Hoping to find a Blue Bird of Happiness this spring? Try looking for a Prothonotary Warbler!

Photo by Melissa McMasters, used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

Along the swampy trails of the Congaree National Park, I first saw a bird with yellow feathers so bright that photographs fail to capture their true brilliance. That’s because the yellow reflects light, creating an aura that has thrilled birdwatchers for centuries.

This was my first encounter with a Prothonotary Warbler. It’s fair to say that that sighting was a near-religious experience, and it set me off on a life of watching birds.

Birdwatchers aren’t generally attuned to the mystical. They are intensely attentive to detail. Review the birdwatching guides produced by Audubon, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Petersons—three of the more commonly used by amateurs and professionals alike—and you’ll see just how much detail. They describe intricacies of each bird’s song, their coloring, their flight patterns, where they tend to spend time. They provide detailed migration and breeding maps, so you know roughly when and where to find them. And you’ll find exquisitely detailed photographs and paintings of males, females, matures, and immatures.

The details, of course, matter. Ignore them, and you’re likely to overlook a spectacular bird like the Prothonotary Warbler as just another warbler—if you see it at all. But categorization carries a tyranny of its own. An obsession with categorizing color, flight patterns, and song can blind you to obvious questions.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Enter Jennifer Ackerman, who in 2016 dropped a bombshell on the neatly classified world of birding. Her book The Genius of Birds describes the astonishing intellectual capacity of these feathered creatures. Discoveries brought about by people—often working on low budgets—who had the gumption to ask some different questions about the details they observed.

Referencing this research, Ackerman challenges us to see birds as our equals. “…in this book,” she writes, “the birds themselves are the heroes. … My hope is that by the time you finish these pages, the chickadee and the crow, the mockingbird and the sparrow, will look a little different to you. More like the bright fellow sojourners they are.”

In other words—no more watching birds simply to classify our beautiful friends on the wing. Rather, watching birds to try and understand, as well as learn from, our older evolutionary travelers. Doing so requires only that we pay more attention to the world around us.

How Do They Find My Feeder?

The feeders in our front yard are situated under a large Bradford Pear tree. We routinely see Cardinals, a wide range of finches, juncos, chickadees, downy woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers, doves, titmice, crows, and blackbirds. Walk a couple hundred feet down the road, and on a good day you can spot a Coopers Hawk who enjoys keeping the neighborhood free of snakes and mice.

And on warm evenings, you can always hear, and occasionally see, the large barred owl who nests in our neighbor’s pine tree.

And yet, for all that diversity of life, Ackerman made me realize that I never asked the simplest of questions. How do these birds know to find this feeder?

The answer turns out to be far more complex than you probably knew.

The lowly chickadee—an attractive gray and white bird with a distinctive black cap—is so common that most of us walk by as many as a hundred a day and take no notice of them. I see them daily, and for too long just admired them for their attractive plumage. I’ve since learned that this diminutive bird has one of the most sophisticated calls known in the world of animals. The chickadee can alert other chickadees to predators, even letting them know their size and danger. They can call in reinforcements. And they can announce the discovery of a new food source.

And this is just the start.

They’re stunning acrobats. I’ve seen a chickadee literally run circles around a squirrel, causing him to fall off his limb, allowing the bird to recover the seed he sought.

As for storing seeds and finding them later, it seems the chickadee has no rival. They’ve been known to stash seeds across thousands of locations, and recall those locations up to six months later.

Is this intelligence? For years we felt it couldn’t be. Just look at the size of a bird’s brain. It’s simply too small. (And now you know the origin of the pejorative phrase, “bird brain.”) But there is no mistaking the innovations and complex language birds display. As it turns out, we were simply looking in the wrong place.

What we overlooked was brain activity at the level of the neuron. And by this measure, Ackerman says, birds “may be relatively small brained, but they are certainly not small minded.”

Seeing Anew

Birdwatching–and Ackerman’s book–remind us that seeing the remarkable doesn’t require pricey university degrees or trips to far-flung lands. And answers don’t require appeal to some undefinable force like “instinct,” which is often shorthand for: I just don’t have an answer.

You can attract more of life’s mysteries with a 10-dollar bird feeder from Home Depot and some sunflower seeds than you can possibly comprehend in your years here on earth.

The trick is learning to set your assumptions and received information aside, and dare yourself to ask the often obvious questions. For example: Why do Juncos—a diminutive bird seemingly easy prey for predators—spend so much time on the ground when feeding?

Why are owls so loud, but stay largely out of site?

How does a Cardinal survive, even thrive, when snow covers the ground and the temps drop well below freezing?

How can birds tell the difference between thistle seed and sunflower seed simply by flying past?

These are just some of the questions I find myself asking when watching the community of life that surrounds my feeders.

Try it yourself this spring. Just outside your window is a whole flock of fascinating questions about life. Consider the birds of the air—

Why are they here?

How do they live?

How do they survive the life-and-death challenges that come with the ever-changing seasons and looming predators?

What Jennifer Ackerman challenges all of us to do as we peer outside is to question our inherited conventions. There’s a deep and mysterious richness to life, she tells us—even among the birds in your own backyard.

 

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Barbara Brown Taylor’s new ‘Holy Envy’ is a pilgrimage exploring our neighbors’ religious riches

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

At a time when millions of Americans are afraid of their neighbors, Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book invites us to take a pilgrimage through the spiritual wonders in our neighbors’ religious traditions.

