Archive for November, 2010

A couple weeks ago, I was asked to facilitate an ice breaker activity for the Ward Street/Manchester Youth Rally and wound up inventing a game in which our youth had an opportunity to win $40 of my money. However, I wanted to raise the bar a bit, so before putting my cash on the line, I decided to do a little research on what $40 could actually do to help someone in need. I stumbled into finding out about Charity: Water and discovered that just $20 can provide one person with clean drinking for 20 years! In under three days, we raised $500, including donations from the kids who won the cash prizes, translating into clean drinking water for 25 people for the next two decades. I wanted to share what I’ve learned about Charity: Water in hope that as we reflect on our abundant blessings, we can give at least $20 to help others simply live.

Scott Harrison, 35, came to New York City at the age of 18 as an act of rebellion. He felt he had spent his childhood serving others, particularly in caring for his severely ill mother who was poisoned by carbon monoxide when Scott was just four years old, and now it was time to serve himself. It wasn’t long before Scott, immensely talented, landed a gig as a “night club promoter” in which he was paid over $4000 a month to drink Budweiser and Bacardi at clubs on a nightly basis while selling more expensive alcohol to models and hedge fund managers. A decade after his arrival to the Big Apple, Scott was living the high life and at age 28 found himself on an expensive drug laden vacation on a beach in Uruguay complete with personal servants. But in a search for deeper meaning in life, Scott had began to study theology and there in Uruguay he experienced a “crisis of conscience” also finding himself a “pretentious jerk” and a “the most selfish, sycophantic and miserable human being.” Scott decided to return to his Christian heritage and felt the Gospel was calling him to a life of service dedicated to the poor.

In October 2004, Scott quit his high paying night club job in favor of a volunteer position for Mercy Ships, a non-profit floating hospital carrying skilled surgeons to the coast of West Africa, in which he actually had to pay $500 a month to cover the cost of his living expenses. He traveled to Liberia as a photojournalist, taking pictures of people who came to the Mercy Ships doctors using their vacation time to perform free surgeries for people suffering from giant facial tumors, flesh eating diseases, severe burns, cleft lips and cleft palates. It was in Liberia that Scott took a picture of and then got to know a boy named Alfred who was literally suffocating from his own face due to a giant tumor. Scott got his first taste of dirty drinking water in Liberia and after he saw people drinking from swamps realized that many of the illness suffered by sub-Saharan Africans can be traced to the lack of access to clean drinking water. In fact, an astounding 88 percent of disease on the planet is directly related to unsafe water and lack of sanitation and one billion people on this planet (1 in 6) do not have access to clean water.

In one year, 40 billion hours in Africa are spent walking to and collecting water, surpassing the work hours that the entire French economy produces annually. Children begin carrying water at age five and bend their spines carrying 40 pound gas cans, the iPods of Africa, with five gallons of tainted water. Women in Northern Uganda wait in lines of up to eight hours on alternate days to get access to water for their families. Not able to afford the coal necessary to boil the swampy waters, they use their dresses as strainers removing some of the sludge, but none of the contaminants such as e.coli, salmonella, cholera and Hepatitis A. People are dying from diarrhea, dysentery, parasites and typhoid.

It was then that Scott Harrison began to think about water as a luxury. He returned to New York City, where someone bought him a $16 margarita and he couldn’t stop thinking about how that same $16 in Africa could feed a family of four for a month. He discovered Americans use 150 gallons of water per person per day, whereas one billion people don’t have access to even 5 gallons, or 1/30th, of that daily figure. At first he experienced a righteous indignation at the disparity, but quickly realized that within this cognitive dissonance lay opportunity. With no money, but a few idealistic friends, supporters and a web designer, Scott launched Charity: Water, a non-profit aimed at ensuring clean drinking water is available to the entire world.

But his ambition didn’t end there. Scott believed the reason many people, young and old alike, were not giving to charity was because they were unsure how much of their money was being used to actually help people. So, Scott took a risk and committed to a business principle in which 100% of public donations would be used to build wells and get fresh water to people who need it. He would use private and corporate donors to fund his staff and operating costs. The venture nearly failed in 2008 when they were raising money for wells, but ran out of cash for payroll, but Michael Birch, founder of the social networking site, generously donated $1 million, buying time to flush out the business plan which has now created a sustainable model that ensures 100% of public donations, your donations, go to help people without water.

