2020
November
24
Tuesday

Monitor Daily Podcast

November 24, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

Postelection homework for all voters

In the coming months, there will be countless attempts to understand the past four years in American politics. But among these first drafts of history, one stood out. Imagining ourselves years in the future, Katherine Miller of BuzzFeed News asks: How will we be able to explain the degree to which “an entire country became accustomed to living inside one person’s head”?

President Donald Trump occupied Americans’ attention in a way no president ever has. His command of media tools, his desire for attention, and his relish for speaking in ways that often offended opponents meant the nation fixated on him, pro or con. But at a time when social media and cable news have created an industry of reaction and outrage, Mr. Trump’s presidency perhaps began to outline limits.

In a Washington Post column last year, 40-year journalist David Von Drehle wrote: “If and when our obsessions with news feeds sour life and weaken the community, a citizen’s duty is to tune out – for a healthy hour, day, or week.”

Ms. Miller added more simply, “You can’t live like this all the time.”

In that way, one of the most important postelection tasks for all might be discovering a new balance.

How lack of transparency, inconsistency hamper U.S. pandemic fight

More than eight months into the pandemic in the United States, many local, state, and federal guidelines can still appear random. Public confidence is crucial to cooperation.

Mark

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As the pandemic surges across the United States, Americans are facing public health measures that are seen as not just restrictive, but inconsistent.

Take indoor worship. In Washington, it’s limited to 25% occupancy. In Oregon, it’s 25 people. And in most of California, it’s banned altogether. Schools are closed, yet bars are open. Many places impose curfews, but they are riddled with loopholes. Outdoor dining – once seen as a way of keeping restaurants afloat while protecting the public – is now banned for three weeks in Los Angeles County.

This apparent illogic – from the federal government to the states, and between states and within them – fuels mistrust, say observers, as people compare their own rules to the ones in the next county or state.

“So much of compliance depends on voluntary cooperation,” says John Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. “People will go along if they see a consistent set of rules that seem to make sense.”

Much of the inconsistency comes from the top, says Emily Blodget, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “We don’t have federal guidance, at least not now, so each state is determining their own rules.”

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1. How lack of transparency, inconsistency hamper U.S. pandemic fight

As the pandemic surges nationwide in the United States, rules meant to curb the virus are testing not only the patience of many Americans, but also their reasoning.

What is the logic, for instance, behind closing the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., when scientists say it is safer to be outdoors than indoors? Why do the West Coast states – all run by Democrats and consulting each other on pandemic strategy – have three different standards for indoor worship, from 25% of occupancy (Washington), to 25 people (Oregon), to no indoor worship (most of California)? And a biggie – why are many schools closed (from New York to California), while bars are not?

“There have been reasons to question why close this and not close that,” says Jeanne Ringel, senior economist at the Rand Corp. who specializes in public health research. For example, “it doesn’t seem that schools are a big spreader, but research does suggest that restaurants, bars, and gyms are, and they remain open.”

The questioning goes beyond impatience with restrictions – “COVID fatigue” – to mistrust of rules, says Dr. Ringel. In turn, that can lead to noncompliance, just when America is entering the holiday season, which is traditionally a peak gathering time for friends and family and a make-or-break time for many businesses. The U.S. has surpassed 12.5 million cases, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked people not to travel to see loved ones. Inconsistent messaging – from the federal government to the states, and between states and within them – contributes to the head-scratching, as people compare what’s happening in the next county or next state.

“So much of compliance depends on voluntary cooperation,” says John Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. “People will go along if they see a consistent set of rules that seem to make sense.”

“It’s about a lack of consistency”

That looks to be coming to a head in California, where the director of public health for Los Angeles County, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, is butting heads with the chair of the county’s board of supervisors, Kathryn Barger, over a new health directive to close outdoor dining at at bars and restaurants for three weeks, starting Nov. 25. Take-out and delivery are allowed. Owners are complaining loudly after having invested in tent canopies and heat lamps.

“It’s about a lack of consistency,” Supervisor Barger said on KPCC radio Nov. 23. “Our own public health director has said that more than 50% of the positives being reported are the result of private social gatherings with someone who tested positive.”

In press conferences, Dr. Ferrer has pointed to many sources for a recent surge of cases in the nation’s most populous county – the largest surge since the pandemic began. She cites private gatherings and parties, celebrations related to two team championships (the Lakers and the Dodgers), and noncompliance at workplaces. But it’s nearly “impossible” to pinpoint where and when people are becoming infected, she said Monday.

The county has interviewed more than 280,000 people who have tested positive, and most have no idea where they got the virus, she explained. So when the county says that 10% to 15% of infections come from restaurants, it’s based on a smaller sample size of people who know where they were exposed, or it is based on an outbreak investigation. Meanwhile, she announced, the entire county is heading toward another stay-at-home order, though modified, because the five-day average of new cases has surpassed 4,500.

California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has also come under criticism for flouting his own rules on social gatherings. Last week, he had to apologize after he was outed for attending a dinner birthday party for a friend at a swanky restaurant. His apology came on the same day he announced that 40 counties were moving backward into more restrictive tiers, affecting some 94% of the population. He’s been criticized, too, for sending his children to private school while millions of others have no choice but distance learning. The first family is now in quarantine because their children were exposed to a highway patrol officer who tested positive.

