Sharing More Than a Meal at the Thanksgiving Table

Thanks to the Austin American-Statesman for running this piece as an op-ed on Thanksgiving, November 28, 2019.

Some years back my mother insisted that I watch the movie “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” Released in 1987, the movie revolves upon the difficulties of Thanksgiving holiday travel. On a deeper level, it’s also about the common grace that two very different individuals — Steve Martin’s uptight business executive and John Candy’s garrulous shower curtain ring salesman — find in each other. Appropriately, the paths of these two strangers, by suggestion of the movie’s final scene, will ultimately merge at a Thanksgiving table, where despite their differences, they will sit side by side.

Here’s the reason my mom recommended the movie: We had recently travelled on a family trip through Peru with all kinds of setbacks — flat tires, roadblocks and requests to prove our U.S. citizenship. The movie’s premise, however, seemed to me exceedingly cliché. But after a first viewing, I was hooked. Our family has watched the movie every Thanksgiving holiday since.

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The first American Thanksgiving, legend tells us, brought Pilgrims and indigenous people together in peace in 1621 to share a bountiful harvest in present-day Massachusetts. Closer examination of the historical record reveals that the Pilgrims — half their numbers didn’t survive the previous winter — and the indigenous had plenty of reason to be wary of one another. The Pilgrims anticipated another brutal winter, and the Chief Massasoit-led Wampanoag were squeezed by their immigrant table guests to the east and their long-time rivals, the Narraganset, to the west. The first Thanksgiving, like the gathering featured in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” was all about strangers encountering one another face to face, forced to consider the possibility that their differences did not outsize their commonalities.

American society is at a precarious state with the arrival of Thanksgiving 2019. Nationally, our politics have become divisive and hyper-partisan; in Texas, there are immigrant children separated from their parents and needlessly traumatized at the border; locally in Austin, there is a homelessness problem and statewide wrangling about how to respond to it. Longtime friends and family members sometimes don’t see eye-to-eye on these and other issues. Due to a crisis of national leadership, there is permission to disparage one another simply because of a difference of opinion.

This polarization threatens not only family gatherings, but civic life as well. Thanksgiving Day is the only national holiday with a specified menu, and consequently, the requirement to be seated at a table. At a table with turkey and varied trimmings, we encounter one another — family, friends and sometimes strangers — with a face-to-face intimacy that is not required on July 4 or Labor Day.

My wife and I lived with our infant daughter in Perú in the late 1980s as I completed a two-year internship during my seminary education. When my parents, who spoke zero Spanish, visited us, food and tables were exclusively the method by which they met Peruvians (few who spoke English). My wife and I were the translators — bridgers — to explain the food and personally connect those who shared the table.

In this hyper-partisan age, those of us who are bridgers have an abundance of worthy and necessary work to do. Gratitude, generosity, and grace are the classic Thanksgiving virtues shared at the table. After we turn the calendar on Thanksgiving, may we have the civic pride to continue to practice these virtues with family, neighbors, political adversaries and even strangers. Our very survival as a civil society depends upon it.


balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

See all my book reviews – linked here.

Check out my new author website: http://www.tcarlosanderson.com.

American Nations – Book Review

Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Penguin, 2011) was late to get on my radar. The 300-plus page historical synthesis has suffered no loss of vitality almost a decade after publication – like any good work of history, it helps readers better understand the current day. If you still scratch your head trying to figure out how the same electorate elevated both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, in consecutive terms, no less – I recommend that you add American Nations to your reading list.

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Having grown up in the Chicago area, with family ties in rural Minnesota, I was intrigued to discover to which “nation” my family heritage best aligned. With a quick glance at the book’s cover map, I eliminated “Deep South” and “Greater Appalachia.”  Standing out to me was “The Midlands,” a swath of land in the Upper-Midwest stretching from Pennsylvania to Nebraska. I was surprised to discover, as I began to read Woodard’s descriptions, that “Yankeedom” best fit my family heritage. “From the outset, [Yankeedom] was a culture that put great emphasis on education . . . and the pursuit of the ‘greater good’ of the community . . . Yankees have the greatest faith in the potential of the government to improve people’s lives, tending to see it as an extension of the citizenry, and a vital bulwark against the schemes of grasping aristocrats, corporations, or outside powers” (p. 5, paperback). A few other descriptors used by Woodard to describe “Yankees” touch on values I hold dear: “egalitarian,” vocation as “divine calling,” and opposition to “inherited privilege” and “conspicuous displays of wealth.” Yup, I’m Yankee to the core.

