2019
December
20
Friday

Today, we look at millennials and authentic Christmas, the ethics of alien life, a secret food bank for farmworkers, a chat about the values of “Star Wars,” and finding meaning in Tuba Christmas.

At the end of impeachment week, it’s tempting to feel that the nation is hopelessly divided – especially as we head into an election year that could get ugly. But let’s consider a counternarrative. Around the country, dialogues aimed at understanding the “red-blue divide” are springing up. Monitor reporter Henry Gass wrote about one such effort in Wimberley, Texas, organized by a local chapter of the Better Angels alliance.

I reached out to an old friend of the Monitor, Tom Smerling, the Better Angels coordinator for Maryland, to see how he’s feeling post-impeachment. Mr. Smerling told me something surprising: Getting American conservatives and liberals together for dialogue today is harder than it was to get Israelis and Palestinians to talk back in the day, when he was an advocate for Middle East diplomacy.

“The U.S. work is harder, in part because we were one step removed from the Arab-Israeli conflict, on the outside looking in,” Mr. Smerling says. In the U.S. today, “in this polarized conflict, we are ‘inside the fishbowl.’” 

Yet Mr. Smerling is hopeful. “Reds” and “blues” are willing to sit down together, and look within themselves at the stereotypes they hold about others and why others hold stereotypes about them. 

At a recent Better Angels dialogue in Rockville, Maryland, he says, “you could feel the sigh of relief when the other side shared a moment of self-criticism and humility.” 

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A deeper look

1. In search of an authentic Christmas, ax required

Many millennials are cutting down their own trees as part of a yearning for a more meaningful Christmas – enjoying an outdoor experience with family – rather than making the holiday all about gift-buying.

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Riley Robinson/The Christian Science Monitor
Luke Richardson (left) and his brother Brady help cut down their family’s Christmas tree at a farm in Hillsburgh, Ontario.

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It looks like a scene out of a vintage Christmas print. Yet not all is old-fashioned on this 98-acre expanse in rural Ontario. Amid the bonhomie at Elliott Tree Farm, millennials are putting a modern twist on the ancient ritual of cutting down conifers.

Frederico Marques says environmental concerns brought him out. “To avoid the plastic,” he says, saw in hand.

People have been cutting down Christmas trees since trees first became a part of Christmas, but now something new is happening – millennials are helping to buoy tree farms across North America. Driven by a new ethos, they are wielding axes and bow saws in the name of making sustainable choices and supporting “go local” movements. They are also willing to pay for experience over convenience.

“[Millennials] have had a lot of bad rap, right? But when you see what they are doing, they don’t care about brands,” says Derek Elliott, whose family bought this land in the 1980s when it was a potato farm. “They are driven by the experience of a real tree, by bringing nature into the home, by supporting sustainability and not just putting up a plastic tree assembled in China.”

Something about being in nature feels right to Mr. Marques.

His wife, Brigite Rais, agrees. But the overarching motivation for being out here in the chill winter air goes back to that centuries-old quest for the “real” Christmas experience.

“Leading up to Christmas, we try to do something different each week,” she says. That includes dedicating a weekend to cooking Portuguese holiday sweets. “Otherwise, it passes, and that’s it. It’s just gifts,” says Ms. Rais. “And that’s not really the meaning of Christmas.”

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In search of an authentic Christmas, ax required

Parents pull their children on bright red sleds through the Christmas tree grove, amid rolling hills of Nordic and blue spruce and white pine. Saws grind. Trees fall.

Back at a barn that dates to 1850, strings of white lights hang from the beams. Families sip hot chocolate topped with crushed candy canes and whipped cream as they gather in circles on hay bales. Outside, two little girls feed a bonfire with pine twigs.

It looks like a scene out of a vintage Christmas print. Yet not all is old-fashioned on this 98-acre expanse in rural Ontario. Amid the bonhomie at Elliott Tree Farm, millennials like Justin Davies are putting a decidedly modern twist on the ancient ritual of cutting their own conifers. The heavy-machinery mechanic is planning on decorating his tree, which he chose for its height and fullness, with parts from his dirt bike.

Then there is Brooke de Oliveira, with her new husband and Yorkie poodle dressed in a red coat, who says that for her it’s all about the experience, which will include posting the “final product” on Instagram. And Frederico Marques says environmental concerns brought him out this year, after having put up an artificial tree last year. “To avoid the plastic,” he says, saw in hand.

People have been cutting down Christmas trees since trees first became a part of Christmas, but now something new is happening. Growers say that, along with the multigenerational families that have long been a mainstay of their customer base, millennials are helping to buoy tree farms across North America. Driven by a new ethos, they are wielding their own axes and bow saws in the name of making sustainable choices and supporting “go local” movements. They are also willing to pay for experience over convenience – especially if it means they can post their venture online. 

“[Millennials] have had a lot of bad rap, right? But when you see what they are doing, they don’t care about brands or what you are supposed to do or not supposed to do,” says Derek Elliott, whose family bought this land in the 1980s when it was a potato farm. “They are driven by the experience of a real tree, by bringing nature into the home, by supporting sustainability and not just putting up a plastic tree assembled in China.”

Riley Robinson/The Christian Science Monitor
Derek Elliott, decked out in Yuletide attire, runs the 98-acre Elliott Tree Farm in rural Ontario (photo left). His family started selling Christmas trees five years ago, on land that used to be a potato farm.

Millennials, defined as the generation born between 1981 and 1996, have been mocked and blamed (mostly by baby boomers) for everything from their finicky diets to a sense of entitlement to an obsession with technology. Christmas is no different. Last year, when a Twitter hashtag #millennialchristmastraditions was created, the derision came swiftly. “Vegan cookies for Santa,” cracked one writer. “Tracking Santa’s Uber route,” said another. “Downloading the Christmas tree via Apple TV,” mocked a third.

But as it turns out, at least with that last jab, millennials are decidedly low-tech when it comes to selecting a Christmas tree.

“Millennials want to know the story of what they are purchasing. They want to know who made it, who grew it; that is part of their culture and who they are,” says Tim O’Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association, a U.S.-based trade group for tree farms. “They spend a lot of time and money doing things as opposed to acquiring things.”

In other words, millennials represent the ideal market – and growers are pitching them aggressively.

North Americans love Christmas trees. A new poll by SurveyMonkey for the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA) found that 82% of respondents believe the Christmas tree is their most important holiday symbol. But that love hasn’t necessarily trickled down to the farm.

In one poll carried out by Nielsen in 2017 for ACTA, which supports manufacturers of artificial trees, 81% of trees displayed in American households that year were man-made.

