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A River Runs Through It: A Lament for Huntington, West Virginia, the Heart of Trump’s America, Part One

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The Ohio River is one of America’s majestic rivers and for nearly two centuries has been one of the nation’s vital waterways. Over those years cities developed along it, cities that were at one time the center of much American industry and transportation. However, over the years many of those cities have lost their manufacturing centers and cities like Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Cincinnati, fell, but have begun to rise again. 

Yesterday we traveled to one of the cities That hasn’t rose again, Huntington, West Virginia, to spend a week with a dear friend. However, unlike those other cities, Huntington has not only not recovered, but continues to slide into the abyss. For years I held onto hope that Huntington and the Tri-State area of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio would come back, but today I realized that it won’t come back for the foreseeable future. No amount of fanatical belief in a political Messiah who promises to Make America Great Again is going to change that, the facts don’t support it and neither do the social, political, and economic culture that has developed over the past fifty years. 

For those that don’t know, Huntington, Cabell County, and adjoining Wayne County are my ancestral home in the United States. My family on both sides were early settlers in the area. In fact I was the first person in my immediate family born somewhere else, thanks to my parents I was a Navy brat and was born in California and raised on the West Coast. My family for the most part has either died off or moved away. I have a few cousins still in the area but haven’t seen any of them in years. 

In spite of that I have always considered Huntington a home away from home. We used to visit my grandparents and other relatives, all of who are now long gone. Some of my earliest and happiest memories were in Huntington. After I finished seminary and my Clinical Pastoral Education residency in 1995 I got my first post-residency hospital job there while serving in the National Guard and Army Reserve. Even then it was a place that I felt safe and wanted to live. Though I went back on active duty in the Navy in 1999 still considered it a place that I might actually want to retire. It is a beautiful area. 

Twenty something years later I no longer feel that way. We arrived in town early in the afternoon and after we unpacked the car I had to pick up a few things at a local grocery store. I know Huntington like the back of my hand, every area, every street, and while the street names and the geography of the city have not changed, the city has fundamentally changed and though I had seen it coming I never wanted to believe it. 

Huntington used to be the largest and wealthiest city in the state, but back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, things began to change. The heavy industry began moving out, especially in the 1980s when those industries imploded. Likewise in the 1960s the city council and business people decided that they didn’t want Interstate 64 to go through the city because they were afraid that it would negatively effect the downtown businesses. The interstate went around town and the businesses including the state’s largest mall moved to Barboursville in Cabell County. Downtown died and despite efforts to revive it, it has not recovered. 

Bad economic decision after decision, including the rejection of a Toyota engine plant with thousands of really good paying jobs not far from town in the late 1990s have doomed the city. In the 1960s and 1970s the population was close to 90,000, now it is under 50,000. Many people moved into the surrounding areas, but those too are beginning to suffer from many of the issues effecting Huntington which remains the heart of the Tri-State metropolitan area. 

The city infrastructure is crumbling, the ancient storm drain system is failing leading to flooding in areas previously immune from it, and causing flood insurance premiums to skyrocket. Its schools are underfunded, the educational outcomes are poor, its economy is failing, and society beginning to collapse, the opiod crisis is just a symptom of a larger decay. 

The city is still home to Marshall University but without it things would be much worse, as the University partners with business and the major medical centers. In fact if it wasn’t for the University, the medical school, and the hospitals there would be nothing here. Most of the industry including steel and chemical plants which used to supply auto manufacturers, make railroad cars, and other manufacturing goods are gone, and most of the derive industry jobs outside of medical care pay little more than subsistence wages and offer few or no benefits. The coal industry has downsized because the coal here is harder to get and thus more expensive than going elsewhere. Despite promises of bringing coal jobs back that is not going to happen. What is left of the coal industry in West Virginia, much of it owned by the state’s only billionaire and governor, Jim Justice,who by the way was a Republican and became a Democrat to run for governor in 2015, who just switched back to being a Trump Republican, is going high tech and not replacing miners. This is not because of environmental regulations but simply because the coal industry has already raped the state of the easily accessible coal, at a tremendous human and environmental cost. 


