Signs of hope for 2019: People who continue to run the good race

The strife and turmoil of 2018, when partisan fighting continued to displace civil discourse, can induce despair even among those committed to working for the common good.

Please allow me in the first Ahead of the Trend in 2019 to celebrate two couples who have never given up hope that understanding can make the world a better place.

Many of you may have never heard of Sylvia and John Ronsvalle or Cal and Rose Samra.

But for more than three decades each has followed a calling: Sylvia and John’s research holds up moral imperatives on issues such as child hunger; Rose and Cal promote shared joy with religious humor across traditions.

Recently, I caught up with Sylvia Ronsvalle, now 68, and Cal Samra, just a month short of his 87th birthday. The increasingly polarized civil and religious culture has produced some deep soul searching for both of them.

But no change in plans.

The Ronsvalles: What really matters

“It’s objectively true. These children shouldn’t die. That’s just the bottom line.” Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice-president of empty tomb, inc.

When I was a high school and undergraduate student in the 1970s, I often thought the enormous moral claims posed by those experiencing famine abroad or children going to bed hungry at home justified greater exposure on newspaper front pages.

So it was with a bittersweet sense of empathy that I read New York Times columnist’s Nicholas Kristof’s recent review of his 2018 columns that few people read, “except maybe my mom.” He is exaggerating, of course, but these were columns about subjects such as starvation in Yemen and the humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic, topics that are expensive and dangerous to cover but do not power digital clicks or advertising revenue.

Yet he and many other journalists around the world continue to do this work, just as Sylvia and John Ronsvalle continue to remind Christian communities and others of the relationship between giving and the ability to reduce the suffering of their neighbors.

Barely more than two weeks into 2019, the number growing moment by moment at the top of their website was 247,771, representing the number of children under age 5 who have died of mostly preventable poverty conditions since the start of the year.

The Ronsvalles lead the Christian research and service organization empty tomb, inc. with the hope of helping churches realize how just a small percentage increase in giving can make a major impact in feeding the poor and healing the sick.

In their hometown of Champaign, Ill., they put their discipleship strategies into practice by matching volunteers with agencies meeting food, health care and other needs. Their personal witness includes having lived in a local public housing project until it was torn down.

It has not worked out as they had hoped.

In fact, their national state of the church giving reports showed members have substantially reduced their commitment to the broader mission of the church, including feeding the poor. Giving for benevolences declined from 0.64 percent of member income in 1968 to 0.36 percent in 2016, a 45 percent decrease.

How do they keep going?

“Frankly, reading the Bible. I’m very grateful for the Bible” and its words of inspiration that with God all things are possible, Sylvia Ronsvalle says.

And an undying faith we can all do better.

“We know it’s absolutely true. The children should not be dying,” she declares. “The truth is a great motivator.”

Cal and Rose Samra: A little light

Pharmacist: What is the difference between God and a doctor? Pharmacy tech: God doesn’t think he’s a doctor. – The Joyful Noiseletter.

Cal Samra was a newspaperman before he and his wife, Rose, decided in the 1980s to start a clean humor publication for Christians and others interested in sharing the joy of faith.

The idea of a religious humor publication quickly caught on, with cartoonists such as Bil and Jeff Keane of “The Family Circus” and Johnny Hart of “B.C.” and humorists such as Steve Allen and Joe Garagiola joining hundreds of others from faith traditions throughout the world in offering jokes, cartoons and upbeat reflections. Humor from The Joyful Noiseletter, now entering its 34th year is widely shared in sermons, bulletins and congregational websites, and in collections such as the “Holy Humor” series of books.

When I checked in with Cal last week, he was still typing each issue on his 40-year-old typewriter. He begins each day with a prayer and a joke.

Both are things he has had to rely on over the years with all the economic uncertainty of maintaining a small publication that does not accept advertising.

How does he keep going, particular in a culture that often seems more interested in self-righteous anger than gentle humor?

“I think it’s all the Holy Spirit. I think the Lord is telling us to lighten up and be joyful,” Cal says.

And to learn to live and laugh together.

Those who have been frequent readers of the publication over the year know one of Cal’s favorite humorists is the late Will Rogers.

In their book “More Holy Humor,” the Samras offer this reflection from Rogers that may speak with special urgency today:

“Hunt out and talk about the good that is the other fellow’s church, not the bad, and you will do away with all the religious hatred you hear so much of nowadays.”

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