Based on her two decades of teaching Religion 101 at Piedmont College in Georgia, Barbara now is sharing some of her best, real-life stories with students. And, what an amazing opportunity it must have been for these young men and women! As they showed up for class, they were treated to a best-selling author and internationally known Christian teacher as their guide, accompanying them as they took their first steps toward discovering the richness of other cultures and faiths. Over the years, her course became quite popular—and students showed up with a wide range of questions and anxieties. They ranged from some who were afraid of what they might find when they set foot in other houses of worship—to those who were eager to go with her on field trips, but were clueless about how to behave.

As readers of her new book, Barbara is inviting us to look over her students’ shoulders in her classes and to join in their on-site visits. What we discover, along with her students, are spiritual wonders that are likely to leave us wanting more. That’s why Barbara calls this latest book, Holy Envy—Finding God in the Faith of Others. These experiences with our neighbors wind up making most of “us” envious of at least some of what “they” have.

For example, non-Jews who experience a fully observant Jewish sabbath will discover rituals, foods, scents, sounds and also relationships around the table that invite participants into a reflective solace. Non-Jews who experience such a sabbath for the first time often walk away saying, “Wow! I wish my family could have one day a week like their sabbath. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

Meeting Buddhist teachers, many visitors want to try meditation—and may be inspired to learn more about Buddhist compassion. Visiting a Hindu temple, visitors’ eyes pop at the bright colors, the huge variety of divine images, the elaborate care of the temple—and sometimes high-spirited chanting and dance-like processions.

In her 222 pages, Barbara weaves together experiences from across all her years of teaching into what feels like a pilgrimage with the author. However, her preferred term is a word that followers of Iona-influenced Celtic teachers, such as John Philip Newell, like to use: “peregrination,” which refers to a wandering exploration of the world.

A TIMELY QUESTION:
HOW DO WE LIVE IN A MULTI-FAITH WORLD?

Barbara Brown Taylor, author of Holy Envy. Photo by E. Lane Gresham, used with permission.

Barbara Brown Taylor, author of Holy Envy. Clicking on this photo takes you to Barbara’s own website. Photo by E. Lane Gresham, used with permission.

In our interview about her book, Barbara explained that she isn’t an author who plans to write a new book every year. Her books emerge in the fullness of time through a discernment process she follows in her own peregrinations.

“I am not an author who always is searching for her next subject,” she said. “The ideas for new books come to me when I keep meeting people who are asking me the same questions. I carefully listen to the people I meet, and I remember when the same question keeps coming up over and over again. So, I begin gathering information and stories in response to those questions. When all that stuff gathers into a big enough ball—then I’m ready to write a new book.”

I asked, “So, in this case, what was the question you kept hearing?”

“The question was: How do I maintain my Christian identity in a multi-faith world?”

I said, “Perhaps that’s where you started this book, but I think a lot of the stories in your book point us toward another timely question: What happens if the Nones take the time to look at the many religious traditions around them, today?” These “Nones” I was mentioning are the nearly 1 in every 4 American adults who now decline to identify any “religious affiliation” when pollsters interview them. When asked by a pollster to name their religious affiliation, they reply: “None.” Naturally, researchers are very curious about this trend, especially since new studies show that many of these Nones actually have vivid spiritual experiences.

I told Barbara: “I know you have a lot of loyal readers who are active church members. But I’ll bet this new book will draw a lot of Nones. It sounds like many of your students were essentially Nones. Looking at it that way, this book feels like an affectionate and welcoming letter to Nones—from an inclusive Christian teacher.”

“I think you’re right,” she replied. “What’s fun about traveling around and talking about a new book is that I hear from all these people who have read my book—and start telling me what they think it’s all about. I did start writing with the idea that this was about ‘maintaining Christian identity in a multi-religious world’—but you’re right, somewhere along the line this became a book about the Nones among us. And I would add to what you’re saying: Even within our own Christian communities, there are a lot of people who are asking most of the same questions the Nones are asking.”

“Yes,” I said. “Even regular churchgoers have lots of questions about their place in the larger spiritual world. Pew Research says millions of us are thinking about these deep questions, every week. So, it’s a timely book in that way, too.”

RELIGIOUS LITERACY
AND CULTURAL COMPETENCE

This curiosity about other cultures and religions is fueled by what Barbara describes as “religious literacy,” the goal of new training programs in a host of professions. Her own students taught her about this trend. The first example was a young woman majoring in nursing, who took her course because it would help her in caring for patients.

Then, over the years, she heard from more students. She writes:

”Business majors are more likely to relate to people across desks than bedpans, but they can benefit from knowing how people of different faiths view borrowing and lending money. Education majors need to know where the major holidays of their students fall on the academic calendar, especially the ones that are not on the Christmas-Passover axis of the public-school system. Sports management majors need to know the same thing, especially since the month-long fast of Ramadan can occur during any season of the year. Dietary laws may also affect the sorts of places athletes can and cannot eat while they are on the road. A criminal justice major once told me that he never expected to learn anything in Religion 101 that would help him to be a better detective. Then he learned about the ways that people of different faiths treat their dead—including murder victims—and why some families might resist allowing an autopsy that would help law enforcement do its job.”

