Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Flip-Flopping With the Truth

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Over the past four years, there have been plenty of instances where former associates of the forty-fifth president spoke out against him – after safely disengaging from his administration.

There’s John Bolton (who called the forty-fifth “erratic, stunningly uninformed and unfit for office.") John Kelly who remarked that the forty-fifth was the first president he knew who “does not try to unite the American people.”) Rex Tillerson (who said that the forty-fifth “doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things.") And former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who did a famous flip-flop, conveniently endorsing the forty-fifth after his surprise victory.

And most recently, we have John Boehner, former Speaker of the House, giving his take on the forty-fifth's role in the January 6th insurrection, remarking, "he incited that bloody insurrection."

Most of the above-mentioned folks have written books about their experiences. 

None of them spoke up at the time that the forty-fifth was acting out.

Which begs two questions: Why didn't they speak up when they had the chance to influence history for the good?  Why did they speak up only when touting their new books?

Perhaps two of the more blatant examples of cowardice belong to former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Lindsay Graham.

When the Senate was considering the second impeachment of the forty-fifth in January, McConnell led his party in saying it was unconstitutional. His "firey" speech, denouncing the forty-fifth was given only a few minutes after he voted for the forty-fifth's acquittal. 

Among other things McConnell said almost immediately after the acquittal was this:

"Fellow Americans beat and bloodied our own police. They stormed the Senate floor. They tried to hunt down the Speaker of the House. They built a gallows and chanted about murdering the vice president.

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They did this because they had been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth – because he was angry he'd lost an election."

McConnell went on to say that the forty-fifth's actions the day of the riot "were a disgraceful dereliction of duty."

One is left to wonder why McConnell remained complicit for a month-and-a-half as the leader of his party continued to feed "wild falsehoods" about the election that he lost? What was McConnell's thinking when he refused to acknowledge President Biden's win until December 15th?

As for Graham, his flip-flopping happens so often, it would most surely win him a gold medal if there were such an event in the Olympics. 

Back in 2015, before the forty-fifth became his party's standard-bearer, Graham said, "I'm disgusted," with the things the forty-fifth was saying. "I want to talk to the T***p supporters for a minute. I don't know who you are. I don't know why you like this guy..."

In a speech during the impeachment trial, Graham denounced the forty-fifth and the falsehoods the forty-fifth spread for two months in denying the results of the election. 

Then, Graham, like McConnell voted for acquittal. And further, traveled to Mar-A- Lago to reconcile with the forty-fifth.

And while Boehner hasn't necessarily made a career of steering clear of the truth, one still is left to wonder about the uncanny timing of his most recent freestyle ranting, tied to his upcoming tell-all, way-after-the-fact book.

Many opinion writers have stated that the lack of remorse on the part of McConnell and particularly Graham, and the actions of former members of the forty-fifth's administration, point to the strength of the forty-fifth's hold over what used to be the Republican party.

I would offer that the actual point to be made is that all of these actions are evidence of a stunning lack of moral character. Fed by fear.

It's as simple as that.

Spiritually speaking, especially among Christians, we're told that the "truth will set us free."  John 8:32. 

Other relevant verses include John 4:24, Psalm 25:5, Psalm 43:3, Psalm 52:6, Psalm 15:2-3, Psalm 34:13 and Psalm 12:29.

The main point of these scriptures seems to be that truth is important, that it should guide our actions. But if truth doesn't guide what we say and what we do, then we're in big trouble. 

Of course, this implies that we are actively seeking the truth in the first place. 

And, when all is said and done, it's the truth that we need to seek and heed moving forward.

For another take on seeking and following the truth, try Beth Watkins's piece for the Salt Collective, written in 2019. 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Carol Howard Merritt's Healing Spiritual Wounds: A Review

Carol Howard Merritt’s book, Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting With a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church, begins with an explosive situation.

The book opens with a panic-stricken teenager, (the author), retreating into her room to escape an abusive father. As her father and mother are caught in their own brokenness, the teen begins to ask a series of questions, each ending with a haunting refrain.

“Fear choked me as I heard the voices of my mother and father, rising and cresting, with angry rhythms. I tried to figure out a strategy if it became dangerous… What should I do?”

Fortunately, God seems to meet her, at least temporarily, to calm her down. She simply breathed deeply, sat down on her bed and “an overwhelming sense that it would be okay – that I would be okay – flooded me. God surrounded me and embraced me.”

