What I thought of while watching “Wonder Woman”

A version of this post was originally created as for the June 10 newsletter for the Universalist Christian Initiative.

I don’t think it is a spoiler to state the the film Wonder Woman (link plays audio) has been re-set to take place in World War One, and that is has scenes of wartime fighting. (She’s been around seventy-five years as a heroic Amazon warrior-princess and was introduced in the Second World War.)

I like the film very much, and if you like action films you should see it; it includes themes that I can’t discuss without giving away the plot. It was it in mind that I afterwards started reading John van Schaick’s The Little Corner Never Conquered, an account of the work of the American Red Cross in Belgium in World War One, and immediately thereafter. It’s available at Archive.org here.

Picture of Red Cross officers including John van Schaick

The “little corner” refers to that part of northwest Belgium unoccupied by the Germans, west of the Western Front, but though unoccupied was still atacked, creating refugees, and maiming and killing countless numbers of people. Van Schaick (pronounced “van skoik”) was a Universalist minister, and indeed a ministerial predecessor of mine in the Washington parish, known since 1930 as Universalist National Memorial Church. Even now, the parish parlor is named for him, his wife Julia and her parents. But van Schaick was not there in a ministerial role — he took a leave of absence — serving with the American Red Cross; he and Julia and the others were there to help those who could not help themselves, and did so with humility worth emulating. They accepted constraints (still not universally held); they did what was needed by taking the lead and cue from Belgians. They were there to support, not to control. All of this starting a hundred years a few weeks ago…

It’s a thrilling read, but not an adventure story; understatement hides horrors. John repeats Julia’s work as a nurse’s aide — a matter-of-fact list, from a day book? — caring for wounded American soldiers behind the lines:

Took down records of the wounded American soldiers, four papers for each. Collected patients’ letters, took them to censor, who was a wounded officer on top floor. Translated a letter written in Italian into English, so censor could pass on it. Got the passes for the slightly wounded going out. Fed soldiers helpless through wounds in hands or arms, or very ill. Gave out newspapers, fruit, matches, cigarettes and writing paper. Handed out uniforms for men going out for the day and other clothing like socks and underwear. Washed feet. Prepared special soup on alcohol lamp. Bathed very ill men on head and hands with cologne. Put into English lists of surgical appliances and material the French surgeons were asking of the American Red Cross. Attended funerals of the boys who died and was the only woman at the grave of some of them. Got the wreaths for these funerals, tied them with our colors and put them on the casket. Brought back the American flag from the grave. Wrote to families of the dead boys. Prepared little boxes in which boys could keep bullets or pieces of shell taken out of them. Helped an American sergeant entertain his French sweet-heart and her mother who had come to visit him. Telephoned. Sorted, counted and sent out dirty linen. Got men ready to take motor rides. Wrote letters for men. Interpreted for doctors, nurses and patients. Mended clothes. Picked up trash. (p. 52)

How horribly maimed must have the “very ill” been? The thought of Julia Romaine van Schaick’s care, as an stand-in for all those who risked health, safety and life humbles me. She was not there in a religious capacity, but her humanitarian care looks a lot like the soul of ministry to me. Remember them, too, in these centennial years — and remember those who put themselves at risk today in your charitable giving and, if the opportunity opens, with your talents. And remember: stories like these call us to higher service, if we would listen.

Want more? Yesterday I visited the National Postal Museum. A new exhibit on World War One opened. If you can’t make it to Washington, D.C., see highlights on their website.

My Fellow Soldiers: Letters from World War I

Working to help the hungry: thoughts public and private

I live in Washington, D.C., and I care deeply about my city. In particular, I hate when it becomes an eponym for political misdeeds or a focus of scorn. Remember: the 600,000-plus people of the District of Columbia don’t even get voting representation in Congress. And the Congress reserves for itself the power of our purse. And one part of one party has made a hostage of the budget, and with it he livelihoods of many friends and neighbors in the greater Washington metropolis and worldwide.

Despite the jokes of the lazy civil servant, many of these workers are not particularly well-paid (even in the Congress staff itself) and furlough days have taken a bite. How long will it be when some of these same civil servants will need food assistance, even as the programs are on ice? That members of military qualify for SNAP (food stamps) is itself a shame, lest anyone forget.

Baked into the conflict is what the proper role of government should be, and even if the current impasse is quickly resolved, it’s hard to imagine a happy outcome when that one part of one party is dedicated no less to anti-government than anything else. Which makes me question the natural churchly impulse to private, charitable solutions to social harms, like hunger. Isn’t that just playing into an anti-government script? Especially since churches can barely keep their doors open. The same can be said of many secular non-profits. There’s just not enough labor, leadership and plain old money to restore public needs to charity.

But there’s also the difference between a regularly-operating government and a crisis. Today we have a crisis and so today we have a responsibility to give more to charities that pick up where government initiatives fail. (Our task tomorrow is to push the vandals out of office.)

OK: let’s look at a couple of good ideas that other places could emulate.

