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Episode no. 1140

KIM LAWTON, guest anchor: Coming up — a new blood test may make it possible to know who’s likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease — but should people do it?

And a modern day circuit rider, spreading the word of God to churches that don’t have a full-time pastor.

Plus Buddhist techniques of meditation and mindfulness.

# # #

KIM LAWTON: Welcome. I’m Kim Lawton sitting in for Bob Abernethy. Thank you for joining us.

Political history this week as Barack Obama became the first African-American to be the likely Democratic nominee for president. In his victory speech, Obama urged that religion not be used as a wedge in this campaign. But religion has already provoked enormous debate. After months of controversy, Obama finally withdrew his membership at Trinity United Church of Christ. He said his family will probably not search for a new church home until after November. The apparent final straw was a guest sermon by a Catholic priest, Father Michael Pfleger, who mocked Hillary Clinton. In the wake of the incident, Chicago Cardinal Francis George relieved Pfleger of his pastoral duties for a couple of weeks.

# # #

KIM LAWTON: Meanwhile, Obama again reached out to the Jewish community with a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC. He reaffirmed a strong commitment to Israel. John McCain also spoke to the group, supporting a divestment campaign against Iran as a matter of, quote, “moral clarity.”

# # #

KIM LAWTON: In Rome, world leaders at a United Nations summit on the global food crisis pledged to fight spreading hunger and unrest. Much of the summit was bogged down in politics, but the group did agree to reduce trade barriers and increase agricultural production. Many in the humanitarian community said the pledge did not go far enough. They also criticized the participation of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad had requested a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI while he was in Rome, but the pope turned him down. The Vatican said Benedict did not have enough time to meet with all the leaders who wanted to greet him during the food summit.

# # #

KIM LAWTON: Benedict will have time for President Bush next week. Just two months after the Pope visited the White House, Bush will stop by the Vatican next Friday. This will be their third meeting.

# # #

KIM LAWTON: Five hundred Muslim scholars, clerics and political leaders from fifty nations gathered in Mecca in the first step toward a worldwide interfaith summit. The meeting was organized by Saudi King Abdullah. It was intended to promote reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims before the leaders begin talks with Christians and Jews. Abdullah told the gathering that Islam has to banish extremism and embrace coexistence.

# # #

KIM LAWTON: In this country, legal obstacles have been cleared for gay marriages to begin in California later this month. The state supreme court refused to delay its landmark decision allowing same-sex marriage, even though the issue will be on the ballot in November. The court’s ruling allows anyone, not just California residents, to marry there. Already some churches and reform synagogues have announced plans to conduct same-sex weddings. They say they’ve been flooded with requests.

# # #

KIM LAWTON: We have a story today about a potential moral dilemma for children of Alzheimer’s victims. If there were a test that could predict whether they were going to get the incurable disease too, should they take it? And what would they do if the test were positive? Bob Faw of NBC News has our report.

BOB FAW: As a surgeon, he was brilliant and beloved. But as his daughter watched in horror, Alzheimer’s robbed Jerome Donald Davis of his faculties and very identity.

SUSAN DAVIS: It’s a terrible thing to witness. It’s unspeakable. And the people who love you are in unbelievable pain. And it’s a terrible loss of dignity. And it’s protracted. And nobody can help. Medicine can’t help and science can’t help.

FAW: Eva Finelle’s mother — her best friend — now with Alzheimer’s, doesn’t even recognize her daughter.

EVA FINNELLE: She’s been the most wonderful person in my whole life. I’m living in a situation where I’m mourning somebody who’s still alive. And it’s an ongoing, everyday sadness that never goes away. I miss my mother and she’s still here.

FAW: The children of parents with Alzheimer’s live in mourning for them and in dread for themselves, any time even the simplest act is botched or memory fails.

Ms. FINNELLE: Every time those things happen to me, I wonder — is this — this is about the age my mother started showing signs of different things going wrong.

