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Monitor Daily Podcast

September 21, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

Why Harvard chaplains chose an ‘atheist’ to represent them

April Austin
Weekly Deputy Editor, Books Editor

The headlines struck a provocative note: “Harvard’s atheist chaplain: It’s another sign of America’s growing secularism,” and “The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard? An Atheist.” The stories fed concerns that an elite, liberal university was pushing its secular agenda onto faith-based campus organizations. And this at a time when studies show fewer young people are affiliated with organized religion. 

But the story turns out to be quite different.

The man who galvanized such attention, Greg Epstein, was elected unanimously last spring by 30 colleagues to serve as president of Harvard Chaplains. It wasn’t until news reports about him surfaced earlier this month that people took to social media to voice objections.  

Mr. Epstein, who wrote the book “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe,” is considered by his colleagues to be a thoughtful and experienced chaplain. The humanist tradition to which he belongs is more concerned with living a moral life through self-reflection, discussion, and good works than with adhering to doctrine or believing in a higher power. 

One of Mr. Epstein’s peers, Pete Williamson, an evangelical Christian chaplain, wrote a defense of his colleague in Christianity Today. The article, “Why I Voted For the Atheist President of Harvard’s Chaplain Group,” explains that the media had mischaracterized the president’s role, which is to advocate on behalf of the entire group, including evangelical Christian, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and other chaplaincies.

“The mission of Epstein’s chaplaincy is not to convince people to become atheists but rather to serve students who find themselves without faith (of which there are many at Harvard),” Mr. Williamson writes. He also argues that the cooperative, interfaith nature of the group – which does not influence doctrine or hold sway over the independent chaplaincies – has made Harvard a more welcoming place for students who are religiously affiliated or interested in becoming so.

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On border and beyond, is Biden agenda ‘America First’?

As a candidate, Joe Biden promised a pivot toward multilateral cooperation. But on foreign policy and the border, parallels with the Trump administration are striking.

April

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President Joe Biden aimed to define his foreign policy on his own terms on Tuesday, in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly. He called for global unity against threats such as the pandemic, cyberattacks, and the climate crisis. He defended the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan, saying the United States is shifting from “relentless war” to “relentless diplomacy.” 

But it’s one thing to have the aspirations of a high-minded internationalist, and another to accomplish difficult multinational goals. And many observers have been surprised to discover that, in several areas, the new U.S. president’s foreign policy looks a lot like a continuation of his predecessor’s.

Mr. Biden withdrew U.S. troops from Afghanistan, as former President Donald Trump tried to do. Many Trump-era tariffs remain in place. The ongoing forced deportation of Haitians from a crowded makeshift camp in Texas seems particularly reminiscent of aggressive Trump-era southern border controls.

“Some of the foreign policies that were put in place by the Trump administration are things that made all the sense in the world. And I think once you become president and deal with the reality, you have to keep them in place,” says GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

On border and beyond, is Biden agenda ‘America First’?

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Go Nakamura/Reuters
Migrants seeking asylum cross the Rio Grande into the U.S. from Mexico, as Border Patrol agents on horseback patrol the bank near the International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas, Sept. 20, 2021.

President Joe Biden is a very different national leader than his predecessor. But when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world, there are similarities: President Biden has kept in place some major Trump foreign policies that candidate Biden decried as ineffective or inhumane.

Exhibit A for this may be the forced deportation of Haitians from a crowded makeshift camp in Texas. Images of Border Patrol agents on horseback confronting migrants seemed painfully reminiscent of aggressive Trump-era southern border controls.

Mr. Biden also, of course, withdrew U.S. troops from Afghanistan, as former President Donald Trump tried to do. Many Trump-era tariffs remain in place, including those aimed at China.

Immigration, however, may today best illustrate how presidents can struggle to break with the past and steer the nation in a new direction. The problem, difficult to begin with, has worsened in recent months. Rolling back enforcement may be politically unpalatable.

“On paper, the Biden administration’s border policies are pretty similar to the Trump administration’s, particularly during the pandemic,” says Jessica Bolter, associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

At the U.N.

On Tuesday, Mr. Biden aimed to define his foreign policy on his own terms with his debut address as president to the annual gathering of world leaders at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.

He called for a new era of global unity against modern threats, such as the pandemic, cyberattacks and other emerging technologies, and the climate crisis.

The United States and its allies can compete with autocratic nations such as Russia and China on economics and ideology while cooperating with them on overarching world problems, Mr. Biden insisted. He defended the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan, saying the U.S. is shifting from “relentless war” to “relentless diplomacy,” and gave a ringing defense of democracy.

“Government by and for the people is still the best way to deliver for all of our people,” he told the U.N.

Aside from his speech, in meetings around the General Assembly’s opening Mr. Biden worked to mend fences with allies that felt slighted by the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. He also moved to try to mollify France, which remains annoyed by Australia’s announcement that it will purchase U.S. submarines rather than French ones. 

Overall, Mr. Biden’s U.N. appearance was far-reaching, and potentially transformative in terms of a foreign policy agenda, says Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department official.

“If anything, Biden was the un-Trump,” he says.

But it’s one thing to have the aspirations of a high-minded internationalist, and another to accomplish difficult multinational goals. At best, the president will be able to make incremental progress on such things as climate change and the global pandemic, says Mr. Miller.

Partly that’s because it’s hard to get nations to work together on tough problems. Partly that’s because voters at home will only let Mr. Biden move so far.

“The bandwidth that Biden [can use] for foreign policy is narrowed substantially by domestic constraints and the energy and resources required,” says Mr. Miller.

