2019
June
20
Thursday

Every minute, 20 people leave everything behind.

They flee their houses and perhaps their country. They take loved ones or leave them. They carry few possessions. They are asylum-seekers, the internally displaced, the stateless. Refugees.

Today, June 20, is World Refugee Day, as established by the United Nations. It’s meant to focus attention on one of the greatest humanitarian needs on the planet.

Being a refugee means having to find a new sense of home in strange places. At the Monitor we have long considered telling that story to be a core aspect of our mission.

Over the last year our series “On the Move” has drawn vivid portraits of what it means to adapt to the circumstances of flight.

In Toronto, a Syrian refugee named Wasim Meslmani lives in a basement and runs a Facebook page devoted to helping other refugees adapt to Canada. Winter boots – they’ll need them.

In Tanzania, Daudi Nzila planted two mango saplings at his new house when he arrived as a refugee from Burundi. Thirty-six years on, the trees now cover the home like a canopy, blotting the sun.

And in Jordan a flood of Syrian refugees is straining the nation. But at Al Hussein Secondary School, Jordanian and Syrian students bond over sports, studies, and music.

“Teachers and students here treat us as if we are part of Jordan,” says Haya al Qarah, a teenage Syrian girl.

On World Refugee Day may we all try to demonstrate such generosity of spirit.

Now on to our five stories for today, which include a look at whether facial recognition technology could make privacy a thing of the past. And, yes, we have a refugee piece, about the talent and spirit Rohingya refugees have brought to new homes in India.

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1. Can a 40-foot cross be secular? Supreme Court says yes.

The Bladensburg Peace Cross is a tall religious symbol erected on public land to honor World War I casualties. Thursday’s Supreme Court decision allowing it to remain was in many ways an examination of whether a long-standing monument can reflect the values of neutrality and inclusion demanded by the First Amendment.

Peter

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The case of the Bladensburg Peace Cross is in many ways about the emotional burdens of history.

In 2014 local residents and the American Humanist Society objected to the Latin-style cross, which has stood on a patch of municipally maintained land for a century, commemorating local boys who fell in World War I. Many Jewish veterans found the official government use of a cross to be theologically offensive.

In a ruling Thursday, seven out of nine justices decided narrowly that the cross could stay.

“The government’s giant cross in Bladensburg sends an obvious message of religious favoritism,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, in a statement. “The silver lining, though, is that the ruling is limited to the unique circumstances of this particular monument, and is hardly a free pass.”

But history can indeed provide guidance as the court discerns the meaning of the Establishment Clause, Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a concurring opinion. 

“I find much to admire in this section of the opinion – particularly, its emphasis on whether longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices reflect ‘respect and tolerance for differing views, an honest endeavor to achieve inclusivity and nondiscrimination, and a recognition of the important role that religion plays in the lives of many Americans,’” she wrote.

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1. Can a 40-foot cross be secular? Supreme Court says yes.

When Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan joined the fragmented 7-2 majority that allowed the Bladensburg Peace Cross in Maryland to remain standing as it is, she said she found much to admire in her conservative colleagues’ reasoning – even those parts with which she disagreed.

The Supreme Court decision announced on Thursday was the latest in a long history of vexing constitutional questions about the place of religious symbols in the nation’s civic spaces – legal conflicts that have often contributed to the nation’s “culture wars” and its deep social divides.

And while she didn’t have too much to say in her short, partial concurrence with the high court’s majority decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito, she mostly singled out a section of historical analysis with which she couldn’t quite concur.

Justice Alito explored how Congress and other legislative bodies long included prayers at the opening of legislative sessions, despite the stormy and often bitter sectarian differences that existed within American Protestantism in the early years of the republic. He noted officials set these religious differences aside in order “to solemnize congressional meetings, unifying those in attendance as they pursued a common goal of good governance.”

Such history can indeed provide guidance as the court discerns the meaning of the Establishment Clause in such cases, Justice Kagan wrote, even though she didn’t want to sign on to historical, “originalist” reasoning as a matter of principle.  

“But I find much to admire in this section of the opinion – particularly, its emphasis on whether longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices reflect ‘respect and tolerance for differing views, an honest endeavor to achieve inclusivity and nondiscrimination, and a recognition of the important role that religion plays in the lives of many Americans,’” she said, quoting her conservative colleague’s analysis.

“Here, as elsewhere, the opinion shows sensitivity to and respect for this Nation’s pluralism, and the values of neutrality and inclusion that the First Amendment demands,” Justice Kagan added.

Burdens of history

As the Monitor reported in February, the case of the Bladensburg Peace Cross is in many ways about the emotional burdens of history, as well as the quickly changing demographics that have altered the face of American pluralism.

In 2014 local residents and the American Humanist Society objected to the enormous Latin-style cross, which has stood prominently on a patch of municipally maintained land for more than a century, commemorating local boys who fell in World War I. Many Jewish veterans found the official government use of a cross to be both humiliating and theologically offensive.

“The government’s giant cross in Bladensburg sends an obvious message of religious favoritism, and today’s decision holding otherwise is deeply disappointing,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, in a statement. “The silver lining, though, is that the ruling is limited to the unique circumstances of this particular monument, and is hardly a free pass for government officials to promote their preferred religious symbols and messages in the future.”

Such purported “favoritism,” too, is understood within the current upheavals throughout American society, as it becomes both less Christian and less white. Explicit Christian symbols placed on government buildings and civic properties didn’t cause much of a stir before World War II, experts note. In his concurring opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer noted that removing a century-old monument would signal “a hostility toward religion that has no place in our Establishment Clause traditions.”

Today, however, many see such prominent symbols as marks of cultural and religious supremacy.

And at the heart of Justice Alito’s reasoning, many critics say, is a remarkable effort to secularize the most prominent and sacred symbol of the Christian faith: the cross.

