Monitor Daily Podcast

November 22, 2019
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Lessons from a shuttered newsroom

Today’s stories explore the portent of the dramatic impeachment hearings, the underlying tensions fueling a doctors’ strike in Zimbabwe, the decision to leave valuable assets buried underground in the Netherlands, an effort to help foster children feel at home, and the power of scripture as an art form.

But first, a look at journalism history – my own. I’ll never forget the day my city editor pulled me aside with a piece of advice. It was 1979 in Michigan – my first college internship at a newspaper, the Jackson Citizen Patriot. “Local journalism is where you can make a difference,” he said. Two years later, I chucked his advice and joined the Monitor.

While reporting in Michigan this fall, I returned to Jackson to see what had happened in 40 years. I was saddened to find the Citizen Patriot building boarded up. Now owned by MLive Media Group, the Cit Pat is smaller, like Jackson itself, and more digital than print. The publication’s website lists four reporters.

What has that meant for local news? “It’s more democratic,” says John Burtka, a local restaurateur. In newspapers’ heyday, restaurants worked hard to influence the local food critic. Now, they rely on customers’ online reviews. 

Today’s MLive reporters are more prolific and efficient than we were. But “those stories are more surface-level,” says Mayor Derek Dobies. 

Of course, the story I remember most vividly wasn’t particularly deep, either: A state trooper’s police dog had won an award. I quickly learned how intimate journalism could be – the trooper was so excited during my interview and revealed so much about himself that I felt this heavy responsibility to tell his story with fairness and cleareyed compassion.

So maybe my old city editor was onto something: We can have a big impact by going local, not in a geographical sense necessarily, but by making connections, one-on-one, exposing humanity as well as news, no matter where we are or what form – digital or print – our stories take.

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Impeachment scorecard: A House, and nation, still divided

One hoped-for byproduct of the search for truth is consensus. Judged by the impact of the last two weeks of open House impeachment hearings, the nation is no closer to that consensus.

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Two weeks of public hearings in the House impeachment inquiry were an attempt to present a coherent story about a complicated situation: irregularities in the conduct of American foreign relations with Ukraine, a nation still struggling with the effects of domination as part of the former Soviet Union.

The hearings pushed many Democrats in the House ever-closer to voting for President Donald Trump’s impeachment. But, it appears, they did not move the vote of a single House Republican. All seem set to say “no” in an impeachment roll call. The result is a nation where it was before, with Congress split along partisan lines that roughly mirror popular opinion about impeachment, close to a 50-50 cleavage if polls are accurate.

In her opening statement Thursday, former White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill eloquently pleaded for Americans to disregard the “fictions” about Ukraine promoted by U.S. adversaries and focus on the true dangers that face them, including anger itself.

“When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us ... degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy,” she said.


Impeachment scorecard: A House, and nation, still divided

Andrew Harnik/AP
Former White House national security aide Fiona Hill and David Holmes, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, appear before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 21, 2019, near the end of two weeks of public impeachment hearings.

The first phase of the Democratic-led House impeachment inquiry has produced a vivid and fact-studded picture of an American government and diplomatic corps struggling to deal with the whims of a mercurial president while trying to prevent policy toward Ukraine, an ally at war with Russia, from being shoved completely off the rails.

Hours of testimony have indicated that President Donald Trump, at the least, was willing to withhold things Ukrainian leaders wanted until they announced investigations that touched on his political opponents and a discredited theory about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

This has pushed many Democrats in the House ever closer to voting for President Trump’s impeachment. Such a vote, if not the outcome, now seems foreordained.

Hours of testimony also left holes in the picture. No witness linked the president directly to the most serious impeachment charge: that he withheld much-desired and congressionally authorized military aid, specifically, over a new Ukrainian president’s reluctance to announce politically tinged probes.

Two weeks of public hearings did not move the vote of a single House Republican, it appears. All seem set to say “no” in an impeachment roll call.

The result is a nation where it was before, with Congress split along partisan lines that roughly mirror popular opinion about impeachment, close to a 50-50 cleavage if polls are an accurate guide.

In the last scheduled House Intelligence Committee public hearing, in her opening statement, former White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill eloquently pleaded for Americans to disregard the “fictions” about Ukraine promoted by U.S. adversaries, to focus on the true dangers that face them, and to realize that one of those is anger itself.

“When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each another, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy,” Dr. Hill said.

Diplomatic irregularities

In retrospect, the two weeks of House Intelligence Committee public hearings attempted to present a coherent story about a complicated situation: irregularities in the conduct of American foreign relations with a nation still struggling with the effects of decades of domination as a part of the Soviet Union.

Opening witnesses – the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, and George Kent, the State Department’s top Ukraine official – described their arc of frustration, a growing realization over the summer that a Ukraine foreign-policy back channel centered on Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, was superseding their own traditional diplomatic efforts.

They were followed by a witness who spoke in personal terms about the power and effects of this back channel effort. Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, described how a “smear campaign” directed by Mr. Giuliani and others convinced President Trump to oust her early from her position.

Then, National Security Council Ukraine expert Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman connected the back channel to the White House. He listened to the now-famous July 25 phone call between Mr. Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and said publicly that he “did not think it was proper” for the U.S. president to demand that Ukraine investigate an American citizen.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, connected the dots and brought the back channel into the Oval Office.

