The Power of Words

Former President Obama’s recent summer reading list reminded me of how much I pick up fresh insights from seeing what books others recommend.  When I finish several months’ worth of reading, I’ll pass along my takes on those works to anyone who cares to listen, simply because I believe in the power of the written word.  Writer Cheryl Strayed said she was seven years old when she understood that, as Margaret Atwood wrote in her poem Spelling,

 “a word after a word after a word is power.”

According to Strayed, the power of those words she read at age seven, “wasn’t the sort of power we associate with politics or world affairs . . . It wasn’t the kind of power we talk about when we talk about destruction or physical force. It wasn’t about defeat or domination or control. It was about a deeper, older, truer sort of power, one that calls upon the original meaning of the word, which is derived from the Latin posse.  It means, quite simply, to be able. It’s a definition of power that’s about doing and creating, about writing word after word after word on the page.”

Earlier this year, the National Trust Council visited Oxford, Mississippi, where many of our members demonstrated the power of words by making a pilgrimage to Square Books—one of the country’s best-known independent bookstores.  I love the quote from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby included on the store’s bookmarks, because it speaks to the special power of the written word:

“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score.  It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates, the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”

We learn a great deal by what others tell us about a book, but you have to read it to understand the power, get it in your head, and have it beat in your chest.  With our children on the west coast in August, we recently gathered on California’s Monterey Peninsula for a week’s vacation.  Given that we were less than a mile from historic Cannery Row—and having heard good things about this book from others—I dove into John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel that helped make this street of old sardine factories and marine laboratories famous.  Cannery Row was a delightful read, especially since I walked daily among the buildings and places that inspired the characters of Doc, Mack and the boys, Dora Flood, and Lee Chong. The connection between story and place took that book into my head and helped it beat in my chest. The book focuses on life as it is and celebrates community, while also acknowledging the loneliness of the individual. Steinbeck’s descriptive language and imagery—“What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?”—are as sharp and inspired as one would expect from a winner of both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.  Key to much of this book, as well as his classic The Grapes of Wrath, is this strong sense of place.


Steinbeck Monument

Steinbeck Monument on Cannery Row


Places that we save and celebrate are full of stories, both real and inspired, that tell much about us as a country and as individuals.

If you’re reading anything that has gotten into your head, is beating in your chest, or is powerful to you, please share it with someone. James Baldwin said in a 1963 interview with Life magazine, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.  It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

Sharing is fundamental to connecting with others. Connecting with others is fundamental to a balanced and productive life. Share the power of words.

Have a good week.

More to come…


Nothing Can be Changed Until it is Faced

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Last week, President Obama named the A.G. Gaston Motel (a National Trust National Treasure), the 16th Street Baptist Church (site of a bomb attack in 1963 that killed four young girls), and other places near them as part of the new Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.  Made on the eve of celebrating the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the president’s designation was a good reminder of the importance of why we protect places that tell difficult stories from our past.

A few weeks ago I finished reading a powerful book that harkened back to the work and writings of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a work that demands a response from the reader and is not easily dismissed.

In the book’s foreword, Cornel West alludes to the link between Alexander’s work and Dr. King’s core beliefs.  King called for us to be “lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable.”  It is the work of King for the poor and vulnerable in places like Alabama that led President Obama to designate this new National Monument.

Michelle Alexander’s last chapter is inspired by the writing of James Baldwin.  Coincidentally, the Washington Post recently included Baldwin’s writing in an article about a new Memorial to Peace and Justice.  Better known by its common name of the national lynching memorial, this place has been envisioned by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), founded by Bryan Stevenson, who also is its executive director and spoke at our PastForward 2015 conference.  That piece in the Post includes this powerful line from an unfinished book by James Baldwin:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

When we talk about sharing the broad story of the American experience, not all of it will be positive, yet all of it informs our present.  That line from Baldwin is a powerful reminder to us. We can help shape a better future, but we cannot change anything – in our personal lives as well as in our national experience – unless it is first faced.

As we give thanksgiving for the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are well served to keep Baldwin’s admonition in mind.

A.G. Gaston Motel

A. G. Gaston Motel (photo credit: City of Birmingham Archives)

Have a good week.

More to come…


God Works in Mysterious Ways

Mother Emanuel

Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Charleston (photo credit: Democracy Now)

We’ve all heard the saying, “God Works in Mysterious Ways.”  A tired trope, right?  Not in the hands of President Obama, who gave it fresh and meaningful power in his moving eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston.  And not in light of the events of the last seven days.

