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Episode no. 1136

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Coming up — the government wants to build a wall through this border town to keep out illegal immigrants. Residents complain it will split their Mexican and U.S. communities.

Mayor CHAD FOSTER (Eagle Pass): As if I were to put a wall up between my house and my brother’s house.

ABERNETHY: Also, the argument about how the U.S. should help the world’s hungry — with commodities or with cash?

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

Humanitarian groups from around the world are working to reach survivors of the deadly cyclone that last week devastated Myanmar, also known as Burma. Donations are pouring in from across the globe, but much of the aid can’t reach the survivors because Myanmar’s isolationist military dictators have been withholding visas from aid workers for fear of outside political influence. Food, clean water and temporary shelters are piling up in bordering countries. Humanitarian officials say the impasse is endangering the one million survivors in need of emergency help, among them many who were injured.

U.S. relief has so far been blocked. President Bush and other world leaders have called on the Myanmar government to loosen its restrictions. Aid workers who were already there say it’s been difficult to reach the worst-hit regions. They’re also warning of widespread starvation, because the cyclone and tidal wave whipped through Myanmar’s main rice-growing region.

ABERNETHY: David Beckmann of Bread for the World.

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BOB ABERNETHY: Myanmar’s crisis comes as many other countries are facing their own food shortages. Leaders of Asian countries meeting last week declared that one billion people in Asia are being affected by the worldwide spike in food costs. In Africa, in Somalia and elsewhere, new protests broke out over the prices.

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BOB ABERNETHY: New political symbolism this week for the Olympic torch. A team carrying the flame scaled the summit of Mount Everest. There, a Tibetan woman held the torch and, with her Chinese teammates, shouted “Long live Tibet! Long live Beijing!” The torch relay will now traverse China until the summer Olympics begin in August. Several international legs of the tour were disrupted by protests against China’s crackdown on Buddhist Tibet.

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BOB ABERNETHY: Also this week, the Chinese sent a gesture of goodwill to the Vatican in the form of the China Philharmonic Orchestra performing for Pope Benedict. Many analysts say the concert is an effort at better relations between communist China and the Vatican.

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BOB ABERNETHY: Earlier at the Vatican, Pope Benedict met with Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams who said the two discussed Christian relations with Islam at their closed-door session. Williams is a long-time supporter of interfaith dialogue, but Benedict has been criticized for causing tensions with the Islamic world. The Pope is scheduled to meet with Muslim scholars later this year.

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BOB ABERNETHY: Vatican officials have asked Catholic dioceses worldwide to stop sharing their church registries with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons. The Mormon Church has used Catholic parish records to trace the genealogies of its members, and sometimes to baptize the member’s relatives as Mormons after they’ve died. They believe the posthumous baptisms will allow family members to be reunited in heaven. Mormon officials have said that the baptisms are an offer of membership that anyone in the afterlife can reject.

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BOB ABERNETHY: In Israel, countrywide celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state. Israelis marked Independence Day with picnics and barbecues. Official celebrations included elaborate military tributes. The events took place as peace negotiations with Palestinians have stalled. Security was tight to prevent terrorist attacks. Several world leaders, including President Bush, will gather in Israel next week for more celebrations.

A rarely-seen section of the Dead Sea Scrolls will be displayed for that occasion. The segment, from Psalm 133, reads: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

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BOB ABERNETHY: We have a story today about other people wrestling with the notion of brotherly dwelling. They’re Americans and Mexicans whose community is about to be bisected by the fence the government is building along the Rio Grande, and that fence has dramatized major questions about immigration policy.

Lucky Severson reports from Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedra Negras, Mexico, across the river.

LUCKY SEVERSON: He seems to know everyone here in Piedras Negras, Mexico even though Chad Foster is actually the mayor of the town across the border — Eagle Pass, Texas. He crosses the bridge connecting the two towns and two countries, sometimes several times a day.

