Archive for April, 2008

Ten and Some Change

Here’s the deal: Sister Erika Haub over at The Margins tagged me the other day. It’s an honor to be included on her list of “excellent or subversive” blogs—though I’m not sure which category I fall under. I usually run the other way on stuff like this, but I decided this could be an excuse to give a shout-out to some of the truly excellent/subversive blogs out there. So below is my list of ten, in no particular order. (Disclaimer: I could’ve listed a lot more than ten, but I’m trying to stick to the rules; check my list of “Friends & Links” on the right for a more comprehensive blog roll.)

Okay, I realize my math is funny. I won’t say anything if you won’t.

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Okay, just for the record, I have a problem with the glee Jeremiah Wright seems to be taking in responding to his critics during his current comeback tour. While entertaining and full of truthful nuggets, the reckless and arrogant tone of Wright’s recent speeches (particularly his appearance at the National Press Club yesterday) only serve to widen a racial divide that has already been shown to be a lot wider than many folks thought. After an insightful and revealing interview with Bill Moyers on Friday night, Wright now seems hellbent on wiping the floor with the media and the political hit men who unfairly used snippets of his old sermons against him—and he doesn’t seem to have any qualms about taking Barack Obama’s presidential hopes down as collateral damage.

While I understand his righteous indignation, the Reverend needs to consider adopting a posture of humility and forgiveness that befits his holy calling. After all (as he’s remarked), he’s a pastor, not a politician. At his current pace, he doesn’t seem too interested in fostering the kind of reconciliation he so eloquently spoke about yesterday.  

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Watching Bill Moyers’s interview with Jeremiah Wright last night on PBS, I wondered if the media would latch on to sound bites from this broadcast the way they did the snippets from those now-infamous sermons that established Wright as an anti-American nut job. Of course, without Wright we wouldn’t have gotten Barack Obama’s brilliant Philadelphia speech on race in America. Nor would we have received one more opportunity to cut through the crap and deal honestly with our nation’s deep racial divisions.

Still, I’m sure Obama would’ve preferred that we address these issues after—and not during—his historic run for president. And I’m sure Wright would’ve preferred that his words not be twisted out of context and used as a political weapon against his former parishioner.

So Wright sat down with Moyers to set the record straight. But will anyone notice? There were many moments from the interview that could go far in providing helpful insight into the man, like this one about an experience Wright had while working as a hospital technician who was on the medical crew that attended to President Lyndon Johnson after a major surgery in 1965:

BILL MOYERS: He served six years in the military: two as a marine, and four in the Navy as a cardiopulmonary technician. That’s where our paths crossed for the only time.

That’s Jeremiah Wright, behind the I.V. pole, monitoring President Lyndon Johnson’s heart as he was recovering from gall bladder surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital. And right behind him is a very young me. I was the President’s Press Secretary.

REVEREND WRIGHT: As you know, the President had to be operated on and out of surgery by 9:00 when the stock market opened. And talking and wide awake. So, we scrubbed in, like, 3:00 in the morning.

When he awakened, unlike other patients, you did not move him to recovery. You didn’t move him to ICU. They kept him right there for security reasons. Secret Service all around, there was secret service in the whole operating suite and nobody else allowed in the operating suite except Secret Service.

So, after about an hour and a half, I went to get some coffee. And as I was coming back from the lounge where the coffee was, going back to monitor, I saw the guys talkin’ into their wristwatches and I was nodding, speaking to them. So, I turn to go into the room to check the pace. And secret service guys standing there grabbed me, knocked the coffee outta my hand, burned me with the hot coffee, twisted my arm up behind my neck and screams into his phone, “I got him.” And I was, “Got him?” And I’m screamin’ in pain. And my assistant comes running out of the booth. He sees me jacked up and he starts laughing. I said, “Joe, don’t laugh. Tell him who I am.” And he said, “He’s been here all morning.”

BILL MOYERS: Standing above the President.