Continuing Trump policies, for now

Mr. Biden’s speech may have come at a critical time. Many foreign observers have been surprised to discover that in a number of areas the new U.S. president’s foreign policy is a continuation of his predecessor’s, writes international affairs commentator Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post.

Mr. Biden moved quickly to follow up Mr. Trump’s 2020 deal with the Taliban and withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The terms of the deal left him only two choices, Mr. Biden argued: withdrawal or substantial escalation.

Mr. Biden has left tariffs on China in place, while maintaining a phase one China-U.S. trade deal that China hasn’t lived up to, according to some economists.

On Cuba, Mr. Biden has maintained, even toughened, Trump-era sanctions. Under President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden, the U.S. had begun slowly thawing long-frozen U.S.-Cuban relations.

He has not yet rejoined the Iran pact, after arguing in the campaign that Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, meant to curtail Iran’s nascent nuclear program, was a big mistake. The administration now says it wants to lengthen and strengthen the deal, which Iran has been loath to do.

“Some of the foreign policies that were put in place by the Trump administration are things that made all the sense in the world. And I think once you become president and deal with the reality, you have to keep them in place,” says GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

In some cases, Mr. Biden kept in place policies that he felt were politically difficult to reverse, as opposed to substantively sensible. He initially left the cap on refugee admissions at the record low of 15,000 set by the Trump administration, for instance, reportedly due to concern about the domestic political ramifications of raising the figure.

On Monday, the State Department confirmed that for the next fiscal year, the U.S. will admit 125,000 refugees, in line with the goal Mr. Biden set in his 2020 campaign. 

This week the Biden administration also announced the easing of travel restrictions on fully vaccinated foreign visitors, finally reversing a series of bans put in place by then-President Trump during the early stages of the pandemic. The bans were becoming a source of irritation to European nations, many of which have higher vaccination rates than the U.S.

Similarities at the southern border

But it is at the southern border of the U.S. that similarities between Biden and Trump policies are most apparent. 

To be sure, the Biden administration has reversed some of its predecessor’s toughest immigration policies. Construction of Mr. Trump’s signature border wall has stopped, for instance.

However, until recently the administration has held onto a Trump-era public health restriction that lies behind most of the recent mass deportations of Haitians who gathered near a bridge in Del Rio, Texas. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention invoked this restriction, known as Title 42, in March 2020, when much of the country went into pandemic-related lockdown. Under its authority the U.S. can send most immigrants immediately back to wherever they came from. The stated goal is to avoid the spread of COVID-19 in crowded U.S. detention centers.

The thousands of Haitians who have gathered in Del Rio in recent days for the most part did not come directly from Haiti. They’re mostly coming from Brazil and Chile, where they’ve migrated over the past five to 10 years, says Jessica Bolter of the Migration Policy Institute. 

But largely under the authority of Title 42, U.S. officials have loaded many of these migrants onto aircraft and sent them back to their native country.

“This is a particular challenge because many of these migrants, having lived in South American countries for years, are not familiar with Haiti and don’t necessarily have a network in Haiti,” says Ms. Bolter.

Biden officials had planned to end use of Title 42. But the rise of the delta variant, and the continued high numbers of migrants attempting to enter the U.S., delayed that move. With the midterm elections now looming in the distance, ending the deportations risked a big political backlash.

Last week, a federal judge ordered the administration to halt the use of Title 42 to deport families. That decision won’t take effect for several weeks, pending appeal. An updated rule changing border procedures is also at least several weeks away from being finalized.

In the meantime there’s no clear, uniform policy in place at the border, says Ms. Bolter.

“The patchwork of border policies that are in place right now are really confusing. ... This ends up encouraging migrants to continue trying,” she says. 

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report from Washington.

Palestinian leaders are ready for talks. Their voters aren’t so sure.

Palestinian leaders want to reset relations with the U.S. and press Israel for concessions. But this presupposes a popular mandate that many Palestinians say their leadership lacks. 

April
Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
Palestinian brothers Ali and Ahmed Zamareh use their mobile phones to blog about ancient sites in the Palestinian territories on social media accounts to promote local tourism, near Ramallah on Aug. 11, 2021. Israel has agreed to allow 4G cellular service in the West Bank.

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The departures this year of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump have created an opening for Palestinians trying to break their international isolation and improve conditions in the West Bank. So far, there have been modest steps, including an easing of immigration rules for undocumented spouses of Palestinians. 

But the resumption of contacts among Palestinian, American, and Israeli officials this summer raises the question of whether the Palestinian Authority has the legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of Palestinians who are increasingly disgruntled with their leaders. 

Their underlying fear is that President Mahmoud Abbas will negotiate away more of their rights in return for meager promises that fall far short of self-determination. That fear is tempering optimism about the possibility of future peace talks in the region. 

“I believe we are all looking for a better, more comfortable life. But we don’t have a leadership that looks beyond to the day after the occupation ends,” says Hiba Burqan, an architect in Ramallah. “I question the whole point of returning to the same peace process.”

Palestinian leaders are ready for talks. Their voters aren’t so sure.

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A sense of relief and wariness is setting in across the West Bank as relations between the Palestinian leadership and the U.S. and Israel emerge from a deep freeze.  

Recent direct talks between Israel and Palestinian officials, in parallel with U.S. diplomatic outreach to both sides, have yielded modest gains for Palestinians in the West Bank. These include residency permits for undocumented foreign spouses and an upgrade of their Israeli-regulated cellphone service.

Yet Palestinians remain skeptical and mistrustful over the legitimacy of the increasingly autocratic Palestinian Authority (PA) under octogenarian President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate with Israel on their behalf. Mr. Abbas’ electoral term ended in 2009, and he canceled elections planned in May, blaming Israeli restrictions.

