2019
January
02
Wednesday

This weekend, something will happen that should not be happening. The Indianapolis Colts will play a National Football League playoff game.

At the start of the season, some media outlets ranked the Colts as the worst team in the league. Then the Colts won only one of their first six games. Now they’re the third team ever to make the playoffs after such a disastrous start. So what happened?

Take this comment from cornerback Quincy Wilson to The Athletic: “We talk about love a lot…. We all genuinely care about each other.” Or this from tight end Eric Ebron: “no one is selfish.” No matter who’s playing, “we trust them.”

Sports pundits talk about the importance of “intangibles.” But the word suggests these qualities are more mysterious than 40-yard dash times or weightlifting stats. Yet over and over again, the Colts confounded experts by building around players who showed not only talent but leadership, commitment to team, and a genuine love for the game. The coach is even a pastor who never swears but once engineered the biggest comeback in NFL history as a backup quarterback.

The lesson isn’t new. This year’s Boston Red Sox were very much a family. The Boston Celtics of a decade ago embraced the togetherness of “Ubuntu.” The Colts’ surprising success this season just another reminder that character is very much “tangible.”

Here are our five stories today. They include a look at one country’s unusual take on a classic “religious/secular” debate, one city’s bid to address the roots of chronic poverty, and one man who has forced his homeland to wrestle with what patriotism is.

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1. When she picks up gavel again, Pelosi will preside over a very different House

Returning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been a polarizing political figure. But one part of her legacy has echoed beyond policy and partisanship: her role as a trailblazer for women.

Mark
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House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California finishes a news conference at the Capitol in Washington Dec. 13. Ms. Pelosi is all but certain to become House speaker this week. She appeased younger Democrats by agreeing to limit her tenure to no more than four additional years in the chamber's top post.

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On the verge of a historic second act as speaker, Nancy Pelosi is about to work with the largest incoming class of women ever elected to Congress. It’s a symbiotic moment: an opportunity for these newcomers to learn from her, and vice versa. “Isn’t that exciting?” Pelosi enthuses when asked about the female newcomers at a December press conference. “They bring the fresh-from-the-trenches energy that is so useful to the Congress. They learn from us how Congress works.” It’s a moment of national significance beyond partisan politics, though there will be plenty of that, say observers. In a chamber with 435 members, having a woman – again – as second in the line of presidential succession, leading a House with 105 women (90 of them Democrats), serves as a message of possibility to America’s women. “In some ways, these women give Nancy Pelosi even more power,” says Dianne Bystrom, director emerita of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. “This group is pushing the boundaries the way she wanted to push the boundaries – only she’ll have more support.”

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When she picks up gavel again, Pelosi will preside over a very different House

After the November elections, when Nancy Pelosi was still working on winning over Democrats who opposed her for speaker, incoming Congresswoman Donna Shalala met with her to talk about what committees she could be considered for.

The once-and-future speaker of the House recognized a teaching moment:

“Ask for the moon!” she said, according to Representative-elect Shalala. “Don’t come in here and tell me you’re going to support me no matter what. Ask for the moon!”

It was a lesson from a master negotiator, woman-to-woman. As a former cabinet secretary in the Clinton administration and a university president in Florida, Shalala knows her power. But not as a legislator. Not in the maze called Congress.

So what did the Floridian ask for? “A lot!” she laughs. “A lot!”

In Representative Pelosi’s 2008 memoir, “Know Your Power: A Message to America’s Daughters,” the country’s first female speaker of the House says she learned from other women – and men, too, including her politician father and brother. But she emphasizes her mother, friends, pioneer female lawmakers, and women in political organizing. Now she’s on the verge of a historic second act as speaker, about to work with the largest incoming class of women ever elected to Congress. It’s a symbiotic moment – an opportunity for these newcomers to learn from her, and vice versa.

“Isn’t that exciting?” Pelosi enthuses, when asked about the female newcomers at a December press conference. “They bring the fresh-from-the-trenches energy that is so useful to the Congress. They learn from us how Congress works.”

It’s a moment of national significance beyond partisan politics, though there will be plenty of that, say observers. In a chamber with 435 members, having a woman – again – as second in the line of presidential succession, leading a House with 105 women (90 of them Democrats), serves as a message of possibility to America’s women.

“Many young women weren’t able to see themselves as part of this body called Congress,” says Cindy Simon Rosenthal, professor emerita at the University of Oklahoma and co-author of the book, “Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics.” The large and diverse class “is going to provide a mirror which is going to be really profound for women going forward.”

This larger group of female lawmakers also has an opportunity to make their voice heard, to affect policy, to have a bigger seat at the table.

“You get up to 100, that’s a real significant infusion in the institution,” says Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio, who has sometimes been critical of Pelosi and the influence of the coasts and campaign-fundraising on House Democrats. Still, she strongly supports the speaker-designate as “a proven leader whose batting average cannot be matched,” and cites her “extraordinary trailblazing” as one reason “these accomplished women are going to hit the ground running.”

The political education of Nancy Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi was born into politics as the daughter of a congressman, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. When she was just seven years old, he was elected mayor of Baltimore, working the city in his trademark bow tie and straw boater (she wears stylish outfits and stilettos).

From him, she learned how to count votes, she says.

In her memoir, she recounts Election Day when her father first ran for mayor. Early in the morning, he went to the roof of their three-story row house in Little Italy. He had with him her brother Tommy – who would follow in his father’s footsteps as mayor. The two watched as campaign workers converged from every direction on election headquarters, picking up packets to go door-to-door and turn out the vote.

Pelosi’s mother, Anunciata, also called Nancy, was central to the organizing – dispatching a brigade of women to political events. Her mother also kept a “favor file.” She would note requests on a slip of paper, pop them into her folder, and after the people were back on their feet, later connect them with someone with a similar need. It was a way to share the work and the good works, she writes.

The young Nancy, too, became adept at listening to her father’s constituents, staffing a table near the front door where people came for help. As Pelosi recounts, this was “natural” to her and her five older brothers. It was about public service and community, and also – as a devout Roman Catholic – about faith anchored in social good.

Although she attended Catholic school and college, she veered from her mother’s desire that she become a nun, instead marrying Paul Pelosi, a native of San Francisco who became a wealthy investor. She launched into motherhood, having five children in six years – and a survival strategy of crossword puzzles and chocolate. It was an intense course in efficiency, organization, and planning that proved invaluable in her second career in Congress. “Proper preparation prevents poor performance” became her family motto, for which her children teased her.

Unlike women candidates who have sometimes avoided highlighting their gender or motherhood, Pelosi publicly embraces her status as a mother and grandmother. She considers her role in politics an extension of her role as a mother.

“Know your why” – your purpose – she advises candidates. “My why is the 1 in 5 children in poverty in America,” she says. “I can’t, as a mother of five, accept the fact that so many kids go to sleep hungry at night in the greatest country that ever existed in the history of the world.”