Merritt grew up in a Christian household, but the religion didn’t lend itself to answers, and, to a large extent, was a source of the problem. To begin to unravel unholy church experiences is complex, says Merritt. Especially for individuals who choose to hold onto their spirituality, no matter how wounded they have become.

“I wasn’t afraid to ask the questions or deal with the consequences if I eventually found religion unbearable,” she writes. “It’s just that when someone complains of religious wounds, we’re often told to quit going to church and disconnect from spiritual practices. No doubt this works for some people, but others see the world through an irremovable religious lens. Asking us to stop believing and practicing would be so unnatural that it would cause certain blindness.”

From this point, Merritt begins to deconstruct the fundamentalist, paternalistic brand of Christianity she grew up with, and, at the same time, offers meditative practices to foster healing.

“When students of humankind want to understand a culture, they take a careful look at its religions, myths, and artifacts. A society that worships a wrathful God will reflect violent characteristics and honor those traits in its people. They will begin to believe that God calls them to war rather than forgiveness.

“It’s not just an anthropological understanding, but it is also a neurological reality. Worshipping an angry God changes our cerebral chemistry. The amygdala, that primeval bit in the brain that triggers fear and anger gets a workout when we worship a God of fury, it becomes stronger, and we can begin to reflect that rage.”

By extension, Merritt argues that individual views of God can be reflected in society. A God of wrath creates guilt and shame. A God of love creates a society in which peace and love are valued.

To counteract these outcomes, Merritt introduces several examples of meditative exercises meant to help readers re-engage the church. One of the first meditative exercises that Merritt suggests is to realize that “Often God’s presence is understood through creation or actions, and the way to God is diverse… Can you recover your union with God through creation? Go on a walk, if you’re able. Look around, particularly at the elements that surround you, and finish these sentences:

God is like air, because…

God is like fire, because…

God is like the ground, because…

God is like water, because…”

The whole point is to latch on to what elements of creation “makes you most alive to God’s presence… then intentionally practice these things… [K]now that an important healing process is taking place as you learn to love God and be loved by God.”

A big part of emotional healing for Merritt is the realization that “there are core emotions such as anger, sadness and joy. And there are inhibitory emotions such as guilt, anxiety, and shame. When we experience core emotions, we also experience the release that follows. But the inhibitory emotions block a person from feeling core emotions and thus from feeling the release.

“Religion can be an especially powerful inhibiting force, because religious messages so effectively produce guilt and shame…

“[I]n order for us to have wholeness, we need to reclaim our emotional shards. You can start to do this by acknowledging your emotions.”

Merritt suggests that readers “take your emotional temperature, and check in with yourself throughout the day.” And then noticing patterns of behavior – “do you feel guilt surrounding certain emotions? Do you try to pretend some feelings don’t exist? Do you have a go-to emotion? Does gender factor into your emotional life?”

She offers an exercise to help accomplish this.

Later on in Healing Spiritual Wounds, she argues that how we view ourselves has ramifications on our world view. As Jesus taught, the ability to love ourselves is wrapped up in our ability to love others.

“How one views oneself is a common concern when people are longing for spiritual wholeness. It makes sense. Advertisements swarm us each day, reminding us of what we do not have… The average American is exposed to three hundred sixty ads every day… Every hour we are awake, we are told twenty-two times that we not rich, thin, young, beautiful, ripped, or stylish enough…

“Even though our culture has been criticized for being too narcissistic, being overly self-conscious can be a mask one learns to put on to hide damage and abuse. In the midst of all this, our religious understandings don’t always help…”

Merritt relates her own experience of attending a seminary that taught a fundamentalist doctrine. “Through the practice of evangelism, I realized I was hurting people with the premise of my evangelism. I thought we all deserved to go to hell.”

Carol Howard Merritt
As part of her seminary training, Merritt had to hit the streets of Chicago, witnessing to people. “I believed that God would send these beautiful people to eternal suffering unless they repeated the magic words [of the Salvation Prayer] after me. If I loved them, after fifteen minutes of noticing the curve of their cheeks and the angle of their nose, wouldn’t God love them more? Or was God’s wrath so violent that it caused some sort of divine blindness? If God created them, and blew breath into them, why would God care about that prayer, that random recipe for salvation? And what did I really believe about people if I thought that we all deserved eternal burning?”

