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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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Last night, in one of those interesting confluences of events, I found myself at my church, helping to mentor a group of 9th and 10th grade students who are part of our Coming of Age class.  This program, one of the crown jewels of the Unitarian Universalist religious education program, guides high school students as they contemplate their personal ethics, morals, faith, and vision for themselves, both now and in the future.  And, in an ironic and timely coincidence, the evening’s theme was on good and evil.

Is there inherent good in the world, we were asked?  Or inherent evil?  Or does it take people for either, or both, to exist?  Why do people do good things, and have you ever experienced them?  And why is it that evil occurs?  The youth, and we, their advisers and mentors, wrestled with those very big questions, all in light of the tragedy that had occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

After class was over, Ben and I went on to meet our nephew and niece at the movie theater to escape the weekend’s headlines.  There, we watched “The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey,” and I was pulled in once again to the story of Gollum, the tormented creature who engages Bilbo Baggins in riddles and struggles with his inner selves…part good, part evil…unsure which way to go.

Face of Gollum

Gollum, who struggles with good and evil in Tolkien’s stories.

I do believe — have always believed — that it takes people to cause good in the world, that good exists because of what we do, because of how we experience it through our eyes.  And I also believe that people cause evil to exist in the world.  The sick or twisted mind loses its way, causes pain and suffering and hatred to be visited on others.  If a tree falls in the forest, it must be witnessed in some way to be known.

So while Gollum, alone on his island imagines what he might do to feed his lost soul, it requires the presence of another — in this case, Baggins — to push him to action.  And, returning to the realities of our own nightmarish existence of the last several days, it seems clear that Adam Lanza’s warped sensibilities sought out the lives of innocents to carry out his mission in the horrible, desperate way that he did on Friday.

In the Coming of Age class on Sunday night, the question was asked:  “What have you done that was good?”  People thought hard as they struggled to answer that question.  My own response was pretty simple:  This weekend I wrote a letter to a very good friend who lives in Newtown, telling her that I was thinking of her.  And at church yesterday, I sought out a woman — with two beautiful children of her own — who teaches kindergarten in our town, and thanked her for what she does.

Someone I know wrote, in an email to others, that we might not be able to do much right now for the people of Newtown, but that we can be kind to one another.  True, we can sign online petitions to the White House, the National Rifle Association and public interest lobbies — and that is important.  We can write to our elected representatives and the President of the United States, and that is required, I think.  But if we do those things and we are pushed, in a moment of anger, to scratch the door of someone at the parking lot because they parked too close, or to cut someone off in traffic, or push to the front of the line at the movie theater, we might have missed the bigger point.

Child lighting candle Make no mistake:  I am no Pollyanna.  As my friends — and some who are not — will tell you, I have been known to proclaim someone an ass—e on plenty of occasions, and I certainly don’t get it right every time in my life.  But long ago, I resolved to try to treat people with kindness; to live out what I held on to when I was a teenager, about the same age as these kids who I now seek to mentor:  I chose to believe that people are, as Anne Frank once said, really good at heart.  And that we should try to treat one another with kindness and do good where we can, even in small ways.

Right now, as we thread our way through the thorns and blossoms that reside next to one another in the garden of good and evil, that seems like it might be a pretty important goal — and the one that we can all work toward, no matter where we are on our society’s power ladder.

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It’s less than two weeks before Christmas, a time when the pressure on parents to think about how they can fulfill their children’s wishes and dreams mounts apace.  It’s a time of holiday parties, of too much to do and too little time, of baking treats, visiting with friends and — in our house, anyway — thinking about the arrival home of our adored younger child, whose face we last saw (at least, without the aid of Skype) on August 29 as we drove away from New Orleans.

She’s had a good first semester at Tulane, and we’ve survived empty nest syndrome reasonably well.  And now, it’s time for a reunion.  And while my head has been filled with all the things we might do when she comes home — all the things I’ll cook for her, the Zumba class we’ll go to together, picking out the Christmas tree and decorating it, with eggnog in hand — the illusion was shattered today.

