Monday, March 19, 2018

Faith in Transition

With over a year into Trump’s presidency and three months into my own search for a new church home, this is what I believe:

I believe in God. A personal being. Someone who can be known and understood by what God created.

I respect the Bible, but I don’t feel it contains all of who God is. There is more of God to know and experience outside of the Bible, or any book for that matter. Spiritual growth isn’t dependent upon a book, it’s dependent upon relationship.

The Bible contains many good things about God. And it’s helpful in understanding who God is. But I don’t feel the pressure to believe that it is one hundred percent literal. The Bible is full of allegories and metaphors that lose their power to explain abstract meanings if we take the words at face value.

I believe that one of the main points Jesus made is that God pays more attention to our heart than to what religion we follow. In other words, true religion (just like the prophet Micah says) is bound up in doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Not in adhering to a particular dogma.

I believe that humility is very important to God. In fact, I see humility as one of the cornerstones of a relationship with God. Trust requires humility. I struggle with trust when I’m trying to control a situation or an outcome. Believing that I or my particular brand of faith have the answers to all of life's challenges is the exact opposite of walking humbly with God. Similarly, the more insecure I am in my belief the most insistent I’ll be that everyone should believe and behave exactly as I do.

I believe that my own particular religion is not the only pathway to God.

Fundamentalism doesn’t make sense to me if you consider the diversity of God’s creation and the diversity of the human race. There are thousands of languages and people groups across the world. There are thousands of cultures on the earth. This would make it impossible for humans to agree on a single way to reach God this side of heaven. We would need divine intervention (the second coming?) to achieve agreement on a single, universal faith. 

It doesn’t make sense that God would condemn anyone to hell simply because they couldn’t muster up the faith to believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven. We aren’t smart enough to fully comprehend eternity, let alone God. People who condemn others who don’t share their faith vision may actually be committing the sin of pride.

You can’t trust someone that you don’t love. How can you freely love someone who has the potential to condemn you to eternal hell; especially considering humans are unable to fully comprehend eternity? The human race is notoriously short-sighted.

Curiously, I’m finding that during this time of transitioning to a new church home, I’m becoming increasingly grateful.

I’m grateful for the grace from God to have found the Saturday night gathering I’ve been attending since November, 2017.
I’m grateful for the assistant pastor who runs it and for the people who regularly attend.
I’m grateful for the welcome I’ve received there.
I’m grateful for the neighborhood church I’ve been attending on Sundays for fostering a truly welcoming atmosphere.

Most of all I am grateful to God for continuing to protect me and speak to me through others and guide me.

Photo Credits: top -, middle - shekclifestylecom, bottom -

Monday, March 12, 2018

How's Your Lent Going?

We're currently in the middle of the Lenten season. A season of sacrifice.

According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, sacrifice is defined as "destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else; something given up or lost."

As a kid, I attended a parochial school where the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters asked the million dollar question: What are you going to give up for Lent in order to be closer to God?

Chocolate and candy always came to the top of the list.

Observant Catholics also gave up meat on Fridays - to help us think of the sacrifice Jesus gave on Good Friday. This was mandatory. But still a sacrifice, especially if you didn't happen to like fish sticks or tuna fish.

It wasn't until high school that I remember other nuns suggesting that you could also DO something for Lent, not just give something up.

Like practicing being kind, or helping others.

That was a huge revelation, opening the door to a deeper exploration of sacrifice.

In the book of Micah, God is having a conversation with the people of Israel. He asks a hypothetical question: "Should I come before the Lord with burnt offerings...will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil?"

God answers the question this way: "He has shown you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. " (Micah 6:6-8).

The first type of sacrifice seems to focus on giving up something we have - rams, oil, material possessions.

But God is telling his people that what he's looking for goes beyond material possessions.

It's a sacrifice that's harder.

Doing justice - we're being called to go beyond weekend services in synagogues, mosques and churches. To show up and actively become involved in social justice.

For people living in the 21st century that looks like standing beside refugees and immigrants and supporting them in practical ways. It looks like standing with people of color when they stand up against oppression.  It looks like feeding the hungry, housing the homeless.

Doing justice is a lot more complicated that giving up chocolate!

