Thursday, July 06, 2006
This religious revival is a laughing matter
I am standing behind the main stage at a huge rock music festival in Illinois called Cornerstone.
For the past 24 hours, I've been hammered by thunderous sounds of modern Christian rock, in large part an ocean of thrash bands complete with tattoos and piercings, but very much with Jesus in mind.
I've been on the religion beat a lot lately, and have become aware of a great struggle among Christians to determine what their faith will be, can be, should be in America today.
In Florida recently, I met Rodney Howard-Browne, a South African minister who believes faith is, literally, a laughing matter.
When he speaks, hundreds of people in his congregation are seized by what they call holy laughter. They chuckle, guffaw, howl, and scream with mirth as, they say, the Holy Spirit fiills them. Sometimes the laughing fits last for minutes, sometimes for hours.
I have no idea how to judge the sincerity of their belief, or even if I should, but whether faced with laughing crowds or mosh pits, I hear Christians all over asking if their timeless faith is changing and wondering if that is good or bad.
What do you think?
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
When a 50-50 chance of living is good news
Nearly two weeks after Katrina hit, when I thought I had seen it all, I saw more: A clinic for evacuee children with cancer, filled with children who had no homes and whose parents had been frantically searching for a place to get the chemotherapy and radiation the kids so desperately needed.
With no working telephones or computers, parents heard word of mouth about this clinic in Baton Rouge, where many of the doctors were also homeless and all were working without the children's medical records as they pieced together what each sick child needed.
As I went from exam room to exam room meeting frightened and tired families, I heard screaming. Six-year-old Tony Nata was getting a central IV line put into his chest so he could receive the treatments he'd missed. His mother showed me pictures of the family's car floating, images of all their possessions awash on the front lawn in Slidell, Louisiana, their house devastated.
Tony used to receive his treatments at Children's Hospital in New Orleans, which had closed after Katrina. Tony has leukemia and was given a 20 percent chance of living without a bone marrow transplant. Even with it, doctors gave him only about a 50-50 chance of living.
I've been following the Natas ever since, and on tonight's show, viewers finally get to see Tony having his transplant. This is what his family has been waiting for -- to see if this procedure really does save his life.
Viewers also get to meet the heroes of this story, everyone from his four-year-old sister to firefighters from New York City. His sister, Allie, underwent the three-day procedure in the hospital to give her brother bone marrow cells (as she peered into his room, she said, "I hope you love me now, Tony!").
The firefighters, who are part of a New York City group that helps others as a way of saying thank you for the help received on September 11, helped rebuild Tony's house. Later, other groups from around the country pitched in to finish the house -- about 150 people in all, working to help a boy most of them had never met.
Before the transplant, Tony and his family had been living in a FEMA trailer and a relative's home. But because the procedures that prepared him for the bone marrow transplant basically shut down his immune system, he required a very clean place to live.
I plan to keep up with the Nata family for many months to come.
The dog kingdom's Noah
Sam Bailey's life has gone to the dogs -- literally and figuratively.
We met Sam at his new home, a FEMA trailer, in Pearlington, Mississippi, a town hit by the full force of Hurricane Katrina. The home he and his wife had lived in was destroyed by the storm and wreckage is still strewn throughout the property. Their new trailer is in their old yard, a yard they share with more than 50 dogs and cats.
You see, Sam is the founder of the Pontchartrain Humane Society, an organization dedicated to taking care of stray animals until they are adopted. His humane society is different than most, because the group has no building. Some of the dogs are kept at volunteers' homes, but most stay right in Sam's yard amid all the damage from Katrina.
In the days before the hurricane, Sam was able to place many of the dogs in temporary homes to wait out the storm, but he couldn't place all of them. So as Katrina approached, Sam acted like Noah -- he ushered the dogs up to the second floor of his house, and then the attic as the water continued to rise, climbing to over 15 feet. The one dog he couldn't get in the attic was a pit bull named Sampson. That particular dog was too big and stubborn to get into the attic.
As Katrina roared through, Sam did not think he and the dogs would survive. He found other animals out in the flooded yard. He pulled them into his house too. He saw dead animals float by. Then the storm started getting less ferocious and Sam realized he and his pets would be alright.
