150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death: How do we hold his memory today?

Lincoln on his death bed in Peterson House from Harpers weekly May 6 1865

LINCOLN on his deathbed, an illustration in Harper’s Weekly, 1865.

“The tragic splendor of his death, purging, illuminating all, throws round his form, his head, an aureole that will remain and will grow brighter through time, while history lives and love of country lasts. By many has this Union been helped. But if one name, one man, must be picked out—he, most of all, is the conservator of it, to the future.”
Walt Whitman, April 16, 1865 (the day after President Lincoln died)


Lincoln lay still those last nine hours.

His final night was in a narrow room in a boarding house across from the Ford Theater. The bed too small, his knees bent. As his personal silence began—a great gasp, a roar of dumb grief crossed the land.

A score and more of somber men crowded the small room—the fallen president a figure of spiritual comfort, even though many who kept the vigil were titans of war. They noted, oddly, how strong his long bare arms were. If he had one quip left if could have been, ”The better to hold our country with!”


Almost everyone held his words, words from our history, our documents, our declarations, the words from Gettysburg that changed a killing field into a birth place. Such a transformation may we hope for in our time and in our lives to this day.

At Hancock, Massachusetts, the Shakers, those people of the Second Coming, inscribed in their large ledger, in double-sized script, “President Lincoln has been killed.” They who gave him one of their handmade rocking chairs, and received a note of thanks, knew his godly views. They were a community of sacred visions. They would hold him.


Lilacs blooming in a dooryardWalt Whitman, one of Lincoln’s greatest champions, loved that word and used it eight times in his famous hymn of loss: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. In one instance, he wrote:
A moment I linger—for the lustrous star has detain’d me;
The star, my departing comrade, holds and detains me.

The fragrance of lilacs would remain an annual memory of the loss, Whitman wrote:
Yet the lilac, with mastering odor, holds me.

Walt Whitman challenged all of us to hold Abraham Lincoln’s memory and to wrestle with it—knowing that it would be a struggle. Whitman’s first use of “hold” in Lilacs issues that warning: “O cruel hands that hold me powerless!”

Whitman had spent years observing and thinking about Lincoln during the presidential years, which is why he was poised to commemorate his assassination with one of America’s greatest poems. Whitman said in a talk he often gave about Lincoln’s death, “For my part, I intend until my dying day, whenever the fourteenth or fifteenth of April comes, to annually gather a few friends and hold its tragic reminiscence.”

Now 150 years later, what might we “hold” in such a gathering of a few friends? How might we remember Lincoln and remember his tragic death?

I propose we hold such meetings this year. Whitman thought he was too close to the event to know what might eventually “filter” through to the American people from Lincoln and his murder. To hold such a time for talking with a few friends might raise some important ideas and feelings for us now as Americans and as people of spiritual life.


Where shall we start? Here are three possibilities.

One. Historians tell us that John Wilkes Booth became the Confederate Killer because he had heard Lincoln’s recent speech on reconstruction and believed it meant what we now would call racial integration. Booth’s fury at the mere idea of equal association and legal status with blacks pushed him from kidnapping to murder, and from plan to impetuosity.

Is Lincoln’s death meaningfully associated with his increasingly open views on racial equality? What dangerous racial lines still divide us in America?

Two. Whitman tells us that huge numbers of singing, shouting Union soldiers marched up through North Carolina with General Sherman after Sherman’s defeat of Atlanta and march through the South. There “continued, inspiriting shouts…at intervals all day long…wild music…triumphant choruses…huge, strange cries…expressing youth, wildness, irrepressible strength…” until they heard word of President Lincoln’s assassination.

“Then no more shouts or yells for a week.” Hardly a word or laugh “…a hush and silence pervaded.”

Is there a truth in Lincoln’s death that muffles national triumphalism? Is there something about the spirit of military might that Lincoln’s death changes?

Three. There are two words often associated with Lincoln: humor and melancholy. He was being entertained at a funny play on the night of Good Friday when he was killed. He was laughing that night as he would often do. Yet of all the sorrowful times of his life nothing is quite as sorrowful as his death. Is there a balance in life between joy and sorrow, between success and failure, between a new birth of freedom and its tragic implications? Is there a balance we as a maturing nation are ready to hold?

These and other reminiscences of Lincoln could be part of an annual gathering held on the night of April fourteenth or in the day of April fifteenth—as Whitman called us to do. It would be an event as different as Christmas is from Easter, as Lincoln’s birthday is from the date of his death.

