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Episode no. 1147

DEBORAH POTTER, guest anchor: Coming up — American medical teams in Africa — they could make more money at home, but this program has a different payoff.

Dr. FITZHUGH MULLAN (Project Hope): And sending doctors abroad, sending nurses abroad, is partly a statement of what we are beyond Coca-Cola.

POTTER: And, a bride, a groom, and two faith traditions — the challenges to a wedding planner.

SONAL SHAH (Interfaith Wedding Planner, Save the Date Event Consultants): Out of the 25 or 30 weddings we do in a year, right now about half of them, if not more than half, are interfaith marriages.

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DEBORAH POTTER: Welcome. I’m Deborah Potter sitting in for Bob Abernethy. It’s good to have you with us.

A visit to Israel was the centerpiece of Barack Obama’s first overseas trip since becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. In Jerusalem, he stopped at the Western Wall and left behind a prayer. He also visited the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem. Both stops were designed to show his commitment to the Jewish state and to appeal to its supporters back home.

In Washington, a pro-Israel group got a similar message from a prominent backer of Republican John McCain. The candidate himself rejected the endorsement of the group’s controversial founder, Pastor John Hagee, earlier this year. But Senator Joseph Lieberman told the group Christians United for Israel that he stands with them against common enemies.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D-CT): I don’t agree with everything Pastor Hagee has done or said, and I can safely say that the good pastor doesn’t agree with everything that I’ve ever done or said. But there is so much more important than that that we agree on.

POTTER: As for Hagee, he said he’ll never again endorse a presidential candidate.

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DEBORAH POTTER: But another evangelical leader may be ready to support McCain. Kim Lawton joins me now to talk about religion and politics, and what sounds like a major change of heart for James Dobson. What’s going on?

KIM LAWTON (Managing Editor, RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY): Well, over the past year, James Dobson has said several times that he would not and could not bring himself to vote for John McCain as a matter of conscience. Now he’s indicating that he might do that because he thinks Barack Obama is so bad and would be so bad for America. He says because he disagrees so strongly with Barack Obama, especially on issues like abortion, gay rights — that he feels that he may indeed have to bring himself to vote for John McCain. It’s sort of interesting because it shows some of the frustration among evangelicals. They’re just really not rallying around John McCain and he’s frankly not courting them that aggressively either. He’s scheduling meetings with the Dalai Lama, but not with them.

POTTER: But, he will get a chance to court them a little bit later in the summer when he goes to Rick Warren’s church. He’s going to host some kind of — maybe it’s a first — a campaign event?

Ms. LAWTON: This will be on August 16 — it will be the first time that Barack Obama and John McCain have appeared together this campaign season — they’re coming together at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. I think it is a way that they’re trying to reach out to evangelicals. Warren says he’s not just going to talk about the usual issues of abortion and gay rights. He wants to talk about poverty; he wants to talk about AIDS; human rights; the environment. And again, it gets back to evangelicals fighting among themselves even about what are the most important issues that they should be voting on. So, that will be interesting — that was announced just this week that it will happen on August 16.

POTTER: Now, one of the issues that evangelicals may be voting on could be the vice-presidential selection, particularly when McCain makes his decision. How are they breaking on that right now?

Ms. LAWTON: Well, it’s really interesting because this year it’s taking on a new importance. And many evangelicals are telling me that depending on who McCain picks for the ticket would help decide whether or not they’re going to be really working for his campaign and really actively trying to get him elected.

POTTER: And who do they like?

Ms. LAWTON: They like Mike Huckabee, actually, which is interesting because they didn’t support him wholeheartedly early on in the primary season, but they are supporting him. On the Democratic side, it seems like it would be a little less of a factor for Barack Obama. But, one recent poll that I saw showed that there’s a lot of negatives for Hillary Clinton among religious voters, as well as a lot of positives. So — so that’s sort of up in the air.

