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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2018
July
06
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Today news-watchers’ heads pivot to Asia: a “trade war” kickoff against China, a delegation sent to check in on Kim Jong-un’s action (or inaction) on nukes.

Next week, the US president heads to Brussels (for NATO), and to London. More divisiveness is in the forecast, as are some high-profile protests.

And US immigration policy still roils. On July 4, a Congolese immigrant-activist scrambled to the feet of Lady Liberty to protest the tactics of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a move that seemed heavy with poignancy but that mostly played out in media reports as a dangerous annoyance.

People keep referencing the summer of 1968. It’s worth a look back. Fifty years ago today – eight days after he signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons – President Lyndon B. Johnson went to El Salvador for a summit with heads of state, including those from the Northern Triangle countries that are now the major source of migration. He plumped the legacy of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “good neighbor” doctrine in a speech in Nicaragua. (Calls still go out today for more equitable, moral relations with that region.)

There, as at home, Johnson was met with protests against the war in Vietnam.

The clenched fists of that summer make statue-climbing and anti-Trump balloons look tame by comparison.

Is there a right course of action for people interested in universal well-being?

Today much of it revolves around one particularly potent tool available to all citizens: getting involved in elections – and not just through vote-casting, though immigration is likely to be a “base motivator” for both parties in the midterms.

Protest today often takes the form of deliberate action to own a share of control. First-generation Americans seek office in greater numbers. Teachers are running to protect their interests. And women are better represented in state legislatures. There’s power in participation.

~

Now to our five stories for your Friday. 

1. Bottom-rung lift: the forces reducing minimum-wage earners' ranks

The US labor market continues to fly high, with a report of 213,000 new jobs in June. We wondered: To what degree is that making the minimum-wage job obsolete?

An employee pushes a dish cart at Zak the Baker in Miami. On July 6, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the nation added 213,000 jobs in June. Only 2.3 percent of workers were paid at or below the federal minimum last year, the lowest percentage since 2006.
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Lynne Sladk/AP

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In the former mill city of Manchester, N.H., it’s hard to find anyone making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. It’s a signal that a strong economy, after years of benefiting upper-income Americans, has finally started to bring more pay raises to retail clerks and other workers at the bottom of the pay scale. In the fast-food industry, median pay nationwide is $8.28 an hour. And a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Sacramento, Calif., drew wide attention in May when it raised starting pay to $17 an hour. But if an improved job market is helping low-wage workers, there’s still lots of room for progress. The $9 an hour offered for one delivery job in Manchester works out to $18,720 a year, below the poverty line for a family of three. Many states have set their own minimums above the federal level. But not all businesses can afford big boosts in wages, says David Henkes, an expert on the food-service industry. Even in a strong economy, he says, “margins are tight for restaurant operators across the board.”

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Bottom-rung lift: the forces reducing minimum-wage earners' ranks

It’s “flip flop frenzy” week at the Dollar Tree here on Valley Street, which is celebrating another milestone. Eight months after coming on board, the manager finally has a full complement of workers in place. He has been training the final two associates this week.

Starting pay: $8 an hour – 75 cents above the federal minimum wage.

It’s almost impossible to find anyone in Manchester, N.H., paying the $7.25 minimum. The online service at the local unemployment office lists a dry cleaner offering $8 an hour, an AutoZone delivery driver for $9, and a state toll taker for $13.44. Of the 412 local job listings that include pay information, only one is offering minimum wage – and that turns out to be a mistake.

“Are you sure you’ve got the right place?” asks the assistant manager of a gas station in nearby Hooksett, when a reporter calls. “We start at $10 an hour.”

Here in the comeback mill city of Manchester and in vibrant cities all across the country, the federal minimum wage is affecting fewer and fewer workers. It’s a signal that a strong economy, after years of benefiting upper-income Americans, has finally started to bring more pay raises to retail clerks and other workers at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

On Friday, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the nation added a higher than expected 213,000 jobs in June. The unemployment rate actually edged up to 4.0 percent as available jobs and better pay drew more people from the sidelines, but a generally tight job market is expanding pay and opportunities even in states like New Hampshire that follow the federal minimum.

“We don’t see a ton of minimum-wage situations,” says Rudy Ogden, deputy commissioner of labor for New Hampshire. Statewide, there were 15,000 workers paid minimum wage or less in 2016, according to the BLS. A year later, it had fallen by almost half – to 8,000.

Nationally, 29 states and a number of localities have enacted their own higher minimum wages. Only 2.3 percent of workers were paid at or below the federal minimum last year, the lowest percentage since 2006.

Nevertheless, the availability of jobs and pay increases doesn’t provide an automatic escape from poverty for families. Even $9 dollars an hour works out to $18,720 a year, below the poverty line for a family of three. Median pay for fast-food workers nationwide is $8.28 an hour, according to PayScale, an online compensation data service.

Add in the high cost of living in many coastal cities, and the recent boosts in pay are seen by many as a work-in-progress. In the new government jobs report, year-over-year nominal wage growth is 2.7 percent nationwide as of June, a solid but not stellar pace.

Surprisingly, far more workers are paid below the minimum wage than at the minimum wage. They fall into special categories, such as waitresses who get more than $30 a month in tips, teenagers in training positions, or farm workers.

Pay depends on age, of course, so younger and less-skilled workers are more likely to make minimum wage than their older colleagues. It also depends on the industry. Fast-food restaurants, in particular, tend to pay low wages. And these days, location is crucial.

So in Manchester, whose long three- and five-story mill buildings along both sides of the Merrimack River have been converted to lofts, retail space, and a burgeoning set of medical high-tech enterprises, entry-level pay is rising. That’s the case along much of the Washington-Boston corridor as well as on the West Coast.

A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Sacramento drew wide attention in May when it raised starting pay to $17 an hour.

“The economics of fast food … generally doesn’t allow for that,” says David Henkes, a senior principal with Technomic, an international food-service consulting group based in Chicago. “Margins are tight for restaurant operators across the board. It’s not as though there’s extra margin for them to offer $14, $15, $16 an hour.”

