Sunday, March 9, 2014

And the Youth Shall See Visions

It is 4:30pm on Sunday and I am sitting in my office waiting for the start of a special program.  Tonight kids from around the city will be coming to Beth-El Zedeck for an awards night.  Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and those of no faith will celebrate the work they did over the last several months to put on and promote the Kenya Carnival.  The Kenya Carnival is a fundraiser and awareness raiser for the orphans and vulnerable children in Western Kenya and part of the Global Interfaith Partnership.  Students here in Indiana attempt to raise money to help students get the tuition they need for secondary schools education which is only partly funded by the government in Kenya.  Their efforts help fund education which is the greatest gift we can give the children of Kenya to help build their communities ravaged by the HIV/AIDS pandemic and colonial destruction.  It is also meant to create an understand of the plight of these young children, many without any parents, who struggle day-to-day and sometimes hour-to-hour to get basic necessities that we all take for granted.  It is a remarkable undertaking and one that I think could easily be seen as highly valuable in and of itself.

But what I find remarkable is the ancillary benefit for the youth here in Indiana.  I know I have harped on this before but one of the values we hold so dear is the multi-faith  aspect of what we do.  So often these kinds of things that we do are a great deal of lip service.  We struggle to find the time to truly invest in learning about the other.  We sometimes go to a lecture, a program, a celebration.  But more often than not we are merely tourists observing someone else, often a stranger, in their own situation.  Like going to Israel and standing in the back of a church during a mass, or getting yelled at by the nuns at the Church of the Nativity for not being serious enough.  Even worse is the zoo model, where we watch others in their faith practices as if we want to see them in their "natural habitat". But these kids who work side-by-side for a good cause have made a great deal of effort to get to know the stranger in their midst.  They have learned to pray together as one group, not leaving others out.  They have balanced the notion of sacred time and sacred space, understand we don't all operate on the same clock.  They have found a way to deepen their own faith while learning from their friends of another faith.  Never explicitly teaching faith but living it and by doing so allowing others to learn about it.

Interfaith work, what I tend to call multi-faith, is a valuable effort in our ever more diverse society where faith is becoming more personal and faith traditions and religions seem to sprout more and more branches each year.  But too often we strive to learn about the faith and not the people of faith.  The Global Interfaith Partnership and the Kenya Carnival is about people.  People learning about people who motivated by faith strive to make a small corner of Kenya a better place for the youth who live there.  And in doing so get to expand their own vision of the universe that gets a little bigger with every new friend we make.

If you get a chance to help with this by visiting and making a donation, reading our story or getting on the mailing list know that you are supporting a powerful life changing program.  Not only for the people who are benefiting for the food and education we provide, but those who here in the United States get to meet someone they may never normally meet, and learning that there is more to the world than they thought.  And isn't that the greatest gift you can give.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Letter to the Parole Board

This is the victim impact letter I am sending to the Parole Board in Syracuse.  I thought I would share with you that results of lots of thinking and finally sat down last night to write it.  

Dear Parole Board,

I am writing this letter as a victim impact statement to be considered at the upcoming parole hearing of Jamie Morton, Inmate number 88C0405. On August 31, 1987 Mr. Morton stole the future I was building with my fiancĂ©, Linda Akers, when he chose to murder her in a senseless and brutal act.   

Mr. Morton violently beat and stabbed Linda for no reason except to vent his anger at a world he felt was unfair.  But more then stealing Linda and my future, he took a light out of the world.  Linda’s work with young children, especially during her time at the Bishop Foery Foundation, was focused on reaching vulnerable and at-risk children.   She wanted to make a difference in the world, especially those who were often unseen or ignored by society as a whole.  She never got the chance to make her mark.  I never saw Mr. Morton show remorse for his crime, in fact at times I felt he was proud of it.

My first reaction is that Mr. Morton should never leave prison; his crime is not one that should allow him to ever enjoy the pleasures of the world that he has made darker by his actions.  But I am torn with what to write. I believe in justice over vengeance; I believe in rehabilitation over the idea of locking people away forever, even for murder.  If Mr. Morton has served his time honorably and without incidents of violence or dangerous behavior, and if he will add to the world’s good as opposed to evil, should he not be released?  But how can we know how he will react if released?

Because of Mr. Morton’s crime, I would not consider him eligible for parole unless there is substantial evidence that he has indeed changed for the better while incarcerated.  I believe the burden of proof rests on him, and that burden is significant. 