“You could have gone further in that section of the book,” I said. “Many of the Human Resources departments in Fortune 500 companies, as well as lots of nonprofits and agencies involved in community service, now offer training in cultural competence.”

“I like that phrase,” Barbara said. “I do refer to the value of ‘religious literacy’—but using the phrase ‘cultural competence’ broadens the idea. We’re not just trying to reach some acceptable level of literacy—we are trying to broaden the ways we think about and live with our neighbors.”

HOW BIG IS OUR ‘ULTIMATE REALITY’?

In the book, the pragmatic value of “religious literacy” is just the starting point for a deeper, life-changing adventure for some students. As readers continue through Barbara’s book, she tells us that this kind of peregrination winds up challenging some students to question “their own relationship to the divine. Some may call it ‘ultimate reality,’ but their questions will be the same. What is true and what is not? How did they come to believe what they believe? If the bottom drops out, how far will they fall? If there is only one God, why are there so many religions?”

In our interview, I read those lines from page 23 to Barbara, then I said to her: “I think you’ve summarized the sweep of the whole book in that passage. And, I think there’s an irony in this, because some of your students showed up for your classes with initial fears that this course might somehow change their lives. Then, you would reassure them. For example, I chuckled when I read your story about having to reassure students that simply bowing when a Buddhist leader enters the room does not instantly turn them into Buddhists. Bowing is just a polite gesture, you tell them. Clearly, these students were pretty anxious.”

“That’s right,” she said. “When a new class would start, before we actually made our first visit, I always heard from some students who feared that, wherever we went, people were going to evangelize them.”

I said, “Well, given that you were in a smaller college in the South, they were used to that from their own experiences in their churches. Some of their own Christian families and friends were eager to try to grab newcomers. So, that’s what they expected when visiting someone else’s temple, right?”

“Yes, they had the Golden Rule in mind—but they had it backwards—they were expecting others to do unto them what they had done unto others as evangelical Christians. When I started teaching this class, the first students actually were frightened. But, then, over the years, no one ever tried to evangelize anyone on our class visits. Word got around among the students. Later, there was less anxiety.

“A lot of what I write about in the book is the way students came to really look forward to this class. Some of them were eager to explore new ideas and traditions—and that includes the distinctive foods, sounds, music, customs.”

I said, “And I think that’s the irony here. At first, you assure students it won’t change their lives—at least in the way they might fear—but, in fact, it did change a lot of students’ lives. And, now that these stories are in book form, you potentially can help change a lot of other lives.”

‘DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE LIVING WATER—AND THE WELL’

As we came to the close of our interview, I pointed out another kind of gem that readers will uncover in these pages.

“You’ve always been a very quotable writer,” I said to Barbara. “I just checked GoodReads and your fans have collected nearly 200 quotes from your earlier books. I’m sure a whole bunch of new quotes from this book will show up soon. And for church goers? They’re going to find passages from this book quoted in Sunday sermons, bulletins and newsletters.

“So, here are my nominations of a couple of quotes we’ll soon be seeing all over the place,” I said.

First, in the chapter The Smaller Picture, Barbara gives us the equivalent of a TV series recap—the story (told at much greater length in her book, Leaving Church) of how she started her career as an Episcopal priest and then decided to leave parish ministry. In Holy Envy, she writes on page 5:

As a pastor, “it was a good life for a long time. Then it was not. Ask me what happened, and I can offer you a variety of stories that are all true: I was not a skilled leader; I was gone too much; I succumbed to compassion fatigue; I lost my faith in the church. All these years later there is another story that sounds as true as any of those, which goes like this: the same Spirit that called me into the church called me out again, to learn the difference between the living water and the well. As surely as priesthood had given me a sturdy bucket for dipping into that well—and as clearly as I could smell the elemental depths of the divine mystery every time I bent over to draw some of it up—the well was not the water. It was a container and not a source. My Episcopal well, beloved as it was, was no longer enough for me to live on. I was dry as a bone.”

Then, on page 25 in the chapter Religion 101, she vividly describes the ultimate purpose of such teaching, such peregrinations and, now, such memoir writing:

“I want students to know that while every religion has its villains, each also has its saints. In the quiet backwater of my second-floor cinder-block classroom, I want to give their imaginations something better to work with than what they are getting from the movies and the news—some of the treasures in the chests they have never had any reason to open before. I want them to know about Mohandes Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jalal al-Din Rumi, and Abraham Heschel. I want them to know about the desert fathers and mothers, Teresa of Avila, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Desmond Tutu.

“I believe this has become my Christian duty. I believe it is the neighborly thing to do, the Christlike thing to do. Part of my ongoing priesthood is to find the bridges between my faith and the faiths of other people, so that those of us who draw water from wells on different sides of the river can still get together from time to time, making the whole area safer for our children.”

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Care to read more?

VISIT BARBARA BROWN TAYLOR’S OWN WEBSITEYou can learn much more about her work, and you can explore her other books, too.