Care to read more?

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

The Benjamin Pratt interview on ‘Short Stuff from a Tall Guy’

COVER Benjamin Pratt Short Stuff from a Tall Guy full cover proof

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

“You hold in your hands a human heart,” writes Day1 radio host Peter Wallace in the preface to Benjamin Pratt’s new book, Short Stuff from a Tall Guy: Wisdom Gleaned from Life’s Daily Journey. “It is the heart of a minister. A caregiver. A storyteller. It is the heart of a fellow sojourner on the path to a richer, fuller, more meaningful life.”

“As I read it,” Peter continues, “I couldn’t help but feel that I was having a heart-to-heart conversation with this beloved brother, Ben Pratt. Ben reveals himself within and between these lines in a multitude of wise ways—and in so doing, helps each of us see ourselves more clearly as fallible human beings yearning for meaning and love and grace and purpose in life. Sometimes finding it, oftentimes losing it, but always grateful for it when we experience it.”

In her foreword to the new book, popular Buddhist writer Geri Larkin points to the courageous compassion that Ben Pratt tries to foster among his readers.

“At a time when crime stories are topping best-seller lists, here is a book that offers an entirely different experience,” Geri writes. “Each story, anecdote and poem offers an antidote to the negative messages we get pummeled by on a daily basis by popular media.”

Instead, Geri writes, Ben “invites us instead to pause, to notice, and then appreciate the more heroic aspects of each other—our ability to sympathize, to provide comfort, to openly mourn loss, to genuinely and openly love everyone.”

At ReadTheSpirit, we highly recommend this book for anyone who already is a fan of works by Peter and Geri—or books by writers such as Barbara Mahany, Judith Valente, Robert Wick, Richard Rohr, Shirley Showalter and the Knuths. If any of those writers already is among your favorites, we guarantee you’ll recognize Ben’s latest book as a brother in that family of writers. Beyond the book’s value for individual readers, Ben Pratt is a popular speaker and retreat leader and many of the stories in this new collection will spark lively discussion in your class or small group.

(To learn more about Ben, visit his author page within our online magazine—or his author page within Amazon. To order his book, click on the cover image with this interview.)

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Ben Pratt. Here are …


DAVID: In recent years, Ben, you’ve written weekly columns that have been widely shared across our own website, the website of the Day1 radio network—and other online newsletters, too. You’ve heard from countless men and women about the ways your true stories touch their lives. What’s at work here? How are you able to take small stories from your own life and connect with so many readers?

BEN: That amazes me and it always pleases me to hear from readers. Apparently, by sharing these stories from my own daily journeys, I encourage people to think about meaningful experiences in their own lives and their relationships with other people.

Earlier in my life, I served as a pastor and wrote primarily for preaching. Usually, I got responses like: “Good job, pastor.” Short comments like that. But, I still remember a day when someone told me, “Listening to you preach today, I thought you must have been in our house this week.” That kind of response shows a much richer, deeper connection with people. I want to be speaking and writing in ways that connect with people where they’re living.

My effort now is to put my own musings and experiences into words so that I can help trigger such thoughts in other people. And the comments I get now, after a new column is published, often describe that kind of connection. Through what I write, I’m with them where they live.

DAVID: You refer to the stories in this book as “Wisdom Gleaned from Life’s Daily Journey.” You don’t describe these stories in terms that are typical in inspirational books. You don’t call these “meditations,” for example. They’re true stories from your daily life. Why do you describe it that way?

BEN: I don’t think of myself as a person who meditates in the formal way. A couple of times I have been part of groups that were training people in meditation, but somehow that never fit into my life. I find thoughts and images and insights coming to me when I’m playing in my garden, or mowing my lawn or even vacuuming the house.

DAVID: In your writing, the images often come before the words, right?

BEN: That’s usually how my writing begins. Eventually, those images form into words and the writing evolves.

My prayer life, too, is much more about images, putting myself where other people are and experiencing images. We have to pay attention to what is happening around us in life. We have to keep our eyes and ears open.

DAVID: That’s a frequent teaching by Geri Larkin, who wrote the foreword to your book. Geri likes to remind people to “Pay attention!”


BEN: One prayer that I pray each day is known as the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace …” With that prayer to start your day, you’re never out of a job. There are always moments in which we can be of service, love, caring, forgiveness, hope.

That way, each day can be a pilgrimage.

