Introducing “Stories of Mystery and Wonder”

To All Blog Readers

First, thank you for following the blog! There are about 300 of you out there though I only know the names of a few regulars. I am grateful to have an audience.

The past several posts about race have gotten the most comments of any of my previous blog posts, which number about 350  on this website and almost as many on the Civil Rights Journey  website. The dozen or so comments on race are  thoughtful and point out the issues associated with system reform and attitude change. If you are not following the comments, I urge you to for the last three posts.

One of the comments that I received is posted (again) below as a guest blog post. Written by good friend, John Franklin, it was simply too good to keep on a back burner. This post has inspired me to initiate a new “blog post line,” which I am calling “Stories of Mystery and Wonder.” This is where you come in. I am inviting all readers of this blog to consider posting a story which has for you special meaning. These can be religious or not religious. They will be about ordinary events in people’s lives, which take on a greater meaning and can be about anything. The key phrase is “special meaning to you.”

Please email me a digital copy in Word (joehowell476@gmail.com), which as editor I reserve the right to edit or not to publish if I do not feel it fits. Try to keep the length to under 1,000 words and provide a little biographical information since I may not know you.

I have no idea whether this will work, but it is worth giving it a try. Here is the first one by John Franklin. I got to know John through work in the retirement housing field since he was a finance guy who provided the money for some of the continuing care retirement communities I was working on. He has joined me on sailing adventures in the BVIs, and we have kept up a friendship over  35-plus years. He is now principal in the consulting firm he founded called Pearl Creek Advisors and lives near Ashland VA on a farm that he and his wife, Elizabeth, recently purchased. Here is his story:

A Bike Ride by John Franklin

As much as we like to criticize our churches for being too conservative, they do provide a stable social support system that is not being replaced as they become less and less relevant. I was on a sixteen-mile bike ride this past Sunday when I took my first water break six miles into the ride – under a tree located next to St. Thomas Church.  Evidently, despite COVID-19, the congregation, exclusively African American, was finishing up their outdoor service.  As I stood near my bike listening to a testimonial being delivered by one of the congregants, I was motioned by a woman to come closer so I could hear better. So, I did. 

After a few minutes, one of the other women standing nearby asked if I wanted to say something to the crowd.  I froze for a few seconds, not knowing what to say.  Not only was I the only white person in the crowd, I was the only one wearing a ridiculous looking biking outfit.  I was even walking strangely because I was wearing my clip biking shoes.  What were they thinking of me?  However, before I knew it, I responded with “Sister, I have one heck of a story to tell!” What in the hell was I thinking?  Somehow, I do not know where it came from, but I was moved by the Holy Spirit.  It was a God Moment.  And before I knew it, I had the microphone in my hand laying out my soul to these strangers, who just happened to be all black.  But there was so much love and acceptance. 

So, I told them very quickly about growing up in Louisa County without a father, about growing up with no indoor plumbing, and about Mineral Baptist Church – the church that helped save me.  I told them that churches are the backbone of many communities and provide the social support structure than many of us need.  And I thanked them for letting me speak and to be a part of their gathering.  Again, I do not know what came over me, but I began singing “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” a song that speaks about universal brotherhood and that it starts with you.  It was my go-to song many years ago when I sang solos in the youth choir at Mineral Baptist Church.  I cried as I sang it to these wonderful, gracious people, who let me into their intimate space.  Not once did I mention the racial tension that our society is currently experiencing.  I did not need to.  It was understood by them and by me that the only way we are going to fix this is by one experience at a time, by one encounter at a time, and by each of us calling out discrimination when we see it.

After I was finished, I was handed a few tissues to wipe my eyes.  I wished we could have hugged, but instead I gave a few of them elbow taps.  And I got back on my bike and rode off, back to my life of white privilege. I say that not to feel guilty, but to acknowledge what I believe to be a truth.  As I continued by ride through the countryside of central Virginia, I thanked God for the opportunity to worship with the good people of St. Thomas church and for giving me the courage to be vulnerable.

Somehow, we have to find ways to give the underclass a sense of being valued and an opportunity to contribute, and to hold them and the communities in which they live accountable. But unless we also address systemic racism and social-economic discrimination, holding people of color and their communities accountable alone will not fix the problem. 

You can read more of John’s stories on his website: johnnytravelblog.com

Could This Be One of Those Moments In History?

This Sunday morning the Zoom forum at All Souls Episcopal Church was all about racism. Much was made of our own bishop’s remarks following Trump’s St. John’s Church photo op incident, the remarks of our presiding bishop, and a statement by all the Episcopal bishops in the Mid-Atlantic region. The message was that institutional and systemic racism are pervasive and real and will not go away without a change in attitudes and actions. Episcopalians— especially white Episcopalians— must act now, and attitudes regarding race must change. This is significant because at All Souls Church, it is very rare to talk about anything that is potentially controversial or that would make some in the congregation uncomfortable. If these discussions about race are happening like this all over the country, maybe we actually could be entering a new era.