When weighing your decision, I hope you see that Mr. Morton took the life of a woman who was dedicating her life to young children in the hope of making the world a better place.   I also hope that you honor the values of the legal system that seeks to not simply be a punishment, but also seeks rehabilitation and reform.  I have moved from Syracuse, I have built my life and while I still have a big hole created in the past, I think I have found peace in the last 2 decades.  But I am haunted by the idea that another person will be put through the same pain I have been through because of Mr. Morton’s actions.  So I hope when you decide on Mr. Morton’s future you do so with Linda’s life lost in mind and the chance that others might be at risk.  I do not envy your position in making this difficult decision. 

Thank you for taking my words into consideration while you deliberate. 


George Kelley

Monday, February 3, 2014

Coke Has Always Been About America

But last night they exposed the ugly side of it.  Let me explain.  Last night, during the Superbowl, Coca-Cola had an ad in which America the Beautiful was sung in a variety of languages behind pictures of what America looks like, a variety of races, cultures, faith traditions and families.  I was stunned at the beauty of it and made a joke on Twitter taking bets on who would be the first to say something racist.  It was late in the game and since I was more interested in a Broncos win I changed the channel, turned off the computer and went to bed.  I woke to a barrage of horrible internet posts across social media from the calling for a boycott of Coke to a new push to make English the official language of the country.  Also we are being treated to a rewrite of history when it comes to the amazing rich diversity that led to the old Melting Pot idea of what it means to be a American.  

There were quotes like this:

 “What USED to make America great was that the immigrants who came here from other countries learned our language and their cultures blended into ours.  America the Beautiful should be sung in one language, and one language only, English.”

There were also many anti-Arab and anti-gay comments as there were two men looking out of a window (wearing kippot by the way) and the women wearing a hijab at a Halal food cart.  

Let's unpack this quote, first while people came here and tended to learn the language and blended into the American culture, that doesn't mean they gave up their own distinct language and culture for the most part.  We still see  Italian American festivals, Greek Fest, we celebrate St. Patrick's Day etc. etc. etc.  We have Little Italy, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Korea town in many cities around our country.  But what is interesting as these cultures became part of the American tapestry their cultures CHANGED what it meant to be an American.  Waves of immigration redefined what it meant to be an American.  The proverbial melting pot was never an idea that cultures would disappear into a sauce of "real America" but had flavor to the ever changing American stew.  So when each group brought their cultural traditions, practices and language it influenced the American experience.  We see this in the fact the great American food product Pizza is a 19th century immigrant and many people here would know what the word schlep means even if they never met a European Jew.  American is about diversity and a blending of culture and even if you see it as assimilation as a goal it does not mean that one must completely leave behind their cultural histories and practices.  

I love New York City in part because like many major American cities you can experience so much of what makes America great, the intermix of our cultural heritage.  Jewish teens getting food at the Halal truck, a Christian Bible Study group at the 2nd street Deli, African American women doing Tae Kwon Do in a Lower East Side park are all normal parts of the city.  Our strength is that we allow for us all to be ourselves and yet all become American.  

But let's be clear, in our country the beauty of being what we want allows for the bigotry that we see in response and our valued free speech gives us the freedom to have these bigots express themselves fully.  But if their bigotry is not unanswered we give them the narrative.  What is funny is that Coke made their point of our Unity in Diversity at a truly American event, the Superbowl, an event that unites most of us in a shared story of an American tradition, an American game and an American cultural touchstone.  Let's not let it be defined by that which is the ugliest of us.  

When confronted by this today and in days to come remind people almost all of us came from somewhere else, bringing our distinctiveness to the party and in most cases making the America greater.  And when you leave, maybe say Adios.......

Monday, January 20, 2014

When Have You Paid Your Debt to Society and Is It Possible

So I feel like there are times in one's life when you are faced with a decision that on one hand seems simple, but when you dig deeper and think you feel the struggle.  I am at one of those moments.  You see I have a choice to make. The person who murdered Linda is up for parole and I can write a letter to effect the outcome.  It is not the first time I have had this choice and the last time it was just as difficult but the letter came right before I went to Kenya so I took the burden with me, and surrounded by ministers on that trip I had built in set of councilors.  So here I am again, a few years later and not sure if I made the right decision so I figure I will see if the online world can help me.

You see Jamie Morton is up for parole.  Jamie Morton has been in prison since 1987 for the murder of my then fiance, Linda Akers.  Many of my close friends know the story.  He came to my apartment, looking to strike out at the world and it was me he was after.  She was there.  Sadly he attacked and killed her.  He was mentally unstable and at his first trial his outbursts annoyed the judge.  At a retrial on the day before I was to testify, he plead guilty in a long tirade to the court (or so I was told I didn't witness the trial).  So I received the letter on Saturday asking if I wanted to make an victim impact statement, and thus my choice.  Do I write something to sway the the parole board, either to let him leave prison or to keep him in or do what I did the last time, nothing.  I don't know what to do.