DAVID: That’s a key theme in your writing—that our most important spiritual experiences usually don’t take place inside the walls of a church.

BEN: Within the church, we usually are preaching to the choir. We’re evangelizing the already evangelized. I’m much more interested in speaking to people in their daily lives—even though many of the people I encounter may be outside what we might think of as a formal faith community.

I don’t want to speak in traditional religious jargon. I want to talk about the real stuff we experience in our daily lives.

DAVID: So, let me pose the question another way: What’s a really good day for you?

BEN: (Laughs!) “A really good day?” Oh my! Well, a good day is when I laugh a lot, when I have meaningful interchanges with people: people I know and love—as well as strangers.


Benjamin Pratt Short Stuff color flyer thumbnail

WANT TO GET YOUR FRIENDS EXCITED ABOUT READING THIS BOOK? Click on this thumbnail of a full-color flyer for Ben Pratt’s new book. You’re free to save, share or print out that flyer and show it to friends. This book is ideal for a series of small-group discussions. Ben is a veteran teacher, speaker and retreat leader.

DAVID: Talk more about meeting strangers. You actually dare to talk to strangers—something most of us don’t risk doing on a daily basis.

BEN: Well, you have to be intentional about this, I think. Sometimes I get intentional about the quick encounter with a clerk at a register. I’m very quick to read the name on their name-tag—and I thank them by name. The encounter might be as simple as that.

There are many ways to start a conversation. I find tattoos fascinating. People tend to either love tattoos or hate them, but these often are amazing pieces of artwork that tell important stories from people’s lives. If someone has an obviously visible tattoo, I’ll often ask about it—I’m interested in the story.

These moments make the day delicious.

DAVID: Delicious!? Strangers are scary, aren’t they? It’s tough to convince people to speak to someone they don’t know.

BEN: I don’t think that way.

First, I don’t think of the people I encounter each day as strangers. I always trust that there is some bridge we can walk across to connect. Sometimes, we need to build the bridge as we’re walking across it toward each other. That means we need to listen carefully to the people we encounter.

If we allow the world to move us toward fear of the people all around us each day, then we’re in bigger trouble than anything we may fear. I always anticipate a connection—and that lets me meet each new person with a simple smile. And, we go from there. Sometimes, it’s just the smile.

DAVID: I like the fact that you ask about small details you notice in the people you meet. I’ve often found that’s a great first step in connecting. Someone who snaps on a lapel pin before leaving the house is hoping that people will see it. If a person has a book under his arm as he’s waiting somewhere—he usually will welcome a question about what he’s reading.

BEN: I believe that all of us, on one level, want to be noticed. Now, we do have to be careful about over-reaching. (Laughs!) My children sometimes have told me I can overdo this! But, we’re talking here about appropriate conversation: Simply saying hello to people. Smiling. Asking a simple question—because you’re really interested in their stories.


DAVID: Readers of this book will quickly discover that you don’t make yourself the hero of these stories. For years, you worked as a pastoral counselor. You’ve been a teacher and retreat leader. But, in these stories, you’re not instructing readers. Instead, these stories invite readers to take a moment and think about their own lives—with you as a friend in the process.

BEN: Here’s a way to describe it. I know that I never will conduct a symphony. If I’m fortunate, I might be able to serve by playing the triangle at the very back of the orchestra.

I live my life like that. Near where we live, there’s a rotating shelter hosted by a number of churches—providing places to come find a warmth, safety and a good meal. I volunteer in that program. I show up and help serve the meals. I’m just one of the people in the background of that program. And, when I volunteer, I always find that I learn from the people who come into the shelter—as much as they will ever learn from me.

Small things do make a difference. This is the third book I’ve written and I’ve contributed to a couple of other books. And I’m amazed at all the people out there who have written to me to say that I’ve touched them with my writing.


DAVID: Why tell stories? Every week, ReadTheSpirit online magazine publishes a couple dozen new stories by a wide range of writers—often including a new story by you, Ben, if we’re lucky that week. We keep doing this, because we think it matters to send these stories into the world. Why are we so drawn to telling stories?

BEN: If we hope to truly know ourselves, and then let others know us, that basically happens through our story. It’s important to know our story and to be honest about it. For people of faith, we are people of a story. All of the major religious traditions are rooted in story.

The other night, my wife and I visited some long-time friends for dinner. Before dinner, it was one friend’s turn to say a prayer. But, he surprised us. He said: “Instead of a prayer tonight, I’m going to tell you a story about my grandchildren. And, after I tell a story, I want each of you to tell a story from your families.”

