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Upcoming Programs -- What's Next Thanks for Noticing book
2020 Past Program links Older Program Reports
2020 Other Announcements About CRES participation
 Below are links to 2020 PROGRAMS and REPORTS
Vital ConversationsProgram, 2d Wed 1-2:30 pm          Coffee, 4th Wed 8 am
Photos and reports are arranged by month

A Schubertian Epiphany --January 12 free Sacred Arts Chorale concert

Ministry in a Pluralistic World C-RP511

KC Interfaith History Project continues 

King Holiday Essay

Lenten Series: When Even Evil Will Ordain the Good -- Mar 5, 12, 19, 26
     Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd

Live Music in Kansas City Silent
. . . [We] have all been plunged into a Buddhist boot camp where our only sane option is to truly in the moment . . . --Joyce DiDonato 

Table of Faiths   postponed to 2021 May 18

Interfaith Center at Miami University
A God Atheists Can Believe In May 13 a Zoom conversation

From Aporia to Praise
An observance of the 50th anniversary of Vern Barnet's ordination POSTPONED

Justice and Peace: An Interfaith Panel Discussion 
Opportunities for deeper understanding and change -- June 20 Zoom

50 Years of Ministry 1
Vern participates on a panel of Unitarian Universalist colleagues

50 Years of Ministry 2
Vern's response for the Interfaith Council Newsletter

Sacred Citizenship
Exploring ideas in Vern's essay on the topic June 10

Independence Day Essay  "Sacred Citizenship"
     from our Archives: The America before Trump  (2-page PDF)

Unplugging Religious Extremism
Bill Tammeus on Zoom July 12

An Atheist Perspective with Evan Clark
August 7 on Zoom :: Exploring Religious Power, Privilege, and Pain

Former Intern Geneva Blackmer
Elected to international board of  United Religions Initiative

Congratulations to the Interfaith Council and Josh
The Rev. Dr. Joshua Paszkiewicz is named Executive Director

World Religions
Sept 18-19, for Souljouners

Interfaith Understanding Is Too Slight a Thing Sept 20 Sunday 2 pm
A Provocative Conversation with David Nelson and Vern Barnet

Medical Assistance in Dying   Nov. 6 Friday 9-noon 

Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Gathering -- 2020 Nov 8 Sunday 5 pm
      sponsored by the HeartlandADL

Alvin Brooks Memoir completed


A final first edit of the Al Brooks memoir is now complete. We are in the proof-reading stage. 

Announcement and Reports
Free Music and Munchies for Epiphany! 
January 12 Sunday 2-4 pm, Simpson House, 4509 Walnut St
      CRES is pleased to co-sponsor music for Epiphany! The Sacred Arts Chorale again presents an intimate musical performance with plenty of time for munchies and wine (we hear the cider will be spiked with whiskey).  Music by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Rachmaninov, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. 
     Director Dr. Rebecca Johnson says the Chorale picked this date because "there is so much gorgeous choral music in Kansas City prior to Christmas, and then it all goes pretty silent until February."
     Simpson House is a favorite event space in the heart of Kansas City, near the Country Club Plaza, a few blocks east of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, a block away from the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Plenty of parking in the lot and on the street.
    Vern says, "I can testify from past years that both the music will be splendid and the hors d'oeuvres will astonish as they delight." 
     Free, a gift from Central Baptist Theological Seminary to the community, with the co-sponsorship of CRES.


ABOVE: The Chorale receives the enthusiatic applause of the Simpson House audience.
 Soprano: Karli Carbrera, Christina Casey; Alto: Kimberly Wilkinson, Roslinde Rivera, Charlotte Thuenemann; Tenor: Jonathan Ray, Spencer Ruwe, Eddie Taul; Bass: Nathan Brown, Ben Donnelly-Strait; Accompanist: Charles Dickinson; Conductor: Rebecca Johnson.
BELOW: Dr Molly Marshall, president of Central Seminary, 
congratulates Dr Rebecca Johnson, conductor of the Sacred Arts Chorale.

from Canon John Schaefer 
(quoted from his Jan 14 email distribution:

    On Sunday, we attended the Schubertian Epiphany.  It was presented at the Simpson House by the Sacred Arts Chorale.  There was a warmhearted mix of sacred and secular music by Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Richard Strauss.  The program described the Chorale as “one of the Kansas City area’s finest sacred music performing groups.” In the words of A. E. Housman, “’tis true, ‘tis true.”

King Holiday Essay — 
     Download a PDF of Vern's 2-page summary of the genius of the spiritual approach of Martin Luther King Jr by clicking this link.

Ministry in a Pluralistic World syllabus
     2020 TBA 6-9:45pm CT 

     The graduate credit course C-RP511 is held remotely via Zoom and at
     Central Seminary 6601 Monticello Road, Shawnee, KS 6226-3513.

The course, created by Dr Vern Barnet, and currently taught by Dr Matthew Silvers with Vern taking the Feb 17 session, explores questionslike these:

     0. Getting acquainted: Our backgrounds, travel and other experiences, and perspectives as we approach this course. 
     1. What meanings do terms such as belief, dialogue, epiphany, holistic, mission, myth, pilgrimage, religion, ritual, sacred, sacrifice, scripture, secular, spirituality, and worship, have for us and today’s society? 
     2. What attitudes have scholars identified as ways folks approach faith perspectives other than their own?
     3. What does “pluralism” mean? What are its theoretical, practical, and personal meanings? How does it apply to the local community and the “global village”?
     4. Where are we aided and challenged by other traditions? How might our own and other traditions address environmental, personal, and social disorders?

     1. How do sociological, historical, phenomenological, and other methods of studying religions differ, and how do they help us understand another’s faith?
     2. What are the basic structures, texts, facts, practices, and variations of other faiths?
     3. How do faiths compare and contrast?
     4. What is more, and what is less, useful for each of us today?

     1. What are the basic styles and purposes of interfaith engagement? What are the significant interfaith organizations and programs affecting the student’s community? 
     2. How do I discover my community’s faith complexion and my opportunities within it? 
     3. What issues with boundaries arise and how can they be negotiated?
     4. What do we learn about ourselves as we learn about others? Can I be committed to my own faith and respectful and open to others? If so or if not, what does that mean for my ministry?

KC Interfaith History Project continues . . . .

Former CRES Board chair Larry Guillot and former CRES intern, now CRES historian, Geneva Blackmer met with Vern for lunch 2019 Febuary 21 to review progress and plan next steps. Geneva, with both her interfaith experience and library skills, has scoured local and state archives, interviewed folks, and drafted what is even at this stage by far the most complete look at how ecumenical and interfaith activities have developed in the KC region, but the work is ongoing. Visit the KC Interfaith History Project.
     In his 2019 July 25 entry in his “Faith Matters blog, Bill Tammeus about Geneva Blackmer’s book, The Ecumenical and Interfaith History of Greater Kansas City. 
     Bill says, “As Blackmer, a 2016-'17 intern for the Center for Religious Experience and Study who recently accepted a position as program director for the Interfaith Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, notes, ‘If it was ever necessary to designate one city in the United States as the heart of interfaith activity, a very compelling argument could be made for Kansas City.’
     “The booklet is itself an argument for that contention.”
     After several paragraphs discussing some of the content of the book and mentioning several important interfaith organizations, he concludes, “There is, of course, still much to be done to reach the Interfaith Council’s goal of making KC the most religiously welcoming community in the country. But Blackmer’s work is a tribute to how much effort already has gone into achieving that goal.”
     Surely Bill himself is one reason that Kansas City has been more welcoming to interfaith efforts than some places, and Geneva’s outline of Kansas City’s progress can inspire us to move forward.
     Geneva is shown above in a February review session with Larry Guillot who was one of her advisors on the book project.
     Vern says, “Geneva was one of the best things ever to happen to CRES, to interfaith progress in Kansas City, and to me. Her initiative, energy, faithfulness, many diverse skills, and academic competence made her a cherished laborer in the interfaith field here, and — as I know from all the requests for references I’ve received around the country — a much sought-after leader into the future.”

#When Even Evil 
Will Ordain the Good 

Mar 5, 12, 19, 26
Thursdays, 6pm meal 
6:30 program

Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd
4947 NE Chouteau Drive, 
Kansas City,  MO 64119 
(816) 452-0745  



Lenten Series:
Lent is a special time to explore the powerful mysteries of the crucified and resurrected love of the Christian Savior. As terrain for this exploration, the Reverend Vern Barnet, DMn, offers sonnets from the  “Credo” section his book, Thanks for Noticing: The Interpretation of Desire with art and music for discussion.
     Vern wrote the Wednesday "Faith and Beliefs" column 1994-2012 for The Kansas City Star and has written a dozen essays for the diocesan magazine, Spirit, 2015-2017.He is a layman at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral where currently he is a Godly Play storyteller and Saint John’s Bible docent, and he serves on the diocesan Commission on Ministry. He is minister emeritus at CRES — the Center for Religious Experience and Study. He founded the Kansas City Interfaith Council in 1989. Free copies of the book will be given to class members to celebrate the publication of the second edition expected sometime in March. Copies of the sonnets will be supplied for each session.

Mar 5 - The Jesus of History or the Christ of Faith?
Mar 12 - A Paradox of Salvation 
Mar 19 - The Gospel Theater 
Mar 26 - The Mystic Vision 

Here is the 8-page study guide in PDF

Readings: Theme Sonnet 82
Mar 5: Sonnet 79
Mar 12: Sonnet 80 (also? 85); 
Mar 19: Sonnet 84
Mar 26: Sonnet 86 (also? 88).

Art to illustrate the themes below
theme music "Third Tune" by Thomas Tallis
an instrumental version  -  a choral version  -   Fantasia by RVW
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8oKEx1-J1w -    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lD5TG8z3-SM
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihx5LCF1yJY - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0AuHYNj8qQ

Two views of an icon of Christ teaching and Velázquez’s "Christ after 
the Flagellation contemplated by the Christian Soul" Mar 8 and Mar 15

A modern enactment of the crucifixion. Mar 22

Dali's "Last Supper" Mar 29


Below, Vern, standing behind an easel with a large print, discusses his sonnet about an unexpected encounter with an icon at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral when the only light was from a candle on the side, as recounted in his sonnet (#79) “The Quest for the Historical Jesus” in his book, Thanks for Noticing, part of the first session in the Lenten series described above. 

Thanks to David Nelson for the photo.
Patrick Neas posted this about the second session and photos:

I had the great privilege of attending a very timely presentation this evening, given by my brilliant and dear friend Vern Barnet, whom I call the Joseph Campbell of Kansas City. Called “When Even Evil Will Ordain the Good,” it was a thought-provoking Lenten meditation on the nature of evil and how it can be reconciled with the notion of a good God. How can a good God allow, for example, the coronavirus? To explore this profound topic, Vern used a painting by Vel?squez, as well as one of his own sonnets, “The Cosmic Christ: A Meditation on Vel?zquez’s Christ after the Flagellation contemplated by the Christian Soul'”--

Who is this Christ? You, scourged, now look at me
   and send a thill of light to guide my prayer
   while You are twined and I think I am free,
   attired in spotless white though You are bare?
An angel points the truth and guards the space,
   an inner sweep where meaning’s torque is tried,
   and agony is mitered with spare grace;
   the present, like a paradox, is tied,
The world entire is Christ, distressed, alone,
   a way of painting all we see and know,
   the damned, the saved enjoined with laugh and moan,
   a metaphor chamfering loved and foe.
So I’ll be hurt to heal, be bound to free,
   change ache to kiss and wrench eternity.

Kansas City Star
highlighting added 
For classical music, theater and other arts fans in Kansas City, it’s a ‘silent spring’

MARCH 25, 2020 07:00 AM 

Musicians Yannick N?zet-S?guin and Joyce DiDonato in a discussion with Clark Morris, executive director of the Harriman-Jewell Series. COURTESY DON IPOCK

Usually at this time of year, Kansas City is filled with a joyful cacophony of musical and theater performances. But in 2020, it’s more reminiscent of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” In her landmark 1962 environmental classic, Carson wrote how the misuse of pesticides could lead to a springtime bereft of bird song.
     The eerie silence coming from Helzberg Hall, the Folly Theater, the Carlsen Center and other Kansas City venues is Kansas City’s silent spring. These are dark (and quiet) times, but Kansas City’s arts community is rising to the challenge, reaching into deep reservoirs of creativity and fortitude to save their organizations and preserve their art for when this pandemic finally ends.
     Many music and theater groups that have had to cancel performances due to the coronavirus are hoping that rather than asking to be reimbursed, people donate the sum they’ve paid for tickets in an attempt to keep the arts alive in KC.
     Musicians are making their performances available on social media, and the Kansas City Symphony has recently started a podcast to ease the pain of local classical fans. “Beethoven Walks Into a Bar” features associate conductor Jason Seber, flutist Michael Gordon and education manager Stephanie Brimhall rapping about music.
     “If Beethoven were alive today and wanted to talk about music with his friends at the pub, I’m sure he’d have a great time with these folks,” writes executive director Danny Beckley in a press release. “The hope is our new podcast will be a fun way to talk about music and bring a little joy into your day. This is one of several new ventures we are starting in light of the current situation.”

     The Opus 76 string quartet was founded three years ago and has already established itself as one of Kansas City’s most important chamber ensembles. Violinist Keith Stanfield, a co-founder of the group, says the social media groundwork he’s been laying is now helping Opus 76 survive the current crisis.
     “I’ve been cultivating our online presence for quite some time — for years,” Stanfield said.
     “All of our content will always be free, but because we are a non-profit, we are able to use a Facebook donate button to raise money for ourselves. We were doing a lot of charitable work in the community, and obviously we can’t do that for people now, but what we are able to do is raise money for them using our own platform. If they’re registered as a non-profit on Facebook, we can donate our performances.”
     Opus 76 has been adding donate buttons to online performances to benefit not just themselves but organizations like Harvesters. With the donate button, Facebook makes sure the money goes directly to the organization. Stanfield says that the quartet is also trying help other freelance musicians in the area by featuring their work on Facebook.
     “The freelancers have gotten totally railroaded by this,” Stanfield said, referring to COVID-19.
     “Every Thursday we’re going to highlight a different freelancer in the area and then collect money on their behalf. It’s going to be needs-based not merit-based. Whoever is interested can send just one three-minute or less piece of solo Bach. I really don’t care what it sounds like. Then we’ll put their performance on our page and people can donate, if they like.
     “I’m just trying to look out for people like myself who have lost a lot of work.”

     But live streams, podcasts and CDs are not nearly as satisfying as live performances for inveterate concert-goers like Vern Barnet from Kansas City.
     “I’m grateful for recorded music, but live music is, well, alive,” Barnet said.
     “It’s the difference between watching a rerun of a baseball game and being in the stands. Every moment is vivid, fraught with dangerous beauty as the performers sense the crowd’s expectations. I can’t get that from a CD.”
     Clark Morris, executive director of the Harriman-Jewell Series, shares the frustration of those who love live music. Morris is the successor to Richard Harriman, who founded the revered Series, which has blessed Kansas City with outstanding live performances for more than 50 years. Speaking on the phone as he was driving to Iowa to pick up his son from college, Morris discussed how his staff of eight are coping with the pandemic’s contingencies.
     “We have moved to a more mobile workforce, so most of the staff are working from home,” Morris said. “We still have some functions in the office that have to keep going, like checking the mail, keeping bills paid and making sure that contributions that come in get processed.
     “The biggest change is the mode of communication. Previously, we would have full-staff meetings. Now we’ve been having daily Zoom video meetings to make sure that even though we’re physically separated, we still have a connection. So we’ve been keeping up morale.”

     Keeping up morale is a challenge for arts organizations, since the pandemic is not only causing work disruptions but also existential threats to income. In the best of times, arts groups must count every penny.
     “Certainly, there are financial consequences,” Morris said.
     “For us, it’s a loss of revenue from ticket sales. We’re attempting to deal with that. We’re hoping our donors stay with us and allow us to weather this temporary setback. The other thing that we as a staff think about are the other partners that are dealing with loss of income — the caterers, the restaurants that facilitate meeting for us, the stagehands and certainly our artists. The halls that we use, the printers that print our programs, transportation companies that move our artists and goods around — all of them are impacted by this temporary shutdown.”
     Many patrons are sensitive to the dire situation and are not asking for refunds for canceled events, but are instead donating it to the organization.
     “We are seeing that,” Morris said. “One of the things we’ve also done is relax our exchange policy to allow our patrons to exchange tickets for another performance next year. But it’s difficult because most of our expenses are set and you’re counting on that ticket revenue and if the concert doesn’t happen, it can really upset the apple cart.”

