Civility in the Neighborhood

Mr Rogers 1My mom and I went to see the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? about Fred Rogers and his children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I believe the creators wanted to give us inspiration and call us forth to remember what we learned from Mr. Rogers about treating every person with love and respect. It had the opposite effect as we watched protestors at his funeral object to his acceptance of the actor who played Mr. McFeely and happened to be gay. WTF? And the world hasn’t become more civil since then.

Fred Rogers chose to create a his show in a neighborhood. I believe as a Presbyterian minister he understood that we relate to people and show our love to people at the neighborhood level. He wanted to teach children how to love their neighbor by example, albeit in a make believe world. He modeled civility.

The neighborhood is where I try to find my balance in today’s crazy troll-filled world. I have only lived in my new neighborhood for 8 months and I already know more than 10 neighbors fairly well. We look out for one another. And I look out for the individuals experience homelessness that are passing through. From here I work to expand my influence to make the world a better place.

Mr Rogers 3The book Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press tells four main stories of people who are exemplars of four different types of resistance to immoral authority. The third example explores the role of conscience in refusing to go along with something that is immoral. The chapter opens with the kind of passive resistance that Henry David Thoreau is celebrated for–refusing to pay taxes to a government that allows slavery and invades Mexico. And points out, as did Hannah Arendt, that his conscience didn’t urge him to actively seek change. His was a resistance in retreat.

Whereas the hero of Chapter 3, Avner Wishnitzer, is a refusenik in the Israeli Defense Forces who pays a price for his resistance and ultimately became a founding member of Combatants for Peace. His conscience was pricked by seeing up close the suffering inflicted on Palestinians whose only crime was living on land that Israeli settlers wanted to occupy. He could no longer participate in the armed forces forced evictions of Palestinians and other actions in the occupied territories.

This is the hope that Fred Rogers has for humanity. If we see our neighbor, get to know our neighbor, our conscience will be pricked and we will do what is right by our neighbor. Maybe we will even go above and beyond like the Good Samaritan.

This is why I find the Walgreens story of the pharmacist who refused to fill a prescription for a drug that is sometimes used for aborting a fetus to honor his conscience. Yet in his zeal to not dirty his hands, he failed to be curious about his neighbor and evaluate what does loving his neighbor require in this instance. He might have found out that a husband was picking up the prescription for his wife who had miscarried her baby and was recovering at home. That her doctor prescribed the medicine so her body would expel all of the tissue that might become septic if not flushed. And even if then his conscience still nagged him, he could have asked another pharmacist to fill the order according to Walgreens’ policy.

Our neighborhood drugstore (in my case Rite Aid) offers the possibility of being able to discern what is love in this moment. But if you fail to see others as people with the same rights as you have, with the same God-endowed dignity as you, then you can slavishly follow a rule you’ve created to protect your conscience. Or you can exercise your moral imagination and see that there isn’t a black and white rule that should govern your behavior.

We can only hope that the generations that were reared watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood will be able to activate their imagination and see multiple perspectives and follow his example. Then whatever the Supreme Court or the President and his administration do, our neighborhoods will thrive until we can vote the people who hate into electoral oblivion.

First Surreal Weekend of Many

hasan-minhajOn night 8 of the new administration, I met my friend Petrea for dinner and then we went to the Mondavi Center at UC Davis for Hasan Minhaj’s comedy show. He is from Davis, California so he selected these two shows–one for general audience and one for students–to film “Homecoming King” for Netflix. He also lived out the best high school revenge story since  Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. Davis, a place that prides itself on its tolerance and liberalism, dished out plenty of bigotry along the way. Add some humor about growing up with immigrant parents and a beautifully constructed series of story arcs and it adds up to a great show. The audience laughed raucously and at other times you could have heard a pin drop.

The next day I started reading about the President’s Muslim Ban and other assorted travel restrictions. I watched along with the nation as people rushed to airports in support of Muslims and against the ban. Lawyers of all stripes came to the actual aid of travellers like medical professionals responding to a medical emergency on a plane. It was all heartening and fundamentally discouraging because our country is on a very dangerous path. There is no room to be smug about any of it.

