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Episode no. 1139

KIM LAWTON, guest anchor: Coming up — the inadequate response to the global food crisis.

And the overall number of Catholic monks and nuns has been going down, but we found a place filled with dedicated young nuns.

Sister CHRISTIANA MICKWEE, O.P.: No, I will not be marrying a spouse. But my very body and blood is united to God in a way that isn’t offered to everyone in the world.

LAWTON: Plus, the former Hollywood executive who’s saying hundreds of Cambodian children from a life of scavenging in a trash dump.

SCOTT NEESON: I no longer have 401(k), but I have all the coconuts I can drink and eat. It’s a trade-off.

# # #

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

New alarms were sounded on many fronts this week about the spiraling global food crisis. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is sponsoring an international summit in Rome next week on the crisis. In a report released in advance of the meeting, the UN agency said 22 already poor nations are now at particular risk. Most are in Africa, but the list also includes countries in Asia and, in this hemisphere, Haiti. Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned of a possible surge in food-related riots and other violence as hunger and desperation continue to grow.

We’ll have more on this in a few moments.

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KIM LAWTON: Myanmar’s military dictatorship has finally eased restrictions on many foreign aid workers coming in to provide relief after the deadly cyclone four weeks ago. The UN, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and other groups now have representatives in the country trying to reach some of the two-and-a-half million people in need. The Myanmar government, though, dismissed reports of widespread suffering. Leaders called the survivors self-reliant and suggested they find vegetables in the wild and fish in the rivers if they could not get, quote, “bars of chocolate donated by the international community.”

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KIM LAWTON: In China, relief efforts continue for the five million left homeless after the catastrophic earthquake. The Chinese government said rebuilding in the devastated region will be a long and arduous process. Humanitarian work is being hampered by bad weather and the threat of landslides.

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KIM LAWTON: Concerns are rising about the fate of six Baha’i leaders who were arrested in Iran on May 14. International Baha’i representatives said the leaders have not been heard from since. The six are all members of the Baha’i’s national coordinating group in Iran. A seventh member of the group was arrested in early March, and her whereabouts are also unknown. The Iranian government says they were all arrested for security reasons. Iranian Baha’is have frequently suffered persecution since their faith was founded in Persia in the early 1800s. With about 350,000 members, Baha’is are Iran’s largest religious minority.

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KIM LAWTON: In this country, the Texas Supreme Court decided in favor of parents from the polygamist sect that was raided by authorities. The justices supported a lower court decision that said the state had no right to remove and take custody of more than 400 children from the compound. They said the children should be sent home within a reasonable period of time. The state had argued that the children are in danger of abuse.

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KIM LAWTON: President Bush met with the new president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the Mormons. Bush met Thomas Monson at the LDS headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, while he was on a five-state fundraising trip. The White House press secretary said Bush made a point to meet with LDS leaders because he believes they help communities and, quote, “spread the word of love.”

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KIM LAWTON: As candidates they may disagree a lot, but this week John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton released a joint statement accusing the Sudanese government of atrocities against civilians in Darfur. The statement was intended as a symbolic message to Sudan that America’s next president, whoever he or she may be, will maintain a hard-line policy on human rights abuses in Darfur.

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KIM LAWTON: New York’s governor said his state will recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. The decision will not legalize gay marriages in New York, but it will extend marriage benefits to same-sex couples who’ve been married elsewhere. That may soon include California, where officials are set to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay couples on June 17. If the state supreme court does not take further action, California will become the second state after Massachusetts to allow gay marriage.

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KIM LAWTON: Now, back to the global food crisis. Joining me today is Tony Hall, the former Ohio Congressman who was also the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations humanitarian agencies in Rome.

Ambassador Hall, welcome. When these leaders meet in the summit in Rome next week, what is it that they need to do? What can they do to address this crisis?

TONY HALL (Former Ambassador and Congressman): Well, they need to do three things. They need to outline what the problem is — and the problem is immense. Two, they need to make commitments of new resources to the hungry people in the world. And three, they need to follow-up on these commitments that they’re going to make there. And, the third one is the most important, because I’ve attended these conferences before and we have a tendency to forget the third one when we come back and say, “Well, we committed to this — what are we going to do?”

