Ghost Bike on the Moon Trail

December 27, 2016

ghost-bikeThe day after Christmas in Indianapolis: 64 degrees, lowering clouds, promise of rain and falling temp, an almost perfect morning for a fast ride to wake up a sleepy set of muscles.

It was a good day to stay on familiar routes where it would be easy to turn around and sprint for home if a thunder storm brought in the rain: north on Illinois Street past the Wild Things public art, Riverview Drive to Broad Ripple Village, and north on a fine stretch of the Monon Trail. Pushed along by the wind, I rode easily and quickly. Not many cyclists were out, but walkers and runners had seized the moment, and I felt a vibrancy of happy people enjoying a surprisingly happy day.

On previous rides along the Monon, I had seen the Ghost Bike at the 75th Street crossing, but had never stopped. Today was different. Maybe the bold, white paint on a glowering day caught my attention. Many Ghost Bikes are recreational frames with straight handle bars, but this one has aggressive lines and serious drop bars. A plastic encased story hangs from the top tube. The first paragraph outlines the plot.

“I was hit at this intersection while riding my bike by a car that ran a red light on June 14, 2012. I’m alive today because I was wearing a helmet. There is another Ghost Bike at the south end of the Monon of a friend who wasn’t wearing a helmet and died when he hit a tree.”

The surviving cyclist collided with the windshield of the car and is confident that he would have died had he not been wearing his helmet. He found himself on the pavement with one leg “split open from knee to ankle.” Other people on the trail came to his rescue, applied a tourniquet, and phoned 911. He was hospitalized fourteen days and has had numerous operations and skin grafts.

He now has a “drop foot” and will always walk with a brace. He kept on cycling and reports that he has done two Hilly Hundreds. As all of us who have ridden the Hilly know, the hundred-mile, figure-eight weekend ride through the southern Indiana hills, calls for experienced riders in good shape.

“I still get nervous,” he writes, “when I approach this intersection and stop, push the button on the crosswalk and wait for the WALK sign even when there aren’t cars around.”

It’s an intersection that invites trouble. At this point, Westfield Boulevard, once a country road taking people out of town and long since a residential arterial, is close to the railroad right of way that became the Monon Trail. Because northbound Westfield angles toward the east just beyond this crossing, sight lines are obscured. The intersection is controlled with traffic lights, but even so drivers push. I know because when my children were growing up, we would take 75th to Westfield on our way to the swimming pool at the Jordon YMCA.

While I was reading the story, a married couple in their 50s, who were walking on the trail, stopped to talk. “The cyclist always loses,” he remarked, and I agreed that this is usually the case.

“We ride bikes a lot,” she continued, “but only while taking our spinning classes in a training center. “

“I’m so apprehensive,” he added, “that I always wear a helmet even on exercise bikes.”

I could have countered that most people continue to drive their automobiles despite the daily recitation on TV news of motor vehicle smash-ups, life-threatening injuries, and deaths. It wouldn’t make any difference to this couple. They are too scared to ride outside.

The irony of this story is that at this intersection cyclists are probably safer on Westfield Boulevard than on the bike trail. At the real intersection, drivers are at risk of colliding with other motor vehicles and they are less likely to let their attention wander or take a quick glance and run the light (whether yellow or red).

This part of the Monon is especially nice and I, along with other cyclists, will continue to use it, but the Ghost Bike at 75th will help me pay close attention to what I’m doing.

I continued my ride to 96th Street and then turned back into the wind toward home. With the change of direction, my energies quickly dwindled. When starting, I had felt strong enough to try for my end-of-the-year 50-mile ride. But as it turned out, 24.75 miles were as many as I wanted to do on this quiet day after Christmas.



Religion and race in America

December 20, 2016

Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions, by Jason E. Shelton and Michael O. Emerson (New York University Press, 2012).

shelton-emersonThe oft-repeated statement that 11:00 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America can be understood in at least three ways: people, both black and white, like to go to church with people like themselves; white racism has forced black Christians to establish their own churches; and other theological and historical factors continue to shape belief and practice of African American Christians.

Blacks and Whites in Christian America gives support for all three explanation. As a white Christian, I’m interested in this study because I need to understand and overcome my own prejudice and privilege and change my ways of life.

Another reason for my interest is my work through the years on behalf of Christian unity. During a forty-year period ending in 2002, the major unity effort in the United States was the Consultation on Church Union. Three predominantly African-American churches were full participants alongside six predominantly white denominations.

