Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Sandra Lee Scheuer

Sandra Lee Scheuer

Sandra Lee Scheuer, undated photograph, source unknown.

This past week marked another May 4th. Not Star Wars day for me, but the 48th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State the took the lives of four students and wounded nine. This year, the site of the shootings was designated a National Historic Landmark. During the mid- 1980’s, I worked in collegiate ministry with students at Kent and walked the grounds where the shootings occurred. Apart from evidence of bullet ricochets in a statue if one looked closely, you would not know the tragedy that unfolded here on May 4, 1970, as students demonstrated here, and on many campuses against the expansion of the Vietnam war into Cambodia. In the mid-1980’s, it seemed there was a studied effort by campus and town to distance itself from the memory of these events. I’m glad for more recent efforts to ensure that the four who died will not be forgotten: Bill Schroeder, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, and Sandra Lee Scheuer.

I was not quite sixteen at the time of the shootings, a sophomore at Chaney High School. When we returned to school after the shootings, I remember how stunned all of us were. It did not seem that you could find words. There was fear as we heard some adults say, “they should have shot more.” My hair was kind of long then, and I wondered if some would have said or thought that of me.

I was hit particularly hard because one of those shot was Sandra Lee Scheuer, who was born in Youngstown and graduated from Boardman High School. Sandra was twenty years old at the time, an honors student in speech therapy. I didn’t know her, but the fact that she was from the Youngstown area and how she died shook me, and troubles me to this day. She was walking to a mid-term exam with another student, across a parking lot, at 12:25 pm when a group of National Guardsmen 130 yards away turned and fired toward a group of students in the vicinity of the parking lot. When I later walked the ground, I was stunned by how far away the students were who died from the guardsmen who fired–more than a football field away. They were not an imminent threat. Sandra Scheuer was not even involved in the demonstration. A round severed her jugular vein and she died within minutes. Tom Grace, wounded in the ankle, was in the same ambulance as Sandy as paramedics attempted to keep her alive. They could not.

Map of Kent State"Location Map May 4-Shooting" 08780_2005_001

Map of Site of Shootings at Kent State University via National Archives. (Note the distance between the lower left where Guards fired and where Sandy Scheuer fell in the upper right.)


I wonder if we will ever truly know why that particular group of Guard troops turned and fired. What we do know is that the world lost a wonderful young woman in Sandy Scheuer. Speech therapy is a tough academic discipline and to be an honor student requires intelligence and hard work, and a rapport with the people you work with.

Bruce Burkland, who had been going with Sandy for five years before her death, wrote in a letter to The Vindicator:

“To begin to describe what a beautiful person Sandy was would take forever, but there is one thing I want people to know about her which is that Sandy was not a reactionary student and was not involved in the demonstrations at Kent State. Sandy was not the type to cause or incite such events, but rather she always spread joy, happiness and laughter in people’s hearts wherever she went. She was the ultimate of life, especially of my life.”

It is significant that he would emphasize her not being a reactionary or a demonstrator. She was apparently accused wrongly of both, as if this would justify her death. She was neither, but simply a good student, an Alpha Xi Delta sorority sister with ambitions to try to make the world a better place by helping young people with speech and hearing impairments. Others described her as not the least bit political.

We never got to see the life she would live, only hints of what it might have been. But she has been memorialized at Kent State, and in song and poetry. I only recently learned that these words in Neil Young’s “Ohio” are a reference to Sandy:

“What if you knew her,
And found her dead on the ground?
How can you run when you know?”

Canadian poet Gary Geddes also memorialized her in a poem, Sandra Lee Scheuer in 1980. He tells the story of the poem in this article in North by Northwest.

Harvey Andrews also wrote a song called “Hey Sandy” that asks:

“Hey Sandy, Hey Sandy, why were you the one?
All the years of growing up are wasted now and gone.
Did you see them turn, did you feel the burn
Of the bullets as they flew?”

You can listen to the song with the full lyrics here. The problem with this song is that it implies that Sandy was part of the demonstrations, which was not true. The song would have been more powerful, in my view, if it told the true story of how she was simply a good student in the wrong place at the wrong time, and posed the question of how students so far away posed any threat.

When I think of the Kent State shootings, I not only think of the protests against an ill-conceived war in which old men were sending young men to die without a clear mission. I not only think of the day when we awoke to the unthinkable that our government would use those weapons of war on campuses where we assumed our children would be safe. I think of the day when one of Youngstown’s own, an innocent victim, died on the way to take an exam. Sandra Lee Scheuer, I never knew you. But I will always remember…

Review: Water at the Roots

Water at the Roots

Water at the Roots, Philip Britts (edited by Jennifer Harries, foreword by David Kline). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: The collected poems and essays of Philip Britts, a farmer and pastoral leader of a Bruderhof community in Paraguay, where he died in 1949 at the age of 31.

