Time to Overcome Fear and Get Out of the Boat

As events in Charlotte unfolded, I was studying the gospel lesson appointed to be read aloud and preached on in many Christian churches this weekend. It is the story of Jesus’ disciples being stuck on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee during a terrible storm. Suddenly they saw Jesus walking on the water right towards them. They cried out in fear. Jesus said: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27b)

This gospel story goes on to say that Peter, at Jesus’ invitation, got out of the boat and began walking on the water too. But when fear overtook Peter, he began to sink. Jesus took his hand and saved him from drowning, and they both got in the boat and went to shore with the other disciples.

This weekend, I felt like I was drowning in the news coming out of Charlotteville, VA. I saw videos and photos of mostly angry white men carrying torches and chanting slogans that were reminiscent of what I thought were the bygone days of “night riders” terrorizing their local communities. At first I thought it was a lynch mob headed towards a diverse group of people who had gathered to pray at a local church ahead of the planned “Unite the Right” rally the next day. Everyone knew that the upcoming march would be racially charged. People of faith had gathered to worship and plan a peaceful strategy to stand up to the “alt right” who were invading the town. I was convinced that the night would end in bloodshed. But that would wait until the next day when a white supremacist terrorist rammed his car into a group of peaceful protestors who were there to stand up to the neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other white supremacist groups. It was an act of domestic terrorism.

One young woman was killed and nineteen others were injured in this attack…in broad daylight, with police presence, in a normally quiet Virginia college town, with the world looking on in horror.

Many people went to church the next day to pray for those who were killed and injured, and for our country, and for our leaders. Enough is enough. We are in the midst of a racial storm that is tearing our country apart. It is being fed by “fear of the other.” It is not a matter of Left versus Right, or White against Black, or about “Making America Great Again.” Racism is about fear and hatred.

Throughout the weekend, my newsfeed was bursting with stories about Charlottesville and people’s responses to the hatred and violence they were seeing. Among my clergy friends, one personally knew of a young woman who was at the protest and was now lying in a hospital with her skull split open. Almost immediately, a Go Fund Me page was started to cover her medical expenses as she was fighting for her life. In a way, she was an innocent bystander who had decided to get out of the boat and stand up to the hatred that was filling the city she loved.

I personally know of many preachers who tore up their prepared sermons on Saturday night in order to preach a new sermon on Sunday’s gospel that would address the events in Charlottesville. At the heart of every sermon, there was a call to overcome our fears and get out of the boat and to speak up against the sin of racism. And yes, racism is a sin.

It is time for all people of faith to take a stand and to speak out against the “alt right,” the neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other white supremacist hate groups. We need to overcome our fear of speaking up and keep marching, protesting, and making our voices heard. It is time for real moral leadership and courage. “Take heart…and be not afraid.”

 

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OpEd Published in Tampa Bay Times

imageWhat a thrill it was to have my OpEd published in the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday, July 26, 2017.  Here is a link to my column.

http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/column-the-good-samaritan-and-the-health-care-debate/2331462

Here’s a shout out to all those who gave me so much advice and encouragement at the Beyond Walls intensive, interfaith writing conference this July at Kenyon College.  Without your knowledge, expertise and support, I would not be a published “guest columnist” in the Tampa Bay Times which has a weekday circulation of 240,000 readers.

Thanks to all who have supported me in my various “careers” over the years.  I continue to work on updating my skills and keeping my writing fresh and up-to-date…whether it is in columns, sermons, essays, stories, letters or family histories.  Who knows what’s in the future.  Just enjoying the moment.

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Holy Cartography!


Whether exploring new parts of the world or traveling up and down familiar roads and interstates here in the United States, carefully constructed maps can prove to be invaluable.

Recently my husband and I traveled to India and the Middle East. Our itinerary included visiting historic places like the magnificent Taj Mahal in Delhi and the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. I kept checking several maps to pinpoint where we were located and to see where we were in relation to other cities and countries. This was especially important to me when traveling through troubled parts of the world. At times, I was even able to consult interactive maps on the internet so that I could pinpoint our current positions and relay that information to family and friends so that they would know we were safe and well.

