Sausage, polkas and damned heretics

pierogis and sausage

I grew up in a Cleveland neighborhood known as Slavic Village. Immigrants from diverse parts of Europe moved to the city and formed their own communities. Each had its own churches and bakeries and restaurants and taverns.

The Italians lived in Murray Hill. The Germans were on the west side. Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Croatian, Hispanic – each had their own neighborhoods.

The various immigrant groups had much in common. Their languages were often similar. They dressed alike – babushkas were universal. They ate similar foods – each had their own kinds of sausages, and many loved pierogies. They danced to polkas and other ethnic music that sounded so similar.

They had another thing in common: disdain for the other groups. They brought long-standing prejudices with them from the old country.

Growing up in this immigrant culture, I learned that each group had slurs and characterizations for the other groups. Italians were mobsters. Polish people were stupid. The Irish were drunks. Germans were this, Russians were that.

This group was shiftless and lazy. That group was untrustworthy and dangerous – they’ll fleece you or hurt you, so stay away from them.

They shared a collective disdain for Jewish people and black people. Catholics had slurs for those “damned heretic” Protestants, and Protestants had their own slurs. I remember being caught off-guard the first time a Protestant referred to me as a “cod snapper.”

Jews and black people? They needed to keep in their place. And women, too.

They’re not like us

Of course, the immigrants knew that members of their own ethnic/religious group were dishonest or lazy, but those people were viewed as individual failures rather than a reflection on the entire group. They were the exception.

However, when someone from a different group did something wrong, it confirmed their prejudice against that other group.

See! What did I tell you? Those (fill in the blank) are all that way!

They favored an open immigration policy, of course, but they thought there should be fewer of those people coming into the country because, well, they’ll make the whole country go to hell.

For me, it was eye-opening. As a second generation of an immigrant family, I didn’t have those long-standing mistrusts wired into me. In fact, it all seemed so silly. Bizarre, even. To me, these people were far more alike than different.

While each ethnic group was proud of its distinctive foods, my generation liked culinary diversity and enjoyed trying other cultures’ dishes. To us, it was all food — and delicious food at that!

Same with the music. There are different types of polkas, and different ethnic groups thought their music style was better than others. We enjoyed different types of polkas – and Motown and the Beatles, too, which didn’t go over well with some of our grandparents.

To us, it was all music.

As the immigrants died off, their cultures began to blend and mix in succeeding generations. The stark boundaries they drew between themselves and others softened.

But boundary-drawing hasn’t gone away.

We’ve seen a resurgence. I guess prejudice and hatred merely find new forms, new lines to draw in each new generation.

We hear people saying Hispanics are all dangerous gang members and drug dealers who must be kept out of our society — after all, you know how those people are, they’re not like us.

We saw the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, encouraged by some of our nation’s political and social leaders. Jewish people and black people remain prime targets for old hatreds.

It’s all the same

There’s talk about how gay people are this, Muslims are that. Millennials are selfish and undependable, women can’t be trusted to lead or make decisions about their lives. People from other religious upbringings are great sinners to be avoided and shunned.

People like us mustn’t have any dealings with them, you know.

I heard those things so often in my youth, and I hear them again today. And my reaction is the same: Why can’t we see how crazy this all is? Why do we consider our diversity as a threat rather than an opportunity?

We don’t have to eat only one kind of sausage. We don’t have to dance to only one style of polka. We don’t have to speak only one language. We don’t have to stay in the bubble of our own upbringing.

We’re all God’s children. Our diversity is a precious gift. We can enjoy one another, learn from one another, share each other’s traditions and ways.

We can enjoy kielbasa or mettwurst or a vegan sausage. We can dance to polkas or rock ‘n’ roll or rap.

It’s all food. It’s all music. We’re all people.

Rachel Held Evans and overturned tables

Rachel Held Evans2

If you’re unfamiliar with Rachel Held Evans, you might wonder why there’s been such an outpouring over her death last week.

Rachel wrote beautifully, powerfully and vulnerably about her faith and her struggle to live it. Through her blogs and her books, she became a leading figure in the evangelical world and the progressive Christianity movement.

She caused quite a kerfuffle within evangelical circles. Essentially, Rachel went into the temple of her faith and overturned the tables – not to make a mess, but to create a space for the Spirit to return, reform and renew.

