‘Happy Hanukkah!’ Rediscovering the meaning behind today’s holiday industry.


A Time to Ponder Some Powerful Themes


Author and Contributing Columnist

Let’s start with the truth that Jews find themselves explaining to Christians each year: No, Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas. These are completely different festivals. The main challenge Jewish families share with their Christian neighbors at this time of year is trying to rediscover the meaning beneath the vast weight of the holiday industry.

Jewish families know that our most important holiday season is in the autumn: the High Holy Days of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur with the week-long Sukkot harvest festival coming five days later. For those whose lives are shaped by Jewish practice, this winter celebration is recognized as subordinate to the biblically based holy days. Hanukkah is a distinctly minor holiday, elevated in importance only because it usually falls in December. Occasionally, such as this year, it begins earlier: November 28 will mark the lighting of the first candle.

Only because of its timing has this little festival been folded into the American “holiday season” of lights, decorations, presents and parties. Today, North American Hanukkah has become part of the holiday industry: elaborate decorations, themed wrapping paper and paper goods, personalized greeting cards, recipe books and sometimes even a so-called Hanukkah bush embellished with blue and white/silver ornaments.

But Hanukkah’s origins and meaning are far different than what Christians celebrate in December.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, most Jewish families recognized that Hanukkah meant lighting the multi-branched candelabrum, singing a few Hanukkah songs, eating potato latkes (pancakes), playing with a dreidel (a 4-sided spinning top) and giving small gifts to children, usually one gift per night.

It was a modest celebration, cozy and intimate.

But in the same way that thoughtful Christians reject the exploitation of Christmas as a commercial enterprise, so do thoughtful Jews reject the false equivalency of Hanukkah as a blue-and-white-silver version of red-green-and-white Christmas.

Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the national Temple in Jerusalem after it had been defiled by the ruler Antiochus Epiphanes in 168BCE. A coalition led by the Maccabee family pledged to fight against the Greeks and against fellow Jews who encouraged—or coerced—rejection of Judaism in favor of Hellenistic ideas and ideals. Although vastly outnumbered and materially disadvantaged, the Maccabees and their followers prevailed. They captured the Temple, which had fallen into Greek hands and was rendered unfit for Jewish practice.

According to the story, those entering the Temple found only one day’s worth of purified oil to light the candelabrum (menorah) that was the symbolic centerpiece of the Temple. Somehow (miracle, anyone?) the oil lasted for eight days until additional purified oil could be obtained. Hence, the eight day festival and the kindling of eight lights.

This is an abbreviated and slightly mythologized telling of Hanukkah’s origins. But, mythology notwithstanding, there are important lesson we can draw from the story. As is true of nearly every religious/cultural holiday, Hanukkah provides an opportunity to elevate certain important themes that go beyond the holiday’s color, food, musical and commercial associations.

Powerful Themes of Hanukkah

At Hanukkah, we can choose to ponder some powerful themes:

  • Minorities are always at risk of being attacked, from the outside, for their differences.
  • Minorities are always at risk for being seduced, from the outside, to join the dominant group and abandon their uniqueness.
  • Within minorities, people differ on how much the group should insist on retaining their authenticity, their particularism.
  • A culture/religion that never changes will atrophy.
  • A culture/religion that always changes will lose its identity.

The word Hanukkah, often spelled Chanukah, means “dedication,” referencing the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem over 2000 years ago. But a related Hebrew word Chinuch means “education.”

The lessons of Hanukkah are far more important than its role as a seasonal opportunity for decorations and gifts. And, in the end, that’s the main challenge observant Jewish and Christian neighbors share in this winter season.


Care to learn more?

Rabbi Lenore Bohm was among the early wave of women ordained as rabbis in America. Before her ordination in 1982, she studied at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion in Jerusalem and Cincinnati. She began her rabbinic service in San Diego; she has continued her studies both in the U.S. and Israel over many years; and she has become widely known in southern California as a leading Jewish educator. In early 2022, we will publish her reflections on the Torah, a week-by-week guide book for individual reflection or small-group discussion. Stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit.com for news about that upcoming book!