This month we took a road trip from Florida to Delaware & New Jersey and back. I can’t tell you how many times we have made this trip over the past fifty plus years. When we started driving up and down the East Coast to visit my parents in the mid-1960’s, the interstate system was not yet completed. I can remember driving many hours on two and four-lane roads in an unairconditioned car with little toddlers secured in primitive seat belts which they quickly figured out how to escape! I can also remember the hot air blowing through the car and at one point having one of the kids “sippy cups” flying out the window somewhere in the Carolinas. How did we ever survive those family trips!?!

Fast forward to 2017. During this month’s road trip, we were now visiting those little “toddlers” and their families. We were in Delaware for their childrens’ high school and elementary school graduations. Time flies! But I still rely on maps to help us on our travels. This month, my daughter taught me how to use the Google Maps app on my i-Phone. Now I can use these interactive maps to pinpoint my location at any given time. The app will also tell me exactly how many miles and how long it would take to reach our destination plus local restaurants, hotels and attractions. I still marvel at everything my smart phone can do. If I only knew how to use all its features!

Now that we are home, I’ve entered into a time of discernment, trying to figure out where my writing is leading me. Wish I had a map! As a journal prompt, I decided to check on “Seasonal Inspirations” from “The Way of Belle Coeur” by Sibyl Dana Reynolds…for June (p. 350):

“Before the invention of the GPS, a printed map was the primary tool for guidance from one place to another. There is a quality of mysterious beauty within the pages of a world atlas. Exotic names of faraway countries set atop the colorfully portrayed network of roads and highways assumes the appearance of a topographical crazy quilt, while an unfurled road map inspires the desire to set out for an adventure to explore new destinations and terrain. “

It goes on to read: “Belle Coeur spirituality…incorporates a circular form of cartography, a template with four pathways, four chambers, and compass at the center. Your sacred practices, life experiences, and relationships create your personal cartography. You are the cartographer of your life…. The invitation for June is to travel inward to explore the map of your life…. What map will you create to chart your course for the months ahead?”

These quotes are followed by various prompts and exercises to help me map out the way ahead. My goal for this summer is to practice “Holy Cartography!” Won’t you join me on this quest!?!

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Double Major 

This cartoon reminded me of my college graduation in May 1984.  I began my studies at Neumann College (now University) in January, 1981 with a double major in Religious Studies and Behavioral Science.  At the beginning of my senior year, I dropped Behavioral Science as a major because I couldn’t complete the requirements that year and I already planned to begin seminary studies in the fall.

I could have “settled” for a B.A. in Religious Studies, but for some forgotten reason I still thought it was important to graduate with a double major.

Since most of my elective courses were in the Humanities, my guidance counselor and I figured out a way to adjust my schedule and add two Humanities courses so that I could earn that second major.
Looking back, I have no idea why I felt the need to do that!  I added a French class and set up an Independent Study in “Art: Theory and Criticism” with the Department Chair  in order to complete qualifications for the “Arts & Letters” major.  That meant I would have to carry a class load of 16 credits and they would all be challenging classes.

If I were to be in a college graduation cartoon, I guess my bubble would read: “She is a Student of Religion and expresses her beliefs through Arts and Letters.”  That would be a pretty good description of how my studies at Neumann prepared me for a lifetime of using creative arts and writing skills in both my personal and professional life.

How have your studies helped you develop your gifts and talents?  What major or majors would you choose to study if you went back to school for continuing education?  Remember: It’s never too late to learn and grow.

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My Gold Star Family “Leap of Faith”: Kissed by a Dolphin

Kissed by a dolphin?  It started innocently enough.  First we were introduced, then we were holding hands/fins, next we were dancing… and then Tashi poked his head out of the water, looked right at me, and planted a big kiss right on my lips!

All this took place at Island Dolphin Center in Key Largo, FL as part of a Gold Star Family “Leap of Faith Program.”  That is where I met Tashi, a male Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin, who is part of a “family” of dolphins that love interacting with military families and with children and adults with special needs.

