Category Archives: Solidarity, Community and Citizenship

In Praise of Small Town Kansas

Council Grove KS has maintained a population of about 2,000.

Since moving to Kansas City six years ago, my identity as a city boy, an urbanite, has taken on new meaning.  We now live three hours from the small town of Neodesha, KS, where my partner spent twenty plus years before our marriage. I have gotten to know some of her long time friends and like all of them a lot.   They live in small towns of southeast Kansas like Chanute, Coffeyville, Yates Center, Fredonia and Climax and I have enjoyed thinking about what if anything makes them different from the big city residents like myself 

The observation that there is a greater appreciation of the value of community in small towns I accept as true but inadequate.  Spending a recent weekend on a Lake near the town of Emporia, KS yielded for me a better understanding of what community in a small town feels like.  And it was a pleasure to experience.  Almost all those present resided in a small town of the region.  Some still lived in the town of their birth, some nearby in the state college town of Emporia. 

The office of William Allen White’s Emporia Gazette in Emporia, a town of 25,000 in southeast KS. Over 6000 votes in Emporia’s Lyon County opposed the Republican sponsored attempt to make abortion unconstitutional in the State while 3600 supported the measure.

During the early decades of the 20th century, William Allen White’s opinion pieces in Emporia’s newspaper were read nation wide. He became famous as the voice of small town residents in the “heartland of America”,   People in the big cities, and the nation’s capital in particular, saw him as a kind of oracle, a modern day sage expounding on the enduring values of what made the U.S. a “great” nation.  The origin of those values he attributed to the community life that grows in small towns across the Midwestern United States.

The weekend festivities at the Lake began with a rousing jam session Friday night where the musicians joined around the lead guitars of Kenny and Jeff, both leaders of popular regional bands thirty or forty years ago.  Two or three newcomers to the “shrimp boil” weekend joined to sing or play some fiery rock-a-billy” and blues, including a few songs written by the musicians themselves.

The harmonica player in Jeff’s band and his wife, who now live on 40 acres of woods on the outskirts of Neodesha remain among Kate’s best friends.  Though not herself a musician, Kate has been a fan of the bands represented at the “Shrimp Boil” since moving to southeast Kansas.  Later in the weekend I was amused to learn that “Uncle Vance” who trucked the seafood up from the Alabama Gulf Coast had been an eager fan of hers forty years ago.

The Nace Brothers played Saturday night at the “Shrimp Boil”. The brothers, Jimmy and Dave on the left, grew up in Warrensburg, MO.

The fact no one needed a ticket to be present either for the jam night or Saturday, when one of Kansas City’s favorite rock-a-billy bands played, added to the joy, ambience and charm of the weekend.  Most of the Lake’s families who attended did bring a dish and all were displayed on a crammed L shaped table arrangement.  Uncle Vance supervised the preparation of a delicious gumbo soup made with the shrimp, mussels, crabs, scallops.  For me the melt in your mouth scallop was the eating highlight.

There seemed to be an instant community created at the “shrimp boil” by the seafood smorgasbord, the music that summoned us all to “let the good times roll” and the lifelong relationships renewed and restored by the gathering.  It had the feel of a family reunion which all present had looked forward to attending. People were at their best: not a despairing word, not an offensive gesture, not a cutting remark, no wrestling for the limelight.  William Allen White would have been proud.

I returned to Kansas City assured that human beings are social creatures who thrive in community.  We are made for life in communities.  Whether it be a community of musicians, a church congregation, a union local, a small town.  We are most productive, we are more creative and satisfied when we submerge our personal interests to participate in a group.  For many people in this heavily urbanized country, the small town they live in or were raised in is that “something bigger than ourselves” which transmits the values they seek to defend and represent.

Life in a small town encourages a panoply of values, sometimes conflicting and all seen at risk by some of the residents and former residents.  There is first the identity of belonging to a community created by geographic isolation.  Relationships with persons who hail from the same town endure often in spite of age, class and vocational differences.  One honors and elevates one’s own existence through reminiscencing about shared experience and the persons, alive and dead, whose lives continue to intersect with our own.  Each conversation with persons of the community, after a prolonged absence or not, reinforces our recognition of the sacred quality of relationships and our desire to preserve them against threats both perceived and real.

That commitment to preserving the community and the relationships rooted there means once a community member always a community member.  Unfortunate and at a disadvantage is the politican who cannot announce his or her candidacy in the community which nurtured them.  How distressing it is, though, whenever politicans twist and distort small town values to stoke fear and divisionRecent history of the U.S. proves there is nothing good, whether it be faith in a loving God, the values fostered by life in a small town, democratic ideals expressed in our founding documents, nothing good that cannot be used for the pursuit of self interest and power. Loyalty to a community’s way of life becomes easily transformed into opposition to the changes required by the climate crisis, opposition to acceptance of migrants fleeing from injustice and violence, or opposition to the truth of the nation’s oppression and cruelty. But rather than close this blog on a somber note, let’s consider some lines written for books or articles by the sage of Emporia, KS William Allen White.

Peace without justice is tyranny

“Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others”

So, dear friend, put fear out of your heart. This nation will survive, this state will prosper, the orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given them to utter what their hearts hold — by voice, by posted card, by letter or by press. Reason never has failed men. Only force and repression have made the wrecks in the world.

Any appeasement of tyranny is treason.

