Maggie Rowe: Can you imagine … no more ‘in’ group and ‘out group? Only ‘together’!

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

TV writer and author

One day when I was a student at Hoffman elementary school in the suburbs of Chicago, an “in group” and an “out group” arose in Miss Macaulay’s 2nd grade class.

Before this point, we had just been kids; kids on the playground, kids drawing pictures, kids eating paste; but now, as suddenly as a stomach ache can set in from paste ingestion, my second grade class was felled into two distinct groups. The “in group” had nicer clothes, richer parents, blonder hair and were better acquainted with the songs on the top 40 radio station B96. The “out group,” of which I was a member, desperately wanted to be part of this “in group,” but the line was clear.

And I was on the wrong side of it.

My parents told me that when I was older, there would be no “in group” and “out group.” The kids would outgrow it, they said.

But they were wrong. The “in group” and the “out group” lived on. The criteria simply changed. In some of the following grades—in camp one year, a dance troupe in another—I was “in,” but mostly I was “out.”

I thought that at church at least these divisions would not exist. Religion I figured was about coming together. But the “in group” and “out group” were even more fiercely delineated at Trinity Baptist Church than in Miss MacAulay’s class.

We actually sang a song with the following lyrics…
One door, and only one
And yet its sides are two,
Inside and outside,
On which side are you?

Christians were the “in group” and all other religions were the “out group.” This divisiveness and superiority is what eventually drove me away from my childhood faith. Until I realized this attitude was not a fault of Christianity, but an outgrowth of the faulty interpretation of many of its followers.

A Muslim friend of mine named Aleema was instrumental in this discovery. Aleema was a roommate of mine in college and she shared with me her belief that all religions were trying to describe the indescribable and could be measured by their efficacy in promoting kindness and acceptance of all beings. She didn’t like the word “tolerance” because she felt the word implied a stomaching or enduring something. She preferred the word “embrace,” a word that carried with it no sense of resistance or distaste.

To Aleema, I was not someone in the out group she was enduring for the sake of propriety, I was a friend and fellow seeker she could embrace wholeheartedly. The essays in this new book, Friendship & Faith, do more than tolerate other faiths and their practitioners.

They celebrate and embrace friends bound together on a spiritual path.

There is no “in” and no “out.”

Only together.


Maggie Rowe

Care to read more?

Maggie Rowe is a writer for film and TV, including work on the hit series Arrested Development. She also produces the live Comedy Central stage show SitnSpin, Los Angeles’ longest running spoken-word series. And, she is the author of a critically acclaimed memoir Sin Bravely about her struggle to overcome the religious rigidity of her own upbringing. In April 2017, ReadTheSpirit online magazine featured an interview with Maggie about her book and her ongoing work.

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Rabbi Marla Hornsten: Heeding the wisdom, ‘Find for yourself teacher, acquire for yourself a friend’

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

Temple Israel

I was asked to write an opening piece for this newly expanded edition of Friendship & Faith just as Jews were heading into the High Holy Day season. For Jews, this is perhaps the most important time of year and for rabbis, in particular, the most stressful. But when I sat down to read these stories, all anxiety I had about the approaching holidays disappeared, and I couldn’t put the book down.

I suddenly realized that tears were streaming down my face.

I was so moved as I read about these personal experiences of having immigrated to the United States, of moving from place to place, of encountering unfamiliar people, practices and rituals. And, I was struck by what these stories have in common: how each of them found a friend, someone who could simply hold a hand, share a story, or help out from time to time.

I was taken by the story of Ayesha Kahn and her relationship with Libby her 80-year-old neighbor, that began with a courageous knock on the door.

I was struck by how quickly bonds are created when people share a traumatic event even if they are from opposite sides of the world, as in the story by Najah Bazzy.

I was reminded how our own personal experiences have the potential to change other peoples’ lives as Parwin Anwar who, having fled Afghanistan, used that journey to bridge the cultural divide for new immigrants in the United States.

All of the stories in this book remind us of the power of friendship, and that through the relationships that we create, we are far more alike that we might ever have imagined.

