United America: Rediscovering Our Common Ground

We are excited!

Many readers—just like you—already are pitching in, helping us to spread the hopeful news contained in Dr. Wayne Baker’s United America: The surprising truth about American values, American identity and 10 beliefs that a large majority of Americans hold dear. Today, we’re going to tell you about just one of the communities pitching in: an inspiring grassroots network near Philadelphia that has sprung up in recent years from an idea that started in just one family—among the children in that family!

ALSO NEW TODAY: Dr. Baker’s book is intentionally designed for discussions in any venue, including public school classrooms, libraries, as well as team-building exercises in corporations and non-profits. But, we know many church-based groups are eager to discuss this book. So, today, we are debuting a free downloadable Bible Study Guide to this new book, developed by a top author of Bible study materials.

And, before we take you to our story from the Philadelphia area—

Here’s all you need to know to join in this nationwide movement of people rediscovering our common ground through these core values documented by Dr. Baker at the University of Michigan’s prestigious Institute for Social Research. To help promote a United America, you can …


WITHIN DAYS OF PUBLICATION, last week, we got an enthusiastic email from Kahra Buss, who lives in New Jersey not far from Philadelphia with her family and their growing community of volunteers. The good news found in United America—that one of the nation’s top social scientists has documented the surprising breadth of Americans’ common ground—is sparking all kinds of fresh ideas, Kahra said.

“When we received your book we were immediately flooded with a host of ideas about how to incorporate it into our programs and lessons,” Kahra said. “We were so flattered to be included, we couldn’t help but get excited about all of the possibilities!”

Kahra and her family appear in the pages of United America. Their inspiring story is one of many short, real-life stories Dr. Wayne Baker shares with readers in the book to demonstrate the potential of these 10 core values to connect and motivate grassroots programs.

Get the book to read more, but here is the story of the life-changing moment for this family living across the Delaware River from Philadelphia in Moorestown, New Jersey—

The moment came quite unexpectedly one night in 2009 at their church. Kahra Buss, her husband and their three children (aged 2, 4 and 9 at the time) volunteered to help with a local rotating homeless shelter, which housed needy families in various churches for a week at each location. The Buss family brought dinner for the families in the program and then spent the evening with them. The kids—the Buss children and the children in the homeless families—did homework together, played together, read storybooks and quickly formed friendships.

Near bedtime that night, Kahra’s family headed toward the church’s parking lot to drive home. “That’s when Grace, who was 4 at that time, looked around the parking lot and saw that we were the only ones leaving the church. Grace asked, ‘Why aren’t they going home like us?'”

As Kahra vividly recalls that night in the parking lot, “We explained to the girls that these families didn’t have homes. Our girls hadn’t fully understood the idea of homelessness until that moment. It was if someone had completely pulled the rug out from under their world.

“The children in the shelter had just become their friends. Our girls now realized that their new friends were not able to get into a car and head home, climb into bed, hug their favorite stuffed animal and listen to a bedtime story in their own bedrooms.

“This truth hit them far harder than we ever imagined. Grace looked at us and said, ‘We need to do something.'”

My husband and I agreed. “We said, ‘We all need to do something.'”

That word “all” turned out to be the sticking point. “We learned that they were too young to do anything in the existing programs around Moorestown,” Kahra said. “They best we could find was a food bank where they could come with us, mainly to get a tour of the food bank. My husband and I feel very strongly that it is important to give children, at that age, an opportunity to get involved in helping other people. Everyone can do something to help, even children at that age. And, if they start at that age, it becomes a lifelong practice.”

Like most young children, the Buss kids’ first ideas were … well, a little impractical. Grace declared: “We should build a hotel where homeless people can stay.”

Kahra explained to her daughter, “We’ll have to wait a while to try that.” Instead, the children decided to organize a local food drive to restock food pantry shelves. And that idea proved so fruitful that … Well, read Dr. Baker’s book to find out everything else the Living Civilly nonprofit is doing in that corner of New Jersey. Working with children, the Buss family’s nonprofit has expanded to a wide array of creative programs from community gardens to distribution of healthy after-school snacks to innovative peer mentoring programs in which older kids help younger kids with homework.

Everything the Live Civilly nonprofit organizes benefits families, especially focused on children—both in receiving assistance and in providing it!