Palestinians decry years of economic malaise and a lack of progress toward an independent state under Mr. Abbas’ rule, along with international isolation and what they describe as Palestinian acquiescence to Israel.

Their underlying fear is that the PA will negotiate away more of their rights in return for meager promises that fall far short of self-determination and for benefits that may never materialize.

“I believe we are all looking for a better, more comfortable life. But we don’t have a leadership that looks beyond to the day after the occupation ends,” says Hiba Burqan, an architect in Ramallah who is in her early 30s. “I question the whole point of returning to the same peace process.”

For its part, the PA sees the prospect of talks with Israel and improved U.S. relations as a chance to rebuild its legitimacy, in part by improving economic conditions for disgruntled Palestinians.   

The departures of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump have created a political opening, allowing for a resumption of contacts among Palestinian, American, and Israeli officials this summer.

Mr. Trump took an antagonistic approach to the Palestinian leadership when it refused to acquiesce to a proposed peace deal that didn’t include either a Palestinian state or permanent rights for Palestinians living under Israeli rule.

Under the two leaders’ successors, President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally who formed a diverse coalition government in June, Palestinians have seen a series of positive baby steps on the ground.

In late August, President Abbas held a rare meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz that led to an agreement to issue 5,000 residency permits and IDs to the foreign spouses of undocumented Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel also agreed to allow 4G cellular service in the West Bank; Israel’s Defense Ministry had previously blocked 4G service for security reasons.

Political stalemate

But with Washington prodding Palestinian leadership to return to talks and cooperation with Israel, Palestinians are left wondering: Will there be any political breakthroughs and, if so, can their leadership be trusted to get a good deal and make it stick?  

Abu Murad, a building caretaker in his mid-50s, is one of many who recognize that the current Palestinian leadership “needs to deal with Israel and relies on the U.S. to do so.”

Yet without public support, he and many others argue that the PA should focus on economic relief and leave major decisions to future leaders who have a democratic mandate.

“This is a leadership that is still committed to agreements that Israel bailed out on,” he says, accusing the PA, created in the 1993 Oslo Accord between the Palestinians and Israel, of “facilitating the Israeli occupation.”

Rena is one of thousands of Palestinians set to benefit from the thaw in ties between Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

A Jordanian of Palestinian origin, she moved to the West Bank 14 years ago after marrying her husband, a Ramallah native. For more than a decade, she has been an undocumented resident, living in fear of deportation.  

Due to Israeli border restrictions, deportation could mean years of separation from her husband and children, if they were unable to leave.

“To get an ID card has been my life goal. It cannot be stressed enough that 5,000 people like me could see their lives changed by the decision,” says Rena. “But I understand that people are not satisfied. After all, we are all prisoners here.”

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Israeli soldiers check documents of Palestinians as they cross back to the West Bank, as Israeli security forces run searches after six Palestinian militants broke out of Gilboa prison on Sept. 6, 2021. All six were later recaptured.

Biden’s diplomatic overtures

On the heels of these modest goodwill gestures, the Palestinian leadership says it is trying to widen the scope of talks with the Israeli government and lobbying the Biden administration to pressure Israel to restart political negotiations.

“As of now, there have been no serious political overtures from Israel, but we agreed to these recent measures to alleviate some pressures on the people,” says Ahmad Majdalani, a minister in the PA government and confidant to Mr. Abbas.

According to Mr. Majdalani, the PA has presented multiple demands to Secretary of State Antony Blinken related to previous agreements reached with Israel. But these demands haven’t had much effect.  

Mr. Bennett has publicly ruled out meeting with Mr. Abbas to resume the peace process. He opposes an independent Palestinian state and recently called the PA a “failed entity.”

Mr. Majdalani says the fragility of Mr. Bennett’s governing coalition may be a factor. “The U.S. might not be interested in pressuring the new Israeli coalition government yet, as it is already very weak,” Mr. Majdalani says, downplaying the potential restart of negotiations.

One hopeful sign is that joint U.S.-Palestinian committees are currently reviewing legal measures to undo some of Mr. Trump’s more extreme steps to pressure Palestinians, such as the closure of the PLO office in Washington.

Palestinians also want to see a reopening of the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem that was controversially converted to the U.S. Embassy to Israel in 2017.

Confidence steps but no mandate

While such confidence-building measures would be welcome, Palestinians insist that the PA should first hold democratic elections if it is to negotiate on their behalf.  

“With the Palestinian Authority at odds with its own people, the Authority needs to expedite elections to have a stronger, democratically supported position before it enters any talks,” says Raja Habash, an electrical engineer from Ramallah who is in his mid-40s.

Earlier this year, thousands of Palestinians in the occupied territories, Israel, and Gaza hit the streets to demand greater rights and to protest Israeli court-ordered displacement of East Jerusalem residents. Mr. Abbas and his allies were conspicuously absent from this uprising.

A 10-day war in Gaza in May further roiled Palestinian opinion and left Mr. Abbas looking out of touch, reinforcing popular frustration over his leadership. In recent months, the PA has responded to protests against its rule by violently breaking up demonstrations, harassing journalists, and detaining activists.  

“The frustration among Palestinians is increasing as their ability to protest and express opposition is shrinking,” says Issam Aruri, commissioner of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights.

“People see what is wrong, and know the change they want to see. But we lack the democratic tools to achieve it.”

Policing in America

To build trust, Racine police moved into the neighborhood

At a time of hostile debate around policing in America, building trust is both risky and vital. Racine’s model, pioneered in the 1990s, isn’t a fast fix – it takes time, commitment, and real estate.

