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If everybody did

“When there’s only one, that’s just somebody. … But when there’s one… and one… and one… and one… and more……that’s EVERYBODY.

Did you ever think of what would happen if EVERYBODY did things like ……..”

Those three sentences open the first book I remember from childhood. If Everybody Did, written in 1960 by the late Jo Ann Stover, is a book that has been on my mind in recent days.

What if Everybody Squeezed the Cat?

The book’s premise is very easy to understand, and the illustration above encapsulates it perfectly. On the left page is a cute drawing of one kid doing something that probably — to him or her — looks perfectly harmless. Such as squeezing the cat. Or making a splash in the sink. Or dropping tacks on the floor (a personal favorite when I was five).  Then, on the opposite page is an illustration that shows what would happen if everybody did that particular thing. 

The book had a renaissance in the 1980s as my generation began having children. I read it again just this week. Most describe Stover’s work as focused on proper etiquette, and that’s certainly a part of its perspective. But I return to those first three sentences and see thoughts that go beyond simple etiquette. I see the beginnings of a primer on how we should live in community.

When we do something alone, we’re the only ones with tacks stuck in our feet or getting sick from eating too much fudge. But no one really lives alone. There’s always one… and one… and one… and one… and more… and suddenly everybody is together in a community. And as soon as we live in community, our words and actions have consequences beyond our personal feelings, desires, or health.

Those who understand that we live in community think of how their behavior affects others before they act. Those who place their personal freedom — as they define it — above all others usually take a different approach.

In his book Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, author Stephen Carter identifies our loss of civility as coming from a focus on self, an over-reliance on markets, a forgetfulness of the obligations we owe each other, and the lack of a moral compass in decision-making. 

“…the language of the marketplace, the language of wanting, of winning, of simply taking — the language of self — is supplanting the language of community, of sharing, of fairness, of riding politely alongside our fellow citizens…”

Prioritizing our own desires leads us to slam the door and never think of what would happen if everybody did. Or jump in the mud. Or always cry. Or eat all the fudge.

Or make up our own facts about science and history and tell outrageous lies. Why, what if everybody did?

We are, in fact, seeing what happens when a large number of individuals act as if telling outrageous lies is perfectly fine. We are seeing what happens when politicians in positions of power — figuratively stomping around like five-year-olds — pass laws saying we cannot teach things which make them feel uncomfortable and that explicitly require teachers to lie to children.

Too many among us want to set their own reality and tell lies without suffering any consequences. They seek to retain protection from the law but without being bound by the law. They want those they disagree with or who are different from them to be bound by the law but not be protected by the law. They want special privileges to act without consequences, just like the child who wants to eat all the fudge.

We are all a great big mess of contradictions and living together in community is difficult enough in normal times. Today we are seeing what happens when large numbers of people speak in ways that harm others, refuse to consider the broader impact of their actions, and seek to carve out special privileges for those considered at the top of the hierarchy.

Perhaps Stephen Carter could add one other reason for our loss of civility: Too many of those in positions of power never internalized the lessons of If Everybody Did.

More to come…


The Weekly Reader series features links to recent books and articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. 

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The mindfulness of breath and steps

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk who was one of the world’s most influential Zen masters, passed at the age of 95 on Saturday at his home in the Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam.

I have been reading Your True Home: The everyday wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh this month, so this wise man and his work were very much on my mind when the news came. The 365 meditations in Your True Home are focused on the monk’s embrace of mindfulness. * Each meditation is only a few sentences in length, but the brevity is part of what contributes to their power.

If one reads these works on an annual calendar basis, Meditation #22 coincides with the day of Thich Nhat Hanh’s passing. It is entitled The Lamp of Mindfulness.

We have a lamp inside us, the lamp of mindfulness, which we can light anytime. The oil of that lamp is our breathing, our steps, and our peaceful smile. We have to light up that lamp of mindfulness so the light will shine out and the darkness will dissipate and cease. Our practice is to light the lamp.

Breathing and walking come through these readings again and again. Being aware of our breath brings us into a mindfulness of the things we can control, even — and maybe especially — when we are faced with a challenge. With mindful walking our steps are no longer a means to arrive at an end. We don’t walk mindfully to reach a goal. Each step, rather, is an end to itself if we are truly present. “There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way.”

In a post from last October, I took another of the meditations from Your True Home to think about that practice of walking. Moving at the speed of life as we walk, we touch the earth, transforming and healing ourselves.

Walking is a form of touching the earth. We touch the earth with our feet, and we heal the earth, we heal ourselves, and we heal humankind. Whenever you have an extra five, ten, or fifteen minutes, enjoy walking. With every step it’s possible to bring healing and nourishment to our body and our mind. Every step taken in mindfulness and freedom can help us heal and transform, and the world will be healed and transformed together with us.

As a result of that posting, one of my readers used the comments section to send a link to a video called Godspeed: The Pace of Being Known that takes Thich Nhat Hanh’s words and applies them to a modern life in a powerful way. Early in the video, the subject of the video notes that, “When I was running it was easy to stay hidden. To avoid being known.” Walking at the speed of life helps us know ourselves, know others, and be known by others.

There is a lifetime of learning to be found in Your True Home. “In Buddhism, it is said that love and compassion are made out of one substance, which is called ‘understanding.’ … If understanding is not there, it is impossible for you to accept and love someone.” It is with understanding that we stop blaming and criticizing. “Your compassion is born of your understanding of the situation.”

The New York Times obituary captures the essentials of Thich Nhat Hanh’s life, including his work with The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s.

