Shocked, Right Here at Home

I was shocked, personally challenged, finally proud.

How could it be? A land-locked state in the geographic center of the contiguous 48 has the highest per capita rate of resettling refugees! It has no ports of entry favoring coastal states. In fact, it can’t even boast of an international airport.

This state is rock-ribbed conservative and solidly “red”. It’s hard to get my head around the fact that the state with the highest per capita rate of resettling refugees voted for Donald Trump by a wide margin and has a solidly Republican delegation in DC, Republican governor and a state legislature dominated by the GOP.

The highest per capita rate of resettling refugees of any state in the nation belongs to my home state, Nebraska. This fact come as a complete surprise and challenges many stereotypical presumptions. Though I often feel alienated by the state’s conservative politics, this statistic makes me very proud.

Well, maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked.  The fact was reported Monday on the front page of The Washington Post [link].  The story reaffirms what I know about the place I will always call home — Nebraskans are inherently good, generous, fair, hard-working, welcoming and kind.

I’m proud so many new-comers will receive their introduction to our country through the hearts and help of middle-America Nebraskans. But I dare not lallygag in complacent satisfaction too long. Clearly more than a few inaccurate presumptions and lingering stereotypes need challenging — on all sides, from every perspective!

More than at any time in my life we are a nation at odds, separated within closed enclaves of social homogeneity, separated into antagonistic camps willing to listen only to arguments that bolster narrow preconceptions. As a nation too many of us are hardened, intolerant, even angry.

Often enough we get shocked back into reality by seemingly innocuous facts. Yes, rock-ribbed conservative, Trump-loving Nebraska quietly — and likely with no forethought of intention — surfaces as the state with a distinguished openness to refugees.

How can this be? Perhaps we need to base our judgments and opinions more in fact than presumptions we want to believe but are not true. Perhaps we should come out from behind walls that separate, categorize and define us long enough to discover the truth about one another — precisely the truth about those different from ourselves.

With all this still rumbling within my thoughts I stumbled upon the review of a new cookbook under the title, Binding the Nation in Its Love of Meatloaf [link]. At my age I have learned to take nothing as happenstance or mere coincidence.

When New York Times colleagues Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer concocted their idea to write a cookbook neither knew that Mr. Trump would become president. He had agreed to contribute a recipe before the election. The authors had already taken their cue from the divisiveness they saw in our country.

Bruni observes, “I don’t think meatloaf can save the world, but I certainly think in the coming tomorrows there will be a healthier appetite for comfort.” And with a prescience you’d expect from reporters of their caliber they explain, “It’s a quintessential American dish that can bind a nation!”

The Times reporters are surely onto something! Beyond comfort we are hungry for a renewed sense of community, the sort of familial warmth that keeps me going back to Nebraska as my favorite place for Thanksgiving dinner.

Could it really be as simple as sharing a meal? It’s certainly a good start. Plenty of precedent — religious and national — suggests breaking bread together can lead to shocking and challenging results, the sort that will truly make us proud about who we once were and might still become once more.

Really Hearing What’s Being Said

My friend Susan Stabile shared this story.  I’m eager to share it with you:

Pope Francis departed from his prepared text to share an anecdote during his general audience on Wednesday.  He told this story of an elderly woman who helped an immigrant…

As the lady came across this young man, who was without shoes, they began to speak and she asked him, “What are you searching for?”

“Saint Peter’s to go through the Holy Door,” he responded to her question.

Moved with sympathy, she thought to herself: “But how can he walk? .. He doesn’t even have shoes. She insisted on offering a taxi to bring him. When the taxi driver stopped however, he was hesitant to accept the passenger, as he smelled very badly.

However, the driver agreed, as the immigrant and the lady got in and chatted on the way to the Vatican. They spoke about his history, what he has lived through, the trials, the war, etc.

By the end of the ride, the lady went to pay, and the driver, who hesitated to accept them, said: “No, Signora. It is I who must pay for you, because you made me listen to a story that changed my heart.”

Susan poses the perfect question: How open is my heart to being changed by the stories I hear?

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You may read this story and follow Susan on her blog, Creo en Dios [here].  

Antidote for What Ails America

“Vulgar! He’s simply vulgar.” comments my neighbor from the driver’s seat of her car as we enjoyed a spontaneous conversation in the alley. Shocked, appalled, outraged are equally good words to describe our reaction to the rise of Donald Trump. Now I’m getting scared, simply scared!

Polls suggest the actual election of Trump to be our President is still remote. But as improbable as that may be I’m still feeling overwhelmed, grieved and frightened. Why? Because that which Donald Trump personifies will not be resolved on Election Day. Neither will resolution be achieved by the election of Hillary Clinton.

It will likely come as a profound disappointment to the man, but what we are witnessing ultimately isn’t about Donald Trump. No, this isn’t about slapping the “Trump” brand across 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue! Rather, it’s about the deep pain, festering resentment even, that resides in homes across America. And this national despair cuts across gender, race and socio-economic groups.

So what are we to do? Build higher walls to further insulate ourselves? Move to Cape Brenton Island, Canada? Buy a gun? Fear, resentment and desperation may be the source of such considerations. But they merely exacerbate the problem we must address.

So, what are we to do? Well, first of all we must never give up. Somehow, we simply must restore trust in one another to reweave the social fabric of our nation. There is no easy fix. This will not happen on Election Day 2016. No, our work is much more arduous and will take more than our lifetime. But begin we must.

