MLK: Running the Risk

See this post in Bristol Herald Courier (Sunday, January 14, 2017).  

On Monday, banks will be closed. The mail will not run. A lot of students will get the day off, although some school systems (like BTCS) will use the day for a teacher in-service.

It’s MLK Day.

The cities of Bristol, Tennessee, and Bristol, Virginia, will hold a community-wide march and celebration in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

For many, MLK Day has become a very welcomed, much needed three-day respite; besides, who doesn’t need a few days off at the start of the New Year?

For me, though, the third Monday of January took on a new meaning when we lived in Birmingham, Alabama. It was there that I began to learn more about what King and others had to endure and what they had to do, sometimes simply to get the attention of good but silent people.

You know the type? They are the sort of folks who are good at heart. They know when something is wrong. They know when things need to change, but they very often fail to take any sort of risk in order to bring about change.

I learned about all that as I got to know people who lived in Birmingham in the early 1960s – at the time when Bull Connor was commissioner of public safety and King and others were planning peaceful marches in the city to protest injustices.

Most of the folks I talked to were good people, church people even. I asked them what it was like living in Birmingham in the ‘60s. They all said the nearly the same thing: “Oh, I didn’t have anything to do with all that; I stayed away.” They were good people who remained silent rather than risk anything to help bring change when it was needed.

Of course, that wasn’t the case for King, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and a host of the others. In 1963 these folks gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church and put together a plan. It was a risky plan, but it was a plan they knew would reveal the depths of racial injustice that was rampant.

They also knew that it would rattle the good people of this country out of their silence – to the point that change could happen. It has become known as one of the most-important events in civil rights history. It is called the Birmingham Children’s Crusade simply because it involved children – some as young as 6.

It may seem strange to have allowed children to participate, especially given the way people had been treated in other marches, sit-ins, and kneel-ins.

But King and the other leaders knew the risk; they were not naïve. They knew they had to risk everything in order to bring about justice, and they knew young people needed to participate. They were counting on Connor and others to do as they always did. They were hoping that the presence of children would stir the good-but-silent to speak up.

King told parents not to worry about their children because, for one thing, they were about God’s work. He said, “These young people are about their father’s business. And they are carving a tunnel of hope through the great mountains of despair.”

So, the first week of May 1963, students and children walked peacefully in various parts of Birmingham. And, as expected, they were struck, cursed, washed down the street by water cannons, and arrested.

The violence was caught on film. There is an iconic photograph that marks the day, one of a young man being bitten by a dog. That image reached the soul of President John F. Kennedy and to some degree the heart of the nation.

Alot of kids, adults, and even King were arrested that day, but the risk they took helped to shift the momentum for civil rights. King spent three days in solitary confinement for his part in the Children’s Crusade.

It was from there that he wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It was a letter addressed to white clergy, whom he reminded that he was in Birmingham because injustice was there. In essence, he was reminding them that good people who are silent aren’t much help. No, good people need to be the sort who take risks that help bring the sort of changes our country needs.

If I learned anything at all while living in Birmingham, I at least learned why it is that we really ought to appreciate MLK Day.

Best Laid Plans Can Go Awry

BHC logo2The following article is published in the Bristol Herald Courier – 

It is New Year’s Eve and the words of the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns will be on the lips of millions at the stroke of midnight. I suppose, though, most people will not connect Burns to “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?” And even though most people do not realize that “auld lang syne” roughly means “for old times sake,” they nevertheless get the point of the song: It is important to remember the relationships as well as the events of the past, for within both are things for which to give thanks as well as lessons to be learned.

As it turns out, however, Robert Burns was famous for another poem, too. Chances are you are as familiar with it as you are with “Auld Lang Syne.” But his poem “To a Mouse” deals a bit more with the future rather than the past, and as much as we can appreciate the past, we can’t live there. We have to move into an uncertain future.

After observing the way a field mouse’s habitat was destroyed by a farmer during the normal process of harvest, Burns wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men go often awry.” That one little line packs a punch, doesn’t it? And it is timely, considering that so many of us will start with plans for the New Year.

Lots of people, maybe even right now, are busy putting a plan or resolutions for 2018 together. Plans are good. After all, we can’t expect to hit a target if we don’t aim for something. A lot of people plan to lose some weight and get healthy. For some, financial health is on the agenda for 2018. Others hope to change careers, find a job, go back to school, try something new, or put more away for retirement.