Jewish Talmud instructs: “Find for yourself teacher, acquire for yourself a friend.” (Pirke Avot 1:6) It’s an interesting directive. Why are teachers and friends so important that the Talmud would command these types of relationships? Are they meant to be the same person or different people who take on different responsibilities? In my mind, I think we can find both a teacher and a friend in the same person.

In my life, I have been blessed by dear friends from varied backgrounds and traditions. Over the years, they have provided support, encouragement, and inspiration, and every step of the way, they have also taught me something important even as we share diverse life experiences, ideals and beliefs. I truly believe that these relationships have made me the person that I am today because through their friendship, they challenged me, cheered me on and even pushed me beyond my comfort zone.

Too often, however, we take our friends for granted, not recognizing how important they are in our lives, and frankly, how important we are in theirs. Maybe that’s why we need to be commanded to build these relationships. Maybe it’s a reminder to us that as human beings, relationships are integral to who we are, having people in our lives who knew us “back when…”—and at the same time, meeting people as we are now. One thing we learn from this book (though there are many things) is that the more we are willing to share of ourselves and the more we are willing to risk opening ourselves to new people and new possibilities, the greater the reward.

In this day and age, social media has changed our ideas about friendship. I find that we focus on how many friends we have on Facebook, and how many people have “liked” a post. But the truth is, most of these “friends” are just people we know. Creating meaningful friendships takes work. As we become more mature, we find that friendship doesn’t “just happen” like it did when we were kids on the playground. Genuine friendships take time, commitment, courage, and follow through.

My mother always told me, “It’s better to have a few good friends than a lot of acquaintances.”

I hope the stories told in this book remind us of the value of friendship. I hope they encourage us to reach out to the person sitting alone, knock on a neighbor’s door, welcome the newcomer into our communities and our lives. As I think about my friends, I can’t help but hum the song that I learned back in Girl Scouts: “Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other’s gold.”

I pray that all of our friendships be precious ones; may they continue to teach us, challenge us, support us, and celebrate with us throughout our lives.

Care to learn more?

Rabbi Hornsten

In 2000, Rabbi Marla Hornsten became the first woman rabbi at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan, one of the nation’s largest Reform congregations.

Her online biography includes: “As the first woman rabbi at Temple Israel, she is proud to have created a variety of women’s programming including a monthly Rosh Chodesh women’s spirituality group, mikveh tours and immersion experiences. She has written many healing services for both men and women using the mikveh. … She also is committed to working to prevent domestic abuse in families and to guiding couples in establishing healthy relationships.

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As the voice of Doctor No echoes from Las Vegas, can we collectively respond with love?

Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting site, Las Vegas Strip, Nevada. The shooter’s hotel is at left. The festival site is at right behind the two gray towers.

for ReadTheSpirit magazine

Stephen Paddock in a widely shared photo from social media.

How can we respond to the horrific shooting in Las Vegas, when the gunman’s dark motives remain such a mystery? There was no war cry from Stephen Paddock. No manifesto awaiting publication. No suicide video. No affiliation with an infamous group.

The shooter’s description by his younger brother gives us one clue. Eric Paddock describes his brother, Stephen, as a “no-ties, no-attached kind of guy, a no-help-from-someone-else kind of guy, a standalone guy.” Eric says that Stephen committed the Las Vegas atrocity “100 percent by himself.” Stephen had  “no church, no political affiliations.”

Every day since the rampage, newspaper headlines have tried to plumb the depths of this mystery. We want to know the killer’s motivation. What spawned his maniacal action? Not being able to wrap our minds around Paddock’s evil motivation leaves us feeling vulnerable. The Washington Post wrapped up its reporting this past weekend with this headline: Las Vegas gunman left behind trail of carnage and clues but no ‘clear motive or reason why.’

The New York Times team came to the same vague conclusion: “The mystery of who he was has only seemed to deepen.”

Perhaps that’s true. But some passages in the Times story remind us of an earlier, infamous character from popular culture. First, consider these excerpts from the Times team about Stephen Paddock:

  • “From an early age, he focused on gaining complete control over his life and not having to rely on anyone. He cycled through a series of jobs he thought would make him rich.” And, eventually, he did become wealthy through investments in real estate.
  • “Some who met him described him as arrogant, with a strong sense of superiority. People in his life bent to his will, even his mother and brother. He went out of his way for no one.”
  • “Mr. Paddock cherished his solitude. … In 2003, he got his pilot’s license, eventually taking the extra step to get an instrument rating so that he could legally fly in cloudy conditions with limited visibility. … The message was clear: Mr. Paddock was a man who did not want to be seen.”
  • “His methodical and systematic mind had turned in a lethal and unpredictable new direction.”