That’s especially true in areas that have not boomed so dramatically. Kentucky, for example, has three times the population of New Hampshire but more than six times the number of workers making at or below the minimum wage.

Friday’s employment report suggests that wage pressures will continue to lift workers’ pay above minimum-wage levels.

South of Manchester, at the turnpike toll station, cars are lined up waiting for the single manned booth to take their cash.

More evidence of a worker shortage? The attendant stops to think about it, as more cars join the line. “Two no-shows and someone is running late,” he says.

That $13.44 per hour toll-taking job can’t be filled soon enough.

SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Conference of State Legislatures
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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2. How Europe is working to break a two-sided cycle of extremism

While Islamist terrorists get close scrutiny, their far-right counterparts often do not. But that is changing, especially as studies show jihadists and the far-right not only reflect each other, but feed off each other.

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Far-right groups and Muslim extremists don’t just use the same language of exclusion to divide the population essentially between Muslims and everyone else – they also depend on one another for legitimacy. That’s the conclusion of a new report that looked at both sides of extremism in Germany and how groups rely on one another to reinforce their own views. As the threat of terrorism remains high across Europe, observers are scrambling to break the cycle. The study’s authors say the two groups utilize similar rhetoric and symbols, historical references, and memes in an attempt to extinguish middle ground and recruit new members to their cause by offering a sense of identity. They often co-opt each other’s language. Far-right groups have called for “white jihad,” for example. And Robert Timm, a German white nationalist leader, refers to himself as an “ethno-jihadist.” “They’re essentially telling the same story,” says Jakob Guhl of the London Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “The West is at war with Islam and it’s just a matter of who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy.”

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1. How Europe is working to break a two-sided cycle of extremism

When most people think of the Bataclan these days, it’s not the venerated theater where rock bands have been playing since the 1970s which comes to mind. Rather, it’s Islamist terrorism, after 89 people were killed there during a concert in November 2015.

So when news spread this fall that a rapper named Médine, who once named an album “Jihad” and is openly critical of secularism in France, will play the Paris venue in the fall, the far right was outraged. “Is it normal that a militant, fundamentalist Islamist goes to the Bataclan to express his hatred and defend ideas that I believe are inciting crimes?” asked France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Muslims, in kind, pointed to her comments as yet another example of intentional misunderstanding about Islam, overshadowing what Médine is trying to say about the Muslim experience in France. Instead, they say Ms. Le Pen’s remarks breed the kind of victimhood often at the heart of the Muslim extremist narrative.

“It’s like a showdown between two legitimate symbols,” says Karim Amellal, who sits on a commission of French President Emmanuel Macron to fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. “The Bataclan, which is a very symbolic place because of the terrorist attack, and Médine and Islam.”

The face-off also points to the start of what often becomes a vicious circle of extremism, in which far-right groups and Muslim extremists don’t just use the same language of exclusion – to divide the population essentially between Muslims and everyone else – but depend on one another for legitimacy.

That’s the conclusion of a new report that looked at both sides of extremism in Germany and how groups rely on one another to reinforce their own views. As the threat of terrorism remains high across Europe – at the same time that far-right arrests have risen in Britain and anti-terrorist police busted a cell of far-right extremists in France who allegedly planned to kill Muslims – observers are scrambling to break the cycle.

“It’s partly about the politics of the spectacle of confrontation,” says Ben Gidley, a senior lecturer of sociology at Birkbeck, University of London who worked on a 2014 study on what drives extremism in British society. “Every time [a far right leader] is on television saying something inflammatory, that fuels the anger about extreme Islamism which gives an opportunity to the entrepreneurs of panic on the right to put their message into the public sphere. Once you have a spectacular appearance on one side, it gives a platform to the other.”

Mirrored movements

The study in Germany by the Jena Institute with the London Institute for Strategic Dialogue looked at far-right and Islamist content online between 2013 and 2017 on Facebook and Twitter, as well as on gaming apps and secret channels.

The study’s authors say the two groups utilize similar rhetoric and symbols, historical references, and memes – an attempt to extinguish middle ground and recruit new members to their cause by offering a sense of identity.

They often co-opt each other’s language. Far-right groups have called for “white jihad,” for example. And Robert Timm, the leader of white nationalist group “Identitäre Bewegung“ in Berlin and Brandenburg, refers to himself as an “ethno-jihadist” on his Twitter profile.

“They’re essentially telling the same story,” says Jakob Guhl, project associate at the London Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “The West is at war with Islam and it’s just a matter of who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy.”

Social media companies have more vigorously starting shutting down Muslim extremism. Germany has worked to tackle some of it on the far right with a new law that requires social media companies to delete hate speech. “One is not less dangerous than the other,” says Maik Fielitz, who conducted the study from Germany. “They are both trying to destroy the foundation of an open society and also initiate a spiral of polarization.”

Mr. Guhl also says media and politicians have a responsibility to give less space to extremist voices too.

Breaking the cycle

At its most extreme, the hate becomes terrorism.

In Britain, the number of arrests for terrorist-related activities has risen steadily, as it became a focal point of terrorist activity in 2017. The majority was categorized as holding Islamist-extremist views – 82 percent, according to Home Office statistics – but the proportion of those holding far-right ideologies has increased too, the statistics show. Some 29 individuals with far-right ideologies were in prison as of March 2018, up from 9 the previous year.

In France, ten people suspected of belonging to a radical far-right group were arrested at the end of June over an alleged plot to attack Muslims. Police linked them to a shadowy group called the Operational Forces Action, which explicitly calls on the French to fight Muslims.

It was a reminder in France that Muslims are in terrorists’ line of fire just as much as non-Muslims. It was only two years ago, in the truck rampage in Nice on Bastille Day, that many Muslims were among those killed and injured in an attack committed in the name of Islam, says Sylvain Crépon, a political scientist at the University of Tours. “Among the victims there were veiled women, practicing Muslims. We saw that the French population could become victims, regardless of if they were Muslim or not,” he says. “It was a huge wake-up call.”

