Thursday, April 19, 2007

Know thy neighbor

Like many of my fellow bloggers, I have been thinking a lot about the massacre at Virginia Tech. I think we all agree that there is no foolproof way to insure safety in a society as complex as ours. Often, when tragedy occurs, we think of the mechanical things we can do to protect ourselves:check points, security cameras, better locks. And sometimes these are appropriate. But I can't help thinking that real security comes from community.

The Bible says we should love our neighbors as ourselves. Can you love other people without knowing them? I'm a tolerant person, so I don't actually hate other people; but half the time, I don't know who my neighbors students and colleagues are. I'm busy, and I respect the privacy of others. I don't want to be a snoop. This is mutual. But taken too an extreme, this attitude leads to a breakdown of community.

Last weekend, when Joe was away, I attended worship at St. Mary's Catholic Church with my friend Charlotte. I found I knew some of the people there-- I just didn't know them in this context. I learned that one of my former students (above), now a first grade teacher, is in the Knights of Columbus. I had heard of this Catholic service organization, but had no idea what it did until I researched it online after the service. I ran into my colleague, Dr. Lee Daniels, seen below with his daughter.

Often, when we speak of building community, we think of creating it within our own circles of church, school, neighborhood, and workplace. But in a complex world, we have to reach beyond. \

2nd below: scene from St. Mary's Church.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Open Doors

In a recent response to John Quigley's blog, Dennis Cope mentions that in England, churches are open for prayer even when no one is around. It's sometimes hard for us to do this here in America, but I appreciate it when congregations make the effort.

Many years ago when I wasn't sure what I thought about God, I did not feel "entitled" to attend a Christian service. I worked at a bookstore in Greenwich Village one summer, and the Church of the Ascension (above) was nearby. It was open 24 hours a day. I used to go there to think. There was always a caretaker around, and of course the congregation spent money on this, but I'm glad they did. I'll never forget that place.

Too close to home

Monday was a busy day, and I went around in my little academic bubble, oblivious to what was happening in the wider world. I didn't hear about the Virginia Tech Massacre until late in the afternoon Monday when a student mentioned it in class. Students are great at making sure professors stay in touch with reality. This student was pretty shaken up. A number of her friends are students at Virginia Tech, and she had been unable to contact them. I presented the day's material rather quickly; then we discussed school violence and had a moment of silence. I dismissed early.
Today, a colleague who had attended Virginia Tech told me a little more about the institution. It's very large, but it's really the major enterprise in Blacksburg, Virginia. He said it was unbelievable this something like that could happen anyplace so peaceful and rural.
To lead a satisfactory life, we have to go around expecting the world to be consistent and safe. I don't expect to be struck by lightning tomorrow; nor do I worry much about terrorists or earthquakes. I don't think too much about burglars, though I lock my doors. When I did social work in New York, I took reasonable precautions, but I did many home visits in unsafe places. I encourage my children-- all of whom live in large cities-- to be aware of danger, but to get on with their lives. That's what we do until we're confronted with something like this. The world, after all, is not safe.
Here in Johnson City, the people with ties to Virginia Tech are having the worst time with what occurred. For them, the danger and uncertainty have come very close to home. I understand how they feel. All Americans were stunned by 911. But for native New Yorkers like me, 911 was different again. Many times, I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with my father. Pictures like the one below are not just horrifying; I find them surreal. And yet, I go on with life, expecting to be safe.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

For witch it stands

At our visit to the Oak Hill School, I learned that the American Pledge of Allegiance was not written at the same time as our Constitution. It is not very old; it was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister. Then President Benjamin Harrison liked it and suggested all American school kids recite it. In those days, it read:

I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Some people viewed the pledge as a post-Civil War reminder that the US was a single nation which could not be divided. In 1924, additional words were added, possibly out of a concern that immigrant children be aware which flag they were pledging to:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America...

My father, the son of immigrants, was born in 1910 and remembered that change. He once told me he thought it was silly. "Did they really think I'd say 'Republic of Latvia' under my breath?"

I remember when we became "one nation under God indivisible." This was in 1954, the height of the Cold War. These words were intended to remind us that unlike Russian Communists, Americans were a Godly people. This addition continues to be controversial. I doubt that a child otherwise unexposed to religion could acquire it from the Pledge of Allegiance; but adults can be passionate on either side of this issue.

When I was a small child, I thought the Pledge of Allegiance was great fun. In my first grade class, we had a morning color guard with three little flags the teacher kept in the closet. I thought Pledgallegiance was a game you played with these flags, and I believed "for which it stands" referred my first grade teacher, Mrs. Esterson. She was unpopular and we said she was a "witch." During the pledge, she was always standing.

What does tomorrow mean? It is 5:30 pm here, but at home it’s 5:00 in the morning. I leave Weihai tomorrow and make a stop in Beijing. ...