This April’s volunteer focus complements ourCore Virtues themes for the month: humility, graciousness and courtesy, and even forgiveness. Pastor Rick Warren once described the virtue of humility as “not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. Humility is thinking more of others.” That’s what voluntarism is all about. Most of us have an innate understanding that “no man is an island” and we are part of something larger than ourselves. We have a choice to be part of that and to serve others.
One of the most poignant volunteer initiatives underway, “Children of Vietnam,” dovetails with themes of forgiveness and humility. Through this organization many veterans of the Vietnam War (and others) have returned to Vietnam to assist their former enemy -- needy families in the Central Highlands who now benefit from their initiatives building kindergartens, giving food assistance, and providing medical help for kids. Some work with children suffering from the effects of chemical Agent Orange, which was dropped during the war to despoil the jungle. "I have the feeling that we need to restore some things," said Captain Larry Vetter, who served in the war. "The United States government refuses to do that, so I'm here to do my part." They stay for weeks or months and some for years. It is not just a path of service but one of healing for many, bringing closure to a time when the two peoples were enemies, and lending credence to the old adage that “in giving, we receive.”
So this month, we salute the millions of volunteers nationwide and worldwide who do more than just your part. Three cheers for the volunteers.
Mary Beth Klee
When well done, this initiative creates empathy and a much-needed sense of human solidarity. From an early age, children come to value the experiences of those who have grown up in circumstances they cannot imagine. It is wise and good for children to know the stories of Dave the Potter, a South Carolina poet, potter, and slave, who left a legacy of beauty, or of Belle Baumfree who became “Sojourner Truth” or Booker T. Washington, whose admonition to “cast down your bucket where you are” gave hope and a game plan to generations of African Americans. It is uplifting to know the story of Elizabeth Jennings, the free black girl who in 1854 was denied a ride on a NYC streetcar, sued the streetcar company, and won, nearly 100 years before Rosa Parks. It is important to know the stories of Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first woman doctor, who opened a hospital for the poor and orphaned in New York City, Jane Addams, whose work founding Hull House in Chicago aided tens of thousands of immigrants, or Wangari Maathai, whose work to preserve Kenya’s green belt saved her homeland from deforestation. We could go on and on, and on the Core Virtues site, we indeed DO. See our tabs for Black History Month and Women’s History Month and Labor history in Labor Day and every other virtue month.
And more tabs are on the way. In 2019, Congress designated June as “Immigrant Heritage Month” and November as “Native American Heritage Month” (both proclamations signed by Donald Trump.) That’ll mean more stories for us. In Immigrant History month, we’ll get to feature Andrew Carnegie, Mother Jones, Samuel Gompers, Jacob Riis, Cesar Chavez and Madeleine Albright. In Native American History, stories of Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, as well as many beautiful works of fiction inspired by truth.
Is all this diversity celebration a bad thing? Only to the extent that we start celebrating one at the expense of the other, emphasizing victimhood, and losing sight of the main lines of American History – which has been a beacon of liberty and opportunity. The United States is a creedal nation. In 1776-- a time when nearly three-quarters of the world’s population lived under some sort of forced servitude (slavery, serfdom, indentured servitude, concubinage) --the United States was born of the conviction that “all men are created equal.” That was an extraordinary historical achievement, a first in human history.
Was the execution of that radical idea flawed from the beginning? Yes – the glaring contradiction of slavery existed for nearly a century after the founding and trapped nearly 14% of our population in bondage. And women did not at the time have the right to vote and if married, could not own property. We could continue to list ways in which various members of our citizenry did not quite have equity in 1776 or 1861 or 1920 or 2020. But the radical idea of rights and liberties embedded in our founding documents and in our law has provided fertile soil for ongoing reform and progress. And THAT has been part and parcel of the American experience from the outset. No other nation reforms and reinvents itself as frequently as the United States, and does so in the spirit of liberty and equality.
The danger of our new obsession with diversity is celebrating difference as “essence.” Compassion for one ought not to imply contempt of another. Diversity ought not to be a synonym for division. We need to know our past and learn from it – its dramatic accomplishments as well as its missteps. We share citizenship in this "liberty and justice for all" republic, and it is worth remembering that we have those very ideals as common ground. Maybe we need compassion for ourselves, our past, and the immensity of the social and political tasks we have undertaken.