Partly that’s a generational shift. Even Mr. Elliott’s mother, Betty Elliott, admits to having an artificial tree most of her adult life. “After I got married, everybody was getting the artificial,” she says. “When Derek was a kid,” she says, pointing to her son wearing a red hat and red festive holiday sweater, as “Let It Snow!” pipes through the barn, “he was raised with the artificial. But they say the [millennials] want this, you know. They want this experience.” 

In fact, growers thank them for driving business. Sales of real trees have experienced a significant uptick in the United States, according to the National Christmas Tree Association: Some 32.8 million were sold in 2018 – up from 27.4 million the year before. Of those, 28% were bought at cut-your-own farms that often do much more than simply sell spruce and balsam fir. Many offer “agritainment,” such as wagon rides, horse-drawn sleighs, food trucks, and petting zoos.   

In Canada, sales of real trees have increased by about 20% since 2015, going from $53 million (Canadian; U.S.$39 million) to $77 million (U.S.$57 million) last year, according to Shirley Brennan, executive director of the Canadian Christmas Tree Growers Association. “We have seen a steady increase in sales, and we’ve seen a steady increase in our demand,” she says. “There are a lot of farms that will sell out their crop for the season.”

Riley Robinson/The Christian Science Monitor
A couple search for the perfect tree to harvest in Hillsburgh, Ontario.

That’s in part because of demand from the U.S., where Christmas tree shortages are being reported in some states. The dearth stems not just from more people wanting trees but from the recession a decade ago. Since growers planted fewer trees during the downturn, and it takes about 10 years for a Christmas tree to mature, the effects are being felt now. That means higher prices. In the U.S. they jumped 23% between 2015 and 2018. The higher prices and tight supplies could lead some consumers back to the artificial market.

Kristin Pyke won’t be one of them. Her husband, Eric Kanis, grew up with an artificial tree. But like many millennials who are getting married and starting families, they have created a shared tradition around choosing a real tree. “It’s a big deal to me,” says Ms. Pyke, who sees a tree as both the centerpiece of her open-concept home and her Christmas season. 

The two go back and forth on various fresh-cut balsam firs that, to the untrained eye, all look equally perfect.

“I must admit [a real tree] is better, to get the smell, and you have to water it, take care of it every day,” says Mr. Kanis.

“A little more magical?” Ms. Pyke asks him. 

“I love Christmas,” she continues. “It’s like when you’re a kid; it brings back those nostalgic moments.”

The longing for a more authentic Christmas traces back to the beginnings of holiday celebrations in North America. Like so many traditions, Christmas trees have their origins in midwinter festivities to mark the solstice, and brighten the darkness, in ancient societies of northern Europe. Part of those celebrations included using evergreens and plants to decorate homes.

The modern iteration started in 16th-century Germany, where people brought trees into homes and adorned them with gingerbread and nuts. Christmas customs, including using greenery, were originally rejected in the U.S. because they were seen as pagan rituals. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that such traditions made their way into U.S. homes.

But just as soon as the decorating began, the holiday became commercialized, according to Stephen Nissenbaum, author of “The Battle for Christmas.” The modern image of a benevolent, chimney-hopping Santa was popularized in 1822 with the publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” more commonly known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” 

Mr. Nissenbaum says that the Christmas tree, seen as a simple German tradition, evoked deep feelings about what Christmas ought to be. It clashed with the rise of a more materialistic holiday rooted in gift-giving. 

“By the early 1930s, Santa Claus had become associated with a commercial Christmas, and the Christmas tree was introduced as a kind of anti-commercial antidote to Santa Claus,” he says. “That search for authenticity in the face of a kind of artificial materialism that has taken over Christmas, that goes back to the very earliest days.” Mr. Nissenbaum is not surprised that millennials today are seeking it, too. 

Of course, the appeal of Christmas tree farms in 2019 among millennials isn’t exactly your Victorian Christmas. A lot of it is tied to the social media frenzy. Christine Thomas, who runs Thomas Tree Farm with her husband outside Ottawa, Ontario, says they are used to multigenerational families. “But last year, we found more young people without kids were coming. Don’t know if that’s because they all want their Instagram photos,” she says.

Just like fields of sunflowers and lavender have become popular backdrops for online photos, so have tree farms become the “perfect” setting for young people to chronicle themselves, she says. In fact, she had to put a reminder on their webpage asking photographers to contact them first if they want to use their farm as a setting for holiday photos.

Riley Robinson/The Christian Science Monitor
Brigite Rais and Frederico Marques of Toronto take a selfie after cutting down a Christmas tree at Elliott Tree Farm in Hillsburgh, On- tario. This was the first time they harvested their own tree, after years of using an artificial one.

Emily Cordonier, a mommy blogger who did a post on the “Ultimate Guide to Getting Your Real Christmas Tree,” says the experience itself should come first – but it’s undeniably picture-perfect. “Looking through and choosing a tree, and hemming and hawing and then getting to physically cut it down, is pretty awesome,” she says. “And, I mean, I’m not going to lie. Thinking of millennials, in the era of Instagram, going out to tree farms and cutting your own down, is a lot more photo-ready sort of memory than going to a lot, choosing one that’s already wrapped up, and bringing it home.” 

For some millennials, it’s not about looks or likes on social media. It’s about following their instincts in the age of climate change. Yet the question of which option is greener, a real tree or an artificial one, has turned into one of the more contentious fronts in the perennial Christmas wars.

Christmas tree growers conjure images of faceless corporations manufacturing plastic trees that then languish in landfills. Those on the artificial side emphasize the reusability of the same tree, year after year, instead of cutting down a natural resource. In reality, the answer to which one is less harmful to the planet comes down to “the assumptions you want to make,” says Bert Cregg, an expert on Christmas tree production at Michigan State University in East Lansing. It depends on how long a household keeps an artificial tree or how many miles a family drives to cut down a fresh one. 

“Usually the tipping point on the environmental impact of real versus artificial trees is how far you go to get your tree,” he says.

Still, something about being in nature feels right to Mr. Marques, who is trekking through Elliott Tree Farm with his wife, Brigite Rais. It’s the first time they are cutting down a tree, and the first time since moving to Canada three years ago from Portugal that they won’t be putting up an artificial one.

“This is more sustainable,” says Mr. Marques. “You plant the trees, cut them down, and make a cycle like this. This is natural. It is organic.” 

Ms. Rais agrees. But the overarching motivation for being out here in the chill winter air goes back to that centuries-old quest for the “real” Christmas experience.