Ms. DAVIS: It’s in the back of my mind when I’m standing, like everybody, in my kitchen thinking to myself, “Why did I come in this room?” I know that happens to everybody. But it chills me when it happens to me.

FAW: The fear is understandable since Alzheimer’s often runs in families.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1 (to Unidentified Woman #2): And what day of the week is today?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I’ll guess.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: That’s fine.

FAW: Five million Americans are afflicted by the disease for which there is no treatment and no cure. As Dr. James Burke of Duke University points out, its effects on the brain are devastating.

Dr. JAMES BURKE (Director of the Clinical CORE, Bryan Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, Duke University Medical Center): So, this is a normal brain. It weighs over two pounds. And this is an Alzheimer’s brain that’s lost probably about 50 percent of the total brain weight.

FAW: Now a promising blood test is being refined, which in time could accurately predict even years before symptoms occur who will develop Alzheimer’s. It’s a breakthrough, which ethicist Nancy Kader says could be liberating.

NANCY KADER (Center for the Study of Ethics): I think the patient kind of has a personal responsibility to learn these kinds of things so that they can prepare themselves and prepare their loved ones.

FAW (to Ms. Kader): So, if I don’t take the test, then in some way I’m shortchanging my family?

Ms. KADER: Absolutely. I think that it’s a little bit shortsighted to just think of it in terms of myself — what do I want to know about myself, versus what do the others around me need to know in order to help me make the right choices?

FAW: Indeed, for some, like Eva Finelle, the decision to take such a test is easy.

Ms. FINNELLE: I want to know. I want to know. I don’t want my family, my children to go through what I’ve gone though. It would give me preparation time to do what I want to do, to say what I want to say, to get my affairs in order, so to speak, for when I can’t think for myself.

FAW: For others though, like Susan Davis almost as old now as her father was when he started showing signs of the disease, the prospect of such a test is agonizing.

Ms. DAVIS: Hit the music…

FAW: Now a successful producer at North Carolina Public Radio and the mother of two, Susan Davis says that learning she might develop Alzheimer’s would not be a source of comfort, but alarm.

Ms. DAVIS: I could find this out. And it really means nothing. It means nothing until they know what it means or until they can do something.

FAW (to Ms. Davis): Knowing that you might get it, it wouldn’t be helpful?

Ms. DAVIS: You know what this would do? This might drive me crazy.

FAW: Most of all, says Davis, if she learned she’ll develop Alzheimer’s that would be a cruel, ethical dilemma: wait for the disease or take her life?

Ms. DAVIS: What’s worse for my kids? To watch me deteriorate or to try and understand that I took myself from them before I deteriorated? I mean, it’s two lousy options. Who knows which of these traumas is better to overcome: your mother killing herself; or your mother dying this excruciating death?

FAW: The moral quandary facing Davis and how others might respond when confronted with the same kind of news, troubles doctors like James Burke.

Dr. BURKE: The downside to symptomatic or early symptomatic testing is that there is no intervention that we can do at this time. Taking away people’s hope is not something to be done lightly.

FAW: And, says Burke, since some patients cannot handle the emotional burden those test results might reveal . . .

Dr. BURKE: I would not perform the test because I wouldn’t feel confident about what you do with the results.

FAW: And with more tests predicting more diseases, questions are raised about how test results will be used. This man has not been tested for Alzheimer’s, but when his insurance company learned several of his relatives have the disease.

JOHN: We were denied because of Alzheimer’s in the family.

FAW (to Unidentified Man): They told you, point blank?

JOHN: Yes. Yes.

FAW: And even the prospect that he might develop Alzheimer’s has already cost him dearly.

JOHN: The few friends that I’ve told in the past are no longer friends. You know, because they, I had one put it to me as, “You know, why would we want to get attached to somebody that’s not going to be here, you know?”

FAW: It’s an ethical minefield then which will continue to explode. By the year 2050, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s is expected to triple. So many afflicted, some say we now need to redefine our entire approach to the disease.

