Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How Culture Might Have Influenced The Manti Te'o Hoax

Photo Credit: Matt_Velazquez
There are many questions that still remain about the hoax that led many to believe that Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o had a girlfriend that passed away in September of 2012. As we now know, his girlfriend was not real and it was all just a cruel prank.

The question that is forefront in many of our minds is: How could Te'o have been fooled? He appears to be an intelligent guy, and is well-known. How could this have happened? Remarkably, it seems that other athletes have also fallen victim to the trap of entering into online relationships with "imaginary" individuals.

In Te'o's case it seems that there may have been cultural factors that were at play that contributed to his involvement in this hoax. For many of us in the majority culture, we may be quick to dismiss the suggestion of cultural influences on something such as this. But in an intriguing piece in The Atlantic Monthly, Ilana Gershon offers some insights into Samoan culture that may explain some of the dynamics affecting the Te'o story.

Gershon writes:
"As an ethnographer, I heard a number of stories that sound almost exactly like Te'o's story—naïve Christian golden boys who had been fooled by other Samoans pretending to be dewy-eyed innocents. Leukemia was even a theme—I guess Samoan pranksters keep turning to the same diseases. 
I heard these stories as gossip—women in their late teens or early 20s would tell me about how a much sought-after man in their church had been fooled. I never talked directly to a victim or a hoaxer about this, so I didn't write about this in any of my academic work. I did this fieldwork before Facebook or cell phones, and even before email became widespread outside of college circles. All the stories I heard involved husky voices on telephones, and maybe a letter or two.
What strikes me as particularly Samoan about Te'o's comments to ESPN is that he opens with a very familiar Samoan worry. It is not his own shame he is concerned about; he is worried about the shame this will bring to his whole family, all those who share his last name. Concern about family comes up time and time again in his tale. 
So much of this news story is hauntingly familiar to me from fieldwork with Samoan migrants: the role of family, the half-hearted attempts to verify a person's identity that fail, the strong spiritual connection Te'o thought he felt with Kekua, and the hoax itself. He chooses family reunions over possibly seeing his elusive girlfriend. He understands when she is forced to do the same. In Samoan life, family obligations always triumph, and often seem to keep lovers apart.
Te'o was deeply concerned about how his parents would react to his new girlfriend, with the tacit undercurrent that this was not just about two people falling in love, but about two families entering into a complex alliance that will involve many mutual obligations. 
He tried to find ways to have Kekua enter into his family's circle as a potential Christian daughter-in-law, encouraging her to text passages of scripture to his members of his family.
And I am not surprised that the Samoans playing the hoax felt the need to tell Te'o that his girlfriend died only hours after Te'o texted them that his grandmother had died. His girlfriend's family might have been obligated to send money for the funeral. If they did, the family name would be announced publicly at a large Samoan funeral in thanks. The hoax might have started to cost the hoaxers money and they would risk exposure, unless they took drastic measures, like pretending the girlfriend had died. 
The only part of Te'o's story that I found strange was that, upon hearing that his girlfriend had died, he only sent white roses to her family, and his parents also only sent flowers. The Samoan migrants that I knew would have sent money, and the amount would have signaled how much the family valued the potential alliance. Flowers alone really wouldn't have cut it."
After considering this whole situation through a cultural lens, perhaps this may not seem as odd to many of us as it initially appeared to be. Our cultural background often influences how we behave and also how we respond to the behavior of others. I'm willing to consider that at least some of these cultural factors may be a part of this developing story.

To read the rest of Ilana Gershon's piece on Te'o please click here.

(h/t to friend John Waidley for the link.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Christians Are Making A Difference In Detroit

Photo Credit: Dogs New Clothes
Katelyn Beaty of Christianity Today has written a compelling article highlighting some of the work of Christians that is helping to revitalize the Motor City. Though many people have given up hope on a city that is close to my heart, God is not finished with Motown. Many followers of Christ are faithfully seeking to be God's hands and feet in this great city.

