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Today we launch a new podcast about how women have navigated the pandemic. And its title – “Stronger” – hints at what our reporters found.
Women were the group hardest hit by the fallout from lockdowns and business closings – a result of their sizable presence in such fields as service work, health care, and education. But listen to “Stronger,” and you will hear a common refrain from the six women we profile: that despite harsh tests in the form of lost jobs, family ruptures, burnout, and unending demands, they discovered in themselves a deep well of resilience. And, happily for us, they’re sharing their stories.
Why would they do that at such a fraught time? Reporters Jessica Mendoza and Samantha Laine Perfas are pretty friendly people, the kind you’d like to talk to. But something more powerful jumped out at me as I heard these women speak: their trust that Jess and Sam would really hear them. As Jess notes, “Not all of their stories were what we expected, but that only made working with them even more moving and powerful.”
Some of that connection unfolded through discussions over Zoom; some came from in-person moments, such as when Jess and Sam picked one woman up after her night shift, or played with the kids before a chat.
“We felt so honored to be given access to their lives,” Sam says. We hope you’ll feel the same way.
Policing is caught in the American culture wars, seen as savior or oppressor. But understanding the path that led to policing today reveals new possibilities for the future.
No-knock warrants. Broad immunity. Arrests for minor infractions. Frequent traffic stops. American policing was not always this way. It has become what it is today because of changes in America during the past 50 years.
These began with concerns about law and order during the turbulent 1960s, spread through the war on drugs and crime waves of the 1980s and ’90s, and culminated with the counterterrorism of the 2000s. The cumulative picture is of aggressive policing approaches tinged with a more militaristic approach. Poorer neighborhoods bear the brunt of what experts call over- and under-policing: lots of petty arrests, low clearance rates for murders.
But the evolution of American policing also shows other paths and approaches – and a moment of possibility. For one former police chief, the intense focus on policing is a good thing. It’s “exactly what we need to continue this conversation.”
The problems to overcome just need to be faced head-on, says Brandon Garrett, a professor at Duke University School of Law. “We have a big hill to climb [to reform policing], and what’s striking is that we’ve built this hill just over the past few decades; this is a new hill.”
When August Vollmer was helping to pioneer policing in the early 20th century, he had a vision. He would often offer those leaving his jail a drink and a full meal. He instituted bicycle patrols to allow officers to more easily mingle with citizens on the street. And he hired some of the first Black and female officers.
The Berkeley, California, police chief viewed policing as a positive and progressive moral force – humanitarian to individuals, tough on their vices.
The portrait is more than a history lesson. It is a reminder that American policing didn’t always look like it does today. Policing is deeply entrenched in the current culture wars – often seen either as a last line of defense in a chaotic world or as an oppressive force better defunded and disbanded. But it need not be either.
Policing as it is practiced in the United States today is not deep rooted. It is largely the creation of the past 50 years – a push and pull of reforms often undone or overshadowed by aggressive approaches favored amid social unrest or high crime.
The country stands at a new pivotal moment. George Floyd’s murder launched a sustained period of pressure for reform. But a new crime wave has deepened the mindset that gave rise to mass incarceration and increasingly militarized tactics.
There is rich opportunity to imagine a more nuanced approach, experts say. But it requires understanding how the arc of policing brought the nation here in the first place.
“We have a big hill to climb [to reform policing], and what’s striking is that we’ve built this hill just over the past few decades; this is a new hill,” says Brandon Garrett, a professor at Duke University School of Law. “We didn’t routinely stop 20 million people a year for minor traffic stuff. Police departments didn’t pad their budgets with mass arrests. And the pandemic only clarified the question: Why do we have police lay their hands on people and put them in cells for minor misconduct?”
In 1960, the U.S. incarcerated 220 people per 100,000. By 2008, it was 756 per 100,000, and the U.S. incarcerated more people than any other nation in the world. The shift was primarily a product of longer prison sentences and drug laws that put more people in jail.
But it was also reflective of changes in policing.
Shaken by riots and protests of the 1960s, Americans pushed politicians to expand policing powers to maintain order. Court decisions expanded officers’ immunity while reducing Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure.
The war on drugs, started under President Richard Nixon and boosted by President Ronald Reagan, created an array of new infractions and police incursions. No-knock warrants – a concept pioneered by Nixon aide Donald Santarelli – gave rise to elite policing squads, with even small-town departments equipped with surplus military equipment. In the 1990s, a bipartisan crime bill bolstered police and increased penalties for crack cocaine.
In addition, the rise of the car culture brought massive increases in traffic stops – each one a potential arrest and flashpoint.
All these trends played out first through a local lens. Police departments evolved in the same way communities evolved, since each police department is local and reflects the power structure and dynamics of that community.