What is 'loving mercy?'

Could it be looking for the good in others? Extending forgiveness? Not putting our own needs first? Isn't mercy the social lubricant that allows us to do justice in the first place? Because mercy becomes our first response. Our world view. An ingrained part of our thought process towards others.

And what about walking humbly?

Humility allows space for someone else. For another point of view. Humility helps us realize we aren't the center of the universe.

Keeping all of this in mind, you could make a case that true sacrifice requires suffering. Being uncomfortable at times. Going without, or sharing. Not giving in to fear when faced with the unfamiliar. Being willing to admit fear in the first place.

Maybe the call of Lent is actually a call not to deny as much as to grow.

Given all this, what are some practical things we can do to make Lent meaningful?

- Have a conversation with a neighbor you don't know. You could begin by smiling and saying, "Hello!"
- Get to know your elected representatives better by researching their stance on immigration and refugee settlement. Write or call them to encourage efforts that promote kindness and compassion.
- Research organizations that are already providing aid and comfort to those in need, locally seek volunteer opportunities; internationally, consider making a donation.

As Mother Teresa once encouraged, you don't have to go very far to find someone in need.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Helen Fox Gospel Music Center

Helen Fox
Tucked away in an unassuming corner of the Douglass Community Association on Kalamazoo’s inner-city Northside neighborhood is the Helen Fox Gospel Music Center.
The Center was established about one-and-a-half years ago to honor Helen’s memory, with a mission to teach music to children from low-income families, the vast majority being African-American. Helen passed away in 2016 at 96 years of age after more than five decades as a music educator and community mobilizer.
“She was very well known on the Northside,” begins Bridget Tucker Gonder, the Center’s president.

“She loved music and she loved teaching,” says Joseph Fox, her son, who serves as the Center’s vice-president.

“Education was important to her,” adds Gonder. 
So much so that Helen, married and with children, went back to school to get her high school diploma at fifty years of age. 
Eventually Helen began teaching music in a local junior high school. But she also took her lessons on the road, offering to teach children in their homes. At one point, Helen regularly took the Greyhound bus into neighboring Battle Creek to teach children there as well. 
“The bus driver knew my mother very well,” laughs Joseph.
Joseph recalled his mother as being committed, energetic and determined. “She didn’t make excuses [for not tackling a challenge],” agreed Gonder.
And that determination is being passed on  to students through Bertha Barbee-McNeal, one of the instructors at the Center, who taught for twenty-six years in the Kalamazoo Public School system.
“If you have a talent, you should give back,” she says. 
Barbee-McNeal notes that the Center is forging relationships with the greater music community in Kalamazoo, through the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, Kalamazoo Symphony and the Stulberg International String Festival.
Helen Fox (right) with students
The Center has two other instructors, Alexis Terrian, and Devin McGowan, who both teach violin.
Joseph points out that, currently, there aren’t any African-American members in the Kalamazoo Youth Symphony. But the Helen Fox Gospel Music Center is actively working to change that.
Barbee-McNeal’s dream is “to grow [the Center] into an academy with all instruments being taught, along with vocals, including Gospel and choir.”
Joseph’s dream includes the Center eventually having its own free-standing building.
The Center began with four students, but currently has fifteen. Most of the students live in or near the Northside of the city, where ninety percent of the children attending public school are eligible for the free or reduced lunch program.
Because of this economic reality, Bridget points out that the Center has a pay-what-you-can-afford policy. 
“We operate [mostly] on donations and grants,” says Joseph, who adds, “When you’ve been given a vision it’s important to bring it to pass. I don’t sing. I don’t play an instrument. But I’m a big supporter of my mother’s work.”

For additional background information on the Helen Fox Gospel Music Center, visit their website:

If you’d like to support the work of the Center, you can send donations to: Helen Fox Gospel Music Center, PO Box 2621, Portage, MI 49081. The Center is also looking for donations of violins and other instruments. For more information about the Center, you can call 269.365-2826.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Who's Your Messiah?

The Lenten season is a time for Christians to focus on the upcoming commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Separately, those of Jewish faith are looking forward to celebrating the Passover, a commemoration of God's direct intervention, when the angel of death "passed over" their doors. It was the beginning of being led out of Egypt and captivity. Their descendants are also looking forward to the Messiah's coming.

