What Aren’t Our Children Taught in School?

Are America’s schools teaching children to hate their country?

In his speech at Mount Rushmore on Independence Day, Donald Trump asserted, “Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes but were villains.”

Exactly what are our children being taught in school?  Are they learning about hatred?  Yes.  But until recently they were learning about hatred in other countries—about brutal dictatorships in far-away lands.  Ask anyone who paid the least bit of attention in school, and that person could probably name at least a few of the many atrocities from history’s leaders.

A more appropriate question is this one:  What aren’t our children being taught?  What has been omitted from lessons to ensure that our children grow up with a love of America at the cost of being blind to the brutalities of our history?

I am reminded every day just how woefully ignorant many of us are about what it means to grow up Black in this country.  Recently, I’ve been reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. As I began reading, I remembered that I had written a paper on apartheid in college, so I knew many of the facts about the history of South Africa.  However, as I did research, not once did any of the opinions available to me at the time suggest a similarity to the institutional racism that is also part of America’s heritage.

After college, as a teacher in an oral communications class in the years before apartheid ended, I listened as many of my students gave speeches railing against apartheid.  All of them had a tone that suggested, “Why can’t South Africans do what the Civil Rights Movement did in our country?”  At the time I couldn’t enlighten them because I held much the same view of America.  I was the blind leading the blind in a very white world.

In his introduction to Part III of the book, Trevor Noah says this:

In Germany, no child finishes high school without learning about the Holocaust…As a result, Germans grow up appropriately aware and apologetic. British schools treat colonialism the same way, to an extent. Their children are taught the history of the Empire with a kind of disclaimer hanging over the whole thing. “Well, that was shameful, now wasn’t it?”

In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught that way. We weren’t taught judgment or shame. We were taught history the way it’s taught in America. In America, this history of racism is taught like this: “There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.”  It was the same for us. “Apartheid was bad. Nelson Mandela was freed. Let’s move on.”  Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension.

After nine years of teaching English in southern West Virginia, I moved to Maryland to teach in a school in the D.C. suburbs with an overwhelmingly white population.  A few years later I was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for an independent study of women novelists who were largely unrepresented in the literary canon.  That summer I read Margaret Atwood and Anne Tyler, but, more importantly, for the first time I encountered Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison.

Reading these women and learning about the context in which they wrote changed forever the way I taught English.  I had never read a novel by a Black female author, and I vowed that I would try to ensure that no student who ever spent a semester in my literature classes would be able to say the same.  I didn’t always teach those works well, but I tried.

The experience also changed the way I taught other works.  I distinctly remember one young Black man whose parents asked that he be given another book to read while the class read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  He told me that he’d like to read the novel so that he could see for himself whether it was racist, so I called his parents.  I told them that I would be happy to provide him an alternate reading, but I laid out the case for reading Twain.  They agreed, and I introduced the novel by having the class read arguments for and against the novel.  Looking back, I now know I could have done more.

The magnitude of what I wasn’t taught—and what, for a long time, I didn’t teach—is staggering.  I don’t remember the first time I heard the name Emmett Till—and for very good reason.  While Jet Magazine published the images of Emmett Till’s face, white publications protected their readers from the most graphic of the images.

A few months after the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, I was invited to join a group of mostly African-American friends when they had an extra ticket.  When we got inside, some of the elevators were broken, and the lines to get into the exhibits on the lower floors were very long.  Our group decided to walk up the escalators and start on the floors that celebrated the accomplishments of Black people, including a wonderful exhibit of President Barack Obama.

I wasn’t fully prepared for what came next.  We went to the lowest floor, where exhibits displayed artifacts from slave ships.  I will never forget my astonishment as I looked at the countries listed on the walls, with the names of the ships and the number of the enslaved who were lost during the voyage or sold as slaves in the United States.  One ship had only a single survivor by the time it reached America’s shores. And nearly every European country was complicit in the slave trade.

But when I got to the events of the 20th Century, the Emmett Till exhibit flattened me.  As a mother, I cannot fathom Mamie Till’s pain or the courage it took for her to demand that America look into the face of her son.

I cannot fathom, either, how it’s taken another 65 years for righteous anger to erupt in the streets of America—an anger that demands that this time, white people like me do not look away.