“When you look at how the law has influenced policing, including Supreme Court decisions, local governments, and national politics, and everything, you come to realize that rather than the modern police not reflecting the community that it polices, the problem is almost always that it does,” says Michael Scott, a former police chief of Lauderhill, Florida.
Yet there have been cumulative effects. Poorer neighborhoods bear the brunt of what experts call over- and under-policing: lots of petty arrests, low clearance rates for murders.
At its core, the evolution of policing remains “very much about both race and class control,” says Matthew Clair, a sociologist at Stanford University.
But the recent history of policing is not all in one direction. The past 50 years have also been studded with dramatic police reforms, driven in part by high-profile incidents like the beating of Rodney King in 1991. These reforms have often progressed on parallel tracks for a time. The problem, some observers say, is that they have been too easily derailed in tough times.
The day before the 9/11 terror attacks, the No. 1 issue in public safety was racial profiling. A day later, counterterrorism reigned, meaning, as Mr. Scott says, “to hell with the rest of police reform. We just need the police to take stronger control over people’s behavior and conduct.”
This means crucial progress can be lost or put on hold.
“We find ourselves a decade and a half [after 9/11], having largely neglected [the community policing] movement, all of a sudden civil unrest breaks out again over racial issues,” adds Mr. Scott, now director of the Arizona State University Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. “And since the police have not much of a relationship with the community to rely on, they bring out the military hardware and riot control tools – all the techniques and strategies that they have been amassing mostly for counterterrorism.”
The effort to find a balance is evident in Washington. On Monday, President Joe Biden met with Attorney General Merrick Garland and several local leaders from across the U.S. to discuss a “comprehensive strategy to reduce gun crimes.” It includes both strengthening police departments and prioritizing reforms like community policing.
Norm Stamper has seen this challenge firsthand.
Back in 1966, a police officer responding to a noise complaint about his mostly Black band unleashed a barrage of racial epithets. “Never will I do that,” he recalled thinking of policing as a career.
Yet a few years later, he saw the other side after he did become an officer. When he was a rookie, an assistant district attorney grilled him for making a false arrest – because a man had called him a “pig.”
Over his years in policing, Mr. Stamper has seen the push and pull of reform and retrenchment play out in his own career again and again. In San Diego, he pioneered community policing. In Seattle, he resigned as police chief after he allowed tear gas to be used on protesters during a World Trade Organization meeting in the city in 1999.
His own winding path has led him to reflect on the simultaneous humanity and cruelty of law enforcement.
“I had come on the force thinking we could make it a people’s police, which sounds like leftist radical propaganda, but which is something I believed in even more deeply once I got my comeuppance from my own malpractice as a rookie police officer,” he says.
“I have had an opportunity to see policing through the eyes of those who have been opposed to it and those who have been blind supporters of it,” he adds. “There are these sorts of continuous examples of police use of excessive force, particularly against young people, poor people, and people of color, which produces this incredible tension between cops and citizenry.”
But this journey for the police has brought the country to a significant moment, he and others say. The rise of mass criminalization has brought more people into the system, which has ironically created more momentum for reform.
“People are collectively realizing this is too much and that we need to fundamentally at least scale down the system, if not fundamentally change and transform the system,” says Dr. Clair of Stanford and the author of “Privilege and Punishment.”
Abolishing the police “is not rational,” adds Mr. Stamper. “Yet all the emotions associated with so-called bad police shootings – the anger, the fear, the heartbreak – is exactly what we need to continue this conversation. One of the things that comes up for me is that for the first time in my adult life I have hope.”
In this next story, Harvard professor Steven Levitsky talks to Washington senior writer Peter Grier about the uncertain state of U.S. democracy – as well as two major factors working in its favor.
Steven Levitsky is a professor of government at Harvard University who studies democratization and authoritarianism, with a focus on Latin America. In 2018, he and fellow Harvard professor Daniel Ziblatt published “How Democracies Die,” which examined the problems in American politics in the context of other democracies’ backsliding into authoritarianism.
One of the book’s conclusions was that, in the modern era, democracies generally do not end in sudden coups. Rather, they decline gradually as polarization divides a nation and key institutions such as the judiciary and the media weaken.
Two unwritten norms have helped preserve the American system, according to Professors Levitsky and Ziblatt. They are mutual toleration, in which parties accept each other as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, in which politicians exercise restraint in using their institutional powers.
“Today, however, the guardrails of American democracy are weakening,” the book concludes.
The slim, wonky tome was an unlikely bestseller when it came out. The authors have recently begun work on a follow-up volume.
This interview is the second in a periodic series of conversations with thinkers and workers in the field of democracy, looking at what’s wrong with it, what’s right, and what we can do in the United States to strengthen it.