Which begs the question: Who is the Messiah?

In Matthew's gospel, when Jesus asks his apostles, "Who do you say I am?" Peter is the one who quickly steps up and answers for the group. "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." (Matt. 16:15-16).

In response, Jesus affirms Peter, telling him that he's blessed to know this information, "because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you."

Matthew goes on to say: "From then on, Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, and that he would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders..." including crucifixion and then resurrection three days later. (Matt. 16:1-21)

Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him "this will never happen to you!"

This time, Jesus isn't so pleased at his answer.

In fact, Jesus rebukes Peter, telling him "Get behind me satan... You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God's." (Matt. 16:23)

Why was Jesus so angry?

Peter had just been told that Jesus (whom he had identified as the Messiah) was soon going to suffer some horrible things, including crucifixion, before he would be resurrected from the dead.

But death by crucifixion wasn't Peter's idea of what the Messiah should be doing. Peter was putting his own expectations of the Messiah and God above God, and those expectations became an idol (which Merriam-Webster defines as "a false conception, a false god - object of worship).

After rebuking Peter, Jesus told the group of apostles that if they truly wanted to follow him, they should "turn from your selfish ways, pick up your cross, and follow me." (Matt. 16:24).

Jesus wasn't preaching the "prosperity gospel," to his followers. He wasn't guaranteeing that everything was going to be fine once they agreed to follow him. He was saying, quite plainly, there would be pain and suffering to endure in this life. But, somehow, by committing to him, by picking up our cross and following, we too could experience the same power of the resurrection.

This doesn't sound so much like a messiah who is primarily interested in political means. This doesn't sound like a messiah who takes stock in tribal nativism. It's not a messiah who is particularly interested in "making America (or any other nation) great again."

If Jesus felt it was important that Peter understand he had made his own version of the messiah an idol, maybe we should spend time this Lenten season making sure that we aren't doing the same thing.

Has financial security, i.e., our paycheck, bank account or 401(k) become an idol?

Has the country or neighborhood we live in become an idol?

Has the false security found in military strength become an idol?

Has a political party become an idol?

Has our own point of view become an idol?

Has our religious belief system become an idol?

Has the way we identify ourselves, any aspect of who we are, become an idol?

Has our own comfort become an idol?

According to Jesus, the messiah sounds like someone who is calling us to a life of service. Of putting others' needs ahead of our own. Of looking out for the common good. Of loving our enemies as well as our neighbors.

In the Messiah's kingdom, the first will be last.

In the Messiah's kingdom there isn't room for racism or segregation or Jim Crow. There isn't room for religious prejudice.

In the Messiah's kingdom everyone's priority becomes serving others, out of a deep love and appreciation of God. It's a supernatural consequence of loving God with everything that we've got.

So love flows as we wash each other's feet and bear each other's burdens. (To be clear, this isn't an easy transformation. It's a supernatural one. Jesus didn't preach a quick-fix, feel good way of life).

Slowly, the cross that we take up becomes miraculously supported by God's grace. And the crucifixion becomes the resurrection.

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Conversation With Paula Huston, Author

Paula Huston is the author of two novels and seven works of spiritual nonfiction.  Her most recent title is One Ordinary Sunday: A Meditation on the Mystery of the Mass (Ave Maria, 2016).  She lives on four acres on the Central Coast of California with her husband Mike, and is a mother, grandmother, and Camaldolese Benedictine oblate.  For more about her work, please visit her website at