But the thing about making plans for the future is that, well, the future – like the poet intimates – is a bit willey. Even as we make plans, we don’t often take into account the ways our “best laid plans” just might be forced to “go awry.”

For instance, there are some people who, a little more than a year ago, were confident that we would have a different person sitting in the White House. No matter where you line up politically, you can’t deny that this year has not been a tame one when it comes to Washington. It is tough to say with any real certainty what 2018 will bring for us, especially as the political dividing lines seems to grow sharper. We’d like to say that the way those folks in D.C. behave doesn’t impact us here, but try making a plan without taking them into consideration.

It may seem like a stretch; in fact, it may not feel like the actions they take have any bearing on the way we actually live. But the truth is, what happens in Washington doesn’t stay in Washington, it affects our plans in major ways.

For instance, one of President Donald Trump’s major achievements thus far is a tax overhaul. There is a lot swirling on about how this new tax plan will affect us financially. Will it allow for businesses to grow and develop in our region? Will you and I be able to keep more money in our pockets this year or save more for retirement? Will more manufacturing be able to move into the Mountain Empire because of the change in taxes? We will have to wait to see.

Earlier this year, Trump finally declared that the opioid crisis is a public health emergency. But will there be any real money and help when it comes to dealing with it? And what about all the political jumbling over sexual-misconduct allegations? How will those things affect coming votes and seats in the U.S. House and Senate? Will 2018 reveal more allegations?

I realize most people keep their New Year’s plans simple. They often don’t consider the way things can impede their goals. But Robert Burns was on to something: Even the best-laid plans are vulnerable.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan, it just means we may need to tweak our plans. So tonight as you sing Burns’ familiar refrain, bear in mind the plans we make for tomorrow can go awry, but how far they do is up to us.

 This article was first published on December 31st, 2017, by the Bristol Herald Courier. 

via Best-laid plans can go awry | Opinion |

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Keeping The Spirit of Christmas

BHC logo2via Keeping the spirit of Christmas | Opinion |

We started playing Christmas songs at my house the day after Thanksgiving. It is part of a ritual that we began years ago.

That’s also the day we try to put up all our Christmas decorations; even then an assortment of songs provides a festive soundtrack as we deck the halls. Those songs are allowed to play until midnight, Dec. 26. After that, Bing Crosby crooning away at “Silver Bells” is boxed up with our tree, ornaments, and the Snoopy nativity scene my sister gave us a few years ago.

Until Dec. 26, however, we are all into the music, the parades, the movies, the lights, the Sundays of Advent, and the message of hope that is the driving purpose behind the season.

You see, our family is really into Christmas because we are a Christian family. Whether or not Jesus was born on Dec. 25 or we get the right size sweater really isn’t the point for us. The fact that Jesus was born and that he went on to do as the Bible says he did is more to the point for us, and the reason our family celebrates this season with such gusto. But that isn’t true for everyone.

What has always been interesting to me is just how often people of other faiths or no faith at all still treat Christmas with a level of respect or at least make an attempt to. The truth is, Christmas has become so commercialized, so tied into shopping and gifts and a dude in a red suit, that it is often more secular than sacred, which candidly would seem to give non-Christmas celebrating folks ample reason to disdain the holiday.

And yet there are so many of them who not only respect the sacredness of Christmas but actually honor those who believe in more than the magic of Christmas.

In fact, not too long ago my wife ran into an acquaintance at the market who is of another faith, one which is often maligned, especially by those within our faith tradition. As they parted, this lady made a point of wishing my wife a Merry Christmas. It was a gift, of sorts, because, for one thing, she doesn’t believe as we do and, second, she really hopes that our family’s Christmas is great.

That may not seem like a big deal, but I think it happens far more often than a lot of people who celebrate Christmas realize. After all, those who celebrate Christmas are the overwhelming majority in this country and especially in this region.

And yet, people of other faiths or no faith live here as well, and generally, they continue to show a level of respect and genuine kindness to those of us who celebrate this season out of reverence. However, those same folks often do not receive the same respect and kindness in return.

I observed some of that over the past year mostly in comments from people I know who celebrate Christmas with gusto. And yet they often cast aspersions on people of other faiths throughout the year. Some have gone so far as to utter the name of other people’s religion as means of insulting them, adding a few choice expletives and adjectives in front of it.

Let me quickly add that I’m not advocating a sort of universalism that tries to lump all of humanity into some sort of family. Nor am I so naïve as to suggest that we all just ought to get along, as if our differences don’t create major world issues, including armed conflict.

