Komen, Now What?


(Or the Lessons We Can Learn From Komen’s Nightmare)

 

I am not sure if in the franticness of your typical day to day, you have managed to keep your finger on the public relations nightmare that has recently fallen on the breast-cancer charity, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, but if you haven’t, the best I can describe it as is the classic nightmare.    They will be picking up the pieces of this situation for many months.

With a sister who is fighting breast cancer as we speak and a wife who is a cancer survivor, I have been a solid and long time supporter of this charity.    I think about those in my circle of acquaintances who also have a strong commitment to this charity and realize that I am not alone.   I bet that if we each spend a few minutes looking we would find their pink ribbon logo within a few feet of where we currently sit.    It is the Susan G. Komen Foundation that created the idea that pink equates to breast cancer awareness.   In the end, a debt of gratitude is owned Komen.

In case you did not know the background, Susan Komen was born in 1943 in Illinois.   She was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 33, and died 3 years later at 36.   Her younger sister Nancy vowed to her sister that she would do absolutely everything she could to find an end for the disease.  She established the foundation in her memory two years later.

Since its start, Komen has invested over $2Billion dollars for breast cancer research, advocacy, health services, and early detection.   They have a presence in over 50 countries and have more than 100,000 worldwide volunteers.        According a recent Harris Poll, Komen was seen as one of the most trusted organizations in the world among both non and for profit companies.  For twenty five years they have been doing the right thing, and they have made a real and lasting difference for families all over the world.  Up until last week, I would have said I was an unquestioned fan and supporter of their global activities to end this horrific disease.

To be truthful, I do not think it’s fair to say I am ‘not’ a fan..   Yet something has happened at Komen that has caused my eyebrows to arc a bit.     This past week the Komen organization pulled all their funding to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and all of its affiliates.     According to Wikipedia, the money that Komen gave to Planned Parenthood paid for 170,000 breast exams, 6,400 mammograms* and untold funds for education and treatment of the disease.   In some communities, intense poverty leaves only Planned Parenthood as a source for these services.

You do not need me to tell you that Planned Parenthood is ground zero in the national debate on the Right to Life versus Choice debate.   As a result, your position on this issue usually determines how you view that organization.    For many, they are certainly a target for a great deal of hate, animosity, or fear by many people in our country.

Before we go too much further, I need to stress that the purpose of this message is not to enflame either side of this long running debate.   Despite that lack of eagerness or desire to ruffle the feathers of others, it is still important to know where I stand as I dive into this message.   You need to know my biases and my position.  You need to understand how I frame this debate and the challenge at Komen.

I would start by saying that I am unquestionably Pro Life.   Yet, my definition of what that means may not be the same as everyone else’s.  By claiming a Pro Life stance, I am saying that  I believe that we need to encourage, pray for, and work for a world that is committed in both action and deed to a culture that celebrates, appreciates, and protects all life.  

I believe we take a pro life stance by insuring that the least among us are protected physically, mentally, economically and educationally.  Embracing Life means that we exchange war for peace, promote tools that make violence obsolete, and that we don’t promote any system that sees death and violence as our first and only answer.  I also believe that being Pro Life means that you work towards creating a society and culture where an unwed woman is not immediately sent into crushing poverty because they choose to have a child.  

Having said off all that, I also consider myself Pro Choice.   I believe that the choice to end a pregnancy has to be the hardest decision a woman can make.    I don’t believe in the ugliness that some would have us embrace, that says women choose this course out of convenience.    I believe it to be a heart wrenching decision to make.  

Although I am not sure what my choice would be in that situation, I know that it wouldn’t be easy.   When Stacey was pregnant with both Sophie and Annie, there was all types of questions as to whether they were to be born with a whole slew of issues.  There were a handful of tests that pointed to Down’s syndrome as a side-effect of the chemotherapy needed to cure her cancer a decade earlier.  Although I can’t ever recall discussing this solution with any seriousness, I do recall all the pamphlets that we were given outlining – and perhaps encouraging – this choice.   Stacey and I – and I thank God every single day of my life for this – chose to trust God with whatever child he chose to bless us with.  We chose to trust God.

Despite that rough patch in our life and all that my gut tells me, I am a 41 year old man who has little understanding of all the abortion decision entails.   I think it would almost be too convenient and too easy for me to look at a 13-14-15 year old mom and dad to be and say “Trust God,” even if that is my gut reaction in that situation.   Despite that desire and that struggle to remain true to that trust in God which has served me so well, I would struggle with finding the right words.   I am not sure I have figured out all the nuances of this debate.  As a church, I  know that we are not called to stand outside of a clinic screaming at the women who enter it, but rather to stand beside them as they make this hard and heartbreaking decision.

We are called to take their hand and sit with them in the medical office.   We are called to be their advocate, their comforter, and their strength.   We are called to see hurting and struggling people and be the face of Jesus, not judgment, in their time of need.  This is what it means to be Pro Life.   This is what it means to be Pro Choice.