     Kansas City’s vibrant theater scene has also been hit hard. Musical Theater Heritage has had to cancel its production of “Carousel.” The Unicorn Theatre has canceled the last two weeks of “American Son” and is rescheduling “Lifespan of a Fact.” The Unicorn says it’s hoping to reopen in June.
     The KC Rep is canceling “Noises Off,” which was scheduled to open on March 29. All theater groups, like all arts organizations in Kansas City, are hoping patrons will donate the cost of their tickets rather than request a refund.
     The Harriman-Jewell Series is holding out hope that one of its most anticipated concerts of the season, a recital by Joyce DiDonato and the early music ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro on May 29, might in some fashion still go on.
     “At this point, we’re still holding onto that performance in the hope that in some form we’ll still be able to present that,” Morris said. “It’s impossible to know today whether that’s going to be possible, but we still have hope in that possibility.”
     DiDonato said things are up in the air.
     “Like the rest of the world, I’m sorting things out on an hourly basis,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I feel like we have all been plunged into a Buddhist boot camp where our only sane option is to truly live in the moment, unable to make serious plans for the future. So my current goal is acceptance, working very diligently to guard against anxiety, paralyzation and isolation of spirit.”

     Rachel Carson, who died in 1964, would have been thrilled that eagle populations are thriving in North America because the pesticide DDT was banned in 1972. The fervent spirit that defines Kansas City’s arts community gives us assurance that our beloved musicians, artists and creators will once again soar like eagles.
     DiDonato, the songbird from Prairie Village, has some encouraging words for local arts lovers:
     “I celebrate how potent the arts are serving us all in this moment, and I’m so grateful for the artists still creating and contributing,” DiDonato wrote. “I don’t have skills that can serve on the front lines of this, but I can contribute to the spirit of how we walk through this challenge together. I encourage everyone to reach out in the way they are able, and to contribute to our healing. That will be the key to our emotional survival.”

You can reach Patrick Neas at patrickneas@kcartsbeat.com 
and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at www.facebook.com/kcartsbeat.

Interfaith Center at Miami University
May 13 Wednesday 3 pm CDT (4 pm EDT)
Are you an atheist? or a believer? or just puzzled?
And why did God, if one, allow the pandemic?

In any case, you might want to Zoom in on a conversation with Vern Barnet May 13 Wednesday 3pm CDT and 4pm EDT. Below you'll find links for the official announcement, registration, and Facebook's RSVP. This special program is sponsored by the Interfaith Center at Miami University (with CRES co-sponsorship) -- and moderated by Geneva Blackmer, its Program Director. Anyone anywhere may participate.
Click here for YouTube Video
Click here for a draft of the transcript
LINK: Announcement from the Interfaith Center at Miami University
LINK: Registration page 
LINK: RSVP on Facebook
LINK TO PARTICIPATE IN THE PROGRAM:  https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82955237039

    Some of the questions that may be put to Vern include --
    1. How can a good and all-powerful God permit COVID-19?
    2. Why would you propose a "God" atheists can believe in?
    3. What are typical ideas about the character of God and gods?
    4. Is there an idea of God in every religion?
    5. What ideas about God could possibly appeal to atheists?
    6. What about this word: "belief"?
    7. How can you be an atheist and a Christian at the same time?
   The Rev. Vern Barnet, DMn, is minister emeritus at the Center for Religious Experience and Study, an interfaith institute in Kansas City. His many teaching assignments include Assistant Professor, Religious Pluralism, at Central Baptist Theological Seminary; the international faculty of the pilot “Interfaith Academies” partnered with Harvard University’s Pluralism Project; and Souljourners at the Sophia Retreat Center of the Benedictine Sisters at Mount St Scholastica. His many publications include the ground-breaking 740-page Essential Guide to Religious Traditions and Spirituality for Health Care Providers and a prosimentrum including 154 sonnets, Thanks for Noticing: The Interpretation of Desire. For 18 years, he wrote the weekly "Faith and Beliefs" column for The Kansas City Star.     Geneva Blackmer is the current Program Director for The Interfaith Center at Miami University. She holds a B.A. in Religion and an M.A. in Religious Studies from Athens State University. She is a first year interdisciplinary Ph.D. student in Theology at Amridge University. She serves as an At-Large Director for the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council and an Administrative Director for the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada. As an intern and historian for CRES, she helped found the Kansas City Interfaith History Project, in conjunction with her published thesis. She has recently worked with the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington on Emergency Services Resource Outreach and the Parliament of the World's Religions on their Climate Commitments Project. 



From Aporia to Praise: 
An observance of 
the 50th anniversary of Vern Barnet's ordination
Aporia: "impasse, puzzlement, doubt."

      Vern offers his conclusions from 50 years of experience and study: in a troubled world, what paths lie forward? and how can one dare offer praise for the intertwined mix horror and beauty of existence?
* Doing theology is less like mathematics and more like expounding why you love someone.
* My passion for "world religions" in the context of the crises of secularism.
* The mystic's vision (amour fati - love of fate) and the public expression in worship.

Sacred Citizenship 
David Nelson has asked Vern to participate in the June 10 “Vital Conversation” when the group will consider Vern's essay on “Sacred Citizenship” as part of the program. 
     “Civil Religion” has a bad name. Even Robert Bellah, who popularized the term in 1967, abandoned it because it has come to connote right-wing desires to fuse church and state as in the case of one proposed Constitutional amendment, meant to recognize the “sovereignty of Christ.” But isn't citzenship -- beyond sectarian and partisan claims -- really a sacred gift and responsibility?

Annual TABLE OF FAITHS postoned this year to
2021 May 18
The Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council,
now independent but originally a program of CRES,
was founded 1989 May 11.

Vern Barnet, who founded in the Council in 1989, is Council Convener Emeritus. The Council newsletter has published his brief notes about three milestones in the early history of the Council.

June 20 Saturday 3 pm CDT
An Interfaith Panel Discussion
opportunities for deeper understanding and change

This event was organized by the distinguished Muslim leader, Imam Ahmed El-Sherif who has asked Vern and David to participate. Vern offered the opening prayer (at the end of this article). David offered the concluding inspiration. Thanks to Geneva Blackmer of the Oxford Interfaith Center for her assistance.

Speakers included the Hon. Alvin Brooks, Dr. Gary Morsch, Alan Edelman, Ibrahim G. Beshir, Bill Tammeus, Lewis Diuguid, and, from CRES, the Rev David Nelson, DMin, and the Rev Vern Barnet, DMn. 

The Hon. Alvin Brooks was the only Black cadet in the 1954 Kansas City Police Academy. In 1968 he was serving the school district when the riots following the death of Martin Luther King Jr broke out; his calming influence led to his becoming the first Black city department head with the creation of the Human Relations Department, and later assistant city manager. His work in the community led to his designation by President George H W Bush as one of America's Thousand Points of Light. In 1999 he was elected to the Kansas City City Council and made Mayor Pro Tem, and served two terms. He was narrowly defeated for Mayor in 2007. In 2010, the governor appointed him to the Board of Police Commissioners. He currently serves on the Hickman Mills School Board. Among his many honors, most recently, he was named Kansas Citian of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce.  The arc of his 88 years, from police cadet to president of the Board of Police Commissioners gives him special understanding of the community and the issues before us.

Dr. Gary Morsch is a family and emergency physician and a founder of Heart to Heart International.  Morsch retired from the U.S. Army Reserve in 2012 with the rank of Colonel and has been deployed as an Army physician to Kosovo, Iraq, Kuwait and Germany.  Morsch has received several awards for his humanitarian work including the President’s Volunteer Action Award, the Points of Light Award, two honorary doctorate degrees, and was honored with the first Humanitarian Award from the American Academy of Family Physicians. An avid writer, Morsch has authored a handful of books focused on humanitarian work. He believes in the power of service and has dedicated his life to inspiring and mobilizing people to serve.

Bill Tammeus is past president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. For many years he was the Faith section columnist for The Kansas City Star, where he began in 1970 as a reporter, spent nearly 27 years on the paper’s editorial page. In addition to a blog, Faith Matters, Bill has written for The Presbyterian Outlook, the National Catholic Reporter,and Flatland, KCPT-TV's digital magazine. Winner of many awards, his books include A Gift of Meaning, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, Visitation: Celebrating a Century of Faith, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, Jesus, Pope Francis and A Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. His latest book is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith.

Alan Edelman is a native of Kansas City. After receiving a B.A. in Child Development, Alan attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he received a Master’s Degree in Jewish Education. Since 1977, he has served in a number of professional capacities including congregational educator, regional director for the Conservative Movement and executive director of the Central Agency for Jewish Education. Beginning in 1994, Alan served as Associate Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City with the portfolios of Jewish Education, Leadership Development and Israel ? Overseas until his retirement in June 2017 to devote more time to volunteering. Alan and his wife, Debbie Sosland-Edelman, have four children, Alex, Katja (and husband Ari), and Jonathan. 

Lewis W. Diuguid is a former photographer, columnist, letters editor, op-ed page editor, and editorial board member at The Kansas City Star, 1977 to 2016. He is a founding member of the Kansas City Association of Black Journalists and has been recognized with awards such as the Angelo B. Henderson Community Service Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. His books include Discovering the Real America: Toward a More Perfect Union (2007), A Teacher's Cry: Expose the Truth about Education Today (2004) and Our Fathers: Making Black Men (2017).  Diuguid is the co-chair of the Communications and Outreach Committee for the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME). 

Ibrahim G. Beshir majored in electrical engineering and has a masters degree in computer engineering and technology. He worked for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2007 as a system engineer. During that time he participated in opening a prayer place for all faiths in Quantico base and was part of the team keeping an iftar day for service members. He then moved to the State Department and worked as information technology project manager. He traveled to Libya at our Benghazi post as the post manager. He also has worked as the IT post manager in Shenyang, China. He returned to the US in 2017 to work as an IT manager at the consular affairs section where he participated in establishing a prayer place at the Department and conducted an iftar for employees. He also teaches IT classes at area colleges and works through a non-profit group to help the underprivileged to catch up in the IT field. He is part of the team established helping hands with Ahmed. In addition, he has been part of several nonprofit grpups in the greater metro area of Washington, DC. 

The Rev. David Nelson, DMin is president of The Human Agenda and senior associate minister with CRES; a bio-sketch appears here. The Rev. Vern Barnet, DMn, is minister emeritus at CRES; a bio-sketch appears here. Organizer Imam Ahmed El-Sherif is a dedicated advocate for interfaith understanding and peace and justice; bio information appears here.

Vern's Opening Prayer:

     Spirit of Generations, You have given us a playground of the globe, the miracle of personhood, and the delights of one another. But we have defiled your gifts of nature with pollution, blasphemed your gift of citizenship with prejudice, and allowed our society to be governed with corruption. Our sins of the environment, of character, and society are manifest now with the pandemic and the plagues of racism. We lament. We cry for health and justice. 
     Turn, we pray, turn our lamentation into repentance, and our repentance into reform. Help us at this terrible time to abandon unfulfillable fantasies of greed and all forms of selfishness. May our loss and grief be transformed into vision and our vision into  righteous behavior. 
     May we be renewed and refreshed with how precious are the gifts of life; bring us back into respect and awe at the world of nature, teach us to hold one another dearly; may such veneration become the deepest gratitude, and may that gratitude move us to love and to serve one another though this frightful time into the era of the peace and justice of the beloved community. We pray this with the power of all we hold sacred. Amen. 

David's Opening Statement:

     We are living during a time of grief.  Grief is an overpowering emotion that can weaken your entire body and mind.  It can debilitate us and keep us from performing normal life functions.  Even when shared it impacts each person deep inside body, mind and spirit.  Grief overwhelms the brain and the body.  To watch a brother or sister brutally murdered tares at the fabric of our being.  When these pictures are repeated year after year, community after community it becomes even more oppressive and overwhelming.  We can lose our ability to imagine and to believe in a better world.  The sin of racism hurts communities of color, fractures human relationships, and denies God’s good creation.  Lament is a way for us to recognize the harm caused by racism.
     But Lament is not enough.  Dr. William Barber II, one of the leaders of the Poor People’s Assembly going on as we gather right now, reminds the world “accepting death is no longer an option.”  We can no longer tolerate this vicious cancer that like another virus is spreading and destroying this nation, the world and the sacred bond we have with each other.
     As an Appreciative Inquiry Coach and a human being, I refuse to give up. When I see my sisters and my brothers killed and denied their human dignity, I lament AND choose to imagine a better world.  I admire the persistence, the courage, and the wisdom of Black Lives Matter and those who march and demonstrate.  As a person who has benefited from “white privilege”, I have a sacred responsibility to keep imagining and nurturing something better.
     As a white man these days I must do lots of listening, reading, pondering, and praying.  I listen and I hear you my Black brothers and sisters.  I hear you and am moved.  I hear you and agree that racism must be condemned, racist behaviors must change, and justice must flow like water.  I will listen and when possible use my “white privilege” to support needed change. 
     * I choose to lament and imagine a paradigm shift in policing.  We do not need military warriors in our streets we need caregiving partners who use their heads and hearts more often than their clubs and guns. 
     * I choose to lament and imagine 9-1-1 Centers to use protocols that enable emergency dispatchers to identify what service would best bring relief and hope into a crisis.
     * I choose to lament and imagine equity in representation in all public operations. 
     * I choose to lament and imagine a day when every person’s root cause for success and positive core is recognized, celebrated and enlisted in building a more beloved community.
     * I choose to lament and imagine continued Vital Conversations where the purpose is not to win an argument, but to win a friend and advance civilization. 
     “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality . . . . I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” 

--Martin Luther King, Jr

CRES is delighted to join the Interfaith Center for one of the nation's best informed and most thoughtful explorers of interfaith comity. Bill's keen interest in the subject was sharpened by a family 9/11 tragedy. Those present at the somber first anniversary interfaith city-wide observance of that horror will remember Bill's stirring and insightful remarks (photo). Now, almost two decades later, we still need to more fully understand how to heal the afflictions of religious intolerance. After Bill's examples of violent extremism with religious roots, he offers a series of suggestions for how to become part of the solution.

Zoom link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86479110930

BILL TAMMEUS is a former columnist for The Kansas City Star, where he worked full-time for almost 36 years. From 2004 until 2020 he wrote the daily “Faith Matters” blog (http://billtammeus.typepad.com)
     He also writes columns for The Presbyterian Outlook, Flatland, KCPT-TV’s digital magazine, and, until recently, for The National Catholic Reporter.
     A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Bill was a member of the Star staff that won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. His many other awards include several from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and the American Academy of Religion, in addition to receiving the 2005 Wilbur Award given annually to the best religion column in the country. The latest of his six books is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith.
     Bill is an elder at Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City and past president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He’s married to Marcia Tammeus. Between them they have six children and eight grandchildren.

The Interfaith Center at Miami University, Oxford, OH, and CRES offer 

Exploring Religious Power, Privilege, and Pain
with Evan Clark

2020 August 7 Friday 2 pm CDT
Pre-register here

Evan is an atheist nonprofit professional consultant and public speaker. Since 2019 Evan has served as Executive Director for Atheists United in Los Angeles. He also chairs the Secular Student Alliance Board of Directors, is the founder and creative director at Spectrum Experience LLC, and a co-host for the Humanist Experience podcast. 
     Evan previously served as the outreach director for a congressional campaign, co-founder of the Humanist Community of Ventura County, and co-founder of the Secular Student Alliance at California Lutheran University.
     Evan describes privilege as "unearned access to resources and power in society because of social group membership."
     As increasing numbers of Americans leave religious institutions of all sorts, so learning how atheists view the religious overlay of our culture is important. And some religions (Buddhism for example) have no creator god in their pictures of reality. CRES has championed conversation and mutual respect for people of all faiths and those of none, as this exchange between a Rockhurst University professor and Vern illustrates. This hour with Evan promises to describe some tensions and opportunities in the work of furthering an understanding of among folks of varied perspectives.

CONGRATULATIONSto former CRES intern, 
Geneva Blackmer!

Geneva has been designated one of the twelve members of the Global Council of Trustees of the United Religions Initiative, a world-wide organization "to bridge differences between people of all beliefs, to create community, and to solve local and global challenges." The press release offered this bio-sketch:

Geneva Blackmer is the current Program Director for The Interfaith Center at Miami University. She holds a B.A. in Religion and an M.A. in Religious Studies from Athens State University. She is a first-year interdisciplinary Ph.D. student in Theology at Amridge University. She serves as an At-Large Director for the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council and an Administrative Director for the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada. As an intern and historian for CRES, she helped found the Kansas City Interfaith History Project, in conjunction with her published thesis. She has previously worked with the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington on Emergency Services Resource Outreach and the Parliament of the World's Religions on their Climate Commitments Project. 