And yet many of us are still looking away, even as the cameras roll.  Two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, NBC released the documentary Hope and Fury: MLK, the Movement and the Media, and at the beginning of June, the network made it available online.  Black journalists say in the documentary that they don’t know a single Black person who hasn’t heard the name Emmett Till or seen that image—that it’s their Kennedy assassination or 9/11 moment—that they can tell others where they were when they first saw the image.

Dr. King and every Black in this country has stared injustice in the face for far too long as whites have retreated to the comfort of looking away.  Fifty-seven years ago next month, Dr. King stood on the mall and, in his “I Have a Dream Speech,” stressed “the fierce urgency of now.”

If you’re white and you’ve been turning away, read the stories, watch the videos and the documentaries—if you have the courage.  If you have an ounce of human compassion, you will come away changed.  And that is exactly the sort of patriotism your country needs from you.  Now.

Do Black Lives Matter?

Of course all lives matter. But whites, and in particular white Christians, must stop using that response as an excuse when others say that Black Lives Matter.

The Apostle Paul, speaking to the early church in Galatia, expresses this concept well when he says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NRSV).

Paul writes this letter in response to his critics’ attacks about the way he is teaching what it means to be Christian in this fledgling movement.  There is absolutely no question, however, that the free people of his time enjoyed privileges that slaves did not or that men enjoyed privileges that women did not.

And yet how often we Christians forget that the foundation of our faith is that Jesus died fighting for the poor and the disenfranchised to be heard and cared for and that he commanded us to do the same.  We keep repeating history because we fail to grasp the notion that while all lives matter, our charge is to see that those who are ignored and swept aside get the attention that free, white, wealthy males have enjoyed since the beginning of civilization.

Just 52 years ago, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., died preaching the same message.  Five years before his death he was jailed for protesting in Birmingham, and like Paul, he wrote a letter to his critics.

From that jail, like Jesus and Paul before him, Dr. King responds to the clergymen (yes, pastors and, yes, all men!) to address their claim that he had no right to be in Birmingham.  In part, he writes: 

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.  Just as…the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town…It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In a new century, when Blacks are still denied privilege and even justice by a deeply ingrained white power structure, Christians are still commanded by the Christ we follow to seek privilege and justice for the powerless.

Even poor white Christians must follow this command.  Let us not forget the story Christ once told of a poor widow:

He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12: 41-44, NRSV).

He watches the rich people give, as they are certainly expected to do, but he doesn’t praise them for their largess.  Instead, Jesus points to the poor woman as an example of how we should all behave.  As a woman and a widow, even in the dominant culture, this widow certainly had little privilege, yet she feels a responsibility to give.

Black lives matter.

Not because they matter more than poor whites who also struggle for survival in the wealthiest country in the world.  They matter because race ensures that they must strive harder to get privilege and justice.

As a white child of poverty who once lived in a house with an outdoor toilet and no hot water, I was still privileged in ways that Blacks in my first hometown were not.  Yes, I worked hard in school to escape poverty.  But now that I am securely ensconced in the upper middle class, I do not have to worry about how I’ll be treated by police if I’m pulled over for speeding or for having an expired registration.  I have several black male friends, also firmly upper middle class, who cannot say the same.

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates tells the story of how his friend Prince Jones was killed by police yards from his fiancee’s home by a policeman who didn’t even work in the jurisdiction where Jones was killed.  In the book and the recent film Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer for the Equal Justice Initiative, gives a harrowing account of being stopped by police, who hold a gun to his head solely for the purpose of intimidating him for his work on the case of an innocent man on death row.

These are not unusual stories.  This is why Black Lives Matter.

As long as our skin is white, even if that is the only privilege we have because we are part of the lower class, we still have a responsibility to those who are even less privileged.  Until those who are poor and white understand this, those in power will continue to divide and conquer to maintain the existing power structure, which benefits them little more than their brothers and sisters of another race.

In her book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg, a historian on the faculty of Louisiana State University, recounts the consistent ways that those in power in America have used race and class to stay in power.  She concludes the book in this way:

It was just as easy to ignore inequality by claiming that certain breeds could never be improved. As W.E.B. Du Bois explained in 1909, southern politicians were lost in the vacuity of illogic. They had fallen to arguing that any form of social intervention was pointless, because man could not repel nature’s force; some races and classes were invariably stuck with their inferior mental and physical endowments…[America’s poor] are drummed into the worst jobs, the worst-paid positions, and provide the labor force that works in coal mines, cleans toilets and barn stalls, picks and plucks in fields as migrant laborers, or slaughters animals. Waste people remain the ‘mudsills’ who fill out the bottom layer of the labor pool on which society’s wealth rests. Poor whites are still taught to hate—but not to hate those who are keeping them in line.

