Saturday, February 16, 2008

an excellent speech worth sharing

At the National Prayer Breakfast last Thursday, the keynote speech was given by Ward Brehm, chairman of the U.S. African Development Foundation. It was one of the best speeches I've ever heard, but I haven't found a transcript online. The best I could do was http://postbulletin.com/newsmanager/templates/localnews_story.asp?z=16&a=327229, but this article skips the ending - to me the most important part - possibly because it's where he brings in some key spiritual values!

So the following is taken from the aforementioned article, followed by the best I can do at summarising the rest:

Brehm... acknowledged he was an unlikely choice to give the keynote speech at the breakfast, whose guests included President Bush, members of Congress and world leaders. He said he expected most people were surprised to see an unknown speaker listed on their program. "Let me tell you, you're not alone. One month ago, I sent in my registration to this breakfast and was just hoping for a good seat," he said to laughter...

Brehm, who also chairs the Brehm Group in Minneapolis, a national insurance consulting firm, recalled how he had been awakened to the African cause about 15 years ago. At the time, Africa wasn't on his radar -- "In fact, the only significant thing on that radar screen was me," he quipped. But he started to give the crisis in Somalia some thought, and just a week later, his pastor asked him to go on a trip with him to Africa. Brehm declined the invitation, and his pastor requested he at least pray about it. "I looked him right in the eye and I said, 'You're the pastor; you pray about it; I'll think about it,'" Brehm said to laughter. "Well, he must have prayed hard, because two months later, I found myself in the Minneapolis airport with a ticket to Ethiopia in my hand." At the airport, he found himself surrounded by "church ladies," who hugged him and then held hands together in prayer. "I uttered my first heartfelt and sincere prayer -- that none of my clients see me," he said to more laughter.

When he landed in Africa, Brehm said, "I had the high privilege of having my heart broken. I saw poverty on an obscene level. Children with flies on their eyes, for lack of a 50-cent medicine, doomed to blindness; the emaciated faces of famine; families shattered by civil war." He also held the hand of a 22-year-old woman as she died of AIDS. "And then I turned to look into the faces of four brand new orphans," he said. "I was an eyewitness."

Brehm, 56, brings a business-oriented approach to the plight of Africa. In 2003, Bush appointed him to the U.S. African Development Foundation, a government agency that makes direct investments in Africa and whose goal is to help the poor through business development and job creation. "The best way to help the poor is to help them not be poor anymore," said Brehm, who has visited Africa 30 times. "The only way I know how to do that is through job creation. The very best form of sustainable development is a steady paycheck."

Brehm suggested that most people, deep down, would love to have their lives changed by God. "Here's the thing: If asked, he will, every time, guaranteed," he said. "And while these changes may initially seem scary, they ultimately lay a foundation for a life lived on purpose rather than by default. I will forever be indebted to Africa. Africa awakened me when I didn't even know I was asleep. I pray that everyone who seeks one will find a similar path. I pray that each of you will find your own Africa."

But Brehm also cautioned to avoid condescension toward poor people. "In our quest to be helpful, we can rob the poor of their dignity," he said. "In order to be of any help to the poor, we need to understand them, we need to know them, we need to love them. The poor is not a group. The poor is not a species. They are identical in their hopes and dreams to you and I. They love their families. They long for a better life. The only difference between them and us is that they're poor."

What he went on to say was a meditation on Matthew 25:39 (of the famous story of the sheep and the goats, where the sheep are welcomed into the King's presence for having fed/welcomed/clothed/visited him when he was in need, and the goats are condemned to eternal punishment for not having done the same): "Truly I tell you, in that you did it for one of the least important of these my brothers, you did it for me."

He pointed out a few interesting things about this verse. First was that many people ignore that it says "ONE OF the least...", instead focusing on grandiose acts of charity and service. But the verse clearly focuses on the individual, on helping that one person who is set in our path. It's not about coming up with the biggest program, but about helping people one by one, as best we can.

Second, he points out that while many Christians have focused on a belief system or forgiveness of sins as the source of salvation, the focus of this particular passage is clearly in actions. The ONLY thing, Brehm said, that makes the difference between spending eternity in God's presence and in punishment, is whether people did kindnesses - at the rate of one person at a time, each act toward each person somehow signifying an act toward God.

And finally, he ended with a poignant statement. He said that God's plan for saving the world, for making lives more livable, for defeating poverty and pandemics, for developing livelihoods and healthy communities, is us. That is what he has asked us to do. And, he said, what is especially striking is that God did not set out any plan B.

1 comment:

pollitte said...

Hi! I found your blog while trying to find a transcript of Mr. Brehm's speech myself! Wasn't it excellent? I have quoted it many, many times to friends back here in Kentucky, especially the part about having the "high privilege of having (his) heart broken." Wow. It was my first National Prayer Breakfast as well; I was very impressed. I don't ever get on this blog, but if you ever want to share experiences, my best email is leighrobert@bellsouth.net God bless you today.

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