The two pause in front of a spruce – not their first time this day – and look it up and down, up and down. “This one? Or the other one?” she asks. They can’t decide, so they backtrack along the trail, dusted with a sprinkling of snow.

“Leading up to Christmas, we try to do something different each week,” she says. That includes attending Christmas markets, or dedicating a weekend to cooking Portuguese holiday sweets. “Otherwise, it passes, and that’s it. It’s just gifts,” says Ms. Rais. “And that’s not really the meaning of Christmas.”

The couple finally settle on a 6-foot Nordic spruce. It’s not the most symmetrical one they have examined – the crown seems out of proportion – but something about it draws them. This is their tree. They take out the saw and cut. They fasten it on the red sleigh. Then they begin the trek back to the barn for baling – but not before stopping for a selfie.

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2. In the final frontier, how should we behave?

As the discovery of life in other solar systems shifts from the possible toward the probable, scientists and policymakers are starting to ask questions of ethics. What responsibilities would come with such a discovery?

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JPL-Caltech/NASA
This illustration shows what the TRAPPIST-1 star system might look like from a vantage point near planet TRAPPIST-1f (at right). A new European space telescope has joined the field hunting for habitable worlds beyond our solar system.

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Suddenly it was not “if,” but “when.” The possibility of discovering life elsewhere in the cosmos went from fringe theory to reasoned speculation when scientists first detected planets orbiting other stars. 

“We’ve learned in the last twenty years,” says Christopher Broeg, a researcher at the University of Bern, “that our solar system is not alone. ... Every star that you see has planets, roughly.”

That shift has raised a host of societal, political, environmental, and ethical dilemmas that not that long ago seemed hazy and hypothetical problems at best. But now those questions are coming to the fore, as traveling to other solar systems – and potentially interacting with alien life – may soon be on the horizon. 

Many things still have yet to be done before humans rocket off to worlds beyond our solar system. Scientists are still pinpointing where we might best look to find alien life. But a joint Swiss and European Space Agency mission launched on Wednesday, called the CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite, or CHEOPS, aims to make that quest more certain. The space telescope is honing its sensors to determine which exoplanets might be habitable – or, indeed, inhabited. 

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In the final frontier, how should we behave?

Who doesn’t feel the tug of Orion’s bow string when staring into the deep, cold magic of the night sky? After all, the constellations were named by ancient peoples with rich imaginations and a deep desire to understand their place in a vast, inexplicable, and empty cosmos.

“There’s something great about astronomy,” says Swiss physicist Didier Queloz. “When we talk about planets and stars, everybody has this mental picture of what it is.”

But hold on, say astronomers, just how empty of life is that vastness?

That pointed question of our unique – or not – place in the cosmos, is prodding 21st-century people in ways the ancients may never have imagined.

On Wednesday, a new space telescope took to the skies to bring that question into sharper relief. CHEOPS (CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite) is a joint Swiss and European Space Agency mission spearheaded by Dr. Queloz and physicist Willy Benz at the University of Bern. 

Like an exquisitely calibrated Swiss watch, CHEOPS isn’t looking for new exoplanets like its forbears. Rather, it’s honing its sensors to carefully observe some of the 4,000-plus worlds that have already been discovered.

The idea is to determine which might be habitable – or, indeed, inhabited.

The possibility of discovering life elsewhere in the cosmos went from fringe theory to reasoned scientific speculation in 1995 when Dr. Queloz and fellow physicist Michel Mayor made a Nobel Prize-winning discovery. They identified 51 Pegasi b, an exoplanet orbiting a sun with characteristics similar to our own. Suddenly it was not “if,” but “when.”

That shift has raised a host of societal, political, environmental, and ethical dilemmas that not that long ago seemed hazy and hypothetical problems at best. Suddenly, scientists who are accustomed to wrestling with physics are starting to consider more philosophical questions about what responsibility may come with a discovery of life. Those questions are coming to the fore as traveling to other solar systems – and potentially interacting with alien life – may soon appear on the horizon.

Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency/AP
Physics laureate Didier Queloz from Switzerland delivers his Nobel Lecture, at Stockholm University, in Sweden, Dec. 8, 2019.

“Our solar system is not alone”

Christopher Broeg, project manager for the CHEOPS mission, sketches hastily with a sharpie on a whiteboard to emphasize his point. Previous efforts have identified either the size or mass of an exoplanet, but rarely both. What sets CHEOPS apart, says Dr. Broeg, is that the space telescope aims to bring the two together.

The focus has long been on adding more exoplanets to the roster. But CHEOPS will take a second look at exoplanets with masses we already know, adding data about their size. Taken together the mass and size of a planet can yield its density, which in turn hints at the chemical composition of that world. For instance, is it rocky? Does it have a water ocean? Is it gaseous? Those clues might help answer questions of habitability – and possible life.

“The interesting thing to me that we’ve learned in the last twenty years,” Dr. Broeg says, “is that our solar system is not alone. ... Every star that you see has planets, roughly. … The great thing is that if you look out in the night sky and you see every little tiny star – there is a solar system.”

Dr. Broeg offers a tour of the full-scale model of CHEOPS in the student-filled lobby at the University of Bern. Looking at it in its glass display case, it seems like a daunting task is being asked of this stout little drum of golden tinfoil, just 4 feet and 11 inches in all directions. But then I remember the Swiss watch.

Although the precision and accuracy of a mission to find Earth-like planets might increase their success rate, what comes after that is still, at least publicly, undetermined. 

Questions about forming policy for such engagement seem vague. There is already an international agreement for how humans should conduct themselves in space. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 bans the use and deployment of weapons of mass destruction in outer space and also “prohibits military activities on celestial bodies.”

The treaty was visionary for its time, two years before the first lunar landing, and reflects the pitch of concern about hostilities between the United States and the former Soviet Union. But it doesn’t address thorny issues like colonization or governance, for instance, that may arise if we find and explore Earth-like exoplanets.

To some, setting policy for something like colonization is remotely futuristic. “It’s almost ... science fiction,” says Henry Hertzfeld, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

“I mean, right now we’re having trouble just putting people in space,” he says. “We don’t have the technology to keep people alive for a long time in that very harsh environment.”

Dr. Hertzfeld adds that the Outer Space Treaty, as well as other United Nations resolutions, is still relevant, at least for now, for holding nations accountable in their outer space ventures. And beyond that, he adds, “I’m going back to a very practical approach, to saying, ‘I don’t know what it will look like in the future.’”

M. Pedoussaut/ESA/AP
The CHEOPS satellite, installed on the flight adapter ring, is being placed on the Soyuz Fregat launch vehicle. CHEOPS is the European Space Agency’s first mission dedicated to the study of extrasolar planets, or exoplanets. It will observe bright stars that are already known to host planets, measuring minuscule brightness changes due to the planet’s transit across the star’s disc.

