The trial begins

A former Minneapolis police officer faces murder charges

This is my April column for my hometown newspaper, the @HollandSentinel…

The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd started on Monday, and like many Americans I’ve been following the news. I can’t escape it.

I’ve been living in Minneapolis for the last few months to provide pandemic relief for my daughters and their families, and now suddenly I find myself at the center of a news story. After living in Holland and being surrounded for the last year by “Trump 2020” signs, I now live in a neighborhood where “Justice for George Floyd” signs are everywhere. My congresswoman is Ilhan Omar. This is definitely not Holland.

Against the advice of my daughters, I took a walk one afternoon to see “George Floyd Square” for myself. The intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue is where Floyd died, after allegedly trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at the nearby Cup Foods grocery store. Officer Chauvin made the arrest, and according to onlookers who filmed the arrest and pleaded for Floyd’s life, Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds (and possibly longer).

Floyd died from that knee pressed to his neck, though he had a pre-existing heart condition and illegal drugs were found in his system during the autopsy. The jury will be asked to decide the exact cause of death, in order to determine the culpability of officer Chauvin.

“George Floyd Square” is now a memorial, still decorated with flowers, signs, and public art, and the streets around it have been blocked by protesters to through traffic for much of the last year. In language some politicians like to deploy, it has become a “no-go zone.”

The city has, perhaps wisely, decided to allow the memorial to continue for now. On June 13, 2020, the Minneapolis police issued a statement that they would “not be altering or decommissioning the memorial of [sic] George Floyd. We respect the memory of him and will not disrupt the meaningful artifacts that honor the importance of his life.”

According to national media, the city is “on edge,” awaiting the outcome of the trial. I don’t know if that’s true. I notice a sense of resignation, as well as some lingering anger. The people I talked to during my walk seem resigned to the fact that police officers are seldom convicted of killing unarmed civilians—in particular, unarmed Black civilians. They don’t expect that this time will be any different. Will there be more violence if the former officer is acquitted? It’s possible. It will happen because of a widespread feeling that the system itself is broken.

Floyd was a Christian—an imperfect one, which might also describe me. He was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and grew up in Houston—in the projects of that city. Because he grew to be 6’ 6” tall, he was a high school basketball player, but he wasn’t successful in college and dropped out after his third year. He liked music, so he did some rap, using the stage name “Big Floyd.” He also did drugs and prison time, including a four-year sentence for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. And then he got religion.

He attended a charismatic church called Resurrection Houston, where he delivered meals to senior citizens and mentored young men. With his height and color, he knew that he could be an intimidating presence, so he presented himself as meek and shy. If he shook your hand, he would use two of his to take yours. He was also a hugger. According to everyone who knew him, he never presented himself as a victim. He was well loved. Because of his size and intimidating presence, he found work as a bouncer at a nightclub and could remove troublemakers without much effort. He kept a Bible on his nightstand.

He came north to Minneapolis to go to drug rehab, but he continued to struggle. He was an addict, and he knew it. He didn’t stop being a Christian, though; he just continued to be an imperfect one. He had a girlfriend, and they went to church together.

Like Floyd, officer Chauvin is a human being. He will sit next to his defense attorney for the next month or so, and he will write words on a legal pad, because there isn’t much else that he can do. His fate is in the hands of a jury whose members have a thankless job. Either outcome in the trial—a guilty verdict or an acquittal—will be an outrage to someone. I don’t envy them.

So, I pray for them, for officer Chauvin, and for this city.

Notes about a 50th high school reunion

I'm excited and don't know why

I can’t tell you why, but I’ve been looking forward to my 50th high school class reunion.

A few months ago, I learned that there would be no reunion because of a lack of interest, and I remember feeling sad about that—once again for reasons I can’t explain. But then, with the clock winding down, a few of my classmates—God bless them—decided that there should be a reunion and that they would make it happen.

They began contacting people, who agreed to contact other people, and soon there were enough of us to think seriously about getting together and seeing for ourselves how the years and our life experiences have ravaged all of us.

The best idea the organizers had, I think, was to form a Facebook group for our class, decorated with our school colors (blue and black) and some photos from our year which—you must have calculated by now—was 1971. When the Facebook page appeared, more classmates began to appear. Someone from my class whom I have kept in touch with over the years, more or less, had successfully avoided social media for the last ten or 15 years, but with the reunion in mind he relented and created a Facebook page for himself.

Clearly, this was getting serious.

I did not attend my 10th reunion, and as far as I know, that was the only reunion our class attempted. I remember living in another state at the time and not being interested. But something has changed. I wouldn’t miss this one for anything.

Based on my not-very-extensive reading about the subject, not everyone feels the same way. Lots of people, I discovered, have no interest whatsoever in attending any high school reunion. The reason given most often for not attending is that some people never felt as though they fit in and couldn’t imagine spending two hours with those same people.