A prolific author, poet, teacher and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam after opposing the war in the 1960s and became a leading voice in a movement he called “engaged Buddhism,” the application of Buddhist principles to political and social reform.

The obituary writer also notes that Thich Nhat Hanh dismissed the idea of death.

“Birth and death are only notions,” he wrote in his book “No Death, No Fear.” “They are not real.”

Thich Nhat Hanh helped change this world for the better. More importantly, he showed millions how to do the same.

More to come…


* The link on mindfulness takes one to an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh by Oprah Winfrey.

Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

The intimate and melodic mandolin stylings of John Reischman

The most recent edition (#49) of The Fretboard Journal showed up in my mailbox earlier this month, and among other gems it contained a delightful little piece on how the tune Salt Spring had become a bluegrass jam favorite. I immediately checked out versions on You Tube, and this Saturday Soundtrack was born.

The tune was written by John Reischman, shown playing a delicious duet of Salt Spring in the 2019 video above with mandolinist Sierra Hull. Beyond a connection to a previously unknown tune that is clearly known to half the (bluegrass) world, the article was a re-introduction to Reischman and his music.

John Reischman first came to my attention as the mandolinist in the original configuration of the Tony Rice Unit on 1981’s Still Inside (later released as part of the compilation Devlin). Reischman’s original tune Birdland Breakdown was featured on both albums, as was the joyful Rice composition Devlin, with Reischman’s mandolin solo beginning at the 2:17 mark.

Also from that era, I came upon a rather rare audio of that band live at the iconic McCabe’s guitar shop in Santa Monica. The funny thing is that the picture is of the 1990s version on the TRU. Among those pictured, only Tony is playing on this recording. It is an amazing forty-five minutes of music, beginning with Reischman’s My Waltz. I especially enjoy the band’s version of the famous Wes Montgomery tune Four on Six beginning at 34:44.

To many ears, 1982’s sublime Backwaters album was the best of the Tony Rice Unit’s offerings from that era. On Green Dolphin Street, written by Bronisław Kaper and Ned Washington, is a personal favorite.

After leaving the Tony Rice Unit, Reischman moved north of the border to Vancouver, British Columbia in the 1990s and formed John Reischman & the Jaybirds, where he recruited the best acoustic musicians on each side of the border to realize his broad musical vision. John also explored more intimate musical styles playing mandolin on several duet records with fingerstyle guitarist John Miller.

Here is Reischman and The Jaybirds playing Hop High. Reischman’s mandolin solo on this bluegrass work, following a tasty acoustic guitar lead, begins around the 2:15 mark of the video. At 3:37 he doubles with the banjo to take the tune out.

Building on those milestones, Reischman has released a series of acclaimed solo recordings — North of the Border, Up In The Woods, and Walk Along John — that showcase his gifts as a composer and instrumentalist. Many of John’s signature “melodic mandolin” tunes such as “Salt Spring,” “Little Pine Siskin,” and “Birdland Breakdown,” also have been adopted as bluegrass standards and can be heard at jam sessions across the continent until the wee hours of the dawn. 

Filmed on August 26th, 2016, at the NimbleFingers Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Workshop and Festival in Sorrento, BC, this a showcase of John with the inventive guitarist Molly Tuttle and The Taterbugs playing the aforementioned Little Pine Siskin from his album Walk Along John.

Reischman’s newest album is New Time & Old Acoustic featuring 12 new Reischman originals and a reinterpretation of his classic Salt Spring. The Punch Brothers’ Chris Eldridge and long-time Rice bassist Todd Phillips join Reischman on the mesmerizing Old Road to Kingham. Horses of Dorrigo from the same album features Nick Hornbuckle and Trent Freeman on banjo and fiddle.

And let’s end where we began — with John’s melodic Salt Spring — this time performed by the Jaybirds while waves crash against the shore in the background. Lovely.


More to come…


Image of John Reischman | by Trent Freeman

History has its eyes on us

It was one year ago today that millions of Americans looked to the future. As Amanda Gorman told us, “The new dawn blooms as we free it for there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”

The youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history also reminded the country that “history has its eyes on us.”

Joe Biden was inaugurated president of the United States on January 20, 2021, after a failed coup was followed by the most difficult transition of power in our history. It is fair to consider that context when asking what the administration has accomplished in its first year.

From my perspective, Biden has done reasonably well in a number of areas, spectacularly well in a few, and fallen short in several others. The political pundits, on the other hand, have largely followed Republican talking points describing the year as a disaster. Let’s consider the facts.

In response to a global pandemic, we saw the largest vaccine rollout in history.

When Biden came into office, the “plan” for federal delivery of covid vaccines was to simply give them to the cash-strapped states to figure out how to get the vaccines into our bodies. Biden immediately invoked the Defense Production Act, bought more vaccines, worked with states to establish vaccine sites, and established vaccine centers in pharmacies across the country. 75% of Americans are now fully vaccinated and 63% have had at least one dose. This rate is in spite of the fact that a Republican party focused on tribalism pushed people bereft of empathy and compassion to refuse the vaccine, contributing significantly to the second year of pandemic disruption. With the omicron surge, the unvaccinated make up a large percentage of those hospitalized and dying from the disease.

Unemployment was reduced to historically low levels and millions of jobs have been created.