I am mindful of four recent comments on this blog site. One was by Irwin Singer, which I have already written about. A second was yesterday by Jim Killebrew and the third today by John Franklin and a fourth today by Naomi Pena–all long time, dear friends. Both Jim and John post regular comments on the blog, which I welcome and cherish. What the first three comments have in common is the argument that in order for change to be lasting and meaningful, attitudes must change. Jim cautioned about the need for white people to listen to people of color, and John’s were about his own journey out of poverty due in large part to education, friendships and inner drive. In other words it is not just about politics and legislation but about a change in culture and the way each of us thinks and behaves and the values we hold dear. Naomi’s post deals with the systemic issues—that the system must be changed–which I also agree with. I do not see the solution as an either/or but rather a both/and. I encourage you to read all four comments, if you have not already done so.

 I am hopeful because I know how much our culture has already changed with regard to the race issue. I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, in the 1950s when Jim Crow was in full swing. It was illegal in those days for whites and blacks to attend the same schools, drink out of the same water fountains, use the same restrooms, or eat in the same restaurants. Black boys and white boys did not compete against each other in sports. Racist jokes and comments were commonplace along with racial invectives. African Americans did not hold public office or have executive positions in business. And certainly, black people were poor—many dirt poor. And few people–that is, few white people– really thought that much about it. That is just the way the world was. To deny that we have come a long way since the 1950s is to forget how bad things were just over a half century ago. In 1960 when I graduated from high school , did anyone think we would have an African American president in our lifetimes?

Yet, despite the changes that have occurred, racism still exits—at least what I would call the vestiges of racism, which are more subtle and, in some ways, more insidious. The statistics tell the story. The prisons and jails incarcerate more blacks than whites, yet African Americans comprise only 13% of the population. One third of black men in their twenties are in jail, prison or on parole. African American poverty is more than twice the rate of white people, and black people have median incomes which are only 57% of those who are white. Unemployment is consistently higher among the black population. De facto school segregation still persists especially in large urban areas, and relatively few persons of color hold CEO  or high level positions at major companies or institutions.

And then there is  police abuse, which was laid bare last week when George Floyd was murdered. Add to that the murders of other black men by police and by others who were never prosecuted. This was the spark that ignited the flame.

So, yes, we have made progress, but so much still remains unfinished. And herein lies  the challenge. It was pretty obvious in the 1960s that Jim Crow laws had to go, and that equal protection of the law and voting rights had to extend to black people. Embry and I were part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, marching and working with SNCC in Southwest Georgia. It was a hopeful time, a time of belief that “we shall overcome.”

But how do you address  causes due to globalism and the economy? To the job market and the way our economy is structured? To structural or systems issues like holes in the health care insurance and delivery systems, under funded public schools, and the jobs lost to Asia or automation, which affect everyone who is poor—both white people and people of color. How do we get our arms around these things?

There are some things that we can and should jump on immediately like reform of the criminal justice system and constraints to police brutality. But the economic issues will take time and the path ahead is fuzzy. Will we have the patience and the determination to stick with this issue until the rage subsidies? Will we have the right leaders to make this happen? These are the unanswered questions. If we can stick with it and have the right leadership, this could  be one of those moments where the trajectory of history is changed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wishful Thinking

Note to readers: Before reading this post, you might want to read the comment by Irwin Singer in the comments section in “A Time for Reckoning,” posted on July 3.

In comments posted on the blog a couple of days ago (“A Time For Reckoning”), my friend, Irwin Singer, made several contrarian and thoughtful points. His first major point was that it is wishful thinking on my part to think that Democrats, if they are in control,  will be able to make much of a difference since extreme poverty still exists, especially among people of color, despite billions of dollars spent by Democrats over the years on what Irwin sees as failed programs. Why should anyone think that things would be different now? His second major point was that the cause of poverty has more to do with sociological and lifestyle issues than government policy and that if three things happened among the people of color who are also poor,  this would go a long way to solving the problem: finishing high school, avoiding having (or fathering) babies out of wedlock, and keeping a first job. The implication is that bleeding heart Democrats are guilty of casting dispersion on hard-nosed realists whom they tend to demonize as racists or uncaring when these “conservatives” actually have a more accurate of understanding of the way the world is and what works and what doesn’t.

Irwin’s comments, I think, probably are representative of what used to be mainstream, conservative thinking and are not totally without merit. I, however, am Exhibit A of a bleeding-heart idealist. I plead guilty to wishful thinking.  However, while far from perfect, the “progressive” approach is the far better choice, compared to four more years of Trump. It stands a far better chance of at least softening the blow of poverty, racism, and inequality than business-as-usual or “benign neglect” as recommended by Senator Daniel Moynihan, who was the first to encourage this policy under Richard Nixon, as pointed out by Irwin. It also means we have a better shot at combating global warming.