Making contact?

Other researchers are already trying to identify and make contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life through other means.

Right now the success probability seems low for those particular outer space pursuits. But, says Luke Matthews, a Rand Corp. behavioral and social scientist, it’s way higher than it was even 15 years ago. 

And once contact is established, he says, the policy issues surrounding it will concern a strategic and social interaction that “has nothing to do with physics or astronomy or the kinds of things that people who do this think about.” Dr. Matthews says this is relevant to missions such as CHEOPS because now there’s much more likelihood to be able to identify rocky exoplanets – it’s no longer an uncertain quest in a random field of space.

This doesn’t mean the science should stop, he says, which is something scientists fear most about policy work or government oversight, just that policy should be in place before we make contact with any aliens, to avoid unintended consequences.

Exploitation of resources and respect for sentient life forms are also policy issues that others say must be considered. 

Missions such as CHEOPS open the imagination to realms of possibility, says Prathima Muniyappa, a research assistant at MIT Media Lab Space Enabled research group. It offers a way to consider space as not just an “empty frontier … ready for conquering or colonization.”

Ms. Muniyappa studies alternative cosmologies and cultural ontologies with an eye to issues that bear on social justice. Her work with indigenous groups has revealed a viewpoint that differs from most Western attitudes in that inner and outer space journeys are seen to be one, she says. 

Another MIT Media Lab investigator, Nicole L’Huillier, echoes this thought of unity and interrelatedness. 

As an interdisciplinary artist, Ms. L’Huillier creates pieces that reflect the desire to assimilate the diverse perspectives of cosmologies and astronomical phenomena and what future interactions with life outside our solar system might foretell.

When it comes to policy, Ms. L’Huillier encourages reverent regard for these planets rather than viewing them as an opportunity for exploitation. She notes that she sees “everything in relationship with something else. … That’s what I think is really beautiful … this larger orchestration of everything.”

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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

3. Inside the secret food bank that keeps farmworkers from going hungry

What to do when you work with food all day, but can’t afford enough to eat? An underground food bank in California tries to help Latino farmworkers feed their families.

Linda
Tony Avelar/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A woman carries a bag of produce as her daughter follows behind. A monthly clandestine food distribution in Watsonville, California, helps farmworkers make ends meet when they lose the regular income of harvest season.

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Synonymous with beaches and surfer dudes, Santa Cruz County in California is also home to some of the country’s most vulnerable – the farmworkers who bring in the harvest, but whose regular income ends with the growing season. An unknown number are unauthorized immigrants who live in substandard conditions and speak a variety of pre-Columbian languages rather than English or Spanish.

Once a month, Dominga pulls out a pink notebook, filled with names and numbers in impeccably neat handwriting, and calls the other farmworkers in her phone tree to let them know where the next underground food bank will be. She will choose from vegetables donated by local farms and packing houses, and household necessities like laundry detergent and diapers.

The stealth food operation is organized by Ann López in conjunction with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz County. “Dr. Ann” recalls interviewing laborers for her Ph.D. dissertation. “There was a family with four little girls crying for food,” she says. “What I found was a population inordinately poor and suffering.”

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Inside the secret food bank that keeps farmworkers from going hungry

The early winter storms gathering in the Pacific bring welcome rains to California’s tinder-dry landscape. But for farmworkers picking strawberries for less than minimum wage, the rains signal the end of the harvest season and regular work, and deliver a downpour of hunger and worry. 

That’s why about 170 indigenous Mexican women from Oaxaca line up for hours in an alley to obtain sacks of produce, diapers, and other essentials from a secret food bank once a month. For those who spend grueling days harvesting America’s bounty, this surreptitious pop-up – organized solely by word of mouth – provides a safe place for accessing free, nutritious food and supplies without fear of deportation by la migra, or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents (ICE).

Once the self-proclaimed “Frozen Food Capital of the World,” this predominantly Latino agricultural city of 53,900 is located in Santa Cruz County, the least affordable county in the state for renters.

Though synonymous with beaches and surfer dudes, the county is home to some of the country’s most vulnerable – the thousands of indigenous farmworkers in California, an unknown number of unauthorized residents, who live in severely substandard conditions and speak a variety of pre-Columbian languages rather than English or Spanish.

Tony Avelar/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Dr. Ann López, of the Center for Farmworker Families, organizes a monthly clandestine food distribution. Many participants are unauthorized to reside in the United States and worry about being exposed in public to deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

The stealth food operation – not far from the canneries where striking workers rallied in the 1980s – is meant to take a bit of the edge off. It is organized by Ann López, in conjunction with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz County. An emerita professor, “Dr. Ann” as she is known, started a nonprofit called the Center for Farmworker Families after interviewing numerous agricultural laborers for her Ph.D. dissertation. “There was a family with four little girls crying for food,” she recalls. “I opened the refrigerator and they had a head of lettuce, one third of a gallon of milk, and two Jell-O cups. That was it. What I found was a population inordinately poor and suffering.”  

The “devil’s fruit”

Ernestina Solorio, who has legal status to work in the U.S., spends 10 hours a day, six days a week in the fields during the season. Strawberries are among the most labor-intensive crops, known as la fruta del diablo, or the devil’s fruit, for the hours it takes hunched over low-to-the-ground berries to pluck them without bruising. 

Ms. Solorio earns $20,000 in a good year, well above average for a farmworker but also well under the federal poverty rate for Ms. Solorio’s family of four children. Sky-high rents eat up roughly 75% to 80% of a farmworker’s income, and a typical scenario is paying $600 a month for a family to sleep in a living room, says Gretchen Regenhardt, regional directing attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, which provides legal services for low-income communities. 

The math is grim: about $200 a month after rent to pay for everything else. “The work won’t pick up again until mid-April, depending on the weather,” Ms. Solorio explains. “That’s why so many of us are stressed.”

Tony Avelar/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Farmworkers, loading a car with food and household supplies, learn about a monthly pop-up food bank in Santa Cruz County through word of mouth. A typical farmworker here has indigenous roots in Latin America and lives under the poverty line in the U.S.

From a makeshift staging area in a garage, her compatriots file past tables piled high with diapers, laundry detergent, and toilet tissue, all while juggling toddlers in pajamas and babies nestled in blankets or shawl rebozos (traditional baby carriers). 