But the intersection of motherhood and politics is also clearly about managing relationships. Returning from the early December rhetorical brawl in the Oval Office over the budget, the wall, and what has become a partial government shutdown, she told her Democratic colleagues she was “trying to be the mom” in the room.

It wasn’t until Pelosi’s youngest child, Alexandra, was nearing the end of high school that she ran for Congress. This, after years of party work, including as the chair of the California Democratic Party. Still, it was only after an ill Rep. Sala Burton implored her to run for her seat that she considered running. First, Pelosi wanted to check with her daughter. “Mother, Get a life!” Alexandra implored. So she did.

Speakership – Act II

Sixteen terms later, Pelosi is about to become speaker for a second time. She got there first in 2007, after Democrats swept both houses in a repudiation of the Iraq War and the handling of hurricane Katrina by Republican President George W. Bush.

Her four years wielding the gavel, which extended into the first two years of the Obama presidency, are often described as productive – if controversial. Spanning the Great Recession, they included the passage of the economic stimulus package, Wall Street reforms, and the Affordable Care Act. These drew on considerable negotiating and legislative skills, a deep knowledge of her caucus and ability to hold it together, and her vast network of influencers and donors outside of Washington.

“Frankly, I think she’s been the most successful speaker that we have seen since Sam Rayburn,” the last lawmaker to make a comeback to the speakership, says Professor Rosenthal.

Many in her caucus agree, describing her as at the top of her game and the most qualified to negotiate with, or block, President Trump.

“When Winston Churchill took the prime ministership, in his biography he said all of his life was a preparation for that moment. When I saw Nancy pushing back against Trump [in the Oval Office] and saying, ‘Don’t characterize the strength that I bring,’ I thought of that,”  says Rep. Ro Khanna, (D) of California. “In some sense, all of her life has been a preparation for this moment.”

And yet, inch-by-inch, negotiation-by-negotiation, she has had to win over Democrats. It’s not her qualifications they question, but her grip of 16 years on the Democratic leadership, the desire for a fresh face at the top (she’s pushing 80, as are the other two most senior caucus leaders), and her toxicity in swing districts where Republicans relentlessly attacked her as the liberal from San Francisco.

Even after she persuaded a holdout group of opponents by agreeing to limit her speakership to no more than four years, Democrats who promised voters they would not support her still plan to oppose her when the full House votes for speaker Jan. 3 – though they won’t be enough to sink her.

“I’ve never seen this much negotiating. Ever!” says Marcia Fudge (D) of Ohio, who considered running against Pelosi. She changed her mind after Pelosi offered to reinstate a subcommittee on elections and voting rights – and name Congresswoman Fudge as its chair.

A different era

When Pelosi first arrived in Congress in 1987, there were 12 women Democrats and 11 female Republicans. Several of the new lawmakers have young children at home, including a single mom commuting from California. It’s a challenge that could give more impetus to the issue of quality child-care, which Pelosi calls “the missing link” in the chain of progress for women and families.

Along the way, the speaker-designate has passed out political pearls of wisdom gathered from others, including “know your power,” from Democrat Rep. Lindy Boggs, the first woman elected from Louisiana, and “organize, don’t agonize,” a saying among her political friends during her years in California party politics.

But this year’s incoming class of women hardly lack confidence, nor do they doubt the importance of organizing. They include a former Air Force captain and Navy pilot, a former CIA officer, and activists who followed through on their desire to get involved and make a difference.

So what can they learn from Pelosi?

“I’ve got a lot of years of experience practicing law,” says Rep. Susan Wild, an attorney who flipped a red seat to blue in Pennsylvania. “That does not mean I have a lot of years of experience moving bills through Congress. So all of us, men and women, are looking to her for her political expertise.”

Rosenthal suggests that the newcomers can learn that they can be extraordinarily tough and hard-nosed and still be gracious in their persona – that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Progressive firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who will be sworn in this week, admires Pelosi for her leadership role.

“Having women in leadership gives us a seat at the table,” she says. “And when you actually look at the social dynamics of Congress, that does matter. We’re not treated the same.”

It wasn’t until this fall that Pelosi landed on the cover of a major national news magazine. When her memoir first came out, a colleague couldn’t find it in the politics section – it was sold under “self-help.” Indeed, Pelosi says that she has stayed on to fill what otherwise would be a female void at the highest rungs of power – given that Hillary Clinton lost the presidency in 2016.

Conversely, the speaker-designate can also learn from the incoming women, to “think outside the box” and to be more inclusive, says Dianne Bystrom, director emerita of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

“In some ways, these women give Nancy Pelosi even more power. This group is pushing the boundaries the way she wanted to push the boundaries – only she’ll have more support.”

Staff writer Jessica Mendoza contributed to this report.

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2. Recession is a risk in 2019. But maybe one that policymakers can avoid.

Many investors are concerned by recent economic signs in the US. But there's a different view, too. Some key indicators suggest slower but still positive growth. The real question may be how the government navigates the months ahead.

Mark

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The US stock market got close to bear market levels just before the Christmas holiday, with the S&P 500 index down almost 20 percent from its September peak. Does that mean the economy is headed toward recession? Forecasters generally are predicting slower growth, not an outright contraction for the economy. “The very near term looks OK to me,” says Joel Prakken of the research firm IHS Markit. “Employment’s still growing; wages are picking up; retail sales are strong,” he says. Interest rates remain low, and the global economy is growing, albeit at a cooling pace. Economists say it’s possible something could trigger a recession, but some of the risks are within the grasp of policymakers to avoid. The US and China are negotiating to avoid a damaging trade war. And the Federal Reserve needs to watch against raising short-term interest rates too high in 2019. For now, the stock market has moved up a bit since Dec. 24. “We’re careful not to get too carried away by these moves in stock prices even though they’re fairly substantial,” Mr. Prakken says.

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Recession is a risk in 2019. But maybe one that policymakers can avoid.

It may be hard to believe with all the gyrations on Wall Street, but the outlook for Main Street is surprisingly upbeat, at least for the first half of 2019. The economy has so much momentum that a sudden U-turn seems remote, economists say.

“Employment’s still growing; wages are picking up; retail sales are strong;... there’s still some policy stimulus in the pipeline,” says Joel Prakken, chief US economist at research firm IHS Markit. “The very near term looks OK to me, but there are some storm clouds on the horizon.”

The divergence between the performance of the real economy and a jittery Wall Street is striking. The US economy, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), probably grew 3 percent in 2018, economists say, which would be its strongest performance since 2005. Wall Street, by contrast, had its worst year since 2008.