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Clifford Worthy, ‘The Black Knight’—A True American Hero Is Lifted up in a Hometown Celebration

A GREAT BIG BOOK LAUNCH—This photo shows just the front of the line at Clifford Worthy’s book signing in Detroit. The line kept looping around the rotunda. Worthy, although 90 and still recovering from recent surgery, kept signing books for an hour. As they stood in line, eager readers could not even see Cliff sitting at his table—yet they waited patiently for their chance to meet this real-life hero, purchase his book and have him write his name inside the front coverThese readers were cherishing their chance to play a role in a historic moment.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell set the tone for the book launch at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit on Saturday by reading from the Foreword to Clifford Worthy’s memoir, The Black Knight: An African-American Family’s Journey from West Point—a Life of Duty, Honor and Country.

Just months before his death in February, Debbie’s husband—U.S. Rep. John Dingell—wrote that Foreword as a stirring call to all Americans to reclaim our compassionate community values. Why is such a clarion call needed now? Dingell wrote that our cooperative values are threatened by what he described as the “racism and all the savagery that has been resurfacing in the last couple of years that should have no place in America.”

As Debbie Dingell talked, the men and women who sat in the audience realized that their participation in this book launch was a visible, public act of opposition to racism in America. By coming and taking part, they were part of a historic moment.

BOOKS BUILD COMMUNITYThis launch event held historic significance. Neil Barclay, the president of the Detroit museum, welcomed the crowd by saying that Clifford Worthy, and his new book, both illustrate and amplify the core mission of the museum. “We promote reading. And, we promote reading about our heritage,” Barclay said as he urged the audience to read Cliff’s story—and tell others about it. The museum staff symbolically sealed this ongoing relationship by presenting Cliff and his daughter, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, a crystal trophy marking the importance of their family’s story as a part of African-American history.

Debbie—who now continues the Dingell family’s nearly 90-year record of public service in Washington D.C.—looked out across the crowd in the main theater of the Detroit museum. Her late husband’s appeal in the Foreword of The Black Knight could not have been more timely, she told these men and women.

Why is this book an antidote to racism? Debbie said that, as readers immerse themselves in Clifford Worthy’s life story, they realize that their own families—whatever their race or ethnicity might be—share core American values with the Worthy family.

Debbie read some of her husband’s words:

“This memoir of retired Col. Cliff Worthy may seem like the story of one family, but it really is the story of many American families. Cliff’s story reminds all of us that—at our best as Americans—we are called to help each other build a stronger, healthier community. America’s great strength is that we come together here—we come together in all of our wonderful diversity, reflecting our families’ origins in places around the world.”

This was just one author. This was just one book. Yet, the publishing of that story allowed a wide range of community leaders to come together and freshly call men and women to unity.

‘Passing Along … Hard-Earned Wisdom’

The book launch was a stunning example of how far the principles we keep preaching at ReadTheSpirit magazine (and at our Front Edge Publishing house) can carry an author into the heart of a community with an inspiring message. Speaker after speaker at the event stressed this point: We share the goal of touching other lives with compelling stories, deep truths and fresh ideas that invite readers to cross boundaries they did not expect to cross.

As Cliff Worthy himself put it at the event: “This is not about me wanting to be lionized by all of you. This is about passing along important stories—and hard-earned wisdom that all of us can use in life.”

Care to read more about our principles? You’ll find them listed in the About page of our Front Edge Publishing house.

Calling All Angels

We have a 12-year history as a publishing house (in the pages of ReadTheSpirit online magazine and at Front Edge Publishing house) of describing good books as “a community between two covers.” We say: “Good media builds healthier communities.” And we have become known internationally for our commitment to summoning what we call “Allies & Angels” around new books.

Those principles sprang vividly to life on Saturday.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF MEDIA ALLIES—Cliff Worthy talks with his daughter, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, in a short video about his book produced for American Black Journal through Detroit Public TV. (You can watch the 7-minute video below.)

Months before the event at the museum, Cliff and his close friends had summoned their own allies and angels to help them stage this event. They reached out across the West Point alumni network, their extended family, neighbors and co-workers. They appealed to prominent community leaders who share a similar vision.

Like other successful authors, Cliff and his friends focused especially on contacting media personalities whose involvement in the launch was sure to resonate far beyond that single event.

Inviting Readers to Share in a Historic Moment

One of the most important media allies was Mildred Gaddis, among Detroit’s prominent radio voices. What Mildred Gaddis provided was context from an African-American perspective that built on Debbie Dingell’s opening message.

Cliff’s daughter Kym Worthy introduced the radio personality: “I am blessed to have some great male and female friends. She is a Detroiter through and through. You know her as one of the gleaming, prophetic voices of AM radio—please welcome my good friend Mildred Gaddis.”

Mildred Gaddis’s role was to help the audience understand the significance of Cliff’s story within the 20th-century struggle against racism. In doing so, she helped each man and woman in attendance feel as though they were sharing in this historic moment by attending the launch and reading his book.

She began with a quote from the famous Catholic theologian Cardinal Leo Suenens: “Happy are those who dream dreams and are willing to pay the price to make them come true.”

She paused and then set The Black Knight in the sweeping context of the campaign for civil rights:

“I want you to travel with me for just a couple of minutes. It was the late 1940s. Far-reaching changes and mobilization were occurring across the United States. White culture strove to make non-whites invisible with segregation and discrimination as Southern blacks continued the great migration north; and the federal government brought in Mexican labor via the Bracero program to take up the slack in labor while U.S. troops were overseas. The rise of the civil rights movement was on in America and Brown vs. Board of Education, which was going to strike down segregation and discrimination in schools in 1954, was lurking around the corner. Across the world, in 1948 the national party of the Dutch Afrikaners began the policy of Apartheid.