Philip Britts lived a short and obscure life, dying in Paraguay in 1949 of a deadly tropical fungal disease. He was born in Devon, England in 1917. The first poem in this collection was written in 1934, and expresses both his search for and awareness of God and a theme that would run through all his poetry of observing carefully the book of creation, and discerning in this the character and presence of the creator. He graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in horticulture in 1939 and married Joan that June. In 1936, he had joined the Peace Pledge Union, and as England rushed toward war, Britts more deeply embraced pacifist convictions. Eventually, he learned of a Christian pacifist agricultural community in the Cotswolds known as the Bruderhof.

He gave himself to the work, told stories to the children, and his poetry began to reflect his life in the agricultural community. A sung version of one of these. “The Song of the Hedgers and the Diggers” may be heard on the trailer for this book. Eventually, the community either needed to give up its German members or emigrate. When the opportunity came to go to Paraguay, they took it, establishing a community they called Primavera. Quickly he became one of the most astute agriculturalists in the area, and was called upon increasingly in consultations. During one trip to Brasil, he apparently contracted a deadly tropical fungus, that first manifested a couple years later with painful mouth sores, and would eventually claim his life. In his last year, he became a pastor to the community and even as his energies waned, he reflected and wrote and taught on everything from care of the land, to the fundamental choice he believed faced every human between the spirit of the beast and the Spirit of Love. He wrote:

“This spirit alone can bring that peace which is in absolute opposition to war and death and destruction. Peace which is born of love and filled with love is the only true peace. It is not just a cessation of war, a shaking of the ripe fruit while the tree goes on growing to bear again in due season. Peace can only arise when the tree is cut down and rooted out. In this mighty work, love uses weapons which are in absolute opposition to the weapons of the beast. Instead of the Good Man, the poor in spirit; instead of the confidence in the progress of man, the sorrowful recognition of the helpfulness of man; instead of self-satisfaction, the hungering and thirsting for righteousness; instead of judgement, mercy; instead of the doctrine of many paths, singleness and pureness of heart; instead of coercion, reconciliation; instead of success, persecution for righteousness sake.”

So much of his work is characterized by a seamless connection between the practice of farming and the practice of faith. The title of this work comes from one of his last essays where he writes of faith as being like “water at the roots” that sustains us in the heat of life. He draws the connection between our dependence upon the grace of God for faith, even as we depend upon the grace of God for rain.

A poem, “Quicken the Seed” reflects a similar connection between farming and faith:

Quicken the seed
In the dark, damp earth.
Nourish our need,
God of all birth.
Thou art the seed
That we bury now.
Thou art our need,
God of the plough.
Bury the spark
Of our own desire
Deep in the dark,
God of the fire.
After the night
When the fight is won,
Thou art the light,
God of the sun.


I am not much of a critic of poetry. My hunch is that most of the poetry here is good but not great. What makes this work great is the seamless integrity between poetry, essays and the life of the man. He has been called a “British Wendell Berry.” In many ways, he embraced a far more difficult life than Berry–a costly affirmation of pacifism in wartime Britain, a communal existence, emigration, and establishing a viable community under primitive conditions, an integrity of living with the land, and suffering that came from his embrace of that land. What comes through is the wonder of living in this creation with all its challenges, a sense of the tragedy of a world at war with itself when the Prince of Peace beckons, and a life permeated by the grace of God. Like Berry, he awakens us to what it is to live in harmony with the land one farms. Like Berry, he recognizes the treasure of life in a place, and in a community. Like Berry, he reminds us of the deep, pervasive presence of the grace of God in all of creation. The God whose grace waters us at the roots, sustaining our lives.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Neurotheology


NeurotheologyAndrew Newberg. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Summary: A survey of the field of neurotheology, arguing for its viability as a field of inquiry, exploring the various research studies on religious and spiritual experience and practice and correlates of activity and changes in various brain structures, and what might be learned at the intersection of religion and neuroscience that may help us understand the most profound questions of our existence.

There has been an explosion of research in the field of neuroscience and related disciplines in the study of the functioning of the brain and how various brain structures interact with everything from autonomic processes like breathing and heart rate, creation and loss of memory, reasoning, stress responses, sexual response, motor skills, language–indeed every aspect of human experience. This includes a growing field of studies of religious experience and a whole host of questions that arise as to whether brain differences account for different experiences, how such experiences change the brain, and even whether the neuroscience of religious experience can account for the religious nature of human beings. Needless to say, such inquiry can both offer deeper insight into the significance of religious practices, rituals and experiences in our lives, and arouse controversy around the fear that neuroscience could “explain away” faith.

In this work, Andrew Newberg navigates this potentially contentious ground by offering us a survey of the work that has been done, the research questions that might be explored, and the potential or actual value that may be derived from this multi-disciplinary approach to studying neuroscience and religion.