Steven Levitsky is a professor of government at Harvard University who studies democratization and authoritarianism, with a focus on Latin America. In 2018, he and Daniel Ziblatt, a fellow Harvard government professor, published “How Democracies Die,” which examined the problems in American politics in the context of other democracies’ backsliding into authoritarianism.
One of the book’s conclusions was that, in the modern era, democracies generally do not end in sudden coups. Rather, they decline gradually as polarization divides a nation and key institutions such as the judiciary and the media weaken.
Over centuries, two unwritten norms have helped preserve the American system, according to Professors Levitsky and Ziblatt. They are mutual toleration, in which parties accept each other as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, in which politicians exercise restraint in using their institutional powers.
“Today, however, the guardrails of American democracy are weakening,” the book concludes.
The slim, wonky tome was an unlikely bestseller when it came out. The authors have recently begun work on a follow-up volume.
This interview is the second installment in a periodic series of conversations with thinkers and workers in the field of democracy, looking at what’s wrong with it, what’s right, and what we can do in the United States to strengthen it. The transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
“How Democracies Die,” which you co-wrote with your Harvard colleague Daniel Ziblatt, anticipated many of the problems now stressing U.S. politics. But it was published three years ago, and a lot has happened since then. What did you get wrong?
I think the most important thing that we got wrong was that we underestimated the Trumpification of the Republican Party. We expected that the party would continue to be dominated by more or less establishment Republicans who were at least minimally committed to democratic rules of the game. And that very quickly ceased to be the case and placed us, I think, in territory that we didn’t foresee.
You’ve said that you believe 2024 is a danger point for U.S. democracy. Do you really think the presidential election could be stolen?
Yes. Through the same constitutional hardball mechanisms that we describe in the book. [Note: “How Democracies Die” defines constitutional hardball as “playing by the rules, but pushing against their bounds and ‘playing for keeps.’”]
So, it won’t be the kind of fraud carried out by your tin-pot dictator. It will be legal, or at least able to be interpreted as so by judges. It’ll feel a little bit like the theft of the Merrick Garland seat in the Supreme Court. It was sort of unthinkable before it happened, and then it happened. Democrats sort of gasped and said, ‘They can’t do that.’ And then they realized there was absolutely nothing they could do about it.
One objection I get sometimes when I talk to Republicans is that Democrats and lefties are always exaggerating – always saying the sky is falling. Democrats said that Ronald Reagan was a fascist, and George W. Bush was a fascist; this is just another overreaction. What’s your reply to that?
Daniel and I never use the term “fascism.” We were very careful when we wrote the book to separate ourselves from those who were saying the sky is falling, and that fascism is just around the corner. And yet we still heard, including from [prominent news commentators], that we were exaggerating: “Come on, this is America, checks and balances.”
I don’t hear that much anymore. Certainly not since Jan. 6.
Many elected Republicans are sort of lying low, not denouncing former President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud, but not really supporting them, either. They seem to be waiting for the whole thing to fade away. Any chance it will?
I don’t think any of us can say with certainty what is about to happen. We are in completely uncharted territory. A lot depends on contingencies, like who wins the next election.
There is a scenario in which in 2024 the election is decided by one or two or three states and Republicans are able to pull off, or at least able to attempt, a coordinated theft of an election. There’s also a scenario in which the election is either a Republican win outright, or the distance between the two parties is so great that the attempt is not made.
Is it possible that the Republican strategy, ‘If I just hide under the table and wait long enough, this will go away?’ Yeah, it’s possible. I don’t think history suggests that’s the best strategy.
I’m thinking primarily about Europe in the 1920s and ’30s. I think it’s a far better and safer strategy ... for all small “d” democrats to break all ties with forces that are leaning authoritarian and to join forces with ideological rivals in defense of democracy.
What do you think is the best historical analogy to the position the U.S. is in right now? You’re a scholar of Latin America – is it Chile in the 1970s, when authoritarian Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende’s leftist civilian government?
I don’t think there’s a really close analogous case. The U.S. is different from Chile in a couple of senses. One important one is the military is very unlikely to intervene here the way it did in Chile. We have an extraordinary degree of civilian control of the military.
But the level of polarization – parties reaching the point where they’re willing to give up on democracy to prevent the other guys from winning – that’s pretty similar.
Another way in which the United States is similar to Chile, at least in my view, is the country’s movement towards a more inclusive democracy – in the United States’ case, towards a multiracial democracy – that’s generated this reaction.
That was also true in Chile. Chile was a constitutional democracy for many decades, but it didn’t have full suffrage until the 1970s, with the end of literacy requirements. It was basically the extension of full adult suffrage that triggered [the Pinochet coup].
