August 13, 2011

The Sacred Reservoirs of Community

We live in amazing times.  We have more knowledge now than any time in history.  We have the technology that allows us to carry the collective knowledge of the universe in our cell phones.  We have reached the moon, and Mars and we can do scientific experiments millions of miles away.

We have access to cheaper and more abundant food than any time in history.  And we also have the best medical technology in history.  We can keep a person alive indefinitely in our hospitals staving off death until we are ready to release their soul to the heavens. 

Yes, we have accomplished more than ever in history.  However, we are now dying in greater numbers than any time in history.  The National Cancer Institute tells us that three out of four deaths in our country are due to diet-related disease.  We’re talking about heart attacks, cancers, strokes and diabetes. 

Three out of four deaths.  That is more deaths than all of the American military deaths in history combined.  Every single year.  In fact, just to approach the number of deaths due to diet related disease, you would need to total all of the American military deaths in history and add an additional World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, and thirteen 9-11’s.  Every year.  And all due to the food we eat.  We’re talking about the Standard American Diet full of fried foods, highly processed junk, too much meat, cheese, fat and sugar.   

We have not yet begun to see the urgency of this situation.  When three out of four deaths are due to diet-related disease, the tsunami is not coming.  It has already hit us.    

And this epidemic is not just in the United States.   The World Health Organization states in the 2011 Global Status Report on Noncommunicable Diseases that:

"The epidemic already extends far beyond the current capacity of lower-income countries to cope with it, which is why death and disability are rising disproportionately in these countries.  This state of affairs cannot continue.  There is a pressing need to intervene.  Unless serious action is taken, the burden of NCDs will reach levels that are beyond the capacity of all stakeholders to manage."

Imagine for a minute the Pacific island of Nauru.  Through various circumstances, the entire diet of the people on the island has become processed food.  As a result, 95% of the population is overweight or obese and the average life expectancy is 48 years.

So, where do we turn?  Obesity and diet-related disease is one of the few medical issues that does not need a billion dollars worth of research to find a cure.  We have all the information we need.  What we need is the leadership in communities to create change. 

Now leadership is my specialty.  Some might call me an expert.  And of all my study, I know one thing to be true… leadership is a process of community.  When we look at the teachings and life of Jesus, he told us to heal the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry and he did not walk alone.  When we look at the life of Mahatma Gandhi, he was a brilliant man dedicated to the insistence on truth through nonviolence and Gandhi did not walk alone.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired us march and sit-in and teach-in so that we could come together as a Beloved Community and Dr. King did not march alone. 

In fact, our community is so powerful that without it, leadership is powerless.  Theologian Howard Thurman, the spiritual mentor of Martin Luther King, even goes so far as to suggest that the consummate battle between good and evil is a battle between community and chaos.

Leadership without community is nothing.  Therefore any effort of leadership must be an effort of community.  Martin Luther King worked his whole life to give us the Table of Brotherhood, the top worn smooth by thousands of Americans marching for freedom; the legs cobbled together from broken billy clubs and prison bars that lay in the turbulent wake of their glorious path to justice.  It was a Table forged from love and truth with the intent to give us a platform from which we could tackle the world’s most pressing issues like poverty, human rights, hunger and yes, even obesity and diet-related disease. 

I posit to you today that Dr. King did not give us the Table of Brotherhood in the Promised Land.  No, he did not.  He gave it to us because we can’t get to the Promised Land without it.  He had been to the mountaintop and he saw the dark and desolate valleys of poverty.  He saw the jagged and rocky cliffs of injustice.  He saw the turbulent rivers of cancer and the impassable crossings of heart disease and diabetes.  Martin Luther King knew he would not get there with us.  And through his life’s work, he was not delivering us, he was preparing us.  He was preparing us a like a teacher prepares a student and the test is before us now.  Like any test, we do not have the benefit of our teacher being present.  We must take what we have learned and with our own talent and intellect synthesize it into new forms of truth and justice to pass the test.

Harvard scholar David Putnam, in his book, “Bowling Alone,” discusses the loss of community in America.  His research demonstrates that the most direct correlation with the loss of community is a decline in community health.  Psychologist Abraham Maslow understood this too.

In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the most immediate human need after food, shelter and safety is “Love and Belonging.”  Love and Belonging only come through community.  There is no way around it.  We cannot develop as a person or as a people without first bringing together our Beloved Community. 

So, our collective decline in health is not just about what we eat or whether we exercise, it is about how we interact.  Year after year, we have been pushing our Beloved Community out the back door.  We find creative ways to isolate and insulate ourselves from human interaction.  We get fast food from a drive-thru and then eat alone in our cars next to other people eating alone in their cars. We see every day exactly how many “friends” we have on Facebook and we can hide them if we don’t like them.  We hire people to care for our pets, our lawns, our children when they are young and our parents when they are old.  We have to purchase every service we can because our Beloved Community is gone.  The Table of Brotherhood is sitting empty.  The amazing gift that Dr. King bestowed upon us has been shoved in a corner and covered with a blanket and a flat screen. 