The money raised goes toward drilling wells up to $12,000 feet, hand digging wells, protecting sources of mountain spring water, filtering arsenic and other poisons from water supplies, creating rainwater catchment systems and teaching local peoples how to maintain their wells. A typical well costs $5,000 and provides water for over 250 people. The pumps provide a gas can’s five gallons of clean water every 90 seconds and can produce the equivalent of 7 million bottles of Poland Spring every year. For many of the wells, community members contribute their labor digging for six weeks taking ownership of their project.

In short, water changes everything. Water brings hope and life into communities by restoring dignity and time. Health and disease rates plummet once safe water becomes available, and Charity: Water is making it happen. In just four years, over $20 million has been raised through over 100,000 donations providing one million people with safe water. There are over 2,500 water projects that have been completed or are in progress partnering with 22 third world communities thus far and all of this is being tracked using GPS and Google Earth. But there is still so much more to do.

Harrison figured out that if this clean water crisis was measured in time, that the one million people helped thus far would represent only the first 12 days of a 32 year problem. We’ve got a long way to go. But if not us, who? If not now, when?

Every September, Charity: Water asks people to give up their birthdays by foregoing parties and gifts and raising money for the poor of the world. A seven year old child recently gave up his birthday and was able to raise $22,000. Celebrities have gotten inspired as well as demonstrated by Alyssa Milano who raised $92,000 by giving up her 37th birthday. One mom from Iowa, Jodie Landers, was able to raise $300,000 from her church and town. People are raising money by walking across America, running marathons, growing beards out, swimming for charity, playing benefit concerts and your creativity and energy can add to this list. This story began with Scott Harrison, but it is becoming our story one donation at a time, one well at a time.

Check out these videos and the website for more information:

Charity: Water Videos.

“Good evening. The first clue anyone had was the woman at the bank; she came to the window to withdraw $15,000. Then in a calm manner, she told the teller that men were holding her family hostage in their nice suburban home. Tonight, a Connecticut jury has done something very rare. They’ve handed out the death penalty for one of two men charged in one of the worst home invasions in memory. That woman at the bank was later murdered back at her home. So were her two daughters. Only her husband lived after a savage beating.”

– Opening lines from November 8, 2010 broadcast of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams in a segment titled “Killer at Peace with Death Penalty Verdict, Says DA”

The 2007 Cheshire home invasion Brian Williams spoke of involved the brutal torture, rape and killing of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, Hayley Petit (17) and Michaela Petit (11) by two men, including Steven Hayes who was sentenced to die this week. The crime and the resulting criminal court proceedings have received a fair amount of national news coverage as demonstrated above and have been especially heavily reported on here in Connecticut as the tragedy occurred in our own backyard. The crimes were committed approximately eight miles from where I and my family live, but the case hit even closer to home on Monday morning.

I work in an unpredictable field and can honestly say that three and a half years in, I have not had two identical days on the job. But some days journey beyond unpredictable into the unbelievable and November 8, 2010 was that kind of day. Through a series of highly improbable circumstances, I found myself in the cell block of the New Haven District Courthouse Monday morning with the same Steven Hayes that would later headline the evening’s national news.

I had been escorted into the holding cell area by an attorney and was told I would have to wait to complete my affairs, when I looked up and locked eyes for a brief moment with an inmate that seemed strangely familiar. The man was pacing in a holding room less than ten feet from me and I nodded in his direction as an acknowledgment of his presence and a sign of basic male respect. He faintly narrowed his eyes in receipt of my gesture, but his response was not one of contempt as much as it seemed to be one of bewilderment. As if he had not received so much as a non-threatening glance in some time.