How does the U.S. compare to today’s Hungary, controlled by the right-wing populist party Fidesz under President Viktor Orbán?
Well, Hungary is very different in the sense that it is not nearly as ideologically polarized [as the U.S.]. Its situation is the product of an imbalance of power between Fidesz and its opposition. The collapse of the former Socialist Party left Fidesz in a very majoritarian system with way too much power.
There are at least two major factors working in favor of U.S. democracy. One of them is that the military is not likely to be politicized, not likely to be involved. Another is that we have a very strong opposition. The Democratic Party is well organized, it’s well financed. It controls the most economically and culturally powerful regions of the country. And it’s electorally viable.
We may slide into minority rule or authoritarianism. We may enter a period of pretty extreme instability. But we have a very strong opposition, and that makes us much different from Hungary, much different from countries like Venezuela or Russia.
Overall, how does democracy compare today to other political systems, in terms of stability?
I do think most political regimes, both autocratic and democratic, are facing a higher level of instability. Political establishments – both democratic and authoritarian, but mostly democratic – are just far, far weaker than they were 40, 50 years ago.
We’re at a point where, whether it’s the United States or Brazil or El Salvador or Peru, just about anybody can win the presidency. Because of the weakening of political parties, in large part because of the growing power of social media and the erosion of the power of traditional interest groups, politicians can reach voters without relying on the establishment.
If you go back 50, 60 years in any democracy, including the United States, if you were not on good terms with party leaders, major interest groups, big business, big labor, and big TV networks, you had no shot in politics. That was true of Brazil; it was true of Germany, the U.K., Canada, Australia. That is no longer the case. In many ways, this is profoundly democratizing – but it’s also destabilizing, because Donald Trump can get elected president, or because Pedro Castillo, a left-wing teachers union leader from the hinterlands of Peru, who scares the bejesus out of the country’s elites, can win the presidency.
I’m not as pessimistic as those who are constantly talking about a democratic recession and an authoritarian resurgence. When democracies fall into crisis and even break down, in most cases the regimes that replace them are not particularly robust. A lot of them don’t last very long. And so I think [the world is], with the exception of a handful of Persian Gulf monarchies and revolutionary regimes, headed towards a period of greater regime instability, both on the democratic side and the authoritarian side.
In Episode 1 of our podcast “Stronger,” we look at what working women lost to the pandemic – and where new opportunities for progress might be.
Millions of women, especially women of color, left the U.S. workforce during the pandemic. The reasons ranged from layoffs to burnout to the pressures of caring for children or other family members. Among the losses, by some accounts, is a generation’s worth of progress in women’s participation in the workforce.
But it’s more than sheer numbers. “What the pandemic has really shone a spotlight on is all the weak points in our system that just depend on women sacrificing, holding it together,” says Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the nonprofit National Women’s Law Center.
In the first episode of our new podcast, “Stronger,” we look at what the pandemic’s economic impact could mean for working women long term. We also examine what we can learn from this unprecedented year – about women’s value to society, and the steps we can take to create more equitable homes and workplaces.
“We’re in this space where we are just rethinking how we work and when we work,” says C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “We’re starting to see those conversations amplified by the experiences of women during the pandemic.” - Jessica Mendoza and Samantha Laine Perfas
This story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears (audio player below), but we understand that is not an option for everybody. A transcript is available here.
For many Japanese, the Olympics are a source of disillusionment. But for one town hosting athletes, they’re a source of gratitude: a moment to recognize the international support they received after the 2011 tsunami.
Japan was jubilant when it won its bid to host the “Recovery and Reconstruction Games,” marking 10 years of healing and resilience since the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. But for many, excitement has given way to disappointment and disillusionment amid concerns over the pandemic. A June survey by Asahi newspaper shows 62% want the events postponed once again or cancelled, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) insists the games will kick off July 23.
The fishing town of Ofunato lies on Japan’s northeast coast, 280 miles north of the Olympic stadium in Tokyo. But the games feel close. Ofunato, which lost hundreds of residents in the 2011 disaster, has been selected as one of hundreds of host towns for athletes – though in many, Olympians’ arrival still seems up in the air.
Here, “Recovery and Reconstruction” is more than a slogan. Konno Eiko, who belongs to a choir slated to perform for U.S. visitors, wants to sing to them because “Americans helped us out” in the aftermath of the disaster. “The Olympics represent an opportunity to show this region’s recovery and resilience and express our appreciation to the U.S.,” she says.
But others in the region argue Japan should focus on its own recovery, not games estimated to cost $27 billion.
With the morning sunlight coming in from the window, a group of women wearing masks are singing in unison, lightly swaying to the cadence of the music. Within a few weeks, they hope, they’ll be singing these songs for several U.S. Olympians scheduled to visit after the games.
