Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s New Book Indicts Evangelical Christian Leaders Who Embrace Donald Trump

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Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Millions of Christians—especially black Christians and mainliners who care about at-risk families—already have seen evils in Donald Trump’s policies and moral lapses. However, millions of evangelical Christians remain in lock-step obedience to those outspoken evangelical leaders who are misusing the Bible in support of Donald Trump.

That’s the powerful indictment that evangelical writer and activist Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove lays at the feet of leading evangelical spokesmen in Revolution of Values—Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good, a book published to coincide with the 2020 election year. This is very much like the historic decision by Dr. David Gushee to write his book Changing Our Mind to present the evangelical case for LGBT inclusion.

In Revolution of Values, Wilson-Hartgrove argues that evangelicals won’t be swayed to break with Donald Trump until a strong evangelical case is made in terms they can understand and accept. That’s the model Gushee followed in his book. And, that’s what Wilson-Hartgrove delivers in this detailed analysis of how many outspoken evangelical leaders have led their followers astray, including what he describes as deliberate misuse of the Bible to support Trump.

“I’m not claiming that the Bible lines people up with any political party but the distortion that has been created by the Religious Right over the last 40 years has been crippling to so many Christians,” Wilson-Hartgrove said in our interview this week. “Evangelical Christians are not going to change their mind about this unless we turn back to the Bible and open up a biblically based space to talk about what has happened.”

Those conversations simply are not happening in many churches, he said. “I’ve had conversations with Christians all across this country that have convinced me of this: Many evangelical Christians already are deeply troubled by Donald Trump’s presidency. They’re troubled by his actions at the border, by his profanity, by his actions that could land us in a world war, by other policies. If they have a chance to talk with other Christians who allow them to openly share their concerns, then they will make a change. But, if they’re surrounded and dominated by these strong evangelical leaders who are supporting Trump—they will tend to remain obedient, to tamp down their troubled spirits, remain quiet and continue to vote for Trump.”


Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

This new book is a potential game-changer in evangelical America, much like Mark Galli set off a political earthquake under the Trump administration by calling for Trump’s removal in a December editorial in Christianity Today. Judged by the magazine’s modest circulation of just 130,000, that editorial might have remained a mere blip on the political landscape. However, Christianity Today was founded in 1956 by Billy Graham himself and is the flagship of the evangelical movement. Suddenly, Galli’s little editorial was front-page news nationwide. Trump was so worried about the editorial that Graham’s son, Franklin Graham—one of the leaders Wilson-Hartgrove indicts for making a pact with Trump—quickly stepped in to condemn what Galli had written.

“I was grateful for Mark’s editorial in Christianity Today,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “It doesn’t change everything with one editorial, but Mark did speak out and he gave white evangelicals some opening to speak out and begin saying: Something is wrong here with our support of Trump.”

Wilson-Hartgrove’s book also was published in December and, so far, it has flown under the radar of national news media, because the book’s message is not easy to spot online. That’s apparently part of this book’s marketing plan, at least so far. The book’s message is so explosive that Wilson-Hartgrove’s publisher—the venerable evangelical publishing house Inter-Varsity Press (IVP)—downplays the book’s content on its Amazon page. There’s no mention of Donald Trump, who is a central focus of this book, in the main description of the book that IVP provides to Amazon.

Brian McLaren’s Plea to Evangelical Trump Voters

Instead, the book’s subversive message shows up in endorsements. For example, a full-color, four-page press release IVP has prepared to promote the book mentions Donald Trump in the middle of the third page. That’s where IVP placed Brian McLaren’s loud-and-clear description of this book:

“Are you one of the 81 percent of evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, thinking you were making the Christian and biblical choice, or one of the mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics who joined them? Are you having some second thoughts? Here’s the story of a young evangelical (Wilson-Hartgrove) who rethought his decision to be a foot soldier in the Religious Right and is now a leader in a revolution of values that you may want to join too.”


Wilson-Hartgrove builds his case across 200 pages, starting with Page 1: “Since the late 1970s in America, political operatives have invested money and energy in framing the cultural concerns of conservative white christians as the moral issues in our public life.”

He contrasts the rise of the Right against the core values in the heyday of the civil rights movement, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still alive, which Wilson-Hartgrove lists as: “voting rights, equal protection under the law, economic justice, peace and the environment.” By the time Wilson-Hartgrove was growing up in the South in the 1980s and ’90s, King’s fervent Christian appeals to justice were eclipsed by conservative political movements with names like Moral Majority and Christian Coalition.

Within his own Southern Baptist Church, “I was trained as a foot soldier in the culture wars. I was taught to vilify liberals, environmentalists, and civil and women’s rights advocates, not as a strategy to gain political power, but as a religious duty,” he writes. What finally opened Wilson-Hartgrove’s eyes to the evils of “the genocidal white supremacy and patriarchy that have compromised Christian witness throughout US history” was spending a great deal of time with poor and at-risk families.

That’s literally what Jesus asks his followers to do—repeatedly—in the pages of the Bible. That’s what transformed Wilson-Hartgrove’s view of the world—and the core values of Christianity.


In addition to his role as an outspoken theologian and social-justice activist, Wilson-Hartgrove also is a historian steeped in America’s religious history. He understands what Dr. King demonstrated in the 1960s: Americans will change their minds when they see the faces of their neighbors at the heart of an issue. That’s the same foundation on which Dr. Gushee built his work on LGBT inclusion, the story he tells in Changing Our Mind.

That’s also the core message of a widely cited Pew Research Center report this week, headlined: Mixed views about civil rights but support for Selma demonstrators. This is an analysis of polling data written in 2015 by the late Pew Research co-founder Andy Kohut.

What the data show is that, as the marches were underway in Selma, Americans still were very hesitant about supporting civil rights. Kohut writes:

But despite all these reservations, views about what occurred in Selma were another matter. By a 48% to 21% margin, a Harris poll in May 1965 found its respondents saying they sided more with the civil rights groups involved than with the state of Alabama. Not unexpectedly, virtually all of the black respondents sided more with the demonstrators (95%), but the balance of opinion among whites was also clearly with them rather than with the state of Alabama (46% to 21%).

That’s why every chapter in Wilson-Hartgrove’s book includes inspiring stories about his experiences shoulder-to-shoulder with poor and at-risk men, women and families. Are evangelicals ready to abandon Trump? Polls show that evangelicals have deep reservations about voting for anyone else in 2020. What could change their minds?

The stories of real men, women and children who are affected by Trump’s policies.


In his book, Wilson-Hartgrove asks that readers learn more about The Poor People’s Campaign. Many of the inspirational real-life stories in this book came from work the author pursued with that group. You also can learn more about this work with the Poor People’s Campaigns—and other organizations—through the rich array of materials in Wilson-Hartgrove’s own website.

One of the other main groups he recommends to readers is Evangelicals for Social Action, founded by Ron Sider. Ron is the sister of clinical psychologist and clergywoman Lucille F. Sider, who added their Sider family story to the #MeToo movement in 2019 by publishing Light Shines in the Darkness: My Healing Journey Through Sexual Abuse and Depression. This is Lucille’s story of resilience and hope as a survivor of sexual abuse. Ron has fully supported his sister’s efforts to speak out openly and honestly about the toxic environment in which they grew up.


In stark contrast to these groups that lift up the concerns of at-risk and marginalized men, women and children—Wilson-Hartgrove builds his central indictment through page after page of quotes from top evangelical leaders calling Donald Trump the answer to their prayers.

These “court evangelicals” have no interest in justice, diversity, inclusion or the wellbeing of the poor, Wilson-Hartgrove argues. Instead, they share a nostalgia for a male-dominated white nationalism that champions unrestrained capitalism, he writes.

For Christians who are tempted to believe that “rich people are godly and poor people are morally suspect, then the Bible’s complex collection of multiple genres of literature can be distilled into basic instructions for climbing the ladder of success in a capitalist society—as long as you don’t pay too close attention to the details.”

