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Archive for the ‘public witness’ Category

Guest Post by Ben Soule

The day after the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly ended my wife Deb and I were still in New Orleans. Most of the other delegates had already flown out and Deb was scheduled to be in meetings with some of the remaining UUA leaders, so I had some time to myself. Finding that the museum I intended to visit was closed on Mondays, I decided to take a long walk through my favorite city instead.  I took out my cell phone, opened Google Maps, dropped a pin in the middle of the Bywater District, hit the start button, and set off.

I was glad for this chance to get out of the hotel room, out of the GA bubble, and stretch my legs.  I was also glad to be able to have a chance to reflect on all that had happened in the past five days.  I thought back on all of the mind- and soul-stretching workshops I had attended, working to understand where I fit in the seismic shift in Unitarian Universalism that this year’s Assembly has signaled.  In addition, I had set out on my own quest to answer some questions for which I could find no ready answers, such as:

~ What is the cultural origin of the word ashé? 
~ Why have “indigenous people” been given a separate category from the larger category of people of color? 
~ How did the phrase “white supremacy” come to be the default term for that which we are working against?  
~ And my last and only unanswered question of the week: How do we wrestle with the issues raised by the brutal attack on two UUA staff members in the French Quarter on Saturday night, in light of all we had learned in recent days?  I was working hard on that one.

My route took me around much of the crescent for which the old city was nick-named.  As I crossed Bienville I recalled the news report from that morning saying that the attack took place on “the 200 block of Bienville.”  I glanced to my left and wondered.  I continued past Jackson Square, past the French market, through the industrial end of the Marigny district and into the Bywater.  The Bywater is a pleasant neighborhood that appears to have come a long way since Katrina, and shows signs of the mixed blessing of gentrification.  I walked along Rue Dauphine past many brightly painted houses as well as some that clearly needed to be worked on.  I came to a corner with a Mom and Pop market and a flower and bookshop where my GPS told me I had another 100 feet to my destination.  I walked the last few steps, stopped and looked around, hoping that there would be  something there, something significant, something that I was supposed to find.  But there wasn’t. Just some well-kept houses on a quiet street shaded by lime trees. 

So I turned back the way I had come to that last street corner.  It was mid-afternoon on a warm New Orleans day and I was glad to be able to buy something cold to drink at the market.  I stepped past a few people sitting in the shade of the sidewalk awning and entered the dimly lit market.  I exchanged a few pleasantries with the woman behind the counter as I bought a bottle of fruit juice and had a few gulps.  I stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked across the street at the book and florist shop I had passed earlier. 

And then I knew why I was there.  I crossed and went into the tiny florist’s but no one was there.  I called up the stairs where the books must have been.  No answer.  As I turned to leave, a young woman appeared in the doorway.  I recognized her from the group across the street.  “Do you work here?” I asked.  “Yes, can I help you?,” she said.  I asked for a small mixed bouquet for a sick friend.  She went to the tinier back room and returned with a lovingly assembled splash of colors and look of sympathy in her eyes.  I asked for a card to write a note, jotted a few words and tied it with the yarn around the brown paper bundle.  I paid her the $13.20, thanked her, asked for the most interesting route back to the Quarter, and set off.

On Burgundy I passed a carefully restored Esso station with a sign saying “No gas today.”  On Elysian Fields I saw a circle of rust brown statue-people facing defiantly outward.  On Rue Royal I was greeted with a “How y’all doin’” by a young man, and I saw a young woman retrieve an electronic recorder for a UPS driver that had fallen from his truck.  Everything seemed to have meaning to me in the hyperaware state I was in because my GA experience. 

I was nearly all the way across the Quarter when I drained the last of the now-warm juice, and saw the sign for Rue Bienville up ahead.  My heart was pounding as I turned left toward the river.  I passed the 400 block and crossed North Peters.  I seemed to be out of what I thought of as the French Quarter but I kept on. Ahead was a single four-story brick building surrounded by parking lots.  I realized that the flowers’ brown paper wrapper was soaked through with my own sweat as I took the bouquet with my right hand from the crook of my left arm and approached the building.  It was marked number 208.

