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Quakers

The Only Alternative: Christian Nonviolent Peacemakers in America
by Alan Nelson and John Malkin. (Excerpt)

The Quakers

The movement to create the Quakers – more formally known as the Religious Society of Friends began in England in the mid-1600s. A leather worker and shepherd named George Fox (1624-1691) led in developing this new Christian way of gathering, studying, praying and taking action. The first Quakers emphasized the importance of personal guidance and direct experience of the teachings of Jesus. From their early days, the Quakers challenged the authority and dogma of church and state and they questioned the notion that a minister or intermediary was necessary to know God. Quakers have often suffered imprisonment, confiscation of property and death in their struggles for freedom and justice. Fox wrote in his journal that he was frequently beaten or forced out of a town after verbally challenging clergy about matters regarding faith and politics.

Fox encouraged William Penn (1644-1718) to establish a colony in North America where a “holy experiment” could take shape. In 1681, King Charles II of England had settled a debt owed to Penn’s father by grating to William Penn ownership of a vast area of land in America. Penn left for America on August 13, 1682, to set up the colony with thousands of other Quakers who shared a vision of creating a community where they could worship as they chose without persecution by the British government or the Catholic Church. The “Holy Experiment” became known as Pennsylvania. There are currently about 300,000 Quakers worldwide.

Relations between Quakers and American Indians were peaceful, especially compared to the bloody history between American Indians and most other early Christian and non-Christian immigrant groups. Also, the Religious Society of Friends has always worked for equal rights for women, regarding women and men as equal children of God and equally capable of public ministry and of filling leadership roles in the Quaker community and church.

Quakers were among the first to oppose slavery in the United States and to prohibit it among their members. Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, protested slavery as early as 1688. John Woolman (1720-1772), a colonial Quaker, opposed and helped to eradicate slavery among Quakers in the United States.

Another Quaker, Levi Coffin (1789-1877), was called “the president of the Underground Railroad” because, using their home as a safe house, he and his wife and family helped about three thousand slaves escape to freedom. Coffin gave escaped slaves food, shelter, medical care and safe transportation. Such revolutionary social action was not popular with landowners, slaveholders, or some Quakers, who deemed Coffin’s actions “too radical.” In spite of death threats and attacks on their home, Levi Coffin and his family continued their liberating work rooted in Christian nonviolence to help ex-slaves begin new lives, free from their former “owners.”

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Nicholas Lives On – Part 1

Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something!
Grief’s Wake Up Call
by Gabriel Constans.

Nicholas Lives On – Part 1

In the fall of ninety-four, Reggie and Maggie Green were on holiday in Italy, driving peacefully through Messina with their children Nicholas and Eleanor (seven and four years old) sleeping soundly in the back seat. Out of the dark night a vehicle creeps alongside. They hear angry shouts and demands to pull over. Terrifying gunshots slam into the body of their car. Reg outruns, what turns out to be, Calabrian highway bandits. Upon arriving safely at their hotel they check the children, who they believe have slept through the traumatic incident. As they try to arose Nicholas they discover a horrible gunshot wound to his head. Two days later Nicholas is pronounced dead.

Without hesitation the Greens decide to donate his organs. This act, which to them is the only choice imaginable, soon catapults them into national and international attention. Nicholas organs go to seven people. Organ donations increase dramatically. Surprisingly, revenge is not in the Greens’ vocabulary, only the reporters ask about retribution. Reg Green says, “There is no sum of money that could give me back my son. Whereas justice heals, vengeance just creates new problems.” The Italian Ambassador Boris Biancheri tells them, “Your names and the name of Nicholas have become for Italians somehow synonymous with courage, of forgiveness and compassion.” Upon their arrival back in the U.S. they continued to advocate for organ donations and speak frequently in public about the importance of turning personal tragedy into life for others.

REGGIE: Nicholas was a very gentle and intellectual boy. He had the usual tantrums every kid does, but he was unusually well behaved. I was already in my sixties when we had him and was astonished at how easy he was growing up. He didn’t seem to cry much.

One of the great things was he was such good company. He seemed to be interested in everything. Going out with him on my back or with him sitting next to me in the car was very fulfilling.

He was rigorously honest. When we came back from Italy, after he’d been killed, Maggie said, “I never remember him telling a lie.” I said the same thing and thought, “We better not tell anybody, because they’ll think it’s too much.” But of course now we’ve told everybody. I just couldn’t resist . . . I wanted to do my best. I didn’t want to deify him . . . because there’s always that temptation. Whenever I’m asked to describe Nicholas, that always stands out . . . his honesty.

He loved games and dressing up to play different roles. Robin Hood was his most enduring . . . he kind of owned that role. Maggie always made a big thing of Halloween, getting dressed up and all. They’d make things from scratch weeks beforehand. Nicholas was terribly proud of his costume. Everything had to be exactly right . . . he was awfully fussy. His gentleness was very pronounced . . . he wasn’t a rough boy.

MAGGIE: He was quite comfortable playing alone. He was a little bit different from the other kids but it was never a problem for him or the kids either. They liked him. He was different but he wasn’t a stranger. He was very friendly and willing to play with anybody. He never noticed that people did things differently then he. When he wanted to wear his bowtie, that’s what he wore. He never got caught up in Ninja Turtles or that kind of thing. He was more interested in reading Robin Hood with his dad or Treasure Island.

REGGIE: It didn’t strike him as strange that he was doing this. Like Maggie said, he never noticed that they weren’t doing the things he was. He wasn’t a leader exactly, but he had such good ideas that people often ended up doing what he was doing. Eleanor (Nicholas’s younger sister) still misses him. Early on she would say, “It’s not so much fun anymore without Nicholas to play with. He isn’t here to show me what to do.”

She was four when he was killed. We haven’t gone out of our way to talk about him but we haven’t closed off either. If the conversation turns that direction we let it go that way. Her attitude is sort of wistful. She says, “Do you remember when Nicholas did this? Wouldn’t Nicholas have liked that?” Her memories are surprisingly accurate. She spoke of an incident that occurred in Canada, three or four years ago now, and her memory conformed to what I recall as well.