The recent arrests in France underscore that point further. Too often the media and politicians refer to acts committed by far-right groups as perpetrated by someone with mental health issues, or a lone wolf, not a terrorist.

Mr. Gidley in Britain says that labeling far-right violence “terrorism,” whether in political discourse, media coverage, or within civil society, is a solution to breaking the cycle. “It's really important,” he says, “to challenge the association of terrorism and Islamism which contributes to the anti-Muslim discourses that feed the far right and to have clarity to challenge it properly, that there is a problem with right-wing terrorism.”

He also says policy makers need to create more space for cultural mixing and frank talk about people’s concerns amid demographic change.

“There need to be more opportunities for people to air their grievances, to feel listened to,” he says. “If there are concerns about migration or foreign policy, instead of making them into taboo topics, create opportunities to allow people to feel listened to so they don’t get channeled into extremist ideology.”

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Learning together

An occasional series on efforts to address segregation

3. 'Keep the test!' Debate flares over public schools with entrance exams.

An uproar over access to prestigious high schools seems to pit high-scoring Asian-Americans against high-potential African-Americans and Latinos. The deeper issue: How to define merit in a way that's fair and inclusive.

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New York City is roiled over a question that challenges other US cities, too: Should top-level public high schools be reserved for students with the highest scores on a test, or should the doors be opened wider to underrepresented groups by looking at other measures? Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office recently proposed ditching the admissions test for access to the city’s specialized high schools. Nearly 7 in 10 students in the school district are African-American or Latino, but they hold only 1 in 10 places in these schools. The new plan feels like a penalty to many who have been preparing for the exam. But some experts say “excellence versus equity” is a false framing for the debate, and note that test scores are hardly a perfect measure of merit. The discussion is prompting calls for more specialized high schools, as well as changing the approach to gifted education. The current system makes people feel as if they have to “fight for a small piece of pie,” says Jo-ann Yoo of the Asian American Federation in New York. “Why can’t we bake more pies?”

This is Part 3 of Learning Together, an occasional series on efforts to address segregation. See Part 1  and Part 2.

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1. 'Keep the test!' Debate flares over public schools with entrance exams.

The chant was not what you’d expect when hundreds of people march in protest: “Keep the test!”

The crowd gathered outside Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office June 15, angry at his proposal to ditch the city’s Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) – the sole determinant for admissions to eight of the city’s most prestigious public high schools.

For years, civil rights advocates have been pushing for a change to the test, which Mayor de Blasio described as “a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence” in an oped announcing the new proposal.

The ensuing debate has turned on the question of how to fairly distribute the scarce commodity of seats in these celebrated schools. One underlying concern: Nearly 7 out of 10 students in the school district are African-American or Latino, but they hold only 1 out of 10 places in these schools.

While New York is unique in relying solely on one test, the long-simmering disagreements over definitions of merit, excellence, and equity resonate more broadly. Selective public high schools exist in dozens of states from Virginia to Illinois.

The consideration of racial diversity in admissions is front and center again on the national stage as well. Harvard University is facing a lawsuit alleging discrimination against Asian-Americans. And on Tuesday, the US Departments of Education and Justice announced a rollback of a variety of Obama-era guidance around affirmative action.

Exam schools are often a source of pride for a community – boasting high rates of college attendance and alumni who give the schools a starring role in their American dream stories.

Many selective schools have attempted, successfully at times, to reflect the diversity of their districts. In some cases, courts forced them to adopt desegregation plans. But as the tide has shifted away from desegregation enforcement, civil rights advocates say, a growing number of public schools have admissions processes that perpetuate racial and socioeconomic stratification.

After recommendations from a task force, de Blasio and New York Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza proposed to draw the top 7 percent of students from each middle school, based on grades and scores on statewide tests. But for some of the eight high schools, dropping the current entrance exam would require an act of the state legislature, which won’t reconvene until 2019.

In the meantime, starting in the fall of 2019, 20 percent of seats at the specialized schools will be assigned to disadvantaged students from high-poverty schools who score just shy of the cutoff score on the SHSAT. This will expand the city’s Discovery Program, which provides a transitional summer course for such students.

That would immediately increase the projected number of middle schools represented by more than 100, and would raise the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers to attend to about 16 percent, de Blasio said.

New plan stirs criticism

But the plan feels like a penalty to many who have been preparing for the exam. Some Asian-Americans – the largest group taking the test and enrolling in the specialized high schools – say they feel targeted.

Last Sunday, Maggie Qiu took her two elementary-school aged children on a hot subway ride to a screening of a documentary about the SHSAT.

“In Chinese culture, the most important thing, the number one thing, the first thing, is our children’s education,” said Ms. Qiu, an immigrant still working to master English.

Her son Daniel is a seventh-grader at a lower Manhattan middle school, and he’s trying to prepare for the test. “It’s kinda stressful,” Daniel said, standing with his mom and younger sister outside The First Chinese Baptist Church in Chinatown.

Asian-Americans hold diverse viewpoints on these issues. “A lot of us who do social justice work agree there needs to be … more opportunity for the black and Latino kids to get up to these schools.… But we’re very resentful that we are being pitted against other communities of color,” says Jo-ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation in New York, in a phone interview. “A lot of the Asian-American kids who go to these specialized high schools are from low-income families.”

By one poverty measure used in New York City policymaking, Asian-American New Yorkers live in poverty at the same rate as Hispanic New Yorkers, nearly 26 percent. 

Some critics of the New York proposal worry that the academic rigor and achievement culture established at these high schools could be in jeopardy.

Anticipating such objections, de Blasio wrote: “Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative.” 

Supporters of affirmative action agree. “There is no evidence that an affirmative policy will lower the quality,” says Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. The Boston Latin exam school, for instance, didn’t lose quality or prestige when about a third of seats were designated for African-American and Latino students for two decades – before being stopped by a court case.