That’s what all prophets and reformers do – create space for something needed and new.

She loved her religious tradition and wouldn’t stay silent as others perverted it into a system of exclusion, marginalization and us-versus-them animosity. She spoke with kindness, wittiness and a wisdom that grew from her openness to ask important questions and seek truer answers.

‘This is my voice’

Many readers found an oasis in her words. Many evangelical leaders bristled not only at her words, but at the fact they were coming from one of their own who had the audacity to focus on things they preferred to hide or blithely explain away.

Also, they had a problem with truth presented from a woman’s perspective.

“I often hear from evangelical leaders, ‘Oh we’re really eager to have more female leaders,’” Rachel said. “I want to say, ‘This is my voice. This is what it sounds like.’”

She explored the fault lines in the Americanized version of Christianity: sexism, racism, patriarchy, nationalism, abortion, sexual abuse, how we treat our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Also, she openly explored her own biases and shortcomings.

What seemed to bother some religious leaders the most was that Rachel did it with an authority that they themselves lacked. Her authority derived from her willingness to first look inside herself and see what needed to be overturned there before trying to help others do the same.

She spoke with the authority of someone who had tasted what it’s like to be on the wrong side of us-versus-them religiosity. In her compassionate words, they heard God’s voice.

She spent most of her adult years trying to give people who are marginalized by religion a place to come and know the One who is at the heart of all true religion.

That’s why there’s been such an outpouring. Rachel made a difference.

May we continue Rachel’s work and share in her courage to overturn tables, especially the ones inside our churches, our religions, our nations and our own hearts.

Safe, loving spaces


And, like her, may we continue building true communities of faith. Places where people can come together and openly explore the big questions of life. Places where they feel safe and welcomed in a world where that’s not always so. Places where they are reminded how much they are loved just as they are.

Places like the one Rachel described in her book “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church” about her own faith journey:

“I told them we’re tired of the culture wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power. Millennials want to be known by what we’re for, I said, not just what we’re against. We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith.

“Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff — biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice — but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask.”

A drink from a different cup

Cup of poison

Next to me sat a minister wearing a collar. In front of me were two men wearing yarmulkes. On the other side of the mosque were women in various head coverings. A nun sat among them.

Everyone in the mosque was in stocking feet, seated on folding chairs or simply reclining on the carpeted floor.

An organizer invited everyone to share the name of their place of worship. Dozens of churches, mosques, synagogues and temples were represented at this gathering prompted by the massacre at mosques in New Zealand this month.

We were reminded that religion – the real deal – is about standing up for peace, compassion and healing. It’s about choosing love over hatred in our individual and collective interactions each day.

The man who killed Muslims in New Zealand is the latest example of what happens when we drink from the cup of hatred. Important parts of us die off. A man whose compassion, decency, and sense of humanity were killed by this poison committed a great evil.

Poison that divides

The various hate-filled men who have violated sacred spaces – an historic black church in Charleston, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, mosques in New Zealand, and many others — all drank the same poison that is readily available these days:

The poison that exalts nationalism and supremacy and privilege.

The poison that advocates war and weapons as solutions.

The poison that stokes fear of anyone who is different.

The poison that builds walls against those who have a different skin color, different religion, different ethnic origin, different nationality, different sexuality, different political viewpoint.

The poison that aims to divide God’s children and turn one against another.

The struggle against hatred has gone on as long as humans have been around, and it will continue after each of us is gone from the planet. But this is our time – our moment — to offer an antidote to the poison in its various forms today.

I’ve been inspired by the many interfaith gatherings in the last couple weeks. People joined hands in offering the world a healing dose of love, compassion and peace -– the shared values of all actual religion.

They renewed their commitment to transform poisoned hearts and divided communities with a love that is undeterred and undiminished.

They offered the world a drink from a different cup.

They prayed for the victims and the perpetrators while recognizing that their thoughts and prayers were only a starting point. Words are never a finish line. Action must follow.

At the gathering I attended, we were reminded that this action must start inside each of us. We need to guard our own hearts against the poison. It’s easy for words of hatred to seep inside and influence us.