Just as 19th-century Southern Christian pastors preached that slavery was morally mandated by the Bible, modern white nationalists cherry pick verses that have built a Christian mandate to support Trump. Now, several years into the Trump regime, Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “The moral crisis of the Trump administration has revealed the danger of false teachers who misuse the Bible and twist its words to whitewash injustice.”


So, is this situation hopeless? The author answers with a resounding: No.

Change can come, as Dr. King preached, “in a revolution of values that would necessarily be led by America’s poor, coming together across dividing lines that have been used to pit us against one another.”

On the book’s final page, Wilson-Hartgrove preaches this message as an opportunity to tap deep into the wellspring of our American and our Christian origins. He writes:

“Without Christian nationalism, there would be no President Trump. However extreme religious nationalists may seem to our neighbors and the watching world, the Republican Party as it is currently constituted cannot exist without them. They are the base that the Religious Right built.

“Within the experiment of multiethnic democracy that we call America, Christian nationalism is the greatest threat to the ‘more perfect union’ that our Constitution calls us to strive toward. In a nation that is increasingly less white and less Christian, the coalition the Religious Right helped to build clings to power by undermining the democratic principles that sustain America’s social contract.  …

“The task of a moral movement is nothing less than reviving the heart of American democracy.

“We must do this for the sake of our near neighbors, and we must do it for the sake of our human family on the other side of the world. But we who claim to follow Jesus must do it alongside people of every race, creed, religion and culture because the moral crisis of our time continues under the leadership of men and women who claim the blessing of our God.”


Perspectives on Dr. King’s Legacy from Utah and Italy: The Dream Is Still a Dream

This photo of the Rev. Dr. France A Davis, pastor emeritus of Utah’s largest African American church, Calvary Baptist, appears at the top of his online biography within the Calvary church’s website. To learn more about Dr. Davis’s remarkable life, click on this photo to visit the church’s online biography of him.


EDITOR’S NOTE—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is global, so this week, veteran Italian journalist Elisa Di Benedetto writes about her experiences with Dr. King’s ally and a long-time civil rights advocate in Utah: the Rev. Dr. France A. Davis. As she explains in this story, Elisa visited Utah for the first-ever North American conference of the International Association of Religion Journalists. The primary event organizer was Pulitzer-prize-winning Salt Lake Tribune religion writer Peggy Fletcher Stack. At the conference, journalists from around the world heard a stirring talk by Dr. Davis, then not long after the conference, Peggy wrote an in-depth profile to mark the retirement of Dr. Davis, headlined: Utah civil rights legend France Davis retires from the pulpit after 46 years, but his life remains a sermon in service. Here at ReadTheSpirit magazine, we are thankful that Peggy brought Dr. Davis’ prophetic voice to a wider attention—and that Elisa wrote this column for the holiday honoring Dr. King.

The Dream Is Still a Dream


Dr. Davis after Sunday services at Calvary Baptist Church. Photo by Elisa Di Benedetto.

“If the dream is that everybody would be treated the same—it’s still unfulfilled. It is still a dream.” Those are the words of the Rev. Dr. France A. Davis, who recently challenged journalists around the world to continue to report on efforts to combat injustice.

Even though I live in Italy, I have been thinking about Dr. Davis’s prophetic message to us as we approach the American holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. Not only did I hear him address our conference, I also visited his Calvary Baptist Church, Utah’s largest predominantly black congregation, where he has served since 1974, before retiring from active pastoral ministry on December 29.

I asked him how he assesses the progress since Dr. King was alive.

“Some pieces perhaps have been realized, like Mr. Obama getting elected to the presidency of the USA. But, other than those pieces, there is still a lot of work left to be done to ensure that everybody is treated the same,” he said, with a little bitterness in his eyes. “That’s what I see his dream is: that everybody would be treated with fairness and justice and have worth and value.”

I met Dr. Davis on a sunny Sunday morning, last October. It was my first time in Salt Lake City. I travelled there from Italy to attend the first North American conference of the International Association of Religion Journalists on “Cultivating, Understanding, Accuracy, and Empathy in a Polarized World.” It was a great meeting with journalists from different regions in the world discussing the challenges we face as we report about the important role religion plays in daily life. The intense 2-day program included keynote addresses from representatives of the local religious majority, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saints, and the minority, the Calvary Baptist Church.


Dr. Davis shared the history of his church and the challenges of being a religious minority in “the Mormons’ land.” As he ended his powerful speech, I wanted to visit the Calvary Baptist Church and attend the Sunday morning worship service there. I walked to the church along a main access street into downtown, which was renamed Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard in 1993, thanks to Rev. Davis’s advocacy and the community’s efforts, after a long and debated negotiation.

Dr. Davis’s life has been tightly connected to Dr. King, since the marches during the 1960s, which would raise support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and led to the voting Rights Act of 1965. “I was there for the march in Washington in 1963, and in 1965 in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. A part of my work here has been connected to that, and I’ve become the person who many people turn to when they get injustices here in Salt Lake City.”

That advocacy work resulted in the vandalism of Dr. Davis’ office by gunfire—one of the dramatic moments in his life included in my colleague Peggy Fletcher Stack’s Tribune profile of him at the time of his retirement.


Working from my home base in Italy, I am a journalist who specializes in covering religion as well as issues involving migrants around the world. I also have served as a volunteer working with migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. I see first-hand the challenges of racial, cultural and religious minorities in Europe. I was fascinated to learn about these challenges from a veteran of the American civil rights movement.

“The first challenge has been that the traditional racial issues that the U.S. has had are alive and well here,” he said, recalling examples that included hate letters he received from somebody purporting to belong to the KKK, people beaten up because of their race and name-calling.

“We feel like we are the left out, the least and the last,” he said. “But in addition to that, we are a religious minority and so we have to work hard to be accepted and seen as a viable religious group.”


Dialogue and good relationships with other faiths and religions, especially with the LDS Church leaders, have made that possible, he said.

“We work together with all kinds of religious groups, but we agreed to disagree in terms of the theological positions,” he explained. Religious leaders have crossed denominational lines to work on issues including fair-housing laws. In her profile of Dr. Davis, Peggy described how he was barred, because of his race, from the first apartment he tried to rent when he first arrived in Salt Lake City in 1972.

I asked Dr. Davis: So, how were these interfaith relationships established to work on hot-button issues like housing or access to health care?

His answer: “We just agreed not to debate about, discuss or talk about the theological differences—and to work together on the areas we have in common: housing, food, the hungry, the homeless and other social issues like that.”

His congregation provides many services to the community: a housing complex for the elderly and physically disabled; educational opportunities, including preschool reading programs, tutoring and scholarships for college students; recreational programs “so that people can develop mentally and physically”; food and other urgently needed resources for at-risk families.


As I stepped into the church that Sunday morning, I immediately experienced how inclusive and active the community is and how every single room in the building is designed to fulfill the needs of a growing community that counts 700 to 800 members from all over the state. They welcome 10 to 12 new members every month. Among them, there are also refugees from Congo, Sudan and other countries, who can attend a service in Swahili language for them, every Sunday at 2 pm.

On January 1, 2020, Reverend Dr. Oscar T. Moses began his pastoral leadership of the Calvary Baptist Church, which celebrated its 127th anniversary last November. Meeting the Rev. Dr. France Davis and his wife Willene Davis, who supported him over the plus 45 years of full-time service pastor, was one of the most enriching experiences of my trip to the US.

In 2020, Dr. King’s vision might still be a dream, but the world badly needs to hold up such dreams, every day—wherever we live and work.


