(RNS) — At the Seven Loaves Food Pantry at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas, volunteers have been serving 800 to 1,200 families a week since the COVID-19 pandemic began — about four times the weekly traffic in 2019.
At the ICNA Relief Food Pantry in Raytown, Missouri, just east of Kansas City, 100 new families have registered to receive the Muslim-led organization’s services in just the past month.
“We are busier than ever right now,” said Shannon Cameron, executive director of the Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry in Aurora, Illinois, where, after a slight dip around tax return season, between 30 and 60 new families are registering every week.
The inflation that has loomed over the economy and restricted many Americans’ purchasing power of late has doubly affected low-income people who already struggle to get by. A recent survey by the anti-hunger organization Feeding America has shown that increased demand has affected nearly 80% of U.S. food banks, as higher prices cause more families to seek assistance.
And while President Joe Biden recently signed the Keep Kids Fed Act, extending free meal programs for schoolchildren, many stopgaps funded during the pandemic have ended or are only available in some states.
“For the households that were already food insecure in 2020, nearly half of those reported using a food pantry,” said Jordan Teague, interim director for policy analysis and coalition building at Bread for the World. “Now, more people are facing the crisis. We’re all sort of feeling that pinch, and government programs are coming to an end.”
Since the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has donated surplus commodities it buys to stabilize farm prices to the Charitable Food Assistance System, a network of food banks. For four years, the Trump administration bolstered the program to offset the cost of its tariff increases, raising the share of the USDA’s contributions to as much as 15% of some food banks’ supplies. Those resources, too, have now tailed off.
“We saw a real increase even before the pandemic hit in those USDA commodities and, obviously, during the pandemic, USDA made more commodities available as well,” said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas, a faith-based food security organization based in Austin. “Now, without them, we’re seeing a drop-off.”
Food banks are looking more than ever to make up the gaps with private monetary donations, and government financial assistance. “For every dollar donated to a food bank, we can stretch it to four meals,” said Cole. “We encourage people to be educated with their elected officials in support of hunger-fighting programs like SNAP and the Child Nutrition Programs.”
Historically high gas prices have added further strain on local food pantries, causing delays in the transport of food from farm to market, and from market to food banks.
“We own a fleet of semis,” said Mike Hoffman, inventory and logistics director at Midwest Food Bank, a Christian charity that supplies more than 2,000 churches, nonprofits and community centers across the country. “Fuel prices have taken a toll. We’ve gone through our entire year’s fuel budget in the first five months.”
The same supply chain problems, including a lack of available truck drivers, that have beset the economy apply to fighting hunger as well. Barbara Wojtklewicz, part of the leadership team that runs the food pantry at Christ Church in Plymouth, Massachusetts, said staff at the Greater Boston Food Bank, a regional network of 600 food distributors, have reported driver shortages recently.
“There is ample food to distribute,” Wojtklewicz told Religion News Service, “but they’ve had to limit … distribution to different food pantries.”
Maj. Deb Coolidge at the Salvation Army’s food distribution center in Plymouth has had trouble sourcing fresh food. “Less salad mix and cucumber — oranges and apples,” Coolidge said. “Those have not been on the list for the last couple of months.”
At ICNA Relief in Missouri, Ferdous Hossain, associate operations coordinator, has likewise found it increasingly difficult to provide fresh produce to the 300 families who rely on the pantry for food assistance each month. Local agencies, farms and food banks that ICNA collaborates with are also feeling the produce pinch.
To live up to her center’s unofficial motto — “Fresh produce. Fresh fruit. Anything and everything that is fresh” — Hossain has been buying produce at the grocery store, a last resort because of higher prices.
Donors are also stepping up, thinking creatively to help fill the gaps. Wojtklewicz said that the Christ Church pantry in Plymouth received 100 gift cards to local grocery stores along with its shipment from the Greater Boston Food Bank.
As economists prepare Americans for a possible recession, Beth Zarate, president and CEO of Catholic Charities West Virginia, expressed “anxiety” about the rural residents in her state and their ability to stay ahead of increased gas prices and food costs. At 15.1%, West Virginia has the highest percentage of households facing hunger, according to a 2020 USDA study.