Why might Main Street’s optimism continue well into the New Year? Economists point to several factors. Among them:

  1. The global economy continues to expand. Although it has cut its 2019 forecast a touch, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development forecasts world GDP growing 3.5 percent, almost as strong as the estimated 3.7 percent for 2018.
  2. Trump tax cuts plus expanded federal spending helped juice the economy in 2018. Though not expected to be as strong, the fiscal stimulus is poised to continue this year.
  3. Interest rates remain low. Although the Federal Reserve has been raising short-term interest rates to ensure inflation does not get out of hand, it is still relatively inexpensive for companies and individuals to finance new business ventures.
  4. The US and China have so far avoided an all-out trade war. They are currently working on a deal wherein the US reportedly would bring down its tariffs on Chinese goods in exchange for Beijing opening up its financial and other sectors to foreign firms, reducing or eliminating the practice of forcing Western companies to share technology with Chinese partners, and buying more goods from the US.

Hope for a US-China deal

Both sides have signaled flexibility. China has already temporarily lifted tariffs on imports of US autos and purchased American soybeans. For its part, the Trump administration has delayed by 90 days a Jan. 1 plan to increase tariffs from 10 percent to 25 percent on $200 billion in Chinese imports.

“Deal is moving along very well,” President Trump tweeted Dec. 29 after a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “If made, it will be very comprehensive, covering all subjects, areas and points of dispute.”

Expansions have never gone on forever. And this one, nearly a decade old and the second-longest in US history, looks vulnerable as early as the second half of 2019.

“We basically lose all the positive stimulus from the tax cuts and the bipartisan budget deal by the second half of this year,” says Joseph Song, senior US economist with Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “So you're probably looking at trend growth somewhere around 1.7, 1.8 [percent]. And when you’re closer to zero percent growth, even a modest shock to the economy could push it down into negative territory.”

Not everyone sees the effect of tax cuts fading. Supply-side economists argue that corporate tax cuts will continue to boost business investment, which will keep the economy humming.

“The idea that we’re on a sugar high for one year, and then it’s all going to go back to where it was next year, is just not consistent with [economic] literature,” Kevin Hassett, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters in an on-the-record briefing two weeks ago. “Survey data suggests that the capital spending plans [of US businesses] over the next year are very strong.”

Recessions need a trigger

Many forecasters are calling for slower but still positive growth in key economies, notably the US (where worries include a cooling housing market) and China, where sagging factory activity was a factor as some global stock markets fell on the first trading day of 2019.

And recessions don’t just happen. Something has to trigger an erosion of demand or confidence among businesses and consumers. Sometimes it’s an investment bubble that pops, such as dot-com stocks in 2000 or the housing market starting in 2007.

This time, government moves could be the trigger. For example, if the government shutdown continues for the next three months, it will run into the deadline for the debt limit to be reimposed. Failure to authorize more spending in the months ahead could spook markets and rattle consumer confidence, economists say.

A more likely flashpoint is trade. Despite Mr. Trump’s upbeat tone, the United States and China remain far apart because they have different strategic aims, analysts say. The administration wants to bring down the US trade deficit with China while President Xi wants to use trade to spur China’s technological development, which may mean shutting out the very goods that the US excels at.

The more tariffs get applied, the higher the drag on the economy. If Trump extends the trade dispute with China to other major trading partners, they would retaliate and a trade war would ensue, dramatically slowing economic growth for all the nations involved. “If the White House takes it another step and starts to put tariffs on autos, I think that’s when you begin to worry about ... recession,” says Mr. Song.

Risks from the Fed’s tightening

A third trigger could be a mistake by the Federal Reserve. The odds of a misstep are higher this time, some economists say, because the Fed is trying to tamp down the inflationary effects of the government stimulus in the first half of the year while worrying about a slowdown in the second half.

“This is not our baseline outlook, but I do worry that stimulus is masking a greater underlying tightening in financial conditions than many think,” says Michael Gapen, head economist at Barclays Investment Bank, in a recorded interview for investors. That could lead the Fed to raise interest rates at the wrong time, he adds, increasing the odds of recession.

It might seem surprising that a downturn could occur when employment is so strong. Alas, jobs are a lagging indicator. If one counts the 1980 and 1981 recessions as a single downturn, then every recession since World War II has begun when unemployment was at lows similar to today, points out Mr. Prakken of IHS Markit.

The best predictor of a coming recession is the stock market, but its wild gyrations can make it difficult to read. On Dec. 24, the S&P 500 index fell to nearly 20 percent below its Sept. 20 peak – a line that, if breached, might signal the start of a bear market and a likely recession ahead. But since then the index has moved back up, to about 14 percent below its peak.

Similarly, the Dow Jones industrial index had its worst Christmas Eve plunge in history and its best-ever point gain on the day after Christmas.

“We’re careful not to get too carried away by these moves in stock prices even though they’re fairly substantial,” Prakken says. Such volatility may slow growth by increasing uncertainty, but it’s unlikely to trigger a recession by itself, he adds.  

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3. How Rwanda’s Catholic clinics struck a contraception compromise

Policy debates can often cast one side as religious and the other side as secular. But a compromise over contraceptives in Rwanda shows how that way of looking at things is almost always an oversimplification.

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About a third of Rwanda’s hospitals and health clinics are run by the Catholic Church, many of them in remote areas with no government-run alternative. And for decades, that meant their patients could not receive modern birth control. They still can’t – but today, women seeking contraceptives are directed to nearby, government-run “health posts,” set up in the shadow of most Catholic centers. It’s a deal struck over the past decade as Rwanda’s government looked to boost health care in a country where contraception advocates and opponents alike commonly cite faith as their motivation. And in Africa, more than anywhere in the world, sex and public health have collided in ways that force the church into the conversation. “The way we see it, people are responsible for their own health and their own faith,” says Prince-Bosco Kanani, the director of Rwanda Catholic Health Services. “Our spiritual mandate is to let people choose.”

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How Rwanda’s Catholic clinics struck a contraception compromise

The Roman Catholic health center that hugs the main road here announces its faith plainly.

ARCHDIOCESE OF KIGALI, reads the sign sprawled across the facade of the stout red brick building in this small town just outside Rwanda’s capital. Holographic portraits of Jesus and Mary stare down from the walls of every exam and consultation room, and nuns wander the corridors in full gray habits.

For decades, if you needed health care in this town, this was your option. And that included women looking for birth control – most forms of which the Catholic Church forbids. 

“That is our faith. We cannot change what we believe,” says Mary Goretti Nyirabahutu, the nun in charge of the health center.

But now, around the corner, wedged into half of an old municipal office at the end of a long dirt road, a tiny government health center whispers an alternative. Its door is unmarked except for a tiny sign above the doorway reading, “Kuboneza Urubyaro.” Family Planning. 

“I’m also a woman of prayer,” says Jackie Buseruka, the nurse who runs the clinic. “But your religion must not interfere with doing what is right.” 