I knew from entering the Court earlier in the day and walking past a dozen local and national news trucks that a jury was deliberating this day on whether Steven Hayes’ October 2010 conviction of six counts of capital felony charges warranted execution. I also knew from a previous visit to this same Court holding cell area, which room was designated for holding Mr. Hayes when he was not present in the Court room and this man was occupying that room. Instinctively, I knew it was Hayes, but could not be certain as the appearance of the man before me did not exactly match the mug shot of the completely bald and overweight criminal that has been so widely circulated in the press. The man before me had unkempt dark hair growing from the sides of his head and appeared much thinner and unhealthy than the photo of Hayes we have all seen in these parts. I wanted to ask one of the correctional officers if this was indeed the notorious Hayes, but thought better of it as the door to the unidentified inmate’s door was open and I was easily within earshot of the man.

While waiting for further instruction from the Correctional Officers about how to proceed with my own task, I found myself convinced the crazed man nervously pacing back and forth in the tiny room must be the convicted killer. He had a bestial quality about him; specifically striking were his cold and beady eyes that seemed to dart between the area’s inhabitants and yet simultaneously presented as distantly focused on heavy and sorrowful thoughts far from his current material reality. I felt pity for the man as it was apparent his spirit was not well.

My own thoughts drifted briefly and I thought of our new friend Robbie James of the Higher Point Christ Fellowship in the Northeast Denver area. Robbie was present at the Mission Alive Theology Lab last month and is the type of guy that you decide you like before you even get a chance to speak with him. My intuition was confirmed when shortly after his arrival, Robbie asked if he could borrow a copy of The Message from our table and I granted him permission but noted it was a only a copy of the New Testament. Robbie just smiled and replied, “That’s okay. I like the New Testament. It’s in my top two Testaments.” Robbie then went on to share that practicing the presence of the Mission of God begins by consistently being in an intimate relationship with the Father and being attuned and attentive to the Holy Spirit. Robbie said that practically he asks as he comes into each place, “Father, what are you already doing here?” Followed by the question, “Father, what have you authorized me to do here?”

I asked God what he was doing here and became distinctly aware that as I could not explain how or why my life path was crossing with the path of Steven Hayes at this moment, that perhaps God had ordered my steps in this direction on this day for a reason. In asking what I was authorized to do, I felt compelled to pray peace into this man’s life and found myself attempting to literally breathe the Spirit in His direction. I prayed that whatever he was being haunted by in the moment, that he might be able to experience a wave of peace, a release from the grip of anxiety as he awaited his fate. I wanted to speak to him, or perhaps to even physically touch him, but thought either of those actions were sure to get me kicked out of the Courthouse.

It was then that a Correctional Officer invited me to sit and pointed to a chair just outside the door of the inmate’s room. I suppose I should have felt fear, but instead readily accepted my seat and continued my prayer. The atmosphere reminded me of the film Dead Man Walking and of my interaction in 2002 with Sister Helen Prejean, the nun on whom the story is based, which forevermore changed my thoughts on capital punishment.

The Correctional Officer sat across from me looking directly at the prisoner and confirmed that the inmate was indeed Steven Hayes. I now fully realized that only a wall separated me from the killer, as he paced less than a yard away at times. I could see his reflection in a glass pane across from me and found myself studying him. Despite the awful atrocities that the man has committed, he appeared to be consumed with despair and perhaps remorse and I found myself wanting him to find forgiveness. Yet, feet from the man, I asked myself, would I die for him? Would I trade places with him if it meant saving him?

I thought of my beautiful family. Of Shepard, who at fifteen months gives Howard Dean-like squeals of delight when he sees a cookie or ice cream cone and wants to follow me wherever I go, including to work each morning. Of Clara, who proudly reported to strangers last weekend while visiting a children’s museum that “me and my dad, we’re two peas in a pod.” Of my strong and amazingly beautiful wife Jaime, who is my anchor and motivates me daily by the way she picks up her cross and yet still shares her contagious joy by laughing so genuinely that she inspires everyone to laugh along with her. Of our unborn child, whose own blessings we are just beginning to experience through fervent kicks from the womb. And quickly and resoundingly I knew that I would not die for this man Steven Hayes. Yet, the mind blowing truth is Christ did.

