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Raise prophetic voices against poverty, Paul Farmer tells bishops

Medical anthropologist underscores importance of achieving MDGs

[Episcopal News Service] Medical anthropologist Paul Farmer told the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops September 21 that the church's prophetic voice must be heard in the global debates about the most effective ways to eradicate extreme poverty and guarantee basic rights to all.

"When the churches are united around social justice issues, it's very powerful," he said. "It's hard to shout down a bishop."

Farmer, also a physician, is a founding director of Partners in Health, an international charity organization that provides direct health care services and undertakes research and advocacy activities on behalf of those who are sick and living in poverty. He is on the staff of Harvard University's Department of Social Medicine. Farmer's work focuses on diseases that disproportionately afflict the poor.

Farmer told the bishops that they know as much about the MDGs as anyone because they are called to preach and follow the imperatives of Matthew 25:31-46. He led them through a comparison of how he sees Jesus' admonitions to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, to visit the sick and those in prison, and to bury the dead being carried out in Haiti, Rwanda and New Orleans.

Farmer's comparisons grew out of his work in Haiti and Rwanda. He described having left New Orleans for Rwanda after delivering a speech just days before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and the Gulf Coast. "I found myself having to explain Katrina to my African hosts," whom Farmer said could not believe that such scenes were playing out in the United States.

In each of the corporal works of mercy named in Matthew's gospel, Farmer told the bishops that privatization of services has led to profit rather than accomplishment of Jesus' instructions.

Oregon Bishop Johncy Itty summarized Farmer's point during a question-and-answer session as being "for good or for bad, poverty is profitable."

Farmer urged the bishops to use their prophetic voices to drum up grassroots interest in the policy issues that have led to such a situation. He noted that policy work is "the least sexy, the least attractive part" of helping alleviate the problems described by the MDGs.

However, a meeting such as that of the House of Bishops "offers us an opportunity to take stock of the issues of our times," he said.

"When your voices echo the aspirations of the people we serve, it is not trivial," Farmer said. 

Rather, it gives those who work "at the granular level" a real sense of being supported in their efforts.

Churches should call society to confront uncomfortable questions, such as whether the large development efforts now going on in the world are effective.

"People with a prophetic voice need to say that the development machinery is flawed," he said. "The whole machinery needs an overhaul."

The flaws in the machinery include the fact that not all development agencies are "big, honest and not corrupt," Farmer said. That fact needs to be named, described and taught about because too many who are involved with development efforts are reluctant to do so for fear that naming the flaw will cause donors to stop contributing to development work.

Farmer also said that churches also must be willing to confront the implications of conducting private relief and development efforts which do not strengthen the public sectors of the communities in which they take place. Such private efforts, while laudable, are flawed if they don't also attempt to build up the public sector's ability to fulfill its role of being what Farmer called the "final guarantor" of basic rights.

"If we fail to support the public sector … we are going to undermine the aspirations of the people we serve," he said.

Tracy Kidder has profiled Farmer in his book, "Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World." In the book, Kidder describes what Farmer learned during his work with an Episcopal priest in Haiti about the place faith plays in transforming people's lives.

Farmer is a member of the United Nations Millennium Project's Task Force Working Group on HIV/AIDS. The project's goal was to "to develop a concrete action plan for the world to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and to reverse the grinding poverty, hunger and disease affecting billions of people," according to its website.

The Episcopal Church's 75th General Convention made the MDGs a budget priority. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has said that the Episcopal Church champions the MDGs as a path toward restorative justice "because it seems to be the best global example of what the Reign of God could look like in our own day."

She and others have warned that the MDGs only aim to go halfway toward alleviating the problems of extreme poverty.

Jefferts Schori closed the session underscoring that prophetic voices in eradicating poverty and achieving the other MDGs is central to the Christian life.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.

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