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg emphasized the point. The “immense Latin cross,” here displayed prominently on a traffic island in Bladensburg, she wrote, “is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, embodying the ‘central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross, that he rose from the dead, and that his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life,’” she wrote, quoting a brief from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

“By maintaining the Peace Cross on a public highway, the [Bladensburg] Commission elevates Christianity over other faiths, and religion over nonreligion,” continued Justice Ginsburg, whose dissent was joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “Memorializing the service of American soldiers is an ‘admirable and unquestionably secular’ objective. But the Commission does not serve that objective by displaying a symbol that bears ‘a starkly sectarian message.’”

The 7-2 decision in this case, The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, is the result of a narrow ruling, which then fragments into different directions as the justices wrote their own separate opinions. That’s in spite of concerted and ongoing efforts of Chief Justice John Roberts to build comity and respect in the nation’s high court and, as much as possible, avoid bitterly divided 5-4 splits in culturally divisive cases like these.

“If you look at the earlier major religion clause opinions of the Roberts court, they have been much closer – if not to unanimity, then to a supermajority of justices, not just the 5-4 opinions,” says Mary Anne Case, professor at the University of Chicago Law School. “And Chief Justice Roberts has been able to make that happen.”

Still, there has been an erosion of what has typically been a “liberal” understanding of the Establishment Clause, scholars say.  

Indeed, when it comes to the stormy legal debates over the meaning of the Establishment Clause, many conservatives disavow the interpretive expression “separation of church and state,” first articulated by Thomas Jefferson in 1801.

Liberals, however, often emphasize Jefferson’s “wall of separation,” and insist that the state must remain rigorously neutral, if not secular, in civic matters.

The Lemon test

This approach was in many ways enshrined in what has been called the “Lemon test,” from a 1971 Supreme Court case, Lemon v. Kurzman, that conservatives, including the current five conservative justices on the Supreme Court, generally loathe.

Striking down a Rhode Island law that provided funds for parochial school salaries, the Supreme Court outlined a three-pronged test in order to pass constitutional muster: a law must have a secular legislative purpose, its primary effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion, and it must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.

“Justice Alito is telegraphing what we already know, that Lemon is not a particularly useful test for a majority of the court,” says Steven Schwinn, professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. “At the same time, the court didn’t overturn it, which means there is theoretically an application of Lemon in a narrow class of cases.”

By ruling narrowly, the Peace Cross case did not replace the “Lemon test” with another, more conservative methodology. “Everybody’s got a slightly different take on it,” observes Professor Case. “We’ve got this cross and we’ve got several different, not to my mind fully worked out, but potential approaches for what happens for other similar monuments.”

In emphasizing a more pluralistic and tolerant approach, however, Justice Alito seemed to suggest that the meaning of a cross is in the eye of the beholder.

“The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent,” Justice Alito wrote. “For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home. For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for our Nation. For others still, it is a historical landmark.

“For many of these people, destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment,” he continued.

By contrast, Justice Ginsburg emphasized the historical role of the Establishment Clause as a “barrier” that protected the integrity of individual consciences in religious matters, especially in light of “centuries of turmoil, civil strife, and persecution, generated in large part by established sects determined to maintain their absolute political and religious supremacy,” she wrote.

“To non-Christians, nearly 30% of the population of the United States, the State’s choice to display the cross on public buildings or spaces conveys a message of exclusion: It tells them they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.’”

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2. In N. Korea nuclear talks, what about human rights?

North Korea’s abysmal lack of human rights is more than an abstraction to South Koreans with family on the other side. But leaders face a troubling dilemma: To pursue peace with Pyongyang, do they have to ignore its abuses?

Peter
Josh Smith/Reuters
Photo sheets of the North Korean refugees helped by the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association are displayed in Seoul, South Korea, June 11.

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In propaganda from Pyongyang, North Korea is an envied, self-reliant country. In reality, 40 percent of the population is experiencing a food crisis, and civil liberties enshrined in the country’s constitution remain a mirage. North Korea’s widespread violations of human rights are common knowledge – but what can the rest of the world do about it?

That’s a particularly poignant question for South Korea, united by history, language, and sometimes family with its reclusive neighbor to the north. Some people – including in the administration of President Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer – see normalizing relations as the best route to improving North Koreans’ lives. But in the short term, that may mean leaving human rights out of the conversation.

“You can’t raise human rights with North Korea. If you do, they won’t listen after that,” says Chung-in Moon, a special adviser to the president. Defusing the nuclear threat is the first step, he says.

Not everyone agrees that strategy will pay off.

“A nuclear deal might be good for the rest of the world,” says Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch. “But it won’t change the lives of the North Korean people one bit.”

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In N. Korea nuclear talks, what about human rights?

Young-jun Park recalls life in North Korea as defined by deprivation. Food shortages that wrought starvation. The lack of health care that brought more death. The absence of opportunity as the state forced workers into jobs with inhumane conditions.

The teenager foresaw a future bereft of hope. So when his father died a decade ago, in part because of inadequate medical care, Mr. Park, along with his mother and younger sister, decided to risk death to escape to South Korea. The trio feared arrest and potential execution less than living under the yoke of a totalitarian regime.

After slipping first into China, Mr. Park and his family eventually found their way to Seoul. In the ensuing years, he finished high school and graduated college, and he now works at a nonprofit funded by the South Korean government that assists North Korean refugees.

“North Koreans are struggling so much,” he says. “The real face of North Korea is not the extravagant life in Pyongyang you see through its government media.”

Recent reports from Human Rights Watch and the United Nations confirm that a thriving North Korea exists only in propaganda promoted by President Kim Jong Un. Yet as U.S. and South Korean officials seek to persuade him to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, they have seldom broached the issue of human rights. The omission has drawn scrutiny from advocates as much for the proximity and shared history of the countries as for South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s background as a human rights lawyer.