POTTER: What are the poll numbers that we’ve been seeing this past week that indicate some change in sort of faith-based voting?

Ms. LAWTON: Well, there are still a large number of undecided evangelicals and that’s what’s driving some of the social conservatives like James Dobson a little crazy. They feel like all Barack Obama’s God-talk has made some real inroads. I mean, Obama’s got some problems in the religious community too. There are a large number of undecided Catholics — that’s going to be a really important swing vote for him. So, both of the candidates are trying to reach out.

POTTER: Thank you so much Kim. And, Kim, of course, has a lot more about religion and politics on the “One Nation” page of our Web site at

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DEBORAH POTTER: In Italy, Pope Benedict met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The two discussed the plight of Iraq’s vulnerable Christian community. Maliki also invited the pope to visit Iraq. The prime minister said it would help efforts toward reconciliation.

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DEBORAH POTTER: More than 650 bishops from the worldwide Anglican Communion marched through London demanding more action to end global poverty. The bishops are in England for their once-every-decade Lambeth Conference.

But more than 200 other bishops, mainly from Africa, are boycotting the meeting because of divisions over homosexuality and interpretation of Scripture. Organizers said they wanted the march to draw attention to the issues that Anglicans are united on, such as fighting poverty and HIV/AIDS.

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DEBORAH POTTER: Southern Africa has more cases of HIV/AIDS than any other region of the world, and one challenge these countries face in fighting the disease is a shortage of health professionals. Their home-grown doctors are often lured away by higher salaries in developed countries like the United States, where one out of every four new doctors graduated from medical school overseas. From Malawi, Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on an effort to reverse the trend.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In Malawi, one out of every four children dies before reaching the age of five. Famine is chronic and AIDS has left tens of thousands of orphans, often in the care of struggling grandparents, like Robin Nangwandu. Many children, like his grandson Mcanthony, are HIV positive.

ROBIN NANAGWANDU (through translator): I will continue working until I die. I don’t have enough food stocks — just enough money to buy day to day. It’s not easy to care for a kid who is HIV positive; not easy to shuttle him back and forth to hospital.

DE SAM LAZARO: Until recently, there were just two pediatricians to care for the entire public health system. Dr. Peter Kazembe was one.

(to Dr. Kazembe): How many children in this country, approximately are HIV positive?

Dr. PETER KAZEMBE: Well, it’s estimated at 83,000 children now.

DE SAM LAZARO: Eighty-three thousand children and to serve all of them you have two pediatricians?

Dr. KAZEMBE: Two pediatricians, yes.

DE SAM LAZARO: Malawi has just one medical school and Kazembe says most of its graduates leave for more prosperous countries, like neighboring Botswana, Britain or the United States.

Dr. KAZEMBE: The issues are the same in all the countries in southern Africa certainly — you know, salaries, poor salaries, poor working conditions. There’s nothing more frustrating than knowing what you need to do but not having the resources to do it.

DE SAM LAZARO: Dr. Kazembe is in charge of one effort to bring health care resources to Malawi. Its center is a modern, American-style clinic, complete with 11 American doctors. They are typically in their first job after residency and will spend at least one year rotating through this busy clinic and also in some Malawian public health facilities. The Pediatric AIDS Corps Program is the brainchild of a physician at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Dr. MARK KLINE (Baylor College of Medicine): You know, obviously a number of long-term solutions have to be put in place to encourage African doctors to remain in Africa and to bring back African doctors who have immigrated to the developed world. But while those fixes are being put in place, we can’t afford to lose a generation of children to this epidemic.

DE SAM LAZARO: With a grant from the drug giant Bristol Myers Squibb, Kline designed a program that pays the doctors a stipend of $40,000 dollars-a-year. It’s a fraction of what they could earn at home, but the program also pays down up to $40,000 in student loan debt for each year of service.

Dr. KLINE: Half of the doctors that we have in the program could not have participated were it not for the student loan debt repayment provision because they simply couldn’t afford to do so.