“It ... doesn’t help when the governor and others are not following the rules,” says Dr. Ringel. She questions the effectiveness of a new curfew of 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. that applies to nonessential businesses and residents in the most restricted counties. It probably cuts down on transmission among people who might be at bars in the evening or other gathering spots, “but I don’t know that there’s any evidence, particularly research evidence, to support that,” she says. It is a way to balance economic and health needs, she says, though “I’m not sure it ends up doing either very well.”

The question of curfews

Governor Newsom is part of a trend of Democratic and Republican leaders across America – and other countries, too – who are turning to curfews.

In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine recently announced a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew that includes numerous loopholes and exceptions. John Frank, who works at Brink Brewing Company in Cincinnati, finds the curfew too small in scale to make much of a change. In addition, he says, patrons who might complain about others not wearing masks can, and do, walk into the brewery and, once they’re seated, take their masks off and talk to each other in close quarters.

“It kind of seems like [they’re] just making it seem like something’s being done,” he said of regulations. “But I mean, I don’t think anybody in general really understands how to navigate this. ... It’s a situation where nobody has the answer, but you have to give an answer.”

Mr. Frank had a second job at a steakhouse across the river in Covington, Kentucky – 9 miles away – until Friday, when the governor there banned indoor dining in the state. Outside of work, he tries his best to limit his social circle, and so reduce his odds of being a carrier.

Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, says he understands doubts about a curfew. It seems perfectly reasonable to ask why a virus wasn’t dangerous at 9:58 p.m., but it is at 10:02 p.m., he says.

“It can seem a little silly for an individual, but for a population, the country, or the city of San Francisco, it’s reasonable,” because it’s aimed at activity where people take off their masks, drink, and are closer than they should be.

He strongly defends the rules of San Francisco – which went into lockdown before last spring’s state order and was slower to open up. Its cautious approach made it the first urban center in California to reach the least restrictive tier. Last week, it imposed new restrictions as an increase in cases pushed it back into a more restrictive tier, but Dr. Wachter is not concerned, citing the expected “roller coaster” nature of a pandemic. He’s proud that the city, the densest in America after New York, has recorded only 158 deaths since the pandemic started.

If the entire country had that rate, he says, it would be looking at 60,000 deaths, not more than 250,000. “What we’re doing is working,” he says, pointing to a culture that wears masks and does not think COVID-19 is a “hoax.”

Of all the rules, he points to mask wearing as the most important, and indeed, Republican governors who once shunned the idea are now embracing it as the pandemic stretches hospital capacity in their states. North Dakota needs to “avoid a post-Thanksgiving crunch,” said Gov. Doug Burgum after two weeks of surging hospitalizations forced him to impose a statewide mask mandate – something he once said was unnecessary and unworkable.

Washington’s role

Much of the inconsistency with rules stems from a lack of strong federal guidance, says Emily Blodget, who teaches at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “I think it’s difficult because we don’t have federal guidance, at least not now, so each state is determining their own rules,” says Dr. Blodget, who specializes in infectious diseases.

“The president of the United States has to be the leader on this. ... It’s got to come from Washington,” says Zev Yaroslavsky, a former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. He credits the Food and Drug Administration for recent approval of a drug to treat COVID-19 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its strong guidance against Thanksgiving travel, saying the federal agencies “seem to have snapped to attention.”

Not everyone believes the answer is top-down rule-making.

On the first night of the California curfew last Saturday, protesters gathered on the pier in Huntington Beach, a community that bristles at directives from the governor. Two state Republican lawmakers sued to prevent the governor from overstepping when it comes to the pandemic, and a state superior court recently barred him from taking executive action that changes existing law or creates new law. But a California appellate court temporarily blocked that injunction last week.

The governor is overreaching, says Laurie Davies, a Republican who is heading to the state assembly from another beach community, Laguna Niguel. “One size doesn’t fit all.”

At home and away, Hondurans pitch in toward hurricane healing

For many Hondurans, trust in the government has been waning for years. So after back-to-back hurricanes, they’re looking to each other for support.

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When Hurricane Eta touched down in Honduras, Rafael Álvarez Martínez fled by foot, sloshing through the rising waters with no clear destination in mind. Now, he and 25 of his extended family members are sheltering in one room of an elementary school, where cut-out paper flowers and academic calendars still decorate the walls. 

“I haven’t heard a thing from the municipality,” he says. “My only hope is God and putting in the hard work to recuperate what we lost.”

More than 3.3 million Hondurans have been affected by the back-to-back storms, and an estimated 450,000 have been displaced from their homes. But official response to the storms has been slow, observers say, and some worry about what’s ahead. The country has a poor track record on transparency, and critics have raised concerns about misuse of recovery funds – especially with elections looming next year.

Meanwhile, neighbors have been using private boats to rescue each other, and donating the little they have to feed and clothe the displaced. “There’s a phrase people have been saying the past two weeks,” says Lester Ramírez, who works for the Association for a More Just Society. “Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo, only the people save the people.”

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2. At home and away, Hondurans pitch in toward hurricane healing

When Dr. María Angélica Milla saw the exodus of families – sopping wet and in distress, traveling by foot and by boat – fleeing Hurricane Eta as it touched down in Honduras this month, the physician got on the phone with an old friend.

“I asked him for his keys,” she says of the elementary school principal she rang, whose school had been shuttered for months due to the coronavirus.

He agreed to lend her the space, and that first night more than 300 people slept on the floor in the dust-covered classrooms of the Escuela Luis García Bustamante in San Pedro Sula.

“The community has shown up,” says Dr. Milla of the response to Hurricanes Eta and Iota. People in this drenched corner of northern Honduras have used private boats to rescue neighbors, and donated the little they have to feed and clothe the displaced. More than 3.3 million Hondurans have been impacted by the back-to-back storms, and an estimated 450,000 have been displaced from their homes.