South Korean leaders insist they understand the depth of need across the border and earlier this month approved sending $8 million in food aid to North Korea through international relief agencies. At the same time, Chung-in Moon, a special adviser to President Moon, asserts that pushing human rights to the fore would sink negotiations – and perhaps the best chance to normalize relations between the countries and ease the plight of North Koreans.

“You can’t raise human rights with North Korea. If you do, they won’t listen after that,” Chung-in Moon says. He views defusing the nuclear threat as a necessary first step. “Once we solve that, then we can address the issue of human rights, and North Korea will be more open to doing its part.”

President Donald Trump will meet with President Moon in Seoul later in June to discuss reviving talks with North Korea, which collapsed after the U.S. leader’s second summit with Mr. Kim earlier this year in Hanoi, Vietnam. Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia division for Human Rights Watch, considers the silence from U.S. and South Korean officials on North Korea’s living conditions a form of abandonment.

“A nuclear deal might be good for the rest of the world,” he says. “But it won’t change the lives of the North Korean people one bit.”

‘A long way to go’

The reports from Human Rights Watch and the U.N. show that little progress on human rights has occurred in North Korea since Mr. Park fled in 2009, or in the five years since a U.N. investigation found that its government had committed “a wide array of crimes against humanity.”

The state-imposed violations include forced labor for adults and students, torture and execution of political prisoners, and pervasive abuse of women, children, and people with disabilities. Civil liberties enshrined in the country’s constitution – freedom of speech, religion, and the press – remain a mirage.

The funneling of state resources into weapons programs, coupled with a poor harvest season and the impact of international sanctions, has created a food crisis for some 10 million North Koreans, 40% of the population. Human rights advocates warn of a recurrence of the mid-1990s famine that killed as many as 3 million people if conditions fail to improve.

Weeks before the Hanoi summit in February, the U.N. human rights envoy to North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, suggested that the focus on ending the country’s nuclear program has obscured the suffering of its people.

“The fact is that with all the positive developments the world has witnessed in the past year, it is all the more regrettable that the reality for human rights on the ground remains unchanged and continues to be extremely serious,” he told reporters in January.

An estimated 30,000 North Korean refugees live in South Korea, according to the Korea Hana Foundation, where Mr. Park works. Under Mr. Kim, who has tightened border security since taking power in 2011, the annual number of people escaping to the south has dropped by more than half, to less than 1,200 last year.

North Korea has enlisted China’s help to stop the flow of refugees – the Chinese government sends back defectors as a matter of policy – and those arrested face punishment ranging from indefinite prison terms to the death penalty. Even so, desperate to find freedom, thousands attempt to flee every year.

“They know there’s no future in North Korea,” says Gyoung-bin Ko, president of the Hana Foundation. “They want to give a better life to their children.”

The organization, established by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification in 2010, provides an array of resettlement services to refugees. Mindful of the ministry’s oversight, Mr. Ko demurs on the subject of whether government officials should press Mr. Kim on human rights. He says simply, “We have a long way to go.”

A desire to help

The demilitarized zone that splits the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel bisects the South Korean province of Gangwon and the North Korean province of Kangwon. The two provinces were one before the Korean War, and a sense of compassion and a spirit of cooperation still bridge the divide.

In the aftermath of heavy flooding in Kangwon last summer, Gangwon officials sent food, supplies, and other humanitarian aid to their neighboring province. The provinces have organized sports and cultural exchanges and joined forces to build a salmon hatchery in Kangwon, and the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangwon Province’s Pyeongchang County deepened the cross-border ties.

Working with their Kangwon counterparts has given Gangwon officials a greater awareness of the urgent needs of North Koreans, and a tantalizing glimpse of how normalized relations could alleviate their circumstances.

“People in Gangwon have more of an understanding of the conditions on the other side,” says Lee Gyeong Seon, a provincial spokeswoman. “People here want to help.”

The same kind of collaboration could flourish on the national level if Pyongyang ceases pursuit of a nuclear weapon, contends Spencer Kim, co-founder of the Pacific Century Institute, a nonprofit policy and research firm that works with countries throughout Asia.

“Peace will mean the end of sanctions and bring outside investment,” he says. “That will be the biggest driver of human rights.”

The optimism of that rationale contrasts with the reality of the missile tests that Mr. Kim has conducted since the Hanoi summit and reports that he may have ordered the execution of one or more members of his negotiating team.

As diplomatic efforts continue, Kim Ick Sun prays for the people of his homeland. A retired teacher who lives in Sokcho, a coastal village in Gangwon, he fled North Korea in 1950 soon after the war began.

Mr. Sun regards the issue of human rights as a matter more of the heart than the mind, and almost 70 years after his escape, he clings to a singular hope. “I am longing for peace,” he says.

Reporting for this story was made possible by a travel fellowship provided through the East-West Center.

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3. Face off? Americans fear privacy loss to recognition software

The rise of facial recognition technology threatens to undermine an implicit social contract: the ability to walk down a street and be anonymous.

Peter

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As facial recognition technology becomes more widespread, more Americans are worried that public anonymity could become a thing of the past.

Opinion polls suggest that voters across the political spectrum are concerned about the technology’s potential for abuse. San Francisco has already banned the technology for use by law enforcement, and a recent poll suggests widespread support for regulation. In Washington last month, members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee showed rare bipartisan unity in criticizing the technology.

“There are interesting alliances and strange bedfellows in the privacy world,” says Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “There does remain in the United States thankfully a relatively deep mistrust of government power, which I think is a very healthy thing.”

Those who oppose outright bans argue that government use of facial recognition would help ensure that they are built to fairer standards. “It’s important for government to be an early adopter of some of these technologies,” says Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-policy think tank in Washington.

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Face off? Americans fear privacy loss to recognition software

As facial recognition becomes more widespread, now appearing at check-ins for international flights, New York City apartment buildings, and even 24-hour convenience stores, more Americans are worried that public anonymity could become a thing of the past.