Mary Beth Klee
One thinks of Jacob Riis, Danish immigrant turned photographer, who trained his camera lens on squalid tenement house life New York City, and moved the conscience of a generation. One thinks of Jane Addams, who was born to privilege in Chicago, but used her family wealth to establish settlement houses to assist impoverished immigrant communities. Or Ida Tarbell, who fearlessly exposed the corrupt business practices of Standard Oil and broke the back of monopoly. Or Upton Sinclair who shone a light on nauseating meatpacking processes and worked for pure food supply. Or Ida B. Wells, who drew national attention to the evil of lynching and changed minds and hearts. These “muckrakers” as they were known at the time, were all real people, warriors for justice, whose life and work ensured movement toward a more just society.
Does the arc bend on its own? No. Justice doesn’t just happen. History provides ample evidence of that. Would Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany ultimately have bent the arc toward justice? Would Stalin and his secret police? Would Pol Pot? No. Their ideas, their regimes, their actions, and the sheer might of their enforcement apparatus would not have allowed it. We can always count on human nature, with its unquenchable striving for freedom to rise up occasionally in defense of human dignity and lend force to the ongoing quest for justice. But only the presence of good law and real warriors for justice can ensure that the arc will bend. America has had both. And continues to be blessed.
Mary Beth Klee
Our Harry Truman-inspired courage blog this month (below) was written before an angry mob stormed the Capitol on January 6. We stand by the column's sentiments, but the moment requires something more. The founder of the Republican party, Abraham Lincoln, launched his political career with a speech denouncing “the mobocratic spirit” too evident in parts of the country. He contended that should it happen, American demise would not come from across the Atlantic (recall the War of 1812 when the British stormed the Capitol), but from free Americans themselves, who chose to take the law into their own hands. He called on Americans to have the courage to stand by our laws and institutions, and change bad laws rather than take the law into their own hands. Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum address (somewhat shortened here) bears re-reading.
Harry Truman, president of the United States at the close of World War II, said “America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.” We associate Truman with ending WWII, employing the atomic bomb against Japan. But his inspirational quotation applies to the bravery and sacrifice of conscientious objector Desmond Doss, to whom Truman awarded the Medal of Honor.
During World War II, Doss (despite being granted a deferment) enlisted in the Army and served as a combat medic in the Pacific. A Seventh Day Adventist, he refused to carry a gun or kill the enemy, and endured the scorn of fellow soldiers, who saw him as a coward. But he earned two Bronze medals for heroism in Guam and the Philippines (caring for the wounded in combat). And Harry Truman awarded him the Medal of Honor for his remarkable bravery in Okinawa.
There, Doss’s unit, stationed on a cliff, came under attack by the Japanese, who cut down nearly every man. Under constant fire, Doss rigged a stretcher with ropes and a pulley to lower each wounded man to safety—one at a time, over and over. Lord, help me save one more. Truman estimated the number of fellow soldiers Desmond saved at seventy-five men, though Doss said probably fifty. The Medal of Honor is the military’s highest award, and Doss is the only conscientious objector (he described himself as “conscientious cooperator”) to have won it. Memorialized by Mel Gibson in the 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge, the courageous actions of Desmond Doss make our daily battle against an invisible foe seem just a bit more manageable. As Rosie the Riveter would remind us, “We can do it!”
Mary Beth Klee
One of history’s greatest teachers, whose birth we celebrate this month, would agree. Jesus of Nazareth’s teaching attracted thousands of followers, and he was so “moved with pity for the crowd” that he refused to disburse them on empty stomachs. “Give them something to eat” was his command to his disciples, and, according to the gospels, five loaves and two fishes became sustenance for the five thousand (with baskets leftover). That example inspired Salvation Army founders, William and Catherine Booth, and American settlement house founder, Jane Addams, and “Houses of Hospitality” founder Dorothy Day to each launch initiatives to feed the hungry. Thousands of non-profits continue that work worldwide.
If you are in a position to assist, we urge your generosity to today’s champions against hunger. The following two organizations are four-star charities, working tirelessly to feed the hungry in our nation and abroad. But don’t forget your local food banks and shelters.
Feeding America at https://www.feedingamerica.org/
Action Against Hunger https://www.actionagainsthunger.org
Be a light in the darkness: “Give them something to eat.”
