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Be the Change #17 – Be Like Theresa

I’m always amazed at how small decisions can change your life.  When Al and I were planning our trip to Ireland in 2014, we decided to try to learn a little about Irish dancing and music before we went.  So, we showed up at the Harp & Fiddle one Tuesday night, thinking to get one Irish dancing lesson…and we liked it so much that we’ve been showing up nearly every Tuesday ever since.  We have lots of fun with the dancing (which, I might add, one does NOT learn in one lesson!), but the real gift has been the wonderful friends that we’ve made – including one of the most admirable women I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.

Al and I often say we want to be Theresa when we grow up.  Everyone should be Theresa when they grow up, or at least their own version of Theresa.  Theresa has been a Christian educator, the day-program director of a women’s shelter, a sponsor of refugees, and a founder and leader of ecumenical and social justice organizations.  At 78, she is still a fierce Christian soldier and social justice warrior.

Theresa came by her activism organically.  Her husband, Harry, owned a barber shop in Oakland for many years.  As barber shops often are, it was a social hub for the community.  People came not just for haircuts, but to play cards, check in on their friends and just generally hang out.    When the 2011 micro-burst destroyed the barber shop, Harry finally retired.   He and Theresa could easily have sold the lot, but they chose instead to invite local residents to turn it into a community garden, which still thrives.

Her career in Christian education started when she was asked to substitute-teach an 8th-grade Catechism class.  It was initially not  a good experience for Theresa nor for the students, in her telling, but one thing led to another and she ended up being a Director of Christian Formation in the Diocese of Pittsburgh for 24 years.

Her community and church ties put her in contact with people of different races, religions and social classes, deepened her understanding  of what we share as human beings, and ignited in her an unwavering passion for service.  This year alone, she is being honored as both a Jefferson Award recipient and a LaRoche College Distinguished Alumna award.  A partial list of her volunteer activities includes:

Current Board of Directors of Just Harvest, serve as Chair of Personnel Committee

Founding member of North Hills Anti- Racism Coalition Steering Committee

20 years Facilitator of Annual Interfaith Gathering

Founding Member of Call to Action Committee – 10 year service as a trainer on the National Anti-Racism, Ant-Oppression Program

Pgh North People for Peace- Member

PGH  Aids Task Force – volunteer “Power of One Award”

North Hills Ebony Women  – Member

Oasis Inter-Generational Tutor- Pittsburgh Public Schools   -5 year  “Star Award”

St. Benedict the Moor Parish member and volunteer for all Ministries-25+ years

Pittsburgh Celli Club Member & Volunteer

NORTH (Social Justice Collaboration)-Representative member of the NH Anti-Racism Coalition

AJAPO – Resettlement Program for African and Caribbean immigrants – Outreach volunteer

Thomas Merton Center –Member



Not a bad resume for a little old Irish-American lady who could walk under a 5-foot bar without even mussing her hair. And her granddaughter continues her activist tradition by running an annual “Pet Walk” event to raise money for animal rights, and serving on the Monroeville Foundation Board.

My point is not that you have to do as much as Theresa does (not many of us could!), nor that you have to be active in the same causes that galvanize her.  My point is that heroes (or “sheroes” as she prefers) like Theresa should inspire the rest of us to stretch ourselves in the direction of others, to go just a little beyond what we think are the limits of what we can give, to follow the light of our own compassion where it leads us.  Theresa didn’t start as a shero.  She started a wife whose husband owned a barber shop, and a mother of 3 who offered to help out with a Catechism class.  “I saw the need and tried to respond,” is how she modestly describes her experience.  Wherever you’re starting from, let Theresa inspire you to let your light shine in someone else’s darkness.

Be the Change #16 – Understand gerrymandering

Think back real hard to 9th-grade Civics.  You’ll vaguely remember a term called “gerrymandering.”  You probably haven’t thought about it since then.  But you should.  Because it is one of the reasons for the partisan divide in the United States today.

The chart below explains what gerrymandering is and shows 3 separate examples of how legislative districts can be created.


