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THANKSGIVING CHILDREN

November 16, 2019

I was preaching at a community Thanksgiving service at Highland Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, two days before the holiday in 1978. As I closed my message, the minister of music stepped forward to announce the closing hymn. He discreetly placed on the pulpit a note written in large letters:

GO HOME NOW! CLARE IS IN LABOR!

I left the sanctuary through a back door, hurrying to our Pontiac station wagon. We were the parents of three sons with a fourth child on the way. As I hurriedly drove through the rainy night, I realized that the length of labor for Clare had been shorter with each successive birth. This baby would probably arrive before morning.

Back in those days before we had cell phones, I could not check with Clare ahead of time. When I arrived at our home, I found that a good friend had come to stay with Clare and had offered to stay with our three sons. Clare met me in the driveway, her bag packed and ready to go. Before getting into the car, she paused, bracing against the fender through an intense contraction.

We had gone through Lamaze childbirth classes. I had been privileged to be present in the delivery room with Clare for all three births. We might have thought that we were old hands at this, but I had learned from my dad, the father of eight, that each birth is different.

“Let’s get you to the hospital,” I said to Clare, helping her into the car.

“Did you get the message?” she asked.

“Yes. How far apart are your contractions?”

I didn’t need to ask. She had gripped the dashboard, having another hard contraction.

“About that far,” she groaned.

I reached over and took Clare’s hand as I drove through the misty darkness, offering an open-eyed prayer, “Gracious God, be with Clare and this child. Help me get them to the hospital, please.”

I pulled into the emergency drive of Forsyth County Hospital and parked at the door. A security officer stopped me, saying, “Sir, you can’t park here.”

“But my wife is in labor and needs to get to the delivery room, now!”

The officer summoned a triage nurse who met us at the door and asked, “How close are her contractions?”

Right on cue, Clare had another one.

Two orderlies appeared with a gurney and whisked her away, leaving me to provide necessary basic information. Fortunately, Clare and I had gone through a preadmission process, so it didn’t take long before I could leave admitting and go to the delivery area.

As the nurse there directed me to scrub and dress in a mask and gown, she said, “Your wife is waiting for you. We didn’t have time to prep her, and she wants you to be with her.”

And I wanted to be with Clare.

In the delivery room, I moved near Clare’s head, kissing her on the cheek.

“I’m ready now,” she said.

“Okay, Mama, give me a big push!” instructed the physician. “Now, one more big push!”

We had gone through the birthing process three times before. It is rightly called labor for the mother. For both of us, it was always a miracle. Our fourth son, Kristofer Mitchell Neely, was born at 10:30 P. M. on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving.

When I brought Clare and Kris home from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, our three older boys, all dressed as Pilgrims and Native Americans, greeted us. Members of our church had graciously provided a traditional dinner of turkey and all the fixings. That day remains one of our favorite Thanksgiving memories.

A Thanksgiving child gives a family a special reason for gratitude. American author Carl Sandburg wrote, “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”

When our children celebrate a birthday, we share the story of their arrival in this world. Our grandchildren enjoy hearing those stories.

During our family Thanksgiving celebrations, I share the stories of three children born early in the history of this country.

Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth to a son aboard the Mayflower while crossing the Atlantic during the historic voyage which brought the Pilgrims to America. His father, Stephen Hopkins, named the infant Oceanus, the Latin word for ocean. The child’s birth occurred sometime between the boarding date of September 6 and the arrival date of November 9, 1620. Oceanus did not live beyond his third year.

Born August 18, 1587, Virginia Dare was the first child born in the Americas to English parents, Ananias and Eleanor Dare. Virginia was born into the short-lived Roanoke Colony in what is now Eastern North Carolina. What became of this child and other members of the Lost Colony has remained a mystery.

Virginia’s birth is known because the leader of the colony, John White, was Virginia’s maternal grandfather. Following her birth, Governor White returned to England to seek assistance for the new settlement. When he returned three years later, the colonists had vanished.