I believe this approach helps me to reconcile two competing positions that battle for their rightful place in my heart and soul, but doesn’t need to be yours.   In the end each of us needs to deal with our own conscience and make our own decision.    It’s never going to be an easy one and I fear when we throw partisanship and politics into the mess the debate becomes muddier.

When I read about Komen, I cannot get past the mud.   I can’t help but wonder if there is something fishy beneath the surface.    Is there choice about politics or is this stewardship?  If it is one of stewardship, then part of me can celebrate Komen’s decision.   If its politics, then I guess I can celebrate that too.   What I cannot stomach is the feeling the that I am being deceived or the straight story is missing.

Komen at the start of this debacle said it was their policy to halt any grants for any of their partner organizations that was under investigation.  They claimed it was a matter of stewardship.   If we dive further, we sense something else.

It is indeed true that Planned Parenthood has been consistently under investigation for decades.    Those who sit in Washington with a strict Pro Life stance push congress for regular investigations of Planned Parenthood under something called the Hyde Amendment.  That amendment bars the use of federal funds for any abortion procedures.  

Thankfully there is a mechanism in place to insure that the federal money Congress gives organizations such as Planned Parenthood isn’t misappropriated. If our representatives vote for the use of federal funds in manner x, they should not be used for manner y.  That falls into the realm of diligent stewardship.   Despite these regular and frequent investigations, Planned Parenthood has never been found to use a penny of federal funds for any un-appropriated purpose and welcomes those who search diligently for any and all irregularities.  They point to these back door challenges as one of the reasons that their organization maintains such exemplary accounting and audit procedures. 

While at first blush the decision seems to be that of responsible management of Komen gifts, news started to leak out that said something different.   Media outlets began pointing to a great deal of evidence that hinted that Komen’s decision was a deliberate ploy by the ultra conservative vice president of Komen’s public policy, Karen Handel.   Handel is one of this country’s staunchest opponents of Planned Parenthood.    Handel was quoted by the Atlantic Magazine as pledging for the complete elimination of funding for Planned Parenthood.   Many began to see Komen’s decision as Handel keeping her word. 

We can’t stop there because it even gets a bit more cloak and dagger.   Susan Komen’s founder and Susan’s sister Nancy, is a staunch GOP supporter.  Is it coincidence that within a few weeks of the Komen Foundation partnering with the conservative policy making arm of the George W. Bush Library and Research Center, that this decision come out?    Again, there is nothing necessarily wrong with any organization partnering around a foundation of shared politics, but it needs to be explained and made clear.   When I give to Komen are they using the money to promote a non breast cancer, Republican political agenda?   Sounds paranoid, but with each hour that passed more and more reasonable questions seemed to bubble to the surface.

Immediately after news hit the internet about the defunding of Planned Parenthood, many conservative religious and anti abortion groups applauded the decision.   Across the incredibly bizarre world of Facebook, people started replacing their profile pics with either the pink ribbon on the Double P logo for Planned Parenthood.    It was less than an hour or two before the moment developed a life all its own.  The conversation, with all its inherent pluses and minuses, was now front and center in the news feeds of the millions who use Facebook or Twitter.  It was an instant cyber debate on Life versus Choice.

On Thursday of this past week, 26 senators sent a letter to Komen asking them to reverse their decision.   The American Association of University Women said that it would no longer partner with Komen.   Soon staunch ProLifers were sending millions to Komen.  On the other side of the fence, the funds arriving to Planned Parenthood began to eclipse the amount that Komen regularly gave them.   

If it was politics and Komen’s plan was to use deception to cripple Planned Parenthood their plan had backfired.   On Friday morning, the Board of Directors of Komen issued a statement apologizing to the American public for their decision, and vowed to continue funding Planned Parenthood in the future.  Those in the know await for resignations and further public relations fallout from the week long media frenzy.

As we now move to this period of exhalation and decompression, I would hope someone at Komen realizes there was a lesson to be had.   Overnight one of the most trusted nonprofit organizations evolved into a villain.   Komen became the big bad wolf, and Planned Parenthood; little red riding hood.   Komen’s motives were instantly challenged and questioned, and Planned Parenthood became a victim.    They were no longer the pink branded group of concerned women fighting for the health of our wives, sisters, mothers and grandmothers.  They became, whether justified or not, an evil, back room, political powerhouse intent on promoting a politically charged agenda.    

I think ultimately Komen fell victim to not being clear and not being intentional with their message.  The world exploded around them, and no one could point to Komen and say this is clearly what they believed and this was their purpose.  The PR nightmare continues because we still don’t know.   We are not sure how to answer the question; “Who is Komen?”  

For Komen, when the walls started to shake things went from bad to worse at a dizzying pace.   In this age where meanness and a general lack of civility seem to be the most popular approach to all things, millions looked at Komen and saw what they expected to see;  a mean organization acting without grace or civility… Or an organization that believed in the rhetoric of one side versus the other.   Somewhere along the way, my sister got forgotten.   Somewhere along the way my wife, my daughters, my mother, and the stranger took a back seat.