“People here have dry clothes, they have food, we have some medical assistance, not nearly enough beds” she says of her efforts alongside a network of local pastors and church groups, which have set up informal shelters for nearly 600 people. There are roughly 80 municipal shelters operating in San Pedro Sula, but hundreds of people are sleeping under bridges and overpasses due to lack of space and COVID-19 concerns. “Honduran citizens have taken charge of the response to this tragedy. It’s out of good will, but at the same time, we don’t have a choice: [citizens] are stepping up because we have to.”

The Honduran government failed to give citizens early warnings before Hurricane Eta, and its response to the disasters has been disorganized and slow, observers and victims say. But it’s not just two back-to-back hurricanes eroding trust in officials. From a coup in 2009, to the contested reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández in 2017, the government has lost legitimacy in the eyes of many citizens. The country has a poor track record on transparency, and an internationally-backed anti-corruption body lost its mandate earlier this year. Elections are coming up next year, which has already raised concerns about officials using recovery resources for vote-buying.

“The government response has been really weak,” says Lester Ramírez, director of governance and transparency at the Association for a More Just Society, a nongovernmental organization in Tegucigalpa. “I think everyone was expecting more from them,” since Honduras has been here before, when Hurricane Mitch devastated the country just over two decades ago.

“There’s a phrase people have been saying the past two weeks: Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo, only the people save the people,” Mr. Ramírez says. “Hondurans see each other as the only answer to their problems right now.”

Help from afar

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch marked one of the worst natural disasters in Central American history, wiping out entire communities. Mass landslides and flooding sent tens of thousands of Hondurans packing, many seeking protection in the United States.

At the time, the international community was quick to respond with aid packages, and the U.S. granted Temporary Protected Status for Central Americans. Today, the landscape is transformed: governments across the globe are consumed by the coronavirus response and subsequent economic challenges at home. And the U.S. has taken a step back from development aid and leadership in the region, cutting USAID funding in 2019. After Eta, USAID provided $120,000 in humanitarian aid; after Iota, it pledged up to $8.5 million more.

Courtesy of Lucas Barrios
Volunteers with Hondureños Unidos en Louisiana load a shipping container at the Hispanic Catholic Apostolate in Metairie, Louisiana, on Nov. 22, 2020. The container was donated by Dole, and once it is full, it will be sent to La Ceiba, Honduras, to help some of the hundreds of thousands of Hondurans who have been displaced by Hurricanes Eta and Iota.

The estimated economic loss from Hurricane Eta ranges from 10%-20% of Honduras’ GDP, or roughly $5 billion dollars. Subsequent damage from Iota is expected to further inflate those numbers.

One positive result of Mitch, however, is a hearty diaspora in the U.S. who recognize the urgency of these disasters. The Honduran community across the United States – from New York to Texas, Florida to Louisiana – has rallied to send money and supplies. For Lucas Barrios, who moved to Louisiana in 1979, it’s moments like Hurricanes Eta and Iota when he feels most connected to his home and countrymen.

As part of the nonprofit Hondureños Unidos en Louisiana, Mr. Barrios and other volunteers are raising funds and gathering nonperishable goods to send to his hometown of La Ceiba, a hard-hit Caribbean port city.

“It’s a responsibility for me to organize efforts like this,” says Mr. Barrios, a former Honduran diplomat turned disc jockey and professional photographer, who is working to fill a shipping container in Metairie, Louisiana. “This is a natural disaster compounded by a human disaster. The human part is the government.” Mr. Barrios says he fought to ensure the shipping container would be received by a Catholic bishop in La Ceiba, instead of government officials.

“It’s the responsibility of Hondurans to take care of each other because the government won’t.”

“No quick fix”

Cut-out paper flowers and academic calendars still decorate the walls of the Escuela Luis García Bustamante, but classrooms have been transformed into temporary dorm rooms. Most here sleep on the hard, concrete floor at night and sit in small wooden desks in the damp courtyard during the day. Regular downpours add to the stress of what awaits people back home.

Rafael Álvarez Martínez is staying in one room with 25 of his extended family members. They fled their community in the Rivera Hernández section of San Pedro Sula by foot when Eta touched down, sloshing through the rising waters with no clear destination in mind.

“We lost everything. I don’t know if I’ll even be able to repair my house,” he says after visiting his Garifuna, or Afro-Indigenous, neighborhood. Most everything is still under water, he reports.  

He’s not holding out hope for much help from the government. “I haven’t heard a thing from the municipality,” he says. “My only hope is God and putting in the hard work to recuperate what we lost.”

Delmer Martinez/AP
A person distributes food to hurricane victims under a bridge in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Nov. 21, 2020. Shelters for people whose homes were flooded or damaged by hurricanes Eta and Iota in Honduras are now so crowded that thousands of victims have taken refuge under highway overpasses or bridges.

Honduras ranks toward the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Index, placing 146th out of 180 countries in 2019. Elections are scheduled for 2021, which has observers like Mr. Ramírez on high alert for clientelism and misuse of funds in the government’s disaster response.

Already, Mr. Ramírez is noticing red flags. He says the government is pushing to use direct procurements of items like temporary bridges, which means no public cost-benefit analyses. “The ideal scenario is one where the government opens up the decision-making process to include a committee of experts across the private sector, NGOs, multilaterals, and international donors,” says Mr. Ramírez. 

