May 8, 2015 | Spirituality & Health

An excerpt from The Mother & Child Project

When I watch mourners in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, and many other countries walk down the road behind the wooden casket of a mother and child held high on the shoulders of men in the village, I am reminded again,

This is not a cause. This is an emergency.

Pregnant women all over the developing world ask two tragic questions: “Am I going to die?” and “Who will take care of my children?”

How can women be asking these questions when they are young and full of life?

There is a compassionate mandate for mothers to live and for children to survive — and thrive — in the arms of their mother. One can judge the morality of a country by the way it cares for its women and children. If ever there was something worth fighting for, keeping mothers and babies alive and together tops them all. But —

The statistics of maternal and infant death are gut-wrenching, vivid, and real. One in thirty-nine women in sub-Saharan Africa are dying during pregnancy or childbirth. There is a moral mandate to provide accurate information and the resources necessary for life while honoring a woman and family’s cultural and faith values.

Through no fault of their own, 222 million women have limited ability to influence the timing or spacing of their pregnancies, leaving these women and their children vulnerable.

When a woman’s cries and wailings are heard, the numbers stop being just statistics and become the stories of real people. Numbers are numbing. As one Rwandan woman told me, “Numbers are statistics. Numbers are statistics with the tears wiped off.”

But there is hope, and the answer is to keep mothers alive by equipping them to have pregnancies timed and spaced in ways that promote health, including prenatal care, a skilled attendant at birth, and a host of other supportive interventions, so that the mothers and fathers can care for their children. Because every child deserves a family.

But how?

The keys to information and transformation lie in a frequently overlooked source. For families to receive what they need, they can go to the church, which becomes an outpost not just for spiritual health, but for physical health as well.

Recently, I was working in Rwanda alongside Juliette, a health volunteer who trains church members to, in turn, become trainers volunteering in their communities. Although from different parts of the globe, Juliette and I both are part of the PEACE Plan movement, an initiative of Saddleback Church of Lake Forest, California, where Pastor Rick Warren has launched 20,000 ordinary members of the church to travel globally. To do this, he has empowered and linked churches in 197 countries. Using a train-the-trainer approach, the PEACE Plan has equipped more than 500,000 ordinary people in church pews—or wooden benches—at the most grassroots levels to identify, prioritize, and act on problems in their own communities through the local churches.

Juliette, along with another trainer, simply walks to seven homes— some of them up to an hour away—to talk to women about pregnancy, about the value of timing and spacing pregnancy, directing them to tools that are in keeping with their Christian faith.

When Juliette ducks through the piece of fabric that hangs at the front door of each home she visits, she is comfortable and credible. Armed with a teaching plan and genuine compassion for her neighbors, she listens and teaches basic hygiene principles, HIV prevention, and healthy pregnancy.

Volunteering four hours a week, Juliette has reduced the maternal mortality rate in her neighborhood. She is an expert, even though her formal education ended before the fifth grade. Early on, Juliette taught me about dying mothers, dying babies, and the indescribable pain of both. I always listen when she speaks. She proves that when the church is involved, information is accessible to the local community. The church is indispensable in terms of access to health care training and in terms of reliability and accuracy of message.

Juliette had my attention when she said, “Maybe one of the reasons we don’t name our babies for one month after birth is that we’re not sure they will survive.” Juliette spoke stoically, as if her storehouse of tears had been emptied at the graves of too many. I swallowed hard. She continued to teach from a well-crafted lesson plan that was both accurate and personal.

“Our bodies are tired and weak. Today we will be talking about pregnancy and how to get healthy before getting pregnant and how to make sure our bodies are ready so that our babies can survive.” The lesson plan was clear, and fifty trainers—both women and their husbands—had come to hear it.

“There are medicines and methods to help you. We must be more intentional in preparing our bodies for our babies, for their sake and for ours. I am a Christian, and I use pills to help me. There is nothing wrong with using techniques or tools. I’m not interfering with God’s will if I take medicine. When there is information and resources for timing and spacing of pregnancies and I withhold it because I am afraid of offending others, I am telling people they can die.”