There is a warning here, and it’s not just for Komen.   There are lessons for your average nonprofit that may too easily mix politics with mission, and there is certainly a message that both the church and the faithful can learn.    We all need to be intentional and deliberate in our message.   If we are not, we too can fall victim to the wave of momentum and have people pointing to us as something that we may not be.   Komen drew some fuzzy lines, and if we do too, then don’t be surprised if we share similar fates.

We quickly forgot Komen’s “most favored organization” status.   We forgot the $2 Billion in research and support.   We forgot the countless women who are here today, because of the good they have done.    We also forgot that choosing sides in the Life/Choice is not bad.   Choosing side a versus side b doesn’t mean you’re good, bad, right or wrong.  

When people started to look deeper they saw the conflicting priorities of Komen’s leadership.  Were they a political organization or a research and advocacy group?   Did they have a charitable goal or that of lobbyists?    Things were just not clear within the organization that everyone once trusted.

If we take this moment, and flip the camera around on ourselves, we can’t help but ask do other people see the conflicting priorities of our own lives.   Do we preach, practice and work towards a vision of God’s Kingdom that isn’t supported in our own lives?   Are we practicing the hypocrisy by saying that we live and breathe for God, but our actions testify that we live for materialism, pleasure, and vice?  Do we put politics above our own mission and do they become our focus.

Are we an organization that truly cares about the community around us?    Are we sending mixed messages?    Are we saying to our neighbors come in, and make your home with us… at the same time we are working to build even bigger doors with bigger locks.   Do we tell the world that God loves everyone, and this gift is available to the world, but actually work, speak, and act as if there are conditions to his love?

It has been said that our silent testimony is often our loudest.  

For Komen that was certainly true.   When the eyes of a world turned on them things went bad.    I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, but their silence and their lack of clarity made things difficult.   I saw mixed messages everywhere.    I soon realized that their message has been hazy for years.  When I hoped to see their intentionality, I saw only gray area.

I read the transcript of a Komen official who was interviewed and asked about who they were.   The reporter claimed that things were anything but clear, and Komen had no real track record.    In response the spokesman said they were committed to saving lives.  It seemed cut and dry.

Then I also discovered the P-22 Hope Edition handgun.   This handgun has Pink slide in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness month and the gun maker’s partnership with Komen.   When pink guns, advocates for life, anti abortion protestors, and breast cancer crusaders all get put into one box, there is no surprise the Komen becomes confusing and hard to understand.  Even today, a week later, I ask who is Komen?

With all these questions about Komen popping around in my head, I find myself thinking of a recent meeting I had with my District Committee on Ordained Ministry.   Being a licensed pastor, each year I meet with this group and we discuss my own goals as a person of faith and as pastor.   We talk about my educational and growth responsibilities, and we outline the goals I have for both my ministry and the ministry of the church in Chesterfield.  

In preparation for that meeting, I sent a mini-treatise to the committee at the start of January.  On that report, I wrote that one of my goals was to help encourage and foster in a time of even more authentic faith in our community.  During that meeting I was asked to clarify what I meant, and since that meeting I have been tossing that statement back and forth. 

I have come to see that statement requiring a great deal of clarification.

To achieve that state of greater authenticity as a church, we need to build upon our understanding of who we are.   We need to clear as to where we have been, and understand where – because of the pathways we travelled- we want to go.  With that authenticity we need to be clear about what we believe and how faith takes form in our lives, and how it takes form throughout the greater community of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire.   

We need to be willing to stand up, and be very clear with each other and those outside of our church and say, this is what I believe, and because of those beliefs I do this.    Our message needs to be clear, and intentional.    As this community’s pastor, I need to walk with the parishioners and the community and foster the conversation, work towards greater clarity of our efforts, and understand and work to remove the hurdles in our path to that understanding.   I need to be the leader that works with others to insure that we do this.  I need to understand and build the setting where we can understand how our vision and mission can be clearly discussed and built upon.

As people of faith this is incredibly important.   We are called to be the city on the hill, and be different from those around us.   We need the world to see us and see clearly and accurately who we are and what makes us unique.   They need to see what we believe and that our action supports our belief.

In the end, we need to be everything that Komen was not.   We need to be deliberate, authentic, relevant, intentional, and clear. 

What is that mission?   We are people who are called to a new life, that makes everything different.  As such, we should be about showing others how they can experience that world too.    It is in that effort that we can change our world.   It is deliberateness, authenticity, revelance, intentionality, and clarity that is our pathway.

We have to be those who others point to and say to each other; “Hey, are you seeing what I am seeing?,  Do you see what they are able to do?    Do you see their beliefs in their action?

And not “Who are they really?”

(Please note:  Planned Parenthood does not perform on site mammograms, but they do, in many areas provide vouchers for women to pay for the medical procedure.    A subtle distinction, but worth noting in the aftermath of last weeks debate.  Additionally, as this is being posted AP is announcing Karen Handel’s resignation from Komen)

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