There was a man setting up a power washer.  The intake hose was in a drainage ditch of an adjacent building project.  As he started the washer I saw that his job was to wash away the sand that was strewn on the sidewalk.  My realization that I had found the right place was confirmed when, as he cleaned away the top layer, I saw the caked red sand beneath.

209 NOLAI placed the flowers in a nook in the front of building and left the man to his task. As I walked away I wondered why I had done this thing.  It was not my typical behavior.  I didn’t do it for myself, and I knew it would make little difference to the victims.  I had no expectation that the flowers would be there more than 10 minutes after I left.  But I understood I was the only person in that place and at that time who could make that gesture, who could bear witness, as Deb phrased it later.  I understood that no matter how difficult we find the road that we travel together, no matter how long it takes to hear and to know each others’ deepest stories, how painful it is to create a welcome place in our movement for all who wish to join, we must stand together.

Clearly I had felt a call from my deep life-long connection to Unitarian Universalism.  I am grateful to have been awake and aware enough to heed that call.

Ben Soule is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.  He resides in Lexington, MA and is a member of First Parish in Lexington.

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I guess there is one thing that I can be grateful for on this Inauguration Day:  Donald J. Trump got me back into blogging.  After weeks of feeling increasingly ill, after nights of tossing and turning and waking up way too early with an impending sense of doom descending on me – here I am, back at the keyboard after a hiatus of more than three years.

It isn’t that I don’t like to write, of course:  I do it a lot and enjoy it.  It isn’t that I didn’t have ideas…I have too many of them.  But busy?  Oh jeez.  Nevertheless, I’m back and sitting here as the news plays in the background, sharing images of the new First Family headed to a worship service, then to the White House to have coffee with the First Family of my Heart For All Time, and then on to the swearing-in.

I won’t be watching it;  I’ll be at the church I’m serving, in the sanctuary with parishioners, lighting candles, sitting in meditation and prayer, at high noon.  I’ll be thinking, in this town where the American Revolution began, about the country that has been my home and that of my parents and their parents.  This is the land that was built from struggle and love and visions of a place where immigrants could arrive and find – with hard work and dedication – a better life … and it’s where this drama is unfolding, as a large part of the nation holds its collective breath.

So yes, I thank you, Mr. President-Elect.  For this, I am grateful.

I am also grateful for my daughters, they who are from Gen Y and Millenial cohorts, and their belief in a life which can be more fair, more just, for all; one where women are valued for their contributions and their minds and are paid equally and not subjected to groping and denigrating remarks.  I am grateful that one of my daughters, surrounded by friends from her high school, from Star Island, from Tulane and Loyola, are now traveling to Washington to be part of the Women’s March.  I am grateful that pretty much everyone I talk to is engaged in planning and action to change the direction the almost-president is embracing.

I’m grateful for a spouse who has a deep love of country and the history that made this nation what it is, who is here to travel the road with me, hold me at night when I’m wondering where this all will go, and share conversations with me around how we live into an uncertain time.  I’m grateful to be part of communities of faith that embrace resistance and action.  I’m grateful for the brilliant Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, who night after night, helps us understand the news we’re reading and receiving.  She is brainy and literate and she is pure gold.  I’m grateful for my progressive clergy and religious educator colleagues who are working hard to put all that people are feeling into words and action and teachable moments.

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Morning star rising over the Chapel on Star Island

And I’m grateful to remember that, for a very long time, the sun has continued to rise and set; the morning star has risen, and life has gone on.  Last summer, my beloved former neighbor said, as we stood and looked on our gardens, “Maybe this is what people mean by the end-times.”  Interesting thought:  maybe it’s not that the world ends with a bang, but with a whimper…with society caving in and conversations devolving into brags about acts of violence and hate perpetrated on the vulnerable.

On the other hand, I am now choosing to view this not as an end, but a beginning:  Even this new kind of leader probably won’t end this nation  (although I do worry…) and while the light fills the morning sky, I’ll keep praying that our nation, and our world — now more complex than ever — endures and maybe even becomes better as a result of our steadfast witness to values of love, justice and hope.  May it be so, today and in all the days to come.