Mayor CHAD FOSTER (Eagle Pass): Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras have grown up together, you know. I’ve got as many friends in Piedras if not more than I have in Eagle Pass. And we really are two countries but we’ve historically been one community.

SEVERSON: It’s the future that worries the mayor, especially if the Department of Homeland Security, DHS, is allowed to build a wall that would, in the mayor’s view, divide the two towns. DHS has filed dozens of suits against Texas individuals and communities, including Eagle Pass, to force them to give up land for the wall.

(to Mayor Foster): And this is where the wall would go?

Mayor FOSTER: Absolutely, this is the alignment.

SEVERSON: And what would the golf course become?

Mayor FOSTER: In essence, we’re ceding our golf course to Mexico. We’re fencing it out.

SEVERSON: The wall would cut through the Eagle Pass golf course and a city park, which may be the greenest piece of land in the whole county. It would also eliminate a planned development along the Rio Grande River.

It’s not only the idea of the government confiscating their land that troubles the people of Eagle Pass. It’s the wall itself. They’re afraid of what it will do and won’t do, and what it symbolizes.

Father JAMES LOIACONO (Pastor, Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church): Think of the Berlin Wall — what did that say about the government of East Germany?

SEVERSON: Father James Loiacono, pastor of Our Lady of Refuge, says every symbol speaks about the people who propose it.

Fr. LOIACONO: What are we saying about ourselves when we propose a wall? How can we put a wall between Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras when we’re the same family?

Mayor FOSTER: It’s separating families. I guess that’s the best description. I mean, it’s as if I were to put a wall up between my house and my brother’s house.

SEVERSON: The mayor says 95 percent of the people of Eagle Pass oppose the wall, but there are some who favor it, like Charles “Dob” Cunningham.

CHARLES CUNNINGHAM (Resident, Eagle Pass): There’s someone, looks like on horseback, coming across. See, he’s up to no good. Oh, I’ve been robbed many, many times as anybody on the border has been robbed.

SEVERSON: Cunningham owns more than a mile of land along the Rio Grande. He retired after more than 40 years with the border patrol, most recently as director of the Eagle Pass Port of Entry. He says there has been a lull in the number of illegal crossings, thanks in part to air and ground patrols and the ever-present surveillance cameras.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: You see, this tower has two cameras and the camera that should be looking at him is broke.

SEVERSON: Cunningham says when the cameras that overlap the border work, they help catch “illegals.” But the $65,000 cameras with night vision don’t always work. It’s one reason he favors a wall, or fence, along some parts of the Texas border, but says Congress and Homeland Security are mistaken if they think the wall will solve immigration problems.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, they’re stuck way up there in Washington and a lot of them don’t have a grasp of the actuality of what’s happening.

Mayor FOSTER: It’s not securing the border. It’s conveying a false sense of security to the interior citizens of the United States. In border patrol’s estimation, it’ll take two to four minutes to breach the border fence or border wall.

SEVERSON: Father James has offered a sanctuary to many undocumented aliens going or coming across the border. He says it’s his sacred duty as a Christian.

Fr. LOIACONO: Exodus 20:19, it says “You shall not molest or bother the resident alien in your land for you once were aliens in a strange land.” And all through the Old Testament and the New Testament this is an imperative — not just a suggestion — it’s an imperative.

SEVERSON: Albert Ellis got so upset with Father James for aiding illegal immigrants, he walked out of church.

ALBERT ELLIS: And one day I went into his office and I told him, I said, “You know you shouldn’t be helping these people.” I said, “If I help them I go to jail, you know.”

SEVERSON: Ellis is a former border patrol agent who favors a wall, but says it won’t stop illegal entry.

Mr. ELLIS: I think we could have spent some of that money for the walls on detentions camps, you know. Just be able to put them in jail awhile, maybe they’ll slow down some, you know.

SEVERSON: This is the House of Pilgrimage in Piedra Negras. It’s affiliated with the Catholic Church, and has offered sanctuary to about 35,000 illegal immigrants since it was founded in the early 1990s, according to the director, Magdalena Galan.

