Sonia Sotomayor and “the day-to-day reality of affirmative action”

June 27, 2013

My Beloved WorldThe Supreme Court’s decision concerning the use of race in college and university admissions coincided with my reading of Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2013). Her admission to Princeton University in 1972 took place during a time when race negatively affected guidance given students by school counselors and positively influenced college and university admission officers.

Sotomayor grew up in a Puerto Rican community in the Bronx. Her extended family was poor, tightly inter-connected, Catholic, and marginally integrated into mainstream American culture.

Along with her younger brother, Sotomayor attended Blessed Sacrament elementary school and Cardinal Spellman high school. She describes herself as an energetic and determined student and participant in school activities. She thought things through and carefully calculated courses of action that would help her achieve her goals both in the classroom and in other school activities. Her relationship toward teachers combined deference and independence.

During her senior year, she was contacted by a student a year ahead of her who was in his first year at Princeton. His advice to her as she was beginning her own search for a college was “Try for the Ivy League…He explained that this was the finest college education available and that it would open every door” (p. 117).

The next day the guidance counselor at Spellman asked if she had thought about Fordham, and when Sotomayor answered no the counselor suggested several other Catholic colleges.

“I told her that I wasn’t really interested in parochial colleges; I wanted to apply to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford…She looked at me. ‘Okay.’ And that was the extent of her guidance.”

On her own, this high school senior developed her applications and sent them to the schools on her list. In November, a postcard from Princeton arrived in the mail with an X in a square indicating that admission was likely. Unsure of what this meant, she asked her guidance counselor about it.

“Behind the look of utter surprise that completely rearranged her features, the oracle pronounced: ‘Likely means just what it says. There’s a good chance that you’ll get in.’ I thought to myself, really?”

A couple of days later, the school nurse accosted her about the notice from Princeton, with this question: “Well, can you explain to me how you got a ‘likely’ and the two top-ranking girls in the school only got a ‘possible’?”

“I just looked at her. What did she mean by that? Not to mention that accusatory tone? My perplexed discomfort under her baleful gaze was clearly not enough; shame was the response she seemed to want from me” (p. 119).

The answer that came to her later was to cite her accomplishments on the school’s forensic team and her working part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer. “I may be ranked below them, but I’m still in the top ten, and I do more than the others.”

“But even that undelivered comeback was far from complete. Her question would hang over me not just that day but for the next several years, while I lived the day-to-day reality of affirmative action. At the time I was applying to college, I had little understanding of how the admissions process functioned generally, let alone how affirmative action might affect it in particular. Barely a decade had passed since affirmative action had been implemented in government contracting. It was still experimental in Ivy League college admissions, and few of the first minority students to benefit from it had even managed to graduate yet” (119).

It took time for admissions practices to change and for new modes to arise that were fair to all concerned. Some youth from the dominant society experienced reverse discrimination. For example, sixteen years after Sotomayor’s admission to Princeton, one of my neighbors told me, her son was a high school student attending an admissions coaching session in Seattle. “Unless you are Black, Asian, or Latino, the representative from Stanford told them, there’s no point in your applying to Stanford.”

My own children were applying to colleges at the same time as Sotomayor. As far as I know, they and their classmates from a predominately black public high school in Indianapolis were able to choose colleges on the basis of interest and ability. I am grateful that affirmative action opened the doors for some of these students whom the system would have excluded had it not been for affirmative action.

Many things have changed in American life during the past forty years. Every level of the nation’s educational system has been affected. As in the past, race and family culture continue to be major factors in how students are treated and how they think of themselves. We always have to keep these factors in front of us.

The challenges to education, however, are increasing in their scope and intractability. New levels of scrutiny, and new policies and laws, are now needed if the benefits of education are to be available to all students who prepare themselves and work hard at the tasks of learning.

Why should anyone read a book on old-style church union?

June 18, 2013

COCU Second DraftI’ve spent four years writing a book on the last and most important church union movement of the 20th century, but knowledgeable people report that readers won’t be much interested.

A friend, who is an expert in the unity movement, recommended the manuscript to his publisher but was told that their readers aren’t buying books on “old-style Christian unity.”

Even the Christian Century, which for generations was the nation’s primary advocate of ecumenism, rarely uses the word “ecumenical” in its columns. One occasion when the word was allowed was the interview with historian David Hollinger (published on July 2, 2012) who reported that “ecumenical Protestant churches“ is the title he prefers for the classic Protestant denominations.

This declining interest in church unity movements was confirmed a few months ago when I announced a workshop on my book for the program of a theological conference I would be attending. Five of my friends showed up.

The next step in finishing the book is to draft a description of the story it tells and in the process to indicate why this book should be read by people who care about the Christian witness in an inter-faith world broken open by the principalities and powers.

