Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #164. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Mar. 5, 2021; in print Mar. 7

Abraham Lincoln, puzzled, asks, “Mary, is today my birthday or George Washington’s?” A cartoon from long ago reminds me that we of a certain age learned to distinguish between the first president’s Feb. 22 and the sixteenth’s Feb. 12. Kids today, given vacation on the third Monday in February, “Presidents’ Day,” find the cartoon unintelligible.

I will remember Feb. 22, 2021, not because it was George Washington’s 289th birthday, but because it included three events – one on TV, the other two via Zoom – that are harbingers of a future that can be better than a return to “the old normal.” As economist Paul Romer once said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

President Biden and Vice President Harris, together with their spouses, stood silent at the White House south portico, surrounded by luminaria on the steps representing the half million Americans who had succumbed to Covid-19. The TV screen echoed Jan. 19, the evening before the Inauguration, when those four stood silent looking out over the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool – with the Washington Monument in the background – the pool lined with lighted columns representing the 400,000 who had died up to that time.

The president’s words before the moment of silence at the White House disclosed the scope of the crisis and the depth of his empathy: “We often hear people described as ‘ordinary Americans.’ There's no such thing; there's nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary. They spanned generations. Born in America. Immigrated to America. But just like that, so many of them took final breath alone in America. As a nation, we can't accept such a cruel fate.” The born here, the immigrated here – both dying the same way, alone.

The president then spoke words of challenge and hope. “The way through sorrow and grief is to find purpose. … We can find purpose – purpose worthy of the lives they lived and worthy of the country we love.”

The two virtual events on Feb. 22 happened right here. They give content to the purpose that the president highlighted and heralded. Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously quipped: “All politics is local.” I propose a corollary: “All purpose is local.”

First was a cyberspace bus tour sponsored by United Way of Central Minnesota and the Central Minnesota Community Foundation to institutions and organizations in the area that they support.

The bus made three PowerPoint stops – Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, Career Solutions, and Great River Children’s Museum. At each we found purpose.

“A nation of laws” means little to those without access to the legal system. The purpose of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid is to defend the basic rights for low income and elderly citizens – housing, safety, income, and health. All these realms are fraught now, especially housing’s alarming prospect of evictions. Deputy Director Ann Cofell noted that Legal Aid has set up a virtual courtroom so lawyers and clients can meet and appear in court, and they now have a “Justice Delivered” van, fitted with technology, that makes it possible to bring resources directly to the community.

Politicians all claim to be concerned about “working families.” Putting work and families together is the mission of Career Solutions, as explained by executive director Tammy Biery. Training workers, connecting them with businesses, and linking everything to local, state, and federal resources is a purpose valuable at any time, but especially now when the pandemic has so discombobulated the economy in so many dimensions. Especially timely are the organization’s immigrant services, and the CareerONE summer youth program.

When listening to executive director Cassie Miles on the Great River Children’s Museum’s goal of expanding minds, horizons and curiosity, I thought of the Facebook meme where a young Black girl and a young white girl, surprised to notice they are wearing similar dresses, exclaim, “Look, we’re twins!” Creating conditions for this to happen – for the children to teach their parents – is a purpose worthy of the country and the area we love.

The second virtual occasion was the annual meeting of the Local Education & Activities Foundation (LEAF). While executive director Bruce Hentges’s report of $191,000 in grants to District 742 in 2020 was exciting, the moment that will stay with me is the instructional excellence award to the district’s cooks and nutritional services. They had to figure out, without missing a beat, how to provide meals for kids in hybrid and distance learning. At some points they were dispatching 96 buses a day delivering food. The cooks – superheroes to the kids – we now recognize as very essential workers.

Lincoln wondered whether it was his birthday or George Washington’s. I hope that Feb. 22, 2021, will be remembered in words penned by poet e. e. cummings: “this is the birth / day of life and of love and wings.” It could be.