Offering an antidote

Next, we have to challenge our leaders – those who have outsize influence — to denounce these acts as expressions of evil. But the denunciations can’t end there; all leaders must emphatically and fully reject the ideologies that produce these acts.

Acts of hatred don’t come out of the blue. They’re shaped by the poisonous words in our world. Any leader who contributes to the poison or who refuses to condemn hateful ideologies is aiding and abetting and promoting the inevitable results.

Finally, we must respond in some way to the poisonous words we encounter in our daily interactions. We mustn’t allow them to pass without offering alternate words – a reminder that everyone is an equally beloved and beautiful child of God and must be treated as such.

It’s not about enforcing political correctness; it’s about offering an antidote to counteract the poison.

As the imam prayed on behalf of everyone in the mosque that day: May we work together so that goodwill dominates, love prevails, and hope spreads through our communities.

There will always be hatred in the world. We’re obligated to make sure there’s always more love.

We offer a drink from a different cup.

Here and there and everywhere …


My editor asked if I was free to attend a media availability promoting a good cause. The featured speaker would be available for interviews beforehand.

“Would you like to interview Dr. Seuss?” the editor said.

Wait, what? Dr. Seuss? Are you kidding me? Yes!!!!

Theodor Geisel has been an integral part of my life since I learned to read. “Green Eggs and Ham” was one of the first books assigned in my school. I remember standing and reading passages aloud in class. I loved the rhyming verses and silly drawings.

That Sam-I-Am took me by the hand and led me into a new world.

So, I was excited to meet Geisel. And nervous. I mean, what do you ask Dr. Seuss? Where you do even begin?

I arrived early at the hotel ballroom for the event, hoping to get some one-on-one time. I spied Geisel standing in a corner of the room talking to someone.

I was star-struck.

I hesitantly walked over, introduced myself and shook his hand. I was immediately struck anew by his shyness. I’d read that he was rather private by nature. I could tell he was uncomfortable with attention.

I blurted something about how it was a thrill to meet him and how “Green Eggs and Ham” was my first book and … well, I babbled too long and shook his hand entirely too eagerly.

I’m guessing it was the trazillionth time that he’d heard the same thing. His response was gracious and grateful, which I found charming.

And that’s pretty much all I remember about meeting Dr. Seuss.  The rest of the session was unremarkable, which is itself a remarkable thing.

You couldn’t tell from Geisel’s demeanor that he was anyone important. You got no glimpse of whatever amazing Jing Tinglers and Flu Floopers and Who Hoovers and Gar Ginkers were darting through his brain.

Just another person — that’s Who he was.

Herding a cat into a hat

In retrospect, it wasn’t surprising. Writers are most comfortable sitting solitary at a keyboard, trying to lasso a few of the slippery ideas racing through their brains and confine them to words. It’s a harrowing process that’s often futile, much like herding a cat into a hat.

The process ends when the writer wearies of the wrestling and shares their unsatisfying sentences as a personal-and-imperfect gift to the rest of the world.

It’s never really about the writer; it’s more about their gift.

Dr. Seuss’ gift taught me more than just an appreciation for words well-used. He also taught life lessons off that plate of green eggs and ham.

Sam-I-Am warned me against pushing away what seems different and unfamiliar – I need to get beyond the surface. He taught me about the danger of judging anything or anyone based upon color or size or shape or anything else.

The overriding message I gleaned: Don’t live in a bubble. Don’t shrink life down to some small theological, political, cultural or personal set of assumptions.

Life is so much bigger and more amazing than our prejudices.

Instead, take the chance of really getting to know something – or someone – who seems different in some superficial way. Acquaint ourselves with our wonderful diversity and be open to adjusting our worldview with each new experience.

Oh, and one more thing: Don’t be indifferent.

A whole awful lot

Geisel died in 1991 – today, March 2 is his birthday – but that important message gets passed to each generation that turns the pages afresh. As one line from “The Lorax” puts it: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

When we open our eyes and our hearts to see people and things in a different way – that’s when change big and small happens within us and all around us.

It can happen on a boat, with a goat. In a box, with a fox. In the rain, on a train. It can happen here and there and everywhere.

And it will happen, so long as you and I care, a whole awful lot.

The power of our words

mlk spotlight

Martin Luther King, Jr., understood the power of words.