The next few paragraphs are my first effort to write the statement. Comments, question, and suggestions will be much appreciated.

The American Church That Might Have Been: A History of the Consultation on Church Union

For most of the twentieth century, a small group of Protestant churches stood at the center of American life. Four of these denominations—Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist— were especially important as pillars of the national culture and guardians of all that was considered true and right. Members of these churches held positions of power in the institutions of government, business corporations, and academic institutions.

Although the American constitution maintained a de jure separation between church and state, these classic churches constituted a de facto establishment of religion.

In December 1960, Presbyterian Eugene Carson Blake, one of the nation’s best-known religious leaders, proposed that these four American churches form a plan of church union that would be both catholic and reformed. The idea was widely and enthusiastically reported by major news media. During the next few months the churches that Blake had named formed an organization, the Consultation on Church Union, to develop this plan. They added a third descriptive adjective, evangelical, and received two additional churches to their number.

The primary motive for reshaping church life in America was the conviction of its leaders that only a united church could minister effectively to a nation that was divided by race and class. They were convinced that this new church would enable the churches to minister more effectively to a divided world.

At its high point, the Consultation consisted of nine denominations, including three historic African American churches. With 25,000,000 members, the Church of Christ Uniting would have been spread throughout the nation more completely than any other Protestant church. It would have overcome 400 years of separation between major branches of the Protestant Reformation and provided experiences of local communion and common witness that previously had not existed.

It would have overcome the increasingly dysfunctional aspects of the denominational system that even yet hampers the effectiveness of these churches. It would have transformed long-standing patterns of prejudice, privilege, and power that still distort American life.

Although the Consultation on Church Union ended in January 2002, without accomplishing its major goals, its history needs to be preserved. The contributions to American life of this last (by which I mean the most recent) comprehensive plan of union in the United States need to be remembered and honored. Despite its failure, the reverberations of the work done by the churches over this extended period of time continue to be felt. Many of the issues on which the Consultation worked so diligently remain with the churches, and their future activity can benefit from an understanding of what went on before.

Last has a second and more important meaning. If one conclusion can be drawn from COCU’s history it is that the century-long pursuit of multilateral church mergers can no longer be regarded as an important way to manifest Christian unity in the United State. It is hard to imagine any combination of theological and social factors, save the virtual collapse of existing ecclesial systems, that could inspire a new effort to achieve a comprehensive American plan of church union in the decades immediately before us.

For this reason, it is especially important for church people–laity, clergy, workers for justice and mercy, professors–to reflect upon the history of the Consultation on Church Union, America’s last and greatest example of old-style Christian unity.  


Portland, a place where bicycles go high art

June 14, 2013
Portland Art Museum Magazine

Portland Art Museum Magazine

Portland, Oregon, is one American city where popular culture and bicycling are intertwined. In the summer of 2013, however, the cultural style of the city’s fixation on bicycles is going high art.

Leading the transformation is the Portland Art Museum, which (as in other cities around the world) is the place where high art is displayed and the cultural aspirations of its leading citizens are expressed. On June 8, the same day as the city’s annual Grand Floral Parade, the museum opened a new exhibit entitled “Cyclopedia: Iconic Bicycle Design.”

It is the third entry in the museum’s design-oriented exhibition series (last year’s exhibit was “The Allure of the Automobile”) and will continue for three months, closing on September 8.

The exhibit features 40 bicycles chosen by Vienna-based designed, Michael Embacher, from his collection of some 200 distinctive bicycles. Embacher opened the exhibition by giving a public lecture to some 300 people in the museum’s Whitsell Auditorium.

In softly accented tones, he acknowledged his love of cycling for pleasure and personal transportation. He then explained his professional interest in bicycle design. Bicycles are simple machines, little more than a frame with two wheels in tandem and a mechanism that enables cyclists to convert their bodily power into forward motion.

Despite their simplicity, bicycles have inspired designers for more than a century. The result is a continuing stream of amazing machines, some of them pioneering new designs and techniques that have contributed to the design of bicycles in the current main stream.

A decade ago, Embacher began to collect distinctive examples of bicycle design, some because of their beauty and others because of innovative design features. Although all of the bicycles in his collection can be ridden, some of these machines have only limited practical value.

The Mercian ‘Custom’ “can only travel along mainly straight lines as, due to the short wheel base, the front tyre collides with the pedals when cornering.” The Wilhelmina Plast Itera, designed in 1984, is described as “the most bizarre bicycle ever constructed…[A]lmost all of the components were made from plastic—resulting in a bicycle that warped in hot summer weather and compromised braking.”