Some dig through piles of donated clothes before moving on to the main event – repurposed onion bags heavy with sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbage, kale, and other fresh vegetables and smaller white plastic bags filled with rice, lentils, and canned goods from the USDA. Strollers double as grocery carts. Those on foot weighed down by 30 pounds of goods teeter gingerly down the alleyway.

“You would never see this concentration of Oaxacans,” says Ms. López, dressed for the season in a bright red sweater and snowman earrings. “They are always hiding in the fields or their apartments.”  

On edge, then a respite

Fears about ICE raids – such as the arrest of 680 people in agricultural processing plants in Mississippi this past August – ricochet through the community, as did the massacre at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, that was fueled by anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant zealotry. 

The Trump administration’s proposed changes to federal immigration rules mean that people could be denied status as lawful permanent residents if they receive food stamps, Medicaid, or housing vouchers. In August, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigrant Services said: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and will not become a public charge.” If the rules survive legal challenges, the linking of food stamps to immigration status would have a chilling effect, increasing poverty, hunger, and poor health in vulnerable communities, advocates say.

In contrast, the underground food bank is “creating circles and spaces of trust or confianza” for indigenous farmworkers, writes Dvera Saxton, an assistant professor of anthropology at California State University, Fresno, in an email.

A monthly phone tree alerts people to the food bank’s hidden locale. “I never dreamed it would expand to the whole community,” says Dominga, who is an unauthorized resident and fears for her family’s safety. She pulls a pink notebook out of her spangly backpack to show off a roster of names and numbers written in impeccably neat handwriting. Her family of six resides in a living room cordoned off from the kitchen by a blanket. There have been as many as 16 people living in the 1,000 square foot house: there are currently 10. Mornings begin with lines for the bathroom. The smell of spices from an unrelated family’s chili permeate the blanket. “It’s hard and sad to share with another family,” Dominga says.

Tony Avelar/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A farmworker waits with his bags of donated food for a ride from a clandestine distribution held by the Center for Farmworker Families, December 2019, in Watsonville, California.

Her landlord refuses to provide a rent receipt, and a friend who was recently evicted similarly had no paper trail. Dominga worries the same thing could happen to her own family. Indigenous tenants often fear retaliation by landlords. Wage theft – not paying overtime, making people work beyond the clock, or under-recording hours worked – is common, Ms. Regenhardt says. “There’s no end to the ways employers find to not pay their workers,” she says.

Overcrowding reflects a broader housing squeeze: A University of California Santa Cruz study found that high rents coupled with stagnant or declining wages means that more than half of renting households in Santa Cruz County pay unaffordable rents, defined as spending more than 30% of income on housing. Watsonville, poised in a fertile valley between the ocean and the redwoods of the Santa Cruz mountains, has experienced displacement pressure from the city of Santa Cruz, which is just over the hill from Silicon Valley. The county has California’s second-highest poverty rate after Los Angeles, said MariaElena De La Garza, executive director of the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County. “Our families make $12,000 to $15,000 a year in a community with a high rent burden,” she says. “So it’s not surprising people are struggling for food.” 

The underground food bank joins 30 established food distribution sites scattered around Watsonville at churches, health clinics, and charities. A hefty portion of the vegetables come from local farms and packing houses, much of it privately donated, says Willy Elliott-McCrea, CEO of Second Harvest Watsonville.

Before the border crackdown, many immigrants spent the winter months visiting family in Mexico. That is no longer possible for those not legally authorized to work. “They also can’t switch jobs, which makes it very difficult for them,” says Doug Keegan, an attorney and program director of the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project.

Wintertime doubles the number of families and individuals here not getting enough to eat, says Darlene Torres, deputy manager of community health services for Salud Para La Gente, a federally qualified health center that serves farmworkers and similarly needy families. Diabetes and obesity are major issues, with financially strapped patients often opting for cheap fast food. Some forgo needed medication. “If it’s a choice between food on the table or purchasing their insulin, most will pick food,” Ms. Torres says.

Tony Avelar/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A Second Harvest Food Bank Santa Cruz County employee unloads bags of produce at a monthly clandestine food distribution held by the Center for Farmworker Families in Watsonville, California. It feeds between 100 to 200 families a month. Some participants travel from as far away as Salinas to the hidden locale.

As a creative incentive, those attending scheduled medical visits receive a $20 voucher for additional fruits and vegetables. Nurses and health workers teach healthy cooking and provide recipes. Local high school students do the growing at the University of California Santa Cruz through a youth empowerment organization called “Food What!?”  

Back in the alley, women and children waiting in line hug the edges of the apartment complex, to stay dry as a cold drizzle falls. For the holidays, a local church has gathered up coats and shoes while the Friends of Farmworker Families, which depends largely on private donations, supplies the toys. But for those patiently waiting, the most important gift is having enough food to tide the family over. At least for now.

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The Chat

4. As Skywalker saga closes, a chat about values of ‘Star Wars’

Perhaps the world’s biggest movie franchise, “Star Wars” serves as a modern-day myth – complete with implicit spiritual and political values – for millions of fans globally. Note: this chat is spoiler-free. 

Linda
Jacob Turcotte/Staff

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“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” the jam-packed conclusion to the nine-film Skywalker saga that kicked off 42 years ago, is out today. For this chat, which has been edited for clarity, we gathered three of the Monitor’s biggest “Star Wars” fans – culture writer Stephen Humphries, politics writer Jessica Mendoza, and science writer Eoin O’Carroll – to discuss some of the values that permeate the franchise. Though Eoin, Jess, and Stephen were raised in three different countries, all three became utterly captivated by the ”Star Wars” universe as children.

Eoin O’Carroll: One of my earliest memories is of my dad telling me that we were going to go see “The Empire Strikes Back,” which is now my favorite all-time movie. What is your first memory of “Star Wars”?

Jessica Mendoza: I have two – I’m not sure which came first. There’s me at age 10 or 11, at some California theater, seeing “Phantom Menace” for the first time and thinking how cool podracing was. Then there’s seeing “A New Hope” at home, in the Philippines, age unknown.

Stephen Humphries: My dad took me to see “Star Wars” when the first movie was released in 1977. We bonded over that movie in a way that, I imagine, other fathers and sons grow closer over a fishing trip. But instead of fishing rods, we were geeking out over lightsabers.

Jess, what is it about “Star Wars” that makes it something that resonated in our respective home countries of South Africa and the Philippines – and the rest of the world?

Jess: George Lucas always said that while he wrote the films for himself, he also had universal mythologies in mind. The plot and character archetypes touched something human in us – values, maybe, or desires. It didn’t really matter where we came from.