Grid 3 is what my own state of Pennsylvania looks like:  neither compact nor fair.  But both grid 1 and grid 3 can result in extreme partisanship.  Here’s why:  If you’re a Republican in a safely “red” district, you probably don’t have to worry about your Democratic opponent.  Your biggest threat is a primary challenge from the right.  So, if you want to keep your job, it is in your best interest to take extreme conservative positions, and refuse to compromise with Democrats.  The same applies for a Democratic congressman in a safely “blue” district.  It’s to his advantage to lean strongly left.

Grid 2 is less fair than grid 1, but it has the advantage of mixing conservative, liberal and moderate voters in one district. Your congressman (or woman) in that kind of district has more incentive to take moderate positions and to compromise with representatives across the aisle.

The best way to get districts that are compact, fair and hopefully moderate?  Take it out of the hands of state legislators who have personal biases in favor of their parties, and let a computer do it.  Here’s what that would look like in several strongly gerrymandered states.

Fairer districting would go a long way towards giving us back the kind of government we had between the 1950s and the 1980s.  Those of us old enough to remember the 70s and 80s can remember when Republicans and Democrats actually worked across the aisles and created compromises that benefited the whole country, instead of just their particular party’s interest groups.  If you’d like to see that happen again, you should care about gerrymandering.  Here’s a link to Fair District PA, a group that is working to create better legislative districts in Pennsylvania.

Be the Change #15 – Just Listen (part two)

In a post a couple of weeks ago, I challenged my readers to just listen to someone they know they don’t agree with politically, and let me know how it goes.  I tried this myself, and – somewhat to my surprise – it turned out to be one of the most interesting and enjoyable hours in my week.

I chose an intelligent, thoughtful co-worker who I knew had voted for Trump.  He and I had had a few arguments during the election.  I promised him that I was interested in listening, not arguing, and we sat down for lunch together.

I was surprised to learn how much we agreed on.  We both support America’s traditional alliances, like NATO, but hope to withdraw from military operations in the Middle East.  We are both wary of the United State being the world’s military police.  We would probably disagree about the extent, but we agree that our borders must be secure and immigrants should be vetted.  We both support President Trump’s plan to invest in infrastructure.

Ed thinks that most news sources are biased and unreliable.  But, here was what stunned me:  When he started saying, “The only news source I trust is….” I fully expected the sentence to end “Fox News.”  Imagine my shock when he said instead “NPR.”  NPR is my daily standard, too.  It was eye-opening for me to learn that we both listen to the same news source and yet draw many different conclusions.

I heard some things that disturbed me a little, too.  I detected some unconscious racism in some of the things that Ed said.  I was dismayed that he feels so unsafe that he carries a concealed weapon almost everywhere he goes.  I’m suspicious that school vouchers are a sneak attack on public education.  And I don’t think that Trump will bring our country the safety and prosperity that Ed and I both hope for.  But, I had promised to just listen and that’s what I did.  I’ll be honest:  It was really, really hard to keep my mouth shut.  But, I still don’t trust myself to argue without getting emotional.  So listening is what I can do right now.  And, overall, I was encouraged.

I was encouraged because our civil, rational conversation proved that it IS still possible for two American citizens who disagree to speak to each other that way.  And, folks, that is the only way we are going to get our country back.  As long as we’re just screaming insults at each other, we are serving the purposes of those who would divide us.

Did you try this?  If yes, let me know how it worked out for you.  If no, I urge you to gather your courage and listen to someone who disagrees with you.  I hope you find it as enlightening and heartening as I did.

A REALLY Old-time Religion

When we say something is Manichean, or someone has a Manichean view, we mean “black and white,” a very sharp distinction between good and evil, with no gray area.  But where does the term Manichean come from?

The Manicheans were a sect contemporaneous with early Christianity.  My portrayal of Saint Augustine as an adherent of Manicheism as a young adult was based on his own admission in his Confessions.