Newberg begins by discussing the “happy prison of the brain” within which all of us are trapped and that all of our perceptions of the world come through our senses and are processed by our brains–religious perceptions as well as scientific ones. He contends that an approach that draws upon both has the potential to help us more fully understand what it means to be human and our belief systems and how we experience them.

The early chapters of the book focus on overview, defining neurotheology and the disciplines that contribute to this study, the most relevant neuroscience data looking at different brain functions as they pertain to religious and spiritual experiences and the elements of religion and spirituality that might be studied by the neurotheologian and the tools that may be used in such study. I was struck by how much was defined by what could be studied while in an fMRI scanner, although sensor “helmets,” magnetic fields, as well as survey data are also used. I wonder for example about how one would study various forms of active service in one’s community or one’s ethical behaviors that arise from one’s faith.

Beginning with chapter 6, the focus of the next three chapters are on what various scientific disciplines contribute to our understanding. Evolutionary biology and anthropology helps us understand the evolution of the human brain and known correlates between the development of aspects of religion and the development of specific brain structures. Psychology helps us understand various “cognitive, emotional, attachment, and social elements of religion” and their connection to brain processes. The study of brain pathologies and pharmacology reveal the connection between some forms of brain disorders and some extreme types of spiritual experience. This raises the question of “the God delusion,” although the author notes that if this contention is true, much of humanity is delusional.

Chapter 9 and following turn to elements of religion–the creation of mythic stories, rituals and practices like prayer or meditation. Each of these chapters explore some of the brain processes that connect to the various elements of religion as they have been studied. Then chapter 12 and the remaining chapters focus on some special questions such as whether there may be differences in brain function between religious, “spiritual,” and non-religious persons, what neuroscience reveals about free will (or free won’t, as the author suggests at one point), and the nature of mystical experience, where one experiences transcendence, perceiving that one has escaped one’s body. It is fascinating to see the changes that occur both in the frontal and parietal lobes during such experiences.

The final chapter (15) was perhaps the most controversial to me in the author’s proposal that neurotheology might offer a “metatheology” or “megatheology.” This struck me as at best unhelpful to collaboration between science and faith, suggesting that particular religious or theological perspectives might be subsumed in some universal. This feels a bit like those who claim with smug superiority that all religions really are “different ways up to the ultimate” that they, unlike the poor benighted adherents of particular religions, are enlightened enough to see. Much of this work was characterized by a becoming modesty, that seemed to be suspended at this point. The most charitable interpretation I can place on this is the author’s enthusiasm for this multidisciplinary approach, which made this an informative and engaging read.

Overall, I found this work quite helpful in getting up to speed on the current state of research in this field. I found myself often reading with a sense of wonder at how amazing the brain is that is reading that text (not that I am claiming my brain to be amazing in any distinctive way)! Personally, I think, just as we are wired up to function in so many ways effectively in the world, so it is not incredible that if there is a spiritual dimension to life, we would equally have cognitive capacities to apprehend and experience those realities. I do hope there can be a continuing respectful conversation between scientists and believing people (sometimes they are one and the same!). It is clear we have much to learn from each other!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Stolen Identity


“I’m a patriot, I will help the President build the Wall, I have an A+ rating with the NRA, I’m pro-life and I am a conservative Christian.” This is a mash-up of language I’ve heard in our most recent primary election and it deeply offends me. I feel like I’m a victim of identity theft.

My real beef is with the very last word of this statement. Why? I am a Christian. And I feel like my identity has been stolen, or at least misappropriated in statements like this.

Sure, while logically you can argue that such a statement doesn’t intend to identify all these positions with Christian orthodoxy, there is the implication that if you are the right kind of Christian, you will believe in these things and vote for this candidate.

Please understand. I do not question the Christianity of those who would affirm these things, or the genuineness of the faith of candidates who use this language. I even agree with them on some things. But I do not like the implication that this version of patriotism, or being pro-gun, or pro-life, or anti-immigrant is what those who are truly Christian will embrace at the ballot box.

Sure, I get it. “Conservative” Christians are perceived as a significant constituency for a particular political party. And for the person wanting to get elected, winning the favor and the votes of this constituency is what it takes.

What troubles me most are not the political positions of the candidates, which they have every right to advance, but the identification of those issues with being a real Christian. The reason I’m so troubled is that I have literally known people who have turned away from exploring the teachings of Jesus because they assume that they will need to embrace these issues along with Jesus. This language may win elections but it loses converts to the Christian faith. I work in ministry with college students and watch kids leaving churches over these things. I work as part of an international fellowship of Christians who often wonder if we love America more than the global kingdom of God.

I’m disturbed by how such language limits both the issues I can care about as a Christian, and how I think about those issues. I don’t like how this rhetoric makes at least a certain group of people captive to a political party. Instead of being able to support on some things and challenge on others, there is a party line that must be adhered to if you are to maintain influence and stay inside the party’s tent, and in some cases, the good graces of one’s congregation.