Equity and excellence should not be framed as mutually exclusive, supporters say.

“Test scores do not measure merit,” says Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest in Boston. “When it is the primary factor for selection, you spark a test-prep arms race.”

Recent high school graduate Jorge Morales says he and several friends did well in a New York middle school where many of the students are from low-income families that don’t speak English. They tried to prepare on their own for the SHSAT, but didn’t score well enough. Still, “they ended up in other really good high schools and are going into really good universities, so they definitely had the potential to succeed at those specialized high schools,” says Mr. Morales in a phone interview.

He’s headed to the University of Rochester, and he’s the policy team leader at Teens Take Charge, a student-led group that advocated for a plan similar to the mayor's proposal. The goal, he says, is not only to make access more equitable, but also to make the high schools better by diversifying them.

Seeking long-term solutions

People with ties to the exam schools come down on both sides. Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Association, argues that the exam should stay. The focus should be on improving preparation and expanding the Discovery Program.

Ted Chang says he and his wife, a graduate of an exam school, are for the mayor’s plan even though their children attend school in a neighborhood that would end up sending fewer students. “There's something truly ironic about getting the alumni associations of our most popular science schools to coalesce around a test that social scientists have concluded is a very weak and inaccurate measure of academic potential,” he writes in an email.

But without a test, selective high schools may struggle to differentiate between the most advanced students, says Hilde Kahn, former board member of the foundation of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) in Fairfax, Va., and the mother of three graduates.

In addition to an admissions test, TJ has tried using various factors, including teacher recommendations, diversity goals, and indicators of passion for math and science, Ms. Kahn notes.

Local districts have tried to prepare a wider range of students in earlier grades. But those moves failed to significantly increase the enrollment of black, Latino, and low-income students. The majority of students at TJ are Asian-American, and only about 1 percent come from low-income families.

“If we don’t provide more outside of school for kids who don’t have those opportunities at home, they have an additional disadvantage,” Kahn says of the enrichment needed to prepare for advanced math and science. “They need the tools.”

That’s also why many voices in the New York debate want changes to specialized high school admissions to be discussed in a larger context. 

Some in New York have suggested adding more specialized high schools, as well as changing the approach to gifted education. Similar questions in Boston have led the district to begin phasing out third-grade testing and tracking of students into “advanced work” classes – in favor of a system called Excellence for All.

The current system makes people feel they have to “fight for a small piece of pie. Why can’t we bake more pies?” says Ms. Yoo.

This is Part 3 of Learning Together: an occasional series on efforts to address segregation. See Part 1  and Part 2.

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4. How a Millennial influx is changing a small heartland city

The sorting of voters into blue and red enclaves has sharpened partisan mistrust. As more young people move to smaller cities in the conservative heartland, their social mixing may begin to moderate political divisions. 

Krista Badiane, a sustainability consultant and Duke University graduate, is raising two daughters with her Senegalese husband in Grand Rapids, Mich. Though she always imagined herself settling on the East or West Coast, she says it would be hard to re-create the quality of life they have in Grand Rapids.
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Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

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As housing prices outpace salaries in major coastal cities, more Millennials are moving to second-tier cities like Grand Rapids, Mich. For educated young professionals coming from Wall Street or Silicon Valley, the main attraction is a more affordable lifestyle, but many also relish a stronger sense of community and the opportunity to make an impact. Over time, this exodus from mostly blue to mostly red areas of the United States could begin to soften the edges of national political partisanship. Young liberals bring a mind-set of openness and tolerance to the heartland, and are in turn learning to appreciate traditional values as they settle down and build new lives. For now, this movement of Millennials is mostly to Democratic-run cities, not the Republican towns and exurbs around them. Grand Rapids, the conservative base of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is something of an exception: a hint of purple politics in the making. "It’s what I want my kids to be exposed to – all different types of people, and people who might make them uncomfortable," says Anne Rosenbaum, a transplant from Oregon. 

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How a Millennial influx is changing a small heartland city

Aaron Ofseyer may be the only person who moved here from the West Coast for the weather.

Mr. Ofseyer is a TV meteorologist, so when a good job came open in Grand Rapids, he left home in Eugene, Ore., drove across the country through January blizzards, and looped around frozen Lake Michigan to start a new chapter.

Ofseyer and his wife, Anne Rosenbaum, planned on staying a few years, but eight years later they’re still in Grand Rapids. They’ve bought a house, had two children, joined a synagogue, gotten library cards, and are regulars at cultural events.

Like many transplants from costly coastal cities, they find Grand Rapids to be welcoming and affordable. Settled by Dutch Reformists known for their work ethic, it has a well-funded art contest, bustling restaurants and breweries, and brick-paved streets decorated with gay pride flags, all of which has made it a Midwestern magnet for Millennials whose ranks are growing faster here than in Boston or New York.

Ofseyer and Ms. Rosenbaum also like the diversity of political viewpoints that gets them out of their liberal bubble. When they eat out in hip neighborhoods, they sometimes look over to see fellow diners praying or holding a Bible study group.

“We’re forced to confront people who are different than us ... (and) even though politically you might have a different frame of reference, there’s way more that unites us than divides us politically,” says Ofseyer, who adds that one of his best friends at work is conservative.

“I think it’s refreshing and it’s great, and it’s what I want my kids to be exposed to – all different types of people, and people who might make them uncomfortable,” says Rosenbaum.

Across the country, young professionals are carving out a new niche in second-tier cities where their wages go further. Most are seeking a more affordable lifestyle, as well as a stronger sense of community and the opportunity to make more of an impact. That this movement is largely from Democratic-run cities to conservative corners of the country raises questions over what political values may emerge, and whether it’s possible to find common ground in a hyper-partisan era.

