In this week’s prayer email:
- Olympics Special: Overcoming Adversity
- Olympics Special: Brazil
- Coming up … Time for Creation
In this week’s Revised Common Lectionary Readings, Jesus instructs His followers to divest themselves of all that would distract them and to be ready for action, so that when the Master returns, He may find them at their appointed work. World-class athletes, such as the Olympians on our TV screens, give up distractions to offer their best performances. Pray that, by God’s grace, we may grow in faith, set aside distractions, and focus on living for God.
There will be no prayer email for the next two weeks – see you on August 26th, God willing!
Olympics Special: Overcoming Adversity
A Syrian girl who swam for her life – and the lives of others – in the Mediterranean … a Congolese judoka who has not seen her family since a helicopter took her out of a war zone … a South Sudanese cattle herder who fled the country’s civil wars and is now a middle-distance runner … and Ethiopian political refugee who is a leading marathoner.
If you haven’t seen (BBC documentary) or read the stories of the athletes who were Olympic hopefuls and who eventually made up ‘Team Refugee,’ please do: you’ll be inspired by their skill and by their resilience in the face of pain and challenge.
What they’ve accomplished as athletes is remarkable. And so is what the team has accomplished – taking us all beyond the two-dimensional pictures of nameless people in camps or on beaches into the real world of individuals with stories, talents, hopes and dreams. They have, as the Christian Aid campaign would say, ‘changed the story’.
Their individual stories take on an even deeper resonance when set in context. The South Sudanese refugees, for example, run at a time when conflict once again has shattered their country – and all had their talent discovered while they lived in the Kakuma refugee camp, the home to roughly 200,000 people; some of the other Olympic hopefuls came from Dadaab, the giant refugee camp that Kenya has announced plans to close. One of the Syrian swimmers, Rami Anis, is from Aleppo – for which we are praying this week as last week, as the humanitarian crisis there deepens.
It’s also worth noting that the Refugee Team members aren’t the only refugees participating in the Games. People who fled their homelands and have become citizens of other countries are eligible to represent their new homes: for example, Eritrean refugee Tsegai Tewelde will represent Great Britain in the marathon, Bosnian refugee Admir Cejvanovic will play in Rugby 7s for Canada.
Nor is the story simply about the refugees – it’s also about other people who are part of their success. Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, who has championed the idea of the refugee team. Olympian Tegla Loroupe, who has used her sporting fame in the service of others and who recruited and trained people from the Kenyan refugee camps, offering them the potential for a better life. A Berlin swimming club, which welcomed a young woman who announced she wanted to be an Olympian … even though she hadn’t trained for two years. Caritas Rio de Janeiro, which supported the Congolese judokas when they fled a system that quite literally caged team members if they did not win. These are points of light – and offer a model for solidarity and welcome.
Overcoming the Odds
Almost by definition, Olympians overcome obstacles. To be as good as they are in their sport, they’re going to have to push beyond the limits of what most people think is possible. Some, however, overcome extraordinary obstacles outside their sport in a way that makes their performances all the more remarkable.
Two recent documentaries focus on a few stories from this year’s competitors. The first, ‘A Fighting Chance’ (full documentary on Vimeo), looks at four Olympic hopefuls – Miller Pata & Linline Matauatu, a beach volleyball team from Vanuatu; Yenebier Guillén Benitez, a woman boxer from the Dominican Republic; and Tsepo Mathibelle, a male marathoner from rural Lesotho. (Mathibelle alone will be competing in the Olympics, though the Vanuatu team came heartbreakingly close and only learned on Friday that they would definitely not be going). The second, ‘T-Rex’ (trailer, trailer with full video for purchase), focuses on Claressa Shields, a 2012 gold medalist in women’s boxing who comes from Flint, Michigan – a city whose poverty and difficulties have made headlines most recently because of the scandalously high levels of lead in its water.
