Hostages to the News Cycle

The American people are held hostage to the 24/7 news cycle.

Stories explode into our consciousness based on their intensity and the knack of our media to run with them over and over again in an endless loop. When ISIS first beheaded an American, the YouTube video transformed public opinion even after a profound weariness based on a decade of war.

For generations, news editors have told their reporters, “If it bleeds, it leads.” That still holds for television, social media, talk radio and the multitude of outlets in today’s media.

Slowly developing stories such as the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine get short shrift. A couple of deaths a day, a handful of refugees, do not get covered. Unfortunately, after several months, the situation becomes qualitatively different. Ten refugees is not a story, ten refugees a day since April 2014 is a catastrophe. But that story has yet to break through the “white noise” of the news cycle.

We have watched the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine morph into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe. Over the last year, the number of displaced people has skyrocketed from a few thousand to more than 1.2 million. More than five million people have been affected by the conflict in eastern Ukraine—1.7 million of them children. Villages have been leveled by barrages of Grad rockets and field artillery.

The people of Ukraine desperately need our help.

And those of us who understand the reality of this terrible conflict must find ways to break through the white noise to let the American people know. Because when they are awakened to injustice, the American people always take action. That is at the heart of the Ukraine Survival Campaign — a national campaign to fill shipping containers with clothes, personal hygiene items, medical supplies and other necessities of life.

In a few weeks, we will formally launch the campaign in Chicago and Detroit with a series of high-profile events. Our delegation, led by former NATO Commander, General (ret.) Wesley Clark, will include the leaders of Ukraine’s major faith communities who will participate in prayer breakfasts, press events and fundraising dinners.

By taking our case directly to the people in cities across America, we will arouse their compassion and break through the white noise. When that happens, thousands of people who might otherwise become grim statistics will have the opportunity for happy, healthy lives.

Legacy

Yesterday, Ed Kellner, my 91-year-old father, departed this life. He left behind a few shirts and pairs of pants, a pair of shoes, a pair of bedroom slippers, three Bibles, pictures of children and grandchildren, and a few odds and ends. It doesn’t sound like much.

My father and mother were successful by the standard measurements of American culture. They did well in the real estate business, well enough to retire in their fifties and not worry much about money for the next 35 years.

And yet, it all came down to what could be packed in two boxes. Except, dad left a lot more than two boxes of clothes and memorabilia; he left a rich legacy. Within minutes after I posted his passing on Facebook, the condolence messages started coming—more than 400 by last night.

Some came from friends dating back to childhood and college, others from friends and colleagues I have made as I have traveled the world or people who have heard me tell stories about his life. A number came from people I have never met, people whose lives my father touched. A pattern emerged quickly. Some people are remembered for their sense of humor, or their golf game. The people who wrote to me yesterday talked about the orphans my father sponsored in Haiti, the water wells he helped dig in Africa and the churches he helped launch in the US.

The theme was consistent: Dad was always giving.

When his time came, his earthly possessions fit in two cardboard boxes. But the legacy was huge.

Legacy was not so important to me when I was young. I focused on achievement. And like most Americans, I used hard metrics to determine success. Now that most of my career is behind me, I am much more focused on legacy, the things that don’t fit in a couple of boxes.

Oskar Schindler was not a very good man most of his life. He was a spendthrift, a playboy and a war profiteer. He made a lot of money and threw away a lot of money until he realized the value of an individual human life. Then, he spent much of his fortune trying to save the lives of the Jews who worked for him from the gas chambers of Auschwitz. By the time the Russians arrived, Schindler had saved more than 1,100 men, women and children. In the climactic scene of the Steven Spielberg film, the Jews he saved gathered to say goodbye to Schindler and his wife before he fled from the Red Army. The spokesman for Schindler’s Jews gave him a ring with an inscription from the Talmud, “Whoever saves a life saves the world entire.” Schindler broke down and wept at the realization that he could have done more, much more.

Few people have as dramatic a moment as Oskar Schindler, but we leave a richer legacy when we invest in saving lives.

How to Save Ukraine Now

Yesterday, while walking through Midway Airport in Chicago, I received a phone call from Mark Carrara, pastor of the Highpoint Community Church in Port Saint Lucie, Florida. Several weeks ago, Highpoint launched a campaign to fill a 40-foot container with clothes, blankets and personal hygiene items for the people displaced by the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Mark’s an interesting guy. Trained as an engineer, Mark holds an M.S. in aeronautical engineering and an MBA. He is wired to be strategic. Even though Mark feels deeply, he is not prone to work out of his emotions, and yet when Mark learned of the crisis in Ukraine, he was one of the first leaders to respond.

