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 Writer's Desk 

June 12, 2006
Vol. 4, No. 09


Suggestions for correcting America's myopia

By Pat Morrison, NCR contributor

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Some years ago, when the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan was the NBA superstar and MVP, I was among a trio of U.S. journalists who had the good fortune to visit Israel and the Palestinian Territories for on-the-ground reporting in the region. On a free day, I decided to take myself and my camera on an exploration of Jerusalem's Old City. I wanted time to roam on my own, hoping to capture something of the Old City's historic beauty and texture, and especially its rich mix of peoples.

After ambling through marketplaces of every sort and along cobblestoned labyrinths, letting them take me wherever they led, I found myself in a residential section of the Muslim Quarter. It was mid-afternoon, and hot, and the narrow streets and byways were mostly deserted.

As I rounded a corner, a Palestinian boy about 9 was playing, shooting a soccer ball into a makeshift basketball hoop. Then I noticed his shirt: A trademark Chicago Bulls jersey, with a large red number 23 on the back.

I smiled to myself at the incongruity of the scene. After a few words of greeting in my mangled Arabic, I asked the boy in English, "Do you know who number 23 is?"

He turned to his older sister, who was hanging wash nearby. She translated my question into Arabic. At that, the boy flashed a wide grin, and announced exuberantly, giving the name an Arabic twist, "Na'am! (Yes!) Myk-hail Djord-han!"

I think of the Palestinian boy wearing his number 23 Bulls' shirt often, especially when I encounter what seems like American myopia about other peoples and cultures. Admittedly, my ability to travel internationally has been largely work related, and usually financed at least in part by my publishers or other largesse, for which I'm immensely grateful. If I'd had to travel on my own dime I probably wouldn't have gotten farther than Boise.

I realize many Americans haven't had the opportunity to travel abroad. Still, our national cluelessness about the rest of the world is troubling. Educators and sociologists have noted with dismay that most Americans are incredibly ignorant about simple geography -- to the extent that in testing, an alarming number of high school seniors were unable to locate their state of residence on a map of the United States. We don't know where Iowa is, much less Indonesia.

It's not just that many Americans haven't traveled -- that may be outside one's control. But too often we seem not to care about expanding our horizons; we haven't taken the time or initiative to go beyond our small, circumscribed bubble of town/subdivision/neighborhood to learn what's happening on the rest of the planet. That apathy is reflected in the shifts TV networks have made in recent years in nightly news coverage. With the exception of the Iraq war (in which the presence of U.S. troops gives us a vested interest), coverage of international news has been reduced to a minimum -- primarily, say network executives, because Americans just aren't interested in what's going on beyond our borders.

One of the dangers of such insularity, of course, is that thanks to galloping globalization, the rest of the world, including so-called "developing nations," may soon pass us by in education, science, technology and other fields.

Commentators and analysts as different as New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman (author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Longitudes and Attitudes and The World Is Flat) and political scientist Benjamin Barber (Jihad vs. McWorld) have forecast with uncanny accuracy what happens when a superpower like the United States ignores trends and developments, whether political, religious or economic, in other parts of the world. It's no coincidence that a guy in Mumbai or Singapore who calls himself "Jason" (and is trained to speak in U.S. idioms and regional accents) is filling your catalog order or providing your computer's tech support. Or that, as I walked through a Tunisian souk in the Sahara Desert earlier this year, the average shopkeeper could call out fluent greetings in French, German, Italian and English - besides Arabic and maybe also Berber.

For Christians, of course, the call to widen horizons takes on more than political and economic dimensions. Among the last directives - indeed, the "great commission"-- Jesus gave his disciples was, "Go into the whole world." For the Christian, insularity is anathema.

Being an evangelizing church is part of Christ's mandate. But it's not the entire picture. Beyond -- and often even in place of-- proselytizing, followers of Jesus are called to compassion, understanding, respect and dialogue with the whole human family. Learning about others is the first and perhaps most important step in that process.

What can an individual do?

1) Read! A great place to begin to connect to the wider world is through reading, both in print and on the Internet. For decades, many have relied on National Geographic -- first the magazine, now the television channel as well -- to bring the people and places of our planet into their living homes. Together with excellent programs like PBS' "Frontline," these remain the gold standard.

On the Catholic front, "mission" magazines like Maryknoll and ONE (Catholic Near East Welfare Association) and their related Web sites offer not only beautiful photography of the world's peoples and cultures, but report on issues of global concern and what Catholics and others are doing about them.

2) Get involved at the local level. Many international organizations provide "sister" programs that link U.S. schools and parishes with their counterparts (often of the same name) in the countries they serve, or sponsor specialized travel/pilgrimage programs that include visits to and extended contact with the local people. A leader in this field is Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, which also provides resources, speakers and craft fairs to foster awareness of the situation of Christians in the Holy Land.

3) Reach out! Encourage your school, parish or civic community to host an international festival or an interfaith event. Invite a speaker from another country to share his/her traditions, foods, native dress. Visit local ethnic restaurants, arrange for a visit and tour of other houses of worship -- a synagogue, mosque, Hindu or Buddhist temple. The first step is often just having a conversation with someone of another culture, country, religion. Learn a few phrases in another language -- Spanish, Arabic, Chinese -- and practice them with people of that language group when you meet them.

4) Do It! Go Global! If your time and means allow, take an international study tour, or a religious pilgrimage. (Be sure it includes at least a day, preferably more, of contact with the native people -- the "living stones"-- not just visits to historic/tourist sites.) Before you leave home, get a copy of Welcome Forward: A Field Guide for Global Travelers, published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It offers helpful pointers on being a good guest in other countries, as well as basic international travel information. Read up on the country you'll be visiting (or would like to visit!). Study maps, learn some basic phrases in the language of the place. Nothing breaks down barriers than even just attempting to say "Good morning!" in the local language.

Looking for more than a tourist/pilgrim experience? If you're committed to doing "hands on" learning or service by volunteering in another culture or country, there are numerous opportunities. Check out the Web sites of religious orders and churches for short-term service or volunteer opportunities. The interfaith Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), for example, has short-term delegations (7-14 days) in some of the world's most troubled regions (Palestine, Iraq, Colombia, etc.) and also offers internships and volunteering, as well as full and part-time service, with training provided in violence reduction and nonviolent action.

5) Finally, pray. Phaidon's Portraits features almost 300 pages of full-color portraits of peoples from all over the globe by critically-acclaimed photographer Steve Curry. It makes a great book for your personal or family prayer space. Choose a person/nation for each day to remember in prayer, or clip a headline or photo from the newspaper's international section or a news magazine and keep it where you pray. Refugees in Darfur, elections in Palestine, an earthquake in Afghanistan -- as members of one family of God, all of this must be part of our prayer, not just Aunt Edna's operation or Johnny's SATs. Nothing enlarges our heart and world-view more than remembering that Jesus invites us to pray not to my Father, but our Father.

For a short while, each of us shares a small space on this beautiful orb we call Earth. How much richer the journey will be if we learn about those who are our global neighbors, our fellow travelers!

Pat Morrison, who quickly learned to say "Get me off this camel!" in Arabic, writes from Dayton, Ohio.
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