The Common Good

Changing the Backyard

Sojomail - August 21, 2008


When I first heard about the possibility of being allowed to protest, I was very happy. My issue could be resolved. But it turned out all to be cheating. ... I feel stuck in my heart.

- Wu Dianyuan, 79, one of two elderly Chinese women who could face a year of "reeducation through labor" because they applied for permits to demonstrate during the Olympics. In response to international pressure, China said it would allow protests in specially designated zones. The official New China News Agency reported that police had received 77 applications, but none has been approved. (Source: The Washington Post)

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Changing the Backyard

My two boys have an alley for a backyard. Luke (9) and Jack (5) are thoroughly urban kids, but I watched them, these past two weeks, fall in love with a natural world far different from their own in a magical place called Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island.

I came here a lot as a younger man. It was the home of lawyer-theologian William Stringfellow, one of my theological and political mentors, and it still has a little cottage on the back of the property that is used by Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan as a special place for writing and retreat. I hadn’t been here for 10 years, and I thought it was time to go back with my two boys. After all, it was the place I proposed to their mother, Joy Carroll, 11 years ago during a dramatic sunset at the lighthouse on the island’s most northern point.

During the hour-long ferry ride from Point Judith, Rhode Island, I felt so many old feelings and memories returning as the sun was setting over the ocean. The hour-long boat ride was always a decompresser for me, helping me prepare for the much slower pace of island life. I remember the Stringfellow residence as an almost monastic environment, in lovely harmony with Block Island’s stunning natural beauty and small-town rural lifestyle. After arriving, Joy was surprised to see how easily I found the small back roads and turn-offs, even after dark, which lead to the Berrigan cottage. Some places you never forget. The first thing my boys noticed was the extraordinary view from the deck of this spartan writer's cottage “at land's end,” as Berrigan always said, looking out over the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. Coming from an urban environment where you never think to look up, all of a sudden there was the light show from a million stars. And it was so quiet.

On the ferry I had picked up a copy of the Block Island Times and had seen the weekly Nature Walk Schedule put out by the island’s Nature Conservancy. It seemed especially focused on things children would love, so we decided to try it out our first Monday morning. Those morning sessions became a daily discipline and delight for Luke, Jack, and me, and seemed to set the tone and pace for every day. From nature hikes through flora and fauna, to marsh-mucking, to scavenger hunts, to bird-watching, to a final 5-mile fitness walk through four preserves, we urban boys were introduced to a whole new and wonderful world. My boys insisted on getting up early each day to go.

I watched my youngest, Jack, discover little hermit crabs and gently hold them in his hand. One of our young nature guides told him that soft humming or singing often got the hermits to come out of their shells, and Jack found that "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" worked very well. Luke and I followed a 100-year-old, 2-foot-long horseshoe crab around the marsh. Each shell, piece of seaweed, or interesting rock seemed to have its own story.

On the morning bird-watching expedition at the end of the week, Luke had a question for the director of the Nature Conservancy. "Are there any shad bushes here? You know, the ones that the yellow-bellied sapsuckers peck to get their sap to run, which attracts the insects that become the bird’s lunch when they come back a couple hours later?" Surprised by the 9-year-old's question, our guide said, “Yes, there are, and you’re right about the yellow-bellied sapsuckers, but how did you know that?” Luke said, “Oh, I learned that on the Monday nature walk.” The other adults on the bird walk were quite impressed and told me how “environmentally sensitive” my children were. I tried hard to contain my chuckles and decided not to tell them about the inner-city war zone where my boys have grown up.

Of course we played baseball most days, as we do wherever we are. But practicing pitching, catching, and hitting, playing “pickle,” and running the bases next to the Mohican Bluffs with the roar of the Atlantic over the cliff is a lot different from the ballfields of Washington, D.C. And one of the best things we did was to rent bikes for all four of us. Biking to town, to the beach, or to dinner was a new experience for this urban family, and Luke kept remarking about all the energy we were saving. The sunsets were again breathtaking at the North Light, and one night I comically re-enacted my original marriage proposal, dropping on my knees to ask Joy if she would marry me and have two boys named Luke and Jack. “Oh, all right then,” she replied romantically, for which we were all grateful. And later at night, we would sit in the dark of our deck and watch the moon rise above the ocean and then the stars light up the sky. Sleeping was easy.

Perhaps the natural highlight came at the end of our time, when the boys and I went to a “nature and arts” session at an outdoor pavilion. A very knowledgeable nature guide (who I later discovered is also the town mayor!) displayed colorful caterpillars feeding on milkweeds and passed out drawing pads to all the kids. She then showed us two different chrysalises and explained how there were caterpillars inside turning into beautiful butterflies. One was a brand-new chrysalis and one, she excitedly told us, was about to burst open any day. Nobody expected that to be about 15 minutes later, when a dozen wide-eyed children and their astonished parents watched in utter amazement as a new-born and brilliant monarch butterfly broke out into the world. None of us, except the mayor, had ever seen that before.

Childlike wonder is what happens to all of us in the face of such natural beauty and wonder. Time for long conversations, good sleep, great meals, swims and walks each day, lots of laughing, space for reading and knitting, and at every turn in the road, biking around a bend, or rising over a hill, somebody would say, "That's so beautiful."

Here, the ocean, not an alley, was our backyard. In every direction, there it was, at high and low tides, in shimmering blues or crashing white waves, setting the rhythm for an island and, for almost two weeks, for a family of city kids who found a way to fit right in.

