As the season of Christmas continues into a new year, my hope for the birth again of God’s messengers of peace in unexpected times and places, even here and now, lives on in spite of all the bad news 2015 has been able to muster. And to that end I share a short story I wrote years ago and included in my book, Building Peace from the Inside Out.

“Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God.” Matthew 5:9

Sally was sitting next to the window over the left wing of a 737. The lights of the city would have been pretty as they left O’Hare, but a snowstorm was brewing and the clouds quickly engulfed the plane. Sally was going to spend Christmas with her grandmother in Richmond, Virginia. She was a little scared. She was 14, and this was her first flight by herself. In her nervousness, she had neglected to use the restroom at the airport; so as soon as the seatbelt light went out, she was out of her seat.

In her haste Sally bumped against the brief case of the man in the aisle seat, knocking it off his lap. She reached down politely to pick it up for him, but he grabbed it quickly and gruffly warned her to be more careful. When Sally returned from the restroom she apologized again for the brief case incident. She tried to strike up a conversation with her seat mate. He was in no mood to talk. Sally put her IPod headphones on and turned to the window. There was nothing out there in the darkness but one blinking red light, way out on the end of the wing. Sally thought it was bouncing up and down way too much.

“What makes grownups so darn grumpy, especially at Christmas?” she wondered. But her thoughts were rudely interrupted by an explosion in the rear of the plane. They began to lose altitude rapidly. Everyone panicked and screamed. NO one heard the captain’s voice over the P.A. system urging everyone to “please remain calm.”
The next thing Sally remembered was coming to in a snow covered field. She was 300 yards from the flaming wreckage of the plane. She seemed to be OK except for some cuts and bruises. The man who had been sitting next to her was a few yards away. He was badly hurt and calling for help. Sally was tempted to ignore him but knew she couldn’t. He was barely able to talk, but Sally understood that he was still concerned about his brief case. Wondering what could possibly so important about that stupid brief case; she half-heartedly began to look for it as she searched the area for other survivors. The fire was too intense to get close to the plane. She saw no other signs of life.

Sally found a briefcase. She took it back to the man, but it was the wrong one. She was about to just leave and go for help, but the man pleaded with her. He was desperate. So she looked again. This time she found the briefcase under a piece of the fuselage. She took it to the man, and he motioned for her to bend down so she could hear him. He said he had a very important letter that had to get to Washington. He stressed how urgent it was, begging her to promise him she would see that was delivered. He fell back unconscious before she had time to respond. She took the letter and put it in her coat pocket, half wondering if he was on the level.

Ambulances came. Sally was taken to a hospital where she learned she was in Bellefontaine, Ohio. Her cuts were cleaned and bandaged. The doctors said she had suffered a mild concussion. The next morning she remembered the letter. It was still in her coat pocket. Sally decided she would try and find the man before she opened it. When she asked about him, the nurses told her there were only two other survivors. They were both women.

Back in her room, Sally opened the letter. It was a very official looking dispatch from the CIA in Los Angeles, warning the President about a plot to assassinate several foreign heads of state when they visited Camp David for a summit conference after Christmas. If the assassins were not stopped the possibilities for starting World War III were staggering. Sally was overwhelmed. She didn’t know what to do. She wasn’t sure who she could trust. If the letter fell into the wrong hands…. She wasn’t sure what might happen. But she did know that she had been charged with delivering it, and she would.

Sally asked the nurses when she could leave the hospital. She discovered that because she was a minor, they would not release her without parental consent. Sally tried in vain to convince the charge nurse that she had to leave. Seeing that was hopeless, she simply went back to her room, got dressed and left after the night shift came on duty.

Sally’s cell phone had a GPS on it that would have been really helpful had she not lost it in the crash. So resorting to older technology, she picked up a map at a convenience store. She discovered she was 60 miles from Columbus, the state capital. There must be an airport there, right? She had also lost her purse and had no money; so she decided to hitch a ride. Being young and attractive, she didn’t have to wait long for a ride. She was really glad to get out of the sub-freezing weather when a man in a Beamer stopped for her. She would have been more comfortable with a woman or a couple but was in no position to be picky.