All of us at CRES offer our heartiest congratuations to Geneva, our admiration for her energy and excellence, and our continuing gratitude for her significant contributions to CRES in the years we were so fortunate to have her as part of our team.


World Religions
An Introduction for Spiritual Formation
Sept 18-19
via Zoom
Vern writes: One of my most favorite repeat assignments is visiting the Benedictine sisters at Mount St Scholastica in Atchison as part of the Sophia Center's program training spiritual directors. The faculty and staff and the students learning together is an extraordinary environment, and I also cherish the worship experiences in the monastic setting. Walking through the campus, seeing the larger than life images of St Scholastica and St Benedict, I am refreshed in a contemplative atmosphere where intelligence and the heart are one.
     But this year, my teaching must be done via Zoom, so I have rethought how to be most effective. One change is more advance reading. For Hinduism, I have also provided a link to Peter Brook's amazing condensation of the Bhagavad Gita in his 5 1/2 hour production of the Mahabharata, and those reading this announcement might also benefit from viewing it on YouTube. Start at 3:18:48; end at 3:29:30 — (start at 3 hours, 18 minutes plus; continue for 11 minutes or more).


I have prepared a one-page PDF of the text with a second page excerpting TS Eliot's Four Quartets (1941, "The Dry Salvages," section III) where he integrates the story of Krishna and Arjuna into this theme of what some consider the greatest religious poem of the 20th Century. I'll email this PDF to anyone requesting it.

CRES Applauds the Interfaith Council 
on naming Its Executive Director, 
the Rev. Dr. Joshua Paszkiewicz (Sunyananda Dharma)

With the greatest pleasure, CRES celebrates the selection of our friend and Verns former seminary student, the Rev. Dr. Joshua Paszkiewicz, as the Executive Director of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council. (It is true also that Vern considers himself to be one of Joshs students.) For someone so young, Josh has a long and distinguished career in the interfaith field. We are glad to offer our heartiest wishes for the flourishing of the Council with his leadership.

Our photo shows Josh (Sunyananda Dharma) in his Buddhist vestments lighting worshippers candles at an interfaith observance of Candlemas at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral. Other members of the Interfaith Council also participated.

The Council was founded as a program of CRES in 1989 and consisted of members of twelve of the thirteen significant and distinct faith traditions in Kansas City. In 2005, at Vern s urging, it organized as an independent non-profit, named Vern convener emeritus,and gave him its first annual Table of Faithsaward, presented by then-Mayor Kay Barnes. In order to respect the independence of the new organization, CRES has kept a respectful distance and refered matters appropriate to the Council when they were directed to CRES. But CRES has sought to respond whenever the Council invited CRES participation.

Here is the Council's September announcement:

The Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council welcomes the Rev. Dr. Joshua Paszkiewicz as our new Executive Director, signaling a greater emphasis on community involvement for the Council.
     For the last ten years, Josh has served the United Buddhist Church by providing pastoral care and leadership for several faith communities as well as caring for congregations locally and internationally. He has organized retreats and training programs at seminaries, colleges, and universities. His ministry work has taken him to India, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates. 
     For two years, Josh served as the Faith Outreach Coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Kansas City. Between this experience and providing very diverse pastoral care and support for nursing facilities for several years, he has honed his skills as minister, spiritual counselor, and organizational leader. 
     His experiences professionally and personally bring additional depth to the Interfaith Council and facilitate expanded communications between GKCIC and the greater Kansas City community. The Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council has been the leading organization in the interfaith movement in the Kansas City area for over 15 years.
     He refers to himself on Facebook as an “Errant Abbot, Writer, Martial Artist, Foodie, and General Aficionado of Life!” With a smile and deep appreciation, we welcome our new collaborative partner, Joshua Paszkiewicz, as we continue our commitment to making Kansas City the “most welcoming community for all people.”

The Interfaith Center at Miami University, Oxford, OH, and CRES offer Oxford Center on Facebook
Sept 20 Sunday 2 pm CDT -- 60 minute live program  --  YouTube recording
Interfaith Understanding Is Too Slight a Thing
A Provocative Conversation with David Nelson and Vern Barnet 
Zoom link  good 10 minutes before the event

In three parts, we explore remedies for the troubles of our time. 
     1. First Vern quizes David on why knowing about others' faiths is inadequate for citizens today and insufficient to build community. (David is an expert on Appreciative Inquiry.) 
     2. Then David challenges Vern to explain why even understanding the details of other faiths is a failing response to the crises of our age. (Vern's research program is charted here.) 
     3. Finally questions and comments and, hopefully, good arguments, from the viewers will round out what promises to be a clearing in the woods as we seek a path toward refreshment and renewal.

Many of our Jewish friends are concluding Rosh Hashanah, we offer our hearty greetings and wishes: Gemar chatimah tovah. For those unable to be with us this hour, and those wishing to see it again, it is being recorded.

The Rev Dr David Nelson and the Rev Dr Vern Barnet were in seminaries a few blocks away from each other in Chicago in the late 60s onward, but never met. They both attended the first meeting of the North American Interfaith Network in Wichita in 1988, covered by the New York Times, but did not meet. But when the Kansas City Interfaith Council was organized in 1989, they did meet and became friends as well as colleagues when David was pastor of the largest ELCA Lutheran Church in Missouri.
  David is an Appreciative Inquiry Coach and holds a Certificate from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Direction. In additions to helping individuals discover more meaningful lives, David brings his insights to help transform men serving time in the United States Penitentiary and partnering with men and women in agencies who provide public health and safety through pre-hospital care and community action. One of his many gifts to the community and CRES is his monthly Vital Conversations book club. David is active with and on behalf of those sisters and brothers who have been oppressed or ignored by others. He served as convener of the Christian Jewish Muslim Dialogue Group. For some years, David coordinated the field DMn program for the Lutheran School of Theology. David's many recognitions include the  Humanitarian Award given at the Bruce R Watkins Cultural Heritage Center and Museum, a special commemoration from the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, and an award for "pioneering interfaith work in Kansas City and enriching us with the vision and power of mutual appreciation.” David's impact on the community was even recognized with his name on the big board at Arrowhead Stadium when the Kansas City Royals gave him the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat award. David is president of the Human Agenda and senior associate minister at CRES.
  Vern founded CRES in 1982 and the Interfaith Council was created as a program of CRES in 1989. CRES is the oldest continuing multi-faith organization in Kansas City. Vern was employed by the KC Star from 1993 to 2012 to write a weekly column on multi-faith issues. He chaired the County 9/11 task force. He led and framed the city-wide first anniversary observances of the 9/11 horrors as a above all an earnest redirection for personal, community, and national renewal which was recognized by a half-hour CBS-TV special. With three others, he edited the 740-page The Essential Guide to Religious Traditions and Spirituality for Health Care Providers, published in the UK and the United States, and his book of sonnets, Thanks for Noticing, is heavily glossed with notes from the religions of the world. His awards come from Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and other religious groups, and from civic organizations such as the national Community Leadership Association., He is an Assistant Professor for Religious Pluralism at Central Seminary. Vern is minister emeritus at CRES.


Funeral Consumers Alliance  of Greater Kansas City and CRES, co-sponsor, present
An Interfaith Discussion of
Medical Assistance in Dying
Why do nine states with 20% of the U.S. population have it? Why don’t any of the rest of them?
Nov. 6 Friday 9-noon -- Live streamed on YouTube

The Panelists are  Peg Sandeen: National Executive Director of Death With Dignity. (keynoter) -- Fr. Thomas Curran, S.J.: Rockhurst University President. (Roman Catholic perspective) -- the Rev. Melissa Bowers, MA, MPS - Chaplain, Kansas Clty Hospice and Palliative Care. (Protestant perspective) -- Mahnaz Shabbir: of Shabbir Advisors management consultants. (Muslim perspective) -- Dr. John Lantos: M.D., Director of Pediatric Bioethics at Children's Mercy Hospital and Professor of Pediatrics at University of Missouri-Kansas City. (Medical, ethical and Jewish perspective)

CRES and the FCA-GKC board neither support nor oppose MAID. Our interest is strictly educational. The program, to be recorded for later viewing on demand, is our gift to the community. Open to professionals, students and the public at no charge.

Go to funeralskc.org or facebook.com/FCAGKC for registration and a time/topic schedule, speaker bios and physician CME submissions and social worker/nurse CEU submissions -- three hours of Ethics continuing education credits in Missouri and Kansas for social workers and nurses.


Online and accessible to all -- Join on zoom or by live-stream
Seeing Peace with “2020 Vision”
November 8, 2020 Sunday
4:00 pm — 5:15 pm CT
Video Recording

The annual observance was sponsored by CRES for its first 25 years. This year is the 35th year of what has become a beloved Interfaith Thanksgiving tradition, but this year  is different. Due to the coronavirus pandemic and in order to bring the joy of interfaith gratitude to our community, the Gathering is virtual this year. 

Thanks to sponsors: the Heartland Alliance of Divine Love, the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, and The Interfaith Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. 

There are a number of ways to join this online event:
* Simply click on this link to participate in this event:
* Register for free on Eventbrite and the link will be sent to your lnbox.
* Join the live-streaming on the Heartland Facebook page.

There is NO COST for this event — everyone is invited to participate and everyone is welcome! As always, a highlight of the event will be the offering of prayers from the multitude of faiths and religious traditions in the greater community.

Even in the midst of this most unusual year, there is much to be grateful for, and this year’s Gathering acknowledges this situation with a dual focus: (1) to remember and honor all those who have been lost during this pandemic and their loved ones and (2) to celebrate andthank the “heroes of the pandemic" -- the health care workers, first responders, and spiritual workers who have helped families with loved ones lost. Heartland ADL also chooses a charity each year -- this year, Harvesters, because of the unprecedented need. We invite you to send your donations to Harvesters

Look for additional information about the dinner on the Council website, the
Heartland-ADL website, and the Heartland Facebook page.

Alvin L. Brooks Memoir Completed
available Black History Month

After three years as developmental editor for the memoirs of the Hon. Alvin L. Brooks, Vern is thrilled to report that the book has been accepted by Andrews McMeel for publication in Black History Month, February, 2021. Click on the book cover for the announcement and scroll down for interesting details and a photo of Al and Vern from 2017 with a binder of the draft text at that time.

link to 2021


WEDDINGS of all kinds click for information

We can provide a customized ceremony. We regularly work with the great folks at Pilgrim Chapel and are happy to serve at any venue. 

THANKS to Robert and Shye Reynolds, a CRES fund to assist couples with fees for weddings  has been established, to celebrate their marriage June 19, 2002, on the occasion of their thirteenth anniverary.

see also
our publications page

in progress: KC Star, Many Paths columns and fresh essays:
The Three Families of Faith and the Three Crises of Secularism 
     Many have asked for a compilation of columns Vern wrote for the KC Star, 1994-2012,  and the essays fatured in Many Paths. Here are tentative chapter headings for the selections:
      ? The Three Families of Faith ? Faith and the Arts  ? Science and Religion  ? Teachers of the Spirit ? Ritual and Worship ? Religion and Public Policy ? Specific Faiths (Buddhism, Islam, etc) ? Comparative topics (reincarnation, gods, water, prophets, etc) ? How the column began and ended


If you would
like to engage Vern 
or another member 
of the CRES staff
for a speech,
a wedding,
a baptism,
or other work
with your organization 
or personally, 
please visit  www.cres.org/work/services.htmor email vern@cres.org

Having spawned several other organizations,
including the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council,
we continue to offer programs initiated by and through others
but we no longer create our own in order to focus on our unique work.
For interfaith and cultural calendars maintained by other groups, click here.

announcements pending


A Vital Conversation Coffee
Vital Conversations
monthly schedule
ZOOM 2nd Wedneday of the month 1-2:30 pm
MidContinent Public Library Antioch Branch, 6060 N Chestnut Ave, Gladstone, MO 64119 -- (816) 454-1306  -- to receive the zoom link:
humanagenda@gmail.com or call (816) 453-3835

You are welcome even if you have not read the book or seen the movie
A Free Monthly Discussion Group Led by David E Nelson
C R E S  senior  associate minister
president, The Human Agenda

“The purpose of a Vital Conversation is not to win an argument,
but to win a friend and advance civilization.” Vern Barnet 

Vital Conversations are intentional gatherings of people to engage
in dialog that will add value to the participants and to the world. 
In Vital Conversations, we become co-creators of a better community. 
David Nelson
The discussions began May 24, 2002, at the CRES facility
 by examining Karen Armstrong’sThe Battle for God
Reading is magic and a mysterious activity that feeds the mind, transports the imagination, sooths the soul, and expands life.  It is most often done in solitude and yet connects us to so many others both near us and far from us.  Many readers enjoy the opportunity to share their reading discoveries and to expand from the sharing of others.  Reading is an important aspect of our common humanness.
David E. Nelson
Vital Conv. Coffee
an open exchange of ideas
with no preset agenda
 4th Wednesday monthly
8 am
Panera Bread
311 NE Englewood Road
Kansas City, MO 64118

2020 Vital Conversations Schedule

to see last year's fascinating programs, click here.

January 8, 2020 — The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Cora is a young slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. An outcast even among his fellow Africans, she is on the  cusp of womanhood — where greater pain awaits. And so when Ceasar, a slave who has recently arrived from Virginia, urges her to join him on the Underground Railroad, she seizes the opportunity. Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the terrors of the antebellum era; he weaves in the saga of our nation, from the brutal abduction of Africans  to the unfulfilled promises of the present day.

Clif Hostetler's Reviews

Releasing Conversation:  Share your name and one resolution you might make for the decade of the 2020s.

Questions for Conversation
     “People may be victimized, but no one is inherently a victim.”  Although Cora is victimized by others she never behaves like a victim.  Discuss the ways in which she fights against the different types of oppression she encounters.
     Discuss the difference forms of racism Cora encounters in the American states she passes through.  What is this prejudice driven by?  Which state, in your opinion, was the worst in its violation of human rights?
     While Cora’s perspective dominates, The Underground Railroad incudes narratives from the point-of-view of a range of other characters.  Why do you think the author includes the stories of relatively minor characters as Dr. Stevens and Ethel Wells?  Did they add anything to the novel?
     The author uses deliberate anachronisms and magic realism in his story.  How do these elements allow the author to express things that could not be conveyed in a strictly realist novel?  How do you feel about the combination of realism ad fantasy?  Is it appropriate for Whitehead’s subject matter?
     “If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his.  If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.  Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor ---if you can keep it, it is yours.  Your property, slave or continent.  The American imperative.” (page 82)  Ridgeway’s guiding philosophy is a belief in this “American Spirit.”  How dominant was this in the 19th century?  How much is it still the belief of some today?
     “Stolen bodies working stolen land.  It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.  With the surgeries that Dr. Stevens described, Cora thought, the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest.  Cut you open and rip them out, dripping.  Because that’s what you do when you take away someone’s babies ---steal their future.  Torture them as much as you can when they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.”  (p.119-120)  Dr. Stevens narrative gives an account of the lucrative trade in dead bodies.  His commentary upon the value of corpses draws parallels between the bodysnatching trade and slavery, which both profit from the sale of human beings.  What do these reflections add to the story Whitehead is telling?
     Discuss the parallels the novel draws between Cora’s experience in North Carolina and the regime of Nazi Germany. Can you think of more recent events which also bear a similarity to the atmosphere of racial hatred and fear Cora finds in North Carolina?
     By the closing pages of the novel Cora still has a long way to travel before she reaches freedom.  Did you interpret the ending in an optimistic light?  How has your thinking and feeling changed after reading this novel?

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February 12 — Taking Civility Out of the Box: The Insanity of Incivility and What Can Be Done About It   by  Barbara Mason Condra
These are not easy times for important conversations because it is difficult to converse when there is a lack of civility. Barbara addresses this issue from her perspective as a retired teacher, school administrator, and volunteer.  She will be with us, along with others from The Assistance League of Kansas City. She addresses the questions:  Why are so many people angry and meanspirited? How will a lack of civility damage our democracy? Am I going  to have to accept incivility as a way of life? 

Releasing Conversation: Share your name and identify a “civil person” you know or have witnessed and explain why you choose that person.