Merritt makes an excellent point when she writes, “The denigrating images our religious traditions can inflict on people can move us to imagine ourselves as lowly creatures, undeserving of God’s love… Much of this belief system was designed to highlight the grace of God, but it is unnecessary to make a creature look bad in order for a Creator to look even better.”

Once again, Merritt offers a meditative practice to help clear the theological air.

She takes on Augustine, noting that he “moves the realm of sin from what we do to who we are. The sin is no longer an action, but a being, a woman. So he makes a distinct, damning move from guilt to shame when he judges not the action but the person.”

Merritt takes on proponents of the ‘prosperity gospel’ who preach a “faith as palpably demonstrated by wealth and places the individual over community. It’s message that ‘God wants to bless you with wealth….’ Disseminating the idea that money equals the good life, and that if you do what the Lord wants, then you will reap those blessings…

“The shadow side of these beliefs can heap shame on the poor and lead to the understanding that those who struggle deserve their lot in life…” So economic inequality fueled by social injustice gets ignored. On this point Merritt concludes: “As we keep hiding our hardships, individual responsibility turns into isolated suffering.”

About the subject of patriarchy in the church, Merritt defines it as “a system that promotes male privilege, or an unearned advantage that’s available to men while it’s denied to women…

“A patriarchal society has an obsession with control because patriarchy maintains its privilege through restraining women or men who might threaten it… In the religious arena, Christianity remains male-dominated, identified, and centered through our masculine ideas of God, by not allowing women to be in authority, and by building its theological systems based solely on the actions of men.”

Towards the end of Healing Spiritual Wounds, Merritt discusses the central idea of fundamentalism – individual salvation – versus corporate salvation.

“When a loving mother suffers a miscarriage, it would be cruel to fault a mother for the loss. Instead, we honor her grief and suffer with her. In the same way, when we suffer wounds, we can understand the nurture and comfort of God, who is the source of all life. Through this shift, we move from understanding salvation as an individual act of submitting to the Father to realizing that we work alongside God for the salvation of all creation… God saves us not in a solitary act of murmured a prayer but through pulsing, vibrant community. It is not because of our individual striving or saying some magic words. The act of salvation begins and ends with God, and we can participate in it if we wish, for God is pregnant with us and all of creation.”

Merritt continues: “If I were to be born of God, then God had to be mother… A good mom. She was a mother who would love her children, no matter what that child might do and no matter what her child might believe. God would mourn with loss and rejoice with pleasure.”

With these ideas of religion and God, Merritt explains “God didn’t withhold favor based on a particular belief system… God was not over me, judging me, waiting for my missteps. God was under me, grounding me. My faith didn’t have to be a constant struggle to win God’s approval because God was for me.”

For those struggling with past hurts due to religion, or faith stream; for those hungry for a deeper spiritual understanding and connection with God, I highly recommend Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Abbigail Rioux, Curriculum Consultant: "It All Starts With an Idea"

Abbigail Rioux
Abbigail Rioux grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia before making the big west coast/east coast jump in 2002 when she moved to New York. What started out as a four-month internship opportunity turned into an intense full-time life spent in Bushwick, Brooklyn, working for a Christian inner-city, non-profit organization.

Abbigail held the position of Education & Training Director for some 10 years before deciding on another big move. In 2019 she made a giant leap across the pond, this time landing in Den Haag, the Netherlands. It’s here in the Netherlands that she's now established her own consultancy business in the field of creative (& FUN) faith-based education & training development.

You were with Metro World Child for 10 years as head of Metro's education and training programs. Could you give a sense of what motivated you to come to New York? And how you chose Metro?

I went to New York to do the four-month internship program that Metro had running at the time. That was in 2002. Metro was something that I just 'stumbled upon' in a sort of random way, a brief visit to the city to connect with a friend, and in that short time period, I was then introduced to the ministry. I was instantly intrigued and felt it was the right next step to apply for the internship program, though in all honesty, I knew very little of what that entailed at the time! After that four-month period, I was invited to join the Sidewalk Sunday School staff. During the years that followed, I often had the opportunity to work closely with Gloria Bridgeman and her dept, the woman running Education and Training at the time, and she eventually offered me her position when she resigned.  

Looking back on that experience, what are a few lessons you learned while at Metro?

So many lessons. It's so hard to narrow it down to a few. 

In terms of my work and skills acquired for what I do now, it all was developed during my time at Metro. I'm grateful for that and for those who poured into me and taught me while I was there. I've learned the value of true and lasting friendships. Some of my closest friendships and the people I'm in touch with the most are relationships I made there. 

