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The Obamacare 'scandal' you haven't heard about
Few Bible Belt pastors mention what's in their backyard, millions of poor people trapped in the Obamacare “coverage gap.”
November 8th, 2013
10:01 AM ET

The Obamacare 'scandal' you haven't heard about

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - The Rev. Timothy McDonald gripped the pulpit with both hands, locked eyes with the shouting worshippers, and decided to speak the unspeakable.

The bespectacled Baptist minister was not confessing to a scandalous love affair or the theft of church funds. He brought up another taboo: the millions of poor Americans who won’t get health insurance beginning in January because their states refused to accept Obamacare.

McDonald cited a New Testament passage in which Jesus gathered the 5,000 and fed them with five loaves and two fishes. Members of his congregation bolted to their feet and yelled, “C’mon preacher” and “Yessir” as his voice rose in righteous anger.

“What I like about our God is that he doesn’t throw people away,” McDonald told First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta during a recent Sunday service. “There will be health care for every American. Don’t you worry when they try to cast you aside.  Just say I’m a leftover for God and leftovers just taste better the next day!”

McDonald’s congregation cheered, but his is a voice crying in the wilderness. He’s willing to condemn state leaders whose refusal to accept Obamacare has left nearly 5 million poor Americans without health coverage. But few of the most famous pastors in the Bible Belt will join him.

Joel Osteen? Bishop T.D. Jakes, and other prominent pastors throughout the South?

Like McDonald, they preach in states where crosses and church steeples dot the skyline yet the poor can’t get the health insurance they would receive if they lived elsewhere. All declined to comment.

When people talk about the Affordable Care Act, most focus on the troubled launch of its website. But another complication of the law has received less attention: a “coverage gap” that will leave nearly 5 million poor Americans without health care, according to a Kaiser Health Foundation study.

Learn more from Kaiser about the coverage gap in states that refused Obamacare

The coverage gap was created when 25 states refused to accept the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare. The people who fall into this gap make too much money to qualify for Medicaid and not enough to qualify for Obamacare subsidies in their state insurance exchanges. If they lived elsewhere, they would probably get insurance. But because they live in a state that refused the new health care law, they likely will remain among the nation’s uninsured poor after Obamacare coverage kicks in come January.

The coverage gap has been treated as a political issue, but there is a religious irony to the gap that has been ignored.

Most of the people who fall into the coverage gap live in the Bible Belt, a 14-state region in the South stretching from North Carolina to Texas and Florida. The Bible Belt is the most overtly Christian region in the country, filled with megachurches and pastors who are treated like celebrities.  All but two Bible Belt states have refused to accept the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.

Should Bible Belt pastors say anything publicly about the millions of poor people in their communities stranded by the coverage gap? Is it anti-Christian for state leaders to turn down help for the people Jesus called “the least of these"? Or should pastors say nothing publicly about such issues because they are strictly political?

CNN's Sanjay Gupta explains who falls into the coverage gap

Who speaks for the poor in the coverage gap?

When these questions were sent to many of the most popular pastors in the Bible Belt, they hit a wall of silence. Virtually no prominent pastor wanted to talk about the uninsured poor in their midst.

Joel Osteen, pastor of the largest church in the nation, declined to be interviewed about the subject. So did Bishop T.D. Jakes. Their megachurches are both in Texas, the state with the nation’s highest number of people without health insurance.

Max Lucado, the best-selling Christian author who is a minister at a church in Texas, declined to speak; Charles Stanley, the Southern Baptist pastor in Georgia whose In Touch Ministries reaches millions around the globe, declined to speak; Ed Young Sr. and Ed Young Jr., a father and son in Texas who pastor two of the fastest-growing churches in the nation, also declined to speak. 

Bishop T.D. Jakes declined to talk about the millions of poor people stranded in the “coverage gap."

The list goes on.

The silence is not hard to understand. Obamacare is a polarizing political issue in the Bible Belt. A pastor who publicly weighs in on the subject could divide his or her congregation or risk their job. And some prominent pastors like Osteen are popular in part because they  do not alienate fans by taking political stands.

The Rev. Phil Wages, senior pastor Winterville First Baptist Church in Georgia and a blogger, was one of the few Bible Belt ministers willing to speak on the subject.

He says he won’t preach about the coverage gap created by the state’s rejection of the Medicaid expansion because he has what he calls theological differences with the thrust of the new health care law.

Wages says the Bible teaches that the care of orphans, widows and the sick are given to the church, not to the government. Early Christians were the first to create hospitals, orphanages and hospices.