Peregrine White was the first child born in Plymouth Colony. His parents, William and Susanna White, had boarded the Mayflower with their young son, Resolved. Susanna gave birth to Peregrine before the end of November 1620 while the Mayflower was anchored in Provincetown Harbor.

William White died that first winter in Plymouth Colony. Susanna White married fellow Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow. In 1636, Edward and Susanna moved their blended family to the new settlement of Marshfield, north of Plymouth.

Peregrine had his first military experience at age sixteen and continued to serve in the militia, first as a lieutenant and then as a captain. Like most of the settlers, Peregrine was a farmer. He served his community as a representative to the General Court. He married Sarah Basset in 1648. The couple had seven children. At age seventy-eight, Peregrine officially joined the Marshfield church. He lived until July of 1704, dying at the age of eighty-three.

Around our family table, each Thanksgiving we read this poem written by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet about Peregrine White and Virginia Dare. The poem says these children were the first Americans. That, of course, is untrue. There were many Native Americans that came before Peregrine and Virginia. H

Here is an excerpt from the poem with apologies to Native Americans.

 

Peregrine White

And Virginia Dare

Were the first real Americans

Anywhere.

 

Others might find it

Strange to come

Over the ocean

To make a home.

 

One of them born

On Roanoke,

And the other cradled

In Pilgrim oak.

 

Men might grumble

And women weep

But Virginia and Peregrine

Went to sleep.

 

They had their dinner

And napped and then

When they woke up

It was dinner again.

 

There was lots of work

But they didn’t do it.

They were pioneers

But they never knew it.

 

Wolves in the forest

And Indian drums!

Virginia and Peregrine

Sucked their thumbs.

 

They were only babies.

They didn’t care.

Peregrine White

And Virginia Dare.

 

After we read the poem, we recite Psalm 100. More importantly, we give thanks, not only for the food on our table but also for the family gathered around and those who are far away.

The truth is that all children are Thanksgiving children.

NATIVE AMERICAN VETERANS

November 9, 2019

Marvin Joe Curry was a Native American, a member of the Seneca Nation’s Snipe Clan. In 1950 he left high school to enlist in the Navy, and he served two tours of duty during the Korean War. He entered the Naval Officer Candidate School in 1966 and graduated as a chief warrant officer. He was deployed to Vietnam. During his active duty in the Navy, he was aboard eight warships and saw combat in two wars. Joe was a skilled deep-sea rescue diver. He received numerous honors and retired from the Navy in 1997.

The Marvin Joe Curry Veterans Powwow is an annual event held by the Seneca tribe in honor of all United States veterans. It has been my privilege to attend numerous Native American powwows from Cherokee, North Carolina, to Sisseton, South Dakota. Without exception, the American flag and veterans of military service are honored. In the grand entry a veteran followed by other veterans carries the Stars and Stripes into the dance circle. Next weekend, November 8 and 9, 2019, Veterans Day Powwows will be held in Austin, Texas, in Richmond, Virginia, and in Clearfield, Pennsylvania.

In the fall of 1995, I met Goingback Chiltoskey in Cherokee, North Carolina. This remarkable man grew up watching his father carve wooden implements used by his family. Even before he went to school, Goingback was making his own toys.

“My dad made things that were needed around the house—spoons, handles for tools—most everything we had had to be made. I guess I just grew up with it.”

Goingback learned how to use a pocketknife from his older brother, ten years his senior. In 1917, at age ten, Chiltoskey was sent to the Cherokee Boarding School. Attending through ninth grade, Chiltoskey’s Cherokee Boarding School experience included a half of a day of academics and a half of a day of industrial training. Chiltoskey did carpentry and made repairs to the school. While he did learn some rudimentary skills in the classroom, woodcarving became the focus of his free time.

In 1927, when Chiltoskey was twenty years old, he moved to Greenville, South Carolina to attend the Parker District High School. Parker was known for its woodworking program. Chiltoskey learned other important skills that would serve him well in later life. He mastered mechanical drawing and learned to draft and read blueprints.

In 1929, Chiltoskey went to the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. After returning home in 1935, he taught woodworking at Cherokee High School and continued to attend summer school at the Art Institute of Chicago where he studied carving, handicrafts, industrial arts, and sculpture. He became a master woodcarver among the Cherokee people.

