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Episode no. 1142

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Coming up — teeming — Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The refugees want the right to return to Israel, but Israel fears that could challenge its security and identity.

And a Texas pastor, white and well-off, at an upscale church who got to know and admire an itinerant black pastor.

Pastor JOHN ROBBINS (Marvin United Methodist Church): He continues to have such a great faith and a willingness to have such passion for what he believes in, and I want to be like that.

# # #

BOB ABERNETHY: Welcome. I’m Bob Abernethy. It’s good to have you with us.

Suddenly this week there were new steps toward peace in the Middle East. A truce between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, took effect Thursday. The two sides agreed to a cease fire, and Israel said it will eventually ease a blockade of food and fuel to Gaza. Leaders expressed hope that the fragile agreement will hold.

At the same time, Israel is negotiating with the militant Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah for a prisoner exchange and has offered to begin direct peace talks with Lebanon. Turkey has also been mediating peace talks between Israel and Syria.

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BOB ABERNETHY: In the U.S., California became the second state after Massachusetts to legalize gay marriage. Gay couples wed in ceremonies throughout the state, and activists called it a major victory for civil rights. Some clergy agreed and even officiated at weddings. A UCLA study estimates that about 50,000 gay California couples will marry in the next three years and an additional 68,000 couples will travel to the state to marry. California does not have a residency requirement for marriage.

Meanwhile, opponents protested the state supreme court decision allowing same-sex marriage and urged support for a November ballot measure that would make gay marriage unconstitutional. Seven of the state’s Roman Catholic bishops released a joint statement saying marriage is the union of a man and a woman.

Marriage is both a legal matter, licensed by the state, and also traditionally, for many, a sacrament ordained by God. So where gay marriage is legal a gay couple can get a license and have a wedding with legal rights and benefits, just like a heterosexual couple. But gays may not be able to be married in a house of worship. When it comes to permitting a religious wedding ceremony or blessing, that’s up to each denomination. Thus, this week, a Methodist clergy woman in California lamented to The New York Times: “I can bless a car, and I have. I’ve been asked to bless animals, children, homes. But I can’t bless a gay or lesbian couple?”

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BOB ABERNETHY: Meanwhile in the Midwest, religious groups have rushed to the aid of thousands of people left vulnerable by massive flooding. About two dozen people have died and tens of thousands forced from their homes as rivers overflowed in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. The United Methodist Committee on Relief and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance were among the groups sending volunteers and money. The Council on American-Islamic Relations also called for donations to help flood victims and to rebuild one of the country’s first mosques that was damaged, the Mother Mosque of America in Cedar Rapids.

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BOB ABERNETHY: In Chicago, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Senator Barack Obama, gave a Father’s Day sermon in which he said too many African-American fathers are not taking responsibility for their children.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (D-IL): What makes you a man is not the ability to have a child. Any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise the child that makes you a father.

ABERNETHY: Obama spoke at one of Chicago’s largest churches, the predominantly African-American Apostolic Church of God.

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BOB ABERNETHY: In Texas, the cost of the April raid on a polygamist compound is expected to exceed $14 million according to an analysis by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The raid led to one of the largest state custody cases in history when officials separated hundreds of children from their mothers. The state argued that the children were in danger of abuse if they remained among members of the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Texas Supreme Court later said officials had overstepped their authority.

All of the children have since been returned to their mothers.

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BOB ABERNETHY: In Zimbabwe, aid groups are protesting President Robert Mugabe’s decision to ban them from the country. Mugabe said humanitarian groups had conspired against his government. The country has been in crisis since March, when Mugabe refused to release the results of a presidential election. The UN says Zimbabwe is on the verge of a major food crisis. This week, the Nelson Mandela Foundation joined retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a call to end the violence and allow aid agencies back into the country.

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BOB ABERNETHY: The UN said this week that the number of refugees worldwide rose for the second year in a row. More than 11 million people were living outside their home countries as refugees in 2007, many of them forced to flee violent conflicts. Officials said the increases could be the start of a pattern as countries also try to cope with climate change and dwindling resources.

Of all the world’s refugees, the plight of the Palestinians may be the most long-running, and dangerous. When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, 700,000 Palestinians chose to leave their homes, or were forced out. Now, that population has grown to four-and-a-half million, scattered throughout the Middle East, many of them in crowded refugee camps. We have a special report today from Kate Seelye in Lebanon.

KATE SEELYE: In a refugee camp in Lebanon, Palestinians demand the right of return to homes from which their ancestors fled or were expelled during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

That was 60 years ago — a date that marks the anniversary of the founding of the Jewish State.

To the Palestinians it’s known as the “nakba,” which in Arabic translates as the “catastrophe.”

This 19-year-old says her family fled from Acre in what was once Palestine.