MAGDALENA GALAN (Director, House of Pilgrimage, Piedra Negras): I’ve seen them cry. I’ve seen people that they have to leave their families and they cry over that because they leave them with somebody else to take care of their children while they come to try to feed them over here in the United States — get money to feed them.

UNIDENTFIED IMMIGRANT (singing “Born in the USA,” as other immigrants clap): I was born in the USA. I was born in the USA.

SEVERSON: And most of these men here, are they from Mexico?

UNIDENTIFIED IMMIGRANTS (answering in Spanish)

SEVERSON: El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua.

Most of the men in this room came from south of Mexico. Some looked for jobs here before discovering that jobs and wages in Mexico were no better than in their own countries. Some have walked 20 days to get to Piedras Negras. They plan to sneak across the border into the U.S. in the coming days.

I don’t want to leave home. I wouldn’t want to leave my family and go to another country. They’re willing to risk a lot to do that. Why? Most men here had the same answer: when they can get a job in their country, they can earn about 50 cents and hour — not enough to feed a family.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: It’s a terrible situation. We have personally given money to illegals who have come by our house. We’ve fed them. We’ve clothed them. We have a great empathy for them. We feel sorry for them. If I was in their shoes, I’d be here the next morning.

SEVERSON: Cunningham says the first thing that needs to happen is for Mexico to fix it’s economy so people won’t feel the need to leave the country.

Father James says he understands why many Americans are angry and frustrated, and that there will never be a completely fair and just solution. He says his views are guided by Scripture and tradition — that it is not only the moral duty of a father to care for his family, it’s a human right, and one Americans should recognize.

Fr. LOIACONO: A man who is starving to death and who’s family is starving to death and can’t find work, takes bread out of the supermarket. He didn’t steal. It’s necessary for life. And so out of charity and justice, we have to recognize that he is not a thief.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I’m well aware of these religious people and I think I’m a religious person. But the churches aren’t paying taxes and they’re not being affected by the vast movements of people and the drugs, and the sociopaths, and these criminals that come across.

Mayor FOSTER: I live within a quarter of a mile of the river. We’re not afraid. There’s never in the history of the world been a known terrorist to come out of Mexico. The only terrorist that we know of came out of Canada and they came across ports of entry. They did not come between the ports.

(driving in truck, watching border agent): He’s looking to see if he can find any footprints coming across this.

SEVERSON: The number of agents working along the border has increased dramatically. In Mayor Foster’s view, all the agents and cameras and border patrols won’t fix the problem without fixing U.S. immigration policy first.

Mayor FOSTER: Well, if you have a kitchen sink that has a busted pipe, rather than fix the pipe, we’re sending in more mops. Well let’s fix the pipe, which is immigration reform.

SEVERSON: Albert Ellis thinks that the best fix is to enforce the laws that are already on the books.

Mr. ELLIS: This is a country of laws, you know. And if we don’t enforce them, we’re going to end up like Mexico.

SEVERSON: In Father James’ church there is a statue of Christ that was found floating in the Rio Grande River. For Father James and his parishioners, it has become a sacred artifact.

Father LOIACONO: I gave it the name “The Undocumented Christ” because we don’t know where this Christ figure came from. And so it’s undocumented. But it also came wet because it came in the river. It came homeless to us. And to me, it’s Christ identifying as undocumented.

SEVERSON: Father James thinks “The Undocumented Christ” is more than just a symbol.

Father LOIACONO: And I think in a real sense perhaps we could see this as God’s message to our nation. How shall we treat those who come to our border? And what does the wall really mean? What is it saying — “Jesus stay out”?

SEVERSON: Congress, Homeland Security and many Americans have a different view. They think the wall sends a powerful message, one they approve of: “Illegal immigrants stay out.”

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Lucky Severson in Eagle Pass, Texas.