In 1942, Chiltoskey left for Washington, D. C. His skill as a woodcarver placed him in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Belvoir, where he made three-dimensional scale models from blueprints. Chiltoskey worked on a variety of war-related secret projects, creating terrain maps for invasions, scale models of strategic bombing targets, and a model of an atom. His service to this country was invaluable.

The culture of America’s first people included dances to prepare for battle. Many tribes practiced a war dance on the evening before an attack to observe certain religious rites to ensure success. If the battle was successful, the warriors were honored for their courage and their valor with another dance. The contemporary powwow continues the tradition of honoring warriors.

On Veterans Day soldiers and the citizens join in a time of remembrance. Elmer Davis, Director of the United States Office of War Information during World War II, said, “This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.” November 11 is designated as a day of gratitude for the brave.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, an armistice ending World War I between Germany and the Allied nations went into effect. The following year President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that Armistice Day, November 11, should be “filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory”.

In 1926, the United States Congress declared that the anniversary of the armistice should be commemorated with prayer and thanksgiving. The flag of the United States was to be displayed on all Government buildings.

This day was originally intended to honor veterans of World War I. In 1954, by act of Congress, November 11 became a day to honor all American veterans. The day became Veterans Day.

The Navajo Code Talkers are an unusual group of veterans. The twenty-nine young Navajo men who stepped into the Marine recruiter’s office one morning in 1942 were unsure what their futures would hold.

“I thought the Marine Corps was going to give me a belt of ammunition, and a rifle, a steel helmet, and a uniform,” recalled Chester Nez, in a 2004 interview. Nez wasn’t altogether wrong. He and his tribesmen would fight in battles across the Pacific and European fronts. But these courageous young men were destined for something more.

Though they have received little acknowledgment for their service, the hundreds of Navajos and other Native American tribesmen in the U.S. Military’s Code Talkers program helped pave the way for the Allied victory in World War II.

The program was developed in 1942, when Philip Johnson, a World War I veteran who had been raised on a Native American reservation, suggested to the Marine Corps to help ensure the secrecy of communications during World War II. By translating all messages into Native American languages, they could reduce the risk of interference from the enemy who were trying to crack their codes. After viewing a demonstration, Marine officers were impressed. They immediately recruited twenty-nine Navajo Code Talkers, who were charged with the task of developing a military code in their native language.

Though some words in the code were direct translations from English to Navajo, other codes were more complex, using the tribal name of a type of animal to represent each letter of the alphabet. In some cases, the Native Americans would invent new words for military vocabulary that had no translation in their own languages: “When they first recruited us as Code Talkers, we had to work that out among ourselves. We didn’t have a word for tank,” said Charles Chibbity. “It has a hard shell, and it moves, and so we called it a wakaree´e, a turtle.”

The Code Talkers were key to the Allied victory in the Pacific. Risking life and limb, watching friends and comrades die, they held the fate of their country in their hands every day. Thanks to the Code Talkers, the Axis forces never cracked a single message from the Allied troops.

Despite their essential role in the war, the Code Talkers weren’t acknowledged for over a quarter of a century. They were not even permitted to tell their own families about the work they had done to protect their country.

In 1968, the military declassified the Code Talkers programs, and those who served were finally honored for their service in wartime. In 2001, the surviving veterans of the Navajo Code Talkers program were presented with Congressional Medals of Honor. On the back of the medals was an inscription in the Navajo language: “With the Navajo language they defeated the enemy.”

Though few of the Code Talkers are still alive today, those who’ve spoken about their experiences serving in World War II are proud heroes. “I was fighting for all Indian people, and all the people in the United States,” said Navajo Code Talker, Sam Tso.