JAMAL SALHANI (Refugee): My dream is to return to my land, to my home. It’s my only dream. I want to achieve it.

SEELYE: For the past six decades, the story of the Palestinian exile has been passed down from generation to generation.

Parents teach their children about the birth of the refugee crisis — young people keep traditions, like this Debke dance, alive.

There are some four and a half million Palestinian refugees. Many live in the West Bank and Gaza. Others took refuge in Arab states. Some 300,000 are crammed into 12 refugee camps here in Lebanon. This is the Bourj al Barajneh Camp in a Beirut suburb, where Olfat Mahmoud grew up.

OLFAT MAHMOUD (Director, Women’s Humanitarian Organization): People never thought they would stay so long, for 60 years — always they hoped next year, next year. So, it’s overcrowded no privacy in the camp, no drinking water, no electricity.

SEELYE: That’s because the camps, established in the late 40s, weren’t meant to be permanent. So the Lebanese government bans any changes — building is illegal, but people build anyway — upwards. The government refuses to provide electricity, so refugees run their own network.

Ms. MAHMOUD: It’s a big prison with a little bit of freedom.

SEELYE: Mahmoud heads a woman’s charity here. It provides counseling, as well as home economic classes, like this one.

The community has become more religiously conservative with time, she says. More and more women are donning the headscarf. Depression is a big problem.

Ms. MAHMOUD: You go to people’s homes at 12 midday — people are asleep — sleeping, sleeping, sleeping. And this their way to run away from the reality.

SEELYE: And extremism is on the rise. Outside Mahmoud’s Center are posters celebrating suicide bombers and the fundamentalist Islamist group, Hamas. Mahmoud says the refugees are losing hope.

Ms. MAHMOUD: So, people have been really for many years waiting for a solution, and they have this hope, they live for this hope. But unfortunately, always they get disappointed. So I use now a term — it’s a funny term — I say, “My hopes are frozen.”

SEELYE: Solving the refugee question is key to any settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There are many stumbling blocks. Among them, the future of Jerusalem and the final borders of a Palestinian state.

But the most emotional and arguably the most difficult issue may be the refugee question.

MURIEL ASSEBURG (Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Middle East Center): It’s so intricately linked to the Israeli, but also the Palestinian collective identity, the reading of history, the narrative, if you want.

SEELYE: Given the different narratives, it’s no surprise the refugee issue is so contested. Palestinians demand the implementation of UN Resolution 194, passed in 1948. It states Palestinians have a right to return to their homes if they are willing to live in peace with their neighbors. Israel views the resolution and the possibility that millions of refugees might return, as a threat to its existence.

Ms. ASSEBURG: And that’s what frightens the Israelis — the idea that the Israeli state is a state for the Jews. A Jewish state that will protect them, be a homeland to them, could be undermined — this is their reading — by a massive return of Palestinian refugees.

SEELYE: In the meantime, Palestinians in Lebanon face great hardship. Their camps still bear the scars of Lebanon’s long civil war and Israel’s invasion in 1982. While Israeli forces controlled the area, a Lebanese militia entered this camp, Shatila, and carried out a massacre.

Unlike some Arab countries, like Jordan, Lebanon won’t grant citizenship to its refugees. Lebanon is home to many different religious communities. There’s fear the delicate sectarian balance here could be threatened by naturalizing Palestinians, who are mainly Sunni Muslim. That’s according to this camp resident.

BASHIR MAHMOUD FAAR (through translator, Resident, Bourj al Barajneh Camp): The Lebanese are terrible to us. They don’t like us. As long as you have a Palestinian ID, you’ll never be accepted.

SEELYE: Palestinians have no legal status. They’re not allowed to own property or compete for jobs.

This refugee earns a little more than $200 a month giving private lessons at home.

IBRAHIM MAROUF (Shatila Resident): I have three certificates. This one is from the Beirut Professional Center and it’s for business accounting or chief accounting.

SEELYE: But like most men in Shatila Camp, Marouf can’t find decent work.

Mr. MAROUF: If me and you now began to count the jobs that I am not allowed to work with they are too much — seventy-three. I don’t have the right of a human — that mean that I’m not a human. Sometimes we feel that we are already dead but we don’t know that yet.

SEELYE: Unemployment is believed to be as high as 70 percent among the refugees. Making them highly dependent on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, established in 1950.

UNRWA runs schools, like this one in Shatila. It also provides social services, emergency aid and health care to Palestinian refugees throughout the region. But while the population has grown, UNRWA’s budget hasn’t kept pace. Clinics like these are overcrowded and UNRWA provides only limited hospital care.

WAFA ABDEL MALIK (UNRWA Nurse): Sometimes our doctors see more than 100 patients per day, too much patient. If one patient only says “Hi” for the doctor, time’s over.