A poll released Wednesday by the market research company Morning Consult and the news outlet Politico, found support for facial recognition technology slipping among registered voters.

According to the survey, 42% approve of the technology, compared to 49% in August 2018. On Tuesday, a poll released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts found that more than 9 in 10 voters in that state supported a state bill regulating how the government uses facial recognition, with nearly 8 in 10 supporting an outright moratorium.

Concerns about the technology – which uses sophisticated machine-learning algorithms to analyze facial features from a photo and match them with other photos that contain the same features –  span the political spectrum. According to the Massachusetts survey, 84% of Democrats, 82% of independents, and half of Republicans favor a moratorium.

“There are interesting alliances and strange bedfellows in the privacy world,” says Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “There does remain in the United States thankfully a relatively deep mistrust of government power, which I think is a very healthy thing.”

Already a feature used in unlocking high-end phones, facial recognition technology offers the promise of a world of seamless check-ins, payments, and other convenient identity checks.

And then there’s the promise of catching criminals, including suspects who may have been photographed stealing a package from a doorstep or breaking into a car, says Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-policy think tank in Washington, D.C. “If police are going to have to say in the future, ‘Sorry, we can’t do anything, we can’t run facial recognition to find the person because of a law,’ I don’t think most people are going to be happy with that,” he says.

The technology is already being used to combat far more grievous crimes. On Wednesday, Wired reported that a nonprofit combating human trafficking had developed a tool to match faces in online ads with police evidence to identify child victims of sex abuse.

Still, legislators in some cities are not buying the promise of increased security.

In May, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban the technology by law enforcement. Other cities considering bans are nearby Oakland and Berkeley, as well as Somerville, Massachusetts, a densely populated city in the Boston metro area. The Massachusetts legislature is also mulling a moratorium, backed by the ACLU of Massachusetts, on face recognition and other technology that can identify people at a distance by their voice, gait, or other immutable “biometric” features.

Also in May, members of the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee showed rare bipartisan unity in voicing deep concerns about the technology, which is built by companies like Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, and Google.

And last August, workers at these companies walked out or otherwise staged protests against their employers’ contracts with law enforcement, immigration enforcement, and the Pentagon. Facial recognition technology played a prominent role in the protests at Amazon and Microsoft.

A surveillance society

Currently there are no federal laws governing how law enforcement may use facial recognition, nor is it clear how many of the country’s roughly 18,000 police departments are currently using it. But the technology is inexpensive and user-friendly: In April, The New York Times surveilled a park in midtown Manhattan for less than $100 and were able to successfully identify passersby.

“The practice of setting up citywide networks of ‘smart’ surveillance cameras ... that is, to me, a total surveillance society,” says Mx. Crockford (who prefers a gender-neutral attribution). It could “enable government or anyone else to create a permanent and invasive record, not just of one person’s habits, associations, and movements, but of every person, and not on one day but on all days.”

Reuters
A machine with Alipay's facial recognition payment system is displayed at a smart business fair in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China March 21, 2019

Face recognition, says Mx. Crockford, could undermine an implicit social contract that makes cities what they are. “Cities are spaces of anonymity. ... The growth of the modern metropolis has provided people with a degree of freedom through anonymity that is kind of unprecedented. ... That’s why gay people move to cities, because we could be free in those places. I mean relatively free.”

Cities offer an ability to reinvent oneself, to break with the past to a certain extent, and the ability to do this might be crucial to some peoples’ mental well-being. In a paper published last year in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Stanford University psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude argued that establishing a “modern privacy bill of rights” should be a public health priority.

“Privacy mediates some very important psychological processes,” he says. “When you look at mechanisms such as recovery after a setback for rejuvenation or catharsis … all have been shown to require privacy.”

Dr. Aboujaoude cited the positive public health implications of a European Union law that created in 2014 a “right to be forgotten” online. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, passed last year, further restricts how companies can use people’s identifiable information, including images of their faces.

Scoring citizens in a ‘smart city’

China’s privacy norms, meanwhile, have been trending in the opposite direction. The country’s Social Credit System, a national social and economic reputation system that assigns a score to every citizen, is expected to go online nationwide next year. Already, the system has been used to restrict individuals’ travel.

A Chinese advertisement for a new 5G network by the state-owned China Mobile illustrates how the Chinese government is promoting facial recognition as an asset to public safety. In the ad, an undercover police officer deploys several aspects of a “smart city,” including face surveillance, to arrest a wanted man.

We can’t assume that such a system won’t come to the United States, says Mx. Crockford, pointing out that, for nonwhite citizens in poor neighborhoods, aggressive surveillance by law enforcement is already a feature of daily life.

“It’s all very nice and well for a wealthy white person to say, ‘I’m not worried about that. We’re not China,’” Mx. Crockford says. “Well, why don’t you talk to a young black man from the Bronx about his experience with the government?”

Avoiding a race to the bottom

Some corporations may welcome greater public oversight of the technology. In a December blog post Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, argued that 2019 should be the year that governments step in to regulate facial recognition.

“We don’t believe that the world will be best served by a commercial race to the bottom, with tech companies forced to choose between social responsibility and market success,” he wrote. “We believe that the only way to protect against this race to the bottom is to build a floor of responsibility that supports healthy market competition.”

Mr. Castro of ITIF, which receives funding from tech and telecom companies, argues that outright bans on government use could actually worsen the very problems that they aim to solve.

“It’s important for government to be an early adopter of some of these technologies,” says Mr. Castro. “They can say it is important for us that these technologies are generally neutral in terms of race, that they are not having significant errors and incentivize industry to prioritize that.”

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4. Brotherhood, debt, and the black college rising

In the intersection of national debates about reparations and college debt lie the HBCUs – historically black colleges and universities. As these institutions help students overcome disadvantage, what else is being done?