Both the documentaries touch on issues the athletes face that go far beyond questions of sport – barriers placed in their way because of their gender or race, the impacts of climate change, and the impacts of poverty. In Tsepo Mathibelle’s case, his family’s low income meant that when he was training for London 2012, he was subsisting largely on a diet of maize meal with almost no protein – and he had no proper marathon shoes. Claressa Shields moved from house to house as a child and used regularly to have to ring her coach to ask for help dealing with complex family and neighbourhood situations. Since the 2012 Olympics, both athletes have received considerable support (in Mathibelle’s case from Samsung, which sponsored the documentary), but their early experiences were as far as you can get from the focused backing that many athletes receive. And yet their God-given talents, their faith (all are Christians), their hard work, dedication, and the people around them have enabled them to accomplish much.
I (Maranda) can be ambivalent about such films. There’s a part of me that fears that, ill told, such stories can reinforce some people’s belief that the factors that crush so many people aren’t really that bad: “If he/she did all that despite the obstacles, why can’t they?” Conversely, we’ve also probably all seen ‘success’ stories told in ways which drain the dignity from the protagonists’ surroundings, painting those around them as almost irredeemable in order to maximise the impact of the individuals’ accomplishments.
But, while there are a few moments of less helpful commentary in ‘A Fighting Chance’, overall these films inspire and move by combining a focus on the individuals with a grasp of the complex joys and sorrows of their immediate and wider context.
Shields, in particular, has approved the documentary made about her – and been adamant that it should be shown not only in the art houses normally associated with documentaries, but to children in Flint itself. For her, telling her story to people who are themselves struggling is part of embracing what she sees as the wider meaning of her success. She recently said: “My life is way bigger than boxing or acting or being rich or being famous or endorsements. I think God is using me, putting me on this high pedestal, so I can tell people about Him and tell people about where I came from and how I made it and, really, to make the people that feel broken, feel unbroken. That’s the journey I’ve been on.”
Give thanks for the gifts and witness of these athletes – and so many others like them. Pray that, by God’s grace, they may, by their use of their gifts and their witness, continue to participate in the work of making “the people that feel broken feel unbroken” And pray that all of us can work together for a world of opportunity for all, where each person can develop their gifts, whatever they may be, and use them to the glory of God.
Olympics Special: Brazil
As the Olympic Games get underway in Rio de Janeiro, please pray for Brazil and the many challenges it is facing.
We’ve been asked to pray by Paulo Ueti, the Anglican Alliance’s Regional Facilitator for Latin America. He writes, “Brazil is passing through a huge and scary crisis, with hate and intolerance being the daily bread instead of justice and fraternity. There is lots of good initiatives happening to demand justice and mainly transparency and justice from those in power. The democracy is jeopardised but hope is still intact. Bear us in your prayers.”
So what exactly are the issues? As the eyes of the world turn towards Brazil for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the country is facing a political crisis and economic problems as well as the Zika virus outbreak
Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, is currently suspended pending an impeachment trial. She is accused of manipulating government accounts ahead of her re-election in 2014, using funds from state banks to temporarily cover budget shortfalls. Her supporters have argued that the impeachment is politically motivated, as President Rousseff’s predecessors followed similar practices, and that it represents an attempt of the socio-economic elites to take power from the Workers’ Party, of which Rousseff is a member. (Vice-President Michael Temer, one of the architects of Rousseff’s impeachment and now the interim president, immediately appointed a cabinet with a very different composition and sought to bring in sweeping changes, including a reduction in Brasil’s flagship ‘Bolsa Familia’ anti-poverty programme) The situation is even more complicated by a recent Senate report, which concluded that President Rousseff did not, in fact, engage in the creative accounting she was charged with. It appears that a bloc of Senators is planning to vote against the impeachment, in sufficient numbers to defeat the attempt.
Simply surviving the impeachment proceedings, however, may not enable President Rousseff to return to power.The impeachment proceedings come against the backdrop of a major corruption scandal, in which many leading and former politicians are implicated. Operation Lava Jato (“Carwash”) has uncovered what prosecutors say is a huge kickback and bribery scheme involving the state-owned oil company Petrobras. Prosecutors allege that construction companies and Petrobras conspired to increase the price of contracts, the extra money lining the pockets of the directors of the construction companies, Petrobras executives and politicians who were in on the deal.