She was on the backseat of the car at the time Nicholas was shot but slept right through it . . . which is what we thought he had done. She awoke to find that he’d been shot at the same time we discovered it. She doesn’t remember the horror of it . . . the loud angry voices and the shots themselves, which could have been quite terrifying.

When we came home she went back to sleeping in the same room where they’d both slept. She’s had no nightmares and no more tantrums than her father has. There are no obvious, as far as we can see, major psychological scars.

MAGGIE: I’ve heard of families who lose a child and then never speak of them again. They don’t dare say the child’s name to the mother for fear of upsetting her. I can’t understand that. We have many pictures of Nicholas around. Coming across an unexpected photograph can be difficult, but most of the photos are comforting.

REGGIE: One doesn’t want to forget. I mean, if the price of reducing the pain is to forget, then I don’t think it’s worth it. I always remember as much as I can. Day by day the memories fade a little. I try to write things down on paper. Those photographs to me . . . although there is a shot of pain about coming across one unexpected . . .or you know, a piece of clothing . . . something that has a special significance. I saw some of his books the other day and it is hard . . . but they’re very precious also.

MAGGIE: Eleanor has adopted Nicholas cowboy boots. They were an important element in many of his costumes. She wore them until she finally outgrew them. Either they mean something to her or she just felt, “Now they’re mine and I can do whatever I want with them.”

REGGIE: I don’t think of Nicholas being “present” in a spiritual sense. I’m agnostic, which means I don’t know, but it’s very unlikely that he’s somewhere, as it were. To me his being lives only in my memory. I sometimes try to think about something that happened, because it’s a precious memory for me . . . just as it would with other things as well. You know . . . like, “What did my friend and I do that weekend back when? What did he say?” I like that. I play with those old memories.

MAGGIE: In some ways I’m quite childish about it. On important occasions I sometimes credit Nicholas with arranging the weather . . . that he would be delighted with such. Like when it rained after the drought or when we had perfect weather for the dedication of the bell tower (a memorial for Nicholas) after worrying about it for several days. I kind of indulge myself in not being rational about it.

There are some things I feel I ought to do, like put together some photographs and write down memories for me and for Eleanor, which I still plan to do.

In a way we’ve been given a gift by being able to talk about Nicholas to a lot of people. With Reg giving speeches to groups or people like you, we get a lot of opportunities. People say, “I’m sorry to intrude”, but really it’s an opportunity for us to speak about him. Everyone likes to talk about their children and I think everybody whose lost a child would love to, but some people don’t get a chance or don’t know that it would be good . . . how helpful it would be.

REGGIE: It was thrust on us. As soon as Nicholas was shot the hotel was crowded with journalists from Rome, from all over Italy, to ask about the story. It was the lead story on the television for a number of days. It was even bigger news when we decided to donate the organs, which we thought was a purely personal decision. After the first days of questioning about what we might have done to be unsafe or draw the robbers to us, etc., the only question then was, “Where have you donated the organs?” From the time it took us to drive back from the hospital to the hotel they had already heard about the donation. They also asked, “Don’t you hate Italians?” Or, “Does this mean you forgive the killers?”

It was obvious to us over the first few days that this was a major thing for Italy and it could have major effects. We were seen by the Prime Minister. Everybody we met said something about it, particularly in that part of Italy. It was quite clear that we were seen as a symbol for change . . . certainly in Italy. When we came back to this country there was a mass of people at the airport as well, with the same questions. It wasn’t just an Italian issue, it was worldwide and it was obvious that we were in a position to do a lot about it.

Every year five thousand families donate organs in this country, even though it’s far less than needed. A lot of people have gone through what we have.

We simply thought, “He’s gone, there’s no way of bringing him back. Anything we do can’t possibly hurt him, but it can help other people.” To donate just seemed so obvious. We didn’t even have a discussion about it. One of us just turned to the other and said, more or less, what I just said and we both agreed.

There’s a sizable minority of people that donate, but it is difficult. People tell me that parents come into the hospital distraught or angry. A lot of them are angry at whoever “did it” or at the hospital for not somehow “saving them”, or at their husband, wife or self, for not having prevented it. Anger is often a powerful deterrent. People kind of lose their minds on occasion. They can’t cope with it.

We had a couple days to get used to it. Nicholas was in a coma for two days. We didn’t give up hope, but he was obviously not going to live. In fact, as soon as I saw the bullet wound I thought, “This is very, very serious.”

Our overwhelming feeling was of sadness, not anger. I was just so sad for the world . . . that it could do something like this to such an Innocent child. Nicholas had never hurt anybody in his life. He had no malice in him. It seemed like such a sad thing to have happen. That was my emotion throughout. I don’t ever remember getting angry about it . . . not even at the trial.

The reason I reacted this way must have been due to the influences of my childhood . . . mothers . . . fathers. I was an only child and had the right kind of books and lessons. My mother was very strong and sympathetic. She didn’t like to blame other people or look around for a scapegoat. School . . . all the books one read . . . everything gave me messages about the person I wanted to be. I always regarded railing at fate as being a weak sort of response. I’ve never believed that fate singled me out for blame or praise. I always had a happy life.

MAGGIE: I always thought that Reg was very intellectual about virtue and those things. I don’t know how he’s done it, being agnostic, but he seems to have done so very thoughtfully and established a code of behavior for himself . . . of some deep truth. It struck me when I first met him that he was one of the most virtuous people I knew. And luckily, we didn’t have all the religious talk. So, I don’t know if he used the power of intellect at that time to deal with it or not, but he already had a strong foundation.

I was raised as a Presbyterian but have always been quite casual about it. But I found at that time that it was quite necessary to pray and I found that being in a Catholic country . . . with all the trappings of faith around . . . was very comforting. (She mentioned later during lunch that she repeated the Lord’s Prayer when he was killed, as well as, “Do unto others and forgive them their trespasses.”) It didn’t send me back to church, but the comfort and support . . . of what lay beyond and what hope there might be.

My father died when I was eight, so I expect my mother was quite an example of dealing with that. The strength of raising a family by yourself and being very poor. And I suppose it was kind of a shock to find out that things can go wrong. I’ve always expected the worst. I find that a help really. Reg can be out for a walk and I’ll start to wonder if I can hear ambulances. That’s just the way I am.