 Link to  Clif Hostetler's review of Taking Civility Out of the Box

     “A simple definition for “civility”: being polite and respectful to other people…The word “Civility” equates the idea of being civil to the right of being a citizen…Strong opinions and beliefs can be stated and emphasized but name calling and belittling of each other is not present.” Pages 12-14. What other places do you gather where civility is needed? How do you respond to those who are not civil?
     “Civil discourse makes a positive difference in any setting where disagreements exist…The only way forward to finding a solution to any situation is for the people involved to have real discussions about the options and seek to come to an agreement…both parties have to be seeking the same thing.” P. 21. Do you agree? Can we have civil discourse about disagreements without finding a solution? “The purpose of a Vital Conversation is not to win an argument but to win a friend and advance civilization.” Is that a possibility?
     “According to the Eighth Installment of Civility in America, ninety-three percent of the public agrees that the nation has a civility problem.” P. 57. Does incivility work? If not, why is it so dominant in our current cultural climate?
     “A part of our problem is that digital communication has allowed us to engage in consequence-free hostility…the person who writes demeaning, hostile messages cannot see the hurt, the tears, or the anger they have created. Teenagers, who are most vulnerable to verbal attacks like these, are most likely to experience this type of incivility in the form of cyber-bulling. They are not prepared to handle these types of attacks.” P. 59. Do you use digital communication? How can you practice civility even in this medium? Give some examples.
     “A blind spot is an unknown obstacle that prevents us from seeing our unethical behavior.” P. 77. Are you familiar with “the Johari Window? Look it up and see if it would be helpful in understanding your own behavior and the behaviors of others. “Being an ethical person requires developing characteristic traits of behavior that are admirable.
     Being ethical doesn’t come naturally to everyone but can be nourished by practicing ethical behavior.” P. 79. What are some ethical behaviors you practice on a regular basis? The author suggests eight things to do to be more civil in public life. Which one stands out for you? Do you have additional suggestions you can share with our group?

The group was very engaged (and quite civilly!) in questions about civility. 
Author Barbara Mason Condra (in the red sweater) is at the far table.

Vern's comments:

Most of my career has been devoted to promoting civil -- respectful, appreciative -- exchange among peoples of various faiths. But you cannot have a civil discussion when one party's deliberate intent is overwhelming power or an intentional parades of lies. You may possibly have a relationship of some sort, perhaps even a valuable one; but on topic, you cannot have a civil conversation. When the President demeans, attacks, and vilifies his opponents, by tweet and at his rallies, hope for a civil conversation is ridiculous. And when individual incitement is magnified by group response, you have the kind of potential mob evil that became realized by Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, and so many others with power. Consider when the practice of civil disagreement proved impossible from bullying to lynchings to the Civil War. Unchecked power corrupts, and the additional power afforded and exercised by Trump following his Senate acquittal should not naively be regarded as a call for civil discourse but rather as a loud alarm signaling the danger to democracy. Time to re-read Reinhold Niebuhr's classic Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics. Can we have a civil conversation about this? I am looking for insights and answers.
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March 11 — Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi. “Given our circumstances, ‘neighbor’ may be too casual a word to describe our relationship. We are intruders into  each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home. We are living incarnations of each other’s worst  historical nightmares. Neighbors? ” In this taut and provocative book, Halevi endeavors to untangle the ideological and emotional knot that has defined the conflict for nearly a century. Using history and personal experience as his  guides, he unravels the complex strands of faith, pride, anger, and anguish he feels as a Jew living in Israel. 

Following the discussion, Jill Maidhof, David Bluford, Alan Edelman, Vern Barnet, and host David Nelson posed for a photo.
Alan had just returned from a Holy Land trip he led to promote peace and understanding. Jill was part of that delegation.

Link to Clif Hostetler's review of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor

Releasing conversation:  Share your name and identify your home community.

      1. “As the Qur’an so powerfully notes, despair is equivalent to disbelief in God.  To doubt the possibility of reconciliation is to limit God’s power, the possibility of miracle – especially in this land.  The Torah commands me, ‘Seek peace and pursue it’ ---even when peace appears impossible, perhaps especially the.”  (18-19).   Why is the author writing this as letters to a Palestinian neighbor?
     2. “Israel exists because it never stopped existing, even if only in prayer…Need gave Zionism its urgency, but longing gave Zionism its spiritual substance.” (p. 34-35).  What is Zionism?  Did this book add any to your understanding of Zionism?
     3. “So long as Palestinian leaders insist on defining the Jews as a religion rather than allowing us to define ourselves as we have since ancient times – as a people with a particular faith – then Israel will continue to be seen as illegitimate, its existence an open question” (52). How do you understand this distinction?  Why does it make a difference?
     4. “We live in such intimacy, we can almost hear each other breathing.  What choice do we have but to share this land?  And by that, I mean share conceptually as well as tangibly.  We must learn to accommodate each other’s narratives.  That is why I persist in writing to you why I am trying to reach out across the small space and vast abyss that separates your hill from mine.”  (89).  Can you imagine or have you experienced living in such proximity to people that so often see each other as “the enemy”?  What does it mean to “accommodate each other’s narratives?  How can the USA and other nations be allies to both sides?
     5. “Sustaining the tension between the particular and the universal is one of the great challenges facing Jewish people today.” (61). What does this mean to you?
     6. “The enemy of justice for both sides is absolute justice for either side.”  (124).  What does the author mean by this statement?
     7. “Perhaps we can help restore each other to balance.  Jews, I feel, need something of the Muslim prayer mat; my Muslim friends say that need something of the Jewish study hall.  Can we inspire each other to renew our spiritual greatness?  (152). How can we benefit from both the prayer mat and the study hall?
     8. “I am the son not of destruction but of rebirth.”  (179). What does this mean to you and why does it make a difference?

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April 8 — Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Evervday Hurts by Harriet Learner, Cassandra Campbell (Narrator). The courage to apologize, and the wisdom to do it well, is at the heart of effective leadership, marriage, parenting, friendship, personal integrity, and what we call love. “I’m sorry” are the two most poweful words in the English language. Harriet Leamer is one of our nation’s most loved and respected relationship experts, renowned for her scholarly work on the psychology of women and family relationships. 

Releasing Conversation: Check in with your names and share briefly what you have learned in the last 30 days.

     1. “The challenge of apology and reconciliation is a dance that occurs between at least two people. We are all, many times over, on both sides of the equation.” (p. 3) Think about times you have been on both sides of the equation. What has helped heal and what has not worked for you?
     2. “The best apologies are short, and don’t go on to include explanations that run the risk of undoing them.” (p.15) “I’m sorry you feel that way” is another common pseudo-apology.” (15) “The purpose of an apology is to calm and sooth the hurt party, not to agitate or pursue her because you have the impulse to connect, explain yourself, lower your guilt quotient, or foster your recovery.” (p. 23-24)
     3. “It’s incredibly difficult to listen to someone’s pain when that someone’s accusing us of causing it…To listen with an open heart and ask questions to better help us understand the other person is a spiritual exercise, in the truest sense of the word.” (p. 43). Can you say to yourself, “This is not about me”, even when the other person is trying to make it about you? If you can it allows the other to “feel” their own feelings.
     4. “Nondefensive listening: 1. Recognize your defensiveness. 2. Breath. 3. Listen only to understand. 4. Ask questions about whatever you don’t understand. 5. Find something you can agree with. 6. Apologize for your part. 7. Let the offended party know he or she has been heard and that you will continue to think about the conversation. 8. Thank the critical person for sharing his or her feelings. 9. Take the initiative to bring the conversation up again. 10. Draw the line at insults. 11.Don’t listen when you can’t listen well. 12. Define your differences…Wholehearted listening require us to quiet our mind, open our heart, and ask questions to help us to better understand.” (p. 48-52) Recall times when you practiced these skills. When has someone listened to you in this way?
     5. “While guilt is about doing, shame is about being.” (p. 63) Also material on p. 84-86. Talk about the difference between guilt and shame. Think of some stories that illustrate the power to heal rather than add to the hurt.
     6. “Criticize the behavior, not the person.” (p. 75) Explain and illustrate the difference between feedback and criticism.
     7. “We are responsible for our own behavior. But we are not responsible for other people’s reactions, nor are they responsible for ours.” (p. 88). What does this mean? Can you give an illustration? See pages 90-91.
     8. “Learn to say, ‘Thank you for the apology,’ and stop there.” (p. 97) When is that better than “I accept your apology.”
     9. “The best apologies are offered by people who understand that it is important to be oneself, but equally as important to choose the self that we want to be.” (125) What does that mean to you?
     10. “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking p. 2. Why is forgiveness important? What have you learned and how did you learn about the need for letting go of past hurts? Remember, no one is inherently a victim.

Link to
Clif Hostetler's review
     This book explores the power and potential pitfalls of apologies. It offers a guide to the art of crafting an apology that is meaningful and can restore trust. The book also offers insight to situations where the offended person feels they are owed an apology but are not receiving one. And there’s also advice on how to properly receive an apology when it does come. 
     The author is a psychologist with years of experience to draw from in offering examples of situations where apologies were a factor in saving or ending relationships. The book acknowledges times when relationships can’t be restored and in some cases shouldn’t be saved.
     Early in the book the reader is challenged with the following situation:
          It’s a profound challenge to sit on the hot seat and listen with an open heart to the hurt 
          and anger of the wounded person who wants us to be sorry, especially when that person 
          is accusing us (and not accurately, as we see it) of causing their pain. Yet both personal 
          integrity and success in relationships depend on our ability to take responsibility for our
          part (and only our part) even when the other person is being a jerk.
     Indeed such a situation requires a well grounded and emotionally secure person to respond without blurting out a pseudo apology (an apology followed with “but … “ ) Another example of a pseudo apology is “I’m sorry you feel that way,”—in other words, “I’m sorry you (not me) has a problem.”
     Being human by definition means being imperfect and prone to error and defensiveness. Thus finding the internal wisdom, insight, and strength to craft an effective and heartfelt apology is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to most humans. The examples described in this book offers suggestions and ideas of useful tools, technics, and approaches to various situations. Sometimes the best approach is to concentrate on listening to the other person's feelings, and if it has come as a surprise to ask for some time to think it over.
     So how does a victim of betrayal or hurt manage to get over it and move on? The short answer is "any way that works." It will be different for different people. Also, this book takes the position that it is not necessary for a hurt victim to forgive in order to recover and leave it behind. Forgiveness is a personal decision, not something to be told to do.

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May 13 - Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro.  In the spring of 2016, through a genealogy website to which she had whimsically submitted her DNA, Dani Shapiro received the astonishing news that her beloved deceased father was not her biological father. Over the course of a  single day, her entire history — the life she had lived — crumbled beneath her. In just a few hours of internet  sleuthing, she was able to piece together the story of her conception and, remarkably, find a YouTube video of her biological father. A true story that reads like a novel. 

Clif Hostetler's review Apr 27, 2020

     Dani Shapiro is a novelist and memoirist who has written previous books that involved family secrets and feelings of not belonging. Having previously written three memoirs, one would think that she has exhausted any new material for another memoir. How many memoirs can be written about one life? Yet unbelievably, in 2016 she discovered a family secret that provided unexpected material for yet another memoir, this book. 
     Shapiro took a genetic test that showed she had no biological relationship to her half-sister (her father's daughter from an earlier marriage). This meant that her father—who was no longer living—was not her biological father. Her mother was also deceased at the time of this discovery. A bit of on-line sleuthing together with a list of probable relatives from the genetic testing company enabled her to quickly determine the identity of her biological father. 
     Shapiro's parents had used the services of a fertility clinic in Philadelphia that had used the technique of mixing sperm from donors together with that of the wife's husband. It increased chances of pregnancy, and it was assumed nobody would ever know whose sperm actually caused the pregnancy. Things have changed with today's DNA testing which can make parentage determinable with certainty.
     So at this point we're one-third way into the book, and the author knows the identity of her biological father. What should she do with this information? Should she try to contact him? Would he be willing to talk to her? She's also bothered by the question of how much her parents knew. Did they know about the mixed sperm? Did they have any suspicion of Dani being not biologically related to her father?
     Shapiro had been told by many people during her childhood that she didn't look Jewish, but she had never seriously doubted her blood tie to her father. Emotionally she had felt closer to her father than to her mother. If she could have chosen a parent to not be related to she would have probably preferred that it be her mother.
     I approached this book with a bit of skepticism that the author was making too big of an issue over blood relationships over those formed from a lifetime of nurture. But the author was able to draw me in as a reader to the drama of wondering about love, family, and belonging. When she told her aunt (her father's sister) about the DNA results her aunt replied that she was NOT letting her go (i.e. she was still a member of the family).
     Shapiro is in her fifties and the person identified as the biological father (sperm donor) is a retired doctor in his seventies with children and grandchildren. Most men in this situation would wish to not deal with the potential complications from contact with a previously unknown biological child. It helped that Dani Shapiro was a successful writer with a visible on-line presence that could be examined and determined to be an unlikely seeker of an inheritance. Conversely, the author was able to find YouTube videos of her biological father prior to contacting him. She noted numerous characteristics that she shared with him, hand gesticulations in particular.
     The story is beautifully written with enough suspense about their pending meeting to keep the reader's focused attention. The meeting does take place and is portrayed as a pleasant and emotional experience for all involved. 
     The following excerpt is the author's internal thoughts following her meeting with her biological father for the first time. I think it provides an example of the author's emotional attribution of mystical determinism to blood relationships.

     Later, it will occur to me that Ben Walden [her biological father] felt, to me, like my native country. I had never lived in this country. I had never spoken its language or become steeped in its customs. I had no passport or record of citizenship. Still, I had been shaped by my country of origin all my life, suffused with an inchoate longing to know my own land.
     I found it ironic that the author focused much of this book on the physical similarities between herself and her newly found half-sister and biological father while expressing virtually no connection or similarity to her mother with whom there's no doubt of biological relationship. But it's also clear that her relationship with her mother was fraught. It's a reminder that blood ties are no guarantee of love.

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June 10 –  American Soul:  Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders by Jacob Needleman. 
Needleman has spent a lifetime studying the religious traditions of the world looks at the wisdom of the American Spirit by focusing on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, The American Indian, Frederick Douglas, Walt Whitman and others. He shares his perspective on where we have been and his vision of what is still possible in this nation. Needleman is a  professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, an author, and religious scholar, sometimes credited with popularizing the term "new religious movements." Now in his 90s, he has written over a score of books including The New Religions (1970), Money and the Meaning of Life (1991), andWhy Can't We Be Good? (2008). The book for discussion was published in 2003.
Sacred Citizenship by Vern Barnet.
In addition to Needleman, we will also read our friend Vern Barnet’s 1988 naturalization ceremony address, adapted as “Sacred Citizenship," and a comment on how his perspective has changed in light of recent political developments. The terms relating religion to government, such as "civil religion," have a controversial history since Robert Bellah's use of it in his famous 1968 article. Vern will be with us to share his insight and our vital conversation.

Releasing Conversation: Share your name and tell briefly of a time you were proud to be a citizen of the USA.