The man seemed friendly enough. In fact he had ideas of being a lot friendlier than Sally wanted. A few miles down the highway, he turned off on a county road and tried to force himself on her. Sally resisted so fiercely that he finally just slapped her hard across the face, called her a bitch, and pushed her out into the cold. Sally didn’t mind at all. She was just glad to be rid of him.

Two hours later, nearly frozen from wandering in a blinding snow storm, she saw car lights coming toward her. She flagged the car down and discovered it was a sheriff’s deputy. The deputy, of course, wanted to know what Sally was doing there. She told him that she needed to get to Columbus. He insisted on taking her to the hospital to make sure she was OK. She protested but to no avail.

Sally didn’t realize she had gone far enough to be in different county. She was relieved to discover that she was not going back to Bellefontaine, but to another town called Marysville. The ER staff there treated her for frostbite and gave her a good meal. They could not understand why she was in such a hurry to be on her way. Sally tried making up a story about a sick uncle in Columbus who needed her. Didn’t fly. Finally, she decided she would just have to tell them the truth. She did. They laughed. So, reluctantly, she decided she had no choice but to show them the letter. That would convince them. But the letter was gone. It had fallen out of her pocket somewhere in the snow.

Sally began to feel trapped. The trauma of the crash, the cold, the exhaustion—all began to get to her. She had to get that message to Washington. The peace of the world depended on her, and these stupid people wouldn’t even listen to her. She began to scream at them hysterically.

The next morning, Sally woke up staring at the cold, barren walls of a Columbus psychiatric hospital. She was confused and scared. She tried the door to her room. It was locked. She pounded on the door. No one came. She was about to cry when she suddenly became aware of another person in the room. Sally had not noticed her roommate sleeping in the other bed—an African American girl, about Sally’s age. The sign on bed said “Paula.” As soon as she was fully awake, Paula gave Sally some very important advice: “Hey, girlfriend. You keep that up and they’ll put you on the back ward for keeps. You gotta play it cool if you ever want out of here.”

Sally was still frightened, but she recognized the truth in Paula’s words. Sally told her story to Paula. For the first time she found someone who believed her. Paula suggested that Sally try to call Washington; since there was no way of knowing how long they might keep her here. Paula told Sally she would show her where there was a pay phone when they went down to the dining room for breakfast.

Paula introduced Sally to some of her friends at breakfast, and Sally began to feel a little less scared and alone. But her frustration soon returned. When she tried to make her call, an attendant pulled rank on her—said she had an important call to make. And the attendant was still there talking when it was time for the patents to go back on the ward. Sally tried to convince the nurses to let her go back down that morning, or to let her use the phone in the nurse’s office. They refused. They laughed at her and said they were sure the president could wait until lunch time to talk to her.

Sally was about to lose her temper again, but Paula managed to calm her down. They spent the morning talking. Sally was surprised how quickly the time passed. After lunch she hurried back to the phone. She got as far as a White House operator who dismissed her as a crank call. She tried the local FBI office—same response.
Sally was ready to give up. She was beginning to question her own sanity. But Paula had been hard at work. She figured Sally would have a better chance if she could get to D.C. in person. Sally agreed but had no hope of making it in time. Paula did. She got the nurse to let Sally go with her to Occupational Therapy that afternoon. Paula told Sally what she had planned. They had to go outside to get to OT. Paula said she would distract the attendant so Sally could slip away. Sally begged Paula not to do anything foolish. Paula gave her the address of a friend who would help her get to the airport.

There was not time for further discussion. The only good-bye and thank you Sally could give Paula was a squeeze of her hand as they walked downstairs. As soon as they were outside, Paula screamed and took off running. The attendant went after her. Sally froze. She wanted to know what was going to happen to Paula. But one of the other patients knew what the plan was. She gave sally a friendly shove and told her to get going while she could.
Sally left reluctantly, trying to look as nonchalant as possible as she walked toward where Paula had told her the front gate was. She was still worried about Paula. She was also amazed at the lack of security. There were no guards, just as Paula had promised. Sally got on a city bus, trying hard to act calm. She knew for sure that everyone would recognize her as an escaped mental patient—even though she didn’t look a bit different than two days before—it seemed like two years—when she left Chicago.