A Diversity Note for Readers

Front Edge Publishing, founded in 2007, is the media company that produces weekly issues of ReadTheSpirit magazine. Front Edge has published many books about religious, cultural and racial diversity, including Dr. David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind. In 2020, our Front Edge team is producing a series of translations of that influential book about inclusion to share Dr. Gushee’s inspiring message with communities around the world. First, a Mandarin-Chinese version will be published, then a Swahili-language version. Keep in touch with us via [email protected]

Here’s Help for a Hopeful 2020—and an Invitation to Join this Adventure

QUOTES ON OUR REFRIGERATOR DOOR: These quotes were printed from this column using the “Print” icon at the bottom of the article, which can be edited to remove any type you don’t want. And, we encourage you to create your own quotes from your own sources! Send us your favorite quotes at [email protected]



Here’s one of many versions of this social-media meme. The wording varies on these memes, such as “shed” rather than “cried.” Other versions add responses, including: “Damn, bro, that’s true!” Many change the background imagery. Some extend the idea, for example: “Cry. Forgive. Learn. Move on. Let your tears water the seeds of your future happiness.”

There’s a meme floating around Facebook these days that reads: “May the tears you cried in 2019 water the seeds of 2020.”

It’s fascinating how a simple expression can put a positive turn on our lives. The internet hardly invented memes, however. Simple expressions have given people hope at critical junctures throughout history. And these have long been produced through books.

As this new decade dawns, we are inviting our readers to help us share hopeful lines from books that just might change someone’s day. We are reminded that our friend Benjamin Pratt describes this practice in his book Guide for Caregivers in a chapter called Carrying Words With You. (And right there is another helpful tip: Millions of Americans are caregivers now. If you’re among them, click on that title-link to visit Amazon and pick up a copy of Ben’s very helpful book, guaranteed to brighten your new year.)

As Ben describes this process of finding, saving and sharing inspiring lines:

Here’s a practical tip that many have used over the centuries: choose two or three phrases and carry them with you! Of course, this is the same idea embodied in the prayer beads that are used in many traditions around the world—the beads become the reminders of phrases that men and women carry with them in their heads. But I’m talking here about something even more tangible: Write helpful lines on scraps of paper and post them on the refrigerator door, hang them above the sink, scrawl them across the bathroom mirror!

Help Us Find Hopeful Lines to Save and Share

MARTIN WRITES: This is new to me. I don’t “collect” sayings. So, I took a brief journey through the few books in my office and reminded myself of the wonderful words that surround me. May they add comfort and strength to you in your coming year.

DAVID WRITES: This is new to me, too, because I note memorable lines in my daily journal, and eventually those journals are stored on my library shelf. However, when Martin suggested this idea, my mind immediately flashed back to Ben Pratt’s practical advice. Then, I suddenly remembered the newspaper offices where I worked as a senior writer for more than 30 years. Great quotes always were posted on the walls, forming huge waterfalls of paper slips, over the years. I always loved that visible memory we shared in a newsroom.

TIP FOR OUR READERS: Every ReadTheSpirit column has an easy-to-use “Print” button at the end. When you click on that icon—you should see a version of this column that you can change before you actually send it to your printer. You can choose to print everything—or just a few things. That’s a simple way to start producing some printed quotes to carry or post around your office or home.

A NATIONAL CONVERSATION VIA SOCIAL MEDIA—You also can help us spark hopeful conversations across global media by sharing a link to this column, and sharing your own hopeful quotes, and requesting that friends and family respond with their own. Use the hashtag #HopefulBooks

Some #HopefulBooks to Get You Started

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“For the first fifteen years of our lives, Danny and I lived within five blocks of each other and neither of us knew of the other’s existence.”
Chaim Potok, The Chosen

MARTIN WRITES: Thus begins Potok’s classic tale of two teenage Jewish boys in New York City—one the son of a politically active, progressive father intimately involved in his son’s life, the other the son of a Hasidic Rabbi who rarely if ever heard his father speak directly to him. These two lives would collide, forever altering the relationship between the two boys and their fathers. I think of this story whenever I begin to feel too secure in my knowledge of the world and how it works. I am reminded of how many unexpected possibilities are just around the corner.

Who within five blocks of me has the opportunity to forever change my world—if I were only to open my door and greet them?


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“Children understand it. I have seen the goodness of children myself. It melts my heart when I see friendships made—and kept—between different faiths. Sometimes that may mean sharing each other’s secrets, but it is through friendship that we can see hope for our world.”
Azar Alizadeh in Friendship & Faith

DAVID WRITES: The moment I saw Martin’s choice of the line by Potok from a novel that I love, as well, I immediately thought of a related quote from public TV host Azar Alizadeh. That’s the fun of this process—ideas begin to connect and cascade between people. Azar’s moving true story from her childhood in Iran opens the collection Friendship & FaithThat book contains dozens of true stories by women who dared to cross social and religious boundaries—then discovered a friendship on the other side. Chapter 1 in the book is Azar’s story from her childhood in Iran, when her family’s Baha’i faith made it difficult to form friendships with Muslim neighbors. That’s because of the long and complex history of repression of Baha’is in Iran. Despite those painful prejudices, Azar and her young Muslim friend were courageous enough as children to find a way to enjoy their friendship. They would secretly visit a local sweet shop together for ice cream.

Every time I am frustrated by the seemingly intractable bias in our world, I think of those two little girls sitting in that shop, enjoying the sweetness of ice cream—and their daring friendship.


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“Then maybe from their graves in Anzio
The G.I.’s who fought will say, We wanted it so!
Black men and white will say, Ain’t it fine?
At home they got a Freedom train,
A Freedom train,
that’s yours and mine!”
Langston Hughes, 1947

MARTIN WRITES: Freedom is supposed to be the hallmark of America. Hughes reminds us that it is the quest for freedom that is our true hallmark. In the late 1940s, through the 1950s and 1960s, those freedoms had not been equally distributed. In his famous poem, written in reaction to the nationwide tour of a Freedom Train in 1947, Hughes reminded readers of the sacrifices of black and white alike on foreign soil in World War II. (Want more context? Here’s Wikipedia’s history of the tour; here’s a New Yorker Magazine feature on the 70th anniversary of the tour; and here’s Hughes’ entire poem.)

What would Hughes write now? As a nation, we still have not realized the freedoms he wrote about 72 years ago. People are affected negatively by our policies, our biases, and our racism—overwhelmingly so. Perhaps we alone can’t build the kind of “freedom train” that Hughes longed for in his famous poem—but we can each do our level best to ensure that each of us grants the people we encounter an equal place with us on that train.


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“A successful life depends as much on recognizing and embracing important opportunities as it does on our tireless commitment to a chosen course. Sometimes, despite the plans laid out in front of us, our lives take twists and turns that we never could have imagined. If we are open to change, we can allow Providence to guide us.”
Clifford Worthy, The Black Knight

DAVID WRITES: Wow! Martin certainly chose a potent quote from Hughes—lines that send our hearts and minds traveling in many directions. My mind journeyed to the memoir of Clifford Worthy, who currently is the oldest, living, black graduate of West Point. His book is called, The Black Knight: An African-American Family’s Journey from West Point—a Life of Duty, Honor and CountryAs Worthy writes about growing up in a big extended family in Detroit—he describes his early dreams, which never extended as far as West Point. It was only through an accidental encounter in college—and the unexpected friendship of a progressive Congressman—that Worthy found himself in a unique historic moment.

The opening up of those first slots for black cadets, just after World War II, was unfolding at the same time Langston Hughes was watching the flashy Freedom Train tour the country—and writing about it with bittersweet irony. Worthy’s arrival at West Point certainly didn’t erase racial barriers, which remain to this day. But, because Martin shared that quote, I now think of Langston Hughes and Clifford Worthy together in 1947—glimpsing changes in America and wondering where they would lead.


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“Combat is like unsafe sex in that it’s a major thrill with possible horrible consequences. … Warriors suffer from wounds to their bodies, to be sure, but because they are involved in killing people they also suffer from their compromises with, or outright violations of, the moral norms of society and religion.”
Karl Marlantes, What It’s Like to Go to War

MARTIN WRITES: David’s choice of a quote by Clifford Worthy turned my mind toward war, which has been in the forefront of my daily thoughts ever since my son joined the Marine Corps this past year.

I have always had a very strained relationship with the military. Growing up a pacifist, I came to accept as I grew older that there are times when war is the only course of action. And like most Americans, I have argued for the need for war without really thinking about what we are asking of those we send. The United States has been involved in active conflict of 18 years now. The longest span in our history. Yet, the nation as a whole knows not sacrifice or what these wars do to those who go.