Peter

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It would be hard to top 16-year-old James Hill’s college visit. In May at Morehouse College, he witnessed Robert F. Smith’s offer to pay the loans of the graduating class, and James’ own photos of the event were published around the country. “I saw nothing but joy,” James says.

He’s not alone in his enthusiasm for America’s historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. Mr. Smith’s generosity is perhaps the latest sign that these venerable institutions may be on the upswing. HBCU enrollment increased 2.1% in 2016-17, even as total college enrollment declined across the country.

Brother- and sisterhood are one reason why. Rising racial tensions and a tense political climate have minority students seeking schools that deepen their understanding of their cultural heritage and affirm their identity. And practicality helps. HBCUs typically cost less. But most HBCUs aren’t famous schools with big scholarship endowments, and their students come from a disproportionately disadvantaged population, making student debt a persistent problem.

Yet students like Joanie Bell at Howard University say an HBCU is also a chance to witness the vast kaleidoscope of ideas and people within her own community. "I find black individuals who are fully into their blackness,” she says.

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Brotherhood, debt, and the black college rising

James Hill III loved his visit to Morehouse College. A 16-year-old from Gainesville, Florida, who aspires to attend the private and historically black men’s school, Mr. Hill felt embraced by the brotherhood of an institution that produced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., film director Spike Lee, and many other civil and cultural leaders.

“They just opened their arms and welcomed me in, I never expected that to happen,” he says. “I never expected it to be so warm.”

It helped that James saw history himself. He extended his trip a day and offered to hang around and help photograph Morehouse’s commencement on May 19. Speaker Robert F. Smith, a billionaire investor, vowed to pay off the class of 2019’s student loans; James’ picture of Mr. Smith at the podium was distributed by Morehouse and picked up by media organizations across the country.

“I saw nothing but joy,” James says of the event.

He’s not alone in his enthusiasm – for Morehouse in particular, and for America’s historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, in general.

Mr. Smith’s generosity is perhaps just the latest sign that these venerable institutions may be on the upswing. Most notably, HBCU enrollment increased 2.1% in 2016-2017, even as total college enrollment declined across the country.

Brother and sisterhood are one reason why. Rising racial tensions and a tense political climate have minority students seeking schools that deepen their understanding of their cultural heritage and affirm their identity.

Practicality helps. HBCUs like Morehouse typically cost less than other schools. Black students are also more likely to graduate from an HBCU than a predominantly white institution.

But student debt remains a huge problem. Most HBCUs aren’t famous schools with big scholarship endowments. Their students come from a disproportionately disadvantaged population. Consider billionaire Mr. Smith’s generous gift: The cumulative student debt of Morehouse 2019 graduates could top $40 million – a staggering amount of debt for a class with fewer than 400 students.

Experts warn that crippling debt could stunt these schools’ enrollment gains and inhibit students’ education and their access to these environments. HBCUs can’t bank on annual multimillion dollar donations from the richest black person in the United States. Still, some of their leaders hope the gift shines a spotlight on these problems and encourages more people to invest in the institutions.

“My hope is that we start looking at how do you have a group of students, particularly low income students of color, that have such greater levels of indebtedness, and how do we really start strategically addressing that?” says Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough. “This provides an opportunity for people to think about that and say, ‘How do I use my philanthropy to help that?’ ”

HBCUs, filling a need

America’s historically black colleges and universities developed in response to the nation’s shameful tradition of segregation and exclusion of most minorities from the opportunity of higher education.

These institutions, both public and private, began to spring up across the U.S. in the aftermath of the Civil War. Congress defines an HBCU as a school founded prior to 1964 “whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans.” As of 2017, there were 101 HBCUs across the U.S. and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to Pew Research data. That number has remained stable since the 1980s, but declined from a high of 121 in the 1930s, according to Pew data.

Powerhouses such as Morehouse and Howard University are well known. But many HBCUs tend to be smaller regional schools. Over half serve fewer than 2,500 students. But total HBCU enrollment has been rising, particularly in recent years. Their cultural pull has remained strong.

“I think just being at a place that some people say: This place was created with you in mind and you have role models who look like you,” says Dillard’s Dr. Kimbrough. “There’s some value in that.”

More sectors of society are recognizing the importance of HBCUs, especially as high-profile figures like Beyoncé boost their cultural cachet. Candidates vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have released plans for how they will correct years of decline and school closures.

Debt struggles

In the context of all American higher education, HBCUs can be a bargain, often costing thousands less than comparable public or private institutions. But that does not necessarily mean they are cheap. A year at Morehouse, when room and board is rolled in with tuition and fees, can cost upward of $48,000.

That’s a steep climb that leads to a paradox: While HBCUs may be comparably affordable, students leave with disproportionately more loans and struggle more to repay them, as documented by a Wall Street Journal analysis of Education Department data.

HBCU graduates struggle with debt because most of them are black, and black families face a staggering wealth gap in the United States: A 2014 Pew Research study found that black families have only $11,000 in savings and assets – less than a tenth of what white families hold.

The Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that represents 47 public HBCUs. President and CEO Harry Williams says many of the students at these institutions drop out because of their lack of resources. Ensuring students graduate is the TMCF’s top priority, as typical HBCU graduation rates fall well short of the national average, according to data from The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

“I wouldn’t have come here without a full scholarship. I would advise other people not to,” says Joanie Bell, a rising sophomore at Howard University. “Financial aid is a really big problem.”

Federal grants are another recourse for students seeking an HBCU environment but lacking the means to afford it. Pell Grants are the most well-known such recourse, but the typical grant size has not kept up with the skyrocketing cost of college since the program started in 1965. For example, the highest grant awarded for the 2018-2019 academic year is $6,095.