Battles over access to birth control and abortion are often cast as a fight between a secular left and a religious right. But in Rwanda, as in much of Africa, people on both sides of the aisle feel God is with them. Both advocates and opponents of modern family planning frequently cite faith as their motivation.

And that has led to strikingly different ideas for how to expand access to birth control to the women who need it most.

When Rwanda’s government was looking for ways to increase the number of women using contraception a decade ago as part of a broader push to improve health care and promote development, they knew they had to include the Catholic Church, since half of Rwandans are members. Long a powerful institution here, the church runs about a third of the country’s hospitals and clinics, according to the Catholic charity Caritas – many of them in remote areas where there is no government-run alternative.

The church, meanwhile, was resolute – it wouldn’t provide artificial birth control. That was against Rome’s doctrine.

But it didn’t make much sense to build new hospitals in those areas. So the church and the government struck a deal.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
A sign directs patients to the secondary health post in Masaka, Rwanda. Secondary health posts have been set up by the government near most of the country's Catholic hospitals in the last decade to offer modern birth control services that they do not provide.

Women who came to Catholic facilities looking for contraceptives would be told their options – all their options – and then pointed down the road to the new mini “health posts” the government was setting up in the shadow of every Catholic hospital. Tiny, bare-bones operations, they had a single purpose: to give out birth control. Today, there are 88 of these, tethered to about 80 percent of the Catholic hospitals and clinics in the country.

“The way we see it, people are responsible for their own health and their own faith,” says Prince-Bosco Kanani, the director of Rwanda Catholic Health Services. “Our spiritual mandate is to let people choose.”

Many Rwandan women have chosen modern birth control. Since 1995, the country’s fertility rate has fallen from six children per woman to under four. Two-thirds of married women and nearly one-third of women total now use contraceptives.

Difficult conversations

Sex is, perhaps, not the first topic the church wants to discuss. But in Africa, more than anywhere in the world, sex and public health have collided in ways that forced the church into the conversation.

“When HIV came to finish us, that’s when we realized we couldn’t keep sex in the dark. We had to begin speaking about it in broad daylight,” says Ronald Kasyaba, the deputy executive secretary at Catholic Medical Bureau in neighboring Uganda. “And the conversation has progressed from there.”

In Rwanda, as in many countries, the prevalence of Catholic health centers means they have been close to the HIV epidemic for decades. (The Vatican has estimated that it provides 25 percent of the care HIV and AIDS patients receive worldwide.) That, in turn, necessitated a tough moral reckoning among many Catholic health officials about the need to talk loudly and clearly to parishioners about protection against sexually transmitted diseases – a subject the church had historically spoken about only in whispers.

Yet it has been reluctant to approve of the use of condoms to prevent HIV, let alone as contraception. But Kigali is also far from Rome, and when church teachings and practical need diverge, many will quietly choose the latter. 

“I cannot be limited by my faith when it comes to family planning,” says Adrian Hakorimana, a herdsman in Masaka. “The most important thing to me as a Catholic is to have a family that is a size I can take care of.” 

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Nurse Jackie Buseruka runs the government health post situated down the road from Masaka's Catholic hospital. Unlike that institution, her health post offers modern birth control.

'It's a calling'

Inside Ms. Buseruka’s dimly lit government clinic, she spreads out a menu of options for her patients. There are packets of pills and intrauterine devices, silver condom packets, and little vials of injectable contraceptives. “I never turn anyone who comes to this place away,” she says. “If they’re worried about religion, I tell them, God helps those who help themselves.”

Buseruka’s clinic has about 7,000 patients, from shy teenage girls to the wives of local pastors, who often send her text messages asking if they can come by the clinic after hours, when no one will be around to see.

Down the road, at the Catholic health center, Ms. Nyirabahutu leads her own spirited family planning crusade – to interest couples in church-sanctioned forms of “natural family planning.” She clutches a string of beads in her hand like a rosary, explaining that couples can use it to count the days of a woman’s cycle.

But it’s a hard sell. She sees only about 1,000 patients regularly for such services, she says, and only couples. “If you don’t have a husband, what do you need family planning for?” she says, breaking into a wide-brimmed laugh. “You have nothing to plan.”

Still, she says she fully supports the government outpost down the road.

“Of course they are serving more people than us [at the secondary health posts]. They have more to offer,” she says. But it isn’t a competition. “Health care, for us, it’s a calling. And the most important thing is that women are healthy, that having children is their own choice. They must be free to choose what is right for them.”

Nasra Bishumba contributed reporting to this story. Reporting for this story was also supported in part by a fellowship from the United Nations Foundation.

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Special Report

4. Tulsa’s bold experiment is bringing families closer to stability

Children born into poor and distressed families face an opportunity gap that only grows as they get older. Tulsa, Okla., is a test bed for a bold effort to address the roots of intergenerational poverty. Part 3 in a series.

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Change has been a constant in Alexis Stephens’s life since her daughter, Addison, was born. She’s been in jail, kicked her addiction, found a full-time job, and gotten custody of her son and Addison. In August, she moved out of a women’s shelter and into the house of her new boyfriend. Addison is one of 164 kids at Educare, a year-round early-learning center that is a flagship project for Tulsa philanthropist George Kaiser. He’s also behind Ms. Stephens’s prison-diversion program and a constellation of other initiatives designed so that every Tulsa child can have a shot at early success in life. Mr. Kaiser isn’t the only rich businessman who sees early education as a potential game changer. Jay Pritzker, the governor-elect of Illinois, has donated millions to child development. And Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recently announced a $1 billion plan for a network of Montessori preschools in low-income communities. Tulsa is a test bed. Home after a long day, Addison is in her pink cot being read to before her mom leans in for goodnight kisses. “You want another book?” asks Stephens, feigning surprise. “Not time for sleep?” Addison waves her arms at mom. “More books,” she whispers.

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Tulsa’s bold experiment is bringing families closer to stability

Dawn is breaking outside as Alexis Stephens ferries her daughter into daycare, past the bright yellow lobby with its metal animal mural and into the classroom. Addison plops onto a rug and reaches for a ball. Ms. Stephens sits beside her.

It’s a routine – play, hugs, and goodbyes – that usually takes 10 minutes before Stephens goes to work. Addison was six months old when she started here, and she knows its rhythms. Today she begins her day in a mixed class with three infants who are grouped around a teacher. But Addison, who turned 2 in June, has eyes only for mom.

Stephens rolls the ball back to her. “This is one of those mornings when she’s going to take a little more convincing,” she says. Change has been a constant in Stephens’s life since Addison was born. She’s been in jail, entered a rehabilitation program, kicked her addiction, found a full-time job, and gotten custody of Addison and Carson, her son. In August, she moved out of a women’s shelter and into the house of her new boyfriend. It’s a longer commute to the daycare, but Stephens doesn’t mind.

