Headbloom Blog

September 11, 2010 National Day of Service: Celebrating Community
Notes from a lunchtime talk to a group of AmeriCorps volunteers who’d spent the morning cleaning up Martin Luther King Park and the Family Urban Ministries building in Grand Rapids.

From Tragedy and Fear to Courage and Respect

“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” —Wade Davis, American anthropologist

As I told my wife this week, I feel like I have been preparing this talk for nine years. These thoughts have been stewing inside my brain since September 11, 2001. But before I get started, I want to bring you into focus.

I want you to close your eyes and think back to where you were on September 11, 2001. Who were you with? What was going through your mind as you watched the seemingly endless reruns of the news footage from New York City? Go back there and repeat the emotions, the images of that day and the days following. [Allow 1 minute] Now, as you re-open your eyes, I want you to turn to the person next to you and share with them your feelings from that sobering week. [Allow 2 minutes]

I remember too. I was at work when I got a call from a Brazilian client, “Are you watching television? Something horrible. Turn on your TV.” I was working with a French student at the time and we went to the TV and watched what you just relived and shared with each other. An hour later, we were joined by a Korean student who had come for her lesson. The three of us—a North American, a European, and an Asian—alerted by a South American—watched in horror and disbelief. How could someone do something like this? Who could possibly do this? What was happening to our world?

Over the passing hours, Americans witnessed an outpouring of love and sympathy from scores of countries around the world. Do you remember the images of the thousands of bouquets at the steps of U.S. embassies around the world? The international candlelight vigils. The feeling of the solidarity of humankind.

But the mood in our country soured. Soon, partisan politicians were calling Americans to circle the wagons. America was under attack, the world was “against” us. WE were under siege. In a short period of time, we forgot that dozens of other nationalities had perished in those plane crashes that day, and the rhetoric told us to take it as a personal attack. Do you remember the slogans? These Colors Don’t Run. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

What I personally love about this country is our inherent optimism. The best example of this is the community event you are participating in today. On the anniversary of an absolutely horrific act, we are dedicating ourselves to creating good in our neighborhoods. What I have come to learn in my work and my travels is that American volunteerism is unique among world cultures. Per capita, we donate more of our time AND our money to charity than any other country. Giving back is in our national DNA.

But all peoples have some good in them…and some bad. Our job to find out the former and celebrate that too.

I have friends on every continent. They live in Australia, Brazil, Cambodia, … through to Yugoslavia* and Zimbabwe. My friends are black and yellow and brown and white. They are male and female. They are young and old. They are able bodied and less able. They are gay and they are straight. They are less educated and they are more so.

In that mix, we have to remember there are good Muslims and bad Christians. There are hard-working Buddhists and lazy atheists. There are white men who can jump and black men who can’t dance. There’s an imam in Grand Rapids giving free Arabic lessons, and there’s a pastor in Florida threatening to burn holy books of another religion. There are rules and there are exceptions, but you won’t find out who’s who by sitting home, watching the same cable news channel, and judging.

One year ago, I attended a conference on Islam in Grand Rapids. Believers and non-believers, sitting side by side, listening to the invited speakers, chatting together during the breaks. What I was reminded of is that it’s awfully hard to denigrate a whole group of people if you know someone from that group. There I met the moderate Muslim North African whose wife is a Caucasian American—and not Muslim. He loves her and their biracial children. And some of the orthodoxy being preached at the conference he takes with a grain of salt. As a practical man, he loves to pray but doesn’t get carried away with all the dogma. A moderate man of faith—who’d be welcome to live in my neighborhood any time he wanted to move in.

There was the Nigerian-American who sat next to me for much of the conference. A devout Muslim, he wore the gear. Had the short haircut and the longish beard. Funny little cap, long shirt and caftan. Big black man. Potentially scary looking…if, like me, you’re used to hanging around with mostly pasty-faced Congregationalists. Well, after a day’s worth of conversations, I found out he was a big teddy bear, not a jihadist bogeyman. More devout in his practices (no more or less misguided than my own) than his Algerian brother, but a man of peace—as best he can live it out through his understanding of the words of the prophet Mohammed.