I’m from Connecticut, you see.  A dear friend lives in Newtown;  I know where Sandy Hook is.  More than that, the elementary school where our younger child was educated is right down the street from us.  Many days, Ben or I would walk her there, say goodbye as she went in the door, wave to the principal, thank her teachers for all they offered her.  So I really can not imagine what nightmare the parents of Newtown are living through right now.  How in the world could you have been planning for the holidays with your five- or eight-year-old one minute and find out, in the next, that the child has been blown away by a gunman?

What do we say, collectively, to those parents?  What do we say to the families of those who have lost a loved one…those families of educators who devoted themselves to our children, so that they would have the opportunity to grow and contribute and flower in their lives?  And why, in the name of all that is valuable in life, do we continue to believe that — because of this country’s struggle for liberty and the value of individual rights — we must have the right to bear firearms, allowing this catastrophe to happen over and over again?

By heaven’s grace, it wasn’t either of my children who died today.  By heaven’s grace, it wasn’t my nephew, who teaches in a charter school, or an extended family member’s second grade son, or my cousin, who is a school librarian.  But it could have been.  And it should not be.  Not ever.

We proudly proclaim that, as a country, we are the most powerful nation on earth.  And then, people who suffer from mental illness or who have lost their way in life use the rights we continue to proudly claim, to buy firearms and in one horrible moment, blow away the lives, the futures, of twenty small children and the teachers who cared for them.

Too often, we take our lives and our existence for granted, take our privileges as citizens of this country as ‘inalienable rights’ that can lead us astray.  There must be another way.  Because, for those good people of Newtown and for us as a nation, life as we know it will not be the same.  And we owe it to the memory of those children and teachers to make sure that the gun laws in this country are different so that this sad drama does not keep repeating.

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Yesterday, I had the opportunity to share with my congregation my thoughts regarding Massachusetts’ proposed ballot initiative (known as Question 2) which asks voters whether the Commonwealth shall permit physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to terminally ill individuals who request such assistance.  My perspective on this is deeply personal.

It was in July, 1993 that I got the phone call from my father.  After months of mysterious muscle weakness, stumbling, falling, thinking that it was the result of a fall off a ladder the previous year that had resulted in cervical fractures, he had received a diagnosis of ALS, or Lew Gehrig’s disease.  A death sentence for most people – the question was when, and how.

I was pregnant with Abby.  My mother was overwhelmed with trying to care for my father, and I have no siblings.  Dad asked whether Ben and I could talk to his doctors and find out if they would write a prescription for a lethal dose of medication that would allow him to end his life.  Ben and I talked about it, as I recall for a while, but not for long.  Because we knew we would do what Dad asked.

We got in the car and drove to New Haven, having made appointments with Dad’s primary care physician and neurologist.  We prepared ourselves for a fight.  We had all the arguments at hand about why this was the humane thing to do, the thing that would fulfill the wishes of the person who would never recover from his disease.  We had done our homework:  Rev. Ralph Mero, the Unitarian Universalist minister who had led the effort to pass a death with dignity law in Oregon, had provided us with information on options, given us some talking points, and had offered compassionate, sensible help to us at every step of the way.

We arrived at the doctor’s offices on the Yale campus, and began our meetings.  We were astonished to find no argument coming back from either physician.  Were these my father’s wishes, they asked?  We asserted that they were.  Then yes, of course they would write the prescriptions.

We were stunned that it had not taken an argument, and we were deeply grateful.  Our next visits were with my father’s best friend, an eminent psychiatrist at Yale.  He confirmed that he would be there, with my father and mother, while my father took his last breaths.  Steve Fleck would not fail, we knew, and we were deeply appreciative of his courage and strength.  Finally, we saw my parents’ minister.  She confirmed that she, too, would be there and would support the decision.  We felt that we had a plan.  The prescription was filled at a local pharmacy and picked up.

The last part was administering the medication.  My Dad had lost the ability to feed himself, to move his arms more than a little.  So administering the medication was a real concern.  I didn’t want to ask my mother to do this, and after considering the question, I decided that I was prepared to act.  Helping someone you love to spend the last part of their life in as dignified a manner as possible is high on my list of promises I will keep.  I was ready to drive to New Haven and feed my father the medication.