In a country where the Olympics are so unpopular, it might seem strange that they still elicit excitement here in Ofunato, a fishing town 280 miles north of Tokyo, known for oysters, scallops, and a deeply indented coastline.
Japan was jubilant when it won its bid to host the “Recovery and Reconstruction Games,” marking 10 years of healing and resilience since the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. But for many, excitement has given way to disappointment and disillusionment amid concerns over the pandemic. A June survey by Asahi newspaper found 62% want the event postponed once again or canceled.
In host towns like Ofunato, though, which have been preparing for years to meet foreign athletes, support for the Games runs unusually deep. And here in particular, “Recovery and Reconstruction” is much more than an Olympic slogan. Four hundred and nineteen people died in Ofunato on 3/11, as the triple disaster is called. But volunteers came from many countries, including the United States, to help survivors, and the Olympics gives the town a chance to voice its gratitude.
Konno Eiko, a choir member, says the group wants to dedicate songs to the three U.S. track and field athletes due to visit because “Americans helped us out” in the aftermath of the disaster, which killed about 18,400 people across the northeast.
Along with other emergency workers from home and abroad, 148 people from Virginia and California assisted in search and rescue operations in March 2011, after walls of water flattened the central part of the city. Members of All Hands Volunteers, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts (now All Hands and Hearts), spent seven months on the ground to help rebuild.
With hundreds of foreign emergency workers and volunteers assisting disaster victims and painstakingly removing debris, the town of around 35,000 “suddenly became an international city,” recalls Ms. Konno.
Before her two-story house was swept away by the tsunami, Ms. Konno managed to evacuate her house and rush to the higher ground.
“We lost everything,” she says. “But the experience gave me new perspectives on life.”
Ms. Konno, who offers piano and English lessons at her home, and her husband finally moved into a new house in 2015, away from the city center. Today, Ofunato is dotted with blue signs that indicate the tidal levels at the time of the tsunami, but otherwise bears few scars of the disaster. Vehicles come and go on newly rehabilitated roads lined by a shopping mall, commercial facilities, and the sparkling white fish market.
“The Olympics represent an opportunity to show this region’s recovery and resilience and express our appreciation to the U.S.,” Ms. Konno says, adding that it’s a chance to boost ties.
Matsuo Hiroshi, who works at Ofunato Taxi, says the company’s new office near the port was completed just two years ago, after the previous building was toppled by the tsunami.
“I certainly want more people to see the city’s recovery,” Mr. Matsuo says. But he is still concerned about an influx of visitors, as this area of Japan is one of the least affected by the pandemic.
Throughout Japan, many people share his concerns. As infections surge, Tokyo has announced a state of emergency, scrapping plans to allow some local spectators. The International Olympic Committee and Japanese organizers have already decided to ban spectators from overseas. Medical experts have warned of the risk that the Games could become a super-spreader event, especially as Japan has vaccinated only about 15% of the population.
Surging costs have also soured public opinion, along with a series of homegrown controversies including the withdrawal of the original Olympic logo after plagiarism accusations, and Japanese Olympic Committee President Takeda Tsunekazu’s resignation amid bribery allegations.
Yet authorities are pressing ahead with the games partly, critics claim, for political reasons. With parliamentary elections coming up and a poor record on handling the pandemic, "there are no other factors that could boost [Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide's] support ratings" says author and Olympics critic Honma Ryu.
Geopolitics also plays a part. Tokyo hosted the 1964 Games – also designed to showcase “recovery,” after the country’s defeat in World War II – which means it would be the first Asian city to hold Olympics twice. And Japanese conservatives want Tokyo to stage the first “post-pandemic” games ahead of Beijing 2022.
Nevertheless, many of the country’s 528 host towns have seen exchange events cancelled, after years of preparation. One of them is Kitakata, known for its ramen and sake, which hosted U.S. rowers in 2019 for an event with schoolchildren. The city decided to reach out to American athletes after receiving donations and words of encouragement from its sister city – Wilsonville, Oregon – after the triple meltdown at the nearby Fukushima power plant, according to city official Tomita Masanori. Plans to welcome Olympians this summer were scrapped in July, and replaced with an online exchange.
Kitakata “looks to the post-pandemic future,” Mr. Tomita says. The Olympics are “just the beginning” of its relationship with U.S. athletes.
In some locals’ eyes, the government’s emphasis on the “Recovery Games” is misplaced.
Konno Hidenori is one of the tens of thousands of Fukushima residents who have been unable to return to their homes near the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station due to radioactive contamination. Since 2016, Mr. Konno has lived in Otama Village, another host town in Fukushima prefecture, which hopes Peruvian Olympians will visit after the games.
Holding the Olympics right now, he says, is beyond his comprehension.