April
Mark Hertzberg/ZUMA Wire/Newscom/File
Susan Feehrer-Laack, program director for Racine Neighborhood Watch Inc., and police officer Konner Scott wait to give masks away at one of the city’s Community-Oriented Policing Houses on July 27, 2020, in Racine, Wisconsin. During the pandemic, free masks were available at the COP Houses to help residents comply with city mandates.

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In the 1990s, Racine had the highest crime rate in Wisconsin and one of the state’s most exhausted police forces. 

Tough-on-crime policies weren’t working – the city couldn’t arrest its way out of the problem. 

So the police department moved in. 

Developing an approach that’s since been copied around the region, the police department in Racine identified multiple at-risk neighborhoods and bought houses in them. Officers stationed in these Community-Oriented Policing Houses were tasked to build local relationships, learn how to help, and act as a partner in solving problems. 

It worked. In one neighborhood the crime rate fell 70%, part of a three-decade drop in the city’s overall crime rate. Challenges remain, says Chief Maurice A. Robinson, but police have residents’ trust.

Today, he’s trying to fill a staffing shortage with new officers who better represent the city. Black residents make up more than 40% of city residents, he says.

A few Racinians have already heeded his call. He hopes more follow, because the city is less safe when Racine and the Racine Police Department are divided. 

It can’t be us and them, he says. “It has to be us.”

To build trust, Racine police moved into the neighborhood

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Just south of Milwaukee in the early 1990s, the small city of Racine had the highest violent crime rate in Wisconsin and one of the state’s most exhausted police forces. 

In an era of law-and-order policing, later codified by the 1994 Crime Bill, tough-on-crime policies weren’t working. The city had tried sending in more officers and giving them more authority. But it had become clear that they couldn’t arrest their way out of the problem. 

So the police department moved in. 

Developing an approach that’s since been copied around the region, Racine’s police department – led by then-chief Richard Polzin – identified multiple at-risk neighborhoods and bought houses in them. Officers stationed during normal work hours in these Community-Oriented Policing (COP) Houses were tasked to build local relationships, learn how to help, and act as a partner in solving problems. 

It worked. In one neighborhood the violent crime rate fell 70%, part of a three-decade drop in the city’s overall crime rate. Racine now has six COP Houses. Challenges remain, says Chief Maurice A. Robinson, but the police have residents’ trust. 

“When every police department in the country is trying to fight this uptick in violent crime, if the public doesn’t trust us it makes it more difficult” to get the information needed to investigate certain cases, says Mr. Robinson, in a phone interview.

They couldn’t have that trust at a more critical time. In a Gallup survey last year, 48% of respondents expressed confidence in law enforcement – the first time in almost three decades that confidence was in the minority. Last year’s wave of protests against police brutality seem to confirm what the numbers suggest: Public trust in law enforcement has plummeted in the past 10 years.

This trust gap between the public and police is a destructive status quo, says Barry Reynolds, assistant professor of criminal justice at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. Without trust, he says, communities grow less safe, and community members participate less in their own safety. The more both parties grow estranged, the worse the problem becomes.

Amid hostile debate around American policing, attempts to build trust can be risky. But this era of police scrutiny won’t go away without reform, says Professor Reynolds, who spent nearly 40 years in law enforcement. He’d like his lifelong profession, and the public around it, to take this moment as an invitation to change, as Racine did 30 years ago. Trust will come, he says, when law enforcement and the community find ways to work together.

“Rather than being seen as adversarial, you’re seen as partners in the whole production of public safety,” says Professor Reynolds. “That can’t come about unless there is some type of a connection, a personal connection.”

Who trusts the police

Today, connection depends almost entirely on partisan and racial identity. Per 2020 data from Gallup, Black Americans and Democrats are overwhelmingly more critical of law enforcement than white Americans and Republicans.

That gap has as much to do with people’s social networks as their personal experiences. Police disproportionately operate in Black and lower-income communities, hence people in those communities are more likely to know someone who had an encounter go wrong. Over generations, those stories have built a collective view that law enforcement isn’t trustworthy.

The opposite is true for white, upper-class Americans, who more often think of bad policing as the fruit of a few bad apples. “The more affluent and the more white the neighborhood is, the less they have a negative perception or experience of the police,” says Hans Menos, vice president of law enforcement initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity.

Yet support among white Americans has started to wane, as cases of police brutality have damaged policing’s national reputation. In the last 10 years, police scrutiny has accelerated rapidly and law enforcement struggled to adjust, says Professor Reynolds. 

Unused to such intense criticism, police officers and unions often counter that the public doesn’t understand their job, says Rachel Moran, an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. Many within the profession, she says, have grown more insular and defensive amid criticism they consider unfounded. 

“We like to think of ourselves as being kind of a static profession,” says Professor Reynolds. Over the past 10 years, “we haven’t changed a whole lot. But society as a whole has changed markedly, and the demands that society is now placing upon their policing agencies [are] much different.”

In some parts of America, the chief demand is consolidation. Many local governments are reducing low-level interactions between police and the public, like traffic stops, in an effort to limit potential conflict. Others are increasing the role of mental health experts or other professionals in emergency response. 

“What it looks like is right-sizing the police,” says Dr. Menos. 

Caitlin Sievers/The Journal Times/AP/File
Police cordon off the area of an officer-involved shooting near 14th and Villa Streets, Jan. 17, 2018, in Racine, Wisconsin. In June 2020, a COP House on Villa Street named for a much-loved local activist was burned down during unrest after George Floyd’s murder.