Doctor No in the movie version of Ian Fleming’s novel.

Nearly 60 years ago, Doctor No stepped onto the world stage as one of author Ian Fleming’s most notable villains in the James Bond series of novels that later were turned into blockbuster movies. There are striking resemblances between Stephen Paddock and Doctor No. Like Fleming’s evil genius—who chose the name “No” as a rebuke to life itself—Paddock ultimately responded to life with a deafening: No!

Stephen Paddock clearly was a Doctor No kind of guy. In spite of being a gambling man, Paddock didn’t want to live with the vulnerable gamble of being a full, connected human being. Like Doctor No, Paddock chose to live with the illusion of power, the illusion of invulnerability.

Evil is a mystery. As with any real mystery, the more we know, the deeper grows the mystery. Doctor No personified the evil of supreme indifference and mania for power. Nearly every enemy of James Bond, at some point, captured Bond and made a personal confession to him. Doctor No’s is the longest confession of any of the evil legion in Fleming’s series of novels.

Here are just a few of the lines from this evil figure, described by Fleming as having a face with “no anger in it … nothing but a supreme indifference.”

  • In the novel, Doctor No argues, “All the greatest men are maniacs. They are possessed by mania which drives them forward towards their goal. The great scientists, the artists, the philosophers, the religious leaders—all maniacs. … I am as you correctly say, a maniac—a maniac, Mister Bond, with a mania for power.”
  • Doctor No also says, “Power is sovereignty.”
  • And he explains, “I changed my name to Julius No—the Julius after my father and the No for my rejection of him and of all authority.”
  • Doctor No concludes, “I had to learn what my tools were before I put them to use on my next goal—total security from physical weaknesses, from material dangers and from the hazards of living. Then, Mister Bond, from that secure base, armored even against the casual slings and arrows of the world, I would proceed to the achievement of power—the power, Mister Bond, to do unto others what had been done unto me, the power of life and death, the power to decide, to judge, the power of absolute independence from outside authority.”


In the novel, James Bond rebuts Dr. No’s claim that his wealth and weaponry and indifference to killing make him a powerful man. Bond says, “That is only the illusion of power, Doctor No. Any man with a loaded revolver has the power of life and death over his neighbor. Other people beside you have murdered in secret and got away with it. In the end they generally get their deserts. A greater power than they possess is exerted upon them by the community.”

Ahh! Therein lies the spiritual truth that, as we write this reflection, we hope you may share with others: Yes, this kind of evil is a mystery! Yes, this kind of deadly destructive power is unfathomable! Yet, there is another powerful mystery that can stir among us: Love. Compassion. Community.

As you watched the news reports from Las Vegas, weren’t you equally mystified by the courage and sacrifice of people who responded in the face of such carnage and peril? Some people responded by risking their own lives to shield the bodies of both loved ones—and complete strangers. Astonishing courage! Others picked up bleeding bodies and ran toward hoped-for help, exposing and risking their own lives as they darted among the bullets. First responders moved toward danger, not away from it. Such love and self-less compassion are mysteries!

In Ben Pratt’s book, Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass, Pratt writes extensively about Doctor No’s denial of life itself—his supreme indifference. Pratt says that a core struggle in defeating such evil lies in overcoming the sin that traditional Christianity calls “accidie.” At one point in the book, Pratt writes:

“With a loss of faith in God, we make ourselves our own god and claim our own power. Therefore, accidie is the root of cruelty, malice, snobbery, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and avarice. When a person confronts accidie, he or she faces a pivotal spiritual crossroads where the choice reflects moral courage—or moral cowardice.”

In Las Vegas, we witnessed the horrific impact of utter moral indifference from the inscrutable mind and heart of Stephen Paddock. And we witnessed the heights of moral courage. Both astonishing. Both, at their heart: spiritual mysteries.

The question now is: Can we respond in some meaningful way?