Ms. KADER: It’s something that we’re all going to face at some point. If we don’t have Alzheimer’s we may still — there are other reasons we may begin to lose some of our faculties as we age. And so I think we need to look at it as the whole spectrum of life.

Dr. BURKE: Maybe we’re expecting too much of the brain. We don’t expect the heart to function the way it did when you were 20. We don’t expect the liver and the kidneys to function. And so I think that we should expect some age-related changes. But because the brain so much determines who we are, it really places questions on our personhood.

FAW: Sometimes even defining “personhood.”

JOHN: I live with it everyday — think about it everyday.

FAW (to John): How frightened are you?

JOHN: A scale of one to 10 — nine-and-a-half.

FAW (to John): The odds are against you?

JOHN: Extremely.

JOHN’S WIFE: I’m just praying that it doesn’t happen — that it’s not going to occur.

FAW (to John’s Wife): And if the test shows that it did?

JOHN’S WIFE: Then everything would change.

FAW: Just as a new diagnostic tool, charting what can happen to the brain heralds another kind of change: knowledge, bringing relief to some and to others, fear.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Bob Faw in Durham, North Carolina.

# # #

KIM LAWTON: They were once called circuit riders — itinerant preachers who went from town to town in 19th-century America to spread the Gospel. A few are still around today, although they’ve switched from horseback to automobile. They serve the same purpose they always have: to bring spiritual support to people with no fulltime minister. Lucky Severson caught up with David Brown, a modern-day circuit rider in Mississippi.

LUCKY SEVERSON: Sunday morning at the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Vicksburg, Mississippi; Pastor David Brown had already driven 80 miles in his aging Chevy when he arrived in this old Civil War town, past the cannon, past the graves of the war dead.

Bethlehem is a small but proud congregation founded by former slaves in 1866. This is the first stop of what for Pastor Brown will be a very long day.

Pastor DAVID BROWN: OK, I got three services today. I know I’ve got to go from nine o’clock until nine o’clock. That’s 12 hours.

SEVERSON: The service, which began at 11, won’t end until after one. He’s got two more before the day is done. In all, Brown is pastor of seven churches in Mississippi and Louisiana. On days when he’s not there, they go to Sunday school. But, he visits each church at least once month, with all his heart and soul.

Pastor BROWN (singing before congregation): Yeah, I been sometimes up, sometimes down, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but I got somebody. He takes me in His arms. He rocks me when I’m weary. He tells me that I’m his own. Oh He’s all right. He’s all right. Oh yeah!

SEVERSON: He gets pretty worked up when he preaches doesn’t he?

MATTIE BROWN (Congregation Member, Bethlehem Baptist Church, Vicksburg, MS): Yeah he does. He’s a powerful preacher. He’s a God-sent man.

SEVERSON: The tradition of circuit riders, or pastors on horseback, began with Methodist preachers in the early 19th century. After the Civil War, former slaves were allowed to have churches on the plantations. But the congregations were too small and too poor to afford full-time preachers.

Hollywood portrayed the circuit rider as a tough guy who rode into town . . .

(film clip from “Pale Rider)

. . . took on the bad guys . . . .

UNIDENTIFIED MAN (from film “Pale Rider”): Sarah, he saved my life.

SEVERSON: . . . and lo and behold, he turns out to be a preacher.

CLINT EASTWOOD (from film “Pale Rider”): Good evening. Hope I’m not the cause of all this excitement.

SEVERSON: The reality was not so glamorous. In their lifetime, the preachers often traveled thousands of miles on horseback from one small town to another. No one seems to know how many circuit preachers there are today.

After lunch at a fast food joint, Pastor Brown is on the road again — 30 miles to his next stop across the Mississippi River back into Louisiana. He was one of 12 children, with preachers and deacons on both sides of the family. He says it’s in his blood.

Pastor BROWN: You think about it sometimes. You get real worn out and you think about what I could do better. This is what the Lord has given you. That keeps you going.

SEVERSON: His wife Gwendolyn thinks he goes too much.

GWENDOLYN BROWN: He doesn’t say “no” a lot. Sometimes he’s overbooked. But he feels he owes it to the community because God has called him to do a mission.