CONTINUED TOMORROW

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What novel is this from?

Following, is a brief excerpt from one of the greatest books EVER written. Do you know the title and the author? Read a slice, before going to the bottom to find the answer.

***

The years took all the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul. No matter what Jody did, she said nothing. She had learned how to talk some and leave some. She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels. Sometimes she stuck out into the future, imagining her life different from what it was. But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods – come and gone with the sun. She got nothing from Jody except what money could buy, and she was giving away what she didn’t value.

Now and again she thought of a country road at sun-up and considered flight. To where? To what? Then too she considered thirty-five is twice seventeen and nothing was the same at all.

“Maybe he ain’t nothin’,” she cautioned herself, “but he is someting in my mouth. He’s got tuh be else Ah ain’t got nothin’ tuh live for. Ah’ll lie and say he is. If Ah don’t, life won’t be nothin’ but uh store and uh house.”

She didn’t read books so she didn’t know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop. Man attempting to climb to painless heights from his dung hill.

Then one day she sat and watched the shadow of herself going about tending store and prostrating itself before Jody, while all the time she herself sat under a shady tree with the wind blowing through her hair and her clothes. Somebody near about making summertime out of lonesomeness.

This was the first time it happened, but after a while it got so common she ceased to be surprised. It was like a drug. In a way it was good because it reconciled her to things. She got so she received all things with the solidness of the earth which soaks up urine and perfume with the same indifference.

THE ANSWER IS:

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (Copyright 1937)

Someone to Blame

Someone to Blame by C. S. Lakin (Zondervan Publishing, 2010) Review by Gabriel Constans.

How do you survive and find meaning, when the worst that can happen has happened? What do you do with the memories, visions, pain and suffering that follow you wherever you go, regardless of how many miles you’ve put between the tragedies and your self?

Those are the questions and circumstances facing the Moore family. Mother Irene, her husband Matt and their daughter Casey, make their way to a seemingly sleepy small town on the coast of Northern California called Breakers. The wonderful opening line sums up their feelings. “Irene once heard that if you fell off a cliff in your dream, you would always wake before smacking the ground. If only real life were that merciful.”

What has driven them so far from home and built walls of false protection between them is the loss of their 2 sons (Casey’s brothers Jesse and Daniel). What happened, how and perhaps why, are revealed as the story progresses. Each member of the family carries the burden differently and rarely allows them self to share their fears, grief and sadness with one another, out of self-protection and thinking they are protecting one another. Into the mix comes Billy Thurber, a damaged young man who comes to town and is immediately judged and quartered most everyone in the community for various incidents that occur.

Sheriff Joe Huff, pastor Luis Munez, Irene Moore and her daughter Casey, are the only people who give Billy a shadow of a doubt and perceive the possibility of his innocence. Whether he is innocent or guilty and of which crimes, is cleverly written by Ms. Lakin and leaves one in a constant state of anticipation to see what awaits the reader around the next corner. At one point Irene thinks, “Suddenly, it became clear – that every little action had immeasurable potency, creating a hundred repercussions that could set off any number of events.” Out of fear and helplessness, many members of the community begin to act out and become the very people they are afraid of.

Brief quotes from the Bible are interspersed throughout the novel in thoughts and conversations, as various characters (most notably Irene and Pastor Munez) try to come to terms with events that are spinning out of control, as well as losses which have already occurred. Though Someone to Blame clearly has a Christian bent, it is always within the stories context and never insists that readers’ have the same beliefs. The only questions that may arise in this regard are lines such as, “And sometimes you had to use violence to protect yourself and those you loved. Only society determined which violence was acceptable and which wasn’t.” This reasoning flies completely in the face of Jesus of Nazareth’s words and life of love and non-violent resistance, which some Christians seem to turn a blind eye to when they are justifying the use of violence. It also takes away any responsibility for individual choice and behavior, when it says, “Only society determined which violence…”

Other than the time that Billy says to Irene (while speaking about a broken sand dollar) that, “I’m broken – like this. Stop trying to fix me,” the people and dialogue that inhabit Someone to Blame are well rounded, complex and keenly written. The author’s understanding of the human condition and how we often react to suffering, are insightful and realistic. One of the many moving sentences in the story was, “She (Irene) drew Casey into her arms and released that love, swelling and overflowing, a torrent of need. Her daughter fell into those arms, like falling from a burning building into a safety net.”

Whether you believe in God or not, this inspirational novel is a good temporary salve for one’s daily experience and a beneficial exploration of what can cause our emotional pain to heal and/or fester.

The Only Alternative

Excerpt from The Only Alternative: Chiristian Nonviolent Peacemakers in America by Alan Nelson and John Malkin. Originally edited by Gabriel Constans.

Martin Luther King Jr., said, “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the force of hate with the power of love.”

Throughout human history, violence has failed to create peaceful communities in which the world’s people can live, thrive, and interact. Though some interpersonal (behavioral) or international (systemic) acts of violence and war may temporarily interrupt violence in the short term, violence always perpetuates violence. There is no way to create pace and safety with strategies based on violence. Only through means that are themselves peaceful and non-violent can anger and fear be relaxed, compassion cultivated, and peace realized.

We have been taught to believe that a beneficial way to influence the behavior of people whose actions disturb us is to judge them and threaten them with various degrees of violence, or by actually inflicting violence upon them. Though these actions may stem from a compassionate desire to contribute to the well-being of another person, all of these use punitive strategies based on the idea that the best way to influence the behavior of another person is by inflicting physical or psychological suffering upon them, rather than by discovering a strategy that would compassionately meet the needs of all involved. This education that emphasizes moralistic judgment of others as right or wrong and good or bad is based in a system of reward and punishment that is applied to self and others. Jesus challenged this method when he urged people to give up revenge and war and to utilize the power of revolutionary love. He urged his followers to turn from retribution and the notion of “an eye for an eye” to a compassionate way of “turning the other cheek” and “loving your enemies” (Matt 5:39, 44).