There was a “quid pro quo,” Ambassador Sondland said – it was clear that Ukraine had to announce it was looking at former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, and the latter’s service on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma, if it wanted a prized White House visit for Mr. Zelenskiy.

Mr. Sondland said he presumed this stood for the release of U.S. military aid to Ukraine as well – though he was careful to say he had never heard that from President Trump on any of the many phone calls they had shared.

Dr. Hill, the Russia and Europe expert, concluded by placing the whole affair in a larger context. She described how she had come to understand that in regard to Ukraine, she had been working on national security policy. Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Sondland, and others involved in the separate irregular channel had been “involved in a domestic political errand,” she said.

She also predicted how the affair would progress.

“And I did say to him, Ambassador Sondland, ‘Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up.’ And here we are,” said Dr. Hill, who resigned her White House post July 19.

The national interest

One striking aspect of the testimony as a whole was its unity on the question of Ukraine and core U.S. national interest.

All who testified, including Mr. Sondland and special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, who had worked the back channel with Mr. Giuliani, made the case that the U.S. needs to give as much financial aid and moral support as possible to a new Ukrainian government struggling to eliminate corruption and uphold democracy in a very dangerous part of the world.

“It is a tragedy for the United States and for Ukraine that our efforts in this area, which were bearing fruit, have now been thrown into disarray,” testified Mr. Volker.

President Trump, in the testimony, comes across as the main and virtually sole person in the executive branch questioning the motives of President Zelenskiy, and Ukraine as a whole. He believes that they had tried to interfere in the 2016 election to defeat him, and that the country is corrupt to the bottom, according to testimony from Mr. Sondland. When officials presented a case in favor of Ukraine, the president waved his hand and said, impatiently, “Talk to Rudy,” Mr. Sondland said.

Another striking aspect of the hearing atmosphere was the extent to which Republican lawmakers defended President Trump by citing the allegations of Ukrainian interference in 2016.

They differed in this from the witnesses. Ranking minority member Devin Nunes of California, in his opening and closing statements, often invoked names that can be a mystery to those outside the conservative news bubble. Among them: Alexandra Chalupa, a Democratic National Committee consultant and former aide who in 2016 researched the activities of Paul Manafort, the now-jailed former Trump campaign chair, in Ukraine.

Dr. Hill pushed back, hard, against these allegations, saying that some have been pushed by Russian intelligence as a means of fomenting division between the U.S. and Ukraine, and within the U.S. It is not just that they are false, she said; it is that even on their face they add up to little compared with the massive interference effort undertaken by Russia itself.

“The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today. Our nation is being torn apart,” Dr. Hill told the House Intelligence Committee.

Party lines

What do these public hearings mean for the nation? For one thing, they mean that the House is plummeting toward an impeachment vote that’s likely to be decided along purely partisan lines. No lawmakers have said publicly that they have changed their minds on impeachment one way or another as a result of what they’ve heard over the last two weeks.

This became clear when one of President Trump’s few Republican critics on the Intelligence panel, Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, announced that he would vote against impeachment. While Mr. Trump’s actions may have “undermined our national security,” he said, there remains no direct evidence of his intentions. The military aid was released; Ukrainian investigations into his political rivals have not begun.

“An impeachable offense should be compelling, overwhelmingly clear, and unambiguous,” said Representative Hurd.

A partisan split in the House may make it more likely that the Senate votes the same way in the trial it will hold if impeachment passes. If the Democrats can’t get Representative Hurd, who is retiring and free to speak his mind and vote his conscience, can they get Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah? That is the punditry question of the day.

It’s long been unlikely the Senate would muster the supermajority vote needed to remove President Trump from office. Now that seems more of a lock. Will a few GOP senators defect, resulting in a majority vote for removal that could be embarrassing for the president? Pending further twists in the case, that may now be unlikely.

In these splits, the chambers of Congress reflect the nation. When the public impeachment hearings began, President Trump’s approval rating was 41%, and his disapproval rating was 54.7%, according to FiveThirtyEight’s average of major polls. Two and a half weeks later, his approval rating is 41.9%, and disapproval 53.6%, according to FiveThirtyEight.

In other words, while dramatic testimony has gripped Washington and developments have been breathlessly promoted as positive or negative for the president, public opinion, so far, has stayed very close to the same.

Zimbabwean doctors’ difficult call: Do they have to strike to serve?

Two years ago this month, longtime leader Robert Mugabe was pushed out of power, sparking fervent hopes for change in Zimbabwe. Today’s strike is dangerous, for doctors and patients alike – but shows a refusal to let go of that hope.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Doctors sing and hold placards during a protest over the disappearance of the leader of their union in Harare, Zimbabwe, Sept. 16, 2019. The leader, Peter Magombeyi, was found alive several days later. His supporters say he was abducted and tortured by security forces.

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On a recent Saturday in Harare, outside Zimbabwe’s largest hospital, the parking lots are empty. Inside, operations run with a skeleton staff, and most arrivals are turned away – or find their own way in the hospital’s ghostly wards. 

Since early September, hundreds of young doctors have been striking, protesting salaries whose value has halved, then halved again, and widespread shortages of medicines and basic supplies that they say make helping patients next to impossible.