The unemployment rate in 2017 as Donald Trump came into office was 4.7% and as he left office it stood at 6.4% for a net jobs gain of -2.8 million during his term. Unemployment when Biden came into office on January 20th was 6.4% It now stands at 3.9% for a net jobs gain of +6.2 million in just the first year. Both the low unemployment rate and the number of jobs created are historic in nature. The stock market has been at an all-time high under Biden.

Just remember, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the economy always does better under a Democratic president.

Without a single Republican vote, the Administration and Congressional Democrats passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in March to jump-start the economy. This put money into the pockets of ordinary Americans, and it worked. The new law significantly cut child poverty by putting $66 billion into 36 million households. It expanded access to the Affordable Care Act. More than 4.6 million Americans who were not previously insured were able to get healthcare coverage; the total covered is a record 13.6 million. And the economic impact of the pandemic has been less than feared. While the costs of the Great Recession in 2008 were huge and lingered, the costs of the coronavirus slump were far smaller.

The Administration oversaw the passage of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and rolled out $27.5 billion in new aid last Friday to help repair the nation’s bridges.

Getting the bipartisan infrastructure bill through this Congress was a BFD. It is designed to help build and rebuild roads and bridges, address aging water and sewer systems, and expand broadband access. This past Friday — just sixty days after signing the historic act — the Biden administration urged states to get to work bringing thousands of aging bridges up to par, while improving safety and uncorking bottlenecks, with the help of $27.5 billion in new federal aid.

Biden got us out of a very unpopular 20-year war.

Joe Biden inherited the previous president’s February 2020 deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, so long as the Taliban did not kill any more Americans. On January 20th, the U.S. had withdrawn all but 2,500 troops from the country. 

In April, Biden said he would honor the agreement he had inherited and promised to evacuate the country “responsibly, deliberately, and safely.” The Afghan army that the U.S. had supported over three previous administrations crumbled as the U.S began to pull its remaining troops out in July. By mid-August, the leaders of the Afghan government fled, abandoning the country to chaos.  

There were some casualties, but in the largest human airlift in U.S. history the U.S. military peacefully evacuated more than 100,000 people. Evacuations have continued on planes chartered by other countries.

By any sane measure, Biden has had a reasonably good first year. But these aren’t normal times, and the fight continues.

There are many other success stories to highlight. Reducing taxes, making America respectable again in diplomatic circles and foreign countries, reducing hate crimes, and fighting gun violence are some of the ways the administration is making progress.

And there are missteps to call out. Commentators have rightly highlighted the administration’s missing that the Afghan government would collapse, underplaying Covid testing, and prioritizing infrastructure over voting rights.

But until recently, Biden’s “biggest miscalculation might well be refusing to address the disinformation of the Republicans directly in order to promote bipartisanship and move the country forward together.” He thought he could work with a party that is fundamentally not interested in governing, only in amassing power.

Biden’s amazingly good record is in spite of the fact that the people who attempted to corruptly — and, on January 6, violently — overthrow the 2020 presidential election are still controlling the Republican Party, attempting to block every measure the administration puts forward and engineering crises to blame on Biden. Last evening’s ruling by the Supreme Court, releasing Trump records to the January 6th committee, should be useful in public hearings to help illuminate the breadth and depth of the Trump administration’s support for a coup d’état.

The Biden administration’s amazingly good record has also come in spite of the fact that the news media seems bent on portraying everything in the worst possible light for the new administration. Examples include the economy, attendance at funerals, and whining about “I want my life back” just for starters.

Yamiche Alcindor, anchor of Washington Week in Review on PBS, noted after President Biden’s two-hour news conference yesterday,

Pres Biden, in the longest news conference in presidential history, made news, pushed back on critics, called out lies, took responsibility for mistakes he believes he made, expressed surprise at GOP, talked foreign policy and didn’t lash out on reporters. Quite the change.

Quite the change, indeed. Millions of Americans are thankful we are looking to the future.

Yes, there will always be detractors. We always have to ask, as President Biden did yesterday about the Senate Minority Leader, “What’s Mitch for?”

Yes, there is still much work to do to save our democracy. The Senate voted tonight against changing the filibuster to protect voting rights, based on some very faulty history from Senator Joe Manchin and total Republican obstruction.

Yes, history has its eyes upon us.

More to come…


References: U.S. Covid-19 vaccine tracker. David Leonhardt. John Pavlovitz. Heather Cox Richardson. Jere Glover. Paul Krugman. Lindsay Chervinsky. Yamiche Alcindor.

UPDATE #1: Matt Robison covers politics for The Editorial Board. He goes much farther than I do in my piece when he posted a members-only article on January 20th with the title, Reality Check: President Joe Biden’s year-one grade? A+ that adds, “Any other answer is insane.” After a laundry list of disasters we faced the second half of 2020, he writes that we can imagine what a second Trump term would look like with faster global warming, endless vendettas, the jailing of dissidents, reductions in LGBT rights, nuclear standoffs…and the list goes on right up to the end of democracy.

So he encourages the media and pundits to stop kdding with the “Biden is limping” nonsense. We should not accept the premise of the underlying question here.

A year ago we were all trapped in a flaming car that was speeding to the edge of the cliff. Joe Biden sprayed us with a fire extinguisher and slammed on the brakes.

The next question is not “isn’t his driving a little slow today?” … We’re not on fire and we’re still on the top of the cliff.

I am in full agreement with Robison’s point of view.