SEELYE: According to UNRWA officials the international community has grown tired of giving.

RICHARD COOK (Director of UNRWA Affairs, Lebanon): The financial situation has been a chronic one — a chronic situation of underfunding for decades and — but particularly the last two decades, I would say.

SEELYE: This is the world’s longest running refugee crisis. And it’s racked up a big bill.

Mr. COOK: Roughly $10.5 billion dollars has been spent by UNRWA since its coming to being in 1950. Something should have been done in the last 60 years to resolve this issue. We’ve come very close, but not close enough.

SEELYE: The last major peace talks that promised a breakthrough were held in 2000 and 2001. The negotiating teams discussed several formulas and options for the refugees.

RAMI KHOURY (Director, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy, American University of Beirut): You have a limited return to Israel itself — their original homes in Palestine; compensation; monetary compensation; restitution of property; third-party resettlement; living in other countries Canada, Australia, whatever. The creation of a Palestinian state where you have your own Palestinian government — you can go to that country if you want, but if you live overseas you also get the protection of that government and its passport.

SEELYE: Khoury, who is of Palestinian origin, says the return of only a limited number of refugees would be acceptable if Israel recognized — at least in principle — the right of Palestinians to return. He says Israel must also admit its role in displacing them.

Mr. KHOURY: Acknowledgment is absolutely the linchpin of finding a resolution. Acknowledging what was done — what the Israelis — what they did in ’47 and ’48 has to be acknowledged because it is part of the essential rehumanization of an entire people who have been dehumanized and treated like animals.

SEELYE: But Muriel Asseburg says assigning guilt is a non-starter for the Israelis, who point to the 600,000 Jews who left or were forced to leave Arab countries. Laying blame won’t serve the refugees.

Ms. ASSEBURG: I think that it will indeed be very, very difficult to bridge the narratives but it will be feasible, however, to solve or to find a settlement for the practical questions. And the practical questions to my opinion are more important and that it is giving refugees a perspective, a horizon, a life in the future.

SEELYE: Back in Lebanon’s refugee camps, some say they are ready for practical solutions.

Mr. FAAR (through translator): If anyone you ask whether they would choose Palestine or Europe, they would choose Europe. Palestine is a dream we’re not going to see it. We want Europe. We want to wake up in the morning to the sound of birds, not to the sound of tomato vendors.

SEELYE: But it’s unlikely Palestinian leaders will give up a right — the right of return — which they say is backed by international law and Israelis are not likely to risk what they claim is at stake — Israel’s security and identity.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Kate Seelye in Beirut.

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BOB ABERNETHY: Sometimes, the stories we tell on this program have a dramatic effect — as one did last summer about a struggling, itinerant black pastor in Louisiana, a modern-day circuit rider — driving his old car from one poor, little church to another, every Sunday. That story was seen by a white pastor in Texas with a large upscale congregation. And, Lucky Severson tells what happened.

LUCKY SEVERSON: David Brown a modern-day circuit rider, pastor of seven Baptist congregations in Mississippi and Louisiana. Every Sunday he visits at least three of them, driving hundreds of miles in his battered Chevrolet.

Pastor DAVID BROWN (preaching): I want Jesus, I want Jesus, I want Jesus, Aaaah, I want Jesus.

SEVERSON: What he earns is whatever goes into the collection plate. Pastor Brown has high blood pressure, diabetes — and no health insurance. He is dedicated to serving congregations that are too small to have a pastor of their own.

Pastor JOHN ROBBINS (Marvin United Methodist Church): Good evening, Marvin Church. . .

SEVERSON: Three hundred miles away, in Tyler, Texas, John Robbins is pastor of Marvin United Methodist Church, a mostly white congregation of 3,000 people.

Pastor ROBBINS (to congregation): Now I have a nice church with a steady salary, with insurance, a pension plan, a great staff. Pastor Brown doesn’t have those luxuries.

Pastor BROWN (preaching): Well, 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.

SEVERSON: Last summer, when we first reported on the ministry of Pastor Brown, Pastor Robbins was watching. And he says he has watched the segment over and over since then.

Pastor ROBBINS (to congregation): He said several things in there that absolutely changed me. I needed to get in touch with him. I needed to let him know that just watching him on television made a difference in my life.

SEVERSON: Pastor Robbins has a well-heeled congregation. A lot of doctors, lawyers, oil company executives. But he says they give generously of their time and money to charities and causes. The latest cause is Pastor David Brown.

Pastor ROBBINS (to Pastor Brown): I’m glad you guys made it. We’ve been waiting for you a long time now. Everybody in the church has been waiting for you.

SEVERSON: Robbins tracked him down, and after a series of phone conversations, invited Brown to come preach to his congregation.