The Petrobras scandal is highly charged politically. Ms. Rousseff herself has not been accused of corruption relating to her role at Petrobras itself – either now or in the past. She was, however, the chair of Petrobras between 2003 and 2010. Moreover, the Workers’ Party is alleged to have benefitted from such kickbacks. Indeed, on 29 July the immensely popular former President Lula da Silva, who handpicked Rousseff as his successor, was himself charged with Obstruction of Justice in the Petrobras investigation, accused of paying a former Petrobras director not to cooperate in the corruption investigation. Prosecutors also allege that Mr da Silva is “one of the principal beneficiaries” of the Petrobras scandal, receiving “undue advantages” to the value of $9m from construction firms – charges denied by the former president. This in itself might well affect Rousseff – but more worryingly, both Rousseff and Lula da Silva appear compromised by the release, by the judge in charge of Operation Car Wash, of tapes in which Rousseff offered da Silva a cabinet position – and the accompanying legal immunity – if investigators got too close to finding him guilty of corruption.
At the same time, many of the President’s opponents are also caught up in the maelstrom surrounding Petrobras and the general political turmoil: indeed, Ms Rousseff’s supporters argue that her impeachment is in part to distract from her opponents’ own misdoings. Interim President Michel Temer has already lost three of his ministers since coming to power in May. The newly installed Planning Minister Mr Juca resigned when tapes recorded in March were leaked in which he talks about ousting Ms Rousseff and says he has the support of both the Brazilian military and Supreme Court. The Transparency Minister Fabiano Silveira resigned after recordings were leaked which suggested he tried to derail the Petrobras corruption investigation and the Tourism Minister, Henrique Alves, resigned, less than two months before the Olympics. He was one of two dozen officials named in plea bargain testimony by a former Petrobras executive linking Temer and several of his closest allies to the Petrobras scandal.
To further fan the flames of scandal, the leaking of the “Panama Papers” in April revealed that at least 57 people implicated in the Petrobras scandal had opened secret offshore companies. People on all political sides – including some of the major political players – were named in the papers, a revelation described as “an atomic bomb that’s exploding exactly during the impeachment proceedings in Congress,” by David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasília. The speaker of the house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, who played a key role in pushing for Ms Rousseff’s impeachment (and was named in the Panama Papers), resigned on July 7th. He had himself been suspended since May by the Supreme Court, who accused him of hampering investigations into the Petrobras scandal, leading to weeks of deadlock in Congress. Mr Cunha has been replaced by Rodrigo Maia, an ally of the interim president.
Last weekend saw huge protests from both sides of the political divide in various cities, with anti-Rousseff protestors calling for her permanent removal from office and her supporters promising further protests on August 5th, the day of the opening ceremony of the Olympic games.
Brazil is also facing severe economic problems, with its worst recession in decades. The OECD expects Brazil’s economy to contract a further 4.3% this year – a major reversal on the country’s previous fortunes. The economy has declined or stagnated in 8 of the last 10 quarters and Brazil is in danger of slipping out of the top 10 largest economies, when once it was challenging the UK and France for fifth place. Unemployment is increasing, with over 11% of Brazilians unemployed (over 11 million people). Inflation is also problematic and has been running at around 10% although there has recently been a small decline in the rate. As noted, the new finance minister, Henrique Meirelles, came into office with plans for a tough fiscal policy with a freeze on budget spending for up to twenty years and the scaling back of social programmes., such as the Bolsa Familia. However, there appear to have been some reversal of these policies in recent weeks (possibly in view of their unpopularity and Temer’s low poll ratings) and in late June the Temer government announced a 12.5% increase for the Bolsa Familia.