It’s a predicament that looks a lot like the country’s. Inflation recently topped 300%, the second-highest rate in the world. Zimbabweans face shortages of hard currency, fuel, and basic foods like bread. Two years ago, when longtime ruler Robert Mugabe was pushed from power, excitement about the prospects for reform rose high – but has dramatically dropped under new President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

As yet, doctors’ demands have been unmet. But they have renewed international attention to the country’s economic collapse – and its human consequences.

“It’s not only about the low salaries,” says Tapiwa Chagonda, an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg. It’s also a matter of dignity, for doctors and patients. “They’ve signed up to the Hippocratic oath” to do no harm, but “in these conditions, how do you even begin to assist your patients?”


Zimbabwean doctors’ difficult call: Do they have to strike to serve?

Clepantine Magara started working as a doctor to make other people’s lives easier. And he stopped working as a doctor when the work made his own nearly impossible.

For months Dr. Magara had watched as his salary halved in value, and then halved again, as inflation in Zimbabwe charged into the triple digits.

So in early September, he joined hundreds of other junior doctors working in public hospitals in Zimbabwe and went on strike.

“Yes, it’s a calling, but without [the salary] it takes to do what you have to do, [that calling] is nothing,” says Dr. Magara, standing at the main entrance to Parirenyatwa Hospital, the country’s largest.

The doctors’ predicament looks a lot like their country’s. Inflation in Zimbabwe recently topped 300%, higher than any country in the world except Venezuela. The country is facing shortages of hard currency, fuel, medicine, and basic foods like bread. Meanwhile hope for political change, which had been recharged by the resignation of Robert Mugabe in November 2017, has gone flat.

But in that climate, Zimbabwe’s young doctors are testing a risky proposition: that change might still be possible if you ask for it loudly enough.

Their strike began in early September, when runaway inflation pushed the value of junior doctors’ wages to about $100 per month. The doctors – who are second-year interns – say they didn’t have the savings to subsidize the cost of working. Many were also deeply frustrated by widespread shortages of medicines and other basic supplies like needles, rubber gloves, and running water.

“It’s not only about the low salaries,” says Tapiwa Chagonda, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg who studies how Zimbabwean workers survive in times of economic crisis. It’s also a matter of dignity for both doctors and patients. “They’ve signed up to the Hippocratic oath” to do no harm. “But there’s no working equipment, there aren’t basic drugs. In those conditions, how do you even begin to assist your patients?” he says.

Heavy consequences

On a recent Saturday outside Parirenyatwa – which was named for the first black Zimbabwean to qualify as a medical doctor – the parking lots were empty and still. Without its junior doctors, the hospital was running on a skeleton staff. Nurses and a few doctors tended to emergency cases. But most arrivals had to be turned away, or find their own way to receive treatment in the hospital’s ghostly wards.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Customers wait in line to withdraw cash from a bank in Harare, Zimbabwe, after the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe issued new banknotes, Nov. 12, 2019. The bank began issuing new notes and coins, aimed at easing crippling cash shortages amid runaway inflation.

Last month, Tendai Liwombo was one of them. When she found herself suddenly doubled over in pain one morning, her husband Prince Masawi rushed her to Parirenyatwa.

A nurse suspected she had an ectopic pregnancy, a life-threatening condition. From there, Ms. Liwombo spent hours bouncing between public and private hospitals across the city as her husband searched frantically – first for a facility with a working ultrasound machine, and then for a private anesthesiologist for the surgery.

When he found one, Mr. Masawi says, the man demanded $450, many times his monthly salary as a security guard. Frantic that he would lose his wife, Mr. Maswai thrust his cellphone into the man’s hand, begging him to take it as payment. At last, the doctor agreed to a payment of $50.

“The government should do something [to end the strike],” Ms. Liwombo says. She says she sympathizes with the doctors, whom she knows are living in the same harsh situation as she is, and doesn’t believe it is their responsibility to go back to work in these conditions. A month after her surgery, she is still in intense pain, and fears what will happen if she needs further medical care. “People are dying. Any further delay to my situation and it could have been a different story today.” 

Stories like these deeply trouble Dr. Magara, who says he dreamed of becoming a doctor since childhood “to save lives and to play a humanitarian role in society.” He knows his strike puts his patients’ lives on the line. But he reached a point, he says, where he could not afford to continue showing up to work.

The strike itself has also been dangerous. In September, Peter Magombeyi, one of the strike’s leaders, was abducted and tortured. Many suspect government involvement, though the government blames a “third force” wanting to destabilize Zimbabwe.

Promises of change

The strike, indeed, is a consequence of the country’s messy political transition.

When Emmerson Mnangagwa became president in November 2017 after ousting Mr. Mugabe, who had ruled the country since 1980, he vowed Zimbabwe was now “open for business.” On visits to foreign countries, and at the Davos World Economic Forum, he promised investors and donors a new dawn after decades of oppression and financial mismanagement under Mr. Mugabe.

Instead, his government violently put down protests, using the army to break up demonstrations and shooting live ammunition at protesters. This did little to win the confidence of the governments and companies Mr. Mnangagwa hoped to woo, and the country’s already-weak economy continued to backslide. Earlier this year, the country uncoupled its currency from the U.S. dollar, and inflation skyrocketed. The economy is now at its worst point since 2008, when annual inflation hit 89.7 sextillion percent.

