Seeger and the Visionaries

28 Jan

A young Seeger performs. (Reuters.)

Pete Seeger could hardly be called naïve. In his epic folk music career, he sang for the oppressed – whether they be exploited workers or African Americans suffering under racial segregation – and against war. He paid a price, too: His college days joining of a Communist organization led to later blackballing of his music, and he refused to sign a loyalty oath in order to appear on Hootenanny, a major vehicle for musicians in its day.

Yet Seeger, who died Monday at age 94, remained an optimist, as noted in a superb obituary in today’s New York Times. His famous banjo bore the words “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,” a testimony to the power of song as a catalyst for social change. As Seeger stated in 1994, “The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”

I imagine Seeger could make his case. Sure, big money still seems to rule the world at the expense of the poor, and war seems interwoven with the human condition, But the man who popularized “We Shall Overcome” – back when some didn’t believe civil rights activists would manage to do that – lived to perform in the inaugural celebration for of our first black President.

Naturally, reading Seeger’s statement about the positive story made me think of Visionaries, a production company devoted to telling positive stories of people making a difference in the Third World. The series resists “flies in the face journalism” – the attempt to move by making people objects of pity. Narrated by Sam Waterston, the hands-on work of fundraising, producing, directing and reporting are done by globetrotting journalists and photographers, among them two people I’m fortunate to have as colleagues, producer/director Jody Santos and director of photography Bruce Lundeen. Jody, who utilized Community Service Learning at Assumption College before moving to Springfield College, has been to five continents in pursuit of such stories, which you can watch for free on the Visionaries site. Bruce, who often teaches at Assumption, has been her photographer on many (perhaps all) of those adventures.

Jody, who incorporated service learning into her courses during her time at Assumption College, has built a multimedia journalism career that includes print and radio, as well as a book, Daring to Feel: Violence, The News Media, and Their Emotions. The book argues against striving toward the illusion of an objectivity that is not only false, but an impairment to responding appropriately to stories.

Now at Springfield College, Jody still took the time to respond to the Seeger quote when I sent it her way today: “Too much reporting is he said/she said journalism in which the reporter doesn’t advocate for social justice out of a false sense of loyalty to this notion of objectivity. The Visionaries sets out to find what’s right with the world – and the people who are making positive change happen.”

Enough said – and yet, as Seeger or Santos would remind us, there’s always another story waiting to be told.

Jody Santos documenting the World Church Service's fight against hunger in Kenya.

Jody Santos gives a child in Kenya a peek at her computer.

Through A Child’s Eyes

21 Jan

Thanks to Ann Jimerson — who was kind enough to respond to my latest blog about 16th Street Baptist — I have now learned about the website Kids in Birmingham 1963, a fine collection of narratives about what it was like to grow up amid both the heroism and the horror of civil rights conflicts.

I encourage you to visit the site and soak in the rich range of personal perspectives. The site even offers suggestions on how to utilize the material in the classroom.


Service, Story, and 16th Street Baptist Church

20 Jan
The Wales Window at 16th Street Baptist.

The Wales Window at 16th Street Baptist.


I tested the door to the 16th Street Baptist Church and, to my surprise, felt it yield. Slipping into the back of the sanctuary, I stared again at the right side stained glass depiction of Jesus – the way it looked before the face of Christ had been blown out by a white supremacist bomb, the one that killed four African-American girls on that horrific Sunday morning a little more than 50 years ago, on Sept. 15th, 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama.

The window had been pointed out to me a couple of hours ago, by a friendly woman who seemed happy to discuss the sanctuary with me, even after she realized that, despite my Southern accent, I lived in New England now; if my whiteness made me an unlikely prospect for membership, geography finished my chances. I’d told her how, even though I taught at a Catholic college in Massachusetts, I was from just down the road in Tuscaloosa, where a group of our students was helping rebuild my hometown after a catastrophic April 27, 2011 tornado. She nodded; folks around here remember that storm system almost as much as the bombing.

I told her I was waiting for said students to arrive for a tour of the Civil Rights Institute across the street, and she volunteered that many tour groups worshipped at 16th Street Baptist on Sunday mornings before touring the institute and Kelly Ingram Park. I shrugged and said we should’ve done that; she volunteered that we might poke her heads in the door, even though there was no tour.

Now, a couple of hours later, here I was, with about half the student group behind me, weighing the choice. Well, the doors were open, and it was a church, after all. It was supposed to be open to the community, was it not? Likely folks were meeting elsewhere in the building, while practicing good energy conservation in the sanctuary. Plus, the hard-working students who had come down to serve were all seniors – who knew when, if ever, they’d make it this far into the South again.