His church took a special offering to fill a truck with humanitarian goods, and when I told him about Ukraine Survival, SUN’s national campaign to ship emergency supplies to Ukraine, Mark decided to launch his own effort in Port Saint Lucie. He plans to recruit faith communities and civic organizations to the cause. So, I wasn’t surprised when Mark called. I was surprised by what he reported.

“I’m going to need a container right away,” Mark told me. “We have collected enough bags to fill a 60-foot unit and have just placed a storage pod on the church property.”

“We haven’t even taken this out to the community yet,” Mark reported.

Something similar happened in Meadville, Pennsylvania, where Living Waters Church has collected tens of thousands of dollars in medical supplies. A local congregation in Merritt Island, Florida, has amassed more bags of clothes than the number of people in their church. Some listeners to the church’s radio broadcast have driven up to two hours to join the cause.

Most people have never heard of small cities like Port Saint Lucie, Meadville and Merritt Island, but the people there have discovered how to save Ukraine — one person at a time.

When you see the statistics about the humanitarian crisis, it is tempting to throw up your hands in despair. More than a million people have been displaced by the conflict; 1.7 million children need physical or psychological care.

None of these three communities will save everyone threatened by hunger, sickness and disease, but each container will carry enough goods to give hundreds of people a chance for survival. If we combine their response with other churches, synagogues and civic organizations across the United States, we will save many more.

It Takes a Team

Leadership guru John Maxwell has famously said, “If you’re going to do a big job, you need a big team.”

The challenges presented by the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine are staggering — more than 5 million people affected by the conflict, 1.1 million internally displaced persons, 1.7 million children need care and counseling.

Last week, I met with a top UN official in Ukraine. She spent the last 16 years on the ground in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, the Central African Republic and Myanmar. She is smart, tough and hard to scare.

After the pleasantries were over, she looked at me and said, “We want to be your partners.” Of course, I asked why.

She said, “If you don’t work with us, people will die. It’s that simple.”

Sometimes team is the difference between life and death.

That’s what we have been doing the last few months, building a team big enough to take on the suffering of a nation. Next month, we launch a national campaign called Ukraine Survival to fill shipping containers with emergency supplies for people whose lives are hanging by a thread. Save Ukraine Now is approaching thousands of churches, synagogues and civic associations across the United States to fill shipping containers with emergency supplies and ship them to Ukraine.

Teams have been organized in Chicago and Detroit to mobilize city-wide efforts. Detroit is setting the standard for team building: more than 20 organizations in the Detroit Metro area have joined with us in this effort. In the last few weeks, churches in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana and Illinois have launched campaigns in their communities.

It’s still not enough.

We need you. The people of Ukraine need you.

Will you join a team of people from many different backgrounds and incredibly diverse gifts to help save a nation? Would you organize a campaign in your church or community to fill at least one container?

Over three or four weeks in April and May, you ask the members of your congregation or civic organization to fill at least one plastic bag with clothes, shoes and blankets and bring them to the church to be loaded onto a container we will send to you.

Time is running out for thousands of people in Ukraine. But with the efforts of a big team, we can make sure it doesn’t.

Sasha Turned One Today

Sasha turned one today.

Of course, you have never heard of Sasha. Sasha is not the son of prince or a prime minister. His mother is not a movie star or a rock singer. Sasha’s family has no money. In fact, they do not have a home. Artillery fire took out the house they lived in.

Sasha lives in a bomb shelter. Underground. With no heat, no water, no electricity.

Sasha turned one today.

Sasha did not have a party or a birthday cake. No one celebrated. His mother kissed him and held him close. She stroked his hair and told him what a beautiful boy he is. A tear exploded on her cheek, and she held him tighter.

Sasha’s mother wonders if he will have another birthday, if he will go to school. The kindergartens and schools in their town have been closed for the war, some destroyed. Many of the teachers have fled.

Sasha turned one today.

And he has spent more than six months of his young life under ground. It’s too dangerous to walk to the park. Sasha has never played catch with his Dad or laughed on the merry-go-round. The merry-go-round is gone.

Sasha turned one today.

Now More Than Ever

The conflict in Ukraine is commonly described from a battlefield perspective, the breaking of ceasefires, the use of Russian troops, a strategic siege of a railroad hub or airport. But the humanitarian, economic and social impact of this grinding war has thrown the entire nation into a tailspin.