“The government should put more effort into the recovery of the disaster-affected areas, not into the Olympics,” he says. “They have never showed us any plan on when or how we will return home.”
Critics argue the government should provide much-needed help to those who have struggled to make ends meet due to 3/11 or the pandemic, rather than spend money on the games – estimated to cost 3 trillion yen ($27 billion).
Mr. Honma foresees what for him would be a silver lining to all the controversy and angst. "No more Olympics will be held in Japan,” he predicts. The fact that more people will have thought about who the Olympics are meant to be for "would be one of the few positive legacies of the troubled event," he adds.
In Ofunato, Ms. Konno says she has done that thinking, and come to her own conclusion.
“This time, we have had a good opportunity to think deeply about what these Olympics are for and for whom,” she says. “I want the games to be held for the sake of the athletes.”
For Pastor Michael Martin, leading a church is about caring for the community through active stewardship. A bramble-clogged patch of woods offered just the opportunity.
When Pastor Michael Martin began preaching at Stillmeadow Community Fellowship in 2017, he heard whispers about the creek. Rumor had it that deep in the 10 acres of dark, untended woods on the church property, a stream might flow.
Someone agreed to take him through the bramble, and he finally got a glimpse of that hidden creek – and with it a vision of the kind of community stewardship he’d hoped to bring to this historically underserved neighborhood where green space is sparse. A vision of a peace park where churchgoers and visitors could meet in fellowship, worship, and connect with nature on walking paths, in vegetable gardens, and at meditation stations.
“We’ve got 10 acres of stewardship that we haven’t accounted for,” Mr. Martin told his congregation.
Thanks to input and volunteer hours from dozens of community members, and partnerships with a university, the U.S. Forest Service, and other organizations, the preacher’s idea has become an emblem of environmental justice – equal parts ecological restoration and community building.
“As someone who teaches environmental justice, this is a perfect laboratory,” says McKay Jenkins, an environmental humanities professor who brings students from the University of Delaware to volunteer at Stillmeadow every Saturday.
When Pastor Michael Martin began preaching at Stillmeadow Community Fellowship in 2017, he heard only whispers about the creek. No one seemed to know for sure, but rumor had it that deep inside the 10 acres of dark, untended woods on the church property, a stream might flow.
A year came and went before the leader of the suburban church in southwest Baltimore convinced a congregant to show him the land, which the church couldn’t sell or even give away. When Mr. Martin finally got a glimpse of that creek, hidden in overgrown brush and vines, he realized something: All his preaching about stewardship of the community could take on a tangible shape.
“We’ve got 10 acres of stewardship that we haven’t accounted for,” he told his congregation the following Sunday. And he went on to paint a mental picture of his idea of stewardship: a peace park where churchgoers and visitors could worship, connect with nature, and join in fellowship. Before long, and with the input of dozens of community members, his vision included walking paths, vegetable gardens, meditation stations, an apiary, and even an amphitheater.
As word got out about the idea of the Stillmeadow PeacePark in a historically underserved neighborhood where green space is sparse, volunteers began to pour in.
“The momentum has just been unreal,” says Jackie Griswold, a church member and volunteer at the PeacePark.
The United States Forest Service partnered with Stillmeadow. Organizations like Blue Water Baltimore and the Interfaith Partners of the Chesapeake offered support for environmental restoration. Students from local schools and from five universities joined the fold. Two and a half years later, the project has become an emblem of environmental justice – equal parts ecological restoration and community building.
On a recent Saturday morning, volunteers tended to squash, melon, cucumber, sweet pea, green bean, soybean, and Swiss chard plants in a vegetable garden by the park entrance. Others carried native understory saplings – laurel, rhododendron, dogwood, and redbud – up the wood chip path that now winds through the park. (The team, so far, has planted 1,800 new trees to replace hundreds of sick and dying ash trees.) Deeper in the forest, in a clearing by the creek, a local educator guided children in a lesson on nature art.
“As someone who teaches environmental justice, this is a perfect laboratory,” says McKay Jenkins, a professor of environmental humanities who brings students from the University of Delaware to volunteer at Stillmeadow every Saturday morning.
The PeacePark, he adds, is one of the few places he knows where people of so many racial and religious backgrounds are coming together: “They’re starting to realize that they have way more in common than they have not in common. When you sweat and plant trees together, it’s a very healing experience. It’s restorative for people, it’s restorative for ecology.”
Mr. Martin was always going to end up preaching: The oldest of five brothers growing up in Flint, Michigan, he did most of the talking, and he sang in the church choir.
“In the Black Baptist tradition, if you were male, you could talk, and you could sing – oh boy, you were gonna be a preacher,” he remembers.