I’m still thinking about what he did and said. “Instead of a prayer … I’ll tell you a story …” I think: That’s a beautiful way to pray together.

I do know this: Ask people to tell you their story—and you’ll never meet a stranger.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Wake Up! 35 reasons we should see Cuba

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Wake Up!

Author and Peacemaker

Ernst Hemingway in Finca Vigia in Cuba

One of the “must see” destinations in Cuba for Americans is Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s home on the island. American fans of the author are far more familiar with other Hemingway homes, including one in Key West that is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. The Cuban home is called Finca Figia, which means “Lookout Farm,” and is situated on a hill about seven miles from Havana. He wrote much of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea” in this home. Long-time fans of the author also will be interested in the home’s association with Hemingway’s turbulent relationship with third wife, the noted journalist and feminist Martha Gellhorn. Some critics of the Cuban government say the historical site is endangered; other sources say that the site is reasonably preserved on a limited budget. It’s certainly a required stop for American visitors touring Havana for the first time.

To commemorate US President Barack Obama’s stunning announcement on 17 December 2014 of executive action reestablishing formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, here are a few facts that might surprise, spark curiosity—and inspire you to think about visiting the island nation. Feel free to share this list with friends. See what the resulting eye-opening conversations might produce in 2015.

1. The worlds’ smallest hummingbird and smallest frog are found in Cuba.

2. Christmas did not become an official holiday in Cuba until 1997.

3. Cuba sent more medical professionals to combat the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa than any other country.

4. In 1820 Thomas Jefferson thought Cuba “the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States” and told Secretary of War John C. Calhoun that the United States “ought, at the first possible opportunity, to take Cuba.”

5. There are no animals or plants in Cuba that are poisonous or lethal to humans.

6. In May 2001 Texas state legislators were the first to officially petition for an end to the US embargo of Cuba. One possible reason: Cuba imports more than two-thirds of its rice, mostly from Asia.

7. Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea while he lived in Cuba.

8. The 1898 Treaty of Paris ended the Spanish-American War. The US took control of several Spanish colonies, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, parts of the Spanish West Indies, the Island of Guam in the Marianas Islands, and the Philippines. Cuba was later granted its independence after agreeing to assert the 1901 Platt Amendment into its 1902 constitution. That Amendment guaranteed the US the right to unilaterally intervene in Cuban affairs. In arguing for US Senate approval of the Platt Amendment, Senator Knute Nelson said, “Providence has given the United States the duty of extending Christian civilization. We come as ministering angels, not despots.” On the other (losing) side of the debate, Senator George Frisbie Hoar argued, “This Treaty will make us a vulgar, commonplace empire, controlling subject races and vassal states, in which one class must forever rule and other classes must forever obey.” Immediately after the signing of the treaty, the US-owned “Island of Cuba Real Estate Company” opened for business to sell Cuban land to Americans.

9. From the air, the island of Cuba resembles a crocodile or alligator and so Cuba is often referred to in Spanish as “El Cocodrilo” or “El Caimá”.

10. Cuba has the highest doctor to patient ratio in the world. More than two-thirds of Cuban physicians are women.

11. In October 2014 the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly approved—for the twenty-third year in a row—a resolution calling on the US to end its embargo against Cuba. The US and Israel have always voted against the resolution. Several times Palau and the Marshall Islands have joined the opposition. Some time ago, for three years running, Uzbekistan voted no. There are 193 United Nations member states.

12. Fidel Castro stopped smoking cigars in 1985.

13. Christopher Columbus’ first landfall in the Americas was on 28 October 1492, in Barlay, a bay on the northeast coast in what is now the Holguin Province. He thought he was in India.

14. Hatuey, legendary chief of the Taino people of Ayiti (now Hispaniola, shared by the modern nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), is celebrated in Cuba as its “First National Hero.” Leading the first indigenous resistance to the invading Spanish, Hatuey fled to Caobana (Cuba) to warn the inhabitants. Eventually captured by the Spaniards, he was burned at the stake. Beforehand, a Roman Catholic priest asked Hatuey if he wished to be baptized before dying so he could escape hell and go to heaven. The chief asked the priest if Spaniards went to heaven. Yes, if baptized, came the reply. “Then I don’t want to go there, but to hell so as not to be where they were and where he would not see such cruel people.” Monuments to Hatuey are located in the Baracoa and in Yara.