The collapse of the Ukrainian currency, the Hrivna, affects every senior citizen trying to survive on a fixed income. Commonly pegged at 15.50 to the dollar, it has skyrocketed to 40.00. Everything costs more for everyone, and wages have failed to keep pace.

People across the country spend hours in long lines just to get common household necessities, if they are available at all. The black market, charging exorbitant rates, provides a dismal testimony to the power of supply and demand.

Russia has expanded its battlefield activities to encompass economic warfare. Gazprom, the Russian state-supported energy company, is threatening to cut off its supply to Ukraine, raising the specter of an entire nation shivering in the cold.

Refugees have spread from the east to town and cities in the entire nation, straining local resources and spreading the plight of widespread disease and crime based on the need to survive.
And Ukraine is fighting a losing battle to keep up as the number of refugees grows every day; the count only falls when the old and the weak die off in a heartrending illustration of “survival of the fittest.”

Save Ukraine Now contends for the homeless and the voiceless. When you conduct a collection drive in your congregation or community, you give the people of Ukraine a chance to survive.

Breaking through the Media Clutter

Ukraine is experiencing two simultaneous tragedies: a political challenge to its governing authority and a humanitarian crisis as artillery shells rain down on innocent civilians.

The international press tells us about the first tragedy, Putin’s violation of Ukraine’s borders and his determination to redraw the map of Eastern Europe by force. The brazen land grab of Crimea – which no one mentions anymore – and the installation of thugs who have seized the levers of power in eastern Ukraine comes at the cost of the global system established since World War II. It weakens the United Nations and slaps our European allies in the face as they repeatedly try to negotiate a ceasefire.

The invasion has created a chill in international relations if not a resumption of the Cold War. No reasonable person wants to go back to the days of MAD (mutual assured destruction) with a sword of Damocles hanging over the entire world and the “hard rain” (nuclear fallout) predicted in a Bob Dylan song.

But as this vicious conflict grinds on with no end in sight, the press has largely failed to cover the humanitarian disaster it is leaving in its wake.

Up to five million people in eastern Ukraine desperately need humanitarian assistance including 1.7 million children according to UNICEF. More than 1,000,000 refugees struggle for survival in Ukraine’s bitter winter, and relief agencies are stretched to the breaking point as the situation worsens every week. The more than 5,000 dead do not affect the calculus of relief but leave behind grieving family members who are losing the will to live.

Russia sends convoys of “humanitarian aid,” one would think through a guilty conscience, but the trucks carry weapons and only token supplies of food. The citizens of eastern Ukraine cry out in distress while the press provides blanket coverage of the latest ceasefire.

SUN knows the generosity of the American people will meet the challenge of this humanitarian disaster. But it hasn’t happened yet because the people don’t know about it. Unless the voices of suffering and the tales of woe break through the media clutter, Ukrainians will get sick, and many of them will die. Meanwhile, we will only learn about the latest city under siege instead of the latest children to lose their parents.

Time to Save a Nation

A few weeks ago, I was thinking about how we could meet the challenge of Ukraine’s skyrocketing humanitarian crisis — 1.5 million displaced persons, almost one million of whom are completely destitute. Our SUN team has been making steady progress toward our goal of filling 300 trucks with food, clothes, blankets and personal hygiene items. But with 10,000 to 20,000 new refugees every week, it will take 10 years to help everyone.

That won’t do. People are hungry now, cold now, sick now and dying now.

And then it hit me. Why not enlist thousands of civic organizations, churches, synagogues and schools in a national campaign to fill shipping containers with the items needed to save the victims of Putin’s aggression?

Sound impossible?

The “Greatest Generation” faced a much more daunting challenge in the days after the Second World War. When starvation threatened the lives of millions of Europeans in the wake of one of the worst winters in the last 100 years, the U.S. responded with the Marshall Plan—a project designed to save everyone and reconstruct Europe as well. A year later, when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin blocked the highways and railroads into Berlin, the U.S. and our allies airlifted supplies to the beleaguered city for nearly a year. Air crews flew over 200,000 flights, providing up to 8,893 tons of supplies daily. Compassion and determination saved millions of people from starvation and dictatorship.

Whether responding to communist aggression in our parents’ generation or devastating tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes in our own, the American people have a better track record of responding to tragedy than anyone else.

Today, the people of Ukraine need friends, and they need them now.

