As a result we lag far behind in agreeing on and implementing measures of prevention or cure.

One diagnosis and cure for the illness afflicting the U.S. has been offered through the leadership of Rev. William Barber and others organizing the nationwide Poor People’s Campaign. I celebrate their reminding us all of Martin Luther King’s diagnosis in 1967: “A nation spending more on weaponry and armaments than on services for the poor and disadvantaged is approaching spiritual death” King declared. As for the cure, King called for, and Barber emphasizes today, the need for “a revolution in values” in this country.

Disciples of Christ minister in North Carolina Rev. William Barber co-coordinates the revival of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign in the 50th Anniversary year

A story told of Dorothy Day casts light on a life dedicated to the “revolution” King envisioned. On inquiring where she might be found in the Catholic Worker house in lower Manhattan, a journalist was told she was in the kitchen. As the writer approached the small gray headed woman helping wash oversized pots, Dorothy Day asked if he wanted to speak with her or the shabbily dressed, homeless man next to her. On recalling the story this time I realized it is not about Day’s humility. In the context of mourning and concern for the devaluing of human lives on display in our international interventions and current U.S. domestic policies, Day’s respect and love for the worn down man with her stood out. Her love for all human beings, all children of her Creator, that drove and shaped her whole life shines forth as the cure we all need.

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Respecting the privacy of my Congolese friends, I have changed their names for this blog posting.

Watching Giant from This Side of the Wall

Director George Stevens’ 1956 movie of Giant focuses on racist stereotyping and exploitation of Mexican Americans

GIANT director George Stevens leaves no doubt where his political sympathies lie early on in the film. At the Thanksgiving dinner table at their grandparents’ home in Maryland, the three children under age five are wearing self made feathered head bands and commence bawling inconsolably when they learn the turkey is their beloved friend “Pedro”. The children identify with the Indians at the Thanksgiving meal but the film’s director identifies with the many Mexican workers at their ranch home back in Texas. The brutal living conditions of the Mexican-Americans along with the racist attitudes of the Texas ranchers are depicted glaringly and powerfully in the film. “It (GIANT), more than any other Hollywood film of its time …… directly addresses the great American dilemma, race, and its implications, and not from the familiar racist, white supremacist point of view” according to the IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) biography of Stevens.

While watching the film for the first time this past week, I was stunned by the eerie relevance of the film’s graphic portrayal of the Texas ranchers’ views and behaviors, the grotesque lies and the dehumanization of both the perpetrators of racism and their Mexican-American targets. Throughout our viewing I became convinced that in throwing the covers off this racism and the ensuing conflicts within the life of one ranching dynasty family this film helps explain a lot about Texas politics today. In one example of its contemporary commentary, on her first visit to the workers’ village, the Maryland bred newlywed (Elizabeth Taylor) learns the fevered baby she holds in her arms would not be able to see a doctor. Sixty years after the movie was shot in South Texas, the State has the highest number of medically uninsured people in the U.S.

When the movie was shot in 1955, California was not a lot better than Texas in its treatment of Mexican American laborers and their families. That the State of the world’s movie making capital now can boast of recent progress toward medical care for the poor, protection of the environment, ethnic inclusiveness and welcome of the stranger can be in part attributed to the impact of Hollywood, its films and its fortunes, on the State’s and the Nation’s politics. The movie gives a happy ending to the story of what had been a lock step conservative dynasty’s grip on the future. It’s a thoroughly plausible ending that is yet to be seen reflected in Texas politics.

While verging on melodrama in its treatment of the James Dean character (the icon died before his Best Actor Oscar nomination for the role), GIANT is spot-on with its depiction of some of the characteristics of Mexican-American culture – its piety and close family ties, its love of country and willingness to sacrifice life and limb for it, its warmth and openness to all people, including the racist oppressors. The beauty and simplicity of the villagers’ little church brought tears to my eyes as an image chosen by someone with a deep love and appreciation of the character of its builders.

In summary, GIANT is a movie worthy of Jean Luc Godard’s statement that “cinema is truth shown twenty four times per second” (formerly the number of frames passing across the projector’s lens each second). There are some scenes in the film so true to the movie’s characters and to the life of human beings (the rancher family’s conversation in the hotel suite toward the end is one) we know this is film art that people will grow up with in the future. It’s the kind of movie that makes me, thankful to be retired and have the freedom to discover the courageous work of a great film maker, a true artist, who was devoted to realizing the potential of movies to bring people of all kinds and cultures together. George Stevens, like Charlie Chaplin and a few others, knew movies could play an important role in making this a more loving, peaceful world. This movie made me believe he succeeded.

POST SCRIPT: In the U.S. Army at the end of WW II, George Stevens filmed the Army’s liberation of Dachau and another German concentration camp. The film footage was entered as evidence at the Nuremburg trials of German war criminals and used in de-nazification trainings. Stevens’ bio on the IMDB web site notes that his War experiences “engendered in him the belief that motion pictures had to be socially meaningful to be of value”.

View a four minute sample of Stevens’ film record of the liberation of Dachau here: