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2019
January
10
Thursday

Most Americans can sing Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land.” But lately, some people have been living it.

With the US government partially shut down, most National Park Service employees have been furloughed, leaving still-open national parks and monuments largely unattended. Trash is piling up. Bathrooms are overflowing. And protected habitats are being trampled. In Joshua Tree National Park, visitors even strung Christmas lights on the iconic and delicate trees, normally off-limits to visitors. That park and others have been forced to close.

But, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters, a spirit of stewardship has emerged. Volunteers have arrived armed with cleaning supplies and a reverence for public lands.

Some have come alone. Others organized cleanup crews, coordinated supply drives, and reminded visitors to “leave no trace.” One group earned the nickname “toilet paper angels.” A national Muslim youth association mobilized members across the country to chip in.

For many volunteers, like Mike Skelton, who organized a cleanup crew for Yellowstone National Park, it’s a matter of civic duty.

“When it gets down to it,” Mr. Skelton told The New York Times, “it is our park and it belongs to all of us in this country.”

Now onto our five stories for today, highlighting a renewed commitment to voter rights in Missouri, a community effort to support children affected by the Flint water crisis, and the role of teamwork in helping newcomers to Spain feel welcome.

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1. Bipartisan ‘talking stick’ session? Not in this shutdown.

Just a year ago, Sen. Susan Collins was able to break a shutdown logjam by gathering senators in her corner office to hash out a bipartisan solution. Here's why that bridge-building technique is not working now.

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Changed political dynamics in Washington help explain why the Senate’s traditional way of cutting through intractable problems – using bipartisan “gangs” of senators to find consensus – has not been a workable model for ending this government shutdown. For one thing, the funding impasse isn’t really between the two parties in Congress. In fact, just before Christmas, Congress had worked out an agreement to temporarily fund the government, but that deal was upended by the president. Rather, the fight is between Democrats – newly empowered by their majority in the House – and President Trump. And both sides are dug in to a degree that astonishes even veteran lawmakers, with Mr. Trump walking out of negotiations on Wednesday after Speaker Nancy Pelosi said no to a wall. Nor does there seem to be a path to thread the border-security/immigration-reform needle – not only because of the difficulty of the issue politically, but also because of a trust deficit with the president that has worsened considerably in the past year. “It won’t work,” says Sen. Angus King (Ind.) of Maine. “Nobody can negotiate with this president. We learned that. I’m done.”

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Bipartisan ‘talking stick’ session? Not in this shutdown.

Nearly one year ago, more than 20 Democratic and Republican senators were sequestered in the corner office of GOP Sen. Susan Collins, passing around a beaded African “talking stick,” as they worked earnestly toward some kind of deal to end the government shutdown. Eventually, they found a way to break the deadlock. After three days, the government reopened. 

In 2013, Senator Collins led a similar effort that helped end a 16-day shutdown.

But tellingly, there are no bipartisan “talking stick” meetings going on in the Maine senator’s office these days. Absent a deal, it seems increasingly likely that President Trump will try to fund a border wall by declaring a national emergency – triggering a legal challenge but potentially clearing the way for the government to reopen.

“If we don’t make a deal, I would say it would be very surprising to me that I would not declare a national emergency and just fund it through the various mechanisms,” Mr. Trump told reporters as he headed to Texas to visit the border on Thursday.

Changed political dynamics in Washington help explain why one of the Senate’s traditional ways of cutting through seemingly intractable problems – relying on bipartisan “gangs” of senators to find consensus – is not a workable model at the moment.

To begin with, the heart of the funding impasse isn’t really between the two parties in Congress, and therefore not a matter of trying to find a bridge between lawmakers or chambers. In fact, just before Christmas, Congress had agreed on a bipartisan way to temporarily fund the government. But that deal was upended by the president after he was criticized by some conservative media figures over a lack of funding for the wall.

Rather, the fight is between Democrats – newly empowered by their majority in the House – and Trump. And both sides are dug in to a degree that astonishes even veteran lawmakers, with the president walking out of White House negotiations on Wednesday after Speaker Nancy Pelosi said no to a wall.

Democrats in both chambers are in lockstep with their leaders, who want to reopen the government before border security negotiations can begin. And while some Republicans in the House and the Senate have expressed a similar position, the president’s party so far is largely sticking with him. 

Neither does there seem to be a path to thread the border-security/immigration-reform needle, not only because of the difficulty of the issue politically, but also because of a trust deficit with the president that has worsened considerably in the last year.

“It won’t work,” says Sen. Angus King (Ind.) of Maine, when asked about the possibility of new bipartisan “talking stick” meetings. “Nobody can negotiate with this president. We learned that. I’m done.”

Senator King, who caucuses with the Democrats, pointed to several weeks of negotiations with Republicans that grew out of last year’s meetings in Collins’s office. From that emerged a bipartisan bill pairing $25 billion for border security (including for physical barriers) with a path to citizenship for “Dreamers,” or undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children. Its co-authors were King and Sen. Mike Rounds (R) of South Dakota.

The night before the vote, says King, their bill had more than 60 votes – enough to beat a filibuster – but “the White House torpedoed it and it melted away.”

Additionally, he complains of a lack of specificity of the president’s wall plans – the cost, location, and length. “We’re arguing about a kind of mythic animal that nobody knows what it is.” Republicans, meanwhile, wonder how Democrats can be against a wall of steel slats when just that kind of construction was built during the Obama administration.

Still, a small group of GOP senators – including Collins, as well as Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee – met in South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s office to try to find a path forward after Wednesday’s Oval Office breakdown. They were joined by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. No Democrats were invited.

The senators searched for a solution that would fund the president’s wall, while still offering something for Democrats. What that might be, however, was unclear – particularly since the White House has said it will do nothing on Dreamers until the Supreme Court weighs in on the issue. 

“We’re kind of stuck,” Senator Graham admitted, as he ducked into an elevator Thursday afternoon as the effort faltered.

And so the pressure continues to build for the president to declare a national emergency on the border. Critics say it would be an extraordinary flex of executive muscles and will almost certainly be challenged in the courts. Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee has already voiced strong objections to the idea of reapportioning billions from the Defense Department to build the wall.

But increasingly, this option is being considered as an “off-ramp” that could save face for both sides, with the president showing he tried his best and Democrats saying they did not cave. The presumption is that with the wall issue sidelined, the government could then be reopened.

“My gut tells me he’s going to do the national emergency,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia told reporters Thursday. “It’s the only way out.”

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2. US voters tackle gerrymandering with gusto. Incumbents are less sure.

Gerrymandering used to be the province mostly of spelling bee contestants and policy wonks. But for many today, redistricting reform has become a fundamental struggle for fairness.

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Attempts to gain political advantage through “creative mapmaking” date back to the early 19th century. And there is skepticism, says Ohio State law professor Daniel Tokaji, about whether gerrymandering causes dissatisfaction and polarization – or just exacerbates it. However, the speed at which technology has helped partisans create surgically precise maps took the country by surprise. Voters in Michigan, Arizona, and Utah were among those seeking greater fairness at the ballot in November. In Jefferson City, Mo., a new state demographer’s office is opening, tasked by voters with drawing competitive state legislative districts. While the initiative faces pushback from the Republican governor and legislators, the hope is that the office may be able to infuse a greater sense of impartiality – and perhaps check partisan passions. “It is a pitchfork moment,” says voting rights expert Michael Li. “People [on both sides of the aisle] don’t like the political class, they think the system is rigged, and they see the way districts are drawn as a big part of that. Ten years ago voters responded to words like gerrymander and redistricting with ‘Bleh.’ Now when you canvass door to door and mention [reform], they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ ”

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US voters tackle gerrymandering with gusto. Incumbents are less sure.

As the United States grapples with intense tribal alliances that have seeped into the electoral system, Missouri voters contributed to a banner year for redistricting reform across the country.

The reforms range from Florida, where more than 1 million former felons regained the right to vote, to Michigan, where a citizens’ commission is now tasked with drawing districts. Many are aimed at “removing the interests of incumbents,” University of Missouri political scientist Peverill Squire writes in an email.

In Jefferson City, Mo., a new state demographer’s office is opening, tasked by voters with drawing competitive state legislative districts to calibrate the Constitution’s “one person, one vote” guarantee.

Contrasted with partisan map-drawing that creates fantastical district shapes – dubbed the gerrymander in the early 1800s – having a nonpartisan social scientist draw electoral maps “sounds like the way things should be done, based on population size, contiguity of blocks of people, and to avoid these weird fractal geometries that a lot of districts end up looking like,” notes Corey Sparks, a demographer at the University of Texas in San Antonio. “Demographers don’t need to cook the data and cook the demography so they will get reelected.”

Given powerful data and mapping tools available to demographers today, the actual task of precisely dividing citizens into competitive districts shouldn’t be much harder than a graduate level homework assignment, mapmakers say.

Yet it can be a treacherous legal landscape – rived by race, party, gender, and other “communities of interest.”

At the same time, the pulse of reform is fueled by a heightened recognition among many Americans that partisans are “standing over the body [of democracy] with a gun in their hand,” says voting rights expert Michael Li. That means the fight against gerrymandering and the power of incumbency has for many Americans become a fundamental political struggle.

“It is a pitchfork moment,” says Mr. Li, a lawyer at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. “People [on both sides of the aisle] don’t like the political class, they think the system is rigged, and they see the way districts are drawn as a big part of that. Ten years ago voters responded to words like gerrymander and redistricting with ‘Bleh.’ Now when you canvass door to door and mention [reform], they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ ”

The issue is once again returning to the country’s highest court. The US Supreme Court last Friday took up partisan gerrymandering cases for the second term in a row, this time from North Carolina and Maryland. Lower courts have ruled that extreme partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution. But with the retirement of swing Justice Anthony Kennedy, the conservative-leaning court may choose to reverse those decisions and rule that it is not expressly barred by the Constitution.

Modern efficiencies

The practice of trying to gain political advantage through “creative mapmaking,” as Mr. Sparks calls it, dates back to the early 19th century.

And there is skepticism, says Daniel Tokaji, an Ohio State law professor, about whether the gerrymander causes dissatisfaction and polarization – or just exacerbates it. Also, the last election, in which Democrats took control of the House, proved that even heavily gerrymandered districts can be overcome by turnout.

However, the speed at which technology joined partisanship to create surgically precise maps took the country by surprise.

“Gerrymandering is not new, but the technology that creates incredible efficiencies at which it can be engineered is pretty new,” says demographer Mark Fossett at Texas A&M University in College Station. The year “2000 is a watershed. By 2010 it is an art form.”

States from Republican-dominated Missouri to Democrat-led Maryland embraced partisan gerrymandering with near glee, creating wild dragon-head shapes aimed at a desired outcome. Lower federal courts found that North Carolina Republicans used “surgical precision” to target minorities when drawing maps, creating bulwarks out of boundaries. (The legality of racial gerrymandering is not up for discussion in the courts: It is always unconstitutional.)

The impacts have been dramatic – and measurable.

In November, Republicans in North Carolina won 10 of 13 congressional seats, despite winning the popular vote by less than 1 percent. After courts hired a nonpartisan mapmaker to redraw gerrymandered maps in Pennsylvania earlier this year, a GOP advantage in the Keystone State of 13 to five congressional seats fell to nine to nine. There, Democrats won 54 percent of the popular vote.

An Associated Press analysis of “efficiency gaps” that measures partisan advantage suggested that in the last election, under non-gerrymandered maps, Democrats would likely have gained even more than the 40 seats in Congress that they did.

Incumbent resistance to reform

Moves by incumbent politicians to limit the power of voters isn’t limited to the gerrymander. In Georgia, Republican Gov.-elect Brian Kemp refused to recuse himself from his secretary of State job, essentially becoming the referee of his own election. Three days before the election, Mr. Kemp made unfounded accusations of electoral fraud against Democrats on the secretary of State’s website. He won by the narrowest margin since 1966. Meanwhile, all 13 of Georgia’s statewide offices are held by Republicans.

