Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Three Years Later: An Aftermath of Hope

Today marks the anniversary of one of the world's largest natural disasters. It was on December 26, 2004, that an undersea earthquake triggered massive tidal waves that smashed ashore on multiple continents, killing more than 225,000 people in 11 countries and devastating thousands of miles of coastline with waves that reached up to 100 feet in height.

World Vision already had operations and immediately went to work in five of the hardest-hit countries: Indonesia (closest to the epicenter), Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, and Myanmar. It was the largest emergency relief operation in our 50-plus-year history.

While the scope of the disaster boggled the mind, the outpouring of compassion by a sympathetic world rivaled it. World Vision donors contributed nearly $380 million to tsunami relief operations, including $68 million contributed by private donors in the U.S. Some $347 million of the total amount raised went directly to relief needs in the field, with the balance supporting management and fund-raising operations.

Three years later, it is fair to ask: Did this effort make a difference? Did the outpouring of generosity substantially improve living conditions for the tsunami's survivors and lessen the chances of a similar disaster causing this kind of suffering again in the future?

To celebrate the recent closure of our relief program, World Vision's special Asia Tsunami Relief Team released a final report of the results of this effort. The report measured effectiveness on both objective and subjective levels.

Objectively, it pointed to the construction of more than 12,000 homes, 84 schools, 33 preschools, 27 health clinics, and 200 Child-Friendly Spaces — facilities where children can play, draw, sing, share their feelings, and begin to return to normalcy — as well as the provision of 20 ambulances, hundreds of hospital beds, and assisting more than 40,000 people with support and vocational training to get them back into paid work.

On a more subjective level, World Vision's relief work was heralded by a variety of independent organizations. The Fritz Institute — a non-profit organization that monitors the effectiveness of aid delivery — said World Vision was ranked highest by surveyed beneficiaries in Indonesia for the quality of its aid and the fairness of its distribution.

In India, World Vision shared the highest ranking with the central and state governments and a local organization — Social Need Education and Human Awareness. And in Thailand, TANGO International commended World Vision for its swift and enduring response and found that livelihoods in the organization's operational areas were now close to what they were before the tsunami struck.

And at the most subjective level, to understand the impact of the recovery effort you have to talk with tsunami survivors themselves. Murugesh (center child in the photo above) was only seven when the waves struck three years ago. His father died in the tsunami and the family's home was destroyed.

Murugesh, his three siblings, and his mother survived, but without a home to raise her children in the family's chances seemed slim.

What's more, Murugesh had serious physical disabilities.

However, bouyed with the resources provided by generous donors, World Vision was able to construct 40 apartment-style homes in the Hambantota district of southern Sri Lanka, specially designed to meet the special needs of children like Murugesh who have physical disabilities.

After her husband's death, his mother, Saraswathi, attempted to support her family by cooking and cleaning for others in her neighborhood. Because of her new home, however, she now is saving up to purchase a pushcart to sell her baked goods near the school her children attend.

"I have a kitchen now," she says proudly. "I have the freedom to do a lot more; it means everything to me that we have this house."

In addition to the new apartment complex, World Vision also has built a playground just outside Murugesh's front door. Like other children, Murugesh loves to spin on the merry-go-round and play games with his brothers and sisters. Previously, the family had to plan a monthly, all-day outing to a playground farther away. "Now I can watch Murugesh play with his brothers and sisters from my front door," says Saraswathi.

For Murugesh and his family, hope has been reborn in the aftermath of their darkest day.

(For more information on tsunami recovery, view our video updates or interactive page.)

This Will Get Your Goat!

If you (like me) sometimes wait until the day after Christmas to get started on your "last-minute" Christmas shopping, here is a great option for you.

World Vision's Gift Catalog offers lightning-fast delivery of an eCard (and slightly slower delivery of a postal card acknowledging your gift) for gifts purchased on behalf of a friend or loved one. These gifts are perfect for the "person who has everything" because they actually accomplish something great somewhere in the world, in the life of a person who doesn't have everything!

Your gift will also warm the heart of your friend of loved one ... which is a great thing not every gift can do ... even if they don't find out about it until the day after Christmas!

Check out this cool ABC News video, and consider this for your "last-minute" (i.e., day-after) Christmas shopping ...

Also, here's a great audio piece on NPR's "Morning Marketplace" about the Gift Catalog (sorry that it's a RealMedia link).

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Are You Afraid of Christmas?

It sounds like a silly question ... but lately I've been wondering if people are afraid of Christmas.

I started thinking about it yesterday when my wife, who is employed by a local school district, informed me that the principal at her school had issued an edict: "No one will play Christmas carols in the office!"