15. Havana, Cuba, and Mobile, Alabama, are sister cities.

16. Among the businesses itching to get into Cuba is Major League Baseball, where the sport is a passion and has been since the 1870s.

17. Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than that of the US.

18. In spite of the embargo, the US sends a monthly $4,085 check to Cuba as rent for Guantanamo Bay. Cuba has never cashed them.

19. There are at least three nightclubs/love music venues paying tribute to the Beatles: The Yellow Submarine in Havana, The Beatles Bar-Restaurant in Varadero, and The Cavern in Holguin. And there is an official statue of John Lennon in Havana, where Lennon is named a “true revolutionary.” However, the Cuban government initially banned music by the Beatles, considering it “decadent” and declared a nationwide ban of Beatles music in 1964.

20. According to a World Wildlife Fund report in 2007, Cuba is the only country with sustainable development, based on its ecological footprint.

21. In 1975 the US Senate’s Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities substantiated eight attempts by the Central Intelligence Agency to assassinate Cuba’s President Fidel Castro. Fabian Escalante, a retired chief of Cuba’s counterintelligence, who has been tasked with protecting Fidel Castro, estimated the number of assassination schemes or actual attempts by the Central Intelligence Agency to be 638.

22. In 1906, the Chicago Tribune editorialized, “The possession of Cuba has been the dream of American statesmen ever since our government was organized. . . . We have as righteous a claim to it as the people who are now occupying it.” Leonard Wood, the general who governed the island under US occupation, said that the United States “must always control the destinies of Cuba.”

23. A recent ecumenical retreat for young pastors (35 and younger) hosted by the Cuban Council of Churches had over 40 participants representing 19 different denominations including Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Quaker, and several branches of Pentecostalism.

24. US President John F. Kennedy purchased 1,200 Cuban cigars hours before signing the executive order to embargo Cuba.

25. Cuban rum is, hands down, the best around.

26. Cuba’s inclusion on the US State Department’s “state-sponsored terrorism” list has been called into question by numerous sources. The independent Council on Foreign Relations 2010 report says “intelligence experts have been hard pressed to find evidence that Cuba currently provides weapons or military training to terrorist groups. The State Department’s most recent “Country Report on Terrorism” report says “There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”

27. The literacy rate in Cuba is higher than in US.

28. In 1992 Cuba’s constitution was revised to remove the word “atheistic” as a descriptive term. In that same year Rev. Raúl Suarez, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, was the first Christian elected to the Cuban National Assembly. Rev. Suarez, a pacifist and founder of the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, was wounded while driving an ambulance for the Cuban army as it repelled the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by the US.

29. Fidel Castro is rumored to be the only Cuban who doesn’t dance well.

30. At any given time some 25,000 Cuban medical professionals are performing national service in underdeveloped countries. Currently there are approximately 500 US citizens studying to be doctors at Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine. Cuba is often referred to a medical research superpower, though the simplest of medications are often scarce.

31. All Cuban government vehicles are legally required to pick up hitchhikers.

32. Over the years the US Congress has approved a handful of exemptions to the embargo of Cuba, which currently buys (cash only) a half billion dollars worth of agricultural products from US growers.

33. While churches were never closed by the government following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Castro and other leaders’ opinions of the church was colored by its close association with the former military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. At the time of the Revolution, US companies owned about 40 percent of Cuba’s sugar cane plantations, almost all the cattle ranches, 90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions, 80 percent of the utilities, practically all the oil industry, and supplied two-thirds of Cuba’s imports. Oh . . . and the American crime syndicates had found Batista a welcoming host for their casino and brothel businesses.

34. A June 2014 opinion poll of Cuban-Americans in South Florida revealed that 68 percent favored restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and 52 percent said the US should end the embargo. Just this week a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 68 percent of all US citizens support ending the embargo of Cuba. That includes 57 percent of Republicans.

35. The official flower of Cuba is the Butterfly Jasmine.

KEN SEHESTED is an internationally known peacemaker and writer. He writes regularly at the www.PrayerAndPolitiks.org website, which he describes as situated “at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action.” He also is author of In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public.

A Mother’s Plea

Urban Leage women protesting in Ferguson Missouri

MOMS on the MOVE in FERGUSON. Have you noticed how many of the peaceful protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, are women? Many of their signs and slogans indicate that they are mothers. The photographer known as “LoavesOfBread” has been chronicling the demonstrations and uploading photos into Wikimedia Commons.


