My New Hero

We need more people like Greg Smith in the corporate world. He resigned from Goldman Sachs and unveiled a culture that has lost it’s way in the process.

From the NY Times:

For more than a decade I recruited and mentored candidates through our grueling interview process. I was selected as one of 10 people (out of a firm of more than 30,000) to appear on our recruiting video, which is played on every college campus we visit around the world. In 2006 I managed the summer intern program in sales and trading in New York for the 80 college students who made the cut, out of the thousands who applied.

I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.

When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.

Over the course of my career I have had the privilege of advising two of the largest hedge funds on the planet, five of the largest asset managers in the United States, and three of the most prominent sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East and Asia. My clients have a total asset base of more than a trillion dollars. I have always taken a lot of pride in advising my clients to do what I believe is right for them, even if it means less money for the firm. This view is becoming increasingly unpopular at Goldman Sachs. Another sign that it was time to leave.

Read the rest…it should be required reading for business students.

Sometimes it’s best to just walk away. I wonder if burning this bridge will hurt him in the long run but I also hope someone sees this and realizes that we need people with his kind of integrity.

End the R-Word

L’Arche USA and special olympics and a host of other organizations have taken time out today to remind all of that that using the word “retarded” has never been an appropriate synonym for “stupid.”. In my family this is nothing new and we’ve never used it in this manner and if we thought about doing that you’d encounter the wrath of my sister, a longtime worker in special education.

“Don’t you realize that hurts people’s feelings? It hurts Barbara.”

Barbara was a young child who my sister cared for at Richmond Children Center then in Yonkers–one of her first jobs out of school. She became quite attached to her and valued each day spent with this child with Down’s. All Barbara ever wanted was to be loved and to love those near her. For anyone who has spent time around these “special people” knows what a responsibility it is to care for them but more importantly, they know that they gain more than they give. It is a love that is much like God’s…unconditional and unrestricted. They remind us that the present moment is all we have and they live each moment with great joy.

We have a group here in Buffalo that comes from a group home that plays the handbells and they’re awesome. They bring a smile to everyone’s face.

Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer, lived for years in a L’Arche community and he often said that it made him a holier person and closer to God and even helped him avoid the near occasion of sin. He reported once that he was staying in a hotel room at a conference, I believe, with one of his special friends from L’Arche. He stated that while in the hotel room, he was tempted to watch a pornographic movie but he wouldn’t because of what that would do to his friend. He wasn’t overly concerned about the state of his own soul but was very concerned about what would happen to his friend. So he avoided that sin and his friend became his great protector from sin.

Stupidity often results from a lack of love or an adherence to fear over acceptance. That seems to me far from what those with mental retardation, Down’s or other ailments profess with their lives.

So today let’s pray that we perhaps can become a bit more open to those who need a little more help in their lives because of who they are. God still values us by giving them to us to care for and showing us their worth to us with their love. They are great gifts to the world and we must never treat them as disposable.

And for us, who are often insensitive to those who are different or need more help or who even make us uncomfortable, may we strike the r-word from our vocabulary and may we be called to serve the vulnerable and to respect life at all stages. Amen.

Day 10: 50 Day Giveaway: Justice

Evelyn Brady is the head of our parish’s human trafficking committee. She also confuses my name all the time and I poke fun at that. I’m really not offended, no really I’m not. She’s one of the sweetest people I’ve met at St Joe’s and boy, does she have a heart for justice. Tonight we had a walking prayer for human trafficking victims much like the stations of the cross–and Evelyn was at the heart of leading the evening. It was quite moving to see pictures of little children being asked if having intercourse or oral sex with an adult was ok and them readily agreeing. Shameful. But Evelyn is working for positive change and so…she gets a book on justice.

The organization Invisible Children will be at St Joe’s on Sunday night and they are leaders in the area of anti-human trafficking–or as I call it, slavery. Stop on by and watch a short film on trafficking in Uganda and learn what you can do about it.

Here’s a preview:

And if you don’t think you’re part of the problem—check out this little site that tells you how many slaves work for YOU. I have 34 shamefully.

Gibson: Can Any of Us Avoid Cooperating with Evil?

David Gibson has an interesting take on the HHS debate which is tough to argue with. It’s similar to what I’ve been struggling with when I’ve said things like “Aren’t we already cooperating with evil just by dealing with the healthcare companies in general?”

It seems, in general, it would be hard not to.

A snip from Gibson’s article:

Some critics of the administration’s “accommodation” for faith-based employers argue that the distance between a Catholic (or other religious) employer is deceptive on two counts.

One, they say that the organization’s health insurance company will simply pass on the cost of the contraceptive coverage to the religious institution in the form of higher premiums, so the institution will in effect be paying for contraceptive coverage. But studies show that providing coverage for birth control actually saves insurers money (pregnancies and abortions cost more than contraceptives) and it is at least revenue neutral. So there are no costs to pass on.