SEVERSON: He often works late into the night preparing his sermons — a different one for each church.

This is pastor Brown’s second stop of the day, the Pleasant Grove Baptists Church number two in Tallulah, Louisiana. The congregation here is very small and would have a difficult time supporting a fulltime preacher. So, for the people here, Pastor Brown is a godsend.

What are you going to talk about here?

Pastor BROWN: I’m going to talk about “Not without God.” Without God, it’s impossible to do anything.

SEVERSON: Tallulah had seen better days before the saw mill closed, and the jobs moved away. But the pastor tells his people not to give up on God.

Pastor BROWN (preaching to congregation): I come to tell you this afternoon the world’s greatest need is God, not gold, but God. Not silver, but salvation. Not lumber, but love. Not gas, but grace. I come to tell you this afternoon, without God, we just can’t do nothing.

SEVERSON: Brown likely would have made a better living if he had become a mortician as he originally planned. His earnings as a circuit preacher amount to whatever is in the collection plate, which is usually not enough. His wife has cancer. He has high blood pressure, diabetes and no health insurance.

Pastor BROWN: You’ve got to believe that at the end of the day the Lord’s going to provide enough for me, for what I need next week. When we praise, we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” So I expect him to provide for me and my family what I’m going to need this week. And then next Sunday he’ll provide again for the next week. And it’s always happened that way for 31 y ears.

SEVERSON: He augments his meager income by selling CDs of his sermons. He also preaches at revivals throughout the region. But his job as pastor demands much more than one day a week.

(speaking to Pammy Hall): If you have need of a preacher during the week, is that a problem if he’s not here?

PAMMY HALL: Oh no. If you need him and you call him and he knows about it, he may not get the call when you call him, but if he knows that you need him, he will call you back and he will be there.

SEVERSON: During the week when he’s not preaching, he marries people and buries people, often traveling many miles. On this day he’s making a house call to pray with a man who just had an eye operation.

Pastor BROWN (praying at Mitchell house): We pray for this family. We pray for all who come through these doors. In the powerful name of Jesus, we pray Amen. Amen.

SEVERSON: At one point he was getting so many speeding tickets the state threatened to suspend his license for seven years. Now he gets along well with the state police.

MITCHELL FAMILY (in unison): Amen.

Pastor BROWN: Most of them knew my car, you know what I mean.

SEVERSON: There goes Pastor Brown, speeding down the road?

Pastor BROWN: Yeah, speeding again. He tells me, “You’d better slow it down pastor.” Sometimes they pull up alongside, point their finger at me and stuff like that.

SEVERSON: His third service of the day — back in Vicksburg at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. By now it is late afternoon. As with most churches he pastors, there are fewer members today than a few years.

Pastor BROWN: I’ve had people ask me, from the larger congregations, “Why do you preach so passionately to a few people, like you do when there’s a crowd of people?” I say, “Everybody’s just as important. There’s just more of them. That’s the only difference.” They have souls that need to be fed, and they have needs that need to be met. And the Word has to get to them. I look at it as a life and death situation.

SEVERSON: And as the churches get smaller, and Pastor Brown gets older and wearier, members get worried.

HOOVER YOUNGER (Congregation Member, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Vicksburg, MS): I told him, I said, “I can understand you’re getting old. I done reached old–but still more work to be done.

WILLIE HENRY SMITH, SR (Congregation Member, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Vicksburg, MS): I would to God that Reverend Brown would stay here for a lifetime. But as you know, we’re all going to pass off the scene. After he’s gone, we’re still going to have somebody else here to carry on. But see — because the church must go on. You still got to have somebody else that you can put your trust in and believe in.

Pastor BROWN (singing before congregation): When I come down, down to my last month, come down to my last hour, come down to my last minute, my last second, I want Jesus! I want Jesus! I want Jesus! I want Jesus. Oh, I want Jesus!

SEVERSON: This was his third sermon and he’s still wound up.