I waved them up.

They respectfully followed me into the back of the sanctuary, listened to my inadequate explanation of both the original stained glass window and the Wales Window, a stained glass depiction of a black Jesus Christ donated to the church by the people of Wales.

Then, from up a stairwell, a voice.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

We retreat to the door as a woman comes up. She seemed relieved to see it was just a frousled professor and a few college kids. Apparently she’d been alone downstairs when the alarm went off. “I’m sorry, the door was open,” I said, and went into an explanation that used the word “sorry” several more times while sheepish students edged toward the door.

“Well,” she declared, “as long as you’re here, you might as well see the place!”

So she walked us down into the basement where the girls had been when the blast went off. In the back, between the two sets of stairs, we took in the pictures of the martyred girls – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson – and the clock still frozen at 10:22, the moment of the blast. She told us about how in those Bombingham Days, they’d kept guard against the possibility of a bomb being planted, only to have the activities of Youth Day at the church interrupt the routine. How they got a warning call from one of the bombers saying they had five minutes before the explosion, but the bomb went off in less time than that, too soon to save the children getting ready for their part in the service. How three of those girls weren’t even members of 16th Baptist. How she herself had been a child in the congregation that day.


Walking out, I apologized again for giving her a start, adding that I’d been surprised a time or two myself back when I had the deacon duties of checking the locks and light switches. I told her also how much it meant, how these students would always remember this.

She gave me a half hug. “The Lord meant for this to happen,” she said, and waved a cheerful goodbye.

That night in Tuscaloosa we ate ribs at the black-owned Dreamland Inn Bar-B-Q in a neighborhood known as Jerusalem Heights. Conversation flowed as freely as the sweet tea and barbecue sauce. Looking at the laughing group, I worried, as I had the last two years we had done this, what would survive of their experiences once reflection time back at the lodge rolled around.

I needn’t had worried. Two nights earlier, they’d seen a video of the tornado and its aftermath, and someone had wondered how people interviewed kept their faith after having loved ones snatched away only a few feet from them. This night they discussed how people kept their faith despite the suffering inflicted by other humans. Yet, in both cases, they did.

The students also marveled at how, at the Institute, a man overseeing the oral history room had abruptly declared that he wanted to show us something extra – and took us downstairs to a display of winning pieces of art inspired by Spike Lee’s documentary Four Spirits, about those four girls.


Not to mention our surprise church guide – who the students fully expected to kick us out with characteristic abruptness.

I asked why they thought she did that, and eventually offered my two cents worth – that she probably felt that, even 50 years later, the story needed to be told, and told again, to every generation. (Especially, I thought, to student volunteers who were obviously more likely to act on said story.)

Later, when I looked at the website for 16th Street Baptist – “Where Jesus is the Main Attraction” – I couldn’t help but smile at the title of the pages depicting the church’s history.

“Our Story is HIStory.”

The subtitle?

“We Must Tell.”

That night, we’d discussed how, in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged his counterparts in the white clergy.

“The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.

“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”

Judging from our experience, 16th Street Baptist is doing its part to keep the church relevant in the 21st.

After all, they must tell.

And so must we.

Part of "Four Spirits" statue across from 16th Street Baptist.

Part of “Four Spirits” statue across from 16th Street Baptist.

Clark Community Responds to Haiti Tragedy

9 Sep

In an entry earlier this summer, this blog commented on the tragic loss of three volunteers in a Haiti auto accident – Amanda K. Mundt, her aunt Diane Mundt, and Meagan Bell. They were killed in a collision while returning to Port-au-Prince from Les Cayes, a small coastal community where Amanda, an undergraduate at Clark University, had created a program for kids.

Also in the van were Meagan Bell’s parents. David Bell, the interim director of the university’s International Development, Community and Environment Department, sustained serious injuries; Beverly Bell scrambled to care for all the passengers in the minutes after the accident.

That was July 10th. Since then, folks at Clark have rallied to honor the lost and support those still with us; you can read about their efforts in the Monday, Sept. 9, Worcester Telegram.

“It’s about the community,” Mrs. Bell said. “They are still carrying us.”

What Dusti Saw

5 Sep
Dusti in 1981, shopping while leading us Tithe of Life interns on a trip to a Mexican border town (my first time to leave the U.S., if only for an afternoon).