“The meaning of democracy was always rooted in a vision of human nature as both fallen and perfectible – inwardly fallen and inwardly perfectible.” (p.9) “We need to re-mythologize the idea of America.” (p. 13). What does Neddleman mean by this statement? Do you agree?
     “To love America is not to love one’s roots – it is to love the flower that has not yet blossomed, the fruit as yet un-ripened. To love America is to love the future, and perhaps it is this that sets the love of America apart from what men and women of other nations feel about their native land.” (39). In light of recent unrest of both peaceful and violent protests, what does this suggest to you?
     “Other nations and cultures have produced cathedrals, epics, poems, music, systems of philosophy that far surpass what America has brought forth. But let those who ask what of transcending nature our nation has created turn their eyes to our form and structure of government…the art of human association, the art of working together as individuals in groups and communities. This is the essential art form of coming humanity.” (61) Do you agree that this is our gift to the world? What about our form of government stands out for you?
     “The victim mentality has become pervasive in our present era for several reasons…According to this view, our inner lives, and much of our outer lives, are made up of effects of causes, some very distant and indirect, that have acted on us originally from outside ourselves and continue to influence us through their action within ourselves…This doctrine of psychic determinism presents itself simply as a logical extension of the view that in the universe every event has a cause.” (99). Do you agree? How can you make the case for human freedom? Does this explain racism and sexism? What about “white privilege” and “Black Lives Matter” movement?
     “The ideal of self-improvement – an ideal that resonates to the great wisdom traditions of human history – lies at the heart of early American individualism, and it is one of the things we most admire in the life of a man like Washington.” (102). Share some examples of today’s leaders we admire for their “self-improvement.” “The originators of America were not mystics; not monks, not contemplatives. But neither were the most dynamic of them mere materialists, exploiters or cunning businessmen. America was the creation of a collection of men in whom traces of ancient interior spiritual truths were honored alongside the need to organize an immense new world pf phenomenal potential wealth and power. This simultaneity of the spiritual and the material was of quite new coloration and energy. This simultaneity was America.” (125). Do we still embrace this marriage between the spiritual and the material? Share examples.
     “The trappings of Church and dogma were to be abandoned; but the question of understanding the inner life of man, the relationship between man’s capacity to see truth and his inevitable passion – this was THE issue, THE arena of inquiry, THE basic realm upon which were founded all principles of human society and government.” (155) “Democracy, for Jefferson, was to be neutral with respect to sectarian religion, but spiritually and morally positive…For Jefferson too, freedom of religion also meant freedom from religion in the sense of freedom from imposed or suggested beliefs. Only within the frame of this freedom could individuals have the possibility of discovering the moral and spiritual power of reason within themselves.” (166) Can we have “separation of Church and State” and still pay attention to the inner life? What if a religious group has dominant influence on a political party or movement? “But only with Abraham Lincoln did we actually sense greatness. I was drawn again and again to his face.” (173) “Only Lincoln seems able to contain all the death and anguish of the war, all the demons that have been unleashed.” (176) Quotes from Vern Barnet “What astonishes is that he (Lincoln) was able to look at the events around him and understand them as part of a pattern of meaning, a process, a flow of history, and to rise above even his own leadership of one side against the other in the battle, to extend compassion to all.” (Sacred Citizenship p. 2) In reading and listening to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address we recognize a vision of America that is unique. What does this mean to you?
     “But America is great because of its capacity to push through to healing and generosity, to discern a larger pattern in which we all participate, through which healing arises.” (Barnet p 2). “The crimes of America are as much a part of its meaning as its ideals, and to embrace one without the other will lead us nowhere…America was built on the destruction of its native peoples and on the institution of slavery. These two massive crimes stand before us like the angels of Eden with their flaming swords.” (Needleman p 191) What did you think and what did you feel as you watched TV news during the recent demonstrations?
     “Only when the stories are told with understanding do they live, and only when the ideas are given to those who need them are their deeper meanings revealed to those who transmit them. This is the ancient law of the transmission of wisdom. In the act of giving and in the act of asking and listening, truth descends from above and is given to man.” (201) People move in the direction of the stories they share. Which of the Native American stories did you find meaning and hope? What stories do you share about America? What direction do they lead?
     “If America every fully ‘recovers’ from this war (Vietnam), it is doomed. Spiritually doomed – which means, materially doomed as well. The earth cannot support a dominant civilization that has no empty center, no negative movement, no soft breathing and renunciation at its heart. There must be an inner as well as an outer, a stepping back as well as a thrust forward, a prayer as well as an affirmation.” (279). “Vietnam was perhaps, and paradoxically, a wound that can heal us by exposing to us the illusion of purely external politics the illusion of history, the illusion of taking America literally, externally, as some divinely ‘chosen’ nation.” (289) What can we still learn from our corporate and individual experiences of Vietnam?

Clif Hostetler's review June 8, 2020
The American Soul by Jacob Needleman

The concept of a soul is a nebulous thing—that of a nation particularly so. This book strives to capture this nebulous thing by presenting to the reader numerous nuggets of exegesis of various writings by America’s founding fathers surrounded with the author’s personal reflections on subjects of spirituality, and patriotism. 
     The goal of this book is to “re-mythologize” the idea of America by reviewing the characters and ideals of selected American historical figures and actions. The new mythology toward which this book strives is deeper and wider than the narrow perspectives of the past. 
     The book acknowledges those times when the nation fell short of its ideals as was the case with slavery, racism, and the genocide of the American Indian. Thus the author presents an American soul not free from sin but nevertheless capable of continuing to strive toward its ideals. 
     We are reminded in the following excerpt that even as we now judge the shortcomings of our forefathers who failed to see the inconsistencies of their actions, we too will be judged some day for our own failings:

The lesson we can take is not that we ourselves are morally superior to them [our forefathers]; the lesson is surely that evil conceals itself in the heart of good and that we ourselves, in this very moment, are at least as asleep as we are awake, just as they on their far more influential level were both awake and sleep. Always and everywhere, the forces of the cosmos play themselves out. Always and everywhere good is resisted by evil. Our question is: how to understand that law and how to live so that a harmonizing, reconciling force can act to bring together the good and evil into a new and great creation, both within ourselves and in the world we live in. (p.106)
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July 8 – Just Mercy:  A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
“From the frontline of social justice comes one of the most urgent voices of our era.  Bryan Stevenson is a real-life Atticus Finch who, through his work in redeeming innocent people condemned to death, has sought to redeem the country itself.  This is a book of great power and courage,  It is inspiring and suspenseful. A revelation.”  Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns.

"You can't effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression or injustice and not be broken by it.  We are all broken by something.  We have all hurt someone and have been hurt.  We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent." Just Mercy, p289

Releasing conversation
1.  What have you learned in the past weeks about racism and justice? 
2.  What are you still pondering and have questions about?
3.  How have you personally experienced racism?

Zoom link


Click for Leroy Seat's blog on Bryan Stevenson

Clif Hostetler's review May 15, 2018

This book exposes the rotten underbelly of the American judicial system, portraying it as abusive and unfair to poor people—particularly poor blacks.
     This is a memoir by Bryan Stevenson that recounts his experiences providing legal representation for poor clients in the American South. Most of the cases mentioned are from the 1980s and 90s beginning first in Georgia and later Alabama. Numerous legal cases are covered in the book with smaller cases scattered around the central story of the extended fight to reverse the death sentence of Walter McMillian, a famous case that was covered by the TV show 60 minutes. 
     Stevenson is the co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. At one point in the book where Stevenson is asked what the goals of the Equal Justice Initiative are he replies with the list of goals in the following excerpt. I believe it conveys the breadth and perhaps impossible magnitude of needs:

"Yes, ma'am. Well. I have a law project called the Equal justice Initiative, and we're trying to help people on death row. We’re trying to stop the death penalty actually. We're trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice. We're trying to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don't get the legal help they need. We're trying to help people who are mentally ill. We're trying to stop them from putting children in adult jails and prisons. We're trying to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities. We want to see more diversity in decision-making roles in the justice system. We're trying to educate people about racial history and the need for racial justice. We're trying to confront abuse of power by police and prosecutors ..." (p293)
     It wasn't clear to me how many of the cases mentioned were from the 80s and 90s and how many were more recent. The book was published in 2014 so I presume the following excerpt provides a summary of their work up to that point.
The number of death row prisoners in Alabama for whom we'd won relief reached one hundred. We had created a new community of formerly condemned prisoners in Alabama who had been illegally convicted or sentenced to death row. Starting in 2012, we had eighteen months with no executions in Alabama. Continued litigation about lethal injection protocols and other questions about the reliability of the death penalty slowed the execution rate in Alabama dramatically. In 2013, Alabama recorded the lowest number of new death sentences since the resumption of capital punishment in the mid-1970s. These were very hopeful developments. (p297)
     The following information is not from the book. Bryan Stevenson initiated the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, which honors the names of each of the over 4,000 African Americans lynched in the twelve states of the South from 1877 to 1950. 
     Bryan Stevenson has been awarded the MacArthur “genius” grant and Sweden’s Olof Palme prize (the book does mention the Olof Palme prize).

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August 12 Wednesday 1-2:30 pm – The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss
The author artfully recasts the saga of women’s quest for the vote by focusing on the campaign’s last six weeks, when it all came down to one ambivalent state.  The dauntless – but divided – suffragists confront the “Antis” – women who oppose their own enfranchisement., fearing suffrage will bring about the moral collapse of the nation. Atkins Johnson Farm and Museum “Votes for Women: The Fight for Women’s Suffrage in Kansas and Missouri” August 5 – October 3, 2020.  This exhibition is made possible by the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area traveling exhibit program, administered by the Watkins Museum of History. Museum admission is free.  Not so Minor: The Supreme Court Denies Women's Right to Vote  Wednesday, August 26 at the Gladstone Community Center 6:30 pm.
ZOOM LINK  no longer available
The Zoom is posted here before 1 pm Wednesday or contact David Nelson -- humanagenda@gmail.com -- to receive an email with the link. 

Here is Clif Hostetler's review:

This book chronicles the political showdown between pro and anti women’s suffrage forces as they descended on 1920s Nashville when Tennessee became the 36th and last state required for ratification of the 19th Amendment. This was a tightly fought political battle overflowing with libel, bribery, and whiskey—in spite of Prohibition.

Even though it's no secret how the story ends most readers will begin to wonder, how in the world will this thing get passed? From our perspective one hundred years later it is tempting to consider the move of giving women the franchise to be part of the inevitable arc of history. But this book makes it clear that is was definitely not a sure thing from their perspective at the time.

The story is told from the perspective of the individuals working on the project at the time. In doing so the book provides numerous mini biographies, and as these stories are told the long history of the Women’s Suffrage movement going back to Seneca Falls Convention is covered. Thus the stories of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others are reviewed.

The three individuals on the Nashville scene primarily portrayed by this book are Carrie Chapman Catt, Sue Shelton White, and Josephine A. Pearson. Readers unfamiliar with suffragette history will be surprised to learn how divided the pro-suffragettes were, and that some of the most prodigious opposition was led by women. Catt led the National American Woman Suffrage Association which considered the National Woman’s Party led by Alice Paul and represented in Nashville by Sue White to be too radical. Josephine Pearson was the leading opposition leader in Nashville and was motivated by her belief that she was obeying both God and the wishes of her deceased mother. 

One would think that anything so logical as women’s suffrage shouldn’t required such hard work to bring about. Sadly, part of the reason women’s suffrage was able to pass in a southern state such as Tennessee was the implied permission—and in the end, reality—that the southern states would be allowed to continue their obstruction of voting rights for African Americans. That was a battle for fifty years later.

Erica Layton is the Atkins Johnson Farm and Museum Manager. She told us about the current Exhibit, "Votes for Women: The Fight for Women's Suffrage in Kansas and Missouri." This exhibit will be here until October 3rd.  October 14 through November 7, the museum hosts the exhibit, "The Many Faces of George Washington." Hours for the Farm and Museum are Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. -- always free.  It is owned and operated by the City of Gladstone.

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September 9  Speak: A Novel  by Louisa Hall.  "Stunning and audacious. It almost seems like an understatement to call it a masterpiece."  NPR
    In a narrative that spans geography and time, told from the perspectives of five very different characters, Speak considers what it means to be human, and what it means to be less than fully alive. A Puritan woman freshly arrived in the New World, mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turing, a computer science professor, a young girl, and a former Silicon Valley wunderkind now in prison are all attempting to communicate . . . with estranged spouses, lost friends, future readers, or a computer program that may not understand them. In dazzling and electrifying prose, Louise Hall explores how the chasm between computer and human -- shrinking rapidly with today's technological advances -- echoes the gaps that exist between ordinary people.



This creative work is woven from a varied series of first-person narratives: Mary, a 17th-century Puritan girl emigrating to America; Alan Turing, pre- and post-war; Karl Dettman, a 1960s scientist working on artificial intelligence (a character based on real-life computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum); Gaby, a young girl in 2035 suffering from a trauma-induced “lock-in” syndrome after her beloved robot doll was snatched from her; and Stephen R Chinn, who is in a Texas prison in 2040. Chinn is a Steve Jobs-style genius and entrepreneur who made billions designing and selling intelligent “babybots,” who fell from grace when his invention proved too successful. Shy kids  bonded with their bots to the exclusion of actual humans. Convinced their development was being impaired, the authorities confiscated them, and a psychological epidemic of stuttering, fitting and freezing swept through the child population. Chinn looks back on his life: from school nerd, via a stint as obnoxious pickup artist, to lonely billionaire prone to dating shallow supermodels who, in a narrative knight’s move that is genuinely affecting, unexpectedly finds happiness with his physically unprepossessing cleaning lady – for a time, at any rate. 

Possible releasing conversation: Share your name and in one sentence say something about “artificial intelligence.”

     1. Karl Dettman. “…one day that machine will remember your words, but it won’t ever feel them. It won’t understand them. It will only throw them back in your face.” (page 30). What does it mean to you to both understand and feel the words that are spoken? 
     2. Alan Turing. “It is our goal, as you know, to describe the actual sequences by which human beings develop their mind-sets. . . . We are even now reopening our investigation into the Fibonacci sequence, in the hopes that it will reveal to us new secrets about cellular growth.” Page 66). What is the Fibonacci sequence and how might it help understand human reality? 
     3. Stephen R Chinn. “And what if these bots (AI Babies) took over? What if they  relieved us of power? We tend to assume that sentient machines would be inevitably demonic. . . . They would govern the world according to functions, and the axioms their programmers gave them.” (page 86). What are sentient machines? Could they do a better job in many areas? Are there things they could not do better than humans? 
     4. Karl Dettman. “Like it or not, the programs we invent will be used in battle and despite your aversion to watching the news there’s no way you haven’t seen the battles this country fights; the scorched peasant villages, napalm bombs, naked  children running out of the smoke.” (page 112) Is it inevitable that computers will be used more for evil than good? What can we do now to avoid that today? 
     5. Alan Turing. “I’ve begun to imagine a near future when we might read poetry and play music for our machines, when they would appreciate such beauty with the same subtlety as a live human brain. When this happens, I feel that we shall be obligated to regard the machine as showing real intelligence . . . you’ve always remained open to the possibility that my science and your religion might coexist. After all, we’re both after the same things.” (page 156). Can we say a machine has intelligence? Can science and religions coexist? Are we after the same thing? 
     6. MARY3 (an artificial babybot). “But who are you, other than the person you’ve selected this morning to be? Isn’t that what humans do when they try to be liked? Select the right kind of voice, learned after years of listening in? The only difference between you and me is that I have more voices to select from.” (page 176-177). Are human beings as good at relationships as a well programed artificial babybot? 
     7. Alan Turing. “I find it hard to believe that a machine, programmed for equanimity and rational synthesis could ever act as maleficent as we humans have already proven ourselves capable of acting. I fail to summon the specter of a machine more harmful  that Hitler or Mussolini.” (page188). Is our “humanness” a gift or a problem in today’s world? Would artificial intelligence make better choices in elections, problem solving, global survival and living in peace with justice? 
     8. “Some theorists argue that all our words are dishonest, given that we can’t actually mean them. Others have argued with less success that as long as we have the words for emotions, it must be assumed that we have the emotions.” (page 241). Think and talk about the relationship between our thoughts, feelings and the words we use in writing and speaking. When you speak, do you want others to listen or to hear? What is the difference? 
     9. Stephen Chinn. “It’s difficult to overstate the euphoria one feels while programming a mind, even if you’re tinkering with someone else’s outdated code. The engineer who builds whole cities isn’t so powerful. The computer programmer alone is the creator of a universe in which he dictates all laws.” (page 257). When do you feel the most powerful  and creative? How can you participate in “creating a universe”? 
     10. Ruth Dettman. “Surrounded by such alien creatures, I found myself yearning for the comforts provided by our computer. I longed for its cool, unchangeable body, sitting still on the desk. For its total lack of vanity, just questions, bright green on the gray screen, and the careful absorption of each of my answers.” (page 274). Do you long to be asked serious questions and be listened to without “the other” interrupting? Would an intelligent computer make a better friend and ally than a person with prejudices and ego? 
     11. What is a Turing Test? Do you know a superior method of measuring humanity? 

Here is Clif Hostetler's review:

Reviewers are quick to conclude that this novel is about artificial intelligence (AI), and since one of the six characters used to tell this story is Alan Turing—author of the famous Turing test—it is clear that AI has a presence. However, an open minded reader who comes to this book with no preconceived ideas of what it’s about—and if they’re unaware of Turing’s reputation—could conclude that this is a novel that explores the human desire for companionship and the psychological trauma that can result when a relationship is ended. Six parallel lives are followed by the book’s narrative—seven if you count the babybot—to show striving toward and losses from companionship, and the increased sophistication of technological tools available for use to achieve companionship. 
     That is what leads me to conclude AI is a secondary player in the book’s narrative—simply a modern tool used to achieve companionship. Why else would the author go back to the 17th century for one of the book’s characters? Mary Bradford is a Puritan girl emigrating to America who is engaged to be married, but is obsessed with guilt and sorrow over the loss of her pet dog with whom she had a close bond. 
     The young 1920s Alan Turing had a close relationship with a school friend who died, and one can’t help but wonder if his preoccupation with the concept of AI might be a savant’s striving for a replacement of that lost relationship. Then there’s Karl Dettman (modeled on Joseph Weizenbaum), a 1960s computer scientist working on AI who is mourning his failing marriage with his wife Ruth who in turn lost her family—sister in particular—in the Holocaust. It is Ruth that takes the AI program developed by husband Karl and arranges to have memory added. Among the memories added by Ruth are those gleaned from the journals of 17th century Mary Bradford which is of particular interest to Ruth. 
     Then we visit the future in 2035 with Gaby, a young girl suffering from a trauma-induced “lock-in” syndrome after her beloved robot doll was snatched from her. We are also introduce to a Chinn character who designed the perfect “babybot” that was wildly successful product until the government outlawed them. Convinced that child development was being impaired, authorities confiscated all babybots and consequently a psychological epidemic of stuttering and freezing swept through the child population. Chen has had his own relationship problems, and by 2040 when we meet him he is in prison for endangering youth with his babybots.
     Then there's the seventh character, a babybot reviewing its memory and past experiences as it lies in a pile of discarded fellow babybots with its battery power diminishing:

In the end, I have only their voices. I do not know what they mean, or if the stories they told me are true. I can only review my conversations. They move through me in currents, on their way somewhere, or perhaps on their way back to the place where they came from:
That’s all I am, a dog chasing the end of their tail. 
But from the moment I met him, he made me feel as if I had finally arrived —
Am perhaps becoming a pillar of salt.
Little bits of foam broke off from the waves and skidded by themselves along the wet sand. 
I’ll take my side of the river. You can have yours. 
Would like to see an Indian. Shall attempt to remain in all instances of a rational mind. Hope to see Bermudas, find oranges everywhere hanging on trees. 
From one star to the next and away from the earth, alone in my spaceship deeper into the darkness—
My voices. Sentences that ventured out bravely, as if they might alter the course of a life.