The bus driver told her where to change buses to get to the address Paula had given her. It was in the University district, which was nearly deserted during Christmas break. Sally had forgotten all about Christmas. She found the apartment on 11th Avenue. It was in a run-down neighborhood, and Sally was uneasy. It seemed to be getting dark awfully early, but then she had lost all sense of what time it was. A huge African American man answered the door. He was about half drunk and Sally started to leave. But then a much friendlier face appeared.

As soon as Sally mentioned Paula’s name, Billy, the sober one, invited her in and asked what he could do to help. Sally told him her story. Billy agreed it did sound far-fetched. But like Paula, he sensed something in Sally’s eyes and her voice that made him trust her, in spite of his doubts. In a matter of minutes, Billy called the airport and Sally booked on a flight leaving for Reagan National in two hours. He said he knew someone who worked for United Airlines who pulled some strings for him. Otherwise things were all booked up with Christmas travelers.

After sharing some warmed-over pizza, Billy drove Sally to Port Columbus in his ’92 Cavalier. It was better than walking, but not much. Billy’s friend, Tracy, met them and produced a one-way ticket under an assumed name since Sally was not a fugitive in 3 counties. Tracy also used her airport ID to get Sally around the security check point. Billy slipped her a little cash to live on when she got there. Sally promised she would come back and repay him when she could. She was also hoping to see Paula again.

This flight was uneventful. Sally relived the nightmare of the last two days. For the first time since the crash she thought about her parents and her grandmother. They would be worried sick! But there was nothing she could do about that now. She would call them as soon as her unbelievable mission was over. And then she fell into a deep sleep of exhaustion.

Sally woke up as the plane was on its final descent over the Potomac. For a scary minute she thought they were going to land in the river and said a little prayer of appreciation when the wheels touched down safely on the other side. She was in Washington at last—exactly 48 hours later than her original flight should have been…. But that was all past now. She was here. Surely somebody here would listen to her. They just had to.

Fear of Knowledge?

I usually enjoy seeing news about my home town, but not today. An article in the Columbus Dispatch via the Dayton Daily News caught my eye today when I saw “Wapakoneta” in the headline. Wapak, as the natives call it, is a small county-seat town in Northwest Ohio where I graduated from high school 50 years ago. The headline brought home to me literally how insidious Islamophobia is affecting not only our present world crisis but future generations as well.

The story reported that 21 7th-graders in Wapak are boycotting history lessons that include Islam. (Note: I have since learned from the editor of the Wapakoneta Daily News that the official number of students according to the School Superintendent is 10; so I want to share that bit of good news.) In particular they are opting out of one of 21 sections in their world history class that focuses on Islamic civilization from A.D. 500-1600. The good news is that world history is part of curriculum. It certainly wasn’t when I was a student there. For us history didn’t begin until Columbus “discovered” America in 1492.

According to the news article “Ohio’s state learning standards call for study of numerous civilizations and empires, and the impact of Christianity, Islam and other religions on history.” The section in question “focuses on the impact of Islamic civilization as it spread throughout most of the Mediterranean in the period following the fall of Rome and its later impact on the European Renaissance. Attention is paid to achievements in medicine, science, mathematics and geography.”

The bad news is that “the school policy that allows the Wapakoneta students to opt out is shared in some form by hundreds of other school districts statewide.” The policy does not allow students to opt out of entire classes, just certain sections if “after careful, personal review of the lesson and materials a parent determines that it conflicts with their religious beliefs or value system.” Maybe some of these 21 students have parents who know enough about Islam to make a careful review of this material, but I’m betting most of them only know what Donald Trump and Fox News have told them about these people who comprise 1 billion members of the human race.

I get the fear caused by recent world events, but even if we have reason to fear a designated “enemy,” doesn’t it make sense to know as much about them as we can. The impact of Islam on the European Renaissance has direct influence on our history in this country. Their story is part of our story, and if we fail to understand our history we are indeed condemned to repeat it. Like it or not we live in a multicultural international community. People who are different from us are literally our neighbors here and around the world.

The alma mater of Wapak High School has a phrase that sounds way off key to my ears today. It says, “Hail to thee dear Alma Mater, temple reared by God’s own hand.” I’m sure the author of those words many decades ago had only the Christian God in mind as the builder of said temple of learning. The God of the entire universe I know is weeping for those 21 students and everyone else who is being robbed of a chance to better understand the world we live in by fear and ignorance.