DE SAM LAZARO: Three years after it began, about 60 physicians have been placed in 11 African countries. Their mission is to treat patients, but more importantly, to train local providers on the front lines, like nurses and clinical officers. In addition to training, Baylor’s own clinic offers model conditions not found in Malawi’s crowded public health care system, such as working equipment, hygienic facilities and drugs. That was enough to bring Dr. Portia Kamthunzi home from the U.K, despite a big pay cut.

Dr. PORTIA KAMTHUNZI: It’s not just the money for me, it is the job satisfaction as well. Working with HIV positive children I feel like I can relate to them better than other people that are coming from other countries because in a way I know the culture. I know the type of background they are coming from.

DE SAM LAZARO: It may be a modern clinic for Malawi, and it does offer the once prohibitive anti retroviral or ARV drugs for AIDS. But for the visitors, this is a culture of severe limits compared to the “do-whatever-it-takes” American system they trained in.

Dr. CHRIS BUCK: I have one patient I can think of in particular that’s a 17-year-old boy. He’s pretty severely immune suppressed. He’s been on ARVs for a long time and he has a gastric tumor. And it’s just kind of slowly killing him unfortunately. And I can think of so many things that I could do for him in the States to improve his prognosis, from diagnostic tests to different medicines. And here I’m really hampered and limited. I really find that to be distressing.

Dr. OMALARA THOMAS: I think every day you wonder and you say to yourself when you’re prescribing these medicines, “But what difference really is this going to make?” You know, really what they need is food.

Dr. SAEED AHMED: I worked at a very high acuity care hospital in New York at Columbia. And if one patient died or two patients died in a week or a month, it would be a big deal. Then we come here and during our time on the wards we might have three or four patients die a day. And coming to terms with that and coming to terms with there being limits to what we can do for kids was shocking and hard.

DE SAM LAZARO: One prominent advocate says programs like Baylor’s are a payback to poor countries who’ve long helped fill the doctor and nurse shortages in rich nations.

Dr. FITZHUGH MULLAN (Project Hope): The Baylor AIDS Corps is a spectacular example of non-governmental commitment to a contribution to certain poor countries in a specific area –pediatric AIDS — that really is part and ought to be part of a larger contribution that we as a country make back to countries that have been generous to us in spite of the economic inequalities between us.

DE SAM LAZARO: Dr. Mullan has long advocated a much larger federal program like Baylor’s. It’s right, not just morally he says, but strategically.

Dr. MULLAN: There are battles for hearts and minds going on in Africa. China is very present. And sending doctors abroad, sending nurses abroad, is partly a statement of what we are beyond Coca-Cola and other commercial enterprises.

DE SAM LAZARO: There’s no shortage of doctors who want to go. For every one chosen, Baylor has to turn away two.

Dr. KLINE: I think most of them do it because they feel that AIDS in Africa is the challenge of this generation. This is a very highly idealistic group of young physicians, by and large, and they want to do something very meaningful. Straight out of their training, they want to have an immediate impact.

DE SAM LAZARO: The doctors say their Africa stint has been profoundly formative�and likely not their last. New Yorker Omalara Thomas is bringing it full circle in her family. Her parents are Nigerian immigrants to America.

Dr. THOMAS: I’ve been involved with trying to develop, hopefully, a program with Nigerian, I guess you can say, expatriates to the U.S. and physicians there who at some point do want to come back to Nigeria and do want to work.

Dr. AMY SIMS: I’m actually going back for, for specialist training in a couple months in the States. And specialists are something that are kind of few and far between here, here in Africa. And so I plan to use that to train African health workers and kind of pass on that knowledge. And so I always see myself coming back to Africa.

DE SAM LAZARO: Amid all the poverty and suffering, they say, are great rewards like sharing good news with young Mcanthony’s grandfather.

Dr. BUCK: He looks fantastic! You’re doing a really great job taking care of him.