Protests in Ferguson Missouri photos by Loavesofbread via Wikimedia CommonsI’ll never forget July 20, 2014.

None of us knew Michael Brown at that point. He was just another 18 year old, getting ready to pull on a green graduation robe, zip up the front and add a red stole. He already was talking with friends about the start of a training program on August 11. With his diploma in hand, Michael would soon be learning how to repair heating and air conditioning systems.

He was on his way like millions of other young men and women.

On July 20, my wife and I were in Orlando, Florida. We strolled into the entrance portico at the Holiday Inn Universal, thinking about our own family. Two benches faced each other across a 12-foot-wide, slightly sloping concrete sidewalk.

A middle-aged father was meticulously loading, cleaning and sorting his white SUV with Georgia plates as his wife and another younger woman sat talking on the bench closest to their car. They seemed in no hurry to depart from their vacation.

My wife and I sat down on the facing bench.

Suddenly, the automatic door to the hotel opened and four children rushed out. The youngest girl, about 4, was crying and rushed toward the two women on the bench, cradling herself in the older woman’s arms. A young boy, perhaps 6, was holding his mouth and whimpering as if he had been hit and might be bleeding.

Two older boys, perhaps 12 and 13, stood attentively as the two younger children were comforted. They had opinions they wanted to voice! The father joined the circle; an interrogation began. The focus narrowed, the voices and tears quieted, and finally attention zeroed in on the two taller boys.

The verdict was announced: first, they evaded telling the truth, and second, they were responsible for the tears.

After a few minutes of total silence, the mother began to speak. She spoke directly to the two older boys—a come-to-Jesus plea. With each word the boys became more straight-backed, more rigid but with heads bowing more and more as each word was uttered. She named their infractions: lying, attempting to mislead and not represent their actions accurately.

Then she emphasized carefully their absolute need to be honest, to work hard and have faith in God. Her words developed a cadence as she reinforced each point. Then she paused. They didn’t move a muscle. She was sure she had their attention.

“How many times do I have to tell you? You started this life with two strikes against you! You are black and you are male. If you want to make it in this world—if you want to stay alive in this world—you will need to live with integrity, be honest and be faithful to God every minute of every day.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” they responded.

She continued pleading. Her words were a prayer. She was proclaiming her truth until tears came in her eyes.

As I stood to leave, she looked at me and said, “I apologize that you had to hear that family turmoil.”

I responded, “Don’t apologize. You were speaking a painful truth—a truth I’m sorry to admit is still a part of our society. We all wish it weren’t so, don’t we?”

“Thank you,” she said.

I walked away thinking: What a powerful plea! And, how tragic it was to recognize that painful truth!

We were 1,000 miles from Ferguson that morning. No one had heard of Michael Brown.

Twenty days later, the whole world knew his name.

Looking at the photographs of the peaceful protests in cities across the U.S., I’m haunted by the faces I see: Mothers. Marching.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

MSU ‘Bias Busters’ sort out the mysterious realm of religion

Front cover MSU guide 100 Questions about Muslim Americans

CLICK this cover to visit our Bookstore and learn about ordering your copy.


The MSU Bias Busters series of guides to cultural competence embarks on a new direction this week: We’re heading into the realm of religion.

The series, from the Michigan State University (MSU) School of Journalism, started in 2013 with 100 questions and answers to everyday questions about several groups. There are now guides for Indian Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, East Asian cultures, Arab Americans, Native Americans and, to help international guests, Americans.

Why did our MSU team decide to start this new series on religious minorities? Because such guides are needed by so many men and women, these days. Americans in countless neighborhoods and professions need to know how to interact with our neighbors and co-workers from minority faiths and cultures.

Why did we start this new series with Muslims? Because these men, women and children face the greatest misunderstandings right now, according to nationwide studies.

Recently, Pew researchers reported that prejudice against Muslim Americans is “rampant among the U.S. public.” The Pew team added: “We have a long way to go in dispelling prejudice against Muslims. Muslims were the group rated most negatively of all religious groups.”

Can our guide books really make a difference? Yes!

Here’s the goal of our overall series of 100 Questions & Answers guides: We answer the questions that real people ask every day wherever Americans gather. We answer the questions that no one else is answering in such a convenient and authoritative form. We have blue-ribbon readers across the country advise us as we answer these questions for readers—so you can trust what we’re telling you in these pages.

In your hands, these guides will help you get to know co-workers, neighbors or fellow students in your school. And that process of getting to know each other, concludes the Pew team, is the way to build healthier communities.