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BOB ABERNETHY: In Washington, several Christian leaders unveiled what they called an evangelical manifesto. In it, they urge evangelicals to broaden their religious-political agenda to encompass such issues as racism and poverty as well as traditional concerns such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Dozens signed on to the manifesto, including the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Some prominent conservative evangelicals did not sign it and criticized the effort for deflecting attention from what they consider the most pressing needs.

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BOB ABERNETHY: Between tragedies such as the one in Myanmar and the disastrous worldwide rise in food prices, a question long debated by relief experts has become urgent: what’s the best way for the U.S. to help the hungry?

Under the billion-dollar-a-year “Food for Peace” program, the government sends others surplus commodities, such as wheat and corn. Would it be more economical and effective to send cash instead? Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from Malawi in Southern Africa.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: At about ten-thirty each morning, some 800 children in the southern Malawi village of Kasungu break from their studies for porridge. The principal says attendance climbed 50 percent since the meal program began three years ago. In this country of 13 million, beset by chronic hunger, it’s the only reliable meal of the day for most kids.

BRIGHTON MTIKOMOLA (Principal): They haven’t eaten anything else, so when they come here, take this sort of food — now and then they take this sort of food — then it makes them increase their performance.

DE SAM LAZARO: They have more energy?

Mr. MTIKOMOLA: Yeah, more energy.

DE SAM LAZARO: The soy or maize for the feeding program is mostly donated by many countries, but the largest contributor is the United States, through a program called “Food for Peace.” It began in the 1950s as a means to use U.S. grain surpluses to help countries hit by food crises.

But today Food for Peace has grown into a $1.2 billion-dollar program and it has critics who say U.S. food aid may actually stifle African farmers and perpetuate dependence in recipient countries and they say Food for Peace benefits American private contractors more than the hungry.

The United States is the world’s single largest food aid donor but there are intermediaries: agribusinesses and shipping companies, which by law have to be American. And they consume a good part of the U.S. food aid dollar. The general accountability office says two-thirds of that U.S. food aid dollar goes toward administrative overhead.

Last year one of the largest private food aid charities, Atlanta-based CARE, decided it would stop accepting U.S. food donations in 2009.

CECILY BRYANT (Country Director, CARE, Malawi): We felt very strongly that the inefficiency and the waste that was happening throughout the current system just had to be addressed. And if we didn’t take a stand and try and make a change then this would just continue.

DE SAM LAZARO: Bryant argues it would be much more efficient if U.S. assistance came directly in the form of cash. The money could be used to train farmers and to buy grain locally — cutting cost and delivery times while developing markets for African farmers. In fact several aid agencies generate cash to run just such programs by selling donated American commodities to African wholesalers and traders. The practice is called monetization.

UNIDENTIFIED CARE EXTENSION AGENT (speaking to group of farmers through translator): This is where we grow soya beans. You need 75 centimeters between ridges for highest yields.

DE SAM LAZARO: On this day, care extension agents used test plots to demonstrate new crop varieties and types, like soy beans — a high protein crop that is growing in acceptance here in Malawi.

Ms. BRYANT: Food alone isn’t going to change anything in the long run. We’re working with farmers to teach them to harvest greater yields, to be able to market surplus once they reach that level.

DE SAM LAZARO: Despite Malawi’s problems with poor roads and storage and uneven food distribution that leave many hungry, there have been overall grain surpluses. Rains have been good for two years and subsidies have helped farmers buy seeds and fertilizers. President Bingu Mutharika says Malawi must lessen its dependence on charity.

President BINGU WA MUTHARIKA: We now have had the success — two successive years of surplus. When I took over, we were told Malawi was poor and that we must go to the rest of the world and beg that we are poor and the world will feel sorry for us. I said, “No, that’s not the way the world in globalization works.” People will come to Malawi to invest in opportunities if we are helping ourselves and they want to be part of that success story. Nobody, nobody wants to be part of a failing story.

So are they looking forward to a good harvest this year?

DE SAM LAZARO: Indeed the United Nations’ food aid agency, the World Food Program, is now using cash it gets from non-U.S. donors to increase local purchases of grain. But for many farmers, the concept of a surplus is new — one they almost fear jinxing.

