19,000 deaths a day – a stirring issue for group

JOHN PEEL/Durango Herald

It’s a formidable task, constructing 19,000 crosses from paint stir sticks. Jerry Harris staples crosses together while his wife, Lin Harris, prepares more paint sticks at First Baptist Church of Bayfield. Members of the Crosses Project gather once or twice a month Saturday evenings.

BAYFIELD – There’s a learning curve when you’re assembling paint stir sticks into crosses.

First, you learn that glue doesn’t keep them together very well. If you’re persistent, you keep trying. Next, you learn that heavy-duty staples work better.

And then, if you didn’t already figure this one out before you started, you learn how much patience it takes to assemble 19,000 of them.

What gets you through is an impassioned empathy with the cause. Several members of the First Baptist Church of Bayfield have this empathy and are overwhelmed by the number, if not the task. Nineteen thousand is how many children younger than 5 who die in the world each day from hunger and other effects of poverty, according to UNICEF.

“We’re just talking about stapling paint sticks,” says Gordy Herrick, who spearheads the church’s effort.

The plan is to find a highly visible hillside in the spring, when the soil is soft, and plant the 19,000 foot-high crosses into the ground. A large banner will explain the purpose and the problem and make suggestions on possible courses of action the average person can take.

It’s a recent Saturday evening, and they’ve gathered at the church to assemble crosses. Four people are hunched over portable tables, stapling and bundling. Two women are sitting along the north wall, cleaning off some of the 1,900 crosses used last fall. Other helpers are on their way.

“When you hear that number (19,000) ... overwhelming is the perfect word,” says Joe Reimers, the church’s youth minister.

The goal is to overwhelm others – not to make them feel helpless, but to “drive home that sense of urgency we think this problem demands,” Reimers says.

The Bayfield High School and Colorado State University graduate spent 10 weeks in the summer of 2011 in the Nairobi, Kenya, area. He was among a group of six who fixed up homes and orphanages and visited children who don’t get much support or attention.

Among the places he went was Mathare, where 500,000 people live in one of the world’s most poverty-stricken collection of slums. Illustrating the conditions there, the river that runs through the valley is black. After that trip, he says, it’s easier to put faces to the problem of children and poverty.

“These are real people,” he says. “If I were born there, that would be me.”

More recently, Reimers was leading a series for the church’s youth group called “Made to Make a Difference.” The theme was how the youngsters could affect positive change. It was about that time that Herrick came up with the idea of constructing the crosses and mentioned it to Reimers.

“We looked at it as divine timing,” Reimers says.

Debbi Renfro, who served as interim youth minister before Reimers arrived, and Melissa Pistor, a 10th-grader and youth-group member, are scraping dirt off the crosses displayed previously at Fort Lewis College and on the hillside just below the church.

Each cross is treated with respect. It represents a child who has died today because of poverty. Each of the sticks is prayed over individually.

“It’s a powerful experience,” Pistor says.

Renfro says she takes bundles home, and her prayers vary.

“This one, I’m praying for clean water,” she says. “However God impresses on me to pray.”

Sometimes, Pistor says, she prays for parents or siblings of the dead child, too. Renfro, noting the corruption in some countries, prays for governments to make sure food gets to its target.

Piles of new crosses are steadily forming in the area where Jerry and Lin Harris, who live near Chimney Rock, are working. It takes 1½ sticks – one-half for the cross section – so a box of 250 paint sticks makes about 166 crosses. A box costs $32, but for every one they buy, Lewis Mercantile chips in one for free.

Herrick estimates more than 2,500 are finished, leaving about 16,500 to go. But it should be pointed out that two decades ago even more kids were dying; in 1990, the group would have had to make 33,000 crosses.

The statistics, taken from UNICEF’s website, are sobering:

Breaking it down even further, 13 kids younger than 5 die each minute.

Five countries account for half of the 19,000 daily deaths: India (24 percent), Nigeria (11 percent), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and China.

Two-thirds of the deaths are from infectious diseases. More than one-third of the deaths are attributable to malnutrition.

Herrick emphasizes that their project is to take those statistics and give them a visual presence. In other words, seeing the 19,000 crosses is much more striking than just reading the number.

A longtime teacher in Ignacio and at Fort Lewis College, Herrick is a history buff of sorts. He posits this challenging question:

If you were around Nazi Germany, what would you have done about the Holocaust? If you were around in the 1850s, what would you have done about slavery?

“Would I have had the courage to step up and say I’ll be part of the underground railroad (which illegally transported slaves to freedom), even though it might cost my family?”

At the rate of 19,000 a day, that’s 7 million dead children every year.

“This is what’s happening in our time frame,” Herrick says. “This is the catastrophe that’s going on. What are we going to do?”

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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