“I have an issue with the government coming in to get money through me - through taxes - to take care of people, when my argument is that I should be free to give to charities or to my church in order to take care of the sick and destitute,” he says.

Wages says he has no doubt that lack of health insurance is a monumental problem, and that many people are poor because of circumstances beyond their control. Yet there is no New Testament example of Jesus trying to shape public policy on behalf of the poor.

“I do not see any biblical precedent where Jesus ever went to Herod or Pilate and said you should be taking care of the poor,” Wages says. “Jesus told his disciples to take care of the poor and the apostles said the same thing to the early church.”

Wages’ position is impractical and unbiblical, says Ronald Sider, a longtime advocate for the poor and author of “The Scandal of Evangelical Politics."

Churches and charities don’t have enough resources to take care of an estimated 48 million Americans who don’t have health care. The Bible is filled with examples of God's fury over economic oppression of the poor, which Christians should regard as scandalous, he says.

“If you are not sharing God’s concern for the poor, it raises huge questions about whether you are a Christian at all,” he says about pastors who say nothing about the uninsured poor.

“As God’s spokespersons, you ought to be talking about God’s concern for the poor as much as God. In the richest nation in world history, it’s contradictory to have millions without health insurance.”

“It absolutely stinks”

The coverage gap may inspire a religious debate, but for its victims the issue is raw and personal.

A recent New York Times article about the coverage gap revealed that many of its victims are the working poor: cooks, cashiers, sales clerks and waitresses.

“These are people who are working people but they haven’t been able to afford health insurance or their employers don’t offer it and they’re stuck,” says Andy Miller, editor of Georgia Health News, a nonprofit news organization that covers health news in the state. “A lot of these folks have chronic health conditions.”

They are people like Shelley “Myra” Mitchell, a single mom with four children who makes $9 an hour working at a Chick-fil-A in Georgia. She makes $18,000 a year – too much for Georgia’s existing Medicaid program, but not enough to qualify for subsidies to sign up for Obamacare’s insurance marketplace in Georgia.

Mitchell’s voice grew edgy with frustration when asked to describe her health needs. She rang up about $20,000 in emergency room bills because she has no health insurance. She can’t afford to get pap smears, go to the dentist or get surgery for a two-year-old hernia. She can’t take medication for her depression and anxiety because she can’t afford it.

She thought she could get help under Obamacare but recently learned she can’t because Georgia did not accept the law’s Medicaid expansion.

“It stinks,” she says. “I’ve been dealing with this hernia for two years now, and I can’t get anyone to help me because I don’t have health insurance. It absolutely stinks.”

Why pastors should stay silent about the coverage gap

Mitchell’s plight may stink. But at what point should a pastor go public on such a complex issue, and what could he or she actually say?

Two prominent evangelical pastors openly wrestled with those questions.

Andy Stanley is one of the most popular evangelical pastors in the nation. He is the senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, a megachurch with at least 33,000 members. He is also the author of the forthcoming book “How to be Rich,” which urges Christians to be "rich in good deeds" instead of wealth. His church recently announced that it donated $5.2 million to Atlanta charities and provided another 34,000 volunteer hours.

Joel Osteen has the largest church in America. He also declined to speak about the coverage gap.

Stanley says the coverage gap disturbs him. The church cannot handle the needs of millions of uninsured people alone and should quit taking shots at government involvement, he says. But he adds that it’s not anti-Christian for political leaders in states like Georgia to turn down the Medicaid expansion for the poor.

“If you really want to know how concerned someone is for the poor ask them what percentage of their personal money they give to organizations that help the poor,” he says. “Ask them how much time they give to organizations that help the poor.”

Stanley says it would be difficult for any pastor to talk about the Medicaid expansion without addressing the entire law.

“I tried to imagine a scenario where I urged people to write our governor encouraging him to reconsider his decision regarding the expansion of Medicaid for the poor,” he says. “As I imagined that, I got the feeling that by the time I finished explaining the issue, people’s eyes would be glazed over.”

Pastors who don't preach one way or the other on Medicaid expansion aren't callous or apathetic, says Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. They may be suspicious of a bigger government and skeptical of whether this move will solve the problem.

“The Bible calls on Christians to answer the cries of the poor,” he says. “All Christians must do that. The question of the Medicaid expansion is a question of how we do that. I don’t hear many people arguing that we shouldn’t care about the plight of the poor when it comes to medical care. The question is a genuine debate about the role of the state.”

Moore says some people have a “utopian view” of what state power can accomplish.

“Government programs sometimes encourage dependency, unintentionally break down family structures, and become unsustainable financially,” Moore says.

Bob Coy, pastor of Calvary Chapel megachurch in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, wondered aloud about what he could, and should, say.

