Doing Our Mothers Proud

Sunday will be the eighth Mothers Day without my Mom. I no longer turn away from the greeting cards prominently displayed at Target. Pop-ups offering flowers interrupting my web-surfing don’t make me sad as they did. Yet, I still miss my Mom and wish I could tell her again – with new insight and fresh motivation – how much I love her.

A few days ago I even posted a request on Facebook: share your best suggestion for how those of us who have lost our mothers are to mark this weekend holiday. Friends offered some great ideas: make one of her favorite recipes, do something she enjoyed doing, share favorite stories about her with others, visit someone in a nursing home.

The suggestion I like best did not come from Facebook but from columnist Nicholas Kristof. The world community is increasingly aware and outraged by the 276 school girls kidnapped by religious fanatics in Nigeria. His “update” from yesterday deserves to be read [here] regardless of his great suggestion for celebrating Mothers Day.

Neither Mr. Kristof nor I begrudge anyone celebrating our mothers with flowers, chocolates or out-for-brunch. I wish my Mom were here to enjoy them. Kristof’s brilliant idea is to celebrate them by honoring the girls still missing in Nigeria. Think of their mothers’ anguish.  In my family’s case this would be especially appropriate.

Regulars here will recall that my favorite Grandmother was orphaned at age 7 and sent from Boston to South Dakota on an orphan train. Her formal education ended at the third grade. My mother earned the highest score in her county on her eighth-grade standardized exam. However, cultural values prevented her from going to high school, despite the protestations of her teacher, because my grandparents presumed she had enough education for what they envisioned her future to be. (Read my previous post [here]).

The greatest threat to the extremism of the Nigerian kidnappers is a girl with a book. Boko Haram, whose name means roughly “Western education is a sin,” admits responsibility for this violent abuse being played out in Nigeria. The greatest antidote to their fanaticism would be to educate and empower women. I am absolutely certain my mother would agree.

Kristof offers a number of excellent suggestions: One would be a donation to support girls going to school around Africa through the Campaign for Female Education [link]; a $40 gift pays for a girl’s school uniform.

Or there’s the Mothers’ Day Movement [link] which is supporting a clean water initiative in Uganda. With access to water, some girls will no longer have to drop out of school to haul water.

You may wish to support something closer to home. This year I plan to send what I would have spent on flowers for my Mom to Avenues for Homeless Youth [link].  On any night in the state of Minnesota, 4,000+ youth and young adults are homeless and unaccompanied by an adult. Youth homelessness has jumped 63% in Minnesota since 2009.

Other than keeping the pressure of global outrage on the tragedy in Nigeria, there is little you and I can do to rescue the kidnapped girls. Whether our mothers are with us to receive our expressions of gratitude and love or they have passed from us, there is still so much we can each do to honor these girls and celebrate the lives of our mothers.

Let’s make them proud!

Each Child: A Reason for Hope

The birth of a child is such reason for hope. The occasion brings joy and conjures dreams about what this child might become. This is true the world over!

One of the biggest new ideas in international development comes from economists, academics, doctors, politicians, and aid workers. There appears to be a broadening convergence of evidence confirming the profound ways in which proper nutrition in the earliest years of life influences a person’s ability to grow, learn, and work.

The 1,000-day period from the beginning of pregnancy to a child’s second birthday will largely determine your child’s health, ability to learn in school and perform at a future job. It all seems so obvious… proper nutrition for the mother and child, as well as good sanitation and personal hygiene, are vital to prevent stunting of the body and brain.

For years, ensuring good nutrition during the first 1,000 days was largely absent from national and global development priorities. Efforts to improve young lives and brighten future prospects focused on getting children into school. It has been in primary schools where interventions related to childhood nutrition usually begin.

Yes, global resolve and cooperation are essential. But all is not dependent on governments and creating new bureaucracies. Much is already within reach of families and villages. Farming needs to be diversified by growing more nutrient-rich crops for household consumption. Homes need to maintain clean living environments. Culturally ingrained behaviors such as women eating last at mealtime even when they are pregnant or breastfeeding must be challenged and changed.

In 2012 some of the world’s leading economists and development specialists gathered to consider a question: If they had an extra $75 billion to improve the state of the world, which problem would they solve first? The group declared that investments to eliminate hunger and malnutrition would do the world the greatest good. It found that improving child nutrition was also the most cost-effective intervention, with a return on investment of at least 30 to 1.

In essence, malnutrition keeps poor countries poor. This is true in the United States as well. We are beginning to acknowledge connections between poor nutrition in the 1,000 days and poor school performance, as well as increasing rates of obesity and diabetes.

When he hosted a Scaling Up Nutrition summit in 2012, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel estimated that as many as 500,000 of the city’s citizens could be living in “food deserts” without nearby access to affordable vegetables, meat, and fresh fruits, leading to unhealthy diets centered on cheaper junk food and readily available fast food.

It is in these 1,000 days where so many of America’s social problems begin: failing health, failing students and schools, a weakened labor force and high crime rates. What might a single child have contributed to the world had he or she not been stunted during the first 1,000 days?

Every child is a reason for hope.  Each looks to us to be nourished and nurtured.  What are we to do?


I am indebted to Roger Thurow’s brilliant article in the May 2014 issue of The Atlantic for this information. I encourage everyone to read his entire report [here].

Gutsy Women

Here’s to strong, gutsy women! One such woman is Catherine of Sienna who died on this day in 1380. Seeing the power she wielded and the impact she made during her short 33 years is nothing short of startling!

Something must have been in the fourteenth century air… Catherine was born in Italy five years after Julian of Norwich was born in England (1342). This was the time of the Black Death, the 100 Years War, and the Avignon papacy. It is estimated that 38% of women would die giving birth. Catherine was the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children. Clearly, she is an exemplar of one who achieves greatness in the throes of adversity.

Rather than enter a monastic religious order, Catherine associated herself with the Dominicans and claimed for herself, “My cell will not be one of stone or wood, but of self-knowledge.” Here we must be careful not to interpret this from the post-Enlightenment perspective or the autonomous individualism of 21st century culture! “Self” was clearly understood as relational and imbedded in solidarity with others and with God.

After three years of prayerful turmoil and seclusion, Catherine rejoined her family and began serving her neighbors. She cared for victims of the plague, gathered alms for the poor and ministered to prisoners. She would soon recognize a further call to serve the wider world and press for reform of the church.

Catherine honed her peacemaking skills mediating between feuding families of Sienna. Then, she took on the Pope! With a retinue of companions and with enthusiastic support along the way, Catherine traveled to Avignon in France to mediate the armed conflict between the city-state of Florence and the papacy. There she was blunt and uncompromising in her insistence that Gregory XI return to Rome. The pope complied!

Extraordinary women like Catherine are more numerous than our history books suggest. Thankfully, others like Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) are being rediscovered. Catherine was named a Doctor of the Church in 1970; Hildegard was similarly honored in 2012. Of the 35 so honored, only four are women – Catherine, Hildegard, Teresa of Ávila (1515 -1582) and Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897).

Yes, there is much rediscovery of our full heritage to be made. Thankfully, there are places like the University of Saint Catherine here in Minnesota. More of us need to reclaim the vision, courage and mission of Catherine in empowering strong, gutsy women to lead and reform our church and world.

Many good biographies of Catherine are available on the Web. Again, I am grateful to Robert Ellsberg for his inspiring, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for Our Times (Crossroads, 1999) for his “rediscovery” of an eclectic assortment of great people of faith.