In the prologue to A SEASON OF MYSTERY, you mention two myths about aging. “One is that technology is my friend and if I only am willing to tap into its wondrous resources, I never have to age or die. The second myth is loftier and does not concern itself with wrinkle abatement; instead it assures me that the older I get, the more fascinating, wise and powerful I am destined to become.” You note that “underlying each of these myths is the same, unquestioned modern belief: the purpose of life is to get what I most want before I die.” How does this modern perspective on aging differ from previous generations? And what have we lost?
I’m not sure that we ARE so different from previous generations.  What made the words of Jesus so startling, even back then, was that they flew in the face of cultural givens about what makes life worth living.  People have always striven to get what they want.  The difference in our time is that so many of us are actually able to pull it off.  We have the technology, the money, and the permission from society to pursue our individual dreams in a way that would have been unthinkable, except among the extremely wealthy, during harder times.  And because the fulfillment of personal desires is now possible in a way it didn’t used to be, it’s become the measure of a good life.  We are judged, and judge ourselves, on the basis of whether we’ve gotten what we set out to get.  Yet even as recently as my grandparents’ generation, Minnesota farmers born near the turn of the 20th century, desire-fulfillment would have been an unattainable goal. Simply putting food on the table took everything they had. Elders who survived such hardships automatically accrued respect; they became role models for their children and grandchildren.  What we’ve lost in our time, I’m afraid, is that sense of wonderment at wisdom acquired the hard way.

You suggest that we should “consciously surrender up as many of our worries and plans as possible,” while taking a “deliberate focus on the present moment rather than on the future.” And recognize the consistent themes in our lives “don’t necessarily bear much relationship to reality. To be able to listen with spiritual ears, we have to set aside this self-created tale and simply wait for what comes next.” Much of this seems so against human nature. Is this a particular challenge within western culture, or is this dilemma imbedded within the human race itself?
Jesus’ words about the lilies of the field who neither sew nor spin but are beautifully arrayed by God make those of us who pride ourselves on how responsible we are a little crazy. Isn’t worrying about the future the adult thing to do?  Certainly, we need to prepare for what awaits us—the infirmities of old age, the possible need for a caregiver, mounting medical bills: we don’t want to be a burden to others if we can possibly avoid it.  But instead of just making some reasonable preparations, too often we strive for absolute security.  We convince ourselves that whatever happens in the future is completely up to us. Yet we can never predict what comes next: our best-laid plans crumble in the face of the unexpected. So why devote so much time and energy to what we ultimately cannot control?  Especially when all that earnest striving keep us so preoccupied that we fail to enjoy what’s happening all around us?  Is this a particular challenge in Western culture?  I don’t know.  But I’m guessing that the Western emphasis on “doing it my way” makes for a tougher road as we approach infirmity and loss of autonomy in old age.

You include a great quote by Thomas Merton in your book: “to find the full meaning of our existence we must find not the meaning that we expect but the meaning that is revealed to us by God. The meaning that comes out of the transcendent darkness of his mystery and our own. We do not know God and we do not know ourselves. How then can we imagine that it is possible for us to chart our own course toward the discovery of the meaning of our life?” Your answer is to invite the reader to listen and we’ll hear Jesus knocking (Revelation 3:20). Can you elaborate?
I can’t begin to tell you how many times over the years Jesus has knocked and I have ignored him because I was too preoccupied with my own agenda.  One thing I’ve noticed about becoming a senior citizen, however, is that Jesus’ knocking has gotten louder and I’ve gotten better at responding to it.  I think this may have something to do with losing friends to death. By now, I’ve been involved in the aftermath of too many sudden departures (planning funerals, helping pack up clothing and hauling it to the Goodwill, sorting through books and papers and all the items that people save for decades for no good reason whatsoever) to put overly much stock in my own preoccupations.  It can all end in a moment.  The more urgent question has become, How am I living?  Would I have any regrets if it turned out that today was the day?   

You make an interesting point that “if life’s purpose lies in getting what we want, as our culture insists, then freedom becomes a very big deal.” But this freedom gets in the way of love because we see love as constraining – so intimate relationships are lost. You note that the freedom of the gospels isn’t at all the sort of freedom we seek in 21st century America.  Can you speak to the consequences of this tension?
I think that the consequences are all too obvious.  By “keeping our options open,” we’ve condemned ourselves to living elbow to elbow and yet feeling alienated and alone.  In the midst of thousands, we struggle to find a sense of community. Our skittishness about commitment to long-term relationships of any kind, especially marriage, means that we never experience the deepest mystery of life—the mystery of intimacy with another human being.  The freedom that Jesus talks about in the Gospels is completely different.  He shows us a way out of enslavement to self-centeredness and the deep loneliness this spawns in us.