There is something therapeutic about being “up close and personal” with dolphins.  The experience strips away fears and anxieties and replaces those feelings with pure joy and excitement.  The dolphins know how to bring us out of our comfort zone by allowing us to become part of their world, as we in turn give them our full attention.

On a beautiful, sunny, winter day in Florida, my sister and I sat on a dock and dangled our toes in the water as Tashi and Fiji swam back and forth and gave us a little “foot massage.”  The trainer said it was good for them as it helped exfoliate their skin.  But for me, it was this gentle movement that made me want to reach out and touch them.  Their skin felt smooth, and it shimmered in the Florida sunlight.  Soon we were talking with the dolphins.  The trainers taught us some hand signals/commands, and before we knew it we were waving our arms and clicking our fingers and communicating with our new friends.  Then it was time to say goodbye to Tashi and Fiji, but not before feeding them some fish and then having them wave their tails at us in a fond farewell.

We moved on to the other side of the large pool where we would meet Bella.  She is a teenage beauty!  The trainer asked my sister and I if we would like to get in the water and play with Bella, and we jumped right in.  Bella was shaking her head at us as if she was asking us…”Are you ready?”  Before we knew it, the trainer asked Cathy and I to hold hands, and said that Bella would give us a push.  All of a sudden, Bella was giving me a foot push… and this sent my sister and I into a circling spiral motion as if we were on a water merry-go-round.  Everyone watching erupted in laughter as they had never seen anything like it before!  Even the trainer was surprised!!!

Swimming with Bella was such a thrill in so many ways.  This gentle water creature showed us how to play…how to have fun together…and how to heal.

Fifty years ago, our brother Jerry died while serving his county.  At that moment, our family was changed forever.  Looking back, I now realize that his death impacted each member of our family and influenced how we interacted with each other…how we dealt with pain, worked through differences, and spoke about our feelings or kept them buried.

Our encounters with the dolphins at Island Dolphin Care touched our wounds and helped heal them in the best way possible…by touching our hearts and our lives so gently and lovingly.

Sometimes a “Leap of Faith” might mean entering the water and swimming with dolphins.  Or it might mean doing a tandem jump with one of the US Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team.  Stay tuned for my next blog on this experience.

Spoiler alert: my sister and I did not do the jump, but we watched how others in our group were changed by the experience, and our lives were changed vicariously by being part of their “cheering section” as their parachutes opened and they floated down to earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Gold Star Family “Leap of Faith”: Telling Our Stories

Today I begin a series of blogs about being a Gold Star Family member.  My story began on February 7, 1967.  On that day, I picked up the phone, and received the shocking news of my brother Jerry’s death.  My parents, through their tears, told me that  that the Navy had just notified them that their son died in a freak accident in Iowa.  It all seemed surreal.  We all knew that Jerry was there receiving advanced training in military intelligence in preparation for his next tour of duty in Vietnam where he would be in harm’s way.  But Iowa?  Wasn’t it safe there!?!

Events unfolded swiftly and yet it felt like we were all moving in slow motion.  Family members were notified and we all awaited news from the Navy about final arrangements for my brother’s funeral and burial.  In the meantime, my parents and twelve-year-old sister Cathy made plans to fly from Florida to Delaware so that they could travel with my husband and I to Washington, DC when the time came.  My older brother Jim was still living in our hometown of Chicago, Illinois, and he and his wife were awaiting the birth of their first child at any moment.  Our lives seemed “suspended” yet they moved forward.

In a matter of days, my parents learned of their son Jerry’s death on February 7th and then the news of their first grandson Jimmy’s birth on February 10th.  Just two days later, on February 12th, my brother Jim had to leave his wife and newborn son back in the hospital in Chicago in order to fly to Washington, DC to bury his brother.  How could so much be happening to our family all at once!?!