The Consultation defined racism as a theological problem and made serious efforts to overcome the denominational separations that kept the participating churches distinct. When the Consultation concluded its work, these denominations continued as separate bodies, perhaps closer to one another than they had been, but with none of the causes of division, including race, significantly overcome.

Shelton and Emerson are sociologists rather than historians or theologians and therefore used empirical studies of religious practices and ideas, giving major attention to black and white church goers. They interviewed selected groups of church goers and studied published treatments of their topic, featuring James H. Cone (both his writings and interviews).

Early in the book the authors narrow the focus of attention: “… for our most specific comparisons, we restrict our analyses to black Protestants and white evangelicals—whose common heritages derive from the Great Awakening of previous centuries of American life” (p. 12). Throughout the book, however, they appear to use white protestant and white evangelical interchangeably, which can lead to confusion about their analyses.

A major feature of this book is the identification of five “building blocks of black Protestant faith.” These they identify as (1) Experiential building block, (2) Survival building block, (3) Mystery building block, (4) Miraculous building block, and (5) Justice building block (pp. 8–9).

Four features of their exposition stand out for me: First, the role of black churches as places where American blacks experience themselves and relate to one another in their full humanity despite slavery and segregation; second, the continuation of characteristics from African religion, in a way analogous to how Native American religion was embraced in Spanish Catholicism in the Southwest and Mexico; third, struggles to understand and obey the Bible as literal truth despite what seem to be contrasting understandings derived from science and history; and fourth, substantial agreement of black Protestants and white Evangelicals on the central beliefs of the Christian faith as articulated in the Apostles’ Creed.

I have to believe that the authors are correct in their assertions that systems of white privilege and prejudice are still in place, thus continuing to disadvantage black people. Shelton and Emerson help us understand a second difference that exists between most black Americans and most white Americans (but especially among white Evangelicals), which is that black Christians support the necessity of structural changes, including legislation, that have to continue so that American society will tear down the systems and structures that continue to impede black people in American life, whereas white evangelicals are strongly opposed to these measures.

One more conclusion, which the authors state tentatively, is that blacks and whites may be “drifting toward a consensus … about the causes of racial equality.” There is a growing tendency among black and white Americans to “attribute racial inequality to motivational individualism” rather than to the inheritance of segregation (p. 206).

Rightly, Shelton and Emerson remind us of Dr. King’s admonition that since structures of evil do not crumble on their own we must continue the hard work of breaking them down and building a new unity. Although the authors don’t say so, it should be clear that the burden of responsibility rests upon white Americans.

The findings and insights reported in this book are going to help me as I continue my efforts to further the unity of black and white Christians. The line of argument sometimes seemed to waver, but persistent readers will be able to find their way as the exposition unfolds. Shelton teaches at the University of Texas at Arlington and Emerson at Rice University.




Politics and race in a Mid-Western city

December 14, 2016

Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920–1970, by Richard B. Pierce (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005).

pierceMy first direct encounter with structural racism in America occurred in 1961 when I began my thirty-three-year career at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. In earlier years I had lived in the Pacific Northwest and the San Joaquin Valley of California where there was only a small presence of African Americans.

Indianapolis, however, was a different kind of place. One of the first northern cities to develop a significant percentage of black residents, Indianapolis had a mixed record of interaction between the dominant white society and the black population.

My family and I came to the city at a time when the struggle between these two cultural groups was reaching a major climax. We were involved primarily at two points: our decision to buy a house and live in the recently integrated Butler-Tarkington neighborhood, and the determination to have our children attend the assigned public schools, which included Shortridge High School where black students were an approximate two-thirds majority.

Hoping that the city was moving past its racist history, my wife and I participated in organizations and activities that fostered better patterns of interracial relations in the city. With many others, we were ambivalent about Unigov, the 1970 amalgamation of city and county governments that gave increased political and economic power to white, suburban, and conservative Republican voters and effectively constricted efforts of black people who were moving toward equality.

Not until my recent return to Indianapolis after a twenty-one-year, post-retirement sojourn in western America, have I come to understand my earlier years in the city. My teacher has been Richard B. Pierce, Ph.D., who teaches at the University of Notre Dame and specializes in African American, urban, and civil rights areas of study.