Across America, in cities, small towns and suburbs, thanks to SUN, volunteers are now organizing their churches, synagogues, civic groups and schools to fill shipping containers with the clothing, blankets, medical supplies and personal hygiene items the people of eastern Ukraine need to survive.

All of us know people who will help … if we ask.

Friends, family, neighbors, co-workers will respond, if someone asks them to help.

If you will ask, Save Ukraine Now will provide everything needed for a successful campaign in your community, including promotional and informative videos, news releases, public service announcements, bulletin inserts, door hangers, and perhaps most important, staff support. The participating organization is only being asked to handle the freight, perhaps through a special offering or community fund drive.

The Greatest Generation saved millions from certain death. Now, it’s our turn.

Brochures about the container campaign are available for interested parties, and our national coordinator, David Brennan, may be reached at dbrennan@saveukrainenow.org.

Defensive Arms?

As Russian troops and tanks pour into eastern Ukraine and Russian rockets rain down on civilians in marketplaces and in their homes, our Western allies in Europe are pushing for another truce, even though Vladimir Putin hasn’t kept one yet. Meanwhile, in the United States, President Obama’s cabinet and staff deliberate on how best to stabilize the situation. One proposal is to provide “defensive arms” to Ukraine’s military.

What exactly are “defensive arms?”

Common definitions include items such as anti-tank missiles, battlefield radar and reconnaissance drones. But these weapons can easily be used for offense as well as defense. And the artificial barrier creates an additional impediment for Ukraine’s troops.

Why is the US government continuing to limit our support for Ukraine as if the Ukrainians had done something wrong?

The Ukrainians were attacked, and an internationally recognized border was overrun by invading Russian forces. As former Director of the National Security Council, Zbigniew Brzezinski, so eloquently said, “The Ukrainians can’t fight the Russians with pancakes.”

Some of those who argue against arming Ukraine maintain that the high technology of defensive weapons could be captured on the battlefield and reverse engineered by Russian troops. They believe that this represents the worst of all possible worlds.

It is not. Weapons are captured by enemies in every conflict. The worst outcome is that 43 million Ukrainians will lose their freedom and be absorbed into Vladimir Putin’s neo-Soviet empire. But there is an even worse outcome: the failure to resolutely stand up to Russian aggression will be interpreted by Putin and his supporters as an invitation to reprise the destruction of Ukraine in the Baltic States and Poland.

We believe the United States should provide the Ukrainian army with whatever will stop or roll back the Russian advance. That said, we should focus on shortages of basic battlefield weaponry first. Most Ukrainian soldiers do not have proper winter clothing, courtesy of Putin’s friends who ran Ukraine before the Euromaidan revolution.

The butcher’s bill of dead, wounded, maimed and displaced will only grow until something is done. Organizations like Save Ukraine Now will be needed more than ever as new areas of the country are coming under Russian fire, and the refugee crisis is exploding.

It is time to stop making artificial distinctions about defensive and offensive arms, and help the side that has done nothing wrong other than wanting a better future than the one a dictator envisions for them.

Angels of Mercy

Julia*, a beautiful young woman in her 30s, is raising three children — two girls ages 10 and 12, and a baby boy of 18 months. Twice each week, she and her best friend, Larisa, drive from her home in occupied Ukraine through rebel lines to a place where she fills her car with food for hungry people. Then, she drives into some of the most dangerous areas of eastern Ukraine to deliver it to those who can no longer buy their own.

Every week, Julia makes this dangerous journey and loads her little car to the top with flour, rice and bread. Then, she risks her life going into lawless regions to save the hungry. In addition to feeding them, she and her friend have escorted hundreds of men and women, boys and girls, out of the occupied zone in their own version of the Underground Railroad.

These people once led normal lives just like you and me. Mostly middle-class, they worked 40 hours per week until the conflict brought life in their villages to a grinding halt. Without any regular economy, the people couldn’t buy food even if they could afford it; the shelves in their local grocery stores have been emptied out months ago by hoarders and panic shopping.

And that’s what makes Julia and Larisa, and hundreds of others like them, so special.

These angels of mercy are risking everything to save the lives of strangers, mainly refugees and the newly destitute. Julia knows what can happen to her if she is confronted by the separatists. She would be beaten, gang raped and left to die by the side of the road. But she makes these hazardous journeys every week anyway.

When I heard Julia’s story, I realized what a critical role we play by enabling her weekly mission. She, and the people she is saving, are the reason for Save Ukraine Now.

* Name changed to protect Julia and her children.