A great blizzard of snow came down all across the Midwest and moved swiftly to the East Coast, from Chicago, to Delaware and Washington, DC.  It seemed to me like the heavens opened up and what came down was a great white blanket of snow trying to cover our grief.

On President’s Day Weekend, my parents, sister, husband and I made our way to Washington via Amtrak where we were met by Navy personnel and escorted to the funeral home for my brother’s viewing.  It was difficult to leave behind my two little girls, Carin age 2 and Chris age 1, but it was even harder for my brother to leave his wife’s bedside after her difficult cesarean delivery.  Fortunately, my sister-in-law Jan’s parents could care for her while Jim was away, but what should have been a great time of joy was overshadowed by the sadness that held us all captive.

My sister Cathy later wrote a moving tribute about our brother Jerry’s funeral and burial on February 13th: “It was a cold, snowy day in Washington, DC during the record breaking snow spectacle of February, 1967.  The motorcade left St. Thomas’ Church in Arlington, VA just moments after [his funeral mass ended] at 11:30 am.  It proceeded at 15 mph in the direction of Arlington National Cemetery, led by police and military escorts, the hearse, and a government limousine bearing solemn looking relatives….  Before the onlookers at the gravesite, the priest gave the family his sympathy and began the ceremony…a three-gun salute was performed, and the American flag which was draped over the casket was presented to his mother, who graciously accepted it.”

All of this happened 50 years ago, but our memories of that time still seem at times fresh and raw.  And so it is fitting that we remember and honor our brother: Radioman Second Class Gerald Martin Soens, United States Navy (1943-1967).

My sister Cathy and I shared some of our family story last weekend at an event sponsored by Operation Support Our Troops America (www.osotamerica.org).  This was a “Leap of Faith” Seminar/Retreat for Gold Star families, described as a three-day, intensive grief seminar done in partnership with the US Army Golden Knights.  During this time, family members (widows, parents and siblings) were offered grief counseling, a chance to tell their family stories, and the opportunity to tandem sky dive with the Golden Knights parachute team at Homestead Air Force Base, Homestead, FL and also to have an up close and personal therapeutic dolphin experience at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, FL.

On each of the three days, Gold Star Family Members were lovingly cared for by supportive staff and one another.  Our losses may have been fifty years ago or less than one year or somewhere in between.  But we all shared one thing in common: our loved ones gave their lives for our country and their sacrifices will never be forgotten.

(During the rest of this series, I will describe our interactive, therapeutic program at Island Dolphin Care, our experience with the US Army’s Golden Knights parachute team, and ways that we can support Gold Star Families.)

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Our First Town Hall Meeting, Won’t be Our Last!

On a warm and sunny Saturday morning, most Floridians, snowbirds and tourists were hitting the golf course, walking the beach, playing tennis, biking on nature trails, or watching their kids play outdoor sports.  My husband and I made a different choice.  We decided to attend our first political town hall meeting in New Port Richey with our US Representative Gus Bilirakis.

When we pulled up to the West Pasco Government Center, there were already crowds forming.  Various local activist groups were handing out information, signing up new members, and passing out signs to those who were interested.  There were also many individuals, like us, who came with hand made signs that we hoped would attract attention to our cause.  Health care was the topic of the town hall, and we wanted to make sure that our Representative knew that we did not want the ACA (Affordable Care Act/Obamacare) repealed unless there was an improved replacement plan that would be immediately available.  As seniors, we also wanted Gus Bilirakis to know that we expected him to protect and defend Medicare and Social Security…”no ifs, ands or buts.”

As we entered the room, we looked around and found a standing-room only crowd.  Then my husband noticed that they were wheeling in a few more chairs, and we grabbed the last two available seats.  The auditorium was then at capacity and they began turning away people at the door.

A half hour later, the meeting started with the briefest remarks by Rep. Bilirakis.  He emphasized that he was there to listen, and that his staff would take notes, and they would allow as many people to speak as time permitted.  He asked everyone to be respectful and for the most part we adhered to his plea.