“And as the story of Col. Worthy reminds us, President Harry Truman ended racial segregation in the U.S. military in 1948. … The Black Knight is the story of a decision to go to West Point from Michigan that would change the course of one man’s life while impacting and creating a phenomenal legacy shaping many lives. The Black Knight is not just Col. Worthy’s memoir, it’s a great American story—a great American story!

“Col. Worthy teaches us: Number one, that God is! Two, that ignorance is a sin. And, three, that the family is the greatest institution on earth. And now you can clap—those are important lessons!”

The crowd eagerly responded.

Gaddis paused and then concluded: “In reading The Black Knight, we learn that—in the words of Muhammad Ali: ‘When the mission is great, the odds don’t matter.’ The Black Knight also reminds us—in the words of Helen Keller: ‘Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet; only through the experiences of trial and suffering is the soul strengthened, ambition inspired and success achieved.’ The Black Knight is of great value not only to those of us who are gathered here today—it’s of great value to the whole world.”

When Media Allies Amplify Each Other

As Cliff Worthy’s family and friends called in every favor with every media professional they could reach, the effect built until those media messages amplified each other.

Months of conversations with Rich Homberg, the head of Detroit Public TV, led to the producers of the nationally broadcast American Black Journal series to produce a seven-minute report on The Black Knight. Not only did that report air in the show’s regular schedule last month—it now continues to stream across public television networks online and YouTube.

As he watched that process unfold, Homberg himself was impressed. He emailed Cliff’s friends and family enthusiastically: “What a great tale! What a great man!”

The centerpiece of the Detroit launch event was a showing of this video on the theater’s big screen. And now, even though most of our readers were not able to visit at the museum on Saturday—you can see that video on the screen below.

You can become part of the story.

Share the Story with Others

The biggest surprise for publishing professionals was the crowd’s response in Detroit. Typically, at author appearances nationwide, a table is set up after the main program for the author to sell and sign books—usually resulting in no more than 10 percent of attendees actually buying a book. Selling a small handful of books is considered a good day for an author.

At the museum—the long and winding line of eager book buyers was stunning.

Also surprising was the news that spread along the waiting line just a few minutes into the signing process: The hardbacks had sold out almost immediately!

“That’s understandable. At an event like this, you want to buy the ‘forever book,’ ” said one woman standing in the line. “It’s more expensive, but I would have bought one. You want to remember a day like this. You want to remember that you were part of a story like this.”

“Well, it’s a good kind of problem to have,” said Walter Oehrlein, a fellow West Point alum and one of the friends who was tireless in helping Cliff Worthy throughout the publication process. Oehrlein had equipped himself with a stack of colorful postcards, showing the book cover on one side—and information about ordering the book online, on the reverse side.

“So far, we’ve still got plenty of the paperback copies,” Walter said as he moved along the line of waiting men and women, greeting each person and offering a card. “I’m passing out as many of these book-cover postcards as I can to the people who really wanted the hardback. They can order one online. And they can take the card home and give it to someone else who will want the book.”

Get your Copy—Become a Part of the Story

The Black Knight is available in that hardcover “forever copy” from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Want a paperback instead? Paperbacks also are available.

Want to share the Cliff Worthy story with friends? Share today’s story with friends via social media or email.

CALLING ALL FAMILY! One key to Cliff Worthy’s far-flung network of allies was his ability to call on the talents of many men and women across his extended family. At the Detroit event, they gathered center stage to demonstrate one of the central values in Cliff’s memoir: the importance of family.

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MSU’s Cultural Guide to Chaldean Americans Answers 100 Timely Questions about One of the World’s Oldest Communities

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

They are among the world’s oldest communities that remain thriving in the 21st Century and proudly maintain their ancient language and traditions. They rank among the least-known and most-misunderstood ethnic groups in the U.S. That dilemma should matter to all Americans in 2019—because many of these families are fighting life-and-death legal battles over whether federal authorities in the U.S. will deport some of their loved ones to war-torn Iraq.

They are the Chaldeans. Millions of Americans have never heard of them. Those who have—mainly men and women who attend weekly Bible studies in their churches—think the term refers simply to an obscure ancient tribe.

The fact is that this ancient people, mentioned many times in the Bible, fostered a vibrant, creative community of descendants, most of whom have proudly and successfully become Americans today.

That revelation—of a vibrant and creative ancient people living among us in the U.S.—is the exciting subject of the latest volume in the Michigan State University School of Journalism “Bias Busters” series, 100 Questions and Answers About Chaldean Americans. (That’s the paperback link to Amazon. The book also is available for Kindle as well as via Barnes & Noble.)

Where Do Chaldeans Come from?

FROM THE “ORIGINS” SECTION OF THE NEW BOOK …

Chaldeans and their predecessors, the Babylonians, made major contributions in writing, science, technology, mathematics and astrology. They devised the time system we use today with its 60-second minutes and 60-minute hours. They also described the circle as having 360 degrees. Their understanding of astronomy and ability to predict movements of heavenly bodies sparked what some have called the first scientific revolution. Across the ancient world, Greeks and Romans used the very name “Chaldean” for the astronomers of Mesopotamia.

Why Are Chaldeans in the News Today?