Violence is not the answer, if we hope to ‘unplug extremism,’ Bill Tammeus writes

A detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp under military escort between facilities. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


News of American torture prompts fresh opposition

EDITOR’s NOTE: Since our publishing house was founded in 2007, many of our authors and columnists have written about their commitments toward world peace. The first author we published is international peace trainer Daniel Buttry, whose books include Blessed Are the Peacemakers. As a community of writers, we have pursued these themes for 14 years. Flash forward to 2021, and we have just published David Edwards’ What Belongs to God: Reflections on Peacemaking by a Conscientious Objector and Bill Tammeus’ Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. For many years, Bill also has been one of the leading American journalists covering religion, and writing commentaries about the complex interrelationship between faith and culture. When news broke in the case of detainee Majid Kahn this week, Bill reported the following column for our readers.


Beyond Moral Outrage, Torture Is Counterproductive

Contributing Columnist

It’s not as if we Americans are just discovering that some agencies of our government have tortured people physically, mentally and emotionally.

After all, we read about it in sickening detail when it happened at the Abu Ghraib prison at the start of the war in Iraq. And we’ve heard about torture (euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques”) used on captured planners of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and others. (Here’s a recent report from Human Rights Watch.) There’s a description of all that in a 2014 report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The full report runs more than 6,700 pages with enough sordid details to make you vomit.

That report said that its “major lesson” was “that regardless of the pressures and the need to act, the Intelligence Community’s actions must always reflect who we are as a nation, and adhere to our laws and standards. It is precisely at these times of national crisis that our government must be guided by the lessons of our history and subject decisions to internal and external review. Instead, CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values.”

Click on this link to learn more about the religious organizations that have become members of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

All of this and more is why such organizations as the National Religious Campaign Against Torture exist. Somebody, after all, has to say no to these outrages.

Despite knowing all that and more, I still found the recent testimony given—finally—by a Guantanamo Bay prisoner (who has confessed to his crimes and expressed remorse) appalling in its detailed account of suffering. As the Associated Press reported, “Majid Khan, a former resident of the Baltimore suburbs who became an al-Qaida courier, told jurors considering his sentence for war crimes how he was subjected to days of painful abuse in the clandestine CIA facilities known as ‘black sites,’ as interrogators pressed him for information.”

Click this headline-link to read a New York Times story, this week, about the case.

Khan’s summary of his experience: “I thought I was going to die.”

The AP described the man’s testimony this way: “Khan spoke of being suspended naked from a ceiling beam for long periods, doused repeatedly with ice water to keep him awake for days. He described having his head held under water to the point of near drowning, only to have water poured into his nose and mouth when the interrogators let him up. He was beaten, given forced enemas, sexually assaulted and starved in overseas prisons whose locations were not disclosed.”

Click on this headline-link to see the Associated Press report as published by NPR.

What all of this proved again is what we already should have known—countering extremism with extremism not only doesn’t work, it also morally compromises the people who use ugly, brutal force to get answers. Such people dehumanize themselves.

More than that, torture gives live ammunition to people who seek evidence that justifies their loathing of the United States.

Click on this visual-link to see the two-page, handwritten Majid Khan clemency letter as reproduced in the New York Times.

Seven of the eight jurors who heard Khan’s testimony almost immediately signed a handwritten letter demanding clemency for him because of the abominable treatment he received.

They wrote this: “Mr. Khan was subjected to physical and psychological abuse well beyond approved enhanced interrogation techniques, instead being closer to torture performed by the most abusive regimes in modern history. This abuse was of no practical value in terms of intelligence, or any other tangible benefit to U.S. interests. Instead, it is a stain on the moral fiber of America; the treatment of Mr. Khan in the hands of U.S. personnel should be a source of shame for the U.S. government.”

I am not naïve. I know there are bad actors who wish to do me and others harm.

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

Some of them did exactly that to me and my family on 9/11 when they murdered my nephew, Karleton Fyfe, a passenger on the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center.

But I also know that the way to unplug extremism is not by using more of it. We must find other means, whether we’re talking about individuals, groups, political parties or governments. Sometimes, indeed, it’s individuals who can teach governments how to behave morally.

So as a first step toward that end, I devoted the last chapter of my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance, to offering suggestions for how to counter radicalism, whether it’s rooted in religion, geopolitics, white supremacy or something else.

My list is not the final word on this. Rather, it’s simply one person’s hopeful start at the task of defusing fanatical rhetoric and actions. My guess is that each of you could add more ideas to help, and I hope you will.

