Now that I’ve met you / would you object to / never seeing each other again / cause I can’t afford to / climb aboard you / no one’s got that much ego to spend
–Aimee Mann, “Magnolia”
There are days we remember to remember for the rest of life. We see something of unusual beauty, or of heartbreaking sorrow. We hear news of wonder and glory, or of unbearable sadness. Or perhaps it is that something is said that we know is very important, and because of solidarity with history and the human condition we know that we cannot walk away.
The way that Clydette Powell lives her life makes all of us stop. Several years ago she was asked by USAID and the White House to travel to Africa and spend three months assessing the impact of famine and drought on disease. A physician by training, she had taught at Harvard Medical School before deciding to live for many years in Cambodia, offering her medical skills through the work of World Vision. And then she returned to the States, taking up the position of physician at USAID, responsible for all U.S. programs for tuberculosis throughout the world. As she explained, “Why this matters now is that most who die of AIDS, die of tuberculosis.” So in the early days of Bono’s advocacy for AIDS in Africa and of the Bush administration’s decision to give $15 billion toward that need, Clydette’s judgments were crucial in the calculus of America’s response.
Christmas had just come when she returned. As she was a dear friend, we invited her to join us for lunch one day. Our tree was still lit, the fireplace was aglow, and snow was falling– big, fluffy snowflakes coming down outside what our children always called “our Peter Pan window,” the bay window in our living room. As we asked about her trip, she began to tell us of the horror of what she had seen.
“It was outrageous!” Again, and again, and again. I remember her words because the contrast was so stark. Christmas glory—and the greatest grief. How to hold it all in our hearts? As I listened to Clydette, I wondered how she could know what she now knew, and still choose to love her work and the world? How could she?
Washington is my city. For years I have lived and moved and had my being in what has been the capitol city, not only of the United States, but of the world. 100 years ago it was not, and 100 years from now it is unlikely that it will be. As Rome was, as Constantinople was, as London was, Washington is. For now it is the city where Bono must come to plead for Africa. Not Dublin, not London, not Paris, not Beijing, not New York, not Los Angeles, but Washington is the city where decisions are made about the way the world will respond to the AIDS crisis. It is the White House and the World Bank where Bono has to make his case.
But if power is the apparent coin-of-the-realm, it is cynicism that is the air we breathe in Washington. People with all sorts of hopes and dreams come to my city, putting their shoulders to history, working to bring their visions of the way the world ought to be into reality. “Potomac fever” is in the air—but with the potential for powerful work to be done, there is also the potential for cynicism to be born.
More often than not, people want to do the right thing. They want their lives to matter, their visions to shape the way the world works—for good, at least as they understand the good. In a thousand different ways they want their ideas to have legs. That is what makes Washington, Washington.
A few years ago I was invited to a lunch with the novelist Tom Wolfe in the senator’s dining room in the Capitol, and we asked questions about his life and work. One longtime journalist in the city asked, “What is the difference between Washington and New York?” Without a blink, the New Yorker Wolfe responded, “Washington is the city of ideas. People come here because of ideas, to debate ideas, to see ideas become reality.” That seemed remarkably perceptive.
But because that is true, it is likely that those who come to the “city of ideas” will join the generations before them and come to the sober truth that the work of Washington is a very messy business too. As Lord Bismarck noted several generations ago about a different people and place, “If you want to respect law or sausage, then don’t watch either being made.”
Ideas about who we are and how we live together is the stuff of this city. Laws are imagined, laws are debated, laws are legislated—and it is like sausage being made, very messy, very ugly, and very smelly. And for people of good heart it is very difficult to know this city, and to still love this city. In fact I would argue that it is the most difficult task anyone faces.
Which is why, of course, hearing Clydette’s account of her months in Africa weighed upon me so heavily. Now that she had seen so much, could she, would she, still give herself to the vocation of loving and serving God and his world “with gladness and singleness of heart,” as the Book of Common Prayer calls us?
A few days later I was at a college in the Midwest, speaking in a Veritas Forum. Because of deeper, longer passions that run through my heart, I chose to speak about the task of learning in a world that is marked by very difficult realities. I began with the story of Clydette, and our dinner with her the previous Sunday—and her repeated words, “It was outrageous!” I asked the students to consider the connection between education and vocation, in particular wanting them to ponder if what they were learning about the world had the intellectual substance that years of living in the world would require of them. Were their ideas strong enough, real enough, true enough, for the complex challenges of the world?
I even showed some of the movie, “Magnolia,” at the time one of the most fascinating films among university students. Brilliantly-imagined, the story is about the nature of the universe, whether it is one of chance and coincidence, or of choices and consequences. But written into its heart is the question, “Can you know the world, and still love it?” Or very poignantly, “Can you know me, and still love me?”
And to press the point, I asked, “Will you be able to know the world, as my friend Clydette knows it, and still choose to love it?” Were they learning in such a way that their disciplines would form the foundation for a life of engagement, of stepping into the mess of the world, understanding it and choosing to serve it?
In the audience that night were a group of guys who called themselves the Jars of Clay. I knew of them, but did not know them. After the lecture, I noticed some young men who were a bit older than the typical undergraduate, and they had their own questions to ask. So we talked, and a conversation began that continues to this day. Over the months they asked about books and essays to read, and I was increasingly impressed with their moral seriousness. One day we talked about Africa, and their desire to put their creative energies behind an effort to address its complex needs for clean blood and water.
And then months later we talked again one day; they were on their tour bus and were making their way through concerts on the West Coast. They said that they played guitars and keyboards, and while they had honest concern for Africa, they just did not know what to do about it, given their gifts and time. Did I have any ideas? I told them that a week earlier I had been in Phoenix, AZ, speaking at a conference called “The Faces of Justice,” and had met a young woman from Whitworth College who had impressed me with her articulate passions for Africa. Weren’t they going up the West Coast to Washington on their tour? They were in fact, and they met my young friend, Jena Lee.
It is a longer story, but when she graduated that spring—giving the student commencement address that year –she moved to Nashville to work with the Jars of Clay guys to begin the Blood:Water Mission. Those early months were hard ones, for everyone—especially Jena. I remember tears, time and again. And heart-searching questions about the very idea. Could we? Is it really possible? This is so much harder than I wanted it to be! And it was. But she held on, and slowly the vision was born.
Years later there are more than a thousand different projects in Africa that have grown out of the Blood:Water Mission’s work. Jena has done a remarkable job, taking the band’s life and hopes, connecting them to hers, and bringing into being an organization that is healthy and responsible. The board has grown, and one of its prized members has been Clydette, who is still at USAID doing her work on the global threat of tuberculosis, still traveling all over the world month by month. She has brought all that and more to bear for the sake of the vision and work of the Blood:Water Mission—with gladness and singleness of heart marking her vocation.
To know the world, and still love it? There is not a more difficult task that human beings face. If it is one thing to hope for Africa, to be willing to step into its dreams and needs, it is something else altogether to have the staying power to keep at it over time. If it is admirable to respond to the needs of a village in western Kenya, afflicted by both deaths from AIDS and absolutely no access to clean water—and in the physiology of health and disease, they are integrally related –then it is something else altogether to continue to care for the people and their needs when it moves from vision to reality, and the complexity of responsible love in the name of justice and mercy leaves you with no cheap answers to any of the important questions.