Zarate is counting on West Virginians to come to their neighbors’ aid. “West Virginia is unique because we come out at the bottom of every chart in terms of chronic health issues, hunger and poverty,” Zarate said. “But we also have people who are good to each other.”
“People are generous,” said Darra Slagle, director of Rose’s Bounty, a food pantry operating out of Stratford Street United Church in Boston, “and when they are made aware of the need, are able to help. I encourage people to give to their local food pantries. They could use money to get the things that they need.”
Hoffman at the Midwest Food Bank said prayer is another life raft for anti-hunger operations.
“We have a lot of prayer warriors,” he said. “The faith community is a huge part of what we do, (and) many churches pray for us. The Bible says, ‘The poor you’ll have with you always,’ so we know we have a job that needs to be done, and we’ll keep getting it done.”
CHURCH OF BASKETBALL: Blazersedge.com managing editor and Lutheran minister David Deckard is part sports journalist / part online pastor.
David Deckard, like many pastors, is bivocational. He works another job, squeezing it in alongside his role as clergyman, husband, and dad. But unlike many pastors, who might hold jobs in sales or construction, his other job is in sports entertainment — specifically as the managing editor of Blazersedge.com, the leading source of fan-based coverage of the Portland Trail Blazers professional basketball team. Part of the SBNation, Blazersedge stands apart from other sites because of the rich sense of community its members provide.
And in the center of it all is Deckard, the man known to the masses simply as “Dave.”
As a Portland native and devoted Blazers fan, I sat down with Deckard for a wide-ranging interview covering the curious intersection of sports and faith.
JELANI: Given your lifestyle as both pastor and sports blogger, give us a little background on how you got into these roles. Plus, how did you become affiliated with Blazersedge?
DAVE DECKARD: Hah! I could tell a thousand stories about each of those things.
I grew up in a very non-churchy-type family. I sang in a Catholic boys choir when I was 10 or so, and that was it. But my high school choir director took a job at a downtown Portland church and I wanted to sing with her after I graduated, so I started singing in that church choir. That’s where I got my first inkling that God was a decent person to know and that faith might be part of my make-up. I went from that to a summer as a counselor at a church camp, then another, then youth directing, then to seminary. So be careful what you do! God is sneaky like that. You go in one day just wanting to sing a little and BAM! You’re working for the guy for life.
I’ve been a Blazers fan since I was quite young. It’s all I cared about as a kid. I went through all the ups and downs. When the Internet came in vogue, I got mixed up with an e-mail group talking about the team. A friend was blogging for the local paper’s website, and he became part of the group. He had to leave for a short emergency trip and asked me to fill in for him for a few days. I did and got the bug, then started my own site. Casey Holdahl, now with the Blazers, was running Blazersedge.com at that time. He left and contacted me about taking over Blazersedge. The rest is history.
So be careful what you do! You just start chatting about the Blazers and do a favor for a friend one day and BAM! You’re the managing editor at the biggest Trail Blazers site in the world.
As a pastor who also operates in the public square, I think you have an interesting perspective on practical theology.
Personally I think theology suffers when placed in the abstract, such as, “I believe in Doctrine X.” So often that’s a shorthand way around knowing people and God, instead of an invitation to know both better. Doctrine is like underwear. It’s indispensable, but meant to support the rest of the stuff you’re wearing. If you’re just into flashing the doctrine in public, people should run.
I’m Lutheran, to be specific. But even people within a denomination usually don’t know or understand its teachings fully. The best thing to say is just, “Let’s talk about God and life and such and you’ll get the idea.”
A few years back, I was trying to explain to my wife the significance of Blazersedge in the life of an average Blazers fan, and your role with it in particular. And I think it was after reading a commentary you wrote that touched on the whole Erin-Andrews-hotel-room thing that, in my attempt to contextualize the situation, I referred to you as “the Internet pastor of Blazer nation.” Is that a fair label, informal or not?