As the value of their salaries dwindled, young doctors like Dr. Magara began hustling for other sources of revenue. Some became farmers. Others begged money off parents and relatives abroad to pay rent. Still others began seeing patients in private clinics, where they could charge enough to make up for their lost wages. 

“I had 100% confidence in Mnangagwa’s government when he took over in 2017, but it dwindled over time,” says Dr. Magara, who is currently living on money from family members.

Although the strike has so far failed to achieve its aims, it has drawn renewed international attention to Zimbabwe’s economic collapse. In late September, a global health summit in Boston named Zimbabwean first lady Auxillia Mnangagwa an “honorary ambassador” who would collaborate on “reducing healthcare disparities.” But a swift outcry, including from several former U.S. diplomats, quickly led the organization to distance itself from Ms. Mnangagwa. The honor, the diplomats wrote, gave tacit support to “an increasingly corrupt and abusive administration in which tolerance for dissent is nonexistent and democratic rights are violently denied.” 

Dr. Magara continues to hope the government will eventually come around to the doctors’ demands, which include a 400% raise and salaries pegged to the dollar. Strikers have rejected the government’s offer to boost salaries by 60%, and there is little indication they would offer more. More than 400 doctors have been dismissed, and the deputy minister of information has tweeted that the “money mongering” strikers will be blacklisted.

“This is sad for me and my colleagues,” says Dr. Magara. “There is a possibility that I might choose to jump off the bus and do something else [professionally]. But I have my patients at heart.”

A deeper look

Why Holland aims to leave $80 billion in the ground

Around the world, climate conscious nations are scrambling to figure out how to wean off fossil fuels. But in one energy-rich country, that push has little to do with climate change.

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For more than half a century the Groningen natural gas field in the north of the Netherlands has kept the country warm and its businesses humming. It has earned the government nearly half a trillion dollars and there is still a lot of gas left underground – about $80 billion worth. So why are they turning the taps off?

Because local people want them to. They have been complaining about subsidence linked to gas extraction for decades, and countless tremors have damaged thousands of homes. But a particularly severe quake in 2012 caught the government’s attention and it has been winding down production for several years now.

Some people are worried that when the gas revenue dries up there will be less money to compensate victims for their blighted homes. But environmentalists are delighted by the disappearance of a big fossil fuel source.

René Paas, Groningen’s top executive, says he is looking forward to the challenge. “This is a province that is really motivated to make the change from fossil fuels to a new kind of energy,” he says.


Why Holland aims to leave $80 billion in the ground

Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters
Protesters demand an immediate end to gas extraction at the Groningen field as they block a facility of Dutch gas production company NAM, in Farmsum, Netherlands, August 28, 2018.

Ger “Gerry” Warink remembers his first time. 

It was 1991 and he was in the restaurant at his family’s hotel, a handsome brick building in the center of this quiet provincial town. He heard the front doors start to rattle, normally a sign that a big truck was passing, but the road outside was empty. “It was a Sunday. I remember it well,” he says. 

It wasn’t a truck, it was an earthquake, caused by the extraction of natural gas from the surrounding flatlands of Groningen, the northernmost province in the Netherlands. It was one of hundreds of tremors that have for decades disturbed the lives of around 85,000 residents living on top of Europe’s largest onshore gas field, damaging their homes and depressing their businesses.

For more than half a century Groningen gas has heated Dutch homes, powered Dutch factories, and helped pay for one of Europe’s most generous welfare states. But now, under public pressure, the government is turning the tap off. The Groningen field is due to close in 2022, barring a winter crisis. Last year the Netherlands became a net importer of gas for the first time since the 1960s. 

Going green hits the budget ...

The decision to close the field was spurred by seismic risks to public safety, not climate change. But the move adds urgency to the search for more renewable energy resources, especially since the government aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 49% by 2030.

The closure is not without cost. The company operating the field, a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil known as NAM, employs 1,400 people and indirectly supports as many as 20,000 jobs, according to Groningen’s top executive, King’s Commissioner René Paas.

He is hopeful, though, that the gas industry can pivot toward renewable energy and convert its existing infrastructure to produce and distribute hydrogen. “This is a province that is really motivated to make the change from fossil fuels to a new kind of energy,” he says.

A crisis can also be an opportunity. For the Netherlands, that opportunity lies in building a new energy grid that by midcentury could replace a network powered by gas from Groningen. 

Since July 1, new buildings may no longer be heated by gas. Scores of houses in Loppersum are now being built to code with electric heat pumps. Energy efficiency grants are also available to retrofit older homes and to install solar panels. 

 “If the Netherlands isn’t capable of making this transition, no one else can. We have the (energy industry) expertise. We have the wealth,” says Joris Peijster, a former Shell engineer who quit last year to work on geothermal projects at a French energy company, hoping to be part of the solution to the global climate crisis.

And the policy shift is pricey. The decision to mothball the Groningen gas field is the most expensive decision a Dutch government will ever make short of war, Mr. Paas points out, since they are leaving as much as $80 billion worth of gas underground.

Leaving fossil fuels untouched is consistent, however, with the goals of climate activists who argue that oil-and-gas companies will need to do the same in order to avert global disaster

2015 study in Nature estimated that 50% of known natural gas reserves, and 80% of coal, would need to remain in the ground if the world is to limit global temperature rise to 2ºC.

