Animals

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President Trump has once again revealed his true self. Speaking at a White House meeting on his attempts to rid America of undocumented immigrants, he said, “These aren’t people, these are animals.” (New York Times, May 16, 2018)

He was referring to notorious members of a gang called MS-13 who, according to Trump, are crossing the border in droves to rape and murder Americans. The problem with this reasoning is that MS-13 is a home grown gang that started in the largely Hispanic underclass neighborhoods of Los Angeles. According to PolitiFact, it is difficult to determine how many undocumented youth in MS-13 were gang members before they arrived in the U.S. and how many were recruited once here. (“Immigration, MS-13 and crime: the facts behind Donald Trump’s exaggerations,” Miriam Valverde, politifact.com, Feb. 7, 2018)

Highlighting the heinous acts of a Latino street gang is just another of the Trump Administration’s attempts to vilify non-white immigrants and build a case for his precious wall. Trump has consistently called non-whites criminals, rapists, and animals, and he has vilified their countries of origin as “shitholes.” How this transparent racism is allowed to stand is a mystery to me.

Trump’s latest remarks have concerned many people who recall that Hitler used the same term to refer to Jews before his successful campaign to exterminate millions of them. I think the rhetoric of this administration deserves universal condemnation from our leaders.

But let’s think for a moment about animals, forgetting for the sake of argument that all humans are considered animals. Animals are predominantly creatures of instinct. They spend their lives in a difficult environment just trying to survive. Some eat only plants, others just meat, and many are omnivores. Although there is some evidence that our close relatives the chimpanzees perpetrate wanton violence, most animals only kill in order to live or protect themselves and their young.

The scariness of the fictional Cujo notwithstanding, animals do not lurk in the shadows waiting to do harm. They can’t lie, cheat, or steal. They aren’t bullies or con artists. Their intentions are much more pure than that of even our own beloved children. (Just ask any pet owner.)

I really don’t think Donald Trump should be calling people animals. It’s an insult to animals.

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Things Blacks Can’t Do in America

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tdy_sun_radford_starbucks_180415_1920x1080.today-vid-canonical-featured-desktopThese are the ordinary activities blacks aren’t allowed to do if they wanted to avoid being questioned/arrested/shot by police:

  1. Go to Starbucks.
  2. Shop at Nordstrom Rack.
  3. Fall asleep in the library.
  4. Golf.
  5. Refuse to give up their table in a restaurant.
  6. Be outside in their relative’s backyard at night with a cell phone in hand.
  7. Rent space at an Airbnb.
  8. Walk around in a “white” neighborhood.
  9. Sit on their own front porch.
  10. Try to enter their own home in an upscale neighborhood.
  11. Drive.
  12. Walk.
  13. Breathe.
  14. Exist.

Every day I read about another case of egregious harassment based on race. Increasingly, the stories feature white citizens taking it upon themselves to call police upon black citizens purely based on the color of their skin.

Some of this increase is no doubt due to the tenor of the Trump presidency, a mindset that emphasizes minorities as alien and criminal. After Trump was elected in 2016, hate crimes against minorities went up substantially. White supremacist groups, largely marginalized throughout the past 50 years, became emboldened by Trump’s dog whistle politics. Some Republican politicians have started campaigning on racist and misogynistic platforms with little to no subtlety.

Yet in a larger sense, these stories point to the reality that we are far from the “post racial” society that many Americans imagine our country to be. I would like my white friends to imagine what it’s like to get in one’s car on a daily basis and pray that they don’t get stopped or, worse, killed by a police officer. I’d like them to walk into their favorite store, restaurant, movie theater, or golf club and feel watched and harassed just by virtue of being there. I wonder how whites would feel if they were on the premises of their own property or that of a friend or relative and had neighbors calling the police on them.

Blacks can take nothing for granted in our world. What they wear, how they speak to strangers, even whether or not it’s wise to put their hands in their pockets. They live under a cloud of suspicion for no other reason than the color of their skin.