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Very late on Sunday night, April 14, I was sitting in Lexington’s Hancock-Clarke House next to the brick fireplace, the room lit only by two eighteenth-century candle lanterns.  The historic house becomes a stage set on Patriot’s Day Eve, as the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere into Lexington is re-enacted, much to the delight of local Boy Scout and church youth group members, townspeople, and visitors who’ve come here from all over the world to see what Patriot’s Day is all about.

My husband, Ben, plays John Hancock in the re-enactment, and I am his dresser, helping him pull off his outer garments and hat, re-adjust his body microphone, and present himself as though awakened from restless sleep by the arrival of Paul Revere and William Dawes at the home of Rev. Jonas Clarke.  The play is a charming event, sponsored by the Lexington Historical Society, and after the last scene of the play is staged on Lexington’s Battle Green (in which Rev. Clarke inspires the farmers of the town to stand up to the Redcoats, and Hancock and his pal, Sam Adams, flee Lexington for the neighboring town of Woburn), the crowds disperse…at least until the 5 AM Battle of Lexington re-enactment.

As Ben and I got in our car to drive home, just after midnight, we remarked on the cold, clear night with the crescent moon shining down.  We drove toward the Green and saw the new American flag, much bigger than the last, waving over the Green, lit by spotlights.  We looked back at our church, First Parish in Lexington, gathered in 1691, with its steeple illuminated — a reassuring beacon in the night.  And I thought about how this holiday was so special for New England…how I wished more people would celebrate Patriot’s Day here in our town, and not just think of the next day as “Marathon Monday.”

We haven’t ever been Marathon people, although I’m proud of Boston’s history with this oldest of marathon races.  Ben and I usually watch the end of the race, remark on how well the Kenyan runners seem to do, follow a few of the heart-warming stories of the race (including this year’s dedication of the race to the victims of the shootings in Newtown, CT) and otherwise, observe the day with Colonial activities in Lexington, Lincoln, and Concord.  And we like it that way.

Too often, there are also pro-gun rallies, or other events in our town, that are designed to remind people of perceived threats to second amendment rights.  I have written previously about these and don’t need to revisit those thoughts now.  This year, however, the individuals or organization that meant Boston harm had something else in mind, as two bombs were detonated along the finish of the marathon route.  The shock of this horror happening in our city took me back to the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, which occurred on April 19th…and to other threats made against our country on other April mornings.

I imagine that the perpetrators of such acts fashion themselves to be patriots of a sort…people who are taking a stand for their point of view against the organized influences of government and society that they feel threaten them.  I imagine that they have decided to cause such chaos and tragedy because they want to be heard.  I imagine that they feel that violence, and a large act of it, is the only way for them to gain attention.  And I imagine that they want to frighten the rest of us, so that we will know that they are strong.

These are patriot games of a most unpatriotic and cowardly sort.  and I (just an ordinary citizen) feel confident in saying, on behalf of all living near the epicenter of these acts — designed to bring us to our knees — that acts of terror will not have the desired effect.  As one woman, interviewed on the street in Boston today, said, “We are Bostonians.  We will not be intimidated.  We get up, we get our coffee, we allow extra time to go to work, and we carry on…because we will not be frightened by these acts.  We are Bostonians, and this is what we do.”

The people of Great Britain must have had it right when the slogan, “Keep calm and carry on,” was coined in 1939, at the start of the second world war.  These games of intimidation and mayhem will not succeed, and life in and around the Hub of the Universe, where the struggle for liberty began so many years ago, will go on – even stronger, blessed by the people who make this part of the world my home.

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We’re midway into April, the month when my husband and I live on verge of going meschugah because there is just too much to do, every single moment of every single day.  And this year is no different.  It’s Patriot’s Day weekend here in Lexington, the town where the first shot of the American Revolution was fired on our historic Green, which stands about a mile and half from our house.  The town’s draped in bunting and there are tons of visitors in the area — you can tell because they wander out into the middle of the road and there are tour buses everywhere.  Down the street, I heard the muskets going off an hour ago as the Battle Road re-enactments took place, showing folks what the running battle that took place from Concord to Lexington to Arlington was like, following the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord.