Pastor BROWN: It’s a passion. It’s a love that you develop for the people. This is something you just can’t quit. They say, “Well, how do you get into the ministry?” I tell them that the ministry gets you. You don’t get the ministry. It gets you.

SEVERSON: Finally, another Sunday, done. Tired but satisfied.

Pastor BROWN: I guess this is it for today. Well, I’m going to head back to Monroe.

SEVERSON: It’s 7:30 in the evening, and he still has an 80-mile drive home. The churches count on him to return, sometime soon. But someday he’ll cross the Mississippi River and he won’t come back. Who will take his place?

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Lucky Severson in Vicksburg Mississippi.

# # #

KIM LAWTON: On our calendar, the Jewish holiday of Shavuot begins at sundown on Monday.

Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah to Moses and the Jewish people.

# # #

KIM LAWTON: : Every year, in New York’s Central Park, the Buddhist magazine Tricycle sponsors a demonstration of Buddhist practices called “Change Your Mind Day.” That refers not to conversion but to exploring ways to become more mindful, more fully aware. And, to meditate. We talked with Jane Smith, an architect, about the kind of Buddhism she practices — Zen.

JANE SMITH: I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition and loved it. But then, when I came to New York, I thought, I’ve got to figure out a way to be able to handle these stresses that I’m taking on. And so, I started thinking what can I do in order to release the tension and yet still be able to embrace the joy of doing what I really love to do, which is the architecture, and the creative skills and the challenge of being in an intense workplace and taking on New York? So, I really went on a quest.

The Zen practice and the Buddhist tradition is based on nature and space and simplicity. It really was life-changing, mind-changing for me. One of the big differences for me, between the two traditions, is the idea of how we’re born. In the Western tradition, there is the idea of original sin. The Eastern tradition comes from the point of view that we’re born perfect, and every moment is really complete and perfect.

Now, my practice is part of my day-to-day life. I get up very early in the morning, and I sit for a half an hour, with my legs crossed.

When you do meditation practice, there’s a lot of pain. You’re sitting there, cross-legged, which is not a Western way of sitting. You look at the pain in the knee, and you witness, “That’s pain in my knee.” It’s really amazing that, as you look at it, in this kind of non-judgmental, not clenching around it, freaking out, it starts releasing.

And that’s the same thing with our thought. Things come up — the stresses that are coming up through the day. But, as something comes up, the practice is to allow it to be there, like the clouds that move overhead. The clouds come and you see them and then they pass away. And so, if an anxiety comes up, I look at it, and by looking at it, it really, it diffuses and moves on. And then I have a moment of, and maybe it’s a small moment, of just peace and relaxation. But, it clears my head. It makes me realize again, what’s important to me in life — being aware of every sound and everything that’s going on around you. And as you do that, you let go of the difference between yourself and the other things out there. You become the sounds on the street. But again, it doesn’t last because we’re in our human nature. And, our human nature is to keep pushing ourselves down, being really tough on ourselves. And I’m, you know, boy, I’m big on that one.

How do you not be a bystander in your life, but to be an active participant in your life? What I get from Zen Buddhism is the ability to live this life, this moment, now. To really appreciate everything as it happens in front of me, and to be able to have the tools to embrace it. That’s it; that’s it for me.

# # #

KIM LAWTON: Finally, Golf Digest is issuing an apology after offending the American Sikh community with an article featuring a golf guru. The article used the image of a South Asian man holding a golf club and wearing a golf glove. Alert readers noticed the man looked suspiciously like Sikhism’s fifth prophet, Guru Arjan Dev Ji. Sikhs protested, calling the image a desecration. Manjit Singh of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund says they’re pleased with Golf Digest’s quick response — especially, he says, because golfing is huge in the Sikh community.

# # #

KIM LAWTON: That’s our program for now. I’m Kim Lawton.

There’s much more on our Web site, including more on religion and politics on our One Nation page. Audio and video podcasts of the program are also available. Join us at pbs.org.

As we leave you, music from one of David Brown’s congregation in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

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