What does it mean to “pitch in” and to “to join in this nationwide movement of people rediscovering our common ground”? We hope you will share fresh ideas with us. Email us anytime at [email protected] Meanwhile, look at the bullet-point list of options at the top of today’s story.

Here is what Kahra Buss and her nonprofit already are planning to do with Dr. Baker and United America. Perhaps one of their ideas is good for you and your group?

PERSONALIZED EDITIONS OF UNITED AMERICA: Our publishing house can modify group orders of United America, directly shipped to you or your group. Kahra’s group plans to order a box of books personalized for Live Civilly with the group’s logo printed on the book’s cover and a half dozen pages added to the opening of the book (actually bound into the books in that box shipped to them in Moorestown), explaining to readers of those personalized editions more about the story behind Live Civilly. That first box of books will go to long-time supporters of their organization and will serve as an outreach tool to new supporters. Rather than giving supporters a logo-stamped water bottle or other typical promotional gifts, these special copies of United America are an inspiring and motivating keepsake. Interested? Email us anytime at [email protected]

HOSTING DR. BAKER FOR AN EVENT: Reading the good news contained in United America inspires readers, just as it did Kahra Buss this week. As you can read in our first story about the book’s release, Dr. Baker already has tested this book with pilot groups in two cities. We have seen the transformative impact of this book. Kahra Buss is talking with Dr. Baker about planning an event in their part of the country, including a keynote talk by Dr. Baker. Interested? Email us anytime at [email protected]

THIS IS REAL NEWS: Grassroots organizations like Live Civilly always are struggling to raise awareness through regional news media. This is a perennial concern for groups nationwide. Kahra’s organization is raising awareness, right now, through national news about United America. The fact that, today, you have read about Live Civilly is a part of that effort. Together, we all can raise awareness of this important kind of community-building. Got an idea about this? Email us anytime at [email protected]

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

The Jane Wells interview on how a Hunger Games Bible study can fire up your congregation—and help others

Where are The Hunger Games taking Americans?

TO THE MOVIES: On November 22, a tidal wave will overwhelm movie theaters for the second blockbuster in the film series, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. How big is this? In a word: Huge.

  • Ticket pre-sales are massive: Catching Fire tickets are a lion’s share of all tickets people are pre-purchasing this month. Fandango reports the sales pattern is record setting.
  • The first week will be enormous: In its 2012 opening weekend, the first Hunger Games movie zoomed to third place in all-time U.S. rankings of opening-weekend ticket sales.
  • And, this series has staying power: Since 2012, that first Hunger Games movie has shot past Spider-Man, Jurassic Park and the Lord of the Rings and now is No. 14 in all-time total ticket sales in the United States. (The top three on that list are Avatar, Titanic and Avengers.)
  • Millions still are reading: The three novels remain extremely popular. The first volume remained on the New York Times and USA Today best seller lists for two years! With new movies, book sales will rise again.

WHERE else can The Hunger Games take Americans?

TO CHURCH and INTO THE WORLD to help the most vulnerable men women and children among us. That’s if author and columnist Jane Wells succeeds in her new campaign. Today, through this author interview, we’ll tell you how to join in the movement.

In Jane Wells’ new book—a Bible study for congregations, called Bird on Fire—Jane explains why The Hunger Games is such a hit with readers and moviegoers. Themes in this series of novels and movies tap deep into biblical history, including the lives of Esther, Gideon and David. The main symbols in Hunger Games echo powerful images established hundreds of years ago when mainline congregations first were sweeping across the American landscape. Bringing this new Jane Wells Bible-study series into your congregation not only will draw a crowd—but also can energize young and old to pitch in on popular campaigns to help our world, today.


DAVID: Who are these millions of fans? I expect that a lot of our readers are going to be very interested in organizing a group to go through your Bird on Fire book, but their first question will be: Who should we invite to get involved?

JANE: The movies and books first were popular with teens—teenage girls specifically—but now they also have crossed over so that a lot of adults have read the books and are planning on seeing all of the movies.

DAVID: The first Hunger Games was classified as Young Adult, or YA, fiction. How can such a genre make the leap to adult fans?