My advice to the women of America is to raise more hell and fewer dahlias.” (Prior to passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote)

Youth should be radical. Youth should demand change in the world. Youth should not accept the old order if the world is to move on. But the old orders should not be moved easily – certainly not at the mere whim or behest of youth. There must be clash and if youth hasn’t enough force or fervor to produce the clash the world grows stale and stagnant and sour in decay.

If each man or woman could understand that every other human life is as full of sorrows, or joys, or base temptations, of heartaches and of remorse as his own . . . how much kinder, how much gentler he would be.

Unity Emphasis in Global Christian Mission Today

Demonstrating her teaching techniques for rural teachers, Elena Huegel leads a Sunday School class with the help of puppets.

Elena Huegel is a “Mission Co Worker” in San Cristobal de las Casas , Chiapas, Mexico.  She is assigned to work with INESIN, a local human rights and peacemaking agency, and leads workshops for the staff and community. INESIN is one of many “partner agencies” of the Global Ministries work of the theologically progressive U.S. Protestant denominations, the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Disciples of Christ (DOC). 

Like most partners of Global Ministries outside the U.S., it is ecumenical in nature and does not aim to found churches.  Mission churches started decades ago with the help of missionaries of the two Global Ministries denominations are now self-governing and self-propagating.  Most are growing much faster than the U.S denominations and benefit from Elena’s and other Mission Co Workers’ presence in the their programs of community economic development, agriculture, healthcare, education and protection of human rights. 

Elena’s grandfather, Frederick Huegel, went to Mexico early in the twentieth century, as a missionary trained in preaching and evangelism with the intention of growing the Disciples of Christ presence in central Mexico.  Elena’s parents also worked with the new churches of the Disciples of Christ in Mexico. Bilingual at an early age, Elena has been a Mission Co Worker in Chile for over twenty years and in Paraguay before returning to Mexico to work with INESIN staff.    

The following interview with Elena Huegel took place last August while driving her to a speaking engagement in the U.S.

DS: So Elena what does INESIN stand for?

Staff of INESIN. Photo on their website inesin-mx.org

EH: The Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research.

DS: Tell us a bit about the history of that organization.

EH: When Rios Montt was President of Guatemala and all the refugees from the country were crossing the border into México, the Catholic Bishop (Bp Samuel Ruiz) had people all along the border helping with the refugee crisis.  The UCC and Mennonites from the States had mission workers helping as well and they all got to know each other.  In fact when opportunities opened for resettlement back into Guatemala the mission workers all began to accompany them back as human rights watchers. That resettlement began in January of ’94.

That’s also when Canada, the U.S. and México signed the Fair Trade agreement (NAFTA) and the Zapatistas had said that if the trade agreement was signed they were going into open warfare against the Mexican government.  It was signed and the revolution explodes, the heart of it being San Cristóbal and the communities around it. So with that the inter-religious turmoil that there already had been between Catholics and Protestants was heightened.  It took on a whole different turn because the government began taking advantage of the Protestants who were among the most oppressed of the population.  The government encouraged creation of paramilitary groups among the Protestants. The groups were mainly children of Protestant converts from what I can tell. 

DS: But you say there had been turmoil and tension between Protestants and Catholics before the Zapatistas came on the scene.  What was that about?

EH:  This is a simple question to a very complex situation. To read more I suggest:  

There are many points of view as to why there are conflicts between the different protestant and Pentecostal groups and the different Catholic groups as well as newer religions (mainly Muslims) in Chiapas in general and the Chiapan Highlands (including San Cristóbal de las Casas) in particular.  I would summarize by saying that there have been and are political and economic forces that have used religious differences to divide and conquer the Mayan communities.  Nowadays, organized crime has also come onto the scene sowing further confusion and chaos within communities and, in some cases, bringing different religious groups together in the struggle against the cartels while in others causing further unrest and division.  There is a very long history of violence connected to the different religious expressions, with victims and perpetrators connected directly or indirectly to different religious affiliations.

DS: So the Protestant grievances about the Catholics had been long standing and were used by the government.

EH: The government was trying to get at the Zapatistas from different directions.  And as the inter religious strife got worse the Bishop (Samuel Ruiz) realized that he needed someone to help him build a bridge and talk to the Protestants.  He had already done quite a few things to build bridges.  There were a whole lot of Protestants driven off their lands in the Chamula area and he supported the ones who fled to San Cristóbal.  As the Bishop saw better what was happening, he went to the UCC and Mennonites who had worked with Catholics on the border and together they went on to found INESIN, the Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research.  It was to create a space for inter-religious and inter-cultural dialog using various forums and projects to do that. 

DS: Did the UCC have people in place there to participate in INESIN’s creation with the Catholics, Bishop Ruiz in particular?

EH:  The UCC overseas mission office, Global Ministries, had a couple down there at the time.  The couple were preparing to go down in late ’93 but finally arrived in February ’94 and were there then for some pretty incredible things.  They were Paula Biddle and George.  They knew the area as they had been working with Guatemalan refugees in Chicago and had been traveling back and forth from Chicago to Chiapas since the refugees began crossing the border.

DS: And what are you doing at INESIN now?

EH:  So I am helping in staff development and education in trauma healing and conflict transformation primarily with the staff of INESIN.  Protestants in Chiapas have seen INESIN as a Catholic organization and there is a lot of distrust and suspicion of any Catholic program among the Protestants.  It’s going to take a long time of trust building before they join with Catholics in a process of trauma and conflict healing.  So I’ve had some small groups and I’ve done some Christian Education trainings for Protestant Sunday School teachers which have attracted larger groups. I do other things as a way to start building up trust and relationship.  I am also the local, national and international coordinator, facilitator, and trainer of the Retoños en las Ruinas: Esperanza en el Trauma (Roots or New Shoots in the Ruins: Hope in Trauma) program with facilitators in Chiapas, different states of Mexico and 5 other countries in Latin America.