For Addison, “it’s not going to get any better than this. Are you kidding?” she says.

Addison is one of 164 kids at Educare, a year-round early-learning center that is a flagship project for Tulsa’s foremost philanthropist, George Kaiser. He’s also the benefactor behind Stephens’s prison-diversion program and a constellation of other child- and family-based initiatives that are designed to bend the arc of justice in Tulsa so that every child, however disadvantaged, can have a shot at early success in life.

The Monitor is following three young mothers in Tulsa who are part of Mr. Kaiser’s bold bet on early child development as an antidote to intergenerational poverty. Each has her own struggles. All want the best for their children, who range in age from 6 months to 10 years. Their journeys shed light on the promise of philanthropy to close an opportunity gap that opens up when children are young and widens as they grow, calcifying class divisions.

Kaiser isn’t the only rich businessman who sees early education as a potential game changer. In Chicago, Jay Pritzker, the new governor-elect of Illinois, has donated millions to child development, including to build Educare centers. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the richest American, recently announced a $1 billion plan for a national network of Montessori preschools in low-income communities.

Tulsa is a testbed for these ideas. What does it show us?

Across town, Mikaleah Moment basks in the afternoon sun as her youngest daughter, R’Myah, totters across an enclosed playground. R’Myah, age 1, attends an Educare preschool in her majority African-American neighborhood, one of the poorest in Tulsa. Ms. Moment and her boyfriend, the toddler’s father, Rande, have come to pick her up.

Moment is all smiles with the teacher and other staff at the center. Some raise their eyebrows when they see her. “Hey girl. Where have you been?” one asks, and leans in for a hug. “Oh, around. I got busy,” she replies.

Moment has two children enrolled here, R’Myah and Jo’Nae, age 3. Both were born before Moment turned 18. This fall she’s been too busy with work and school – she’s studying for a medical-assistant certificate – to bring the girls to Educare, relying instead on Rande and the father of Jo’Nae, who lives in the neighborhood.

For Jo’Nae, who will transfer this year to a public pre-K, this arrangement has meant a string of missed days. In October, she averaged 70 percent attendance.

That worries Serenity Weedon, the director of family services, which is why she’s relieved to see Moment today.

Moment tells her it’s not her fault. Jo’Nae’s father “has been stepping up lately” in taking care of her, but then he leaves her with relatives who don’t have a working car. “I know it’s our responsibility to make sure that attendance is right,” she tells me after talking to Ms. Weedon.

This attention to shifting family dynamics and wraparound services is part of Educare’s mission and one reason Kaiser has invested in it. Few public schools could commit such resources to keeping families connected and making sure kids max out their classroom hours.

Attendance is a key metric in any early-childhood intervention, says Steven Dow, who runs CAP Tulsa, another preschool provider that Kaiser also funds, since the more time infants and toddlers spend in a nurturing classroom the better. “Dosage matters a great deal,” he says.

Studies show that quality preschools like Educare and CAP Tulsa act as a significant booster for low-income students entering kindergarten. They are better prepared for school and score higher on tests. Whether these effects persist or fade out in later grades, however, is a hotly debated topic.

Weedon’s concern is that Jo’Nae’s no-shows could affect her transition this year to public preschool. To her, a 70 percent attendance rate is flashing a warning sign. At 60 percent, Weedon tells families that this may not be the right preschool for them.

Moment promises that she’ll talk to Jo’Nae’s father about attendance. In a subsequent call from a reporter, Weedon says Jo’Nae has been coming more regularly to class. Moment is about to start a new job in a cafeteria and to switch over to evening classes at her for-profit college. The program is going well, she says. “It’s very hands-on. Not so bookish,” she says.

She’s happy to sign a permission form for Jo’Nae to join the next day’s field trip to a pumpkin patch. She wants to go too and asks Weedon if R’Myah might join them.

No, R’Myah stays, Weedon says, firmly. “This way you can spend more time with your kid [Jo’Nae]. You’ve got to find a balance. I know you love them equally,” she tells the teenager.

“I know, I know,” says Moment.

“It’s about finding a balance,” says Weedon.

I text Moment the next day to ask about the field trip. “We Didn’t Even Get To Go. I Had Car Trouble,” she replied.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Mikaleah Moment holds her youngest daughter, R’Myah, in her home in Tulsa, Okla., on April 6, 2018.

***
Hayzetta Nichols knows all about car trouble.

Lavelle, her mechanically minded husband, replaced the engine in her old sedan. Before that, she transported her three young children in the used Toyota SUV she bought in April with her tax refund. In the back window is a purple Lyft decal. Ms. Nichols has been driving passengers and delivering takeout to pay bills.

The previous month, the only bill she didn’t pay was her phone bill, which is why it’s not working the day I meet her and Lavelle for lunch at a Chinese cafeteria. But both are upbeat about making ends meet. “You gotta roll with the punches; that’s how I see it,” says Lavelle, a former boxer whom Nichols first met in 2011 when he was in jail.

Over noodles and stir-fry, Nichols tells me that she recently quit her job at a call center that was the family’s only regular income. Over the summer, her manager ordered her to work weekends and evenings, a schedule that left little time for her three children, Myracle, Lijah, and Loyal.

That left Lavelle in charge of the kids, whom he had to wrangle for baths and bedtime, then bundle into the Toyota so he could drive across town to pick up Nichols when her shift ended at 10 p.m.

It was a disruptive routine for everyone, says Lavelle. “It was a fight every day.”

Nichols found another call-center job that requires evenings but not weekends. In January, she hopes to go back to college and study on weekends.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Lavelle Nichols holds two of his children, Myracle and Lijah, at home in Tulsa, Okla., on April 6, 2018.

For Lavelle, finding work as a former felon is tougher. He recently caught a break at a new Tulsa park that is hiring overnight cleanup crews. When he saw the application form, it had no box to check for criminal record. The job pays $10 an hour and has guaranteed hours and a weekly paycheck. “They don’t hold no cash back,” he says.

The park is no ordinary leisure spot. The Gathering Place is a $400 million riverfront park designed, built, and largely financed by the George Kaiser Family Foundation. That means that hiring at the family-friendly park, which opened in September and attracted 300,000 visitors in its first month, reflects Kaiser’s social justice goals.

In addition to the people’s park, GKFF has developed a 117-acre industrial park in North Tulsa. The goal is to attract companies willing to build facilities that would generate hundreds of decent-paying jobs in a disadvantaged neighborhood. So far, none have bitten, a reminder that philanthropy is hostage to larger forces. “It’s a tough sell,” admits Kaiser in an interview at the Gathering Place.

Nichols’s three children attend the same Educare as Moment’s daughters. Myracle, Nichols’s eldest, recently moved up into a 3-year-old class.