With support from The Midlands, Yankeedom was the main combatant against the Deep South and its cousin nation “Tidewater” (coastal Carolinas) in the Civil War. The fundamental disagreements that fueled that war have remnants that yet hold sway in American society, as Woodard makes clear on pages 55-56, by his careful contrast of liberty with freedom. Liberty, as understood by nineteenth-century Deep South culture, was a privilege – not a right – that few were granted. Virginian John Randolph (1773-1833) summed it up best: “I’m an aristocrat. I love liberty. I hate equality.”

Freedom, on the other hand, was understood by Yankeedom as a birthright of all peoples – no exceptions. Differences may have existed in status and wealth, but all were “born free” and equal before the law.

These differing understandings led to a bloody war in 1861. Today, the current strains of these understandings brace the battles about voting rights and restrictions, labor laws and worker rights, support of public school systems, taxation of the wealthy, and the expansion of health care. Consider the near fifty-year-old issue of ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment: not one state of the Deep South nation bloc (excluding Texas) has voted for its approval.

Texas is a thoroughly hybrid state, as Woodard writes, with its southeastern and cotton-growing region part of the Deep South nation, its northern half part of the Appalachian nation, and its southwestern expanse paralleling the Mexican border part of “El Norte.”

I’ve lived most of my adult life in El Norte, arriving (and staying) because of my facility in the Spanish language. Woodard describes El Norte, which includes parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Southern California, as historically independent, adaptable, and work-centered. Woodard predicts that the bloc that wins the allegiance of El Norte will move forward in political gains in the first part of the twenty-first century. Perhaps a Yankee-El Norte ticket in 2020 – Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro – has a chance to defeat the incumbent “New Amsterdam”-Greater Appalachia ticket, with Deep South allegiance – Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

I’ll close with a Woodard observation (page 318) that pits, like 150 years ago, Yankeedom versus Deep South. Unlike many other countries that have religion or ethnicity holding them together as a commonality, the United States is held together by its central government and its institutions: Congress, federal courts, military branches, national agencies. Woodard warns that this one nation won’t survive if the separation of church and state is weakened or abolished, if political ideologues overwhelm the Justice Department or the Supreme Court, or if open debate is squelched by hyperpartisan divides that erode congressional rules designed to uphold ideas to public scrutiny.

Our “oneness” as a nation is tenuous. Compromise, a disparaged word in this hyperpartisan age, is shown by American Nations to be a unifying force. Our differences will remain. Our nation’s future will be determined by our willingness to either fight about them or live with them.


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Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

See all my book reviews – linked here.

Check out my new author website: http://www.tcarlosanderson.com.

 

Todos Juntos – Everyone Together

This past year in my work as Austin City Lutherans’ director of community development, I got to know a woman in Austin who directs an innovative “2-Gen” education center for parents (mostly moms) and pre-school aged children. Christina Collazo is executive director of Todos Juntos Learning Center, an organization that for ten years, has served refugee and migrant families.

I’m grateful to Christina for giving me an inside look at her organization and her own life. I wrote the linked story below, published as a lead article in the “Life Section” of the Austin American-Statesman on September 14, 2019. Todos Juntos LC creates equity and promotes opportunity by empowering women and their children. It’s an incredible program with an indominable leader.

“Christina Collazo’s 10-year mission to teach parents and children at Todos Juntos”


 

balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

 

Check out my new author website: http://www.tcarlosanderson.com.

The Line Becomes a River – Book Review

jalbmblog.riverFrancisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River (Riverhead Books, 2018) took me on a journey to specific locales I’ve never been to. Even so, for me, they were familiar places. Working as a bilingual pastor for the past thirty years in Latin America and Texas, I’ve crossed many borders in the Americas – South, Central, and North – and have worked in close proximity with many who have done the same.

Border crossing, as Cantú discloses, encompasses much more than physical dimensions, but spiritual ones as well.

Cantú was raised in SW Arizona by his Mexican-American mom, a national park ranger. After graduating from college, he returned to the Sonoran desert. He signed up to be a border patrol cop, against his mother’s wishes. The next four years, he worked the border area that Northern Mexico shares with Arizona and New Mexico – where the border consists of mostly straight lines – and with Texas – where the border flows as a river.

The book, a huge seller and winner of the 2018 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, has created significant controversy on both sides of the political spectrum. On the far left, migrant rights’ activists have disrupted Cantú’s book signings and others, like his own mother, find police and military vocations objectionable. On the far right, those who have a penchant to refer to migrants as “illegals” have flooded book review sites with 1-star ratings for Cantú’s work. Predictably, many of these “reviewers” admit to not even having read the book as they slavishly follow through with their self-imposed ideological sense of duty.

I read all of the book’s 250 pages, and I’m thankful I did.