The city has some beautiful residential areas near Ritter Park which is a wonderful park that stretches for miles along Four Pole Creek. The homes through that area and in the hills that rise sharply above it are where the well off people live, the doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, corporate executives, and tenured university professors. But just a few blocks away people live in squalor. Boarded up homes and businesses, vacant lots, and barely habitable homes predominant what were once affluent middle class neighborhoods that I remember all too well. 

The once thriving downtown area is a shell of its former self. There have been a number of attempts to revive it, the latest being the very nice Pullman Square, but many businesses can’t make it there because people don’t have the money to spend. Even a Five Guys burger joint went out of business there, and I have never seen one of those places go belly up. 


The city is the poster city and epicenter for the opiod epidemic in this country. You cannot drive or walk down the streets without seeing someone with the wild-eyed or blank stare of an addict. Homeless people, often drug addicts, walk down the streets with their belongings, and sometimes their children in tow. It is quite sad to see. 

West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country it is the seventh most poverty stricken state in the country. Most education ratings place the state in the bottom ten percent of the United States with one of the lowest success rates measured in educational attainment and earnings. It ranks 50th in life expectancy, it is second in obesity, and has the highest rate of opiod addiction and death in the country. I could go on but the drumbeat of negative statistics and outcomes gets too depressing after a while to go on about them. 

Until the past two decades the state was a reliable “blue state.” That didn’t mean the state was liberal in any sense, it was actually a lot like much of the American South which was reliably Democratic until Democrats began to support the civil rights movement, and other more progressive causes in the 1960s and afterwards. It stayed longer in the “Blue” column because most of its Democratic leaders such as Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller did not defect to the GOP like many leaders in the South who followed Storm Thurman and the Dixiecrats to the GOP. In fact many of the Democratic state office holders were solidly on the side of business and would be considered conservatives in any other state. But it was only after Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency that the state shifted to be almost solidly Republican, with all statewide offices with the exception of now endangered Democrat moderate Senator Joe Manchin being controlled by the GOP. 

In 2016 the state voted for Donald Trump with over 68% of the vote. Interestingly enough, West Virginia is one of the states that has benefited the most from the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Health Care Act, and since that legislation was enacted more people have access to healthcare, which if you look at the state’s health rankings is badly needed yet opposed by many Trump supporters. Last week a cheering crowd greeted the President at a campaign rally in downtown Huntington cheering “lock her up!” while jeering former FBI Director and now Special Prosecutor Robert Muller over the Russia investigation. In desparation many people here have pinned their hopes on a false savior, one who promises to Make America Great Again, but cannot deliver for their city. 

Socially it West Virginia is a fascinating state. There are strip clubs and pornography super centers littering the interstate highways and around the outskirts of town, yet the state is full of churches and socially one of the most conservative states when it comes to people’s religious views, especially when it comes to abortion or LGBTQ issues. Of course this is not unusual as the Bible Belt is also the the porn belt. But I digress, I got more into statistics than I intended but they provide a mosaic of what is going on in the state. 

Today I came home in a sense to a place that is no longer home. Since we have been military nomads for some 36 years, West Virginia is still my home of record for the military. When I went back on active duty in the Navy in 1999 it was our intention to return. I can’t do that now. Today, for the first time in my life I did not feel safe on the streets of Huntington. The poverty is the least of my concerns, and it’s certainly not a racial issue because Cabell County is 91% white. I’ve been poor and lived in crime ridden ghettos that were heavily black and Hispanic, but I hate to say I felt safer in those places than I did today. 