For Mr. Martin, leading a church is about caring for the community through active stewardship. “My time here [at Stillmeadow] started out with challenging us to be good stewards of the building and of the neighborhood ... to be an anchor and a servant,” he says.
But Mr. Martin admits he had never been much of an environmental advocate. His most regular contact with nature as a child took place on Sunday evenings in front of the weekly TV show “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”
“There’s no way that you could have gotten me to think in terms of converting all of that nice-looking lawn into a pollinator garden even three years ago,” he says of the Kentucky bluegrass lawn in front of the brick church that the PeacePark team is planning to remove. In its place, volunteers will plant native Maryland flowers that will be beneficial to butterflies, bees, and birds.
Now, thanks to the Stillmeadow forest, the local environment is front and center in his understanding of what it means to be a true steward of the neighborhood: “We as Christians owe God an obedience to take care of what is taking care of us ... to nurture [the land] and help it along.”
What Mr. Martin didn’t know was that this land was a microcosm of problems in ecosystems across the mid-Atlantic region. In fact, Morgan Grove from the U.S. Forest Service says his colleagues didn’t think the project would be possible when they laid eyes on the space. The presence of invasive vines and insects such as the emerald ash borer meant that hundreds of dying ash trees needed to be cleared to rehabilitate the forest.
Volunteering is the backbone of the restoration effort. But the Forest Service has committed $90,000 over three years, six research scientists, trees, equipment, and chain-saw training for volunteers toward the reforestation effort.
If the reforestation experiment works, experts say it could serve as a model for green areas on the East Coast.
For Mr. Martin, the PeacePark wouldn’t be possible without partnerships like these. Underlying his vision for the park is an abiding faith that everything the space needs is already available – sometimes the puzzle pieces just need to be connected.
“I didn’t invent anything. I just used what was already there,” he says of the forest’s natural resources, the volunteer networks, and their expertise. “All I really had was the ability to say, ‘Wow, this is something. It should be honored; it should be lifted up; we should breathe life into it.’”
Indeed, says Ms. Griswold, Mr. Martin “can see things before anybody else, and he just goes for it. ... He’s like, ‘I don’t care if it seems impossible; we’re going to pray about it and God’s going to make it happen.’”
Jujuan Lawson was the type of kid who spent most of his time indoors.
In January, when he started volunteering at the PeacePark to complete service hours for school, he hated it. Transporting 30 square yards of mulch up a forested hill with a wheelbarrow? No thank you. “The woods” was not a place to hang out. It didn’t take long for the project – and new friends he was making – to change his mind: Soon he surpassed the number of volunteer hours required of him.
“It brings calm to the community. It’s a source of life for the community,” says Jujuan, who eventually spent so much time at the park that the team offered him a paid internship this summer. The rising high school senior is glad to be part of a group making the city more livable for the next generation. “It’s a place for these children to experience the gifts of what we couldn’t really experience,” he says.
As for the creek – no longer an urban legend – ideas abound. Mr. Martin hopes to build a bamboo bridge over it, volunteers want a swimming hole, and local churches would like to conduct baptisms in the pond.
Whether these dreams become reality will depend on pollution upstream, says Professor Jenkins.
But for now, the PeacePark volunteers are just glad to finally be able to hear the soft gurgle of the stream as they come together to bring the land back to life.
To learn more, visit the Stillmeadow Community Fellowship
Mass protests to end a dictatorship often turn a corner when public anger gives way to unity around shared ideals. Cuba may have reached that point Sunday. While the thousands of Cubans who took to the streets have plenty to complain about – blackouts, long food lines, and a new record in COVID-19 deaths – their common refrain was rather uplifting.
Protesters chanted slogans such as “Yes, we can” and “We want liberty.” The fact that many livestreamed the protests – the largest since 1994 and certainly the most widespread – reflected how spontaneous they were. Perhaps the most unifying appeal among the crowds was the singing of a relatively new song, “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”). It plays off the slogan of the Communist rulers – Homeland or Death (Patria o Muerte). Note how the song switches out death for life in the title.
Social media has bonded Cubans in new ways, not only in quickly joining protests but also in discovering what democratic values they want together. That truth, more than anger at a broken economy and harsh repression, was finally seen on the streets of Havana and many other cities this week.
Mass protests to end a dictatorship often turn a corner when public anger gives way to unity around shared ideals. Cuba may have reached that point Sunday. While the thousands of Cubans who took to the streets have plenty to complain about – blackouts, long food lines, and a new record in COVID-19 deaths – their common refrain was rather uplifting. In fact, the demonstrations continued into a second day despite a crackdown by the island’s Communist government.
Protesters chanted slogans such as “Yes, we can” and “We want liberty.” The fact that many livestreamed the protests – the largest since 1994 and certainly the most widespread – reflected how spontaneous they were. Perhaps the most unifying appeal among the crowds was the singing of a relatively new song, “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”).