Yes, he was serious.

Apparently the edict came down from the school district head office. No Christmas carols! Not even a mention of the word "Christmas." This is a winter holiday. School districts and other public entities now live in fear of certain organizations might sue them for not being "politically correct."

She was telling me this as we were driving with my aunt, a 50-year veteran missionary from the Republic of Niger, recently retired, to a major local holiday lights display. Two miles of lights arranged in fantastic displays ... touching on almost every topic and theme you can imagine related to the winter holiday, from Christmas trees and poinsettia, to elves, lots of elves; to Santa shooting gifts out of a cannon, to aliens in flying saucers, to reindeer leaping over cars, to heavy construction equipment building gingerbread houses, and even tanks and military hardware (we live near a major military base).

Almost everything you can imagine ... except the most obvious! At the end of the display, my aunt asked, "So ... where's the manger?"

Miles of Christmas lights, but ... no manger. No Mary, no Joseph, no shepherds, no magi. No Christ child. Someone is apparently very afraid of Christmas!

This morning, again, I read the real account of Christmas in Luke 2. I am going to repeat portions of it here -- just because I can. (No, I'm not afraid!)

And there were shepherds living in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord."

The shepherds were terrified -- and no wonder. The most unusual thing they had ever encountered before, out there in the fields at night, had been the occasional sheep-hungry bear or lion. Scary enough. But an Angel of the Lord, lighting up the heavens? A heavenly host shining forth the glory of God and singing his praises? Probably not in the job description of the average shepherd.

Someone else was terrified, too. Herod, the puppet of Rome, was the ultimate representative of the Powers That Be in that region. The magi told Herod they were looking for the prophesied Messiah, the ruler of Israel, born that very day in his region. Herod too was terrified -- but for a different reason.

The shepherds turned their terror to joy once they realized the implications of the fact that the God of the Universe chose to announce his Good News first and foremost to them. A favorite Christmas carol recounts:

Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why these songs of happy cheer?
What great brightness did you see?
What glad tiding did you hear?

Herod, on the other hand, turned his terror to hate. In an attempt to kill the Christ of Christmas, he had all baby boys 2 years or younger murdered by his henchmen.

In a nutshell, these are the two extremes of human response to the fact that God enters human history and is about to do something unimaginably big. Joy ... and hate.

I often find myself asking simple-minded "Why?" questions in response to what I read in Scripture. Here are three:

Why shepherds?

Shepherds occupied the lower echelon of their society. They were the poor, the dispossessed. Why would anyone listen to a shepherd?

But God loves shepherds, and He loves the poor. Shepherds protect sheep, and God loves sheep! King David was a shepherd. Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd."

God chose the lowest echelon of society to make his announcement that the King of the Universe had been born -- in an animal stable. Hmmm. His venue? The outskirts of a backwater town. He could have sent the angels to Herod's palace in Jerusalem. Or he could have woken up the entire town of Bethlehem. But he chose the outskirts. Why?

(By the way, did you ever wonder why the commotion in the sky above the shepherds -- which surely should have been visible and/or audible in Jerusalem proper -- didn't attract more attention in the town of Bethlehem? It's amazing to think that all those people simply slept through such a celestial event. But that seems to be the way it goes when God does something truly big -- most people just sleep right through it.)

Why fear?

It makes sense that the shepherds were afraid. But the angel said, "Do not fear." The poor have nothing to fear from God. The Savior was for them. His activity is in their favor. Their fear turned to rejoicing.

But the power structures of this world have much to fear. Because of his hatred, King Herod ended up in a spiral of self-destruction. Who mourned when he died? The world breathed a sigh of relief as Jesus, Mary and Joseph returned from their self-imposed exile in Egypt.

Why joy?

God is for the poor! He identifies with them. Jesus was born in a manger. The angels appeared to shepherds in the field. His Word to them was truly "Good news." It was unto them the Savior was born.

Jesus said he came to preach good news to the poor. The good news is: "Grace is the great leveler of the world's playing field. There's hope. There's forgiveness. There's freedom. I'm here for you!"

World Vision, as a ministry, exists to extend that message of "good news" to the poor. To be the hands and feet of Jesus, bringing hope, help, forgiveness, and freedom. We speak to power -- and they're not always happy about it. Those who would exploit the poor to strengthen their own position of power have much to fear from the Gospel. God is against them ... and He is for the poor!

We invite you to "join us in joy" this Christmas! Proclaim it from the rooftops. "God is for the poor!" Jesus, the Good Shepherd, came for us, the poor and broken! Hallelujah!