Mary Beth Klee
Albert Bierstadt’s family had emigrated to the United States from war-torn Prussia in
the 1830s, settling in the seaside village of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Young Albert’s
imagination and heart, however, were always drawn to the hills. Venturing first into New
Hampshire’s “prodigious hilltops,” he hiked the White Mountains, scaling Mount Washington in 1852 (at age 21), and returning various times to Franconia before the Civil War. Albert’s love of light and mountains led him to the Hudson River, and “the mighty mountains of New York,” where he painted alongside a second generation of Hudson River School artists. He took time to return to Europe and study in the Swiss Alps, but as early as 1859 he joined an expedition to “the snow-capped Rockies” with government surveyor Frederick Lander, and thus began a life-long love affair with the American west. He described the Rockies as “the best material for the artist in the world.”
Bierstadt painted big: epic landscapes that inspired awe. His Rocky Mountain Landscape, Lander’s Peak wowed Americans and Europeans alike. In 1863, the thirty-year-old Bierstadt sold the six foot by ten foot canvas for $25,000, the equivalent of $400,000 today, a staggering sum for a young artist. And he was just beginning. The same year that he finished “Lander’s Peak,” he went west with a friend to visit California’s Yosemite in “the curvaceous slopes of California, ” the Sierra Nevada range. He forever memorialized its grandeur in luminous renderings of the Valley of Yosemite; these stunned and enraptured viewers.
It is possible to criticize Bierstadt for idealization of the Sierras. But some of the region’s
earliest explorers, such as John Muir, shared his sense of these mountains as a nearly religious experience, a “Range of Light,” in which “the whole body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all one’s flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure-glow not explainable.” “These blessed mountains,” Muir wrote, “are so compactly filled with God’s beauty, no petty personal hope or experience has room to be.” The mountains were an experience of promise and awe after a time of horror.
For the next forty years, Bierstadt, the gifted immigrant from Germany and child of New
England shores, found his subject in the grandeur of the American west. He painted the Grand
Canyon and the Wyoming range. His first journey west of the Mississippi had taken place in
1859, when buffalo herds were in the millions. By the 1880s, the animals were nearly extinct.
His “Last of the Buffalo” (1888) called attention to the loss. At the time the painting was
criticized for “marring” a perfectly good landscape with close-ups of “savages,” that is Native
Americans hunting. But Bierstadt was committed to capturing the whole of the American
experience – landscape, bison, and native peoples -- with dignity, precision, and concern for the future.
A New Yorker (by this time) and an advocate for wildlife preservation, Albert Bierstadt became a close friend of not-yet-president Theodore Roosevelt, who in the 1880s embarked on his own love affair with the west in the Black Hills. Back in New York, Bierstadt and Roosevelt worked for legislation to prevent poaching of the bison in Yellowstone (established as a national park in 1872). TR’s imagination was fired by Bierstadt’s paintings of Yosemite, and as President, he embarked on a camping expedition with naturalist John Muir that resulted in preserving Yosemite as a national park as well. National park legislation has been one of the great acts of stewardship undertaken by the American people, and the paintings of Albert Bierstadt heightened awareness of these unique wonders.
This month, as we vote (and work to overcome rancor), we should remember that we've been through worse times. Let's call student attention to the virtues of gratitude, wonder, and stewardship. Bierstadt's work sprang from gratitude and wonder, and inspired better stewardship. Here's to mountain majesties, and let freedom ring!
“When angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.”
Wilson’s inauguration would not take place until March. The hundreds of women who
appeared at the White House that January were serving notice that they expected better of him in a second term. Theirs were the first organized protests to take place in front of the White House gates. From Monday to Saturday, the women stood silently from 10 AM to 6 PM to the increasing annoyance of the president and ire of the opposition. The Silent Sentinel vigil would last two years and involve more than 2000 suffragists.
One might think that citizen passersby would be struck by the quiet resolve of the
protesters, who walked to and stood outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue regardless of the
weather. Many men and women praised them. And some even delivered hot drinks to sustain
them and warm bricks to stand on. But others jeered, spat, and tried to provoke them.