At an intertribal powwow in Asheville, North Carolina, I observed with interest the many native peoples who joined in the dance. I was especially interested in a man decked out in the regalia of a Comanche dancer. He wore a ribbon shirt, eagle feathers in his hair, silver bracelets and bandoliers, buckskin leggings, and exquisite ribbon work done on trade cloth. He was a tall man with commanding presence. His right leg had been amputated at the knee. He was fitted with a prosthesis, and he walked with a cane. He sat on a bench for most of the powwow until a special dance was announced to honor veterans. He rose with dignity and danced with halting steps. He carried a small American flag in his right hand. As he passed, I noticed that pinned to his trade cloth trailer was a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. I later learned that he was a Marine Corps veteran who lost his leg in Vietnam.

Veterans Day, November 11, is an opportunity for all of us to remember with gratitude those who have served in war and in peace. Native Americans are among those to whom we are grateful.

HOW THE GRINCH ALMOST STOLE HALLOWEEN

October 26, 2019

When I was a boy, back in the days before the Grinch stole Halloween, October 31 was one of the most anticipated evenings of the year. My friends and I looked forward to the carnival at the elementary school we attended. Halloween was second only to Christmas Eve when excitement, for kids, permeated the night air. No sooner had the sun gone down, than costumed kids of every age flooded the streets of the neighborhood, knocking on doors and shouting, “Trick-or-treat!”

Parents escorting their children stood a few yards away, guardian angels watching over small gremlins and goblins. The trick-or-treaters carried pillowcases or paper bags to collect their bounty.

My friend Rusty always dressed as a pirate, carrying a large pillowcase in which to stash his booty. He stuffed a second pillowcase into his pocket, just in case the first one reached capacity. Rusty’s Halloween range was far greater than mine. He worked his neighborhood of Ben Avon before dark and then came to my street about the time I walked out of my house dressed as a hobo.

We ventured from one house to the next collecting treats. Rusty carried a spray can of whipping cream as he made his rounds. If the treat he received at a home was particularly generous, Rusty marked the driveway with a whipped cream star. A full-sized candy bar – Hershey, Snickers, Milky Way, or Three Musketeers – merited a star. Those were the houses he returned to later in the evening.

Occasionally, we would have meetings with other trick-or-treaters to discuss which houses gave out the best goodies. Rusty was like a crafty angler, concealing his best fishing hole.

Sometimes Rusty would trade treats with other consultants. He always came out on the better end of the deal. I saw him trade three packs of Juicy Fruit chewing gum for a Hershey Chocolate Almond bar and a pack of Topps Baseball cards. The pack had both a Mickey Mantle and a Willie Mays card inside!

I am not sure when the innocence of the holiday was lost, but, with apologies to Dr. Seuss, the Grinch tried to steal Halloween. Due to the general malice of some people, trick-or-treating turned violent. Vandalism replaced tricks. Some treats even became serious threats. Needles and razor blades were hidden in candy and in apples.

Halloween fireworks took their toll. One of my sisters was burned when someone rolled a cherry bomb beneath her toddler feet. A friend lost sight in one eye following a firecracker accident. The reputation of a playful holiday was sullied.

Movies added to the rising sense of terror. Nightmare on Elm Street and its numerous sequels made Freddy Krueger a frightening legend. Chainsaw horrors and slasher films, including no less than ten Halloween movies, contributed to the hijacking of a kid’s delight.

Long ago on October 31 and November 1, the Celts celebrated the end of the summer with the harvest festival known as Samhain. They believed it was a time when the dead could visit the living by passing through the thin veil separating this world from the next. They believed that during these few days, they could be reunited with loved ones who were deceased. Bonfires were lit to ward off any menacing spirits that might also return.

Pope Gregory III moved the Christian feast known as All Saints’ Day to November 1 to give Samhain a Christian interpretation. The term Halloween is derived from All Hallows’ Eve, the evening before All Saints’ Day. The Christian church recognized October 31 as the day before a holy day, so Halloween became a holiday of sorts.

Five hundred years ago, in 1517, the leader of what became known as the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, chose All Hallows’ Eve as the day to nail to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, the Ninety-Five Theses or points of disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church. In those days the church door was like the town kiosk, a place to post public notices. Luther chose the day because he knew many people would attend church on All Saints’ Day.