LAWTON: And they don’t do what they committed?

Ambassador HALL: They don’t do it. And, I remember we wanted to cut hunger in half — we want to by the year 2015. And so there’s a series of steps we have to do. We’re not even coming close.

LAWTON: Well indeed, how immense is the problem right now?

Ambassador HALL: We’ve got about 850 million people in the world today that are near starvation. What’s going on in the world today with the food prices going up is going to add another hundred million. I think you are going to start to see in the next four or five months horrendous stories, more riots. It’s a major, major problem.

LAWTON: And in the U.S. we are also concerned about rising fuel prices, which has contributed to the problem; rising food prices — and people here are worried about — hunger might grow here. How does the U.S. balance how much we commit to here — taking care of people here — and how much we commit to these people overseas?

Ambassador HALL: Well, hunger here is important. We’ve got about 37 million people that go to bed maybe two or three days out of every month without food. So, it is important. And we commit about $60 billion dollars domestically to those kind of programs — school lunch programs, nutrition programs, food stamps, etc. Overseas, we commit about five billion dollars worth of money and food. And that’s to really address this problem of 850-950 million people. So, about five percent of our resources that we allocate towards poor people goes overseas.

LAWTON: And you think we should do better?

Ambassador HALL: We can do much better. I think most people in the country believe that it’s about 50/50 — 50 percent stays here, 50 percent goes overseas. But, it really is about five percent. And we can much better.

LAWTON: And for you, what’s the primary ethical issue at stake here?

Ambassador HALL: I think the ethical issue is as a country and as an individual, are we “our brother’s keeper?” And, I think the answer is, “Yes.” I think that — you know, I’m a person of faith — I like to think that. And, there’s over 2,500 verses in the Bible that deal with the issue of helping the poor, the sick, the hungry. And, I think the way God set it up is that he set it up that we are to address this issue. And that he works through us. His “Plan B” — well, I don’t know what “Plan B” is. “Plan A” is the way he set it up. And that’s the way I want to go and I think that’s the way we need to go as a country and as an individual.

LAWTON: Okay, Ambassador Tony Hall, thank you very much.

Ambassador HALL: Thank you.

LAWTON: We’ll continue this conversation online on our Web site at

# # #

KIM LAWTON: The number of Roman Catholics in religious orders around the world has continued to decline. According to the latest Vatican figures, in 2006, there were just over 945,000 monks and nuns around the world, down about 7,000 from the year before. In the U.S. the numbers have also been going down, and the average age, rising. But there are a few places where the reverse is true. Betty Rollin found a Dominican teaching order in Nashville filled with dedicated young nuns.

BETTY ROLLIN: They are the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia in Nashville, Tennessee — a traditional order that began in 1860. Their day begins at 5 a.m. with meditation followed by a mass. Meals are held in silence; their vocation is to teach.

The sisters here have come from different states and different backgrounds, most of them raised Catholic, some not.

In 1965, there were about 180,000 nuns in America. By 2007, that number dropped to 63,000 with an average age of 70. The average age of the Dominican Sisters is 36. Their numbers have increased so steadily in the past 15 years that they have had to build a 100,000 square-foot addition to the property.

The sisters here — the first year postulants, the second year novices, and those, who after seven years have taken their final vows — all say they have been called by God and that they are in love.

Sister KATHERINE WILEY: When you’re a little girl, you’re planning your wedding, you’re playing bride. But just to allow the Lord to transform my heart to see that, I would still be a bride, but I would be His bride.

Sister CHRISTIANA MICKWEE, O.P.: When you have fallen in love with God, everything doesn’t seem quite so important anymore because God, the creator of the world has asked you to be his bride. No, I will not be having sex. No, I will not be having children. No, I will not be marrying a spouse. But my very body and blood is united to God in a way that isn’t offered to everyone in the world.