Tomorrow my catering company will be serving a Colonial Lunch to all who want to sample the real deal — New England Fish Chowder, baked beans, pot pie, and more — and the afternoon parade will come marching down Massachusetts Avenue, leading to more activities and a re-enactment of Paul Revere’s Ride at  midnight on Sunday and The Battle of Lexington early on Monday.  And this year, even more:  Lexington celebrates its 300th birthday – so the events have even more hoopla attached to them.

This historic stuff all seems charming — it’s really a slice of small town New England life at its’ nicest — but along with it, we’re looking forward this spring to demonstrations in support of second amendment rights. organized by gun enthusiasts who refuse to acknowledge that some changes in the nation’s gun laws might be in order to prevent the next school tragedy or mass shooting.  While the parents of some of the tiny victims of the Newtown, CT massacre continue to bear witness in the nation’s capital to the need for debate and a vote on gun laws that might protect the innocent, folks will be coming to Lexington next Friday to ‘stand up and be counted.’  The local clergy association has organized a peaceful public witness event as one response, and many folks in town are left shaking their heads, wondering why, once again, the debate over the right to bear arms has landed on our town Green.

Year after year, as Middlesex County, Massachusetts, celebrates the beginnings of the Revolution, people also show up to raise the flag of fear: if we give any ground on the gun debate, the government will take over our lives and all our freedoms — those that the Patriots fought and died for — will be lost.  But I doubt that Jonas Clarke and the Sons of Liberty imagined ammo clips for their muskets and the need for assault weapons in their homes.  While we celebrate the best of America during events like this weekend’s in Lexington, some people will be looking over their shoulders, to see what freedoms the government is going to take away next.

But who is the government?  Are we part of it?  What role do we all play in determining our fate, and why would we believe that assault weapons are the way to protect our liberties?  Where does “the pursuit of happiness” come into the mix (as articulated in The Declaration of Independence, or, for that matter, the embrace of life itself as one of the freedoms we defend relentlessly?

This weekend in our little town, we celebrate the lives and sacrifices of the patriots who were inspired to fight for their independence from Great Britain, some at great personal cost.  Their struggle is worth remembering, particularly since it lifts up those who held on to the values that the founders had for America…a country affirming not only freedom, but safe harbor and protection for its citizens — even its most vulnerable.

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People of my generation will remember the famous TV show which (in its original version) had Monty Hall bursting forward to holler at the audience, urging them to stand up, in their bizarre costumes, and bargain with him for prizes shown off by “the lovely Carol Merrell” for all to admire.  People would shriek when chosen for the honor and would do anything to make that deal and walk away with something good.

photo of Monty Hall

Monty Hall, original host of “Let’s Make a Deal.”

But was it such a great deal?  Sometimes not.  The bargaining could consume the players, and bidding successfully became the objective, so that you could say you WON that round.  Whether you actually wanted what you got was another story.

And so we find, buried on page twenty-five of The New York Times on Thursday, March 14, 2013, the story about how a “Congressional Committees Makes Some Gun-Rights Provisions Permanent.”   The fact that the story is placed so far back in the newspaper rather than on the front page starts to tell the story.  The decision to place a story on a violent gun battle that killed four in Herkimer, New York, which is found two pages later (but has more ink devoted to it), helps flesh out the problem.

Three months after the catastrophe that killed so many tiny children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, we’re back to reporting on killing sprees and the deals of lawmakers that help make them possible, and editors are burying the story deep in the U.S. Newspaper of Record.

The deal that the Senate is about to allow is one that comes from the cynical behavior that is so commonly found these days in our legislative bodies…that of tacking on onerous provisions to budget bills.  In this case, Democratic leaders have to suck it up and agree to the add-ons if they want their budget bills – the ones designed to keep the government running – to go through the Senate.

The Times reports, “…any legislation that comes to the Senate floor could be undermined by the riders on appropriations bills like the one being debated on the floor now, which would keep the government running through the end of September.”  The story goes on to say, “Even though the gun-rights provisions are long standing, making them permanent is ‘counterproductive,’” according to the director of a violence prevention research program in California.

Yet, here are our duly-elected legislators – the same ones who stood passionately on the floor of the Senate chamber not so long ago, decrying the tragedies that occurred in Connecticut – holding their noses and agreeing to the garbage that comes with the prize they really want.