My struggle is that there is a part of me that wants to have faith in the system.  We created a judicial system with rules.  It was meant to be dispassionate.  Crimes have consequences but there is also a sense of mercy.  Someone once said that our society should make sure we treat our worst prisoners in the best possible way because if we do then we can insure that all others in society will be treated with dignity by the government.  That includes the idea that a some point our prisoners, even our violent ones, might get a second chance at society.

However, this man not only took Linda's future but changed mine.  He stole a daughter from her parents, a sister from a brother and a woman who would have made a great mother from the potential children.   He took Linda's light out of the world.  Should he be free to rejoin the world that his actions made darker?

So I feel paralysed.   I could easily just let the chips fall, I know I can write an eloquent letter where I argue for him to remain in prison.  But would that be vindictive and selfish?  I am a hypocrite?  Would I  argue for this if I wasn't so personally involved?

I could also see myself writing a letter suggesting that his release is in the best interest of justice if he can function in society.  I do not think our justice system should be about revenge.  There is no way that anything that happens to him will change the fact that on August 31st on 1987 my life was changed in a way that at various times have haunted me terribly.  So if he has been rehabilitated and is no longer a danger to anyone what value is there to keeping him in prison?

So I turn to my friends and readers.  What advice do you have?  There are several choices.  But they boil down to this:  1.  Remain silent to the proceedings.   2.  Write a victim impact statement asking for him to stay in prison.  3.  Write a victim impact statement saying that if he is rehabilitated that he should be freed. (This last one is because if I truly believe in the system shouldn't I use this opportunity to influence it in this way?)

I honestly don't know what I want to do.  I wish I could learn he was a horrible prisoner, or in a gang, or still so mentally unstable.  In that case there would be no reason to let him out.  But what if he is the opposite?  What if he bettered himself in prison, what if he was someone who could give back and while he will never be able to fill the whole he created in the world, he could maybe help others not create similar wholes in the future.  I don't know, and maybe that why I am so lost in this.

So while I will try to add to my information I ask you, be honest, what do you think I should do?  What do you think about this situation?  I am looking for advice so feel free to leave a message here publicly or via email.  I am hoping for insight.  I hope you can help.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Kudos to the Boy Scouts....sort of...

So the Boy Scouts of America voted to allow openly gay scouts to be scouts but not troop leaders.  Baby steps have not been uncommon for the scouts when it comes to social change.  It wasn’t until 1974 that the scouts became fully integrated.  Jewish, Asian and African Americans were often forced into their own troops.  In fact at one point when African American scouts were forming troops there was a move to ban them from wearing the uniform.  Separate but unequal or just plain discriminatory was common in the scouts.  My mother didn’t let me join because the recruiter at my school told me I had to have a haircut.  That didn’t sit well with my mom born in 1935 Germany.   But the scouts should be praised for taking what I am sure is a chance on this change.  Let’s be clear, there have always been gay scouts, and gay scout leaders.  There always will be.  When a young boy joins the scouts in 1st grade he may not know his sexual orientation.  Most kids don’t.  Moving up through the years he may not encounter attraction until well within the high school years and by then with most scouts I have known it is just part of who they are, and a big part.  I have helped scouts attain Religious Badges for Judaism and have been to several Eagle Scout ceremonies over the years.  The scouts I encountered in that time have scouting in their blood.  Being gay hardly enters into the mix for them.  Just like being gay doesn’t have a huge impact on being a football player or swimmer. 
What I find amazing is the backlash that can only be described as bigotry.  People are melting down their scout medals and burning patches in protest.  They are disassociating themselves from scouting and spreading lies about sexual abuses that have been a problem for scouting being the result of gay scouts and leaders.  The sheer hate being spewed blinds them from the very essence of what a scout is suppose to be.  But leaving that all behind, they call this the end of scouting, while participating in its demise by not continuing their support.  Basically what has happened is that Boy Scouts of America will allow troops to enroll gay members and not kick out scouts who identify as gay, while maintaining that individual troops can still discriminate.  It is a move that inches toward full inclusion but actually just ends what was a defacto Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. 