Mani (a term of respect meaning Light King, probably not his real name) was executed in Persia in 276.  Similar to Christianity, his evangelists wasted no time in spreading his story throughout the Mediterranean, and Manichean missionaries were active in Carthage by 297. By Augustine’s time, the cult had adherents in Africa, Spain, France, Italy and the Balkans.  It was known as far east as India, China and Tibet, and lasted for almost 1000 years in parts of the Middle East.  Unlike Christianity, the Manichean cult remained illegal under the Roman Empire, and was hated and feared by Christians and Pagans alike.

Also unlike Christianity, whose central tenet is salvation by the Grace of Jesus Christ, the Manicheans believed that the enlightened elect could obtain godlike status by virtue of their own knowledge and actions.  In this respect, the cult was a form of Gnosticism (the belief that salvation is obtained by acquiring special knowledge; some Christian heresies were also Gnostic in nature).  The Manichean elect knew complicated secret prayers, practiced extreme fasting and were forbidden to own property, eat meat, drink wine, gratify any sexual desire, engage in trade, or engage in any servile occupation.  “Hearers” like Aurelius Augustine had only to obey the Manichean Ten Commandments (similar to the Commandments familiar to Christians), pray 4 times each day and serve the elect.

The Manicheans were prolific writers, and we know the titles of many of their writings, but almost nothing has survived.  From what little we do know, the Manichean theology seems like a confusing mess of demiurges, light particles, multiple creations, and a fire that will burn for exactly 1486 years to separate the light from the darkness.  Yet, the Manicheans claimed to offer absolute rational proof of their theories, and insisted that phenomena in the physical world were demonstrations of the truth of their theology.

It’s easy to see why a bright young man like Aurelius Augustine, a passionate seeker of truth, would be initially attracted to such a cult.

Another central tenet of Manicheism was the notion that spiritual world is completely good (light) and the physical world is corrupt and evil (dark).  This is the source of our current use of the term “Manichean” to mean a very black-and-white view.  In the Manichean theology, Man can only hope to attain any goodness at all because a few light particles leaked into humanity at the time of the third creation.  These light particles of our good selves are helplessly trapped in our corrupt physical bodies.   This notion may also have appealed to young Augustine, who was so morally serious and having such a difficult time controlling his natural sexual urges.

Later in life, Augustine wrote a whole book entitled Concerning the Nature of Good:  Against the Manicheans.   Like Zoroastrianism and the temple religions of the ancient world, Manicheism failed the test of time.  It lives on only in the descriptive term that is reminiscent of its strictly dual view of the natural and spiritual worlds.

Be the Change #14 – Just Listen (part one)

Over the past several years, it’s become harder and harder to talk to someone who disagrees with you politically.  After the bruising, exhausting 2016 election year, it might even feel impossible.  If a political topic comes up, many people will plead, “Oh, please, can we not talk politics.  I’m so tired of it.”  Others will instantly be emotionally triggered and start repeating the stale arguments of the recent election.

I admit that I’m in the second group.  I try to be respectful and not be the one to bring up political issues in conversations.  But, if somebody else starts it, I can’t let it go past me.  Just can’t do it.  In a non-political meeting recently, a good friend insisted that Hillary Clinton was “disbarred four times.”  I found myself yelling at her, “Prove that!  We’re sitting in front of a computer right now!  Find me a reputable news site that says that!”  Not one of my better moments.  Another friend had to figuratively separate us, and after I calmed down I apologized for yelling. (P.S. Before we disengaged, my friend did try 3 different fact-check sites and they all called her claim False.)

So maybe we’re not quite ready to talk rationally.  At least I’ve made it clear that I’m not.  But maybe we can listen.  Here is the challenge I am setting for myself this week.  I am going to ask someone who supports President Trump what they are hoping for from the next four years, what they like about this President I find so appalling (and I promise not to say “What the hell do you like about that inarticulate authoritarian egotist?”).  And I will exercise whatever level of self-control it takes to JUST LISTEN.  Not for the purpose of arguing back.  Just for the purpose of understanding what one of my fellow American citizens is thinking.

I’ll report back next week on my results.  Try it, and let me know your results, too!

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