UPDATE #2: For a critic’s take on how the national media covered President Biden’s end-of-first-year press conference, this next day analysis by Dan Froomkin is very enlightening. When a senior political editor at the Washington Post tweeted early in the press conference that the Democrats were primarily to blame for “tanking” Biden’s agenda, respected Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein responded with:

Right, because unified GOP opposition on confirmations and the overwhelming majority of items on the substantive agenda, along with McConnell saying directly that he’s 100% behind blocking the entire Biden agenda, means nothing in comparison to two Democrats in the Senate. Oy

Images: U.S. Capitol. Health care worker. Construction worker image by Nickbar. George Washington Bridge image by David Mark. All from Pixabay.

Old Whaling Church

The past and future of historic houses of worship

Few places in America stand as such readily recognized community anchors and touchstones of neighborhood character as historic houses of worship. Unfortunately, many of these landmarks are clearly at risk.

Historic Houses of Worship in Peril: Conserving Their Place in American Life is Thomas Edward Frank’s 2020 look at the meaning of these buildings and the implications of the rapid change that is reshaping the physical and cultural landscape around them. Tom is a passionate lover of historic houses of worship, but in this short book he doesn’t take the time to wallow in nostalgia. Instead, he focuses on the various ways in which these places imbue our communities with meaning — as places of personal and collective memory, as sites of cultural identity, and, yes, as contested and conflicted places. He challenges the reader to think about what is changed and what is lost when these buildings are abandoned, repurposed for new use, or demolished.

St. Louis, Missouri, and North Adams, Massachusetts serve as both case studies and cautionary tales in his overview. The New England town is referenced throughout, given its high-profile association with houses of worship — the community is known as the “City of Steeples” — and the challenges that resulted from various immigrant groups building impressive places in which to worship and serve their neighborhoods, only to leave those edifices behind as living and working patterns changed.

In his prelude, Tom Frank makes the case for why these places matter.

Historic houses of worship tell stories of human aspirations and values, of cultural persistence and change, of aesthetic expression and elevation of the human spirit. They are focal points of community narrative, landmarks in neighborhood sense of place. What happens to them is not only — or, for the empty ones, even primarily — a matter of faith or religious practice, whatever form that may take. What becomes of them is inseparable from our sense of awe at how the past is always present: who were the people who built them? To what did they aspire? For what kind of society did they hope? How did they shape what this community has become?

In the course of thinking through these issues, Frank asks tough questions about who gets to decide the future of these places. North Adams, again, is useful in part because of the challenges inherent in its processes to bring the community into conversations with church leadership about their town and the future they want for these landmarks.

This is not a “how to” book of preservation. * Frank has written this book with the intention of helping the reader reconsider assumptions, learn more about the meaning for those who experience these places, and perceive more clearly their place in society.

Tom and I connected most recently during the National Trust tour of Asheville, leading me to think about the historic houses of worship that are a part of my life and how they have shaped me.

The church of my childhood is First Baptist, located on East Main Street one block from the square in Murfreesboro. It has a presence that one expects from the oldest (1843) and largest (at one time) Baptist church in a Southern community.

First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, TN (postcard ca. 1915; credit FL Baptist Historical Society)

I began to attend First Baptist with my family in 1966, but the personal memory that comes most readily to mind is from January 1998, at mother’s funeral. Dr. Eugene Cotey — the church’s retired pastor and longtime spiritual leader — stepped into the pulpit, let out a sorrowful sigh about hoping this day would never come, and proceeded to tell the overflow crowd of what Helen Brown meant to that community. His empathy, understanding, deep faith, intellectual curiosity, and love of a good laugh were all things I came to recognize and appreciate from my religious upbringing. Mother shared those traits, and the connection lives in new generations. Our family established and continues to fund the Helen Brown Memorial Scholarship at First Baptist, providing financial help to young women seeking to attend college.

The church engages with the world in a variety of ways, housing the homeless in the church building while also hosting a counseling center, a Fine Arts Academy, and a Benevolence ministry. First Baptist partners with churches of other denominations and cultures. Many family members continue to worship there, and it remains a welcoming hub in the heart of Murfreesboro.

Calvary Episcopal Church, Americus, GA (credit: GA Trust for Historic Preservation)

Calvary Church in Americus is where I was confirmed as an Episcopalian in 1979. The beautiful 1921 building was designed by prominent architect Ralph Adams Cram, although he never saw the property. The rector was visiting New York and asked Cram to design the church. With construction activity slowed by WWI, the architect was glad for the commission. Much like the SAH description, I always thought of Calvary’s simple Gothic design as an “ideal country chapel” placed in this small Southern community. This is where I first grew to know and love the liturgy of the Episcopal church.

All Saints Episcopal Church, Atlanta, GA

Upon moving to Atlanta, I joined All Saints. While a large, established congregation, this was a church transitioning in a changing urban neighborhood in the early 1980s. As we were nearing the time to leave Atlanta, Candice and I worked overnight at the church’s homeless shelter. It was a time when national political changes were having real on-the-ground impacts in cities across the country. Churches like All Saints, in conjunction with others in the diocese, were stepping up to meet the need.

Trinity Church, Staunton VA (credit: Mark Mones, SAH Archipedia)
Taylor and Boody Organ in Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA (photo credit: Taylor & Boody)

Trinity Church in Staunton holds so many personal memories that my head and heart can barely contain them. Founded in 1746 with the current building constructed in 1855 (with later additions), it was where our children were born and baptized. I experienced some of my most spiritual musical memories there. It was also the first church I attended with a graveyard. The physical presence of the gravestones coupled with the symbolism of being surrounded by those who had passed was powerful, made more so by the fact that the ashes of several dear friends are now buried there.