“HBCUs are under-resourced institutions serving under-resourced populations,” says Dr. Kimbrough. “If we’re charging $35,000 to $40,000, and 75% of my students are Pell Grant-eligible, which means their families make less than $40,000, the math doesn’t work.”

More than 75% of HBCU students rely on Pell Grants and nearly 13% rely on Parent PLUS Loans to meet their college expenses, according to the TMCF. (It’s still unclear whether Mr. Smith’s promise will pay off the latter, which are federal loans available to a student’s parents.)

“I know that I will be in debt, but it’s like inevitable,” says Alexander Freeman, a rising junior at Morgan State University in Baltimore. “Student debt seems to be the thing that weighs the most on people my age.”

Mr. Freeman – who had to drop two summer classes because he couldn’t take on more debt – was thrilled to hear about Mr. Smith’s gift, but he says something like that could only happen at top-tier schools like Morehouse.

“Morehouse, Howard: Those are household names,” says Mr. Freeman, who wants to be an engineer. “They don’t really pay much attention to schools like Morgan, they just pay attention to wherever the spotlight is.”

Presidential ideas

That spotlight is widening, thanks to candidates in the 2020 race. California Sen. Kamala Harris, herself a Howard University alumna, has proposed bumping up HBCU funding to improve training for black teachers. And Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed an ambitious plan to tackle student debt that includes giving $50 billion to HBCUs.

Some black college leaders are also quite pleased with the progress made under President Donald Trump. His administration forgave $322 million in natural disaster loans (New Orleans-based Dillard benefited from such loans after Hurricane Katrina), expanded the Pell Grant amount and eligibility, and allocated an additional $109 million in HBCU-related spending in 2018 compared with the previous year.

Not only has Mr. Trump helped bump up funding for HBCUs, his political rhetoric may have also driven more students to them. Preliminary results from a study conducted by Janelle Williams at the University of Pennsylvania and Robert T. Palmer of Howard University show that the political climate under the Trump administration and the recent spike in racial-based harassment of black students at predominantly white institutions influenced the college choices for black American college students over recent years.

Attending an HBCU is not just about finding safety, though. Ms. Bell says it’s also a chance to witness the vast kaleidoscope of ideas and people within her own community.

“At an HBCU, I find black individuals who are fully into their blackness,” she says. “The black spectrum is so huge here, it’s amazing.”

For James Hill, that life is the life he wants for college.

“The brotherhood and the foundation – that is what I need in my life. As Spike Lee said, I’m going to get it by any means necessary.”

Jessica Mendoza contributed reporting.

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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

5. ‘Hope to move forward’: One refugee’s story of resolve

When we think of refugees, we often think of hardship, loss, and dependency. Tasmida’s story challenges that perception and underscores the talent and spirit refugees bring to their new homes. 

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Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Tasmida, seen here in the Rohingya camp where she lives in the Kanchan Kunj neighborhood outside New Delhi, will soon be the first Rohingya refugee to enter college in India. She dreams of becoming a human rights lawyer.

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Tasmida, a modest young woman who favors a black abaya and speaks softly, would never think to place herself in a league with Albert Einstein. And yet she is also a refugee who has learned how to survive hardship, take advantage of opportunities, and give back.

She is one of an estimated 40,000 Rohingya in India, and one of more than 70 million displaced people around the world, 26 million of whom are refugees. Yet while the international image of the refugee may often be one of struggle and dependency, Tasmida’s story challenges that perception and underscores the talents and spirit that refugees contribute to their new homes.

“After we arrived in Delhi there was a time when I felt no hope. I didn’t know Hindi, and the situation seemed very difficult,” says Tasmida, who is now the first Rohingya refugee in India to pass the admission exams for university education and dreams of practicing international human rights law. “But then I remembered that getting my education was the only way to improve our situation here and one day help our country. Then I felt sure again, and I had hope to move forward.”

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‘Hope to move forward’: One refugee’s story of resolve

There was a point in Tasmida’s decade-plus-long odyssey from persecution in Myanmar to a cramped, stifling refugee camp along a sewage ditch in southeast Delhi when the aspiring human rights lawyer almost gave up.

“After we arrived in Delhi there was a time when I felt no hope. I didn’t know Hindi, and the situation seemed very difficult,” says Tasmida, who arrived with her family in Delhi’s Rohingya refugee community from Bangladesh in 2012. “But then I remembered that getting my education was the only way to improve our situation here and one day help our country. Then I felt sure again, and I had hope to move forward.”

That hope, and a determination honed by a decade of overcoming obstacles – from learning new languages and surviving a devastating refugee camp fire to facing rising anti-refugee sentiments – have paid off.

In May, Tasmida became the first Rohingya refugee in India to pass the admission exams for university education – a make-or-break step for fulfilling the dream of one day practicing international human rights law.

“In one way I feel very happy” about this accomplishment, says the young woman who goes by her first name and has no other name on her registration with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. “But I also feel bad: We are many Rohingya refugees in India, and many have been here longer, so why haven’t others had this opportunity before now?”

The new face of refugees   

Tasmida is one of an estimated 40,000 Rohingya – a Muslim ethnic minority the Myanmar state does not accept as citizens – who are making India a tenuous home.

And she is just one of the more than 70 million displaced people around the world, 26 million of whom are refugees. They include roughly 6 million Syrians and more than 2 million South Sudanese displaced by their countries’ civil wars, 4 million Venezuelans who have fled their country’s collapse, and more than 1 million Rohingya who, like Tasmida’s family, have been forced out of Myanmar.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Children play outside at a Rohingya refugee camp on June 15, 2019, in the neighborhood of Kanchan Kunj, outside New Delhi.

The figures for the world’s displaced, released this week as part of UNHCR’s annual report, are the highest in the UN agency’s almost-70-year history. The number of refugees alone is estimated to be up more than half a million over 2017. 