The Line Becomes a River is an excellent memoir-of-sorts and a stark depiction of US-Mexican border reality. It’s honest, unflinching, descriptive, raw in spots, and honest again. As evidenced by upset reactionaries on either side of the political spectrum, this book can be difficult to digest emotionally.

But isn’t this one of the main reasons we why read – to be exposed to another’s reality? Too bad that Cantú’s hard-won reality doesn’t fit with his upset reviewers preconceived notions of “the way things should be.” It’s a complex world. Cantú exposes a part of the world that many – most especially a current president – don’t understand. As we read, we enter into a profound conversation with this author on the highly significant topic of immigration.

Author Francisco Cantú – raised in this borderland, the blood of ancestors from both sides of the border coursing through his veins – makes the conversation intimate and personal in Part 3 of the book. He befriends a Mexican who has lived and worked in the US more than twenty years. This Mexican national, the married father of two adolescents, lacks legal status. His story is typical, unique, and ultimately heartbreaking. The line that becomes a river – the border – bisects his family, and Cantú details its cutting effect. “[T]he desert has been weaponized against migrants, and lays bare the fact that the hundreds who die there every year are losing their lives by design.”

Cantú’s writing throughout embraces paradox – the ability to entertain two seemingly contradictory thoughts at once. He knows that the United States’ immigration policy – or lack thereof as concerns many workers without legal status – is a joke. This books serves to expose, in its own way, a society that has an addiction to cheap labor – 400 years strong – and won’t admit to it.

Those who critique Cantú for not including more immigrant voices in his book don’t persuade me. Other books such as Enrique’s Journey and The Distance Between Us are but a few of many good examples that include these important voices that add to the conversation. But Cantú’s voice – again, like a bridge that connects two sides – is unique and necessary.

Our society today could be renamed “The Binary States of America,” the place where twenty-five years of increasing hyper-partisanship has hollowed out the middle. Ya basta – as Cantú would write – enough already. It’s time to purposely rebuild the center. By its accurate depiction of two sides of the immigration dilemma, The Line Becomes a River places itself squarely in the middle of this necessary work of reconstruction.


balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

 

Check out my new author website: http://www.tcarlosanderson.com.

Words Create Worlds

The Austin American-Statesman published the following as an op-ed on Sunday, August 18, 2019.

In the four years since declaring for the presidency, Donald Trump’s tongue and fingers (on Twitter) have spewed divisive and sometimes hateful words to a worldwide audience. It has helped him amass a fervent base of supporters, even though his approval ratings are the lowest for any president of recent memory.

The hyper-partisan political divide in this country pre-dates the Trump presidency, yet the 45th president intentionally stokes the fires of division while striving for a second term. He treads upon the same path as did previous American politicians who leveraged this nation’s original sin of racism to gain and maintain a grip on power: Andrew Jackson, Ben Tillman, George Wallace, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond.

Mass shootings in America also pre-date the current presidency. But Trump’s words to describe immigrants and immigration – invasion, criminals, infestation – helped create the environment where a disgruntled twenty-one-year-old from the Dallas area drove to El Paso and opened fire at a local Walmart, killing twenty-two persons – mostly Latinx. In an online rant posted just prior to the massacre, the white male shooter parroted the president’s language, writing: “This attack is in response to a Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

El Paso – on today’s site of its sister city, Juarez – was founded in 1659, more than a century and a half before Stephen F. Austin came to establish an English-speaking and slave-holding settlement in what was then the northeastern part of Mexico. Spanish, alongside indigenous languages, was spoken in this territory – now called Texas – long before English ever was. I wonder if the El Paso shooter knows these historical facts. I imagine the president doesn’t and would label them, if he encountered them, “fake news” as they run contrary to his invasion narrative.

The renown Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke these three words – “words create worlds” – to his students and to his own daughter, raised in the post-Nazi world. The wise rabbi based his teaching on the first chapter of Genesis wherein God’s words create the world of light, seas, land, and sky.

Heschel was born in Poland in 1907. The Nazis would eventually kill his mother and three of his sisters. The Gestapo deported him from Frankfurt, Germany in 1938, where he instructed adults in the Jewish faith. His escape from the Nazis to America was facilitated by his giftedness in writing and teaching.

He eventually settled in New York City, where he instructed seminarians – future rabbis – to be public actors burdened with the responsibility to speak out against social injustice. The Holocaust, he knew, was originally created with words – words of hate, blame, and propaganda seeking political power and advantage. Only after these words inflamed public sentiment, did the Nazis construct their crematoria and concentration camps. Words create worlds, for better and for worse.