You make an interesting point about questing (striving for meaning) and how it can get in the way of settling (resting in contemplative awareness). “In our endless questing, we never stumble on a beautiful secret: that God’s time – Kairos time – is always present and available to us… At any instant, if only we are aware enough to catch it, we can enter a suspended moment that contains within it layer upon layer of history…” Can you elaborate?

I got this notion of the “suspended moment” from a technique used by the novelist Virginia Woolf.  She often stops an action scene in mid-stride to fill in everything else that is going on around the main character in the midst of this dramatic moment.  We see the butcher down the street carving pork chops, the flower shop owner burying her nose in a bouquet of roses, the moon going down over India, 20,000 miles away—actually, I am making up these details, but you get the point.  Everything we do at any given moment, no matter how intense and dramatic these few seconds may be for us personally, is part of a great river of ongoing life. A billion other things are happening at any given time. A kairos moment is one in which we momentarily become aware of all that lies beyond the personal. 

You mentioned how a favorite monk friend, Fr. Bernard, greeted a first-time visitor. The visitor asked Fr. Bernard, if he ever got sick of being a monk. Fr. Bernard shook his head and told the visitor the monks have a saying that keeps them grounded. “Memento mori.” The visitor asked him what that meant. Fr. Bernard explained, “Hello, I’m going to die.” Then you note that: “From its beginnings in the third-century Egyptian desert, Christian monasticism has concerned itself with final things…. Physical existence, they believed, is meant to prepare us for eternal life with God. And there is no other way to meet our future except to undergo the terrible transition of death.”  It seems like most of 21st Century western culture, especially now, is moving in the opposite direction. Why? Would you say that ignoring “memento mori,” leads to nationalistic thinking, like a longing to ‘Make America Great Again’?
When we can’t bring ourselves to face reality, our only recourse is to live in fantasy. Assuming that anything created by human beings is going to last forever, whether we are talking about the pyramids of Egypt or 1950s America, is a pipe dream.  Death comes for all of us and the real question is how we are going to use our brief time here on earth.  One time Fr. Bernard was interviewed by a journalist who asked why he’d chosen the monastic life.  “Life is short,” he said, “and I want to live it the best way I can.” 

“We cannot hold on to a single thing, no matter how we try.” I’m curious, what things, in your life, have you found to be particularly hard to let go of?
I have found it hard to let go of people I love when it is time for them to die. I am already grieving as I watch our sweet and innocent grandkids graduate from elementary school and enter the big bad world of junior high. I am finding it difficult to let go of my physical endurance—the old days of fifty-mile Sierra backpacks are clearly coming to an end.  And I think a lot about the eventual, inevitable end of this happy marriage of ours.  No matter which of us goes first, the other will have to learn how to live without that loving partnership.  And that will be the hardest loss indeed.

You describe the Benedictine rule of hospitality as being “rooted in this deep human need to be included, to find a home among caring neighbors.” It sounds genuine, but yet, you point out, “let’s face it; many (if not most) people are not inherently loveable.” In your own life, what’s been the way out of this dilemma?
Over the years, I’ve watched the monastery take in and shelter some wounded, difficult people—not as potential monks, but as temporary workers or guests.  I’ve watched what happens to the angry and the hurting when they are treated with kindness and respect. Hospitality at this level is like a balm for the soul, and sometimes it can even work miracles.  So when I find myself at a decision point in my own life—shall I open my arms and heart and home to this difficult human being or shouldn’t I?—I always think about the patience and gentleness of the monks who refuse to harm a “bruised reed,” as the Bible puts it. 

You think back upon handling the transition from leaving an earlier career as an educator. “Thank heaven for the cloud of witnesses that surrounded me, people from countless generations before who’d taken the trouble to record their own experiences of the dark patches on the spiritual path… Without all of them, those living teachers and long-dead saints, I may have given in to fear and rushed back to the only life I knew – the life of academic striving and artistic ambition – if simply to recover the blessed security of feeling purposeful again.” Why is this particular fear so intense?
I think we rightly fear the loss of purpose in our lives.  We are designed by God to do good work, to create, to love, to commit ourselves to others.  Our careers, especially if they are very satisfying to us, can make our lives feel meaningful and important.  That’s why losing a job can be so devastating.  How will we ever find this sense of purpose again?  One of the biggest challenges of the spiritual life, I think, is to stop equating a purposeful life with a particular career.  To become open to change.  To welcome mystery.  To look toward an unknown future with anticipation instead of dread.  We can only do this if we truly believe that God is interested in us, has work for us, and is patiently waiting for us to stop clinging with white knuckles to what is safe and familiar.    