The main strategies available for dealing with violence are to ignore it, to use violence, or to call on the soul force of nonviolence. Jesus and the peacemakers featured in this book are aware that ignoring violence does not facilitate peace. In fact, the more that people ignore the violence within and among us, the more that violence is free to grow. Virtually every spiritual tradition has offered the view that violence creates more violence, and that rather than trying to find a way to peace, peace itself is the way.

All violence – personal, interpersonal, military, and institutional – is the result of an alienation from self, others, and God. It is a manifestation of the anxiety and anger that is alive when we think that we are separate beings, and that our thoughts and actions do not affect others. We have been taught to think that peace and love are things to be found outside of ourselves, in the future.

Ultimately, whenever we participate in or enable violence against other people, we also hurt ourselves because we are all children of God, interconnected in one life. Like Cain, we are perpetuating violence against our own siblings. We are “one body in Christ,” inextricably linked, even with those who may want to harm or kills us.

The self-destructive dimensions of violence are especially apparent when we remember that all human beings have God-given potentials for spiritual growth and happiness, and that acts of violence done in revenge and hatred hinder any spiritual and emotional growth. Violence prevents our realizing who we are and who we might become on Jesus’ way to peace. Any violence against God’s creatures is violence against life itself that exacerbates the alienation that so many feel from themselves, from others, and from the love of God.

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My Son Ryan and AIDS

Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

In 1984, one week before Christmas, Jeanne White was told that her son Ryan had contracted AIDS from a blood product he’d used to control his hemophilia. The doctors gave him six months to live. Struggling to make life as normal as possible for her thirteen-year-old son, she attempted to have him return to school as soon as possible. She did not realize the amount of fear and prejudice that would result when the school heard of his illness and refused to allow his return.

After numerous court battles, which brought he and his mother to national and international attention, Ryan was allowed back in school only to be inundated with hate, ignorance and abuse. As a result of their struggles Ryan was befriended by numerous celebrities such as Elton John, Michael Jackson and Phil Donahue and began to educate children and parents about AIDS by speaking at schools, appearing on numerous talk shows and news programs and having a movie about his life broadcast on national television. On April 11, 1990, five and a half years after his six-month prognosis, Ryan died. His funeral was one of the most publicized services of that decade.

Shortly after Ryan’s death his mother Jeanne, who had always been behind the scenes publicly, was asked by several senators to speak about Ryan to Congress in order to pass national legislation for AIDS education. She reluctantly agreed and was instantly thrown into the media spotlight. The bill, THE RYAN WHITE CARE ACT, was subsequently passed and Jeanne White became one of the most sought after speakers in the country. She founded the Ryan White Foundation and continues advocating for AIDS education and prevention with children, teenagers and their peers.

JEANNE WHITE:

A lot of times it takes a little push. Everybody likes feeling sorry for them selves over the death of a loved one. That’s kind of normal. With me it was Senator Kennedy and Senator Hatch who got me going and I fought it every step of the way. Ryan was always the public speaker not me.I was just following Ryan around. Senator Kennedy and Hatch had just named a bill after Ryan called the Ryan White Care Act and they wanted me to come to Washington DC. It was too soon. We had just buried Ryan two days before and they asked me to come anyway. They knew it was going to be hard, but they said, “You know, this is the first chance that we have of getting something done for people with AIDS.” They said, “Ryan’s death is so fresh on everybody’s mind, his illness and funeral was carried by every network for the last week and a half. This is the first chance of someone being in the public eye that takes the focus off the disease and puts it on to the fact that ‘anybody can get it.’”

I said, “Yes”. I said, “No”. I said, “I can’t, I really can’t. Ryan used to do that, not me.” On the second day people from Senator Kennedy’s staff called me again. They said, “Terry’s going to be there.” Terry and others had helped me through a lot of bad times. During all the years that Ryan fought AIDS the more people I knew that died of AIDS. And I had seen so many families just like me. Even though I didn’t want to get involved, so many people helped me that I kind of felt like I owed it to them. Then Senator Hatch called me and said, “You know, we’re not going to take ‘no’ for an answer. I have twenty-three senators lined up for you. All we want you to do is tell what it’s like to watch your son live and die with this disease.”

So I went to Washington and I’m so glad I did. It made me feel good. I didn’t feel I did great, not like I wanted to. I could have done better but I knew I was sincere in what I felt and said. After that, people wouldn’t let me stop.

Phil Donahue, who was a pallbearer at Ryan’s funeral, has become a very good friend of the family. When he was in the hospital visiting Ryan he noticed all the mail and could not believe how much was pouring in. He took a bunch of the letters back to New York with him and called saying, “Do you realize these letters are all from kids?!” I said, “Well yeah, that’s who generally wrote Ryan.” He said, “Jeannie, you’ve got to continue this work. You’ve got to answer this mail.” Phil said, “I’ll hire you an assistant.” There were over sixty thousand letters! Phil kept his word and with the help of Marlo Thomas and the St. Jude volunteers, they were able to find a lady that lived close by.

I was so impressed with Ryan, so proud of him. Sometimes I’d think, “Golly, is he really my son?” To me he was just my little kid, but to the nation, he was this celebrity and hero. I hated to even think that I could follow him, his impact was so great and people listened. When I speak I’m always a nervous wreck, even though I’ve been doing it now for years. I’ve messed up a lot, but I’m me. When I introduce myself I say, “I’m just a mom. I’m a mom just like your mom and because of this misunderstood disease called AIDS, my life changed overnight.” I say a prayer every time I go out. I say, “Lord, please help me to get through this. Help me educate these young people. Help me make a difference in their lives with my story.” Then I say, “Ryan, please be there with me.” Then I have this kind of surge that goes through me and I feel like its Ryan saying, “OK, Mom, I’m with you.”

I think we’ve made a lot of progress. By “we” I mean everybody who has committed so hard to fighting this disease with education and through therapy and drugs and medical treatment. I think we’ve come a long way. The people who have to be commended the most are the people that are not here. Their lives had to be lost for us to get where we are today, to show compassion. Even though I’m tired I’m still doing it because of the Terry Burns, the Mike Callums and the family members that I’ve seen.