How dare suffragists use these “circus stunts” to embarrass President Wilson! Such
demonstrations invited danger. They were a “menace to the life of the president and silent
invitation to the assassin,” raged one opponent. “Silent, silly and offensive,” pronounced the New York Times. When foreign leaders arrived at the White House, the first thing they saw were hundreds of silent women, asserting with their placards that “AMERICA IS NOT A
DEMOCRACY. TWENTY MILLION WOMEN ARE DENIED THE RIGHT TO VOTE.” Did
these women not realize how blessed they were to live in this land?
In April of 1917 the United States entered World War I on the side of the Allies to defeat
German Kaiser Wilhelm’s forces and in Wilson’s words “make the world for democracy.”
Surely now that the nation was at war, the women would cease their protests and unite behind the Commander in Chief. But they remained. In silent vigil. With signs now proclaiming
“KAISER WILSON…20,000,000 AMERICAN WOMEN ARE NOT SELF-GOVERNED.”
Public tempers flared and enraged bystanders now descended on the women. Throwing rotten
fruit, shoving them, tearing the signs away from them, ripping banners to shreds and shouting. How dare they publicly embarrass the President? And why weren’t they doing their part for the war effort?
Police descended to break up the scuffle and no arrests were made in these early Spring
protests, but the public sided with the male antagonists. If those had been male protestors, many in the press argued, they would have been carted off to jail for provoking a riot. After that police resolved to arrest. But still the women continued their silent daily walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House gates, each day with new signs to replace those torn by the mob.
Between late June and December the Silent Sentinels were frequently arrested, often on
trumped up charges. For example, blocking traffic because of the inflammatory (traffic-stopping) sign quoting Wilson’s second inaugural: WE SHALL FIGHT FOR THE THINGS WHICH WE HAVE ALWAYS CARRIED NEAREST TO OUR HEARTS – FOR DEMOCRACY, FOR THE RIGHT OF THOSE WHO SUBMIT TO AUTHORITY TO HAVE A VOICE IN THE GOVERNMENT or Alice Paul, also quoting Wilson: THE TIME HAS COME TO CONQUER OR SUBMIT, FOR US THERE CAN BE BUT ONE CHOICE. WE HAVE MADE IT.”
Carted off to jail in silence and good order, the women often met with sympathetic judges who offered them a modest fine instead of jail time. They chose jail. And for this they were at times brutalized. Alice Paul was sentenced to solitary confinement and bread and water. When she and other female prisoners went on a hunger strike, they were force-fed as doctors shoved tubes down their throats and pumped in raw eggs diluted with milk. On the “Night of Terror” (November 14, 1917) at one facility authorities gave guards permission to break the prisoners. Lucy Burns was beaten and chained to her cell bars with her hands above her head overnight. Dorothy Day was slammed repeatedly against an iron bench. Dora Lewis had her head smashed against an iron bed. (All survived.) When their mistreatment was discovered and authorities prosecuted (for cruel and unusual punishment) the women were all released and public outcry was strong. In December President Wilson decided to support the nineteenth amendment.
And throughout the ordeal, at the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, hundreds of women stood in silent protest. What does it take to remain silent and not return jeers in the face of scorn, abuse, and injustice? What does it take to not return anger with anger? Jesus knew. Ghandi knew. Martin Luther King Jr. knew. But before Ghandi and before Martin Luther King Jr. and very much inspired by Jesus, the Silent Sentinels knew. The answer is self-control.
In the United States, we should have a leg-up on the issue of respect and human dignity because our founding documents proclaim equality for all. All – not some. The American journey has been one long pilgrimage toward the realization of that ideal: for African Americans, for women, for the marginalized. We strive not just for equality, but for “a little respect,” as Aretha would say. Respect is the antidote for many troublesome “–isms” that plague us: the evils of racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, age-ism. Americans have often celebrated their nation’s “tolerance.” But respect takes us one step further on the moral and
civic journey. Not simply “putting up with,” but honoring the other’s dignity -- in our words, in our actions, and in our hearts.
Every day teachers face the challenge of how to cultivate respect in their
classrooms. They do it by modeling, of course. And in the Core Virtues program, by regular reading of the inspiring and often funny stories we recommend. Literature sets a positive tone, and does some heavy lifting, helping children fall in love with the good, but quality follow-through is necessary too. Some teachers have a jar on their desk, and give students a chance each day to jot down one observation of a fellow student being, for example, respectful of another. These are read-out at week’s end in mutual recognition of student efforts. On the playground and in the classroom teachers themselves “can catch students being good.” Respect is real when Antonio helps Margaret in a wheelchair get through the door, or Sofia listens patiently to a long story by a child with a stutter. Teachers can celebrate these moments and build up our students.