Then Juliette taught the class a biblical principle that is empowering and life-changing. She spoke about stewardship. “Every gift we have comes from God. God also gave me ways to be pregnant. He gave me eggs, and I’m responsible for them.”

The idea of stewardshipof being accountable to God for the gifts he has given me and seeing scientific knowledge as a gift he has given to influence my life practices — is not new. All truth is God’s truth.

This is the type of training that equips laypeople to deliver the message in churches all over the world. At least two things stand in the way of helping women and children survive and thrive through healthy timing and spacing of children, yet there is a solution that is underused and fully available everywhere. Every woman and family needs this:

Accurate knowledge and resources that honor a woman and family’s cultural and biblical values, and a distribution channel that is accessible and trusted to deliver the information and resources.

One of the reasons women do not have what they need is that they can’t access it. I have seen villages where there is no post office, school, or hospital, but there is a church. And this is the hope. Churches can provide accurate information closest to the people who need it.

Alongside the suffering, there are churches filled with people who are willing and able to make a difference. There is a group of people in the faith community that can tackle any problem at a grassroots level. Mobilizing ordinary members in churches everywhere to train others brings information, tools, and hope. Referrals are made to tertiary settings when the challenges are complex. For timing and spacing of pregnancies, church-based grassroots education and interventions launch an idea to scale-up possibilities. Life and mind-set change rarely happens in a government office, but it can happen in a church.

The church is the greatest untapped source of information and hope in the twenty-first century. And today 4,800 Rwandan trainers teaching church-based classes and making home visits in Rwanda provide proof that the church is a distribution giant ready to serve. Churches are located in communities where women and children are needlessly dying.

Churches are a trusted source of information. Churches are accessible, available, and influential in communities. It’s time to look to the church for help in solving the problems of maternal and child health.

Elizabeth Styffe, RN, MN, PHN, is the global director for HIV&AIDS and Orphan Care Initiatives at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. She and her husband have seven children, including three adopted from Rwanda.

This excerpt appeared in Spirituality & Health

Hope Through Healing Hands is proud to create and lead the Faith-Based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide. We launched the coalition with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to shine a light on the disparity of maternal & child health in developing nations. Moreover, we hope to educate and activate faith leaders and all people of faith to consider the critical importance of healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies as a life-saving mechanism for both moms and their children.

A mama knows best, so let’s let her decide

By Rachel Held Evans

May 07 2015

May 7, 2015 | Washington Post

A mama knows the difference between a playful coo and a hungry whimper, or between a real fever and a valiant attempt to get out of school. A mama can spot a secret in the curl of a smile, an impending illness in the subtle tilt of a head. A mama knows the rhythms of the household — the pitter-patter of toddler feet on the floor, the hurried scratches of forks against empty plates.

And she knows the rhythms of her own body, when it is heavy with milk, sore from cramps, in need of rest.

A mama keeps a running mental inventory, willing there to be enough food for each belly, enough money for the girls to go to school, enough medicine at the clinic. A mama knows what is best for her family, and so a mama is strongest when she is empowered to make good decisions for them.

But not every woman gets to choose. Not every mother gets the chance to do what she knows is best for herself and her family.

There are more than 220 million women in developing countries who don’t want to get pregnant, but who lack access to family planning information and contraceptives. Every year, nearly 300,000 of them will die during pregnancy or from complications giving birth. Far too many mothers will bury their babies before they even get to know the sound of their laughter. More than 2.6 million babies will be stillborn, and another 2.9 million will die before they are a month old.

Giving women the opportunity to time their pregnancies and space out their children through effective, low-cost contraception is key to turning around these heartbreaking numbers.

Not only does access to family planning information and contraception improve the health of mothers and children, it also improves the economies of their households. When a woman has fewer children and more time to work harvesting crops or growing her fledgling business, she brings more resources into the home so her children can be fed and her kids can go to school. A poor family confronted by a drought or famine is more likely to survive with a smaller household and fewer mouths to feed.