Certainly police training on bias would be helpful lessen the number of tragic shootings of blacks. But our society needs a sea change in our attitudes. Part of the problem is the segregation under which many Americans still live. We scarcely interact with people of other races or ethnicities, and therefore we are less comfortable around each other.

Far from ushering in a new, more tolerant age, the election of our first black president, Barack Obama, created a backlash on the part of many whites who fear that their own opportunities will be diminished by a more racially tolerant society. Blacks are held to a much higher standard for behavior than are whites. So it is up to us whites to fight for more inclusion, more opportunity, and more acceptance of African Americans – and indeed for all minorities.

Conservatives are fond of the expression “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Let’s apply that concept to race relations and not just trickle down economics for a change.

 

 

 

Teacher Appreciation

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I’ve been noticing lots of Facebook posts about Teacher Appreciation Week. Although it’s been decades since I dusted the chalk off my hands and left teaching, I still consider it one of the great highlights of my life.

My inspiration came from a tiny, curmudgeonly old English teacher named Mr. Stringfellow. Mr. Stringfellow was a legend in my high school for being grumpy and exacting. So I was a little scared on the first day of senior year when I walked into his British Lit class.

At the front of the classroom stood a small man slightly hunched over, with black hair, glasses, and a deep scowl. We started right in with Beowulf and Canterbury Tales, and I was smitten. Although it proved true that Mr. Stringfellow had stringent standards and did not suffer fools gladly, he also lit up from within when reading or discussing great literature.

Mr. Stringfellow taught me how to analyze literature deeply. He would stand at the front of the room and intone the words of Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Once he read my essay on Lady Macbeth out loud to the class and proclaimed, “This is the closest thing I’ve ever read to a scholarly paper in high school.” I wore the back-handed compliment like a badge of honor.

There have been other special teachers in my life. Mrs. Rollow inspired me to become enthralled with journalism. Her question to us on the first day of class, “Which is more important: a free society or a free press?”, ignited a lively intellectual debate. In the age of Watergate and the Washington Post reporting that eventually brought down a president, I aspired to become an investigative journalist. There wasn’t much scandal to be unearthed in my suburban high school, but I still reveled in my days as reporter and then editor on the school newspaper.

Away at college, I kept thinking back to these two inspirational educators from my high school years. Aside from their obvious passion for their subject matter, Mr. Stringfellow and Mrs. Rollow loved their students and tried to get the best out of them. Where Mr. Stringfellow was exacting and begrudging with a smile, Mrs. Rollow was delightfully wry and witty.  But I looked up to them both with something akin to hero worship. My decision to teach was a natural outgrowth of their inspiration.

The impact of great teachers cannot be overstated. Their long hours and indefatigable efforts to help students achieve deserve recognition, not only every year, but every day of the year.

Here’s to great teachers past, present, and future. They truly change lives.

Name Game

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In Bible study the other day, the lecturer suggested that parents choose the name Caleb for their sons. Caleb was a brave and faithful Israelite who helped conquer enemies in the Promised Land. The priest leading the study went on to recommend that Catholics choose other Biblical and saints’ names for their children. I felt a bit sheepish listening, as I’d already named one of my sons after a pagan Roman emperor and a daughter after a Shakespearean character.

Names have been much in the news lately. Just yesterday I picked up my Chicago Tribune and saw a story about young African-American students on the South Side who are campaigning to have the city change the name of a local park from Douglas to Douglass. What’s the difference? you ask. The park is named for former U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a Civil War era Illinois politician who wanted the issue of slavery left up to individual states. The students want to see their local park named after the great Frederick Douglass, a former slave and leader of the abolitionist movement during the same era.

In the past few years, we have seen the toppling of Confederate leaders’ statues and a general activism on the part of blacks to call into question honoring those in the past who promulgated slavery. What I love about this recent protest is that is has been driven and organized by fifth graders, who are learning about political and social activism at a young age. When I was in fifth grade, my biggest concern was getting through the school day without having my bra strap snapped.