I haven’t heard that one before! I suspect plenty of people would bristle at that, either because the pastoral relation implies voluntary consent or because the entire idea is anathema to their worldview. However, it’s accurate to say that my outlook (read: faith) determines how I speak, how I react to folks, and in general how the site functions.
UPS AND DOWNS: After a string of misfortune with once-promising players, forward LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the few solid players left on the Blazers’ roster. (Photo: Mark Halmas/Newscom)
Oddly enough, most people misread the role faith plays. They assume that our site’s non-profanity rule stems from a religious source. I am not overly offended by swearing in personal conversation, nor do I find it more ungodly than a hundred other things people do every day. The no-profanity thing is out of concern for public decorum and being welcoming of all people without having something as insignificant as swearing get in the way.
That’s where the real faith issues come in: Diverse voices are welcome, you’ve been given power to add to this conversation, use that power for good, and frame your assertions to welcome others as you’ve been welcomed. People get banned at Blazersedge for one reason: they’re exercising their power of speech for the good of the self, hurting or ignoring others in the process. That’s a statement of faith — valuing the neighbor as oneself translated to Internet conversation.
In my writing I try to be fair and thoughtful, to treat my subjects like real people and not just objects, and to do justice to the topic instead of writing to gain more traffic for myself. I try not to take things too seriously, as a sense of humor is an asset to faith. I don’t draw too much of a distinction between my on-site life and the rest of my life. I try to write in such a way that I could be held accountable for what I say. So I guess in that way you could say that my approach is pastoral. But it’s found more in example than preaching. I’m not the center of attention. Just like church isn’t about everybody looking at me, but all of us discovering God together, the site isn’t about everybody looking at me, but all of us discovering the Blazers together.
The best compliment I get regarding faith — and it happens reasonably often — is when Blazersedge folks find out what I do for a living and say, “I didn’t know you were a pastor, but that makes total sense now that I think about it.” Instead of faith being this distinct moment with a distinct person separate from “real life,” it’s breathed in organically in the course of doing what you love. It’s not about me or you, it’s all around, filling the space between us and making things good whether we realize it or not.
People often equate intense sports fandom with religion. In a post, you once compared sports teams with churches in the sense that they are both public trusts that have strong traditions, but at the end of the day the people who work there are still responsible for making their own choices and protecting their own financial interests. You were trying to balance the perspective of fans who expect loyalty from their sports heroes but treat them as fungible assets when they don’t perform up to expectations — such as with Blazers point guard Raymond Felton. In your opinion, is there more loyalty in the church compared to the sports world? Should there be?
Oh yeah, Felton was about as fungible as it gets.
Back in the day, multiple ties bound people to their church. Doctrine was part of it but social ties, ethnicity, and survival in this strange New World (cultural, if not actual in the form of propagation) made church all but inescapable. If you came here as an Italian Catholic you couldn’t very well flip to a British Episcopalian without losing your identity and community. As descendants in successive generations identified as American, those ties loosened. But even then the idea of “American” and “good, church-going person” were intertwined. You might not go to your grandparents’ church but you went to some church … at least on Christmas and Easter.
In the post-’60s world folks began to question what it meant to be American, even. In most groups ethnic ties had disappeared, now national ties were following. Then came instant global communication and all of a sudden you didn’t have to be tied to local neighbors at all. You could talk to anyone and get anything you want, with the push of a button. In this environment churches have become fungible. Only those truly interested in faith (or too stubborn to let go of the old culture) remain engaged. Even among those, most won’t remain at a church that doesn’t closely align with their personal convictions.
In spirit, loyalty is still a part of the church relationship. In practice, it’s at an ebb … it has to be taught where it was once assumed.
So, do you think we’re worse off today?
Actually, there are good things about this. Those cultural and national ties overwhelmed faith back in the day. Church served the cultural perception rather than transcending it. Faith bound in service to anything but God is not faith at all. We don’t have to worry about that now. People participate in church because they desire a relationship with God, not because it’s the thing to do. Oddly enough, it’s far easier to hear God without all the cultural expectations getting in the way. I actually prefer the small, wandering group of faithful seekers to the large congregation of “good people” set in their ways. We’re just now rediscovering what faith is supposed to be.