Dusti in 1981, shopping while leading us Tithe of Life interns on a trip to a Mexican border town (my first time to leave the U.S., if only for an afternoon).

Back in my Alabama youth, Covenant Presbyterian was fortunate to have as Director of Christian Education a redheaded dynamo named Dusti, who went beyond simply covering the Bible to imaginatively engaging the whole (and confused) person that is the average adolescent. Along with a wide range of creative activities and a lot of one-on-one attention, Dusti  hauled us five hours up the road to Memphis for career counseling – where a test told me  I was supposed to be either a writer, a pastor, or a teacher.

Five years later, Dusti recruited me to be a domestic missionary of sorts in the Presbyterian Tithe of Life program. I spent two years directing a church youth program in Texas – my first time living away from home, not to mention my first experience as a teacher. Those were great years, in large part because of the way Dusti masterfully built the emotional bonds between the Tithe of Life Interns during five weeks of training up in the Texas hill country; some of those people are still in touch with me today.

Dusti relaxing with us Tithe of Lifers amid our training, including the future Rev. David Judd.

Dusti takes a break along with us Tithe of Lifers , including the future Rev. David Judd.

Nine years after THAT, I became a teacher of writing, my confidence in leaving Alabama and newspapering a second time no doubt reinforced by the Texas adventure Dusti pushed me to explore.

Another 21 years, brings me to last spring. While leading discussion during a mentoring workshop, I found myself spontaneously citing some of the facts above as an example of truly seeing the needs of young people and helping them find their way. The event was at the Catholic college where I teach – a job that weirdly blends all three categories from that career placement test Dusti got me take back in 1976. Like any good mentor, she helped me see who I was, where I might be going, and how I might get there.

Dusti Moser Deaver, having touched hundreds like me over the years, passed away Sunday after a brave fight with cancer. As expected, I mourn Dusti’s loss. But I also find myself appreciating all those who work with young people, engaging them with sensitivity and imagination, striving to see them for who they are – and who they can become.

(Appropriately, Dusti was part of my first-ever entry of this blog; you can read that piece by clicking here.)

Dusti gets a surprise kiss from one of her appreciative youth directors-to-be, John Barnett.

Dusti gets surprise kiss from one of her youth directors-to-be at end of training.

A Serving Nature

31 Aug
Redtail Hawk crop Acadia 8-24-13

Red-tailed hawk perched atop pine at Arcadia Audubon parking lot.

The sign outside the Arcadia Mass Audubon Visitor Center said the center was open, but the desk was closed.

This could spell trouble. Waking up feeling a bit directionless and disconnected, I’d driven an hour from Worcester to Easthampton to see something I was sure would lift my spirits: an American bald eagle nest.

Inside, I noticed only an older gentleman, stooped over a rather basic broom and dust bin, intent on cleaning duties. Just the same, he turned as I walked past to the restroom, asked if he could help.

“Yes,” I said. “Where’s the restroom?”

Coming back out, the man was still sweeping. At the counter, I grabbed the Arcadia Mass Audubon map. Trails were named for all manner of flora and fauna except the bird I was looking for – possibly because only this year did a bald eagle couple hatch and raise its young.

Clearly, I was going to have to trouble the guy who was probably just trying to finish cleaning up. “Excuse me,” I said. “I’m looking for the eagle nest.”

Great Blue Heron on sandbar of the Oxbow, which branches off the Connecticut River.

Great Blue Heron on sandbar of the Oxbow, which branches off the Connecticut River.

He quickly set aside his broom and dustbin. He started giving directions that were, well, nature-specific, right down to the sumac that might be blocking the view so late in the season. Sensing I needed the visual aid, he circled the spot on the map – then cushioned me for disappointment, reminding me there was no guarantee I’d see eagles right now, since the young had fledged. I was clearly in the presence of a birding expert; he was, in fact, a card-carrying naturalist. (He would hand me said card after our conversation ended.) But his love of nature and birds led him to do cleanup duties two days a week.

I felt like Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty. In that film, Bruce is surprised when God, played by Morgan Freeman, disguises himself as a janitor, only to then knock the disbelieving protagonist across the room with an infinitely long file drawer of records on humanity. Only this man’s drawer was in his head. Sometimes his tours stall right outside the door of the visitor center, if only because he could see or hear  25 bird species in the parking lot.