DS: In addition to your training for trauma healing and conflict transformation you’ve been trained in environmental education?

EH: My undergraduate training was in recreation and outdoor education and my first love has always been environmental education.

DS: What is the tie between trauma healing and the environmental education?

EH: I came to realize there is a soul wound in our relationship with the earth and that’s one of the great things about being here with the Mayans. There’s the opportunity to come full circle.  It used to be environmental education was concentrating on how we take care of the earth.  Now, coming full circle with the help of the Mayans and other indigenous groups we understand better how the earth takes care of us. 

A traditional rite of Mayan culture led by INESIN staff, half of whom are Mayan, at the agency headquarters

We can’t be fully healed unless we attend to this relationship with the earth and how this is an essential part of our wholeness.  Many people among the Mayans have that very clear.  How a healthy relationship with the earth is essential to our relationship with oneself, with others and with God.  So I’ve been thinking more in the last four years here about how our reconnecting with nature brings about our healing and how for example a sense of awe is essential to our recognizing something bigger than ourselves, something where hope lies, something that moves our souls.  I’m doing more work around that now. How immersing people in nature can be part of their healing process.

DS: So how is this Mayan tradition of relationship with nature transmitted these days?

EH: I would say that not all Mayans today practice or have experience of the relationship.  One of the things that the Institute has been doing especially on the Catholic side is helping to reconnect to that spirituality that was connected to Mother Earth.  So one of the things that is still practiced but not everyone practices is the Mayan altar. The Mayan altar is always transitory.  It is made from things from nature. It is created by the community.  Using different flowers but it can also have dirt and seeds and fruit. These are placed in four quadrants representing the four cardinal directions. 

And that transitory altar also has candles on it. Once the candles are lit they’re not put out. And  the altar lasts as long as the candles last and once the candles die down, the altar is taken apart and the fruits are eaten and everything goes back into nature again.

DS: And the altar is built at a certain time of year.

EH: No it can be at any time the community needs to gather. And we at INESIN always have groups that visit us build a Mayan altar together.

What Hawaii Had to Teach Us in Our Visit

The Yellow Billed Cardinal, so unlike the Northern Cardinal we are accustomed to, is comparable to the Java Sparrow, the Zebra Dove and the Saffron Finch in their colorful variations of familiar “mainland” birds.

During my second visit on the “Big Island” of Hawai’i, in the checkout line at the Malama Market in Honoka’a the cashier addressed me as “Uncle”.  It was not the first time a young person had honored me with this traditional Hawaiian sign of respect.  But as a reminder that wearing a face mask was still required in the grocery store, it made a deeper impression.  I retrieved a mask from my back pocket and put it on before removing the items from my basket. After I thanked the young woman for this gentle nudge, my gratitude grew. Like the colorful bird species, the abundant growth of mango, papaya and other tropical fruits and trees, this custom of calling an elder “auntie” or “uncle” had captured and filled me.

My delight had nothing to do with removing my identity as a “foreigner”.  I would always remain a “haole” in the land and culture of the native Hawaiian. It was like the customary welcoming to Hawaii  another kind of lei showing that the native traditions include the embrace of persons wherever they come from.  You cannot spend a day on the Island of Hawai’i without the recognition that you are not on the North American continent. And that you are and will forever be a “haole”.

Having returned to Kansas City, I am even more grateful for our friends who are natives of the “Big Island” and whose hospitality falls on us like the soft rain of the rainforest surrounding their birthplaces near Honoka’a.  I understand better the pride displayed by the son of our closest Hawaiian friend who as a three or four year old, though born in California, protested to my wife Kate, “I am not an American, am I Mom?  I’m Hawaiian.”   

The Hawaiian dictionary gives the synonyms of “foster” and “adopted” in its definition of the Hawaiian tradition of “hanai“.

I also now appreciate more our role as “hanai” or “adopted” grandparents of this child now preparing for college on the “mainland”.  When my wife introduced ourselves at a Sunday worship service in Honoka’a as Gabriel’s “hanai” grandparents, expressions of approval were quietly uttered by the congregation.  From now on, all our efforts to encourage and support the young man’s growth will be not just out of love for him but will also stem from the desire to honor the Hawaiian tradition and our identity as his “hanai” grandparents.

How sad and unfortunate that so many of our would be “leaders” in the mainland U.S. portray the nation’s increasing population of foreign born persons as a loss for the heirs of white settlers.  How could someone be persuaded to view immigrants as posing a threat when their contributions are so many and so obvious?  Against all the white supremacist theories and arguments we can all learn from and enjoy the embrace of other cultures in the history, language and customs of native Hawaiians. 

As an example, there is much more to the meaning of “aloha” than our “hello” and “good bye”.  After my recent visit, I now associate the Hawaiian language’s “aloha” with the Indian custom of greeting and leave taking with “namaste”.  My favored interpretation of that Hindu greeting and leave taking is “the divine in me recognizes the divine in you”.

What Too Many in the U.S. Fear

The “Central Park Five” were charged as teen agers for the brutal rape of a white female jogger. They were finally released from prison more than a decade later and awarded $41 million by the City of New York in a civil rights lawsuit brought in 2014 (Photo by Michael Nagle NYT)

The foreign-born population of the United States has grown from 9.6 million in 1965 to 45 million persons in 2015.  Immigration accounts for the majority of population growth in  the nation since the 1960’s and is likely to continue to do so for decades to come.  In 2065, the U.S. population is projected to number 441 million with the increase largely due to immigration of the foreign born to its shores. 