She was reluctant to leave her brother, says Nichols. “She would tell them, ‘I need to go back to Lijah.’ ” Now she’s proud of “preschool” and of what she’s learning there.

Loyal, the youngest, was born in March. She’s already crawling and pulling herself up as well as thriving in her infant classroom, says Nichols.

Lijah, who turned 2 in October, is their only boy. Lavelle tells me he’s trying to “toughen” him up, to tell him that he shouldn’t cry like his sisters. “I gotta start now because if I don’t start now the whole world’s gonna beat him,” he says.

“He don’t like me babying him,” says Nichols.

“I just know how different it is for young black males,” says Lavelle. The system “expects my son to fail.” That’s why he needs to be prepared for how society will see him, he adds.

I ask Nichols if she agrees. “I gotta follow his lead on this. I don’t like it, but at the same time he knows more about being a black man than I do,” she says.

***

Stephens met Bryan Hamilton in May. “It wasn’t love at first sight,” she says. But she felt comfortable around Mr. Hamilton, an Army veteran who works for a cable company. On their second date at a movie theater, he offered her a beer. No thanks, I don’t drink, she told him.

Stephens doesn’t drink because drinking could lead to drugs and that was her life, before she went to jail and had Addison and ended her addiction while enrolled in a long-term rehabilitation program for incarcerated women in Tulsa founded by GKFF.

It was a lot to explain to a guy she’d just met. “I didn’t want to tell him upfront ... and I didn’t want to wait too long and be deceitful,” she says.

One conversation led to another, and as the past unspooled the two grew closer. Hamilton met Stephens’s family, who live in Tulsa, and her friends from the recovery program and at the downtown women’s shelter where she lived. Over dinner with her family, he suggested that Stephens move in with him. She accepted on the spot.

Now Stephens lives with Hamilton in Owasso, north of Tulsa. She has a partner who is happy to take care of Addison and of Carson, her fourth-grade son. (Hamilton has a daughter, age 10, who lives with his ex-wife in Nebraska.)

“He’s helped me so much. I didn’t know how hard single parenting was until I wasn’t doing it anymore,” she says.

Stephens is also full of gratitude for Kaiser, whose philanthropy allowed her to avoid prison and to put Addison through Educare. “I didn’t know if I was going to give [her] up for adoption, if I was ever going to see her again, and here she is. It’s crazy,” she says.

When the Gathering Place opened, a downtown store printed retro T-shirts saying “Thanks George” to wear at the park. Stephens went out and bought a green one.

Back at Educare, Addison has brought a book over, and they settle into a pint-sized armchair to read about the Itsy Bitsy Spider and mime the actions. Addison is all smiles.

She also has a temper that flares at times, says the teacher who is minding the infants. “We’re working on her keeping her calm. But that’s just being 2,” she explains.

To education specialists, this is a crucial step. Executive function – the control of behavior and inhibition of impulses – can determine how children will do at school and even in adulthood. For toddlers raised in unstable homes it is even more important for school readiness. Longitudinal studies show that children exposed since birth to high levels of poverty and stress score poorly on executive function.

Critics of early-childhood education argue that the effects of preschool often fade by third grade and that it doesn’t provide a sustained boost. However, the debate over “preschool fade-out” is complicated by wide variations in the quality of publicly funded preschools – most are not as well resourced as Educare – and a paucity of careful studies that track children into adulthood.

For his part, Kaiser is convinced that toddlers like Addison, Jo’Nae, and Lijah are benefiting and that third-grade math and reading tests shouldn’t be the main metric for assessing preschool programs. He notes that executive function and socioemotional development are correlated with success in adulthood, such as school completion and not being incarcerated.

“We’ve moved them somewhere, and we may never know the impact. It’s somewhere they can always come back to, that they remember,” says Liz Neas, director of the Educare that Addison attends.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Alexis Stephens, with boyfriend Bryan, reads a bedtime book to Addison in Tulsa, Okla., on Oct. 26, 2018. Ms. Stephens is a graduate of the Women In Recovery program, a prison-diversion program that helps women overcome addiction.

Ideally this nurturing is reinforced by parents. Stephens says that Hamilton has helped her to see the importance of routine in her kids’ lives, something that Carson missed because of her addiction and erratic hours. Hamilton also knows how to temper Addison’s wilder moods.

“I look to Bryan for discipline when they’re driving me crazy. He can step in and fix it,” she says.

Home after a long day, Addison is in her pink cot piled with stuffed toys. Stephens and Hamilton both read her a story, then lean in for goodnight kisses.

“You want another book?” asks Stephens, feigning surprise. “Not time for sleep?”

Addison waves her arms at mom. “More books,” she whispers.

Stephens hugs her daughter again, then backs toward the door. Hamilton is beside her. “Good night,” she says. They close the door gently, then head back to the sofa.

Part 1: Tulsa experiment: Can investing in children early reverse poverty cycle?

Part 2: For three families, Tulsa experiment offers chance to grasp American dream

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5. Prophet, or prattler of the impossible? Israel recalls Amos Oz.

The love Amos Oz had for Israel sustained his long and acclaimed literary career. But in today’s polarized politics, the line between patriot and traitor can be perilously thin.

Mark
Dan Balilty/AP/File
Israeli writer Amos Oz, who died Friday, posed for a photo at his home in Tel Aviv in 2015. He was known as both the country’s preeminent writer and as unofficial spokesman for the peace movement.

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In a eulogy for Amos Oz, President Reuven Rivlin, a childhood friend of Israel’s preeminent writer, praised his courage. “Not only were you not afraid to be in the minority and hold a minority opinion, but you weren’t even afraid to be called a traitor,” he said. “On the contrary, you saw the word as a title with honor.” It was a remarkable tribute from the head of state, a member of the conservative Likud party, for Oz, who for decades was an unofficial spokesman for the peace movement. Oz, whose love of country filled the pages of his internationally acclaimed books, was among the first of Israel’s intellectuals to criticize the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The Zionist left still reveres him as a hero, the conscience of the nation. But for many on the right, even those who cherished his books, his politics made him at best a prattler of impossible bleeding-heart hopes. In a tribute, Haaretz reporter Amir Tibon wrote: “What Oz considered the greatest act of patriotism – trying to end Israel’s military occupation over millions of Palestinians – his critics and attackers viewed as dangerous disloyalty.”

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Prophet, or prattler of the impossible? Israel recalls Amos Oz.

For decades a tradition was honored in Israel, that its most celebrated poets, novelists, and thinkers occupied a rarefied place in the halls of power and influence.

They were the moral, sometimes spiritual guides in this experiment in Jewish self-determination.

But in recent years Israel’s preeminent writer, Amos Oz, who passed away Friday, had seen his influence as a modern-day prophet slip into the cracks of the divided, polarized land Israel has become.

