Category Archives: Solidarity, Community and Citizenship

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 .

Our Neighbors are Dying from Vaccine Resistance

Following the Mayor’s October 2020 mask ordinance, citizens of Nixa in southern Missouri petitioned for a recall election. Nixa is in Christian County where only 35% of the population has been vaccinated and COVID cases are diagnosed at a rate seven times higher than the U.S. per capita rate. (Photo by Nathan Papers, Springfield News-Leader)

Five years after our move from California to the Missouri side of Kansas City, I thought the culture shock was behind me.  I did know and had told friends that the adjustment was felt here more than adapting to life in San Luis Potosi in central Mexico.  Until now though I hadn’t really grappled with the vast differences of life in the State of Missouri after thirty plus years in California.  The response of people in Missouri to the COVID pandemic, especially in the rural areas of the State, reflects a gulf in outlook and values much greater than I had heretofore realized.

According to a “WalletHub” study, there is now a greater risk of contracting the COVID -19 in Missouri than in any other state in the U.S.  Health facilities in the southern part of the State are now overwhelmed by the number of COVID infected patients.  The fire chief in Springfield, the largest town in southern Missouri, stated last week “This is a mass casualty event, happening in slow motion” and declared, “Our community is in crisis”.  Low vaccination rates particularly in southwestern Missouri are the major factor in the high death rates from COVID.  The CEO of the Springfield’s Greene County Health Department tweeted, “Likely all recent deaths were avoidable with vaccination, perhaps a few would have had cold like symptoms.”

Although health officials in the area continue to plead the case for vaccination, resistance is still high.  Head of Cox Health Services, which manages several hospitals in southwest Missouri, declared, “If you could see the exhaustion in the eyes of our nurses who keep zipping up body bags, we beg you.”  Taney County, with a Cox Hospital in Branson, ranked number 10 in the nation in new infections the week after the July 4 holiday.  Only one in four persons in the County has been vaccinated.

Resistance to vaccination accompanies resistance to mask wearing by many people in Missouri. The town of Nixa with 21,000 residents south of Springfield, will soon vote on whether to remove its mayor.  Infuriated by the mayor’s imposition of a mask wearing ordinance last October, citizens petitioned for the recall vote.  Missouri’s Governor Mike Parson who hails from southern Missouri has customarily made public appearances maskless and contends it is a “personal matter”.  But the alarming climb of the rate of COVID infections in his State has now led him to request federal assistance in combatting the virus.  His official bio still claims that “Missouri has outperformed projections for both COVID-19 and the economy and continues to meet each challenge head on”.

Surpassing the Governor’s influence on COVID response in southern Missouri has been the former President’s laissez-faire attitude on citizen protection.  There was no challenging of the 2020 presidential election results after Trump was backed by 57 % of Missouri voters.  His support in the southern part of the State was overwhelming.  Three counties in the south which are expected to see a tripling of COVID cases in coming weeks voted for the defeated incumbent by a 76%, 78% and 82% margin.

With multiple health care officials at the State and local levels emphasizing the spread of COVID in Missouri, the Governor has urged a calm response.   “I don’t think we need to be out there trying to scare people into taking a vaccine” Parson told reporters after a Kansas City press conference.  That statement followed his warning that the federal aid in Missouri’s anti-virus efforts should not include a door to door information campaign.  A White House official called the Governor’s description of the federal three-pronged plans a “mischaracterization”.

Political posturing in the Governor’s fulfilling his responsibilities is especially lamentable when so many poor nations are now pleading for access to the vaccine.  Due to the recent assassination of the country’s President, we in the U.S. now are aware there have been no COVID vaccination programs in Haiti.  As of mid May, the UN reported that less than 2% of the vaccinations in the world have been administered in Africa. Although widely available throughout the State of Missouri, less than 40% of the population has chosen to be vaccinated.