JANE: Here’s the key—YA novels leave out the gratuitous sex and violence, but the best of YA novels still deliver all the depth of character and drama we expect in great novels. So there are huge numbers of adults who love these stories—and welcome a chance to enjoy a series without the more explicit sex and violence. A lot of readers not only don’t miss the gore that we find in a lot of crime and suspense novels today—they actually welcome a chance to avoid it! I love well-written YA books for that reason, and I’m certainly not alone. Now, I do realize that a lot of YA fiction doesn’t live up to the standards set by authors like Suzanne Collins. But, in the best of this genre? It’s terrific reading.

DAVID: Well, we just published an interview with HarperOne’s Mark Tauber, who is expecting to rack up serious sales this winter with C.S. Lewis editions. And, of course, a lot of Lewis books are what we would call YA today, although a lot of the people buying and reading those books are adults.

Given the super popularity of R-rated books like 50 Shades of Grey and thrillers oozing blood and guts, what’s the appeal of books that are only PG-13 at most?

JANE: It’s all about the characters. And that’s why, in my new Bible-study book, I connect readers with similarly strong stories about heroes from the Bible: Esther, Gideon, David and more. Millions of us love The Hunger Games, because we care so much about these characters! When we first meet Katniss Everdeen—the main hero in these stories—we care about her immediately.

DAVID: Suzanne Collins’ fictional world is usually called “dystopian”—the dark opposite of a utopia. For a long time, such stories have been extremely popular—and some of these novels are now literary classics: George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are two great examples. These dystopian tales also are gripping on the big screen. Think of Blade Runner, which still has a vast cult following more than 30 years since its original release. In The Hunger Games, we meet Katniss in the middle of a similarly unjust and terrifying world, right?

JANE: We do. We learn that, when she was only 11, her father died in a mine explosion. After that, her mother sinks into this deep depression. Her family is on the verge of starving to death. Katniss learns to hunt and gather food just to keep her family alive. Then, she winds up having to compete in this life-and-death competition—the “hunger games” that become the series title—in which young people fight to the death for the viewing pleasure of the powerful people who run this terrible world.

DAVID: Once again, Suzanne Collins is borrowing this whole plot from thousands of years of literature. We only have to think back to the ancient tales of Theseus—stories that suddenly are getting a revival this winter thanks to JJ Abrams (see Jane’s Faith Goes Pop news item on Abrams’ new project). In one version of the Theseus myths, the evil King Minos of Crete conquers the Athenians and orders that, every nine years, seven Athenian boys and an equal number of girls must battle the Minotaur—which meant certain death for the king’s viewing pleasure.  Theseus is the hero who agrees to risk life and limb in these deadly games. That’s just one direct parallel to Collins’ tale and there are many more similar tales through the history of world culture.

In fact, Collins has been widely accused of borrowing the plot of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, which was translated from the Japanese into English in 2003—five years before her first book was published. She denies that she borrowed his plot—but, her novels are so similar to events in Battle Royale that the accusations continue to be raised. I noticed that Target stores just started selling DVD sets of the Battle Royale movies, with English subtitles, just in time to cash in on the latest Hunger Games movie craze.

JANE: Yes, these kind of stories have found audiences for thousands of years.

The best thing Suzanne Collins did in writing The Hunger Games was the creation of Katniss Everdeen as her main character. I’ve read a lot of books in this genre and I don’t recall a character quite like her before this. Yes, there have been lots of girls as main characters and even girls as heroes. But, here, it’s almost coincidental that Katniss is a girl. In this kind of novel with a girl as a main character, we usually see the writer paying a lot of attention to the hero’s gender. But, Katniss isn’t “girly” at all. And, Katniss doesn’t use her femininity to “play” anybody. She uses her skills, her mind, her strength. She really doesn’t spend any time thinking about what it means that she’s a girl. She’s a person who simply refuses to put up with the kind of hazardous, scary, unjust world in which she finds herself.

DAVID: There are some distinctive issues concerning her gender, though.

JANE: Yes, one way that she is distinctively female, as a character, is that she is motivated by not wanting to bring her own children, someday, into the world she finds around her. Her gender also shapes her story because the laborers who must work in the mines do appear to be mostly men in Collins’ world. But overall, Katniss is this very strong hero who goes out and risks her life for justice. I think that Katniss—as this bright and heroic and skillful and motivated young woman—is a different kind of character than we’ve seen before.


DAVID: Katniss may be unique in contemporary YA fiction. But, as you point out immediately in your book, Bird on Fire, there are ancient heroes who mirror Katniss’ courage and wisdom. One of them was Queen Esther, the starring hero of the Bible’s Book of Esther.