Oz, whose love for his country filled the pages of his best-selling and internationally acclaimed books, was for decades also an unofficial spokesman for the peace movement.

The Zionist left still reveres him as a hero, the conscience of the nation, and now reels in grief and wonders how Israel will find its way without him. But for many on the right, even those who cherished his books, his politics made him a prattler of impossible bleeding-heart hopes at best, a traitor at worst.

“He saw what happened in the [occupied] territories as messianic lunatics taking over the Israel he loved and who responded to him with a lot of anger and even hate,” says Meir Azari, senior rabbi of Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv’s first and largest Reform synagogue.

He cites hateful responses to the news of Oz’s death on social media, even calling for him to “rot in hell.”

“No one in Russia would write this about Pushkin,” Rabbi Azari says, “and here we have a national writer out there in the world, a symbol of culture in Israel, and half of the country cannot stand him.”

Among the prestigious prizes Oz was awarded were the Goethe prize and the Prix Méditerranée Étranger. Twice he was a finalist for the Man Booker prize.

“My Michael,” a novel published in 1968, about a troubled young woman in 1950s Jerusalem and her disintegrating marriage, and “In the Land of Israel,” published in 1983, a nonfiction travelogue chronicling the people and politics of Israel and the West Bank, are among Oz’s most widely read books in Israel and abroad.

But “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” an autobiographical novel published in 2002 about growing up in Jerusalem in the years before and just after Israel became a state in 1948, is considered his masterpiece. It was made into a movie by Natalie Portman in which she portrayed Oz’s mother, who took her own life when he was 12 years old.

This enduring wound drove his writing: “Without a wound there is no author,” he said.

Patriotism or disloyalty?

The title and contents of Oz’s final book, “Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land,” published just over a year ago, speak to the current polarization, one that pitted him and the world of old-school liberal (critics would add: Ashkenazi elite) Zionism he represented against an increasingly popular hard-line brand of religious, messianic nationalism.

“Oz’s brand of patriotism was one that many Israelis – those who belong to the country’s growing religious and right-wing majority – found increasingly difficult to tolerate over the years,” Haaretz reporter Amir Tibon wrote in a tribute. “What Oz considered the greatest act of patriotism – trying to end Israel’s military occupation over millions of Palestinians – his critics and attackers viewed as dangerous disloyalty.”

Oz combined a generous, warm spirit with a sharp tongue – he called settler youths who vandalized mosques “Hebrew neo-Nazis.” And he was among the first of Israel’s public intellectuals to criticize the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, among the lands Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Shortly after the war, which was launched in the tense days after Arab leaders declared they planned to destroy Israel, he wrote an article warning, “Even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation.”

In a eulogy delivered at a memorial at a Tel Aviv arts center, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, a childhood friend of Oz’s, praised his courage.

“Not only were you not afraid to be in the minority and hold a minority opinion, but you weren’t even afraid to be called a traitor,” he said. “On the contrary, you saw the word as a title with honor.”

In Oz’s 2014 novel, the prize-winning “Judas,” Oz challenges how societies define the concept of a traitor.

Two states for two peoples

A founder of the Peace Now movement, he never stopped crusading for what he saw as the most pragmatic solution for Israelis and Palestinians – two states for two peoples.

“We are speaking about a very small house – about the size of Denmark. It’s the one and only homeland of the Jews, it’s also the one and only homeland of the Palestinian Arabs. We cannot become one happy family because we are not one, we are not happy, we are not family,” he said in an interview with Die Welt. “We are two unhappy families. We have to divide the house into two smaller next-door apartments. There is no point in even fantasizing that after 100 years of bloodshed and anger and conflict Jews and Arabs will jump into a honeymoon bed and start making love not war.”

But the nagging divide in Israel over the best approach to take bothered Oz, even as he described that kind of internal quarreling as quintessentially Israeli.

Yoaz Hendel, chairman of The Institute for Zionist Strategies, a right-wing think tank in Jerusalem, says the nationalist camp admired Oz for his writing talent and the love of Israel infused in it, but were vehemently opposed to his political positions.

“His ideas were not practical. Ultimately, we are talking about policies and risk management – not about literature. And these are two sides that see the risks very differently. Amos Oz, as I see it, could take risks with his own opinions, his world of imaginings, which politicians and leaders could not take,” he says.

Thou shalt not hurt

Ora Ahimeir, an author and former director of a think tank called The Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, who also grew up in Jerusalem in the early years of the state, shared Oz’s ideology and counts herself among the many Israelis who are deeply saddened by his sudden absence.

“His was always a humane point of view, and it was this humanism that spoke to me. He tried to understand their [the Palestinian] point of view, and he did not delegitimize it. He preached another way,” she says. “We have lost a great writer first of all, a great contribution to Israeli culture and someone who set a certain tone.… When you listened to him it was like being under a spell.”

But that influence that he and other artists used to have no longer exists today, she bemoans.

“This is a thing of the past,” Ms. Ahimeir says, sadness in her voice. “For many years people really listened to writers, to poets, to people who really were spiritually gifted, the same way Jews once listened to great rabbis. The traditional Jewish admiration for education and wisdom – for the non-religious community in Israel – went from rabbis to the great artist, believing that these extraordinary gifted people have a message for us and that their torch should lead the way. And certainly Amos Oz always had something important to say about our existence here,” she says.

“And for many years he enjoyed that status, but not in recent years, when we became rough and tough and single-minded and despising of spirituality and high learning,” she says, noting, too, the growing influence of religion and the increased admiration for even extreme rabbis.

At the Tel Aviv memorial, his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger said, “Dad said, ‘I can distill all the edicts of morality as well as the Ten Commandments to one commandment only: Thou shalt not hurt. That’s all. And if that’s impossible, at least try to hurt less. As little as possible.’ ”

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The Monitor's View

Why civic values are Taiwan’s best defense

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When it comes to debates over national identity, nothing beats this week’s tit-for-tat between the leaders of China and Taiwan over the future of the latter’s independence. Let’s just say the small island nation won. First Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, gave a speech in which she said her 24 million people insist on freedom and democracy. She said China should use “peaceful and equal terms” to deal with differences. Then Xi Jinping, China’s president, said that “differences in [governing] systems” should not be an excuse against unification, an idea he called “inevitable.” Ms. Tsai then took the high road. “Democracy is a value and lifestyle cherished by the Taiwanese people,” she simply said. Taiwan’s identity is rooted in civic ideals such as the rights of individuals and equality of all before law. A values-based debate is essential to peace both within and between nations. With his threat of force to unite Taiwan with China, Xi throws out a key value – respect for the Taiwanese – in making a choice on their future. Yet with due respect for him, the island nation’s leader merely pointed out Taiwan’s democratic character. Point well made.