Black Lives Matter.  And that all lives matter cannot be an excuse for inaction.

White Christians, in particular, whether rich or poor, have a responsibility to follow the example of Christ.  We are still commanded not to hate, and we need to remind ourselves daily that the greatest commandment is love.  And like the poor widow, we are still commanded to give what we can and to root out poverty and injustice when we are witness to it.

Like Jesus and Paul and Martin before us, we must live lives worthy of the calling we have accepted. 

Need Help Teaching Your Kids?

As I’ve listened to frustrated parents who are trying to work at home and find ways to teach their children until school systems get online learning launched, I wondered how I might be able to help.

I’ve also been thinking about how important it is for both parents and teachers to help students recognize credible and objective sources.  I remembered this lesson I designed for middle schoolers on how to know whether a video was objective or not.

This lesson is packaged in a PowerPoint presentation, and the Notes section has directions for how to use it. All handouts are embedded, and they can only be downloaded when the PowerPoint is not in Slideshow mode.  I checked all the web links, and they still work, but you might want to replace them with videos on topics that might interest your children more.

I hope that you’ll download it to get some ideas for your children.  Once you’ve taken a look at it or used it, please come back to this page and comment to let me know if you found it useful.  If so, I’ll upload some other lessons that might be helpful during this time.  Here is a description of this lesson package:

Evaluating Video Sources–Perhaps the most important lesson we can teach our children in an age where they get their information from online sources is how to recognize whether a video is objective and credible. This lesson package offers resources for helping students recognize biases in videos that purport to be informational or news pieces.

For what it’s worth I think a lot of adults could use this lesson right now, too!

An Epiphany on the Epiphany

In this season of the Epiphany, I wait for an epiphany.

I attended church yesterday morning to sing “Joy to the World,” with these familiar lyrics:

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love, and wonders of his love, and wonders and wonders of his love.

Where, I wondered, are truth and grace?  Who is making the nations prove the glories of God’s righteousness and the wonders of God’s love?

In a world where a president I don’t trust tells us to trust that he is trying to protect American lives in killing an admittedly terrible leader in Iran, I want to demand that the president prove it.

In a world where many evangelicals still support a president who, according to fact checkers, has told over 15,000 lies in three years, I want those evangelicals to tell the truth and show more of God’s grace. Instead, they host a rally in a mega-church and defend Trump as sent by God and recognize none of the hypocrisy when Trump says, “For America to thrive in the 21st century we must renew faith and family as the center of American life”—this from a man who has not shown a single shred of evidence that Christ is the light of the world or the center of his life.

In a world where a president appoints unqualified judges to the judiciary in anticipation that they will rule in his favor when he flouts the Constitution, I want more of Lady Justice—that symbol of justice as blind, balanced, and swift to pronounce an impartial ruling. I want the courts to show a little more righteousness—to prove that they are worthy of the trust we’ve invested in them to ensure that justice is balanced and true, no matter the political affiliations of its judges.

I am not alone in these hopes and desires.

A week before Christmas one of the most conservative Christian publications in the country, Christianity Today, published a sorrowful indictment of Trump.  Its editor later commented in an interview with the Washington Post that Trump was like an abusive husband:  “When that husband starts to become violent and physically abusive, the scales don’t balance. It’s time for him to get out of the house. That’s what I’m saying about the Trump presidency.”

In a prescient chapter of her book Inspired, Rachel Held Evans wrote a chapter before she died last spring called “War Stories,” in which she states, “If you really want to understand what makes a community or a culture tick, ask the people in it what they believe is worth dying for, or perhaps more significantly, worth killing for. Ask the people for their war stories.”

This week, Evans’ questions seem particularly pertinent, in light of Trump’s actions in Iran.  But she ultimately drew this conclusion:  “If the God of the Bible is true, and if God became flesh and blood in the person of Jesus Christ, and if Jesus Christ is, as theologian Greg Boyd put it, ‘the revelation that culminates and supersedes all others,’ then God would rather die by violence than commit it.”