JANE: Yes, as I thought about Hunger Games and my strong response to these stories, I remembered that this is the same basic skeleton of Esther’s story. According to the Book of Esther, a decree goes out in the ancient Persian empire for a high-stakes competition that the king stages to show his power over the people. He calls for beautiful young girls from across his empire to come before him in this competition to find a new wife.

DAVID: Our readers probably know the basic story. For centuries, Esther was a classic subject for painters. Then, Hollywood produced at least four different movies from this story; and, now, there’s even a VeggieTales version for kids. This story also is retold each year in the Jewish festival of Purim.

JANE: In the first part of Esther’s story, she wins this competition. But the story doesn’t end there. She is chosen to be a wife for the king, but then the question becomes: What will this woman do with the power she she got through these experiences? That’s where we find Katniss in this second movie, Catching Fire. In the first book, she won her competition. She survived. She could, then, fade into the background and enjoy everything she has won. That’s the same moral question Esther faces: When she sees great injustice taking place around her, can Esther sit back and remain silent and live in comfort for the rest of her life? In Esther’s case, if she remains silent, her uncle will die and a lot of other innocent people along with her. Katniss faces similar moral choices.

DAVID: There are a lot of reluctant biblical heroes. In  your book, you also compare Katniss to Gideon, among others.

JANE: Yes, you’ll find a lot of Bible references in Bird on Fire. I liked drawing comparisons with Gideon because, like Katniss, he was this young person from this small town who was called to face a challenge. Eventually, he did it—Gideon went out and destroyed some idols in his town—but that wasn’t the end of his story. Like Katniss, he was called on to face bigger challenges after that. I like Gideon’s story, because he answers the question: Can one little person make a difference in a big world? Gideon also reminds us that, just because we win one battle, that doesn’t mean God is done with us.


DAVID: Even the Hunger Games symbol of a bird in a circle resonates down through religious history, right?

JANE: I love this part of the story. When I was writing this book, Bird on Fire, I was remembering the logos on the novels and the pictures associated with the movies, too. The movie images add flames with the bird. And I realized that these symbols are from my own denominational background: the Church of the Nazarene. Our logo shows a bird with a flame behind it. There are lots of similarities in these images. In both Hunger Games and my church, the bird represents freedom. In my church, we say it’s freedom through the Holy Spirit. There are other similarities, too—including the flame that represents purifying fire. I was amazed as I got to thinking about this.

Then, David, you and I got to talking about these themes—while I was still working on this book—and you pointed out that John Wesley used a bird-and-encircling-snake symbol to decorate his beautiful chapel in London. It represents a verse that I don’t think many Christians recall out of Matthew 10, when Jesus tells his followers: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

I don’t remember seeing any churches that kept the snake symbol that Wesley used, but I think Wesley was right to display it in his chapel. It’s such a wonderful reminder that, as Christians, we are not supposed to turn off our brains. We are given minds to think; it’s a God-given gift. We’re supposed to be analytical and critical of the world around us and to carefully evaluate what we see around us in light of truths we see in the Bible. Very powerful.


DAVID: There are stark moral questions in The Hunger Games. One of them is the question of what it truly means to be bringing peace into the world. Today, we have a great deal of respect for men and women who agree to be what we call “peacekeepers”—folks who put their lives on the line in some of the world’s most combustible hot spots. But in the novels, “peacekeepers” are bad.

JANE: In The Hunger Games, peacekeepers are just tools of the Capitol, the evil force ruling the world. The peacekeepers are concerned with maintaining the status quo, which means keeping people compliant. The peacekeepers keep President Snow in power and, if that means shooting some people to accomplish their mission, then so be it. For these peacekeepers, the classic excuse is: “We’re only following orders.” Their power is absolute and deadly.

I think it’s fascinating to discuss how “peacemakers” can be quite different than the “peacekeeper” model we find in The Hunger Games. I would recommend that readers look at the books by Daniel Buttry, especially his Blessed Are the Peacemakers. Dan does a great job in that book of reporting true stories about people who have taken huge risks to make peace. Some of his stories come from the civil rights era, when people literally were willing to lay down their lives.

I want people to realize: Yes, the civil rights era is now a generation or so removed from our time, but there still are huge gaping holes in society that we need to address today.