In the face of such great mysteries, we encourage people to respond with spiritual disciplines to restore spiritual vitality. Among the most helpful we have found over many years of teaching and counseling, are: singing, praying, manual labor, maintenance of community, grieving, gratitude and, let’s not forget—joy.

Countless Americans are stunned, this week, in the face of the explosion from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel. We seem unable to act. What can we do from this distance? How can we respond in the face of such mystery?

The questions we would begin to raise, this week, are part of a spiritual inventory we recommend for individuals and small-group discussion to confront feelings of powerlessness in the face of evil. One critical antidote to this accidie—this torpor that leaves us unable to take action—is to restore joy in our lives. In such an inventory, we ask questions such as these:

  • How long has it been since you sang with great joy?
  • If you once were joyous—and are no longer so—what squelched or crushed the joy in your soul?
  • What feeling replaced your passion and vitality?

The only healthy way to cope with our vulnerability at moments like this is to lean into the healthy, life-giving mysteries of human life with humility and gratitude. Doing so will make us more loving and point us toward courage and service.

So let’s face these mysteries of human life. Yes, we are incredibly vulnerable. Right now, we have the twin capacities to be malignantly isolated—or to be courageously connected, loving and ultimately joyous about life.

The shootings in Las Vegas pose a deep spiritual challenge for all of us.

So, let’s use the frightening reality of our vulnerability to our advantage! Together, let’s lift up songs of great joy and love. Let’s celebrate and draw around us a compassionate community. And, while we do so, let’s make sure to welcome all the other vulnerable pilgrims we find along the way.

Care to read more?

One easy step is to explore the writings of Benjamin Pratt in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore.

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Lessons of Yom Kippur and Hurricanes: ‘It is not in the heavens …’ but in our hands!

“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven … No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
Deuteronomy 30:11-14, read each year at Yom Kippur


“Let’s form a chain!”

That’s a call to action celebrated this month by millions of people around the world who have read the story and viewed video of strangers saving the life of an elderly man in Houston. He was stranded helplessly in his vehicle as the rising flood from Hurricane Harvey threatened to sweep him away and extinguish his life. Strangers watching this man’s plight from a distance could have simply recoiled in horror. Anyone in the area already was stunned by the deadly power of the roiling waters that were just about to overwhelm this poor old man.

But, instead of fleeing, someone raised a simple rallying cry: “Let’s form a chain!”

Strangers began to stretch out their hands and form a human chain, inching into the chest-high water to force open the vehicle’s door and rescue the man. Soon, instead of mourning cries in that man’s family, there were shouts of joy at the old man’s reunion with his son.

The litany of the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season already is terrifying.

We have met the monstrous Harvey,
And the force Irma’s fury,
And Jose, too.
Yes, Katia was less than we feared,
And Lee as well—
But Maria looms large
And “our” Hurricane Season will run through
The holiday we call American Thanksgiving.
How much devastation is yet to come?

No, that is not exactly a prayer, although it reads like one of the ancient cries from Psalms, voicing the suffering of the people.

When natural disasters happen, it is not uncommon for people to wonder, sometimes in deep anger: “Where is God?” We’ve all been angry at God, at some point in our lives, haven’t we? We’ve wanted to wrestle God down to the mat. Maybe you’ve been there.

The problem is that it’s difficult to take on the Invisible!

Your Arms Too Short To Box With God, is the title of a popular and lively Broadway show, but the phrase comes from a poem by James Weldon Johnson. It comes to mind when wrestling with the question, “Where is God in tragic times?” Maybe our arms are too short to box with God—but we might discover that they are not too short to link with others when serving those in need.

Whatever our beliefs about God, they usually reveal far more about us than about God. God is not changed by our various conceptions. God’s timeless and indivisible oneness is a basic part of the Shema repeated daily by Jews, including at Yom Kippur.

So what can we pray as Yom Kippur approaches (and thousands of Christian and Muslim clergy continue to plan their weekly services) in the midst of this horrific 2017 Hurricane Season?

A Hurricane (and Yom Kippur) Prayer:
‘Let’s form a chain!’

Our litany of Atlantic storms, above, may be regarded as the start of a Psalm for this Hurricane Season in America.