REVEREND WRIGHT: Guy looked at me, pulled my mask up over face, “Oh, yeah.” And that was it.

Will the news media give nonstop airplay to Wright’s statements regarding the infamous “God—- America” snippet?

BILL MOYERS: One of the most controversial sermons that you preach is the sermon you preach that ended up being that sound bite about Goddamn America.

REVEREND JEREMIAH WRIGHT: [Video clip] Where governments lie, God does not lie. Where governments change, God does not change. And I’m through now. But let me leave you with one more thing. Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontius Pilate – the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from East to West. The British government had a Union Jack. She colonized Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Hong Kong. Her navies ruled the seven seas all the way down to the tip of Argentina in the Falklands, but the British government failed. The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing God bless America? No, no, no. Not God bless America; God damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizen as less than human. God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme! [end clip]

BILL MOYERS: What did you mean when you said that?

REVEREND WRIGHT: When you start confusing God and government, your allegiances to government –a particular government and not to God, that you’re in serious trouble because governments fail people. And governments change. And governments lie. And those three points of the sermon. And that is the context in which I was illustrating how the governments biblically and the governments since biblical times, up to our time, changed, how they failed, and how they lie. And when we start talking about my government right or wrong, I don’t think that goes. That is consistent with what the will of God says or the word of God says that governments don’t say right or wrong. That governments that wanna kill innocents are not consistent with the will of God. And that you are made in the image of God, you’re not made in the image of any particular government. We have the freedom here in this country to talk about that publicly, whereas some other places, you’re dead if say the wrong thing about your government.

Wright’s reflections on black liberation theology and his church’s emphasis on being “unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian” were also helpful in bringing more clarity and context to the controversy:

REVEREND WRIGHT: What Carter G. Woodson calls the miseducation of the Negro. That Africa is ignorant, Africans are ignorant; there is no African history, there is no African music, there is no African culture, anything related to Africa is negative, therefore you are not African. Chinese come to the country, they’re still Chinese-American. We have Chinatown. Koreans come, they’re still Korean. They have Koreatown. Africans come, they’re colored. They’re Negro. They’re anything but Africa. In fact, we don’t even call them Ebbu, Ebibu, Fulani, Fanti, Ga, no, no, no — they’re all “Negro.” Portuguese, “Negro” Spanish. They’re all gettin’ lumped into black, but we’re not black, we are Negro with a capital N.

The shame of being a descendant of Africa, was a shame that had been pumped into the minds and hearts of Africans from the 1600s on, even aided and abetted by the benefit of those schools started by the missionaries, who simply carried their culture with them into the South and taught their cultures being synonymous with Christianity. So that to become a Christian, you had to let go of all vestiges of Africa and become European, become New Englanders and worship like New England, worship God properly and right. Well, that shame was a part of the shame that many Africans in the ’60s and the ’70s were feeling.

Dr Reuben Sheares is my predecessor — he was the interim pastor at Trinity — coined the phrase “unashamedly black,” where blacks coming outta the ’60s were no longer ashamed of being black people, nor did they have to apologize for being Christians. Because many persons in the African-American community were teasing us, Christians, of being a white man’s religion. And no, we’re not ashamed of Christianity. And we don’t have to apologize for who we are as African-Americans. So that, I think, is what [Martin] Marty was talking about.

BILL MOYERS: So, when Trinity Church says it is unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian, is it embracing a race-based theology?

REVEREND WRIGHT: No, it is not. It is embracing Christianity without giving up Africanity. A lotta the missionaries were going to other countries assuming that our culture is superior, that you have no culture. And to be a Christian, you must be like us. Right now, you can go to Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and see Christians in 140-degree weather. They have to have on a tie. Because that’s what it means to be a Christian. Well, it’s that kind of assuming that our culture, “We have the only sacred music. You must sing our music. You must use a pipe organ. You cannot use your instrument.” It’s that kind of assumption that in the field of missions, people say, “You know what? We’re doing this wrong. We need to take Christ and leave culture at home. We need to learn the culture of people into which we’re moving, and preach the methods of Jesus Christ using the culture that we are a part of.” Well, the same thing happened with Christians in this country when they said, “You know what? Because those same missionaries who went south, they didn’t let us sing gospel music.” That was not sacred–

BILL MOYERS: They were singin’ the great Anglican hymns.