“Stop the violence before it happens”

Yet alone, reducing the number of times the police and public interact won’t eliminate the trust gap. Communities, meanwhile, remain less safe than they could be with cooperation.

Reversing the trend toward distrust begins at the local level, where police can build relationships and better understand community needs. That’s a job for all officers on the force, not just those in COP Houses, says Mr. Robinson, the Racine police chief. He encourages officers to spend part of their day on foot or bike, where they can more easily meet Racine residents. Every resident can be a partner, and every partner can be just as effective as the police – if not more so. 

“The members of our community who are aunts, uncles, sisters, cousins, brothers, hold more sway and hold more influence over these young people [who make up an increasing share of offenders] than the police do,” says Mr. Robinson. “We are after the fact. The most effective partnership is if communities can help us stop the violence before it happens.”

That level of focus is more difficult when there are staffing shortages, like Racine’s roughly 200-officer department is facing now. America has more than 18,000 police departments, around half with fewer than 10 officers. Cuts in benefits and salary can make it harder to keep existing officers or attract replacements. Chief Robinson is trying to fill the shortage with new officers who better represent the city. Black residents make up more than 40% of Racine’s population, he says. More Racinians on the city’s police force make working with the community easier.

It can’t be us and them, he says. “It has to be us.”

Attracting officers, though, is more difficult in the age of social media, when an instance of police brutality anywhere can damage the reputation of police forces everywhere. That vulnerability makes local relationships more important, says Laurie Robinson, professor emerita of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. 

“It’s really about listening to and working with the community to identify where the issues of public safety lie and agree on those,” says Ms. Robinson, who co-chaired the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing in 2014. After the police and community label problems together, they can “agree on the approach that should be taken to address them,” she adds.

“They’re respecting us”

That’s an approach Racine police officers share. In fact, they released a playbook about it. Earlier this year, Chicago’s police department visited Racine to learn about the COP House program, and has since started one of its own. Mr. Robinson, who became Racine’s chief in May, takes such visits as a sign that their programs are working. But his eyes are on his own backyard, he says. 

Last June, in the aftershocks of George Floyd’s murder, rioters burned a COP House in Racine’s Villa Street neighborhood. Four men were convicted of arson, two of whom were Racine residents.

But Villa Street, which had come to view the COP House as a community center, responded with a cookout. Bringing about 150 children and adults from the neighborhood together, the event affirmed what the house represented: a respite for the police and community to cooperate. Named for Thelma Orr, a local civil rights activist, the COP House had become a monument of trust.

During one protest, community policing officer Sgt. Ryan Comstock stood in front of a line of demonstrators.

“We understand why you’re out here,” he said, in a video released by the Racine Police Department.

At one point, someone threw something at Mr. Comstock, and immediately the crowd turned around and called out the behavior. It wasn’t how Racinians interact with their police.

“They’re respecting us,” a woman demonstrating said, “so you need to respect them.”

From knocking on doors to Facebook posts: Missionary work moves online

Among the traditions upended by the pandemic are religious rites of passage. Yet some Latter-day Saint missionaries are finding that going virtual still yields personal growth.

April

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Limited by the pandemic, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints scaled back physical outreach and intensified virtual proselytizing.

In fact, some current missionaries say they’ve never knocked on doors. Instead, virtual outreach may include promoting their faith on social media via original posts, videos, and messages; teaching over Zoom; and collaborating with local members to update church profiles on Google and Yelp.

For some, including Sister Kimberly Russon who had been scheduled to go to Portugal, the switch was disappointing. But encouraged by her younger brother, Ms. Russon forged ahead. 

Now based in Colorado, she’s shared her gospel with countless people online and in person over the past year. She says her faith has deepened, too, despite having to overcome heartbreak.

Partway through her mission, the brother who had encouraged her died. 

Yet the pain of loss has been countered by something she calls sacred. After her brother’s death, Ms. Russon began to notice how many of her contacts had also lost a loved one. Painting a promise of hope for others has in turn comforted her.

“What better to help you with grief than to turn outward,” she says.

From knocking on doors to Facebook posts: Missionary work moves online

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Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP/File
Hundreds of people gather to welcome missionaries returning home from the Philippines at the Salt Lake City International Airport on March 22, 2020. Marcus Adams was among those called home due to the pandemic. “I didn’t feel like I had done enough … and that just tore me apart,” he recalls.

When missionary Marcus Adams heard the news, he went out to the courtyard to cry. He no longer noticed the sticky, midday heat of the Philippines, a country he’d grown to love but now was forced to leave.

In mid-March 2020, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began to fly thousands like Mr. Adams back to their home countries. Seven months into his two-year mission, he’d just begun to master the Tagalog language. He’d become more comfortable approaching the cinderblock homes of strangers, who would often welcome him in for a stir-fry meal. 

“I didn’t feel like I had done enough … and that just tore me apart,” he recalls.

After four “stir-crazy” months back home in Utah, he was reassigned to a mostly virtual mission in the Oklahoma City area. Mr. Adams says he was instructed to meet new people by joining Facebook groups, and once conversation started, try to “segue it to the gospel.”

In both locations, he says the highlight of his mission was deepening his empathy for others as he grew in his faith.

“That is the greatest gift … bar learning a language, bar trying fancy food, or going across the sea,” says Mr. Adams, who is now adjusting to post-missionary life back home.

Limited by the pandemic, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints scaled back physical outreach and intensified virtual proselytizing, calling on the flexibility and social media savvy of young missionaries. Along with disappointment, that brought complications, yet ​in an America whose share of self-described Christians continues to decline while religious “nones” rise, these Latter-day Saints still see their role as spreading hope. And some like Mr. Adams say their missions, even the virtual parts, yield personal growth. 