For the next two hours, people spoke up!  The Chairs of both the Pasco County Democratic Party and the Republican Party were in the first group called up to the microphone.  They were met with various degrees of applause but the Republican chair was also greeted with boos when he started talking about “death panels.”  Then he made some nasty remarks that were caught on camera and later shown on national television (CNN, MSNBC, NBC and others who picked up their news feed).  He actually had the nerve to address us as “Children”!  I can assure you that he didn’t win any new followers among the Democrats, Republicans and Independents in the crowd, and he may have lost a few Republican voters in the process.

I would estimate that at least 50 people (about a fourth of the crowd) got to speak directly to Rep. Bilirakis in front of the crowd.  I would say that of those that were called to the mike, about 9 out of 10 spoke positively on behalf of keeping the ACA or improving it, and were against repeal without an improved replacement plan.

Many shared personal stories of how they or loved ones were affected positively by the ACA.  Three medical doctors talked about how it made a great improvement in their patients health care.  They said that before the ACA, many patients would avoid going to their doctor until they were extremely sick.  By the time they saw them, their diseases had progressed and treatment was more costly.  After the ACA, more of their patients had insurance and as a result they didn’t delay getting to see their doctor.  All three pleaded for affordable, early interventional health care for people of all ages.

Town hall speakers came from every walk of life, and the age range was from young adults in their early twenties to seniors in their 70’s and 80’s.  Many of the younger folks said that they had benefited by the ACA because they were able to stay on their parents insurance while in college and in graduate school.  Some shared that now they needed insurance made available to them through the ACA exchanges because their current employers offered no health care insurance.

There were small business owners who spoke on behalf of the ACA.  One woman said that she would be able to afford to hire another employee if she didn’t choose to provide health benefits in her company of less than ten people.  But she helped her employees pay for insurance offered through the exchanges provided by the ACA because it was the right thing for her to do and that also helped her keep highly qualified employees.

Here are my “take aways” from the town hall meeting:

  1. Our US Representative Gus Bilirakis really listened to his constituents and he and his team did a masterful job of crowd control.  He is obviously an experienced politician and not afraid to meet the voters in his district.  While he and I may differ on policies, I now have great respect for him and the way he conducts himself as our US Representative.
  2. Speakers who came prepared with facts, statistics and personal stories were the most effective.  Some were obviously nervous and said they were not used to speaking in public, but Rep. Bilirakis put them at ease and thanked them for coming.  He could not have been more welcoming.  The professional people (like doctors, teachers, managers, and business folk) spoke as much to the Congressman as to the crowd, and I think that was helpful.  His staff took notes and said they wanted to keep in touch.
  3. I believe attendance at town hall meetings is critical to having our voices heard.  Even though I signed up to speak, I was glad that I wasn’t called to the microphone because I did not have prepared remarks (only rambling thoughts).  I talked to one of his staff people and he assured me that he will help me set up a personal meeting with Rep. Bilirakis.  I am looking forward to that and know that I will go well prepared.

Even before we left the auditorium, I started to receive text messages that they were showing clips of our town hall meeting on national television.  My friend in St. Louis spotted us on CNN and MSNBC and sent me photos that she captured from live coverage.  By the time we got home and turned on our tv, we found that they kept repeating the loop from our town hall meeting on those stations throughout the afternoon, and so we were able to see ourselves on national television many times!

At first I was surprised that our meeting was covered by national news networks, but then I remembered that we live in a swing district in a swing part (I-4 Corridor) of our swing State of Florida.  Our voices matter!  And we have a Representative who is not afraid to listen to his constituents.  During the meeting he announced that he will be having more town halls in the future so that everyone can have their voices heard!

You better believe that my husband and I will be reading his online newsletter and following our local politician very closely.  This may have been our first town hall meeting, but it definitely won’t be our last.

I encourage you to attend town hall meetings in your districts and to make your voices heard.  You will see democracy at work!

(PS  I am holding up a pink sign in back of Rep. Bilirakis in the first picture.  In the second picture, my husband Ted is to the left of Rep. Bilirakis and I am to the right of him on the photo captured from CNN)

 

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