What do I want instead? I want people to stop using their “faith identification” to get votes. Certainly it is not wrong for voters to know what a person’s faith is, but the identification of Christianity with a set of political issues and positions needs to end. Every time politicians do this, they misappropriate the identity of Christians.

I also believe the church needs to stop allowing itself to be played by politicians. The truth is, we are being used by politicians for the one simple thing politicians care about–getting elected. We’ve allowed leaders inside and outside the church with a political agenda to have greater influence than the whole counsel of scripture from Genesis to Revelation that challenges the positions of every political party and calls us to a far more radical life.

Above all, I want both politicians and leaders in some segments of the church to stop stealing my identity as a Christian for political ends. What it all comes down to is that this is not why Jesus lived, died, and rose. However, the wedding of religion and political power was the major reason why he was killed. Will we continue to sacrifice Christ for political ends?


Review: Queen of Glen Eyrie

Queen of Glen Eyrie

Queen of Glen EyrieCeleste Black. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2008. (Book link is to ABEBooks since book appears to be out of print and not available at publisher’s site).

Summary: The story of “Queen” Palmer, her love affair with General William Palmer, the castle home she inspired, life in frontier Colorado Springs and her later life in England.

This was one of those serendipitous finds in the $2 section at my local Half Price Books. I saw the words “Glen Eyrie” on the spine and was curious as to whether this was the same Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs that I’ve visited on two occasions. I discovered it was and that this little book offers an account of the woman who inspired this castle, the history of her marriage, life in frontier Colorado Springs, and the subsequent history of Glen Eyrie.

Queen was Mary Lincoln Mellen, the daughter of a New York lawyer and later a general agent with the Treasury Department. Queen and her father were on a railroad journey west in 1869 when they met General William Jackson Palmer, then director of construction for the Kansas Pacific Railroad. They almost immediately fell in love. Within weeks they were engaged and married November 8, 1870 in Flushing, New York. The question was where would they live, given his railroad interests. During survey work, Palmer visited a site just north of the Garden of the Gods that featured a glen within a canyon with a number of the red rock formations one sees at the nearby Garden. He and Queen had talked about building a castle-like cottage like one in a favorite painting of hers, “Dunkald” and this was the place he proposed if she agreed. She did, and seeing a pair of bald eagles nested in a rock formation above the Glen, gave the place its name, Glen Eyrie.

After their honeymoon, General Palmer went ahead to Colorado to begin construction on a comfortable, three story home. Queen followed, accompanied by family and later joined by friend, Rose Kingsley, whose journal memories give a vivid description of life in the frontier town of Colorado Springs. Rose and Queen help with teaching at the new school in town, and contribute to the social life of this birthing town. Queen also delighted in exploring the land around the Glen until heart problems curtailed her activities and dictated a quieter life in their home. By 1883, she could no longer stay there, unable to sleep at the high altitude of the home.

She spent the remaining years of her life living in England with her three daughters, and General Palmer traveling between the western US and England. The book describes journeys they took to see the great art museums of Italy and other journeys in Europe until Queen’s heart condition worsened. She died December 27, 1894 at age 44.

The book includes a number of Queen’s and Rose Kingsley’s letters and journals, and also family photographs as well as photographs of Glen Eyrie and Colorado Springs as an early settlement. It gives us a portrait of the short and yet full live of Queen Palmer, the role she played in the early settlement of Colorado Springs as well as in making a comfortable home for her family at Glen Eyrie.


Glen Eyrie, March 2017. Photo by Robert C. Trube, all rights reserved.

In later years, Palmer would expand Glen Eyrie and face it with stone instead of the original wood and it would serve as home for his three daughters, Elsie, Dorothy, and Marjory. After General Palmer’s death in 1909, the daughters offered the estate to the city of Colorado Springs. In 1916, they sold it to a group of Oklahoma businessmen who formed the Glen Eyrie Companies. They in turn sold it to Alexander Smith Cochran, a rug manlufacturer. Later it was sold to a Texas oilman. When it went on the market again Billy Graham was contacted about the property as a site for his headquarters. Graham was close friends with Dawson Trotman who had founded the Navigators. Trotman offered to buy it if Graham did not, and in just six weeks was able to raise the $110,000 downpayment. Glen Eyrie continues to serve as their international headquarters and as a conference center.

Review: Winsome Persuasion

winsome persuasion

Winsome PersuasionTim Muelhoff and Richard Langer (Foreword by Quentin J. Schultze). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Explores how Christians might effectively engage a dominant public culture by understanding the nature of counterpublics and the elements that go into effective communication and engagement.