Of the eight ideas included in my book, I will highlight just three here:

  • Engage in interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The idea isn’t to work for the mashing together of different religions into one broad syncretistic mess of a religion. Rather, the idea is for people of different faith traditions to know and to be known. It’s to understand the many different approaches to religion that people of goodwill adopt, an understanding that should lead to a bit of humility about whether our own choices are also God’s direction for everyone else.
  • Deepen your knowledge of both American and world history. A fair amount of global terrorism is tied to the shockwaves that have radiated across the nation and around the globe from historical events about which many people, especially Americans, seem to know little or nothing. That’s particularly true about geopolitical and religious history in developing nations, including parts of the Middle East.
  • Spend time with people who have experienced profound grief. This is the emotional equivalent of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. It can open our eyes to the countless ways that death — particularly unexpected, violent death — can affect almost every aspect of the lives of survivors. You may not know personally anyone who has lost family members on 9/11 or in terrorist attacks on other dates around the globe, but there are lots of surviving family members of those who died in attacks in El Paso, Pittsburgh, Poway, Charleston, Kansas City and on and on. If there’s an opportunity, meet some of them. Talk with them, if they’re willing to do that, but only if they’re willing. Let them tell you their story.

American officials have violated a long list of moral standards in their treatment of people rounded up after 9/11. By doing that, they created more excuses for people to want to harm our nation and its citizens.

We must say clearly and loudly that what those officials did was wrong and that their actions don’t represent core American values. Sometimes the most patriotic thing we citizens can do is to criticize our own country.


Care to Read More?

IN JANUARY, Bill also wrote the following for USA Today:


Bill Tammeus, a former award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email him at [email protected].


Ken Whitt invites a friend to tell the Indigenous story ‘The Man Who Stands Up Out of Ashes’

Contributing Columnist

Of late, not too late I hope, I have been listening to many Indigenous stories: podcasts, books and articles all bearing witness to what we must learn from native peoples if we are to stand any chance of living well within the earth community. Often the speakers open their presentations by sharing sacred words about the particular place on this earth where they are with their audience at that moment. They identify the people who walked here for centuries, even millennia, before Europeans arrived in the Americas. Words may be spoken in a native language and communities may be identified with both ancient and more common westernized names.

Without knowing that this practice of “land acknowledgment” had a name, I often have identified the First Nations peoples, Adena, Hopewell, Shawnee, Iroquis, Delaware, who lived on and cared for this land, trees, water, air, animals, as if they were members of their families.

For my spiritual formation newsletter, I create weekly videos for children and families. Their purpose is to teach children how to care for the creation. The collection can be found on YouTube.

Years ago, I met and Fred Shaw, who often tells Native American stories. I spoke with Fred recently of this practice called “land acknowledgment.” He suggested that I—as I present to groups including children—could begin like this:

Children, we are not the first people to walk on this land. There have been various human beings here for thousands of years. Scientists, called archeologists, have given them names, like Adena and Hopewell—but these are not what they called themselves. Where we are today was the home of Algonquin-speaking peoples, including the Shawnee, Miami and Delaware, and  Iroquoian-speaking people, including the Seneca. We give thanks to these people for taking good care of the land, air, water, trees and animals, as members of a family.  May we learn from them to take care of all our family members in this beautiful creation.

 Then Fred began to tell me a story about hope and transformation:


In ‘How to Be,’ a Monk and a Journalist Reflect on Living & Dying, Purpose & Prayer, Forgiveness & Friendship

First, meet the co-authors of these remarkable letters

JUDITH VALENTE is a long-time friend of ReadTheSpirit magazine and her work has been featured dozens of times in our pages since our founding in 2007—including this column she wrote for us about her earlier, related book How to Live. She is one of the nation’s top journalists writing about religion for media venues that have ranged from major newspapers to the PBS network to public radio.

BROTHER PAUL QUENON is best known as a poet. He entered the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, part of the Cistercian order, in Kentucky in 1958 when Thomas Merton was the novice master. Later, Merton served as Brother Paul’s spiritual director and encouraged him to publish his writings. Among Brother Paul’s earlier books is The Art of Pausing, which he co-authored with Judith. You may have seen him in documentaries or media reports over the years.

IN THIS SHORT YouTube CLIP, they talk about their letter writing, which forms the basis of this new book.