FROM AN ARTICLE BY ASHOURINA SLIWO IN THE CHALDEAN NEWS

Working with his students, author and Michigan State University journalism professor Joe Grimm has published a number of cultural competence guides about various cultures. His 15th and latest guide puts the spotlight on the Chaldean community. 100 Questions and Answers About Chaldean Americans came on the heels of the raids led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in June of 2017 and the detainment of hundreds of community members. These community members faced deportation.

With these massive raids came many misunderstandings regarding the Chaldean community. It became clear to Grimm that a cultural competence guide about the community was now more important than ever. “With people being detained for possible deportation, we had to act,” explained Grimm. “It is a journalist’s job to report relevant information when it is needed. We saw this guide and these times as our clear obligation to serve the public.”

Frequently Asked Questions about Chaldean Americans

The signature commitment of this team of MSU journalism students and faculty is: “We are answering the questions everyone is asking—but nobody is answering.” That certainly is true of this unique new volume. There simply is no other resource as timely, wide-reaching and so carefully vetted by a blue-ribbon panel of experts. Some of the 100 questions answered in this guide:

  • Who are the Chaldean people? And, how is “Chaldean” pronounced?
  • What religion do Chaldeans practice?
  • Why did Chaldeans leave Iraq?
  • Are Chaldeans an ethnic group or a race? And, are Chaldeans Arabs?
  • What have been Chaldean contributions to learning and knowledge?
  • Who are some well-known Chaldeans in the United States?
  • Is the Chaldean identity in danger of vanishing?

What Are Some Chaldean Food Traditions?

The book describes the unique culinary contributions of Chaldean culture. While many of these foods echo longstanding culinary traditions of the Mediterranean basin, Chaldeans put their own ethnic twists on these foods. Several complete recipes are included in the book.

One favorite recipe in the book is for chicken kabobs, called Kufta ‘d Kathatha.

Another treasured recipe details all of the ingredients to make the Chaldean version of Baharat, the flavorful “all spice” blend that is popular in Greek and Arabic cuisine as well.

How Do I Find Chaldean Leaders Today?

What makes this book so valuable for students, educators, social service providers and anyone involved in community leadership are the resource sections at the end of the volume. The MSU research team details books and articles you can use to learn more about the Chaldean people and their history and culture. Plus, there’s a listing of currently active Chaldean organizations along with Internet links.

 

 

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‘Whence and Whither’—A Rich New Stew of Thomas Lynch’s Writings, Perfect for His Fans

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

REVIEW by DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Here’s an odd way to start a book review, recommending a new title by a favorite author, but please be forewarned: If you’ve never encountered America’s best undertaker-writer, until happening upon this review today, then I have to urge you to meet him somewhere else.

There’s his classic The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. That was his big debut on the international stage. PBS’s Frontline series even aired a remarkable documentary, The Undertaking, which you can find now on DVD from Amazon and perhaps from your local library.

Beyond the “original” book, I also continue to pull off my bookshelf other Lynch favorites. Years ago, in the pages of this online magazine, we highlighted his fascinating 2010 collection, Apparitions & Late Fictions, which came complete with a novella.

I especially enjoy his poetry—and, even more than poetry on the printed page, opportunities to hear Lynch speak and read before an audience. A writer like Lynch is always at his best declaiming his poetry “live.” He also does a remarkable job reading his essays, adding extra texture of vocal inflections accompanied by all of the asides he loves to toss into the presentation.

So, having said that: If you have a taste for this master storyteller, poet and essayist—then by all means get this truly 5-out-of-5-stars collection.

In the volume’s introduction, Lynch makes it perfectly clear that this is a somewhat jumbled collection—bits and pieces of writing in various genres that simply needed a home between two covers in the form of a book. So you need to know that the author is offering that cautionary note himself. But the great treasure in Lynch’s work is discovering the cosmos of connections to which he points. The same thing is true here: He’s serving up a great fireside bowl of treats.

The gem in this collection, of course, is called The Black Glacier—which is his account of riding in the hearse and observing the spectacle of poet Seamus Haney’s funeral. Long-time readers of his work will naturally recall the oft-quoted final portion of his book The Undertaking. That’s where Lynch describes what he hopes for his own funeral, beginning with the words: “I’d rather it be in February. Not that it matters much to me.”

In narrating his friend Seamus’ final passage to the grave, we see something quite different than what Lynch envisioned for himself. Yet, even in that passage, Lynch’s eye and ear find the sacred—or what he describes as “Nothing out of the utterly ordinary, utterly pedestrian, a miracle.” And he simply tacks on those words “a miracle” with a wee comma because that’s how life is in Lynch’s world—the miracles roll right along with everything else. It’s ours to spot them and celebrate—or to ignore them at our peril.

There’s a whole lot in this bowl of mixed treats, but that’s my favorite. And frankly, if you stumbled on this review without knowing much about Thomas Lynch—hey, do yourself a treat and order a couple of his books!

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Henry Brinton’s new cozy mystery City of Peace is a timely tale of fear, fury and faithfulness in historic Occoquan

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

There are many reasons to buy a copy of City of Peace, the new “cozy mystery” by Henry Brinton.

First and foremost—this is simply a good read in an extremely popular genre. “Cozies” are mysteries that resolve a murder case in a small community of vivid characters. That’s in contrast to “procedurals” (think Law & Order or CSI) that focus on officials’ step-by-step work on a case—or “thrillers” (think Hitchcock or Silence of the Lambs) that aim for spine-tingling or gut-wrenching scenes at every turn of the mystery.