The economic situation is having a profound impact on people’s lives. On 17th June Rio de Janeiro state declared a financial “state of calamity” and the risk of the “total collapse” in public services. Pensions and wages for state employees are already in arrears. There are reports of hospitals turning away patients and students occupying schools in protest at classes being cancelled due to teacher strikes. The announcement also said that the financial crisis has prevented the state from “honoring its commitments to the organization of the Olympic and Paralympic Games”. Whilst Rio’s city government is responsible for most of the public funding of the games, the state government is responsible for policing and transport, including the extension of the metro line towards the Olympic park, which fell well behind schedule (finally completed just 6 days before the start of the games). The decree led to an $850 million bailout from the Brazilian federal government, but the money is largely for security for the games (although it will also pay police officers’ overtime arrears). The decree also authorizes the state to “adopt all necessary emergency measures to ration essential public services in order for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games to take place”, including the loosening of minimum spending requirements on services such as education and health care. The doctors’ union Sin Med reacted angrily to the announcement with its president, Jorge Darze, saying, “How can you decree a public calamity to guarantee the Olympic Games? The priority should be salaries paid on time, assistance for health and quality education”. As the Olympic Games have approached and global media outlets have turned their attention to Brazil, protesters have taken to expressing their anger imaginatively and in English. A flyover in Rio has been daubed with the message “Welcome, we don’t have hospitals” and at the end of June, striking police and firefighters held up a banner at the airport which read, “Welcome to hell. Police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe”.
On top of these profound political and economic challenges, Brazil is also striving to cope with the Zika virus outbreak, which has been declared by the WHO to be a global health emergency. Up to June 11th there had been over 165,000 suspected cases and nearly 50,000 confirmed cases of Zika infection in Brazil in 2016. There have been over 1,650 confirmed cases of microcephaly and other nervous system disorders in newborns associated with Zika infection. Zika virus is also now being linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare but serious neurological disorder that can lead to paralysis and death. Obviously, an outbreak on such a scale and with such devastating impact is having a huge toll and the economic situation in the country is affecting the capacity of the most affected region to respond
Christian churches in Brazil have sought to raise awareness of the Zika virus and promote preventative measures and in Lent ran an ecumenical campaign “Care for our Common Home” which highlighted the right to clean water and sanitation.Anglican Primate Archbishop Francisco de Assis da Silva has said, “Half of the population of Brazil has no access to sanitation and a great number have no clean water. The outbreak of Zika is an example of the neglectful situation in which our people live. All of this can be overcome with education, mobilisation and public policies that take into consideration the preservation of the environment.”
In May, Rio de Janeiro state had the second-highest number of probable Zika cases in the country (32,000) prompting over 200 doctors from around the world to sign an open letter urging the Olympic and Paralympic Games be postponed or moved to another location. It said, “The Brazilian strain of Zika virus harms health in ways that science has not observed before. An unnecessary risk is posed when 500,000 foreign tourists from all countries attend the Games, potentially acquire that strain, and return home to places where it can become endemic. Should that happen to poor, as-yet unaffected places (e.g., most of South Asia and Africa) the suffering can be great”.
The WHO has rejected the call, reaffirming their stance following the third meeting of the WHO’s Emergency Committee regarding microcephaly and other neurological disorders on June 14th: “The Committee concluded that there is a very low risk of further international spread of Zika virus as a result of the Olympic and Paralympic Games as Brazil will be hosting the Games during the Brazilian winter when the intensity of autochthonous transmission of arboviruses, such dengue and Zika viruses, will be minimal and is intensifying vector-control measures in and around the venues for the Games which should further reduce the risk of transmission”.
Impact of the Olympics on Brazil
The first item outlined the backdrop against which the Olympic and Paralympic Games will take place – and which will inevitably impact the games. But what impact have the Olympic Games had on Brazil, for good or ill?
Not surprisingly, opinion is divided. Those taking a positive view highlight the regeneration of parts of Rio de Janeiro, its new infrastructure, museums, parks, light railway, and, of course, sports facilities – and the economic benefit these have brought. Those taking an opposing view counter with criticisms of each of these alleged benefits, point to broken promises and argue that the money would have been better spent on improving the life of Rio’s poor.