I’m not as conversant with loyalty trends in sports but I suspect pro leagues, at least, follow the same trend. We’ll always have diehard Steelers or Blazers fans just like some folks will always be “church goers.” But most folks have a myriad of choices for their leisure time and disposable income today. Teams can no longer assume their fans will follow. The fans that do remain tend to be more knowledgeable and involved and demand more from their teams.
So is that a lesson for church leaders, too?
I believe so. It’s not enough to have just the name anymore; you have to show quality to keep folks engaged. The uniforms still said, “Trail Blazers” in 2011-12 but few fans felt that Ray Felton and company reflected true Blazer basketball. Their complaints and rejection of the product reflected that. For years people of faith have been willing to swallow almost anything that claimed a “Christian” label no matter what it said. If some idiot gets on TV and says he’s for God or a presidential candidate shows up at a church one Sunday they’re supposedly “on our side.” People of faith need to be more discerning. You’ll know where a person’s coming from by the fruit they produce. It’s not enough to divide the world into teams and then say you’re on the right one. Your claims and actions have to do something good in the world before they can be considered godly. Otherwise the uniform you’re trying to claim doesn’t matter.
Yeah, I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who, in a moment of existential gloom, referred to sports fandom as essentially “cheering for laundry.” There are few things more disaffecting than the realization that your emotional investment is not going to yield the dividends you hoped for, and that’s true in the church as much as it is in sports.
Speaking of which, many fans will look at the 2011-2012 Trail Blazers season as The Year the Dream Died, with Roy announcing his sudden retirement, Greg Oden being waived, Nate McMillan being fired, etc. And when I think about some of my episodes of basketball-related frustration (the Western Conference Finals in 2000 come to mind), Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief strike a familiar chord.
Do you find much correlation between the work you do as a pastor to walk your parishioners through grief and the way you help Blazers fans cope with wave after wave of disappointment?
There’s overlap, for sure. Grief is grief. I remember the Western Conference Finals loss in ’91 almost like a death. It was, really … the death of a dream. It hurt. We certainly do our fair share of putting things into perspective, reminding that there’s goodness that circumstances can’t touch, that there are reasons to believe, that the important part is taking the journey together instead of the lumps you take on the way.
But the roles of “journalist/analyst” and “pastor/counselor” also differ significantly. At the end of the day my role at Blazersedge is to speak the truth as I see it. I make bold proclamations about the Blazers’ prospects that I’d never make to a person sitting in my office in crisis. In counseling it doesn’t matter what you know and feel, it’s what the person in need knows and feels. Sports are more predictable and less important ultimately. They also lie outside of the domain of any individual. Abstract truths become more valuable in that kind of situation. Truth is truth in this venue in a way that isn’t possible in interpersonal relationships.
I find myself contradicting the popular wave of opinion at Blazersedge far more often (and stridently) than I’d contradict a parishioner making decisions about their own life. When the Blazers started this season 7-2 but still evidenced serious holes, I went ahead and spoke out about it. I probably wouldn’t do that so baldly in church because people need to figure that out for themselves.
The other overlap is trolling. Trolls blossom on websites and in churches alike. I must admit having to deal with trolls online has better prepared me for the unhealthy, bad behavior that people sometimes evidence in church. Whatever unfair tactic they’re using, I’ve probably seen it before. I’m much more forward in pointing out those things now than I was before my online experience.
As you know, Dave, fans can get really crazy. Sometimes it’s just fun, but at times it goes too far — like pouring beer on the opposing team’s star player. What do you say to people who really want to enjoy the emotional thrill ride of sports, but who don’t want to totally lose their minds or souls? What are some healthy ways of expressing fandom?