Simon Montlake/The Christian Science Monitor
Ger Warink, a homeowner, points to cracks on his house in Loppersum, the Netherlands, that he blames on earthquakes linked to natural-gas exploration in Europe's largest onshore gas field in Groningen in the Netherlands.

... but the gas field hits local homes

Local residents, however, are less impressed by the Dutch government’s climate policy and its promise to shutter the Groningen field within three years than they are concerned with the pace and scope of its compensation program. Will their homes still be repaired and reinforced? Why are buildings previously rated as at-risk now off the danger list? And if gas revenues dry up, where will fresh money be found? 

Years of uncertainty and delays have sapped public trust in political promises, says Jacolien Masselink, a municipal official in charge of earthquake-related programs in Loppersum, the epicenter of the quakes. “Even the most reasonable people are angry.” 

Loppersum is less than three hours by train from Amsterdam and other big cities, but by Dutch standards this region is the boondocks, far from the country’s political and economic heartland.  

A sense of being peripheral added to the stress that residents felt when the tremors began to worsen, says Ms. Masselink. “They’re not used to standing up for themselves,” she says. 

In the Netherlands, landowners don’t retain mineral rights. So when gas was discovered here in 1959 by Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (NAM), the Shell-Exxon joint venture, the Dutch state became a co-owner of the field. Since it came online in 1963, Groningen’s gas has pumped about $465 billion into government coffers.

Today, the gas field’s pumps, gauges, and pipes are largely hidden from view. The landscape is a rural idyll of farms and canals dotted with the occasional windmill. But in the 1980s came the first hints of trouble.

Local residents complained of ground subsidence, which was linked to the pumping of gas. Then came the tremors, the result of gas extraction from porous rock that contracts and increases the stress on natural faults in the low-lying region’s soft soils. Most of the quakes were shallow and small, below a magnitude of 2, but even when they began to strike more often and more strongly, NAM paid little heed.

Mr. Warink, a rock musician, bought his canal-side house in Loppersum in 1994. One half of its double front is a showroom for the guitars and amplifiers he sells when he’s not touring. The other serves as his living room. The sliding door that should separate it from his dining room hangs at an odd angle, one of several signs of damage that he has documented in multiple claims against NAM.  

Near his dining table he keeps a bulging folder of engineers’ reports, bank statements, and other NAM-related documents, packed in a silver flight case plastered with stickers from past tours. Ministers on fact-finding visits to Groningen have sat at his table and heard him out. But his folder of claims keeps growing.

“Politicians have lost the trust of the people here,” he complains. “Now they won’t believe anything they say.” 

He has also been sitting at his table when the ground moved, like an underground train passing. “Then I looked out there,” he says, gesturing at the backyard. “The trees were shaking.”

A deaf ear?

The seismic risks of underground mining and oil and gas drilling are widely known, though proving cause and effect can be difficult. In the United States, an increase in the number of earthquakes in Texas and Oklahoma has been attributed to fracking and the injection of wastewater. 

In 1993, NAM publicly accepted that gas extraction in Groningen could cause minor quakes and the company agreed to pay for repairs. “There was an acknowledgment that it could damage buildings, but was not a safety risk to the community” says Hein Dek, a spokesman for NAM.

Critics say the company knew the scale of the risks but did not take them seriously enough, abetted by governments that depended on the gas revenues. An especially violent quake measuring 3.4 struck in 2012 as the government ramped up production – to offset a financial recession and a cold winter – beyond a level that experts have since concluded is reasonably safe.

Mr. Peijster, the ex-Shell engineer, recalls how the company was mired in controversy over how to assess and compensate for damages when he joined NAM in 2013, but that it had little sense of how to handle disgruntled residents. Most of its staff were engineers and geologists, and few lived in the blighted towns and villages. 

“Nobody took into account how people felt. They missed that part of the story,” he says. 

The company was widely criticized for the bureaucratic torpor of its claims adjudication process. Last year the government took over responsibility for the program, seeking to speed up payouts. 

NAM has so far spent €2.7 billion (nearly $3 billion) on quake-related repairs, research, and reinforcement and has set aside €1.7 billion for future payouts that will continue after extraction ends at Groningen, says Mr. Dek. “We are in full support of the decision” to stop production, he says. 

No end in sight

Beneath the town hall where Ms. Masselink works are 101 pilings installed this year during a quake-proof retrofit that will end up costing taxpayers as much as the building cost to construct in the first place in 2007. Across the municipality 4,900 other buildings may also be at risk, but there’s no way of knowing without inspecting each one. So far, 341 have been reinforced or replaced. 

It’s hard to set priorities when there’s uncertainty over risk assessment and future funding, says Jurry Bonnema, the municipal director. He frets that compensation money could dry up if NAM shuts down its wells in 2022. “I think this is not the most wise decision,” he says. 

Taking the Groningen gas field offline will not remove the risk of tremors, though it might render them less frequent. The field is already operating at a reduced rate and still the ground buckles: In May, a 3.4-magnitude quake led to thousands of new damage claims.

In a region where the population was already falling, real-estate prices have taken a hit. In Loppersum, Mr. Bonnema says they fell as much as 15% following the 2012 quake. Lower house values mean lower tax revenues, squeezing municipalities already strained by the slow-moving crisis.