But quality teaching involves correction as well as pats on the back. Bullying or hurtful and divisive name-calling are the most common transgressions against respect in schools, and the Core Virtues approach is an inspiration to do better and a powerful language of rebuttal. (“Do you think you were acting respectfully when you called Zack a doofus?”) On the playground, teachers may also encounter instances of “dehumanizing play” -- play that mimics ugly aspects of human behavior and models contempt. Children, especially in substantive academic programs like the Core Knowledge Sequence, will be introduced to many dimensions of human history. They will learn about great accomplishments, but they will also learn about forced labor to build the Great Wall, Roman gladiator contests, Viking pillaging, Aztec human sacrifice, and race-based slavery in the United States. These are all fodder for young imaginations.
Over the course of two decades, here are some things I’ve witnessed: children on the playground mimicking Aztec human sacrifice by gathering insects, pinning them to a stone, and pulling the bugs apart. Kids re-enacting Roman gladiator contests by giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the “life” of one scared kid in the ring. Third graders who pillaged and looted, pulling posters off the walls in the halls to mimic the Vikings. And a recess instance of “masters and slaves," in which second graders divided themselves into those groups, and started to order each other around with pretend whips.
Teachers should close with a mini "history of human rights," which is this: we human beings haven’t been and still aren’t perfect, but we learn from our past and we must keep growing. Review with your class the history of human rights. Here it is in a nutshell:
You are studying the past, and learning about ways human beings in other times and places behaved. Sometimes well, but sometimes in ways that were cruel and disrespectful. Think about the evil of slavery, which used to be common, but is now illegal. It was horrible. There are many other examples. We are not proud of everything we humans did. We’ve been figuring out over time how to build a better world and become better people, and respect each other more. We don’t always succeed. But what does the American Declaration of Independence say? That ALL are created equal. Every single one of us deserves respect. Respect means treating each other with high regard, and our world with care. When you play, it’s OK to run, to compete, and to pretend all sorts of things, but play should be fun for everyone involved. If it's not, ask yourself if you’re showing respect.
Mary Beth Klee (who invites you to click above and watch the Queen of Soul in action.)
Have you been to Nebraska in the late nineteenth century and met its German, Czech and Yankee settlers? Willa Cather’s My Antonia, paints the exquisite beauty and loneliness of the landscape, the power of its changing seasons, and the captivating resilience of Great Plains settlers who forged a life there. Have you wondered if you’d be tough enough to leave your warring homeland and begin somewhere else? Read Isabel Allende’s new triumph A Long Petal of the Sea, which chronicles a family fleeing Spain’s Civil War (1939) and making new lives in Chile. Are you curious about the Belgian Congo in the 1950s? (Aren’t we all?) Read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and when you finish, you may weep that this fine book had to end. Are you seeking a first-hand account of justice gone wrong and forgiveness extended? Read Anthony Hinton’s spellbinding The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row -- an eye-popping account of an innocent black man sentenced to death in Alabama, who endured thirty years in prison before lady-justice removed her blindfold.
If you just want some place new to go, and a fresh, funny take on it, try any of Bill Bryson’s travel books: I’m a Stranger Here Myself (Hanover NH), In a Sunburned Country (Australia) or A Walk in the Woods (Appalachian Trail). And, last of all, if you long for Christmas in July, don’t miss Gretchen Anthony’s hysterically funny and touching Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners, in which Violet Baumgartner, type-A matriarch from a distinguished family, channels her family’s (mis)adventures through the annual holiday letter. You’ll end up loving her.
This summer, when so much of the news is dark and heavy and worrisome, take time to recharge and restore. Get above it. Read novels. Read poetry and more. And let Langston Hughes be your guide:
So since I’m still here livin’
I guess I will live on.
I could’ve died for love --
But for livin’ I was born.
Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry –
I’ll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.
Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!
P.S. Telling Our Stories is written for our adult readers, but if you’re looking for great reading for your kids, just peruse any of our month-related tabs and/or our chapter book section. See you in September….
Mary Beth Klee
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.