Please don’t take this essay wrong. It is not a polemic by any means, it is a way to process my grief for a city and state that is not going to be great again anytime soon. People can shout Make America Great Again all they want, but fervor and fanaticism do not change facts. I do wish that it was different, but people here are doing what they have been doing since the Robber Barons, Coal Kings, and Lumber Lords raped the state of its natural resources, destroyed the encronment, and for all practical purposes enslaved the people in “company towns.” 

Huntington’s crisis didn’t happen overnight, it is the product of decades of poor leadership by politicians of both parties, business leaders, and yes, even citizens and now many are putting their trust in a false savior who despite his words and their fervor will not change the course of their city or state. 

I think that today after I do my run and walk through Ritter Park, that I will be out taking pictures, not just of the nice areas like I usually do here, the riverfront and Ritter Park, but the blighted areas. I will post them as a photo essay as part two of this either tomorrow or Thursday. 

Until then,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Resisting Authortarianism: Part One


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight, like last night I am posting another thought from B.H. Liddell-Hart’s book Why don’t We Learn from History? 

The book is worth the read for anyone, even though it is written by a military historian and theorist. Liddell-Hart had a keen understanding of the limitations of Democracy, but recognized the inherent evil of the totalitarian or authoritarian state, and such leaders. Thus, when we see a democratically elected leader rapidly move toward authoritarianism, attempting to silence political and press critics, accused the acting head of the Department of Justice of “betrayal,” and attacking the institutions of justice that oppose him, while praising foreign despots, we should be concerned for our liberty. 

Liddell-Hart wrote something very profound that we should all think about: 

What is of value in “England” and “America” and worth defending is its tradition of freedom, the guarantee of its vitality. Our civilization, like the Greek, has, for all its blundering way, taught the value of freedom, of criticism of authority, and of harmonising this with order. Anyone who urges a different system, for efficiency’s sake, is betraying the vital tradition.

He noted:

It is man’s power of thought which has generated the current of human progress through the ages. Thus the thinking man must be against authoritarianism in any form, because it shows its fear of thoughts which do not suit momentary authority.

The power of thought, the unending quest for truth, the questioning of authorities who claim absolute power, are all essential to maintaining human freedom. However, freedom cannot be defended if its defenders have either forgotten how to think critically, or never learned to at all. The latter should be concerning as for years the emphasis of education has been to train people for a job with specific but narrow skills, while critical thinking, based in reason, science, history, philosophy, literature, and the arts has taken a back seat. Giles Lauren who wrote the preface to the latest edition of Why don’t We Learn from History? wrote:

Education, no longer liberal, has largely become a question of training in a skill for gain rather than teaching us how to think so as to find our own way. ‘It is strange how people assume that no training is needed in the pursuit of truth.’ We must learn to test and judge the information that comes before us. After all: ‘Whoever habitually suppresses the truth … will produce a deformity from the womb of his thought.’

This my friends is not comfortable, and neither should it be. But the truth is that most people actually fear truth because it is uncomfortable. Liddell-Hart wrote:

We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.

I am watching people, many of them good people, decent people, even brilliant people either openly support the move toward authoritarianism, or remain silent, even when they recognize the truth. In such times it is important to seek the truth, and proclaim the truth, even if it unpopular, and unpleasant. This means that we also have to look inside ourselves, and be honest because we all have the capacity to believe the lie and not to recognize the distinction between fact and fiction. Hannah Arendt wrote in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction ( i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false ( i.e ., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

I will continue this tomorrow. Have a great night and sleep well.

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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Never Flatline Intellectually 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a short note to end the week. Today was the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Joint Forces Staff College where I teach. It was a very good, but long day with morning and evening ceremonies and activities. Our chief speaker was retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, one of the most distinguished, honest, and outspoken military men of the past generation. Had the Bush administration listened to him we probably would have never ended up in the Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires. But I digress… 

One of General Zinni’s points was that no matter who you are that you must never stop learning. He lives this. At the age of 72 he holds three masters degrees and is working on a doctorate, lugging his books into doctoral seminars at Creighton University. He believes like I do, and history has shown, that when military budgets are cut the last thing that should be sacrificed is education. He noted that the most dangerous military officer is one whose intellectual curiosity has flatlined. General Zinni certainly does not subscribe to the principles that caused Barbara Tuchman to write “learning from experience is experience is a faculty almost never practiced,” and “nothing so comforts the military mind as the maxim of a great but dead general.” 