In its embrace of refugees and the self image cherished by most U.S. citizens as the world’s leading refuge for all people fleeing oppression and claiming their rights as human beings, there are strong undercurrents opposing a multi-racial identity.  Foremost among them is the current of fear of “the other” centered historically on the African slaves imported as a critical contributor to the nation’s economic growth.  Since the worldwide outrage in response to the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, the country has explored more deeply than at any time the dimensions and effect of the legacy of white supremacy in our history and culture.  Most of the immigrants to our shores since 1965 are non-white.

Even among U.S. adherents of the Christian religious traditions, very few persons claim as ancestor the middle Eastern Semite identified in this familiar biblical passage: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous”. (Deuteronomy 26:5 in NRSV translation).  White citizens’ resistance to acceptance of our common ancestry with Jewish or Semitic Muslim immigrants, much less the entire human species, is fed by many sources in U.S. history.  While complicated and diverse these diverse sources can be summarized in the phrase “fear of the other”. 

As a people settling on non-white persons’ land who then forced black Africans to work in their fields and factories, we have relied on guns and an ideology of legitimate white rule to defend and develop as our own a land of great abundance.  And that “we” has historically been identified as the land’s white Christian inhabitants.

By the year 2055, non-Hispanic “whites” in the U.S. will be in the minority. No racial or ethnic group will be in the majority but the fact that the white population will lose its dominant presence is testing the nation’s institutions and its coveted status as the world’s leading democracy as never before.  The challenge of the last presidential election results is but one of the threats posed by the historic increase in diversity of the nation’s population base.

Once he entered politics, the former President was careful to avoid blatant appeals to people’s racial prejudice, lack of understanding of other cultures, and fear of “the other”.  Looking back at his pre-campaign public stances, it is preposterous to claim he eschewed racist attitudes or positions.  In 1989 the former President paid $85,000 for front page ads in all the New York City newspapers, including The New York Times in response to his hometown’s hysteria over the charging of five black teenagers for a rape they did not commit.  His stoking of the fear of black youth among the City’s white population is but one evidence of the man’s racism now denied by most of the future President’s supporters.

Not to be ignored however in our focus on race as a cause for the country’s division is the lack of understanding and acceptance of other religions.  While Muslims in the U.S. still account for fewer than 2 % of residents, the number of mosques has more than doubled since 2000.  A reminder of conservative Christian support for beginning the war in Iraq as a modern Crusade has come with the efforts to resettle Afghans following the Taliban take over last summer.

Here in Kansas City, a new “Ambassadors” program for resettling refugees has been started.  In its description of purpose the organizers state, Ambassador Teams come alongside our new-American neighbors so that they might flourish in their new country and follow Jesus into His Kingdom.   U.S. conservative Christian vision of triumphal nationalism has been fed by our wars in the Middle East since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  The former President encouraged and benefited from the vision’s anti-Muslim distortions as he did from the nation’s original sin of white racism.  Whether the nation’s politics and self image as a nation of immigrants will overcome the division and damage caused by our history of ignorance and fear of the other will be determined by the nation’s young civic minded activists of the present and future.

The Global Reach of Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” Speech

The views of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were transformed in the 1960’s by their heightened awareness of the global context of the African American struggle in the U.S.  The Autobiography of Malcolm X describes the dramatic impact on the American Muslim leader’s 1964 sacred pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and also visiting Egypt on the trip.  His travels taught him that the revolution for black freedom and equality in his country was bound up with the movement of oppressed peoples around the world.  This enlargement of his historic role also took shape in the vision and leadership of Dr. King.

In celebrating King’s legacy on the now federal holiday, the Baptist preacher’s emphasis on global solidarity of the poor from 1965 until his death in ’68 is often ignored.  His call for a “revolution of values” is a call for the nation to move from a “thing oriented” system to a “people oriented” system in its international policies.  This would mean, he made clear, that the shift would demand giving priority concern to the effect on the poor worldwide of our policies and not only on those of our nation.  “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”

The speech, delivered in Riverside Church, New York City, one year to the day before his assassination proclaims that the injustice done to anyone in the country is linked to the injustice perpetrated beyond our borders.  The title of the speech “Beyond Vietnam”, we need to remember, is a warning that should the nation fail to recognize the humanity of the Vietnamese people and withdraw our armed forces, we will be fighting next in Venezuela, Peru or El Salvador.  The 37 million people displaced by the U.S. led “War on Terror” since 2001 testify to our nation’s failure to learn the lessons of the Vietnam debacle and take King’s prophetic message to heart.

Although the criticism of the nation’s leading media sources, i.e. the New York Times and Washington Post, focused on King’s opposition to the war in Vietnam, the critique of U.S. policies and presence in the world went much deeper and farther.  It is a speech not just about the U.S. war on Vietnam.  It is a speech about the U.S. defense of an unjust global system.  It is a speech with a global reach.  It is  not just a speech for the Vietnam era.  It is a speech for us today and for the future of humankind.  Here below is the conclusion of the speech:

“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment, we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means, in the final analysis, that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft-misunderstood, this oft-misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man.

When I speak of love, I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response, I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I’m speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the First Epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

April 4, 1967 Rev. King at Riverside Church New York City Speaking at the Event Sponsored by Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says, ‘Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word,’.