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(Left to right) Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy

In 1963, Heschel shared the keynote speaker stage at an ecumenical religious conference on religion and race in Chicago with Martin Luther King Jr. They mutually recognized a prophetic connection and became confidants. Two years later, Heschel walked arm-in-arm with King as they led thousands on a civil rights’ march from Selma to Montgomery. This historic march marshaled the political will President Johnson needed to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Heschel later said, “When I marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, I felt my legs were praying.”

King was an African American and Protestant minister, and Heschel was a European immigrant and Jewish rabbi. Different, yes, but they shared a common calling to bring justice to the oppressed by opposing those who create, cause, and maintain injustice. Their words – conversations, prayers, sermons, speeches, and writings – have an edifying effect yet today, helping to uplift liberty and promote justice for all, building on the egalitarian structures created by the words of great Americans who came before: Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Louis Brandeis, Susan B. Anthony.

It was hoped that the current president, when assuming office, would become more “presidential” by scaling back his volatile and divisive rhetoric. He’s not done it, and as both supporters and resisters can see, he’ll not change his ways – or his words – anytime soon.

Words create worlds. After four years of invective words from Trump, it’s time for those of us who oppose him to work as hard as we legally can – whether for impeachment or reelection defeat in 2020 – to change the narrative for the better, and with it, the world we now live in.

 


T. Carlos Anderson is a Protestant minister and the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System.

Visit http://www.tcarlosanderson.com for more information.

In the Presence of Wounded Healers

A “wounded healer” leverages their own experiences of pain and tragedy to help others heal from theirs. Originally coined by psychologist Carl Jung, the term was further popularized by theologian Henri Nouwen in his 1972 book of the same name.

I’m fortunate to have spent the better part of the last two years, while working on a book project, in the presence of wounded healers who are active in the field of restorative justice. These seasoned wounded healers – whether crime victims or, unexpectedly, perpetrators – showed me ways of healing with which I was unfamiliar. Like a bluebonnet that grows and produces its blooms from a crack in the pavement, healing can spring forth from unanticipated sources.

While doing the initial research for the book project, I interviewed an Austinite named Ellen Halbert. This wounded healer told me, “Every time I share my story, I heal a little bit more.” I immediately sensed that her words would guide my subsequent research and writing.

Revenge, at its most basic level, is a strategy for human survival. When a tragic event or hurtful person has caused us pain, the option to strike back lurks. Revenge says, “Don’t ever do that to me again.” Revenge-themed movies like “Carrie” and “Rambo” strike chords that are deeply anchored in the human psyche. But, quite often, there is a heavy price to pay for choosing revenge – such an act can transform a crime victim into a perpetrator, and vengeance can beget more violence.

The biblical counsel “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord,” urges adherents to choose options other than revenge. Religious systems do some of their best work when they mitigate the primal urge for vengeance in situations of wrongdoing, and encourage the victimized to seek alternatives.

Our legal or retributive justice system – laws, cops, courts, jails and prisons – is a necessary part of our social contract, and the first option in situations of serious wrongdoing.

The legal system, however, does not primarily concern itself with healing. “Repairing the harm done by crime – beyond what happens in the courtroom” is a good working definition of restorative justice. The practices of restorative justice, many have discovered, offer the best options for healing in the aftermath of wrongdoing.

Typically, restorative practices utilize face-to-face encounters between adversaries in safe settings in the presence of support personnel. It’s not a “mediation” – some type of compromise understanding about the wrongdoing – but an opportunity for the perpetrator, after hearing out the victimized person, to be accountable for what they’ve done. Oftentimes, when a wronged person sees that the one who caused their pain has taken responsibility for what they’ve done, healing emerges. Restorative practices do not necessarily involve forgiveness and reconciliation, but can if desired by the participant who was originally victimized.

In 1986, Ellen Halbert was brutally attacked by a drifter who left her for dead. She was fortunate to physically survive the ordeal. Years later, she experienced emotional healing – she wasn’t able to meet with her imprisoned attacker because he was unrepentant – by sharing her story publicly at crime victims’ rights events. “It was all I had,” she told me. “When I told my story, a sense of power and control [about her crime victimization] came over me like never before.”

She was consequently the first crime victim appointed (by Governor Ann Richards) to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice and she helped introduce restorative justice programs to the massive Texas criminal justice system. Later, she worked for former Travis County DA Ronnie Earle as the office’s Victim Services liaison, directing victim-offender dialogues prior to sentencing, one of the early efforts in the nation of a public prosecutor’s office using restorative principles.

Ellen Halbert is now retired, but her work and the telling of her story have brought healing to thousands.

Many wounded healers, like Ellen Halbert, are advocates for restorative justice principles which help repair the harm produced by wrongdoing, and have the power to pacify the ingrained human tendency toward revenge.