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC with the National Cathedral peeking over the rooftop (credit: St. Alban’s Parish)

Our family has been members at St. Alban’s parish in Washington for more than two decades, living amidst the joys and sorrows that come with life. It is where I have consistently heard outstanding preaching and theological reflection. And it is where my ashes will eventually lie, giving me a great “view” of another historic house of worship with deep personal meaning — the Washington National Cathedral.

These buildings continue serving their original use, but they have each had to change — sometimes in significant ways — with the times. In my preservation career, I’ve worked on historic houses of worship that were adapted with new uses for new generations. In Tom’s scenarios for a future for historic houses of worship, I am especially drawn to his suggestions for shared space with new users that fill needs in community service. That won’t work in every instance, but local congregations, regional and national church bodies, local governments, and preservationists all have to consider new paradigms with broader collaborations toward conservation.

In the end, historic houses of worship are places of grace. They offer gifts of beauty, extraordinary space, and transcendence that people alive today can only receive from people of the past and do their best to pass them on. They are essential contributors to a generative and creative commons where people can gather and collectively make a life together. They are places of presence. And we are their stewards now.


More to come…


*The group Frank chaired for some time — Partners for Sacred Places — is the best resource for those looking for hands-on preservation information, along with groups such as the National Trust.

The Weekly Reader series features links to recent books and articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. 

Image: Old Whaling Church, Martha’s Vineyard, photo by DJB

The moral potential of surprise

Archbishop Desmond Tutu — outspoken critic of apartheid, teacher, author, lecturer, Nobel Prize winner, former Archbishop of Cape Town, and Archbishop Emeritus of South Africa — passed in Cape Town on the day after Christmas in 2021. A man of great vision, deep spirituality, sophisticated thinking, and infectious joy, he’s often compared to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandi. But Tutu took issue with those comparisons, once joking that he won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize mostly because the committee was looking for an anti-apartheid figure whose last name was easy to pronounce. 

Desmond Tutu received the Martin Luther King Jr Award for Non-Violence in 1986 for his commitment and role during the struggle against apartheid. Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” But he also understood the need for forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not just an altruistic act, but one born of self-interest. Forgiveness helps give people the resilience to survive and remain human in the face of all efforts to dehumanise them.

On this MLK Weekend, I want to celebrate the life of Archbishop Tutu and consider his thoughts on hope and love, humor, the religious aspect of voting, and the moral potential of surprise. Many of those thoughts arose during an interview Tutu held with journalist Krista Tippett in 2010.

Hope and love

After her interview, Tippett spoke about the value of people who remind us that love is not the softest force but often the fiercest and is, in fact, “able to shift the world on its axis from time to time.” Tutu had this to say about hope and love:

(I)f you are devoid of hope, then roll over and disappear quietly. Hope says, Man, hey, things can, things will be better, because God has intended for it to be so. … At no point will evil and injustice and oppression and all of the negative things have the last word. And, yes, there’s no question about the reality of evil, of injustice, of suffering. But, you know, at the center of this existence is a heart beating with love … we are, as a matter of fact, made for goodness.

Tutu saw struggles for freedom as more than just wanting to change the complexion of those sitting in the capitol. “It was to change the quality of our community, society.” Those pushing for change wanted to see a compassionate, caring, loving society, a society where you might not be rich, but “you knew that you counted.”


In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Tutu was asked how he learned to use humor in leadership.

I have a family that likes pulling people’s legs. They can be very funny. When you have to survive in that environment, you have to be pretty sharp yourself. In South Africa we became experts at conducting funerals, and people were angry and hurt over the mistreatment. But we also had this wonderful capacity to laugh. If we hadn’t, we would have gone crazy. … I’m also aware that I was constantly being prayed for. There were times when I’d say something unrehearsed that surprised me, and I’d wonder, “Did I really say that? That was pretty smart.” But it couldn’t have just come spontaneously. Looking back, I have no doubt that some dear old ladies were kneeling down at Eucharist somewhere, praying to help the people struggling in South Africa.”

Tutu then displayed that well-known humor when Tippett asked him — given all the bad things that continued to happen in South Africa — how he could describe this as a moral universe where God is in charge. He laughed and said, “Well, I mean, you must add that I’ve sometimes said to God, it would be nice for you to make it slightly more obvious that you’re in charge.”

Voting as a religious act

This weekend we are in a fierce debate about who gets to vote, an issue where Dr. King gave his life attempting to open the vote to all. Archbishop Tutu was 63 years old before he was able to cast his first vote in South Africa, and when he was asked about how it felt, he spoke about it in a way that raises the issue into a different context that should make us all pause.

How do you describe falling in love? [laughs] I mean, people asked then, when we voted for the first time. It was an incredible experience. For you, going to the ballot box is really a political act. For us, it was a religious act. It was a spiritual experience, because you walked into the polling booth one person, with all of the history of oppression and injustice, and all the baggage that we were carrying. And you walk, and you make your mark, and you put the ballot into the box, and you emerge on the other side. And you are a different person: you are transfigured. Now you actually count in your own country.

The moral potential of surprise

A readiness to be surprised is a move of character. There is so much uncertainty and fear, and — as Tippett notes — this environment “activates our bodies and minds towards rigid views of enemies and threats and obstacles — and possibilities.”

Desmond Tutu believed in a god of surprises. He believed in a world in which improbably surprising turns of events are a given. And he believed that we can never, in this world, communicate the true nature of God.