Then, Enjoy this Foreword to the book by Kathleen Norris

KATHLEEN NORRIS is  famous for her own books exploring spirituality, including The Cloister Walk (1996), Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (1998) and Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life (2008). She wrote the following Foreword for this new book.

This book of correspondence is a refreshment, a reminder that although “interconnectivity” has become a buzzword, and technology allows us to contact one another in a dazzling variety of new ways, something vital is missing. Emails travel around the world in seconds, but in gaining efficiency and speed, we risk losing the ability to listen. We long for deeper communication with others, and this book shows us one way to find it.

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

How to Be introduces us to Judith Valente, a married woman, a journalist and retreat leader with a hectic schedule, and Brother Paul Quenon, a celibate and a contemplative Cistercian monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani. We all benefit from the decision they made to deepen their relationship by means of letters. Brother Paul’s helpful comment about the difference between an email message and correspondence is borne out in etymology. The word “message” is related to “mission” and implies using words to advance an agenda. The word “correspondence,” by comparison, is derived from “engagement,” suggesting something deeper, a pledge to be open and honest with another person. In corresponding with a friend, we have no agenda other than fostering friendship.

That’s intriguing, but the reader might wonder about the value of paying attention to the ramblings of two people, as interesting as they are. Reading their letters could seem as meaningless as hearing another person’s dreams. But the subjects these two touch on are universal. We all deal with illness and death, grief and loss, work, play, and the use of our time, and the musings in these letters can help us determine our own path through the glorious mess called life.

Like Judith, most of us know what it’s like to be so consumed by work that we lose sleep over it. We fret over being so overloaded and distracted that at the end of the day we feel it’s all been wasted time. But few of us hear the wisdom of Brother Paul’s responses to her lament: that a good way to get over the feeling that you’re wasting your time is to waste more of it. He suggests that she intentionally slow down and look around her to see what’s really there. How liberating to embrace his Zen-like wisdom, that the purpose of life is that it doesn’t need a purpose: the purpose of life is life.

It’s good to hear two thoughtful people reflecting on their lived experience. Judith, a self-described “over-achiever,” is often anxious and Paul is more calm, reflecting on the fruits of a monastic life structured so as to foster contemplation. Both are modern people, well aware of the uneasiness that pervades our culture. But Paul reminds us that it’s all right to admit that we don’t always know what to hope for. If we don’t understand what’s happening to and around us, maybe that’s how God wants it. Citing a comment by his mentor Thomas Merton that Jesus will always seek out the most lowly crib, he adds that the holy is often found in places we are most reluctant to look.

Many of us can identify with Judith’s difficulty in devoting time to pray, let alone praying attentively, and with Brother Paul’s admission that he tends to fall asleep when he’s meditating. Fortunately their views on spirituality and religion are not sectarian, and both reflect on experiences with people of other faiths. Paul offers an indelible image of Buddhist monks playing soccer with children outside Merton’s hermitage; Judith discusses her study of meditation with a Tibetan Lama. As Christians, both ponder their experience of receiving the eucharist at Mass. Judith speaks of the wonder of carrying the body of Christ within her; Paul says it makes him realize that every Christian is a reincarnation of Christ.

One thing that connects these two disparate people is poetry, and it’s delightful to see the way they share their own poems as well as the work of others who have inspired them: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and a contemporary, Mary Oliver. Poets do not shy away from difficult subjects, and the reflections on suffering and death in these letters have been especially helpful to me. Judith recalls that a man she’d interviewed for a Wall Street Journal article told her, as he neared death, that “the line between life and death is thinner than you think.” A Benedictine monastery is a thin place by design, as each monk lives with Benedict’s admonition in his Rule for monks, to “keep death daily before your eyes.”

Judith says she’s always struggled with the Christian notion of death as being “born to eternal life, as lovely as that sounds.” And Paul admits that he rarely thinks about heaven, but finds “much of the Resurrection in our love of the world and of the beauty that nature presents. In loving nature, in loving the world, we love something larger than ourselves, and we are made larger by that loving.”

This book is a generous invitation to a conversation, a word with special meaning for Benedictines. One of the vows they make is to conversatio morum, loosely translated as “conversation of life.” The word “conversation” is rooted in a word meaning to turn, to change, to be versatile rather than rigid. And the joy of conversation in that sense enriches these letters. In discussing the effect of the pandemic, for example, Judith says that the enforced isolation made her deeply grateful to see her mail carrier every day, and allowed her to engage in cooking as a meditative practice. Paul reminds us that “love starts at home,” and with people spending more time with their families the pandemic might be seen as a challenge to develop more compassion and empathy.