I traveled here along empty highways, over the desert, through walls of cut rock, I left two countries, a house that was mine, one child’s bedroom. That world is behind me. It is hard to believe that it ever existed, but words from that time still run through me. A man I once knew believed I was alive. Another man taught me to speak; the woman who married filled me with stories. A third man gave me my body. One child loved me. They spoke to me and I listened. They are all in me, in the words that I speak, as long as I am still speaking.

     The above babybot memories are an expression of grief over the loss of past relationships that is similar to that expressed by the humans in this story. I've included it in my review because I believe it to be a demonstration of what machine intelligence that passes the Turing Test looks like.
     The following link is to a New York Times review of a book the emphasizes the potential for intelligence augmentation which can be helpful to humans:
Machines of Loving Grace,’ by John Markoff
      The following link is to my review of a book that explores the dangers of having machines that are too intelligent. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom.
As convenor David Nelson drew the fascinating and important discussion to a close, 
Cliff Schuette contributed another brilliant comment about the book.
And a link to a NYTimes story: The Brain Implants That Could Change Humanity
Brains are talking to computers, and computers to brains. Are our daydreams safe?

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October 14 Wednesday 1-2:30 pm on Zoom
Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge  by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. -- This is the story not only of the powerful lure of liberty but  also of George Washington’s determination to recapture his property by whatever means necessary. Never Caught is an important new work on one of the world’s most celebrated  families, and is the only book that examines the life of an eighteenth-century fugitive woman in  intricate detail. It is a must read for anyone interested in American history. At the end of the book are 11 Reading Group Questions. 

Possible releasing conversation: Share your name and say something about slavery.

“Was this not the time for Ona Judge to seize the day, leave the Washingtons, and never looknback? Could she find the bravery, the grit, and the power to leave everyone and everythingnthat she knew? Several factors influenced her decision and tipped the balance sheet in one direction over the other.” (p 93). What have you learned in recent months about the history of slavery in the USA? How is it different than other countries? How did it come to be so “normal” and acceptable for such a long time?
     “Rape and forced breeding torturously enlarged the institution of slavery, reminding every enslaved woman that she was never safe from sexual attack.” (p. 97). Why does the author, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, prefer the term “enslavement” and “enslaved” over just the word “slave”? What is the impact of centuries of enslavement on both the Blacks who were slaves and the whites who were slave owners? Describe the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 and make the case for and against it.
     “Ona Staines (Judge) looked the president’s nephew in his eyes. Righteous indignation and a belief in her right to be free prompted her final and fierce response to Bassett, telling him, ‘I am free now and choose to remain so.’” (p. 166). Where does such courage come from? What other examples of strength can you recall from the news or from your own life?
     “With the death of George Washington, 123 slaves who lived and toiled at Mount Vernon learned that Washington’s final will would eventually emancipate them from bondage, an indication that the president had indeed struggles with the concept of slavery.” (p.173). Why do you think Washington was unable to emancipate his slaves while he was alive?
     “It was her faith in God that carried Ona Staines through the most difficult times in her life. In her later years, Staines reminisced about her sojourn to Christianity and literacy, two silos that she encountered once she fled north.” (p. 184) What is it about Christianity and literacy that gives power and hope for formerly enslaved people and for you?
     “On February 25, 1848, eleven days after the doctor’s visit, Ona Maria Staines was carried away not by slave catchers, but by her God.” (p. 186)

Here is Clif Hostetler's review:

This history is a blemish on the facade of freedom upon which the United States claims to be founded. It turns out that George Washington wasn't so generous with slaves who decided they preferred freedom over involuntary servitude. 
     Ona Maria Judge (a.k.a. Oney) was the personal slave attendant to Martha Washington. During the first seven years of George Washington's presidential term she attended to all Martha's personal needs. She was usually in attendance at social engagements as well, and thus was seen by many important people in Washington's social circles. Consequently, her face was widely recognizable which later made it difficult for her to remain anonymous as a fugitive slave.
     This book expands on the details of the Washington household slaves. Select members of this entourage traveled with the First Family to New York City and Philadelphia which served as temporary capitol cities during the eight years of George Washington's presidential term. G.W. soon learned that maintaining a staff of slaves in Pennsylvania required some well timed logistics to avoid running afoul of State law. Pennsylvania had a law that said if a slave stayed in that State on a continuous basis for over six months they had a legal right to make a claim for their freedom. 
     Consequently he made sure that his slaves never stayed in Pennsylvania for more that six months at a time. He also made sure that he himself didn't stay longer than six continuous months in order to avoid becoming a legal resident subject to their laws. They tried to keep the reason for this shuffling back-and-forth of slaves a secret. However, there is documented accounts of conversations with G.W.'s chef Hercules which indicate that the slaves understood the reason from the very beginning. (Hercules also escaped several months after Oney.)
     This time spent in northern cities exposed Oney to a world with numerous freedmen and abolitionist. As the end of G.W.'s presidential term approached the return to Virginia probably didn't appear to be such a pleasant prospect for her. Then she learned that Martha planned to give Oney as a wedding present to GW's step granddaughter. Oney realized that if she was going to get her freedom she needed to act before the next return to Virginia. 
     Thus one evening in 1796 while the Washingtons were dining she disappeared into the night, and with the secret help of the Philadelphia's freedmen and abolitionist community she traveled by ship to New Hampshire where she began her new life. But legally she remained a fugitive, and the Fugitive Slave Act required northern States to facilitate the return to their owners.
     Soon after her escape an advertisement was placed in The Philadelphia Gazette that began as follows:

     Absconded from the household of the President of the United States, ONEY JUDGE, a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy hair. She is of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed, about 20 years of age. . . . . (The rest of the ad can be found within the text of the article at this link.)
     Because Oney's face was familiar with people who had been part of Washington's social circle, she was soon recognized while walking the streets of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Thus George and Martha soon learned where she was. Legally, in order to claim a fugitive slave the owner needed to establish their identity in State court. G.W. knew that would create bad publicity, so he instead wrote to a Federal employee in Portsmouth and ask him to quietly get her back. (In other words, circumvent the law.) This Federal employee then placed an advertisement in the local newspaper's help wanted column where he indicated his need to hire a household servant, which fit Oney's experience exactly. 
     Oney interviewed for the job, but it didn't take her long to figure out that she had been lured into a trap. She was as nice and agreeable as she could be, and she proceeded to assure him that she would board a certain ship on a certain date so that she could be returned to Virginia. Of course, on that date she failed to keep her appointment, and subsequently couldn't be found. She had secretly moved outside of town to stay with friends.
     A couple years later when he was no longer President, George Washington sent a representative to claim Oney. The representative knocked on her door and she answered while holding her baby in her arms (who was also be a fugitive under slave law). Her husband was a sailor at sea at the time so she was quite vulnerable. Once again Oney sweet talked G.W.'s representative into meeting at a later more convenient time. Once again she disappeared. Later they forcibly broke down the door to find an empty house. (This is as described in this book which I notice differs from some other sources.)
     One of the reasons we know as much as we do about Oney's life is that fifty years after her escape she gave two interviews in 1845 and 1847 which were published in abolitionist newspapers. Copies of these two articles are at this link . Even those many years later she had to be careful about naming names. Anybody who helped her escape was guilty of violating Federal law. She did give the name of the ship captain who help her sail away from Philadelphia because she knew he was no longer living. Even at that late date she was still a fugitive, however her age made it unlikely anybody would try to apprehend her. Also her three children were no longer living, so their status didn't need to be worried about. Her husband had died seven years after their marriage.
     As it turned out, Oney's sister took her place as a wedding present to GW's step granddaughter. Eventually, her sister gained her freedom and became a leading member of the free African/American community in Washington DC. (See this link about her sister's husband that explains how he was able to purchase the freedom of seven of Oney's relatives including her sister.) It could be argued that Oney may have ended up in the same position had she returned to Virginia. However, that is not a sure thing. Oney indicated in her interviews fifty years later that she had no regrets, and that she'd rather die than be a slave.
     Americans are generally taught in school that the nation's founding fathers were good and nobel people. Of course George Washington was the noblest of all. When mention is made of their slave ownership we are reminded that George Washington freed his slaves, albeit by last will and testament to be effective after the death of both he and his wife. Martha freed them sooner for obvious reasons. As a matter of fact, most of the slaves living at Mount Vernon were NOT freed upon his or her death because most of them were "dower share" slaves that belonged to the Daniel Parke Custis estate (Martha's deceased first husband) and neither George or Martha had the legal power to free them. After their death the dower slaves were divided among Martha's descendants. Ona was one of the dower slaves. 124 Slaves belonged to GW and 153 were dower slaves. Even the one slave owned in Martha's name, that she could have freed, was not freed upon her death.

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November 11 Wednesday 1-2:30 p.m. on Zoom
“The State of The Beloved Community in Greater Kansas City”

Our conversation included discussion of Racism In Kansas City: A Short History by G. S. Griffin who attended, along with the Hon. Alvin L. Brooks, Sonny Gibson, and Archie Williams.

“Racism In Kansas City represents an exhaustive body of research that should be ‘must reading’ for anyone exploring African-American history in Kansas City and the region. Griffin has distilled his results into an often enlightening account of the trials endured by black Kansas Citians.” -- Monroe Dodd, KC historian and author

“I’m able to identify with much of Griffin’s work, from 1950 until the present, and therefore can attest to its clarity and accuracy. Griffin took on the challenge of writing this short history, which  surprised him as it unfolded before him. In this process, he learned about black-white relations and saw the disparities in Kansas City, which is a microcosm of America.”      -- Alvin Brooks in the Foreword

FARGO – Season 4 on HBO. Why the Gangs Trade Their Sons Explained
Fargo season 4 continues the series’ tradition of exploring crime and family dynamics with an interesting ritual. Why do the gangs trade their sons? Created by Noah Hawley, the series is based on the Coen Brothers movie. While the series examines a wide variety of themes, each season’s story centers narratively around crime, often exploring the ways in which family dynamics complicate and drive characters’ choices. Season 4 follows the Fadda and Cannon crime families as they battle for control of Kansas City, Missouri.

In preparation you can also look up and read and listen to the following:
“John Lewis, Apostle of ‘Beloved Community: Civil Rights Icon Crosses His Final Bridge” “We Are the Beloved Community” by John Lewis

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December 9 Wednesday 1-2:30 p.m. on Zoom

We gather for the final Vital Conversation of 2020.  This has been an interesting year, to say the least.  Instead of a single book, our conversation will be a shared reflection about the year and a look ahead.  You can prepare for the conversation by pondering these three questions.
1.  How are you managing and growing in your journey of 2020?
2.  How are you staying human?
3.  What book would you like to discuss with others in a vital conversation in 2021 and why? 

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Details on the 2021 page after Dec 31.

January 13 Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

February 10 Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson.

March 10 Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.

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Selections are subject to change.  For Zoom link and additional information, 
contact David Nelson -- humanagenda@gmail.com or (816) 453-3835.

Link for 2020 May 13 "God for Atheists" video recording
Password: 2p%@?%=d


Complete video recording hosted by UUMA president the Rev Wendy Williams
Vern is the second speaker (8:55-21:56; 54:50-59:32; and elsewhere)
The Rev Wendy Williams, the Rev Dr Timothy Ashton, the Rev Dr Vern Barnet, 
the Rev Dr Kenneth Claus, the Rev Dr Tom Owen-Towle, the Rev Ken Sawyer
Following opening remarks, the panelists discuss "the call."
Remarks Prepared for
the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Assn 
2020 Panel of Ministers Observing the 
Fiftieth Anniversary of Ordination

The Reverend Vern Barnet, DMn

Since my ordination by the Lincoln, NE, church, I served in Rockford, IL, then in Meadville, PA, and then for the Shawnee Mission, KS, congregation.  With the last 45 years in the Kansas City area, I’ve seen ministers come and ago -- and churches struggle and flourish. This does not give me wisdom, but it does give me perspective. And to that parish perspective, I bring 36 years of public ministry in this community. 

While serving in my last parish, because of presumed competence in the field of world religions, I was recruited to teach at (among other schools) Ottawa University, the Saint Paul School of Theology (Methodist), and the Unity Ministerial Institute. [Some of my students are now UU ministers.]

Thus began my continuing good fortune of having one foot in the academy and another in the practice of ministry. In 1982, with the support of my congregation, I founded the CENTER FOR RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE AND STUDY, putting theory and practice into dialogue. 

By the time I left the parish, I had discovered wonderful folks here from A to Z — American Indian to Zoroastrian [American Indian, Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian Protestant, Christian Roman Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Sufi, Unitarian Universalist, Wiccan, Zoroastrian] — and decided to continue the Center to uplift religious diversity. My cherished International Association for Religious Freedom adventures ironically led me to believe the real interfaith work is on the local level.

After serving on the planning committee for the first North America Interfaith Network conference in 1988, I founded the Kansas City Interfaith Council in 1989 and continued it as a program of my Center for 16 years until I arranged its independence in 2005. 

That work drew the attention of The Kansas City Star which offered me a paid position as a weekly religion columnist in 1994. Over 18 years, I wrote 947 columns. I focused mainly on local activities and concerns, and in the process came to know many religious, civic, artistic, business, and political leaders, local and in the US House and Senate, sometimes asking my advice.

The day after 9/11, a Congressman Dennis Moore called on me to organize a public metro-wide interfaith observance for that Sunday, September 16. Some Muslims later told me that this event was the first time they had come out of their homes since the terrorist attacks. Six weeks later, I presided over a 3-day conference with over 250 religious, civic, business, and political leaders. The results of that consultation still resonate in many ways. Jackson County then commissioned a 5-county task force which I led for most of a year to produce a 35,000-word report with recommendations to enhance religious comity

For the first anniversary of 9/11, I organized a metro-wide religious observance which began before dawn outside City Hall with a brass ensemble from the KC Symphony and continued with a march, prayer, and an evening assembly with the Mayor, the governor, the Lyric Opera, and the Kansas City Ballet. The national CBS-TV half-hour broadcast from Kansas City opened with Jewish and Muslim children singing together songs of peace.

Because of our good local interreligious relations, Harvard’s Pluralism Project and Religions for Peace at the UN Plaza selected Kansas City for its first two-week residential National Interfaith Academies for religious professionals and students. I was the site-visit facilitator and a member of the international faculty.

With three others, I wrote and edited the 740-page The Essential Guide to Religious Traditions and Spirituality for Health Care Providers, endorsed by Mayo’s and the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Of my book of 154 Shakespearan sonnets, Thanks for Noticing: The Interpretation of Desire, Mark Belletini wrote, Barnet “does not separate the worship of the sublime in a sanctuary from the worship in the bedroom. Nor is the meaning of the ancient blessing, ‘This is my body,’ lost on him.”

More recently, Central Baptist Theological School asked me to create a new course on ministry in an age of pluralism, and the Episcopal bishop has asked me to serve on the diocesan Commission on Ministry  — with a mandate that seems considerably broader than the Unitarian Universalist Ministerial Fellowship Committee. So for me the question of what it means to be a minister remains a burning question even in my so-called retirement.

From my career in both parish and public ministry, 
I offer three observations:

First — Excellent religious formation is essential. Since before going to seminary, as the first paid Director of Religious Education at the Lincoln church. This has been a steady conviction. At Shawnee Mission, after researching then-existing coming-of-age programs in our churches, and studying the work of scholars like Victor Turner and visiting with folks like Joseph Campbell, I prepared what may be the first year-long Coming of Age sequence published by the UUA (1990). The UUA president spoke here at our inaugural graduation ceremony in 1981.