I learned to aim to love people without an agenda, and that I think came about having learned very well how to love people with an agenda (that's the byproduct of a large and 'successful' ministry I think). I learned to build into other people and encourage their gifts and talents and give them space to flourish. And not to hold on to a position or title. I learned that God is trustworthy in taking care of the details of my life and working things out and together for my good. I learned that working with kids is so much fun and truly life-giving (and I miss that part a lot). I learned that having balance in my life, work and 'ministry' and personal and all of it, is not only good and healthy but something that I prefer. 

How about your move to the Netherlands? What was the motivation for the change?

For some time I knew in my heart that my time at Metro was coming to a close, I didn't know however what my next step was going to look like AT ALL. Toward the end of 2017 is when I finally handed in my resignation, my suggested succession plan and person for the department, etc. I still had zero clue as to what my next step would be. 

I was in the process of getting my United States citizenship so I was stuck in the country for an indefinite amount of time (so actually a terrible time to quit my job really). I was basically faced with being jobless and homeless, but then Metro offered me a completely new job while I waited: to build a Metro Kids website. And then after that, to redo their Metro World Child website. I had no experience or knowledge when I started, but it taught me so many things that I am now putting to use in my own business today! God works in really cool ways. It was a couple of months into my Education & Training Department resignation and new website work that I was invited to meet for a coffee with a man named Christian Peters. 

He had heard that I had resigned from my position and was wanting to tell me about what he and his wife's organization, Hope for One, did. Our conversation was maybe an hour and I knew in my gut that was my next step. Christian had proposed the idea of working remotely from anywhere in the world near an airport but said that Europe (or Africa even) would probably be more convenient. So that's where my thoughts and plans went towards. Initially, I thought I'd be moving to Berlin, but for various reasons that wasn't working out and I was unsure of what to do next. But since I'd been staying with some friends in Holland, I visited a Dutch immigration lawyer, and as it turned out, with my new American citizenship that I had just acquired, and thanks to a treaty between the United States and Holland, I was able to live and work in the Netherlands if I started my own consultancy/freelancing business. Choosing The Hague was purely a strategy to put me an equal distance between the only two cities where I had close friends living and was a straight shot on a train up to the airport!     

You now are a consultant, doing curriculum development, training, and copywriting. With an emphasis on faith-based teaching for kids. Could you talk a bit about each of those components of your consulting work?

Regarding curriculum - I can develop a large set of lessons (ie. a five-year, 52-week complete set), or individual themed lessons to address a specific topic, sets of devotionals, or even themed packages for a week of Vacation Bible School. 

Regarding training - Depending on what someone's needs are, I can develop a training course or package based off of content I already have or expand and develop new material based upon their request. 

Regarding copywriting - With all of the writing that I do, I've found that various opportunities for copywriting have come up (website copy, book snippets, speech writing, etc.) and it's not surprising to me that I quite like that type of work, too. I just really enjoy writing!    

You have done a lot of work for Hope Clubs, which offers curriculum and training in Germany, Central Africa, and West Africa. What has that experience been like?

My experience has been really good. I've been impacted greatly and incredibly challenged in many ways also. 

It's been a challenge to take my background in kids ministry and all of the principles and knowledge that I have in curriculum writing and training, and then creatively adapt it all and be able to apply it to a wide variety of regions and people. 

I love being a part of something that is about empowering others and basically working myself out of a job (one aspect of my role is training trainers globally and working myself out of the picture so that it's locally run in the long term).

What is it like to do consulting work that involves such distinct cultures? What lessons have you learned?

It can be super challenging. It takes time and I think that learning different cultures is like learning a different language. It takes patience and humility I would say, spending a lot of time listening to how others think and operate and not 'coming in hot' with your way of doing things and thinking you're always right or that somehow you know best in an environment that you've literally never stepped foot into before. So I think it's important to value and respect people and listen to others and their perspectives and work together to see what's needed, what will actually work (on the ground, not just in theory), and be open to finding creative solutions together.  

Your website contains the tagline, "It all starts with an idea." Can you expand on this a bit?

I truly believe that everything starts with an idea. If you can think it, you can create it. From a single idea, you can brainstorm it, build it out and tangibly create it. I absolutely love ideas and the process of creating something from scratch. 