On Sunday I watched the news with increasing anxiety. A president I don’t trust has carried out an action, without informing Congress, that many countries around the world are calling an “assassination” and a “war crime.” In the aftermath, this president now threatens the destruction or desecration of cultural sites, many of which have been in existence for thousands of years and have survived reigns of terror from rulers who committed horrible atrocities but still respected the reverence and importance of revered historical sites.

I went to bed last night, sober and sobered. I prayed.  And yet I didn’t know what to pray for.

But I did have an epiphany of sorts.  As I tried to chase sleep, these thoughts crept into my troubled mind:

None of the horrors I feared came true today, even though I let them color my day with darkness.  I need to remember that Christ is the light of the world and the center of our lives, and I need always to look for that light. I need to remember that the wise look for the light and for an epiphany.

Right now I consider Trump my enemy and my country’s enemy…but Jesus commanded me to pray for my enemies and for those who despitefully use me. I have done that but not consistently.  I’m never quite sure how to pray for Trump, but I am called to do so.  I thought about Nancy Pelosi, and I wondered what she says when she prays for him.  I decided to be honest with God.  “God, I don’t know what to pray for.  I want to pray that you’ll smite him down the way the Old Testament leaders prayed for the destruction of their enemies.  So, instead, I’ll simply pray that you will hover over him in a way I can’t possibly understand.”  As Bud Thomas said in his book 10 Things Your Minister Wants You to Tell You (But Can’t Because He Needs the Job)trying to understand an unfathomable God is like trying to get a dog to understand Euclid’s geometry.

As I continually try to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, I realize that if God loves everyone, then God loves even Trump, so I can’t allow myself to be overcome with hatred for him. I can, however, speak the truth in love to power, just as Christ did to the leaders of his time, at the cost of his life.

When I feel helpless, I need to remember that Christ assured us that we would do greater things than he did (John 14: 12). While I might have a hard time believing I could ever do greater things than Jesus, if God is with us, then it must be possible.  The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus’ light shines in the darkness and that the darkness did not and will not overcome it.

And so, on this Epiphany I pray for understanding and direction for our leaders and for Christians and people of other faiths in the world who seek peace every day.  If the Epiphany teaches us anything, it’s that Jesus made a difference in the world, even though he died without seeing the peace he so desperately wanted for us.  Can we offer anything less, then, than proving the wonders of his love?

Mental Illness and the Church

Churches aren’t very good at addressing—or even acknowledging—mental illness.

Neither is our country, of course.  Those fortunate enough to find their way to a good therapist—and to have enough money or an insurance policy that covers counseling—have enough of a struggle working through the demons of traumatic experiences. Those who don’t?  We see the results every day on the news—murdered co-workers, abused spouses and children, suicides, and more.

We have work to do as a country, as experts point out every time there’s another mass shooting.  Since Friday’s massacre in Virginia Beach, almost every news story speculates about what might have led the shooter to open fire on his colleagues.

But the Church?  Most evangelical churches tell us we just need to pray for the conversion of the tormented, and when that doesn’t work, we write them off as deserving the eternal hell their lives have become.

And progressive churches?  Most of us don’t even acknowledge mental illness in any meaningful way.  Pastors sometimes make connections in sermons about Gospel texts that tell of Jesus casting out demons, but we limit our conversations about the very real demons of our own time to small groups, where anxious family members ask for prayer.

But what do we really do as Jesus’ emissaries on earth to reach out in meaningful ways to people who struggle with depression and anxiety or who have family members who are bipolar or who are addicted to drugs or alcohol?

We tell our stories to those we trust and ask for prayer.  When I told the story of my abusive father to evangelicals in the church of my childhood, I was advised to pray for my father and to testify about Christ to him and, that if that didn’t work, to consider it a privilege to be beaten for the sake of the cross.

I didn’t find much more compassion among more liberal people of faith, however.  I shared with a few of my liberal friends, who came from various faith traditions, that my father had stopped drinking the year I started high school and that he had never abused my mother or me again once he was sober, though his abuses as a drunk left all my siblings and me scarred.

I found out later that a person of faith who is also a staunch liberal and feminist told one of my friends that she just didn’t believe my story—that men who are abusers don’t stop being abusive. This person has devoted her life to giving aid to women in abusive relationships, but she doesn’t have an ounce of compassion for the men who, during their own childhoods, were once the abused children for whom this person shows so much compassion.