It has become almost tedious to talk about how fraught our public discourse is with toxic argument and discord. Furthermore, there are many who would consider Christians a part of, perhaps a substantial part of, the problem. Alternatively, there are times they are utterly invisible, content to tend their own flocks. In Winsome Persuasion Muelhoff and Langer contend that far too often, the only modes by which Christians have sought to engage are the prophetic or the pastoral. While there are times and places where these are necessary and may be effective, they may not be what is needed in our present time. In this work, the authors explore a different mode, that of persuasion, that both recognizes difference, and seeks to overcome this by winning people rather than arguments or political power.

The authors begin by emphasizing the importance of understanding what it means to be a “counterpublic.” A dominant public not only holds the prevailing ideas, but has the power to prevail in enacting them. Thus counterpublics are “groups that exclusively engage in opinion formation and lack the ability to make policy decisions.” The authors identify three characteristics of such groups: opposition, withdrawal, and engagement. I found the discussion of withdrawal particularly illumining in highlighting the development of hidden transcripts that often may be rhetorically harsh and unflattering (consider Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” or Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” who don’t pay taxes and are dependent upon the government).

The authors then apply this understanding of counterpublics to Christian counterpublics. They observe how counterpublics often function in an argument culture: consideration equals condoning, monologue is valued over dialogue, disagreement degenerates to demonizing, all of which online disinhibition intensifies. They call instead for Christian counterpublics to lead with compassion that cares for others, goes beyond sympathy to empathy, confronts the uncompassionate, and is unconditional. This leads to establishing credibility as a counterpublic by demonstrating knowledge both of facts supporting one’s view and the reasons others would oppose it, practicing the virtues including humility and building goodwill by acknowledge the worth of those with whom we differ. There is a lengthy discussion of the critical value of the ethos of the messenger.

Part Two of the book focuses on how we engage others. It begins with crafting your message. One of the most valuable ideas here was finding an “audience of one,” a person with whom you have some relation who represents the public you wish to engage, which often exposes your blind spots, your “in group” language, and your need to find ways to frame your argument in universal terms. The authors cover finding starting points of agreement, using images, and connecting with the plausibility structures of the public to be engaged.

Messages need to be delivered as well as crafted. A crucial factor is persona, ideally one of humility that is able to laugh at oneself, and can give a fitting and succinct response in public discussion, whether with stories or statistics or a combination of both. Appropriate identification, without misappropriating identities helps in gaining a hearing. “Loose connections” help in conveying a message where we make common cause around limited but shared commitments. The authors helpfully talk about the strengths and pitfalls of such loose connections.

The last part of the book is their attempt to illustrate “winsome persuasion” by each articulating responses to the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold same-sex marriage. The two responses are very different, albeit with some common characteristics that reflect principles of winsome engagement. Then the authors engage in a dialogue highlighting both appreciation and differences with each other. Some might find this last section unsatisfying in looking for more far-reaching answers. Yet for me, the responses and discussion reflected thoughtful yet succinct statements such as one might share in a public forum, and a good example of civil dialogue characterized by both goodwill, and real engagement.

The book is enriched by four historical sketches illustrating principles developed in the work: Saint Patrick, Jean Vanier, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Wilberforce. As a Wilberforce fan, I loved the four lessons they drew from his “great speech” advocating abolition of the slave trade:

  1. Wilberforce left his opponents room to join him without humiliation.
  2. Wilberforce refused to make the battle personal.
  3. Wilberforce let the facts, not his rhetoric, be the fuel of moral outrage.
  4. Wilberforce refused to fall into the all-or-nothing trap.

I found myself thinking how important this work is in our setting for the counterpublic that might be described as the “evangelical resistance” to the current president and to the evangelicals and others who support the president. In particular, Muelhoff and Langer’s book is a challenge to move from opposition and withdrawal (complete with hidden transcripts that invariably leak) to substantive engagement.

Winsome Persuasion represents an important extension of the work of Tim Muelhoff and his collaborators into the public arena. His earlier work, I Beg to Differ (review) focused on difficult interpersonal communication. In this work, Muelhoff and Langer move from the personal to the public. They call us to move from hubris to humility,  from combat to compassion, from demonizing to dialogue, and from argument to at least limited forms of agreement. Most of all, they remind us both of the urgency, and the possibility of a better public conversation.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Where We Came From


1910 Census Record for the German Orphan (Protestant) Asylum via FamilySearch

In a number of these posts I’ve written about some of the early families who came to Youngstown and where they came from–towns in Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Recently, my sister-in-law emailed about our own family roots. I knew some of this but had a lot of question marks. She’s a realtor, and pretty resourceful when it comes up to searching for information. She filled in a few gaps and sparked my own curiosity that led to filling in a couple more. It also left me with some new questions.

I always knew that my grandfather had grown up in an orphanage in Pittsburgh and was pretty sure his father’s name was George. I didn’t know the name of his wife or why my grandfather and his brother Jack and sister Mary ended up in an orphanage. My sister-in-law confirmed that my great grandfather’s name was George, he was born in Kentucky, and my great grandmother was named Mathilde, born in Pennsylvania and deceased young sometime after the birth of her last child.  A 1910 census record at a genealogy site listed all the residents (forty-seven) at the orphanage where my grandfather grew up, including my grandmother and four siblings (there was also an Ernest and an Emma). It was listed as the German Orphan (Protestant) Asylum.