The idea that you can be one person in one venue and a different one in another is overblown. I’m thinking primarily of the Internet here, but I suppose it also applies at the arena or stadium. Your environment will influence your choices. But even allowing that environment determines methodology, you’re still either going to conduct yourself with honor for the greater good or you’re going to make it all about yourself and how you can get ahead. You can’t let that self-serving, “screw everyone else as long as I get ahead and look good” mentality take hold. As soon as you start basing your decisions on that, it’ll color the rest of your life. You can’t really pretend to be a jerk without actually becoming one. That’s true whether you’re clocking somebody from behind on the floor or abusing someone on a website. Act in ways that honor the people around you no matter what the venue (even when arguing or playing against them) and you’re going to bring something good to the world. That’s true whether you’re playing sports, talking about them, or just watching them while your kids say, “Daddy, can you play with me?”
Once again, bigger life lessons from the world of sports …
One other disturbing parallel I’ve noticed about people losing perspective: whether it’s in sports or church, folks seem to value being right more than enjoying the experience and each other. Both sports and faith are communal endeavors. Yet people use their knowledge to try and prove they’re better and/or more correct than the other person. This is silly. What’s the point of following sports at all if you’re not enjoying it with the people around you? The striking phenomenon from the ’77 championship in Portland wasn’t just the title but also the massive parade and community unification in the wake of the event. Fandom requires company to reach full flower. When you destroy the community to exalt yourself, you’re winning a Pyrrhic victory at best.
The phenomenon is even more ridiculous when applied to faith. If any of us could have gotten it right, there would have been no need for Jesus to die for us. God would have simply said, “Nice, Bob! I’ve been waiting forever for someone to get it! Come on up to heaven, you perfectly correct dude, you!” Since Jesus, you know, died for our sins, that seems to imply the necessity and thus our falling short. In many ways arguing about who’s the most correct is arguing who needs Christ the least … a curious argument for Christians to try to win. Missing the greater picture in favor of making your point is a bad idea whether you’re in an online forum or in church.
It seems like it all comes back to the question of “How do we build, sustain, and reflect authentic community?” In what ways can you see the communities of sport and faith combining for the greater good?
There’s always potential. Every year we hold “Blazersedge Night” where the people of our community donate to send underprivileged young folks to a Blazers game. Last year we exceeded 700 kids and chaperones sent so we know people are willing to participate in something good.
I think you’ve hit on the main point, though … it has to be something good, as in “service to others.” Much of the overt “Christian” presence I see online (and I use the term loosely) makes me shudder. People screaming at each other, dividing the world into camps and picking fights, gloating over people’s misfortunes and saying, “I told you so.” It’s not everybody, of course, but it doesn’t take too much of that to turn the name sour. I had to spend years online showing who I am and what I’m about before I was overt at all about my profession. The field has been poisoned enough that when people hear the name “Christian” or “church” they’re just as likely to run or scroll onward as to engage or be curious. So modeling Christ-like behavior online might be the first commitment we sports fanatics all need to make.
While pundits speculate and pontificate on the future political career of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state seems not to be concentrating on 2016—at least, not for now. Last week, Clinton announced the “Too Small to Fail” initiative, a venture of the Clinton Foundation (created by her husband, former President Bill Clinton) and Next Generation—a nonpartisan group that promotes scientific research about early childhood development. A well-polished four-minute clip on the project’s site highlights what many of us have known for some time: the most critical years for any child are the early developmental stages, between the ages of 0-5. Colorful images of healthy parents with their healthy young children playing and reading were complemented by experts briefly discussing the importance of everything from nutrition to brain development. Calling on communities, individuals, and businesses to serve as partners, the video seems more like a vision statement than a plan of action.
The focus is commendable, and the support from non-profits and corporations, alike—I am sure—will follow. From a moral standpoint, I feel we can learn a lot about a nation by how it treats its most vulnerable, which is what gives me pause. With all of our social programs, and countless organizations claiming to concentrate on child welfare issues, none have successfully addressed the increasing education, opportunity, and development gaps that exist among children in the United States. So while this organization is in its infancy stage, I have one simple question for Hillary Clinton: how are you any different? We will get a better sense of how to answer that question moving forward, but there are four things that immediately pop in my head and I will be paying close attention to:
- Collaboration with affected communities— Renowned experts and well-intentioned individuals may have led government-sponsored programs like the “War on Drugs” and “No Child Left Behind,” or non-profit initiatives, such as “Teach for America” but such efforts, however, are not new to criticisms about their lack of community inclusion in the creation of programmatic initiatives. This often leads to resistance from communities that feel that their opinions are undervalued or not considered at all; unfulfilled promises and unmet expectations; and the ultimate failure—no change at all. “Too Small to Fail” not only needs to clearly articulate its goals, but also incorporate statements of community partnership and consultation, with a recognition that investment and buy-in from the community will lead to sustainable progress.