A highlight from the article:
"Glimmers of hope—economic hope, at least—have begun flickering throughout the Motor City. Start-ups pushing tech innovation and sustainability have flocked to Detroit, drawing young entrepreneurs from New York City and Silicon Valley. Stik.com moved its headquarters from San Francisco to the M@dison Building (purchased by billionaire Dan Gilbert) recently. A Whole Foods is slated to open in the hip Midtown area early this year. 
Among these giants, young entrepreneurial Christians are joining Detroit's slow turnaround. Margarita Barry, a Detroit native, has at age 26 launched three start-ups: 71-Pop, a retail store that carries locally designed clothing and wares; Detroit Design Lab, a web development firm for local nonprofits; and I Am Young Detroit, a website that spotlights other entrepreneurial Detroiters and will this year begin offering them micro-grants. 
"I want to empower young people to pursue their passions within the city, so they're putting their dollars in the city and creating jobs," says Barry, who came back to Detroit in 2007 after earning her bachelor's degree in Ohio. "You don't have to be a Donald Trump to change Detroit." 
Diallo Smith was "bent on making money" as a financial analyst in Houston when, he says, God intervened and redirected him to pastoral ministry. When he and his wife returned for a wedding in 2006, "we both felt God calling us back to Detroit," says the pastor of Awakenings, which meets at the Detroit School of Arts in Midtown. But Smith found that "newer churches in urban centers [face] sustainability issues, because economic realities are different than in the suburbs." To both bolster the downtown economy and offer a unique third space for locals, Smith is launching a table tennis social club, the first of its kind anywhere. 
"Imagine Kanye West playing Ping-Pong with Tony Blair with dub-step playing in the back-ground, surrounded by a café and wine boutique—that gives you a sense of what Drive is." Located in a downtown commercial hub, Drive will operate much like a bowling alley, charging visitors per hour per table, or for unlimited membership. Smith says the model is strategic in more ways than one, allowing Christians to form relationships with Detroit entrepreneurs, which is what has happened at Awakenings' art gallery. 
"We Christians need to be at the forefront of being imaginative, creative, and innovative in bringing economic viability for cities that are hurting," he says. The key for Christians, though, will be doing so in a way that rightly remembers their city's history—and their neighbors. "Newcomers come in without a sense of history and act as though Detroit is a blank canvas," notes Mark VanAndel, pastor of discipleship at Citadel of Faith. 
Pastor Carey remembers watching Detropia, a new documentary about post-industrial Detroit. "One interviewee said, 'I'm an artist and could never afford to live like this anywhere else; if this doesn't work out, we don't lose anything because we're at the bottom.' 
"When he said that, it was like a knife went through me," says Carey. "This is 'the bottom'? You can't imagine the grief a person feels when this is the place that is home. I didn't realize how deeply I'd be offended when other people, even Christians, would joke about Detroit," says Foster. "It's like they were making fun of my kid."
To read the rest of the article please click here.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

When Our Heroes Lie To Us: My Prayer For Lance Armstrong & Manti Te'o

Photo Credit: Neon Tommy
It's been a rough week for cyclist Lance Armstrong and Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o. It is being reported that Armstrong has admitted to the use of performance enhancing drugs in the past and, as a result, has jeopardized his standing as an American icon. In Te'o's case, it appears that the story of his deceased girlfriend was all a hoax. Whatever role he played in the charade is yet to be determined but, at minimum, it seems that he was not honest about it even after learning of the prank.

These instances, of course, are not the first cases of our athletic heroes disappointing us. In recent memory we've also seen legendary figures like Joe Paterno, Tiger Woods and too many MLB players to name have failed to live up to our expectations of them.

With the advent of social media, the public response is swift and strong when these stories come to light. We can easily cast our judgments about our heroes without knowing all the facts and are quick to make light of their perceived failures. Without excusing the lies of those we've placed on pedestals, I do wonder if the expectations we place on our heroes might be asking too much. Do we allow them to be human...or do we literally expect them to be superhuman?