This book has given me a challenge: I now want to think of someone, a friend living close by or far away, who would be willing to engage in the kind of meandering but deeply meaningful correspondence contained in this book.





‘Land Acknowledgment’ is a first step toward justice for our Native American neighbors

JOY AND HEARTBREAKThis 1585 watercolor painting of a traditional dance among the Roanac (spelled Roanoke by settlers) is both joyous and heartbreaking, because it is one of very few images we have of this Algonquian-speaking people who once lived in present-day Dare County on the far eastern coast of North Carolina. English visitor John White, an explorer, cartographer and artist made a series of watercolor illustrations in 1585 to accurately educate the British about Roanac culture. Today, his watercolors, including this one in London’s British Museum, are among the few traces left in the world of this once-vibrant community. (NOTE: This image is in the public domain and can be shared along with this story.)


Learning from Our Native American Neighbors, today

EDITOR’S NOTE: This year, our magazine is highlighting emerging stories about our relationships with our Native American neighbors. We have been reporting on both the tragic challenges and the multi-faceted opportunities, right now, in establishing such cooperative relationships. As residents of North America, today, we have an enormous amount of work ahead of us, including coming to terms with centuries of trauma in North American Indian boarding schools, which we have reported on earlier. This week, we asked journalist and author Bill Tammeus to report on an important nationwide effort to open up these relationships with a small first step: land acknowledgments.


Learning to take the small first step of ‘Land Acknowledgment’


Contributing Columnist

In the midst of racial unrest around the nation last year, my Kansas City congregation, which began at the end of the Civil War as an anti-slavery church, started a renewed anti-racism effort.

As part of this, I was especially drawn to explore how to educate ourselves about—and respond to the needs of—Indigenous people in our area. The gaps in my knowledge about American Indian history and culture were and remain legion. (Most of what I knew about “Indians” came from living for two years as a boy in India, but that wasn’t much use for this.)

EARLY NATIVE AMERICAN LANGUAGE GROUPS: This U.S. government map is in the public domain. Remember that this is just one visual representation of lands that once were home to native peoples. Many smaller tribes were not included in this map. This map is also a snapshot from one era. Over many centuries, groups of people moved across the continent and these rough boundaries changed. As Bill Tammeus reports, the way to authentically explore land acknowledgment in your own part of North America begins with contacting Indian leaders in your region. (NOTE: Clicking on this map will display a much larger and more readable version. You also can right click on this map and save a copy on your phone or computer.)

So I began reading such books as An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, by Rosanne Dunbar-Ortiz; Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World, by Simon Winchester; How the Indians Lost their Land: Law and Power of the Frontier, by Stuart Banner, Diné: A History of the Navajos, by Peter Iverson, and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Learning and Listening

Along the way we invited Native Americans to teach us about food sovereignty as well as land acknowledgements and other matters that were mostly unfamiliar to many of us. (Note: This link to “land acknowledgements” will take you to the Smithsonian’s informative website; a second “land acknowledgments” link below will take you to the Native Governance Center’s website.)

In that journey, we found that it was important to let the Indigenous people we were contacting know that we were there to learn—and not to assume we knew what they needed and wanted.

So, when we learned of the Kansas City Indian Center’s practice of providing food and other necessities to people in need, we asked if we could help. The result was a collection of more than 250 pandemic-era items, such as wipes and hand sanitizers. Then, when we learned of the organization’s hopes to build a new commercial kitchen to process Native-grown crops, we asked again if we could help. The result was that our members donated more than $15,000 toward the kitchen’s construction.

Let me repeat this point, because it is important: We don’t go to Indigenous people to tell them what they need and what we’ll do about it. We go to learn and listen. And, where appropriate, to walk with them.

So when I learned about land acknowledgements, the idea especially intrigued me. This practice provides a chance for the current (usually white) owners of particular parcels of land to recognize in public ways that the land they own—or the land on which, say, their church building sits—is considered ancestral tribal land by Indigenous people from whom it may have been stolen or taken via broken treaties.