The Morgan Freeman Effect would multiply a few minutes later, after I run into a woman and her two young nieces, all toting binoculars. She’s driven from Boston – twice the distance I traveled – and picked up her nieces, hoping to get them into the natural world. They’re focused on what’s either a redtail hawk or an eagle, sitting large and still atop a pine. Unable to resolve the issue, I look inside for our expert, whom I find whistling as he sweeps a back room. He comes out to help, then, instead of going back to finish up, says, “I wonder if we have a scope inside!” Rushing back  inside, he emerges again with a telescope with tripod, and uses it to educate us on the subtleties that tell him it’s a juvenile redtail hawk.

The woman pulls out her paperback Sibley Guide to Birds, with its lush illustrations of birds from various angles and stages. They commiserate. “People will say they saw five different kinds of seagulls,” he said, “and it’ll turn out they just saw one kind, just in five different stages of development.” At no point does he talk down to her, or her to him – and, in a more transcendent accomplishment, they both avoid talking down to me, the novice.

After a quarter hour of connecting, and swapping of contact information, we go our separate ways. I feel I’ve already gotten more than I’d hoped for from my trip; my spirits have risen from sharing a passion with others, even if I didn’t know them an hour ago. But their enthusiasm energizes me further, so I still drive out to the spot he suggested, park the car and walk across a wide field of mown hay, trying to find the nest, which is supposed to be visible in spots through the tree line. At a great distance, I think I see an eagle – I note the suggestion of the white head – but it’s flying along the road, giving no clue on the nest.

Acadia path 8-24-13

Trees and marsh to left, grasslands to right, Mt. Tom dead ahead.

I see no trace from the field, so I walk back to my car, edge down a road by a crew club; the Oxbow of the Connecticut River glitters perhaps a hundred yards away, and I note a heron on a sandbar.  I note a second path running along the shade of the tree lines, and realize this was the turn my friend had suggested. So I parked again, walked down the tree line, got to what I was guessing was the spot – and looked in vain through the tree trunks and the sumac. Oh well, he’d warned me that the sumac might have grown in too much.

I give up, but as I approach my car, an earphone-wearing, power-walking man waves hello; encouraged by the friendliness at the visitor center, I ask about the nest. “Here! I think it’s this way,” he says, going back down the path I just left.

At first I think he’s just going to walk a dozen or so strides, then point me onward, but he keeps going.

“You don’t have to interrupt your walk,” I holler.

“It doesn’t matter which way I walk, as long as I’m walking!” he yells.

Along the way we learn we’re both college professors – only he in the considerably headier subject of artificial intelligence. He shows me a coupe of subtle spots where folks have cut branches off through the brush toward the marsh, and leads me part way, but the remaining brush seems to wall us off. We part ways, and I start to head back to my car –  only here comes one more man, toting a small scope, so yet again I ask. This one leads me back yet again – only he helps me bushwhack almost to the water’s edge.

“Watch out for the stickers in this one spot,” he warns over his shoulder, but he’s the one who gets nailed by the plant. (I’m the one who gets stung by a bee.)

None of which seems to matter a lot when he points across the water and through some trees. I don’t see it at first, but he’s patient. Finally I find the nest – with the juvenile bald eagle sitting so large and still, I mistook it for the top of a dead tree trunk. My guide hangs around long enough to talk herons and eagles, and the effect of one on the other. We don’t exchange names, or occupations, or any of the other superficial information we use to pigeonhole one another – and yet I feel a kind of connection as we gaze, vegetation pressing in from all sides.

In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of the spiritual delight of the woods, arguing that the “power to produce this delight does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both.”

Me, I’m certainly feeling more, well, harmonized. I migrate on down the road into Northampton, intending to celebrate my outing at an outdoor beer garden. I perch on a stool in the shade, continuing to observe birds and humans – happily waiting for the next sighting, and the next connection.

Juvenile eagle across marsh in its nest, likely awaiting a parent with some food.

Juvenile eagle across marsh in its nest, likely awaiting a parent with some food.

Kitchen and Bridges

26 Aug

Ginny White with Rev. Bryan A. Tomes of Crossroads Community Church at annual cookout to support her homeless outreach program. (Photo by Betty Jenewin, Telegram.)

In an intriguing progression of kindnesses, Ginny White of Leominster somehow went from cooking for her children to feeding residents of a rooming house above her kitchen who could smell her cooking – which led to her feeding folks sleeping under bridges in Fitchburg.

For the rest of the remarkable story of Ginny’s ministry to “guests of the street,” please read the article by Gail Stanton in the Monday Worcester Telegram.




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