I remembered my grandfather taking me there one day as a child but had no idea where it was. Some sleuthing confirmed that it was the German Protestant Orphan Asylum, located in Mount Lebanon. I was able to match up the superintendent (or matron) of the orphanage listed on the census with a listing in the Directory of the Philanthropic Agencies of the City of Pittsburgh. We don’t know, but we suspect that my great grandfather, faced with raising five young children on his own after his wife’s death decided that this was too much, and placed them in the orphanage.

My sister-in-law also found my grandfather’s 1917 draft card. By that time, he was working in an ammunition factory run by Standard Steel Can in Butler, Pennsylvania. At this time, his father George is listed as still living, residing in Etna, Pennsylvania. My grandfather married shortly after this time and moved to Warren, Ohio where his brother also lived. My father was born in Warren in 1920. A census record from 1940 showed that my grandparents, my dad and his brother had moved to the West side of Youngstown, living in the duplex across the street on North Portland Avenue from where we grew up and my parents lived for 65 years. This was a fact I had not been aware of! At that time my grandfather is listed as a bakery supervisor, probably at the Wonder Bakery plant down the street on Mahoning Avenue. I remember him talking about driving a delivery truck for the bakery and wonder if this is what brought him to Youngstown. Later on, he sold insurance for the Prudential and moved to the South Side.

Looking at the 1940 census records, I realized that there must be one in the same batch for my mother since she and her family lived on South Portland. She was 20 at the time and listed as a “new worker.” My grandfather on my mom’s side is listed as a policeman with the steel mills (I believe U.S. Steel). A year later, my mom and dad were married, less than six months before Pearl Harbor.

All the things my sister-in-law uncovered filled in some gaps and raised some questions as well. I have no memory of my grandfather’s brother Ernest, and very little of Emma. I wonder what brought his father’s family to Kentucky and how George and Mathilde ended up in Pittsburgh. I suspect work had something to do with it. I’m still not sure why my grandparents started out in Warren or exactly when they moved to Youngstown. I wonder how much my grandfather and his father stayed in touch after he was placed in the orphanage. Apparently my grandfather knew where his father was living to list him as next of kin. And we still don’t know who George’s father was and where he came from. Likely from somewhere in Germany.

Germany-Kentucky–Pittsburgh–Mt. Lebanon–Butler–Warren–Youngstown. That’s the path that my father’s family took to get to Youngstown. I hope I haven’t bored you with these efforts to learn more about our family history. Maybe it has sparked an interest to discover the path your family took and how it ran to or through Youngstown. Like many of you, our family is now scattered around the country. And like you, Youngstown was a significant part of our family history, as well as the place of my birth.

My sister in law did a good part of her research on FamilySearch, a free genealogy website that I’ve used for other research on Youngstown families. It just hadn’t occurred to me to use it to look into my own family roots! This was where she accessed census and other records connected with my grandfather and his siblings.

Review: Blessings from Beijing

blessings from beijing

Blessings from BeijingGreg C. Bruno. Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge (UPNE), 2018.

Summary: An exploration of how China is using “soft power” to undermine the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugee community he represents.

Before reading this book, I must confess I was unaware of the history of the Tibetan refugee community of which the fourteenth Dalai Lama is the chief representative, if no longer political head. After the civil war during which Mao came to power forming the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Dalai Lama affirmed the sovereignty of China in return for a grant of autonomy for Tibet. Nevertheless, the PRC asserted increasing control, and eventually the Dalai Lama repudiated the agreement affirming the PRC’s sovereignty and went into exile in 1959, along with many of his people who fled to Nepal, India, and in some cases Western countries. While continuing to function as spiritual head, the Dalai Lama stepped down from leadership of the Central Tibetan Administration in 2011.

Particularly since 1990, China has both tightened its control over Tibet, quashing unrest in 2008 and a rash of self-immolations protesting its control. Simultaneously, it has pursued a series of “soft power” measures to undermine the Tibetan refugee community, the Central Tibetan Administration, and the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who represent an independent Tibetan government in exile. This book is a study of these soft power measures, the Tibetan exile community, and the prospects for its future. The title is drawn from a press conference in which the Dalai Lama made this statement:

“Totalitarian regimes sort of pressure everywhere, even in the United States….I think India and Nepal are receiving some special blessing from Peking, that’s quite clear….And the situation in Nepal, it’a not very settled, not very stable. There are a lot of problems. So Chinese pressure, Chinese Communist pressure, is more effective.”