These are things that every mother knows instinctively, and yet ensuring that every woman has access to the contraception options she wants is not always a top priority on the global health agenda.

That’s because conversations about contraception, particularly here in the United States, tend to be religiously and politically charged. Some people seem to think that family planning is just code for abortion, when it’s not. Others presume that giving women access to contraception is encouraging promiscuity, even though most of the women who use oral contraception are married. Words like “entitled,” ‘’selfish” and even “slut” get thrown around all too easily.

A woman who wants to live long enough to see her children grow up isn’t being selfish. A woman who wants to provide an education for her girls as well as her boys isn’t acting entitled. A woman who wants to space out her pregnancies so her newborns have a better shot at life isn’t a slut. We cannot allow simplistic, self-focused narratives about contraception and family planning to keep us from helping these women.

For those of us who identify as pro-life, it’s not enough simply to oppose abortion. We must also actively advocate for and invest in those specific actions that not only curb the abortion rate but also save the lives of women and children worldwide. Increasing access to family planning information and contraceptives will result in fewer women and girls dying in pregnancy and childbirth, fewer unintended pregnancies, fewer abortions and fewer infant deaths.

As Christians, we are called to reorient our perspective around the needs of those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” When we lean in close, we learn that they aren’t all that different from ourselves. The mothers of sub-Saharan Africa chuckle the same way over the antics of their mischievous children as do mothers here in America. The women of Southeast Asia share the same instincts and intuition as women in Europe.

A baby’s death is no less tragic when it happens quietly on a dirt floor than when it happens in a high-tech hospital. We may have dissimilar circumstances, but we share a common humanity, a shared dream of raising healthy and happy families.

A mama knows when it is time to grow a family and when it is time to wait. A mama knows how far the rations will stretch, how much school uniforms cost, how long she ought to nurse her baby. And a mama knows how to bring every good thing to that little boy whose head nestles into her soft, waiting shoulder.

This Mother’s Day, let’s give her the chance to do it.

(Rachel Held Evans is the author of “Evolving in Monkey Town” and “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.” This piece was adapted from her contribution to “The Mother & Child Project: Raising Our Voices for Health and Hope,” recently released by Zondervan.)

This article appeared in the Washington Post.

I recall a story of a young teen girl we will call Sari. She sat perched quietly on a chair. The sun was setting outside the brothel in a small town on Thailand’s border with Malaysia. Sari’s long hair hung forward, shielding her face from view. The eldest of four children, with two disabled parents, she was from a small, poor hill-tribe area in Laos.
One evening in 2011, after a day of plowing her family’s fields with a neighbor’s bull, Vivian Okoth* was leading the animal back to its owners. On the way, the bull charged her from behind, caught her with his horns, and threw her into the air. Vivian says all she remembers was waking on the rocky ground and sensing the bull rush at her again. As she was gored a second and third time, she screamed and the neighbors came to her rescue, somehow managing to distract the bull and pull him away.
Last week, the Christian Alliance for Orphans held their annual gathering in Hendersonville, TN at Long Hollow Baptist Church. Some 2,500 participants who work with orphans and vulnerable children gathered to hear excellent speakers and artists. They also attended workshops to enhance their work within their nonprofit or their family, as parents or siblings.

May 1, 2015 | Fox News

Years ago, my mother-in-law introduced me to a simple prayer that has since become a way of life for me. On my last album, the song “Greet the Day” offers up this request:

“Lord, lead me to the ones I need.

And, to the ones who need me.”

I find that with this prayer, I am opening myself to new experiences, uncanny synchronicity, and what otherwise might seem mere coincidence. I find myself sitting with people who may need the talents and gifts unique to me, and then I find myself drawn to people who meet my need for wisdom or courage or joy.

Read the full article on Fox News.

April 29, 2015 | The Hill

Most Americans agree foreign aid helps improve our nation’s image globally and protects Americans’ health by preventing the spread of diseases.