General Zinni is one of those remarkable people who can speak the truth without being an ideologue and who is a realist. I have always admired him and have had the pleasure of hearing him speak many times. His books “The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of America’s Power and Purpose,” and “Before the First Shots are Fired: How America can Win or Lose off the Battlefield” should be required reading. 

His words reminded me of those spoken by the late Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver, who said “it’s what you learn after you no it all that counts.” Those are words that I live by. I continually read, study and research, and when I finish my current writing projects I will probably begin to work on a doctorate, not because I need it, but because I never want to stop learning. I never want to flatline intellectually. I know too many people, smart and intelligent people who have flatlined, and far too many more whose intellectual quest stalled before they ever got out of the gate. All of them are dangerous because most devolve into mindless ideologues who readily sacrifice truth for a cause and cannot accept anything that challenges their uncritical worldview. 

So until tomorrow have a great night and better morning. 

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Teaching at Gettysburg 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I spent last night eating, drinking, and teaching at Gettysburg in preparation for he Staff Ride which begins this morning. My audience is the senior staff of an U.S. Army recruiting battalion based out of Ohio. 

It was an interesting setting to teach, sitting on the patio with absolutely beautiful weather, enjoying good food and beer and then getting to teach. They are a different type of audience than the men and women that I teach at the Staff College, and with the exception of the battalion commander who is a graduate of our program, the officers are younger and junior to my students and we also have senior non-commissioned officers, the Command Sergeant Major and the First Sergeants. they are whoever, all very smart, articulate and represent the best of America. All have served in combat or in combat theaters, and all have met with the frustration of not achieving anything like victory. 

I find this very important, because the vast majority of military personnel, including officers attend the level of education that I get to teach at the staff college, and for me to be able to do this with such a group helps create an interest, not just in a particular battle, but the important link between national strategy, military strategy, and the operational art. One thing that I spent a good amount of time on last night in the prepetory lecture was just that. The biggest reason the the North won the Civil War and that the South lost was that in the North under Lincoln, that military operations were linked with the policy of the government after the Emancipation Proclamation; whereas in the South there never was a coherent national strategy, and even great operational level commanders like Robert E. Lee were unable to translate battlefield success into victory. 

As Clausewitz emphasized, war is an instrument of policy, and if it does not serve policy, or if policy makers fail to develop and enunciate a true national strategy, military efforts will ultimately fail. This has been a hallmark of post Col War American thinking. Ideology and buzzwords are not policy, nor are they strategy, and the military is only one component of national power, and unlike diplomacy, economic power, and information, it is a blunt instrument, and if military efforts cannot be translated into the political object and bring about a positive political effect, no amount of battlefield brilliance will bring about success. Policy makers and soldiers must remain in constant dialogue in order to ensure that the link between strategy and policy is strong. This was something that Lincoln, as well as his military subordinates Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman learned, and practiced during the war, and it was something that Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson failed to understand after the war, thus forieting all that had been won on the battlefields. Thus as English historian and military theorist Colon Gray notes that “war is about peace” and “more pointedly, that the making of peace is likely to be more difficult than the waging of war. It is a common, and somewhat understandable, error to assume that if one takes care of the fighting in an efficient manner, and the enemy is duly humbled, somehow that the subsequent peace will all but take care of itself.”  I guess that is one reason that I find the American Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction period to be so pertinent today for but policy makers and military leaders. But I digress…

Even so this promises to be a great weekend, and even more interesting, I will be conducting the final part of which includes walking the ground of Pickett’s Charge, and spending time at the Soldier’s Cemetery where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Addess on Sunday, the 33rd anniversary of my being commissioned as an Army officer in 1983. Since then I have served in peace and war in both the Army and the Navy. In fact I have been in the Navy now almost as long as I served in the Army, almost 17 1/2 years. 