In a article from a few years ago, ESPN.com's Jeff MacGregor wrote of the failure of a couple revered heroes -- baseball player Alex Rodriguez and Olympic legend Michael Phelps. MacGregor writes:
"And this has been our recent trouble with American "heroes," at least the ones arriving still warm off the humming assembly lines of popular culture. The problem lies not in their manufacture, but in our perception of the final product. Once we've been sold their heroic stories by the media and the for-profit institutions in charge of such things, we refuse to see our heroes for what they really are: complex, fallible human beings just like us who rise briefly out of the mire to do something extraordinary, then return to join us in the hog wallow of moral confusion and squalid appetite that is everyday life. 
Heroes never were meant to be an accurate reflection of daily human enterprise. They were meant to be examples of the rare capacity to exceed ourselves. Go back to ancient mythology, and you'll see what I mean. The Greeks understood that becoming a hero didn't absolve anyone of being human. In fact, that was usually the point of the story. Cautionary. Many of those "heroes" were lucky to get out of those stories alive. Most traded a single act of glory for a lifetime of punishing regret or a grisly death. 
Here in 21st century America, however, we prefer the Candyland version of heroic myth, in which no one is doomed to die or drown or wander forever in a wasteland of pain, but instead sets a record, scores a contract with William Morris, makes a million and marries a swimsuit model, and everything winds up hunky-dory at the end. Nobody has to sleep with his own mother and then claw his eyes out with a brooch."
I don't think it's unreasonable to ask our sports heroes to be people of integrity and to be honest with their fans. But we must realize that they are not perfect and that they will fail us. Athletes are no different than any else in regard to their humanity. They may happen to enjoy tremendous athletic success, but they still struggle with the same insecurities, need for acceptance and even the same sins that we all do. It seems to be an American pastime to worship people as they rise...and ridicule them as they fall. How sad.

Although it disappoints me when our heroes fail us, it doesn't surprise me. In a world where style is so often valued over substance and where we expect our heroes to perform superhuman feats, it's not unreasonable to surmise that some will cross ethical lines to achieve what they think we want them to become.

I don't know all the facts about Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o. But I do think it's fair to say that some of their behavior is wrong, even though we are not in the position to know their motives and what led them to deceive the public. I, too, struggle with wanting to please others and pretend to be something that I am not so that others will like me more. But as I've gotten older, I've learned that presenting a false self to others is ultimately not fulfilling. Because at some point, our true self will be revealed, the imposter that we've been presenting to others will become unmasked and we will be seen for who we truly are.

I don't think we have to be fake with God since He knows all about us and loves us anyway. The conditional love of fans will never match the unconditional love of God.  My prayer is that Lance and Manti would both come to realize the love, forgiveness and acceptance that can be found through an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ. I don't know their personal lives so they may already have a relationship with God. But I hope they would both be able to experience God in such a way that they would be able to live honest and forthright lives in front of others. Although I'm sure they will both have difficult days ahead, my guess is that they will be resting a little easier at night knowing that the darkness they've been living in has now been revealed in the light.

The heart of the Christian message is that we can never be good enough to earn God's favor but through faith in Christ, God accepts us as a new person. We no longer have to pretend to be something we are not. In the words of Pastor Tim Keller, the humble Christian understands that they are "more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope." May this be true of our heroes and of us. Amen.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Evangelical Leaders Push For Immigration Reform

Photo Credit: murphydean
From CNN.com's Belief Blog:
"When the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez talks about immigration, it is as someone who has witnessed the way a religious community is affected when a family is torn apart by deportation. “It is personal for me,” Rodriguez said, describing deported friends and congregants as "lovely people. These are wonderful, God-fearing, family-loving people.” 
Rodriguez, the head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, has a naturally boisterous voice that booms with authority. When he speaks about immigration, passion oozes out of every syllable. But his voice softens as he speaks of those close to him who have been deported: an associate pastor's wife, a friend from Sacramento, California, a well-known congregant - the list seems committed to memory. 
Even as he relives the heartache, the pastor seems hopeful, if not optimistic. Rodriguez, along with a number of other high-profile evangelical leaders, many of whom who have worked on immigration reform for decades, are betting that 2013 represents the best opportunity they've ever had to get meaningful reforms passed. Proof of their confidence: A coalition of evangelical groups is launching what many are calling the “largest ever grass-roots push on immigration.” 
“We have a moral imperative to act,” Rodriguez exclaims. “This is the year. This is the evangelical hour to lead in a justice issue.” 
In the mind of many evangelical leaders, the reverend is right. The coalition is called the Evangelical Immigration Table and it is brought together a diverse mix of evangelical groups, including the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the National Association of Evangelicals, Sojourners and Focus on the Family. Though the groups began holding broader discussion two years ago, Monday will serve as the campaign's first concerted push on immigration, with the goal of getting meaningful immigration reform through Congress in 2013. 
“I think we have a window of opportunity in these first months of 2013,” Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told CNN. “I think there is a real, new conversation on immigration reform.”
To read the rest of the article please click here.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