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2. As Skywalker saga closes, a chat about values of ‘Star Wars’

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” the jam-packed conclusion to the nine-film Skywalker saga that kicked off 42 years ago, is out today. For this chat, which has been edited for clarity, we gathered three of the Monitor’s biggest “Star Wars” fans – culture writer Stephen Humphries, politics writer Jessica Mendoza, and science writer Eoin O’Carroll – to discuss some of the values that permeate the franchise. Though Eoin, Jess, and Stephen were raised in three different countries, all three became utterly captivated by the ”Star Wars” universe as children.

Eoin O’Carroll:  One of my earliest memories is of my dad telling me that we were going to go see “The Empire Strikes Back,” which is now my favorite all-time movie. What is your first memory of “Star Wars”?

Jessica Mendoza: I have two – I’m not sure which came first. There’s me at age 10 or 11, at some California theater, seeing “Phantom Menace” for the first time and thinking how cool podracing was. (Will I ever live down how much I loved that movie now that I’ve seen it as an adult? Probably not.) Then there’s seeing “A New Hope” at home, in the Philippines, age unknown – except that I know the movie came in a LaserDisc my parents owned. (For our younger readers: That’s like a DVD, only much, much bigger.)

Eoin: I remember that month when LaserDisc was popular in the U.S. It really is the most “Star Wars”-sounding video format.

Jess: Isn’t it? The giant photo of Vader on the sleeve made it seem even cooler to my kid self. 

Stephen HumphriesMy earliest childhood memory is of outer space. My dad took me to see “Star Wars” when the first movie was released in 1977. We bonded over that movie in a way that, I imagine, other fathers and sons grow closer over a fishing trip. But instead of fishing rods, we were geeking out over lightsabers.

Jess, what is it about “Star Wars” that makes it something that resonated in our respective home countries of South Africa and the Philippines – and the rest of the world? 

Jess: George Lucas always said that while he wrote the films for himself, he also had universal mythologies in mind. The plot and character archetypes touched something human in us – values, maybe, or desires. It didn’t really matter where we came from. 

Before we get too far afield – Eoin, what was your first memory of the films? 

Eoin: We were in the United States. I had just turned four years old, and my dad was telling me that we were going to go see a film about rocketships and laser swords, and I kept forgetting the name and asking him again. So, yes, one of my defining memories as a child is of me forgetting the name of my favorite film.

But I wanted to get into that universality that Jess was talking about. The whole franchise seems to be saying something very big and deep about...something? Our relationship to technology? The existence of a transcendent order? Our political nature? You get the sense that its very important, but when you try to really grasp it, it slips through your fingers like so many oppressed star systems.

Stephen: Lucas drew inspiration from the “hero’s journey,” described by mythologist Joseph Campbell. It’s a classic paradigm that has a universality to it – how a journey transforms oneself.

“Star Wars” wasn’t dark. But it did deal with dark times and a belief in a resonant presence of goodness winning out. In an interview, Lucas admitted that his aim was to awaken young people to spirituality, a belief in God more than any particular religion.

Eoin: Campbell was also an admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, and Ezra Pound, figures who believed that Western civilization was decadent and needed to be reinvigorated with the heroic values of ancient societies. 

This kind of Carl-Jung-meets-Conan-the-Barbarian mentality is a common theme on the far-right, and we see it moving more mainstream thanks to thinkers like Jordan Peterson. I sometimes worry that this aspect of “Star Wars” can attract some pretty extreme reactionaries in the fanbase. Just witness the racist backlash against Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega and the misogynist backlash against Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones.

Jess: That reaction was hard to watch, if not entirely unsurprising.

What to me makes the franchise special – and this is true of any great story – is that people find what they’re looking for in it. Objectively, the spiritual message in the films exist, because Lucas said he put it there. And also objectively, maybe he was inspired by a man with fraught beliefs. That doesn’t mean that people can’t look at those characters, these stories, and discover truths that they recognize, even if Lucas didn’t necessarily mean for them to be there.

Eoin: There is this great theme of spiritual growth and change throughout the films. George Lucas calls himself a “Buddhist Methodist.” Both faith traditions emphasize humanity’s ability for spiritual improvement.

Stephen: Here’s why that hero’s arc works so well. In “Return of the Jedi,” that moment of Luke’s final transition to becoming a Jedi and Vader’s redemption is such a powerful one. And I love how the two are connected!

“The Rise of Skywalker” also asks if anyone is beyond redemption and, if so, asks what that looks like.

Jess: The Disney trilogy, to me, lacks the cohesion of the other two trilogies. One thing that kept bugging me throughout the movie – which, by the way, critics have savaged so far – is the question of how this all would have turned out if only one director had been tasked with all three. 

What could J.J. Abrams, who directed both “Force Awakens” and “Rise of Skywalker,” have done with character development toward those themes, if he’d gotten the chance to build a through-line? And it might have been even more fascinating to see what Rian Johnson could have created with that same opportunity. 

Eoin: Does the film close the saga’s spiritual arc?

Stephen: In a sense. One of the few things I like about “The Last Jedi” is that it ended by showing that the Force is accessible to everyone – even stable boys looking after space horses. Anyone can be a hero. Anyone can access the Force.

Indeed, there are a few moments in the new movie where characters other than Rey talk about feeling an impulse toward good. We even hear an anecdote about a whole company of Stormtroopers putting down their weapons and mutinying rather than shoot unarmed citizens. The message is clear: that impulse toward good is universal, available to those who heed its call.

Jess: Yeah, the best part about “Last Jedi” was its upending of some of those tropes we’d settled into with most of the “Star Wars” movies, especially around someone needing to be special to be trained to use the Force. When in reality, it’s for everyone who chooses to reach for it. But there was a disconnect for me, in terms of how that idea was presented.

Eoin: That strikes me as a welcome shift. The idea of spiritual awareness having a bloodline – that the Force runs strong in certain families – always struck me as vaguely eugenicist. The midichlorians didn’t help.

Jess: I was really hoping we could get through this chat without mentioning midichlorians.

Stephen: Are midichlorians the reason that the milk in the galaxy is either blue or green? Ugh.

Eoin: All of this raises the question: Was the Jedi Order actually good? I’ve long harbored misgivings against violent unelected religious orders that wield massive state power.

Stephen: There’s definitely a political theme about the dangers of concentrated political power, especially in Episodes 1 through 3. The best line is when Queen Amidala, who’d been manipulated by Palpatine, says, “So this is how liberty dies – with thunderous applause.”

Eoin: But unlike, say, “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica,” “Star Wars” has typically avoided political specifics.