REVEREND WRIGHT: Correct, correct. And make sure you use correct diction. Well, the– Africans in the late– African-Americans in the late ’60s started saying, “You know, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

… God has diverse culture, God has -and we’re proud of who we are because that’s the statement the congregation was making, not a race-based theology.

BILL MOYERS: So, God is not, contrary to some of the rumors that have been circulated about Trinity, God is not exclusively or totally identified with just the black community?

REVEREND WRIGHT: Of course not. God– I think Jesus said to Nicodemus, “God should love the world,” not just the black community– that we have our church is what some would call multicultural. We not only have Hispanic members, we not only have members… We have members from Cuba. We have members from Puerto Rico. We have members from Belize. We have members from all of the Caribbean islands. We have members from South Africa, from West Africa, and we have white members.

The Wright of this interview is nothing like the one-dimensional caricature cooked up by the relentless airing of those raging snippets. Here, he’s a real human being. I don’t expect those who gleefully castigated Wright—and Obama—last month to have their minds changed much by this interview. But it’s hard to believe that anyone who comes to it honestly, with an open mind, can walk away still convinced that Wright is an evil, unpatriotic monster. What’s more, I sort of like the idea that the man who could be our next president sharpened his intellectual senses by listening to, debating with, and being stretched by a preacher and thinker like Jeremiah Wright. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything he’s said, but his perspective is needed if we’re ever going to get to the root  of a lot of what ails America and its churches.

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Last week, Charisma published a provocative online commentary by editor Lee Grady. Lee is a bold analyzer of Christian culture and one of my former racquetball partners back when I lived in Florida in the late ’90s. In his April 16 column, “Tired Labels and Worn-out Wineskins,” Lee urges Christian leaders to reconsider the bewildering messages being sent by the names of some of our churches:

Would you visit a church called The Holy Assembly of the Fire-Baptized Brethren? Probably not, because it sounds elitist, self-righteous and really old-fashioned. Your unchurched neighbors would most likely drive a few extra miles to avoid passing the place.

Yet many church names today sound almost as strange and unwelcoming. We insist on using religious vocabulary from previous centuries to define ourselves, and then we wonder why people consider us out of touch. 

I realize I am grazing into sacred cow pasture when I suggest that we reevaluate the terms we love. We like our labels because we are fond of our history. But if we want to reach our culture for Christ, we had better become willing to let go of the past.

Have you ever asked a non-Christian how he reacts to words such as Pentecostal, charismatic, Southern Baptist, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Mennonite or Foursquare? Do Methodists use methods? Do you have to be Anglo to be an Anglican? Why do some churches include “First” or “Greater” in their names? Greater than what?

I am not trying to devalue what God did when the Holy Spirit birthed these movements. But all labels have a shelf life. My hunch is that many names we use today carry expiration dates that have passed.

I think Lee raises good questions. Are some potential church visitors scared off by the archaic, religious-sounding titles they see on our church signs? When it comes to presenting a clear, inviting image to the world, should some of our church names be fair game for revision?

Lee goes on to suggest that some of the friendlier, nondenominational-sounding names that we find on a growing number of contemporary churches are a good thing. Though they often sound like streets in suburban subdivisions, names like Saddleback, Willow Creek, and Harbor Light are warmer and unencumbered by loaded religious jargon.

I get Lee’s point, and I’ve seen some polysyllabic church names that border on the absurd. However, is it always wrong to include key signifiers such as “Wesleyan” or “Apostolic” or “Reformed” in our church names? Aren’t these helpful codes for Christians moving into a new community who are in search of a familiar faith tradition? Or do we need to ditch the tradition for the sake of reaching more souls?