Although it’s inspiring to see the unity of Hondurans at home and abroad, what is happening is a direct result of the loss of faith in the government over the past decade, observers say.

“People don’t believe help will arrive as it should or they think if it does come it will be politicized,” says Leonardo Pineda, who is part of a network of pastors helping support citizen-run shelters. “That’s a serious problem and there’s no quick fix.” And the long-term implications could be grave, including even more reliance on criminal groups in communities overlooked by the government, and, most everyone agrees, more migration.

Dr. Milla, who teaches social psychology at the Catholic University of Honduras, says she feels a huge responsibility to carry out this work.

“Most of the donations we’ve received come with one condition: Don’t use this for any project where the government’s involved.”

Why new Canadian Green leader believes ‘this is the moment’

As the first Black Canadian to lead a federal party, Annamie Paul is changing ideas about what a political leader can look like. Next up: changing who can see themselves in her party’s platform.

Mark
Blair Gable
Annamie Paul, the new leader of Canada's Green Party, stands on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Oct. 4, 2020. Ms. Paul, the first Black Canadian elected to lead a federal party, aims to challenge the stereotype that environmentalism is solely a "white" issue.

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Annamie Paul is a lawyer who’s worked in Belgium and Barcelona. She’s the daughter of immigrants from the Caribbean. And, since last month, she’s the leader of Canada’s Green Party – making her the first Black Canadian elected to lead a federal party, the only woman currently leading a major one, and the country’s second-ever Jewish party leader.

The Greens, who hold just three Parliament seats, face challenges as they try to expand. Other parties have adopted environmental platforms, for example, making it harder to distinguish themselves.

But Ms. Paul is on a mission to convince voters that the party is not just a space for the privileged elite, but those struggling to meet basic needs, especially amid a pandemic. She’s also trying to shake the image that the Green Party cares about just one issue. Many of the ideas the party proposed before anyone else, Ms. Paul says – like guaranteed basic income – are made for “this moment.” 

University student Kiara Nazon, the co-chair of the Young Greens of Canada, recorded a powerful video for Ms. Paul’s leadership campaign. “I think Annamie being the leader is such a momentous change because people can see themselves in the Green Party now that never saw themselves in it before,” she says.

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3. Why new Canadian Green leader believes ‘this is the moment’

When Annamie Paul campaigned in downtown Toronto as a Green candidate in Canada’s 2019 federal election, some voters scoffed when the conversation turned to climate crisis or electric vehicles. “They had no time. I mean, they laughed,” she says.

Now that she has been elected as the leader of the Green Party of Canada, amid a pandemic that has wrought especially severe disruptions in low-income communities, it is her mission to convince exactly those voters that her party is not just a space for the privileged elite, but for those struggling to meet their most basic needs. Or, as she so often says, “You have got to have social justice to have climate justice.”

Ms. Paul is uniquely poised to deliver that message. The daughter of immigrants from the Caribbean, she has become the first Black Canadian elected to lead a federal party in Canadian history – that itself shattering stereotypes that environmentalism is a “white” issue. Having converted to Judaism, she’s also Canada’s second-ever Jewish party leader, and currently the only woman leading a major party at the federal level.

In the wake of the bitter American presidential election, where divisions have dimmed hopes on both sides that real change is possible, the new Green Party leader is trying to spread a message of new possibilities post-pandemic. “It’s very important to match a party and to match leadership to a moment,” she says. “I do really believe that this is the moment for a party like ours.”

More than “green”

The Green base in Canada has long been centered in British Columbia; that’s where Elizabeth May, who led the party for 14 years, was elected into office. They’ve made significant gains in Atlantic Canada, and as they aim to expand federally, they’ve tried to shake perceptions that they’re a single-issue party.

That’s what drew Ms. Paul, a lawyer who studied at Princeton, to the Green Party when she returned home after working in Brussels and Barcelona in international affairs and the nonprofit sector. And she says many of the ideas the Greens dared propose before anyone else – like guaranteed basic income or a safe supply of drugs to prevent opioid deaths, for instance – are made for “this moment” when new solutions are demanded.

Ms. Paul’s personal story fits neatly into the “Canadian dream,” a narrative that has grown stronger against a weakening “American dream.”

“We’ve been very successful in terms of attracting tremendous talent from all over the world. And we’ve also done it in a way that, to a very large extent, we’ve maintained our social cohesion,” she says. But discrimination against Indigenous and minority communities is a stubborn problem that is not always faced or even known.

When George Floyd was killed in the United States, Ms. Paul published statistics on discrimination against Black Canadians. “People were just shocked. ... I understand that it’s painful because it doesn’t correspond to the image that many people in Canada have. I tell people that you can still love this place, but accept and understand that it has flaws.”

University student Kiara Nazon recorded a powerful video for Ms. Paul’s leadership campaign about the discrimination she faces as a Black woman in Canada and why diversity in politics is so important. She says that even if minority and Indigenous communities are the first victims of climate change and have long been activists on the front lines, the public face of the party has been white. “I think Annamie being the leader is such a momentous change because people can see themselves in the Green Party now that never saw themselves in it before,” says Ms. Nazon, the co-chair of the Young Greens of Canada. 

Reaching out

Hamish Telford, a political science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, says Ms. Paul might be able to broaden the party’s appeal since she is from Toronto and fully fluent in French, possibly attracting Quebecois. But the party faces several obstacles. The Liberals and New Democrats have adopted environmental platforms, and as the Greens push harder on social justice, it becomes harder to distinguish themselves from other parties. “If she tries to reorient the party in that direction,” he says, “they run into more competition.”

