Sunday, August 12, 2012

Finding Friends in a Strange Land

Two gentleman in the twenties up ended up homeless on a bench in front of the Bolton Free Library.  They were students who, with the help of an agency, traveled more than 4600 miles from Bulgaria to work in a resort motel on Lake George, NY.  They described their first days in America as follows: they arrived in Lake George by bus.  From there, they took a trolley the remaining ten miles to their prearranged employer in Bolton Landing.  Upon arriving at their destination, they were summarily discharged - fired - because their hair was too long.  Their agency, contacted for help, refused to believe they were released upon arrival because they were men with longer than shoulder length hair.  They were effectively left stranded with limited English skills, little money and no place to stay.

For three days, these very personable men from Eastern Europe, slept on benches in front of the Library until the Library's Director, Megan Baker, discovered their plight.  I happened to be in the library at the time and witnessed the flurry of activity that followed. A chagrined Ms. Baker charged back and forth throwing off one-liners in her wake: "they've been sleeping on the porch",  "they have no one to help them", "they haven't eaten in three days!".  Before I could reach for the credit card, Ms. Baker was forraging in a window box.  Out came the paper plates and plastic utensils the Library uses for functions - and sometimes arts and crafts, a bowl of pasta made it's way from the Library refrigerator to the microwave and then to a makeshift luncheon in the Adirondack room.  By all reports, the men ate ravenously.

In the meantime, Ms. Baker became an advocate for two student visitors she had just met.  In her frenetic style, she asked questions and began working the phone.  Their agency was contacted, their plight recounted and within and hour or two a new destination and a new job were secured.  She checked schedules and finally asked me to drive the young men to Lake George and the bus so that they could catch a plane to Seattle.  They would be met there and taken to a new opportunity in Alaska!

The men were not bitter of upset about recent events.  They treated it as nothing more than a bump in the road.  As I said before, they were very personable.  They spoke about the opportunities ahead, about their lives back home and the degrees they were pursuing.  They described Bulgaria as very much like the Adirondacks - but not as rich.  Everything about them was positive whether they were speaking about their native land  (they glowed when I mentioned I'd seen pictures of Sofia, the capital), the people they'd met so far or what they hoped to see and do while here; this was simply an adventure and a means to make enough money to meet their goals (university degrees).  They were off to Alaska!

They could not know that back at the Bolton Free Library Megan Baker stood at her desk crying.  She bemoaned the fact that they had no one to speak for them (I told her they had an advocate: her), that they were forced to sleep on her benches (why hadn't she known!) and that they went hungry in her town (people from Bolton aren't like that...what must they think of us...we're a friendly town).  I told her just what they said on the trip to the bus and relayed the positiveness of their attitudes.  She was grateful but it wasn't enough.  At the next Library Board meeting she made sure everyone knew foreign students were sleeping on library benches and going hungry in the Town of Bolton.  The Board immediately and unanimously passed a motion meant to insure that no one goes hungry on library property again.  It was the best example of NIMBY I'd every seen.  Go hungry...not in my back yard.

When I write (fiction), I generally wallow at the bleak and black end of the pool.  My characters are dark, nonredemptive folk; their stories rarely end well.  Right now, two young men from Bulgaria are working in Alaska to become, along with their fellow foreign students, engineers and doctors and lawyers.  They got there with a helping hand from a librarian from Bolton Landing.  It is an adventure I would love to have.  I fervently hope things go well for them and that they return to their native Bulgaria with a sense of the opportunity that is America. 

(By way of full disclosure:  I am a member of the Board of the Bolton Free Library.)

Monday, August 6, 2012

Not as Simple as "One Nation Under God"

(The following is a response to an op-ed piece appearing in the Adirondack Journal under the title of "One Nation Under God" by Daniel Alexander.

I found your editorial, "One Nation Under God" a bit schizophrenic.  That generally happens when you attempt to marry the Establishment Clause of the Constitution with public displays and practices of religion,  The real greatness of America's "Grand Experiment" was not that it guaranteed the rights and freedoms of the majority but, in doing so, it also protected and guaranteed the rights and freedoms of the minority.

I find it offensive that you denigrate certain groups for "skillfully [using] the freedoms we enjoy" in seeking redress in the courts.  That, frankly, is one of the freedoms we enjoy, one of the freedoms guaranteed within the framework of the "grand experiment".  The Founders did not limit dissension to commonly held beliefs.  One of the great hallmarks of this country is that no one turns water cannons on people praying on the steps of the Supreme Court or marching in opposition to government policies on the Great Mall of the United States.

I applaud your statement that "there must be room in this country and its government for all forms of religious and spiritual beliefs".  However that statement fails to recognize that public prayers in this country tend to reflect the majority Christian viewpoint at the exclusion of most others.  I cannot think of or imagine a public prayer that seeks the blessings and assistance of multiple gods (One Nation Under God means one god no matter what beliefs may be present) or entreats the spirits of the earth (you mentioned pagans) to guide our deliberations.

Your editorial goes on to state that "our courts need to quit attacking religion and slowly chipping away its importance in our society".  It has become fashionable to rebuke judges as activist whenever they take a position contrary to (one side or the other's) position.  Your article does not mention specific instances where the courts chipped away at religion or even acknowledged the existence of cases that found FOR religious interests.  The men and women who wear the robes are, to my mind, honest, deliberative, intelligent human beings who take difficult issues seriously and decide them to the best of their abilities.  I may not always agree with their decisions - sometimes I might feel like screaming - but  I believe in the honesty of the process.  That, too, was part of the "grand experiment".

Finally, your suggestion that Mr. Douglass (in Essex County, NY) call for a moment of reflection has merit.  When someone, somewhere discovers a way for a supervisor or a principal or a teacher to suggest prayer without making it feel like a requirement to pray, maybe we can put this issue to rest.