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam writes, “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”

*********** ***********************

For an audio recording and the text of the speech go to:

https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm

The Rivers of Soul Music

Mavis Staples joins Mahalia Jackson on “Precious Lord Take My Hand” at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featured in the 2021 documentary film release “Summer of Soul”

“I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” – Langston Hughes “Rivers”

As we in the U.S. grope to imagine becoming a nation respecting, honoring and celebrating its multi-ethnic heritage, music can help us find some encouragement and direction. An argument can be made that the most powerful arm of U.S. culture exported worldwide has grown from its body of music.   

This year’s release of the music documentary Summer  of Soul bolsters our hope that the day of multi-ethnic reconciliation and embrace may still come. It’s hard to imagine a sane human being claiming the U.S. as a white nation after viewing this masterful survey of 1960’s black popular music. Stunning footage of performances at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival inspired the film and will continue to inspire a new vision of ethnic harmony for the country’s future.

Throughout the 60’s Harlem could be described as a community divided by the turmoil of radical change demanded by its leaders.  Malcolm X and not Rev. Dr. King carried more credibility and weight among Harlem’s change makers when the Cultural Feastival was organized.  Not far from the Harlem Park where the concerts took place, a demented black woman had stabbed Dr. King in the chest.  “If I had sneezed”, Dr. King proclaimed in later speeches, “I would not be with you here today”.  A doctor measured the wound as a few millimeters from the heart.  In 1969, eleven years after the attempted assassination, Harlem’s cultural and political activists were even more divided.

Featuring a staggering assembly of musical  styles and talent, Summer of Soul represented the largest gathering of “Negroes” many in the audience had ever experienced. Most viewers, myself included, will be introduced by the film to the gospel choir “The Edwin Hawkins Singers” led by a young woman who looks like  she could have just left a southern field after a hard work day.  Their rendition of “Oh Happy Day” had me feel like the heavens were opening up.  That segment was followed by thirty year old Mavis Staples singing the first verse of “Precious Lord” at the request of Dr. King’s favorite singer Mahalia Jackson.

An instructive footnote added by the film’s debut director Questlove tells us Roebuck Staples, “Pops” to the Staple sisters, was picking cotton in Mississippi when he taught himself the guitar.  With daughter Mavis Staples’ insightful commentary on what the concert event meant to her and to the Harlem community interspersed with the incomparable depth of her singing, Mavis Staples was the headliner of the documentary for this viewer.

Still singing powerfully at age 82, her influence on the current and future history of U.S. music is unfathomable.  Bob Dylan in a recent magazine interview reminisced about listening to Mavis on his 45 rpm. turntable as a high schooler.  It is noteworthy that in Hibbing, Minnesota where he grew up very few “Negroes” lived or were even seen.  Dylan told the interviewer he had his first crush on Mavis Staples.

As for U.S. black music’s impact on whites in the south, B.B. King’s singing of “Why I Sing the Blues” takes us back to the Alabama-born Big Mama Thornton.  Her recording of “Hound Dog” when covered by Elvis Presley at Memphis’ Sun Studio sent his career to the stars and became his signature number in the superstar’s pure rock ‘n roll years.

Within a year of the “Hound Dog” release I saw Elvis perform in Fort Wayne, IN. Gaining access to his dressing room with the friend whose father wrote up the event for the Indianapolis News, it was my first encounter with fame and talent.  That is until I experienced the incandescent explosion of energy and joy in a performance of Jackie Wilson at the Apollo Theater in 1965. 

A black high school senior in Paterson NJ invited me to accompany him that night, the first of a few concerts at the legendary Harlem auditorium where I attended a few concerts in the mid-1960’s.  After visiting Stanley’s relatives in a spacious ground floor Harlem apartment, undoubtedly the first white person not a landlord or government agent to enter there, my friend bought our tickets for the middle of the first balcony.  When Jackie Wilson brought out the cape, red on one side and black on the other, and performed “Your Love is Lifting Me Higher” for over a half hour women swarmed to the stage below us.  No genre of musical performance in my lifetime has ever topped it.  Van Morrison’s hit “What Jackie Wilson Said” testifies to Wilson’s enduring influence on U.S. pop music.     

As does the film’s segment of Sly and the Family Stone on “I Want to Take You Higher”.  One of the “talking heads” taped for the documentary speaks of Sly Stone breaking black music’s color barrier by including a white drummer and singers in his band.  Sly wanted to help build the groundwork for a new society with his hit “Everyday People”, another performance highlight of Summer of Soul.  The potential merger of blacks’ hunger for social change with the boomer generation’s search for alternatives to the degraded values of capitalist America reached a kind of apotheosis with the black group Fifth Dimension.  Their leader recounts finally getting in to see “Hair” at a Broadway theater and being blown away by the cast’s singing of “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In”.  The Fifth Dimension’s melding of the two songs remained number one on the hit parade for weeks and became the top hit of 1969.

Although Dr. King’s disciple and the founder of the Operation Breadbasket movement Rev. Jesse Jackson took over the stage to introduce Mavis and Mahalia, it was the prophetic voice of Nina Simone who interpreted

The Netflix produced 2015 documentary on the career of Nina Simone gained many awards and an Oscar nomination.

most forcefully the political context of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Trained as a classical pianist of great promise, Simone took the stage with the ziggaraut-like hair styling and large gold hoop earrings of an African princess and began singing a fierce “Backlash Blues”.  It reminded her audience that white America was preparing for its suppression of the Festival’s vision and hope with California’s 1967 election of Governor Ronald Reagan. 

“Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just who do you think I am?
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
And send my son to Vietnam”

Nina Simone sang and the tenor of her song’s hope struck a new and different note:

“But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it’s full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige and brown”

The song concludes with the promise that it would be Mr. Backlash who some day would be the one singing the blues.

It is not surprising that the two lead movie reviewers of the New York Times placed Summer of Soul at the top of their consensus choices of the ten best movies of 2021. They wrote, “the film is more than a time capsule: It’s a history lesson and an argument for why art matters — and what it can do — in times of conflict and anxiety.”  You can watch the film on the streaming service of Hulu which offers a thirty day free trial without ads.

Mexican Women Defend Human Rights of U.S. Women

Women hang up a banner declaring “Abortion in Coahuila is no longer a crime” following the Mexican Supreme Court ruling that the Mexican State’s anti-abortion legislation is unconstitutional. (Daniel Becerril/REUTERS)

For years Mexican women crossed the border for an abortion in the U.S.  Until medication was developed which can terminate a pregnancy the options in Mexico were limited in the second most Roman Catholic country in the world. Following the unanimous Mexican Supreme Court September decision ruling the border State of Coahuila’s anti-abortion law unconstitutional, Mexican activists have been offering assistance to Texas women seeking an abortion. 

Co-founder of the Coahuila women’s rights organization Accompañtes Laguna, Laura Hernández, told The New Yorker they had already helped 3 U.S. women and are establishing the protocol to aid more.  “It’s painful to know that not everyone can access the same rights,” Hernández said. “We feel a great responsibility toward women there.” 

Two drugs enable a woman to terminate a pregnancy.  While they both require a prescription in the U.S., in Mexico they are prescribed for treatment of gastric ulcers and other disorders and sold over the counter.  As the Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gerson explains however, a new Texas law criminalizes delivering those medications to women in the seventh week of pregnancy and beyond, potentially placing at risk anyone making them available.

Protestors at Texas’ State capital defend the right to choose. ( Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times)

Another Mexican Right to Choose organization, Las Libres (“The Free Ones”) is now busy building a “confidential network to give women instructions on use of the drugs and accompanying them throughout the procedure.” They offer close oversight on the day the medication is administered and daily check-ins thereafter.   A Las Libres organizer was asked if she is worried about being sued in the U.S. for aiding the women.  “No, not really.”  When asked if Las Libres has found a way around the TX law she responded, “We are doing it.”

In the U.S. today, the right to abortion is threatened  as never before since the historic 1972 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.   Laws restricting access to abortion and calling for harsh penalties if violated are being considered and passed in many States with Republican majority legislatures.  In Texas with the 2021 SB 8 TX law, the New York Times wrote that  “effectively, nearly all abortions in the state have been banned since the law went into effect.”

Appointment during the Trump administration of a sixth conservative justice to the 9 member U.S. Supreme Court has placed on alert activists and the public majority in the country which favors a woman’s right to choose.  With the Court decision to hear arguments in December against a harsh new Mississippi anti-abortion law, Mexican women’s assistance of women in Texas and other States takes on added significance.

Although a minority, the strategies of packing U.S. courts with ideological conservatives, taking control of State legislatures and further restricting access to voting have paid off for Republicans.  Some of the super wealthy intent on expanding their fortunes are bank rolling right wing thinkers in universities, foundations and politics.  At a time when U.S. young adults openly denounce capitalism, some conservative voices have been heard espousing authoritarian rule and the pitfalls of democracy.  Utah Senator Mike Lee wrote a pair of tweets last fall arguing that “democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace and prosperity are.”

Throughout the “American century”, as the publisher Henry Luce named the last century, U.S. relations with other nations sought to promote capitalist economic policies as essential to a democracy.  It now seems likely that this doctrine will be increasingly disputed by partisans of the right and the left.  In such a time of confusion and uncertainty, with little consensus on what is truth and its most reliable source, some of us find cause for hope in the actions and voices of world citizens outside the U.S.

The solidarity of Mexican women with U.S. women choosing to have an abortion is another example of the role of international support and solidarity in the defense and progress of human rights in the world today.  Christians celebrated Sunday November 28 as the first Sunday of Advent, the coming of Jesus of Nazareth.  Traditionally, the theme for that Sunday is hope.  As we contemplate sources of hope in our lives, on the social plane the work of the Mexican activists on behalf of us all stands out.  

Division Street in Every U.S. Town

At the end of 2017, federal and state prisons in the United States held about 475,900 inmates who were black and 436,500 who were white 

Division Street remains the principal east-west residential artery in Atchison, Kansas.  The town is named after a leading defender of slavery who himself “owned” many slaves: David Atchison.  A powerful Senator in the pre-Civil War era, Atchison advocated founding the town on the west side of the Missouri River to bridge the Kansas territory with the pro slavery forces of the State of Missouri to the east..

There are signs of a Division Street in all U.S. towns and cities, in the South and the North.  The multiple deaths of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement and the ensuing mass protests before and during the pandemic have called our attention to these signs of racial separation and conflict.  Let me take you to Indianapolis, Indiana my hometown, the capital of a “free state” prior to the Civil War.

When my family moved there in the mid-1950’s African Americans were virtually banned from purchasing homes north of 42nd Street.  Real estate agents would not show homes in my white neighborhood to potential black buyers; banks denied their mortgage applications.  I grew up with no African American neighbors and no black children attending my elementary school.  In the early 1960’s when support for racial integration and opposition to the City’s discriminatory practices and legislation grew, the neighborhood and City changed.   As black families moved into houses in the area, some realtors contributed to the view that they would bring a decline in neighborhood appearance and property values. This widespread expectation did create a white flight to northern Indianapolis suburbs along with increased profits for realtors. 