“God Works in Mysterious Ways” was just one of literally dozens of memorable phrases and comments that arose during this most remarkable of weeks. Our part of the world cracked open a door to examine some of its deepest wounds and also saw change for millions who have been denied life’s basic liberties and access to a safe and civil society.

While that change is far from complete, let’s take the time to observe (in this next installment of Observations from Home) just what took place over the last seven days since I wrote about the horrific murders at Mother Emanuel.

A Powerful Reflection on Grace – For almost forty minutes in Charleston, Barack Obama reflected on race and the meaning of grace. This was not the carefully constructed speeches on racial divides that he used as a candidate or during his first years as president. This was a deeply emotional and moving reflection that came from experience and spoke with power to those – of all races – who share or work to understand that experience.

In last week’s blog, I commented on the fact that the grace-filled forgiveness of the families of the Emanuel 9 to the alleged killer was the one ray of hope in a very sad situation, but I was quick to assume a pessimistic outlook as to its impact, given that major media reports at the time were not focused on what our rector, the Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister, called “the weapons of Christ” in her sermon on the subject last Sunday.

When David faced Goliath, Saul tried to clothe him in his own armor: fine armor of bronze, fit for a king. But David realized that he could not even walk in it; it was the tool of a different sort of man. Even so, we must learn to walk in ways that are not the ways of violence. In our popular culture, the villains use guns and bombs — but so do the heroes. Dirty Harry, Luke Skywalker, Rambo, even Harry Potter– all these use violence to fight violence. But the master’s tools can never take down the master’s house. When Nadine Collier, niece of one of the people who were killed in Charleston, confronted the alleged killer and said, “I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul,” she was using the weapons of Christ — and her words did not come cheap. We, too, must learn to fight with the weapons of peace and of true justice, for we work in the name of the Lord of Hosts, who loves those people who are perishing.

It turns out that the words of the families – and the grace with which they were spoken – did have an impact. I’ll once again turn to the New York Times report to explain the context for how God moves in mysterious ways.

Mr. Obama joined with others paying tribute in stressing that the 21-year-old white man charged in the killings had failed to achieve his stated goal of inciting racial conflagration. Rather, he said, the killings had the opposite effect, generating an unprecedented show of racial unity and inspiring a nationwide revolt against Confederate symbols.

“It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches,” Mr. Obama said, “not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress, an act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion, an act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.”

He paused for effect. “Oh, but God works in mysterious ways,” Mr. Obama said. “God has different ideas. He didn’t know he was being used by God.” The crowd erupted in applause as women waved their hands toward the ceiling.

I almost cried when I first listened to that part of the eulogy.  The Times report continued.

Mr. Obama commended South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki R. Haley, for her call this week to bring down the Confederate flag in Columbia, saying it would be “a meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.”

“Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness,” Mr. Obama said. “It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people, was wrong.”

It was one of the most powerful moments in a eulogy full of them – including the President breaking into song with Amazing Grace and having the organist come in to offer support and take the emotion even higher.  The note that God moves in mysterious ways was a powerful moment in an emotional conversation about race and grace that must – for the health of our nation and the health of our souls – continue.

Marriage Equality (Or how both my children can now marry the people they love no matter where they may live in America) – Justice Andrew Kennedy had the definitive statement for me in the long-expected but still amazing ruling on marriage equality that came from a divided Supreme Court on Friday.

It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.

Rainbow flag

These men and women are my family. My co-workers. My friends. Plus millions I do not know. And it is past time that we recognized them not only as children of God – as we all are, in whatever way we understand that phrase – but complete human beings who deserve the same rights and protections as the rest of our country.

The vitriol in the dissents – especially that of Antonin Scalia – demonstrated that we still have a long way to go in this country to address our differences and welcome our fellow human beings with grace.  As one admittedly partisan commentator noted, Scalia’s “notion that the court is made up of patrician Ivy League elitists is tested mightily when he offers up legal opinions that sound like they have been culled from newspaper website comment threads.” When pronouncements from Supreme Court justices include sharp personal attacks and practically sputter in their denial of reality, the impact of 30+ years of false victim-hood by cable news, radio, and internet outlets is clear.

Speaking of Reality – The Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) decision on Thursday, by a larger 6-3 majority, provided some relief by demonstrating that we still have a government that – when necessary – can face reality.  Linda Greenhouse, the Supreme Court observer, noted that “Ideology came face to face with reality, and reality prevailed.”  Yet another concise take on the events of the week when God – if not the Supreme Court – moved in mysterious ways.