On the new public square Facebook, my Christian friends posted scriptures in support of welcoming the stranger and memes about Jesus, Mary and Joseph as refugees. Beneath all of this is the tension between those who believe we are all interconnected and those who want to separate themselves; between those who love the other and themselves and those who fear the other; between people who welcome the stranger and those who slam the gate shut. And yet by dividing people in this way I succumb to practicing the same otherness that I condemn. It is hard and not so black and white.

I recently read If the Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power. It was recommended reading to learn more about the Quran and the Muslim faith. The author was raised agnostic by a father who was fascinated by all things Islam. She had the opportunity to spend a year getting to know a renowned Muslim teacher much more intimately. Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi is a Cambridge professor and influential teacher. She opens up Islam for the westerner in an unprecedented way.

I discovered layers of prejudice in my own thinking that jarred me. My eyes were opened to the beauty and mystery of another faith. A faith that is the cousin to Christianity and Judaism. After years of seeing cartoonish portrayals of Islam in the media, it is at times challenging to open myself to seeing this faith in a new way.

I also realized that fundamental Christianity is wanting to impose a Christian version of Sharia law on our nation. And Christian people have misplaced their faith in God with faith in nationalism. It has helped me reaffirm my belief in separation of church and state, both for nonbelievers and for believers of all faiths.

I do not know where this Muslim Ban is headed. Today a judge has overturned the order and the administration is appealing. I just ask that if you fear Muslims that you take a moment and learn more about their faith from a sympathetic author. We share a lot of values and we share some pillars of the faith, such as Abraham. Other faiths could learn a lot about their prayer disciplines.

Most of all, the most extreme elements of Islam are as representative of their faith as Westboro Baptist Church is of Christianity. Not. And if you do not like the mix of politics and religion in Pakistan and Afghanistan, well it won’t be better if it “Christian nationalism” and our democracy. As Tony Compolo has said, “Mixing religion and politics is like mixing ice cream and manure. It doesn’t do much to the manure but it sure does ruin the ice cream.”

Exercising My Particular Superpower


I am devastated by the election results. I am experiencing all of the stages of grief. This is so much more intense than 1980 and 2000. Because in this election an ugly spirit was unleashed to stoke fear and attract votes. One candidate gave people full permission to express misogyny, racism, and xenophobia both in words and actions. And now winning the electoral college (but not the popular vote) these same people are emboldened and we are seeing a lot of ugly.

I am still struggling with how to express my dismay without closing down the possibility of dialogue with people who didn’t vote or voted for Trump and are not racists. I attended a Stronger Together organizing meeting in Sacramento with over 200 people on Veteran’s Day.  I hope they follow through with the ideas of communications training and a clearer message about the Democrat’s vision for the economy. This will help in 2 years.

What can I do in the meanwhile, when so many people feel fearful and are experienced harassment or worse? I read a post by one of the women in Pantsuit Nation on Facebook where she introduced the idea of wearing a safety pin to let people know you are a safe person committed to standing with them against the threat. She read that this started in Britain after Brexit when they had a similar increase in racially-motivated violence.  As the writer said she is a little overweight, grey-haired and looks like someone’s grandma. She is invisible most of the time. Yet, she is also non-threatening to the fearful person and yet a formidable foe to a bully. This is me!

safe-with-meI can use my superpowers of invisibility. I look powerless and benign. However, I prepared to stand up or beside anyone who is threatened verbally or physically. I’ve been the person who needed someone to walk me to my car, or to sit with me while I wait at a scary train station. Now it is my turn to provide safety in numbers.

Some say that I am appeasing my white guilt and can keep my damn safety pin. I am not acting out of guilt. Yes I am privileged because of my lack of pigment, and my relative wealth. And I’m a woman so I know what it is to be made less than because of my sex. I know what it is like to stand up to bullies alone. And I have asked for help and received it. So I will put my safety pin on with intention and ask God to help me stay awake and alert to what is going on around me. I will  make eye contact and engage with all people in a friendly way. And if needed, I will respond to assist people to safety.