His 2005 book, Polite Protest, is a thoroughly researched, sharply focused, lucid, and persuasive analysis of actions by the African American community during an important half century. Black people sought to balance two purposes: preserve the standing and levels of participation that they already enjoyed, which were generally superior to those that blacks experienced in other northern cities; and press for more complete participation in Indianapolis life.

Pierce labels the result “polite protest.” Instead of using aggressive methods, including demands and demonstrations, African American leaders sought to form coalitions with groups, including many white leaders, that would try to negotiate improved relations between the dominant while society and the tightly controlled black citizenry.

Pierce describes this half century (1920–1970) by examining segregation in schools, housing, and employment. He calls attention to the Klan’s ascendancy in Indianapolis during the 1920s and describes the creation of a segregated school system at that time. He explains the processes used to restrict housing opportunities, including the establishing of coalitions, such as the Capitol Avenue Protective Association, that at one time tried to keep the street on which our family later lived free from black incursions.

Inherited racially shaped structures of segregation were part of the ongoing problem. More important, however, were the explicit and on-going racist attitudes and practices with which the white citizenry resisted the polite protests of their black neighbors and co-workers.

The climax was Unigov, a political unification of city and county governments, that built a political fence around the old city that has now endured for nearly half a century.

Although polite is Pierce’s word to describe the tactical approach of black activities in former years, it may also be used to characterize the actions of white people in later years. Instead of aggressive segregation to control the black population, white people especially in the suburban margins could do it with quiet, political containment.

This book helps me understand the cultural world that I lived in for so many years. I am better able to see the structural racism that has shaped everyone’s life and provided continuing privilege to white people. It was easier for me to escape the burdens of serious poverty during my childhood years because I was white than it would have been if I were black. It has been more difficult for me to acknowledge the racism that is part of my inner life. Reading Pierce’s book is helping me do that, too.

America continues to change, as Jason E. Shelton and Michael O. Emerson acknowledge in their 2012 book Blacks and Whites in Christian America. Americans of both races may gradually be moving toward a new consensus in which “majorities of both black and white Americans will attribute racial inequality to motivational individualism” rather than to the historical residue of personal and structural racism (p. 206). Polite protest may work better in the future than it has in the past, but there still is hard work to do.

Ancient rock art and modern spirituality

December 9, 2016

Hidden Thunder: Rock Art of the Upper Midwest, by Geri Schrab and Robert F. Boszhardt (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2016)

hidden-thunderAmerican religion began long before the Spanish missions in Florida and the Southwest or the Pilgrims and Puritans of New England. As archaeologist Robert F. Boszhardt shows, it can be traced back some 14,000 years in the rock art that can still be seen in the Upper Midwest. Yet, as water color artist Geri Schrab affirms, the Spirit that inspired the ancient ones still “flows through all life’s invisible veins” (90).

The primary focus of the book that scientist and artist have created is the Wisconsin Dells, an unglaciated region in the southeast part of the state and close to glacial Lake Wisconsin. Although the existence of Native American rock art had been known much earlier, serious attention was not given to it  until the early 1980s.

During the relatively short period since then, explorers, scientists, artists, and native peoples have identified nearly 200 sites in the Upper Midwest where ancient rock art exists. Much work has been done to inventory, interpret, portray, and protect this art. Because it is subject to vandalism, the locations of most sites are not reported to the public.

Hidden Thunder is unique in the way it portrays and interprets this art. The coauthors have chosen twelve sites and each writer contributes an essay describing their experiences with these locations and their ancient treasures. Interspersed throughout the volume are viewpoints contributed by members of the nations whose ancestors created the art.

As archaeologist, Boszhardt describes what scientists are learning about these locations, the art, and the peoples who created these paintings and carvings. He also describes how people today are desecrating some of these sites. His photographs appear throughout the book.

In her essays artist Schrab describes the emotional and spiritual dimensions of her experience with these ancient images and the caves and rock walls where they can be viewed. She gives attention to interpretations by social scientists and native peoples, but more important is the time she spends at each site.

As she senses the ambiance of each place, Schrab becomes aware of the spirit that she encounters there. Only then can she withdraw to her studio and create her own artistically enhanced portrayals of this art. Many of her images appear in the book.

Some people today describe themselves as being spiritual but not religious. When asked to say more, however, some of these same people often give only vague comments about experiencing god in nature.

Artist Schrab, however, confesses a deeper sense of communion with Spirit. In her essay on Roche-A-Cri State Park in Adams County, Wisconsin, she describes Spirit as “that tantalizing, sparkly, sticky, divine substance we can’t pin down but that flows through all life’s invisible veins” (90).