Now, for the first time in my life, I’ve had to face the very real reality of what war does to people. My son will be deployed in 2020 to a combat zone. It is every parent’s worst fear come to life. My son gave me this book to read. It is the most difficult book that I’ve read in many, many years. You may not be able to read a book that deals as directly with the violence of war as this one. But this coming year, remember that there are many families who face the realities of that violence every day. They need us. Not so much in parades and rah-rah patriotic events. Much more so in hospitals, on the job, and in their day-to-day lives when they return from war. These soldiers and their families need empathy – not judgment.


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“Hey lady! We’re out of toilet paper!”
Faith Fowler, This Far by Faith

DAVID WRITES: Martin’s look at the reality of war took my mind to Faith Fowler’s memoir about the truths of urban poverty, This Far by Faith: Twenty Years at Cass CommunityFowler is nationally known as a visionary in developing projects that empower poor people to develop their own communities. In fact, Faith’s corner of Detroit has grown to such a point that a real-life “tiny homes” community is now a destination for visitors from around the world. That story is told in Faith’s later book, Tiny Homes in a Big City.

The genius of Fowler’s approach, however, is captured in the very first chapter of her first book, This Far by Faith. In that story, she arrives as the pastor of a little Detroit parish, excited to launch a great new ministry. Then, in the middle of her first Sunday morning sermon, a woman shouts up to her in the pulpit: “Hey lady! We’re out of toilet paper!” The prophetic truth of that hollered interruption perfectly captures the flaws in most grand visions of urban renewal. Before anything else can happen, we’ve got to let each person express what they really need. Actually listening to that person—whether it’s a soldier or a homeless person—is the bedrock on which we can build a healthy community, together.


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“The connection between character and achievement is one of the fundamental fascinations of sport. Some say that sport builds character. Others say that sport reveals character. But baseball at its best puts good character on display in a context of cheerfulness.”
George F. Will, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball

MARTIN WRITES: As David points out, we find truth in many unexpected places—if our eyes and ears are open to it. I know that David is not much of a sports guy—but followers of my writings will not be surprised to see a sport book quoted here. (Despite our different levels of interest in sport, we agree as journalists that it comprises a unique community, complete with its own culture and values. David and I both were surprised by the huge readership—and the emotional responses—to this column about football.)

So, there’s just gotta be a sports quote in the mix! In fact, books about baseball and football take up a sizable percentage of my total library. In this classic on baseball, George Will looks at the “antiromantic” side of the game–the work and the craft of four great players and managers: Tony La Russa (Cardinals), Orel Hershiser (Dodgers), Tony Gwynn (Padres) and Cal Ripken (Orioles). That Will combines “character” with “cheerfulness” has always stood out to me as one of his great insights into what makes us human. We are at our best when we are happy in our work. Baseball players, Will supposes, are more likely than most other people to be happy in their work. After all, the “play ball”, they don’t “work ball”, as the great Pirate Willie Stargell oft-times said.

To do our work, and be cheerful in the work we do, is a goal we should all strive for.


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“I am white. He is black.
We are so much more than just the outside coating, but our skin color is the first thing that most people see when we are out shopping, exploring a museum, getting a bite to eat, going on a walk, or traveling around the world together.
How do we navigate a world that immediately sorts us into these categories—into ‘white’ and ‘black’?”
Anni K. Reinking, Not Just Black and White

DAVID WRITES: When I think of scholar Anni K. Reinking’s inspiring and thought-provoking memoir, Not Just Black and White: A White Mother’s Story of Raising a Black Son in Multicultural America, I think of one word that I consider a brilliant choice in her first chapter: Navigating.

Martin’s choice of a baseball quote really is about navigating life. In fact, so many of the quotes we chose for this column—including Ben Pratt’s opening advice—point us toward that metaphor of navigation. What I love about Reinking’s choice of that verb is that she deliberately sidesteps the central metaphors in our culture as 2020 looms: Scorekeeping; Winning & Losing; Rewarding & Punishing.

Martin is right: I’m not a sports guy. But, I was raised from childhood by a father who was a World War II veteran in the Pacific—intent on raising me with stories of the sea. Before I could read, he read aloud from a young-adult version of The Iliad and The Odyssey—and kept me in literary oceans from Hemingway, Old Man and the Sea, to Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. It wasn’t until I worked on the publication of Reinking’s memoir—and I hit that word “navigating”—that I suddenly had a crystalline revelation of what all those adult works my father read aloud had in common: How do we navigate a meaningful life?



“First, were we truly men of courage? …
Truly men of judgment? …
Truly men of integrity? …
Truly men of dedication?”
John F. Kennedy’s Farewell to Massachusetts, January 9, 1961 – John F. Kennedy’s

MARTIN WRITES: David brings up navigation. And the U.S. Navy. And World War II. My mind is transported to John F. Kennedy—but not the famous stories, like PT109, or the famous speeches.

I’m thinking now about his short, visionary address as he prepared to leave his home in Boston and take over as President of the United States. Truth be told, the words probably were penned, or at least polished, by Special Advisor to the President Ted Sorensen. Whoever wrote these lines—they echo down through the decades to us as a prophetic challenge, especially in 2020. I have reproduced them here (and in the original news clip below) with the jargon of that era: humanity as “men.”

As Kennedy reflected on how the scales of eternal judgment would weigh his actions—and the actions of each of us—he thought that we would be asked if we met the four criteria named above. In what is sure to be a challenging year for the nation as a whole, we would each do well to reflect on how the guardians of our legacies will weigh how we measured up to the standard Kennedy set for himself.


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“The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.”
Duncan Newcomer, Thirty Days with Abraham Lincoln

DAVID WRITES: Well, Martin certainly took me on a journey! And, his last choice from JFK was especially poignant because I’ve spent a lot of time, this winter, pondering the kind of question Kennedy raised in early 1961. My wife and I have weathered the loss of loved ones—and attended memorial services assessing towering lives that helped to shape our own. So many mornings, I wake up and read the morning news—raising my ire to a slow boil at the latest outrages both around the world and the self-inflicted wounds right here in my beloved homeland.

The question that slices through all those heavy curtains of sorrow and simmering anger over fresh injustices is: How will they remember us? One of the most electrifying calls to action I encountered in 2019 was 16-year-old Greta Thunberg’s thundering address to the United Nations, which began with the words: “My message is that we’ll be watching you. This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!” That became her refrain: “How dare you!”

One of the best books I read in 2019 was Duncan Newcomer’s astonishing invitation to spend 30 days reading 30 stories about Abraham Lincoln—that’s quite a commitment of time in our busy world today. Duncan’s frequent refrain in his book, which I have chosen to quote as the final note in our column today was the way Lincoln closed his address to Congress on December 1, 1862. Our nation was in a crisis—in the midst of the Civil War with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation about to explode on January 1, 1863.

Thanks, Martin! What a journey!


Care to read more?

SURROUND YOURSELF WITH GREAT BOOKS! Take the advice Martin Davis shares at the top of this column: Surround yourself with wise voices through great books. Check out our Front Edge Publishing bookstore for an overview of the many books we have published in the past 12 years. All are available via Amazon and Barnes & Noble online.

SHARE YOUR FINDS WITH US! If enough readers chime in, we will write a future column about quotes we’ve been sent from all of you. You can add a Comment below—or email us directly at  [email protected].

A NATIONAL CONVERSATION VIA SOCIAL MEDIA—You also can help us spark hopeful conversations across global media by sharing a link to this column, and sharing your own hopeful quotes, and requesting that friends and family respond with their own. Use the hashtag #HopefulBooks

FINALLY, WITH A BIG SMILE FOR THE SCIENTIFICALLY and MATHEMATICALLY MINDED—Are you worried about that “decade” reference at the top of our column? Yes, we know that the new decade technically begins on January 1, 2021. However, popular culture and news media like to start the new decade as soon as possible—ever since the “new millennium” was popularly declared at the dawn of 2000.

