Seventieth Birthday Month Reflections, Part 2: Finding My Voice

Messiah College senior picture

When I was editor of the student newspaper, Ivy Rustles, during my senior year at Messiah College (1967-68), I wrote 15 editorials, using my platform to write about small and large campus controversies, philosophical and religious quandaries, seasonal reflections, interpersonal relationships, and more. At the time, I had no inkling that I would become a writer and editor for most of my professional life. Rereading the editorials 50 years later, however, I’m struck by how they foreshadowed some of the themes that have shown up repeatedly in my later writings and in the publications I’ve edited.

Last week, a current Messiah College student asked me what my vision was for the newspaper. Her question was perfectly legitimate, but it caught me off-guard. I can’t remember ever thinking of needing to have a “vision” when I became editor. I had served on the newspaper staff during my sophomore and junior years, and it seemed like a natural progression to become editor-in-chief. My main goals were to continue the same kind of coverage as others before me had done and to meet publication deadlines (in other words, I didn’t want to mess things up!). I simply don’t remember having any overarching grand vision, and I can’t help wondering: did anyone then have formal vision statements, or is the idea of having a vision for what you want to do a more recent phenomenon?

I started the year calling for “intelligent participation” from readers, which I defined as thoroughly reading each issue, constructive criticism, and direct participation (by writing for the paper). The closest I came to articulating a vision was in the concluding sentence: “In this way, Ivy Rustles can more closely reach its aim of being a successful college paper, and thereby an important avenue of communication.” A couple months later, I responded to some of the “constructive criticism” the newspaper must have received and lamented that a lack of adequate funding prevented us from doing more to address the critiques. I went on: “Neither the administration and the faculty nor the students seem to be clear on exactly what Ivy Rustles is supposed to do. . . . Is it a campus news sheet, a printed Wittenburg Door for all the campus grievances, a propaganda sheet for the editor’s views, or . . . something else?” So, even though I don’t remember ever formally stating my vision for the newspaper, I clearly wondered about its purpose and role on campus.

Several editorials were about interpersonal relationships: the importance of communication, listening to each other, and being a friend. My editorial about “listening to people creatively” seems almost prescient, given the current environment: “We should listen openly so as not to make rash, and consequently false, judgments. . . . Perhaps if we heard things correctly in the first place, we could more easily discern the motivations, evidence, [and] reasons behind the statements.” Creative listening, I said then, would be characterized by “learn[ing] to understand people as they really are rather than as we have previously ‘heard’ them to be.” The concepts I was advocating then are echoed in themes in Shalom! over the years: language and how we communicate, creating safe space for dialogue on difficult issues, relating to people who are not like us, let peace begin with me, and bridging the divide. Or these blog posts: “speaking truth with words that give grace,”“truth matters,”“a modest proposal for truth,” and “when people differ.”

I also foreshadowed some of my activist bent when I addressed campus controversies, such as what kind of music was being played in the dining hall (classical or the Tijuana Brass), the potential hypocrisy of prayer at basketball games (when the opening prayer for good sportsmanship would be followed by loud/rude criticisms of referee calls), and the apparently difficult relationship at times between faculty and students. I called for a New Year’s resolution to “put actions to our words: to do instead of merely to say.” My fellow senior English majors and I co-signed an editorial proposing a senior English seminar rather than the comprehensive exams we had to take.

Then there were the more philosophical reflections. I pondered the meaning and relevance of the “social gospel” and “secular Christianity” versus the more “traditional Christianity” of personal faith and evangelism. I’m sure this editorial was a product of my own intense spiritual quandaries that year. I wasn’t ready then to make a choice, but rather called for some kind of middle road: “We can retreat to our ‘spiritual fireside’ and our comfortable stock of religious cliches; we can forsake it [all] and become converts of secular Christianity; or we can find a median between the two which satisfies us personally and socially.” I still reject either-or solutions to choices like this.