‘A Very Small Gesture’

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

I used a land acknowledgement statement in September when I preached and led a discussion of my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance, at a church in Chicagoland. I told people that such acknowledgements are a very small gesture—but they’re not nothing.

And by “very small gesture,” I mean exactly that.

As Ed Smith, a staff member of the Kansas City Indian Center told me about land acknowledgements: “I don’t think much of them. If all they do is acknowledge that you’re on stolen land but aren’t going to do anything else after that, it wouldn’t be much different than me driving by after my grandpa stole your grandpa’s car—admitting that my grandpa stole it years ago and leaving with it anyway.”

Well, what “car” are we talking about?

The quick answer: The land that makes up the U.S. today.

As Banner writes in How the Indians Lost Their Land, “Between the early seventeenth century and the early twentieth century, almost all the land in the present-day United States was transferred from American Indians to non-Indians.”

True, but it’s more complicated than that. For one thing, his verb “transferred” makes it sound like it was a simple sale of land from Indians to whites. As Banner notes, however, “Indians had different conceptions of property than European settlers had. . .so they couldn’t have understood what the settlers (“settlers” refers mostly to European invaders) meant by a sale. The Indians were really conquered by force.”

But he acknowledges that even that’s an over-simplified version.

Banner again: “At most times, and in most places, the Indians were not exactly conquered, but they did not exactly choose to sell their land either. The truth was somewhere in the middle. . .Whites always acquired Indian land within a legal framework of their own construction. Law was always present, but so was power. The more powerful whites became relative to Indians, the more they were able to mold the legal system to produce outcomes in their favor—more sales, of larger tracts, at lower prices than would have existed had power relationships been more equal.”

That’s a lot to say in a simple land acknowledgement statement!

‘Architects of Removal’

And yet there’s more. As Winchester notes in his 2021 book, Land, “(W)estward was. . .the direction to which white men moved to fulfill their promised destiny. Westward to the ever-shifting frontier, with the Indians moved ahead and into the unknown, beyond their own Pales of Settlement, and to places where, in the white men’s eyes, they could do no harm except to their savage and miserable selves. There were many architects of the removal plan.”

Among those architects he mentions Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, “(b)ut then, and most notoriously, came the seventh president, Andrew Jackson, a Democrat who would have no further truck with an evidently recalcitrant aggregation of Indian feeling in the fertile settler country of the American southeast. He wanted all to go—particularly those acknowledged to be advanced, settled and self-governing, and condescendingly known as the Five Civilized Tribes. They were told. . .go head out. . .”

In a phone interview, Winchester described himself as uninspired by land acknowledgements, though he thought they had some small value. He called such acknowledgements “outwardly pointless but they get people thinking,” noting that acknowledgements began years ago in Australia and New Zealand.

Still, he said, “a lot of Native Americans are quite right to scoff at it. But in its defense, I think it means that some people are starting to consider the problem, which they’ve long glossed over and decided not to pay any attention to. I am hopeful that it will prompt a few people to consider what we’ve done to Native Americans.”

Indigenous People Still Live Among Us

So I plan to continue using land acknowledgement statements at appropriate times and my church will be using them to recognize the bloody history that has brought us to today and to acknowledge that Indigenous people are still here and have a future.

But if we don’t do more than that by, say, trying to respond in helpful ways to the needs of Indigenous people, such acknowledgements will barely be worth the paper on which they’re written.


Care to learn more?

One way to determine which Indigenous peoples once occupied any particular area of the U.S., the Native Lands app is useful. Native Land Digital, which produces this app, is a Canadian not-for-profit organization, incorporated in December 2018. Native Land Digital is Indigenous-led, with an Indigenous Executive Director and Board of Directors who oversee and direct the organization. Numerous non-Indigenous people also contribute as members of the nonprofit’s Advisory Council.


Bill Tammeus, a former award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email him at [email protected].



School of Joy: Meeting the needs of at-risk children in a challenging corner of the world

Contributing Columnist

Meet Father Mamdouh Abusada, director of the School of Joy in Beit Sahour, Palestine. Father Mamdouh is a Catholic priest in the historically Christian town of Beit Sahour, just East of Bethlehem. Father Mamdouh was a pastor of family programs in the early-1990’s when he saw a significant need for children with disabilities to receive an education. In 1993 he and his family started the “School of Joy” for children with intellectual disabilities.