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Ellen Halbert and T. Carlos – May 2019

 

T. Carlos Anderson is a Protestant minister and the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System.

Visit http://www.tcarlosanderson.com for more information.

 

Striking Out at the Texas Book Festival

I punched in my computer’s access code, and my homepage gave way to my email inbox. A new boldface email from my publisher, as if a black hole, sucked in all my attention. I saw the subject line, “Texas Book Festival,” and spied that the first line of his message included the word “Sorry.” Instinctively, I knew it was bad news. I opened it – the TBF submission committee had rejected my book. The submission deadline wasn’t even two weeks fresh. Through the brain fog that shock creates, it occurred to me that my book didn’t even make it out of the first round of cuts. I was stunned.

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The 2019 TBF will feature upwards of 300 writers and their books. The festival was established in 1995 by Texas First Lady Laura Bush, a librarian and life-long reading advocate, to support libraries and reading programs throughout the state. On its website, the Texas Book Festival thanks individual and corporate supporters “who believe in the power of reading to change lives.” As the festival nears its 25th anniversary, it has gained in prominence and prestige. Now a national event, the competition to gain entry, for most any writer, is cut-throat.

Fool that I am, I thought my book had a great chance for acceptance. There is a Balm in Huntsville tells the fascinating story of the development of a life-changing restorative justice program that started in Texas. Have you ever heard of “Victim-Offender Dialogue”? It’s a high level restorative justice practice by which a crime victim can meet face to face with the incarcerated perpetrator who victimized them. Today, more than twenty-five other states, through their criminal justice systems, offer a replica of the Texas model. (And for those who wonder why some crime victims desire such encounters, my book answers that question definitively.)

Forgive the redundancy: Victim-Offender Dialogue started in Texas. The Texas criminal justice system still leads the way, having conducted more than 2,000 Victim-Offender Dialogues since the program’s inception more than twenty-five years ago. This is a vitally important story of which few Texans are aware.

Balm also focuses on the transformation of one Texas inmate through the VOD program by which he meets with the parents of the seventeen-year-old girl he killed in a drunk-driving wreck. My nonfiction narrative shows the human side of a prisoner who boldly tries to make amends for the wrongs he committed. The book is a well-written page-turner that has moved readers to tears as it shares the heartening stories of crime victims who have reclaimed hope and light after the deep darkness of crime overwhelmed them. The thought, care, and sensitivity that went into telling this story – from both sides of the dialogue table – has been noted by reviewers.

And if all this wasn’t enough, Balm tells the stories of three incredible Texans – Cathy Phillips, Ellen Halbert, and John Sage – pioneers in both the crime victim rights movement and restorative justice. All Texans should have the opportunity to read their inspiring and life-affirming stories of how they wrested good from catastrophic situations.

But, alas, I’m biased. As is my publisher who says, “Balm is a book that will save the lives of some, and change the lives of others.” As are many readers who have raved about the book and describe it: “gripping,” “compelling,” “eye-opening,” “unflinching,” “hard to put down,” “beautifully written.” As are reviewers who have 5-starred Balm on Amazon and Goodreads.

But even though Balm is touted by some as a life-changing read, it’s a book written by a little-known author (who has no agent) published by a small press. Might this have had anything to do with Balm‘s almost immediate rejection from the TBF submission committee? I get it: The publishing industry itself works as a de facto vetting system for the festival. With so many submissions, a book not from a large publisher or UT Press has to be really good (and never use descriptions like “really good”) to achieve entry status.

Even so, I have to ask: Was Balm judged for the content between its covers, or by the little-known names of author and publishing company on its spine? (For the record, Balm‘s publisher Merle Good has produced more restorative justice titles than anyone else in his long career.)

And, I’m compelled to ask another question: Are excellent, timely, and poignant books written by little-known authors published by small presses that tell influential stories of Texas and Texans welcome at the TBF?

And, a final question: Double-fool that I am, how did I not know that my publisher’s inability to print the first run of my book as a hardcover would help merit its almost immediate rejection from the TBF? Damn.

So, there you have it. A little-known author published by a small press has struck out at the Texas Book Festival, now bigger than Texas itself. I guess I’ll try to find an agent.

Not.


More info about There is a Balm in Huntsville is at http://www.tcarlosanderson.com. Share of this post will be appreciated, especially when done by Texans.

 

 

 

 

Vacations Are For Slackers

It’s summertime – have you taken a vacation yet? A recent national survey claims that 42 per cent of working Americans didn’t take any vacation days in 2014. Wow – keep that stat in mind the next time you have an interchange with a grumpy employee. Maybe he’s having a bad day in part because he hasn’t had time off from the job for a significant stretch. The United States is the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t lawfully mandate paid vacation days for workers.