The second objection is that the faith-based institution will be sending its money to an insurance company that provides objectionable coverage, and so the religious group’s dollars will still be subsidizing a sinful practice.

One response is that health care premiums do not “belong” to the institution but are actually part of an employee’s compensation, like their paycheck. Just as an employer deducts withholding for taxes, it is sending the employee’s money to a health insurance company for coverage. An employer has no control or culpability if an employee buys condoms with either her paycheck or her insurance plan.

In addition, insurance works by pooling risk and premium dollars, and anyone who buys a policy from an insurance company is indirectly paying for the birth control — or chemotherapy or Viagra or heart bypass surgery — of other clients of that company, just as those clients indirectly pay for treatments you will need.

As Boudway put it: “It is very difficult, not to say impossible, to avoid remote material cooperation with evil in a complex modern economy.

So in essence, we’re screwed any way you look at it.

A second point, different from Gibson’s brought up by my friend Alex in conversation recently:

Should there be a new standard that you dont have to put your tax dollars into government spending that doesnt fit your belief system? (For example, the Iraq War) Should Quakers have to pay for military expenditures?

I’d go a step further. Should Catholics in states that have the death penalty be able to remove themselves from paying taxes? States that have poor environmental practices–do they deserve my tax money?

Once we have universal health care does the same principle apply?

The larger question here, of course, is a federal vs a state issue. Does the Federal Government have the right to tell us what we have to buy? We know that the state government has the right to tell you that you must buy car insurance for instance (or of course, face the consequence when you get in a three car pile up). The question now, which will go to the Supreme Court eventually is does the federal government have the same right. I believe their answer will be to say no.

Regardless, is this what the Bishops and the church at large is also concerned with? That’s doubtful. They more don’t want their employees to have to purchase something that goes against their moral principles.

But leads to bigger questions. Should I have to pay for war, the death penalty, policies that we know keep people in poverty? The list could be endless. What about companies that make it difficult for us to buy their products because of their practices (Now even, girl scout cookies are bad to buy because they endanger gorillas!).

Just as we have socially aware investing, we may have to go down the road of socially aware health care or moreover, socially aware politics. I’ve tried to do this at the supermarket, buy local, avoid some of the morally questionable food companies, buy organic, etc. It’s difficult and I don’t always succeed in avoiding cooperating with evil but I at best have minimized it to some point.

The question here is how do we best minimize our cooperation in this area?

Perhaps it’s time for a health care company to get some phone calls and see if someone somewhere wants all the business that Catholic entities want to offer them? Then it will be up to them to lobby the administration to let them do exactly that instead of them being forced to offer health care that includes contraception, etc.

This is not going to end well for anyone I fear and frankly, I’m tired of hearing and talking about it.

Video: Hearts Broken in Vanceburg

Here’s our video from our alternative break at Glenmary in Vanceburg, KY. I thought it would be appropriate since it talks of broken hearts—in a good way.

The trip renewed my energy for ministry (many of my colleagues can’t understand how I wasn’t exhausted by week’s end). And I now have a special bond with those who shared the experience.

Throughout the week our students have crosses that we ask them to wear, but more importantly, we ask them to give away those crosses to “someone that they see Jesus in.” Sometimes that’s a client at one of the places we serve. Sometimes it’s a random stranger or a service worker at a food bank (who received mine last year).

I love the part of the video at the end where our student leader, Megan, gives her cross to Abby, one of the farm managers who really ran the show for us throughout the week. Their embrace was one of the many images of the trip that I really was able to sit and reflect about and which has brought me much peace.

I didn’t get a cross to give away on this trip. Truth be told, we forgot to order a few extra for the leaders. However, Vineet, who has been one of the students who has been active at St. Joe’s this semester stopped me after prayer one night and gave me his cross. I never imagined that this would happen and was incredibly touched by it. I haven’t taken it off. I might even call my lawyer and tell him that in case of an accident I should be buried with it.

Experiences like this mean much to me as a minister. It gives me an opportunity to introduce people to prayer and reflection in a new context–one that they’re a bit more open to and that they engage with. It’s a short term commitment with hopefully long-term implications.

The experience of praying with other Christians also meant much to me this time. And I’m hoping to continue that this semester and take students to visit other churches and learn how much there is that unites us.

A big thanks to Walter Plummer and Abby Carty of Glenmary Farm for taking such good care of us throughout the week.

A Slave Writes His Former Owner

A letter from a former slave to his former slaveowner in Tennessee is causing quite a stir.

It’s an amazing story and it comes to us from the blog Letters of Note. The owner, Colonel P.H. Anderson, of Big Spring, Tennessee, actually had the audacity to write requesting that he return to his farm after he had been freed. Jourdon Anderson, the former slave, now freed wrote one of the most eloquent letters I have ever read, highlights include much that we can learn from.

For instance: Forgiveness–or at least not letting hatred get in the way.

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living.

Justice: The slave realizes his worth as more than chattel. He never intends to go back.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

Love it! I’m sure the Col. was appalled at even his suggestion of reparations.