One day we were riding in the van and Ryan reached over and grabbed my hand and started swinging it. I looked over and said, “OK, what do you want?” He said, “I don’t want anything.” “Come on Ryan, what do you want?” I continued. He replied, “Can’t a son hold his mother’s hand? ” I said, “Come on, you really don’t want anything?” “Mom, I just want to say thank you for standing by me, for always being there for me.”

I remember that moment when I speak to teenagers. You know, we always think everybody’s going to be here tomorrow, but one day you’re going to wake up and somebody’s not going to be there. I say, “You might think this stupid old lady up here doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but I do. The next time you go home from school, even if you think it’s the corniest thing you’ve ever done, write a letter to your parents. If you think you’re real cool and you can’t go up and hug them around their neck and say, ‘Mom. Dad. Thank you. I love you.’ Then write a note and put it on their pillow. Do something so that you’ll never be sorry.”

It would have been easy to be mad all the time at the people who ridiculed us, who discriminated against us, but we had to put our lives in perspective and look at what was really important and what wasn’t. Everybody saw on the news that it was this fight for Ryan to go to school, but the number one priority in our life was keeping him healthy. Second, was keeping my job at General Motors, because we had great insurance and it paid for all his medical bills. And the third part was my daughter Andrea, keeping us together as a family.

At first, it’s like, “Why?” Everybody wants to know why. Why wasn’t he given a miracle? All my life I was taught if you pray hard enough, if you believed hard enough, that you would get a miracle and you could never doubt that or you wouldn’t get one. I never thought Ryan was going to die. I just couldn’t quite understand that. I thought nobody had more people praying over them than Ryan did. I prayed, “Lord, wouldn’t it be nice to show this kid a miracle in front of the whole nation.” Everybody knew he’s lived with AIDS for five and half years. He’d been in and out of hospitals. He’s been blind twice. I mean, this kid had a heck of a life, why couldn’t he be given a miracle? When he died, it was like, “Why? What more could we have done?”

When he died I was really taken aback. I started questioning my faith. I think that’s normal. I mean, I started wondering if there really is a god? How does God let things like this happen? I see people around me all the time asking that question. “Why do young kids have to die?” I mean, anybody really, lots of other good people have died too. So then I started trying to find reasons.

After awhile it started to get clearer. “Look at all the things he’s done in his short life. He’s educated so many people. Wouldn’t we all like to say we had accomplished as much as this kid did in only 18 years?!”

I tell the kids that when I get to heaven I’m going to be angry. I hope the Lord forgives me for being angry, but I’m going to say, “Why did you have to take Ryan?” Then I say, “You know what I think he’s going to say? He’s going to say, ‘You know what, he was only supposed to live three to six months. I gave you five and a half years and you’re still not happy.’” Maybe I got a miracle. We had quite a few Christmases that we never thought we were going to have.

I didn’t want to lose my faith. I was mad at my faith. I was mad at my church. I was mad at my religion. I was mad at God. But I wanted to find a reason. I eventually started seeing things around me like the Ryan White Care Act and Elton John go through rehabilitation and get off of drugs and alcohol and I thought, “My goodness, Ryan touched more lives than I ever knew. Perhaps those people got miracles and they don’t know it.”

Michael (Jackson) was a real good friend of Ryan’s. When Michael called Ryan in the hospital once, Elton said, “With all the money that’s in this room, we can’t bring this boy back to life.” That was a real big realization to Elton . . . that he had all the money in the world, he had everything he could ever buy, but he could not buy his health. That’s why he entered rehab. When Michael called me after Ryan died, just to see how I was doing, I said, “I’m doing OK but what made you and Ryan so close?” When Michael would call, they would have long phone conversations. He said, “You know, most people can’t get over the awe of who I am, so nobody can ever act normal around me. Ryan knew how I wanted to be treated, because that’s how he wanted to be treated. I can’t trust anyone because everybody always wants something from me.” He could tell Ryan anything and Ryan wasn’t going to go blab it or tell it, you know. “I promised Ryan he could be in my next video and now that he’s gone I want to do a video for him.” He made a video called Going Too Soon, which was about Ryan.

It’s hard to talk about death. I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t really think he was going to die. I can remember him saying what he wanted to be buried in. I told him I really didn’t want to talk about it but he went on anyway, “I know you like me in a tux but I don’t want to buried in one.” I said, “OK, Ryan, what do you want?” I mean, it’s like, I’d say anything to get this conversation over with. He says, “I want to be buried in my Guess jeans, my red T&C (Town and Country) shirt, my Air Jordan’s and my Jean jacket.” He pauses, as I’m fading out, then says, “You know how people are when they’re lying in a casket and everybody is watching their eyes to see if their eyes move? I want my sunglasses on and I want to be buried in my boxer shorts.” “Your boxer shorts?” I exclaimed. He’d just switched from wearing briefs to boxer shorts and really liked them. “Why your boxer shorts?” I deadpanned. “You know that hernia I got? I want to make sure I . . .” He had a hernia that they couldn’t operate on because he had no platelets. “I want to make sure I’m comfortable.” And I thought, ‘Well, if you’re dead, I mean . . .’ “OK, just talk,” Ryan said. “You know, as a mom.”

One of the best things after Ryan died was when people talked about him. I think it was also good for me to get involved in something I truly believed in, doing something, instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for myself. That’s the easy way to go . . . feeling sorry for yourself. People didn’t let me, although that’s what I probably would have done if not pushed. But people were always talking about Ryan and people still do and that kind of keeps him alive within me.

CONTINUED

Islam, Peace and Prison.

Iman Michael Salaam (photo)

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, while talking on Meet the Press about President Obama’s faith being Christian said, “He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is what if he is (Muslim)? s there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?” Mr. Powell went on to speak about a photo essay he’d seen which showed a mother at the grave of her son, who had served in Iraq and been awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. His tombstone had the crescent and star of the Islamic faith. The young man, Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, was an American who had given his life for his country. In spite of such examples of patriotism and calls for tolerance, stereotypes about the Muslim faith and those that practice it, especially those in prison, are buried deep in the American psyche.