A U-Haul truck sits in the driveway of a home in the Heritage Hill area of Grand Rapids, Mich., June 14, 2018, a neighborhood that was once home to the city's lumber barons. In recent years the city has become a Midwestern magnet for millennials, with their ranks growing twice as fast here as in the New York metro area.
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Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

An optimistic view is that a blue exodus to cities like Grand Rapids, the power base of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her wealthy family, brings in liberal young professionals that prize openness and diversity and seek to spread those values. In turn, they may come to appreciate more traditional values as they put down roots and become homeowners. As 70-million-plus Millennials gradually edge out their elders, those interactions could eventually temper the culture wars that obstruct problem solving on national and local issues.

"People are starting to look at what you might call beta cities – Grand Rapids; Madison, Wisc.; Des Moines, Iowa.; and Orlando, Fla. – places that, in my generation, young ambitious people didn’t go,” says Joel Kotkin, executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

“It’ll be interesting to see whether we see a new politics, which combines some of the social values of the blue states with some of the cultural beliefs of the red states,” like religion, community, and self-sufficiency, he says.

Digital sorting and church schooling

While Grand Rapids’ small urban core is solidly liberal, the surrounding Kent County went for Donald Trump in 2016 by about 9,500 votes, a smaller margin of victory than Mitt Romney’s in 2012. More young liberal votes could tip the balance in future elections.  

But Jim Russell, a geographer who has tracked young people moving to Rust Belt cities, is less convinced that current population dynamics will change the political calculus.

For one thing, big cities in right-leaning states, including the Midwest swing states that Donald Trump won, are already largely Democratic. The Grand Rapids metro area is a rare exception, offering more opportunities for liberal transplants mixing with local conservatives – but even there, it can be easy to self-select in a blue urban center surrounded by conservative territory. Plus, regardless of how diverse one’s community may be, social media makes it increasingly easy to digitally sort into like-minded tribes.

Food trucks do a brisk business at lunchtime in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., outside the city's art museum on June 14, 2018. The city holds an annual art prize worth $250,000.
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Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

“I was surprised to find such a large blue bubble in Grand Rapids​, and would say the majority of our friends fall within that bubble,” says Krista Badiane, a sustainability consultant and Duke grad who grew up in the Detroit area and is raising two daughters with her Senegalese husband, an aerospace engineer.

If they were to relocate to a coastal city like Seattle, Ms. Badiane says she would be relieved to be back in a liberal bubble – but also knows it would be nearly impossible to recreate their quality of life. 

One of the many cost differentials is private education. Rachel Scott, who quit her Wall Street job as an executive at Deutsche Bank to move here for her husband’s job, was pleased to find a private school here with a Spanish immersion program that was only $6,500 per year. The only thing was, it was a Christian school.

“At first, I thought, aw, no – I tried to get away from it,” says Ms. Scott, who sent her more religious husband to check it out and see how “churchy” it felt.

They decided it was a good fit for their son, who now comes home with questions like, “Will I go to heaven?” and “I think I love God and Jesus more than you, is that OK?”

Scott tells him it is. “I think it’s important for my son to have a relationship with God, but I didn’t want it to be shoved down his throat,” she says.

As an African-American with liberal views, she finds herself engaging in frank conversations with conservative colleagues. At a recent lunch, she heard from ardent Trump supporters who told her they would never vote for someone who supports abortion and that they considered President Obama the worst in US history.

In the past, she would have characterized such people as racist. “But these are people I actually like. They report to me,” says Scott. “I want to learn more.”

Who migrates to Rust Belt cities 

Among America’s largest 100 metro areas, Grand Rapids is growing its young adult population faster than Boston; Washington, D.C.; and Silicon Valley – and twice as fast as the New York City metro area, according to a January 2018 report by Brookings demographer William H. Frey.

Mr. Russell, a senior research fellow at the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University, doesn’t take issue with Mr. Frey’s work. But he has doubts about the theory of a youth exodus from top-tier cities and warns against conflating population change with inward migration – i.e. a growth in a city’s population of 20-somethings could simply be local teenagers moving into a new age category. Moreover, most young people relocating to Rust Belt cities grew up there.

Among young professionals who do migrate, there is a strong desire for community, says Anne Snyder, a writer and scholar who studies civil society in small and mid-sized cities. Their formative years were shaped by disillusionment with politics and distrust of institutions such as marriage.

“I think Millennials are just so hungry – hungrier than their predecessors were – to experience the sense of belonging that I think is a timeless need and desire, and have not wound up finding it in their national political expression,” says Ms. Snyder, a millennial herself.

That makes the social-media generation less ideological and eager to make a practical contribution wherever they live. “The things that matter most are serving your community, people in the flesh,” she says.

Scott, who is just a few years out of the millennial age bracket, shares that desire. She says she feels like she can make more of a difference in Grand Rapids. “Because it’s a smaller city, I can go up to the CEO and say, ‘I’d like to be on your board.’ In New York, I’d be talking to the secretary’s secretary,” she says. 

Similarly, Badiane is on the board of West Michigan Sustainable Forum, an opportunity that she says may not have come along for years had she lived in a larger city.

Supporting arts and culture  

Another transplant in a civic leadership role is Jori Bennett, who runs ArtPrize, the city’s art competition. Originally from northern Michigan, she was living in California when her husband passed through Grand Rapids on business. “He called me and said, ‘Jori, there’s art everywhere, and there’s no traffic – we’re moving to Grand Rapids,’ ” she says.

ArtPrize, which was launched by Rick DeVos – a son of Betsy DeVos – a decade ago, is an art competition open to anyone. A $250,000 prize is awarded solely on the votes of the general public. (There’s a separate award judged by art connoisseurs.) It has become a huge draw for the city, which also puts on opera, ballet, and Broadway shows, much of it underwritten by the philanthropy of DeVos, the Van Andel family, and other stalwart conservatives.

Philanthropy is an integral part of Grand Rapids’ culture, says Tim Mroz of The Right Place, a regional business development agency. “The big challenge is – most of our large philanthropists are of a passing generation, so the question is who is going to pick up that torch?” he asks.

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5. The unlikely ultramarathoner who helps others across the finish line

Coverage of marathons usually focuses on the winners. But at the back of the pack of the world's largest ultamarathon is a story of humanity, strength, and great courage.