Do you really think that God would say, “Dalai Lama, you really are a great guy, man. What a shame you’re not a Christian”? [laughs] I somehow don’t think so. I think God is just thrilled, because no faith, not even the Christian faith, can ever encompass God or even be able to communicate who God is. Only God can do that.

As Krista Tippett wrote in her appreciation, “when Desmond Tutu tells you something about God — whatever and whoever you imagine God to be — you believe him.”

With thanksgiving for the lives of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

More to come…


NOTE: As the country celebrates the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, my posts this week focus on various aspects of understanding, justice, tolerance, love, and reconciliation with the hope they may be useful as we each take our own journeys to create the beloved community.

Image: Archbishop Desmond Tutu (credit: Washington National Cathedral)

Tolerance, awareness, and religious freedom

Today is National Religious Freedom Day in the United States. It was on January 16, 1786, that the Virginia State Assembly adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Church of England in Virginia was disestablished, and people of different faiths were granted freedom of religion. The Virginia statute became the basis for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

What is often forgotten in the celebrations is that everyone has the right to manifest belief or religion, change religions, or not to follow any religion. Yes, the day celebrates freedom of religion. The First Amendment, as confirmed over and over again by the courts, also protects freedom from religion, although we have always had some Supreme Court justices who have trouble understanding this issue.

The Constitution doesn’t protect people who have different religious beliefs from criticism. If an individual wants to celebrate the work of an evangelical group working to eradicate deadly disease in Africa or criticize a conservative charismatic Catholic group for suggesting that women should be subordinate to their husbands, that’s their right. Likewise, if someone wants to celebrate the support for Black Lives Matter by Unitarian Universalists or criticize the Episcopal church’s support for same-sex marriage, that’s their right. What the Constitution does is to bar courts and governments from preferring one set of religious views over any other set — or over nonreligious views. 

And that is important to know because any serious study of religious life in America uncovers how quickly the persecuted become the persecutors in this country.

Conservatives on the court too often rule as if they only want to protect one particular set of religious interests: those of other conservative Christians. There is less support for the rights of the progressive person of faith who favors equality because it aligns with their religious beliefs. And if your views are decidedly nonreligious, you may have trouble breaking into the conversation. As with most rights, maintaining religious freedom is an ongoing struggle.

The First Baptist Church
The First Baptist Church in America, in Providence, RI – a key landmark for religious liberty and the separation of church and state

Over the years I’ve written about the history and places associated with freedom of religion. In honor of National Religious Freedom Day 2022, here are a few of interest.

  • Let’s take a road trip to help understand the history behind religious liberty (2020) — As a preservationist, I wrote this rather long piece on place as the Supreme Court was debating religious liberty and the civic duties of a county clerk in Kentucky. The reader will visit Providence and Newport in Rhode Island, as well as James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia, and Mount Taylor in New Mexico.
  • Religious liberty and the founding myths (2016) — This post looks at two important works on religious liberty. Historian John Barry’s 2012 work Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul details the life of a founding father who believed it “’monstrous’ to compel another person to believe what he or anyone else believed, or to compel conformity to his or anyone else’s belief.” Historian Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God:  How Corporate American Invented Christian America looks into the obliteration of the separation of church and state at the hands of anti-New Deal corporate CEOs.
  • The Chosen One (2019) — Finally, when outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry tells Fox & Friends that he saw Donald Trump as “God’s Chosen One”, no better example exists as to why we need a true and robust understanding of religious freedom. You’ll find a few things to make you laugh (or cry) in this one.

Happy National Religious Freedom Day!

More to come…


NOTE: As the country celebrates the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, my posts this week focus on various aspects of understanding, justice, tolerance, love, and reconciliation with the hope they may be useful as we each take our own journeys to create the beloved community.

Live, learn, listen, laugh, love

When a musical group carries the torch for justice and love over decades, it goes without saying that they have seen and persevered through life challenges that would have stopped the less hopeful and determined along the way. That Sweet Honey in the Rock has existed for that long as a performance ensemble rooted in African American history and culture makes their work especially appropriate to showcase through the Saturday Soundtrack on the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend here in the U.S.

Many of us came to know and be inspired by the group in the 1970s, but they are still active and singing to contemporary audiences in 2022. Check out their song IDK, But I’m LOL!

I was talking with a friend who mentioned that the group’s founder, Dr. Bernice Johnson-Reagon, lived near her in D.C., and she saw her on occasion. Dr. Johnson-Reagon dates her work as an organizer from her time as a student leader in her hometown of Albany, Georgia, in the early 1960s, where she was one of the Freedom Singers and a field secretary for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Sweet Honey in the Rock was formed by Dr. Johnson-Reagon in 1973 in Washington, and it has been making music and changing lives ever since. Johnson-Reagon led and performed with the group for more than 30 years, retiring in 2004 to pursue other work. Old Ship of Zion was the last tune she performed with the group on February 1, 2004. *

Sweet Honey in the Rock has carried on with some of the early traditions while also exploring new, contemporary music. “They have created positive, loving, and socially conscious message music that matters as it pertains to spiritual fortification, and consistently taken an activist stance toward making this planet a better place for all in which to live.” Their music remains grounded in African American history and culture, as heard in the spirituals Wade in the Water and In the Morning When I Rise.

The group also honors the elders, people like Ella Baker (the “Ella” of Ella’s Song). Baker was a very powerful activist/organizer/orator among young people working for racial justice. The lyrics are taken from a speech she gave.

One of the group’s most recent albums, #LoveInEvolution is their most contemporary to date. Many of the songs are taken from today’s headlines.

