Archive for May, 2015

May 28, 2015

Pete Thielen—John Wayne of the Soul

By Ed Chasteen

Pete Thielen hasn’t walked in years. He can’t hold a pen to write. He can’t talk. He sees and hears everything. His mind is quick and agile. The way his body used to be.

He had to be here tonight. His wife and son-in-law got him ready. He doesn’t get out much anymore. He wants to. His body won’t cooperate. He watches movies on the big screen TV they bought for him. John Wayne is his favorite.

More than 150 miles each way they had to come. They unloaded his chair in the parking lot and brought him inside. His teammates of 50 years ago surrounded him. He was our center on the 1953 football team that went undefeated and won the championship of Texas. Tonight he is again our center. We have followed the progress of his disease as it steals his life. We have been awed with his fierce defiance wedded to a radiance that comes from within and somehow is made known to all who come into his presence.

I do not know the medical term to describe the genetic disorder that takes him in stages from us. Even in high school its presence was known to us. Its insidious and persistent progression has proved unstoppable.

All of us who gather tonight to remember what we did when we were young have in the years since fought personal battles. The ravages of age have paid their usual visits. There were 27 of us back then when we were the toast of Texas. Three have died. One is too sick to come. One has been a recluse for years. The other 22 are here. All wanting to see Pete.

Even if I knew the name of Pete’s time-release assassin, I could not bring myself to speak it or to write it. To call the name of something implies some degree of acceptance or familiarity. I will not grant Pete’s adversary that status. It is a cold, impersonal and malevolent presence that robs Pete in silence of one capacity after another. More than half a century at work on his body, this monster has reduced Pete to physical immobility and an undignified dependence on others.

It is a law of physics that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. The spiritual corollary of that law I see in what Pete’s physical condition has done to his soul. As Pete has wasted physically away, his soul has burst all human bounds. People are drawn to him. He can neither speak nor write. But being in his presence is not depressing. He has not grown bitter. He loves. And is loved. Physical invalidity has not made Pete a social or spiritual invalid. He is welcome company.

Pete Thielen is living proof that life is more than we know on ordinary days in ordinary bodies. Together we were champions of Texas years ago. Pete’s championship season has continued over all this time. He leads us by example as we all walk through the valley of the shadow.

Our championship season was but prelude to Pete’s championship soul. Memories of our gridiron feats prepared us for the battles that eventually come to each of us. To have Pete at the center of our memories gives a grace to our lives greater than all our fears.

We were a bunch of scrawny over achievers back then. We’re not so scrawny now. But with Pete to inspire us, over achievement is the order of the day.

May 26, 2015

Sarah Small

2005 by Ed Chasteen

She really wasn’t coming to ask my permission. Just to explain why she was leaving. For years I’ve said to my friends that they have to ask my permission to move away. No one ever has. But I think they understand why I ask. Their leaving is painful. I hurt when they leave.

By email just the other day I learned that Sarah is moving from her home where she and Mendel raised David and Michael. She’s moving to Chicago where Michael is a lawyer. His wife is from Chicago. Her grand children are there. David is a rabbi. He moved to a new synagogue two years ago. “Congregational life is uncertain. He might move again,” she explains.

Mendel knew he was dying. He and Sarah talked about what she should do when he was gone. He told her to move to Chicago where she would be near family. A few weeks ago Mendel died. The house they shared is on the market. Soon Sarah will be gone. Beth Shalom Synagogue will miss her sterling leadership. She will not be there the next time I take a group to visit.

Years ago Sarah and I bumped into each other. In our own ways each of us had been for a long time working to enlarge our circle of friendships; she, from the synagogue; I, from the Baptist Church. Why we hadn’t met sooner is a mystery. But in the 80s we did. And became fast friends.

Sarah was one of our honorees at a Human Family Reunion in the late 80s. We were meeting in a place Mendel thought was unsafe. He wouldn’t let Sarah come. We honored her in her absence. Sarah took the lead in creating an international program for high schools in Greater Kansas City. She asked me to help. We talked often by phone about our complimentary efforts to make our town a friendly place for all.

I never met Mendel. I came to understand him through a mutual friend. Rich is a deacon in Second Baptist Church, where I am Ambassador to Other Communities of Faith. Rich Groves is a meticulous planner and organizer. So good that Beth Shalom hired him as Executive Director. As elected leader of the congregation, Sarah was his boss. Mendell was a successful lawyer and a powerful presence in the congregation. He met often with Rich.