The Gallup Poll of the Muslim World estimates there are approximately 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, which is about 22% of all people on earth. If it continues at its present rate of growth, those who identify as Muslims will bypass Christianity (holding steady at 33%) by the middle of this century. A survey by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research said that close to 2 million Muslims attend prayer in U.S. mosques. They also found that in one recent 5 year period, the number of mosques grew by 25 percent and the people worshiping in them rose by 300 percent. With one of the largest prison populations in the world, per capita, it is not surprising that people practicing or converting to Islam in America’s prisons has also risen over the last 50 years. Most people imprisoned in the U.S. are eventually released back into the community. If a large portion of them are Muslim, how they believe, act and practice their faith and our re actions to their faith, affects us all.

“I’m not a terrorist or violent. I’m Muslim,” says inmate Kalain Hadley at Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP) in Coalinga, California. “My God and the Islam I practice has nothing to do with killing innocent people or suicide. The Koran says to only fight to protect oneself. Jihad means ‘struggle’, an internal struggle with self, not something political or violent.”

The program manager for Hartford Seminary’s Islamic Chaplaincy Program, which is the only accredited program of its kind in the U.S., says she has had to deal with such prejudicial views about Islam throughout her career. Ms. Mumina Kowalski was the first contracted Islamic female chaplain in Pennsylvania. She worked at a women’s facility for 8 years and says, “We still experience a lot of prejudice. It’s tough. We use to get criticism about inmates because they were Muslim, as opposed to other inmates being criticized strictly for their behavior and not their religious beliefs.”

John E. Colbert, another inmate at PVSP, claims, “Mainstream Islam doesn’t believe in terrorism. It’s against the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. The radicals have moved away from the Koran and Muhammad’s example and drifted towards tribalism, culture and nationalism. One of the verses in the Koran says, ‘I made you as nations and tribes to learn from each other, not to fight one another.’ Islam recognizes all religious faiths, including the prophets Abraham, Jesus and Moses.”

Harry Dammer, Professor of the Sociology and Criminal Justice Department at the University of Scranton points out that, “We forget that Islamic inmates have been recruiting each other in prison for almost 50 years since Malcolm X and his colleagues brought it to the forefront as a prison religion. Only now, with the fear of terrorism, are people concerned about the abuse of the faith (Islam) after release. We also forget that looking back at prison riots over the last 40 or so years, you can see that in fact the Muslim inmates helped in numerous instances to quell the prison riots and keep the lid on escalating violence. I can say from my research that prison is just like general society. There are people in prison who are sincere in their religious faith and those that are not.”

The word “Islam” is defined as “surrender into God’s will”. “Allah” is simply another word for “God” and is close to the same words Jesus used for God in his native tongue. An “Imam” is “someone who leads others in prayer”. The 5 Pillars or “tenets” of Islam are: faith or belief in the oneness of God; daily prayer (5 times); concern for and giving assistance to the needy; purification through fasting (Ramadan); and at least 1 pilgrimage to Makkah (the hajj), for those that are able.

The former Muslim chaplain at PVSP, Imam Michael Salaam, has been in the faith since 1971. He grew up in Memphis Tennessee and had always attended New Salem Baptist Church. When he converted to Islam, he says his mother “almost went into shock”. He remembers her saying, “Are you insane?! Are you crazy?!” Her initial reactions didn’t last. “After about 5 years, she saw my life change,” he fondly recalls. “I got a steady job and was helping raise my kids. One day she came up to me and said, ‘Come here son. What is this stuff you say you’re in?’ I said, ‘It’s Islam Mom.’ She said, ‘Well . . . do you think you could get your brothers into that stuff?’ She had seen the positive effect Islam had on me through those years. I think it also helped her practice her own faith more deeply when she realized that Islam wasn’t ritualistic to me, it had become my substance; my essence. Muslim means that natu re or that soul in each of us. Once that soul or entity submits to Allah or God, he or she is Muslim.”

Five years ago the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which records prisoners’ religious preferences, said that 5.5 percent of the federal inmate population were some type of Muslim. It is believed that a much higher percentage of state and county inmates are Muslim (where religious preferences are not always recorded), due to the larger number of African-Americans in such facilities. Although those who are or have become Muslims come from all ethnic, social and economic backgrounds, the Associated Press says that 30 percent of the nation’s Muslims are black.

“Allah is everywhere,” claims inmate Kevin Wilson. “I don’t know exactly why, but it (Islam) resonates. Maybe it’s because it’s a form of rehabilitation. It’s something we are choosing to do, as opposed to being imposed. If you follow the principles and tenets of Islam you can do nothing but be rehabilitated. You have to be brutally honest with yourself and ask yourself hard questions and have that personal talk. It may hurt, but you’re going to find out who you are, what you were and where you’ll end up.”

Speaking about the incident he says changed his life, Kalain Hadley says, “I had just been in a fight and was sitting alone with a torn shirt. A guy came and sat next to me. He started talking about Allah and invited me to Friday service. I wasn’t interested in religion at all. I said I’d go just to get rid of him. I went and listened and have been showing up to listen for 4 years now. Imam Michael Salaam said what I need to hear and he is an honorable man.”

Whether these men’s change in belief and conversion to Islam will have a permanent positive effect upon their behavior and how they live their lives, is still out with the jury. Kris Rosenberg in Can People Change says, “Faith in human transformation is a phenomenon basic to our culture. We join Alcoholics Anonymous with the hope that we can become sober citizens. And sometimes it works. We can keep faith in the possibility of transformation and still be skeptical of quick-change artists with big pay-offs.”

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 600,000 prisoners are released each year and that almost 70 percent of them have alcohol and drug problems. Within three years, about two-thirds are rearrested and 50 percent return to prison. In a report by Florida State University researcher Dan Mears, which was funded in part by the National Institute of Justice, it was found that there is no hard evidence that “faith-based” or religious programs really work or cut down on recidivism rates.

Such reports do not dampen the spirits of Imam Michael Salaam. He believes there is not enough support for those released or solid communities to which they can return and there are few programs that exist within the prison gates. As a sponsor of a non-denominational and multi-faceted program for inmates at PVSP called the Impact Program (which is co-facilitated by Rev. Deborah Johnson from Inner Light Ministries, along with an inmate council of long-time residents), the Imam has seen the positive effects and transformations that can and do take place when such comprehensive modalities are employed. “They have to come to it with some sincerity though and with an open heart to learn and reform their life,” he insists. “There are many successes.”