In an editorial entitled “The Dilemma of the Liberal Arts,” I questioned whether the liberal arts and commitment to Christian faith could co-exist: “If we narrow our definition of liberal arts then how can we legitimately say that we are a liberal arts college and leave the illusion that we are completely open to anything, which we are not? On the other hand, if we broaden our perspective of Christianity, will we not lose the basic reason for the college’s existence in the first place?” I concluded: “I believe that much of the future of Messiah College depends on the seeming disparity which we presently have between liberal arts and Christianity. I further believe that there is a way in which the two can live in harmony. We need to find out how.”

Ivy Rustles, March 21, 1968

It is significant that this editorial appeared in an expanded issue that covered the college administration’s extremely controversial decision not to renew the contract of a favorite young professor who was in his first year of teaching at the college. I also wrote the lead front-page article in that issue, “Contract Non-Renewal Subject for Campus Controversy.” As objectively as I could, I laid out the sequence of events and the source of the controversy. Inside, the paper also published the college president’s letter to the professor explaining the decision as well as excerpts of the professor’s response to the Board of Trustees.

Looking back on what I remember as a seminal event in my college career when I personally sided with the professor rather than with the college, I am impressed that I was able in both my lead article and the editorial to maintain at least some journalistic objectivity. I didn’t use my editorial platform to express my own opinion (that the professor’s contract should have been renewed), but instead to explore what seemed to me to be one of the basic questions at the heart of the controversy: how committed to the liberal arts can a Christian college be? It seems to me this is still an interesting and legitimate question, albeit one that Messiah College has tried to answer with integrity in the intervening years.

Who could have predicted that the editorial skills and perspectives I honed as a senior in college would find their way into a 40-year body of work where I have explored ideas, mediated between various points of view, expressed deeply-held convictions, provided others with a forum to express their ideas and tell their stories, and advocated for peace and justice? I certainly couldn’t have predicted where I would end up, but it’s satisfying to see that as a very young and generally naive college student, I was well on my way to finding my voice.

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Adventures in Advocacy

In January, I wrote about my “existential crisis,” and mused about several things causing that crisis, including the tension between choosing to speak out on public policy matters and choosing to “go about the ordinary routines of my life, committed even more to being kind and compassionate.” It’s a choice between two different kinds of advocacy: speaking truth to power and asking the powerful to act in ways that help rather than hurt people who are the most vulnerable, or acting in more personal and direct ways. In some ways, the more personal acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity are easier, more satisfying, and might produce quicker results, but the systemic nature of injustice (racism, inequality, sexism, etc.) seems to require something different to create structural and lasting change. I believe both kinds of advocacy are needed, and that it is important to act out my beliefs both personally and publicly.

At the beginning of a presidency that I find disturbing on many levels (no news to anyone who has been reading this blog for the past year and a half), I’ve been engaging in more public advocacy than has been my custom. This past week, that took three forms: I wrote letters/emails; I visited Scott Perry, my U. S. representative, in his local office; and I attended his town hall meeting.

The office visit: Dale and I went with four other people to meet with Scott Perry. We were scheduled for 30 minutes, and ended up having about 40 minutes with him. Our main goal was to introduce ourselves and hear a little about what he considered his legislative priorities, in the hope of beginning to establish a relationship with him for future meetings on more substantive issues. Time went went by VERY quickly, the conversation was congenial and nonconfrontational, and I hope we laid the foundation for future conversations.

The town hall: When Dale and I learned that Perry had scheduled a town hall meeting, we immediately registered, and took a friend with us. To get in to the meeting, we had to show our tickets and a photo ID to make sure that only residents of his district attended. At least 400 people came, but the venue was not full, even though all the tickets were reportedly gone in three hours and there was a wait-list of about 500. Apparently some who had registered were not able or chose not to come after all (there were some weather concerns). Neither Dale nor I had ever attended a town hall before, so this was a new experience, and probably not at all like town halls in the past when 20-40 people would show up, if that many. Clearly, there is a lot more energy for these things right now!