And gratitude: Amazingly, Col. Anderson had tried to shoot him in the past–however, there were some good people in the world.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

One further note, Jourdon still uses his slave surname, Anderson, the name of his former owner. Even not having a name of his own would not rob this man of his human dignity.

May we pray today that nobody is ever robbed of it again. Let us pray for those who are still enslaved–those who are trafficked to work in the farms and the sex trade. We pray for those enslaved by addictions and used by drug dealers for their benefit as they keep addiction alive. And we pray for an end to the hatred of racism—where one day we can all be judged by the content of our character, but not the color of our skin.

May that joyful day of God’s kingdom come to earth soon. Amen.

To read the whole letter–click here

Day 2: More from Glenmary Farms

Megan Blackmer, or Meggie as I call her (she calls me Mikey and is one of the few people I ever let call me that), reflects on her time serving the needs of adults with mild to moderate psychological disorders at Comprehend, a hang out spot for people with those needs in Vanceberg, KY. She also muses on our experience of ecumenism as we went to a worship service at a Pentecostal church with our farm managers Walter and Abby.

My colleague Ed Koch (pronounced KO) had served at Glenmary as a farm manager for short time and was known to the Mosby Pentecostal Community. He was hoping that they’d sing his favorite song that he remembered from his time here. He even got up to sing along.

Some takeaways for me: I was quite impressed with our new friends at the Pentecostal church. Pastor Rick came to each person before the service and greeted them and each person in the congregation did the same for the most part. As we left, every single person came over and gave all of the students and Ed and I a hug good bye. They warmly invited us back and we extended the invitation to them as well to come visit us if they are ever in Buffalo. Do we ever give our own visitors and even our regular parishioners that kind of welcome? How do we treat other Christians? Have we gone to see how they worship? Invited them to share an experience with us? I found their personal prayers to be very sincere, giving God their struggles and concerns–many of which were quite serious.

The following day, Pastor Rick joined some of our group at the construction site, working alongside our number. One student, Vineet, was quite touched by the experience of seeing him working with the guys. “He was working harder than everyone else and he made everyone feel valued and welcomed.” His hospitality really moved us and we all felt so comfortable with him and his church.

While one group was at construction, another was at Licking Valley Senior Center where we bagged groceries for pick up and distributed them the following day. Here’s some of us in action:

And then at the end of the day Maggie, a UB first year undergrad, offered her reflection on the day:

A bunch more to go. A great reflective week. For me personally, I really enjoyed working bagging groceries. It’s kind of mindless work, but at the same time it was very satisfying. I made friends with a client who came over to make small talk. He talked of fishing and the weather and began to help us load groceries into bags and move them into the next room. It was a source of pride for him to help when he was also receiving so much from the center. He was graceful in his humble way and made us all put a human face on the experience. Today I offer some prayers for him and his family that there are better times ahead in 2012.

An Old Man’s Advent Dream

Deacon Bill Ditewig, one of my heroes, wrote possibly the most beautiful advent reflection I’ve read to date.

Here’s a snip:

Right now we have many Catholics who don’t even like to reach out and take someone else’s hand at the greeting of peace before communion. Those folks are really not going to like my dream, since not only do I hope that they will shake someone else’s hand, but actually, beginning at Midnight Mass this Christmas, I’m hoping that they will open their arms and embrace tightly that dirty, smelly homeless man who’s been living in a cardboard box down the street from the church. In fact, it is precisely to those who have been excluded by everyone else that Christ is coming into the world.

My dream is really quite simple. Christ willingly emptied himself completely into human nature. We either believe that or we don’t. Human nature is the common denominator here. If Christ is to be found there, then we are to be found there. The “Church” isn’t a place for those who have successfully navigated life. It’s a haven for all those who admit their sinfulness, their brokenness, their need for others and for God.

Amen, brother. What can we all do to make this dream a reality this Christmas?

Kim Jong Il Dead: What’s Next for North Korea?

It’s a dangerous time for North Korea (and the world) now that Kim Jong Il is dead. Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times shared this snip on Facebook moments ago.

North Korea is by far the most repressive and totalitarian country I’ve ever visited; it makes Syria or Burma seem like democracies. In North Korea, homes have a speaker on the wall to wake people up with propaganda in the morning and put them to sleep with it at night. The handicapped are sometimes moved out of the capital so they won’t give a bad impression to foreigners. And triplets, considered auspicious, are turned over to the state to raise. And now this nuclear armed country is being handed over to a new leader, presumably Kim Jong-un, still in his 20’s. The last transition was a dangerous time, as Kim Jong Il tried to prove his mettle by challenging the world, and this one mayl be as well. Look out.

As always, we pray for the soul or Kim Jong-Il. May he find the peace that he couldn’t find here and let us all pray for peace in the world, especially in North Korea. May the new leadership find more peaceful ways to lead their country and promote freedom over the oppressive ways of the past.

May we all find peace in this season that preaches the same.