Since the election, Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Michigan pushed to curb the power of incoming Democratic governors. And the Florida ballot initiative passed by 65 percent of voters to give the right to vote back to felons (except for those convicted of murder or a sexual crime) is in flux. Under the terms, people should be able to register to vote this week, and the 68 counties have said they will begin registering former offenders. But the new governor has suggested additional legislation would be required and could not be put in place until March at the earliest. More than a million votes are at stake.

The impulse to question voters’ wishes could affect the new Missouri state demographer as well. Missouri Gov. Mike Parsons, a Republican, suggested to The Associated Press that organizations with “deep pockets” and “their own agendas” are behind the voter initiatives. And Missouri Senate president pro tem Dave Schatz said the legislature will look into the legality of the new law. He noted that “there’s a lot more to [the reform initiative] than what the standard person can understand.” Notably, some black lawmakers in the state agree, saying that they are worried about losing seats if the maps become less partisan.

Such incumbent resistance to reform proves “why voters are up in arms,” says Ohio State's Professor Tokaji, author of “Election Law in a Nutshell.” “When you’ve got a political system in which there’s virtually no bipartisan compromise, partisan gerrymandering really means that people who are affiliated with the minority party have zero power.”

In response, some states have established nonpartisan commissions, including California and Washington. But notable this year is that voters in conservative states like Missouri and Utah have joined the reform effort. Sixty-two percent of Missouri voters adopted the Clean Missouri Initiative, a raft of electoral reforms that included the new demographer's job.

Greater sense of fairness

That margin is notable in a year in which Missouri voters ousted a centrist, Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill, in the same election. “The stakes [are] so much higher now given that there ... are almost no moderates left,” says Tokaji.

Practically, “the impact [of new maps] ... will likely make only a marginal difference in state legislative election outcomes because of the way Democrats and Republicans are distributed around the state,” says Mr. Squire, the Missouri demographer. Voters have sorted themselves, with Democrats congregating in cities and suburbs, while Republicans remain in rural areas. “[Those] patterns will limit the ability to draw more competitive districts except in a few places, mostly in the suburbs outside Kansas City and St. Louis.”

Nevertheless, the state demographer’s office may be able to infuse a greater sense of fairness – and perhaps check partisan passions.

“If you gerrymander, then everything becomes about the primaries, and that drives [politicians] to extremes so that they don’t even get primaried,” says Professor Fossett. “The corrosiveness is that it just turns people into total partisans because they never are faced with having to recognize the concerns of others.”

Conversely, he says, more compact and competitive districts tend to strengthen community bonds given “the presumption that people who live close together share common concerns on a variety of things – from the economy to exposure to hazards like drought and tornadoes. They will have more things in common that are not necessarily partisan in nature.”

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3. In Flint, a future built on schools as well as safe water

The Flint water crisis may have faded from national headlines, but for locals the story is lifelong. The city's holistic approach to recovery may hold lessons for other struggling communities.

Eva
Ellyn Sudow
Canisha Norris, an educator from the Crim Fitness Foundation, teaches yoga to members of the Southwestern Jaguars football team in Flint., Mich., late last year. Civic groups, foundations, and universities have joined hands with local government and public-health officials to provide services to city residents.

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When badly corroded pipes resulted in high levels of lead entering the drinking water, the city of Flint, Mich., became mired in a crisis not only of water safety but also of public mistrust. A legacy of high poverty and economic decline added to the challenges. But the crisis has spawned a range of projects – many supported by nonprofit foundations – seeking to help Flint and its residents recover. The water has tested safe for two years, although many in the community still don’t trust it. Other efforts range from parenting classes to promoting children’s mental health, and from economic development to prescription vegetables. “We all work hand in hand,” says Mona Hanna-Attisha, a crusading professor and pediatrician whose research on child development has informed Flint’s efforts. She hopes the work will become a model for other struggling communities. Crystal Garcia-Pitts is a mom whose young son, diagnosed with elevated lead levels and developmental delays, has benefited from an innovative preschool launched in the wake of the crisis. “He’s talking more; he knows how to count to 10 already,” she says. “If he hadn’t been here, that wouldn’t have been the case.”

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In Flint, a future built on schools as well as safe water

When her two-year-old son DeQuincey was diagnosed with elevated lead levels and developmental delays, Crystal Garcia-Pitts worried he might face a lifetime of health and behavioral challenges.

The infamous Flint crisis over lead-tainted water, while not definitively to blame, was a possible cause of her son’s lead exposure, as for many others in this economically depressed Michigan city.

Yet after a year at an innovative school opened in the wake of the water crisis, DeQuincey has caught up so much he’s no longer considered delayed at all.

“He’s talking more, he knows how to count to 10 already,” Ms. Garcia-Pitts said recently after a support group for mothers wrapped up at the school, which serves 220 children from months-old babies to 5-year-olds. “He’s outgrown a lot of the stuff.... If he hadn’t been here, that wouldn’t have been the case.”

Late last year, Garcia-Pitts also enrolled her 4-month-old son Leo at the state-of-the-art school, the first in Michigan to follow an innovative model called Educare, for early childhood education. The former waitress even landed a job at the school as a liaison with families.

Her encouraging experience reflects the tangible successes of broad-based recovery efforts that have gathered momentum since the crisis – all centered around the idea that success involves a definition of community health that broadens well beyond safe water in city pipes.

It’s too soon to say how effective the blend of public and private initiatives will ultimately prove to be given Flint’s myriad woes. High poverty, crime, and distrust of institutions persist in this city, which once prospered as a factory hub for General Motors.

But what’s under way here is notable for its breadth and scope – ranging from parenting classes to promoting children’s mental health, and from economic development to prescription vegetables. It could also hold lessons for other communities struggling with economic decline. 

“We all work together, so we all work hand in hand,” says Mona Hanna-Attisha, a crusading, Flint-based professor and pediatrician who helped expose the water crisis. Her research on child development has informed efforts here. “The hope is all of this holistically serves as a best practice for children everywhere who are suffering from similar toxicities and traumas.” 

‘All of these pieces came together’

Civic groups, foundations, and universities have joined hands alongside local government and public-health officials.

“We want [Flint] to be a model in terms of what to do in a recovery process,” says Ridgway White, president and chief executive of the Flint-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which provided $4 million in grant funding to reconnect Flint back to a safe water source in 2015.

“The nonprofit sector was here to respond and lessen the struggles,” he says. “All of these pieces came together at a time when the government was not able to respond.”

The water contamination started in 2014 from a botched cost-cutting effort. A change in the water source, approved by a state-appointed emergency manager for the financially struggling city, resulted in badly corroded pipes. The city’s water quality has tested safe for two years, according to federal guidelines, though many in Flint still don’t trust it.

After the water crisis captured international headlines, Mott was one of 10 foundations, including W.K. Kellogg, Kresge, Ford, Robert Wood Johnson, Skillman, and others, that pledged $125 million over five years to help Flint bounce back. Of that amount, the Mott Foundation alone pledged roughly $100 million, with half going toward educational endeavors specifically, including $11-million to build Educare Flint.

Impressive as such sums are, Mr. White is cautious about how much the nongovernment players can achieve without more publicly funded support.

“We can’t claim success until a person who grows up in Flint has an equal opportunity to someone who grows up in a more affluent area,” he says. “Foundations can’t do it alone. Maybe the old model of test, scale, and have the government take over isn’t exactly what it used to be, but there is still a major role for government.... We shouldn’t be the ongoing funding source.”

With the help of state and federal funding, the city of Flint is still replacing pipes that could contaminate the water supply. It hopes that work will be complete by the end of next year.

Wider recovery for the community is a longer-term task – and much of it hinges around education.

‘Full-service’ schools

With help from various nonprofits, the Flint-based Crim Fitness Foundation has implemented a “full-service” school model, so schools are one-stop shops for parents in need of multiple types of help. A full-time community health worker and a full-time community school director have been added to every school to help parents with everything from finding housing to getting to school. This community-education model, informed by resident input, began before the water crisis, but was expanded rapidly in response to it.

“Resilience in Flint is probably the biggest characteristic to stand out,” says Gerry Myers, chief executive of the Crim Fitness Foundation. He says that, although distrust toward outside institutions runs high in Flint due to years of corporate disinvestment, state cost-cutting, and the poisoned water, the community-education effort has escaped “this frame of distrust.”

“There are big voids that are being filled,” says Danielle Green, a member of the school board.

“Before I can even get in the door at schools, parents have a lot of thank-yous – a lot of questions, and still concerns – but a lot of thank yous.” she says.

One of those voids involved play areas, with the Community Foundation of Greater Flint stepping up to fund eight new Flint playgrounds in the past two years.

Another was a gap in books. A citywide program named Flint Kids Read, with help from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, will mark two years in operation in January and has delivered nearly 75,000 books to more than 5,000 kids and 200 classrooms or daycare-type sites. And Born To Read, a local program that provides a bundle of books and developmental materials for newborns, recently enrolled its 1,000th child.

“It’s fantastic, I just can’t believe the volume of books.... There’s no way our community could mail 5,000 books a month to our kids and for just two dollars and 10 cents per book” without all of these partners involved, says Kathryn (Kay) Schwartz, director of library services at the Flint Public Library, which is operating with 40-percent less revenue than in 2009. “It makes this program affordable for our community.”

Mental-health efforts

Other efforts seek to broaden the mental toolkit of residents. Community members including Ms. Green are teaching a form of meditation known as “mindfulness” to residents. The initiative now reaches 6,000 children and 2,000 people beyond the schools, helping them build social and emotional skills. Proponents cite research suggesting the instruction can help with things like handling stress, collaborating, and staying focused.

Marlo Thomas, a Flint resident who works as a nursing assistant, says her 14-year-old twin sons are being helped by the coaching in mindfulness at Flint Southwestern Academy, the city’s only remaining public high school. The pair of 9th graders “compromise, make better decisions, have better thoughts. It helps them with their daily routine,” says Ms. Thomas.

Crim Fitness Foundation
Crim mindfulness educator Tom Hauer teaches a free community yoga class held monthly in the lobby of the Crim Fitness Foundation in downtown Flint. The foundation is one of many nonprofits supporting public-health, eduction, and economic progress in the city since its water crisis.

Some improvements in Flint began before the water crisis. Michigan State University’s Division of Public Health began its move to Flint’s downtown earlier, but then accelerated the process and served as an anchor for development and the expansion of services for Flint residents.

Most others were launched after the crisis made national headlines. Early in 2018, the city of Flint added an economic development team, with the help of a nearly $3-million, four-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The city has also created three new roles, including a chief recovery officer, all of which are funded by outside grants. And the United Way funds a new role created in 2016 – the president of Flint Neighborhoods United – to serve as a go-between among residents and those in power.

Many in Flint credit Dr. Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician-professor, with a vision and drive that has fueled the collective efforts and influx of financial support in Flint.

“Mona’s research is at the core of many of the interventions that we fund. She’s been instrumental,” says Isaiah Oliver, chief executive of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, which among other things owns the Educare Flint building.

A focus on food

Another feature of the holistic approach to public health involves meals. About a year ago, the Hurley Medical Center where Hanna-Attisha works started screening patients for food insecurity. It refers those in need to get fully subsidized food from a Food FARMacy, which has reached more than 3,400 residents so far with lead-mitigating and other foods. And a program called Flint Kids Cook, in a partnership with Michigan State University (MSU), sits alongside parenting classes and the Born To Read program at Hurley. 

Some outside Flint are taking notice. One provision in the recently enacted federal farm bill was inspired by a Hurley/MSU nutrition prescription program.

But in a city where 60 percent of children live in poverty, numerous challenges remain.

Despite the Educare site, for example, more than 2,000 children in Flint below age 5 – nearly a quarter in that age group – are not in a licensed daycare or preschool program at all.  