In other news, the Boys Scouts of America are planning to change their name to Scouts BSA since their decision to start inviting girls into the organization. I’ve seen some criticism of this decision online, but it puzzles me. If there are boys and girls in the program, it’s no longer the Boy Scouts. Perhaps what critics are really upset about is the admission of girls in the first place. And that’s, of course, a different issue altogether. Personally, I’d rather get a route canal than participate in a Pinewood Derby.

I’ve noticed in my travels many stretches of highway named for state troopers, most likely fallen heroes being honored for their sacrifice. In the city there are little brown street signs under the large green ones that give honorary names to segments of major thoroughfares. Most major cities I’ve been to have a Martin Luther King, Jr., boulevard or avenue to honor one of the United States’ greatest African-American leaders. All of these naming rituals serve to honor the legacies of people who have striven and sacrificed and deserve recognition.

Still, when name changes are proposed – or forced upon us by a change in corporate sponsorship, say – we are apt to be a bit put out. As creatures of habit, we cling to what we know and are used to. Don’t ask me to call the Chicago White Sox baseball venue anything other than Comiskey Park. And don’t even get me started on the renaming of Chicago’s Sears Tower.

But change is an inevitable part of life. And so are name changes. When most women marry, they give up their former surname to take their husband’s. Children who don’t like their names sometimes go by a nickname or change theirs altogether when they grow up. Performers take stage names.

So whatever one’s stance on the name game, the practice is undoubtedly here to stay.

 

 

Maybe We Know Too Much

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The world sure seems to be a scary place. In the news this week I’ve read about 13-year-olds shooting 10-year-olds, police officers being shot, an increase in sexual assaults reported in the military, a Chicago cathedral being robbed, another news luminary being accused of sexual harassment, and the fact that security at the local mall has been scanning my license plate when I park there. Last week a horrific accident on a Southwest Airlines flight caused the death of a woman and served to terrify the countless Americans who are already afraid of flying. Americans recently learned about a deranged man shooting up a Waffle House in Tennessee and a different killer driving his van into a crowd in Toronto, Canada.

Not only is the steady stream of bad news demoralizing, but it gives us a skewed impression of the risks we face in daily life. As much as I’m appalled by gun violence and want to see common sense gun legislation enacted, the vast majority of Americans are much more likely to die in a car accident or from heart disease than by being shot. The statistics are worse for children, however, in that gun violence is now the third leading cause of death in America. Nevertheless, children also are more likely to die in a motor vehicle accident, and yet how many people take pause before strapping their kids in and taking off in a car?

As scared as we all are of terrorism, the individual risk of being killed by a terrorist in America is statistically insignificant. The same is true of airplane fatalities. Yet we obsess about such fears while downing our Big Mac, fries, and large Coke, despite the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death in America.

The internet and social media have only made this problem worse. In the past, a person would hear or read about news of national significance and possibly incidents in their own city or town. But nowadays we see articles about crimes and mishaps all across the country and even the world, despite the fact that those incidents are unlikely to have much impact upon our lives – except to scare us.

One of my favorite movies as a child was The Man Who Knew Too Much with Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart. It was a thriller about an ordinary family who unwittingly witness an assassination, which puts their lives in peril. Well, I feel like the woman who knows too much, and it’s stressing me out. No doubt the stress will kill me and not the horrifying events I’m unfortunately privy to on a daily basis.

 

Who Needs Hell?

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The latest brouhaha in modern society’s never-ending quest to feel outraged is over Pope Francis’s supposedly claiming there is no Hell. In a private conversation with a friend, the pope reportedly conveyed the idea that bad souls just disappear into the ether. The Vatican had to work overtime to reassure us all that Il Papa was not quoted verbatim and thus the sentiments purported to have come from him cannot be taken at face value.

Now I don’t believe for a second that Pope Francis is truly dismissing centuries of Catholic doctrine about Heaven and Hell. Despite his humane and conciliatory approach toward such issues as homosexuality and divorced Catholics, the pope has not asserted any challenges to existing Catholic beliefs.