Also, yes, for the horticulturists among us, we know that putting salt water on plants will kill them—and that actually was a horrific tactic in ancient warfare. Nevertheless, this theme of turning tears into new growth has become a popular meme, as we report here. The idea is inspiring, if not the actual biology. In the past, we have often repeated Queen Elizabeth II’s famous line after the attacks on 9/11: “Grief is the price we pay for love.” The point: Sorrow is a natural part of life and can point us toward renewal, reconciliation and hope.

Judy Gruen: An Annual New Year’s Eve “Surprise” Party

EDITOR’S NOTE—Please, welcome back contributing columnist Judy Gruen, who first appeared in this online magazine in 2008. A very popular writer, you may have seen Judy’s byline on stories in The Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and New York Daily News. Recently, we invited her to write occasional columns for ReadTheSpirit magazine, again. It’s our pleasure to share these rich stories of family life. (You can learn much more about her work—and visit her website at the end of this story.)



I grew up in a home that honored many sacred rituals.

Judy Gruen’s mother, Liebe Leah Rosenfeld.

For example, Monday night was Mah Jong for Mom and her girlfriends; Wednesday night was bridge for Dad and his friends. As a die-hard UCLA alumnus and Bruin fan, Dad also attended every home game for both the UCLA basketball and football teams with a religious fervor that our rabbi could only dream of inspiring in his congregants. A true believer, Dad even followed his beloved Bruin basketball team on the road when they made it to the championship playoffs.

Friday night dinners were special because it was Shabbat, so we ate in the dining room, not the kitchen. When my mother’s parents joined us, Papa stood in his fine gray suit and made Kiddush and Hamotzei over the delicious challah from the kosher bakery.

As New Year’s Eve approached, the sacred ritual was Mom’s annual surprise birthday party. I’m not sure how it all started, but from my earliest memories, my dad got busy planning this shindig weeks in advance. Maybe he thought Mom felt cheated at having to share her birthday with the ringing in of the secular new year. Whether she did or not, this was one of Dad’s primary ways of demonstrating his love for his wife.

Of course, after the second year of this, these “surprise” parties were no surprise, but Mom’s foreknowledge never stopped Dad from making elaborate plans. Dad was severely hard of hearing, so shouting was his default telephone manner. I could hear him from the other side of the house bellowing to their friends, “Don’t tell Libby about the party! It’s a secret!”

I loved watching my dad run around planning the party. Like a secret agent, he’d pick up the cake from the bakery and deliver it to Mom’s best friend Eleanor, who brought it to the party. “I’m going to pick up the cake!” Dad hollered as he left the house, naturally when Mom wasn’t around.

Mom’s high school drama background came in handy when, instead of the “quiet dinner” that she had been led to expect on December 31, friends started popping and bobbling up from behind couches and doors, shouting “Surprise!” When the lights dimmed and Eleanor triumphantly brought out the cake lit with candles and everyone sang “Happy Birthday,” Mom reprised her annual performance, professing delighted shock and seemingly dazzled at her good fortune at having a husband so thoughtful, and friends so dear. Dad stood there grinning from ear to ear.

I never doubted that Mom and Dad’s friends would happily play this game each and every year. My mother, named Liebe Leah after her paternal great-grandmother, was intelligent, warm, gracious, tactful, refined, and beautiful. She listened more than she talked, guaranteeing that she had many friends who cherished her as a confidant. Mom was also very private, and I often wasn’t sure what she was thinking. She didn’t chat much about what happened to her at work during the day, and didn’t tell me many stories about her own youth. I wish that she had, so that I had more to draw upon when I think of her.

What she always made abundantly clear was that her love and devotion to her family knew no bounds. When tragedy struck our family and my older brother died in a car accident when he was seventeen, my mother summoned incomparable resilience to keep the family going, despite her own broken heart. Only when I was grown and a mother myself could I begin to guess at how much this resolute strength really had cost her.

My parents grew up in an era where people didn’t move around very often. The friends they had made in high school, college, summer camp or as young marrieds remained their friends for life, so the guest list for Mom’s party never varied. Eleanor and Dick, Stan and Ann, Alice and Morty, and other friends were sure to be there. It wasn’t just Mom’s birthday they were celebrating, and not just a new calendar year, either. They were celebrating their enduring friendships, and the power of rituals.

I look back at the durability of my parents’ friendships as something beautiful and remarkable. The mutual devotion among this group of friends was a great model for my husband, Jeff, and me. We work at keeping up our own friendships, but it is harder these days, as people even in mid-life and beyond remain so very busy, and can still up and relocate far away from you.

Dad passed away just before their forty-eighth anniversary. There were no more surprise birthday parties for Mom, but her friends made sure she would never spend her birthday alone. Mom was not only blessed with friends till the end of her life, but I know she cherished the memories of all those New Year’s Eve birthday parties, spanning decades, planned by a husband who couldn’t wait to “surprise” her all over again.

I am blessed that Mom’s name is on my lips throughout the year, and not only as her birthday approaches. Five years ago, when our second granddaughter was born, I stood at shul during the morning minyan and cried tears of joy as our eldest son, Avi, named his newborn daughter after her very special great-grandmother, Liebe Leah.


Care to learn more about Judy?

Judy Gruen is an author, essayist, editor, speaker and writing coach. Her memoir, The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith, explores her unintentional path to religious Jewish practice.

Judy has also written three award-winning humor books and co-written a book on MBA admissions. She is a regular, longtime contributor to, the Jewish Journal, and many other media outlets.

She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Jeff, and spends as much time as possible with her young grandchildren. Read more of her work on

Benjamin Pratt: Welcoming Spirits of a Christmas Carol and the Grace That Flows Around Them

Clicking on this movie-still takes you to the FX website for more about the 2019 BBC TV production.


A CHRISTMAS CAROL is as popular as ever nearly two centuries after Charles Dickens first penned the ghost story. This year, a major 3-hour BBC production is running on the American FX channelGeneral Hospital is airing a special Christmas Carol episode on December 23; the award-winning novelist John Clinch just released his take on the tale, called MarleyDolly Parton is performing on stage in Boston in a new “Smokey Mountain” musical version; Patrick Stewart returned earlier this month  for two sold-out performances of his famous one-man version to benefit two New York charities—and other new regional productions this year include An Edinburgh Christmas, moving the story north into Scotland; A Christmas Carol in Harlem; and even the new An Actors’ Carol in Connecticut.

HERE AT OUR PUBLISHING HOUSE, we admit to a bias for a haunting adaptation of the classic by our own beloved columnist and author Benjamin Pratt. Here it is in its entirety—the 11th story of 33 in Ben’s Short Stuff from a Tall Guy.


Welcoming Spirits of a Christmas Carol and the Grace That Flows Around Them

I have no memory of Christmas until I was in the 10th grade. That’s not because my memory is failing me—but because I grew up with no celebration of the holiday. Perhaps that’s why I am a fan of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and, in particular, why I watch the 1970 Albert Finney version, Scrooge, more than any other film.

Millions know this story: As a little boy, Ebenezer Scrooge’s family was so tragically broken apart that he never experienced Christmas until he was a youthful apprentice at Mr. Fezziwig’s shop.

From this, I have learned that it is difficult to grieve what we do not remember. It is difficult to find Grace winding its way toward us, ready to burst into our lives, if we do not spend at least a few moments among the ghosts. Charles Dickens had a profound faith that God’s Providence wants to throw open even the most locked-away corners of our lives—­and to transform even the most tragic corners of our world. Reread his classic novella and you will discover Dickens’ theology of Grace. The keys are everywhere, even in his damning seven-word description of Scrooge’s home: “Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.”

So, I invite you to try my little exercise. Join me as the ghost of Jacob Marley invites us all: Come and let our spirits “rove beyond the narrow limits.” This year, I’ve already taken my journey. Here it is and perhaps it will give you courage to take your own.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Scrooge asks if this is a journey into the world’s “long past.”