By the time I entered high school in 1960, many of my neighbors were African American.  Once the inevitable was accepted, integration took place suddenly and quickly.  I learned that one of the black families on my paper route hosted Rev. Martin Luther King on his visits to the city.   My graduating class at the City’s premier public high school was half African American and included the school’s first black junior prom queen.

Fifty years after my high school graduation, I was dismayed to learn that not all of my class’ white students took pride in the School’s progress in adapting to a more racially diverse student body.  At the reunion in 2014, no reference was made in the program that we had been participants in historic change at the City’s oldest high school.  For some attendees, it was evidently no cause for celebration.

In my wife’s Atchison, Kansas hometown, Division Street is a constant reminder of the conflict that continues to divide this country today. The Street’s name also describes the seated U.S. Congress. Republicans want to preserve the filibuster, a measure originated by southern congressmen to defend segregation and subjugation of the black population in the South.  In response to Republican legislation in a majority of states to limit voting by persons of color, Democrats have now submitted a bill to protect and expand the right to vote .  Without ending the Senate’s filibuster procedure, however, the “For the People Act” has little chance of being approved.

Thanks to the intransigent solidarity of the Republic opposition, expansion of voting rights, substantive measures to reduce income inequality, reform of immigration policies and even urgently needed repair of the nation’s infrastructure will continue to be stalled or voted down.   Inoffensive Republican gestures affirming citizens of color continue as the party’s political strategy for the next elections.  There was near unanimous Republican approval of a national Juneteenth holiday this year in the Congress.  African Americans have for years celebrated the June 19, 1865 freeing of slaves in Texas when a Union general arrived at a State seaport and made the announcement, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  But how many white U.S. citizens now celebrate the Juneteenth holiday?

The spring Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, TN I had a college job in the national headquarters of a leading shoe retailer. There were dozens of low wage “key punch operators”, most of them black and Puerto Rican women and I knew most saw King as a martyred leader.  The day before the King funeral, I protested the company’s refusal to give anyone paid time off to watch and was promptly fired.  How many U.S. citizens still resent the national holiday in January celebrating his birth?  It became a national holiday in 1983 but did not become an official state holiday in all 50 states until the year 2000.

 

Migrant Farmworker Success Stories

The Migrant Farmworker Assistance Fund of Kansas City honored seven graduates from area high schools and community colleges at a July celebration. MFAF Director Suzanne Gladney was present for the birth of six of the graduates.

You’ve been picking onions this summer.  Now someone is taking you to pick peaches and apples somewhere.  You only know it will be as hot as where you picked the onions.  As soon as it begins to cool off, the apples will be picked and your visa will expire.  Then they take you back to the border crossing. 

For three or four years the recruiter returns to take you to the same fields.  The orchard owner notices and likes your work.  He asks if you’d like to work year round and become a “crew boss”.  The pay he mentions exceeds what you ever imagined making. 

You are one of the lucky ones.  In 2020, there were 213,000 H2A temporary agricultural worker visas issued by the U.S.  In 2007 there were 51,000.  Ninety three per cent of the 2020 visas were awarded to Mexican farmworkers.  Estimates of the total U.S. agriculture work force vary widely but most range from 2 to 3 million workers, both seasonal and year round.

Even as a H2A visa holder you are not eligible for most government services.  Your housing is in a field camp, but you are responsible for your health care, sick pay and food when natural disasters or pandemics prevent you from working.  Whether you receive any help with these is up to the owner of the fields.  That is unless there is an organization like the Migrant Farmworker Assistance Fund (MFAF) of Kansas City.

Since its founding in 1984, the MFWAF has been the catalyst for creating a health clinic and a Head Start early childhood education center. MFAF staff and interns have offered farmworker children after school and summer camp programs, assisted with scholarships and counseled families on  opportunities for a college education.  Just retired from 39 years as a Legal Aid attorney, the organization’s founder and leader is Suzanne Gladney.

For workers in the orchards and packing sheds an hour drive east of Kansas City, Suzanne’s legal support has been vital. Adults and family members rely on her to negotiate the byzantine and dysfunctional U.S. immigration system. The MFAF legal and other services help ease some of the farmworkers’ transition to year round employment and residency in the U.S.. 

Many of the workers are from rural Mexico and have never seen a doctor before going to the clinic organized by MFAF.  “They say,” Suzanne recently told me, “why go to a doctor?  You don’t think I’m dying do you?”  Health services and educational opportunities available to workers and family members compensate for the hard labor, long hours, low pay and often poor housing afforded the men and women.

Thanks to MFAF guidance and encouragement, many farmworker children have graduated from nearby high schools and community colleges.  A few have continued their studies and one young man is now studying for a PhD at Catholic University in D.C.  He completed his Masters’ degree in Memphis where he met his wife-to-be, the principle dancer with the Memphis Ballet.  George is one of many success stories of MFAF’s contributions to the lives of Kansas City farmworkers.

In our meeting, I asked Suzanne what keeps her going in her work to maintain funding, guide staff and volunteers, improve living conditions for farmworkers and their families and struggle with U.S. immigration policies.  “It’s the stories that help keep me going” she quickly replied.    

An African Plea for Tolerance and Unity

The only written record in English of the words and teachings of Tierno Bokar Saalif Taal (1875-1939) is found in this book by the Malian diplomat and intellectual Amadou Hampate Ba.