Florida, which has the second highest number of people without health insurance behind Texas, has not accepted the Obamacare Medicaid expansion.

Coy says he hasn’t spoken publicly about poor people missing health coverage in Florida. But he has called the governor to get more information.

“I’m not an activist guy. I don’t tell the government what to do. I am a church guy. I teach the Bible.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care for the poor, though, Coy says. He grew up in a poor family that couldn’t afford to go to the dentist. His church also spends a large percentage of its budget on serving the poor.

Coy says he is suspicious of large-scale programs that are publicly funded because they are often abused.

“One side of our society is saying, 'We need this,' while on the other side is saying, 'This isn’t fair and isn’t going to work.’ So how should a pastor, who has a heart to help people, respond?”

Why pastors should speak out

The Rev. Shane Stanford’s answer to Coy is simple: Talk about justice for the poor like Jesus did.

Stanford is the senior pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis and author of “Five Stones: Conquering Your Giants.”

He is also HIV-positive. He was born a hemophiliac and contracted the virus when he was 16 during treatment for his illness.

Stanford says he publicly speaks out about the millions of Americans stranded without health coverage because he knows how it feels. Once, after heart surgery, he was getting a transfusion when a nurse came into the room and pulled the needle out of his arm because she said he had maxed out his health insurance coverage.

He says standing up for people in the coverage gap is a matter of justice.

“Sometimes pastors have to tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.”

Stanford ignores fellow pastors who counsel him to be silent about his state and others that refused to accept the Medicaid expansion.

“They say you have to be careful talking about political issues,” he says. “When I look at their lives, part of me thinks they never had that needle yanked out of their arm.”

Conservative pastors who urge their colleagues to avoid politics are hypocrites, says James Cone, a prominent theologian who has spent much of his career writing books condemning white churches for what he says is their indifference to social justice.

“When their own interests are involved, they are very much involved in politics,” Cone says. “Same-sex marriage and abortion – they have no trouble politically opposing them.”

Cone, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, says a nation is defined by how it treats its most vulnerable members. But there is an entrenched hostility to poor people in America that goes unchallenged by some white, conservative Christians, he says.

“When poor people get food stamps, they get mad,” Cone says. “When the rich and corporations get tax breaks and pay no taxes, they don’t say anything.”

McDonald, the pastor who spoke out on behalf of poor people from his Atlanta church, says Jesus provided universal health care. The Gospels are filled with accounts of Jesus healing marginalized people.

“He did it for free,” McDonald says of Jesus’ healing. “The reason the crowds gathered around Jesus primarily was for healing. People want wholeness.”

Perhaps the gap between Bible Belt pastors who say nothing about the uninsured poor and those who do is also rooted in history. 

Conservative Christians have traditionally emphasized providing charity to the poor - soup kitchens, donations to impoverished people in undeveloped countries - while progressive Christians have blended charity with calls for public policy changes that help the poor.

The distinction between both approaches was distilled by a memorable quote from the late Brazilian Roman Catholic Bishop Dom Helder Camara, who said: "When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why so many people are poor they call me a communist."

That may be changing as a new generation of evangelicals rise in the Bible Belt and elsewhere. One minister who speaks to them is the Rev. Timothy Keller, a conservative Christian author who pastors a megachurch in New York.

Keller is the author of “Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just,” a popular book that argues that evangelicals should do more than preach personal salvation; they must “speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves.” He is a role model for many younger evangelicals.

“God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to ‘do justice.’ ’’

CNN.com recently contacted Keller to see if he would talk about "Generous Justice" and how it might apply to health care and the poor. Did he think pastors in Bible Belt states should say anything publicly on behalf of poor people being denied basic medical insurance? His publicist said she would contact Keller with the request.

Several days later, she returned with Keller’s answer.

He had no comment. 

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Baptist • Barack Obama • Belief • Bible • Christianity • Church • Church and state • Courts • Culture wars • Ethics • evangelicals • Fundamentalism • Politics • Poverty

soundoff (3,619 Responses)
  1. jim

    National church leaders are in it for the money! Duh !!!

    November 8, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
  2. liz

    That's the prosperity gospel for you. That if you are a good enough of the right kind of Christian, God will bless you with material wealth here on earth. If you aren't being blessed in such a way, you are being deservedly punished by the neo-con, evangelical version of God.

    November 8, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
  3. GIANCARLO

    Interesting how these preachers were so vocal about prop. 8. yet so silent about the poor. Religion in this country is all about money and greed. That is why young people are turned off by religion. It's a scam, it's about making these preacher rich. It's disgusting. All you have to do is listen to Joel Osteen and his constant money preaching and how God wants you to be rich. How people that listen to him can be so stupid is beyond my thinking.