And there are lots of other timely reasons to read City of Peace, which Henry promises is just the first novel in a series focused on his new hometown:

  • PLAN YOUR VACATION—You’ll discover the remarkable historic hamlet of Occoquan, Virginia—a spot you’ll want to add to your vacation wish list while touring the fascinating regions surrounding Washington D.C.
  • MEET A MUSLIM—As Henry draws us into the lives of Occoquan families, we meet two distinctively different Arab-American families. And, meeting such neighbors is a vital matter in our troubled world, especially after fresh tragedies in the past week. Regular readers of our online magazine will recall that we kicked off 2019 with an appeal, headlined: Meet a Muslim this year! Well, Henry’s book holds further encouragement to do just that.
  • UNITED METHODIST INCLUSION—Third, the book also is timely because it comes at a moment when the majority of American United Methodists are heartbroken about their church’s international leadership voting to raise tough new bars on diversity. Henry’s troubled-yet-heroic main character is a small-town United Methodist pastor struggling with the challenge of diversity.

FEAR, FURY and FAITHFULNESS

We want to encourage readers to purchase Henry’s book and explore the novel—so we are avoiding spoilers in this Cover Story. However, we can share these basics:

The novel opens with the Rev. Harley Camden, who had been a successful United Methodist pastor of a large church, settling uneasily into a small parish in historic Occoquan. This move certainly was not Harley’s choice. His career as a senior pastor managing a large church staff was cut short by the trauma of losing his wife and daughter to a large-scale terrorist attack in Europe while they were enjoying a mother-daughter vacation. Emotionally devastated by this tragedy—and furious at terrorists who claim to be acting in the name of Islam—Harley leaves his big church and moves to a quiet little backwater to recuperate. The Occoquan River literally is a “backwater,” a tributary of the Potomac and ultimately part of the vast Chesapeake watershed.

Almost immediately, any hope that Harley will be able to work through his trauma vanishes. The daughter in a local Muslim family is murdered. On top of that, fears of violence in the community rise, including tension over a potential terrorist attack in the area.

As readers, we get to know—and to care about—Harley in the opening pages. The suspenseful question is: Will Harley find a balance between fear and fury—and his lifelong faithfulness—as he interacts with the sudden turbulence in his new community?

EXPLORING ‘OUR NEW HOMETOWN’

“My wife and I just fell in love with Occoquan as we were looking for a place to live—so Occoquan became both our new hometown and my muse as a writer. I love this kind of historic river town. I just love to walk through Occoquan and explore all the riches that are here,” Henry Brinton said in an interview this week.

Regular readers of our online magazine will recall Henry’s occasional columns that wrestle with matters of faith and contemporary culture. The biographical paragraph at the end of Henry’s columns explains that he is the pastor of a church in Fairfax, Virginia. His real-life congregation prides itself in being described as “a house of prayer for all people.”

“Those words from Isaiah 56 are on the wall behind the pulpit in our church,” Henry said. “We’ve got about 650 members and we try to live out that scriptural calling by welcoming people of diverse backgrounds. We also use that as a motivating force for our mission work to help others—and for our efforts to build interfaith relationships, as well.”

So, why did Henry move 15 miles away to live in Occoquan? “When my wife and I reached the point that we decided to downsize our home, we looked around the region and settled on a condo next to the Occoquan River. One thing that’s true of these historic communities along the water is that for generations they’ve understood what it means to be vulnerable. Huge forces of nature can roll in sometimes without warning and take their toll. Communities along waterways are literally on the edge of chaos all the time, which makes this a rich environment for mystery stories.”

There’s also a complex history of support for minorities that stretches back to the Civil War, Henry recalled in our interview. “This town is proud of its distinctive history,” said Henry. “In 1860, this was a Republican, pro-Lincoln stronghold even though it’s part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. In the 1860 presidential election, Lincoln received only 55 votes from all of Prince William County in northern Virginia—and all of them were from Occoquan. This was an abolitionist stronghold in Virginia.

“Then, for the past 150 years, this has been a town where a lot of unusual, counter-cultural things kept happening. It’s a great town for me to place my fictional minister, faced with the challenge of trying to build bridges between people.”

TRADITIONS—OLD AND NEW

Henry Brinton outside the town hall where his book will be launched in early April. But, please don’t wait! His book already is available on Amazon. Just click on this photo to learn more.

There’s a long tradition of Christian clergy and rabbis who also are authors. Many have written inspirational memoirs or poetry or short stories. Among famous clergy-novelists are Andrew Greeley (Catholic), Frederick Buechner (Presbyterian), George MacDonald (Congregational), Chaim Potok (Jewish) and Lewis Carroll (Anglican).

The Jewish-Christian tradition is steeped in storytelling, Henry pointed out in our interview. “I’ve been preaching for more than 30 years now, so I’m well aware of the power of narrative in the life of Jesus. The parables—Jesus’s stories—played a central role in his ministry. So, when I wanted to engage a wider audience in the possibilities for reconciliation, today, I realized that a strong narrative was the best way to invite them to stop, spend some time and think about the possibilities with me.”