What I am suggesting is that those who profess to go beyond the holly and the ivy because of their devotion to the sacredness of the season ought to extend grace and kindness toward others every chance they get.

In fact, those who celebrate this season out of reverence for the newborn King, ought, as Charles Dickens once wrote, keep the spirit of Christmas year-round. That means, of course, figuring out how best to imitate the one who was laid in a manger, especially when it comes to dealing with those who do not sing the same songs at Christmas that we do.

This article was first published on December 17, 2018, by the Bristol Herald Courier.

Move Too Fast and You’ll Miss It

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via Move too fast and you’ll miss it | Opinion |

As someone who has lived in a few larger, faster-paced cities over the last two decades, and as much as I love Bristol, I have enough experience to say, this is not a place where being in a hurry pays off. In fact, when we moved back to Bristol, a friend who has also lived in larger, faster-paced cities, too, told me one of the biggest adjustments I’d have to make is learning to slow down. I thought he was talking about driving; Lord knows going 35 mph on much of Volunteer Parkway is an exercise in restraint.

My friend, however, wasn’t simply talking about driving, and something happened to me not long ago that taught me what he meant about the value of slowing down.

Like most people this time of year, I have more to do than time to do it. Recently, I was in a hurry to get from one place to the next — which included a stop at the grocery store. Due to my poor time management skills, I needed to get in and out of the store quickly. My buggy-driving skills could be used to train NASCAR drivers: I deftly sped and zipped my way through other shoppers like they were sitting still — which they were, by the way. I drafted behind an employee pushing a cart toward the back and took a turn down the cereal aisle, skillfully avoiding a dreaded delay created by two weary moms who stopped to commiserate as their children ran circles around them.

I managed to grab everything else we needed in just under 25 minutes. But I knew the ultimate challenge was just around the final turn: the checkout. On my approach, I surveyed the lines and found the shortest one, certain that it was the fastest, but was I wrong.

I pulled in behind another shopper; when one of the moms from the cereal aisle checked out ahead of me, I realized that the line I had chosen wasn’t moving quickly at all. I started to get a little frustrated until I looked down the line to see who was bagging groceries.

A young man with special needs was meticulously placing items into a bag. At first, I started to get out of line; I was in a hurry, after all. But something about the young man and the way he was working and treating people made me stay. He was conscientious, placing each item carefully into the bag. A few times, he looked over at the customer and smiled. Fortunately, I was smart enough to stay in his line.

There was something profoundly beautiful and redemptive in the work that this young man did. While I recognize there might be some sort of incentive for a store offering work to people with special needs, it is no small symbolic thing.

As I watched this young man bag my groceries, my friend’s admonition about learning to slow down returned to my mind, and I realized how important it is, especially this time of year. There are a lot of good things happening around us and a lot of good people trying to work. It is easy to get caught up in the rush of things and miss out. We’ve all witnessed people getting bent out of shape at stores and even in holiday traffic.

It took this young man longer to bag my groceries, but I wasn’t late getting where I needed to be. Even if I had been, it was well worth the time it took just to see the joy on his face.

This time of year, the tendency to race around from store to store and place to place will certainly be tough to resist. But maybe our collective need to race through our community should shift a little — especially when we realize there really isn’t much need to rush around. Sometimes, in order to see the good things that are going on around us, we simply have to slow down.

This article was first published on November 26, 2017, by the Bristol Herald Courier. 


Mark Hutton is an award-winning writer, ordained minister and adjunct faculty member for the Philosophy and Religion Department at King University. He is a member of the Bristol Herald Courier’s Board of Contributors. Board members are regular Opinion page contributors, and opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of this newspaper staff and management.

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What churches should do to help victims of the opioid crisis

BHC logo2via What churches should do to help victims of the opioid crisis | Opinion |

A few weeks back, I got hung up in a traffic jam caused by a stalled car stopped at the crest of a hill, which made it impossible to safely pass. After a minute or so, I pulled my car over and ran up to help push them out of the way.

One of the stalled car’s passengers, a young man, got out and tried to help, too. Even the young woman driving the car opened her door and pushed along with her left foot as she steered onto the shoulder. Two little kids popped up in the back seat and watched as we strained to get their car out of the way. Once I started pushing the car, I realized who those people were.

I’m no expert, but I’ve worked closely enough with people to spot an addict when I see one, and I have little doubt that the couple I helped are victims of the opioid crisis that our region is facing. The image of the two kids in the backseat is haunting — especially given their chances of avoiding addiction and being that “lost generation” that Chad Napier, prevention and education coordinator of the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, talked about in a Bristol Herald Courier storyWednesday.