- Targeting disparities in day-to-day living—A blanket approach to tackling development in children is not going to work. Studies show that a poor child is likely to hear millions fewer words at home than a child from a professional family. Research highlighted in the book “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children” (Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley) revealed that children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour, compared to 1200 words per hour in working class families, and 2100 words per hour in professional families. Now consider the following statistics by the National Center of Children in Poverty:
- 32.4 million children live in low-income families;
- 16.1 million of those children living in poor families;
- 65 percent of black children live in low-income families, compared to 31 percent of white children;
- 86 percent of children with parents who have less than a high school degree live in low- income families.
What does this mean? In short, before a poor child reaches the age of 1, he or she has already fallen behind middle-class children in their ability to talk, understand and learn. This likelihood increases if you are a poor black child. We cannot target children without targeting their caretakers, and it will be interesting to see what solutions (if any) “Too Small to Fail” will introduce to address these disparities.
- Recognizing non-traditional employment opportunities—It is encouraging to hear that ‘Too Small to Fail” will aim to work with the workforce to support practices that support workers—and thus support children. There are so many workers, however, that do odds and ends jobs just to make a living for their families. Furthermore, the demands of the current economic climate are forcing already overworked families to pursue any opportunity for revenue just to meet basic needs. A broader lens is therefore needed to identify the various kinds of employment and be inclusive of “under the table” jobs, which often do not entail a W-2 form.
- Understanding the impact of a child’s demographic—A 2009 study by the Urban Institute focused on the impact a child’s living environment has on development. An organization today cannot afford to shy away from the various forms of trauma that exist for many urban youth, including the more obvious ones—such as gun violence and crime—and even more subtle, less discussed ones—such as the impact of being raised by a teen parent, exposure to paramilitary-like school systems, and the residual impact of incarceration. The desire for each child to reach their full potential is incomplete if there is a failure to explore how one’s address can change how you think and develop.
I am cautiously optimistic about “Too Small to Fail.” Only time will tell if this infant organization will develop into a fully-grown solution.
Ify Ike is a former Capitol Hill advisor and counsel, with experience on a variety of social justice issues. She is an original blogger of the faith-blog “The Bold and Fabulous,” founder of the policy and communications firm, Ike Professionals, LLC, and has assisted numerous ministries in program creation, youth outreach efforts, community service, and natural disaster relief. At least once a day, you can find her in a debate about politics or religion.
Depending on whom you ask, the question of what most defines the African American community varies. Some will point to strides made toward racial integration. Others will point to the establishment of our own culture, traditions, and institutions that distinguish us from other races. And depending on whom you engage in this debate, most will admit, there are significant cultural and class divisions among African Americans. Creating a sense of community among African Americans is challenging, but imagine attempting this when the prevalent identifier was slavery.
In his book A Nation Within A Nation: Organizing African American Communities Before the Civil War, scholar John Ernest offers an insightful view of how African Americans to establish their identities before the civil war. This is a unique view since most accounts of this time in history focus on how the Civil War changed our status and sense of community. Ernest presents a view of the oft-overlooked organizations that were pushing for the establishment of an African American community well before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Ernest, a professor of American literature at West Virginia University, presents a historical account of how five types of social organizations — the church, Masonic lodges, conventions, schools, and the media/press — got their start. He traces how each attempted to meet the unique needs of the African American community.
One of Ernest’s most striking observations is that our forefathers held two key approaches on how the establishment of community should be accomplished. Some believed that African Americans should fight to assimilate into the majority community, and that finding acceptance there was the ultimate measure of progress. Others, smarting from their experiences with severe racism, believed that creating a new community — i.e., a nation within a nation — was the best approach.