Derrick Lopez, the new superintendent of Flint schools, points out that sometimes the most vulnerable parents are living so hand to mouth that they’re not aware of vital services.

“We can do more and I think that is the challenge,” says Dr. Lopez, who became the superintendent of Flint Community Schools in August. “There are more kids in crisis that we can identify.... It’s incumbent on us to make sure more parents are able to access” the expanded services available, he says.

Thanks to funding from the state and the federal Centers for Disease Control, Michigan State’s Division of Public Health launched FlintRegistry.org in January. The registry is modeled partly after a similar effort supporting families affected by the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. It aims to connect current and even former Flint residents who were affected by the water crisis to more than 30 services and resources, including those for early education.

Similarly, at both Educare Flint and a sister school that serves 144 children, Cummings Great Expectations, parents can connect with a range of services. The schools serve neighborhoods with some of the highest likelihoods of exposure to lead. The Educare school is one of 23 nationwide featuring full-day, year-round programming, and classroom observation rooms manned by specialized staff. Operating on a mix of public and private funding, both schools enable parents to sign up on site for programs including Medicaid and food stamps.

Lopez says such outreach efforts make “a huge difference because you lower the barrier. Time is the commodity, and often parents don’t think they have the time to do that, so a one-stop service stop ... is huge.”

Hanna-Attisha describes Flint as a “small big city,” voicing hope that it can become a model for other cities recovering from post-industrial decline.

“Our story is way beyond Flint,” she says. “It’s about kids everywhere.”

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4. For these migrants in Spain, hope in the form of their own soccer team

Spain’s welcome mat is still out, but many newcomers are jobless. And dreams often need some kind of support. What role should government play?

Eva
Juan Carlos Toro
Issa Abdou (c.), a Cameroonian immigrant who arrived in Spain with dreams of becoming a professional soccer player, plays with Alma de África (Soul of Africa), a team made up of immigrants that’s based in the Spanish city of Jerez.

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Issa Abdou is scraping by. He left Cameroon as a boy, landed in Spain more than a decade ago, and never had a steady job. But he is the captain of “Alma de África,” Soul of Africa, a team of immigrants and Spaniards that plays in the third division of Andalusia’s regional soccer league. The coach and players provide a support network and the imprimatur of belonging to a real team. They enjoyed some early success, yet in an echo of the broader challenges Spain faces in integrating Europe’s biggest influx of immigrants, the team is showing some fatigue. Alma de África’s players say Spaniards are “affectionate” and “welcoming,” but they express frustration with the region’s high unemployment. And if the government has a plan for the migrants, it's not clear. “I play with Alma de África – it takes my mind off my problems,” says Mr. Abdou. “Alma de África is my family now.” But he misses Cameroon and has a new goal. “I’ll set up a soccer school in Cameroon so that kids can play there. I will tell them they don’t need to be in Europe to dream.”

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For these migrants in Spain, hope in the form of their own soccer team

While watching the 1998 World Cup on TV, Issa Abdou took his geography book and started planning to leave Cameroon. At the age of 8, Issa’s goal was to go to Spain and play in the best soccer league in the world.

Two years later, this son of nomadic shepherds said goodbye to his parents and headed north. He says he lived in Nigeria, Niger, and Algeria, saving money to reach Morocco. At each leg of the journey, he colored the maps in his geography book with his eye on the goal. In 2007 he climbed the 20-foot fence in Melilla, a Spanish enclave in northern Morocco, and waited until the Red Cross and the police came to help.


“It wasn’t Madrid or Barcelona, but when I saw the Spanish flag in Melilla, I was okay – I had made it to Spain,” Mr. Abdou says, his eyes displaying a nostalgic glimmer, a reminiscence of how hopeful he felt that day.


Fast forward almost 12 years, and his dream of becoming a professional soccer player in Spain came true, although nothing happened exactly as he had planned.

Never having found a steady job in Spain and currently without work, Issa Abdou is scraping by. But he is the captain of “Alma de África,” Soul of Africa, a team of immigrants and Spaniards that plays in the third division of Andalusia’s regional soccer league. For four years, the soccer initiative has been helping migrants integrate into the south of Spain, with its large influx of migrants and chronically high levels of joblessness. The coach and players provide a support network and the imprimatur of belonging to a real team.    

“If I knew this was how it was going to be, I would have stayed in Cameroon.... I play with Alma de África – it takes my mind off my problems. Alma de África is my family now,” Abdou says.

Even as Spain last year became a top destination for migrants – with more than 57,000 having arrived in 2018 – Spanish society has largely avoided the xenophobic tensions felt elsewhere in Europe.  Since taking office in the summer, the social-democratic Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez adopted a liberal policy on immigration, and has been hailed for his progressive stance. A Pew Research Center survey published in September found Spain to be the European country most supportive of refugees, with 86 percent of Spaniards in favor of taking in people fleeing violence and war. But in Andalusia, there’s growing frustration with the lack of a clear plan on how to accommodate them. Last month, the anti-immigrant party Vox won 12 seats in the Andalusian parliament, the first time a far-right party made it into public office since Spain became a democracy in 1978. On Wednesday they joined a governing coalition after some of their more extreme demands were dropped, including the expulsion of 52,000 migrants.

The discipline of a game 

Four years ago, Quinn Rodriguez noticed an unruly and aggressive game being played on a field here in Jerez de la Frontera, a city in southern Spain. He and his friend and former soccer player Alejandro Benítez returned with the idea of a match between the group – which they had named Alma de África – and a local professional team.

The event was a success: Instead of charging for attendance, the newly formed team raised 200 pounds of donated food and started thinking about taking itself more seriously. Mr. Benítez and Mr. Rodriguez learned that adding Spanish players facilitated the process of registering Alma de África with the Spanish Football Federation. They didn’t hesitate to do so, thinking that it would also be positive for the integration of the immigrant players.