Yet while the international image of the refugee may often be one of hardship, loss, and dependency, Tasmida’s story challenges that perception and underscores the talents and spirit that refugees contribute to their new homes.

As the international community observes World Refugee Day Thursday, Tasmida’s story is also a reminder to the home countries that refugees have fled of the wealth — in human spirit, talent, and entrepreneurship — that those countries have lost.

Indeed, this year a number of international organizations and cultural institutions are highlighting refugees as contributors rather than a burden to the human family. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is featuring art by refugees while shrouding a work by one-time refugee Marc Chagall, to symbolize how the world would be a poorer place without refugee artists.

The Tate will use its four galleries across the United Kingdom to showcase works by artists who fled conflict and persecution.

And the International Rescue Committee, a global organization that responds to humanitarian crises with the goal of helping people rebuild their lives, has turned its celebration of this year’s World Refugee Day into a multimedia thank you to refugees, including Albert Einstein, Elie Wiesel, and Freddie Mercury, for their contributions to the world.

Nurturing others

Tasmida, a modest young woman who favors a black abaya and speaks softly, would never think to place herself in a league with Einstein. And yet in her own small way, she has demonstrated that she knows not just how to take advantage of the opportunities presented to her, but also how to give back.

She has inspired other girls at Hope’s Flight, the nonprofit she frequents in Delhi’s Kanchan Kunj neighborhood, an after-school study and empowerment program sponsored by the Texas-based Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI). The program aims to give Rohingya children a leg up (by learning Hindi, for example) and keep them in school. 

Following in Tasmida’s footsteps, other girls at the one-room Hope’s Flight center have recently passed exams allowing them to move on to higher grades.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Tasmida, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, holds a law study guide in her family's shop with her mother, Amina (l.), inside the Rohingya camp where they live in the neighborhood of Kanchan Kunj, outside New Delhi.

At her home constructed of bamboo poles, castoff wood, cardboard, plastic sheets, and tarps in the 50-family Rohingya refugee camp in the Kanchan Kunj neighborhood, Tasmida shows her friend Zuara her thick law studies book, the title “LLB” emblazoned on the cover in giant letters.

Just a day ago Zuara, another Rohingya refugee pushing forward in India, received word of her acceptance to move on to grade 11. 

“We see a lot of intelligent kids here, but the way Tasmida has not just focused on her own studies but has nurtured the others is really remarkable,” says Nadeem Khan, an early-childhood education graduate student working at Hope’s Flight.

Discouragement, and determination 

The details of Tasmida’s 15-year trek from Myanmar, through Bangladesh, to India, where she is now preparing to enter university in New Delhi, make her journey and her desire to contribute all the more remarkable.

Tasmida was a young girl in Myanmar when her father, a businessman with a small hotel and a river transport service, began experiencing repeated shakedowns and detentions at the hands of police. With abductions of Rohingya women increasing, her father decided Myanmar was no longer safe for his family. In 2005, they left for Bangladesh.

In the coastal city of Cox’s Bazar, Tasmida settled in to learning Bangla to go to school. But by 2012, with more Rohingya pouring into Bangladesh and conditions for refugees worsening, Tasmida’s father decided once again it was time to move, this time to India, where the family had contacts in the New Delhi Rohingya community. 

For Tasmida, another move across a national border meant another language to learn if she wanted to stay in school. But Indian schools wouldn’t admit her because she lacked Hindi and necessary documents. Her neighbors scoffed at the idea of a poor immigrant girl staying in school.

That is when Tasmida almost decided the obstacles were just too much. She dropped any effort at learning for six months. But then she had something of an awakening.

“I knew our situation was not good, but I also knew that education was the only way to bring change – so how was I helping if I stayed out of school?” she says.

Tasmida’s rekindled determination was met with new opportunities – admission to a local charitable school for girls, Hindi classes through UNHCR, CERI’s after-school and empowerment program in her neighborhood. Even a fire last October that destroyed her refugee camp, including her family’s home, did not dampen her spirit.

Her law textbook under her arm, India’s first Rohingya college student says her dream is to return someday to Myanmar as a human rights lawyer.

In the meantime, she has a message for the millions of young refugees like her around the world: “Problems will come, but don’t stop anyway,” she says. “And when an opportunity comes, don’t wait. Grab it.”

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The Monitor's View

The high court’s burden in keeping religious harmony

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One strength of democracy is its ability to guide people of different faiths to live in harmony. That point was made clear in a ruling Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled that a local government in Maryland can continue to maintain a 40-foot cross at a busy intersection.

The court decided that moving the monument to private land or “radically” altering it would be a hostile act toward religion, in large part because the cross had taken on different meanings over the decades.

The justices frequently struggle with cases involving long-standing religious symbols in public places (such as monuments to the Ten Commandments) or religious expressions with a long history (such as opening prayers at a town meeting). It has found no easy formula for deciding such cases.

With many of the world’s violent conflicts driven by clashes over religion – from Yemen to Myanmar to the Central African Republic – it is helpful to see the Supreme Court search for ways to maintain harmony in the U.S. among different faiths and between believers and nonbelievers. Perhaps the justices keep hoping the faith community will lift this burden from them.

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The high court’s burden in keeping religious harmony

One strength of democracy is its ability to guide people of different faiths to live in harmony. For most religions, harmony is a core promise. Yet it’s often secular government that must ensure it. That point was made clear in a ruling Thursday by the United States Supreme Court.

In a 7-2 decision, the high court ruled that a local government in Maryland can continue to maintain a 40-foot cross at a busy intersection. Known as the Peace Cross, the monument was built in 1925 on private land with private money to honor soldiers who died in World War I. The state took it over in 1961 and has spent more than $117,000 to preserve it. A group of local residents sued to have it removed, arguing government was endorsing a particular faith in keeping a Christian symbol.