In fact, character development is central to the program. Missionaries gain “a foundation, an understanding, and an ability to learn that life isn’t just about themselves,” says Elder W. Mark Bassett, assistant executive director of the Missionary Department. 

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
Elder Ryan Fagergren (left) and Elder Trevan Palmer stand at a church in Aurora, Colorado, Aug. 21, 2021. Mr. Fagergren had originally been called to serve in Japan, and Mr. Palmer in Thailand, but now the missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are making the most of domestic reassignments.

Digital natives rise to the occasion

Latter-day Saint missionaries date back to 1830, the year Joseph Smith founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While its leadership prefers the full title, the global religion that claims more than 16 million members is also widely known as the Mormon church. Its missionary tradition remains popular within the church, despite the imperial undertones some Americans may associate with missions in general.

Male, full-time missionaries, addressed as “elders,” serve for two years. “Sister” missionaries serve for 18 months. Missions are voluntary and largely funded by the individuals themselves, who are typically under 25. Unmarried missionaries are constantly accompanied by a “companion” of the same gender.

Nearly 32,000 missionaries – almost half of those serving full time pre-pandemic – returned to their home countries in spring 2020, with the option of deferring their mission or pursuing reassignment, which often involved virtual outreach. 

“I don’t see us going back to just knocking doors. … We’ll see a combination moving forward,” says Mr. Bassett. 

Some current missionaries say they’ve never knocked on doors – not even once. Instead, the Utah-based faith has increasingly relied on the skills of its digital natives, says Mr. Bassett. Virtual outreach can include promoting their faith on social media via original posts, videos, and messages; teaching over Zoom; and collaborating with local members to update church profiles on Google and Yelp.

Sometimes, though, virtual meetings lead to in-person encounters. 

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
Thomas Bulles (left) and his nephew, Dino Aikne, stand with Elder Ryan Fagergren at a church of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Aurora, Colorado, Aug. 21, 2021. Mr. Fagergren had just delivered a sermon in Marshallese at Dino's baptism.

Baptism during the pandemic

The boy holds his breath. A room full of silent, masked guests watch his immersion underwater, guided by his uncle who, like the boy, is dressed in white.

Dino Aikne resurfaces moments later, symbolizing his rebirth.

“I want to go to heaven,” the middle schooler later says in a shy voice. His jet-black hair shines as it dries.

Double doors close on the baptismal font of this Aurora, Colorado, church. Toward the end of the August service, Elder Ryan Fagergren steps to the front. Eyes shut and hands clasped, the teenager from Texas prays aloud in Marshallese, a language of the Marshall Islands spoken by Dino and his family. This is the culmination of a series of religious lessons, both virtual and in person, Mr. Fagergren shared with Dino with the hope that he’d “be able to grow closer to God” and, with parental support, seek baptism.

Mr. Fagergren is supposed to be in Japan. He wanted to serve there like his grandfather, who used to share mission stories as they drove around in his truck. Mr. Fagergren studied Japanese throughout high school. Then he received his call to serve in Sapporo in early 2020, but the virus upended his plans.

After “praying long and hard,” he opted for reassignment. At first, Mr. Fagergren says he was unsure how to cultivate contacts in Colorado during quarantine, but he began posting church-related content to personal and mission Facebook accounts. He also taught church doctrine and English virtually.

Besides Marshallese, Mr. Fagergren is learning Spanish and Portuguese to widen his reach in the Denver suburbs. He reports having spoken to “hundreds” of people, in person and virtually, about a year into his mission. The outreach has also uplifted him.

“My faith in myself, my faith in God is way higher than what it used to be,” he says. “I’d say I’m definitely more patient and more humble.”

Changing with the times 

Leveraging social media to reach pandemic converts recalls how Western churches and agencies funded radio stations during the Cold War “as a means of evangelism into areas that would otherwise not be accessible,” says Kirsteen Kim, associate dean for the Center for Missiological Research at Fuller Theological Seminary. Some denominations also use television and the internet as avenues for outreach.

“The medium of the message keeps shifting according to the global conditions, and according to what’s available,” says Dr. Kim. 

In fact, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has gradually piloted and permitted more missionary use of the internet and digital devices over the past decade. Today, all 404 missions worldwide allow the use of cellphones. 

“Almost by necessity, they have really ramped up the use of the internet. Now they try to keep control,” says Robert Lively Jr., author of “The Mormon Missionary: Who Is That Knocking at My Door?” 

“There is the expectation that you will be very careful in using the technology, and that your companion is going to help you do that,” Dr. Lively adds. For example, companions review each other’s social media posts before they’re published. They’re also expected to be within sight of each other’s screens whenever they’re being used – a practice former missionary Mr. Adams calls “four eyes, one screen.”

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
Sister Rylee White (left) and Sister Kimberly Russon sit in an Arvada, Colorado, church's Family History Center on Aug. 23, 2021. The Latter-day Saint missionaries sometimes use computers here for mission-related social media outreach.

Connecting virtually through loss 

Some missionary training centers have begun to reopen in person as more foreign posts resume. Over 53,000 missionaries are currently serving full time, among them a smiling Sister Kimberly Russon. But back in the summer of 2020, she wrestled with doubt as she sat behind the glow of her laptop screen for hours a day during online missionary training.

Raised in the church, the 20-something from Utah had put her life on hold – including a boyfriend and job – for a mission to Portugal. After COVID-19 canceled those plans, she settled for a domestic mission. 

“I was just feeling really down, and wondering if I, you know, made the right decision – if I was going to be capable to serve in the way that I wanted to serve others,” she says.