And there’s the Iraqi refugee family supported by my church. They struggle with the same things native Michiganders do: unemployment, housing, buying clothes for their school-aged kids. How about the Indian doctor, working in a hospital in Saginaw? She wears her hijab to the hospital AND gives her patients compassionate care. She also came to Grand Rapids to compete in the 15-mile River Bank Run…in case there is someone here today who has anti-feminist judgments about women who wear the hijab. Again, if you know individual members, you have less room for stereotypes about their group, about “Them.”

What if…, I began wondering. What if Osama bin Laden had a friend who was Christian—or Jewish? One of his bowling buddies. What if his next-door neighbor was American? Someone who invited him over for Thanksgiving? Someone who helped push his car out of the snow bank last winter? How easy would it be for him to castigate all Westerners as the Devil Incarnate if he had to think about his friend when he said that?

The goal for one national group is to sign up 100,000 organizations between now and the 10th anniversary of 9/11 for service projects. Let me add one more component to that for you. I challenge you, the next time you volunteer, to go outside your comfort zone. If you’re Christian, bring along a Muslim friend. (Don’t have one? You’ve got 12 months to make one.) If you’re old, invite someone young. If you’re gay, volunteer with a straight friend. If you’re Anglo, invite someone who’s Mexican, or Vietnamese, or Palestinian. If you’re atheist, invite a Buddhist. There is no growth, no learning if you stay comfortable. You gain nothing new when surrounded by folks who look and talk and believe like you do.

And my final piece of advice is to the young people in attendance today: don’t stay in Grand Rapids. Get out in the world and discover it, meet its people, rub your face in it, leave your mark on it, be changed by it, and then—if you want, come back to West Michigan to teach your children and your neighbors. That the world is wide. That there is more than one way to do things. That being FOR religious diversity doesn’t mean you’re ANTI-American.

“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” —Wade Davis, American anthropologist

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Below: public pool, Martin Luther King Park, Grand Rapids, MI
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Cultural concepts and vocabulary

  • AmeriCorps = a national service organization created in 1993 by President Bill Clinton
  • manifestations = examples
  • stewing = cooking, in preparation
  • sobering = causing seriousness, not fun
  • circle the wagons = expression which means to gather one’s group tightly together to fight off any outside group
  • partisan = not open-minded, only representing one party or one set of beliefs
  • These Colors Don’t Run. = a bumper sticker with the American flag and the double meaning: (1) the red/white/blue dye in our flag won’t wash away in a storm, (2) won’t run away from a fight
  • “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” = quote from President George Bush about nations who wouldn’t help invade Iraq
  • Yes, I know Yugoslavia no longer exists. I’m just using it poetically for the letter Y. (A,B,C…Y,Z) I don’t currently have friends in Yemen.
  • gay = homosexual [informal]
  • straight = heterosexual [informal]
  • White Men Can’t Jump = a movie about the stereotype that black basketball players jump higher than white players
  • black men can’t dance = a stereotype is that all African-Americans have innate musical rhythm based on their heritage
  • denigrate = to speak ill of, criticize, or demean
  • orthodoxy = the formal belief of all rules of a religion, strict adherence to official dogma
  • dogma = strict, inflexible rules
  • take with a grain of salt = not accept completely, to analyze and use judiciously
  • the gear = clothing or equipment for a role or position, the typical uniform used to look the part
  • pasty = very fair skinned, pale complected, implied lack of sun exposure
  • Congregational = a Protestant Christian denomination originally composed of mostly Caucasians
  • bogeyman = an imaginary monster or scary person
  • Devil Incarnate = a representation of the devil in the body of one person
  • castigate = to criticize or punish



Alan Headbloom