Thanksgiving Reckonings

November 22nd, 2017  |   

Walking through the Charleston Mall recently, weeks away from Thanksgiving and Christmas, I had one of those thoughts I knew, even then, I’d have to rethink. A reckoning day would surely come.

I wish Thanksgiving and Christmas would just go away. That’s what crossed my mind.

Monday was my reckoning day. It came while drinking coffee with a friend. Our conversation made me come to grips with that Mall-moment. Asking him what he would be doing for Thanksgiving, he beamed. “I’ll be driving to Pittsburgh to spend the holiday with my family.” He effervesced, telling me about how much it had always meant for him to be at the Thanksgiving table with his family.

You cannot have done church work for as long as I have without recognizing that Thanksgiving, and Christmas as well, are difficult times for a number of people, for a variety of reasons. So, in the face of whatever grief or complaint lies behind the thought of wishing Thanksgiving away, it’s understandable. I get it when I hear someone say these particular holidays are the unpleasant times when cultural, religious, patriotic, and familial expectations are foisted upon her or him.

Some 60 million people have taken to the highways and flight paths for Thanksgiving. Why? Is there some lemming-like factor at work that causes folks to leap into traffic, and a gigantic sea of heart-clogging food? Like, you know, too much isn’t enough? Or could it be a deep existential longing to be gathered with people, to belong, eating at a table with others? To just plain not be so alone?

Today a friend told me that over 60 million people are polled as being unhappy with Thanksgiving. What is it that troubles them? The excessive commercialization? Could it be some annoying presence at the gathering, after a hectic, tiring journey? A wacky uncle; a family member who voted for Trump; a slobbering drunk; a couple who argue with one another at the table; a person who uses the occasion to argue that boys should go to the men’s room and girls go to the their own room to pee; a relative who brings a huge, slobbering dog to the table? It might be even more serious, like having to be around the table with someone who has been the cause of past abuse and pain. 

We certainly have the right to choose our dinner partners. We can gather with “like-minded” folks, “kindred spirits,” and enjoy a warm comradery. We can shun the superfluous indulgence that invites a gluttonous appetite. We can dine with vegetarians, vegans, or eat Tofurky with folks who wish that our president would pardon all turkeys, not just one. Or we can just eat alone.

Wherever we spend Thanksgiving, I do believe we are challenged to offer thanks. Genuine gratitude will come, as it so often does, not only in the happiest times, but also as strange as it may seem, in the rough-and-tumble realities that confront each one of us personally and in the larger world in which we live.

So, dear friends, eat well and be ready to entertain a grateful heart, finding a feast wherever you spend Thanksgiving Day.

Add comment November 22nd, 2017

A Vacuum Cleaner & Vietnam

September 20th, 2017  |   

I was awake earlier than usual. An Electrolux vacuum cleaner came to mind. With hurricanes pounded people’s lives to smithereens, talk of a nuclear war, and opioid addiction plaguing people, I’m thinking about a vacuum cleaner? What’s that all about?

I think it is directly related to the PBS Ken Burns Vietnam War episode I had watched before going to bed. It catapulted me back to the 1950s, June 1958, to be exact.

In just three weeks, Judy and I had graduated from college, were married, and moved into a tiny house located just off the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia. Our first purchase, on credit, was an Electrolux vacuum cleaner. Each month, we clipped a coupon from a payment book, and mailed it with a $10 check, until it became our property.

I was sworn into the Marine Corps right after graduation, on the Washington & Lee campus, in Lee Chapel. A Marine officer, in his Dress Blue uniform, stood in front of me and administered the oath. Just behind him was the marble “Recumbent Statue” of General Lee asleep on the battlefield. Often seen as his grave, he is actually buried directly beneath it, in the crypt.  

Fifty-nine years later, our nation is struggling with the statues and memorials that honor Robert E. Lee. The recent violence that erupted in Charlottesville, over the decision to remove a Lee statue from a park, has become one of many focal points for intense reflection about America’s original sin, racism. Washington & Lee has created a commission to address the issues surrounding its very name and time-honored, dated historical traditions. Just off campus, Robert E. Lee Episcopal Church has just changed its name to Grace Church. Washington Cathedral has removed a window honoring Lee.