The final paragraph of the Columbus Dispatch article is especially poignant. It quotes the state’s seventh-grade history standard on civic skills which makes a case against opting out of lessons like this. It reads, “Skills in accessing and analyzing information are essential for citizens in a democracy. The ability to understand individual and group perspectives is essential to analyzing historic and contemporary issues.”

The American democratic experiment is founded on an informed citizenry, and ignoring important aspects of world and American history because we are afraid of what we might learn reminds me of the old adage, “Don’t confuse me with the facts. My mind is already made up.” Saddest of all is what these students are being taught, not by the schools, but by parents who are passing on their own fears and biases to their children.

This situation reminded me of a great song that I first heard at Wapak High over 50 years ago when our high school chorus performed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musical “South Pacific.” The song “Carefully Taught” in that show is about how people learn their prejudices. It’s long before we get to formal education. One line of that song says it so well, “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught!” (I wrote a full article on that topic last year entitled “Life Lessons I Didn’t Learn in Class,” posted February 24, 2014).

Fear of people and things outside our comfort zone is a learned behavior. Innocent children don’t come into the world with preconceived notions. We learn subtly or directly to label differences as “other” instead of understanding and appreciating the basic human needs and desires that make us part of one common species. I love it whenever I see the suggestion about how to answer the question we get on medical forms and other documents that asks for “race”? The answer that is never one of the choices is the one that really matters, and it is “human.”
All of us share the same basic needs for love and acceptance, for food and water and shelter, for clean air to breath, for a sense of security and safety. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs knows no ethnic or ideological distinctions. When we isolate ourselves from “others” geographically, socially, economically, and even by refusal to study our common history, those needs and commonalities are obscured by fear, ignorance and bigotry. Fear of violence is understandable. Fear of knowledge is tragic.

I became aware just recently of the peacemaking work of a fellow Ohio native, Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologist who died earlier this year. He was the creator of Nonviolent Communication, a communication process that helps people to exchange the information necessary to resolve conflicts and differences peacefully. One of the tenets of non-violent communication is that humans act out of unmet needs. So one of the first steps toward understanding our own behavior or that of others is to ask what unmet needs we may have. (I would add especially in this season of hectic holiday consumerism, these are real needs, not desires created by clever marketing or peer pressure.)

One of Rosenberg’s insights that speak so clearly to our current world situation is that “violence is the tragic expression of unmet needs.” That is not easy to remember when we are afraid for ourselves or others, but it is critical because it is hitting the pause button on our natural flight or fight emotions long enough to put ourselves in the place of another and ask what unmet needs that person has that might explain his or her actions. That understanding is what makes compassion possible in interpersonal and international relationships. And it is only possible when we take time to know about and understand others. That happens in multiple ways, from really listening to each other to cultural competence that comes from taking the time to learn about the history and customs and beliefs of our fellow travelers on spaceship earth.

That’s the way to unlearn those hurtful, dangerous things we were “carefully taught…. before we were six or seven or eight.” Those prejudices and fears passed on from one generation to the next by well-meaning but uninformed people. We can learn and change and grow, but not if we are afraid of knowledge and are AWOL from class.

Peace that Passes All Understanding

So many competing emotions in Advent 2015! Consumerism has almost ruined the holiday season for me in a “normal” year, but the epidemic of fear fed by the recent wave of terrorist attacks makes it especially challenging and necessary for me to dig deep and find the bedrock of faith and gratitude in 2015.

I struggled for days with what, if anything, to say about the attacks in Paris on November 13, partly because so much has already been said, both wise and foolish, but mostly because I have been very depressed about the state of the world and not sure what to say that can make any contribution. I finally gave up and said nothing.

That Friday the 13th for me was a metaphor for the tug of war between hope and fear. One of our beautiful grandchildren spent that day at our house. I’m very biased, of course, but little things she did that day made my papa pride swell for what a sweet, caring, smart little girl she is.

Shortly after I took her home I heard the first reports about the attacks in Paris on a TV in a fast food restaurant. Unlike 9/11 when the world stopped to watch the horror unfold, I seemed to be the only one in the McDonald’s paying any attention to the news. Everyone else was chatting and carrying on as usual because these kinds of events have become chillingly commonplace.