Then, beyond that agonized cry, where do we focus our collective prayers?

This week, millions of Jewish men and women around the world will mark the fast of Yom Kippur. Each year, news reports about this holiday in newspapers, magazines and websites describe this observance as “solemn.” Annual holiday stories usually mention the severity of the fast (nothing passes the lips for 25 hours). And, news reports focus on the almost universal observance of this “holiest day in the Jewish calendar.” Stories often show images of the empty streets of normally busy Israeli cities.

This year, as non-Jews, let’s remember another powerful theme of Yom Kippur that Christians around the world certainly share with our Jewish brothers and sisters. That’s the ancient call from Moses when he assembled all the people to remind them of their covenant with God—not as individuals but as a people. To this day, these deeply stirring sections of Moses’ message from Deuteronomy 29 and 30 are read aloud to the community assembled for Yom Kippur.

During the day-long cycle of Yom Kippur services, the people also voice an ancient prayer of confession. As in all the world’s great religious traditions, some form of confession is a daily expectation in Judaism—nearly always voiced as “my” confession as “I” repent.

That’s different on Yom Kippur. As the day unfolds, the people hear the timeless commandments from Leviticus, a code that includes not only the famous “10” commandments, but also the biblical admonishment of what that code means. The Yom Kippur readings from Leviticus include:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord your God. … When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

The powerful, cumulative effect of these readings is punctuated by the repeated Viddui, or prayer of confession, voiced for Yom Kippur, not as “I,” but as “we.” The people have gathered and collectively “we” are called to admit our failings and vow to work toward greater unity.

Our arms may be too short to box with God, but they are long enough to link with other courageous, loving people in service to the world. With apologies to more eloquent Jewish sages, we might say that the Yom Kippur message about reuniting the people is simply this: Maybe our hearts are too shriveled or our bodies are too weak and willful—but our arms are not too short to reach out to each other in our families and in our communities and around this entire broken world.

In that ancient appeal, our Jewish friends join a global religious chorus of compassionate concern for our neighbors—and all the “others” surrounding us in this world.

To simplify that collective prayer even further, we might voice it as:

“Let’s form a chain!”

“Let’s form a chain!”

“Let’s form a chain!”


Care to read more?

You may enjoy seeing several books written by Benjamin Pratt.

Among our Jewish authors, who you might enjoy exploring during this season, are: Rabbi Bob Alper, Rabbi Joseph Krakoff with Dr. Michelle SiderDebra Darvick, Lynne Meredith Golodner, Brenda Rosenberg, Suzy Farbman, Robert Pasick, and many of the Women of WISDOM.

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How come we can’t talk to each other anymore?

The cells at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. Contemporary photos from South Africa by Benjamin Pratt.


Author and Columnist

Photo from Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017, shared via Wikimedia Commons by Anthony Crider.

Is your heart still broken over the evil that came to Charlottesville, Virginia, one month ago?

As I ponder that horrific eruption of hate, the question that troubles my heart is as old as a folk song from the ’60s: Why can’t we talk to each other anymore?

If you share my daily wrestling over the chasms dividing Americans in this season of confrontation, then may I invite you along with me—through this column—on a journey I recently took with my wife Judith to South Africa. Through the lens of Apartheid’s terrible legacy, I came home with a new viewpoint on our own nation’s history of racism—and the challenges we face to this day.

Join me, please.

Our South African pilgrimage began at Block 4 prison at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, which once housed Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, Albertina Sisulu and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as political prisoners held for months in solitary confinement. Adjacent to the prison and military fort is the home of the Constitutional Court that currently endorses the rights of all citizens. Standing in one of the solitary cells, I thought about the incarcerations of John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr. and so many other political prisoners in the USA.

The iconic image of Hector Pieterson after he was shot by police. 

The next step in our journey was the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, located in Orlando West, Soweto. This site commemorates the role played by the school children who took part in the Soweto protests of 1976. Hector was shot by police during a peaceful June 16, 1976, Soweto demonstration against the mandatory use of Afrikaans in the black schools. That policy was intended to further isolate blacks from others in their community and all non-whites from the rest of the world. Students were marching toward Orlando Stadium when police opened fire. Hector, 12, was one of the first killed. Sam Nzima took the iconic picture of Pieterson’s body being carried by high school student Mbuyisa Makhubo, with Hector’s sister, Antoinette Sithole, running alongside.