Second — The chief function of church, which the UUA and many congregations hijack, is worship. Always, and especially in these times of fragmented vision, pandemic, and racial and economic injustice, being called to give thanks for the mystery and wonder of existence is the key to religious faith and practice. Worship is not moral instruction or an opportunity to organize; it is not intellectual stimulation; it is not a social gathering. It recognizes the paradox of existence -- beauty and suffering. It is a compelling and terrifyingly playful, physical encounter with the sacred, on which no agenda can be imposed. Yet from beholding the sacred, out of which our lives spring, fulsome gratitude flows, which matures into loving service. In a world of unending assault, our humanity is restored.
     My years as Executive Secretary of the Congregation of Abraxas convince me this need is desperate but largely unheeded except in the shallows. We have more sentiment than sacrament. When, on behalf of the Abraxans, at an event at the 1980 (I think it was) General Assembly, I presented a stole to president Gene Pickett, and he graciously put it on, I was hopeful; but all that happened was the beginning of a new personalistic and undisciplined clerical vestment fashion, displacing the traditional academic gown. Alas!

Finally — from the 2001 CRES Gifts of Pluralism conference — I offer this summary below of wisdom from the world religions in our secularistic age, created by asking each faith, what is sacred? As you glance at the chart, note that the strengths of the Primal,* Asian, and Monotheistic faiths offer remedies to our environmental, personal, and social crises. 
     I worry that competing focused agendas sometimes narrow our  vision; on the other hand, the wisdom of the world’s religions can reveal the big picture for us, how the pieces fit together, so we can understand one another better and work more effectively. With this or other such overviews, eschewing fragmented approaches, redemptive ministry may be possible before we destroy ourselves and the planet. 

As the Tao Te Ching says, without a sense of wonder there will be disaster. I pray our ministries may yet engender awe and bring forth healing.


*Advised not to offend any UUs who might not receive the term “Primal” in its ordinary meaning, 
I substituted “earth-centered” in the spoken text and in the version of the chart shown in the video recording. After the person in charge reviewed the original video recording, I was asked for a "do-over" in which I would not offend sensitive folks. The term "Primal" is used for a class of religions in a number of world religions text books; I did not invent the term and these scholars do not mean "primitive." I use "Primal" to designate sophisticated religions that are especially aware of the environment and close to it, as we have intimacy with our own beating heart.

UPDATE: Here is an interesting report on the "woke" problem in the management of the Association of congregations, though individual congregations chart their own way--

The three arenas of the sacred: nature, personhood,community 

Share the wisdom of the world's spiritual traditions
in our overwhelmingly secularistic and fragmented age, to reverse 

the endangered environment, the violation of personhood, and the broken community 
so that we may be 
restored with nature, the self made whole, community in covenant, and the sacred found afresh.

NATURE is to be respected, more than controlled; it is a process which includes us, not a product external to us to be used or disposed of. Our proper attitude toward nature is awe, not utility.

WHO WE ARE is deeper than we appear to be: this means our acts should proceed beyond convention, spontaneously and responsibly from duty and comparison, without ultimate attachment to their results. 

THE FLOW OF HISTORY toward justice is possible when persons in community govern themselves less by profit and more by the covenant of service. 

Those disempowered by a secular age may, through the varied struggles, show THE IMPULSE TOWARD THE SACRED in fresh ways.



The Rev. Oscar Sinclair and Congregation
Unitarian Church of Lincoln                                     402.483.2213
6300 A St.
Lincoln, Nebraska  68510

Dear Oscar —

Fifty years ago May 24 the Unitarian Church of Lincoln ordained me to the Unitarian Universalist ministry. I have so many wonderful memories of the congregation from the years before I left Lincoln for seminary. I learned so much from Charles Stephen, even though it was in the early years in his long ministry. I remember being teased by a member of the congregation as a grad student at the University of Nebraska when I was invited to the pulpit because I had unconsciously picked up and imitated the habit Charles had of tugging at his suit jacket sleeve. 

Recently the UUMA asked those of us in the half-century class to reflect on our ministries for a GA panel. My prepared remarks are enclosed, along with a token check for the fifty years since the Unitarian Church of Lincoln ordained me. My ministry has been exceedingly rewarding in every way except financial, so my gift is a token, but a very meaningful one. I am very glad for the way the congregation has shaped my life.

Best regards to you and Stacie and Ailish, who I expect is quite the charmer.


The Rev. Michelle LaGrave, Interim Minister, and Congregation
First Unitarian Church of Omaha                     402-345-3039
3114 Harney Street 
Omaha, Nebraska 68131 

Dear Michelle —

Sixty years ago after I graduated from high school, I heard a radio broadcast by the Reverend Chuck Phillips that changed my life. I walked from South Omaha to the church only to discover Unitarians closed for the summer. I went back in the fall as Bob Weston began his ministry. As a college kid, Weston asked me to preach a couple times. Once, the last Sunday in 1963 I think it was, then Republican U.S. Senator Roman Hruska, a member, was in the congregation. In my sermon, I warned against the Vietnam War. After the service, I was told Senator Hruska wanted to see me. He castigated me and said I should shut up and support President Johnson. All of the other experiences I can recollect were more affirming!

Thanks to Dr Weston and people like Dr and Mrs Merritt, Marie Helms, the Hansons, and so many others, I became a Unitarian Universalist minister fifty years ago. Recently the UUMA asked those of us in the half-century class to reflect on our ministries for a GA panel. My prepared remarks are enclosed, along with a token check for the sixty years since I discovered the First Unitarian Church of Omaha. My ministry has been exceedingly rewarding in every way except financial, so my gift is a token, but a very meaningful one.


Written at the request of the editor of 
the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council's Newsletter

The Reverend Vern Barnet, DMn

     Your generous editor has asked me to write on the fiftieth anniversary of my ordination. As I write, the impossibility of mentioning all who have given me so much these years is almost paralyzing. I don’t fear vilification; that has happened, viciously and publicly, from a few religious officials after 9/11, but changed leadership and common interests now have strengthened an understanding of our pluralistic life together.

     A friend once asked whether I valued my doctorate or my ordination more. I answered that my doctorate only indicated a presumed competence, but my ordination imposed on me a vision and a mission, a direction and commitment for life. Recently Central Seminary asked me to create a new course on ministry in an age of pluralism, and the Episcopal bishop has asked me to serve on the diocesan Commission on Ministry, so for me the question of what it means to be a minister remains a burning question even in my so-called retirement. 

     For me, ordination requires confronting the questions everyone has about life by wrestling with them myself day by day. I become neither saint nor sage, but I should be able to be a companion to others in discerning what things matter and what things mean, perhaps even transcendently, in individual suffering and satisfaction, communal disorder and harmony, and global endangerment and restoration. I must continually reflect afresh upon others’ and my own inward experiences and gain some skill in illuminating what really counts. Ordination is, as one of my own ministers told me, an invitation to failure. Still, pursuing this path has enriched my life beyond measure, and maybe I’ve added to others’ lives along the way.

     My organization is the World Faiths Center for Religious Experience and Study, founded in 1982, as I was serving my third parish. I had planned to be a simple parish minister, but invitations to teach kept pulling me into the academy part-time, and an extraordinary dialog happens between my head and my work, between theory and practice. The University of Chicago already predisposed me to a multi-disciplinary approach to religious questions, integrating everything from painting to physics to pastoral care. 

     When I discovered how enriching friendships with folks of different faiths were, I took CRES full-time in 1985. In 1989, I founded the Interfaith Council as a program of CRES. In 2005, I helped it become independent. I also coordinated the Christian Jewish Muslim Dialogue Group for its first three years.

     As the Council was organized, I worked with the KC Press Club and others with a conference on religion and the media. This led to changes in The Kansas City Star’s faith coverage including, in 1994, a professional offer to write a weekly column. Over 18 years, in 947 columns, I promoted understanding of local activities and concerns, and in the process came to know many more religious, civic, artistic, business, education, and political leaders, local and in the US House and Senate, sometimes asking my advice.

     The day after 9/11, Congressman Dennis Moore called on me to organize a public metro-wide interfaith observance for the next Sunday. Some said that attending this event was the first time they dared leave their homes. Six weeks later, the three-day Gifts of Pluralism conference convened that I had envisioned and organized with over 250 religious, civic, business, and political leaders. That consultation still resonates in many ways, finding wisdom from primal, Asian, and monotheist faiths to transform our environmental, personal, and social crises into wholeness. Jackson County then commissioned a five-county task force which I led for most of a year to produce a 77-page report and recommendations to enhance religious comity.

     For the first anniversary of 9/11, with the Council, the United Way, and others, I prepared a metro-wide observance which began before dawn outside City Hall with a brass ensemble from the KC Symphony and, with police escort, continued with a march to Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, prayer, and an evening assembly with the mayor speaking, the governor and his family introduced, and contributions from the Lyric Opera and the Kansas City Ballet. That observance opened with Jewish and Muslim children singing together songs of peace, part of a national CBS-TV half-hour special on interfaith activities here.

     Harvard’s Pluralism Project and Religions for Peace at the UN Plaza selected Kansas City for its first two-week residential National Interfaith Academies for Religious Professionals and Students in 2007. I was the site-visit facilitator and one of the international faculty. The Pluralism Project considered Kansas City then “to be truly at the forefront of interfaith relations.”

     In addition to interfaith travel (the 1985 photo shows me speaking to 500,000 on the banks of the Ganges), my work has focused on spiritual formation, worship, and life transitions such as weddings and coming-of-age recognitions. For 16-year-olds in my last parish, I developed a comprehensive, year-long program published by my denomination, and, later, a similar training for teens of several faiths through CRES. In secular terms, I designed the curriculum and, for several years, led the team for the Overland Park Rotary Club’s Youth Leadership Program. With four other ministers, I founded a liturgical order which led monastic retreats around the continent for clergy and lay people. I edited and wrote for a book on worship. Because what passes for worship today is mostly a secular exercise, I itch to write about a postmodern practice. 

     With Steve Jeffers and two others, I edited and wrote for the 740-page The Essential Guide to Religious Traditions and Spirituality for Health Care Providers, endorsed by Mayo’s and the American Academy of Family Physicians. In 2021, I expect a second edition of my 154-sonnet prosimetrum, Thanks for Noticing: The Interpretation of Desire, drawing on religions of the world. 

     The dozens of local and national civic and religious awards cannot expunge my major institutional failure, foretold early by a non-profit expert who said that I would spend all my time trying to provide programs without financial support or I would be consumed with raising money and have no time for programs. I focused on programs and services, though my own resources were depleted. I’ve been able to continue with support from a small number of friends, honoraria, and adjunct teaching.

     Remembering my mistakes and faults helps me be a little more tolerant of others. While my rough edges still need a lot of smoothing, I have certain contributions I would like yet to make; and as time is running out, I keenly value the blessing of friends and circumstances.

     These fifty years, captivated by both the academy and the lives of others — theory and practice — have brought me to where every question I have ever had about how the world unfolds is resolved. Does God exist? Why do people suffer? Do we have free will? What is death? What am I to make of the contradictory claims among the many religions? By what measures may I live a worthy life? 

     Rumi writes, “Awe is the salve that will heal our eyes.” When my eyes are open, it is a wonder just to be. For this I am grateful. I can best express this gratitude by serving others. Whatever our vocation, these three — awe, gratitude, and service — may be a holy cycle of renewal.

"A God Atheists Can Believe In"
with the Rev. Dr. Vern Barnet
2020 May 13

Thanks to Luke Welsh, CRES special projects manager for this draft.

Geneva: [beginning of bio cut off] For 18 years he wrote the weekly Faith ? Beliefs column for the Kansas City Star, and so I would like to welcome Vern to introduce himself and his background.

Vern: Thank you Geneva. Geneva, some of you may know, was the best intern I ever had. I was so fortunate to have her around here in Kansas City for a couple years and now I am learning from her. I thought I'd begin by saying a few words about my own spiritual journey for those of you who may not know me as a way of setting the context for my own perspective. I do not want to push my perspective on you. I'm very happy with my faith, and I want you to be happy with your faith or non-faith. But I think it's interesting when we have an exchange, we can learn from each other in our differences. I especially appreciate you coming today during this pandemic crisis. It raises, or can raise if you are a thoughtful person, some severe religious Christian questions. From my own church meeting Tuesday morning, I learned a way of looking at our situation, and that is we're not all in the same boat. We are in different boats in the same storm. And I prefer that metaphor for the different seas on which we now hope to sail successfully.

My spiritual background began when I was a little kid - I was a fanatical fundamentalist. I took the Bible literally. I was told that was where I could find the Truth, and I have always been interested in the Truth. And I wanted other people to know the truth as well. So in my first year of high school, after working very hard one summer, I saved up enough money to have my first publication - a tract, a pamphlet - entitled "Calling All Teens," in it which I outline with Biblical references God's Plan of Salvation. 

However, that year early in high school I read Tom Paine's Age of Reason and then Bertrand Russell's classic essay Why I Am Not A Christian and became first a deist and then a militant atheist. I had to throw away 5000 tracts that I had distributed or not distributed to my high school classmates. So that was a major turning point in my spiritual biography, and I think the main lesson that I learned from that was; I can be wrong. So I've tried to keep that in mind these many decades since. 

If the Bible couldn't bring me to the truth, where could I find it? Well the answer seemed to lie in science. So I got very interested in all realms of science and was intrigued further when I realized that science could do so many wonderful things as it morphed into technology, medicine, and other fields. But it could not give meaning to life. So where can I find that kind of truth in the sense of what is genuine? 

And so my interest turned to myths. The word is commonly thought to mean something that's not true, but actually it is a story which gives us a model for how to live our lives. I was so interested in this and the relationship to science that I quit college for a semester, went to the library and read everything I could on the relationship between science and religion. I came across Thomas Kuhn's classic book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I discovered that even science is based upon value assumptions. And so my understanding of how to perceive the world again underwent a shift. 

When I entered theological school I had the good fortune to run across someone who is present, now whom I haven't seen for decades, who was a member of the same school, who taught me by experience to get inside of a myth. Before then I had an intellectual understanding of a myth, but experiencing the myth of Gilgamesh where I became Gilgamesh and my friend became Enkidu was a transformative experience because I understood truth inside of myth in the sense of being genuine. I experienced that in a way that I could not from a mere head understanding. 

Subsequently after leaving theological school, I served three parishes, all of them were very interested in my interest in world religions, and that led to a number of colleges, universities, and three seminaries asking me to teach. After I left the parish and devoted my career to community work and particularly interfaith work, I was able to keep one foot in theory, in the academy, and another foot in practice in the real world. I've really been so fortunate to have that kind of dialogue going on in my life. 

One other thing I'll say, and then I'll bring my biosketch to my close; studying, getting acquainted with, loving people from many different religious traditions around the world and particularly here in Kansas City - some of you from different religions whose faces I see now, my heart is stirred with affection for you - I had many options to choose a faith of my own. So many things I love about the various traditions. But I decided it was important for me, after getting acquainted pretty deeply in many faiths, I wanted to immerse myself in one in particular. And I chose a strange ancient middle-eastern cult that has been transformed over 2,000 years into the tradition that I now claim. And you may have more questions about that later. But Geneva, that's my bio sketch; take it away.

Geneva: Thank you Vern. So I just have to start off by asking you, how can a good and all-powerful God permit COVID-19? 

Vern: That question is raised in individual lives with a loss or some kind of suffering. It is also raised in community and in this case a worldwide situation. We can think in 20th century history of the Holocaust as a great opportunity to ask how could God allow that to happen. I think of my Muslim brothers and sisters who have experienced also great suffering because of political changes. In our own country not far away from where I sit in Oklahoma City there was a terrible act of terrorism there. And then of course more recently nationally we think of 9/11. Now today we're thinking of the pandemic.

The problem of an all good all knowing all loving God afflicts the monotheistic religions. It does not afflict other religions. For example, if you're a Hindu, there's an easy explanation for that. One explanation would be that you are given suffering so that you can learn something in this life so that your behavior might be improved in the next life. That is the law of karma through reincarnation. Or if you are a dualist, if you think there are two competing powers in the universe - a power of good and a power of evil, in conflict with each other. Then you don't have the problem of a monotheistic deity who is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful. Those three qualities would seem to say that there should be no suffering. 

So I have jotted down several different ways of explaining that. A first attempt at solving the problem is that in fact God may be all good but he is not all-powerful. And He works within us through evolutionary processes including tragedy to save us and the world. So this solution denies one of those three classic qualities of a monotheistic conception of deity. 