“No,” says the ghost. “Your past.”

One of My First Memories. In what became the formative story of my life, as a very young child I heard that because I was born my mother became an invalid. I was reared with a coating of guilt that glazed my soul as I watched her continue to decline. This story was told in my family, not in cruelty—just as a fact of life.

A Dark Secret. At age 11, another formative event. I had an inexpensive stamp collection, one that came in a plastic bag with a booklet for identifying stamps. In the back of a drawer I found an old stamp my grandmother had given me. This stamp with a standing bear was, to my surprise and delight, pictured in the small booklet. It was worth $10,000. My spirits soared! I could buy my parents a house! I carefully wrapped the stamp, included a note requesting the money, and sent it off with anticipation.

Days passed, along with my growing awareness that I had been a fool. Now, I was a doubly guilty fool. It took many years for me to transform that guilt into an admiration for that little boy who was such a trusting, innocent soul.

Dumb and Maybe Dumber. When I was a boy, schools administered IQ tests and I was haunted by a teacher who, one day, knelt near my desk to whisper, “We have a problem.”

I had scored extremely low on my IQ test, she told me. I knew instantly what it meant: I was dumb!

My mind already was buzzing even as she continued: “It is impossible for you to have scored as low as you did on the IQ test and do as well as you do in school. We need you to repeat the test.”

I never heard most of it—only the news of the extremely low score. I was worse than a guilty little boy. I was a guilty, stupid fool.

Ghosts of Christmas Present

This time, Scrooge welcomes the Spirit and says, “Conduct me where you will. I went forth with the first Spirit on compulsion—and I learnt a lesson, which is working now. If you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.”

But Scrooge still has no idea what is looming. The patterns he has been sketching in the world remain unchanged.

In My Ministry, I Preach an Elusive Grace. My years of parish ministry opened into endless hard work. That pattern became my way of life. Like so many other clergy persons, I preached about Grace, but my life wrote a completely different theology. In my work, I showed how deeply I believed that only more and more good works could hope to justify my existence. The guilty, stupid little boy still was somewhere back there…watching me.

Ghosts of Christmases Yet to Come

Then, “the third Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached … The very air through which this Spirit moved seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.” Can Grace be in such ghosts? But, this Spirit is the only one who completes the Gospel leap toward Grace for Scrooge. Of course we all know from the movies that this Spirit takes Scrooge to his gravestone. Actually, Dickens’ original story points us in a different direction: The key begins to unlock Grace during Scrooge’s final visit to the “future” of the poor Cratchit family. Standing in their tiny home, Scrooge is startled by hearing a line from the Gospels: “And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them.” As these words from Mark echo in Scrooge’s head, the Spirit is stirring. Dickens writes: “Where had Scrooge heard those words?”

What Happened in My Own Christmas Yet to Come. I could tell you time and place—but that is minor compared to the rush of Joy that filled my being when I finally surrendered my endless efforts of justifying work and heard the words in my soul that I am loved and accepted as I am. The Grace notes came from the outrageous love of the mysterious One who sent a child to be among us. It did not stop my hard work. But work came now from Grace, which leads to Gratitude, then to Compassion, and finally to Actions of Caring.

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And so, as another turbulent year draws to a close, this is my own Christmas Carol tale, in search of light.

Are we like Scrooge? Oh, yes, we are. But if you have read this far, then I suspect that you do not like the darkness too much. You are willing, perhaps, to say with me: “Conduct me where You will.”

Think of me, slipping Albert Finney and Scrooge into my DVD player once again. I tell myself that this year I shall not cry. But, again, I know I shall. How can I help it, when I witness the Grace that abounds in Scrooge as he awakens on Christmas morn?

Or, as Dickens concludes his tale, he says of Scrooge “that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

In ‘Tehran Children,’ Mikhal Dekel opens new doorways into a little-known ‘Holocaust Refugee Odyssey’

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

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

Forty-five years ago, I decided to become a journalist to explore the world’s mysteries, following in the footsteps of my heroes. My first guides were the travel narratives of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, quickly followed by the globe-circling adventures of journalists Martha Gellhorn, V.S. Naipaul, Peter Matthiessen, Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin.

So, the moment I saw a train on the cover of Mikhal Dekel’s Tehran Children: A Holocaust Refugee OdysseyI was eager to read about her decade of global travels to retrace her father’s incredible flight from the Holocaust.

I opened the book as soon as it arrived. Then, I really got hooked when I discovered this sprawling odyssey took him—and thousands of other Jewish refugees—deep into Soviet slave labor camps in the arctic. That hit home, linking with my own memories of an early mentor. I was just beginning my studies at the University of Michigan when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago first revealed the enormity of these Soviet crimes against humanity. My first UofM literary seminar was led by a survivor of the Gulag, the poet Joseph Brodsky, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Finally, my interest turned from fascination to an even deeper, haunting connection. Deker’s Polish father arrived in Tehran, Iran, in the spring of 1942—the same time my own American grandfather arrived in Tehran. Her father was a refugee who was overwhelmed, in part, by the sight of enormous U.S. vehicles and tons of equipment arriving in the city. My grandfather was a U.S. Army officer driving part of that mechanized tidal wave, which was bound for Lend Lease to Russia. My grandfather led a specialized railway construction-and-repair crew to keep Lend Lease rolling.

Yes, this is a book about an exotic chapter of world history—set in far-flung regions of the world that are rarely explored in contemporary nonfiction—yet I was meeting my own mentors and ultimately my own family, again. There certainly are thousands of other families that will be touched in similar ways.

Beyond those personal connections in these pages, I also was drawn into these compelling stories about places and issues that are global hotspots today: the rise of anti-Semitism in Poland, human rights abuses in Russia, the life-and-death impact of faith and culture in Iran and Israel itself.

The next time I list my journalistic and literary mentors, as I did at the start of this story, I am certainly going to include Mikhal Dekel.

The brief autobiography on her website, makes it clear why she was so perfectly equipped for this deep dive into global travel, research and writing. Born in Israel, she has professional experience both as an attorney and a scholar, earning her legal credentials in Israel and her doctorate in English from Columbia in the U.S. Her literary career already spans a vast range of topics—from themes of tragedy and revenge in Israeli literature to the depiction of autism in English novels. In short, she is exactly the kind of multi-talented, multi-lingual world travelers who is perfectly equipped to be our guide.

(Note: Already intrigued? Follow Mikhal on Twitter for ongoing updates about her work and related news items.)


Mikhal Dekel. (Photo by Nina Subin; used with permission.)

Mikhal Dekel. (Photo by Nina Subin; used with permission.)

The cinematic scope of Dekel’s new book is intentional.

At the core of her book is a family saga with life-and-death turns of biblical proportions. Shortly after the Nazis attacked Poland, her extended family made a dramatic plan to load up their essentials into a couple of big vehicles, hoping to flee the encroaching danger.

Soon, they discovered their their best-laid plans would encounter unthinkable obstacles—over and over again. At one point in their desperate flight to find a safe haven, leaders of two branches of the family decided to part company. Based on all that was known about the war at that time, one turned West and one turned East—one of several suspenseful parts of the book that will keep you turning pages late into the night.

Along the way, she selects and weaves into her story one compelling detail after another—unforgettable, crystalline facets of this story that you won’t forget when you finally lay the book down. Just one of many examples: A group of terrified refugee children don’t know what else to do, at one point, so they begin to sing a Yiddish tune, which she translates for us: “Mama, I want to remember who I am and where I came from and who my parents were. Mama, there is no country for me.”

On top of that true story of Holocaust survival, Dekel painstakingly researched and layered a series of other narratives into her book—like a Rashomon of Holocaust narratives, providing multiple perspectives on this agonizing flight across thousands of miles.

‘There Isn’t Another Book Like This’

I began our telephone interview by saying, “Your book is unique—and that’s a substantial claim. I’ve been reading Holocaust histories since I first read Elie Wiesel’s Night as a boy in the 1960s—and hundreds of books since then. I was aware that thousands of refugees fled East. For example, I’ve read a couple of best Shanghai memoirs, like Shanghai Remembered. But, I honestly can’t recall reading a book that takes us this deep into the gulag imprisonment of thousands of those refugees—and certainly nothing that takes readers into Tehran’s role in Holocaust survival.”