Universal health care for Americans is something that has been on the nation’s agenda since the Roosevelt administration.  That’s Theodore Roosevelt! Every other so-called first-world and industrialized nation in the world has figured out how to do this without blowing up the government, the economy, or health care.  Some third world countries have done a pretty good job of it as well. For us…not so much.  When I hear that Americans don’t like the Affordable Care Act and don’t want universal coverage, I think of the following: President Obama campaigned in 2008 on providing universal health insurance and won big. Then – with the help of a lot of people who paid for it politically – the Affordable Care Act was passed based on a model that had originally been devised by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Naturally, the new law was derided by conservatives. President Obama ran again in 2012 on a platform of maintaining the ACA against a candidate who promised to repeal the act. Again, he won big. And millions of Americans who didn’t have health coverage before now have it, while those of us who have had health care still benefit from provisions in the law such as being able to keep our children on our policies through their mid-20s and not being punished for pre-existing conditions. Reality is that the program has worked pretty much as advertised.

In discussing how the Supreme Court’s majority came to see the case for the “cynically manufactured and meritless argument” which tried to turn the court into “a partisan tool,” Greenhouse wrote:

The chief justice’s masterful opinion showed that line of argument for the simplistic and agenda-driven construct that it was. Parsing the 1,000-plus-page statute in a succinct 21-page opinion, he deftly wove in quotations from recent Supreme Court opinions.

These were all opinions – written by Justice Scalia – which rightly noted that short ambiguous phrases could be easily understood in the context of the law’s purpose and framework.  Of course, Gail Collins had a perhaps more direct take:

The court decided — in what opponents decried as a wild leap of judgment — that it was not going to strip millions of people of their health coverage and upend one of the most important pieces of legislation in modern history because of a four-word drafting error.

Reality won.  God really does move in mysterious ways.

“Nothing in this world is indifferent to us” – While I am stretching my 7-day time frame a bit, these recent words from Pope Francis’ encyclical on Care for our Common Home fits into the pattern of change. For far too long, we have heard from the religious right that humans are the masters of the universe, and that changes in our climate are either non-existent or not related to human activity.  But Pope Francis, writing to all the peoples of the world, speaks from a very different perspective.

This sister (our common home) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Dana Beach of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League connected the dots between the pope’s encyclical and the events at Mother Emanuel.

Like the Emanuel AME community, Francis emphasizes the central role love must play in our world, in this case, to stop catastrophic environmental degradation. From his extensive declaration, “A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.”

And yet another long and contentious conversation is changed by grace.

Amazing Grace – At some other point I’ll write more about how these themes played out in my work over the past week – where colleagues in Charleston visited Emanuel A.M.E. Church, saw the tangible expressions of concern, support, hope, and prayer that people left in front of the church, and helped the members of Mother Emanuel begin planning for their preservation. Where the National Trust and other preservation groups highlighted landmarks of the LGBT civil rights movement, places that each in their own way helped lead to this week’s ruling.  Where colleagues and I met in New York to advance our work to build sustainable and livable cities as part of our common home.  But all of that is for another post or two.  I want to give President Obama the last word, as he wrapped up his powerful reflection on grace.

That’s what I’ve felt this week — an open heart.  That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think — what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”  

That reservoir of goodness.  If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.

Amazing grace.  Amazing grace. 

(Begins to sing) — Amazing grace — how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.

Clementa Pinckney found that grace.  

Cynthia Hurd found that grace.  

Susie Jackson found that grace.  

Ethel Lance found that grace.  

DePayne Middleton-Doctor found that grace.

Tywanza Sanders found that grace.  

Daniel L. Simmons, Sr. found that grace.  

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton found that grace.  

Myra Thompson found that grace.

Through the example of their lives, they’ve now passed it on to us.  May we find ourselves worthy of that precious and extraordinary gift, as long as our lives endure.  May grace now lead them home.  May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America.


More to come…


Places That Look Ordinary Are Nothing But Extraordinary

Pullman National Monument Designation

President Obama Designates Pullman as a National Monument

I don’t often mix my work into More to Come…. But then again, I don’t often hear the President speak so eloquently about the work with which I’m engaged.  Last Thursday was one of those days.

After 24 hours in my own house, I was on the road once again to Chicago last week.  Cold. Frigid. Windy. Chicago.  It wasn’t a destination I would have sought out in February, except for the fact that President Barack Obama was going to designate Pullman a National Monument.  At the National Trust, we were part of a coalition working for this designation, and I was proud to join our team at the celebration.