MARY ELLEN MCGROARTY (World Food Program, meeting with farmers): So they don’t anticipate having a surplus this year?

DE SAM LAZARO: These growers weren’t sure how to answer a simple question from an agency better known for giving away rather than buying food.

Ms. MCGROARTY (meeting with farmers): Let them understand that we’re not seeing where we can deliver food to. We’re looking to buy food.

DE SAM LAZARO: Despite such local difficulties, the World Food Program bought 90,000 tons of grain from Malawi last year.

DOMENICO SCALPELLI (World Food Program): That’s a huge amount of food and it’s the biggest amount — the largest amount — we’ve bought ever from Malawi. A lot of it was not only for Malawi. But a lot of it also went to Zimbabwe, it went to Democratic Republic of Congo. We bought food even for West Africa. So, and that was because the price was the best at the time and the quality was good, competed internationally. Part of the philosophy behind it is to try and bring up local farmers and traders to a point where they can, in fact, compete internationally.

DE SAM LAZARO: It’s a goal some in Washington support. The Bush administration has proposed that a quarter of U.S. food grain be sent in cash. And that idea has the support of many Democrats in Congress. But it gets nowhere in the influential House and Senate agriculture committees, whose members come predominantly from farm states. They’ve insisted that all assistance remain in the form of U.S.-grown commodities and shipped on U.S. flag carriers.

Representative Earl Pomeroy, a North Dakota Democrat, says cutting agencies a check instead of sending grain or cooking oils could do more damage in some developing countries.

Representative EARL POMEROY (D-ND): You go into some of these small economies with a check, buy a bunch of commodities for food aid, you’ve just drove prices out of sight. You hurt everybody else.

DE SAM LAZARO: More importantly, Pomeroy says he fears any changes could jeopardize fragile congressional support for what remains the world’s largest food aid program, even though it accounts for just $1.2 billion of the $280 billion-dollar U.S. farm program.

Rep. POMEROY: One of the things about the structure of our program is that it’s been able to sustain congressional support through all kinds of political circumstances. Even in the years I’ve been in Congress, I’ve seen very different environments relative to the receptivity of members of Congress to supporting foreign aid.

Ms. MCGROARTY: So, for purchasing, we want to be targeting associations. I mean, it’s impossible for us to deal individually with each farmer and each farm.

DE SAM LAZARO: World Food Program officials say they make local purchases carefully. They reject criticism that this causes prices to rise. But they’re not about to reject Food for Peace donations.

Mr. SCALPELLI: I am asked this question quite a bit, and I’m not going to bite the hand that helps feed essentially a million Malawians today. And the United States government is indeed the number one largest donor to Malawi still.

DE SAM LAZARO: Other food aid agencies, unlike CARE, say they must continue to monetize their U.S. donations.

(to Nick Ford): Would you not prefer just straight cash assistance?

NICK FORD (Catholic Relief Services): Absolutely. And that’s going to be a much more efficient use of the American taxpayers’ money. We still have a service to provide the target communities for our development activities. Monetization provides resources that do address the root causes of hunger and poverty in these countries

DE SAM LAZARO: What all sides agree on is that more food aid — whether in cash or food — is needed. Only 30 percent of Malawi’s children receive even this spartan daily school meal and that number could fall as global food prices continue their record rise.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Lilongwe, Malawi.

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BOB ABERNETHY: On Our Calendar, for Christians in the West, this Sunday is Pentecost. It marks the day the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples, enabling them to preach in many languages.

The Washington National Cathedral is celebrating Pentecost and its own centennial by illuminating its exterior. The images are being projected on the cathedral’s walls from sunset to midnight this weekend.

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BOB ABERNETHY: That’s our program for now. I’m Bob Abernethy. Happy Mother’s Day. There’s much more on our Web site, including more about religion and politics on our “One Nation” page. Audio and video podcasts of the program are also available. Join us at


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