There are some studies that confirm that change is possible. An Arizona Inmate Recidivism Study found that, “Rehabilitation program involvement was found to reduce recidivism by 25% after two years of release. A higher level of inmate program involvement correlates with a greater reduction in recidivism. High program involvement will reduce recidivism by 35 percent or more. The greatest reductions in recidivism occur for those who are involved in a program and serve ten years or more. Inmates released to supervision record significantly lower recidivism rates than do comparable inmates released without supervision.”

A number of programs for Muslim’s released from prison are scattered across the country, but very few of them combine all of the factors that have been shown to cut down recidivism and help people stay the course. “When the Nation of Islam was the dominant factor in the prisons,” says Imam Michael Salaam, “I think the success rate was better because you had one influence, one voice and when the guys came out there was a community there. It was a coordinated effort. Now, with different schools of thought there is some fragmentation. There’s no real group representing all the divisions.”

This concern with fragmentation and groups that cause conflict in prison are echoed by Ms. Kowalski. “Some people use a fronting of religion as Muslim, but it is really negative and simply a tool to rebel against the system. This type of ‘Islam’ requires no personal transformation. They use it to form an identity, which can be detrimental, because they don’t practice or look at their own issues. That is another reason why it is so important to have trained chaplains that understand these divisions.”

Once people get out of the penitentiary, they face the same lack of coordinated services that often exist inside. A report in 2004 to the Annie E. Casey Foundation by Dr. Lawrence H. Mamiya and Dr. Ihsan Bagby identified a number of programs and mosques that are trying to help formerly incarcerated Muslims. They found that, “The city of Cleveland had the best Interfaith cooperative network, called Community Reentry, for reintegrating formerly incarcerated persons”. Other programs include: ICNA Relief and United Muslim Movement Against Homelessness (NY); Crescent Social Assistance Agency (NJ); Masjid Ikhwa (NY); Muslim Women’s Help Network (NY); ILM Foundation (LA); Small Steps (LA); Husbah (CA); Muslim Community Center (SF); Free at Last (CA); Community Re-Entry (OH); Masjid al-Muminin (GA); Islamic Crisis Emergency Response System (GA); Masjid al-Haqq (MI); Muslim Family Services (MI); Mosque of Umar (IL); Masjid al-Fajr (IN); Inner City Muslim Center (IL) ; Prison Committee at Islamic Center (TX); Prison Prevention Program (TX); and Masjid Taleem Muhammad (TX).

“I saw a study once,” Imam Michael Salaam recalls, “done by a Christian. He wanted to know why Islam was growing in America. He looked at the media and other factors and discovered that most who converted did so based on them knowing another person who they respected; based on that person’s good behavior; how that person treated them; their compassion and love. The best invitation for Islam is your behavior. The Koran says, ‘God is good. All good comes from God.’ If there’s something that is going wrong in your life, check your own hands and see what you did to bring that about. That is the key, for them to see that Islam calls upon you to improve your life so it can be of service to other human beings. I believe every human being can change. Not everyone will change, but they can. Until we can put that sense of self pride, responsibility and being of value in the men in prison, there won’t be any rehabilitation. You have to hit that chord with them. If Islam can make that man conscious and aware of his family, take care of his kids, become responsible and gainfully employed making honest money, that benefits everyone in our society. That’s what Islam is about . . . awakening that human being to his God given potential.”

“Michael Salaam has a unique way of putting things,” says PVSP inmate John E. Colbert. “It reaches the core of your soul. He is someone I respect. I could hear the same thing from someone else, but until I heard it from Imam Michael, it didn’t sink in.”

When former U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell spoke about a 7-year-old Muslim-American child having the same right to dream of growing up to be president of the United States as any other kid in this country, he was presenting a vision of the potential that exists within our society, but has not yet been achieved. The reality of how American’s perceive and relate to their fellow Muslim citizens and their Islamic faith (those in prison and those without), is still embedded with stereotypes, prejudice and ignorance. Whether these negative images are changed by people such as Imam Michael Salaam, General Collin Powell or the over 2 million Muslim’s in the U.S., remains to be seen.

A Drop In the Bucket

“I saw over five hundred kids walking out of the Congo three years ago and decided I had to do something about it,” says Rev. Paul Oas. What he did was organize the church he attends in San Diego, California to provide support and funds for an orphanage in Rwanda (called ROP Center for Street Children) and put together a team of people to visit the orphanage of 150 children and assist them with health care, clean water, trauma relief, job training and hope for a future in a country that is still reeling from the 1994 genocide. “I feel like I’m in my twenties again,” says Pastor Paul, as his seventy-five year old eyes light up.

For three weeks Pastor Paul, who likes to be called Paul, helped coordinate a team of concerned health professionals in the capital of Rwanda, Kigali. They worked from morning until night providing children at the center with the first medical check up and exam they had ever had, teaching older youth sewing and quilting skills, in order to have a vocation once they left the orphanage and connecting the center for orphans with local clinics, dentists and a water filtration company. They also provided classes in Thought Field Therapy – TFT (a meridian based treatment that eliminates symptoms of post traumatic stress) and did a follow up study with children they had treated the previous year. Other members of the team taught classes on TFT to orphanage directors, ministers and other social service organizations from all over Rwanda.

Paul says, “When people without church backgrounds see things like this they are touched as well and have a change in values. Too often religion has become more interested in form than in function. In the twelfth chapter of Romans Paul says, ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice and this is your reasonable worship’”. In other words, make sure your walk matches your talk.

There are countless disappointments and frustrations with this kind of work and mission, such as never having enough resources and constant feelings of helplessness, but Pastor Paul believes these realities are part of the journey. “I still get overwhelmed and feel like it’s all a drop in the bucket. The way I take care of that is to keep getting others involved and having it expand.” He says his father and mother (who was a nurse) taught him to always “find a way” and believed “we’re all one family”.