Expectations of a “Green surge” failed to materialize in 2019, leaving the party with just three seats in Parliament. Ms. Paul didn’t win a seat in Parliament in the Toronto Centre riding where she ran, nor in a by-election held last month. Yet the Green Party’s percentage of the vote swelled in that district, from less to a tenth of voters to over a third this time. Because Toronto Centre is a Liberal stronghold, she has said the results signal voters’ willingness to seek new solutions.

Ms. Paul is not afraid to open up about the realities of life as a working mother. She answers questions about her hair whenever she is asked, which is constantly. She shaved it off when she had a baby during her demanding Princeton program. “Anyone who knows Black women and their hair knows it is a big commitment,” she says. “And so it had to go.”

When she emerged victorious as the new leader of the Green Party, she wore a striking white suit, leading many to wonder if she was signaling support of the suffragist movement a century ago. “I will honestly say that I wish that it had been a symbolic thing. But what it really was is my sister said, ‘If you win this thing, it’s going to be historic, and you’ve gotta look good.’ And she told me what to wear.”

She says she tries to demystify politics so that artists or scientists who don’t see themselves as politicians consider it. “If you have a diversity of views at the table, you’re much more likely to avoid pitfalls. So if you’re designing a policy, whether it’s policing or health care or education ... you’re far less likely to create public policy that has glaring holes in it.

“I think that is also what the moment requires,” she says.

A letter from

Greenwood, Mississippi

For historic Mississippi church, a day of Thanksgiving

Time can seem frozen in rural Mississippi, but for one church, a celebration of its 150th anniversary became living testimony to the power of a community to stand firm amid many storms.  

Mark
Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright
Members of Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church gather outside the church for a picnic following services for their 150th anniversary, Nov. 15, 2020, in Greenwood, Mississippi. The church has not held services since March due to COVID-19.

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This year has marked the first time Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church has closed since it was built by sharecroppers on the Whittington Plantation in 1870.

In the turbulent 1960s, the Greenwood, Mississippi, church would be packed with locals who came to hear the Gospel and the latest news from the civil rights movement. Bluesman Robert Johnson is buried here; this is the town where 14-year-old Emmett Till was found in the river with a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck.

This fall, the church opened Nov. 15 – just for one day – to mark its 150th anniversary. Masks were passed out; some parishioners worshipped outside.

Like most people here today, interim Pastor Terrell Collins  grew up in this church. He knows the history, the heritage it contains, the storms it still faces.

“Being in the midst of the pandemic and other struggles going on nationally and internationally, we need to be encouraged that we’re going to make it through the storm,” Mr. Collins says. “Storms don’t cease. Life doesn’t stop happening. Our faith in God is the thing that sustains us and gets us through.”

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4. For historic Mississippi church, a day of Thanksgiving

It’s a sleepy Sunday morning in Greenwood, Mississippi, and though it’s almost noon, Grand Boulevard’s antebellum homes stand in stately silence, not a soul stirring, not a leaf out of place on the manicured lawns. This is the postcard-perfect South, the oak-canopied, four-lane stretch of highway that the Garden Club of America called one of the most beautiful streets in the nation, the street so frozen in time that the DreamWorks film crew used it as the setting for Hilly Holbrook’s house in “The Help.”

At the edge of the muddy Yalobusha River, a historic marker notes the day Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The four-lane becomes a two-lane. The sidewalks disappear. The rich black asphalt fades to gray. Lush lawns give way to endless fields now barren since the corn and cotton have been harvested.

This is Money Road, a pocked ribbon of asphalt that traverses some of the most storied land in the South, a sparsely populated route that hugs the dark Tallahatchie River closely and holds its secrets even closer. You won’t find a gas station here, and if you want a Coca-Cola, you’d best turn around. But thousands of tourists come here annually, seeking one of two places — Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where bluesman Robert Johnson is buried, or Bryant’s Grocery, where 14-year-old Emmett Till supposedly whistled at a white woman and was found in the river four days later with a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck. It was 1955, and change had not yet come.    

Time moves slowly in the South, unspooling in fits and starts, two steps forward, one step backward, and three steps sideways, storms rolling in and out as regularly as the sun rises and sets.

At Little Zion on the morning of Nov. 15, interim Pastor Terrell Collins has storms on his mind. Though the church has been closed since March due to the pandemic, the congregation took a calculated risk to be together today for their 150th anniversary.

Almost everyone here knows someone affected by COVID-19, and no one complains as choir president Mary Hoover distributes masks as needed along with goodwill, making sure everyone is adhering to safety protocols.

This year has marked the first time Little Zion has ever closed since it was built by sharecroppers on the Whittington Plantation in 1870. In the turbulent 1960s, the church would be packed with locals who came to hear the Gospel and the latest news from the civil rights movement. Little Zion still lists approximately 70 members ranging in age from newborn to 89 on its rolls, but fewer than half are here today, with some choosing to stay outside for the service.

Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright
Rev. Terrell Collins preaches during Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church’s 150th anniversary, Nov. 15, 2020, in Greenwood, Mississippi. Little Zion is visited by tourists from around the world due to its connection with blues legend Robert Johnson, who is buried in the church cemetery.

Mr. Collins opens his Bible to the Book of Matthew and begins to read the story of Jesus walking on the water. The disciples were in a boat and were afraid. When the disciple Peter stepped out of the ship to go to Jesus, he panicked and began to sink. Immediately, Jesus stretched out his hand and rescued Peter, saying, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” The winds stopped and the waters calmed.