Runners at the 2018 Comrades in South Africa pass through an area known locally as the Valley of a Thousand Hills en route to completing the 56-mile race in June.
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Courtesy of the Comrades Marathon Association

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Every June, nearly 20,000 South Africans line up to run the world’s largest ultramarathon, the Comrades. For most of those people, the goal is to get to the finish line as fast as possible. But Shahieda Thungo is not most people. For the past three years, Ms. Thungo has paced some of the race’s slowest runners – the ones barely squeaking in before the 12-hour cutoff. “The back is where my people are. And this has become a passion for me, a kind of calling,” she says. “To carry them to the finish.” But Thungo’s passion begs another question: Why would anyone, let alone 20,000 someones, freely consent to spend a Sunday running 56 miles? The answer is wedged into the dark corners of South Africa’s recent history. It’s a tale of how a sports-mad country cut off from the rest of the sporting world by apartheid turned an obscure footrace into a televised spectacle akin to the Super Bowl. In doing so, the Comrades has shaken off many of the stereotypes about distance running to become a race that transcends class and color in a way that few other sports here do.

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The unlikely ultramarathoner who helps others across the finish line

It was half past five on a winter morning, the sky above still an inky black, when the starting gun popped. All at once, 19,058 people surged forward toward the starting line of the world’s largest ultramarathon.

At the front of the pack on June 10, lean and lanky, the elite runners eased comfortably into the 6-1/2 minute mile pace they would hold for the next 56 or so miles, as they charged up and down the punishing inclines that had given this region a nickname that on other days sounded bucolic: the valley of a thousand hills.

Behind the elites came the serious hobby marathoners, wiry and focused, stealing glances at their Garmins as they settled into long, easy strides.

But as the minutes ticked by, the people pouring across the start line of the Comrades Marathon looked less and less like stereotypical ultramarathoners. There were middle-aged men with jiggling potbellies and barrel chested rugby-player types with labored, heavy strides. There were women with false eyelashes and fluffy tutus, and 70-year-olds in faded running club singlets.

And there was Shahieda Thungo.

By the time she went over the starting mat just after 5:42 a.m., more than 18,000 runners were already on the course. Meanwhile, about a hundred yards behind her, a small fleet of buses were rumbling along in low gear. Written on their sides in block letters were two ominous words: BAILERS BUS.

“We were literally being chased from the word go by the buses that pick up the people who can’t go on anymore,” says Mrs. Thungo, who ran that morning with a pacers flag sticking out of her backpack, which announced her projected finishing time: 12:00. “I told the runners with me, it’s going to be a long day in the office.”

But that is exactly how Thungo likes it. On the road, she’s known as Makhi, or “neighbor,” and for the past three years, she has had a singular job here  – to pace some of the race’s slowest runners so they make it across the finish just in time to beat the Comrades’ infamous 12-hour cutoff. It’s a job that’s part cheerleader, part nurse, part cleric – a day of singing, praying, cajoling, and doctoring (not to mention running 56 miles herself).

Shahieda Thungo (embrace, right) hugs a friend after completing her third Comrades ultramarathon on June 10, 2018. For the past three years, Thungo has served as the pace-setter for some of the slowest runners – getting them across the finish line just before the 56 mile ultramarathon's 12-hour cutoff.
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Courtesy Discovery Vitality

It’s also a job that hints at an answer to the question that hangs low over this race. 

Why would anyone want to do this, let alone 20,000 someones?

For most people who run the Comrades, the answer is that it’s a challenge that exists on the very cusp of what is possible. Of the 19,058 people who started this year, nearly 6,000 finished in the race’s final, creaking hour, as the winter sunlight drained from the sky above the coastal city of Durban. They completed the Comrades, but they could just as easily have not.

At the back of the pack, pacing groups like Thungo’s – which in South African races are called “buses” – don’t just carry a few runners to the finish. They surge across the field like tidal waves, dragging anyone who needs them along in a flurry of song and dance. Back there, the crazy woman running alongside you chanting, “Durban! Hey! We’re coming! Hey!” and shoving cold baked potatoes into your hands can be the only thing that keeps you on the road.

“It’s the one place in this country where color, creed, religion, gender just don’t matter,” Thungo says. “I say, if our country were run by a Comrades runner, it would probably be a better place. In South Africa, this is where the spirit of humanity and ubuntu is.”

But where that spirit comes from is a story wedged into the dark corners of South Africa’s recent history. It’s a tale of how a sports-mad country cut off from the rest of the sporting world by apartheid sanctions began in the 1980s to turn an obscure footrace between the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban into a televised spectacle akin to the Super Bowl, attended by tens of thousands and watched rapturously on TVs across the country.

“Every June, we turned on our one TV channel – there was only one – and we watched the Comrades all day,” remembers Thungo, who grew up in the black township of Soweto, just south of Johannesburg.

The Comrades, which began allowing women and black runners in the mid ’70s, was also the first desegregated sporting event that many South Africans ever witnessed. Here were black South Africans competing against white South Africans, sharing, for a brief moment, the same goal, the same struggle, the same pain. As a result today, in a country where many sports are still deeply segregated, Comrades looks like Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation in Nikes.

Finding purpose

Like many Comrades runners, Thungo didn’t have a long history of distance running before she started completing the race. As a kid, she watched the race on TV, but she never thought of running it herself.

Then, in May 2011, her husband J. came home from a minor surgery and fell suddenly ill. Less than two months later, he passed away. He was 38 years old.

A week after his funeral, a doctor diagnosed Thungo with skin cancer.

“That was my downest of downs,” she says. Six months later, when she finished chemotherapy, she couldn’t drag herself up from the misery. A doctor gently suggested anti-depressants.

“Give me a year,” she told him. “I want to see if I can sort this out another way.” And so, she began to walk, long rambling strolls that took her through the fields near her house in the Protea Glen section of Soweto. “I’d stand out there by myself and I’d scream and I’d cry,” she says. “And afterward, I felt a bit better.”