When my children were younger, they would negotiate for things they wanted and try to drive a hard bargain with my husband and me.  Sometimes it worked, but generally, we held to our position and tried to bring them around to see it our way, and we wouldn’t make what we considered to be a deal not in their ultimate best interest.

When our younger daughter was bargaining, she’d push ever-higher for the prize she was after, and then be astonished when we would make the counter-offer even more restrictive than the ‘original offer.’  Generally she would end up at the point we were originally willing to go to, realizing that this was all she was going to get.  When our older daughter was into the chase for ‘winning’ a debate, she was compelled to be “the first one “ to do whatever would make her ‘win,’ even if – as happened one day – she became the first one to punch herself (albeit gently) in the nose.

But with these actions, buried deep within budget bills, Democrats in the Senate have just punched themselves in the nose, and in so doing, they’ve delivered quite a blow to the country.  As Gabi Giffords goes around the country making halting but heartfelt speeches designed to encourage legislators and citizens to “Be bold, be courageous” in their efforts to pass gun control legislation, it seems like those we elected to represent us in Congress have instead been lured by the voice of the “let’s make a deal” man, hoping that what ends up in their take-home bag will be something they really want instead of a piece of junk.  Too bad that so many of our country’s children, and adults, stand to lose in the bargain they’re about to make on our behalf.

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I walked in the door a few hours ago with hope in my heart and alive with the possibility — the just-maybe feeling that I don’t get all that often anymore — that maybe our country, our world, has a chance to find its goodness and center again.

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and that’s part of it.  Yesterday I put my professional chef skills to work and volunteered my services to make a lunch for all the folks in my congregation — and VIP’s in our town — who were headed for the town’s annual CommUNITY MLK celebration.  The fact that there was a huge pan of food left, and that we arranged to have some volunteers take it to the food pantry in the next town, was even better. Feed our people, feed the hungry, and pass it on.

I headed to Boston to join my congregation’s Coming of Age youth (high schoolers in 9th and 10th grade), who were on retreat discussing our faith’s call to social action, how they can make a difference, and what our faith teaches about reaching out to others.  We talked, we cooked together, we walked around Boston (oh yeah, we watched the Patriots lose a Very Important Football Game too) and I watched these amazing young women who are part of this year’s All-Girl Coming of Age class, talk about their dreams, their aspirations, and why they are Unitarian Universalists.

Then today we headed to an urban K-8 school to be part of the MLK Day of Service projects going on in Boston and throughout the country.  I met folks from all over greater Boston, made Rainbow Fish craft kits for disadvantaged kids, watched others from our group make quilts for lower income babies, cuddle toys for homeless children, cards for service men and women who are protecting our country, scarves for people living in shelters.  We cheered each other — all of us joining together to give back, even a little — and left feeling lifted up.

When we got home I switched on the television and watched our President and his First Lady walk down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House following the inauguration.  And this evening I finally got to sit and watch the inaugural speech, in which this man stood and delivered, talking about the promise of this country and its challenges and opportunities — which must be open, with equality, to all of us.

There have been so many days when the news has been ugly.  When I’ve sat here, shaking my head, wondering what kind of country I live in; when I’ve wondered whether the country that my grandparents dreamed of living in and emigrated t, will ever live up to the vision that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had for it.  And then, I talk to my daughter in college in New Orleans.  I hear her sharing her excitement over voting in her first presidential election – realizing that she is a part of this great experiment called democracy.  I talk to the 10th grade Coming of Age participant who spent months working for Massachusetts’ now-Senator, Elizabeth Warren…a girl who now dreams of working to support the campaign of Rep. Ed Markey as he runs for election to John Kerry’s Senate seat and who thinks about running for elective office some day.

I see in the eyes of these bright young women the promise of tomorrow; the vision that they carry with them for a country that will offer equality, opportunity, and excellence in education.  The singers who are part of Sweet Honey in the Rock once sang of what we need to do “if we want hope to survive”:  March on.  Teach on.  Walk on.

Inspired by our children, called by our President, reminded of the legacy of Dr. King, and ever-hopeful, I remain ready to keep on in this struggle.