Rio is said to be spending 39.1 billion reais (£9.1 billion) on the Olympics, 58% of which is from private money. One of the main cheerleaders for the Games is Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes, who argues, “There has never been so much transformation for poor people [in Rio]… the Olympic Games are a great inspiration to get things done”. He cites city transport as the main gain from the Olympics, with 63% of Rio’s residents now using the mass transit systems – up from just 18% in 2009. He also argues that regeneration of parts of the city, such as the old port, simply would not have happened but for the Olympics. Also bullish (unsurprisingly) is Head of Legacy and Sustainability at Rio 2016, Tania Braga, who says, “In the Deodoro area (where some Olympic events are located), they now get access to basic sanitation, clean water and better public transport – many things that these poorer areas didn’t have before the Games.” The money spent on infrastructure has helped mitigate the impact of the recession in Rio and the tourism stemming from the Games is also expected to help boost the economy
There are, however, many critics of the Games and their purported benefits. “Without question, the main beneficiaries of the Olympic-related investments have been construction firms, real-estate companies, private security firms, and industries related to gentrification and car-dependent landscapes,” says Chris Gaffney, from the University of Zurich and a prominent critic of the Rio Games. Likewise, critics argue that the Metro line in the south zone, which will open to the public in September once the games are over, will primarily benefit an already-rich area of the city. The Olympic sites have come at a cost to former residents with forced evictions to make way for developers. Maria da Penha, who fought relocation but saw her home demolished to make way for the development of the Olympic park, reflects, “Our community has been lost. We are living in containers while new houses are being built… nothing is left. Not one shop, nothing. Everything is new”. Other favelas have also been affected. The Complexo da Maré, a network of favelas that runs along the road from the international airport to the city centre, is not part of an Olympic site but has also seen evictions to provide a “safety belt” for visitors and in recent weeks the 3m high and 7km long Perspex wall which separates the road from the favela was plastered with posters for the Olympics, leading to residents to complain it was “just another way of hiding poor people”. In addition, some of the promises made in connection with the Olympics have simply not been fulfilled, most obviously the pledge to treat 80% of the sewage that enters Guanabara Bay from favelas, towns and industry. The Bay is the venue for three of the sailing events of the Olympics. Scientists estimate that only 20% is being treated, meaning that the bay is “a stinking mass of sewage, household rubbish and industrial pollutants” and “still a latrine”. In pre-Game test events, sailors have had to deal with debris such as furniture, plastic bags and dead fish – and there is great concern about water safety.
Many people argue that the money spent on the Olympics could have been put to better use. Lucas Rodrigues Alves, a student in Rio de Janeiro writes, “The Olympic Games is a dream that became a nightmare…. see the millions and billions spent on overpriced Olympics construction, which should be spent on education, health and projects for people of the favelas to have opportunities to grow and participate in the development of the whole city. Rio does not need the Olympics. We need basic things that, unfortunately, are not in the interests of the politicians, who live in Leblon and Ipanema, facing the beach”. Similarly, William Dalvo, a protester at Sunday’s rally told news agency McClatchy, “It’s a lot of spending for uncompleted works that will serve for nothing after the games… What people want is security, education, health care…” Public support for the Games has fallen. A recent poll showed that 50% of Brazilians oppose its staging in their country – double the 2013 figure. There have been protests against the Games, with attempts toextinguish the Olympic torch on its progress. Replica torches with words of protest were held aloft at the various protests last weekend and Rio politician Case Carvalho addressed international visitors and media during one of the parades with the words, “We welcome all of you and wish you a nice stay in our country. Enjoy the Olympic games, because we are paying a high price for it!”
Coming up … Time for Creation
If you watched the Rio Olympics opening, you’ll have seen their focus on climate change (start at 1:04) and the need for environmental sustainability
In three and a half weeks time, we’ll be starting Time for Creation/the Season of Creation/Creation Time, the period from 1 September to 4 October when Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches all have a particular focus on giving thanks for God’s gift of creation and committing to care for it. The Pope has released a new video calling people to prayer, which can be found on the new Season of Creation website put together by the churches in collaboration. We’ll have more resources (including two of Elizabeth’s powerpoints) and suggestions when we return at the end of October. Save the dates! And pray that this period may be a time when the Church truly engages with its calling to care for creation.