For more information about Abbigail Rioux and her consultancy business, check her website.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

CASTE: The Origins Of Our Discontents, A Review

Isabell Wilkerson
Isabell Wilkerson won the Pulitzer prize in Journalism while she was Chicago bureau chief for the New York Times. CASTE, The Orgins of Our Discontents, is a follow-up to her book THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS.

“We in the developed world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even… Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now.” 

Within the opening pages of CASTE The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson expands upon the work of her previous book, THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS. This time concentrating on, with laser focus, the toxin of white supremacy circulating in the soul of America. 

“Like other old houses, America has an unseen skeleton, a caste system that is as central to its operation as are the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical buildings we call home. Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order.” 

One of Wilkerson’s main points is that it is a rigid and deep caste system in the U.S. that enables white supremacy and racism to function with such high efficiency. “Slavery so perverted the balance of power that it made the degradation of a subordinate caste seem normal and righteous… The most respected and beneficent of society people oversaw forced labor camps that were politely called plantations, concentrated with hundreds of unprotected prisoners whose crime was that they were born with dark skin. Good and loving mothers and fathers, pillars of their communities, personally inflicted gruesome tortures upon their fellow human beings.” 

Although the Civil War brought a legal end to slavery, Wilkerson points out that afterward, “The dominant caste (whites of European descent), devised a labyrinth of laws to hold the newly freed people on the bottom rung ever more tightly… People on the bottom rung could be beaten or killed with impunity for any breach of the caste system, like not stepping off the sidewalk fast enough or trying to vote.” She continues: “The colonists made decisions that created the caste system long before the arrival of the ancestors of the majority of people who now identify as Americans. The dominant caste controlled all resources, controlled whether, when, and if a black person would eat, sleep, reproduce, or live. The colonists created a caste of people who would by definition be seen as dumb because it was illegal to teach them to read or write, as lazy to justify the bullwhip…” 

Over a hundred years later, James Baldwin reflected upon the situation with amazing precision: “For the horrors of the American Negro’s life, there has been almost no language.”

In a nutshell, Wilkerson argues that America’s caste system was based on an arbitrary factor of skin color – upon which is built the equally arbitrary foundation of race. “Thus, each new immigrant – the ancestors of most current-day Americans – walked into a preexisting hierarchy, bipolar in construction, arising from slavery and pitting the extremes in human pigmentation at opposite ends. Each new immigrant had to figure out how and where to position themselves in the hierarchy of their adopted new land. Oppressed people from around the world, particularly from Europe, passed through Ellis Island, shed their old selves, and often their old names to gain admittance to the powerful dominant majority. Somewhere in the journey, Europeans became something they had never been or needed to be before. They went from being Czech or Hungarian or Polish to white, a political designation that only has meaning when set against something not white.” 

Wilkerson argues that the color of one’s skin became the foundation upon which an American caste system was built. “It was in the making of the New World that Europeans became white, Africans black, and everyone else yellow, red, or brown. It was in the making of the New World that humans were set apart on the basis of what they looked like, identified solely in contrast to one another, and ranked to form a caste system based on a new concept called race.” 

She explains, “In the United States, racism and casteism frequently occur at the same time, or overlap or figure into the same scenario. Casteism is about positioning and restricting those positions… Like the cast on a broken arm, like the cast in a play, a caste system holds everyone in a fixed place.” Wilkerson explores other caste systems, like that of India, and what was created in Nazi Germany. “Mindful of appearances beyond their borders, for the time being at least, the Nazis wondered how the United States had managed to turn its racial hierarchy into rigid law yet retain such a sterling reputation on the world stage.” 

In short, the Nazis, while seeking to establish their own set of rules (Nuremberg Laws) that enabled the deadly persecution of Jews and other groups deemed threats to Aryan culture, looked to the United States’ own system. “This code extended for generations,” writes Wilkerson, but “[Y]ears after the Nazis were defeated across the Atlantic, African-Americans were still being brutalized for the least appearance of stepping out of their place… In 1948 a black tenant farmer in Louise, Mississippi, was severely beaten by two whites, wrote historian James C. Cobb, ‘because he asked for a receipt after paying his water bill.’” 

And the situation persists, in modified form, to the present day. “If there is anything that distinguishes caste, however, it is, first the policing of roles expected of people based on what they look like, and second, the monitoring of boundaries – the disregard for the boundaries of subordinate castes or the passionate construction of them by those in the dominant caste, to keep the hierarchy in place… “With the resurgence of caste after the 2016 election, people in the dominant caste have been recorded calling the police on ordinary black citizens under a wide range of ordinary circumstances.” 