  1. The DC Food Finder a “project of Healthy Affordable Food For All” maps meal programs, food distribution sites, mutual aid, market alternatives and the like.
  2. One of the market alternatives is the Healthy Corners program, which supplies produce to corner markets in poorer parts of the District. See the video, too.
  3. SHARE DC (SHARE Food Network) provides set packages of low-cost groceries; participants subdivide and package the food. It’s managed by Catholic Charities and operated through neighborhood churches.

Free your mind from commercial occupation

My “Occupy mind” is moving from plowing (attracting attention through encampment) to planting, even if the seasons belie the metaphor. It’s time to develop concrete actions to match the feelings stirred up in the last two months. A political response is natural, and I expect you to keep pressure on your congregational delegations with respect to the banks, money in elections, student indebtedness and mortgages, among other issues.

But another, more basic issue, is changing our minds about what we really need as opposed to what we think we need. Confusing the famous with the important. Believing the promises made to you by people who have no interest in your well-being. (That thought started as a rejection of advertising, but really it goes much farther.) Thinking that your opinion is false because it is not well-spoken. (You can work on being convincing later.)

Of course, it’s easier to do this when there are concrete examples, and I’ll post good models as I find them.

Chinese prisons keep slavery alive

It’s hard to see the “reeducation through labor” prisons in the People’s Republic of China and not see slavery. These laogai prisons not only detain people — including prisoners of conscience, including in Falun Gong and Christian believers — but then sell their products overseas. So some of those cheap Chinese goods come not simply from an artificially depressed Chinese currency and at the expense of Chinese workers, but from real, live modern slave labor. The EU has no effective law, and the US is toothless.

A documentary on Al-Jazeera — a part of their Slavery: A 21st Century Evil series(watch it online) — brings it home. Or if you’re in Washington, D.C. you can visit the Laogai Museum and see more yourself. I’ve been — it’s north of Dupont Circle — and is worth the visit.

Laogai Museum
1734 20th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20009


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Perhaps instead of “Black Friday”/Buy Nothing Day?

 

 

Occupy: D.C., New York, Davis or where-have-you

I’d hate for my readers to think that my few comments about the Occupy movement suggests I’m uninterested. Far from it. Indeed, I’m very mad and deeply concerned about yesterday’s pepper-spraying of student demonstrators at University of California Davis. Google for it, if you’ve not seen this now-iconic photograph.

But I comment mostly by Twitter, Identi.ca, Google+ and Facebook.  And if you have the means to support your closest Occupy encampment, I encourage you to do so.

Linux, Microsoft users: protect yourself against repetitive stress

I had a harrowing day today at the emergency room. All is well — better safe that sorry — but at the very least, let it be said that I should mitigate against eye and neck strain.

Coming home, I re-installed a piece of software I once used: Workrave. It forces you to take short pauses and coffee breaks, and leads you through stretching your arms and shoulders, and refocusing your eyes. You can set the length between breaks and how many times you can defer them, say if you’re on deadline or showing someone something on your computer.

For users of the newest (Oneiric) version of Ubuntu Linux, install the backports repository (Edit > Software sources > Updates tab in the Ubuntu Software Center) and install it there or any standard way.

Linux users who compile from source and Microsoft users can get their software here.

History needs to repeat: a ministry for affordable housing

I was reading the Universalist Register for 1912 to plan ahead for blog posts for next year. (What I don’t do for my readers.)

I noted a ministry affiliated with the old Massachusetts Convention: The Bethany Union for Young Women.

Its object is to maintain a home for respectable young women who are forced by the keen competition of a large city, to work for small wages.

Gauging by the horror stories I’ve heard in D.C. about housing, particularly among the 20-something set, even moderate wages get ground to nothing under the weight of student loans and a heritage of real estate speculation. Could use such a ministry in D.C.

It’s moved from its former location in the South End, but the Bethany Union still exists in Boston.

Good, best campaigns for women with obstetric fistula?

I can think of few medical conditions as debilitating — but treatable — as obstetric fistula, and I’d like to do a part to help.

In the Wealthy West, it doesn’t ordinarily come up in discussions of reproductive health or choice, but that’s what it seems like to me. An obstetric fistula is a hole between the vagina and rectum, or vagina and urethra. They’re caused by over-extended labor, which causes the tissues, under pressure, to die. I can only imagine the stigma, the disability and the peril to health.

I know about them from sensitive news reporting, and from them, to organizations that campaign against fistula. One such report is on Al Jazeera, which you can watch online while you keep up with North African and Middle Eastern news: see “Fistula Hospital” in the Birthrights series.

Some organizations or campaigns seem to train midwives to make childbirth safer. Others seem to fund reconstructive surgery. Others seem to be educational.

Just raising the issue here, but do you know the obstetric fistula organizations and have found one you particularly admire? Is there interest in learning more about how to help?

Get out your checkbooks; ministers need you

Today’s the last day of the year: the perfect time to write a check — or checks — to the ministerial discretionary funds of ministers you know or trust. (I make the check to the church, memo it to the ministerial discretionary fund and mail it to the minister.)

These funds are part of an intangible safety net and often fill needs that have no program or public support. I’ve given from, given to, and received from ministerial discretionary funds.

Please consider helping.