Luther hoped to raise awareness and prompt discussion in order to bring about needed church reforms. Instead, his plan created such a stir that the church eventually suffered a series of divisions. Many Protestants regard Luther as a hero of the faith. To many Catholics he is considered to be an incendiary rabble rouser. Many Protestant Christians celebrate Reformation Day on October 31. Luther triumphal hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” is a part of the event.

In recent years, conservative Christians, alarmed by the vandalism and violence associated with Halloween, have renewed the battle to end its observance. The conflict has produced charges from both sides that are unfair and untrue. While conservative Christians want to eliminate Halloween altogether; others prefer to reinterpret it as a holy day.

The celebration of Halloween is as varied as the opinions about the day and its meaning. Many churches have replaced Halloween festivals with Noah’s Ark parties. A dedicated preschool director said to me last year, “We encourage the children to dress up like animals. We always get a Batman or a Spiderman in the mix. I guess bats and spiders are considered animals even in their superhero form.”

The church I served until my retirement celebrated with a Fall Family Festival, one of the happiest events of the entire year. Children and adults dressed up in crazy costumes. The event featured games similar to the ones that were a part of Halloween carnivals when I was a boy. Trunk-or-Treat replaced Trick-or-Treat. Families decorated the trunk of their cars or the bed of their pickup trucks. The vehicles were arranged along both sides of a long parking area. Children and their parents moved car-to-car rather than door-to-door, gathering goodies from friendly adults they knew very well.

Present-day families have numerous options. Some omit Halloween altogether. Others celebrate it as a traditional holiday. Still others try to find some middle ground. Even within extended families, there may not be agreement.

An eleven-year-old boy was looking forward to Halloween. His parents had always allowed him to dress up and go trick-or-treating. That year his mom and dad were out of town, and his aunt was staying with him.

“There will be no celebrating of Halloween while I’m in charge!” his aunt declared. “You can go to the party at church, but if you want to wear a costume, it must be something from the Bible.”

The boy retired to his room to ponder his dilemma. He devised a brilliant solution. He dressed himself in assorted sports equipment. With his Scout hatchet in one hand and a garbage can lid in the other, he reported to his stern aunt.

The sight of her nephew startled the aunt. “Young man, I told you that your costume had to be something from the Bible. Please explain this garb.”

“Look in Ephesians, Chapter 6,” the lad directed. “I have put on the whole armor of God. My karate sash is the belt of truth. My soccer shin guards and cleats mean that I am shod with the gospel of peace. My catcher’s chest protector is the breastplate of righteousness. My football headgear is the helmet of salvation. And the garbage can lid is the shield of faith.”

His aunt knew the Scripture well, but still not convinced, she quizzed, “And what about the Scout hatchet?”

“I didn’t have anything to use as the sword of the Spirit, so this is the ax of the apostles.”

The Grinch was outwitted again!

PUMPKIN TIME

October 19, 2019

Last week, as I walked into our regular grocery store, I was greeted by a large chalkboard sign that read NOW SERVING PUMPKIN SPICE LATTE. This particular store houses a coffee shop inside the building.

I stepped to the counter and was greeted by a young barista who asked, “Would you like to try our pumpkin spice latte?”

“Just a regular coffee with half-and-half cream,” I responded.

This week, I noticed a marquee in front of an auto parts store that read, PUMPKIN SPICE MOTOR OIL. Go, figure! Read more…

PUTTING IN A GOOD WORD

October 14, 2019

I am frequently asked to serve as a reference for people applying for jobs and to write letters of recommendation for applicants to college or seminary. Often these requests come with a comment such as, “Please put in a good word for me.”

Many famous people have opined upon this. Erma Bombeck said, “Some people think that baseball is our national pastime. I say it is gossip.”

Ellen DeGeneres is reported to have said that gossip keeps the entertainment industry going because people love gossip so much.

It was Aesop who first spoke the well-known adage, “If you can’t think of something good to say about a person, say nothing at all.” It is folk wisdom that bears heeding. However, remaining silent when we could say something positive can be condemning. The practice of affirmation, speaking an uplifting word about others, requires deliberate effort.