The second most common reason—I forget who did this exceptional research—is having been a part of big class. The thinking is, “I didn’t know many of my classmates. I don’t see the point of getting together with people I didn’t know.” My own class had 200 or so members, so size is not an excuse.

And last, but not least, the third most common reason can be summarized as follows: “I don’t know if I want to pay for airfare, rental car, hotel, etc. to see people I wasn’t all that close to.”

That last reason sounds a lot like the first, but I suppose the financial issue combined with not feeling close to classmates makes some sense. After having lived in six states (and one European city) I am now back to the area where I grew up and have no financial excuses for not showing up. But I think I would have bought a plane ticket even if I still lived elsewhere.

I don’t know if our class was particularly close, but many of us had been together for years before high school, attending the same Christian feeder schools that formed our Christian high school. Many of us also attended the same churches, played in the same Little Leagues, and knew about each other for countless other reasons. Grand Rapids was not a small town, then or now, but our little Christian sub-culture was small enough. And in that sense we were quite close.

There's an old joke that goes something like this: You go to your tenth high school class reunion to see who's looking good, to your 30th to see who's doing well, and to your 50th to see who's still alive. I thought this was funny, until I saw the list of my classmates who have not survived to attend the reunion. As it turns out, ten of my classmates have died since graduation, one of them just days after graduation. The sobering truth is that the rest of us are lucky to be here—through some combination of diet, exercise, and good genes.

As I began to read the Facebook pages of my classmates, though, I began to wonder why my classmates are bothering to gather in person. I can see what they look like now (presumably on their best days), where they went to school (after high school), what they have done with their lives, and even what they believe about religion and politics. One of my football teammates describes himself as “fiercely conservative,” and I wondered if I really wanted to spend the evening talking politics with him. Maybe we can stick to the topic of our three-wins-and-five-losses football season (not exactly a stellar senior year).

Social media may have changed some of the dynamics of a 50th reunion, but not all. I think there is still a need to come together 50 years later and congratulate ourselves on having made it. Getting to this age, having made a life for ourselves, having made a difference in the lives of other people, and still being able to smile about it all counts for something.

Beyond that, there’s the matter of marking this milestone. Birthdays and anniversaries play an important role in our lives. They tell us who we are and what we have accomplished. I look forward to attending this reunion, feeling good about having made it this far.

Lifetime Achievement Awards

It's awards season

Here’s my March column for my hometown newspaper, the @HollandSentinel…

It’s awards season, and I’m excited. I think I know why.

I spent so much time indoors over the last year that, for the first time I can remember, I’ve seen all of the movies and many of the TV series that will be nominated. In the past, awards season meant that I had a list of movies and television shows that I had to see over the coming months, to find out if they were as good as the judges thought they were. This year, I find myself wanting judges to get those awards right.

The 78th Golden Globe Awards started things off last weekend, but there is much more to come: Screen Actors Guild Awards, MTV Movie & TV Awards, Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, People’s Choice Awards, British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA), the Emmy Awards, and of course, in April, the Academy Awards (also known as the Oscars). And those, remarkably enough, are just some of the better-known awards. Frankly, I had no idea there were so many! How do they even find time to make the movies and TV shows?

My head swims as I think about all of the red carpets and acceptance speeches, the hosts with their thankless jobs, and (my favorite part) all those really attractive people who are dressed up, well groomed, and smiling for the cameras. Of course, this year, as last year, there will be no red carpets, and all of the smiling will be done remotely. Still, I feel the excitement. Don’t you?

Sometimes, though, it’s confusing. An award for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Limited Series, Anthology Series, or Motion Picture Made for Television”? Is that as good as “Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series—Musical or Comedy”? I don’t know. After a while, I don’t care. I don’t think most of it adds up to anything. I realize, as I type this, that it’s empty and shallow. At best it’s harmless fun.

I spent much of my life in a career where there were no awards, few bonuses, and never any ceremonies to recognize the best in my line of work. I have never attended an awards ceremony, and my bookshelf contains no trophies. I never once received an “Employee of the Month” award.

However, I did preach a few good sermons over the years and spent a few Sunday afternoons congratulating myself for getting that morning’s message just right, but it never occurred to me to enter the thing in a contest, to go up against colleagues who might also have been proud of their work.

Show business, I realize, is not alone in congratulating itself. Awards are handed out in a few other fields, though not many. My father once won an award for an especially effective advertising campaign he created, and he was understandably proud of it. I was happy for him. Actors, musicians, advertisers—that’s about it.

So, most people go about their work and hope for someone—a supervisor, a customer, a co-worker—to notice and say, “Well done.” No shiny statue, no acceptance speech, just a thank you. For most people that small recognition goes a long way. I tried to hand them out as often as I could and now wish I had handed out a few more. Really, how much does it cost to tell someone, “You’re doing a good job”?