Some Americans are workaholics and others actually like their jobs so much they don’t take any vacation days. Workaholics and job-lovers together, however, we assume to be a minority. Other Americans in low-paying jobs are unable or afraid to take time off (lest they lose their jobs), and other Americans are uncomfortable getting away from the office or workplace lest necessary tasks be forgotten or mismanaged by others. Other Americans, because of our broken health care coverage system, end up using vacation days as sick or family leave days.

Most Americans – whether vacation-takers or not – live in obeisance to the dominant religion of the day: the troika of materialism, commerce, and consumerism. On the surface, it’s a good religion that feeds, shelters, clothes, and employs us. But when the religion goes overboard – too many hours worked is but one example – it breaks bad and damages societal common good.

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The Caddy Man

By the numbers, the three people groups most devoted to working are South Koreans, Americans, and Australians. Only South Koreans take fewer vacation days and holidays than American workers; only Australians work more weeks per year on average than Americans. The Caddy Man, actor Neal McDonough, perfectly describes (albeit unintended) the dominant religion in America. Speaking incredulously of those woosified Europeans: “They take August off – off!”

Once upon a time (in the 1950s), many commentators, confident of increased gains in productivity and innovation, foresaw a shorter workweek and increased leisure time for Americans by the last few decades of the century. Those predictions fell completely flat. Americans worked, on the average, 160 hours more a year in 2000 than in 1970. America, historically associated with the opportunity to work, now seems to be associated with the domination of work. Consumerism, of course, has brought about work’s ability to rule.

According to Adam Sacks of Oxford Economics – an organization that serves the travel industry – the average working American leaves five vacation days unused per year. Sacks calls it a culture of work martyrdom: those who don’t use all their vacation are more virtuous than those who do take all their vacation days. Vacations are for slackers.

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The star-forming region NGC 3603 - seen here in the latest Hubble Space Telescope image - contains one of the most impressive massive young star clusters in the Milky Way. Bathed in gas and dust the cluster formed in a huge rush of star formation thought to have occurred around a million years ago. The hot blue stars at the core are responsible for carving out a huge cavity in the gas seen to the right of the star cluster in NGC 3603's centre.
Hubble Space Telescope pic

Vacations are also for those seeking renewal and rejuvenation. One of the first stories in Hebrew scriptures tells of the Creator God taking a day off at the conclusion of an extended work project. The moral of the story: creativity and rest go hand-in-hand. We are capable of creating and doing good work on little sleep; but, over the long haul, you and I need rest and downtime in order to be effective in relationships and in work environments.

When will we see a change in the way working America operates? The typical reward for good work is increased pay. While many appreciate (and need) an increase in pay, when will we see a culture shift that rewards employees’ good work with more time off?


Though this blog was originally posted in 2015, it still applies.

See my other website – http://www.tcarlosanderson.com – for details on my new book, There is a Balm in Huntsville, and blog posts on restorative justice.

Life After Death in the Garden

The winter gardening season – in Texas, at least – has come to a close.

Almost thirty years ago, I planted my first winter garden in Texas. Having grown up in Chicago, I was unaccustomed to winter gardening. That first year in Houston, I planted some cilantro seeds (coriander), as instructed on the package for Zone 9, the middle of October. As the temps subsequently cooled off into November, the tender green shoots emerged. Wow – plant growth in the winter made me feel like I was somehow cheating. The shoots soon turned into baby cilantro plants, their little leaves exhibiting the defining crags and jags of the mature version.

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A first of the year harvest of cilantro

One post-Christmas December morning, however, I woke to see my beautiful garden covered in frost. My baby cilantro plants were drooped over, weighted down by ice crystals. My heart sank. All my work for naught – the future harvest ruined. So much for winter gardening.

But then the sun came out, and the temp warmed. To my complete shock, my baby cilantro plants revived as they soaked in the winter sun. AWESOME! The coating of ice melted, my garden glistened once again. My confidence in Texas winter gardening restored, I anticipated plenty of fresh pico de gallo fortified with our homegrown cilantro for months to come.

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March Madness – the flowering and seeding out process of my cilantro garden

For two months, the harvest met those expectations. An unexpected thing happened in March, however, right in the middle of Lent. My cilantro plants put on white flowers, beginning the deathly process of seeding out. I had a plan, though. I’d simply cut off the flower shoots, thus extending the life of my plants. What a plan! To my further surprise, my plan to stave off the death of my plants only hastened their death. Where I had cut the shoots, new ones came up only faster. There was no other option – my plants wanted to die, and timed their demise to coincide with Holy Week. As a pastor, I realized my garden was reflecting the cycle I taught and preached about during Lent: unless a seed falls to the ground and dies . . .