In a Tuesday article, though, Lottie Ryans of Workforce and Literacy Initiatives issued a call to action for churches. Ryans and others are planning the Holy Friendship Summit for May 2018, which intends to equip clinicians, clergy, educators and congregations with resources, such as a tool kit, and guidance to respond to, interact with and care for people struggling with pain and addiction.

Ryans is talking to the right crowd. After all, you can’t throw a rock around here without hitting a stained-glass window. Ryans is counting on the majority of people here to live out their confession by helping those who are suffering under the weight of addiction. But something needs to change before she can expect help from churches.

You see, church people are fantastic at dealing with crisis. Most denominations have crisis response teams, ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice, and church agencies respond faster than government agencies. Ask the people of New Orleans, and they will tell you who rebuilt their city. Ray Cannata, a pastor in New Orleans and a friend of mine, told me that his church worked closely with churches from all over the country and rebuilt over 500 homes after Katrina.

But this opioid crisis is different from a natural disaster. This crisis is in our backyard and, well, sometimes it is easier to send money or a crew of folks to New Orleans, Miami or Houston than it is to work on our home. Plus, this crisis is overwhelming; the number of pills prescribed in Tennessee alone is, according to Tuesday’s Herald Courier article, “enough to provide every person in the state an average of 17 prescriptions.”

Despite these challenges, churches in this community need to do what we are very good at doing: We need to step into this crisis. After all, stepping into the lives of broken people is something that Jesus did and calls his people to do, and the book of Isaiah is pretty clear about God’s love for justice.

But this crisis will require church folks to approach things a bit differently than perhaps they are used to. Stepping into broken lives is messy, and it is not a quick fix. Churches will have to move out of their comfort zones and engage people they’d likely forgotten. They may need to forego sending money out of the region in order to invest it here. They may need to couple Bible studies with training on how to help someone with addiction.

Frankly, those changes need to be made, but I am not naive when it comes to churches and change. They are often at odds with one another. But we have a real need in our community, and if churches don’t get involved, there is very little hope that future generations will not be impacted by this epidemic. Something must be done; if churches don’t answer this call, who will?

This article was first published on November 19, 2017, by the Bristol Herald Courier. 

All Aboard Amtrak Fever in Bristol

BHC logo2via All aboard Amtrak fever in Bristol | Opinion |

I’ve always been proud of the fact that my family is anchored in our own small way to Bristol’s locomotive history. I have an old photograph of my grandfather, a man I never met. In the picture, he is standing alongside a train engine, clad in overalls — no doubt Pointer Brand. He is grinning from ear to ear, covered by what appears to be a thin layer of coal dust. My grandfather worked as a fireman on a steam train that ran out of Bristol, shoveling heaps of coal into the furnace to keep the train moving.

Trains have been coming and going into Bristol since the 19th century. Early on, they brought people and, for a time, wounded soldiers fresh from Civil War battles.

Of course, it has been a long time since anyone caught the train from Bristol — but there is hope that it may soon happen again.

Over the last few years, a lot of people have been at work to entice Amtrak to include Bristol as one of its connecting points. In fact, a delegation of folks from Bristol made their way up to Roanoke last week to make sure Amtrak executives know we are very much on board with getting passenger service back here. I, for one, was glad to hear that.

However, I mentioned it to someone and I got an answer that, well, frankly highlights an attitude in our community that needs to take the first train out. When I mentioned the possibility of Amtrak in Bristol, she laughed and said, “Nothing like that is ever going to happen here. Why would they pick Bristol?” Ugh.

I can think of a lot of reasons why Amtrak ought to make this a hub. For one thing, our station is ready to go, and we are perfectly situated to connect the eastern corridor with the rest of the south. I know a few people who are ready to use Amtrak out of Bristol to commute to their offices in D.C. and New York.

But, our community isn’t a jumping-off point; we are becoming more of a destination, too. We’ve got two new hotels coming on, an amazing museum, great restaurants, pubs, a top-notch bakery and Rhythm and Roots. Plus, the natural beauty here is a huge draw, especially when combined with riding on a train. In other words, a lot of people will take the train out of the hustle of, for example, D.C. to enjoy long weekends in our region.

And the majority of people here will welcome it with open arms, even the handful of naysayers. Some folks have been through a lot over the years, and sometimes it is easier to think nothing good will ever happen here than it is to risk getting their hopes up. Every so often, though, we have to be reminded that hope can make great things happen.