I absolutely love what you have to say about the modern-day view of the elderly. “The elderly are often the last people we think of as our natural-born teachers. How could they be? They grew up in different times, we tell ourselves. The world has totally changed, we say. They may be quaint, even mildly interesting with all those walking-to-school-in-three-feet-of-snow stories of theirs, but who can connect to them in this day and age? Their attitudes are based on values that have become obsolete. They are irrelevant. Sad, maybe, but these are the facts.” In response, “Some of them [the elderly] simply withdraw, preferring to keep their experiences to themselves or to save them for people their own age, the only ones who can understand…The ultimate result is a Grand Canyon-sized gulf between the very people who should be spending the most time together: wise elders and the young.” What are the ramifications of this rift between the elderly and the young?
I think we are seeing the ramifications of this rift in the obvious distress that plagues so many young people today.  Too many kids suffer from depression, anxiety, or a perspective on life that’s confined to the personal and emotional.  Their busy parents, usually both working full-time, do their best to help, but the only people who really have the time to connect on a deep level are the older generation.  I know that I am a much better grandma than I was a mother, and this is primarily because I have the time and mental space and, let’s face it, life experience to handle with equanimity and good cheer the hurts and confusions and longings that my grandkids and other children bring to our table.  I loved watching my husband, who taught public school for 35 years, sitting on the sofa helping 5-year-old Sophie learn to read before she started kindergarten.  There’s a natural rhythm between old and young that is a blessing for both; when that gets disrupted, it’s a major loss for our culture. 

Towards the end of A SEASON OF MYSTERY you offer a couple of examples of incredible grace. Henri Nouwen leaving a solitary, scholarly life, to become part of the L’Arche community, finding grace living among those who are physically and mentally challenged. And Fr. Chris, a friend, who became afflicted with Devic’s syndrome. Fr. Chris had been used to doing everything for himself, but, for a period of time, the only thing he could offer his caregivers was love.  Is this part of the bigger picture? The way to see aging? And dying? To open ourselves up to a deeper experience of love? Of grace?
There is no doubt about this.  My closest friend, just a year younger than I am, was struck by MS a decade ago.  Our relationship became deeper as her physical disabilities became more pronounced.  Now that she is mostly in a wheelchair, I am often her “pusher.”  This friendship of ours has become a constant source of grace for me.  I am in awe of the way she deals with constant pain, the loss of her mobility, the sorrow over her inability to work anymore.  Every time I am with her, I learn something new about faith, patience, and what happens to people when they pray without ceasing.  The gift I receive from her each time we are together is pure love, which is an enormous source of strength for me.  I think this is what the aging have to offer: a view of reality we often can’t access as busy, striving middle-aged folks, and a hard-earned conviction, grounded in love, about the most important things in life. 

In terms of your writing process, is there a certain time of day that works best for you? Place? Do you have any tips to offer to writers?
Oddly enough, I go to my studio up in the pine trees at about 2:00 each day and write till 6:00.  This makes dinner pretty late each night, but it’s the time that seems to work best for me.  I need to be totally away from the house, the bills, the dishwasher, the laundry, to sink deeply into the writing.  My advice to would-be writers is this: find a place to work that is only for your writing, even if it’s just a card table set up somewhere in the house.  Find a schedule that is realistic and then stick with it.  And give yourself Sundays off!

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Just that I appreciate the invitation to go a little deeper into some of the issues I talk about in Season of Mystery.  That was a special book for me, and by now it’s not one of my more recent, so I was glad to get these insightful questions of yours. I can tell that I am already in quite a different place than I was when I began writing the book seven  years ago.  Then, I was more focused on the aging of those around me; now I am in the middle of my very own adventure!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Trump and White Evangelicals

Johnnie Moore
Eight-one percent of white evangelical protestants who voted in the November, 2016 presidential election voted for Donald Trump.  They constituted one of the highest concentrations of his supporters and undeniably helped elect him president.