There are natural limits to the creation and how it works. Try and do all you can, but most of these limits are unassailable. Sometimes the spirit of “just a little bit more” needs to accommodate itself to the spirit of “enough is enough.” Creation, if we pay attention, teaches this invaluable lesson in many and various ways. My cilantro garden followed its given script. It thrived and produced during the cooler months of the year and then produced something else when spring warmth returned – hundreds upon hundreds of seeds. October would come again, and with it, the glorious cycle of rebirth.

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Cilantro pesto

Since this first described excursion, I’ve been growing cilantro every winter in Texas. The last few years, I’ve discovered a more effective way than chopping the shoots to extend the harvest: cilantro pesto. I’ve been making basil pesto for years (from the summer garden), and use an adapted blender recipe: harvested cilantro leaves, walnuts (or pecans), extra virgin olive oil, a few slices of fresh sweet onion, and a touch of salt. It keeps in the freezer for as long as needed and goes really well with grilled fish and Viognier. Provecho. 

Oftentimes gazing upon my cilantro garden, I am reminded of the cycle of death and resurrection. Death, many times, is undesirable and cruel. Yet, my garden testifies: death is not the end. More is to come.


balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m the author of  There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

 

Check out my author website: www.tcarlosanderson.com.

The Completion of a Great Idea

Inside a fellowship hall of a church in Austin, Texas, twenty-five people sit upon folding chairs arranged in a horseshoe pattern around a wooden podium. One at a time, they introduce themselves to the rest of the group. The open-circle gathering consists of educators, a licensed counselor, lawyers, prison ministry advocates, pastors, a cop, and criminal justice employees. The release of a new book, There is a Balm in Huntsville, has brought them together. All of them either had a part in its story or a hand in the book’s production.

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The book tells the tale of a tragic drunk-driving wreck and its adverse consequences for the families of two teenagers who perished in the wreck and for the perpetrator who pleaded guilty at his trial and received a prison sentence of forty years. But there’s much more to the story than destruction and pain. Through two prison programs—one institutionally created, and the other a prison ministry—hope and healing emerged for the perpetrator and for some of those affected by the wreck, from the places of the story’s deepest darkness.

It was my idea as the author of the book to gather the group and to host this private event. But it wasn’t my idea originally to write or produce the book. That idea was hatched, eighteen years ago, by the perpetrator of the drunk-driving wreck and one of his crime victims when they met face to face in the chapel of the Walls Unit prison in Huntsville, Texas.

Yes, a face-to-face meeting between an offender and his crime victim—in the prison.

Andrew Papke, the perpetrator, and Martha Early (now Moffett), the mother of Bethany Early who died in the wreck, met face to face in a program instituted by the Texas criminal justice system called “Victim-Offender Dialogue.” During their meeting, supervised by a Texas criminal justice system employee of its Victim Services Division, the two adversaries came up with their book idea. To understand how I came to write the book—eighteen years later—you’ll have to read through the story and continue to the book’s Epilogue section.

Among the twenty-five persons at the gathering in the Austin church are Andrew Papke and Martha Moffett—face to face again after their last encounter in a prison fifteen years ago.

After the introductions, I stand at the podium and thank Andrew and Martha for their idea to write a book of God’s ability to reach down into a horrible situation and produce some good from it. My primary hope for the book, I tell them and the group, is for its readers to know about the healing possibilities of restorative justice.

Andrew Papke addresses the group. He speaks of his regret, still fresh more than two decades later, for what he did. But he also acknowledges, moments later, the healing power that came to him through the process of the Victim-Offender Dialogue program and his participation in a prison ministry called Bridges To Life. He calls out the people in the horseshoe circle who work or worked in those programs and helped bring about his healing: David Doerfler, Raven Kazen, and John Sage. He also acknowledges Lisa Looger, a formidable criminal justice system employee, who passed away in 2004. Andrew shares with the group that he decided to give me the go-ahead to work on this book project toward the end of 2016 because, if Lisa Looger was still around, she’d have told Andrew to go forward with it.

After Andrew finishes his remarks, I return to the podium only for a moment to tell the group that the floor is theirs—open-mic style.

David Doerfler, who developed the Victim-Offender Dialogue program for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, addresses the group. Doerfler is now retired, but the fire in his soul that guided him to create the face-to-face dialogue program, the first of its kind in the nation, still burns.

“This dialogue program didn’t come from me. It came from victims who struggled to stay alive, who, somehow, were able to keep going in the midst of their pain.”

“Healing,” he says, “is about holding opposites together—about facing the pain. Sometimes solutions are found within the problem.” He looks at Andrew and invokes the memories of the two teenagers who lost their lives from his horrible mistake the summer 1996.