Anyway, I hope to post anther reflection tomorrow, though it may be later in the evening when I actually get it done. 

Until then, have a great day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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A Stillness in Baltimore

no fans

Yesterday the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Chicago White Sox by a score of 8-2 at Baltimore’s Camden Yards “Oriole Park.” Normally an afternoon game in April would pass nearly unnoticed except for the fans of the teams involved and those who just love the game. But this game was remarkable, for the first time in over 140 years of Major League Baseball, no fans were in attendance. The ballpark stood empty as the teams played a game that is probably more associated with the connection that fans feel towards players and teams than any other sport. Home runs were hit and the only sound was the crack of the bat sound of the ball landing in the stands. Players could hear the raidio and television announcers as they gave their play by play and the pitchers in the bullpens could hear every word spoken by the outfielders. It was surreal and somewhat symbolic. 

But the silence and emptiness at Oriole Park was emblematic of the plight of the people who live in the decaying inner cities of America, and a clarion call for us as a nation to address the root causes of what happened in Baltimore, what happened in Ferguson and what will happen in other cities if we do not take action to deal with the root causes.

The reason for this was the rioting and violence that followed in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, a young African-American who had been arrested, and severely injured while in police custody and not given immediate or adequate medical attention for a spinal injury from which he subsequently died. What was Freddie Gray’s crime? He ran from the police, as far as I know he was engaged in no criminal activity and from what I understand, running from the police is not a crime.

As always there are conflicting accounts of the incident and the official State Police report has not been completed, and will probably not be made immediately available leaving his grieving family to wonder what happened and to suspicions of another cover-up. But the key thing is that we do not yet know what happened. In order to be fair I want am placing a link to the press conference of the Baltimore Mayor and Police regarding the arrest and the timeline of what happened to Freddie Gray in the police van:

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/crime/blog/bs-md-ci-freddie-gray-arrest-documents-20150420-story.html

riots

The riots caused much property damage and many people were injured and arrested. The Baltimore Police and the Mayor were overwhelmed and allowed the rioting to get out of hand before requesting that the National Guard assist. President Obama called those who rioted and looted calling them “a handful of people taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes,” who should “be treated as criminals.” The President also said “We have seen too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals, primarily African-American, often poor, in ways that raise troubling questions,” and noted that “This has been a slow-rolling crisis. This has been going on for a long time. This is not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.” He sought balance though and expressed a measure of sympathy for police who have to “do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise” in broken urban communities where fathers are absent, drugs dominate and education, jobs and opportunities are nonexistent.

President Obama has been criticized by those who think he has not done enough to address the numerous accounts of police violence, and those on the political right like Senator Cruz who blame him for “inflaming racial tensions.” Frankly President Obama’s plight reminds me much of the tensions that Abraham Lincoln had to deal with in dealing with the various political factions in the North during the Civil War. The issues are not the same, but the political climate is quite similar. Lincoln was somehow able to navigate through the various crisis including some that involved his closest advisors and even political allies.

American conservatives today, especially those on the “Religious Right” are quick to blame the problems on the disintegration of the family unit, there may be some truth in this but is certainly not at the heart of the problem, otherwise all the white kids from broken families would be out doing the same thing.

But the difference is that many, if not most of those white kids, even those from broken families have educational, economic and social advantages that kids in the inner city ghettos, be they African American, Mexican American or Hispanic, or any other racial or ethnic minority trapped in the hellholes of the inner cities; hellholes that were not created by them but by decades of neglect and intentional political and social policies that served to marginalize Blacks and other minorities, leaving them without hope. As such I think there is a measure of racism in the argument of American conservatives in attributing the riots to the collapse of the family unit in Black communities, which they cannot admit, but secretly harbor.