The players practice 2-1/2 hours, three times a week. On Sundays, for competition they put on green jerseys printed with Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”


Alma de África includes players from 15 different countries – some from Africa and Latin America – and has attracted sponsors and media attention. They reached the second division of Andalusia’s regional soccer league, before climbing down to the third division last year. But in an echo of the broader challenges Spain faces in integrating thousands of immigrants, the members of the team are showing some signs of fatigue.


“Upon arriving to Europe, most migrants are convinced life will become suddenly very easy,... that Europe is a sort of Disneyland where money ... grows on trees,” says Alejandro Benítez, the current volunteer president of Alma de África. “They grow disappointed with the difficulty of finding a job or with the need to set the paperwork first. And in my opinion, the welcoming system in Spain treats them like children, instead of preparing them to become autonomous citizens.”


Mr. Benítez says some players have started focusing too much on getting paid to play, which, he says, isn’t possible because the team struggles to raise money to register the players, and for other costs associated with a professional team. “They have unrealistic expectations because of [top] players like [Lionel] Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. I worry ... but I would like them to understand that I invest a lot of my time and my own money to give them an opportunity to play soccer and to feel they’re like everyone else in Jerez,” Benítez says.

Another Alma de África player, Modu Dione, arrived in Spain nine years ago. He’s training to become an executive chef, but there’s no guarantee of a job at his hotel after his internship is completed. He pays $172 a month for a small room with a bed, in an apartment he shares with two roommates. Like Abdou, Mr. Dione finds occasional jobs as a beach vendor in the summer. He manages to send some money to his family in Senegal. “I have to send something, no matter how little. Like us before arriving here, they’re under the illusion life is easy,” Dione says. “They watch images of Europe on TV, and it’s not easy to tell them it’s not true. I don’t tell them the whole story so they don’t suffer for me.”

Pressure for a government plan

Alma de África’s players say Spaniards are “affectionate” and “welcoming,” but they express frustration with the region’s high unemployment; at 32 percent last June, the city of Jerez registered the fifth highest rate in Spain. Migrant shelters in Jerez and other towns are increasingly overcrowded, leaving some to wander the streets.

“We’re going through a delicate moment in Jerez, a turning point, I would say,” says Michel Bustillo Garat, a social worker with the local migrants organization “Voluntarios por Otro Mundo,” Volunteers for Another World. “There seemed to be a pact of silence among politicians so as not to stir hatred towards migrants, but since May that pact might have been broken when some of them made public anti-immigration statements. And now you can hear regular people complaining that migrants are stealing their jobs and their money,” Mr. Garat says.


The government contracted companies and foundations to take care of emergency accommodation of a large number of minors and other migrants for relatively little, Garat says, which leaves many living in inhumane conditions. Garat says he has visited centers with capacity for 20 minors that house 80 or 140 at a time. “It’s not enough to give migrants shelter and food. We need a real plan to integrate them, one that makes sure migrants are receiving professional training and education, to prepare them to find jobs and lead autonomous lives in Spain,” says Garat.  

The president of Andalusia, Susana Díaz, has asked to “distribute the immigration effort” among all regions. Forty-seven percent of the 10,100 unaccompanied child migrants that have arrived in Spain in the last two years are in Andalusia. “This is a collective and shared responsibility,” she was quoted as saying in El País.

For now, Abdou is not worried about politics. Spaniards have always been kind toward him, he says, dismissing the shift in attitudes others have been noticing as a fad. He prefers to focus on something more productive. When he sees unaccompanied minors wandering the streets, he invites them into his home, sharing the lessons he has learned. He wants them to know that, in Europe, “time means money,” and he hopes they learn from his mistakes.

Abdou has made peace with the fact that he probably won’t become the next Ronaldo. Spain has been home for more than a decade, but he misses his family in Cameroon. So his eyes are set on a different goal. “I’m going to be a soccer coach, and I’ll set up a soccer school in Cameroon so that kids can play there. I will tell them they don’t need to be in Europe to dream. I will teach them that in Europe, instead of fighting for their dream, they will waste time making mistakes. In Africa, they can use that time to become better. In Africa, time means freedom,” Abdou says.

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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

5. Her citizen diplomacy has strengthened US-Russia ties for decades

Sharon Tennison has been credited with helping to break the cold-war ice. Can the same approach help soothe today's harsh rhetoric?

Eva
Pavel Yakovlev/Reuters
Sharon Tennison met with Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union, at the Gorbachev Foundation in central Moscow in September. Ms. Tennison has been organizing visits between Russians and Americans for 35 years.

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Since 1983, when cold-war rhetoric was at a fever pitch and the threat of nuclear holocaust looked all too real, Sharon Tennison has organized cultural exchanges between American and Russian citizens. The trickle of goodwill she started with her nonprofit Center for Citizen Initiatives eventually became a flood that is credited with helping to end the cold war. But in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Ms. Tennison was forced to shut down the whole project. Then Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Since then, Tennison says she’s had a terrible sense of déjà vu. She believes the official rhetoric on both sides today is harsher and more charged with mutual incomprehension than it was at the depths of the cold war. So Tennison began organizing groups using the model she started with 3-1/2 decades ago. “I remember how the Vietnam War ended, how blacks were finally integrated into schools, how the cold war was brought to an end,” she says. “It happened when enough Americans changed their minds and became vocal – and insistent. It came not from the top, but from the bottom. And that is what has to happen again.”

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Her citizen diplomacy has strengthened US-Russia ties for decades

The group of 25 Americans ranged from a 19-year-old interested in filmmaking to a veteran firefighter to a recent retiree. There they were in Moscow in early September, having sessions with notables like broadcasting legend Vladimir Pozner and even former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Just as important, and probably more so, they traveled around Russia for almost a week and talked with university students, businesspeople, and many other ordinary citizens.

This was an attempt to bridge misunderstandings between Americans and Russians by bringing them together for grass-roots conversations. And the person making it possible? Sharon Tennison, an American, who believes that peace is too important a matter to be left to the politicians.

The trip in September was hardly Ms. Tennison’s first. She’s set up exchanges with Russians since 1983, when cold-war rhetoric was at a fever pitch and the threat of nuclear holocaust looked all too real.