Working in Rwanda is not the first time Paul has gone outside his community in southern California. He has also organized trips to orphanages in Baja Mexico and worked with survivors in Kosovo, as well as visiting a refugee camp of 100,000 on the border of Sudan. He believes that words mean nothing without corresponding action and often quotes a passage from James 1: 27, which states, “True religion and uncorrupted, is to visit the orphans and the widows in their distress and to keep one self unstained from the world.”

After traveling and serving people in Kosovo, Mexico and Africa, Pastor Paul finds it challenging to live in such an affluent part of the world. Instead of judging or condemning those with affluence, he realized that most of them want to get involved and giving to others provides meaning for their lives as well. “People start blossoming,” he says. “Our mission is to help one another mobilize and find our individual gifts.”

The work Paul has done at the ROP Center for Street Children in Rwanda has also blossomed. Not only have members of his church at Christ Lutheran in San Diego committed funds and resources, but Pastor Paul has also reached out and received support for the orphans from concerned individuals and religious and non-religious organizations throughout the country and around the globe. “When you have the compassion to do something,” Paul says with a smile, “you’ll find roadblocks that will stop you, but don’t let them. The roadblocks are for some purpose. When people see your passion for God and His creation, they get involved and new paths appear.”

Pastor Paul Oas has not let roadblocks, government restrictions, lack of funds, cultural misunderstandings or church politics block his path to helping children or prevented him from bringing people of diverse backgrounds, beliefs and areas of the country to “get on board”. “Most people say they admire me for doings this, but I don’t want to be admired,” Paul says. “What they are really saying is that it is wonderful what you’re doing and I wish I could help. The greatest admiration is when they contribute or get involved. Some people make a show about how much they love God, but Jesus said, ‘How can you say you love God who you haven’t seen, when you don’t love the brother who you have seen?’”

A Picture of Success

An excerpt from the book Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call. Interview with Sybil Anderson-Adams.

Her life was the picture of success. Her husband was an attorney, they were drawing up plans for their dream house and she recently quit her teaching job to spend more time with their three young, healthy, happy children. Suddenly, the rug was pulled out from under her feet and before she knew what hit her, her life was turned upside down. What started out as a headache in court, turned out to be a leaking aneurysm. In spite of the doctors’ assurances to the contrary, within three weeks Sybil Anderson-Adams husband, father of her children, was dead. Without comprehension or time to have said good-bye, she struggled to survive and make sense of the incomprehensible.

As a result of her desperation and need to find answers, she reached out to her friends, neighbors, doctor and church and formed a support group for young adults who’s partners had died. The first meeting brought together twenty-five people who’d previously thought they were alone. With her need and ability to communicate her process and grief to others, she continues to open the door of life for those who thought it had been slammed in their face and locked shut forever.

SYBIL ANDERSON-ADAMS: When I arrived at the hospital the doctor said, “I have some bad news to give you. Your husband stopped breathing.’ I’ll never forget those words. ‘He stopped breathing.’ He finally said, ‘I’m sorry . . . he’s passed away.’ It was then that it hit me . . . like a wosh. (she hits her chest with the palms of both hands). I doubled over . . . just like you see in the movies.

After the shock had subsided I realized I didn’t know who I was anymore. It was the loss of identity. I was the type of person who always had my entire life planned out. Before Neal died, I’d never really had a traumatic event. I had things all figured and scheduled . . . which, as you know, gives you a sense of control. But I had no control over this one and that was my undoing. I had to decide where I was going; who I was. There was an urgency. I remember going to a counselor and saying, ‘When will I not feel this way? When, when, when?!’ The reality was so strong that I wanted it to be over. I didn’t want to cry anymore.

Then one day I remember making a decision. it was something one of my kids said. You know, ‘Out of the mouths of babes!’ One of my sons says, ‘If you hadn’t stopped and talked to Dad that one day long ago, you might never had known him or gotten married.’ I said, ‘You know, you’re right.’ And I had this vision where I decided that whatever came up I’d say, ‘Yes!’ That I would do things no matter how hard it was. When my kids had stuff they needed to do . . . cub scouts, swimming . . . I made a decision that no matter what, I wasn’t going to hide at home anymore, I was going to go. And what I found was that doing that made me stronger, even though a lot of the events I attended were absolute disasters! Taking some kind of action made me feel brave. it gave me confidence.

I remember sitting with another friend who was at that same juncture. She said, ‘I hate this. I want to be out of here.’ I felt the same at the time and replied, ‘Yeah, just get me out.’ And that’s one of the reasons I started a support group and keep it going to this day. I needed those people so bad. They were my reality. If somebody else could make it, so could I.

For awhile I could only live for the day. The future was nonexistent. I’ve met many people throughout the years that say the same thing. hey said, ‘Good-bye” in the morning and their spouse was dead by the afternoon. It changed my whole concept of how I look at things. I laugh more often now. We’ve got three teenagers and one in early adolescence. They can make you laugh or cry. If I wasn’t able to laugh once in a while our life would be one miserable hell.

I think all survivors make that decision at some point. You have to decide to live. My kids forced me into it. I’d be in bed with the covers pulled over my head, not wanting to get out and one of them would come in and say, ‘What’s for breakfast?’ What are you going to do; I couldn’t stay in bed? I had to get up. I was the only one they had left.

We had a saying in our house, ‘Life sucks.’ It was kind of our motto for awhile. The kids would say, ‘Life sucks!’ and I’d look at them and say, ‘Yeah, then what?’ They’d answer, ‘Then you die.” I’d continue, “So, then what are you going to do about it?’ They’d look at me, roll their eyes and say, ‘Come on Mom.’ It’s made them real. They see a different reality then most kids.

Life has become a really interesting place. Neal’s death and where my life has gone since, has added another dimension. God knows I wish it hadn’t happened, but without it I could have lived until I was eighty-five and never discovered this! Life is such a gift, though I’m not thrilled with the way I had to really find this out. I love being in this state of mind. I’m doing things that I never knew I could or would do. There was a point two years after he died when I realized, ‘My God, I can do anything!’ I survived something that at first glance seemed like an endless hole of despair. I didn’t think I’d ever climb out . . . but I did.

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