The Pew team used a thermometer chart to show Americans’ relatively warm vs. chilly attitudes toward minorities. The team’s report concludes: “Knowing someone from a religious group is linked with having relatively more positive views of that group. Those who say they know someone who is Jewish, for example, give Jews an average thermometer rating of 69, compared with a rating of 55 among those who say they do not know anyone who is Jewish. Atheists receive a neutral rating of 50, on average, from people who say they personally know an atheist, but they receive a cold rating of 29 from those who do not know an atheist. Similarly, Muslims get a neutral rating (49 on average) from those who know a Muslim, and a cooler rating (35) from those who do not know a Muslim.”


MSU Bias Busters Class works on 100 Questions about Muslim Americans

PHOTOS OF THE MSU BIAS BUSTERS: TOP PHOTO shows an MSU editing circle—clockwise from front: Arielle Rembert, Julia Gorman, Sarah King, Cheyenne Yost, Zhenqi (Bruce) Tan and Kate Kerbrat. MIDDLE PHOTO shows our editors Amanda Cowherd and Kyle Koehler collaborating on the new guide. BOTTOM PHOTO shows class members—front from left: Lia Kamana, Stacy Cornwell, Arielle Rembert and Julia Gorman. Second row, from left: Kate Kerbrat, Amanda Cowherd, Kyle Koehler, Zhenqi (Bruce) Tan, Cheyenne Yost and Sarah King.

The full title of our newest book, as listed on Amazon, is 100 Questions and Answers About Muslim Americans with a Guide to Islamic Holidays: Basic facts about the culture, customs, language, religion, origins and politics of American Muslims.

These guides are designed to answer the everyday questions that people wonder about but might not know how to ask. The Muslim-American guide answers:

* What does Islam say about Jesus?
* What does the Quran say about peace and violence?
* What is the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims?
* Which countries are predominantly Shia and Sunni?
* Do Muslims believe in heaven and an afterlife?
* Do Muslims believe that non-Muslims are going to hell?
* Is the Nation of Islam the same as Islam?
* Are honor killings a part of Islamic teaching?
* What does Islam say about images of God?
* Do women who wear the hijab play sports or swim?

The guide’s Foreword is by John L. Esposito, professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and author of the popular book, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam.

Esposito wrote, “The Muslims of America are far from monolithic in their composition and in their attitudes and practices. They are a mosaic of many ethnic, racial and national groups. As a result, significant differences exist in their community as well as in their responses to their encounter with the dominant religious and cultural paradigm of American society.”

Esposito was one of 20 experts who helped MSU students in one way or another through the creation of our new guide. The students began by interviewing Muslims, and consulting with our experts, to determine the 100 commonly asked questions we would answer in this book. Then, the students researched the answers and, once again, consulted with our experts to verify the entire guide.


Another new feature in this new book is a nine-page guide to Islamic holidays. Written by Read the Spirit’s Holidays & Festivals expert Stephanie Fenton, it explains their timing, meaning and significance.

The guide also has a recording with American Muslims pronouncing Arabic words such as Muslim, Islam and Allah. Muslims told students that these are often mispronounced and the audio addresses that. (Visit the ReadTheSpirit bookstore now to learn how to order your copy of this inexpensive new book. When you get your copy, the first thing you’ll want to do is listen to this helpful audio track. In most e-readers, the audio plays within the digital book; in the print edition, a QR code lets you click on that page—and play the audio on your smart phone.)

The series is evolving and becoming more elaborate.

The next guide will focus on Jewish Americans and is expected to have videos.


JOE GRIMM is visiting editor in the Michigan State University School of Journalism. In addition to the MSU series, Joe has written two books about careers in media. You can learn about all of Joe’s books in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore.

Season of Gratitude: An inclusive celebration of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Season of Gratitude in Belfast MaineBy DUNCAN NEWCOMER

Thanksgiving? A feminist plot foisted on President Lincoln by the prominent editor Sarah Hale to augment Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July as national holidays for American unity?

Thanksgiving? An Anglo-Protestant tradition from the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony as the dominant national narrative?

Thanksgiving? A Judeo-Christian community event based on the liturgies of harvest blessing and Holy Communion?

Thanksgiving? An American Christian holiday, along with Christmas and Easter, defining our religious heritage and identity?

Thanksgiving? A somewhat meaningful pause for Extreme Travel between the growing outlay of money for a macabre Halloween and the extravaganza of Christmas shopping?