Coda: Good advice on having a plan if you do wear a safety pin:

Coda2: Sometimes it feels like this:


Healing Our Democracy After the Election

hart2After the last 10 days of the is election season, women who’ve been assaulted are experiencing PTSD, and many more people are experiencing anxiety. People on both sides are fearful of the outcome of the other candidate succeeding. And yet, on November 9 there will be one person with the most votes/electoral college delegates and we all need to find a way to live together peaceably.

This is all the more challenging because of the large number of people who are expressing racist and misogynistic views. People are discovering that people that they planned PTA fundraisers or studied the Bible with are expressing feelings and values that repugnant: defending sexual assault, or saying that all Muslims are a threat. As Dylan Matthews at Vox news said, “What’s needed is an honest reckoning with what it means that a large segment of the US population, large enough to capture one of the two major political parties, is motivated primarily by white nationalism and an anxiety over the fast changing demographics of the country.” (Vox, “Taking Trump voters’ concerns seriously means listening to what they are actually saying,” October 15, 2016)

So I began searching for ideas for how we can begin the healing. We need to find a way to build empathy bridges over the chasm. But if you cast the other people as feminazis or racists, then this is difficult to do. Indira AR Lakshmanan’s article “Surviving an ugly campaign: Advice from the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu,” (October 13, 2016 The Boston Globe) offers the perspectives shared in their book, The Book of Joy. “…when people vote for candidates who promote fear and anger, it’s because they’re afraid, hurting and suffering…fear, anger, hatred exist in our own minds and hearts as well, not just ‘out there.” If we realize that we can have compassion for what’s underneath the vitriol.”

Her parting words are wise, “The key to finding our way back to civility may be to recognize that that anger is out there and face it, head on. Our political, spiritual, and media leaders have an obligation to speak, listen and find common ground–even with those that are slinging the last dregs of mud.” One way to do that is to find a softer way to think of people who hold white nationalist views. I’m not suggesting we tolerate hate speech, but unless we can find a name for what’s underneath the vitriol, we cannot be empathetic.

EJ Dionne offers a way to do this in his Washington Post column (October 14, 2016). The late Rev. Andrew Greeley called those who love the particular patch where they were raised or that they have adopted as their own as“neighborhood people.” Being “citizens of the world” is not high on their priority list, whereas it is a point of pride for “cosmopolitans”.

Dionne says, “I suspect that many of Trump’s backers are neighborhood people. Economic change, including globalization, is very hard on them. It can disrupt and empty out the places they revere, driving young people away and undermining the economic base a community needs to survive. Liberals and conservatives alike insufficiently appreciate what makes neighborhood people tick and why they deserve our respect. Liberals are instinctive cosmopolitans in the citizens-of-the-world sense. They often long for the freedom of big metropolitan areas. Free-market conservatives typically say that if a place can’t survive the rigors of market competition, if the factories close, the people left behind are best off if they find somewhere else to live.” And it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand how for a neighborhood person such a sentiment would feel hostile.

Finally, we are all in this democracy together. As tempting as a divorce may seem, we need to find a way to restore the respect and care for one another that makes our community at large work. I am reminded that the opposite of love is not hate it is disdain or disinterest. That is an emotion we cannot afford to indulge.


Celebrate Character Day

img_0324I love the celebration of Character Day: September 22, 2016. It is an opportunity to teach young people the exemplar’s of character. The Let It Ripple website offers inspirational films, periodic table of character traits, and other teaching tools. The social media campaign invites you to recognize people for their positive character attributes.

We are all a complex mix of positive and negative character traits. When we are young our parents, teachers and extended family help us to learn and shape our character–strengthening our positives and learning to control our negatives.