This is an interesting and crucial time in Bristol’s history — not because we are looking back but because we are looking forward and putting the pieces together for what can be a pretty amazing future. And somehow, it is right that trains have the possibility of factoring into that story of our community.

If enough people want to make passenger trains in Bristol a reality, we can make it happen. I do not think that Amtrak officials are likely to ignore a community that offers as much as we do as well as the potential for future growth. Every chance we get, we ought to make them aware of what they are missing here in Bristol.

Who knows? Maybe one day, one of your grandkids will look at a photograph of you boarding an Amtrak train at the Bristol Train Station.

Mark Hutton is an award-winning writer, ordained minister and adjunct faculty member for the Philosophy and Religion Department at King University. He is a member of the Bristol Herald Courier’s Board of Contributors. Board members are regular Opinion page contributors, and opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of this newspaper staff and management.

Mischief on All Hallow’s Eve

Source: Mischief on All Hallow’s Eve | Opinion |

It was close to 10 p.m. when there came a gentle knocking, almost a tapping on our front door. At first, I thought it was the wind, but then they rang the bell, and I knew it was much more. Nothing good can come from a knock on the door so late in the evening. I half expected something wicked to come our way when I opened up the door, but all that was there was a Halloween bag — just that and nothing more. The bag itself was filled with treats, candy and a note that read, “You’ve been booed! Now you go and boo someone, too.”

Getting booed is fairly new to the lineup of Halloween mischief-making traditions. I’m not sure where it started, but I think it is awesome. After all, Halloween needs a bit of harmless fun to be, well, Halloween. But I must emphasize the word “little,” which in this case means “not scary.”

For years, Halloween brought out the joker in me, which is why the idea of booing a neighbor seems like fun. Back in the day, I was known to have fun at another’s expense. In fact, I probably owe a few people an apology for the gross (yes, gross) of eggs that were lobbed from a certain golf course toward a certain house every Halloween.

I also knew a few places around Bristol that offered opportunities to scare the unsuspecting and all-too-trusting. There was a long-abandoned house not far from Exit 7 that once provided the perfect setting to scare the beegeebers out of folks — lured there by an accomplice who will go unnamed. There was also a secluded campsite on the lake that allowed for the sort of surprise no one wants when they are camping. All of that was a lot of fun — well, for me.

But there was one Halloween when a dark and curvy stretch of road and a plan to scare my wife backfired in a way that made me appreciate harmless, less scary mischief.

If you are a long-time resident of Bristol, you may remember the gloomy train trestle that once stood in the bend of Benham Road. Even in the daylight, the trestle was unnerving. It was constructed of massive, creosote-laden posts that seemed medieval. The trestle spanned the road at the bottom of a curving slope. It appeared in an instant. If the sight of it wasn’t enough to chill you, then the stories about it would.

The best one I heard involved a soldier who was hung there during the Civil War. Some said that, at night, if you parked underneath it, you could hear his body swaying on the rope. Creepy, right? Just the perfect setup to scare a date — or so I thought.

One Halloween night, I drove my wife out to the trestle. Along the way, I told her those stories, and I made up a few more. I pulled up underneath the trestle, cut the engine and suggested we get out to find if we could hear the soldier swing. She, wisely, wanted no part in my foolish plan. Undeterred, I clamored out of the car and went to sit on the hood, hoping she’d join me.

All of a sudden, from out of nowhere, a white, feral cat jumped on the hood of my car. It is difficult to remain calm in a moment like that. The only reason I did not scream was because I lost the ability to speak. And while my heart was exploding and my knees buckling, I noticed that my wife was in hysterics, laughing. She had seen the cat as soon as we pulled up and thought I had, too.

After that night, I started to reflect upon the error of my ways. While I realize the great value of a little mischief on Halloween, I also recognize the goodness of simply booing someone rather than trying to scare the life out of them. After all, the night the cat jumped on the car, the only person laughing was my wife. But the night that we got booed, well, we all got candy bars and really liked whoever it was that gently rapped on our front door — it was all in fun and nothing more. May your Halloween be filled with treats and not tricks.

Mark Hutton is an award-winning writer, ordained minister and adjunct faculty member for the Philosophy and Religion Department at King University. He is a member of the Bristol Herald Courier’s Board of Contributors. Board members are regular Opinion page contributors, and opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of this newspaper staff and management.

Family – Faith – Hope
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