Henry also knew that cozy mysteries represent one of the most successful niches in American publishing today. If you haven’t discovered it, the online “mother ship” for cozy fans is Cozy-Mystery.com, where Henry hopes to have his new mystery series listed soon.

“So far, people in the community are quite excited,” Henry said. “We’re going to do an official launch in Occoquan in early April—right here in the town hall. Our Mayor Earnie Porta is a historian who has done a book on Occoquan. He’s going to appear with me and talk about the line between fact and historical-fiction in City of Peace.”

While some settings in the novel echo real-life locations in Occoquan, many have been adapted by Henry to ensure that no one mistakes his tale for real-life news. For example, there is no United Methodist congregation in Occoquan. “I made lots of changes like that to make it clear this was a novel,” Henry said. “We don’t really have the American Legion hall that’s in the novel—although we do have the VFW here.”

Henry enthusiastically supports that reassuring line between fact and fiction, he said, chuckling in our interview.

“After all, I don’t anyone to mistake my new hometown—a town I love—for the new murder capital of Virginia,” Henry said. “If that idea catches on, I’m in big trouble!”

Undaunted by any anxieties about possible push back from his fiction, Henry said he’s already working on the sequel to his first novel. “And, just to be sure that I don’t overplay the murder thing, this time the threat Henry and his neighbors face isn’t a murder. It’s more of a threat from—” then Henry paused. “Well, I guess I shouldn’t say any more about that. I don’t want any spoilers to push away readers!”

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Martin Davis: When I hear, ‘Play ball!’ it’s like a prelude welcoming me back to the great cathedrals

Photo of a Dodgers opening day, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and photographer ABrownCoat.

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He looks up at me, and I look down at him. ‘This must be heaven,’ he says. ‘No. It’s Iowa…”
From Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella

By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

I’ve recommended Shoeless Joe—the story of a man, a farm with a baseball field, and J.D. Salinger—to many a person who wants to know more about the hold baseball has on the imaginations of so many people. You may know the book better by the film it spawned, Field of Dreams.

None too few of these folks come back and tell me they hated the book—and the movie. The words they use to describe their feelings about both are easily summarized: “sentimental rubbish.”

I can understand. Hard-nosed fans like myself are prone to deluding ourselves into believing that baseball is more than a game; we can even be fooled into believing it’s an existential window into the human soul.

We’re used to hearing: “Rubbish. It’s a game. No more, no less.”

And yet—as I look for ways to make sense of life that no longer includes an institutional church, baseball helps.

‘A LITURGICAL RHYTHM’

Babe Ruth and Joe Jackson in 1920.

There is a liturgical rhythm to the game. For me, there are no more poetic words in the English language than “Pitchers and catchers report.” The buzz begins in late January, as Spring Training camps prepare to welcome major league teams to their homes away from home in Florida and Arizona. By March, “Play ball!” is shouted in stadiums, and fans like me are tuning in as our favorite announcers dust off their home-run calls and bluster about the promising season ahead.

The thrill of spring baseball quickly gives way to the day-to-day grind of a 162-game season. Fans embrace this in many ways. Some make it their life, immersing themselves in statistics, box scores and chat rooms that can border on obsessive. But for most, as Washington Post sports writer Tom Boswell notes, baseball isn’t so all consuming. “I’ve always felt there was something in the day during the baseball season there wasn’t the rest of the year,” he said on Ken Burns’ epic PBS series Baseball.  “It’s not that you have to listen to the game, it’s that you could listen to it if you needed it.”

By fall, the baseball-loving world is united around the game’s jewels—the play-offs and World Series. As winter settles in, fans have both the highs and lows of the past season to sustain them, as they place it in context with the game’s 150-plus-year history.

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Jackie Robinson and Peewee Reese. No photograph has been found of the actual gesture by Reese, which occurred in front of the crowd that day in 1947. But the two later posed for photos that circled the world.

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‘The Community of Baseball’

The community of baseball is itself a wonder. The sport can temper even hardened souls. Side by side on summer afternoons and evenings sit Republicans and Democrats; scientists and mystics; religious fundamentalists, atheists, and people of faith—united by an interest the game.

Trivial though it sounds, the bleachers at local little league fields and the reserved seats at major league ballparks create a sacred space in which peaceful, honest dialogue can occur. Most of the time, the changes this brings are relatively minor—the economist can honestly hear the plight of the worker, the Christian Fundamentalist can get to know the Muslim imam.

Sometimes, these baseball cathedrals are themselves the catalysts for cultural change. When Pee Wee Reese put his arm on Jackie Robinson’s shoulder in 1947, it cleared the ground for a more honest discussion about race relations.

And when Al Campanis stumbled on Nightline 40 years later, suggesting African-Americans weren’t managers because they weren’t smart enough, baseball again was the catalyst for a national discussion about the glass ceilings African-Americans face.

The game even has its sacred stories—grounded in both truth and myth. Babe Ruth’s called shot in the 1932 Series that may or may not have occurred. The incredible talent of Satchel Paige, whose precise numbers are lost to history. And the whispered prowess of Steve Dalkowski.

No—baseball is not a religion.

But there’s certainly a case to be made that the game has created a heaven right here on Earth. And for lots of people, that’s more than enough most of the time.

Satchel Paige’s 1948 baseball card, when he became the oldest “rookie” in the game by agreeing to play for Cleveland.

 

 

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