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It’s winter, a time when — at least if you aren’t into skiing or snowboarding or tobagganing — people like me  tend to hole up, make lots of soups and stews, try to stay warm, and — as Susan Cooper’s poem The Shortest Day says, “Light candles to drive the dark away.”  Sometimes it feels like there’s cold not only in the air but in my bones as well, and these days, the cold seems to extend to our hearts and minds, too.

Today, one month after the horror of Newtown, CT, where we had to watch the faces of beautiful first graders flash on television as commentators announced their massacre, the National Rifle Association has taken aim at the President of the United States’ daughters, doing their best to lodge an argument that Obama is a hypocrite for wanting gun control when his daughter go to school in a protected environment.

The same organization argues that, in order for us to be safe, we shouldn’t restrict the sale or use of assault weapons, but instead get armed guards into every school and show our teachers how to handle firearms.  Rambo goes to school is the image that floats in my head, and it’s not one I’d want to share with the children I know.

Paranoia has permeated the minds of the NRA and those Second Amendment defenders who have now decided that a proposal to conduct background checks and perhaps even restrict assault-style weapons will take away our hard-fought civil rights.  I truly believe they have lost their perspective on reality and become the Paranoia People…folks who are caught up in thinking that government is out to get us, and that the right to bear arms is so essential that it can not be modified with any restrictions or conditions.

Several years ago I recalled the era of McCarthyism, including its own brush with my family when I was a very young child.  And I decried the fact that it seemed as though the government was permeated with such gutless leaders as those who – like Rush Limbaugh and his cronies – want to denounce all who disagree with them, scare and intimidate everyone into agreeing with their beliefs.  Funny, but things just haven’t changed much since I wrote that piece.  If the NRA’s current ad is any indicator, it’s all slid further downhill into a pile of very bad smelling stuff.

I remember, as a child, visiting my grandparents and my aunt, uncle, and cousins in a rural part of New York State.  My uncle Fred — a really nice guy who farmed for a living, worked hard, and occasionally went hunting — went out and shot a deer.  My cousin, Linda, posed with it, and I suppose (although I do not recall) that our family ate it for dinner and for quite a while thereafter.  I don’t question my uncle wanting to hunt, and recognize that there are many people in this country who like to shoot rifles at targets, go skeet shooting, or kill game to put on the dinner table.  I also recognize that there are some people who feel that they want, or need, to keep a gun in their home for protection.  My own husband has had one at times, although it’s a musket that shoots black powder, used for his colonial MinuteMan activities.

But that is a far cry from the purchase and sale and possession of assault-style weapons by people like you and me.  I can think of absolutely NO reason why any private individual needs to own such a weapon…none.  And the argument that any restriction on gun licensing or change to the review that individuals might undergo in order to purchase a gun constitutes infringement of second amendment rights, is hogwash.

When people get caught up in the idea that the government is there to work against them, not for them; when individuals start arguing that this president, or any president, is going to take away their rights and so they have to stock an arsenal of weaponry to defend their homes, we’re into dangerous territory.  A month ago, in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, there was a lot of talk going on about the need to be kind to one another…to embrace good will and the pure wonder and joy that those slaughtered first graders had, and bring it into our lives.  That didn’t last very long, at least if the NRA’s current media campaign is to be taken as an example.

Yes, there are a few little glimmers of hope.  Yesterday, parents of the Sandy Hook Elementary School children announced the creation of Sandy Hook Promise, which calls on people to “choose love, belief, and hope instead of anger” and to believe that “this time, things will be different.”  What would happen if the paranoia people let go of the fear that’s driving them and decided, instead, to sit down at the table and have an honest conversation with these heartbroken parents about violence and its impact on their lives and our society?  What a radical thought that seems to be.

I continue to hold to the belief that our country can do better, be better, than it is now.  Evidently the parents who began Sandy Hook Promise believe the same…that we have an opportunity to turn tragedy “into transformation.”  But first, the paranoia has to be set aside.  Even for just a few moments…long enough, perhaps, to bring us all to the table to look into one anothers’ eyes and search for the compassion that we all hold, somewhere deep in the too-cold heart that waits to thaw with the promise of love, trust, and healing.

 

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