Scripture gives us this admonition. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29) We are so easily tempted to criticize and to yield to gossip. Putting in a good word builds up instead of tearing down another.

Benjamin Franklin put it this way, “I resolve to speak ill of no one, not even if it is the truth, but to speak all the good I know about everybody.”

Eleanor Roosevelt summed the matter up with these words, “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss other people.”

Twenty-five years ago, I drove to Tennessee with my eighty-year-old great-uncle, Hugh. Uncle Hugh was my grandfather’s brother. His request was simply put, “Kirk, I’d like to see my cousins one more time before I die.”

Uncle Hugh had three living first cousins, all in their eighties, all older than he. I took a tape recorder on the trip and obtained eight hours of recordings of these four octogenarians, talking about their family and remembering their grandfather who was my great-great-grandfather.

Major Hugh Neely, my great-great-grandfather, was a large man with a full reddish-gray beard. When I was young, I fancied him as a hero of the Confederacy, but I learned that Major was not a military rank. It was his given name. He was actually a schoolteacher in Christiana, Tennessee, and the postmaster in Fosterville, Tennessee. He owned a fifty-acre farm along the Shelbyville Pike at the base of Short Mountain.

Major Hugh Neely lived through the Civil War and tried, on two occasions, to enlist in the Confederate Army. Early in the war he was not allowed to join because he was a schoolteacher.  As the war wore on, he tried again to enlist.  This time he was not accepted as a soldier because he could not see.  He was cross-eyed and could have never fired a rifle safely. Though he was unable to shoot straight with a firearm, Major Hugh Neely had the reputation of being a straight shooter in his conversation.

As I listened to his elderly grandchildren share their memories, I also learned that though he would have been a Confederate soldier, Major Hugh Neely opposed slavery. After his father, William, died, his mother, Tabitha, remarried a slaveholder named Moses Swan. In his will, Mr. Swan left a slave woman named Mariah to Hugh Neely. The day the will was probated, my great-great-grandfather freed her. He is reported to have said, “No person can own another person.”

As a free woman, Mariah took the last name Neely.

The grandchildren of Major Hugh Neely agreed that he had the reputation for always finding something good to say about everybody. No matter their character flaws, my great-great-grandfather could find something positive about any person.

One night, Joe Foster, the town drunk of Fosterville, was staggering down the railroad track when he was hit and killed by a train.  Two of the young men in town decided to challenge my great-great-grandfather.  One told the other, “Let’s go to the post office and speak to Mr. Neely. We’ll tell him that old Joe was killed by the train.  Then, let’s see what he says.”

They found Major Hugh Neely and posed the question.  They were sure that even he would not be able to say anything good about Joe Foster. “Mr. Neely, I guess you heard that old Joe was killed by the train. He was just a no-good drunk.”

My great-great-grandfather listened and thought before he spoke. “No, I had not heard of his death, but I can’t say that I’m surprised. Old Joe didn’t have much to commend him. Nobody had much good to say about Joe.”

After a pause, Major Hugh Neely added, “Joe could whistle a tune better than anybody I have ever known. Yep, I think he was the best whistler I ever heard.”

Finding something positive about other people makes a difference in our life together. The gift of affirming, building up rather than tearing down, putting in a good word whenever we have the opportunity is the art of being an encourager.

My mother often quoted Edward Wallis Hoch’s brief poem.

There is so much good in the worst of us,

And so much bad in the best of us,

That it hardly behooves any of us

To talk about the rest of us.

The world would be a better place if all of us made a habit of putting in a good word for other folks.

A PRAYER FOR YOM KIPPUR

October 8, 2019

The following is copied from the blog Powerline posted by Scott Johnson.

