Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Cold Belgrade

Arbanac Sofija and her 3-year old daughter Caka huddle under a blanket - provided by Church World Service - inside their meager home in an illegal Roma settlement in Belgrade, Serbia, in February 2012. The poor family has been told it will be evicted by city officials in March 2012 to make way for new high-rise office buildings. Roma in Belgrade, often living in miserable conditions, have faced increasing evictions in order to make way for high-rise developments.

I found Sofija Arbanac and her 3-year old daughter Caka huddled under a blanket inside their meager home in an unauthorized Roma settlement in Belgrade, Serbia, during a February visit. It was unseasonably cold, and many poor folks were having a hard time, including this family. Besides the cold, Arbanac and her family had just been told they would soon be evicted by city officials to make way for new high-rise office buildings. But they had two blankets, provided to them by Church World Service. You know, the CROP Walk people. CWS is an ecumenical agency that’s funded by things like the CROP Walk and giving from U.S. denominations. There are a few United Methodist cents in every CWS dollar.

I’m at a two-week gathering in Florida where the United Methodist Church is doing what it does every four years: argue about structure, restructure, human sexuality, corporate divestment and a variety of other hot button issues. In the middle of thousands of people talking, it seems easy to lose sight of what this is all about. To me, it’s as simple as this blanket. Where people suffer, we respond with compassion. Where there’s war, we work for justice. The question is how to tell the story of what we do without tripping over the way we tell the story.

General Conference is always a bit of an ego boost for me, in that I get to see my images used in a variety of ways in everything from brochures to giant displays. One here has a two-story image I captured of an African woman, part of a display in an exhibit hall where church agencies try to outdo each other with flashy, compelling displays. Another exhibit allows people to be photographed in front of a green screen and pasted into one of four images I took of people in the “mission field.” But the exhibit I like the most is that of United Methodist Women, for whom I produce a lot of writing and images. Their exhibit, however, features none of that glitz or gimmickry. Instead, in a victory for guerrilla marketing, it’s a roped off, empty area with a sign that says they’ve been working to empower women and children for 143 years, and this time around, rather than spending tens of thousands of dollars on a flashy exhibit, they took the money they would have spent and funded scholarships for two women seminary students in Cameroon. Photos of the sign explaining this became an instant social media phenomenon, and members of United Methodist Women are walking around with an extra strut in their stuff. Months from now, no one will remember the flashy displays, but people will still be talking about the non-display. Such an attitude means more program money for what we as a church do well, whether it’s empowering women as change agents in their communities or putting blankets where they’re most needed, like over Arbanac and her daughter.

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