    November 8, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
    • liz

      Amen

      November 8, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • DB

      Not all of them are vocal about issues like gay marriage. Osteen, for example, doesn't get involved in any of that. His ministry is all about "it's Christian to be rich and selfish." I don't approve of his message but at least he doesn't speak out against gays.

      November 8, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  4. Dave - Phx

    These so called preachers care about nothing other than the almighty dollar. SHEEP!

    November 8, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
  5. tednugent'sdiapers

    Praise jeebus!

    November 8, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  6. Just the Facts Ma'am...

    The health care system we have had up till now has been the "don't get sick" Lottery system. If you are under a certain income level, you better not get sick. If you do then you win the reverse Lottery! Where the hospital must treat you when you go to the emergency room and then it can saddle you with a moutain of debt no median income family can afford which often forces the unlucky family into bankruptcy, Hooray! You win! And when anyone comes along to suggets a better system the morons who can barely tie their shoes and just do what their conservative masters at Fox news tell them all drop their trousers and shlt on the proposed system, then point at it screaming "But it's covered in shlt! We can't use that!"

    November 8, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  7. Bootyfunk

    yes, these ultra conservative christian republicans do everything they can NOT to help the poor. i'm an atheist. jesus said some questionable things in the bible, but he said great things about helping the poor. how can these people pretend to follow jesus when one of his main things was helping the poor? these people are disgusting.

    November 8, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      The Christ of the bible would not even share a meal with the conservative Christians in America today.

      "22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness." Matthew 7:22,23

      November 8, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
  8. Kenneth Turbeville

    The article mentioned Shelley Mitchell works at Chick-fil-A. Why doesn't Chick-fil-A offer its employees health insurance? Chick-fil-A touts itself as being a Christian business. Oh wait.....I just answered my own question.

    November 8, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • truth

      Maybe before you make statements you should check before spouting your hatred

      November 8, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
    • Bob carlson

      It is unacceptable for the churches to claim that the uninsured is a problem they should cure.. Where were they for the last 50 years???? This law came before the congress partly because there were no options provided by the churches. Sure they may be able to point to "somethey did for someone", maybe a member, but what of the millions who found no useable saftey net from them.. Were they nonmembers? drunks? homeless? etc? Did they ask"do they deserve our help?" Only non judgemental and widely availble help would have been acceptable. They did not do it then so they shouldn't now try to claim it is their venue. they disqualified themselves by their lack of action.

      November 8, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  9. sybaris

    Kind of ironic how the most religious are also the most conservative when it comes to doing what their fairy god-man would do.

    November 8, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  10. Nick

    This is Obama's fault, not the states'. They chose to not participate for many reasons far more consequential than even this. The buck stops with the name on the headline – Obama.

    November 8, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      Obama: Take a bunch of free money to provide your state citizens with health care.
      Republicans: No.
      Obama: But it's free.
      Republicans: No.

      later at a press conference....
      Republicans: It's Obama's fault we have poor people with no insurance in my state.

      November 8, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
      • Ryan

        Do you not realize, ITS NOT FREE! Government has no money, it manages tax money, and currently its 17 trillion in debt. So every dollar that the government brings in via taxes, should already go to paying off debt it already owes. Simple economics. And as our debt grows larger, so does the burden the people shoulder. Its like saying, "I'll just charge my credit card $10,000 more dollars when you already owe $70,000 and your income is only $25,000/year." Thats about the ratio government operates. Credit card dollars are not real dollars. They're not "free."

        November 8, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
    • krivka

      Explain how it is the President;s fault.

      November 8, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  11. DB

    The question of whether or not we should help the poor is only a partisan one because the right has made it so. To deliberately allow people to suffer is an affront to God. For men of God to be afraid to speak out against it is just cowardly.

    You don't have to be a Democrat or a "leftist" to agree that intentionally creating a coverage gap just to give President Obama the finger is sick. Obama doesn't suffer from that, innocent people do. How do these governors and state lawmakers live with themselves?

    November 8, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  12. nik green

    Even though ObamaCare is a load of Heritage Foundation pork designed to enrich the the parasitic health "insurance" industry, this article just goes to prove that "Christian" America is utter hypocrisy – the polar opposite to the Christianity as practiced and taught by its founder Jesus Christ.

    November 8, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  13. JFCanton

    I agree that they should say something. But I'm Catholic and we don't have this problem.