“We aim to reduce disinformation, increase goodwill, and try to build a more sustainable future,” says Tennison, who started the nonprofit Center for Citizen Initiatives to promote this work.

Thirty-five years ago, when Tennison pulled together a group of 20 regular Americans and flew them to the Soviet Union, this kind of contact was unheard of. But they went ahead and hit the streets, buttonholing people they met and trying to begin conversations. After what must have been a nervous discussion in the Kremlin, Soviet authorities apparently decided to just let it happen.

In subsequent years, Tennison brought hundreds of US citizen-diplomats to the USSR, as well as large groups of Soviets to the United States. The trickle of goodwill she started eventually became a flood that is credited with helping to end the cold war.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tennison turned her efforts to bringing budding Russian entrepreneurs to the States to learn from their US counterparts. The US government supported the initiative with millions of dollars. When that funding tapered off, she made the endeavor self-sufficient by emphasizing the use of volunteers and putting visitors up with host families.

But in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Tennison was forced to shut down the whole project. She says her heart was broken, and she thought it was over.

But then the current crisis broke out in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. Since then, Tennison says she’s had a terrible sense of déjà vu. The official rhetoric on both sides today is harsher and more charged with mutual incomprehension than it was at the depths of the cold war, she says. And the danger of nuclear war that first propelled her into action is still there, lurking just below the surface as the US and Russia maneuver against each other in Syria, Ukraine, or Russia’s frontier with NATO in the Baltics.

Time to act

“When all this started again in earnest about four years ago, I said to myself, ‘I can’t sit still any longer,’ ” Tennison says. “This confrontation coming back like this makes me so apprehensive and angry.... I need to start getting more Americans to Russia, and more Russians to America.”

So Tennison began organizing groups using the model she started with 3-1/2 decades ago. But this time she has a lot of friends in Russia to help out, and although she has no official Russian support, it looks as if these activities are pushing against an open door in terms of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

“I know Putin; I’ve met him,” she says. “I knew he wasn’t going to be a pushover for the West, but I think he understands what the dangers are, and I am sure he wants peace.”

From the beginning, Tennison has had to deal with official hostility and attempts to dissuade her from her course. In her book, “The Power of Impossible Ideas,” she describes several tense interviews in the 1980s with FBI agents, who warned her that she was interfering with intelligence work and that her “naive” people-to-people approach would only play into the Kremlin’s hands. In Russia in 2016, she was picked up in Volgograd by the Federal Security Service – a successor to the KGB secret police – and detained on suspicion of being a foreign agent trying to meddle in Russian politics.

“Apparently Russia had just passed a law aimed at limiting foreign influence, and the local security people thought I was some kind of threat,” Tennison says. “They were nice enough. They held me for a few hours, during which they apparently received quite a few phone calls, then let me go. It hasn’t happened again.”

In the Soviet era, many ordinary Russians embraced her efforts enthusiastically.

“At first the average Russian was a bit leery, obviously, about some chance encounter with an American on the street,” says Mr. Pozner, who has been friends with Tennison since 1983. “But it evolved fast and turned into a whole movement. She wasn’t the only one trying to do this in the 1980s, but she was the first, and she contributed enormously to breaking the cold-war ice and really changing the atmosphere back then.”

Some of the interactions had unexpected results. During a visit to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1985 Tennison, a trained nurse, was asked by an acquaintance if there were any effective treatments for alcoholism in the US. On her next visit, she brought materials from Alcoholics Anonymous to the Soviet Ministry of Health, which translated and distributed them around the country.

“That was the start of AA in the Soviet Union. I was told that Gorbachev personally greenlighted it,” she says. “Today, AA has become a really big movement in Russia.”

And Mr. Gorbachev is still very much a fan. He held a lively discussion with Tennison’s group in September.

“He strongly endorsed our efforts to promote visits between US and Russian citizens,” says Glenn Rennels, a doctor from Palo Alto, Calif. “Gorbachev emphasized that our nations should talk to each other face to face rather than through expelling diplomats and turning away.... Twice during his remarks tears came to my eyes.”

‘A win-win’

Nonna Barkhatova, director of the independent Center for Development of Small Business in Novosibirsk, Russia, has been working with Tennison since 2002. “For me, Sharon is a real phenomenon. She’s a person who has dedicated herself to peaceful cooperation between our countries, and she has done so much good. Her main idea is to bring ordinary people together to manage problems and improve relations, and that will create a win-win situation for everyone,” Ms. Barkhatova says.

Tennison notes that it’s hard to read in the US media some things routinely written about Russia that she considers to be deeply misinformed. Also, she bristles at suggestions that her work might be helpful to the Kremlin. “We aren’t playing into the hands of Putin or any other officials,” she says.

“I remember how the Vietnam War ended, how blacks were finally integrated into schools, how the cold war was brought to an end,” she adds. “It happened when enough Americans changed their minds and became vocal – and insistent. It came not from the top, but from the bottom. And that is what has to happen again.”

For more, visit ccisf.org.

Three other groups fostering stability

• UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects below are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

The HALO Trust is the world’s oldest and largest humanitarian land mine clearance organization. Take action: Donate $25 to clear 250 square feet in a post-conflict area.

BRAC USA aims to empower those dealing with poverty, illiteracy, disease, or social injustice. Take action: Pay for a safe space for a Rohingya child who has been forcibly displaced.

Let Kids Be Kids is an advocate for disadvantaged people, as well as animal species that are at risk. Take action: Support the survival of indigenous groups.

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The Monitor's View

Renewing German-French vows for Europe

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On Jan. 22, the leaders of Germany and France plan to sign a treaty aimed at bringing the European Union’s two most powerful economies – and its original founders – even closer. The two are first going local, hoping to better integrate people living near the border. Schools on either side will be encouraged to become bilingual. Ambulances will be able to cross over. Basic utilities might be merged. The idea is to form “Eurodistricts,” or models of integration. This “twinning” pact, negotiated over the past year, also calls for ministers to regularly sit in the cabinet meetings of each other’s government. It seeks greater unity in diplomacy and peacekeeping missions. Europeans often forget the EU was born out of a stunning convergence of these two nations after World War II. Today, the strains within the 28-member union, such as Britain possibly exiting the bloc, have convinced the two nations’ leaders of the need for deeper European integration. If they can speak as one, they will help drive the convergence that has provided a peaceful balancing of interests in Europe for so long.