“I’m glad you understand the scope of what’s been written—and can see that there really isn’t another book like this,” Mikhal said. “That’s why I spent so many years and so many thousands of miles exploring and writing about my father’s story.

She said, “I realized that this was becoming not just a single new narrative of the Holocaust—but a global dialogue across the years involving many different narratives of what happened in those years. Yes, my book includes the Polish-Jewish narrative of fleeing the Nazis, but my story also includes the Polish-Catholic narrative, and the narrative of thousands of Soviet refugees and slave laborers in the gulags, and an Uzbek narrative and a Muslim-Iranian narrative.

“That’s why I am so proud of this book,” she continued. “Jewish history on its own is a very heavy burden for any writer to undertake. So, I struggled not only to carry that weight, but also the weight of so many other narratives that all interacted with each other in that era—and continue to interact today.

“It depends on the reader, but I do think each reader will have a chance to make deeper connections as they read my story about my father and family,” she said.

Opening a Doorway into the Soviet Gulag

Packing prisoners into a “Red Cow”—a Soviet prison train like the one Mikhal Dekel’s father was packed into as a slave laborer. These originally were cattle cars, painted red and used for prisoner transport.


“You’re right about the connections so many readers can make in these pages,” I told Mikhal as we talked. “Let me tell you a little about two doorways your book has opened into my own life and family.

“The first involves the Soviet gulag,” I said. “My own social conscience when I started at the University of Michigan involved both the Holocaust and the emerging news about the millions who died in the Soviet system of forced deportations, slave labor and imprisonment.  I remember reading every page of that 500-page first volume in Solzhenitsyn’s work on the gulags. Then, I began my first literary seminar at the University of Michigan with Joseph Brodsky as my mentor—fresh from the gulag himself.”

A Stolypin prisoner-transport car, used in Brodsky’s era of Soviet control in the 1960s—and still in use today in Putin’s Russia. The main development over a Red Cow car is the addition of steel partitions that separated groups of jam-packed prisoners.

Mikhal’s father—and thousands of other Jewish refugees—were packed into infamously horrendous “red cows,” cattle cars painted red, for the long trip to Siberia. By the time Brodsky made the same harrowing trip to Siberia, the train cars were a slightly different model called the “Stolypin,” which mainly added steel dividers into what was essentially a cattle car.

I told Mikhal, “I have re-read Brodsky’s poetry on this journey many times through the years—because it tells us so much about the plight of millions of refugees and prisoners, even today. I keep seeing current headlines about these abuses, including an investigation of the use of the Stolypin in the UK’s Independent newspaper. So, I was absolutely fascinated by your careful retracing of your father’s experience with the Red Cows and then in the deadly conditions of a slave labor camp.”

“Thank you for pointing out the importance of that part of the book,” Mikhal said. “It took me years to complete all the travel and research for just that section alone. That’s on top of all the travel to all the other places involved in retracing my father’s journey—and all the research in archives all around the world.”

“Not only were you telling his story,” I said, “but, you also were letting us see how people have tried to revise, reshape and obscure that history—often for pointed political purposes—across the decades.”

“Memory has either been absent on many of the things I write about in this book—or it has been politicized over the years,” Mikhal said. “My book not only tells my father’s story itself, but also how we come to know this history—and how history is remembered and has been changed in different places. This book really is a dialogue about the history and who remembers it and who gets to tell it.”

Most Americans remember few details of World War II, studies show. While the Auschwitz death camp is a world-famous symbol of the Holocaust in Poland, Polish history in that era is so complex that few Americans know how the Holocaust began in Poland. Polish Jewish families were torn about how to respond to the Nazi invasion of their western borders, because their own internal borders went through an agonizing, temporary division between Germany and the Soviet Union. Their options were not obvious.

“It’s a very complicated era, and it also was very confusing for the families living through it,” Mikhal said. “When Poland was first divided between German and Soviet control, about 1.5 million Polish Jews ended up on the Soviet side. That included both Jews who been living in what became the Soviet side—and many Jews who fled the Germans over into that side. Of course, many in the Soviet side were killed after Germany attacked the Soviets and took all of Poland—but about a third of those 1.5 million got deported into the Soviet interior. Of those who were deported, thousands of those died, especially under the harsh conditions of slave labor. But, about 250,000 of them, including my father, survived at the end of the whole ordeal.”

Mikhal said that, as she has begun traveling and talking about her book, she has discovered, “Even Jewish audiences who come to hear me don’t know much about this. After one appearance, a Jewish person came up to me, thanked me for writing the book, and said, ‘I didn’t know there were survivors like this among Polish Jews.’ ”

A Doorway into World War II Iran

Among the many snapshots my grandfather left us from his service in 1942 in Iran, this one shows him sitting on the edge of a fountain in Tehran. Now, I wonder who else he was passing in that square—perhaps one of the refugees Mikhal Dekel describes in her book.


“Let me tell you about the other doorway your book opened for me,” I said. “That’s Iran in 1942, when your father arrived. I have my own interest in that place and time because it has taken me many years to research the details of my own grandfather landing in Tehran that same spring. He was one of the best crane operators from the Ford Motor Company and had been recruited to serve in a special U.S. Army unit that operated an enormous, specialized train with a fully functioning crane on board. His team was dispatched to the region on a secret mission to keep the vast quantities of Lend Lease military equipment flowing across Iran and into Russia.

“I have a collection of my grandfather’s snapshots he took in the streets of Tehran as he was getting ready to move into the countryside. Reading your book, I had the haunting feeling that your father and my grandfather actually could have passed each other in the city streets that spring. Amazing!

“What’s so important about your book,” I told Mikhal, “is that I’ve collected pretty much all the books in English about Iran during World War II—and there are precious few of them. Your book gives us a major, eye-opening section about all the global forces that converged there in the early 1940s.”

“You should contribute your grandfather’s photos to an archive,” Mikhal said, “because you’re right—there’s very little written about this period. It was especially difficult for me to research this part of the story because I’m an Israeli citizen and could not do the on-the-ground research there in Iran. So, I had colleagues help me complete that part of the research.”

Surprising Cross-Cultural Connections

Mikhal Dekel, held by her father in Israel.

Mikhal said, “One of the big surprises for readers will be the vibrancy of the ancient Jewish community in Tehran, which still was very important at that time.”

I said, “One scene in your book that startled me was when the hosts of these poor Jewish refugees tried to help these young people recover both physically and psychologically. So, at one point, the hosts organized a group outing to take these kids to see Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator in a Tehran theater. What a remarkable cross-cultural scene! You’re absolutely right: Readers will find this particular era in Iran a completely new world, one they’ve never heard about before your book.”

Mikhal said, “Just like people know little about the complex Polish history in that era—they know even less about Iranian history during the 1930s and 1940s. We tend to see Iran, today, through the lens of all of the confrontations in recent decades.

“But in 1939, when the war started in Europe,” she continued, “Iran was a neutral country with strong economic ties to Germany. German engineers had helped build the infrastructure, including the railroads in Iran. Then, as the war continues, Iran still has some of these historic German connections—but it also decides to let in Jewish refugees. And, at the same time, Iran becomes the focus of these huge numbers of soldiers and workers who arrive—including people like your grandfather. Tehran becomes this cosmopolitan, international center for a while. There is an ancient Persian-Jewish community in the region and these families suddenly are encountering Eastern European Jewish refugees for the first time. Cross-cultural contacts are being made in so many ways. New geo-political connections are happening every day.

“That’s why I say this book is not just the story of what happened to a group of refugees,” Mikhal said. “This also is a book about how such cross-cultural experiences along such an odyssey wind up changing the refugees themselves—and how the refugees change the places through which they travel.”