Pastor ROBBINS (to Pastor Brown): And, I want to take you down to the sanctuary. I want you to see the beautiful sanctuary.

SEVERSON: He and his wife Gwendolyn arrived in a borrowed car because the transmission in his well-used Chevy finally gave out on him.

Pastor ROBBINS: Pastor Brown, Gwendolyn, what do you think? Beautiful, isn’t it?

GWENDOLYN BROWN: Ohh. Beautiful.

Pastor BROWN: Oh man.

Pastor ROBBINS: This is it, and the beautiful stained glass from the floor all the way to the ceiling.

Pastor BROWN : I’ve only seen stuff like this on television, in books and stuff.

Pastor ROBBINS (to Pastor Brown): Let me see how you look up there. You look like a preacher.

SEVERSON: Brown told us that coming here was one of the highlights of his life. And that his brand of preaching would be a new experience for a congregation like the one here.

Pastor BROWN : It’s going to be different, yeah it’s going to be different — because like I say I’m from a different era, so to speak — because I’m what they call — where I live — I’m what they call “old school.”

Pastor ROBBINS (to congregation): Please be seated.

SEVERSON: Robbins, on the other hand, is new school. He has a Doctorate in Theology from Southern Methodist University. But he found inspiration in the life and ministry of Pastor Brown. Robbins friends say he has found a mentor.

Pastor ROBBINS: I have a lot of stability in my life when it comes to those worldly kinds of things. And this is a man who lives from hand to mouth. This is a man who tries to find a way to get from one church to the next in a broken down, worn-out car that may or may not make it to the next stop. And yet he continues to have such a great faith and a willingness to have such passion for what he believes in. And I want to be like that.

SEVERSON (to Pastor Brown): You’re a black Baptist preacher from Louisiana preaching to a mostly white congregation. There’s something a little unusual about that picture.

Pastor BROWN : Yeah it is, it is — but they all have one thing in common. They have souls that need the Gospel and I’m here to deliver it.

Pastor ROBBINS (to congregation): It is truly, truly for me an honor and privilege to have you here, and for Pastor Brown, for you to stand in my pulpit.

Pastor ROBBINS: We have an obligation to interact with each other. We have an obligation to worship with each other because we all believe in the same God we know through Jesus Christ. We can feel comfortable in a restaurant with people who look different from us; we can go to school with kids who look different from us; we can even go to the mall and shop with people who are different from us; but on Sunday morning we still all believe, generally speaking, that we have to look alike.

Pastor BROWN (to congregation): What a mighty God we serve. He is good in His greatness and great in His goodness. And His mercy endures forever.

SEVERSON: Members here had already sent Pastor Brown several hundred dollars to help with his ministry. Pastor Robbins suggested they might want to be extra generous when the collection plates were passed around before the circuit preacher gave his sermon. And what a sermon it was.

Pastor BROWN (preaching): I want to see Jesus, yes I do. I want to see him. Yeeees, I want to see him tonight. If anybody here, if you want to see Jesus you ought to stand on your feet. I want to see Jesus. Oh that man. Ooooh that man, ooooh that man, ooooh that man, that man from Galilee. I want to see Jesus.

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.”

(preaching) I heard that there was a strange man came to this big church. He went to sit in one place and he said, “No you can’t sit — that’s the Chairman of the Board’s place. You can’t sit there.” He moved again. He said, “Well, that’s the Chairman of the Finance Committee’s seat. Finally one of the member’s came over and said, “Stranger, what happened to you — you got holes in your hands, holes in your feet?” He said, “Over 2008 years ago, I took your place on a Roman cross.” What am I saying? He took our place. He died in our stead. And we ought to live for him. Alright? Praise the Lord. May God bless you.

SEVERSON: The members we spoke with were not disappointed — not with the message, not with the messenger.

PAT THOMAS: Did you feel how he energizes the place? I mean, he makes the Bible come alive. He made it come alive. And, he had no color.

MARY DALE THOMAS: This man is — we could call him a missionary to the Methodists.

JAN MCCAULEY: We can live in a very insular world if we’re not careful. And that the vast majority of the world, 99 percent of the world, is not our world.

SEVERSON: The offering on Pastor Brown’s behalf amounted to over $14,000. When he got back to Louisiana the pastor immediately got his transmission fixed — but then learned he needed a new engine. That may not be necessary because church members are now raising additional money to buy him a new car.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Lucky Severson reporting.

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BOB ABERNETHY: That’s our program for now. I’m Bob Abernethy. There’s much more on our Web site, including more on religion and politics, and a special story about memorial services to honor people who have donated their bodies to science. Audio and video podcasts of the program are also available. Join us at

As we leave you, a salute to Gospel music at the White House this week. The performers joined in a chorus of, “O Happy Day.”


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