But probably the most ridiculous of the comments I see on this is that somehow allowing gay scouts is sexualizing scouts.  This is not a new argument.  The very act of acknowledging gay people is seen by some as sexualizing the situation.  Recently I went to buy perfume with Dianne.  This has been a chore because we don’t seem to like the same things and my favorite perfume never really seemed right on her.  So we sprayed a few on various spots to test, I would lean in to smell or take the wrist to my nose.  When we settled on one she hugged me tight and gave me a big kiss.  Right there in front of God and everybody.  The woman selling to us smiled and made a comment about love.  I described a similar scenario only with two married men I know to someone who then asked me why they have to show their sexuality in public.  When straight people hug, kiss and hold hands in public it is a sign of love.  When gay people do it there are many who see it as sex.  That is not only a double standard it is frightening as to what those people think love is. 
Love, sexual attraction and sexual acts are not the same thing and can be mutually exclusive.  From a purely biological perspective, love is the result of interpreting the arousal you feel due to sexual and emotional attraction to a particular person or persons.  It is somewhat hard wired.  We see someone who we think is attractive; it causes a series of autonomic responses in our body due to chemical releases in the brain and endocrine system.  We approach that person and if they return any interest, those physical feelings continue and get interpreted in that context.  A deep attraction finds one thinking about getting that feeling back and contact with the object of that feeling brings it on.  As this continues and the two people involved share more about themselves, both physically and in their minds (likes, dreams, desires for future) those feelings move to be what we call love.  While some see this as a blending of souls it has been studied and while we can’t explain all the whys and wherefores we know that the initial response is not under the control of the person.  Attraction is not something you can decide.  That goes for gay people and straight people. 

Physical sex is a different thing entirely.  Sex is more the product of physical desire for release and the stimulation that gets you there.  Without getting too graphic, what stimulates and how is not about attraction, desire or orientation.  Many times people have had a sexual encounter with someone they have not found attractive.  In fact people will have same sex encounters given the right set of circumstances.  Prisons are often mentioned in this context.  Prison same-sex encounters are highly complicated because while some are simply for release others are about power and control over another prisoner.  Those that aren’t usually involve straight people who want a partner and there are few female opportunities.  In fact in some of these encounters in men’s prisons the more dominate prisoner will find was to feed the fantasy that the other prisoner is a woman with makeup, lipstick and hair dos.    But a clearer example is the large number of gay individuals who grew up hearing how horrible being gay is trying to build a straight life.  This often includes marriage and children, only to run out of patience and announce the truth or worse carry on affairs that can be dangerous for many reasons. 

Defining a person by who they are sexual attracted to is not only unfair it is ignorant and bigoted.  Gay people are no more likely in most settings to be overly sexual.  While it is true that in certain contexts gay men tend to flaunt sexuality.  But this is more a protest to a culture that never saw them as appropriate for public viewing at all.  I would argue that when gay couples are more normative, men in chaps and tight shorts will be LESS likely to be walking down 5th Avenue in a parade and the Castro district will be just another funky neighbor.  Anti-gay culture drove gay men underground and when they came out, some wanted to be in your face about it.  Many, many, many more just want to be able to be listed with their partners in company directories and obituaries of their parents without losing their jobs, positions in their community organizations or getting kicked out of scouting.  What the people who are so dead set against gays being treated as full humans tend not to understand that their double standards are slowly being lost to history.  But in the mean time the pace is still not fast enough.    

I am both amused and frightened by the growing anger of people who are anti-gay.  I hope for dialogue.  But until that is possible I applaud the Boy Scouts of America for their thoughtful approach and while half a loaf, it is on par with how they have historically expressed change.  Now if the Supreme Court does the right thing in the coming weeks we might all move into an era where gay people are seen as people.  Where the old couple holding hands is cute regardless of whether they are two men, two women or a man and woman, and that the marriage of two people of the same sex is celebrated in every college newspaper as much as a straight couple.  I can hope.  Join me, it is more fun than holding onto anger.   

Thursday, May 23, 2013

When you Assume....