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Renewing German-French vows for Europe

For a European Union fragmented on many fronts, it may be time to go back to its roots – at the very heart of the Continent. On Jan. 22, the leaders of Germany and France plan to sign a treaty aimed at bringing the bloc’s two most powerful economies – and its original founders – even closer.

The two are first going local, hoping to better integrate people living close to the border. Schools on either side will be encouraged to become bilingual, for example. Joint business parks may be set up. Ambulances will be able to cross over. Basic utilities like water might be merged. The idea is to form “Eurodistricts,” or models of integration.

This “twinning” pact, negotiated over the past year, also calls for ministers to regularly sit in the cabinet meetings of each other’s government. It seeks greater unity in diplomacy and peacekeeping missions. France will push for Germany to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

Europeans often forget the EU was born out of a stunning convergence of these two nations after World War II. By the 1960s, France had largely forgiven Germany for its Nazi past and Germans showed great contrition over that past.

Such qualities of character helped suppress the militant nationalism that had sown conflicts for centuries. After World War I, says French President Emmanuel Macron, “we were unable to produce a lasting peace because France and Germany remained divided.”

The current strains within the 28-member union, such as Britain possibly exiting the bloc and the rise of anti-EU nationalist parties, have convinced Mr. Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the need for deeper European integration – starting with their own countries. The two plan to sign the treaty in the German city of Aachen, which has been controlled by both peoples over time. It is best known as the imperial center of Charlemagne, the great uniter of Western Europe in the late 8th century.

The signing date of Jan. 22 is also significant as it marks the 56th anniversary of the signing of the Élysée Treaty, which cemented the French-German friendship and provided the foundation for the EU.

Nearly two-thirds of EU citizens say the bloc is a good thing, according to the most recent Eurobarometer survey. But about half say the Union is “going in the wrong direction.”

With so much division – over migration, EU regulations, the euro’s woes, and anti-democratic moves in a few countries – the bloc’s two founders are like a couple who, after decades of marriage, find their extended family squabbling and splitting. So they’ve decide to remind everyone of the origin of that family by renewing their wedding vows and drawing closer. If they can speak as one even more, they will help drive the convergence that has provided a peaceful balancing of interests in Europe for so long.

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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.

What constitutes our ancestry?

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Many wish to better understand who and what they are, and some seek answers in genealogy. Today’s contributor explores this subject and presents a view of creation that starts and ends with God as its source.

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What constitutes our ancestry?

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Who am I? Where do I come from? These are certainly important questions, and many people are seeking answers to them.

Recently, services have been promoted that provide analysis of an individual’s DNA at a nominal cost. This analysis of what modern science regards as the building block of material life purports to provide a comprehensive picture of who an individual is and where he or she comes from, based on ancestry.

These services can, in some instances, provide information that leads to uncovering and reuniting with lost relatives or discovering an individual’s ethnic heritage. But do such methods really supply the answer to searching questions about our origin and identity? Reducing an individual to his or her DNA puts identity into a finite framework, boxed in by limitation and mortality.

Christian Science offers a different view of creation and our identity, a view that may seem radical at first if we think of matter as the foundation of life. Through a spiritual discernment of the Bible, especially Jesus’ teachings, Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, has presented to the world a God-centered understanding of what we are. She has shared the idea that the origin and identity of man (male and female) are spiritual and created by God, free of material trammels. In her primary work on Christian Science, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” she says this: “In Science man is the offspring of Spirit. The beautiful, good, and pure constitute his ancestry.… Spirit is his primitive and ultimate source of being; God is his Father, and Life is the law of his being” (p. 63).

Does realizing that our identity is spiritual mean that we will cease to value our relatives or stop trying to understand them? Of course not. There’s nothing wrong, and much that is right, in loving, appreciating, and caring for our family and being informed about these human connections. But taking a deep dive into our material ancestry and educating ourselves in that which common belief says constitutes our being – positive or negative – only reinforces a mistaken, limited view of ourselves as material. Along with that comes the general claim that we have to accept and live with inherited tendencies, proclivities toward certain diseases, and anything else negative associated with what the world says about heredity.

Planted on the biblical basis that our true identity is in God, Spirit, Christian Science teaches that it’s possible to find freedom from the challenges of heredity. Many individuals have proved this and testified to their healings in written form in Christian Science magazines. For example, high blood pressure that was medically diagnosed as a hereditary condition was healed (see Isikiah D. Wynn, Christian Science Sentinel, April 11, 1994), as were the symptoms of asthma in a child who had relatives on both sides of his family who had been medically diagnosed with the disease (see Olive Ratcliffe, “We have a heritage of freedom,” Christian Science Sentinel, May 28, 2012).

What we know of the life of Jesus shows that he didn’t limit his sense of identity to his connection to his relatives; he clearly understood his spiritual origin and knew that God was his Father. On one occasion, his mother and brothers wanted to speak with him while he was teaching. When someone told him this, he responded by indicating that his concept of family was larger than his relatives: “Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:48-50). An appreciation of this larger definition of family today can provide new views of our relatedness, based on spiritual Truth.

Real and liberating answers to questions about origin and identity are found by seeking them from our spiritual source, God. Cultivating this understanding of our true origin ensures that our concept of family and ancestry will be expansive, health-giving, and good.

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Viewfinder

Undoing war’s damage

Omar Sanadiki/Reuters
A damaged statue from Palmyra awaits restoration at Syria's National Museum of Damascus Jan. 9. A dozen archaeologists are carefully working on centuries-old statuary destroyed by jihadists during Syria’s war, which is about to enter its eighth year.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( January 11th, 2019 )

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow. We’ll visit a former mill town that is turning the environmental hazards of defunct industry into economic opportunities. 

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January 10, 2019
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