The album’s stark second single, “Second Line Blues”, with its cryptic snare drum cadence, roll calls the names of innocent people such as Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School that have fallen victim to murder at the hands of anyone from deranged civilians to police abusing their license to kill. Carol Maillard (a founding member, along with Louise Robinson) states, “Since we started writing this piece, we’ve had to keep adding names…and sadly, we’ll be adding more before things change.” The group released a music video to accompany this haunting in your face reminder of why reforms are necessary for people’s rights to bear arms and the need for more stringent screenings for people placed in positions to police communities.

Fredara Mareva Hadley, Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology, Oberlin College, has written an insightful and timely piece calling it past time to recognize Sweet Honey in the Rock for their essential contributions to American music.

The first and most essential instrument is the voice. While this instrument is something humans carry inside, it also reaches and resonates beyond our own bodies and beyond our individual lives. This is an important reminder when discussing the impact of the a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Their music speaks to our soul, and — as Dr. Hadley notes — this “isn’t just music of resistance — it’s music of insistence.”

Sweet Honey in the Rock is no calcified relic. While they provide glimpses of what the contemplative heterophony of Negro Spirituals such as “Wade in the Water” and “Come by Hear” sounded like on American plantations, Sweet Honey in the Rock still surveys the present moment and responds to contemporary calls for love and justice.

As part of their mission statement, Sweet Honey in the Rock puts their belief right up front:

In prayer we trust/
By hope we live/
On truth we stand/
From our hearts we give/

Sweet Honey in the Rock plays the Birchmere in Alexandria on January 26th.

Fans of the group, Bernice Johnson-Reagon and her daughter Toshi Reagon will also be interested in Parable of the Sower, scheduled for April 28-29 at Strathmore. Here’s the write-up from the Strathmore site:

Parable of the Sower is a triumphant, mesmerizing work of rare power and beauty that illuminates deep insights on gender, race, and the future of human civilization.

This fully-staged opera brings together over 30 original anthems drawn from 200 years of black music to recreate (Octavia) Butler’s sci-fi, Afrofuturist masterpiece live on stage.

With music and lyrics by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon, this compelling work gives life to Butler’s acclaimed science fiction novel of the same name.

More to come…


NOTE: As the country celebrates the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the posts over that period focus on various aspects of understanding, justice, tolerance, love, and reconciliation with the hope they may be useful as we each take our own journeys to create the beloved community.

*You can watch a video of the live concert at Dr. Johnson-Reagon’s website.

Image: Celebrating the Holy Days album cover from Sweet Honey in the Rock

The continuing fight for the soul of America

The struggle to provide equal opportunity for all is never finished. Understanding why is crucial toward building a more perfect union. The history behind that fight lies at the heart of Heather Cox Richardson’s searing, provocative, and masterful How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America.

Dr. Richardson is one of our country’s most articulate connectors of events and themes to set today’s political landscape in its broader historical context. In this 2020 book, Richardson breaks down the myth that the Civil War ended oligarchy and cleansed the nation of our founding sin of slavery. She traces the story of the American paradox (the competing claims of equality and subordination) and its corollary (the belief that universal equality will reduce white men to subservience) beginning with the nation’s founding to the growth of the influence of the West. From there she covers the joining of political forces and oligarchs in the South and West leading to today’s fight to overthrow our democracy. The corollary allows oligarchs to tap into the extraordinary strength of the ideology of American freedom, as perpetuated in myths such as the western cowboy, while undermining freedom and liberty for anyone who is not white and male. A key figure of this resistance to democracy is Barry Goldwater.

In Goldwater’s time, “people claiming to be embattled holdouts defending American liberty called themselves ‘Movement Conservatives.’ A century before,” Richardson notes, “their predecessors had called themselves ‘Confederates.'”

In his Washington Post review, Randall J. Stephens captured how Dr. King saw Goldwater.

Martin Luther King Jr., like many other African Americans, believed that Goldwater was a threat to democracy and to the black freedom struggle in the South. In King’s estimation, Goldwater gave “aid and comfort to the racists.” King warned that Goldwater’s campaign was “obviously an attempt to appeal to all of the fearful, the insecure, prejudiced people in our society.”

How the South Won the Civil War is full of surprises, wisdom, and insight. We live in a world where individual states and communities will regularly overturn the will of the majority on issues such as voting rights, pandemic response, and the treatment of women and people of color unless the federal government intervenes. Richardson’s work helps us understand how we went from John C. Calhoun to Donald Trump. Highly recommended.

If this topic piqued your interest, find more to consider in these MTC posts:

  • Towards a more perfect union (2020) — Historian Eric Foner’s work on the “second founding” of the country examines why “key issues confronting American society today are in some ways Reconstruction questions.”
  • The abandonment of democracy (2020) — I was reading Nancy MacLean’s compelling Democracy in Chains at the end of 2020 while watching the attempted coup that took the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance to its logical conclusion. Utterly chilling.
  • History is a teacher (2019) — Historian Joanne B. Freeman’s The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War is the riveting tale of mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests…and that’s just on the floor of Congress! Freeman shows that it is only when we stand up to those who would divide us and push for a true reckoning of what we are as a nation, that we break through the polarization.
  • Telling the full story (2017) — The Half Has Never Been Told:  Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is a troubling and ultimately persuasive 2014 book by historian Edward E. Baptist. Slavery was not some pre-modern institution on the verge of extinction but was, instead, essential to American development and, indeed, “to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.”