School of Joy now has 51 students, including nine residents, with various intellectual and developmental disabilities. School of Joy teaches Christian as well as Muslim students. Father Mamdouh says that education without discrimination is part of the school’s public witness.

Around the world, people with disabilities experience various forms of stigma and discrimination. That is especially true in Beit Sahour, where poverty affects many families’ diet, health care and the overall learning environment for children. In fact, the founders of the school initially were prompted by a significant number of homeless children with disabilities they noticed in their area. Some of School of Joy’s students were abandoned by their families. Some are orphans.

Father Mamdouh says he sees people changing their attitudes toward their children. To illustrate this, he told me the story of a father, frustrated by the slow learning of one child, who exclaimed, “I wish that God hadn’t given me this child.”

Father Mamdouh responded, “If you don’t see in the face of your child the face of your Lord Jesus, you’ll never be a good man.”

That child eventually joined School of Joy’s vocational training program and learned to work with olive wood. Over the years, he developed his talents as an artisan. Ironically, the child who once had frustrated his father grew up to become the main breadwinner of the family.

As Father Mamdouh puts it, at the School of Joy, “The most neglected become the most important.”

Old biases against the disabled continue in many families. Parents may even try to hide one child’s disability. Sometimes staff from School of Joy can only discover a child in need of education upon visiting families in their home. As a result, the School of Joy has on staff a psychologist and social worker to help children and their families.

Stigma is not School of Joy’s only challenge. Teaching online during the COVID pandemic has been as difficult for School of Joy as for schools in other parts of the world. The staff decided they could host just 10 students in person and would have all the others learn from home, which required extra planning for teachers and especially for low-income families. Few families can provide Zoom for their children’s classwork because of daily challenges with maintaining electricity and the Internet in the West Bank.

Funding is the school’s most significant need, Father Mamdouh says. Families often are only able to contribute small amounts to the cost of their children’s education. Donors are the main backbone of the school’s budget, but a typical donor only sponsors a child for a year or two, requiring constant attention to fund raising. Since tourism to Bethlehem has dwindled during the pandemic, this also has decreased awareness of the school among foreign visitors.

All of these dynamics also must be navigated through the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the resulting maze of legal and financial requirements both for students and the school itself. Farah’s story illustrates just one of the complications. She has been a student for several years at School of Joy after having been refused enrollment in public schools. Farah was caught in a legal requirement that all public-school students must have a birth certificate. She does not have one because birth certificates in the region must name both parents and Farah’s unmarried mother declined to name the father. Thus, she has no birth certificate and no access to local public schools. Father Mamdouh repeatedly tried to help obtain a waiver for Farah from authorities, but so far has been unsuccessful.

When asked why Father Mamdouh is so committed to this work, he says, “We’re human. Jesus came for all. Humanity is very important to me. Humans should treat everyone the same, without discrimination. We’ll all be okay if we do this.”

School of Joy is one of many institutions in the Bethlehem area in which Christians and Muslims work together. According to Father Mamdouh, the Church can play a unique role in helping people to realize their shared humanity. That requires, he says, seeing the face of the Lord Jesus in the face of one’s neighbor, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, whether able-bodied or disabled.

Students celebrating their school work in a photo taken before the COVID pandemic.

If you or your community would like to visit the School of Joy on a trip to the Holy Land, contact us at Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).

Ken Whitt: Rediscovering our love for the world’s beauty in the hearts of trees

Wood art and photographs by Ken Whitt.


We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough.
We want something else that can hardly be put into words—
To be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it,
To receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it,
To become part of it.
C.S. Lewis


Contributing Columnist

We live among the beautiful hills, farms, forests, gorges and waterfalls of the Hocking Hills region of southeastern Ohio. Our lives are sustained by this luxurious canopy of life.

This sustenance is more than simply good. It is utterly necessary.

Click this cover image to visit the book’s Amazon page. Ken Whitt’s new book is available in hardcover, paperback and Kindle eBook versions. The book also is available via Barnes & Noble, Walmart, Powell’s Books and many other online bookstores.

We long to actively participate in the creation of beauty. My wife Kathy weaves stunning rugs on one of her two looms. I create wood art in my workshop.

These activities are more than simply good. They are utterly necessary.

Why do I stress those words? Because so much that is beautiful is passing away. So must that is lovely, scenic, gorgeous and magnificent is passing. Will my grandchildren see the glaciers or the redwoods or the reefs?