Abigail Soule was born in the early morning hours of October 5, 1993.  Three weeks later, we brought her to Connecticut to meet her grandfather, so that he could pronounce her ‘perfect’ and be at rest, knowing that this great wheel of life had turned once more.

On October 30, with his breathing growing more difficult as fluid built up in his lungs, my father developed a bladder infection which we had decided we would not treat with antibiotics.  He announced that he was ready for the medication:  life was just not fun anymore, and even his quips and jokes were not enough to keep him going.  Pneumonia set in.  He saw the next door neighbor’s children in their Halloween costumes on October 31 as they came to the house to Trick or Treat, and then, on November 1, he passed, as he had said he would, “quietly into the night.”  As sometimes happens in these situations, fate had intervened before action was required.

In the face of such difficult decisions, our family was lifted up:  by the compassionate physicians who were willing to support my father’s request; by the friend of decades who was willing to stand by; by the minister who – while acknowledging her own belief in the value of life until the last breath is taken – was willing to honor my father’s last wish.  We were lucky.

I hope that Question #2 passes on November 6 — because I don’t want people to have to be lucky about having the nerve to ask the difficult questions we asked, relying on the compassionate physicians, ministers, friends who we were fortunate enough to have, or be left to hope that a family member would have the guts to administer medication to a family member if she or he couldn’t lift up the medication to their lips.  We don’t need luck, we need a law that will help to ensure that people have as good a death as possible.

My father died on All Saints Day, a day of remembrance and celebration honored in different ways in Christian, Celtic and pagan communities. A hymn that we sing in our Unitarian Universalist congregations, “For All the Saints,” says, “Thy name most holy, be forever bless’d,” in speaking of the departed.  I would offer that same praise and blessing for those who have stepped forward, in different times and places, to compassionately help those who we love exit this life in dignity and peace.

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Last night, we arrived home from our road trip that took us to New Orleans and back – a trip of nearly 3,500 miles — traveled over twelve intense days.  We did the trip in our 2006 Toyota Prius, which now has an odometer nearing 100,000 miles, with a car top box on top (and, for half the trip, a bicycle lashed to the roof as well).

I’m  old enough to remember the ads that ran when I was a child, featuring Dinah Shore singing, in a convertible, “See the USA in your Chevrolet!”  It seemed so exciting – everyone wanted to get out on the open road and visit different states, with the wind blowing through their hair, with spouse and kids in tow (probably a dog as well), cigarette in hand.

I took such a trip when I was sixteen, traveling from my home in Connecticut to Vail, Colorado with my parents, and then on to California, with a return across the South and up the Northeast.  It was a nearly four week journey, as I recall, and even though my parents criticized me for reading movie magazines in the back seat and sleeping much of the time, it’s remarkable how much I remember from the trip.  I remember how remarkably flat Kansas was…those miles of farmland were impressive – and the awe I felt as we approached the Rocky Mountains.  I had altitude sickness in Denver, but that passed soon enough, and Vail – which was a new development at the time – seemed like an Alpine village.  It was there that I tasted fondue for the first time, rode on a cable car up a mountain, and hiked through that lovely mountain resort.

I had a summer snowball fight with my father at a picnic lunch stop at Yosemite National Park, snuck into a gambling casino and played at a slot machine until I was discovered by a security guard, and saw a young Liza Minelli perform in Las Vegas.  I also went to a topless club in San Francisco (I was snuck into the club, with a fake ID, along with my parents and several social workers), tasted authentic Chinese Food for the first time in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and, as we neared home, got my first sense of the South when we stopped in Louisville, Kentucky.  I also was struck by the poverty of Appalachia (just after the time that Robert Coles had published his landmark book, “Death at an Early Age,”) as we traveled through West Virginia en route to the nation’s capitol.  I climbed to the top of the Washington Monument with my Dad in sweltering August heat, felt awe as I visited the Lincoln Memorial, and celebrated the fact that – while in Los Angeles – I had finally made it to Disneyland.  It was a pretty great summer trip.

So as we set out this time, I realized how many years it had been since I’d last taken a really big road trip. Ben, too, had been on extended road trips, but it had been forty years since the last one (for him, the route had taken him to Rocky Mountain National Park and then down through New Mexico and Texas to New Orleans, and through Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky on the way home).