What’s fascinating to consider is that the African American is still divided along those lines. What’s more, the tension between those two mindsets still polarizes our community. Those who fight to be accepted among the majority, which in our time is still white Americans, are often accused of being disloyal to their heritage. Those who fight to establish their own culture are often accused of being separatist, or in the most severe cases racists themselves.
Ernest also highlights the painful fact that from our earliest history, oppression was the most common connection among most African Americans. Even free African Americans faced oppression, opposition, and racism. Many of the organizations formed during that time were built on freedom from that oppression.
A Nation Within a Nation, although focused on the past, whispers to our current conditions. What would our culture be like if the oppression of our ancestors was removed from our current community? How would we then define ourselves? This book made me wonder if a common denominator could ever be found for African Americans. It also made me wonder about the efficiency of trying to define ourselves by a single idea.
But don’t expect answers to those questions in this book. Ernest writes the book in true historian style, only presenting information without his personal beliefs. His writing has the density of academia, so this is not a quick read. In my opinion, this is the best approach. So much our history has been interpreted for us by pop culture or presented in snapshots. It’s refreshing to be able to read such rich history without a filter and with all the weightiness it deserves.
I think the most enjoyable aspect of this book is the discussion that has arisen among those in my African American community. This is a topic that needs to be revisited, and A Nation Within a Nation provides a great springboard for beginning that important dialogue.
HAWAII'S SON: President Obama Aloha Bobblehead dolls are among the touristy souvenirs available at gift shops like this one in the Waikiki Beach area of Honolulu. (Photo by Larry Downing/Newscom)
The word “Hawaii” conjures up scenes of grass skirts, surfboards, gorgeous beaches, and volcanoes. Recently, images of our current President have been added to that list. Whether one is for or against his style of leadership, one thing is certain: it is unfamiliar. His strong centrist stand is not a popular modus operandi of past presidents, and for this reason it garners attention — unless, you have the “aloha” in you. For those, like myself, who were raised within the group-centric culture of Hawaii, President Barack Obama’s brand of leadership is nothing new.
Those from the “mainland,” what those of us from Hawaii call the continental U.S., rarely understand how truly different Hawaii is from the rest of the United States, particularly for people of color. It is one of the few (and perhaps only) places the European Standards for culture, beauty, power, and “justice” are not in effect. They are replaced by the East Asian and native Polynesian standards that reach back farther in history than the United States of America as country. These standards were social norms I was first introduced to, much like the president. I was torn from my Pacific Ocean-bound paradise as I was entering my tweens. My father’s military career took us from our colorful, diversity-filled oasis to the Midwest cosmos of corn, soybeans, and snow.
How significant is being raised in such a truly diverse, non-Eurocentric, group-driven, island-based culture?
It is significant enough that any person of color who is socialized in Hawaii and then leaves must go through a process of re-learning American race relations within their own group (colorism) and in relation to mainstream American culture. They also have another task: learning their new place on the racial totem pole.
I can say from experience it is a very ugly, cruel, bewildering process. I spent my early childhood on Oahu. Once you go through it, you know it, and you behave accordingly. That is why I will admit to smiling whenever I hear the president pronounce Hawai‘i properly; it’s done deliberately. Hearing “Hawai‘i,” “luau,” and “ukulele” pronounced properly makes me giddy these days.
COMING HOME: President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii for a 2009 vacation. (Photo by Larry Downing/Newscom)
To be sure, Hawaii is not free of racialized class structures, and it harbors its own brand of racism; yet, this too takes a different strain. It is far less disruptive to the almighty Group-with-a-capital-G to simply ignore members it finds undesirable. The Group limits interaction with them and is as polite and distant as is practical when its members must interact with Outsiders. In this way, everyone inside and outside of the Group may save face. “Saving face” is another important East Asian tenant. While this is just as wrong, burning crosses, throwing tomatoes, hate marches, and interesting costumes are not as conducive to “perpetual harmony.”