Sister AMELIA HUELLER: A woman wants to give herself so totally to one man, to hold nothing back, to be so intimate with him and to bring forth life with him. It took me awhile to understand–well, “understand” is the wrong word — but to see that God will fulfill all of that, that He was asking me in a total way to give myself totally to Him.

ROLLIN (to Sr. Hueller): How do you know that this God that you’ve given everything to is really there?

Sr. HUELLER: Because it’s whom I am in love with. And when you fall in love with someone, it has to be a someone. You can like something a lot. You can say, “I love this or that.” But when you are falling in love — and a woman knows when she is in love–it has to be a person.

ROLLIN: Sister Amelia Hueller was brought up in a non-religious home and converted to Catholicism.

Sr. HUELLER: I finished high school, I went to college in Washington, D.C., for four years and I came up against relativism: the idea that we can’t — people said that we couldn’t know what was good, what was bad, what was true. So I really began questioning where truth comes from? Where does goodness come from? I know I have values. Who gives them to me? And so between that moment and here, it was a process of, “This is scary, I don’t understand this. I don’t see why I would be called. How can I be called? I am so normal.”

ROLLIN: After seven years of study and contemplation, Sister Christiana Mickwee took her final vows last summer. She teaches fifth grade at a parochial elementary school.

Sr. MICKWEE: For me, it wasn’t so much a voice, per se, but through prayer — just in the silence, just letting Him be there and finding out, really asking Him, “What do you want from me God?” I mean I really had everything I could have wanted in the world and there wasn’t anything that I was trying to get away from.

ROLLIN: Sister Catherine Marie Hopkins, who has been a Dominican nun for 23 years, helps direct the order’s educational program.

Sister CATHERINE MARIE HOPKINS, O.P.: Very rarely do people come and say, “I’ve always wanted to be a sister.” You know, I always found that very suspect. You know, usually, it was, “I was going through life very happily and suddenly this strange idea came and I tried really hard to eliminate it.” In my own life that was the case.

ROLLIN: This life is not for everyone who comes here. Who is most likely to remain?

Sr. HOPKINS: I would say those who are most comfortable with themselves — the young person who would have made a good wife and mother, who would have made a good career person. They’re not the loner. They’re not the introvert necessarily, although we have all personality types in the religious life.

ROLLIN: Colleen Carroll Campbell, who is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote “The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.” Ms. Campbell found that the conservative orders, like the Nashville Dominicans, are the ones that are attracting young people.

COLLEEN CARROLL CAMPBELL (Author, “The New Faithful”): These are orders where the sisters still wear their full-length habits, where they still gather to pray seven times a day, where they still live what is really a very traditional religious life.

ROLLIN: The new nuns say they were hugely affected by Pope John Paul II, who reached out to young people in his world youth days and rallies, entreating them to remain faithful to the traditional teachings of the Church.

Ms. CAMPBELL: Young adults really saw in Pope John Paul II someone who was calling them to something the world never dared called them to — and that is sacrifice, self-denial, laying down their lives at the feet of Christ and asking Him, “What do you want me to do with my life?” And for a lot of these young women when they ask that question, following John Paul’s example, what they heard is that, “I want you to give up everything and follow me as a consecrated woman.”

The younger sisters we’re seeing tend to be very firmly in support of the Pope in terms of Catholic teaching, including on the non-ordination of women. So this is kind of an interesting reversal here and often it is referred to by some of the older Catholics as, you know, the “young fogies” because they’re in many ways more traditional than their elders. There’s an element of reaction there. After Vatican II, there were many good changes. There were a lot things that got tossed out prematurely: the devotional life-almost completely obliterated; liturgical music and the liturgy itself just became very entertainment oriented.

ROLLIN: Regimentation, rules, sacrifice — all part of convent life. But those who are here speak mainly of their joy.

Sister HUELLER: With sacrifice can come great joy. We know that sacrificing is not opposed to being happy. In fact, it can be our path to happiness. So sadness, no; sacrifice, yes.

Sr. MICKWEE: The joy I see in my sisters is far greater than the joy I see in many of the people that I grew up with.