These types of events with government and political leaders are often perfunctory – at least from the politician’s standpoint.  Last Thursday – with the President on his home turf – was anything but.  You knew we were in for a treat when his opening remarks began with this ode to Chicago’s winter: “It’s always been a dream of mine to be the first President to designate a national monument in subzero conditions.”

Pullman, if you do not know the history, is a remarkably intact industrial town of historic buildings and landscapes. Located 13 miles south of downtown Chicago, it was built by industrialist George Pullman and through all the change that has taken place in this small community, it stands today as representative of the heart of the American Labor movement. Strikes that began in Pullman in 1893 and spread across the country led – in the long arc of history – to the establishment of Labor Day, a 40-hour work week, the weekend, overtime pay, safe workplace conditions, and the right to organize for higher wages and better opportunities. The first African-American Union – the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters – had ties to Pullman. The men and women who worked and labored in Pullman – white and black – helped create the American middle class.


Pullman (Photo Credit: Cynthia Lynn via National Trust for Historic Preservation)

President Obama told the story of Pullman in deeply personal terms, as they related to his life, the life of his family, and to the life of all Americans.

I want this younger generation, I want future generations to come learn about their past.  Because I guarantee you there are a lot of young people right here in Chicago, just a few blocks away, living in this neighborhood who may not know that history.

I want future generations to know that while the Pullman porters helped push forward our rights to vote, and to work, and to live as equals, their legacy goes beyond even that.  These men and women without rank, without wealth or title, became the bedrock of a new middle class.  These men and women gave their children and grandchildren opportunities they never had. 

Here in Chicago, one of those porter’s great-granddaughter had the chance to go to a great college and a great law school, and had the chance to work for the mayor, and had the chance to climb the ladder of success and serve as a leader in some of our cities’ most important institutions.  And I know that because today she’s the First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama.

Then he continued, and the White House transcript includes the reaction from the crowd:

So without this place, Michelle wouldn’t be where she was.  There’s a reason why I’ve got one of the original copies of the program for the March on Washington, a march for jobs and justice, with A. Philip Randolph’s name right there as the first speaker, framed in my office.  Because without Pullman, I might not be there.  Of course without Michelle, I’d definitely not be there.  (Laughter.)  Whoever she married would be there.  (Laughter and applause.)

Then – in contrasting the great national parks of natural beauty with a place like Pullman – the President spoke directly to the students who filled the bleachers in the high school gymnasium, saying:

…To the young people here today, that’s what I hope you take away from this place. It is right that we think of our national monuments as these amazing vistas, and mountains, and rivers. But part of what we’re preserving here is also history. It’s also understanding that places that look ordinary are nothing but extraordinary. The places you live are extraordinary, which means you can be extraordinary. You can make something happen, the same way these workers here at Pullman made something happen.

That’s not to tell you that life is always going to be fair, or even that America will always live up to its ideals. But it is to teach us that no matter who you are, you stand on the shoulders of giants. You stand on the site of great historic movements. And that means you can initiate great historic movements by your own actions.

Secretary Jewell with DJB

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell with DJB at the community celebration in Pullman

It was a day of great celebration.  It was a day when one of the country’s most eloquent presidential speakers was able – because of what Pullman meant to him as a man, a husband, a father, a worker, and an American – to explain to all Americans why Pullman matters today, and tomorrow, and to future generations.  Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis were on hand, and I shared with them an ad we placed in that morning’s Chicago Tribune thanking the President, Secretary, and Director for their leadership in saving Pullman. And there were more than 500 people from the neighborhood – people who have been saving Pullman and recognizing its relevance for decades – who were there as well.

And I did say it was a celebration for the entire neighborhood.  Argus Brewery makes fine craft beer in a former Schlitz distribution center in Pullman. To celebrate the monument designation, they produced a one-day only brew – Pullman Monumental Lager.  My colleagues in our Chicago office got a case, and we shared one beer after the party. Even the President had four cases delivered to Air Force One.  Unfortunately, I was flying United and couldn’t take mine with me through airport security…something that isn’t a problem for the President!

Pullman Monumental Lager

Pullman Monumental Lager from Argus Brewery


Lager Description

Description of the Pullman Monumental Lager

What a way to celebrate!  Congratulations to all the folks in Pullman and the organizations such as the National Parks and Conservation Association who worked so hard to make this happen.

And if you have about 25 or 30 minutes, do yourself a favor and listen to the President’s remarks about Pullman.  It is a great history lesson.  The President’s comments begin after the 32 minute mark.

More to come…