Since 1997, Greg C. Bruno has been traveling to Tibetan refugee settlements in Nepal and India and interviewing refugees, including the Dalai Lama, and he has chronicled as a journalist, the soft power pressure he has witnessed first hand. Even in Dharamsala, the center of the Tibetan refugee community and home of the Dalai Lama, the primary media outlets in nearby China broadcast incessant Communist Party propaganda. Pro-Tibetan actions even in London and the U.S. are met with vigorous PRC pressure and threats. At the same time, efforts of Tibetans to flee the country have been increasingly thwarted and the using of funding and cross border policing efforts have made it increasingly possible to escape into bordering Nepal. Refugee communities have been infiltrated with informers and spies. Chinese efforts have exacerbated religious differences among Tibetan sects, further undermining the Dalai Lama’s spiritual authority and raising increasing questions about his successor, the next reincarnation.

Bruno also gives us a glimpse of the refugee community through his friendship with aging “Pala” who established on the streets of McLeod Ganj the “Walmart of Little Lhasa.” Pala had been his host on early trips to Dharamsala and taught him rudiments of the language. By tracing the life of his family, the children who migrated to European and American Tibetan communities, and the son who remained behind, trying to find purpose in maintaining a trade he had little heart for, we see a snapshot of refugee life–new beginnings, further diaspora, and stalled hopes. He explores the complicated existence of Tibetans as a refugee community within India and the question of whether to naturalize if possible. He helps us understand, through the reports of a refugee, why a young man with a future in Tibet would self-immolate in protest against Chinese rule.

Running through all of this is the question of what will happen with the passing of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. What will China do? What is the future of the Tibetan community in exile? Can it sustain its protest against China? One thing the author makes clear is that as long as this community coheres, it will represent a threat to China, and will continue to enjoy China’s “blessings.”

Both the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights assert the right of a people to self-determination, and three resolutions by the UN General Assembly in 1959, 1961, and 1965 upheld these rights for the Tibetan people. Western support as well as the initial welcome of the Indian government has sustained this exile community. China’s increasing global reach raises the question of whether the Tibetan people inside and outside of China will be forgotten or marginalized. The Dalai Lama has probably done all and more than all that one person can do to raise the profile and case for self-determination of Tibetans.

What Bruno’s book makes clear is that if this case is to have a future, it will depend both on the Tibetan refugee community and advocacy from the global community. Bruno also helps us appreciate that Tibet consists of a distinctive people with its own language, religion, cultural practices, and history. Some of us are deeply disturbed with the danger of the extinction of any living species. How much more should we care about the extinction or assimilation of a people? Bruno helps us understand the hopes and aspirations of this people, and as well as what could be lost if China has its way.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Demanding Liberty

demanding liberty

Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious FreedomBrandon J. O’Brien. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Looks at the history of the struggle for religious freedom in America through a study of the efforts of Reverend Isaac Backus to secure a religious freedom that negotiated a third way between established religion and secularism.

One of the messages of this book is that in order to understand the present time and how to move forward, we do well to look back. Brandon J. O’Brien believes that our present discussions about religious liberty and how we sustain that freedom do well to be informed by understanding the history of religious freedom before and during the nation’s founding years. To do that, O’Brien focuses in on the life and advocacy of Baptist minister Isaac Backus. Backus gives the lie to the idea that America was established in the quest for religious freedom. He writes:

“If Isaac Backus were alive today, he would feel the need to correct the misperception that there was ever a “long-standing American tradition of accommodating religious practice and expression” in the years before or even after the Constitution was ratified. He might tell us about the time his mother was arrested for refusing to pay religious taxes. He might tell us about the time a congregation of New England Baptists had their property seized and their orchards destroyed for holding unauthorized worship services. He would almost certainly tell us about the time he debated with John and Samuel Adams about how claiming to defend religious liberty was not enough. The laws had to be enforced if they were to matter at all.”

The book begins by describing the religious history of New England prior to the War of Independence. Even with the Great Awakening, only 17 percent regularly attended worship. One of these was Isaac Backus, who was converted through an awareness of his own sin and a sermon of George Whitfield. He joined a Congregational Church but due to their “Half way covenant” that allowed people to commune and have their children baptized without a clear account of their conversion, soon became a “Separate.” During this time, he experienced a call of the Holy Spirit to preach and began itinerating to other “Separate” churches. Eventually, he concluded that infant baptism was inconsistent with his understanding of conversion and joined the Baptists.

All these moves brought legal problems. Congregational churches enjoyed government support through taxes levied on the citizenry. Exemptions for others could be granted but were often ignored resulting in fines and seizures of property. Ministers needed not only a call from God but ministerial training in seminaries and approval of other [Congregational] ministers. To preach without this approval could also result in fines and sanctions. All of this was supported by colonial government. Pilgrims may have come seeking religious freedom but Puritans controlled the narrative, establishing “freedom” that enforced with government support their own religious beliefs to the exclusion of others.