Now, more than ten months later, he has more animals than ever because the storm left multitudes of strays, with fewer people around to adopt them.
He admits that some of his animals have "social" problems because of Katrina and are unlikely adoption candidates. Yet, he has a policy of not putting animals to sleep unless they are terminally ill. So Sam isn't quite sure what he's going to do with all the animals.
He spends hours every day with volunteers who help take care of dogs in the outdoor kennels in the hot sun. There is no shortage of mud and insects in the primitive (at least compared to other kennels) outdoor compound. But he loves his dogs, knows all their names and personalities, and hopes they will get adopted even though the calls are not exactly pouring in.
Sam and his wife say they wouldn't mind leaving Mississippi permanently because of the damage they've suffered. But because of their dogs, they have no choice but to stay.
You can visit the Pontchartrain Humane Society online at: pontchartrainhumanesociety.org
Katrina survivors: Don't forget about us
"Please don't forget about us." That's what someone said to me just a little while ago.
I was watching the fireworks explode over the Mississippi River along with several thousand other residents and visitors in New Orleans. I came here to spend my Fourth of July holiday. I usually have to work whenever I'm in this city, so it's been nice to just spend a couple days walking around, eating great food, talking with people.
I didn't get the name of the lady who said, "Please don't forget about us," but I've heard those words from a lot of other people on previous trips to this region. I know people here feel like many in the country have forgotten about them.
Every time I come to New Orleans, I'm struck by the spirit of its people. I know it's a cliche, but it's true. Shopkeepers, school teachers, young and old, people are commited to bringing New Orleans back. A lot of the city is back, but there sure is a lot of work to be done.
We decided to devote the majority of Wednesday's program to the men and women who've been working so hard here. We are calling it "American Heroes: Giving Back to the Gulf," and I think you will be inspired and moved by some of the stories we're covering. Terrible things have happened here, but the situation would be much worse were it not for the incredible generosity of the American people.
We'll show you where the money that has been donated so far has gone. We'll also introduce you to some of the people who are making a difference here every day -- kids who are spending their summer vacations rebuilding houses with Habitat for Humanity, volunteers working at animal shelters, doctors struggling to care for the needs of a battle-scarred city, police struggling to deal with a growing murder rate while rebuilding the force and their own lives.
We'll also be joined by Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, who are performing Wednesday night in New Orleans, with all the proceeds of their concert go to their charity, the Neighbor's Keeper Foundation. They've also given a lot of tickets away to volunteers who've been helping New Orleans and the Gulf Coast rebuild. I'll spend time with Faith and Tim tomorrow in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish. We'll also broadcast live during their benefit concert.
It may not seem like a big deal, but to a city that is struggling to rebuild, a city that often feels forgotten, Wednesday's concert is a big deal. Like the librarian convention that took place here last weekend, it's an econonic boost to the city, and perhaps just as importantly, a sign of normal life slowly ... very slowly ... returning.
Monday, July 03, 2006
Are drivers on cell phones more dangerous than drunks?
People talking on cell phones in traffic are potentially more dangerous than drunk drivers. That is the startling headline
from Frank Drews, a University of Utah professor. It's easy to remember, and positively ignites public debate about the issue, but should it?
I spent time talking with Drews and found him personable, well-intentioned, and convinced of the validity of his research. He studied forty drivers navigating the twists and turns of a driving simulator while unimpaired, then drunk, then talking on a cell phone. His results are startling. The cell phone users braked more slowly, had a harder time keeping with the flow of traffic, and were generally more likely to cause an accident. They in fact did crash several times, while his drunk drivers never did.
But there are significant caveats to consider.
For starters, the sample was small and the drivers just barely drunk. Most people who cause drunk driving accidents are significantly above the legal limit for intoxication. Beyond that, recent, much larger studies have found that being distracted, trying to pick up things in the car, and being tired can all be more dangerous than cell phone use.
The cell phone industry folks say the proof is in the pudding: Use of cell phones has skyrocketed over the past decade, yet the number of auto accidents has not.
So where does the truth lie? I've been cut off in traffic by oblivious idiots chatting away on their cells. I've nearly been rear-ended by them, too. But should we further regulate cell phone drivers? Or are there just too many bad drivers out there, people who'll be just as bad on ... or off ... the phone?