He spoke so beautifully and prophetically about his dream of a world in which everyone is treated as an equally beloved child of God. He challenged society to live up to its founding words of equality, liberty and justice for all.

His enduring words reengage us, reorient us and reenergize us in the daily struggle to decide our values and live up to them.

Words matter because they always take on flesh in some form.

Words have the power to inspire us, touch us, and transform us for better or worse, depending upon which words we choose to allow inside of us. They can bring us more peace, love and justice, or they can increase our levels of division, fear and hatred.

In the last few months, we’ve been reminded how easy it is to get sucked into the pool of hateful words.

A man immersed in racist words shot people in a Kentucky grocery store. A man immersed in fearful words sent bombs to people labeled as threats. A man immersed in anti-Semitic words killed people in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Words can inject poison into our veins, or they can be a healing antidote. They can bring illuminating hope, or they can appeal to our darkest instincts.

Words have power

MLK showed us how to change societies in nonviolent ways using nonviolent language. He reminded us that love involves recognizing each person as a child of God and respecting their human dignity, even if they don’t do the same for us.

We can’t return a slur or insult with one of our own. We can’t demean anyone or support those who demean others.

Our aim is never to harm any person, but to challenge their way of thinking and to defend those whom they are hurting. We must disagree and resist without being hateful.

This weekend is a fitting time to remember three important things about words:

First, it’s so very tempting to respond to incendiary, angry words with incendiary and angry language of our own. But when we do that, we’re giving power to the hateful words. We can’t go down that path.

Second, we can harm people with our silence as well as our words. Refusing to stand up against injustice – swallowing our words in the face of something that’s wrong – makes us complicit in the injustice.

Last, we must hold not only ourselves but also our leaders accountable for their words.

Silence can harm too

Religious, political and social leaders all have a “bully pulpit.” Their words are amplified throughout our society and will either elevate it or debase it. Leaders shape attitudes and inspire actions with their spoken and typed words.

When anyone in a leadership role uses language that marginalizes, demonizes or demeans, we must push back strongly, withhold our support, and hold them accountable.

This weekend reminds us how words can lead us forward or hold us back. They can promote goodness or spread darkness. They can inspire a dream or encourage destruction.

The enduring challenge is to choose our words carefully, speak them prophetically and live them courageously.

On the square: Lives written with the same words

Market Square

Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh was vibrant on the autumn afternoon that Gloria and I visited. Folks got a cup of coffee or a sandwich from one of the surrounding shops, sat at a table and enjoyed the company of strangers on a delightful day.

Some read books. Some listened to music. Some talked. One couple chased their young boy around. People made eye contact and smiled. Everyone was in their own space yet sharing this space.

I couldn’t help but wonder about each person’s story.

For instance, there was an older couple sitting nearby, holding hands and sharing one cigarette. How did they meet? What tough times have they overcome? What is it about each other that makes them smile?

Oh, and why only one cigarette?

Each one’s story

On the other side of the square, a couple doted on their young boy, encouraging him to run and watch the pigeons fly away. Will this moment become a fond memory for all of them? How many times have they been to the square already, enjoying the miracle of watching a child grow step by step?

Soon, a group of high school boys walked briskly through the square on their way home. Two boys in front were teasing one of the others. A boy in the back of the pack hung back a few steps and looked unhappy. Had he been teased? Does he get teased often for being different? Did he have that teenage feeling of wondering if you’ll ever fit in?

From the other direction came a student from the nearby college. She walked briskly and appeared troubled. Was she away from home for the first time and feeling homesick? Missing someone who had always been there for her? Wondering how she was going to get through the semester?

A family of Middle Eastern descent found an open table. They spoke in their native language. How have they been treated lately in their adopted country? What do they tell the children about our times? Do they live in fear?

A young man set up shop on a corner of the square, offering to draw portraits for $10. He was an extrovert, happily welcoming anyone who walked by. How did he learn to draw? Who are the most unforgettable people he’s met in this place?

As I looked around, I wondered how many of the people on the square had overcome cancer or some horrific health problem. Which ones were grieving the recent loss of a loved one. Which ones just got good news – a clear scan result, a promotion, a pregnancy test that came back positive – that had them feeling more alive than ever.