Antoinette was 16 the day her brother died. We were fortunate that Antoinette joined us at the memorial site and spoke eloquently about that day in her life and the painful experience. She brought us to tears by describing the senseless brutality of the Apartheid system.

Judith with Antoinette Sithole.

Her words brought Emmett Till, 14, to the forefront of my memories. In 1955, Emmett traveled from his Chicago home to visit family in Mississippi, where he was kidnapped by three gun-toting whites, beaten and lynched. His body was maimed nearly beyond recognition, but Emmett’s mother insisted that her son would be displayed in an open casket. “Let the world see what they did to my boy. Let them see what I’ve seen.” Like the photo of Hector, photos of Emmett Till’s body ignited a firestorm.

Our pilgrimage continued at the Apartheid Museum, which vividly recounts the origins and travail of Apartheid. Standing next to a Casspir, the giant armored vehicles used by the police, was intimidating, as was standing in the solitary confinement cells or viewing the videos of political executions and violence in the streets. The museum also follows the life of Nelson Mandela from his youth, his education, political organizing, 27 years in prison, to his release and election as President.

The Sharpeville massacre also was vividly portrayed in the museum. On March 21, 1960, in the South African township of Sharpeville in Transvaal, a crowd of 5000 to 7000 protesters converged at the police station. Police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people—289 casualties in total, including 29 children. Standing in the midst of this exhibit, I thought back to the three protest marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. The first march took place on March 7, 1965—Bloody Sunday—when marchers were brutally attacked with billy clubs and tear gas. That violence and the murder of the Rev. James Reeb after the second march, led to a national outcry and many acts of civil disobedience.

At the end of our emotionally wrenching pilgrimage, Judith and I asked Clarence and Ada Walls to talk with us about life in the USA and our new knowledge of South Africa. Our conversation took place over lunch the next day. We began by sharing our life stories—the best way to introduce each other. Ada and Judith shared their experiences in education. Ada as an elementary school teacher, administrator and resource specialist; Judith as a social worker in a high school. Clarence worked as a musician, professor, and college dean of Fine & Performing Arts. In the 1960’s, I was the founding pastor of a racially integrated congregation that is more integrated now at its 50-year mark. I spent the last thirty years of my career as a pastoral counselor.

Clarence framed our conversation about the similarities of living under Jim Crow or Apartheid by sharing his reflections on a very personal question: “When did I know I was black?”

“Growing up as a child playing on the streets of Washington, DC with other black and white kids, I didn’t think much about my color,” Clarence said. “We played together everyday. When I began school, I knew I was black. I went to a separate school from my white friends. My white friends asked me why I didn’t join them at the local school. I had to respond that I couldn’t. I wasn’t allowed in their school because of my color. Their school had newer and better buildings, books, playgrounds. Ours did not. Ada and I had limited choices of colleges. After we were married, when we tried to buy a house, we learned that mortgages were restricted to homes in specific locations because of color. Freedom was restricted.”

As I listened to Clarence I thought about the closing of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. In that passage, he proclaims:

“I was not born with a hunger to be free. I was born free—free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies under the stars and ride the broad backs of slow-moving bulls. … It was only when I began to learn that my boyhood freedom was an illusion, when I discovered as a young man that my freedom had already been taken away from me, that I began to hunger for it. … I slowly saw that not only was I not free, but my brothers and sisters were not free. I saw that it was not just my freedom that was curtailed, but the freedom of everyone who looked like I did.”

The conversation Judith and I had with Clarence and Ada was rich, meaningful and expansive. Our experience convinced all of us: We simply have to find a way to talk to each other—perhaps for the first time. Conversations like this are essential for all of us who want to live full, responsive, loving lives.

I’ve been attempting to confront my own racism for a long time. I’m welcoming conversations—as we did with Clarence and Ada.

I’m reading—and urge you, as you read this column, to make some intentional choices about what you’re reading. This spring, my most important discovery was the compelling, soul-searching novel by Jodi Picoult, Small Great Things.