Back at his house, Mr. Warink lays out his options: Stay and reinforce, or sell and go. 

The property is worth no more than €400,000 ($440,000.) It would be cheaper for NAM to buy him out; ensuring that his floors and walls don’t crack after tremors would probably cost a million euros. But he’s not selling. “My wife doesn’t want to leave this house,” he says. 

And he understands her. “You have to make people feel safe,” he insists, “and you have to pay the costs.” 

This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.


Drivers of change

For ‘our kids,’ a bundle of dignity for youth in foster care

How can a stranger’s home feel more like your own? For kids in foster care, a sense of belonging may start with belongings. This nonprofit eases the transition by trading trash bags for a care-packed tote – a self-worth boost.

Courtesy of Joyce Smith/Comfort Cases
Rob Scheer (second from left) and Reece Scheer (second from right) started nonprofit Comfort Cases as a way to teach their children about giving back.

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Rob Scheer grew up as the youngest of 10 children, living with an abusive father and a mother addicted to drugs. After his parents died, Mr. Scheer wound up in foster care at the age of 12, carrying what few belongings he had in a trash bag. 

He distinctly remembers taking his first shower in his new home, with a bar of soap already used by a family he barely knew. 

Mr. Scheer was troubled by the lack of dignity afforded to children in the U.S. foster system. He decided to act: Along with his husband, Mr. Scheer founded Comfort Cases in 2013. 

Based in Rockville, Maryland, Comfort Cases provides children in the foster system with proper bags packed with shampoo, blankets, pajamas, and more that are sent to family services agencies across the country. The nonprofit has served more than 85,000 children in all 50 states. 

“We think these are bad kids, and forgotten kids and invisible kids,” he says. “But in the end, they are your kids, they are my kids, they are our kids. The kids don’t belong to the system – they belong to us.”


For ‘our kids,’ a bundle of dignity for youth in foster care

When Rob Scheer and his husband Reece’s first adopted child arrived at their home, the 4-year-old’s world fit into a trash bag. The pink pajamas inside that bag had feet so tattered and worn, the material was nearly transparent. The Maryland couple took her shopping to get everything she would need to start her new life – including a pink robe. 

Rob Scheer recalls her wearing the robe with a big smile on her face. “I’ve never owned a new nightgown before,” he remembers her saying. The couple was disheartened to see that each of the four children they’ve adopted out of the foster care system arrived carrying toys and clothing in trash bags. “That trash bag just weighed so heavy on my heart,” Mr. Scheer says. 

The image cued a flashback: Having grown up in foster care himself, he once carried a similar bag moving into a new home. Mr. Scheer was troubled by the lack of dignity afforded to children in the U.S. foster system. He decided to act: Along with his husband, Mr. Scheer founded Comfort Cases in 2013.

Based in Rockville, the nonprofit provides children in the foster system with proper bags packed with essential and comforting items – shampoo, blankets, pajamas – that are sent to family services agencies across the United States. 

Comfort Cases are packed for various age ranges, and each includes an activity: a coloring book for those under 10, a journal and writing set for older children. To date, Comfort Cases has served more than 85,000 children in all 50 states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. 

“I understand that a Comfort Case isn’t going to make it all right,” Mr. Scheer says. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”


The idea began as an activity for the Scheers to teach their children about giving back around the holidays. They never thought that the self-funded service project would blossom into a nonprofit that has supported children across the country. The organization has distributed 62,000 Comfort Cases and an additional 25,000 “Comfort XLs” – larger duffel bags.

Phil Tavolacci and his husband, Jeff, of Silver Spring, Maryland, have fostered five children; some arrived in emergency situations. “Three of the children we had with us for short stays came with fully packed and beautiful Comfort Cases,” Mr. Tavolacci said in an email. He noted a “heightened level of self-worth” in the children who arrived with the special backpacks, versus those who came with their few belongings in a trash bag. 

Mr. Tavolacci, a physical therapist, recalls how one little girl loved the stuffed animal that came in her case, and several boys appreciated the blankets. “Comfort Cases is doing so much to help children in foster care to feel valued, and valuable, and loved,” he says.

Mr. Scheer’s dedication to the cause is born of his own childhood experience as the youngest of 10 children, living with an abusive father and a mother addicted to drugs. “I still have scars from where my father put a cigarette out on my legs, over and over,” he says.

After his parents died, Mr. Scheer wound up in foster care at the age of 12, carrying what few belongings he had in a trash bag. He distinctly remembers taking his first shower in his new home, with a bar of soap already used by a family he barely knew. “Those kinds of things that people don’t even think about weighed heavy for me,” says Mr. Scheer.

He remained in the system until his foster parents kicked him out at age 18. Despite being homeless, he finished high school and landed a minimum wage job. He eventually joined the Navy and later found a job at a bank, working his way up to an executive position. After a successful 25-year career, Mr. Scheer stepped down to dedicate his efforts to Comfort Cases and traveling the country to talk about the foster care system.

Courtesy of Joyce Smith/Comfort Cases
Comfort Cases has served more than 85,000 children in all 50 states. The bags are packed with essential and comforting items – shampoo, blankets, pajamas – that are sent to family services agencies across the U.S.