In fact, it does more than that. Our comparatively small investment in foreign aid enhances national security by stabilizing weak states and helping to fight the causes of terrorism. It encourages economic development, opening new global markets for American business. And it supports our humanitarian goals and values, advancing peace and democracy.

Considering the benefits, the surprising truth is that the U.S. spends less than 1 percent of our budget on foreign aid, and that amount has been dwindling due to sequestration. At a time when we are faced with global unrest and budget cuts, we must make strategic investments in foreign aid programs that have a record of success. 

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is a prime example. An innovative and independent U.S. foreign aid agency created in 2004 by a bipartisan Congress, the MCC was structured to approach U.S. foreign assistance like a business. It has a singular mandate: systematically reduce poverty by fostering economic growth in the world’s best-governed poor countries. With only a small slice of the federal budget, from the beginning the MCC focused on investing wisely in the best programs to provide the most good for the most people.

The MCC lays the foundation for its success by demanding high standards for its potential partner countries. Each year, the MCC develops a scorecard for low- to middle-income countries based on their performance in three areas: just governance, economic freedom and investing in their citizens. At the end of this rigorous process, only about 30 percent of countries qualify to partner with the MCC. Of those, a select few are invited to develop program proposals for MCC-funded investments.

This process ensures that U.S. foreign assistance is effective and strategic and that it catalyzes reforms. The lives of people living in poverty globally are significantly improved, as countries pursue eligibility for MCC funding, knowing the MCC can suspend funding for sustained trends of dismal political and economic performance. For example, pro-democracy changes in Malawi, improved economic rights for women in Lesotho and business-friendly reforms in Georgia have all been prompted by governments working to establish their eligibility for MCC funds. The effect is so pronounced that a 2013 College of William and Mary global survey ranked the MCC’s scorecard as the most influential tool to incentivize policy reform around the world.

Through MCC grants, more than 148,000 farmers have been trained, $65 million in agricultural loans have been dispersed, and over 4,900 kilometers of roads are being designed and constructed. MCC aid is being used to strengthen weak economies, promote growth opportunities and raise the standard of living for the world’s most disadvantaged populations. 

Having served on the MCC’s board of directors, I have seen the success of this program’s accountability-driven approach. The Millennium Challenge Corporation is a program worthy of its funding.  It represents the best of foreign aid and plays a crucial role in our international diplomacy. As Congress continues to work on the fiscal 2016 budget, the Millennium Challenge Corporation deserves its full support.  

Frist served as a senator from 1995-2007 and as majority leader from 2003-2007.  He is a former Millenium Challenge Corporation board member.

This article originally appeared on The Hill

April 29, 2015 | Health Affairs Blog

The Two Sides Of Cuban Health Care: High-Quality Primary Care …

These opportunities grow out of a special legacy in health care that spans the history of revolutionary Cuba. Free and universal health coverage, with high-quality primary care, has been fundamental to the Castro government’s legitimacy since its first years. It is a true entitlement, expected by the Cuban people, a positive right enshrined quite simply in Cuba’s 1976 Constitution: “Everyone has the right to health protection and care. The State guarantees this right.”

What started in the 1960s with a 750-doctor Rural Medical Service has grown into a network of more than 30,000 family doctors; across the country, each of five hundred “polyclinics” serves as a hub for twenty to forty neighborhood medical stations.After visiting Cuba in fall 2014, cardiovascular surgeon and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist documented impressive primary care:

Patients are seen at least once a year, often in their home[.] Emergencies are addressed immediately. Chronic conditions are identified and managed early.

And this care is provided at no cost. In private conversation with one of the authors, Frist subsequently marveled that not only does the average individual Cuban have a primary physician, that person knows his or her physician by name. That is a fading reality in America, true for only a minority.

Read the full article on Health Affairs Blog.

Emergent trauma surgery in Kenya is different. A 22-year-old male came to the operating theater area after having a tire explode in front of him as he was working on it. This is certainly not a safe practice, but it’s hard to argue with a young man doing what he can to make an honest living for himself and his family.

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