Released only in February by a group of dissident artists, the rap and reggaeton hit plays off the slogan of the Communist rulers – Homeland or Death (Patria o Muerte) – which dates back to the 1950s revolution against another dictatorship.
Note how the song switches out death for life in the title. Here are some of the lyrics:
No more lies! My people demand freedom! No more doctrines!
Let us no longer shout “Homeland or Death!” but “Homeland and Life!”
And start building what we dreamed of…
The best democratic revolutions are built on dreams , or expectations of higher civic values. The opening of the American Declaration of Independence, for example, affirms this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Civil liberties are still few in Cuba. The country’s 11 million people have only had limited internet access since 2019. That access was quickly shut down during Sunday’s protest, and Cuba’s new Communist leader, President Miguel Díaz-Canel, felt compelled enough by the popular uprising to rush to an old media, television, to answer the calls for elected government. One lyric in “Homeland and Life” is particularly pointed at him: “Who told you that Cuba is yours?” it asks.
The coming of social media has bonded Cubans in new ways, not only in quickly joining protests but also in discovering what democratic values they want together. That truth, more than anger at a broken economy and harsh repression, was finally seen on the streets of Havana and many other cities this week.
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.
Even just a moment of genuine yearning to feel closer to God, good, can have profound effects.
I was having a pity party! For days my throat had been painful, and now I could no longer speak. As I lay on the couch feeling sorry for myself, my husband encouraged me to change my focus. I knew he meant this gentle rebuke as a loving call to action. For me, this meant prayer.
I rose, went to a chair, and mentally turned to divine Love, God, seeking Love’s comforting presence. Then, very gently, a realization of that presence of God, good, and of God’s power, enveloped me. It felt as if light were flooding in. With it came a clear recognition that God’s children are not limited by physicality. Our true being is forever spiritual, innocent, perfect. And in that holy moment I glimpsed how completely natural and normal it was to experience the health, comfort, and peace that God gives.
In the next instant there was a warmth in my throat and the pain vanished – permanently. I was practically leaping with joy, and my husband rejoiced with me.
The feeling of being enfolded in the warmth of divine light really stuck with me. Thinking back on that experience, I’ve realized that the light was Christ, the divine idea of God, dawning in my consciousness. With this spiritual illumination came a moment of spiritual understanding. It wasn’t the words that came to me that healed, but the idea I glimpsed: that harmony and health were the spiritual reality, even at that moment.
The Bible refers to “the simplicity that is in Christ” (II Corinthians 11:3). Sometimes we may feel we have to be “smarter” to formulate a complicated prayer to take on a painful condition and overcome it. But a simple, honest receptivity to divine Truth is what is needed.
Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, wrote: “Willingness to become as a little child and to leave the old for the new, renders thought receptive of the advanced idea” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” pp. 323-324). And Christ Jesus himself taught that becoming “as little children” enables us to enter into the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 18:3).
This doesn’t mean becoming foolish or childish, but being receptive, willing, humble, trusting. This opens our hearts to the Christ, Truth, that heals. That’s where I’d been that day after my husband’s nudge – humbly listening for divine inspiration, willing to yield to God, ready for progress, receptive to healing.
This is the simplicity that is in Christ. A heartfelt desire to feel God’s loving embrace dissolves self-pity, pride, or stubborn resistance. Christ is God’s message to us, revealing God as all-encompassing, ever-present Life and Love, who unfailingly preserves and protects His children.
The light of this divine Life and Love, conveyed through the simplicity of the Christ, actively heals, uplifts, and renews. It dissolves the darkness of fear and frustration.
This profound statement in Mrs. Eddy’s “Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” from one who adopted Christian Science, says it best: “We have been keeping our eyes turned toward the sky, scanning the heavens with a far-off gaze in search of light, expecting to see the truth blaze forth like some great comet, or in some extraordinary manner; and when, instead of coming in great pomp and splendor, it appears in the simpleness of demonstration, we are staggered at it, and refuse to accept it; our intellectual pride is shocked, and we are sure that there has been some mistake” (p. 469).
We are all capable of rising up from this state of mind and discerning divine Truth – being touched by the light of Christ – and experiencing the changes in both mind and body that come with it. This light comes to all, and every receptive heart can discover the Christ light that defeats darkness. This is the greatest of blessings!
Looking for more timely inspiration like this? Explore other recent content from the Monitor's daily Christian Science Perspective column.
We hope you’ve enjoyed starting your week with us. Please come back tomorrow for a closer look at the millennial generation. While their progress is uneven, some indicators challenge the idea that the 2008 recession and the pandemic mean they’ll be permanently left behind.