This has been going on since the 1960s at least and there are historical examples of other Americans trapped in similar situations who resorted to rioting as well, notably the 1863 New York Draft Riots which mainly involved the poor Irish immigrants who were shouldering much of the burden of the war and were trapped in similar social and economic conditions in the Irish ghettos of New York. Those riots cost many lives and because the New York Police could not control them Federal troops, fresh from their victory at Gettysburg were sent to New York to restore order.

The simplistic “answers” of the conservative pundits, politicians and preachers who seek to blame this on the demise of the family unit are wrong. As I mentioned the issue is not broken families, it is the lack of opportunity that we as a white dominated society have sentenced those who inhabit our inner cities to, a lack of opportunity that has bred a culture of despair, a culture where hope is absent and dreams die, and after seeing incident after incident of what looks like police brutality and the seeming abuse of power by white dominated police forces, people are taking matters into their own hands and are venting years of pent up anger and frustration.

freddie gray

Back in 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about the rioting and violence that were occurring in his day. They are words that we need to heed today, because things really haven’t changed that much for those who are trapped in the inner cities. He said:

“Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community. They are a distorted form of social protest. The looting which is their principal feature serves many functions. It enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the white man does by using his purse. Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking. But most of all, alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights. There are thus elements of emotional catharsis in the violent act. This may explain why most cities in which riots have occurred have not had a repetition, even though the causative conditions remain. It is also noteworthy that the amount of physical harm done to white people other than police is infinitesimal and in Detroit whites and Negroes looted in unity.

A profound judgment of today’s riots was expressed by Victor Hugo a century ago. He said, ‘If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.’

The policymakers of the white society have caused the darkness; they create discrimination; they structured slums; and they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison. Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man. These are often difficult things to say but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.”

We as a society, as Americans need to deal with this. We cannot go on as a society if we fail to address the legitimate claims of those trapped by our neglect, our social policies, and our economic policies which have doomed millions of Americans to live without hope.

I pray that somehow something good will come out of this and that the silence at Camden Yards will echo across this nation and open our eyes to see our collective responsibility to address these issues, something that our political, social and business leaders seem so want to do. If we do not, what does that say about us as a nation?

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Reward of Teaching



I love getting to do what I do as an Assistant Professor teaching Ethics and the Gettysburg Staff Ride. Through most of my career, be it as a Medical Service Corps officer and Chaplain in the Army, as well as a Navy Chaplain has been dealt with teaching ethics or history. However, until this assignment those duties have been things I took on in addition to my normal duties. 

I try to challenge my students, no matter what I teach to see issues in relationship to people; their character, intellect, strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, faith, ideology, and their relationships. In other words, their humanity. For it is our humanity that is the common thread in all of history. Technology changes, political models change, and humanity is constantly evolving, or sometimes devolving, but the one constant is people. 

Sadly all to often humanity is left out, we find a way to dehumanize almost everything, even how businesses, governments and even religious bodies refer to people as “human capital,” “resources” or in the case of some money grubbing churches “tithing units.” 

However, when I teach, I may teach about history, philosophy, or ethics, I still concentrate on people; who they and why they matter. That is at least for me is what matters. Events, inventions, theories, methods are all important, but if we leave out the actual part about the people they don’t connect. 

So in addition to the classroom, or touring historic sites, I focus on people, and then, especially on trips where I am out with my students for two or three days. On these trips we travel tighter, we eat and drink together and spend time discussing the events and people we are studying, but also share our life experiences and time together. So for me, teaching is also about my students, and to see their interst piqued, who then come back and later tell me that they went and explored the life of the people that we discussed. It is like them dis coving buried treasure. 

I think that is the joy and the reward of teaching, especially higher education, but I am sure any teacher, even those who teach primary and secondary education could do the same thing if they are creative, for it is the people who connect us, people matter.