Utterly necessary? This very day, grief threatens to overwhelm us—we who are among the most blessed and privileged. Scientists—and reports in publications like National Geographic—tell us that the overall bird population across North America is declining. My neighbors and I have noticed that song birds are suddenly gone from our back yard and much of this region.

There are so many sources for our grief in the midst of this pandemic. Just recently another traumatic loss pierced our lives, lives that we anxiously hoped were inoculated against such tragedy by the miracles of medicine.

If your visit our home, you might be tempted to think of us as strange folks. You couldn’t miss two large compost bins, one waiting for the spring when it will provide nutrients to our organic garden. You would certainly notice the 330 gallon water tank that is about to become part of a rain-collection system. Wood piles line the front of the house to feed our just-installed wood stove. We are adapting to the many intersecting predicaments that threaten our world. We are growing some of our own food—and canning fruits and vegetables, while knowing full well that we cannot be sure what adaptations are most needed, or how soon.

In the meantime, we absorb and create beauty.

Why do we devote time to creating beauty?

Ken and his grandson Maxton

Let me tell you about a recent experience.

One morning, I was sitting on my porch at the start of what promised to be a beautiful day. However, I was deep in grief at so many levels that I had stopped trying to keep track of them.

I had kept trying to avoid them all, but such an effort is exhausting. I had barely dragged myself into this new day and had pressed myself into prayer. Finally, striving to remember God’s love and the safety I feel when I connect with God, I began to weep.

Various layers of grief caught my attention, one after the other. All I had to do was silently cry out, “I miss you!” Grief took over again. Each grief evoked its unique expression, yet each also led me deeper and deeper into God’s embrace—until I was spent and began to just rest.

“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says.

Eyes closed. Stomach tension gone. Breathing softly. Resting.

Suddenly, I realized that from within the inner quiet I was seeing images. New patterns, new combinations of color and design—new projects waiting for me to see if they could be created in my woodworking shop.

“I’ve never done that before. Is that even possible? How can I know unless I try?”

As a direct result of what I saw as I rested—only after I had grieved and prayed—I found myself, over the next few days, magnetically drawn into my workshop at every opportunity. I began playing with new ideas, staring long and hard at the various woods that are found on dozens of my shelves and smaller pieces in a plethora of boxes.

I was seeing this wood as an artist and, at the same time, kept asking: Why? What is the good of this calling to creativity?

Apparently, it is healing!

Creativity can be birthed in suffering, because suffering sees reality through God’s eyes. Possibilities of beauty are hidden when we hide from the shadows. Beauty, as Brian Zahnd says in the title of his book, Beauty Will Save the World.

How can that possibly work? Well, for one thing, creating beauty and seeing beauty may cause us to fall in love, finally, or all over again, with the creation.

Can falling in love with the creation compel us to stop destroying it? Falling in love with the creation, spending time creating, draw forth every last ounce of beauty from the creation, just might compel us, at last, to action to help preserve the wonders of our earth.

And a Reminder from Isaiah 41

From the era of the Babylonian Exile, more than two millennia ago, comes this reminder that all of humanity are caught up in this divine process:

When the poor and needy seek water,
and there is none,
and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
I will open rivers on the bare heights,
and fountains in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
and the dry land springs of water.
I will put in the wilderness the cedar,
the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive;
I will set in the desert the cypress,
the plane and the pine together,
so that all may see and know,
all may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
the Holy One of Israel has created it.

Let’s look at the hearts of these trees

Here are more of Ken’s photos from his woodworking shop.

Care to Learn More?

Ken Whitt’s book God Is Just Love is full of stories like this one. How can people of faith foster love and resilience in our children while building sustainable, diverse communities? That’s the big question Ken Whitt’s new book answers in light of the many threats looming in our world. Through wisdom he has gleaned from scientists, scholars and lots of real families, Ken shows how God’s love is a hopeful compass in our lives. He encourages enjoying stories, songs and explorations of the natural world with children, and closes with “100 Things Families Can Do To Find Hope and Be Love.”

You’ll also find lots of stories, columns and videos at the homepage for Ken’s ministry group: Traces of God Ministries. While you’re visiting that website, please sign up for Ken’s free email updates, which contain inspiring reflections, columns and updates that Ken shares with his readers.