More to come…


NOTE: As the country celebrates the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the posts over the next eight days focus on various aspects of understanding, justice, tolerance, love, and reconciliation with the hope they may be useful as we each take our own journeys to create the beloved community.

The Weekly Reader series features links to recent books and articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. 

Image by wikimages from Pixabay.

I love the pithy proverb – Volume 5

My love for the short and to-the-point adage comes from my grandmother. Known to favor sayings such as, “Don’t believe what you hear and only half of what you read,” Grandmother Brown could have been a social media influencer with a large twitter following … if only the internet had been around in the early 20th century. The admonition I heard most frequently — “Make yourself useful as well as ornamental” — suggests, however, that she wouldn’t have had time for such frivolity.

Late in 2019, a series of pithy proverbs — those bursts of truth in 20 words or so — debuted on the blog and were brought together in a post entitled More to Consider. * Three years later I’m still at it, so let’s look at I love the pithy proverb — Volume 5 to see what made it to More to Consider over the past six months.

Get your shot!

Because we continue to have to deal with a health crisis due to the fact that so many people have spent the last two years denying there’s a health crisis, this anonymous quote, which Grandmother would have approved, seems appropriate:

“I guess we should retire the phrase ‘avoid it like the plague’ given how little effort people put into avoiding an actual plague.”


Grandmother was not a feminist, but I suspect she would have agreed with Susan B. Anthony’s take on those who always seem to know God’s will.

“I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”

Susan B. Anthony

Like her son and grandson, both voracious readers of biographies, she also would have been right in line with Robert Caro’s sentiments.

“Power doesn’t corrupt, it reveals.”

Robert Caro

This quote stretches the boundaries of pithiness, yet I appreciated its take on the need — first and foremost — to be human to successfully navigate the future.

“What we need to do is to hold fast to the gifts we have, and to develop them together. What we need to be is human. The future will always be uncharted, but it is made by those active enough to explore it, with the stamina and imagination not to give up on themselves or each other.”

Margaret Heffernan

Image by FelixMittermeier from Pixabay

As Margaret Heffernan says, it takes imagination.

“We lay there and looked up at the night sky and she told me about stars called blue squares and red swirls and I told her I’d never heard of them. Of course not, she said, the really important stuff they never tell you. You have to imagine it on your own.”

Brian Andreas

Some people demand certainty. For them, robo-umpires to call the balls and strikes in baseball make perfect sense. Some things, however, are better with a bit of ambiguity. Joe Torre, the former Yankees manager, has argued against the robots. “It’s an imperfect game and has always felt perfect to me,” he said, in a pithy summation of his own take on the game. I thought this quote from a New Yorker article entitled Invasion of the Robot Umpire was another perfect description.

“The strike zone is a fretless bass. Historically, a certain discretion has been appreciated.”

Zach Helfand in a New Yorker article on robo-umpires

These two quotes seem to fit together, reminding us to not be so serious!

“Look at one of your industrious fellows for a moment, I beseech you. He sows hurry and reaps indigestion; he puts a vast deal of activity out to interest and receives a large measure of nervous derangement in return.”

Robert Louis Stevenson in “An Apology for Idlers”

The Church says: The body is a sin. Science says: The body is a machine. Advertising says: The body is a business. The body says: I am a fiesta.

Eduardo Galeano

I’d been reading a book on fungi when this observation from Alexander von Humboldt found its way into my consciousness.

“Each step that we make in the more intimate knowledge of nature leads us to the entrance of new labyrinths.”

Alexander von Humboldt

Brené Brown hosted a recent podcast, and I was taken with this observation of her guest, Dr. Maya Shankar.

“The reason we often have so much discomfort in the face of change is because it threatens our identity and sense of self.”

Dr. Maya Shankar

Lots of words have been written and said about the times we live in. Here are two short sentiments I find thoughtful.

The assault on 2024 is a crock-pot coup, simmering low and slow, under cover, breaking down the fibers of our electoral system, until one day democracy itself is cooked.

Anand Giridharadas

“If you rip away everything, oppression is the business of not respecting one’s personhood.”

The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray

On December 19, 1776, Thomas Paine published The American Crisis in Philadelphia. It began with the famous words “These are the times that try men’s souls” and it came at a very low point in the history of our country. It was good to read those words again this past December.

“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. Yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”

Thomas Paine

To bring this back to my grandmother, she would have recognized the classical rhythm and language found in the Stoic philosophers and appreciated their to-the-point advice.

“That which isn’t good for the hive, isn’t good for the bee.”

Marcus Aurelius

“Silence is a lesson learned from the many sufferings of life.”


Finally, while truth telling is in short supply today, Grandmother was always a stickler for being honest and true to your word. Mark Twain is often cited as the source of quotes he never uttered, so I went to the Mark Twain House to ensure the accuracy of this one, which I posted on his birthday: November 30th.

“If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.”

Mark Twain

Feel free to borrow any one of these and drop a short dollop of wisdom on your friends this week.

More to come…


*To capture some of my favorite sayings without having to write an entire blog post, I created a feature on More to Come that I labeled “More to Consider.” I update these quick bursts of truth every couple of weeks. After the initial post pulling together the first ones I highlight, I brought out Volume 2: A plethora of pithy proverbs followed with Volume 3: A profusion of pithy proverbs and Volume 4: A plentitude of pithy proverbs. I finally turned to the Super Bowl system (minus the pretentious Roman numerals).

Image: My grandmother and grandfather, Mary Dixie Bearden Brown and George A. Brown, Sr.