High School Graduating Classes Shrinking, More Diverse

Photo Credit: Michael @ NW Lens
From Larry Gordon, Tribune Newspapers:
"High school graduates will face less competition for college admission in the next decade because of a decline in their ranks, according to a report on education enrollment trends released Thursday. 
Estimates show that 3.21 million high school graduates are expected in 2013-14, according to a new report. At the same time, Latinos and Asian-Americans will comprise larger shares of high school populations, while numbers of white and black students will drop. 
“Over the last two decades, colleges and universities have been able to count on an annually growing number of students graduating from the nation’s high schools. But it appears that period of abundance will soon be history,” said the study issued by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. 
Campuses will have to recruit more heavily, possibly reaching beyond typical geographic territories and turning to older adults and other nontraditional populations, the report said. The number of high school graduates increased nationally for a decade, peaking at 3.4 million in 2010-11, but then lower birth rates and less immigration contributed to a decline. Estimates show that 3.21 million graduates are expected in 2013-14, according to the report. Then it projects a leveling off until growth in the next decade brings the level to 3.4 million again by 2023-24. 
The effect will be uneven. The Northeast and Midwest will experience the largest declines, with smaller ones in the West and some growth in the South, the study found. The study anticipates that 45 percent of the nation’s public high school students will be nonwhite by 2019-20, compared with 37 percent in 2009."

Sunday, January 06, 2013

College Students Raise Over $3 Million To End Modern-Day Slavery

Photo Credit: Ira Gelb
From CNN.com:
"More than 60,000 young Christians packed the Georgia Dome in Atlanta for worship and inspiration at the Passion 2013 conference that wrapped up on Friday. They came together from 56 countries and 2,300 universities, according to organizers, “to shine a light on modern-day slavery.” 
“We believe when you fill a dome full of people who say they follow Jesus, there should be some tangible action,” said Bryson Vogeltanz, chief steward of Passion’s freedom initiative. That tangible action came in the form of tens of thousands of towels and socks donated by conference-goers to be handed out at local homeless shelters in the weeks following the conference. 
Vogeltanz and his team also wanted a global initiative. They focused on four key goals, which they called awake, prevent, rescue and restore. They identified 19 nonprofit organizations working around the world to eradicate modern-day slavery and human trafficking. The organizations were showcased during the conference and students and volunteers had the opportunity to donate money to the cause. 
The United Nations estimates 27 million people are entrapped in modern-day slavery at any given time around the world in a market valued at $32 billion. Last year, Hagar International was one of the recipients of those donations. Hagar helps women and children recovering from horrific abuse and human trafficking in Cambodia, Afghanistan and Vietnam. 
“We have been able to serve children who have been released from egregious abuse of being trafficked for sex, both boys and girls, in Cambodia,” said Jane Tafel of Hagar. “Those children have a new life now because of Passion 2012.” Tafel returned to the conference this year for the organization and was anxiously waiting to hear final donation numbers. 
Wellspring Living, an organization that provides restorative services for girls who have been trafficked or suffered sexual abuse, said it was able to open a new transition facility as a result of the gifts that conference-goers gave last year, according to president and CEO Mary Frances Bowley. 
“This generation has the potential not just to end slavery, they have the potential to do anything,” Vogeltanz said. “Jesus was the original abolitionist. We’re just following what he’s already done in our lives for us," he said, referring to the Christian belief that Jesus saved all mankind from slavery and sin. 
...Passion organizers said the students gave $3,170,639 in support of their freedom initiative. Beyond fund-raising, organizers said, the goal was to shine a light on a worldwide problem and to inspire action."
To read the rest of the article please click here.