Jews begin the observance of Yom Kippur at sundown tonight with the Kol Nidre prayer service. A few years ago a Christian friend asked to join us at the service we attend. Since then she has joined my family when we break our fast, as she will again tomorrow night. During the service she pointed in our prayer book to an adaptation of the prayer composed by the reformist German Rabbi Leo Baeck for delivery in German synagogues during the Kol Nidre service on October 10, 1935. The prayer remains timely today. I have previously posted the prayer and am taking the liberty of posting it again today, both for its intrinsic interest and its continuing relevance:

“At this hour the whole House of Israel stands before its God, the God of Justice and the God of Mercy. We shall examine our ways before Him. We shall examine what we have done and what we have failed to do; we shall examine where we have gone and where we have failed to go. Wherever we have sinned we will confess it: We will say “we have sinned” and we will pray with the will to repentance before the Lord and we will pray: “Lord forgive us!”

“We stand before our God and with the same courage with which we have acknowledged our sins, the sins of the individual and the sins of the community, shall we express our abhorrence of the lie directed against us, and the slander of our faith and its expressions: this slander is far below us. We believe in our faith and our future. Who brought the world the secret of the Lord Everlasting, of the Lord Who is One? Who brought the world understanding for a life of purity, for the purity of the family? Who brought the world respect for Man made in the image of God? Who brought the world the commandment of justice, of social thought? In all these the spirit of the Prophets of Israel, the Revelation of God to the Jewish People had a part.

“It sprang from our Judaism, and continues to grow in it. All the slander drops away when it is cast against these facts.
We stand before our God: Our strength is in Him. In Him is the truth and the dignity of our history. In Him is the source of our survival through every change, our firm stand in all our trials. Our history is the history of spiritual greatness, spiritual dignity.

“We turn to it when attack and insult are directed against us, when need and suffering press in upon us. The Lord led our fathers from generation to generation. He will continue to lead us and our children through our days.

“We stand before our God; we draw strength from His Commandments, which we obey. We bow down before Him, and we stand upright before Men. Him we serve, and remain steadfast in all the changes around us. We put our faith in Him in humility and our way ahead is clear, we see our future….”

At the time he wrote and disseminated the prayer, Baeck was president of the Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland, the official representative body of the Jews in Germany. The Gestapo discovered the text of the prayer and arrested Baeck. In Days of Sorrow and Pain, his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Baeck, Leonard Baker writes that Gestapo officials showed up at some Yom Kippur services, especially in Berlin: “No count was ever made of how many rabbis read the prayer at the service; many did, so many that it was almost an act of collective defiance on the part of the German rabbinate.”

SWEET POTATOES

October 4, 2019

Clare and I paid a visit to Strawberry Hill at Cooley Springs in the Upstate of South Carolina. As usual, James Cooley’s place of business was hopping. Pumpkins of every shape, size, and color were on display, along with several varieties of apples, pears, assorted jams and jellies, hot cider, and boiled peanuts.

I had the opportunity to speak to James, and I complimented him on the festive appearance of the peach shed.

“Yeah,” he said, “Our daughter Brandi does a good job decorating. I turned that part over to her.”

I stepped back to admire the view. Dried corn stalks and bales of hay served as the backdrop.  Clusters of Indian corn and groupings of fall mums were mixed among the produce. The roadside stand was a feast for the eyes.

In the midst of the autumn colors were piles of brown sweet potatoes as dirty as the soil from which they were dug. Nearly all the customers, including Clare, grabbed a bag and selected some of the rough tubers. The piles were marked with large cardboard signs with one word written in rustic red letters – TATERS.

Clare picked out a few of the sweet potatoes. Two days later we had five of our grandchildren in our home. We all enjoyed warm sweet potatoes with butter.

In the world of superfoods, sweet potatoes are rising stars. The orange flesh is rich in beta carotene and vitamin C, both powerful antioxidants. This starchy vegetable can be enjoyed at any time of year. In the South, sweet potatoes are abundant from September through December. At our house, the versatile vegetable makes the perfect companion to a Thanksgiving turkey or a Christmas ham.

Sweet potatoes come in many varieties. The skin color can range from red to purple, yellow, brown, or white. The flesh also ranges in color from white or yellow to dark orange. The peel is thin and edible. It is the orange-fleshed varieties that are most common and most often called yams.

Ask for yams in most any grocery store, and you’re likely to be directed to sweet potatoes. Though yams and sweet potatoes are considered first cousins, they are not related botanically.