I’m making pilgrimages with Judith. We recently visited the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Then, Judith and I made our pilgrimage to South African landmarks in the struggle against Apartheid. Our South African journey—and our engagement with Clarence and Ada—will have a lasting impact on my life.

Ian and Sylvia in the 1960s.

And, I’m singing—well, at least, let’s say I’m enjoying songs that bring me hope in this time of great anxiety. Through this long hot summer of turbulence in America, one song has been rattling around in mind: a song from the ’60s.

The celebrated Canadian folk singers Ian and Sylvia Tyson wrote a deeply personal Song for Canada that they performed in the U.S. at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. If you love classic folk music, you’ll recall that was the infamous year that Bob Dylan was booed off the stage for appearing with electric guitars. Ian and Sylvia said their song was an appeal for calm in their homeland in the face of an emerging Quebec separatist movement. The irony is that they performed it at a music festival most notable for division. The sharp response to Dylan’s new music had “electrified one half the audience and electrocuted the other,” a Newport observer said.

Still, their plaintive call keeps running through my mind:

How come we can’t talk to each other any more?
Why can’t you see I’m changing too?
We’ve got by far too long to end it feeling wronged
And I still share too much with you
Just one great river always flowing to the sea
One single river rolling in eternity
Two nations in the land that lies along its shore
But just one river rolling free.


Take action

Share this column with friends on social media. Or, email a link. You’re even free to print out this column and pass it around, perhaps for small-group discussion.

And, as I’ve said in this column: Welcome conversations. Read. Make pilgrimages. Sing.

You could start by checking out the ReadTheSpirit Bookstore.

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Help spread the good news on ‘American History Made Easy’

Editor of ReadTheSpirit

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

Back to school. Back to basics. And the most important bedrock for all of us this school year is remembering what it means to be American.

Already in 2017: We are heartbroken at the deadly turmoil in our streets over the very meaning of our collective history; we are fearful once again at the potential of nuclear war made possible by the lingering scars of our 20th century history; and we all are digging deep in response to catastrophic natural disasters in a compassionate, nationwide outreach that we like to think reflects our true American spirit. Our history shapes our hopes and fears every day in this turbulent year. But it is also becoming obvious in 2017 that we have lost our collective clarity about our past.

Add to all of that our raging national debate about immigrants, refugees and other newcomers from countries around the world. We are a nation of immigrants, yet millions seem to be forgetting that their own ancestors began to make America their home by learning the basics of our history.

Enter Kathleen Gripman and her brilliant idea for an American history that everyone can read—even newcomers to this country who are just starting to learn English. It’s called American History Made Easy and is available in both print and e-editions.


“For many years, my professional specialty has been helping people who are new to this country to learn English. I work with international students, professionals who are coming to work with American companies—a whole range of adults who are moving here to make a contribution to our country. And, while I’m a professional providing a service of English as a Second Language, I care about these men and women and I was so frustrated to discover that one subject was a stumbling block: American history,” says Kathleen Gripman, an ESL expert who runs programs in communities west of Detroit.

“Most of these men and women wind up taking tests of some kind for everything from entering college and the U.S. citizenship process to earning various kinds of certification. And, a lot of that testing includes questions about American history,” Gripman explains.

But that testing posed a big problem!

“The old approach to teaching ESL students about our history was to give these men and women long lists of facts to memorize,” Gripman says. “The available textbooks about American history are up around an 8th grade reading level, or higher. Even with solid ESL classes helping them, these people new to our country might have reached a 4th grade reading level by the time they are trying to learn about our history. The result? Teachers would tell them to memorize a bunch of dates and names and facts if they hoped to pass the tests they were facing.

“That doesn’t teach people anything meaningful about our history. Memorizing random facts to pass a test gives them no context, no understanding of how America developed through the centuries.”

Gripman knows what she’s talking about. As a veteran ESL educator, she began with the typical work-arounds for introducing adult ESL students to American history. Because standard history textbooks are at a higher reading level, teachers would pass out simplified fact sheets. Gripman refused to do that. Instead, to provide more meaningful context, she began “to toggle together material from multiple books to give students some helpful context.”