“Our kids”

When Twinbrook Baptist Church in Rockville closed its doors in August, it announced that proceeds from the building’s sale would benefit various organizations – including Comfort Cases. The Rev. Jill McCrory, the church’s former pastor, organized a packing party for the nonprofit as a service project. She was moved by the image of a child entering foster care with only a trash bag. 

“The anguish of being uprooted and entering a strange home, and being treated as if your belongings and you are trash, is something no child should have to experience,” she said in an email. “When you hear [Mr. Scheer] talk about his vision for foster care and these kids, you can hear his passion and his love. ... He truly wants to bring about enormous change and I believe he has the energy, heart and capacity to do it.”

Julie Holstein, a childhood friend of Mr. Scheer, works for the homeowners association for Broadlands, Virginia. When she was tasked with finding a volunteer opportunity for youth in the community, she thought of Comfort Cases. “We have a very affluent county,” says Ms. Holstein in an email. “Comfort Cases has provoked [in] our student population the thought that not everyone is as affluent as the next person, and sometimes a little bit of kindness goes a long way.” 

Ms. Holstein first met Mr. Scheer when the two were in middle school. They had friends in common, and were in touch occasionally over the years. But it wasn’t until she learned about Comfort Cases that she fully understood her friend’s upbringing. “I was stunned to find out I basically knew nothing about him,” she says.

She finds inspiration in Mr. Scheer’s efforts to transform a negative experience into a means of helping others. “Not only did Rob choose to do something positive with his life experience, he’s motivating others to consider someone other than themselves,” Ms. Holstein says. 

With only four employees, Comfort Cases is largely run by volunteers. Mr. Scheer hopes that learning about the realities of the foster care system and the struggles that children inside it face will encourage more individuals to help.

“We think these are bad kids, and forgotten kids and invisible kids,” he says.“But in the end, they are your kids, they are my kids, they are our kids. The kids don’t belong to the system – they belong to us.” 


For Karen Armstrong, scripture is more than doctrine. It's an art form.

Studying a holy text can become a habitual task instead of a mindful exercise. So when religion scholar Karen Armstrong discovered that the Bible was originally performed as a chant, she was inspired to rethink her understanding of the spiritual imagination – and what that means for the daily practice of faith. 


For Karen Armstrong, scripture is more than doctrine. It's an art form.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House and Michael Lionstar
Religion scholar Karen Armstrong's new book, “The Lost Art of Scripture,” discusses innovative ways to practically apply faith in daily life.

Karen Armstrong, a bestselling British scholar of religion and former Roman Catholic nun, says that faith has more than a role in modern society. It has a mandate to make the world a better place. A desire to do good, she believes, unites the major spiritual traditions. But how can we approach the guiding words of sacred texts? Should we only read books? That’s not the way the ancients approached it, Ms. Armstrong says. As she explained in an interview with the Monitor’s Randy Dotinga, “We must plumb our religious insights from our scriptures and let them speak to us today in new and innovative ways.”

What inspired your book?

I was initially intrigued by the idea that the Bible was essentially a performative art. It was always chanted, and our focus on the written word and silent reading means that we’re appreciating it differently. As I developed my research, I was surprised at the very different way that people experienced the scriptures in the premodern world. I realized that in many ways scripture is an art form, but we no longer really know how to approach it. 

Is reading sacred texts – and only reading them – akin to only reading the plays of Shakespeare?

Yes. Today, Western people often tell me that they’ve read the Quran. You don’t read it. You listen to it or you recite it. Quran means “recite.” Recitation is an art form, and people will congregate in huge crowds to hear a famous Quran reciter. It’s immensely moving. 

This has always been the case in faith. Scripture was a performative art, such as the intensely emotional and argumentative art of Jewish midrash. They weren’t meekly reading their Bibles silently. There’s also a spiritual experience of imagination. The Talmud says every time a Jew and his teacher argue together, they must imagine themselves standing on Mount Sinai with Moses. Revelation will come to them.

What do we miss about the meaning of sacred writings?

You have to take the art form in its genre. You’re not expecting facts from a novel. They’re not historical records, and we’re not horrified to hear that Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice” never existed. Instead, they’re telling us truths about the human condition.

When we take a factual approach to scripture, we’re reading it in a very strange way. It isn’t telling us truths about God. The concept of nirvana in Buddhism, for example, cannot be summed up neatly in human language. It’s transcendent.

How can sacred texts help people reach transcendence?

Consider the Gregorian chant, which is extremely demanding, more so than [the hymn] “Onward Christian Soldiers.” It’s very exacting. Monks would be getting up at 1 in the morning to sing the psalms. Exhausted and immersed in this difficult thing, they left themselves behind. They were just one with the text, getting rid of the ego, the “I,” the “me.” 

If you immerse yourself in the sound of the scripture, in the singing of it, you have left yourself behind. That’s the kind of truth that an Indian person reaches when they recite a mantra. 

How can people of faith recapture the experience of sacred texts?

We can’t do that anymore than Martin Luther could go back to the first century. It’s hard to just create performative art out of the blue. 

Perhaps it’s better to start with the whole idea of how we can translate scripture into practical action for our broken world: What can we do? 

Scripture is not “all about me, my salvation,” which we’ve gotten rather hooked on: It often seems to all be about how we get into heaven, and Jesus sounds like a personal trainer instead of this dynamic figure in the Gospels, an explosive character who is endlessly pushing forward, going out and meeting suffering and pain. 