True yams are native to Africa and parts of Asia. They may be the size of a small potato or grow to be several feet long. The skin on most varieties of yams is thick, rough, and somewhat like bark. When cooked, they are generally drier, starchier, and less sweet than sweet potatoes. The confusion started in the South. Slaves who had been brought from Africa called sweet potatoes nyami because of their resemblance to the familiar root crop which was a staple in Africa.

At James Cooley’s peach shed last week, I picked up a sweet potato and examined it. This simple vegetable was responsible for my family’s survival.

My grandfather and grandmother, Pappy and Mammy, had eight children when the Great Depression hit.  Pappy was running what he called a one-horse lumberyard on East Henry Street. The family had moved to Spartanburg from Greenville in 1923. My dad was two years old at the time. Pappy started the lumberyard with his life’s savings. Eventually, he was able to build a beautiful brick home out on the Greenville Highway where the pavement ended.

During the Depression “times were hard and things were bad,” to quote Johnny Cash. One of the first areas to suffer at the beginning of an economic downturn is the construction industry.  It is also one of the last to recover.  Building homes and even making home repairs are postponed when the country experiences a depressed economy.

Pappy struggled to make ends meet.  Determined to save the lumberyard, he mortgaged the business and then his home to put more money into the lumberyard.  Politicians kept saying that prosperity was just around the corner.  Finally, Pappy lost both the lumberyard and the family home.

Pappy and Mammy moved to a house that is still standing across the road from the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind at Cedar Springs.  The gray Victorian house features contrasting white gingerbread work around the outside.  Uncle Wesley, their ninth child, was born in that home.

My dad, then eleven years old, raised turkeys. Mammy’s goat and cow provided dairy products for the family. Pappy planted a large garden and farmed the land where Mountainview Nursing Home now stands.

The chain gang mule Pappy bought at an auction near Dutchman’s Fork for fifteen dollars had been used and abused until he was little more than skin and bones. Dick, as the mule was called, had worn a harness so often that trace chains had rubbed open sores on his sides. Pappy applied Bluestone Salve to the mule’s wounds. He fed him oats, corn, and hay to put a little meat on his bones. When Dick was restored to health, he was an excellent plow mule.

Pappy decided to raise sweet potatoes to sell and to serve as a staple food for his large family. He knew the market and knew the tubers could be stored easily. Though he had grown them in a garden, he knew nothing about planting sweet potatoes commercially. As he had always done, Pappy plowed the ground, cut the furrows, and planted the potato slips in the rows.

Neighbors just laughed at Pappy, advising, “You’ll never make any taters planting them in the valleys like that. You’ll have nothing but vines. Taters have to be planted on the hills.”

A long, hot dry summer followed. Most farmers who had planted sweet potatoes had a poor harvest. That fall, however, Pappy turned the furrows where he had planted the potato slips. The valleys had gotten enough water: the hills did not. Pappy and his children harvested a bumper crop. Mammy, who had prayed earnestly for the effort, gave credit to the Lord for the bounty.

Pappy walked across Highway 56 to the School for the Deaf and Blind and struck an agreement with the superintendent, Dr. W. L. Walker. For a set price Pappy would provide all of the sweet potatoes and turkeys the school needed for the coming year. With the annual renewal of the contract, the income helped to sustain the family throughout the Depression.

A Neely family legend holds that Mammy, of necessity, often prepared sweet potatoes three different ways for the same meal. Sweet potato soufflé, candied yams, and baked sweet potatoes were standard fare. Sweet potato biscuits, bread, and rolls were Mammy’s specialties. Sweet potato pie was a common dessert. When the children came home from school and needed a snack, they usually ate a cold, leftover sweet potato. Mammy just didn’t have much else to serve her family.

Even after the Depression, sweet potatoes were usually on Mammy’s table. Uncle Buzz called them Depression taters. He said he had eaten enough to do him a lifetime. He steadfastly declared that he would never eat another sweet potato.

For the rest of his life, Uncle Buzz remained true to his word!