We were driving Abby to Tulane in New Orleans, and we were really excited to be doing this trip – partly because we wanted Abby to have the chance to see part of the country that she had never visited before.  Our first night took us to Chambersburg, PA, home of Ben’s maternal grandmother.  He’d visited there when he was a small boy;  he’d returned two years ago while on a service trip to West Virginia.  But Abby and I had never been there, so we were excited to see this town that had been burned by the Confederate Army; the town where Ben had had adventures in his grandmother’s rather grand (now, non-existent) home.

Abby and Ben in front of historical marker

Abby and Ben in Chambersburg in front of historical marker

We went on to visit friends in Rutledge, Tennessee – thirty miles or so from Knoxville, and near very little in the way of commercial services…but their house, located on a pristine lake, was in a terrific location…and they had five boats to ‘play’ on.  We took a ride on the lake in their pontoon boat as the sun set, and went out fishing again early the next morning as the sun rose. As we drove away, we saw more little Baptist churches than we could count, and listened to Dolly Parton singing about life in Tennessee and thought, “this is beautiful and uncomplicated and hidden away from society – a great life.”

We stayed in Birmingham, AL next.  We had the best dinner of our trip, at a Greek restaurant in Homewood, AL (who would have thought that there would be a Mediterranean enclave there?) and in the morning, visited the 16th Street Baptist Church where Martin Luther King had preached, and walked the civil rights walk through the downtown area.  We were dismayed to learn that the church had been broken into the night before, the glass doors smashed.

And then, the Jazz City:  still hurting in many neighborhoods, but not broken:  full of music, unique Cajun and Acadian and African American culture.  There was an afternoon monsoon – not uncommon for the hot, humid summers of New Orleans – and our car got flooded on the street near Tulane.  After bailing it out and wet-vac’ing the rugs three times, it was reasonably functional.  We observed – and I rely on New Orleanians to tell me their truth – that this city’s culture is more authentically multi-racial and multi-cultural than that one might encounter almost anywhere else in the US…people seem more at home with one another, more willing to engage with people who might be different than they are.  We loved this sense.

Deb and Abby in front of the bakery

Deb and Abby in front of the Buttermilk Drop Bakery

Along the way, we visited Dwight Henry’s Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café in the Seventh Ward – he, one of the stars of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” owns a place filled with friendly staff who make the most amazingly, sinfully delicious doughnuts we’d ever had.  Go there if you can – you will be glad you did.  We also managed to get into the French Quarter to enjoy Café du Monde late one night, scarfing down the beignets, café au lait, and of course, loving the attendant people watching.

A highlight was our trip to Plaquemines Parish, to visit our friends, Tyronne and Gail Edwards.  I have written elsewhere on this visit so I won’t repeat myself here.  Suffice it to say, for now, that this trip was a blessing and a joy, Gail’s cooking delicious, and it was a thrill to see all that had been accomplished in Tyronne and Gail’s town of Phoenix in the seven years since Katrina.

We ate brunch with Abby at a café near the Garden District called Atchafalya while listening to a jazz combo; then, we were gone – we watched Abby walk away, wave to us, and disappear around the corner of her dorm.  We headed down the coast into Mississippi, observing the gorgeous beaches and the stairs leading to nothing – washed away in the last storm.  We decided to go into the Beau Rivage Casino to take a look, spend $5 in the slots, and eat a hot dog for lunch.  It’s opulent and a stark contrast to the poverty we knew existed in Biloxi just a few blocks away.

As we drove away, we saw battalions of bucket trucks headed in the other direction – staging for hurricane cleanup, we were sure.  The storm was still two days away, but there was an ominous air on the Gulf Coast, as people gritted their teeth and prepared to hunker down for a storm they hoped would veer away at the last moment.

We spent the night in a tiny ‘microtel’ in Montgomery, AL.  I was verbally pinned by the owner of the hotel, who wanted to know (while I was at the breakfast buffet) who I liked in the upcoming election.  I tried to give non-committal answers, not wanting to get into such conversations while traveling, but finally acknowledged my strong preference for the President.  An Indian who had come to the country forty-two years ago (he said), he barraged me with reasons why the opponent was a better choice.  I finally managed to excuse myself and mutter to Ben, “Let’s get out of here.”  We visited the Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery that is run by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and saw the fountain and monument that commemorates civil rights struggles since the late 1940’s.