We can also learn from literature. The Lutheran Ladies Literary Club selected The Sympathizer, a novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, for August discussion. The main character is the Captain and as he explains it his only talent is being able to sympathize with both sides. He uses this talent to be a spy for the Viet Cong, appearing to be a loyal attache to a General in the National Army/secret police. The author is a genius because by telling the story in the Captain’s voice we also learn that he is willing to die for two childhood friends, is a loving son, and very intelligent. The novel challenges the idea that people are either bad ‘uns or good ‘uns.  After all, the mark of a truly mature person is the self-awareness to know that we are all capable of great acts of love and despicable acts of selfishness. This awareness allows us to make the right choices and to have compassion for ourselves and others when they fall short.

Wishing you a happy September 22, full of great character. If you use Twitter, join the trend today: recognize a character strength in someone you know and include #CharacterDay2016.


The Urge to Do Something in Paris Aftermath Misleading

Eyes Wide Open tries to humanize the loss of all life in Iraq War.
Eyes Wide Open exhibit displays shoes from Iraqi civilians and US soldiers killed in the war.

Yesterday I clicked through an email from the Climate Reality Project to watch 24 Hours of Climate Reality and instead read a message that the broadcast was suspended in consideration of the violence in Paris. This was how I learned of the horror that had been unleashed in coordinated terror attacks.  I logged onto the New York Times website and logged off after about 1 minute of watching senseless video of people meandering around the football pitch or police cars speeding down Parisian streets. By now we all know the drill. Lots of senseless interviews with people who know nothing or can say nothing and bad estimates of the extent of the harm. I decided to turn it all off.

What is a leader to do in face of the ongoing violence? Judging by Facebook most people want to DO something. For some it is a primal angry urge to retaliate. Even before information is in about who attacked whom and why. They filled in the blanks by swearing to sign up for military service or in some way extract an eye for an eye.

In this instance, we cannot alleviate our need to DO SOMETHING by donating to Red Cross or Oxfam.  Although I would not be surprised if some craven political candidates did not suggest a donation to them would be a welcome response. They promise to deal with ISIS. As though their force of personality will trump the collective intelligence of the people already assembled in Situation Rooms around the world.

Other people were dropping to their knees to pray, mainly for the victims in Paris including all of the citizens of Paris whom these attacks were intended to terrorize. I am among those who feel “pray first” is a good response for almost any situation. Especially while we are still trying to make sense of a situation.

I have been a student of International Relations since the Cold War. Ah, simpler times. Sure we worried about Mutually Assured Destruction but as one character in Madam Secretary said, at least we knew the people on the other side did not want to push the button anymore than we did.

Are the people in the Middle East really such different human beings than us or the Russians? I do not think so. Casting them all as evil villains seems a dangerously simplistic way of dealing with the world.

I believe in the innate value of every human life. I believe we are all imbued with a little bit of God’s spirit. My way of seeing God is through my cultural understanding of Jesus, but I admit that God is bigger than my limited way of seeing Him/Her. I want to be more like Jesus, which means I have to transcend my own petty view of the world and love humankind the way Jesus did. God transcends gender, tribe, nation and religion.

When I look at recent wars in the Middle East, I see a complete lack of compassion for the innocent victims of our aggression. Over 10 years ago, the American Service Friends Committee and others created the Eyes Wide Open exhibit to illustrate the impact of the war in Iraq on civilians. It came to Sacramento’s Capitol grounds and evoked little response. I was opposed to the Iraq war, as I am to initiating any war and I found the exhibit profounding moving. I could not find a way to translate my values into any coherent action.

The challenge I am facing as a leader is to somehow transcend any angry gut response and expand my capacity to love.  To mourn the mothers and children, fathers and grandpas who were counted as “collateral damage” in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. I must seek ways to make peace.

I want to find ways to connect with people for dialogue to help move beyond a base level  “get ’em” response to something that builds peace. Transformation will not happen in a moment, but we can begin to build a series of moments that will ultimately lead to a shift and then a swerve.

Lack of action on climate change, racial inequality, refuges, gun violence, and the roots of terrorism.–they are all connected to an inability to see the preciousness of every kind of human.

That is as far as my meditation on the Paris attacks have taken me. Will you join me in not taking action today?