Her brother came to comfort her one night. Sitting on her bed, the teen assured her everything would be OK, that he looked up to her and loved her. 

Ms. Russon realized the mission was a way to serve as a role model for him, to honor her family. “This isn’t about me,” she says. 

Now based a state away in Colorado, she’s shared her gospel with countless people online and in person over the past year. She says her faith has deepened, too. 

But she has also had to overcome heartbreak – far beyond the disappointment of not going to Portugal.

Partway through her mission, her brother – the same one who comforted her in her moment of doubt – died. The teen was the life of the party, she says, loving to make others laugh.

Yet the pain of loss has been countered by something she calls sacred. After her brother’s death, Ms. Russon began to notice how many of her contacts had also lost a loved one. Painting a promise of hope for others has in turn comforted her.

“What better to help you with grief than to turn outward,” she says.

In Pictures

Where elephants help make paper

Sometimes fresh ideas can seem ridiculous. But in Sri Lanka, a papermaker who incorporates elephant dung into his products shows that even wild ideas can pay off.

April
Oscar Espinosa/Correspondent
Workers at Eco Maximus in Sri Lanka create recycled paper using discarded paper fiber and elephant dung. After pressing the paper to extract excess water, workers hang sheets to dry, one by one. During monsoon season it can take up to three days to dry.

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For three generations, Thusitha Ranasinghe’s family navigated the world of international paper imports. But 24 years ago, the Sri Lankan printer had a revolutionary idea. What if he made his own paper with an ecologically friendly process that used local fibers? His choice of source material drew skepticism from others in his community. He planned to craft the paper out of elephant dung. 

The idea turned out to be far from absurd.

In a country with 2,500-4,000 wild elephants, there is no shortage of droppings. And due to the pachyderm’s incomplete digestive system, the heaps of waste contain a high percentage of intact fibers, making it a perfect raw material for paper production. What’s more, the idea also managed to ease some of the conflict between elephants and locals by creating employment opportunities in rural areas and shifting local perceptions of elephants as a threat.

The company sources its dung from the Millennium Elephant Foundation, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to the well-being of domestic elephants. Each day, foundation volunteers deliver four wheelbarrows full of fresh dung to the factory.

Click the “deep read” button above for a visual tour of the papermaking process.

Where elephants help make paper

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For three generations, Thusitha Ranasinghe’s family navigated the world of international paper imports. But 24 years ago, the Sri Lankan printer had a revolutionary idea. What if he made his own paper with an ecologically friendly process that used local fibers? His choice of source material drew skepticism from others in his community. He planned to craft the paper out of elephant dung. 

The idea turned out to be far from absurd.

In a country with 2,500-4,000 wild elephants, there is no shortage of droppings. And due to the pachyderm’s incomplete digestive system, the heaps of waste contain a high percentage of intact fibers, making it a perfect raw material for paper production. What’s more, the idea also managed to ease some of the conflict between elephants and locals by creating employment opportunities in rural areas and shifting local perceptions of elephants as a threat.

Since launching Eco Maximus in 1997 with seven workers and a small factory in Kegalle, Mr. Ranasinghe now employs more than 120 people in various locations throughout the country.

The company sources its dung from the Millennium Elephant Foundation, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to improving the well-being of domestic elephants. Each day, foundation volunteers arrive at the company’s factory door with four wheelbarrows full of fresh dung, and from there, the recycling paper process begins. 

Oscar Espinosa/Correspondent
Senerath Bandara, one of the factory’s original workers, mixes elephant dung that has been dried in the sun and boiled to kill bacteria with recycled paper to produce a pulp.
Oscar Espinosa/Correspondent
The resulting slurry has a texture similar to oats. Most of the current production uses a 50% mix of dung and recycled paper. About a third of the paper is 100% dung and is used for boxes and photo frames.
Oscar Espinosa/Correspondent
The pulp mixture is poured into a large sink filled with water where it is spread evenly across a submerged screen stretched across a wooden frame. When the frame is lifted from the water, a thin layer of pulp remains across the screen. Sheets of cloth are used to separate screens as they are stacked until they can be passed through a press to drain excess water.
Oscar Espinosa/Correspondent
Each sheet must air-dry individually. Once dried, paper sheets are smoothed and a meticulous manufacturing process begins – all by hand. Some cut, others add small details with molds, others glue, others put the pieces together, and others paint.
Oscar Espinosa/Correspondent
Sanjara Kumara, who has been with the company since its founding, supervises packaging. Every final product, be it a greeting card, notepad, book, or stationery, will be unique as it is made by hand.

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Biden’s bid for relentless diplomacy

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After his first speech at the United Nations as president on Tuesday, Joe Biden will waste no time practicing what he preached.

With the United States finally at peace after ending its longest war – in Afghanistan – he promised an “era of relentless diplomacy.” Indeed, on Wednesday, he will lead the largest gathering of heads of state to address the coronavirus crisis. This Friday, he will hold his first in-person summit with leaders of four democracies in the Indo-Pacific.

What accounts for his optimism about global-scale diplomacy?

One clue came during a particularly emotional part of Mr. Biden’s speech. The founders of the U.N., he said, were able to break a cycle of major wars by their vision, values, and faith in a collective future. That led to decades of relative peace and growing prosperity.

Mr. Biden is now suggesting that other cycles – of pandemics, climate change, cyberthreats, big-power polarization – can also be broken. “Now we must again come together to affirm the inherent humanity that unites us is much greater than any outward divisions or disagreements,” he said.

No wonder he speaks of a new era of diplomacy that will be “intensive” and “relentless.”