Over time, “the distances became longer, and the screaming less.”

Soon, she was running. First 10ks, then 21, then her first ultramarathon, the 35-mile Two Oceans in Cape Town.

As she ran, she often chanted quietly to distract herself from the heavy legs and burning lungs. One-two-one-two-one-two-one-two. At one race, another runner joined in. Then another and another. Soon, Thungo had informal buses running behind her at almost every race.

Running wasn’t just therapeutic, it gave her purpose. In your life, you might not be the smartest in your class, she had often told her young daughter, Nkazi. You might not be the prettiest. But you’ll get there. It’s not about comparing yourself to other people. It’s about running your own race.

And now here she was, literally running her own races.

“People sometimes ask me, don’t you want to run faster? Don’t you want to see if you can finish sooner? But I don’t,” she says. “The back is where my people are. And this has become a passion for me, a kind of calling. To carry them to the finish.”

That finish seemed almost impossibly far, even to Thungo, as she huddled with her fellow runners at the start line in Pietermaritzburg that day in June.

No matter how well prepared you are, she knew, running the Comrades is hard. “You’re nervous? That’s good, be nervous,” she had counseled runners at the race expo the day before. “It means you respect the distance.”

And the finish still seemed far away as Thungo and her bus shuffled past the halfway mark 5 hours and 54 minutes later, singing and clapping as they went.

Easy! Easy! Easy, wena!

Durban! We are coming! Mabhida Stadium! We are coming!

“And all the time, she’s looking after you,” says Ena Du Plessis, a Johannesburg runner who ran with Thungo’s bus in part of the race. “She’s speaking in all different languages – in Zulu and Afrikaans and English – asking how you’re doing, seeing if you’re OK.”

But there were times, Thungo knew, when even she wouldn’t be OK. “Your moment” she calls it.

The Comrades, run each June between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa, attracts approximately 20,000 participants per year, making it the largest ultramarathon in the world.
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Courtesy of the Comrades Marathon Association

This year, Thungo’s came about 43 miles into the race. She’d been on the road for nine hours, at an almost impossibly consistent pace (when you’re the 12 hour pacer, after all, there is no room for error). She’d passed through chic suburbs and depressed villages, “like seeing all of South Africa in a day.” She’d sung and soothed and screamed. And now, as she approached the race’s final punishing hill, everything ached.

“My eyebrows pained me, my fingernails pained me. If you asked me a place I wasn’t hurting, I couldn’t have named one,” she says. So she listened quietly to her own rule of the race, which played in her head on a kind of tape loop. Just keep moving.

As she repeated those words in her head, she reached down and tapped the laminated piece of paper pinned to her thigh. It was a note from her daughter, Nkazi.

“Mommy,” it read in bubbled letters. “I love you loads! Make me proud.”

She tapped it again. She thought of those long nights after her chemotherapy treatments, when she was too weak to move, and six-year-old Nkazi made her tea or brought her cans of sharp ginger soda. When she promised herself over and over again that she would beat this thing for this little girl. “She took care of me,” she says. “That child, she dragged me through really dark times.”

She tapped the note again, and kept going.

'Is this thing even possible?'

Like many distance runners, Thungo welcomes a race’s dark moments. In those times, she says, she often speaks to the people she loves who have passed on. Shahieda, she hears her husband J. saying, you’ve got real cojones, running this crazy race.

She wants to laugh then, thinking of him. Thinking of the stupid line he used to get her attention that day at the gym when she was 23. “Hey,” he said as he passed her on the escalator, "you look like someone I know.” And she rolled her eyes. And she shrugged him off. But that was it. That was the beginning.

She thinks of the years that followed, all 13 of them lining up like soldiers at attention. Good years and terrible years. The good years when they played endless games of pool late into the night, until her pregnant belly got so big it dragged across the table as she aimed her cue. The bad years, like when she lost that baby at 11 months old and vowed she’d never have another. The good years, when she got pregnant again.

The bad years, when he got sick. When he died. When she and Nkazi were left alone.

And now, somehow, it’s another good year, and he’s here, laughing with her again. You’ve gotten this far, he says. You’ve raised our daughter. You’re doing well in your life. So yeah, you’ve got this race.

And then there’s the voice of her mother, all tough love. I didn’t bring someone into the world who’d come this far and fail, she tells Makhi as she runs. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

And so Thungo keeps going. Three more miles pass, then six. She feels better, at least as much better as she could hope for after running for 50 miles. And suddenly she is in Durban. The air smells like salt. She can see the sea. And just as suddenly, there are hundreds of runners behind her, following her, listening to her final promises. We’re almost there. We’re getting that medal.

And even more suddenly, they’re all there, running into the stadium with the roar of the crowd pressing in against them.

“I couldn’t hold in my tears,” says Lerato Sekgonyane, another runner beside her that day. 

And then, with everyone else, he’s suddenly collapsing over the line into sobs and wobbly-legged embraces. Eleven hours, 52 minutes, and 33 seconds. He looks up to see Thungo nearby, swallowed in a mess of sweaty, teary hugs. “Before this run, you wonder to yourself, is this thing even possible,” he says. But not now. Not anymore.

They’ve done it.

They’ve made it home.

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The Monitor's View

Why Trump can’t ignore Central America

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When President Trump came into office, a full-scale border wall seemed like such a simple solution to his supporters who wanted to end the flow of migrants from the south. Lately, the administration has been forced to address the root causes of the crisis, starting with extreme poverty and turmoil in Central America. The top concerns: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, from which some 150,000 people have fled to the United States this year. The administration has also tried to influence events in Nicaragua, which has seen growing antigovernment protests. And it has promised $10 million to assist countries such as Colombia in absorbing people fleeing hunger and suppression in Venezuela. The heart of the US debate is the level of foreign aid. It has fallen from $750 million in 2016 to $615 million in 2018. Congress seems poised to decrease it further. That stands in contrast to moves by the European Union to increase aid for African countries that are the main source of its migrants. The problems in Central America and parts of Africa can seem immense. But they cannot be ignored. Open hearts toward the southern neighbors of the US might do better than higher and longer walls along the US border.