Stephen: Indeed, the great weakness of the last three movies is that we have no idea how the First Order rose up or what they really stand for. But then there’s a lot of stuff that’s left unexplained – like how do capes remain fashionable for three generations?

Eoin: The First Order reminds me of Karl Marx’s observation that certain revolutionaries like to dress themselves up in the costumes of past eras, but that they can never quite live up to the glory of those eras. Marx was comparing Napoleon Bonaparte to Napoleon III, but he could have been comparing Darth Vader to Kylo Ren.

Jess: That’s why “Rise of Skywalker” feels rushed, I think. There’s a lot of background that doesn’t really get tackled, it’s less explicitly political than the prequel movies, and there’s so much action and quippy lines that I was left feeling a little ... whelmed. But it does try to strike some kind of balance toward the end, in terms of answering those questions about who can wield power, how, and what good it could bring to the galaxy.

Stephen: In “The Rise of Skywalker,” there are numerous scenes that powerfully underscore one of the other important themes that Lucas intentionally embedded in the series: the value of friendship. (Recall that even at their most adversarial, Ben and Vader refer to each other as “old friend,” which brings to mind the saying, “With friends like this who needs enemies?”) Everyone has a buddy – even the BB-8 droid in the new movie. Kinship encourages these individuals to overcome selfishness even if it means sacrifice.

Jess: That seems to me part of that larger theme of choice: Sure, there may be some huge, invisible power in the universe. But it’s not just for a select few. Anyone can access it, if they choose to. They can choose to use it for good or for evil. In the same way, each of us is born with a particular bloodline, a particular family. But we can choose who we side with. We aren’t bound by blood. We can choose our destinies.

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Essay

5. I’m blatted into Christmas past by tubas

“There was a time, long ago, when we knew all about Christmas. We were small; we held it right in our hearts,” essayist Murr Brewster writes. “We have to work at it to find Christmas now, but it’s worth looking for.” For her, that means Tuba Christmas.

Linda

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It’s December in Portland, Oregon; it’s dumping rain. There are more than 200 tuba players there, scavenged from all over town. We watch as a gray-haired man is installed on the dais to conduct. He is revered by the musicians, many of whom he has taught, and they smile at him with love and embarrassment.

And we citizens of Portland stand in the downpour, our shoes filling with water, screaming inside, tuba-tuba-tuba! We smile in his direction until, finally, he totters around to face the players, slowly lifts his arms, and releases the tubas. There are virtuosos, but it is not the nimblest of instruments, and a large and democratic volunteer force is best reined in at a safer speed. Still, they are magnificent, even while lumbering through “Joy to the World,” even if “Deck the Halls” is done as a dirge.

When the tubas break out in the most magnificent hymn of all, a hymn with the majesty to match the tempo, there’s a moment in it: the soaring “Come and behold him, born the king of angels,” the measure where your voice and your heart both break at once. That’s your childhood shining through the fracture. It’s OK to weep for it.

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I’m blatted into Christmas past by tubas

There was a time, long ago, when we knew all about Christmas. We were small; we held it right in our hearts. It had something to do with our childhood advent calendar with the little doors opening one by one, the choirs with candles, the green plush dinosaur under the tree, the eyes springing open at dawn. But familiarity dimmed our anticipation long ago. And bit by bit, obligation buried our spirit. We’re all grown up. We have to work at it to find Christmas now, but it’s worth looking for.

What we really want is not the plush green dinosaur, but the heart that can barely contain the joy of it. What we really want is to be flanneled and folded in Mommy’s lap, knowing her heart can barely contain the joy of it. What we really want is not at the mall, but if you know where to look, you can get enough to go on. Music is a good start. It’s why we go to “Tuba Christmas.”

That’s outdoors in the square downtown. It’s December in Portland, Oregon; it’s dumping rain. There are more than 200 tuba players of all ages there, scavenged from all over town and corralled under a canopy. We watch as, with some difficulty, a gray-haired man is installed on the dais to conduct. He is revered by the musicians, many of whom he has taught, and they smile at him with love and embarrassment. This is the highlight of his year, and he wants to talk. He wants to talk a lot, to teach some more, and to crack wise with comic timing honed in the 19th century, the punchline expected later in the month when the stagecoach comes through. 

And we citizens of Portland stand in the downpour, our shoes filling with water, screaming inside, tuba-tuba-tuba! We smile in his direction until, finally, he totters around to face the players, slowly lifts his arms, and releases the tubas. There are virtuosos, but it is not the nimblest of instruments, and a large and democratic volunteer force of them is best reined in at a safer speed. Still, they are magnificent, even while lumbering through “Joy to the World,” even if “Deck the Halls” is done as a dirge.

There’s an attempt to get the crowd to sing along, only they want us to do it a cappella, our verse framed but not accompanied by tubas. The conductor is under the canopy and hard to see from the topmost seats, and the pace the tubas have set for us is glacial. The angels we could hear on high, who couldn’t see the conductor at all, had to wing it. Other factions selected their own paces according to how cold they were, and by the time heav’n and nature sing, the group closest to the conductor has been lapped twice.

There was nothing professional about it, any of it, and when the conductor remembered an interesting historical footnote and laboriously turned around to inform us of it, I looked back at the audience: every one of us wet as muskrats, children stomping puddles as quietly and decorously as possible. You could try to think of rain as God’s tinsel if you want, but it’s cold, and hard to feel festive about it. Yet everybody is smiling patiently, jiggling for heat, because not one would deny a kindness to an old tuba player at the close of his career. It’s the bookend to our first Christmases, and it’s what we have to give.

And when the tubas break out in the most magnificent hymn of all, a hymn with the majesty to match the tempo, there’s a moment in it: the soaring “Come and behold him, born the king of angels,” the measure where your voice and your heart both break at once. That’s your childhood shining through the fracture. It’s OK to weep for it.

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The Monitor's View

Keeping homeless people in mental view

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As Christmas approaches, the life of Jesus reminds many of the plight of people facing homelessness. Whether Jesus’ birth and travels as an adult would qualify for some modern-day definition of a homeless person need not be the point. His ministry embraced poor people, including those without homes, and he taught the dignity and worth of each individual.

One source of gratitude this Christmas might be that homelessness in the U.S. continues to diminish. In 2009, near the end of the Great Recession, about 630,000 people were homeless, by one estimate. By 2018 that number had shrunk to a little more than 550,000.

Any number is still too high. Homelessness defies simple explanations or causes. Drug and alcohol abuse are often factors, as well as mental illness. 

Each city may find that it needs to customize its approach to homelessness to find what works for it. A plan based on the compassion Jesus exemplified, twinned with the firm conviction that the problem is solvable, can lead to success.