“I believe, Andy, that they are urging you on to continue to tell your story.”

Raven Kazen, a woman with a vibrant spirit and a generously commanding tone, addresses the group after Doerfler. Even though she retired from directing the Victim Services Division in 2008, she, like Doerfler, still has a burning heart for crime victims and offenders who, like Papke, choose to take responsibility for their actions.

“The first time I met Andrew, I knew that he was sincere in his sorrow for what he had caused, and for his heartfelt desire to do something to make things right.” Kazen gives the group a bit of a history lesson and thanks crime victim extraordinaire and early-on Texas Board of Criminal Justice representative, Ellen Halbert, for all she did to help build up the Victim Services Division of Texas’s criminal justice system.

Kazen concludes her remarks by looking at Martha Moffett and thanks her for being a participant in the Victim-Offender Dialogue program. There’s nothing more Christ-like, Kazen says, than to forgive. “Martha, thank you for your extreme grace.”

John Sage, who founded the prison ministry Bridges To Life in response to the brutal murder of his sister, looks out at the group from the podium and tells them that none of them ever though they’d be part of what’s brought them all together this night. He explains that Bridges To Life brings offenders and surrogate crime victims together in the search of healing for crime victims, and of accountability for prisoners.

Sage looks at Raven Kazen and smiles: “She was the force that helped establish our prison ministry program.” He then looks at David Doerfler and calls him “the teacher” who taught Sage about “the inner spirit of what we were tying to do.” Doerfler’s guidance, Sage says, helped Bridges To Life attain its crystal-clear vision and mission.

Paul Diaz, a licensed family therapist and pastor, addresses the group from behind the podium and explains that he and Andy were good friends in high school. He turns to Andrew and says, “We were going down parallel paths of destruction in high school. One year after your wreck, I woke up after a rough night. My car was halfway in the grass, halfway in the street—I don’t even remember how I got home.

“That morning, I do remember having the distinct thought that the only difference in the beds that we’re sleeping in . . .” His voice trails off. He looks at his friend and says, “In you, I saw myself. I saw that I was fragile, and not bulletproof.”

Andrew’s experience, Diaz says, was more than a cautionary tale. It compelled him, after that rough night, to look for paths other than the one of destruction he had been favoring.

He continues to say that the great Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, is one of his heroes. “Heschel says that ‘words create worlds.’”

Before the fires burned at Auschwitz, Paul Diaz says, there were hateful words that helped create the death camps. Heschel teaches us, he says, that we can, by the grace of God, use our words to create better places. “We’re not done creating. I love that you, Andy and Tim, are helping to create, with this book, a much better place—something different, a place of grace—with your words.”

He looks at both Andrew and Martha as he concludes his remarks.

“My life, in a large part, was impacted by your story twenty-two years ago when it happened. It hasn’t been for naught. I’m one, but there many more people who will be touched by your intersecting story.”

The two old high school friends embrace. Those in the group smile and clap.

A few months earlier, Andrew told me that Paul Diaz was the only friend from high school who kept in touch with him after his entry into prison.

The last speaker to take advantage of the open-mic is a woman named Kim Thonhoff. She and her young son were the two lone eye-witnesses to the wreck on South Brodie Lane that summer night in 1996. She tells the group that she’s been nervous for weeks about the gathering, and that she asked her regular Bible study partners for support and prayer in preparation of this event.

She tells the group of a dream that she had two days prior to this event. The number of nightmares she’s had the past twenty-plus years after the wreck have always centered upon moms—like Martha—having to deal with the devastating pain of losing a child.

This most recent dream, she offers, is perhaps an answer to the prayers of her friends.

She explains that she’s at the same wreck event once again. As she walks out of her van to approach the wreck scene, she’s surrounded by harmless glass falling all around her in slow motion, with the light of a full moon glistening in the glass. The glass then becomes incredibly bright—it takes on a radiance she can’t describe. It’s as if a blanket is coming down and there’s no sadness, nothing shattered, no one dead. The other-worldly bright blanket of healing, she says, covers everything.

She pauses in her retelling, smiles and wipes away a tear.

She then says that she woke up with the most profound peace and energy, and most importantly, she felt good about coming here tonight. She says that she wants the rest of us to have this same indescribable peace and undeniable hope that she’s experienced.

The room is silent. The silence isn’t an uncomfortable one, but a concluding one. We’ve been together for more than two hours.

After a few more silent moments, I approach the podium one last time. I invite all to stand and join together in the Serenity Prayer.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.


balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m the author of  There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

 

Check out my author website: www.tcarlosanderson.com.