Each of us was in our own little world and also sharing our world with everyone else. Places like Market Square reminds us of our innate connectedness.

The same words

We give into our tendency to fixate on superficial differences, and we create opposing categories — young or old, male or female, gay or straight, single or married, black or white, Democrat or Republican, this religion or that one, this sports team or another one, and on and on. We draw many lines between ourselves and others.

As we do so, we overlook how we’re so much alike at our core. We’re all made from the same ingredients. We’re all doing our best to try to navigate through life at any given moment, in our own unique and yet universal way.

Our stories differ in their details but not in their genre. All our stories fit on the same shelf marked “human,” tucked snugly next to each other, cover to cover. When we listen to others’ stories, we’re reminded of our similar experiences and familiar feelings.

In swapping stories, we recognize that our lives are written with the same words.

As the shadows grew longer in the late-afternoon sun, the older couple got up – still holding hands – and walked away, taking turns sharing drags off that one cigarette.

They were walking each other home. Like all of us.

A headlight and a voice


In the ‘60s, I attended a church that had very little to say about my world. I heard sermons about heaven, but hardly a word from the pulpit about what was happening on Earth.

And a lot was happening.

The Civil Rights Movement was forcing us to have a challenging conversation about equality. So was the women’s rights movement. With cities shrouded in fog and a river catching fire, the environmental movement questioned what we’re doing to God’s creation.

The “sexual revolution” asked whether intimacy is about more than propagating the species. The Vietnam war raised so many troubling questions about the use of power and military might.

With church so hesitant to wade into the subjects of the day, my generation began drifting away and looking for other places that were engaged in discussions about how we treat one another and our planet.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was challenging church to get its act together, get engaged and stop ignoring what was happening right outside its doors.

King told his congregation at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery that “any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.” And the people in the pews who knew oppression first-hand said amen.

Dry-as-dust religion

As the Civil Rights Movement grew and many white churches either ignored or encouraged the deep injustices in our society, King challenged them directly. He lamented that the church was so often a “weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.”

“But the judgment of God is upon the Church as never before,” he wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. “If today’s Church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th Century.

“Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the Church has turned into outright disgust.”

He was prophetic. Millions of people – especially young people – have turned away in disgust at what they’ve seen and heard in organized religion. And who can blame them?

I’m disgusted by much of what’s going on, too. Sexual predators protected and applauded. Women marginalized. Racism ignored and encouraged. Gay and transgender people condemned. People of other faiths attacked. Mulligans granted for unacceptable conduct in exchange for political favor.

But I also know from experience that so many people today yearn for real faith communities — and they do exist.

People want places where they can gather and be transformed by God-filled words about loving each other, healing the broken, caring for the poor and the stranger, and nurturing creation.

They want places where they can raise important questions without being dismissed as lacking faith. They want places where people help one another heal by entering each other’s pain and guiding them through it, not just reciting a prayer for them.

They want places that speak to their world and get engaged in those many important conversations that started in the ‘50s and ‘60s and continue today.

MLK mentioned how “so often, the Church in our struggle has been a tail light rather than a headlight. The Church has so often been an echo rather than a voice.”

Hope and possibility

Many people want faith communities that are prophetic rather than merely partisan. They want a voice reminding everyone that we are all equally beloved children of God and must be treated that way in all respects.

And especially now, people want places that remind them of the reasons for hope.

Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo movement, says, “Christianity is, really, when you take away all the pomp and circumstance, it’s about hope and possibility.”

People need to be shown hope and possibility. They need to be reminded that God always gets the last word, even now. It’s always been that way.

Pharaoh thought he could enslave the Jewish people forever. He was wrong. God had other ideas.

Caesar and his religious minions thought they could kill Jesus, bury his spirit and end his kingdom-of-God-on-earth movement. They were wrong. God had other ideas.

A white man thought he could fire a shot toward a balcony of the Lorraine Motel and kill Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, end his movement and erase his words. He was wrong. God had other ideas.

The political, social and religious leaders of our day who promote division, supremacy and discrimination think they have the power to prevail. They’re wrong, too.

God has other ideas.

So, let’s go work together with God on those other ideas. Let’s be a headlight that shows people a different way. Let’s be a voice that leads people in a different direction.