We liberals like to think we’re more enlightened than the evangelicals of my childhood.  But how many of us would be understanding of a pastor or a teacher or an elder who shared his or her struggles to overcome the trauma of childhood or admitted to wrestling with depression or anxiety?

I know from talking with such people that they rarely admit their own struggles to the people they are trying to lead. When people in our communities of faith suffer from a physical ailment, such as cancer or stroke, we rush to their aid, making meals, driving them to the doctor, or providing whatever help is needed.

What do we do, though, when a member of our community asks for help because of depression, anxiety, or mental illness? We pray for them, perhaps because we’re not really sure what else to do.

I’ve been reading a book entitled Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church.  The author, Sarah Griffith Lund, is ordained in the United Church of Christ, and she shares how being able finally to share the story of her father and her brother took away some of the power of keeping her story “in the closet.”

What would we progressive Christians do if a pastor stood up in the pulpit and said, “I believe in the power of Christ to heal us, but I’m standing here today to tell you that I’m struggling with depression or anxiety—that part of the reason I’m a minister is that I was drawn to other people who are struggling—but I’m finding that I sometimes wonder where God is when I can’t remember the last day when I was truly happy.”

I hope that we would embrace that pastor, just as he has embraced us when we share struggles with him that we would never admit out loud to others, even in a small group of trusted people.

But I’m not sure we would.  I suspect that we’d question whether that person ought to be in a leadership position.  I hope not, but I fear so.

Would we ask whether members who get a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease should have seen it coming when they have a terrible diet and don’t exercise?  Perhaps it might be a momentary thought, but I doubt that it would keep the congregation from rallying to support those members.

What would we do, though, if a church leader admitted to mental illness and asked for help?  I’m not sure because I’ve never heard a pastor, church leader, or elder admit such a struggle in front of the congregation.  In fact, few of the members who sit in the pews would admit publicly to a diagnosis of mental illness.

The struggle is real.  It exists.  And as long as we pretend it doesn’t, we’ll have priests who are pedophiles, preachers who abuse their wives and children under the guise of discipline, church leaders who struggle in silence to rid themselves of demons, and, tragically, someone we know who walks into a church or office building and opens fire on both colleagues and strangers.

All of these people were once children for whom we would have had compassion.  But somehow, when they cross the threshold into adulthood, we simply expect them to “man up” and move past the trauma that has made them who they are.

Jesus never once passed by such people who needed healing, whether it was physical or mental.  And neither should we.

Am I Good Enough for Heaven?

Tears welling in her eyes, Amy* shared her greatest fear with me: “I worry I’m not good enough to be with her in heaven.”

This was not the first time I’ve heard a woman express such a fear to me.  My own mother clung to life long after she really wanted to live because the religion of her childhood instilled a bone-deep fear that she would be sent to a fiery eternity.

Amy’s fear, however, was the saddest such declaration I’ve ever heard.  She wasn’t afraid of eternal damnation.  She was terrified of eternal separation from her only child, who died at the age of 15 after a car hit her as she was crossing a street on her bike. Continue reading Am I Good Enough for Heaven?

The Sweet Spot of Rachel Held Evans

I argued with a church leader and teacher a few months back about Rachel Held Evans, best-selling author who died tragically last weekend at the age of 37.  I’d recently read her book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, and I suggested it as a book study for our church’s Adult Education Hour.

The church leader, who, like me, is a former evangelical, actually snorted.  “You need to move past evangelical writers.  Some of her work is just silly.  I left those people behind when I was 19.  She needs to get a good therapist and do the same.” Continue reading The Sweet Spot of Rachel Held Evans

Should Northam and Herring Resign?

Where are the black faces in this image from Gone With the Wind? What do we learn from visual images?

If a child is taught, either overtly or unconsciously, that racism is acceptable, is it possible to change?  This seems to me to be the question at the heart of the crisis facing Virginians as they decide how to respond to the revelations this week that Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to appearing in blackface as young adults.

The debate continues to rage more than a week after one or more of Northam’s medical school colleagues, incensed about the governor’s comments on late-term abortions, called media attention to his yearbook page.  Given that his classmates had known about the photograph for 35 years, the release of the photograph seems not to have been done out of any concern that Northam might be racist.  That, in itself, speaks volumes about the culture that gave rise to the photograph.