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A Multicultural Witness Against the 'Homogenous Unit Principle' (Part 1, by Jin S. Kim)

I am grateful for CNN's special report, "Black in America," as well as the subsequent article on church segregation on this 40th year after Dr. King's assassination. The article describes the "racial fatigue" that Christians of all colors seem to experience in these days of ever-increasing diversity. It sounds to me like the dynamics of a dysfunctional marriage. If there is not real confession, repentance, healing, and reconciliation, the only options are divorce or despair. As "ambassadors" of God's kingdom, we Christians ought to be the leaders in racial reconciliation, for "they will know we are Christians by our love." Instead, we lag behind a secular society in getting along, even among so-called Christians! That the segregated church in America is patterned after a racist society, and not the other way around, is an indictment of our life together and cause for national repentance and revival. How did we get here, and how do we move forward?

Race at the Olympics (by Katie Van Loo)

I can't go anywhere these days without hearing about the Olympics ("Michael Phelps this, Michael Phelps that." Thank God my friend finally told me who Michael Phelps is). But it wasn't until I was over on Eugene Cho's blog the other day that my interest was thoroughly piqued. Cho posted a photo of the Spanish men's basketball team "making their eyes Chinese," along with his response. (I encourage you to check out Cho's honest and articulate posts -- he has since written a second one -- and the open conversation they have sparked.) The New York Times has thoroughly covered the incident. The photo was an ad in a Spanish newspaper that also included an identical photo of the women's basketball team. In order to assuage some of the reactionary discomfort surrounding the ad, the Spanish teams have alluded that it was an "affectionate gesture" between the teams and their Chinese sponsor, Li-Ning footwear company. And as a response to critical accusations from those offended by the ad, we are reminded that the Chinese embassy in Spain does not find it to be racist or offensive.

'The Jungle' in Postville Affects Us All (by Brian Brandsmeier)

Agriprocessors, the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the U.S., has developed a longstanding reputation for abusing animals, workers, and laws. The abuses have been documented and decried by labor unions, religious leaders, animal rights groups, etc. Children as young as 13 work in dangerous conditions. Cows have their windpipes ripped out while they are still conscious and alive. Central Americans were hired illegally to work long hours with little pay. Untreated sewage has been dumped into the Postville, Iowa, water system. The list goes on and on. In a bizarre twist of perverted justice, the Bush administration had the workers arrested while ignoring the egregious practices of the owners and operators. On May 20, 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested 300 Guatemalan workers at the plant and charged them with a serious crime: "aggravated identity theft." Torn from their families, these Guatemalans are forced to choose between a two-year prison sentence or immediate deportation. The immediate deportation is considered "the deal."

A Look at Mary in August (by Randy Woodley)

My wife and I are starting the book of Luke for our devotional reading this week. The whole Christmas story comes up so fast, and it is a bit strange to consider the story in August. We talked about the extreme categorization of the Western church and how certain stories are usually told only at one time of the year. Well, not so now. We thought if we can separate ourselves from the "assigned category" of Christmas and hear the story as a story -- not just as the propositional truth we are expected to hear -- maybe something different will surface, and it did. It was very simple, really. Just one thought we always missed when hearing the story at Christmas.

Peach-Pit Philosophy (by Phyllis Tickle)

There's a great deal of conversation these days about the nature of human consciousness and, as a related issue, about the true definition of "human" and how it can be best described. There's so much such conversation, in fact, that it is essentially impossible (especially in my business, Lord knows) to avoid getting sucked into it, whether as an active participant or simply as a passive, and sometimes unwilling, hearer. The question -- or questions, though I don't think the two can be separated -- of human consciousness and of the actual structure of the human as a being lies at the base of religion as surely and deftly as the soil embraces and sustains a living tree. As a result, ours is hardly the first time in human history that the question(s) has been asked and, temporarily at least, answered.

Working Against Torture (by Chuck Gutenson)

Torture is a moral issue. On Sept. 11-12, 2008, in Atlanta, Georgia, Christians will be sharing their grave concerns over the United States' position on this practice at "A National Summit on Torture: Religious Faith, Torture, and our National Soul." In order to bring this subject to the forefront of the church's dialogue, Sojourners is proud to help sponsor the conference, alongside Mercer University, Evangelicals for Human Rights, and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture -- in cooperation with the Center for Victims of Torture, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Faith and the City, Faith in Public Life, Evangelicals for Social Action, and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

Response to Readers (by Jim Wallis)

I've been reading through the extensive comments on my blog post on abortion reduction and the Democratic Platform. As usual, the comments span the spectrum. But I found it puzzling that those who are so adamantly against the Democrats on abortion (as I have also been) seem so satisfied with the Republicans just repeating that abortion should be illegal, while the abortion rate never changes, even under Republican rule. The Republican position often feels cynical to me -- privately admitting that a total ban on abortion in America will never happen, but using it every four years to get the votes of people who genuinely care about saving unborn lives (as I do).

Fear and Fun on a Fellowship Field Trip (by Bart Campolo)

I've been on lots of roads trips, but none of them compare to The Walnut Hills Fellowship's weekend journey to Chicago. Start to finish, it was a thing of rare beauty. We had been talking about it for months, of course, but I think most of our neighborhood friends still didn't really believe it was going to happen. After all, people around here are always talking about things they don't really intend to do. As plans firmed up the week before we left, however, people got nervous in a big way. All of a sudden, nearly everybody had a reason they couldn't go.

Is This Really America? (by Allison Johnson)

Wednesday's New York Times gives a shocking description of the death of Hiu Liu Ng, also known as Jason Ng. Cause of death? Untreated cancer after nearly a year in an ICE detention center. Ng was a 34-year-old computer programmer who worked at the Empire State Building, and father to two young sons. He was married to a U.S. citizen and was seeking his green card. Originally from Hong Kong, he had lived more than half his life in the U.S. Not your typical or convenient description of an "illegal alien."


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