Here in Belfast, Maine, nearly 7,000 of us cling to the mid-coastal Penobscot Bay. As we pause to ponder the November holiday, we probably define ourselves a little bit by all of the above.

But the local minister’s association decided this year not to have a typical ecumenical worship-and-music service for Thanksgiving. Each church, we thought, could have its own meaningful gathering, but the wider community is being invited, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, to a Season of Gratitude afternoon potluck supper at the local high school gym.

We might draw 60; we might welcome 200. We’re trying this for the first time in Belfast. We were inspired by the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit initiative from last year. And, we decided to reach out to people who we feel are a part of our community—but we never really see, much less share a common meal.

Inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s call for national unity, not necessarily in churches, we are talking with churches who aren’t usually involved in ecumenical dialogue, community service organizations and half-way houses, Buddhist meditation groups, ethnic minority fisherman, and just plain secular people.

Humility, gratitude, shared life, stories, food and presence. That’s our goal.

Lincoln would often make a meal of a single potato or an apple. We will feast more, and the local Co Op and grocery store have made generous contributions. Lincoln also said that even in hard times, like the Civil War, the Most High God does wondrous things, and we also need to be penitential of our national perversities. That’s what he tried to do on that first annual Thanksgiving 151 years ago.

We’ll let you know how it goes.


Review: ‘Cold War Road Show’ will make you feel safer now

Editor of ReadTheSpirit.com online magazine

PBS American Experience Cold War Road Show DVD documentaryHere’s something to feel truly thankful for this year! Watch The Cold War Roadshow on PBS’s American Experience this week and you will feel safer about our world in just 1 hour.

Global warming? Ebola? The ruthless armies of ISIS? Sure, they’re all critical global concerns we must address as concerned humans. But half a century ago, American life was transformed by the first visit of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. As a population, “we” lined the streets to see his entourage pass through our nation. What is most remarkable about this? We stood along his motorcade route in stunned silence.

As the documentary about this world-changing 1959 visit explains: Americans were so terrified by the power of this man to touch off a global nuclear war that we didn’t know how to respond.

Khrushchev intended this visit to serve as a full-scale public relations campaign to win over American public opinion. He grinned almost constantly. He showed off his own family and warmly hugged any American children who came within arm’s reach. But his short temper often trumped his charm offensive.

When the mayor of Los Angeles insulted him at a public banquet, Khrushchev exploded. He roared back that Soviet factories were pumping out missiles like sausages and, if Americans wanted to go toe to toe with the USSR, they’d find themselves in a war to end all wars! The film footage from that day shows the mayor’s face going from a confident grin to a jaw-dropping expression of fear at what he had touched off.

One of the best things about this fascinating documentary is the decision by filmmakers Robert Stone and Tim B. Toidze to include interviews with two adults who were children on the front row of this first visit by a Soviet leader to American soil. Susan Eisenhower is Ike’s daughter and now is a highly respected consultant on international commerce. Sergei Khrushchev is the son of the former Soviet leader and an author and consultant as well. These two “kids” provide revealing commentary on what was taking place in that often shocking tour.

One insight? Khrushchev’s son admits that his father had a very short fuse when confronted with insults. At the infamous Los Angeles banquet, when he began boasting about turning out missiles like sausages, the Soviet leader was flat out lying. It was just angry bluster, the son tells us. In fact, the Soviets had produced very few missiles at that point. Of course, that angry exchange left Americans quaking in our boots—and led to increased spying and a dramatic escalation of Cold War confrontations into the early 1960s.

Any American who was a child in that era remembers the “duck and cover” drills we all learned in public schools. This documentary shows a brief clip of the way we did it: Boys and girls all dropping to the floor of our classrooms, crouching under our desks and covering our heads with our hands. Today, the idea seems like the darkest of comedy.

But then, when it comes to global issues right now, Pew reports “Americans don’t care.” Nearly 4 out of 5 Americans told Pew pollsters this year that they want our leaders to focus on domestic issues and stop worrying about global concerns. However, national security remains an almost universal concern and 3 out of 4 Americans told Pew that “preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction” should be a top national priority. However we may balance those two attitudes—Pew reporting does show that Americans are no longer worried about a worldwide nuclear war ending life as we know it. And that certainly wasn’t the case when Khrushchev flew back to Moscow in 1959!

Watching this hour-long snapshot of America’s nuclear anxiety half a century ago is certain to make you feel more thankful this month!


(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)