Midway through her book, Wilkerson gives her response while researching the Nazi caste system. She notes, “Germany bears witness to an uncomfortable truth – that evil is not one person but can be easily activated in more people than one would like to believe when the right conditions congeal. It is easy to say, If we could just root out the despots before they take power or intercept their rise. If we could just wait until the bigots die away… It is much harder to look into the darkness in the hearts of ordinary people with unjust minds, needing someone to feel better than, whose cheers and votes allow despots anywhere in the world to rise to power in the first place… Because it means the enemy, the threat, is not one man, it is us, all of us, lurking in humanity itself.” It is the insidious nature of caste, deeply rooted in our own human foibles, that gives caste its alarming power. 

We don’t need to look too far back in American history to find chilling examples of this truth. “Across the United States, there are more than seventeen hundred monuments to the Confederacy, monuments to a breakaway republic whose constitution and leaders were unequivocal in declaring the purpose of their new nation. ‘Its foundations are laid,’ said Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy, ‘its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth…” 

For anyone left wondering about the problem with continued use of the Confederate flag or significance of monuments to the Confederacy, Wilkerson explains, “It was psychic trolling of the first magnitude. People still raw from the trauma of floggings and family rupture, and the descendants of those people, were now forced to live amid monuments to the men who had gone to war to keep them at the level of livestock. To enter a courthouse to stand trial in a case that they were all but certain to lose, survivors of slavery had to pass statutes of Confederate soldiers looking down from literal pedestals…” 

Unlike the U.S., Germany has handled the remembrance of the Holocaust with profound moral character. “They built a range of museums to preserve the story of the country’s descent into madness… In Germany displaying the swastika is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. In the United States, the rebel flag is incorporated into the official state flag of Mississippi.” 

The final portion of CASTE is powerful as Wilkerson wraps up her examination of this complex issue. She begins by sharing a bit of a conversation she had in November 2018 with Taylor Branch, an eminent historian of the Civil Rights movement. They were talking about the inevitable demographic changes in the population make-up of the United States. The prediction that the white caste would be in the minority by 2042. She asked Taylor what that would mean. “The real question,” Branch replied, “would be if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” 

As the answer to that question is being worked out, the costs of America’s caste system are numerous and well-documented – like disparities in income and health that affect every one of us. Wilkerson points to a need for a change of heart in order to begin to overcome the entrenchment of caste. “The tyranny of caste is that we are judged on the very things we cannot change; a chemical in the epidermis, the shape of one’s facial features, the signposts on our bodies of gender and ancestry – superficial differences that have nothing to do with who we are inside.” 

She continues, “A caste system persists in part because we, each and every one of us, allow it to exist – in large and small ways, in our everyday actions, in how we elevate or demean, embrace or exclude, on the basis of the meaning attached to people’s physical traits. If enough people buy into the lie of natural hierarchy, then it becomes the truth or is assumed to be.” 

But there is hope. 

“Once awakened, we then have a choice. We can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate. We can be born to a subordinated caste but resist the box others force upon us. And all of us can sharpen our powers of discernment to see past the external and to value the character of a person rather than demean those who are already marginalized or worship those born to false pedestals. We need not bristle when those deemed subordinate break free, but rejoice that here may be one more human being who can add their true strengths to humanity.” 

Wilkerson makes the point that “As it stands, the United States is facing a crisis of identity unlike any before. The country is headed toward an inversion of its demographics, with its powerful white majority expected to be outnumbered by people not of European descent within two decades.” She concludes that “This will be a test of the cherished ideal of majority rule, the moral framework for caste dominance in America since its founding. White dominance has already been assured by the inherited advantages of the dominant caste in most every sphere of life… Will the United States adhere to its belief in majority rule if the majority does not look as it has throughout history? This will be the chance for America either to further entrench its inequalities or to choose to lead the world as the exceptional nation that we have proclaimed ourselves to be.” 

As to which way America will go, Wilkerson suggests that “It turns out that everyone benefits when society meets the needs of the disadvantaged… Many of the advancements that Americans enjoy and that are under assault in our current day – birthright citizenship, equal protection under the law, the right to vote, laws against discrimination on the basis of gender, race, national origin – are all the byproducts of the subordinate caste’s fight for justice in this country and ended up helping others as much as if not more than themselves.”

The choice is ultimately up to each one of us.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

A Tribute to Abbott the Cat

Abbott lounging on the couch
When I think of Abbott, the first thing that comes to mind is: spunky.