Some observations from the office visit and the town hall:

  • We’re glad we went, and we’ll probably go again.
  • I was very conscious once again of my “minority” status in our congressional district. Only about 33 percent voted as I did in the last election; Perry was re-elected in 2016 by a 2-1 margin. Given this reality, my question is: how can I know that my concerns are represented, or do I have to simply resign myself to the fact that I “lost,” shut up, and just get over it? (Online comments on the news report on the town hall said as much.)
  • Related to the town hall specifically:
    • Perry deserves much credit for holding the town hall – apparently he’s the first Pennsylvania congressman to hold one. While he got impatient occasionally, he handled himself well. He said the right things about this being part of what a representative democracy is about, and he promised to hold future town halls. I appreciate that!
    • A lot of the attendees were members of organized groups and had met to prepare ahead of time. We were simply concerned citizens attending on our own to observe and be counted.
    • The format was different than I expected. Instead of people being invited to a microphone to ask a question, everyone was invited to submit a written question, along with a name, mailing address, and email address. Then someone read the questions, one at a time, until time ran out. It seemed like the questions were read randomly, rather than pre-selected. Perry promised that his office would respond to every question, even if it was not featured at the town hall; it will be interesting to see whether he really addresses the question I asked or responds with one of his generic answers.
    • There were four major themes in most of the questions: 1) the president’s proposed budget and the draconian cuts to important programs that help address very real needs (like Meals on Wheels, low-income energy assistance, etc.); 2) opposition to the wall and the recent immigration raids (for example, one elementary school principal noted that immigrant parents are afraid to come to school for their citizen children’s PTO meetings; 3) the president’s behavior (lies, assaults on the free press, refusal to release tax returns, possible ties with Russia, etc.); and 4) the Affordable Care Act and its proposed replacement, the American Health Care Act, which according to the Congressional Budget Office will result in millions of people losing their health insurance.
    • We did not enter into the “raucousness” of the event. There was a lot of shouting and booing and interrupting, although not as much as I expected there might be given what I had seen on TV from town halls in other parts of the country. While I may have agreed with the reasons for the boos and interruptions, I am personally not comfortable participating in that kind of behavior. I applauded when I agreed, but kept mostly silent when I disagreed (well, except for muttering under my breath or to Dale or my friend!).
    • A town hall like this one is simply not a good forum for genuine dialogue, and I doubt whether anything different will happen as a result. Probably the most important thing is that it let Perry know that the 33 percent in his district who did not vote for him (and perhaps some who did but are now upset by what’s happening) would like to be heard and represented too. It also helped me see with my own eyes that we are not alone in many of our concerns, even though in our district we are in the minority.
    • The audience was very white, even though the district includes the cities of York and Harrisburg, both of which have significant African American populations. We thought about the importance of helping to ensure that those communities are better represented at future meetings. And we couldn’t help thinking about the effects of gerrymandering right here in our own backyard: the district includes much of York and Adams Counties, a little piece of Cumberland County (including us), and the city of Harrisburg, effectively negating the city’s influence.
    • Perry often did not answer questions directly, but went back to his talking points, obfuscated (in my opinion), or simply avoided the question entirely. Of course, he’s not the only politician who does that!

Ultimately, both the office visit and the town hall contributed to my feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. During the meeting in his office, Perry talked a lot about the strictures that are placed on House members and how they often have to tow the party line regardless of their own opinions and preferences. I couldn’t help wondering how, given the realities he described, constituents can ever feel like their concerns will be taken seriously. He kept mentioning that he has 720,000 people in his district, the clear implication being that the majority rules, and we were in the minority. He doesn’t really have to listen to people like me to be re-elected.

On the other hand, I think it’s important to continue speaking out. I’m reminded of that quote attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” There are obviously many ways to change the world – including practicing our values and beliefs (in my case Christian) in our everyday lives at home, in our neighborhoods, at work, in and through our churches, and elsewhere – but I believe that speaking out publicly as a “thoughtful, committed citizen” (which I hope I am) is one of them.