But, what? What can we do that will make any difference? Yes, vote! But that’s hardly enough to counter the vulgarity that has overtaken America. Yes, it would be easy — but an abrogation of personal responsibility — to assume this is about an election and the “majority” expressing its collective will on November 8. That’s simply delusional.

Conservative pundit David Brooks has his finger on the pulse of America and points us in the right direction:

…first it’s necessary to go out into the pain. I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable.

As is often the case with matters that really count, our answer resides within a huge paradox. Rather than building walls, leaving the country or buying a gun our way forward opens by doing the exact opposite. The antidote for what ails America lies in tearing down walls, reinvesting in our communities, disarming ourselves.

Sounds a whole lot like once again becoming brother, sister, neighbor to one another; caring for the orphan, widow and outcast; welcoming the stranger; loving our neighbor as ourselves.
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You may read David Brooks’ insightful and provocative much more extensive analysis at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/29/opinion/if-not-trump-what.html?_r=0 

Reagan was Right!

Never imagined I’d ever be saying much good about the man. But given the recent brouhaha about the morality of building walls — What, for God’s sake, has our nation come to? — President Ronald Reagan sounds refreshingly relevant.

Walls never work as an instrument of national policy. With renewed appreciation and complete agreement, I recall the iconic Republican conservative saying some thirty years ago in Berlin: “Mr Gorbachov, tear down this wall!” Amen to that!

Whether Presbyterian Donald Trump is or isn’t a good Christian is none of my concern. (Actually it is, but not here!). Neither was it of interest to Pope Francis if you read what he actually said during his press conference onboard the return flight to Rome.

President Reagan, however, was certainly on solid ground politically and in terms of the Judeo-Christian roots of this country. How so? Somewhere over the thirty years between Reagan and Trump’s rhetoric we have become rabidly individualistic, selfish, even nasty.

Somehow we need to rekindle the best of our Judeo-Christian heritage — not that which is exclusionary and divisive, but that which celebrates our common humanity, builds solidarity and takes solace in mutual reliance on one another.

This is the message of the Bible right from the start.  Genesis, Chapter 1 — humankind is created in the image and likeness of God. All of us, no exceptions! Yes, this is the first principle and foundation of Judeo-Christian teaching.

We profess this to be equally true of Muslims, Hindus, Hispanics, Asians, Blacks, Gays, the poor, the vulnerable, other nationalities, women as well as men — you name it! If you are human, you are created in the image and likeness of God!

Mr Trump, you are no more righteous, worthy or deserving than any you’d wish to wall out or deport. In fact, to the extent you fail to see the human dignity in any such as these, especially the least among us, you fail as a good American. For even our founding documents enshrined this truth as self-evident, all are created equal.

Mr. Trump, tear down your walls! What are you afraid of?  What is it you need to defend?  Could it be that deep down you harbor some lingering self-doubt whether you, too, really are created in the image of God?

Rest assured. Yes, you are — even you!

We Should Know Better

I’m really sad and disheartened this morning. A dear niece who is bright, funny and someone I deeply care about posted something mean-spirited on her Facebook page. There is simply too much fear-mongering and superficial solutions being thrown around these days. She should know better. So should we all!

My niece’s posting noted that the Tsarnaev brothers found guilty for the horrific Boston Marathon bombing were refugees. With the latest terrorist attack roiling Paris, you can figure out the intended political message of the “prepared” image she chose to re-post on her FB page.

(BTW, why do we have such an outpouring of moral outrage when 129 people are killed in France and so quickly “forget” nearly twice as many Russian citizens who were killed in the flight from Egypt? Could it be that the French are more like “us” and our generation has learned to demonize the Russians as our enemy? The recent massacre in Beirut hardly registered in our consciousness. Just wondering what this is all about!)

What I take as my niece’s “painting with broad strokes”, guilt-by-association or “extrapolation from the specific to the whole” is dangerous and unfair. In my opinion it’s also stupid and xenophobic!

My angry side wanted to post the following: “Does the fact that the son of your Dad’s cousin was sentenced to death for first degree murder mean that our whole family are felons and should be denied our civil liberties?” Is our whole family guilty by association and to live in shame?

In addition to a lifelong love for my role as uncle, I cherish the role of family historian and keeper of stories. It’s easy to forget our own truth or glamorize the stories. I want to remind my niece — and the extended family as well — of our heritage.  It is identical to many.

Centuries of exploitation by the British led our Irish ancestors to flee poverty and famine between 1842 and 1855. The failed social revolution of 1848, and repressive measures attempting to prop up remnants of the Holy Roman Empire, lead our German forebears to flee their homeland in 1850 and 1856.

At last count we now have 31 Governors feeding into what I call ignorance, xenophobia and fear-mongering. As our Governor Mark Dayton has said, Minnesotans are better than that. President Obama has also tried to call Americans to our better instincts all the while fully supporting French efforts to apprehend the terrorists and retaliate forcefully on ISIS in Syria.

Most of us call ourselves Christians. This Advent we would do well to pay special attention to the story of our salvation, our liberation from slavery to freedom. Let’s place the Flight into Egypt front and center this year. Let’s remember Jesus’ own “post” on the social media of his day. In the poor, the naked, the infirm, the homeless, those seeking refuge we see the face of Christ.  Or, we don’t!

If nothing else, we would do well to see our own!