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Why Trump can’t ignore Central America

When President Trump came into office, a full-scale border wall seemed like such a simple solution to his supporters who wanted to end the flow of migrants from the south. Lately, however, the administration has been forced to address the root causes of the crisis, starting with extreme poverty and turmoil in Central America.

The top concerns for the administration are Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where an estimated 150,000 people have fled to the United States since the start of 2018. If the US doesn’t resolve issues in those countries, said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week, “we’re going to have challenges along our southern border for years and years to come.”

In addition, the administration has tried to influence events in Nicaragua, which has seen antigovernment protests for three months. With more than 200 people killed, the US placed sanctions on three senior Nicaraguan officials on Thursday. The US “will not stand by idly in the face of the abuses taking place in Nicaragua,” an administration official said.

The Trump administration also promised $10 million in aid last month to assist countries such as Colombia in absorbing tens of thousands of people fleeing hunger and suppression in Venezuela.

One new worry for the US is a promise by Mexico’s incoming president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to end a US-supported program that curbs the flow of Central Americans over the southern border of Mexico. He has said Mexico should not do the “dirty work” for the US and instead will focus on the welfare of “our immigrants” in the US.

Such developments led Vice President Mike Pence to travel to Central America in June and make this plea directly to the people in the region:

“Build your lives in your homes, and know that the people of the United States of America will keep working every day for a brighter future our people and people all across this new world. The truth is, we are bound together as friends in this hemisphere of freedom and a hemisphere of faith.”

The heart of the US debate over Central America is the level of foreign aid to the region. Funding has fallen in the past two fiscal years, from $750 million in 2016 to $615 million in 2018, while Congress seems poised to decrease it even further to less than $600 million. Many lawmakers want the administration to ensure that US money is better spent in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America.

This decline in US support for the region is in contrast to moves by the European Union to increase aid for African countries that are the main source of migrants flowing into Europe. The problems in both Central America and much of Africa can seem immense. But as both the EU and US have discovered, the problems cannot be ignored. In fact, the costs of aiding such countries could be less than the cost of beefing up border security.

Open hearts toward the southern neighbors of the US might do better than higher and longer walls along the US border.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Celebrating the 2018 World Cup

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Today’s contributor, a keen soccer enthusiast, shares some spiritual ideas that have enhanced his appreciation of sports as a player, coach, and spectator.

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Celebrating the 2018 World Cup

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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World Cup soccer (or football, as those in my country refer to it) brings together 32 nations in a celebration of the world’s most popular team sport. This year’s tournament, which is hosted by Russia and commenced in Moscow on June 14, has inspired players and fans around the world – both men and women.

This monthlong event has been an inspiration to me ever since I was a young footballer. And as a student of Christian Science and a keen sports enthusiast, I’ve found that an understanding of God has enhanced my appreciation of sports – as a player, coach, and spectator.

For example, some of the qualities I love to see expressed in sports are these: joy, creativity, beauty, skill, agility, resilience, and good sportsmanship. I see such qualities as coming from God, whose goodness is without limit, so it’s natural for us, as His creation, to express them. These lines from the Scriptures point to the freedom, strength, and grace of everyone’s true identity: “It is God that girdeth me with strength and maketh my way perfect. He maketh my feet like hinds’ feet, and setteth me upon my high places” (Psalms 18:32, 33).

Expressing these qualities in any activity, including sports, is a way of glorifying God. In this way, competing in sports such as soccer can become a way of praising God and celebrating His goodness.

I’ve also found that an understanding of God can free us from limitations on and off the field. In her major work, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of The Christian Science Monitor, writes: “Soul, or Spirit, is God, unchangeable and eternal; and man coexists with and reflects Soul, God, for man is God’s image” (p. 120).

To accept the idea that we are actually the expression of divine Soul rather than merely a material body or personality enables us to overcome limitations associated with a material sense of identity. We begin to perceive our own real nature (and everyone’s) as the creation of God, or the spiritual image of God – an identity revealed in the Bible. The ability to do this is universal; all are capable of expressing God’s goodness in a variety of ways.

Some time ago I injured a toe during a midweek session of rugby training. I knew from experience that fundamentally this wasn’t about an injured toe, but about understanding more clearly the nature of my true substance, or identity, as the image of God, Soul. Prayer, or communion with God, reveals the spiritual reality – the kingdom of God – where pain and limitation have no place. This would bring freedom and normal function.

In quiet prayer, I affirmed that my true substance is spiritual, indestructible, unbroken, and whole as the image of God, and I asked a fellow Christian Scientist who I knew would be praying with similar ideas to help me, too.

I was soon ready to play rugby again; the toe was healed, and I felt a renewed gratitude for my freedom to participate in this activity.

I love watching World Cup soccer games, but I like to think of the tournament as more than a celebration of a sport. To me, it is a celebration of God, divine Soul, and the qualities He expresses in each of us. All are able to contribute to an activity such as this in a way that will bring joy, satisfaction, and contentment. As this year’s World Cup tournament wraps up over the next week, may it continue to promote unity, mutual respect, and cooperation among competing nations and their supporters and bring delight and inspiration to many.

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A way to work the sea

Fishermen climb higher on their poles after waves hit the shore in Weligama, along the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Fishing on stilts was adopted here just after World War II, prompted by food shortages and overcrowded fishing spots. Two generations of fishermen used the practice along an 18-mile stretch of the southern coast. But the 2004 tsunami altered the shoreline and reduced access. Today it is mostly a tourist attraction promoted by the government. The fishermen divide up the money they collect. 'We need to make a living out of something,' one fisherman says. (To view more images, click on the blue button below.)
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Ahmer Khan
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( July 9th, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Thanks again for being here. Come back Monday. Among the stories we’re reporting: a look at how instant noodles shed light on the immense challenges of doing business in Nigeria. 

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