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Keeping homeless people in mental view

As Christmas approaches, the life of Jesus reminds many of the plight of people facing homelessness. He appeared first as an infant born in a stable, his crib a manger, or animal trough. And as an adult he became an itinerant teacher and preacher, relying on friends or supporters to shelter him as he went about his ministry.

In 2013 a bronze sculpture called Homeless Jesus or Jesus the Homeless was installed at the University of Toronto. It depicts him lying on a park bench, covered with a blanket, as a homeless person might be. The sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, calls his works “visual prayers.” Copies have now been installed in locations around the United States and abroad.

Whether Jesus would qualify for some modern-day definition of a homeless person need not be the point. His ministry embraced poor people, including those without homes, and he taught the dignity and worth of each individual. 

One source of gratitude this Christmas might be that homelessness in the U.S. continues to diminish. In 2009, near the end of the Great Recession, about 630,000 people were homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. By 2018 that number had shrunk to a little more than 550,000.

But any number is still too high. Some places, such as Houston, have made great progress. That city has cut its homeless population by more than half since 2011. But in many other places the number of those living on the streets stubbornly keeps growing.

Houston has relied on an approach called “housing first” that sees stable long-term housing as the most important early step, even before the reasons behind homelessness can be addressed. But in other locations this strategy has been less effective.

Part of the reason may be that homelessness defies simple explanations or causes. Drug and alcohol abuse are often factors, as well as mental illness. 

But some homeless people are unemployable due to physical disabilities. Some hold jobs but can’t afford high-priced local housing. Others may be escaping from abusive situations in their former homes. 

Recently the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear arguments asking to overturn an appeals court ruling on homeless people. That ruling stated that homeless people can’t be removed from the street unless proper housing for them is provided. 

“The government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” wrote one of the three judges for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The very condition of homelessness itself is not a crime. Nor does removing homeless people from public view alone solve the problem.

In Minneapolis a homeless encampment along a major commuting highway into the city became an unsightly reminder of the city’s problem. 

“Everyone going downtown saw [the camp] day after day after day and heard the stories,” says Patina Park, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. “It made it a real issue rather than just another homeless report with statistics.”

Action followed. In recent days Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced that a broad public-private partnership had raised nearly $5 million to combat homelessness, including increased shelter capacity across the state. The plan is to eventually double that amount.

“Homelessness is solvable,” Governor Walz says. “It is a math problem, not a character problem. It is a math problem, and we are prepared to solve that problem.”

Each city may find that it needs to customize its approach to homelessness to find what works for it. An approach based on the compassion Jesus exemplified, twinned with the firm conviction that the problem is solvable, can lead to success.

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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.

The biggest gift

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At Christmas and always, each of us is the recipient of a wonderful gift: the gift of healing, which, as Jesus taught, God freely gives to all.

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The biggest gift

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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When I was a kid, my sisters, brother, and I would sneak downstairs early Christmas morning to see the gifts under the tree, and then sneak right back up to our bedrooms. A large gift like a bicycle was unwrapped, and we would do a great job of pretending it was a big surprise. But sometimes, a very small gift we had hoped for would actually be a really big surprise, because the small box containing it would be in a much bigger box.

Christmas, of course, is far bigger than the giving and receiving of material gifts. It’s about what God, divine Love, freely gives to everyone to receive freely and give freely. It can appear in very big ways or in the smallest kindnesses.

For instance, there was a man in the Bible who’d had physical disabilities since birth and saw little prospects for himself. He simply sat outside the entrance of a place of worship asking for a little something from the people coming there.

When Peter and John, disciples of Christ Jesus, saw him, Peter told the man he didn’t have any gold or silver, but “such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.” That wonderful gift of healing was a very big and unexpected surprise for that man, and “he leaping up stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God” (see Acts 3:1-8).

Peter, John, and other disciples had been commissioned by Jesus to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils.” Jesus knew God, the universal giver of inexhaustible health and purity, had given them this amazing gift – the ability to heal. So he added, “Freely ye have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).

And Jesus fully expected that anyone could learn how to give this gift of healing that God freely gives to all. All of God’s children – you and me and everyone – have abilities that far exceed human power. We are actually created by divine Love as the very reflection of the Love that heals.

Divine Love is so big that it can’t be wrapped into a package of any size, and neither can its reflection; this Love is infinite. We are embraced, or wrapped, you might say, in the infinite consciousness of divine Love, which is pure good and includes no limitations, diseases, or inharmonies. This is the divine Science of being, the Truth that Christ Jesus lived and by which he healed.

This Science is a wonderful gift from God to humanity, and it heals today when it is understood and practiced. This understanding comes through receptive and humble study of the Bible – along with “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the book that explains the spiritual sense of the truth Jesus demonstrated. Through this consecrated study, accompanied by earnest prayer to understand Christian Science and allow it to transform us, God’s healing love is reflected in us, touching all who are embraced in our thoughts.

But what about thoughts of sickness and sin? Where do they come from? Well, that’s the point! They don’t exist in God, the infinite Spirit that fills all space. When divine Love purifies our individual human consciousness, those thoughts lose their reality to us and are washed away. That’s how Christian Science heals. As explained in Science and Health: “The physical healing of Christian Science results now, as in Jesus’ time, from the operation of divine Principle, before which sin and disease lose their reality in human consciousness and disappear as naturally and as necessarily as darkness gives place to light and sin to reformation” (p. xi).

So, if we want to grow in our ability to heal by reflecting God’s love, we can start by allowing divine Love to fill our hearts and minds, revealing to us everyone’s true identity and worth as God’s reflection. Then, we naturally value others as more wonderful, pure, and healthy than they may appear on the surface, and the love we express will reflect all-powerful divine Love’s healing power.

Divine Love just keeps giving. And the more we receive it – open our thought to it – and reflect it in our own hearts and actions, the more we feel within ourselves its healing and transforming power. And others feel it embracing them as well.

Adapted from an editorial published in the December 2019 issue of The Christian Science Journal.

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Viewfinder

Choirs of angels

Andreea Alexandru/AP
A child smiles before performing in a Christmas show for children in care in Bucharest, Romania, Dec. 18, 2019. Romania has more than 50,000 children in state care, according to recent statistics.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( December 30th, 2019 )

Some special holiday content is coming your way during Christmas week. Get those headphones out and get ready to spend a week with Monitor writers and editors.

Today, we have one last holiday treat for you for your weekend: Staff writer Sara Miller Llana spent a day in the lab of a scientist who’s spent 40 years trying to create the perfect Christmas tree

Monitor Daily Podcast

December 20, 2019
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