The exhibition in Portland, which Embacher himself designed, features a gracefully curved metal track mounted on the ceiling of the exhibition hall. The bicycles are suspended from this track and move gently in the room’s air currents. People at the exhibition can view these bicycles from all sides and examine their components as closely as they see fit.

Immediately following Embacher’s lecture, the room was crowded with patrons. I’ll return for more leisurely viewing and photo shots of the bicycles that interest me the most.

The museum and sponsors of the Embacher collection have planned an entire summer of events that will “celebrate all things bicycle.” The lectures and talks are especially interesting to me. These topics are on the schedule: CycloFemme: Women on Bicycles, Past, Present, Future; Bikenomics and Urban Policy: A Local and National Perspective; and Made in Portland: Design for 21st Century Urban Cycling.”

“Summer Joyrides” will be “leisurely bike field trips” exploring sites related to three themes: Art for the Millions: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA in Portland; Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet; and America’s Bicycle Capital: A Tour of Portland’s Many Bike Cultures.”

Other events on the schedule include “a family cargo bike race and obstacle course,” free admission on fourth Fridays, with opportunities to buy “snacks from some of Portland’s finest pedal-powered food carts,” and weekly exhibitions at the museum of “extraordinary bikes from our community.”

There will be a progressive pedal party featuring bicycles, beer, and ice cream, a week-long “bicycle big top and rat trap circus,” and a public viewing of Jacques Tati’s film “Jour de Fête” atop the parking structure of the Hotel deluxe, one of the sponsors of the exhibition. I hope to describe some of these events as the summer unfolds.

I plan to focus other blogs this season on selected events from the regular summer calendar, such as the Providence Bridge Pedal, and on elements in Portland’s bicycle-related artisan industry. Both the city and bicycle advocacy groups are projecting plans to redesign city streets and bicycle-specific features. Here, my opinions are strong, many of them contrarian, and I intend to discuss what makes for safe and useful cycling in urban areas.

Disparate as these essays will be, they are bound together by a broader theme: “The Impact of Bicycles on Culture and Lifestyle.” This summer’s activities in Portland confirm an idea that Embacher displayed on a screen that formed the curtain wall of Whitsell Auditorium during his presentation, an idea with which I agree:

“A developed country is not necessarily a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich ride bicycles.”

What does the church pray when storms are raging?

June 3, 2013

On a Sunday when the Oklahoma tornadoes had been dominating the daily news, I was asked to offer the morning prayer at my church. Traditionally, this prayer includes the church’s intercessions for the well being of the world and requests for God’s abiding presence in all that takes place in life.

Since my church stands in the tradition of extemporaneous prayer, it was my responsibility to decide what we as a body of faithful but uncertain people would want to say to God. At such a time, I remember the comment of one of my neighbors, a retired Episcopal priest, who told me that his church “worships its theology—it converts what it believes into the language of prayer, which it then offers to God.”

This was where I would have to start my preparation: by asking what is God’s role in the storms, droughts, and wild fires spread across so much of our country. Two themes in Scripture came to mind: the world as a beautiful garden in which God and people talk as friends in the cool of the day, and the world in which God is most fully present in violent storms that tear the world apart.

I live my life as a person of faith and as a person who honors scientific explanations of natural processes. Neither my religious nor my scientific persuasion allows me to assert that God has chosen to destroy Oklahoma and burn down California.

So what should I pray? Here’s what I said.

Eternal God, our faith is built on the confession that you are creator of heaven and earth. We live in the confidence that you intend to give us everything we need to enjoy life. On beautiful spring days when the weather is tranquil and markets are filled with newly harvested fruit and vegetables, it is easy to see your intentions for the world coming to their fulfillment.

Yet, the news is filled with reports of natural powers gone awry: in some places, violent storms of wind and rain, and in others drought and wild fires raging out of control. Fascinated by their power, we are terrified by what these natural forces can do.

God, because we know that your will for us is good, we cannot believe that you cause these things to happen. Today we stand with the prophet Elijah long ago, who endured earthquake, wind, and fire and then heard you speak in a still small voice.

Speak to us, we pray. Speak words that we can hear with the inner ear, words that help us live beyond our fears and into lives of solidarity with one another, courage, and confidence that you are with us no matter what happens.

Today we pray for people who are experiencing the momentous times of life:

  • Entering into marriage,
  • Giving birth to babies,
  • Completing school terms and doing the work that sustains life,
  • Responding to the crises of natural disaster, economic distress, and war,
  • Facing illness,
  • Passing from this life to the next.

By your Holy Spirit, be present with us in all of these moments. Fill us with joy; calm our fears; forgive us our sins; and renew our faith that through Jesus Christ nothing can separate us from your love. For it is through the same Jesus Christ that we pray. Amen.