We forget we have this imperative to go out and heal the world. 

Go forth, as the Buddha said to the monks, and travel to heal the suffering in the world. We have to open our hearts.

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Ballots meet batons in Hong Kong

Hong Kong takes a break Sunday from months of pro-democracy protests to actually practice democracy. Voters will elect local district councils in what are the only elections still not fully precooked following China’s takeover of the former British colony 22 years ago. Given the surge in people registering to vote in this election, Beijing’s nondemocratic rulers could be handed an objective measure of Hong Kong’s desire for freedom, civic rights, and rule of law. Voter registration has set a record.

If pro-democracy candidates win a majority of district seats in the election, it will show strong support for the protests and might even influence who is chosen as Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2022.

Most of all, it would demonstrate that Beijing’s model of governance – which is now one-man rule under Communist Party chief Xi Jinping – is losing its appeal. Hong Kong prefers a system in which candidates compete for votes by their ideas and respect for individual rights rather than one that relies on force to keep a regime in power.

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.

The not-so-lost art of grace

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When we’re faced with challenges or regrets, understanding our inseparability from God enables us to put our ego aside and feel God’s hope-bringing, redeeming grace.


The not-so-lost art of grace

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

I should have been more diligent about checking email for my flight. After all, I hadn’t taken this airline before. I felt a little panicked. Having just learned about the airline’s strict check-in deadline, I could see I wasn’t going to make it. And I was in charge of an event later that afternoon in the destination country.

Standing at the counter listening to the supervisor refusing for the third time to let me on the flight, I felt a surge of regret. I should have planned ahead better.

But this was not a useful line of thinking.

I had nothing left to lean on but what I’d been praying. I’d explored other possibilities for flights. But in this small island nation, there weren’t any. I wasn’t getting on a flight anytime soon.

I thought about the account in Scripture of a blind man calling out to Christ Jesus for healing from the side of the road, amid a crowd of shouting people (see Mark 10:46-52). The Bible says Jesus “stood still.” The Christ-power, the consciousness of God’s ever-presence shown to us by Jesus, responds to chaos and disorder with stillness.

Being still, we can feel this power for ourselves. Jesus illustrated the oneness of God and man in these words: “By myself I can do nothing. ... I do not live to please myself but to do the will of the Father who sent me” (John 5:30, J.B. Phillips, “The New Testament in Modern English”).

This unity of us with God provides a foundation for grace. Grace is a divine influence that gives us strength, even during trials. It is included in our true, God-reflected nature. Its blessing is unearned, an unmerited favor. Grace comes from the unchecked continuity of God’s love – even if we make a mistake. When we experience grace, our ego and our own will are put aside to let God’s grace – the feeling of divine Love – work in us.

Grace points to a divine reality: that because the divine presence of God fills all space, limited, restricted views of life based in materialism have to yield. This brings hope, goodness, and love into our experience and lets us meet challenges without intensity or willfulness.

In the world today, we can come to believe we don’t need any divine influence on our lives. After all, solving problems can sometimes be as easy as speaking into a phone to request information or typing into a search bar to find the answer.

But with so much information readily at hand, do we overlook the effect of grace seen in daily life? And what about when we face a problem not readily solvable – do we sometimes either push forward with blind intensity or else find something to entertain ourselves so we don’t have to think too much about it?

In the primary writing on Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy’s “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” it states, “Grace and Truth are potent beyond all other means and methods” (p. 67). Beyond all else!

That day in the airport I let go completely of trying to figure out what to do. Instead, I deeply hungered to know God more and to feel the divine presence there with me.

In the quiet stillness of thought, I heard a clear affirmation: “Man is benevolent.” This speaks to the true selfhood of the God-made man, wholly existent in Spirit. I felt a total calm come over me, rooting me in God’s immanent presence – not projecting the future or berating the past.

When I looked up moments later, the supervisor was on the phone. They’d decided to let me on the flight.

“When a hungry heart petitions the divine Father-Mother God for bread, it is not given a stone, – but more grace, obedience, and love” (Mary Baker Eddy, “Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 127). This kind of deep hunger admits the inseparability of us with God. It sets aside a personal ego or willpower and shows how no mistake is beyond the reach of divine Love’s all-power.

We can feel a vibrant sense of divine presence whenever our hungry heart cries out for more than just a solution to a problem. The divine influence of grace enables human consciousness to transcend dismal views of life to experience divine reality. The divine will of God is always good and secures our lives in goodness. Then the outcome of a bleak situation, through God’s perfect grace, will be that we are blessed and forgiven.

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


When the polls are at the pool

Election Day gathers communities into the warp and weft of America’s civic fabric: Churches and elementary schools, colleges and recreation centers, even private homes all serve as polling places. But sometimes quirky local landmarks host voting booths, too. In Philadelphia, unorthodox polling locations include hair salons, a hoagie shop, and a local museum. In Anchorage, two precincts vote at the Alaska Zoo. In Los Angeles, some voters cast their ballots at Echo Deep Pool, as seen above. While poll results tend to draw attention to political disagreements, fissures, and competition, the day itself is one of collective democratic action – and a little collective breath-holding before the results roll in. – Riley Robinson/Staff writer
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

That’s a wrap for today. Come back Monday for a look at how President Donald Trump has changed U.S. Mideast policy.

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