DE SAM LAZARO: Or watching the teen club on the clinic grounds knowing that without this clinic, few of these young patients would still be alive.

For RELIGION &smp; ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, this is Fred De Sam Lazaro in Lilongwe, Malawi.

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DEBORAH POTTER: A New York church destroyed in the September 11 attacks is getting a new start. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church stood in the shadow of the World Trade Center. The congregation has not been able to rebuild because of bureaucratic and financial hurdles. But local officials have now agreed to finance a $20 million reconstruction. The new church will be a few blocks from the original site.

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DEBORAH POTTER: Interfaith marriage has become commonplace in this country. But, for a long time, couples chose to celebrate their weddings in one of their faith traditions — or none at all. Today, interfaith couples are often embracing both their religions. Betty Rollin tells us how couples include the rituals of their two distinct traditions.

BETTY ROLLIN: Sunitha Mani is an Indian Hindu, born in America. Her mother calls her a “modern girl.” Even so, as she prepares for her marriage, she is going the traditional route — and then some. It begins with her getting painted with henna, a process called “mehndi.” Sanjana, the marital makeup chief, explains.

SANJANA PURSNANI (Makeup Director, Sona Salon): When it dries up and it starts flaking it gives you that mahogany — like a red burgundy color. So, in India the bridal colors are red. We usually wear red, maroon, burgundy — so they say that the bride’s hand shouldn’t show color of her skin.

ROLLIN: Sunitha met her husband-to-be, Ronjit Sandhu, who is a Sikh, at college eight years ago.

SUNITHA MANI (Bride): The henna artists told me yesterday the darker the henna the more your husband and your in-laws love you — so my hands are dark, but not down here so much.

ROLLIN: The groom’s mandate on the wedding night is to find his name hidden in the design.

RONJIT SANDHU (Groom): The night of the wedding, I’m supposed to find — I’m supposed to search for my name in the henna. And then if I can’t find it, basically I’m not allowed to consummate our marriage.

ROLLIN: The next pre-marriage ritual, performed is the puja, where the bride’s family’s Hindu Pandit prays before a sacred fire.

Pandit BALU DIXIT (Hindu Temple, Albany, NY): We pray to Lord Ganesha asking for his blessings, so that everything goes very smoothly without any obstacles.

ROLLIN: When Sunitha’s parents married, not only were they required to be of the same faith, but they were expected to marry the person their parents chose.

KANTHI MANI (Mother of Bride): We got married — what 36 years ago — I think it was through communication between my parents and his parents. And they looked at the horoscope and once it was agreed, he came to visit me and that’s it. I hardly knew him until I got married.

ROLLIN: And how do the Manis feel about their daughter marrying outside their faith?

Dr. SRINIVASAN MANI (Father of Bride): Whatever makes our daughter happy and secure in the future, that’s what matters, rather than our discomfort.

ROLLIN: The groom’s father, now a widower, and his aunt, also have had some concerns.

SURJIT SINGH SANDHU (Father of Groom): Not having the same culture and the language, sometimes it’s hard to interact.

SATWANT KAUR BANGA (Aunt of Groom): I think that as soon as you hear of a child marrying into a different religion, even though Sikhism absolutely tells there’s only one God and all people are equal, the cultural differences — they creep in after the children come in.

Mr. S. SANDHU: Ideally, you know, you want your kids to be raised as Sikhs, but then again once you are out of India, you know, our kids now are raised in this culture. So in this culture, their culture is the same.

ROLLIN: Ronjit has his own ideas about what his childrens’ religion will be.

Mr. R. SANDHU: I think they’ll definitely be raised under both religions. You know, they are going to go to temple, they are going to go to Gurdwara, the Sikh version of a temple. They will essentially learn, you know, about the histories behind both of the religions. Her parents are very religious so whether we wanted them or not, they will probably share everything they know. They share it with me openly, so I’m sure they will definitely do it with our grandkids.