He was a fighter!

Abbott (along with his brother Buddy) was rescued from a parking lot when they were eight months old. They had somehow gotten separated from their mother. And it was Abbott's persistently loud meow that got them rescued.

Abbott was also loaded with tenacity, (probably related to his spunk).

He was no one's fool, to put it mildly.

Abbott enjoyed being petted, but when he had enough of it, he let me know - usually by meowing and putting his paw in-between my hand and his fur.

He was a mouser. He actually caught a chipmunk. Once. In the middle of the night. I heard a funny sort of squeak, sat up in bed and realized the sound was coming from Abbott's direction. He was sitting in his bed, about to eat a meal.

I pulled the dead chipmunk from Abbott's mouth, but only through a tug-of-war with deep guttural growls coming from him.

Abbott, until fairly recently, would bound up the steps after using the litter box in the basement. He couldn't wait to get back upstairs. 

He was equally quick about going to the spot in the kitchen where his food bowl was when it was mealtime.

Abbott in his Chewy box
He had a great appetite and usually gobbled up everything and anything I gave him. (Ironically, in the past year or so, when he was given special prescription food, he didn't really care for it). The meals he had over the past three months were Friskies' Salmon Dinner Pate and Mariner's Catch. This isn't a product endorsement, but you should have seen the shine on his fur because of the fish oil and the Omega-3 in it!

The biggest proof of Abbott's tenacity and spunk was in the way he took on lymphoma. He was diagnosed almost nine years ago by an emergency care vet. The doctor showed me the x-ray of Abbott's intestine and pointed to the tumor. I asked how long I could expect Abbott to live. The doctor told me that, on average, he could live about two years after being diagnosed, with treatment.

Abbott was about eight-and-a-half years old when he was diagnosed. Shortly afterward we went to Blue Pearl Vet and Dr. Swanson became his oncologist for the next (almost) nine years.

From what I understand, that's quite a record. And for the majority of that time, Abbott lived a full, happy life. (Thank you Dr. Swanson, and thank you, Dr. Dame, who was Abbott's regular vet).

Cats normally are creatures of habit. 

Abbott was too, but, then, at times, he liked to switch things up. 

He had his own bed in our bedroom, but shortly after Buddy passed away, Abbott started to sleep on my bed during the day. Then, after a few weeks, he took to sleeping in a Chewy box which was just the right size for him.

Abbott on the bookshelf
Towards the end of his long life, one of Abbott's favorite things to do (and mine!) was to stretch out with me on the couch. 

At evening time, when I put my legs up on the coffee table, he would jump up sit on them, and let me stroke his back. It didn't take long for Abbott to start purring. And this time, nestled between my legs, he enjoyed prolonged petting and would purr his approval. He purred so deeply that you could feel the reverberations along his rib cage!

There are so many lessons I learned from Abbott. Like, don't be quick to give up. Let others know how you are feeling. Keep life interesting by mixing it up a little. And when you need help, let someone know!

Rest In Peace Abbott, the Miracle Cat! Thank you, so much, for all the wonderful memories, which live on! 

If you'd like to read my tribute to Buddy, Abbott's brother, here it is.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Meet Ferdi Van den Bergh, co-founder of Tjeko (Outreach for kids in Uganda)

Ferdi and Tatiana Van den Bergh
Ferdi Van den Bergh is the co-founder of Tjeko (operating in Uganda, East Africa) and Chairman of the Board of the Tjeko Foundation. He first went to Uganda as part of a Youth With a Mission team before coming to New York City to work for MetroWorld Child for eight years. He met his wife, Tatiana, while at Metro. Eventually, Ferdi went back to Uganda with Tatiana and their first child, Maƫlle.


Tell Us About Tjeko’s Mission

Our website has the statement: “Every child deserves a childhood.”

That’s the mission of Tjeko. We’re a non-profit organization dedicated to providing opportunities for children in Uganda to play.

It sounds like a very simple mission. But there are nearly 18 million children living in Uganda, and most of them have no consistent playtime.

When we went back to Uganda, I made a good friend there who was honest and had a passion for children. Bosco Muiibi turned out to be a lifelong friend and co-founder.

We eventually set up a non-profit to operate a sponsorship program helping orphans get placed with extended families.