O’Brien chronicles how all this transformed O’Brien into a lifelong advocate for religious freedom. He documented wrongs and even made an eloquent case to the Continental Congress, albeit framing it in religious rather than public square terms. He argued for a system that upheld neither a theocracy nor advocated an utterly secular state, but one where religious freedom for all was protected and valued, and where government privileged no belief. In 1779 he formulated a Bill of Rights that anticipated that eventually incorporated into the Constitution. He lived to see the First Amendment ratified.

Throughout the book, O’Brien moves back and forth between past and present, drawing parallels about divisions over religious freedom, when a majority becomes a minority, different perceptions of what it means to be marginalized, the importance for creating space for principled disagreement and the paradox of influence in the halls of power while losing influence in the wider culture. The book explores both what is at stake in our efforts to uphold religious liberties both for ourselves and others and raises intriguing questions about the parallel quest for civil liberties, which often have lagged far behind.  Should not the two go together? And yet often religious believers resist those pressing for greater civil liberties and rights.

This is a timely work on an important current discussion that has always been at the heart of what it means to be a country committed to “liberty and justice for all.”

Review: Interpreting the Wisdom Books

interpreting the wisdom books

Interpreting the Wisdom Books: An Exegetical Handbook, Edward M. Curtis. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017.

Summary: A handbook offering step by step help in moving from text to sermon exegeting and expositing the Wisdom books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.

It is not often that members of most churches hear preaching from the Wisdom books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, apart from citations in topical sermons, or an occasional venture into these books. That is regrettable since there is so much of profit in all of these books. A grad student friend once described a period in his life of profound depression and said that the book of Ecclesiastes was the only book he could read, and it got him through this dark season.

The purpose of this book is to help pastors and teachers who want to tackle one or more of these books, giving practical, step by step assistance in moving from text to message. The handbook is not a commentary on these four books, but assumes a willingness to do the hard work of moving from careful, personal study (preferably in Hebrew) of the text, to interpretation, and finally to preparing and proclaiming messages from these texts.

What the author does is focus in on the particular issues involved in exegeting these books, applying good general principles of exegesis to this particular genre. He begins in chapter one with considering the genre, the nature of Old Testament Wisdom and the particular ways in which Hebrew poetry and proverbs function, including a discussion of parallelism and other devices like metaphor and image. This, I thought some of the most helpful material in the book.

Chapter two considers the primary themes one finds in each of the Wisdom books. This chapter, while including much helpful material, does approach being at least an overview commentary of each book, and feels a bit like a shortcut in the process. I would personally advise reading the book multiple times and trying to arrive at primary themes or a basic outline of the book by oneself. Nevertheless, there are helpful observations, including the importance of the idea of the fear of the Lord in Proverbs, or hebel in Ecclesiastes.

Chapter three gets down to the spade work of good exegesis: ancient near East backgrounds and parallels with the Wisdom books, the challenges of textual criticism (especially difficult with Job), doing good translation work from the Hebrew text, and then considering what others have written. Each section here includes a helpful list of basic resources to aid in this work.

Chapter four explores basic interpretive issues specific to each book. In Job, this includes reading individual passages in light of the whole book (otherwise Job may sound really bad, and his friends really good!). In Proverbs, the same applies and is particularly important when it comes to interpreting a particular proverb in terms of all the proverbs on this topic, which often balance each other. Likewise, in Ecclesiastes, the tensions within the book mean it is vital to reach a balanced understanding of the whole. In Song of Songs, so much of the issue is understanding the love poetry one finds here without so breaking it down in a message that it, as the author observes, has “the same impact as ‘explaining a joke.’ ”

Chapter five moves from exegesis to proclamation, and some important considerations in proclaiming the wisdom of each book. He gives examples of developing preaching outlines for Proverbs 2 and Job 28, and then turns to principles for each book. There is a strong emphasis on application, showing how this wisdom bears on modern life, whether concerning suffering and faith, unanswered questions, marital love, or the everyday wisdom of Proverbs rooted in the fear of the Lord.

Chapter six is a kind of summary or recap, showing the process of moving from text to sermon. He uses the examples of a topical study of friendship from Proverbs, and a study of Job 4-6 on Job’s friend Eliphaz.

An appendix, contributed by Austen M. Dutton surveys the software and online resources available for the study of the Wisdom books. Dutton includes some of the best free online resources as well as software running from inexpensive to more costly. A glossary of important terms (also highlighted in the text) is included.

The word “handbook” is a good descriptor for this book. It offers the person who will preach or teach from Wisdom texts a step by step framework for careful textual study, good interpretive principles, and homiletic considerations, without doing the work either of the preacher or the Holy Spirit. Curtis also provides sufficient background and overview of key themes of the books to make the case for the value to be found in studying and preaching them. His examples throughout convey that this is an interpreter who has spent long hours with great love studying and teaching and applying these books, and one who believes you want to do likewise!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.