I wonder if we sometimes underestimate the power of sacred language. Many non-churchgoers may not understand the meaning of New Holiness Missionary Baptist or Incarnate Word Lutheran or Bethel African Methodist Episcopal, but they have a sense that it stands for something lasting; they know that God must be present there because that was the kind of church that Grandma Laura or their old neighbor Mr. Henderson faithfully attended. And that may one day be the reason they darken that church’s door.

Still, Lee’s challenge is worth pondering. Sometimes our churches and Christian institutions may be due a name change. But when and why? What do you think?   

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On Sunday I returned from the Calvin College Festival of Faith & Writing. What a great event! If you love books, writing, poetry, theology, the arts, intellectual engagement, etc., you’ll dig this biennial conference. I had the privilege of doing one solo presentation about my book, and I took part in two panel discussions–“Writing Toward Social Justice,” with Charles Marsh and Helena Maria Viramontes, and “To Tell the Truth,” with Cathleen Falsani, Dorina Lazo Gilmore, and Bruce Umpstead. I felt out of my league at moments, but God gave me sufficient grace to speak (or at least enough to not look like a Book TV wannabe).

I’m thankful for the gracious response of the folks who came to my sessions. Someone sent me this humbling review (though it sort of scares me now to realize that folks actually write reviews of conference sessions 🙂 ). Plus, I had the opportunity to meet or reconnect with several friends—L. L. Barkat, Llama Momma, Ragamuffin Diva, Dr. Joseph Daniels, Nikki Grimes, Hugh Cook, Victoria Johnson, Richard Kauffman.

I also enjoyed sessions and talks featuring authors like Rob Bell, Krista Tippett, Edward P. Jones, Haven Kimmel, Carole Weatherford, Carlos Eire, and many others. Too many to mention, really. This festival is like an overdose of inspiration for word addicts.

I returned home with a renewed appreciation for the artistic endeavor—and a desperate need to finish a big project that will soon be due. Which means I probably shouldn’t be blogging right now. In fact, noting that I’ve been blogging more often than usual lately, Llama Momma wondered whether I was avoiding finishing that “big project.” Busted! (If you read Llama Momma’s blog, it’s no surprise to you that she’s so keenly perceptive.)

Anyway, here’s something else I discovered while at the Calvin Festival. During a trip to a nearby Barnes and Noble, an enchanting combination of violin and voice wafted from the store speakers. The sound led me to the music section. “Are you wondering who that artist is?” the young woman behind the service desk asked; I suppose I wear my curiosity rather prominently. “Yeah, who is that?” I said. Turns out it’s an artist named Lili Haydn, a singer/songwriter whom P-Funk maestro George Clinton once called “the Jimi Hendrix of the violin.” I picked up a copy of her new CD, Place Between Places, and resisted my usual practice of never buying new music until I’ve thoroughly researched the artist. Every now and then, however, I’ll take a risk and try a new CD on a whim. It paid off with Norah Jones, whose first album I picked up and purchased months before she became a sudden superstar. I also got into Amy Winehouse before I knew how terribly lost she is (ah, but she’s enormously talented when sober). I don’t think Lili Haydn will rocket to fame like Jones or Winehouse; her music is a bit too eccentric and hard to categorize—it’s classical, pop, jazz, funk, with dashes of folk. Still, I’m drawn to the uniqueness of her sound and her diversity of influences.

So that’s what I discovered at Calvin: God’s sufficiency, warm fellowship, creative inspiration, and Lili Haydn.

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The Root just posted a thoughtful piece on the diminished relevance of Jesse Jackson. The writer, Marjorie Valbrun, ponders the fact that, though Jackson was present on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel during Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, he was strangely absent from the media’s recent commemoration of the 40th anniversary of King’s death. “Perhaps it was a coincidence, but I doubt it,” she writes. “Jackson has lost so much credibility over the years and has been so overexposed, that it would not surprise me if members of the news media had consciously avoided him.”