I also realize that human nature, being what it is, the “rational” arguments offered by the “other side” often fall on deaf ears. I could cite some of the progressive accomplishments like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, minimum wage, civil rights and fair housing legislation, and programs like Head Start, SNAP (food stamps) and the Peace Corps, recognizing that while none of these initiatives is perfect, each one has done more good than harm. We have made “progress,” albeit too slow and far from perfect.

I also believe that a major driver behind increasing inequality and the civil malaise and unrest is  globalization, which has both good and bad outcomes. And we have not yet figured out how to deal with this.

And I certainly do not agree that we should ignore the root causes of why people behave the way they do. Some people were dealt a lot stronger hand of cards than others. It is not so easy to change human behavior.

But I also know the that I won’t convince those who have another world view. I have had a lot of friends over the years who were and are conservatives. I respect and honor them. Many of my clients in my affordable housing and seniors housing practice would certainly fall into this category. I had and still have great affection for many of these clients—mainly developers and non profit, faith-based, seniors housing corporations. They are good people. I understand where they are coming from. We can agree to disagree on questions of politics.

That Democrats have all the answers, however, was not intended to be the main point of my blog on “reckoning.” We don’t. The intended point of my blog was that the only alternative that we have to Trump is to elect Joe Biden as president and, if we are going to change direction of the country, to control the Senate as well as the House. No, it will not be perfect. Yes, mistakes will be made, and poverty and racism will not be eliminated. But under the Democrats, it will be far better than what we have now or what we will get with four more years of Trump. At least it will give us a shot.

So while I stand by my positions in “The Time For Reckoning” post, I also appreciate hearing views on the other side. But I will end with the same comment that I made on my “Reckoning” post. If Trump wins a second term….

God help us.

 

A Time For Reckoning

We have not seen this movie before, and we do not know how it will end. For people about my age or older, the closest we have come in our lifetimes to the current situation was in 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in the spring of 1968, which set off demonstrations and civil disobedience all across the country. Parts of Washington DC were destroyed.  This was the case in scores of mainly poor, minority neighborhoods in cities all across the country. Embry and I were living in New York then. When the assassination happened, I was in my final semester at Union Seminary, and Embry was about to graduate from Barnard. Classes were canceled for the remainder of the school year as the demonstrations and arrests increased. It felt like we were on the verge of civil war.

It feels a lot like that now except the protests against the brutal murder of George Floyd and police brutality in general are just part of the picture. We also are in the middle of the covid-19 pandemic, and we have the most incompetent–and also the most dangerous–president in the history of the republic. It is a time that is almost impossible for us to fathom. No, we have not seen this movie before, and we surely do not know how it is going to end.

But what we do know is this: How we come out of this crisis will determine the fate of our country and perhaps the planet. Will we use this experience as a wakeup call,  a time of reckoning, a time to address the terrible inequities and unfairness that are fault lines in our society that the pandemic has exposed, or will we allow what I call The Forces of Darkness to tear us apart? Trump’s photo-op catastrophe in front of Saint John’s Episcopal Church highlights once again what is at stake. His response to unrest is to hunker down, to fight back, to use force to punish adversaries, and to divide and conquer. Four more years of Trump could mean the end of democracy and the end of the America as we have known it. The stakes have never been higher.

We know now and have known for a long time that the image of the United States as the shining city on a hill is not the true image of this country. We are still dealing with the awful legacy of slavery. We have gone through the era of Jim Crow, the Robber Barons, the Great Depression,  Joe McCarthy, ill-fated and unnecessary wars like Vietnam and the Iraq War, and now the era of Donald Trump– police brutality, incarceration of minorities, lingering racism, increased inequality, cronyism, anti immigration, and overshadowing almost everything, the looming devastation caused by global warming. There has never been a time where good leadership is needed and yet is in such short supply.

But there is another America, an America that says we can do this, we can tackle these problems. We came through the Civil War. We freed the slaves. We responded to the era of the Robber Barons with anti trust legislation and tax reform. We prevailed over the McCarthy witch hunt. We fought in two world wars and defeated Fascism and totalitarianism. We outlasted Communism. We passed civil rights legislation and the New Deal and expanded the social safety net. We invented the Peace Corps. We have the most dynamic economy on the planet. Despite Trump, we still have a free press and freedom of speech.

Yes, we have our warts and fault lines, but we also have our victories and accomplishments. We are a great country, despite our failures.

There are two endings to this movie. The happy ending is the defeat of Trump, and the retaking of the Senate by progressive Democrats while keeping the House. This era would begin with a vaccine for the coronavirus. It would produce progressive legislation, which would start to tackle inequality, the problems in education and health care, racism, incarceration, police violence, and global warming. It would promote  science, affordable housing, the rebuilding of our infrastructure, welcoming immigrants, and a fair tax structure. This period would restore our leadership role on the planet and secure our place as the greatest county on Earth.

The other ending is the tragic one. I can’t bring myself to fathom that one.

Lord have mercy.