The pandemic is a storm, Mr. Collins says. Police brutality against African Americans is a storm. Lynching was a storm. Slavery was a storm. But the church is solid. Storm-proof. God’s word does not falter.

“Lord, we’re leaning on you because you told us to,” Mr. Collins says. Murmurs of assent ripple through the sanctuary.

Like most people here today, Mr. Collins grew up in this church. He remembers sweltering summer heat and services that lasted until late afternoon, paused for lunch, then resumed. He knows the history of the church, the heritage it contains, the storms it still faces. But we do not live in a hopeless world, he says. God always provides.

“Being in the midst of the pandemic and other struggles going on nationally and internationally, we need to be encouraged that we’re going to make it through the storm,” Mr. Collins says after the sermon. “Storms don’t cease. Life doesn’t stop happening. Our faith in God is the thing that sustains us and gets us through.”

For these parishioners and others in the Black community, church is not only the spiritual foundation but also the center of daily life, providing education, fellowship, and the opportunity for self-expression. For the sharecroppers, it was a safe haven.

“Little Zion was the brightest thing in our community,” deacon Sylvester Hoover says. “We could sing our music; we could stomp; we could express our feelings. For Black people, the church is part of our culture. We have to have it. It helps us.”

The pandemic has taken a toll, Mr. Hoover says, but the members understand that safety is paramount. The worst part is not knowing when they will meet again. Usually Little Zion holds a special Christmas program, but that’s not likely to happen this year.

Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright
Margaret Wilson leads the choir during Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church’s 150th anniversary, Nov. 15, 2020, in Greenwood, Mississippi.

“We teach love”

As the choir sang, Ms. Hoover caught sight of several white children peeking through the windows, just as they used to do when she was a child, and it made her smile.

She grew up on the Star of the West plantation, and she was glad to see Sunday’s turnout, including the handful of white visitors in attendance. People sometimes see the stark racial divisions in Greenwood and miss the progress that has been made within hearts and minds.

“We really care for each other and try to educate people,” she says. “We’re not trying to be fake. We’re trying to fix Mississippi so we can say that we DO love each other. If anyone ever wants to learn about race and how to overcome race, come to Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church. We teach love.”

That welcoming spirit is part of what inspired Mississippi District Judge Michael Mills to attend the 150th anniversary service.

Judge Mills leads a group of local culture buffs who he says “will go to absurd lengths” to learn about literature and the arts in Mississippi. Like many, he first encountered Little Zion when making a blues pilgrimage to musician Robert Johnson’s grave, but after attending his first service, he felt so welcome that he has made the two-hour drive down from Oxford, Mississippi, several times now and is working on a documentary about the church.

“I feel like Little Zion and other little Black churches like it are the last redoubt of the Gospel,” Judge Mills says. “They have no reason to be hanging on other than their faith.”

He enjoys the music, which he calls “otherworldly,” but there is something else that draws Mills and others like him — authenticity.

“The people at Little Zion are authentic,” Judge Mills says. “They are great souls to get to know, and that’s something hard to find in today’s world. They’re good people, and it’s a very important part of my life.”

But although visitors are frequent, in order for the church to survive the next 150 years, they will have to attract and keep the younger generation’s interest. The congregation skews heavily toward seniors, and as the population dwindles, current members try to mentor those who will someday take their places.

“God does not change, but his methodologies do,” Mr. Collins says. “This pandemic has taught us that we have to be multifaceted. Everybody is not going to come into the church, so even after the pandemic, the challenge is to remain viable and relevant, to be constantly evolving.”

A day of giving thanks

But today, the worries of the future have been set aside, and everyone is happy to see the dear, familiar faces and meet the newcomers who aren’t yet family but will be by nightfall.

A table outside sags under the weight of enough food to feed twice as many. As the children play tag in the cemetery, the adults line up for generous portions of smoked ribs, spaghetti, baked pork chops, fried chicken, turnip greens, cornbread, pineapple cake, and sweet potato pie.

It looks a lot like Thanksgiving, and in many ways, it is. After so many months of separation, everyone is grateful for this slice of normalcy. It’s like coming home from a long, arduous trip, knowing the time will go by too fast, trying to hang on to the knowledge that family is forever — in spirit if not in physicality.

Soon, they say, their words muffled by masks. See you soon. If not for Christmas, then next year, for sure.

As the Delta sky bleaches to chalk, the parking lot empties and the little white church on Money Road is silent again, save a scarlet red cardinal sitting on the bluesman’s headstone, singing against the gathering dusk.

Television

Your move: ‘Queen’s Gambit’ offers viewers more than good chess

Beyond its exhilarating chess scenes, the popular drama “The Queen’s Gambit” asks an important question, says reviewer Stephen Humphries: How much sacrifice is success worth?

Mark
CHARLIE GRAY/NETFLIX
Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Beth Harmon in “The Queen’s Gambit,” a Netflix miniseries about a chess prodigy who battles addiction.
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5. Your move: ‘Queen’s Gambit’ offers viewers more than good chess

“The Queen’s Gambit” is an anomaly in our pop culture Tower of Babel. At a time when television audiences seldom speak the same language – we’re all watching different shows and subscribing to different streaming channels – the Netflix miniseries about fictitious chess prodigy Beth Harmon feels like a lingua franca. The world hasn’t paid this much attention to the game since American Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky of the USSR in 1972. 