Today we had to break off the last day of our Gettybsurg trip due to a winter storm that shifted south and made road conditions really bad. From DC to Richmond I lost count of the number of accidents. Thankfully it looks like things get a bit better south of Richmond. 

But anyway for now, and if you live in the path of this storm, stay safe.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Return from Gettysburg: Table Talk and Meeting a Hero

IMG_0463.JPG

I am on the way back from Gettysburg following our Staff Ride. As always it was a very interesting trip and as much as I get to expound on what I know, I also get to learn. As the late Hall of Fame Manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Earl Weaver so eloquently put it: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

I love going up, not just for the teaching opportunity, but to spend time with the students, and sometimes their family members over lunch, dinner or drinks at the various watering holes. These occasions of table talk are probably some of the most important parts of learning and relationships. They are something that have become an anomaly in our modern higher education process, which driven by the need for profit, or by austerity in public or military educational systems, or fear of legal liability, have all too often sacrificed this all too important manner of learning.

I remember reading Martin Luther’s Table Talk, which is a collection of writings by his student’s gathered around the table as they ate and drank. They show Luther at his best and worst, expounding on some of his less systematized ideas, as well as his ability to expound on subjects outside of the lecture hall or the theological debate, sometimes while certainly under the influence of good German beer.

This type of learning was common at one time, but now is a dying art. One of the things that it does for me is that my student’s questions, comments, experiences and ideas also spur my thinking and cause me to do more research, discover more and learn more. I then attempt to assimilate what I have learned and then develop those thoughts into things that I am either writing or teaching.

For me this is about a commitment to the truth, as I quoted from Star Trek the Next Generation on Friday, that my first duty, is to the truth, and as one of my students mention to me last night can be painful, especially when long cherished myths, are crushed by the weight of facts. For him it was the ugly truth of the Lost Cause and especially in the role of religion in the South to justify slavery, secession and following the war segregation, discrimination and sometimes even lynching. For him, as it was for me, so many years ago at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, this was difficult. But if truth matters at all, we cannot ignore it as so many do and cling to myth, as Captain Picard said ” be it scientific, historic or personal truth.” 

I was fortunate that my professors at Southwestern, especially my professors of Church History, Systematic Theology and Philosophy of religion challenged me and laid waste to the myths that I believed that I am who I am today.

I think I am going to start doing table talk sessions for any interested students during our next term.

I also had a unique honor on this trip. One of my students brought his dad, a retired Army Colonel and Vietnam veteran. He was a very interesting man and was engaged in the lessons of the trip, even since his son had provided him a copy of my text, asking when I would get it published. He didn’t try to draw attention to himself, we had some nice conversation over dinner and drinks with the rest of the students, and at the end of the Staff Ride, which is at the Solder’s Cemetery he walked up and thanked me. He the said “let me give you my coin.”

For us in the military a being presented a commander’s coin or unit coin is an honor. I have a lot of them, including one from former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, who I met at the Battle of Hue City Memorial weekend when I was the chaplain of the ship that carries the name and legacy of Hue City.

When I looked at the coin it was inscribed “Colonel Walter Marm, Vietnam, 14 November 1965.” In the center a depiction of the Medal of Honor. The front, Congressional Medal of Honor Society, United States of America. Colonel Marm was a platoon leader then, a young lieutenant, in Company A, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Ia Drang. You might recognize it, the battle was chronicled in the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young” and film We Were Soldiers

If you want to read about his heroism you can google him or go to this site, which is just one of many where you can read about this American hero.

http://www.medalofhonorspeakout.org/bio/walter-marm

Interestingly enough President Obama will award the Medal of Honor posthumously on November 6th to Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing who died defending the Angle on day three at Gettysburg.

So this indeed was a special trip, a reminder to me of the lost art of table talk in education, as well as the heroes who do not draw attention to themselves. Yes my friends, it is what you learn after you know it all that counts.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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