    The course that was taken in the process of getting to the law as enacted makes it difficult to build a case for condemning these pastors, though. Would they have said or not said the same, or their states refused the same, if the law consisted only of the expansion of Medicaid? I wouldn't need a lot of convincing that the answer would be yes, but there is still doubt; and the administration's autocratic and thus far incredibly incompetent approach to executing the law helps to preserve that doubt.

    November 8, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • DB

      It is simply not honest to call the creation of the law "autocratic." The opposition party was not locked out of the process. They CHOSE not to participate. And they are LAUGHING AT YOU for fooling you into believing otherwise.

      November 8, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  14. Someone You'll Call a Name Cuz You Got Nothin Else

    Do you want separation of church and state or don't you?

    If not, consider the Apostle Paul's comment to the Thessalonian church, "If anyone shall not work, neither shall he eat."

    Let's start rewarding those that work and incentivize those who don't.

    November 8, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • DB

      The people in this coverage gap WORK. They have income. You don't know what you're talking about.

      November 8, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
    • K-switch

      So you would listen to Paul over Jesus? Nice example of cherry picking the Bible to suit your veiwpoint.

      November 8, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • Baa

      Does Paul trump Jesus?

      Mark 10:21

      And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

      Deuteronomy 15:11
      For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’

      So, do you believe the word of the bible or don't you?

      November 8, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
  15. srgntyork

    I love how the preacher tries to base his actions on what Jesus did or didnt do 2000 years ago, his example was Jesus didnt try to shape policy. What a load of crap. All these preachers want to do is make money. If there is a hell they are surely bound for it, too bad there isnt!!!!!!!!

    November 8, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • StevenR

      Jesus not political? What Bible are you reading? Remember kicking the Pharisees out of the temple? That was a totally political act that gets very little attention. He ministered to the poor and downtrodden. What area these guys thinking? They are too wrapped up in their cozy little churches to actually MINISTER. Jesus GAVE HIS LIFE for others. These worthless hypocrites won't even risk a little COMFORT. Pull their tax exemption. They are just greedy charlatans and have NOTHING to do with religion.

      November 8, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
      • David

        Merchants. He kicked the merchants out of the temple who were paying off the pharisees. Causing the pharisees to appeal to Rome to solve their little Christ problem. Another Republican philosophy: blame others for their hate and intent to drag us all down rather than accept the blame themselves

        November 8, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
  16. mrl

    i love how cnn shows a homeless person on the street as the photo for this story – they are not the COVERAGE GAP CNN.... The Coverage Gap has now grown to be almost all blue collar workers not getting out of the healthcare bill because they are in unions who are going to be given a pass by obummer... homeless people are given freebie healthcare under medicaid

    November 8, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  17. Dan

    No mention of the Medicaid these. ( mean) states are expanding to help these 5 million uninsured! CNN is a wing of the Democratic Party !!

    November 8, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • no.thank.you

      Serious question...What Medicaid these are you talking about? And how are states are expanding to help these 5 million uninsured? I thought they declined the increase in medicaid which would have bridged the gap. My state declined to expand medicaid and they still aren't doing anything about those that fell through the gap. Thankfully I am insured by my employer.

      November 8, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  18. My Bible Says

    @NYVeteran

    So glad and proud to say Thank You for serving your country and protecting the freedoms for ALL. Americans, not just the liberal left wing activists groups of the Democrats. You are standing for us Conservative Republicans too I hope. Otherwise, you served with the wrong purpose.

    November 8, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  19. John

    This article is incorrect . . . the largest church in America is the Catholic Church with over 78 Million Members. There are also over 630 Catholic Hospitals in the United States (about 11% of all hospitals).

    Catholic Hospitals treat 16 Million + Emergency Room Visits each year and have about 90 Million Outpatient Visits each year. In the past decade, about 85% of patents that went to Catholic Hospitals were covered by private insurance, Medicare, Medicaid or pay cash with ABOUT 15% BEING TREATED FOR FREE.

    The Catholic Church was an early supporter for “ObamaCare”. However, contrary to what is being said, Insurance Companies and Pharmaceuticals will see their Revenue and Profits increase as the Affordable Care Act is implemented while compensation to Hospitals and Doctors will go down. What this means is that Hospitals will consolidate and it will be harder for poor people to get FREE service that they received from Catholic Hospitals in the past. Doctors that provide Pro Bono Service will be reduced dramatically and as their incomes decrease (they breakeven on MediCare Patients and lose money on Medicaid Patients) we will see fewer and fewer Doctors.

    November 8, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
  20. mrl

    i love how libertards want to condemn church encroaching on state issues – unless they want to bash churches for not encroaching on state issues... what hypocrites...

    November 8, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.