That innovative strategy led to a huge project: Gripman researched the range of American history questions included on the varied tests that ESL learners aspire to pass. That helped her to build a detailed outline of the many chapters—from the colonial era to this new millennium—that students would need to understand. Then, she began to write her own history book, gleaning information from dozens of existing texts and other resources. Finally to lock in the details these new readers would be discovering in her book, she decided to add black-and-white illustrations.

That notion of illustrated text is as old as Gutenberg and as popular as the red-hot trend toward graphic novels today. Along the way, educators had learned a lot about the best illustrations to help retain information. “And, looking at the research on this, I found that simple black-and-white drawings would have the greatest impact, if we included them throughout the book,” Gripman said.


The result is American History Made Easy. The book can be used either in a classroom or for self-study. Between the covers, Gripman narrates the essential chapters of American history, written at an intermediate reading level.

Most importantly, Gripman decided not to distill America’s story into a series of dry facts to be memorized. “It’s so important to tell the story in a narrative style. That’s how we get the context, how we develop a real understanding of what happened,” Gripman said. “So, this book is easy to read and flows right along. I developed it for ESL students, but the book also could be enjoyed by anyone who wants an overview of the essentials of our history.”

There are other benefits in spreading the news of this book. One important example: School districts with a significant number of ESL students in middle and high school could get a real boost by adding this text to help struggling students.

“These ESL students tend to do very well in many subjects. Their parents can help them with math and science at home, whatever the family’s overall ability with English might be at that point. But when it comes to American history? Parents have no background at all. They can’t help their kids. So these students tend to do poorly on those portions of standardized testing,” Gripman said. “That’s another very practical benefit of this book. If a school has a significant number of ESL students who are dragging down scores on this portion of testing, getting them this kind of book can help bring up those scores. I could see this making a real impact in some school districts.”

And, as we say each week at ReadTheSpirit: Please, help spread the word.

Want to do a good deed this week?
Share this story about American History Made Easy with friends on social media. Order a copy of the book. Recommend it to a teacher, community leader, recent immigrant or social worker you know. Give it to a friend who isn’t much of a “reader” because of challenges with literacy. In 2017, ReadTheSpirit is determined to offer specific suggestions of small acts we each can take to help knit our nation back together again. This is one of those calls to action!




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Plan ahead for debut of Martin Luther mini-series on PBS

‘Martin Luther’ Resources

‘We haven’t seen times like these in 500 years.”

That was the first sentence posted in this online magazine,, 10 years ago this month. Our first column talked about Martin Luther’s media revolution and the parallels with these turbulent times in which we live. (You can go back and read that first column here.) So, from the first day of this online magazine, the transformative spirit of the Reformation has been a central inspiration in all of our work, including many thousands of columns shared with readers all around the world. We believe in using the latest advances in media technology to publish inspiring stories for readers everywhere.

One motto we follow: “Good media builds good community.” You may also want to read our original 10 Principles, which we follow to this day. If you are not familiar with our online magazine, it’s worth taking a look at those principles. There were many aspects of Luther’s life that we condemn, including his role in violently repressing a peasant’s uprising and his anti-Semitic rants. Our focus on Luther and the entire Reformation—which was far broader than Luther himself—zeroes in on the way that era placed inspirational media in the hands of ordinary people. In embracing media’s role in inclusion, diversity and fairness, today, that’s the element of the Reformation that we celebrate.

Now that we are nearing the “official” 500th anniversary of Luther’s role in that world-changing revolution, we highly recommend the two-hour PBS docudrama about Luther debuting on September 12, 2017. (Read Ed McNulty’s in-depth review of the series in Visual Parables.)

Watch the PBS preview for ‘Martin Luther’ here


Care to read more?

In ReadTheSpirit, we have frequently explored these themes over the past decade. For example, in 2015, Editor David Crumm wrote a popular column based on a trip to Disney World that, once again, echoed these themes.

If you don’t see a video screen in your version of this column—or you simply want to explore the PBS series further: Here is the official public-TV website for the Martin Luther miniseries.

In 2016, as this anniversary year was approaching, we published a column reported in part by Berlin-based journalist Maria-Paz Lopez about the many programs, tours and opportunities unfolding for this special anniversary.

Finally, we also want to recommend the extensive resources posted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for the anniversary.

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