The Pew Research Center reported that at the time of Trump's election, seventy-eight percent of white evangelical protestants approved of him. A year later that support had declined to sixty-one percent.

Forty-six percent of white mainline protestants approved of the way he was governing a year later (via a Pew Research Center survey conducted in Nov. and Dec.)

Among black protestants and Hispanics, it's a very different story. Trump had a seven percent approval rating among survey respondents, which was consistent with their support at the time of the election. The approval rating among Hispanics remained the same, at seventeen percent.

In January, the Pew Research Center asked if Trump's election had led to worsened race relations. Sixty percent of respondents said yes, compared with only forty-six percent at the time of his election.

Given this background, an article in last week's New York Times bears particular relevance. In the article, Johnnie Moore, one of a core group of white evangelicals who advises Trump, boasted that his group continued to have influence with the president via special "listening sessions."

"This White House," Moore stated, "is open to evangelicals."

Moore went on to say that he personally visited the White House about twenty times last year. "Not a day goes by that there aren't a dozen evangelical leaders in the White House for something." One almost has to assume that they are mostly white.

Which begs the question: What sort of influence do Moore and the rest of the dozen evangelical leaders really have over the White House or the current president?

Robert Jeffress, another member of this evangelical advisory group, said "I can't look into the president's heart to know if he really believes in these positions [that the group is advocating]... but frankly, I don't care. As a Christian I'm seeing these policies embraced and enacted and he's doing that."

One could infer from Jeffress' statement, that the evangelical group doesn't pay much attention to the way Trump or his advisors in the White House act in their personal lives.

What Moore and Jeffress seem to be missing is that, many of the current president's actions and actions of his staff are anything but Christian.

To take just one example, witness the recent blow-up over allegations of domestic violence on the part of one of Trump's ex-senior advisors. Two of this former advisors' ex-wives reported significant abuse. Serious enough to have Trump's chief of staff ask for the advisor's removal. In speaking about the situation, Trump has said nothing about the abuse, while praising the advisor's work.

Speaking of the president's chief of staff, John Kelly, Mr. Kelly came under fire after the Charlottesville debacle as saying the Civil War was the result of a failure to compromise [over the issue of slavery.]

That same event in Charlottesville caused the president to remain pointedly silent for a day, then say there were "good people on both sides," meaning the KKK as well as the civil rights demonstrators who were present. As you may recall, Trump refused to admonish the KKK.

Would Mr. Moore or Jeffress call any of these actions Christian?

And while the president has publicly proclaimed he is now against abortion, he is also set to deport about one million DACA "Dreamers" in early March, refusing to take a leadership role in reaching a legislative solution to the issues of immigration and refugees. In fact, the current administration is seeking to lower the number of immigrants and refugees admitted to the US to historic lows in modern times.

How are these actions pro life?

Robert Jeffress
It seems as if the white evangelical movement is fixated on the term pro-life, to the extent that many of them are blindly excusing practically all of the current president's/his advisor's behavior in exchange for that one consideration.

Perhaps the time has come to consider a broader definition of pro life to include the rest of life after birth; calling such actions "life affirming." This would include taking a stand to support DACA, Medicaid expansion, SNAP (food stamps) and standing against the current administration's plan to pay for significant increases in the military budget and building a wall across the Mexican border with significant cuts to Medicare and other social services.

As to the Judeo-Christian definition of religion, here's what is found in Micah, Chapter 6: "...the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the LORD your God."

Jesus' own mission statement was taken straight from Isaiah when Jesus spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth: "The spirit of the LORD is upon me, Because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD..." (Luke 4:18)

Most all major world religions aim to take the focus off of ourselves and on to others. The standard for living is simple, get along with others, treat them as you would like to be treated. It seems that the current president has been the very definition of one who cannot seem to understand this one, basic truth.

I would ask Mr. Moore, Mr. Jeffress and any other member of their particular evangelical crowd: Do Mr. Trump and his advisors fit the definition of a Christian that you want others to emulate? And if not, how can you say you are having any kind of an influence in the White House?