What makes “The Queen’s Gambit” a universally resonant crowd-pleaser is that it’s about more than chess. All those moves on the board are a metaphor for the bigger game of life. The story asks whether achieving checkmate results in satisfaction. How does one attain fulfillment in life and, with it, find a sense of home and belonging? 

For Beth, those questions loom large. Her story begins during the mid-1950s when, at age 8, she’s the sole survivor of a car crash. Dispatched to a Kentucky orphanage, she’s met by a prim and frosty headmistress. The dank institution resembles an Army barracks – but with even worse food. Each day, the children line up for a dose of tranquilizer pills. The young girl (played by Isla Johnston) becomes addicted to them. 

It’s a relief, then, when a crack of light appears in the story. Beth ventures into the orphanage basement and comes across a lonely janitor (Bill Camp) playing a board game featuring 16 black and 16 white figurines. She’s eager to learn. A tender friendship blossoms between the taciturn mentor and the budding chess prodigy. Soon he’s introducing her to the chess club at a local high school. Playing multiple games simultaneously, Beth wipes out the older students like a bowling ball delivering a strike. 

Stories about the rise of chess prodigies can be innately thrilling – see also, “Queen of Katwe” and “Searching for Bobby Fischer” – but “The Queen’s Gambit” ultimately demolishes the myth that raw talent, alone, is sufficient to get to the top. It’s a reminder that excellence requires work and practice. 

Beth’s big break is that she gets adopted by a childless couple. At first, adoptive mother Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) can’t fathom why her teenager (now played by Anya Taylor-Joy) has a proclivity for chess. But when Beth returns home victorious from a local tournament with a cash prize in hand, Alma’s eyes light up. Soon, the teenager and mother are bonding by flying across the United States to tournaments. 

Netflix
Moses Ingram (left) and Anya Taylor-Joy are fellow orphans Jolene and Beth in “The Queen’s Gambit.”

The chess showdowns, in which players square off like gunslingers at high noon, are exhilarating. The camera often spends more time peering at Beth’s face than the thrust and parry of the pieces on the board. In a star-making performance, Taylor-Joy utilizes stillness to convey her emotions through her Bette Davis eyes. Marvel, too, at how the actress changes her character’s walk during her transformation from awkward teen to confident adult. As Beth reinvents herself, the handsomely filmed production revels in outfitting her with elegant costumes seemingly straight out of Jackie Onassis’ closet. 

Yet, for all the 1960s glamour, there’s also a gritty storyline about Beth’s ongoing addiction to tranquilizers and alcohol. Walter Tevis, the late author of the 1983 novel from which the miniseries is adapted, drew from his own experiences of receiving heavy drug doses for a medical condition when he was a child. “The Queen’s Gambit” explores addiction within the context of characters seeking to fill holes in desolate lives.  

In a telling scene, the young-adult Beth bumps into her former nemesis from high school, a popular queen bee named Margaret. During their unexpected meeting in a convenience store, Margaret tries to pretend that she has it all. She married her boyfriend right after high school and already has a baby. But there’s no coterie of friends with her. A few too many bottles of alcohol rattle in her shopping cart. Beth recognizes the quiet desperation in Margaret’s eyes because she’s seen it before – in her adoptive mother. Alma, too, relies on pills and alcohol to try to dull the languors of a life devastated by professional and romantic disappointment. Her other escapist vice? Mind-numbing television. 

Beth consumes pills not only because she believes they make her a better player, but also as a way of fleeing the emptiness that comes from feeling abandoned. But there comes a point at which she must confront the question of whether her relentless, go-it-alone quest to reach the pinnacle of international chess will bring fulfillment. The risk is that she’ll end up a listless alcoholic like Alma. 

By contrast, other characters in the story find meaning in their lives by reframing the relationship between success and connecting with others. Beth can either learn from their example or choose the Queen’s Gambit, a strategy that entails sacrificing a pawn in order to win. In the game of life, it’s her move. And also ours.

“The Queen’s Gambit” is available on Netflix. It is rated TV-MA and contains language, substance abuse, and sexual situations.

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Finding one’s way in a late autumn walk

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In the Northern Hemisphere, where people are preparing for winter and awaiting the end of the pandemic, it may be time to go outside in the sunlight. A late fall trek has its own rewards.

All kinds of outdoor activities, from camping to bicycling to mountain climbing, have proved popular with folks stuck inside for months. But none is so universal and available as walking, just putting one foot in front of the other as far as one wants to go. No special equipment is needed, beyond comfortable shoes.

In the United States, the rails-to-trails movement is just one effort to provide safe and even scenic places to walk. Many abandoned tracks have been turned into well-trod recreational assets.

Vehicle-free paths can serve many practical purposes. While some people walk, others ride a bicycle or jog in search of serious exercise. Others seek a safe place to walk the dog or push a baby stroller. In some cases, trails are a car-free route to work or school.

For many walkers, the greatest gift is a chance to stretch both limbs and thinking. Old paths and new thoughts can make great companions.

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Finding one’s way in a late autumn walk

It’s easy to think of spring as ideal for walking. In the Northern Hemisphere, where people are preparing for winter and awaiting the end of the pandemic, it may be time to go outside in the sunlight. A late fall trek has its own rewards.

In her book “Persuasion,” Jane Austen writes of “the tawny leaves and withered hedges” of the autumn season that draw “from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”

All kinds of outdoor activities, from camping to bicycling to mountain climbing, have proved popular with folks stuck inside for months. But none is so universal and available as walking, just putting one foot in front of the other as far as one wants to go. No special equipment is needed, beyond comfortable shoes.