Opinions on whether Northam should resign are not as black and white as the painted face and the robe in the yearbook picture. Continue reading Should Northam and Herring Resign?

Blood Moons and End Times

Blood moons are spectacular.  We mark our calendars and stay up late to watch them. For some of us, they are magnificent celestial displays with an explanation grounded in science.  But for Christians who read the Bible literally, blood moons are signs that humans are about to face the wrath of an angry God—a signal that the “End Times” are surely upon us Continue reading Blood Moons and End Times

Advent Also Means a Coming into View

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and I look back on the first Advent blog I ever wrote—on December 2, 2012—about this watchful time of my faith tradition.  Today this boyfriend is my daughter’s husband and the father of my coming grandchild, which adds a new perspective for me to how we Christians await the coming of a child. But Advent still brings me both joy and an awareness that we could learn much from those whose views of God differ from our own.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and I am joyful.  After church my daughter and her boyfriend will join us to cut a live tree, and her friends will join us to decorate the tree and laugh and talk and share a meal and a cup of cheer.  And while I’m mindful of my faith, many of the traditions we share have little to do with the story of that babe’s birth in a manger.  While we share memories of our church filled with the soft light of hundreds of candles on Christmas Eve, many of us would be stumped if asked why we kill a live tree and bring it into the house with such delight or why we leave cookies and milk for the man in the red suit who finds a way into even those houses that don’t have chimneys.

When my siblings and I were children, our mom bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias,adding the annual volume each year, no matter how little money our parents had, to be sure our information never went out of date.  In those white books, embossed with gold print, some of the most worn pages were those that described how people in other countries celebrate Christmas.  So while we grew up in a tiny town in the Appalachian mountains, we knew that we shared this holiday with people in England and Italy and Germany and Denmark—people who seemed far away but close because of our shared enthusiasm for the babe in the manger who promised hope.

Having grown up in a town that was all white and all Protestant, I didn’t encounter a Catholic until I left home for college.  Now I am happily married to a Polish Catholic, and because of those pages in my mom’s beloved encyclopedias, I’ve always had at least a partial understanding of how Catholicism differs from my faith.  The only real stretch of understanding for me was moving from my mom’s and my childhood church’s grape juice tradition to the wine and the bread that embodied the risen Christ.

But I didn’t truly know anyone of a non-Christian faith until I moved to the D.C. suburbs, where my school system closed in September for two Jewish holidays that I knew nothing about. And later, our department hired a Muslim of Pakistani descent, a woman who also knew much more about my faith than I knew about hers.  I quickly learned that my colleagues and friends of other faiths often knew more than most Christians about the holidays we celebrate.  And I know that on more than one occasion, my questions and curiosity revealed a complete ignorance of their faith that must have astonished them.  But I was strengthened in my fight against cancer when a young Jewish woman made me a framed hanging with a tiny scroll and a verse our faith traditions shared.  And my life was enriched when the Muslim woman brought a Pakistani meal for our department and explained as she broke bread with us the significance of each dish.

As we begin this month-long, boisterous celebration of our faith tradition, what would happen if each of us took the time to find out something about the traditions of other faiths?  What if I turned to that Buddhist whose quiet strength is often greater than my own and asked about his meditation practices?  What if I asked an atheist—with genuine curiosity instead of skepticism—how she seeks to understand a world that is often vocal in its rejection of her?

As Twain’s character Huck Finn discovered when he floated down the Mississippi River on a raft with the man Tom, who his culture had taught him was only 3/5 of a human being, we cannot possibly hold to stereotypes when we truly get to know another human being in all the complexities that defy the way we’ve been taught to see them.  Every culture and faith has its villains and its heroes.  But once we see someone up close—and even learn to call him a friend—we learn that the complexities of human beings are far more interesting than the extremes in which we paint them from a distance.

And even if we live in areas that never allow us to know those of other cultures, the Internet has made the world a much smaller place.  I can now see videos—and even chat with—those people in far-away places that I could only read about in my mother’s World Book.  The world is now my book.  And isn’t that much more interesting?

Advent—for Christians, the word means the coming of the Christ. But what if it were also advent—a coming into place or view—where we begin to come to a fuller understanding of what’s best in us all?

What have you gained or learned from someone of another faith?

For People Who Don't Know All the Answers