ROLLIN: Colleen Carroll Campbell thinks that their initial passion may fade but that the joy these young women feel will sustain them and encourage others to a more religious life.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Betty Rollin in Nashville, Tennessee.

# # #

KIM LAWTON: In 2006, we first told the story of Scott Neeson, an Australian-born American citizen, who gave up a rich life as a Hollywood movie executive to go live in Cambodia. There, he helps poor children escape their lives as trash pickers. Recently, producer Trent Harris went back to Cambodia to see how Neeson and his kids are doing. Lucky Severson reports.

LUCKY SEVERSON: He takes this walk practically everyday, through the slum that surrounds the Steung Meanchey landfill outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Thousands live here amidst the filth and stench.

SCOTT NEESON (with little boy): He’s playing with his own syringe here. Oy, it’s not a good idea.

SEVERSON: They spend their days picking through the chemical waste and broken glass, searching for anything of value. Human scavengers — many are children. It’s where we first found Scott Neeson two years ago.

Mr. NEESON: When I first came here, I had nightmares. I had terrible dreams for a week or two afterwards. And I think some of the things I’ve seen out here are just horrendous.

SEVERSON: Neeson first came to Cambodia on a backpacking trip in 2003. What he saw changed the course of his very comfortable life. He was a Hollywood big shot: President of 20th Century Fox International.

Mr. NEESON: It was a really glamorous life. You know, I had the Porsche.

SEVERSON: And a big house?

Mr. NEESON: Yeah, a five bedroom home that was worth a few million dollars. I had the Porsche and a big old boat.

SEVERSON: You were a man of means?

Mr. NEESON: I was a man of means and luxuries. And yet, I sort of enjoyed it, but I wasn’t particularly happy.

SEVERSON: So he started the Cambodian Children’s Fund, the CCF, a live-in school where kids from the dump can learn reading and writing and about a world they never dreamed of. It’s a sparkling place with healthy food and clean, smiling faces. His goal in the beginning was to care for about 40 kids. When we saw him last in September 2005, the number had grown to 118.

Back home, colleagues like Mitch Yankowitz we’re still waiting for him to come to his senses.

MITCH YANKOWITZ: I thought Scott would be back in Los Angeles in 12 months, kind of the stereotypical midlife crisis for a highly stressed senior executive, but Scott really proved me wrong.

Mr. NEESON (by coconut tree): I no longer have a 401k, but I have all the coconuts I can drink and eat. It’s a tradeoff.

(speaking to girl): Hello!

SEVERSON: Two years later, the former highly stressed senior executive still takes his daily strolls through the tin shanties, but now he’s rarely alone. He’s become a pied piper — a symbol of hope in a heap of despair.

Mr. NEESON (speaking to boy): We’re going to buy you some pants one day. Just for the hell of it we’re going to buy you some pants.

SEVERSON: They’re like his extended family. He seems to know every little kid and every mom and dad. And by now, they know him.



SEVERSON: Today, the CCF cares for and schools over 300 children — almost 10 times his original goal and it may be the best education Cambodia has to offer. Imagine, coming from this — to this. The school uniforms were contributed by an Italian designer.

Mr. NEESON (to girl): Hey you. Her older sister is at our vocational center right now studying to be a hairdresser and she wants to come and join — don’t you?

SEVERSON: Neeson rose to the top ranks of Hollywood, even though he never even graduated from high school. Maybe that’s why he is so obsessed with education. It drives him crazy when he can’t accommodate all the kids who just want to learn.

Mr. NEESON: I haven’t come up with a good answer for that yet. It’s so sad. We’re just at capacity. Boys like this — all he wants to do is study. That’s all he wants to do.

SEVERSON: Joseph Mussomeli is the U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia.

JOSEPH MUSSOMELI (U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia.): I think he’s inspired a lot of people here. Even some jaded Westerners who have become cynical about everything — when they see what Scott has done in really just less than three years, they’re always just amazed.

SEVERSON: What he has done is quite remarkable. And it reaches beyond the second new school, and the third and the fourth. Neeson wants to lift the entire community out of the rubble.

