Archive | January, 2014

Inspiring Teaching

30 Jan

Cavanagh edited

Assumption colleague Sarah Cavanagh recently blogged on her just-underway Psychology course, Motivation and Emotion. Her design includes a community service component in which African Community Education, an after-school program devoted to helping children of African immigrants adjust to a new school system in a new language.

A Psychology professor, Sarah’s research includes a focus on positive psychology; the would-be psych major in me finds her work particularly fascinating. On top of that, she’s an innovative teacher. You can read about the course (and much more) at her blog,   Inspiring Things Are Inspiring.

And, as if that weren’t enough, Sarah also has a blog for Psychology Today – Once More, With Feeling,  I highly recommend both.

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.

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