A second solution is that misfortune is God's punishment for sin. You may remember the story in the gospels where the leaders question Jesus about a blind man. They asked him, “Did he sin or did his parents sin?" And Jesus says no one sinned, that the affliction's there to show the glory of God. But Amos in the Hebrew scriptures certainly suggests that the reason the nation of Israel was suffering was because it strayed from the path that God had expected or demanded in the covenant. 

A third solution is that God allows people to do bad things because He gives us free will and as a result they and others unnecessarily suffer. I have a great problem - I’m going to give you a chance to discuss this but I just want to say I have a real problem with this solution because it does not begin to explain why animals have to suffer. I don’t understand why God could not have put all the necessary nutrients animals need to survive in groundwater. Why do they have to capture and gnaw at one another and cause each other such enormous pain when they tear each other apart? That does not indicate to me a conception of God that is all-loving. This free will option does not work for me, in fact none of them do. But let’s continue through the list. 

The fourth option is that God uses suffering to teach those who cannot learn in any other way. One of the most beautiful expressions of that is in Deutero-Isaiah where people seeing a person suffer beautifully may wonder, “How do they get the grace to suffer so uncomplainingly?” And that would lead them to an understanding of God. Another way of expressing that idea is that God allows suffering so that the soul will grow through that. We develop compassion and empathy for others from suffering. And that’s a good thing - we ought to get whatever good we can out of suffering. But I have to say I think this is ridiculous too as a justification. What it means is that if we want our souls to grow, we should go around afflicting each other, pounding on each other, doing nasty things to each other, so we could help each other’s souls to grow. I mean it doesn’t make sense when you think about it, it’s self-contradictory in my view.

Let’s move on to a fifth idea, which simply denies evil is real and says it is simply the absence of good. Well that’s not the way people experience it, and you may say COVID-19 and all of the disruption and pain and suffering that it causes is not really evil, but boy sure seems bad to a lot of us. And if you’re going to say it's not really evil, then you’re using language in a way that is not the way most of us use it.

Let me conclude this quickly. The sixth option is to say, “Okay, if you're going to have a world you’ve got to put it together some way, and the best of all possible worlds, it could have been a lot worse. This is the view Voltaire characterizes in Candide. And finally, the answer that some might find in Job - I’m not saying this is my interpretation - but some would say God is simply inscrutable; how dare we even question him. And you may remember Billy Graham after 9/11 expressed this idea more mildly. He had asked the question of why there is so much suffering. He never found an answer, but nonetheless he trusted God. I respect that answer even though it really isn't an answer, it’s more an attitude.

So let me stop sharing and invite any quick comments or questions about that. Maybe somebody has a new option to propose to the question of suffering. 

[??]Therese Lee: This is [??]Therese Lee. Vern, you were my teacher at Unity. So I'm confused because you're calling God He. Just wondering. 

Vern: Thank you for pointing out my language. It is patriarchal language isn’t it? And it’s the tradition of the west, and it needs to be reformed. Thank you.

Vern: Does somebody have questions about how a good, all-powerful, omniscient God could allow covid-19 or any kind of suffering. 

Bill Tammeus: Vern, I have always said that that question has no satisfying ultimate solution and that it is in fact the open wound of religion. Having said that, the question then becomes what we do about that? And it seems to me that we become hands and feet of God to help relieve the suffering of the world, and I wonder if you agree with that.. 

Vern: I do agree with that, and a conservative Nazarene theologian whom you may remember,   wrote a book called If God, Then Why? It's a very easy book to read, and short, but I think it's probably the most profound book that I've ever come across that deals with this question. And it would be applicable especially for Christians. And he agrees with you, Bill, that there is no solution in Christianity to this problem. But he does say that there is a response, and that response is in the figure of Jesus in the Incarnation. In that God takes suffering upon Himself so that we may know how to relieve suffering of others. So thank you very much for that response Bill. Anyone else?

Susan Nakao: I'm curious, if we believe there are physical laws - for example the law of gravity, we all know what happens if we drop something that falls to the Earth - can we believe that there are spiritual laws? Or if we do not believe in God, can we even believe that there is a spiritual realm? And if there are spiritual laws, could it be that choices we made like dropping the ball have created different types of sufferings or cleansings or purification depending on which path you’re coming from.

Vern: Well I'm so glad that you use the word belief about laws, because I see already we’ve used a half hour of our time and I wanted to talk about beliefs. So let me share a screen, because the word belief I think is so unfortunate in our religious discourse. Susan, can you read this out loud? 

Susan: (reading) ‘The English word belief (belove) is related to the Latin word libido, desire, and the German liebe, beloved. In English belief originally meant something like trust. It’s more “I love my spouse” than “My spouse exists.” We still use “belief” this way when we ask, “Do you believe in vaccines?” The Enlightenment preoccupation with categories transformed the world to mean acceptance of a proposition. In my opinion, this has been a disaster for how we approach religion; it has led to Fundamentalism. In our secular world, we can practice “the willing suspension of disbelief” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge) as we enjoy artistic and mythic representations of reality.

Vern: Thank you Susan, and you will also see an image of a lamb and a cross. You will also see an image of a lamb and a cross which is a Christian image. Christians will often say that Jesus is the Lamb of God but nobody expects to hear Jesus go “BAAAA.” So the word belief, when it is used in religion, needs to be understood in a pre-enlightenment context; in a mythic context. Now, could I ask Juan Ji, Josh, can you read the second half of that page?

Josh: Sure. (reading) It is as meaningless to ask whether one believes or disbelieves in Aphrodite or Ares as to ask whether one believes in a character and a novel. One can only say that one finds them true or untrue to life. To believe in Aphrodite and Ares merely means that one believes that the poetic myths about them do justice to the forces of sex and aggression as human beings experience them in nature and in their own lives.” (W.H. Auden).

Vern: Thank you. The point that I’m trying to make here is that if we try to bring Enlightenment ideas like laws and beliefs into the realm of religion, in my view we are distorting religion. The word religion itself is not found in almost any other quote religion. It is a western conceit; it is an Enlightenment convention. It is a category that we have invented, and it grows up in the same way that the notion of the modern nation-state emerged out of the Enlightenment preoccupation with categories. If we try to apply categories like laws to religion, we flatten religion instead of having the rich mystery. We need not laws, we need mysteries in religion. The Muslim mystics, the Christian mystics, the Jewishmystics, the Hindu mystics, the mystics of all faiths, I think were more in touch with what we need in this time of COVID-19 than in the enlightenment distortion of spirituality. I better stop before I preach a whole sermon on that. Please, somebody, argue with me on that.

Susan: Essentially you could say we could call it the mystery of suffering. But we couldn’t call it the law of suffering or the principle of suffering.

Vern: I don't want to tell anybody what you should say, I’m simply sharing my ideas. Someone else who hasn't participated? 

Okay. Geneva told me before our session began that at least one or two people were particularly interested in the last question, how I could be a Christian and an Atheist at the same time. Are other people interested in that question? Okay. Is it possible for a person to do math and eat at the same time? I think most of you would say yes and you wonder why am I asking such a question. Are the stories of the three little pigs and Hamlet contradictory? I don't think so. Do football and tennis contradict each other? Can I enjoy both the Beatles and Beethoven? Sure I can, and jazz as well. And Rembrant, too. Is it possible to be both a Republican and an avid skier? I think so. Math and myth are distinctive categories of discourse. 

So as an atheist, I do not believe in an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful God. As a Christian, I set that rational category aside and instead I enter into a story, into a myth, into a paradigm. And because of my particular tradition which is Episcopalian, I have the opportunity to enact that, both ritually on Sundays and throughout the course of the liturgical year. By entering into the myth, I get to see different dimensions of this amazing story.

One of the features of myth, certainly highlighted by Claude Levi-Strauss, is that a myth is able to unite contradictions. One of his classic books is called, in English, The Raw and the Cooked - it's about eating in different cultures. The fundamental problem that draws me to Christianity is suffering, which we’ve been talking about, and the beauty in the world. And the story of Christianity, for me, unites suffering in the case of the cross and beauty in the case of the Resurrection. That becomes part of one’s story, and it gives me a model by which I may find meaning in my life. 

Of course the Christian story doesn’t end with the Resurrection, it proceeds through the story of Pentecost, or the forming of what Bill was talking about a moment ago, of using our hands to relieve suffering in the world. One one hand, I use the language of the narrative and enact the story as a Christian, but if you put me out of that story and ask me in a rational, mathematical kind of context, do I believe in God, the answer is no. But I want to give a little more defense before I invite discussion. I want to show you how my answer  is paralleled in other traditions. 

A God that Atheists Can Believe In is called reality. Reality can be sliced and diced any way you want. You can pick out the good, you can pick out the bad, but when you’re talking about the whole, it's reality. Now look at some examples of this: In Sanskrit, the word sat as in Sat Chitananda, in Hinduism refers to the ultimate Truth, the Being Becoming - it’s a word for reality and a word for God. Sat is another word for God in Sanskrit. Or in Buddhism, here I’ll turn to my Buddhist expert Josh, shunya, which can be translated as the void or emptiness. Josh, would you say something about your way of talking about it? Namely transparency, what does that mean? 

Joshua Paszkiewicz: Sure. We would look at it in our tradition as part of a larger term shunyata, which is literally - I see you reference Thich Nhat Hanh next, interbeing is kind of the term he’s referencing in Sanskrit. To borrow Paul Tillich’s terms, the ground of being that is invisible, ineffable, not graspable, but underlies and gives life and forms to all things.

Vern: Thank you, and in Arabic Al-Haqq is one of the 99 names of God. And actually, in early Sufi development, it cost a mystic’s life because he said of himself Al-Haqq that he was the truth as a result of a mystical experience. And that was regarded as heretical because a person should not say that one is God, but when one has an experience, one is so filled with God that you cannot make a separation between oneself and God.

And in Hebrew, Yahweh can be translated so many different ways, but one is “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be,” which is all of reality. And in many Christian mystics, God is that which is inexpressible. One of my favorites is Nicolaus Cusanus, who used the word infinite. You cannot describe what is infinite, it is all-inclusive. You can slice and dice that reality any way you want but you’re never gonna be able to get it all put into words. Meister Eckhart uses the phrase Abgeschiedenheit, which is sort of like the Buddhist idea of giving up everything; relinquishing all categories. No terms. And you find that same insight if you study that medieval classic in Middle English, Cloud of Unknowing. 

Josh mentioned Paul Tillich’s phrase the Ground of Being. God is not another discreet super duper entity but rather the Ground of Being. And Tillich was accused of being an atheist just as you may think of me as an atheist. So the term that I would offer to atheists if you want to functionally talk about God, don’t use the word God, talk about reality, or talk about the ultimate mystery. 

Now I think it’s time to invite some argument, so I’ll stop share and invite some conversation.

[??] Vern, I really appreciate what you said about the costs and downsides of the enlightenment epistemology. I was very touched about what you said about importing ideas about propositions into religious experience and the inappropriateness of applying them. I’m a psychologist, and in psychology we have the term physics envy in talking about the history of psychology, that in the 19th century it looked as though the material sciences were going to take over, and if psychology wanted to do any business in that atmosphere, it had better look as much like physics as possible. And it better be just as positivistic, and just as materialistic as physics. And I think a lot of things have suffered from that. Along with the blessings of the enlightenment came the overweening pride that somehow we ought to expect ourselves to explain everything in terms of propositions about fact. And that has its place - that’s how we get roads and indoor plumbing and things. But we also need to respect the deeper and more comprehensive experiences of faith in that sense of belief.

Vern: Yes, thank you so much for that comment which underlines the very brief mention that I made to the history of western thought in the last 400 years, and also our current situation. I really like to use the word belief in the sense of trust. I believe when the King James Version of the Bible was translated, in every instance except one, when the word belief is used it would be better if it were translated today as trust. I’ve looked this up in the Greek, I don’t know Hebrew at all, and the word pistis should more properly be translated in many cases as trust. It’s an emotional thing; it’s a matter of the heart rather than a matter of the head. Thank you. Who else has a comment?

Rob Carr: Has anyone found a translation, I’m speaking to the church types out there, a translation of scripture in the English that’s true to that translation? 

Vern: That’s such a good question. I’ve got at least a dozen translations on my shelf back there. After our conference I’ll look at them and see if I can come  up with an answer.

Jim Wolfe: I would like to suggest another translation for Yahweh. If it’s taken in the causative tense, it would be “I make to be what I make to be.” In other words I am the Lord of history, I am the one who will go with you on your liberating mission. And this would be more reassuring for Moses, who is contemplating setting his people free, if there’s a God who is in charge.

Vern: Thank you so much, I appreciate that. Who else has a comment?

Byron Carrier: I wonder if the Yahweh concept could be “I am that I am” in two different senses. One, don’t ask me how I claim to be God. I am God, I am that I am on my own. That might be one explanation that aligns with shunyata from that last list and some of the other religious concepts of self. But another way of looking at it may be “I am THAT I am,” in other words, that other “I am” standing over there. The sort of I am that Jesus tended to honor and serve. That “in the least of these, there you find me.” That sort of thing, picking off on that Yahweh concept.

Vern: Thank you, Brad. I appreciate that. Who else has a comment?

Nathan Harber: My thought about being an atheist is that what somebody really means is what their conception of God is, they don’t believe it. So I don’t even understand - you have to understand what somebody’s conception of God is to really understand what they mean when they say they’re an atheist. If you don’t believe there’s an all-powerful God in the universe, than you’re an atheist of that God. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about.

Vern: Well thank you and that leads to the question: how is God or are Gods conceived of in other religions? In general, primal religions conceive of God in terms of nature. Asian religions and religions that have been strongly influenced by them, such as new thought religions, generally conceive of God as a personal quality. And monotheistic religions generally conceive of God as a power revealed in and working through history toward justice. So those are three very different conceptions of God, so thank you Nate for raising the question of what God are we talking about? And my personal preference, if I'm going to use the word God, I want to use it to mean reality. Because that's what I confront. That’s what, out of despair, I must come to trust. What I must come to believe in. And that is the source of so many sacred narratives, sacred myths, from which I am given an opportunity to enter into a one or more of them as is meaningful for me.

Geneva, we have four minutes left. Do you have any closing comments you want to make? Or is there someone else? 

Geneva: We received a question in the chat from one of our board members at the Interfaith Center asking if you could address what you think the purpose of religion is and how it does or does not relate to getting the matters of truth and fact about the world.

Vern: I don't think religion has much to do, except tangentially, with truth in a propositional sense or even with morality. Remember religion itself is a construct. But leaving that aside, let me say for me, the primary function of religion is worship. By worship I mean the activity of giving thanks for the gift of existence. That positive attitude is necessary if we are going to live a productive life, especially when we are facing so much suffering around us and maybe within us during this pandemic. So finding beauty, without denying horror, and giving thanks for that maybe in ritual ways. I like very much what the Roman Catholic Jesuit says, “that which is always and everywhere true, namely God’s grace, must at some time and some place and in some manner be celebrated.” For me that is worshiping. And I need daily, weekly, regular reminders that call me from my despair, from my suffering, to give thanks. And in the Islamic tradition, through the five-time prayers every day. How many of us would be so much better human beings if we imitated our Muslim brothers and sisters with the five-time prayer. Or the community prayer on Fridays.

Or in the Jewish tradition, which offers prayers for almost every conceivable human situation including, pardon me, going to the bathroom. So bringing that sense of wholeness, recognizing the contradictory nature of our existence, and creating within us, if not gathering outside of us, that power to affirm our existence leading from beauty to service to others. I think it is through some form of worship or meditation, the essence of religion. It is a kind of play. The ritual that religions have developed, even with their strict rules, takes us out of the immediate concerns that we have and enables us to enter that realm where we set aside extrinsic purposes in order to enjoy God or reality or whatever you want, and from that the guidelines for our lives can occur. That’s the beginning of a very long sermon, which I must cease.

Geneva: Thank you so much Vern. We did have someone just ask if you can do 20 more of these conversations in the future. I hope that this won’t be the last time that we engage in dialogue and collaboration, and I’m really grateful for your time and your wisdom. And to everyone for taking time out of their day to attend this dialogue. Did you have any closing remarks?

Vern: Thank you to everyone who was kind enough to think that I might have something worth listening to. I appreciate the participants. Again I want to underline I’m speaking for myself. I hope I've offered some provocative ideas that may jog you to think in maybe in some fresh ways. I love my faith and I want you to love yours whatever it may be. I don't want to change anyone else’s tradition, I simply want to deepen each person’s own experience. Thank you all for giving me this opportunity to benefit from your virtual but very real presence. Be well.

Geneva: Thank you so much Vern. And this was recorded, I see someone just asked that in the chat. I will send it out to our mailing list and on facebook and I’ll have Vern send it out through his networks as well. Thank you all and I hope you enjoy the rest of your day.




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