For those of us who grew up hearing “I Am Somebody,” it’s hard to dismiss the significance of Jesse Jackson, even though many in the media and society have grown weary of him today. In some ways, this Root essay reminds me of the 2002 CT article I wrote on Rev. Jackson, as well as my chapter on Jackson in Reconciliation Blues; it’s a sympathetic yet clear-headed assessment of the man’s legacy.

Valbrun, whose immigrant family arrived in the U.S. from Haiti in 1969, affectionately recalls Jackson’s appearance on Sesame Street as a milestone moment in her understanding of what it meant to be an American and a human being. She reflects on how her father, who had endured political oppression in his native country, had come to the U.S. with hopes of finding freedom, and how he had always impressed upon his children a message akin to Jackson’s:


For my father, who never voted in Haiti, “being somebody” meant living without the yoke of political oppression. It meant raising us in a place where we could freely express a political opinion and where the possibility existed that we could grow up to be anything we wanted to be. These were noble and ambitious notions that my six year-old mind could not yet grasp.

But two years later, Jesse Jackson appeared on Sesame Street and, along with a collection of multi-hued children, recited his now well-known poem I Am – Somebody. It was a sweet television moment that embodied the hope for racial harmony for a new generation of young Americans – for my generation.

Though I was too young to fully appreciate the poem’s larger universal message, I was not too young to see the parallels between my father’s mantra and that of the famous black activist. I got the part about being “somebody.” I understood it mattered.

As I watched the YouTube clip of that Jackson appearance, I vaguely remembered seeing it back in the day. Back then, shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company, and TV personalities like Bill Cosby and Jesse Jackson, made me feel like anything was possible–I could be anything I wanted to be. I also grew up thinking that the multicultural community portrayed on Sesame Street was the natural order of things. It wasn’t until years later that I realized, in most of America a multi-hued Sesame Street world is still a distant dream. Nevertheless, leaders like MLK and Jesse Jackson helped me believe it was possible. I still believe.  


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Please Keep Praying

Our Family A couple months back, I requested prayer for my friends Leslie and Tyson Aschliman. Leslie had been recovering well from her latest surgery, but now there’s another twist of uncertainty. Please visit the Aschlimans’ blog, Leslie’s Journey, for the latest information. Just want to ask you, again, to remember this family in prayer. Thank you.

UPDATE: Thanks for praying, everyone. It looks like everything is okay. Now, let’s pray that Leslie’s cough will clear up soon.

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Last week I was intrigued by the case of Lenore Skenazy. Skenazy equipped her 9-year-old son with a map, a subway card, and 20 bucks, then dropped him off at a New York department store to find his way home by himself. Skenazy wrote about this in The New York Sun and promptly heard it from outraged folks accusing her of endangering her son. There was some supportive feedback as well. Check out the article and a Today show segment about the episode. Skenazy, who believes today’s parents have allowed the culture to make them more paranoid than in earlier eras, has launched a website called Free Range Kids, where she calls parents to stop being so overprotective of their children. Here’s how she describes it on the site:

Do you ever let your kid ride a bike to the library? Walk alone to school? Take a bus, solo? Or are you thinking about it? If so, you are raising a Free Range Kid! At Free Range, we believe in safe kids. We believe in helmets, car seats and safety belts. We do NOT believe that every time school age children go outside, they need a security detail. Most of us grew up Free Range and lived to tell the tale. Our kids deserve no less. This site is dedicated to sane parenting.

This story caught my attention because I sometimes wonder whether I’m being overly protective of my kids. I grew up in the ‘hood of Rockford, Illinois, in the ’70s and ’80s, and my parents allowed me to do stuff on my own. We [the kids in my neighborhood] got to ride our bikes around the community (without helmets), walk to the local recreation center by ourselves, and play on metal playground equipment that would be deemed unsafe by today’s standards. And, as Skenazy notes, we survived.