Walking is as much a mental as a physical activity. “I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it,” wrote Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Great walks can yield great aha! moments or, at the least, a better sense of well-being.

In the United States, the rails-to-trails movement is just one effort to provide safe and even scenic places to walk. Many abandoned tracks have been turned into well-trod recreational assets. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy counts 2,209 such trails that equal the circumference of the Earth. A report in July estimated trail use was 79% higher than in 2019.

In Britain, a project is underway to make sure historic walking paths don’t disappear. By poring over old maps, volunteers have discovered nearly 50,000 miles of footpaths that have disappeared from modern maps. That’s important because a law passed a few years ago imposes a deadline of 2026 to add the paths to official maps or the public will lose a right to walk them.

“It’s a race against time to save these paths that may have been there for hundreds if not thousands of years,” Jack Cornish, who heads the lost paths campaign for a charity called The Ramblers, told Reuters.

The rediscovered paths will add to a network of 140,000 miles of existing paths in England and Wales. Writer Virginia Woolf describes a rediscovered path in her diaries as one of her favorite walks. Others may have been in use as long as thousands of years ago, such as during the occupation of England by ancient Rome.

“For me, these paths are a part of our heritage as much as a big cathedral,” Mr. Cornish says.

Vehicle-free paths can serve many practical purposes. While some people walk, others ride a bicycle or jog in search of serious exercise. They measure their progress with Fitbits or similar tracking devices. Others seek a safe place to walk the dog or push a baby stroller. In some cases, trails are a car-free route to work or school.

For many walkers, the greatest gift is a chance to stretch both limbs and thinking. Old paths and new thoughts can make great companions.

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.

God’s tattoo

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What does it mean that we’re “graven” on the “palms of [God’s] hands,” as the Bible says? Realizing that God’s love for us is constant and permanent has powerful healing impact.

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1. God’s tattoo

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Several of my family members have tattoos commemorating a special person or occasion that is meaningful to them. Generally speaking, tattoos are permanent, so to me these commemorative graphics represent the idea of a love or reverence that remains constant always.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the idea that God has a tattoo. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah recounts God’s words, “I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:16). Sounds like a tattoo to me! Of course, God does not have physical hands, nor is anything “inked” upon the Divine Being. But this verse points to how consistently, constantly, and permanently God, Spirit, loves and values each of us as God’s spiritual offspring.

I like to think of the Bible as one big love letter from God to us. Here are a few snippets: “I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3, New Living Translation). “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. ... Do not be afraid, for I am with you” (Isaiah 43:2, 5, NLT).

These are not empty words; God’s love is powerful and healing. In the Old Testament God’s provision and care were evident when a woman’s food supply didn’t run out during a drought (see I Kings 17), when someone with a chronic skin disease was healed (see II Kings 5), and when a plot to murder someone was foiled and a corrupt government reformed (see Daniel 6).

God’s love was amplified with the arrival of the Messiah, Christ Jesus, God’s beloved Son, as conveyed in the New Testament. Jesus brought to all the message that the kingdom of heaven is indeed already here – that is, God-established harmony and health are present and operative. And we can daily experience more of that by welcoming God’s powerful love into our lives.

Jesus proved this by healing difficulties of all types. He knew illness, unhappiness, jealousy, or hatred could not be sent from God, who is all good. Those things have no foundation in God, divine Truth, and therefore have no legitimate source. We can be freed from their grip through the realization that God, infinite Love itself, is always present and unchanging.

I experienced this one evening when I was in college. Some friends and I had taken a road trip to attend a house party at a predominantly men’s college a couple hundred miles away. While the evening started off happily enough, the event soon devolved into a chaotic and unsettling situation.

At one point, I walked outside and strolled around the tree-lined campus, mentally reaching out to God for a message of love. Many of the passages I had learned in Christian Science Sunday School came to mind. I felt embraced in my Father-Mother God’s love and promise of peace and fulfillment.

A little poem written by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, came to mind:

Father-Mother good, lovingly
Thee I seek, –
Patient, meek,
In the way Thou hast, –
Be it slow or fast,
Up to Thee.
(“Poems,” p. 69)

This helped me realize that while I had come to the party hoping to find companionship, what would most enhance my life and complete my joy was a better understanding of my closeness to God, the divine Love that provides everything we need. I saw that this growing understanding might come “fast” or it might be more “slow,” but as we earnestly seek God we realize that we are already whole.

I couldn’t help but feel God’s sweet presence and enormous tenderness. My thought was flooded with the realization of how much God cherished me right there and then. That feeling of divine grace was uplifting and freeing. I felt a deep, quiet contentment that stayed with me long after that evening. And it was not too many months later that I met someone very special.

Any time you are feeling down, you can remember that God has you – yes, you – engraved on the palm of His, Her, hand, never to be forgotten, forsaken, or left behind. And as you open your heart to feel that powerful love, you can hear your divine Father-Mother God’s powerfully healing assurance, “Do not be afraid. ... I have called you by name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1, NLT).

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Simian serenade

Prapan Chankaew/Reuters
British musician Paul Barton plays the piano for monkeys that occupy abandoned historical areas in Lopburi, Thailand, Nov. 21, 2020. The macaques, which sometimes steal or chew his sheet music, are his newest audience: He spent more than a decade playing Bach, Schubert, Chopin, and Beethoven to elephants at retirement sanctuaries.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow for Story Hinckley’s look at the local election officials who have become a vital steadying influence during a tumultuous time in American politics. 

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