“May our love not be centered upon ourselves! May this love not incite us to love only those who are like us or to espouse ideas that are simililar to our own! To only love that which resembles us is to love oneself; this is not how to love.”

These are the words of the Malian mystic Tierno Bokar Saalif Taal, a disciple of the Sufi tradition of Islam.  The unity of all believers, like the unity of humankind, was basic in his teaching.  

“To believe that one’s race or one’s religion is the only possessor of the truth is an error. This could not be.  Indeed, in its nature, faith is like air.  Like air, it is indispensable for human life and one could not find one man who does not believe truly and sincerely in something.  Human nature is such that it is incapable of not believing in something, whether that is God or Satan, power or wealth, or good or bad luck.”

Tierno (pronounced ‘Chair-no’) Bokar grew up in a devout Muslim household surrounded by social conflict in Segou, a major town of southern Mali.  While periodic battles threatened the population, his mother, aunt and grandmother taught and lived the virtues of love and charity.  Following his father’s flight with one of the contending militias, Tierno and family settled at 18 in the village of Bandiagara where he lived the rest of his life.  As a man who exemplified modesty and humility, he taught that God bestowed faith and wisdom on all peoples regardless of their level of technological advance or education. 

His leading disciple Amadou Hampate Ba wrote that Tierno said, “Contrary to what usually happens, one should therefore not be surprised to find spiritual riches in someone from a people considered as backward, but one should instead be troubled at not finding them in civilized individuals who have long worked on developing their material lives.”  Ba urged us to remember that all of Tierno’s words “came out of a modest room of dried earth, in the heart of black Africa, in 1933”.  Amadou Ba’s 1957 record, published in French, of his master’s teaching was titled A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar in the 2008 English translation. 

Amadou Hampate Ba also published the African proverb “When an elder dies, an entire library burns.” He served on UNESCO’s Executive Committee and wrote many books including memoirs on his long career serving as a “cultural ambassador for Mali and for Africa.

Mali was a French colony and after the Catholic Director of the Office of Muslim Affairs read Amadou Ba’s rough transcript of Tierno’s words, he wrote,  

“These were words in their pure state, words spoken not to exalt man, neither speakers nor listener, but rather truly animating words, spoken with such sincere feeling for the other as to cause god to lie in the heart of the unbeliever, to vivify his faith, and to give a meaning to the lives of everyone.” 

At the age of 33 Tierno Bokar opened his school, or “zawiya”, in Bandiagara.  It was where Amadou Ba began his education.  After years of study in the French schools of “French Soudan”,  Ba spent six months in 1933 with Tierno, his first and foremost teacher.  He took copious notes recording for himself and others what this master of wisdom and faith taught.

Apart from his teachings of tolerance and the unity of humankind, Tierno Bokar appealed to his pupils to find what God was trying to communicate to us through our senses and the “Book of Life”. As Jesus sought to do with the parables, Tierno often based his lessons on seeking the meaning of commonly shared experience. Amadou Ba’s book tells a moving story of his teacher repairing a bird nest and follows it with Tierno recounting an incident when his dog served him as an example of faithfulness. Ba comments, “For him, all of nature, animals and plants included, should be respected because they are not only our nourishing Mother, but they are, moreover, the great divine Book wherein everything is a living symbol and a source of teaching.”

During the six month sabbatical from his post in the French colonial administration Ba asked Tierno whether it was good to study other religions.  The “sage of Bandiagara” replied,

“You will gain enormously by knowing about the various forms of religion.  Believe me, each one of these forms, however strange it may seem to you, contains that which can strengthen your own faith.  Certainly faith, like fire, must be maintained by means of an appropriate fuel in order for it to blaze up.  Otherwise , it will dim and decrease in intensity and volume and turn into embers then from embers to coals and from coals to ashes.”

Tierno Bokar then added, “That which varies in the diverse forms of Religion – for there can only be one Religion- are the individual contributions of human beings interpreting the letter with the laudable aim of placing religion within the reach of the men of their time.  As for the sources of religion itself,” he went on to say, “it is a pure and purifying spark that never varies in time or space, a spark which God breathes into the spirit of man at the same time as He bestows speech upon him.”

With his emphasis on love and humility, Tierno’s teachings on religious tolerance came naturally. A plea for the unity of all believers accompanied his teaching on tolerance:

“Brothers of all religions, let us in God lower the boundaries that separate us. Down with the artificial creations that pit human being against each other….. Let us fly as an eagle with powerful wings towards the union of hearts towards a religion that is not inclined towards the exclusion of other ‘credos’ but towards the universal union of believers, freed from their own selves and morally liberated from the appetites of this world.”

Tierno advocated respect and acceptance for Christian missionaries and colonial officials: “This religion, which Jesus sought to deliver and which was loved by Muhammad, is that which, like pure air, is in permanent contact with the sun of Truth and Justice, as well as with the Love of the Good and Charity for all.”

It is with excitement that I introduce most of you readers to the teaching of Tierno Bokar. I am looking forward to re reading Ba’s book again and expect it will soon fill with my scrawled notes and comments. The lessons of a heightened awareness of what is going on around us in nature, the animal and plant realms in particular, hold a special appeal for me as I approach three quarters of a century in age. I also plan to order the only other book I know of that treats Tierno’s insights on God’s presence. Published in 1984 it is by the author of the introduction to Ba’s book, Dr. Louis Brenner, and is titled West African Sufi: The Religious Heritage and Spiritual Search of Cerno Bokar Saalife Tall .