“And that’s why I say there is a lot of content in this book that we could described as ‘ripped from the headlines,’ ” I said. “Because, of course, millions of refugees are on the move, once again.”

‘A Glimpse into Other Possibilities’

Finally, I asked Mikhal, “What do you hope readers will take away from this book?”

“First of all, I hope readers will discover this history, which most people have never encountered,” she said. “There are terrible things that happened along this whole journey, but there also are moments of goodness—and hope as well.

“One message of this book is that there is possibility for dialogue between a lot of different groups. Discovering this complicated history can give us a glimpse into other possibilities in our world.

“In this book, I’m trying to open the heart of this story to the world so that readers may discover another doorway into interfaith dialogue.”

Service of the Longest Night and the challenge of ACEs, Adverse Childhood Experiences

Photo by Rémy Sanchez via Wikimedia Commons.


Contributing Columnist

On Saturday, December 21, my congregation will offer a Service of the Longest Night, sometimes called Blue Christmas in other traditions.

This is “one of the greatest acts of pastoral care in the Advent season,” according to Ministry Matters, and is focused on the pain and hurt that many people feel during the holiday season. Growing in popularity across the country, and sometimes called “Blue Christmas” services, these gatherings are times to acknowledge grief, loss and ACEs: Adverse Childhood Experiences.

ACEs include emotional, physical and sexual abuse, as well as emotional and physical neglect. “ACEs are common, cumulative, and are strongly associated with most of the leading causes of death in the U.S.,” says Rebecca Bryan, DNP, who spoke at a Presbyterian clergy conference I attended in October that focused on spiritual, emotional, financial and vocational health. She points out that ACEs are also associated with “health risk behaviors like smoking, disordered eating and substance abuse.”

Writing in Psychology Today, Teresa Gil says that ACEs go beyond abuse and neglect to include mothers treated violently, mental illness, divorce or separation, substance abuse, and an incarcerated family member.

Gil reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente conducted a study comprising 17,377 middle-class adults with an average age of 57. The study examined the impact of ACEs on physical health and social functioning. In addition, they examined the relationship between ACEs and adult risk-taking behaviors.

What did they find? Adverse childhood experiences are common. One in six of the participants had four or more ACEs, and two-thirds had at least two or more ACEs. Yes, that’s right, two-thirds of the adults surveyed had at least two adverse childhood experiences.

The study also found that the problem of ACEs lasts a lifetime. High numbers of adverse childhood experiences in the first eighteen years of life are linked to poor physical health, mental health, and social functioning.

Adults with numerous ACEs are significantly more likely to behave in ways that place their health at risk. Such risk-taking behavior includes alcohol and drug abuse, cigarette smoking, compulsive eating and having multiple sex partners.

How Do We Hear These Stories?

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In my novel City of Peace, pastor Harley Camden discovers that his friend Dirk Carter has struggled with the problem of ACEs.

Dirk and Harley were sitting on the third-floor porch of Harley’s house, drinking coffee and looking down on Mill Street. A slight breeze rustled the dark-green leaves of the trees along the street, and the pedestrians doing Saturday morning shopping moved from one patch of shade to another as they progressed from store to store in the bright sunshine.

“Nice view you’ve got from up here,” Dirk said as he took a bite of a cinnamon roll.

As they gazed westward, they saw a woman walking down the street, suspending a child by one arm and spanking her repeatedly. The little girl was shrieking and struggling to break free. “I hate to see a mother do that,” Harley said.

“You’re telling me,” Dirk responded. For a second it looked as though Dirk was going to reprimand the woman over the porch railing, but she stopped berating the child and the little girl began to trudge along, sobbing instead of screaming.

“Reminds me of my own mother,” sighed Dirk, settling back in his chair. “She had a fiery temper and would beat me for minor infractions. One time, when I was probably five or six, I was trying to help her clear the table. I knocked a vase off the table and it shattered on the floor. She slapped me hard and knocked me to the ground.”

“That’s terrible,” said Harley. “That would be considered child abuse today.”

“Well, it was a different time. Made me feel like I had to walk on egg shells all the time. I never knew what would set her off. She really scared me.”

“Where was your dad in all this?”

“He was around, but never intervened. Maybe he was afraid of her temper as well.”

“I bet that made you mad at your father.”

“I’ve never really thought about it,” admitted Dirk. “Mad? I don’t know. Disappointed, yes. He could have stepped in, but he didn’t. I always got the feeling that he expected me to take care of myself.”

“So, if you needed his help, you were showing weakness?”

“Right. He expected me to be a man, and I didn’t want to disappoint him.”

“I guess that makes sense at a certain age,” said Harley. “But not when you are five or six. I think he should have protected you.”

“I guess. But what’s the point of being resentful? I can’t change the past. He’s dead, and has been dead for a long time.”

Harley thought about how the dead continued to grab hold of the living and mess with them, no matter how long they had been in the grave.

What Can We Do When We Hear Such Stories?

I was thinking about Dirk and Harley while learning about ACEs at my Presbyterian conference. And while walking in the woods I found a rugged stone altar. The rough stones of the altar reminded me of the pain of life and the ACEs that continue to shape so many lives. On top of the altar is a stone with the word “hope,” which suggests that healing is always possible.

According to Rebecca Bryan, the treatment of trauma requires a shift from the question “What’s wrong with you?” to the question “What happened to you?”

In her book Light Shines in the Darkness, Lucille Sider speaks honestly about what happened to her over the course of her life. She recounts her sexual abuse as a child and teen, her divorces, and her struggles with mental illness. Through the book she helps the reader to see these challenges with exceptional clarity, and her faith and resilience provide a guiding light to those in similar situations. At one point in the book she learns that the biblical word “blessed” can also mean “mature” or “ripe.”

Answering the question “What happened to you?” is the first step in healing from trauma and moving from horror to hope. “Empowering patients to see the connections of their whole lives may well enable deep healing,” says Bryan. “I believe Jesus came in a body for a reason—to teach us to listen to our bodies. The way back — the way to healing, to breaking through the hard, protective crust we’ve formed so we can rediscover who God created us to be—is by listening to our bodies.”

When individuals are encouraged to tell their stories and listen to their bodies, connections are made between ACEs and health risk behaviors. Such understandings can set the stage for healing, and lead to a “ripeness” that might not be achieved any other way.

My church will offer a Service of the Longest Night again this year with the hope that light will begin to shine in the lives of those who are struggling, in and around our congregation.



You’ll enjoy our March cover story about Henry and his new novel.

You’ll also want to learn about two related resources we publish:


BY LUCILLE SIDER—Clinical psychologist and clergywoman Lucille F. Sider adds her voice to the chorus of women in the #WhyIDidntReport and #MeToo movements with her new book, Light Shines in the Darkness: My Healing Journey through Sexual Abuse and Depression.

This is Lucille’s story of resilience and hope as a survivor of sexual abuse. She explains the challenges of finding her way out of a fear-based spirituality into one that is full of grace, hope and forgiveness. The unique richness of her book is that she wrote it to spark healing discussion, which is why she also has included a complete study guide that’s perfect for use in small groups.


BY ROGER MURCHISON—Here’s a valuable resource for families drawn to a Darkest Night or Blue Christmas service: Guide for Grief: Help in surviving the stages of grief and bereavement after a loss, by the noted Christian grief counselor Roger Murchison. He wrote this book, drawing on his many years of experience, because so many people are terrified of admitting that we are aging, let alone dying. Many families get stuck in patterns of grief and suffer as friends move on with life.

From his years of pastoral experience and study, he shares recommendations from both scripture and the latest research into loss and bereavement. This guide’s perspective is Christian, but all families will benefit from these well-tested principles. Each chapter ends with an inspiring prayer that readers can use in the journey we all will take through grief to wholeness.



HENRY G. BRINTON is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and has written on religion and culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Huffington Post.

A frequent speaker at workshops and conferences, he is the author or co-author of books including The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality.—and a new cozy mystery called City of Peace.

Married with two adult children, he enjoys boating on the Potomac River and competing in endurance sports such as marathons.