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Why civic values are Taiwan’s best defense

In a rather public debate, the leaders of China and Taiwan have revealed what it takes to create a national identity rooted in shared ideals. Let’s just say the small island nation off China’s coast won, as its president’s statements make clear.

On Tuesday, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan gave a New Year’s speech in which she said her 24 million people insist on freedom and democracy, unlike on the mainland. “China has to face the fact that the Republic of China [Taiwan] exists,” she said. It should use “peaceful and equal terms” to deal with differences.

The next day, in a speech solely about Taiwan, President Xi Jinping said in Beijing that “differences in [governing] systems” should not be an excuse against unification, an idea he called “inevitable” and perhaps made possible someday by force. The people of Taiwan are part of the same “family,” Mr. Xi insisted, which he called the “Chinese nation.”

In response, Ms. Tsai then took the high road, far above any claim to shared bloodlines or ancient cultural ties. “Democracy is a value and lifestyle cherished by the Taiwanese people,” she simply said.

Taiwan’s identity, in other words, is rooted in civic ideals such as the rights of individuals and equality of all before law. That fact is clear by the vibrancy of its democracy since 1992. Polls show about half of its citizens see themselves as “Taiwanese only.” Taiwan also notices how China has used threats to clamp down on liberties in Hong Kong since retaking the territory in 1997.

The model of authoritarian rule, an “option” offered to other countries by Xi, is rejected widely in Taiwan. Since the end of a civil war on the mainland in 1949, it has steadily seen itself as free and independent. The island has never been ruled by the People’s Republic of China.

Taiwan’s clarity on the need for shared values rather than common interests to define national identity is a lesson for other peoples in conflict. It may also help explain Britain’s great divide over its 2016 decision to leave the European Union even though it shares so much with the democracies on the Continent. “Our vote to leave the European Union was no rejection of the values we share,” said Prime Minister Theresa May last year. “We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The debate in Britain is instead mainly over how much to reclaim power over aspects of trade, regulations, and immigrant flows. Civic values are not an issue. In fact, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, says the difficult work to decide on Brexit “is part of the joy and blessing of being a community.”

A values-based debate is essential to peace both within and between nations. With his threat of force to unite Taiwan with China, Xi throws out one key value – respect for the Taiwanese – in making a choice on their future. Yet with due respect for him, the island nation’s leader merely pointed out Taiwan’s democratic character. Point well made.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

How do we start anew?

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As the new year kicks off, here’s a spiritual take on the concept of renewal that brings truly meaningful change into our lives.

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How do we start anew?

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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“I’m Jamie and I’m going to Wales. It’s time for Jamie 2.0.”

Knowing that adding “2.0” to a familiar product or service indicates a significant improvement on the original, I smiled when reading this statement on social media. Not knowing Jamie personally, I had no idea why “Jamie 1.0” needed an upgrade. But the humility to recognize a need for change and the willingness to reinvent himself struck me as a noble undertaking.

Self-motivated change can seem appealing when things aren’t going as we would wish. But in my experience, I’ve found there’s a problem with the premise that we need to reinvent ourselves. It suggests we’re poorly designed in the first place.

On the other hand, I’ve found the opposite starting point to be the more powerful change agent in my life, which has had many positive twists and turns. I begin from the understanding that we’re so much more than we appear. Grasping this has led to unsought career opportunities, a decade living overseas, and learning new skills.

These adjustments haven’t felt like a reset, but a spiritual unfoldment of good, of regeneration. In “Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, describes regeneration as “the appearing of divine law to human understanding” (p. 73).

Letting go of a material sense of our lives for a spiritual understanding of what we are – divinely designed by a perfect creator – has a beneficial impact on every aspect of our experience, including healing our minds and bodies. But the ultimate goal of this regeneration isn’t just improved human experience but yielding to the life that expresses God’s perfection.

This isn’t done in a day! But at each stage of progress, there’s a freedom, grace, and power to seeking change through a deeper and clearer awareness of what we are in the light of what God creates – “very good,” as the Bible puts it (Genesis 1:31).

This is the spiritual reality of our being. As sons and daughters of a perfect God, there’s nothing in us that truly needs to be reinvented. But as the yearly tradition of making New Year’s resolutions reminds us, there can be plenty of room for improvement in our human character and behavior.

None of us is yet consistently aware of our true selves as God’s creation. But God is constantly urging that true view upon us through Christ, the true idea of God that Jesus most clearly evidenced by healing others. Our need is to open our hearts to the spiritual identity and individuality we each have.

Such spiritual cleansing is open to all. Jesus showed how understanding God’s true nature restores bodily health, no matter how solid the problem appears. For instance, a woman so twisted and bent over that she couldn’t even look up was instantaneously cured by Jesus’ understanding of eternal, spiritual perfection.

A modest but precious healing of a fellow church member echoes that experience of physical regeneration through spiritual means. Years after a skiing accident had left her thumb disfigured and inflexible, she became aware of how she’d allowed herself to accept that permanent injuries to the hand were an inescapable outcome of falling on an artificial ski slope surface.

As she progressed in her practice of Christian Science, though, she saw this as an inaccurate assumption in light of her being included in God’s “very good” creation. From then on, whenever she looked at or used her hand, she prayed to better understand her spiritual perfection. In a short while the deformity that had been there for decades disappeared, and her thumb has been normal ever since.

“Reinvention” isn’t in itself a negative concept. Many musicians, artists, and business entrepreneurs have breathed fresh life into their careers by presenting a new persona to the public. But to the degree seeking reinvention means visualizing and pursuing self-centered goals, it distracts from the deeper, God-guided renewal that takes us so much further than just bettering our day-to-day experience. As “Miscellaneous Writings” points out, “The last degree of regeneration rises into the rest of perpetual, spiritual, individual existence” (p. 85).

This pure, spiritual consciousness comes to light, step by step, as we humbly allow ourselves to be cleansed by spiritual renewal of whatever doesn’t belong to our being as God’s child, and let all that does belong come to ever clearer light.

Adapted from an editorial published in the January 2019 issue of The Christian Science Journal.

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Viewfinder

Our best staff photos of 2018

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Braxton Scholl, age 5, competes with his goat at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. Every year is full of big (and small) news stories to pursue, and this one was no exception. Monitor photojournalists mainly focus on human-interest stories because we are fascinated with the human condition and with the stories that bind us together. It’s what we do best. I hope you enjoy this collection of photos that, in my view, tells as much about who we are as it does about the subject being photographed – Alfredo Sosa, director of photography
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( January 3rd, 2019 )

Thank you for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow, when staff writer Linda Feldmann will look at how much Donald Trump’s approach to the presidency has – or hasn’t – been accepted.

Also, did you listen to our Perception Gaps podcast? We'd love to hear what you thought about the series. Please take a few minutes to fill out this brief survey and help us determine what comes next from our audio team. 

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