That evening I went to a meeting to watch a film entitled “Climate Refugees,” which in painful detail describes how millions of people have been driven from their homes by storms, floods and draughts related to climate change. The whole film, which was made long before the current refugee crisis in Europe, was alarming, but one segment especially so given the chaos in Paris that very evening. That segment talked about how desperate, frightened refugees are easy prey for sex traffickers and terrorist organizations looking for new recruits. I was so overwhelmed by the scope of the problem that I couldn’t bring myself to stay for the discussion after the film.

The level and frequency of violence in our world since then has shaken the foundations of my faith. I am questioning my long-held belief in humans being created in the image of God. I am afraid for my family and for the future of the planet. And my first reaction to that fear and anger was to join the chorus of politicians who want to bomb our way out of the ISIS problem and arm ourselves and close our borders. I know better, but it scares me even more that some of our “leaders” or wannabes don’t. Instead they see these tragedies as an opportunity to sell more guns and generate more fear and fan the flames of their own political fortunes with abhorrent ideas borrowed from Hitler’s playbook.

On the bright side there have been wonderful statements of faith and hope from those with a greater understanding of human history and a better vision of human potential. One of those reminded me that love is ultimately the victor over hate. I believe that’s true in the long run, but for now hate has a big lead and the clock is ticking.

The paragraphs above were written during Thanksgiving week, and wisely, I believe, I chose not to share them then because they felt too hopeless and negative. Then yesterday came news of the biggest U.S. mass shooting since Sandy Hook. I was still wrestling with depression and feared this latest killing spree would only deepen my despair. Much to my surprise I am not as pessimistic 24 hours after San Bernardino as I have been for 2.5 weeks. I am very sad and determined to do more to be the solution to the dis-ease strangling our nation and world. But I am not depressed, and that feels very strange.

On the one hand I feel a bit guilty for not being discouraged, and on the other I am afraid to analyze my hopeful feeling for fear I will awaken from a dream and it will be gone. But unlike Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh in my favorite baseball movie “Bull Durham,” I am cursed with self-awareness. And most days that’s a good thing – and today is one of those.

I had noticed ironically yesterday that the last thing I posted in this blog was a piece about being “content in whatever state I am in” based on the words of St. Paul in Philippians 4. I posted that 4 days before the Paris terrorist attacks. How quickly I forgot those words to live by when the chips were down.

But tonight, several mass shootings later, some other words from that same 4th chapter popped into my awareness as I was pondering why I was not as depressed by these latest killings much closer to home. In particular verse 7 came to mind, and I had a warm feeling because what had been just words and ideas 3 weeks ago was actually a reality for me. I was experiencing the “peace that passes all understanding,” and it was very good.

So I revisited Philippians 4, and here’s the context for verse 7: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

How relevant and practical those old words are for this particular Advent. Rejoice, in spite of our fear. Be gentle to everyone, including ourselves. Know that Emmanuel (“God with Us”) is near. Replace worry with prayer and supplication and thanksgiving. Prayer is not enough in our struggle with death and destruction and violence, but it is the foundation, the source of strength that sustains us when “our arms are too weary” to be carriers of hope to a frightened world.

And Paul gives attitude adjustment advice better than the best self-help guru. He says to focus on what is good and true and excellent and worthy of praise. Because even in the dark days of Advent 2015 there is much goodness in the world. We may just have to work a little harder to find it, but it is more necessary than ever to find it and share it.

One such image for me that is stronger than the non-stop horrific news coverage from California is that of a simple gesture by my granddaughter that Friday the 13th. She came down to my office that morning with two juice boxes in her hands that she had gotten from the lunch box she brought with her. When I asked her if she was going to drink them both she said, “No, this one’s for you.” A simple pure act of caring and sharing, unprompted and natural. It was the best juice box I’ve tasted in a long time!

She was doing in her six-year-old way what the final advice is in that passage from Paul. It says, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard in me, and the peace of God will be with you.” Don’t abandon the ways of love and peace. Don’t fall into the temptation to fight fire with fire. Be forgiving and compassionate, even when those things make no sense and seem impossible. There is no peace in following the ways of King Herod, another mass murderer. The peace of God came “not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drum, but with deeds of love and mercy” in a helpless refugee child born in a barn.

No matter how loud our leaders and our hearts want to shout fear and hate, the still small voice of God says, “Fear not, I am still bringing you good news of great joy.” Don’t miss it!