I live on Lee Street. Perhaps the city council should change the name. Frankly, it’s not my fight right now. I am focused on the attempts in Congress to obliterate health care for so many people. Of equal concern to me is the announcement by President Trump at the UN that Congress is well on the way to appropriating 700 billion dollars for our military budget. Those dollars smell like more unending war.

All commitments, all vows taken, discover their validity, their authenticity, as we live into them. I found that to be true for my marriage, as well as the oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.”

Long before the Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary, and now reinforced again by it, I am compelled to say that I was sold a bad bill of goods about the war in Southeast Asia, where I served as a platoon commander in a reinforced infantry battalion, in the first phase of what we now call the Vietnam War. You want “fake news,” it existed in the lies we were told about Vietnam and the war, as it progressed.

As for the subject of racism, our war against the people of Southeast Asia was clearly a racist war, perpetrated out of a long history of racist wars our country has waged, all the way back to dozens of Native American wars. Korea can be added to that list, as well as numerous wars fought in Central America.

In a West Virginia Public Broadcasting edition of the Vietnam War, five native participants give testimony. A friend, and comrade in peace, who lost both legs in Vietnam, and who has assisted people with their prosthetic devices, in war-torn nations, speaks truth about Vietnam when he says, “Should we have been there in the first place? Hell no.” Dave has held a similar view about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I suspect he would warn all of us, right now, about the craziness of going to war in North Korea. Take a couple of minutes to listen to Dave Evans, and prepare to resist more war.


Add comment September 20th, 2017

When The Klan Came To Town

August 14th, 2017  |   

When the Ku Klux Klan showed up in Charleston, I wasn’t at home. 

It was 1975 and Kanawha County was in the midst of what came to be called, the Kanawha County Textbook War. Thousands of language arts textbooks had been taken out of the schools, people had been threatened, school buses shot at, schools bombed, and board of education members attacked.

I was in Martinsburg visiting friends and got a call from Judy. She was disturbed. Threatening phone calls had come to the house. They were precipitated by the arrival of the Klan. The Kleagle from Ohio was coming to Charleston, and the callers wanted me to come to a rally on the steps of he Capitol. 

It didn’t take me long to get into my car and head for home. That encounter resulted in ugly phone calls, and the arrest of a man who threatened me with the same fate of the three civil rights workers who had been murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

The books were removed from the schools because they were the first K-12 multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial textbooks adopted in West Virginia. A sign on a viaduct read, “GET THE N- - - - - BOOKS OUT.

My role in all of this was twofold. I was disturbed by the fact that my children’s books were taken from them, a real no-no for me, given my love for books. On top of that, students and community folks asked me to help take a lead in getting the books back in the classrooms. 

Watching the Klan, and what is being called the Alt-Right, engaged in violence this past weekend in Charlottesville transported me back to those days in Kanawha County. That period of history, the early half of the 1970s not only resembles the situation now, it was that period when the political and religious right were gearing up for the eventually appearance of Ronald Reagan, and now Donald Trump.

Judy accompanied me through many struggles, but the Klan encounter cut through her like a knife. A few years later, both of us went to Atlanta to look at a job possibility. When we got off the plane, I picked up a copy of The Atlanta Constitution. On the front page was an article about a local Klan appearance. I saw Judy’s reaction as she remembered the Klan’s visit to Charleston. She was pleased to come back home to West Virginia, but neither one of us had any illusion that racism would not ever raise its ugly head again. Racism is America’s original sin, always in need of being exorcised.

One last note: Tomorrow morning at 5:45, I will climb onto a garbage truck here in Charleston and go to work in the East End, my neighborhood. It’s my community service for having done civil disobedience in WV Senator Capito’s office. The issue was her vacillation and eventual disappointing vote to do away with the Affordable Care Act.

I rode the truck 10 years ago when the then Rep. Capito gave initial and continuing support for the Iraq war. If asked why I am riding the truck again, I will say that I like working with these marvelous folks who do this important job. For me it will be indicative of the huge piece of work necessary to clean up Washington, and the WV Legislature (also in the East End). So, I will start on the ground where I live.

Add comment August 14th, 2017

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Nations will hammer swords into plows, their spears into sickles, there shall be no more training for war. Each person will sit under his or her fig tree in peace.
Micah 4:3 - 4