The truth is, I spent much of my life trying to be the best at whatever I was doing. I was driven to succeed, without ever knowing what success looked like. I had role models, of course, but I realized soon enough that I should be the best version of myself that I was capable of being.

I worked hard and put in long hours. I sometimes let my work come before my marriage, my family, and my health. And for what? For most of us, there are no awards, no medals, and certainly no shiny trophies. I’m not sure that anyone comes to the end of life thinking, “I was a winner,” though I could be wrong.

One of my regrets is that I was in such a hurry all the time, treating new opportunities like competitions, hoping to win a gold medal at the end. Looking back, the best memories I have are not of competitions, but of having enjoyed the work I was doing and forming friendships with the people who were the doing the work with me.

I had to look it up but the quote I was looking for was, “the reward of a thing well done is having done it” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

Photo: Free subscriptions to all those who can identify this painting.

Looking forward to life after Zoom

Yesterday I found myself in a virtual classroom with 57 students, and I have a few thoughts.

When I was first asked to teach, I thought five or six people might sign up for a class titled “History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.” I was startled a week ago when I found out that 65 hearty souls had registered. (The six-week class happens to coincide with Thursday mornings during Lent, so I joked with a few people that signing up must be a new form of Lenten discipline, just ahead of self-flagellation.)

I worked with a terrific young woman, Susan Timmer, who was my tech support and confidant. Five minutes before the class started she let me know how many people were in the Zoom “waiting room,” which could be a way of thinking about purgatory. When she finally admitted my students to the virtual classroom, I could see that most of them kept their video and audio turned off. All I could see was a black square and a name (like “Betsy’s iPad”). Fewer than ten of my students turned their video on so that I could see them.

During my welcome I had planned to say, hoping to start off with some humor, that “some of us might miss Zoom meetings when the in-person variety starts again,” because “you can’t just get up and walk out of an in-person meeting.” As it turns out, what I intended as humor was more or less an accurate prediction. With 15 minutes set aside for discussion at the end of the 90-minute class, I noticed on my screen that class members were leaving the Zoom meeting one-by-one, until we were down to 42 or so at the bitter end. Those 15 students who left apparently got what they came for and weren’t interested in listening to their classmates’ comments and questions. (“Betsy’s iPad,” I noticed, stayed to the end, though she may have fallen asleep or simply left the room while I was talking.)

I remember teaching over the years in a very different kind of classroom and loving every minute of it. I enjoyed the eye contact, the lively give-and-take, and even the challenges from students who were pretty sure they knew more than I did about the subject matter. The virtual classroom has none of those things. I found little warmth or excitement in the experience, though I am still grateful for the invitation to teach.

Frankly, I don’t know how our teachers are managing during the pandemic. Getting everyone to turn on the video would of course be a good first step. But even with the students I could see, I sensed a distance that all of my natural charm and boundless energy could not overcome.

I had a high regard for teachers before the pandemic. It’s even higher now.

Photo: That’s me of course, and I’m sitting in an empty classroom at the Hope Academy of Senior Professionals (HASP), which describes itself as “a peer-led institution for learning in retirement.” It’s associated with Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

A bit of personal news

Dear friends, subscribers, and faithful readers,

Since many of you know me personally (and read my blog mainly out of nosiness), I thought you might enjoy reading a bit of personal news.

When my younger daughter successfully defended her dissertation last June (I watched via Zoom but couldn’t really tell you what it was about), she found a job that allows her to work from anywhere in the world, which had already been the case for her husband.

After briefly considering Hawaii—yes, really—they decided to move from Seattle to Minneapolis, where they bought a house in the same neighborhood as our older daughter. By September, our daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren were all living within two blocks of each other in south Minneapolis.

Not to be left out—and to help with childcare during the pandemic—Susan and I bought a small fixer upper in the same neighborhood, a few steps from Lake Hiawatha. Since mid-November we’ve been living in Minneapolis and restoring a house built in 1920, one that is desperately in need of attention.

The change for us has been dramatic. For nearly three years we had been living in the woods, north of Holland, a few steps from Lake Michigan; now we’re living in the city. For nearly three years we were living with a well and septic system; now we once again have city water and sewer. For nearly three years we were surrounded on every side by die-hard Trump supporters; now our neighborhood is dotted with “Justice for George Floyd” signs—and Ilan Omar is our congresswoman.

But the biggest—and most welcome—change is that, at long last, our family is together again. On Christmas Eve we calculated that it was our first one together in 20 years.

We’re not selling our house in Michigan. In fact, I’m in Michigan right now, getting ready to preach a sermon on Sunday for our church in Holland. We’ll call the place in Minnesota our pied-à-terre, a term I never thought I would use in connection with my life.

I hope this finds you well.



(photo: taken just now from my home office window in Michigan)

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