At the time, there was not much for children in the way of creative play in Uganda.  One day at an orphanage we noticed kids standing outside, watching the children inside the orphanage playing. That didn’t seem to make sense. So, we decided, why don’t we create an amazing place for children to play so they can grow up to become more resilient adults?


Why Is Playing  So Important for Children?

God is the Creator. God spoke everything into existence. If we’re made in God’s image, that means that there’s an element of the creator in us. Without this creative energy you have a very dull generation. We need to be able to play and laugh with our children.

Tjeko’s website goes deeper with this thought: “There are 17.9 million children living in Uganda: Most of the children go to school from eight to five. When they come home they have to contribute and fulfill their chores/tasks like fetching water, taking care of a younger brother or sister…in essence, they do not have a lot of time to spare. 


Added to that is the fact that in most areas, playgrounds or areas for recreation especially for children, do not exist and children have to make their own toys (which also break easily). In Uganda, playing is a luxury, Tjeko wants it to become something that goes without saying – a “matter of fact”. Children should be able to just be children. That is why we provide them with a safe place, a sparkling environment, where they can do what they want to do the most: play!”


How Has Tjeko Grown in the Past 10 Years?

In the beginning, we concentrated on one location for three years, partnering with local residents to run the program. Then, we began to replicate this template and brought it to other locations. By the end of this year, we hope to have fifteen staff and maybe double that by the end of 2022, working in seven different regions of Uganda.

In the beginning, our first team of young adults working with Tjeko were all Christian, but that isn’t currently the case. At each location we make an effort to hire local young adults to run Tjeko’s programs.

Tjeko programming consists of:

Tjeko Live

At primary schools in Africa we are active with a series of teaching programs “The Power of Imagination and Creativity.” The Tjeko LIVE school program is supported by locally trained game and communication specialists. They visit schools and give them a series of lessons and activities. In addition, they offer teachers and childcare workers special workshops. 

Tjeko Academy

Tjeko not only wants to give people something, but also equips them. We consciously collaborate with organizations and individuals on-site. Through the Tjeko Academy, young adults in Africa are trained to lead the Fun Fair. They receive training in, among other things, child work, leadership, presentation and communication. In addition, Tjeko encourages them to work constructively on their future, and provides them with useful tools for this.

The Tjeko Academy is primarily intended to train skilled and enthusiastic supervisors. The young adults take the acquired knowledge and skills with them and also benefit from it outside the Fun Fair.

Tjeko Fun Fair

A gigantic playground where children can fully enjoy themselves for one day. Think of go-karts, skippy balls, trampolines, air cushions, but also theater, creativity and relaxation. Forms of play and fun that African children can usually only dream of. The children are led from activity to activity and play, laugh, learn and enjoy throughout the day.

Tjeko Fun Services

Tjeko Fun Services is the Social Enterprise part of Tjeko. Our local team rents out the Tjeko Fun materials and sets off for parties and events. With the rental of the materials, income is generated to pay for the Tjeko activities.

The Van den Bergh family
The goal is that every team grows towards more financial self-reliance.


Can You Describe Some of the Challenges Tjeko Has Faced?

Corruption in Africa, and across the world, is a big issue. When we started Tjeko, Tatiana and I wrote down principles for everyone who worked for Tjeko. No corruption was among those rules. It has helped use more than once to make the tough decisions!

Another challenge is that Uganda wasn’t a county until outside colonialists established it. Within Uganda there are sixty-four separate tribes that speak fifty different languages.

Whenever Tjeko goes to a different region we always start with interns who are local and speak the language. There are political and cultural differences among the seven regions where we have done programming. It’s really a beautiful thing when you can partner with  local people!

We also wanted to be sure that as the workers focused on helping the children that they would be making a decent living and supporting their own families. One of our elements in the Tjeko Methode facilitates our staff to generate income. There is a huge advantage to make people work for their own income: It gives them dignity and a deep-rooted motivation.

Do You Have Any Words of Wisdom to Offer?

Well, we need to be aware of the danger of having a colonial mindset, especially when working in another country. Thinking our way is best, or ignoring local customs. Servant leadership should be the standard of operation. Meaning respecting native culture and those who work with you.

Secondly, Pastor Bill Wilson, our former director at Metro World Child in New York,  used to say, “Don’t get illusioned, so you won’t get disillusioned.” Don’t have the illusion that your organization can’t get on without you. Even during Covid-19, our Tjeko team is doing well without Tatiana and I being in Uganda.

You can check out Tjeko's website here.

Flip-Flopping With the Truth

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