Mr. NEESON: Now, the kids here are learning how to bake bread. In fact, most of them bake bread easily — they’re doing croissants and the more difficult things. That’s a fabulous sign, the “CCF’s Star Bakery Phnom Penh,” and this is our fabulous “baker girls.”

SEVERSON: The baker girls are attending the new vocational school. They bake as many as 175 loaves of nutrient-enhanced bread each day, much of which goes to the families at the dump.

Mr. NEESON: I love this place. Right here is the makeup class. The girls are being trained for hair dressing and makeup. That’s they’re chosen profession.

SEVERSON: And then there are the sewing classes where kids make bags out of garbage.

Mr. NEESON: So that’s the bags themselves. This is an old fish food sack. The women and men that work here, four or five hours a day, working with the bags and three hours a day learning reading, writing, English and computer.

SEVERSON: These teenagers are also learning design. Neeson wants them to create their own clothing lines. Eight of his vocational graduates have found good paying, full-time jobs, including this young lady working in the kitchen of an upscale restaurant.

Mr. NEESON: And, she’s been here quite a few months saving her money. And last month, she bought the family their house and the land they’re on.

SEVERSON: Marie Cammal has worked with homeless children in Cambodia for many years. She says what Neeson is doing will make a difference.

MARIE CAMMAL: Because when you change the life of one child of Cambodia, in Cambodia, that means you save at least two or three generations ahead. You give education to one boy or one girl — that means this boy and this girl will have a better job and will feed 15 people in their family, within their family. Yes, but we need a lot of guys like him.

SEVERSON: What drives Neeson is the deep satisfaction he gets when he sees the transformation in these kids’ lives.

Ambassador MUSSOMELI: It’s like this is the big romance of his life. He came here unexpectedly fell in love with the country and the people and it has given him a reason to live.

SEVERSON: This is CCF’s new community center. Neeson like to call it the “Steung Meanchey Country Club,” because it’s an exclusive club. Only families from in and around the dump can be members.

Mr. NEESON: It provides a sense of community to become a member and to be able to meet you neighbors probably for the first time. You can sit around, you can talk, watch movies — because currently there’s no sense of community. People sit under their houses, they’re drinking alcohol, and there’s a terrible, terrible level of domestic abuse.

SEVERSON: He hopes the Center will give the families a sense of community pride, and for those who break club standards, a sense of community shame.

Mr. NEESON: On the other side, of course, is if there’s bad behavior in terms of domestic violence, then we can rescind club membership.

SEVERSON: Actually the community center offers perks some country clubs don’t — a day care center for example. The reason most toddlers are wandering through glass and chemical waste is because mom is working at the dump and dad, if he’s around, is often drunk.

Mr. NEESON (to boy): Oy, be careful there, be careful. Oh man, this kids got some serious parasites going oh, huh. What do you do the kid, you know got these drunken guys here and you don’t want to hand the baby back. She needs to go to a doctor.

SEVERSON: What pleases him most is his HMO plan — free health care for all the families living and working at Steung Meanchey, one of the best health care plans in the country. He arranged it through an American charity called “Hope Worldwide.” The medical center treats everything from cuts and bruises to diseases that would often be fatal.

Ambassador MUSSOMELI: I mean, on a very grass roots level, Scott is doing more for this country. He’s changed the lives of several hundred children and probably several thousand families. When people see him they have to think good thoughts about America.

SEVERSON: Except for his fund-raising efforts in America, Neeson is focused on only one thing — giving these kids a chance And he says as long the contributions keep coming, he won’t rest until he does.

Mr. NEESON: I don’t know how you rest actually. There’s nothing worse than awareness, unfortunately. Nothing worse than having your eyes open.

SEVERSON: While producer Trent Harris was with Neeson at the site, he spotted a little girl who could not find a smile.

Mr. NEESON (to Thet): Come on honey, come on, it’s time to go home.

SEVERSON: Her name is Thet. At first, she was bewildered and scared, overwhelmed by all the food. This is her most recent picture. It’s why Scott Neeson left Hollywood.

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

# # #

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

There’s much more on our Web site, including my extended interview with Ambassador Tony Hall. And there’s 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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