But the issue got me to thinking about why many Christians need to hold up the prospect of an eternity in Hell in order to be faithful to God’s mandate that we love Him and our fellow human beings.

It’s true that it is very hard to be good. Our self-interest leads us to be greedy and competitive, and when others conflict with our needs or desires, we can be mean-spirited and cruel. Our pride causes us to build ourselves up while putting others down. Our anger often erupts in hurtful words or violence to others. In short, whether or not we believe in Hell, many of us deserve to spend eternity there.

But the overarching mission for which Christ came to Earth was love. Not some hippy-dippy-wear-beads-and sing-Kumbaya type of love, but an all-encompassing, self-abnegating, self-sacrificing love; a love that knows no boundaries of country, race, religion, gender, or ability.

And Jesus Christ made it clear: Our mission is to practice that same humble and self-sacrificing love with everyone we meet. We were made not just to aspire to communion with God in the next life, but to bring about the kingdom of God in this life.

It’s a paradox that the more we realize earthly life is hard, fleeting, and involves suffering, the more we are called to reach out in love to others: to alleviate suffering, to quench others’ loneliness, to swallow our pride so that our fellow human beings come first. In doing so, we can create a sort of Heaven on Earth. There can be as much joy in holding the hand of a dying friend as there is in holding a newborn baby – if we look through the lens of love.

I don’t need the fear of Hell to do what is right. I just need to look at what Christ did on the cross for me and for the world to know what my vocation is: to die to self and pour myself out for others in love.

Sisters Aren’t Doing It For Themselves

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The 2018 NCAA basketball tournament has created the unlikeliest of media darlings: 98-year-old Sr. Jean Dolores Schmidt, the chaplain and biggest fan of Chicago’s Loyola University Ramblers. The Ramblers will make their Final Four appearance since 1963, and their diminutive mentor and cheerleader has played a role in their success.

Before each game, Sr. Jean prays with the Catholic university’s team. She sends the players encouraging emails throughout the season. And she is there to watch them play, in spite of her age and frailty. Sr. Jean has been in such demand for media appearances since Loyola’s unlikely run in the tournament that her handlers have had to turn offers down. But what I love about Sr. Jean’s fame is that she puts a public face on modern Catholic women religious in America.

Most people use the terms “nun” and “sister” interchangeably. But nuns are women who live in religious communities and function within the confines of these orders: praying, contemplating, often taking vows of silence. While nuns are also referred to as “Sister,” Catholic sisters are more active in the world outside the convent walls. Many are nurses, teachers, and agents of hospitality to the poor and marginalized of society.

When I was a child, my Catholic school had many Sisters of Mercy as teachers. My dad liked to joke and call them Sisters of No Mercy, and indeed, they could be harsh disciplinarians. The image of the sister with her ruler at the ready to physically admonish a misbehaving student is a cliche with some basis in reality. But I was always fascinated with our sisters, who wore black habits and veils that revealed absolutely no hair. I loved the click of the black rosary beads that circled the sisters’ waists.

As Vatican II started to liberalize some Catholic customs, many women religious stopped wearing habits. I remember a sister at our school who did wear a habit but allowed a large shock of bright red hair to spill out of her veil. I don’t recall her name, but she was young and she made Catholic sisters seem more human to me.

Catholic women religious in America have made important contributions to our society, including founding some of the first schools for African-American children. They have been advocates for the rights of women and minorities. But by far their most important roles have been those out of the limelight: helping the poor, tending to the sick, teaching and mentoring the young.

Long before she was a media sensation, Sr. Jean Schmidt was an active member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (B.V.M.). She has been a teacher for many years and was an administrator at a Catholic women’s college before winding up as Loyola’s chaplain.

As much as Sr. Jean seems to enjoy the limelight, she is still focused on her vocation as the most important thing in her life. In other words, it’s not about her or even about her beloved Ramblers. As she recently told The New York Times, “Whether we win or lose, God is still with us.”

Like the thousands of other nuns and sisters in America, Sr. Jean is special not because of her undying loyalty to Loyola basketball, but because of her undying love for God and others.