Describing her experiences in Tainter Cave in Crawford County, Wisconsin, she reports that here she has “a rare opportunity to immerse myself, sync my heartbeat to that of Mother Earth, and glean information that I hoped would translate to watercolor on paper back at my studio” (171).

Later in this essay she continues: “Entering Tainter Cave, facing my fears and working through them, seems analogous to my entire journey through rock art. I leave the comfort of my middle-class life to venture into the unfamiliar, risking missteps along the way, hoping to bring back spiritual riches” (175).

A few weeks ago, I was reading personal correspondence in which John Muir describes his experiences in nature, in Wisconsin and in Yosemite Valley. Although he says nothing about rock art, he expresses sentiments similar to Schrab’s as he describes the way that divinity seems to infuse the natural world, in the flow of water, the wild power of wind, the womb-like character of mountain glens, and the intricate texture of ferns and lichens.

In his biography of the young John Muir, Steven J. Holmes writes that earlier in his wanderings Muir had described God “as a landscape gardener whose power and love consists in protecting and caring for the things of the world.” Later, however, “Muir understood divine presence as existing in and through the world itself: ‘The warm blood of God through all the geologic days of volcanic fire & through all the glacial winters great & small, flows through these mountain granites, flows through these frozen streams, flows through trees living or fallen, flows through death itself’” (The Young John Muir, 237).

The naturalist long ago and artist in our own time have much to teach all of us we seek to become more spiritual.

Environmental justice and activism in an American city

December 7, 2016

Environmfullerental Justice and Activism in Indianapolis, by Trevor K. Fuller (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015).

This book is a short, technical study of two neighborhoods near downtown Indianapolis. Each community has about 10,000 residents, mostly African American in one and mostly Caucasian in the other. Both neighborhoods have a long history of heavy industry and high levels of land, water, and atmospheric pollution. Since the 1980s efforts to remediate these parts of the city have taken place, but with different degrees of success.

The author, a professor of geography at State University of New York at Oneonta, is interested in several aspects of his topic, including: the spatial distribution of hazards, the impact of social movements, environmental activism, attachment of residents to their space, social capital (networks that work for mutual benefit), the influence of the socio-ecological environment, and race.

Four of my long-time interests come into focus in this carefully drawn study: environmentalism, the role of churches in urban life; political activism, and cycling as a way of wandering around to experience the character of a place.

During my first period of life in Indianapolis (1961–1995), I was vaguely aware of the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood located on the near east side of the city. What I had heard of the community was that it was largely African American, low income, and struggling to improve the well-being of the people who lived there.

Ten years ago one of my daughters bought a house a little west of the neighborhood, and on family visits I frequently drove and bicycled through M-B on East 25th Street and saw a wide range of its positive and negative aspects. Since reestablishing my home in Indianapolis, I’ve cycled along its perimeter and am even more aware of the industries and brownfields that are part of its environmental history.

As Fuller tells the story, M-B has a record of community action since the 1980s, often in close association with community development agencies and the City of Indianapolis. One of the churches is cited as having had an important role in energizing efforts to deal with brownfields. Bicycling around M-B, I see some church buildings that are large, well-tended, and related to historically black denominations. They stand in sharp contrast to small store front churches described as a problem to the community (109).

There has been a continuing effort to rebuild the housing stock and upgrade the neighborhood with sustainability as a goal. The intention is that M-B be a good place to live, both for the people who are there now and those who will follow them in the next generation. To the dismay of many, however, sustainability leads to gentrification, so that many of the current residents find it difficult to remain.

Liberals are gored either way. When they live in the white suburbs and send their money down to MB, they are profiteering. When they choose to come back to the city, they are taking advantage of poor folk who can no longer afford to live there (104).

West Indianapolis, on the city’s near south side, has long been an industrial center. Heavy industry, such as a General Motors’ engine block foundry, have been there for a century and longer. Residents have made efforts to organize in order to get rid of pollution, but with limited success. Since I have no personal history with this neighborhood, I intend to begin bicycling around to experience it first hand.

The evidence seems strong that various entities, including city agencies and representatives of industries in the neighborhood such as Eli Lilly, discourage active efforts to remake West Indianapolis. Their goal would seem to be that the neighborhood should continue to be a base for industrial activity with residents continuing to get along as best they can in isolated pockets. Fuller uses the phrase “Cooptation by Corporation” (113).  Churches are referred to as community assets “because they are attractive and add charm” (110). It is clear, however, that the City has no interest in making West Indianapolis a sustainable community (117).