Marker at Civil Rights Museum

The Civil Rights Monument and Museum in Montgomery, AL

In Atlanta we were impressed with the kudzu overwhelming the trees.  We chowed down on authentic southern cuisine at Mary Mac’s Tearoom.  And we had absolutely terrific help at a Car Spa from two young men who, in random acts of kindness, not only extracted water from the floor of our car but cleaned it from top to bottom – for no additional fee.

As we headed north toward Durham (with a nice stop in Greenvile, SC) and then on to Alexandria, we had the sense that we were leaving the country as we’d been experiencing it in the South.  Headed out of Washington, DC, we ran into huge amounts of traffic, aggressive and often jerky drivers, many more billboards, and really ugly highways through New Jersey and New York.  The drive up from Washington through Connecticut was a bear, and it stood in stark contrast to the open spaces we’d seen in the south.  We talked about how smart Canadians are to ban billboards and wondered why the US had taken another path.

And we wondered why we hadn’t done trips like this before.  On this trip we saw evidence of the Civil War, and of the Civil Rights movement:  signs for sites, sometimes juxtaposed, named after people who had led each of these struggles.  Where have we come from since the Civil War was fought on this land?  How far  have we come from since the struggles of Birmingham and Montgomery?  And, we wondered as we caught snippets of a political convention and news of poor coastal communities struggling again to survive devastating natural disasters — where will we go in the future?

What role will we, fellow travelers, play in the next chapter?  You never know what you can find out until you get behind the wheel of the car and visit some place that you’ve never been before.

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Years ago, I saw the movie “Groundhog Day,” which featured Bill Murray as a broadcaster who had reported on Punxatawney Phil on Groundhog Day, and then found that he kept reliving the same day, over and over again.  As I continue my path home from the Gulf Coast, wracked with worry over my daughter (who I believe will be OK on the campus of Tulane University) and more to the point, over my friends in Plaquemines Parish — which appears to be sustaining worse damage than during Hurricane Katrina — I keep thinking about that movie.

I write seven years to the day after Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.  I can tell you (in case you had any doubt) that there are many parts of the greater New Orleans area that have not recovered from that storm, and that will never recover.  The city and the area are wonderful, but it is not the same place it once was.  The people that stayed, and those that have come since those days, have a grittiness and sense of perseverance that is sobering to observe.

For those who stuck around – because this is where their home is, and their heart and their culture – the challenge has come round again.  I was in Plaquemines Parish with my friends last Friday.  I saw all that they had done to recover from Katrina, heard about the plans they had, visited their churches, reveled in their spirit and their vision for reclaiming a life and a future on the Gulf Coast.  Today, I haven’t been able to reach them because Hurricane Isaac rages on and will not move:  more than a foot of water has fallen in the area, the power is out, the levees in Plaquemines Parish have been overtopped, and everything that these folks – along with countless volunteers and hundreds of thousands of dollars – struggled for has been thrown into a cocked hat.

So it’s a little like Groundhog Day.  Do we keep working at it till we ‘get it right’ or till the levees are so high that they can not be breached, even by a twelve foot storm surge?  Do we politely suggest that the people who have lived on this land for generations just give it up and go somewhere else?  Do we build an ark (which was one of the solutions suggested in the film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”)?

I refuse to believe that the people who will now have to rebuild again, following Isaac, should be expected to give up their homes.  Our friend, Rev. Tyronne Edwards, embraces the name of the Zion Travelers for his church.  Their slogan, in the days after Katrina, was “Let us arise and rebuild.”  So it was, and so it will be, again.  As fellow citizens and compassionate friends, we must respond to the struggle to reclaim the land our sisters and brothers love, and have lived on, for generations.  So, as the damage reports come in and the flood waters subside, we will likely be asked, once again, to answer the call for assistance, and to help our friends arise and rebuild.  We have done this before, and we will do it again, in a partnership informed by faith, a deep belief in justice, and the need that people carry, deep inside them, to be able to just go home.

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