I was again struck by the amazing grace of our Lord and Savior. I was so dumbfounded for a moment that I barely registered the presence of four Correctional Officers who congregated to escort Hayes back to Court. Eventually another man, sharply dressed, referred to later by a Correctional Officer as the “Boss” entered the room. His pointed confidence was only briefly deterred when he questioned who I was, rightfully questioning the presence of the only non-officer to share this moment. A moment that I realized shortly thereafter, was the last moment Hayes had before learning that he would be executed by the State of Connecticut. Hayes walked inches in front of me as he was taken back into the Court to face his sentence and Dr. Petit, the man whose family he killed.

The experience of being in one’s presence while their fate is being decided by others, and knowing you are free to leave, is extremely powerful and humbling. And thus, in a strange way, I felt grateful to have been there. I could not however escape the weight of the encounter which affected the remainder of my day. Especially so, as I considered the fact that perhaps I had just participated in some level in a very real spiritual battle and hoped that I had acted as an acceptable proxy for the Kingdom of God. Therefore, I found solace in news that perhaps others found disturbing when I learned later that Hayes had reported after the sentencing that he felt “at peace” with the death penalty decision.

In mid-October, Jaime and I traveled to the Dallas-Fort Worth area for four days to participate in Mission Alive’s Theology Lab (which I hope to share much more about) and then I was off to Florida for three days traveling for my job. The sum total of flying around the country, some recent changes at work, the onset of my Seasonal Affective Disorder and finally Halloween resulted in a very chaotic few weeks of recovery.

Things got so busy that I didn’t even have time to shave. However, my facial hair hasn’t drawn too much attention for luckily it’s Novembeard! “No Shave November” is gaining steam as the month in which men, either for charity or just because they can, pledge not to shave for the month (or longer). I read somewhere that “No Shave November” has its organized origin in a 2003 Australian charity event, but certainly the idea of growing out a winter beard has been around as long as Father Time’s grizzled thatch.

Growing up in Southern California, I was unaware of the custom of seasonal bearding as we didn’t really have seasons. But I quickly became aware during our first autumn/winter in Montana in 2004, that the winter beard is no small matter. In honor of the opening of hunting season usually around September, all the real Montanan men and all those who wish to be, strike up a silent accord to let their stubble free as an expression of their God given masculinity. As the bristly whiskers become face swallowing tufts, wives kiss kissing goodbye until the Spring and the neo-Esaus head into the woods. It’s all quite entertaining. I definitely gave it a shot once or twice, but really couldn’t get past the itching and came to grips with the fact that my beard thickness is less than ideal. While some unshorn men could easily be mistaken for beasts or World Series closers, I feel my best attempts pale in comparison to Nixon’s five o’clock shadow.

Clara shows her feelings toward Novembeard's whiskery kisses

Yet here we are again. The cold weather beginning to bear down and my mixed feelings about to shave or not to shave. On one hand, we live in a hairless culture. We are bombarded by literally thousands of advertisements a day and unless the product being pushed is lumberjack related you will struggle to find any full bearded dudes in the commercials. So, it feels as if not shaving equates to laziness or being unkempt. On the other hand, just taking a week off from the razor is freeing, letting things be as nature designed, at least before the dreaded scratch kicks in. But I must admit each of my fall beard attempts begs to answer a deeper question. How do I measure up?

We all consistently compare ourselves to others, but I find particular intrigue in comparing myself to my father. There is something almost primal about wanting to understand where you come from and Dads, when they are around, are often the best source of that information. Specifically with my Dad, I grew up looking at a framed picture of a fully bearded Randall Fisher in a close-up engagement style photo with my mom, which I’m guessing was taken shortly before they were married in August 1982. My parents look happy in the picture, and how could my Dad not be when sitting next to a beautiful young lady and sporting a blond beard a lion would be proud of? If my time stamp of the photo is accurate, it would make my Dad 27 years old in the picture, the same age as he was when he got married. The same age I am now.

I frequently noticed that picture in my adolescence and wondered if someday I would be able to grow such a beard when I was 27. I suppose now I can find out, if only I could get over feeling like a scrub and the feeling of incessant itching. I doubt I’ll be able to last all November, especially since I got a head start by beginning the shave boycott in late October. But until the razor gets its revenge, I’ll be smiling as I recognize that my annual beard attempt is a tribute to the great Montana men I have grown to love as well as proof that after 27 years, I still want to be like my dad.