The “East Asian Cultural standard” I refer to is an amalgamation of major tenants of traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese culture. It is the cultural norm of Hawaii along with native Polynesian culture. Together they create an entirely different American experience. It is an experience that challenges mainland perceptions of race, class, and gender relations.
Hawaiian popular and native culture is group centric. In the native culture (keep in mind, it is not monolithic) the idea of “ohana” comes to mind. Translated simply as “family” in true practice, it means far more than that. A great representation of the highest form of “ohana” is what the body of Christ is called to be and what the Christian church is to be, as modeled in the New Testament book of Acts.
The Group always comes before the individual. Life doesn’t revolve around being a special snowflake. Rather, it is more important to lend your talents to the betterment of something above and beyond yourself. This is not a popular sentiment in mainstream American culture, where our love of the anti-hero rings loud and clear.
For instance, a state like Texas, the home of former President George W. Bush, as well as current GOP presidential contender Gov. Rick Perry, is a great example of the “Cult of Individualism” that is a part of the mainland American consciousness. This mentality is the polar opposite of the Group/ohana mindset. When Gov. Perry subtly implied in 2009 that secession could be a possibility for Texas if things didn’t change in Washington, it reaffirmed the image of the Lone Star State as a collection of cowboys (and girls) who answer to no one. This isn’t to say that focusing on the individual is detrimental. But it’s no secret that the worship of self can cause far-reaching negative consequences throughout society, a fact the Bible and secular history have made abundantly clear.
In the case of President Obama, some say he’s too willing to compromise and that he doesn’t assert himself enough when it comes to playing the political game. In a recent, widely discussed Washington Post essay, White House reporter Scott Wilson charged President Obama with being “the loner president,” an isolated politician who prefers policy over people in Washington. “This president endures with little joy the small talk and back-slapping of retail politics, rarely spends more than a few minutes on a rope line, refuses to coddle even his biggest donors,” Wilson observed. “There is no entourage, no Friends of Barack to explain or defend a politician who has confounded many supporters with his cool personality and penchant for compromise.”
But what his critics see as a flaw might actually be a strength, at least from the perspective of ohana. It could be that his great skill in being so centrist (to his party’s and the GOP’s annoyance) comes from the ability to set his gaze solidly on The Group and put its needs before his own, as a matter of upbringing and personal conviction. While caught in the political throes of his own party, the GOP, and the Tea Party, he has delivered the tow-the-line stance he promised during his 2008 campaign — perhaps too well, for the mainland.
In this case, we — the American people, in certain instances — are President Obama’s Group, not necessarily the Democratic Party.
So, why is this a problem?
Did we not elect our congressional leaders, in good faith, to put our needs before donkeys and elephants, red and blue, lobbyists and Wall Streeters? Didn’t we ask them to put aside their own personal (often financial) interests and fight for all people to have a chance at living the “American Dream”
MAN OF THE PEOPLE: President Obama in 2010 with the staff of Island Snow, a shaved-ice shop in Kailua, Hawaii. (Photo by Kent Nishimura/Newscom)
If Congress practiced the concept of “ohana” according to its popular understanding and placed the Group ahead of personal gain, Washington, D.C., and America in general, could become a very different place. That’s not to say everyone in the Group would receive what they desire. However, the Group as a whole would be better off than, say, a privileged 1% of the Group at the expense of the other 99%. The tyranny of the majority is tempered by a hint of the Confucian principles of the Five Ideal Relationships: (1) ruler and subject; (2) father and son; (3) elder brother and younger brother; (4) husband and wife; and (5) friend and friend. Within this environment, there is an understood expectation that those that are submitted to will take care of those that submit to them. These obligations are taken seriously; otherwise one risks dishonor and the loss of his status in society.
In this context, political bias would have to kneel before the desires of the Ultimate Group: the American people. Lobbyists, Unions, Big Business, and personal gain would have to wait their turns as the needs of the American “ohana” — the American family — came first.
We the people — America, the Group — would always come first.
That is a Washington I would love to say “aloha” to.