DAVID: I’m impressed with the guests you’ve invited to take part in your book launch this week, here in Michigan. (Care to go? See information below for details.)

You could have planned all sorts of things for the book launch, but you’ve deliberately chosen to highlight contemporary slavery and hunger issues, including food insecurity, at your launch event. Our readers know—from our past coverage including our interview with David Batstone of the “Not for Sale” campaign—that many congregations nationwide already are joining in the grassroots movement to end modern slavery.

JANE: The message is simple and powerful: If you’re a fan of The Hunger Games, you should realize that these problems exist in our world, today. Millions of American children face hunger every day. Millions live in “food insecure” households, meaning that these families struggle to put enough food on the table and don’t always have enough to provide meals.

A large portion of children across the country now are signed up for free or reduced-price school meals. Think about the heartbreaking situations in homes each summer or over holiday periods when these kids don’t have those school meals and may be making do with one meal-a-day at home—or less. It kills me as a mother myself to think about my own kids. How can we stand by and know that there are so many kids out there living in homes where parents can’t provide food?

The demand on food pantries and feeding programs is growing. We all need to ask: How can we help out? Yes, we can donate bags of food occasionally. But there may be other ways we can help. This isn’t a novel. It’s real life today for too many families.

Hunger isn’t science fiction.

DAVID: I love that line and I think it could make a terrific handbill or poster for a small group planning to discuss your new book. Take a color picture of your book cover, put it on the handbill, then headline the page: “HUNGER ISN’T SCIENCE FICTION.” Then, invite people to the discussion series. Or, you could make up handbills with the other theme: “SLAVERY ISN’T SCIENCE FICTION.” That’s also something you’re urging people to discuss.

JANE: Slavery isn’t directly in the title of Suzanne Collins’ series, as “hunger” is, but forms of slavery also run through her novels. And, as a lot of congregations already know, slavery is still a problem in our world today.

DAVID: According to Wikipedia’s overview of “contemporary slavery“—the United Nations estimates that there are 27 to 30 million slaves in today’s world.

JANE: When I began looking into this problem, I was shocked me to discover that there are more slaves in the world today than ever before in history.

DAVID: The sheer numbers are enormous and the forms of slavery are many. There are child slaves, sex slaves, huge mining and industrial operations in many parts of the world that are run entirely with slave labor—the list goes on and on.

JANE: Most slaves today are laborers and, by the nature of their work, they’re not tied up in closets or locked away in secret places. They’re often working in plain sight. I live in a farming area of Michigan and, even in our state, there are questions about how migrant farm laborers may be used or abused. In some cases, farm laborers can find themselves financially bonded in such a way that they’re powerless. They can become slaves, even in the middle of America. That’s why I invited a Michigan State Police officer to speak at my launch event, a woman who works on new laws and regulations to help combat human trafficking.

When you finish reading The Hunger Games—or when the movie is over—I want you to ask yourself: What am I called to do in our world right now?


We welcome many perspectives on The Hunger Games. In coming weeks, we will be establishing a Resource Page to help our readers find a wide array of thought-provoking materials on this theme. One of the first additions is a sermon by the Rev. Bob Roth, a peace activist and campus minister, titled Redemptive Violence? An Alternative Perspective.


FIRST, please support Jane’s work by buying her book. Learn more and find easy links to purchase the book in our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore.

DO YOU LIVE NEAR SOUTHEAST MICHIGAN? Jane is devoting her book launch to helping fans see the connection between Hunger Games and dire needs in our communities today. She is pulling together the YMCA—as well as advocates of combating both contemporary slavery and hunger. From 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, November 14, Jane Wells will appear at her local YMCA along with one of Michigan’s leading investigators into patterns of modern slavery—and a regional leader in interfaith feeding programs. The event is free and open to the public at The Monroe Family YMCA, 1111 West Elm Avenue, Monroe, MI.

AROUND THE WORLD: We know that, since we began ReadTheSpirit in 2007, our active readers circle the globe. You live in communities from Australia to Panama, from New England to Los Angeles. If you purchase Jane’s book and organize a local discussion group, please email us at [email protected] and tell us what you’re doing. We’d like to share your news with the rest of our worldwide readership. AND, if you’d like to arrange to bring Jane to your corner of the world—email us and we’ll be happy to put you in touch with this author. Please note: Her schedule fills quickly, so plan ahead!

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