So, it is no surprise that our black brothers and sisters are dying prematurely from strokes and heart attacks at twice the rate of our white brothers and sisters.  It is no surprise that the poorer you are, the sicker you are.  It is no surprise that impoverished countries are predicted to go bankrupt from this issue.  Because where there is no community, there is indifference.  There is apathy.  There is fear and racism and poverty. Without community, we live in a wild west of morality.  Rather than letting love and compassion lead our actions, we let fear spawn re-actions.  We lose our humanity because people just become another set of bits and bytes in the apps on the high resolution screens in our pockets.  We can hide them.  We can shut them off.  We can uninstall their very being. 

Howard Thurman says that “within the walls of separateness, death keeps watch.”

And it is when we lose sight of our humanity that large corporate food businesses creep into our communities where clowns and cartoons sell us food instead of farmers.  Doctors prescribe us a lifetime of pills because they have a three o’clock tee time and it’s faster than talking to us about eating healthy.  Drives thrus become drive-bys.  Schools feed our kids chicken nuggets and French fries and mac and cheese because it is what sells without any regard for the fact that the CDC has predicted that children born after the year 2000 are expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.  This is what happens when the Table of Brotherhood sits empty.

Was it not the teachings of Jesus who told us to heal the sick and feed the hungry?  Are these not the same lessons of Mother Teresa and Dr. Albert Schweitzer?  These acts of compassion are inherent in the context of community.  Leadership is inherent in the context of community.  Truth is inherent in the context of community.  When justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream, it is the holy waters of justice that spring forth from the sacred reservoirs of community. 

Because even if we don’t go to the same church, we go to the same grocery store.  Even if we don’t go to the same family reunion, we go to the same family restaurant.  And God does not distinguish between a Hindu heart attack and a Christian heart attack.  God does not distinguish between a Catholic stroke and a Lutheran stroke.  God does not allow us the luxury to be agnostic about diabetes.

So, I have a question for you today.  Gandhi, Jesus and King were not afraid to die for their causes.  They were filled with love and lived it every breathing minute they had on this earth until they gave the ultimate sacrifice for us all.  But when we are surrounded by death, my question to you today is not, are you afraid to die?  My question is, are you afraid to live?  Are you afraid to live out your calling to community?  Or will you merely endure the suffering and wait until it is all over? 

Martin Luther King said we cannot wait.  He spoke of the fierce urgency of now and when three out of four deaths in our country are diet-related, we cannot wait.  We cannot be afraid.  We cannot afford to be cautious.  Our destinies are interwoven in the fabric of human existence and for the inherent dignity and worth of all people, we must act now before that fabric is torn apart. 

So what does that look like?  How do we move forward?  It begins with bringing communities together around shared values.  It begins with standing firm in the belief that the values of my community do not come from a Valu-Menu.  We’ve got to reassemble our Beloved Community person-by-person, family-by-family and congregation-by-congregation.  We’ve got to start drawing the dots and then connecting them.  That’s what Leadership for a Healthier World will do and I want you to be a part of that.

We train people in transformational leadership.  We show them how leadership works and how they can create positive change in their community.  We then empower them to come up with a health-improvement project to assist their community. 

And this is not “pat yourself on the back” leadership.  This is not “add a new line to your resume” leadership or leadership for people who have been called leaders or voted as leaders or written up in the paper as leaders.  This is leadership for everyone because everyone can lead.  Remember that leadership is a process of community and you have a critical role to play in that future.  Author Peter Block, writing about community, says that, “the future appears as we gather.”  If we don’t gather, the future does not appear.  The stakes are too great now.  Too many lives have been lost.  Too many people are sick to waste our time in training for back-patting, self-efficacy.  Change is the goal.  Creating the Beloved Community is the goal.

Each project launched will be “of the community, by the community and for the community.”  I don’t tell anybody what to do.  In your community, you are the expert.  It is your knowledge, it is your wisdom that holds the key to the right answers.  You don’t need a degree in public health.  You don’t need a degree at all.  Just a willingness to learn because it is far easier to learn to cook kale than it is to cure cancer.  We help support your efforts.  We provide education and resources.  You provide the solutions.  We’ve got to lift each other up because if I can help me, I can help you and together, we can help others. 

Heal the sick.  It’s that simple.  It’s time to recognize what those dusty science journals tell us that heart disease, diabetes, strokes and cancer are not genetic.  You don’t get them because it runs in your family.  The research tells us that while genetics play a small part, like loading a gun, it is diet and lifestyle that pull the trigger. 

We can no longer face the probability of our own mortality while the possibility of healing stands before us waiting for engagement. Mother Teresa, Dr. Schweitzer and Dr. King all won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work.  But let’s be clear.  A Nobel Peace Prize is not a prerequisite for compassion.  It is not a prerequisite for leadership.  It is a postscript to a dedicated life of service.  The soaring legacies of Mother Teresa, Dr. Schweitzer, Gandhi and King are not meant to be buried in the pages of history.  They are meant to be a beacon guiding our path to the future. 

Dr. King told us, “The ultimate measure of man is not where he stands in moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge, moments of great crisis and controversy.  And this is where I choose to cast my lot today.”

So let us be courageous in our actions.  Let us be bold in our service to each other.  Let us believe in the possibilities of community rather than the probabilities of mortality because the test is before us, the Beloved Community is within our grasp and the Promised Land is awaiting our arrival.

1 comment:

  1. I call it networking you call it community. I think we are both talking about the same thing. People helping people. There is no way to exist alone unimpacted by the all the information coming at us each day. Finding, or creating a communitiy is a good way to start.

    David, thanks for your good ideas.