Fuller concludes that the “current spatial distribution of environmental hazards is predominantly based on class and income differences across the city” and that “the explicit racist policies and actions of the state over many decades. . .produced and re-produced the uneven environments across the City of Indianapolis” (119–20). The subtitle of Fuller’s concluding chapter is “Co-opting Environmental Justice.” Fuller writes that “government and non-government institutions, and public and private entities, exert influence on the perceptions and responses of residents within the two study areas” (119).

One reason why Martindale-Brightwood has been more effective than West Indianapolis is that “it appears to hold a higher amount of the institutional form of social capital which revolves around churches and formal organizations” (121). One conclusion that I, a life-long church goer, draw is this: by continuing to be what they already are, churches are assets to their community.


Bicycling into winter

December 3, 2016


After living in mild climates for twenty-one years, I moved back to Indianapolis where real winter comes every year. In my former life as a Hoosier, I was able to make the seasonal shift, cycling to my teaching job all year ‘round, even on days when the morning temperatures were ten below zero. The guideline for recreational rides was twenty-five and sunny.

One dark morning this week, with a temperature in the twenties, however,  was unnerving. I have clothes that can keep me warm and OK routes on which to ride. What’s missing is the habit, the firmly implanted custom of not asking if it’s too cold to ride and, instead, checking the temperature only to decide how much to bundle up before heading out.

These days in Indianapolis, commuting is well under way an hour before glimmers of daylight brighten the dark sky. From my writing desk, I see them on the street five stories below my window: strong beams of light, some steady, some blinking, as people bicycle to work some place downtown. Not as many as on a summer day, but enough to prove that some riders keep going even as a warm fall morphs into a cold winter.

During the day as I wander around town—sometimes on foot and sometimes by bike—I see other cyclists who are riding, seemingly oblivious to forty degrees and twenty-mph northwest gusts. One day last week, when there were glints of sunshine in the sky, I was doing an errand on my bike. At a traffic signal, a man twenty-five years my junior was on his much-used bike next to me. ”It’s the only way to get around town!” he declared through the scarf that covered his face. And I agreed.

On another day, when my errands were easier on foot than on my bike, I realized that many of the cyclists I saw right then looked like bike messengers. Mostly young men, dressed in black, tight jeans or shorts, on simplified bikes with single gears and some with no brakes, they rode hard and fast; mostly on the street, but sometimes on sidewalks, darting through parking lots, little daunted by red lights or the niceties of urban traffic.

One of them showed up to make a delivery at my apartment tower just as I came home. “How many of you guys are there?” I asked, to which he responded: “Fifteen of us work for Jimmy John’s Sandwiches, and I have no idea how many more there are.”

A quick check on the internet suggests that the number is large, and it certainly must be the case that they’ll be out all winter, doing twenty to sixty miles a day, delivering goods and communications as fast as they can go. Blizzards in the air and thick ice on the streets, I suppose, will keep them in, but then the whole city will likely shut down for a few hours or days.

Since I’m a retired, self-directed writer, there’s no place where I have to go. My church, grocery store, and coffee shop are close enough to walk, and family members can come to dear old dad’s rescue when winter gets him down. But it irks me to let a mere contingency like winter keep me off my bike.

On a cold New Year’s Day in 2011, with temperature in the thirties and a cold east wind blowing down the Columbia River Gorge, I chickened out by driving ten miles to my Friday morning breakfast with the Friendly Old Fellows from my church and coffee with the New York Times at Peets Coffee and Tea. Usually I cycled down but on this morning it seemed too cold.

There at her usual table at Peets was one of the regulars, knitting while she sipped her tea. In a little while, she told me, she would suit up and join friends for a fifty-mile ride including hard climbing in Portland’s west hills.

Shamed and inspired by her example, I changed into cycling clothes as soon as I got home and out I went. Although the route I chose was only forty-seven miles long, that was close enough. The new year started with my sense of self restored.  Later that day I posted a blog entitled “Character vs. the East Wind.”

Today, however, I won’t be heading out into the coldest day of the year so far. I’ll take a nap, write this blog, and wait for the winter storm that’s coming our way. There’ll be plenty of time next week, after the first snow fall of the season, to work on character.