ROLLIN: The couple decided there was one obvious way to smooth over the religious differences. Two weddings! One Sikh, one Hindu.

The Sikh wedding came first, with the groom making his entrance on a white horse named Max. The procession is called a “baraat.” The bride’s extended Hindu family awaits his arrival.

The families greet each other with an elaborate garland exchange.

And here comes the bride.

And three hours later, here comes the bride again.

Two weddings — one in Sanskrit, one in Punjabi — countless rituals; two receptions; decorations involving hundreds of yards of fabric; banquets; music of two cultures; 400 guests and a costumed horse: putting this together takes a commander-in-chief, otherwise known as a wedding planner.

That would be Sonal Shah and her small army of lieutenants.

SONAL SHAH (Interfaith Wedding Planner, Save the Date Event Consultants): Don’t forget to tell everyone to take their shoes off, cover their head.

When she began her profession one religion was the norm — not anymore.

Ms. SHAH: In the last five years since I started doing wedding planning, interfaith marriages have just skyrocketed. Out of the 25 or 30 weddings we do in a year, right now, about half of them, if not more than half are interfaith marriages.

One of the biggest problems that we face is the whole meat, non-meat issue. So, you know, we did a wedding last year where the groom was Irish and the bride was Gradrati Indian and her family, you know, strict Jains — no meat, no potatoes. And his side of the family is Irish so obviously they want those things. We really just try to come to a consensus.

(to Ms. Shah): What did you do?

Ms. SHAH: We ended up going with the non-meat. But, obviously they weren’t happy about it because their guest list consisted of everybody that, you know, ate meat and potatoes!

ROLLIN: At the Mani-Sandhu wedding there was also a meat issue since Hindus are vegetarians, but meat won out.

And then there is the animal issue. At a recent wedding, Sonal supervised in Washington, D.C., a Hindu groom wanted to make his entrance on an elephant.

Ms. SHAH: It definitely posed a lot of challenges. But yes, we found an elephant. We had the elephant brought over on a semi to downtown Washington, D.C. on Pennsylvania Avenue. So, it was very exciting. But, it was, literally the last six months of the wedding, all we were worried about was this elephant.

ROLLIN: Back at the Mani-Sandhu wedding, Sonal has made sure that the two weddings faithfully represent the two religions.

At the Sikh wedding, men and women sit separately on the floor — shoes off, heads covered. The service centers around the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.

Ms. BANGA: The bride and the groom, they go around the guru, keeping in mind that the guru or God is the center. All their life, because of this way, they will be very easily able to mend their differences if that’s what they keep in mind.

ROLLIN: At the Hindu wedding, the bride groom also do a walk-around.

Pandit DIXIT: So that completion of the seven rounds around the fire signifies that they are married and that concludes with the ceremony where the groom offers a necklace — ties a necklace to the bride and usually they put a little dot, like a kumkum a sindur of the forehead of the bride and that means she’s a married woman from then on.

ROLLIN: At the end of the Hindu service, the Sikh elders were invited to join in blessing the bride and groom, showering them with rice, flowers and spices for fertility, happiness and peace.

Mr. S. SANDHU: As long as, you know, they will respect each other, not only as an individual but also respect each other’s customs and religion. You know, let the kids learn the better of both sides. And, I think they will be stronger.

ROLLIN (to Mr. S. Sandhu): Did it take you awhile to come to this?

Mr. S. SANDHU: Yes. You know, your initial reaction is — you know, you would rather have things, you know, go your way, let it be simple. But reality is not always simple.

ROLLIN: This three-day celebration does come to an end. And Ronjit and Sunitha will be off to Hawaii for their honeymoon, knowing that they have the blessings and acceptance of both families.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Betty Rollin in Utica, New York.

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DEBORAH POTTER: That’s our program for now. I’m Deborah Potter. 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

And as we leave you, more celebrations from the Mani-Sandhu wedding in Utica, New York.


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