There is a story that I think is important to note this week  Wolf Blitzer interviewed a survivor of the devastating tornado in Moore, Okla.  "We're happy you're here. You guys did a great job," Blitzer said to Rebecca Vitsmun, who escaped from her house with her 19-month-old son right before the twister tore through it. "You've gotta thank the Lord, right? Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?"  Vitsmun stops  for a moment and smiles. "I -- I'm actually an atheist," she said, laughing off the awkward moment.  "You are. All right. But you made the right call," Blitzer said.
"We are here, and I don't blame anyone for thanking the Lord," Vitsmun said.  
Why is this important?  Well where do I begin.  First and foremost this is a prime example what most non-Christians at times and non-believers encounter a lot more than you expect.  People's default position in this country is that people believe in God and then in the Christian vision of God.  Even though people are becoming less religious and people have become more comfortable being publicly stating their atheism.  Not everyone you pass on the street believes in God and if they do they are likely to be envisioning God differently from you.  That is a fact and has been for a long time but we have been hiding from it to remain comfortable.  One of the biggest areas we see this come out is when certain religious people try to use the government to push through their vision of religious law as policy.  Currently it is happening in the gay marriage debate.  It is stunning to me that with the diverse vision of gay people both in and out of the religious community we still have people who are in government or running for office who say, out loud, in front of people, that gays are perverted and it is against American values.  Here is the thing, American values are what Americans decide American values are, and they are ever changing.  
And that brings me to the second point.  This little tete-a-tete became an internet sensation, in part because Wolf looked so deliciously like a fool.  But many many people posted it for the same reason I chose to write about it.  This woman who taught Wolf not to make assumption is actually been seen finally in the tapestry that is our country.   Think about it, suburban Oklahoma City would be a lot of people's image of middle America, and yet here we have a woman who comfortably address a reporter who assumed she prayed to God and received a miracle.  I think this is a turning point as much as electing an atheist to Congress like Peter Stark, former California Congressman and current member of Congress Kyrsten Sinema who was elected in November from Arizona.  Perhaps atheists will slowly move from the angry people who scream on television and who are more antitheists than atheists.  Because in the end I find here final statement so wonderful.  As she said she doesn't blame anyone for thanking God, pulling Wolf's foot out of his mouth, but showing that for her faith is not a problem.  
You see most atheists do not care if you believe in a God or Gods, as long as you don't force it on others or use government to promote your faith.  But this story, while hardly likely to be remembered as a watershed moment by many, it does create a way for us to continue to fill in the lines of what it means to be an American.  I hope we will look back on it and see that Rebecca Vitsmun was a pioneer.  She made us think, and frankly that is the highest honor anyone could have.  

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day Memories

Happy Mother's Day, my first without my mom.  It has been just over one month since she left us.  It is funny, I felt close to my mom but we hadn't lived in the same city since 1983.  We talked on the phone a lot and I liked to visit but she often reminded me how I never got her Mother's Day present to her on time.  But I do feel the empty space that exists.  I won't make the call tomorrow.  I won't tell my mom about the coming Confirmation service.  I won't hear about the doings in my home town, what the weather was like and who of my friends came home for their moms.

The one thing about my mom was that she was never not there.  I mean some times it took a few days to connect, if she didn't answer when I called she may call back when I couldn't answer.  We never left detailed messages because we always knew we would talk.  It was hard near the end when her memory started to fail, but we always had some great conversations.  We could speak about almost anything. and my mom only judged me when I needed to be judged.  She was the only person who could truly get away with it.  I really think I took that for granted.

As a kid I made all the cool things we would make for our parents at Mother's and Father's day. It was a big deal.   But the things I remember the most are coffee cups.  Not just regular coffee mugs, these were enormous and had funky sayings on them.  I can't remember how we bought them or if it was me and brother Bill or if we all did it..  But my dad and mom both had one, in fact I remember we replaced them a few years later when the original ones broke.  My mom drank coffee all day long.  She always had a cup ready and the pot was always on.  So everyday I got to see her using the gift. That always made me happy.  

It is funny, thinking back to the time as a child my mother was a majority of my life.  She made sure I had what I needed within her means, she made me feel proud of my accomplishments and pushed me when I got lazy.  One thing for sure is that she let me be  me growing up and I wish today I could give her something that she could use everyday.  I feel sad that I took her for granted many times in my life, but today I will think about all she did for me to make me who I am.

The Rabbis teach the hardest of the commandments in the Torah is to honor our parents.  One's personal interests often conflict with what our parents wish for us.  But we are still obligated to honor them and in the honoring we may learn to better understand what they did for us.  The main thing is giving us life.  How indebted would you feel if someone pulled you from a burning building saving your life, how much more so should you feel indebted to the parents who gave you that gift to be saved.

On this day, I will remember mom and it will be a blessing.  If you have a mom still living, enjoy the moments you will have.  If you lost your mom take a moment to tell a mom story.  Happy Mother's day to all the moms.  Birth moms, adopted moms, step-moms and all the moms that become moms through circumstances of marriage, work or friendship.

And to my friends who are celebrating their first mother's day I hope the day is special beyond special.