Biden’s bid for relentless diplomacy

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Reuters
President Biden talks with leaders of major economies at a Sept.17 energy and climate meeting.

After his first speech at the United Nations as president on Tuesday, Joe Biden will waste no time practicing what he preached.

With the United States finally at peace after ending its longest war – in Afghanistan – he promised an “era of relentless diplomacy.” Indeed, on Wednesday, he will lead the largest gathering of heads of state to address the coronavirus crisis. This Friday, he will hold his first in-person summit with leaders of four democracies in the Indo-Pacific, known as the Quad. A few days later, the U.S. and European Union will hold their first high-level meeting of the transatlantic Trade and Technology Council. All this follows a virtual gathering last week of world leaders to address climate change.

Mr. Biden’s faith in multilateral diplomacy is not new for an American president. Yet he does claim the world has never faced so many global issues that require international cooperation.

“Today, many of our greatest concerns cannot be solved or even addressed by the force of arms,” he said. Instead, the world needs unity against multiple and shared challenges, from COVID-19 to emerging technological threats. In addition, he added, the world cannot be divided into blocs as it was during the Cold War. Even the two-decade-long effort against the threat of terrorist attacks, he said, has shifted away from large military operations. “Today, we are better equipped to detect and prevent terrorist threats, and we are more resilient in our ability to repel them and to respond,” the president said.

What accounts for his optimism about global-scale diplomacy?

One clue came during a particularly emotional part of Mr. Biden’s speech before the 193-member U.N. General Assembly. The founders of the U.N., he said, were able to break a cycle of major wars and destruction by their vision, values, and faith in a collective future. That led to decades of relative peace and growing prosperity.

Mr. Biden is now suggesting that other cycles – of pandemics, climate change, cyberthreats, big-power polarization – can also be broken. “Now we must again come together to affirm the inherent humanity that unites us is much greater than any outward divisions or disagreements,” he said.

No wonder he speaks of a new era of diplomacy that will be “intensive” and “relentless.”

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

‘What if’ or ‘what is’?

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It can be tempting to get overwhelmed by fearful “what if” thinking. But getting to know God as entirely good replaces doubt and uncertainty with confidence, clarity, and healing.

‘What if’ or ‘what is’?

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

What would you give to remove uncertainty from your life? It can seem as though unhelpful “what ifs” run through our head on a daily basis, hampering our ability to make informed decisions or to be free from doubt and worry. “What if I don’t have enough money?” “What if I don’t get well?”

I have found that there’s an approach that enables us to replace “what if” statements with “what is.” It’s based on our relation to God, as taught in Christian Science. Instead of asking “What if bad things happen?” and getting overwhelmed by dire predictions, we can look to God for a spiritual picture of what life is, which brings happiness, harmony, and certainty.

The Bible, which contains the Word of God, Truth, puts it this way: “Though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:3-5).

That indicates a world not of matter, but of Spirit – God’s wholly spiritual universe. This universe includes each of us as God’s child, made in God’s image, subject only to divine goodness. Therefore we are, in reality, as spiritual and perfect as God. There is no chance or uncertainty in that picture!

Familiarizing ourselves with the profound spiritual facts of being enables us to overcome material uncertainty. As Christ Jesus said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Isn’t that a road map to freedom? Affirming “what is” based on divine Truth is transformative, replacing the discouragement and disappointment of “what if” thinking with health and harmony.

Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science (which is based on the Bible), writes in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” of the need to “unite with the one Mind, in order to change the notion of chance to the proper sense of God’s unerring direction and thus bring out harmony” (p. 424). As God’s children, we reflect the one divine Mind, whose infinite wisdom gives us the capacity for spiritual discernment and understanding, even perspicacity.

One time, in the week leading up to a special family reunion, crippling stomach pains led me to unhelpful “what if” thinking. What if I couldn’t go? What if I went and couldn’t participate in the activities? What if everyone else was worried about me? Such thinking keeps us trapped in darkness, and it haunted me – until I realized it could be abandoned for the light of Truth! A favorite hymn in the 1932 “Christian Science Hymnal” says in part:

God of Truth, eternal good,
Lift our hearts to revelation,
That Thou mayst be understood,
Thou, the Rock of our salvation;...
. . . . . . .
Open now our eyes to see,
As the clouds of sense are riven,
We behold reality,
Know the glory of Thy heaven;...
(Edith Gaddis Brewer, No. 85, © CSBD)

It was time to make a decision between getting pulled down the road of “what ifs” or accepting what is! As I turned my thoughts to God and prayed to know what is true about me, it became clear there could be no pain in the picture since God never made anything unlike Himself – who is entirely good. God knows us to be as spiritual and flawless as He is. That meant I was whole and free at that very moment...no ifs, ands, or buts! And we can know ourselves as God knows us, since we express the divine Mind.

I packed my bags and headed to the airport. I was so focused on my gratitude to God that I don’t remember when the pain disappeared. But I was so completely healed that I agreed to join my grandson on the scariest roller coaster in the amusement park we visited...in the front seat, no less! And the pain never returned.

When we get pulled into “What if bad things are going to happen to me?” thinking, we can instead seek the truth about God and ourselves as God’s children, that includes only the certainty of goodness.

Viewfinder

The scenic route

Toby Melville/Reuters
Visitors view the hand-sculpted, repurposed van Delays Expected by Dan Rawlings at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London on Sept. 21, 2021. The show, which usually takes place in the spring, was delayed due to the pandemic.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

April Austin
Weekly Deputy Editor, Books Editor

Thank you for joining us today. Come back tomorrow when we'll look at the Peace Corps, which is facing challenges to some of the core values that have shaped its existence for the past 60 years.

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