Times are different today, of course. But, again, are parents too fearful? By not allowing our school-age children to do more things on their own, are we denying them the chance to develop the independence they’ll need to be functional and responsible adults? Are you sympathetic to Skenazy’s perspective? What has been your parenting experience so far?

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Okay, here’s a shameless plug for one of the projects I’ve been working on in my new job at Urban Ministries, Inc. The project is a new blog and online community for those interested in stuff related to urban ministry, racial reconciliation, contemporary culture, and more. The name of the site is UrbanFaith.com, and we hope to have it up and running sometime in May. Here’s how it’s described in some of our literature:

UrbanFaith.com is a blog and online community that will carve out a place on the Web as the premier Christian site for news, opinion, and lifestyle features from an urban perspective. Though rooted in African American culture, UrbanFaith.com will be ethnically inclusive and an online destination for anyone who cares about the people, culture, and issues related to urban life.

You can visit the site now and sign up to be on our contact list; we’ll send you an alert once the site is officially launched. Also, if any of you are interested in contributing articles or guest blog posts to the site, please let me know (you can go to my website and click on “Contact Me”) and I’ll send you more information about the kind of content we’ll be looking for.

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The Olympic Emblem

Any strong opinions out there about the upcoming Summer Olympics in Beijing? It’s been fascinating to watch the chaotic journey of the Olympic torch, how it’s been forced to take unexpected detours around the various protest rallies. Consequently, the flame’s relay through San Francisco earlier this week turned into a farce. The protests, of course, are against the Chinese government and its oppressive policies toward the Tibetans and its own citizens, as well as its failure to put pressure on its trade partner, Sudan, to stop the genocide in Darfur.

Was the International Olympic Committee (IOC) wrongheaded in awarding this year’s Games to China, given the country’s history of human rights violations? Would the same blinding, international spotlight have been turned on China — which is in the process of becoming the globe’s next great economic player — had it not been awarded the 2008 Games? The IOC claims to be nonpolitical, but do you think they were trying to be politically subversive in giving the Games to China? Or was it all about the money?

I confess to being easily stirred by the spirit of international unity that the Olympics try to engender, at least for a couple of weeks. I could probably do without NBC’s saccharine TV coverage of the athletes’ “very special” journeys to the Games. But I do marvel at the sight of people of all different colors, languages, and nationalities coming together in peace.

Ah, but there’s plenty to be cynical about as well. Did anyone hear Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford’s biting commentary about the Olympics on NPR’s Morning Edition this week? (You also can read it at SI.com.) He lays into the self-importance of the IOC and even suggests the Olympics have outlived their relevance:

Only the IOC still calls itself a movement and gets away with it. Hey, it’s no more than an international cartel that puts on a big show every four years. It’s just NASCAR with accents. And to tell you the truth, I think the Olympics are yesterday’s party. Once upon a time — before globalism and jet airplanes and cyberspace — bringing athletes together quadrennially in one place might have made sense. Today, it’s an unnecessary excess. And while insular Americans may not understand this, soccer’s World Cup has become much more important to many more people worldwide.

But, back to the China controversy, Deford isn’t all gloom and doom. He does hope the dedicated Olympic athletes are not punished as a result of this year’s politicized proceedings:

But hooray for all the Olympic athletes. Please, everybody, just threaten to boycott, but let the athletes all go to Beijing and have their day in the smog. It was so unfair when, in 1980, President Carter sacrificed our Olympians to make a point against the Soviet Union. But as the torch wends its way, spreading the bad news, I really think we might be seeing more than a censure of China. We may also be witness to the start of the Olympics’ real decline.

I love Frank Deford; he’s a virtuoso of the written word, the way Michael Jordan was with a basketball. Nonetheless, I think the Olympics can still be relevant. Who knows? Perhaps the Games in Beijing will lead to the ultimate undoing of the Chinese regime’s despotic ways. At the very least, maybe it will lead more people to be concerned about — and pray for — the oppressed and dying people of China, Tibet, and Darfur.

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