Mr. Moore, I would ask you, specifically, what are you discussing when you go to the White House and "personalize" issues for the president and his staff?

All of this leaves the lingering, overarching question: What is the point behind the dozen (mostly white) evangelicals coming to the White House on a daily basis?

G.K. Chesterton once said, "Let your religion be less of a theory [or adherence to a dogma] and more of a love affair."

After all, Jesus himself , speaking of the Pharisees, said that "by their fruits you will know them."

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Greensboro Four - Civil Rights Heroes

The Greensboro Four
On February 2, 1960 Ezell A. Blair Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil and Franklin McCain - four African-American students at North Carolina A & T University in Greensboro - began a sit-in at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter. [Here's a timeline of the demonstration].

They had been meeting privately, discussing the issue of segregation, and decided to do something about it.

These four young men walked into the Woolworth store around 4:30 that afternoon, sat down at the "Whites Only" lunch counter, ordered coffee and were refused service. They remained at the counter until closing time.

The next day twenty-five men and four women went back to the Woolworth lunch counter with them. This time white patrons heckled them as a TV camera caught the demonstration, along with reporters from both local newspapers. Once the news of the sit-in spread, a Student Executive Committee for Justice was formed to plan future demonstrations. The NAACP lent their support as well. And Blair, Richmond, McNeil and McCain became known as the Greensboro Four.

Ezell Blair Jr./Jibrell Khazan
By Wednesday, February 3, more than sixty students, one-third of them female, joined the sit-in. Students carpooled to the Woolworth store in shifts. The KKK showed up and the national headquarters of F.W. Woolworth issued a statement that their policy towards segregation "would abide by local custom."

By Thursday, February 4 more than three hundred students (from No. Carolina A & T, Bennett College and Dudley High School) joined in the protest. Some students went to SH Kress Co.'s lunch counter to spread the sit-in.

Within a few days, the sit-in movement had quickly spread to Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and even the Woolworth store in New York City. By Easter weekend of April 16-17 a meeting of sit-in leaders was held at Shaw University in Raleigh, NC, making it a national movement.

David Richmond
On July 25, F.W. Woolworth in Greensboro began to serve all customers, regardless of color. Four Woolworth's employees became the first African-Americans to be served there. The same day The Kress store's lunch counter in Greensboro became integrated.

By August, 1961 over 70,000 people had participated in sit-ins, mostly in the south - at "Whites Only" lunch counters, kneel-ins at segregated churches, sleep-ins in segregated motel lobbies, swim-ins at segregated pools, read-ins at segregated libraries and play-ins at segregated parks.

The Greensboro Four had begun a movement that ultimately spread across the US, resulting in major efforts to integrate public institutions.

Joseph McNeil
All of the Greensboro Four found difficulty staying in Greensboro after graduation, being labeled as troublemakers. Ezell Blair, Jr. moved to Massachusetts to attend the New England Conservatory of Music. He eventually worked as a teacher and counselor to developmentally challenged individuals in New Bedford. In 1968 he joined the Islamic Center of New England, changing his name to Jibrell Khazan.

Franklin McCain was originally from Washington, D.C., moving south to attend North Carolina A&T. He earned bachelor's degrees in biology and chemistry and a master's from that institution. After graduation McNeil moved to Charlotte, NC where he worked for Celanese Corporation for thirty-five years. McNeil died in 2014 from respiratory complications

Joseph McNeil joined the Air Force after graduating from North Carolina A&T. He had a thirty-seven year career in the military, retiring with the rank of Major General.

Franklin McCain
David Richmond was the only member of the Greensboro Four who returned to the town to live. Nine years after his graduation he came back to take care of his ailing mother. Eventually, Richmond found work as a housekeeping partner at the Greensboro Health Care Center. Richmond died in 1990 of lung cancer, at 49 years of age. At his memorial service, Richmond was awarded a posthumous Doctor of Humanities degree from his alma mater.

All of the Greensboro Four had the trajectory of their lives changed by their involvement in the sit-in movement. They influenced an entire national movement that eventually resulted in the integration of thousands of public spaces in the south and elsewhere.

Photo Credits: mostly from Wikepedia