The court decided that moving the monument to private land or “radically” altering it would be a hostile act toward religion, in large part because the cross had taken on different meanings over the decades. It was also not certain if the motives for building it were strictly religious. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito stated:

“For nearly a century, the Bladensburg Cross has expressed the community’s grief at the loss of the young men who perished, its thanks for their sacrifice, and its dedication to the ideals for which they fought….The Religion Clauses of the Constitution aim to foster a society in which people of all beliefs can live together harmoniously, and the presence of the Bladensburg Cross on the land where it has stood for so many years is fully consistent with that aim.”

Justice Alito pointed to other common uses of the cross symbol, especially by charity groups such as the Red Cross, or in aspects of healing, such as on Band-Aid boxes, or at government-run cemeteries with religious headstones. Should government be barred from involving itself with symbols that have taken on a meaning beyond their religious origin?

Indeed, many religious sites around the world are honored beyond their original purpose. When the Taliban in Afghanistan blew up giant stone statues of Buddha in 2001, the world mourned the loss of a 6th-century cultural treasure. When fire struck Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral this year, Christians and non-Christians alike sought to rebuild it.

The high court frequently struggles with cases involving long-standing religious symbols in public places (such as monuments to the Ten Commandments) or religious expressions with a long history (such as opening prayers at a town meeting). It has found no easy formula for deciding such cases. In fact, in this latest ruling, the seven justices in the majority issued six separate opinions. In general, the court rules against new attempts to honor only one religion in the public square. And it is especially wary of government using its immense power to coerce or disparage religion.

With many of the world’s violent conflicts driven by clashes over religion – from Yemen to Myanmar to the Central African Republic – it is helpful to see the Supreme Court search for ways to maintain harmony in the U.S. among different faiths and between believers and nonbelievers. Perhaps the justices keep hoping the faith community will lift this burden from them.

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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.

Learning to love

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When an individual was called upon to care for his estranged mother, painful childhood memories loomed large. Out of a heartfelt plea, “Dear God, teach me to love,” came a tangible sense of God’s love that led to a dramatic healing and a renewed relationship with his mom.

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Learning to love

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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As a child, I felt alienated from my family. My parents had divorced, and the fighting between my mother and her parents, with whom I lived, was bitter and incomprehensible to me. At age 7, I was sent to live with my father and his new wife. But I had a tenuous relationship with my father. And the feelings of alienation continued, because in my annual visits to my mother it was clear she was slipping into mental illness. As the years passed, I had less and less contact with her.

A number of years later, now an adult, I learned that my mom had been hospitalized and had lost the ability to live independently. I arranged residence for her in a nursing home near where my brother and I lived and flew across the country to check her out of the hospital. The kind doctor explained that my mom was exhibiting the mentality of a 6-year-old and would steadily regress.

The flight home wasn’t easy. Unable to sit up, when my mom wasn’t acting out she slept across three seats with her head in my lap. I began to think about my unresolved relationship with her and the fact that I’d spent a lifetime dodging family confrontations and wallowing in self-pity. Decades had passed, yet I was still burdened by lingering memories of domestic chaos.

I prayed with all my heart, asking for a comforting message from God, our Father-Mother, the divine Parent of everyone. Inspiring ideas came immediately. Willing myself to surmount my painful past had ultimately been inadequate. It dawned on me that I needed God’s love in order to be able to truly do this. I needed to love, plain and simple. But how?

The Bible makes the case for why we can love. “We are of God,” asserts First John, adding, “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. ... God is love” (4:6-8). If God is Love, then real love is of God. To love is to be what we are, “born of God” – to express our true, spiritual identity as God’s child, which includes every quality of divine Love.

Christ Jesus proved that everyone has the ability to express the purity of God’s love. In restoring health and mental soundness to countless people, Jesus showed our pure, spiritual identity as the beloved child, or spiritual expression, of our Father-Mother, Love, to be intact. Even today, healing happens as we become receptive to the powerful, transforming presence of divine Love and are willing to drop anger and regret.

As I leaned back in my seat on the plane, the prayer came to me, “Dear God, teach me to love.” At that moment, I felt all resistance fading as God’s love for everyone blossomed in me. God’s grace overcame me as I opened my heart to receive it. I found myself eager to let go of the confusing past. I felt God giving me genuine love for my mom and every other family member. Forgiveness flooded my thoughts, and I wept with relief.

It wasn’t long before I heard a cheerful voice: “I’m so glad to be moving closer to you and your brother!”

I was momentarily dumbfounded. “Mom?”

God’s love had washed us both clean. From that point on, my mother was loving, buoyant, and enthusiastic. Her behavior was totally contrary to the doctor’s predicted mental regression. Weekend visits with her were enjoyable, and she expressed kindness and gratitude during the remaining year of her life. I felt that my mom finally discovered the God-inspired joy of life, and I finally got my mom back. In fact, for the first time, I found all my lifelong wishes for mothering fulfilled.

Since that time, I have treasured this idea shared in the Christian Science textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy: “The prayer that reforms the sinner and heals the sick is an absolute faith that all things are possible to God, – a spiritual understanding of Him, an unselfed love” (p. 1).

Learning to truly love isn’t just a want that brings forth healing – it’s a yielding to God, making way for divine Love’s answer. For me, that answer included not just redemption for my mom and me, but also a lasting sense of what real, healing love is and how we can all live it.

Adapted from an article published in the May 6, 2019, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

High water

Matt Rourke/AP
Chris Smith makes his way through floodwaters to the Macedonia Baptist Church in Westville, New Jersey, June 20. Severe storms containing heavy rains and strong winds spurred flooding across the eastern United States, leaving 200,000 people without power.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( June 21st, 2019 )

Come back tomorrow. At what age do we become morally responsible for our actions? We’ll have a story exploring that question in the context of Harvard’s decision to rescind admittance of a Parkland shooting survivor based on offensive statements made when he was 16.

Monitor Daily Podcast

June 20, 2019
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