When Rich and I would go for our weekly Saturday morning bicycle breakfast rides to small town cafes, Rich would share with me his growing appreciation for Mendell. His body had betrayed him for years. Several times each week he had to visit the hospital for dialysis. But his brilliant mind and unfailing good humor captivated Rich. So through Rich and Sarah I came to appreciate a person I never was destined to meet.

Now Sarah has driven to my home to say goodbye. My bicycle crash three weeks ago has laid me up for a while with broken ribs. She brings me a gift, and we sit in the living room and talk. Then she is gone. We likely will not meet again in person. Email provides a paler presence. But distance is no longer the dark void of former times. We will appear now and then on one another’s computer screens.

May 19, 2015

1997

Ruby Cooks for the Human Family Reunion

This Tuesday morning begins the 11th day of the 11th month and is Veterans’s Day in America. Our nation’s capital is solemn with pageantry and filled with memories of liberty won at the highest price. How fitting that at 11 o’clock our team of HateBusters arrives at the Holocaust Museum, a place made holy by the hellish hate it remembers, least it be unleashed again.

Bronia isn’t here. She has flown to Israel to visit her brother who is ill. But Bronia doesn’t need to be here. She was there. Ruby isn’t here. She’s gone to Sam’s Club to buy groceries for tonight’s Human Family Reunion at Calvary Baptist Church. She will spend the afternoon cooking. Brian isn’t here. He went to help Ruby.

Stunned and speechless we stagger after three hours of the Holocaust onto the sidewalk and into fresh air. We escape to the Old Post Office Pavilion. With food and shopping beyond need, we seek with little success to forget what we have just witnessed. By 5 o’clock we are at the church, ready for reunion.

First through the door and half an hour early for the Human Family Reunion come three young children. Eyes light up. Smiles erupt as these three spot the HateBusters who came yesterday to their school. The children rush to their new friends and stand shyly at their sides.

Food for a hundred Ruby has prepared as we gather at 6:30 to eat. Everywhere since arriving in Washington four days ago we have invited people to come to our reunion tonight. These three children after a while are joined by a retired couple, members of a Sunday School class here at Calvary where some of us spoke on Sunday.

Two homeless men wander in and sit with us to eat. One of our younger members wants to go into the street and invite others. No one comes. But we take plate after plate of Ruby’s soul food up the stairs and out the door to them.

No one at our Human Family Reunions is allowed more than three minutes to speak. This gives everyone a chance to talk and increases the likelihood that something we say might be remembered. Nearly everyone in the room comes forward to speak. Or sing. Or both. Some more than once.

All testify to the power of the idea that brought us to Washington, the idea that as HateBusters we can teach people how to like people and how to oppose hate. We also testify to the power of this idea, being commonly held among us, to transform us from strangers when we come to intimate friends as we leave.

In the course of our ordinary lives, we found ourselves plucked by an invitation from our president and set amidst a place and people of powerful symbolic significance to us. Our national capital and our government have summoned us and charged us with a sacred trust. Being knighted by the king, given a sword and commanded to slay the dragon could have conveyed no greater sense of empowerment and invincibility than this HateBusters Mission to Washington.

Having come to our nation’s capital, we belong now to America, our task to teach people how to like people and how to oppose hate. To make real the stirring words of our first president: “The government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” (George Washington, August 17, 1790)

May 19, 2015

1997

Ruby and Our Invitation to the White House

A small story on an inside page of The Kansas City Star jolted me to life one early June morning in 1997. President Clinton was planning a White House Hate Crimes Conference to be held in November. Participation by invitation only. HateBusters had to be there! How was I to get an invitation? There always is a way to do a thing that must be done.

I remembered that last year our Governor had campaigned for President Clinton’s reelection. The president had carried our state. Therefore, President Clinton was indebted to Governor Carnahan. Robin and Tom Carnahan, two of the governor’s children, had graduated from William Jewell. Had been students in my class I had known Mel and Jean Carnahan as parents, long before Mel became our governor. The governor would get me an invitation from the president. I knew he would. So I wrote the governor, asking him to ask the president to invite me to Washington. A few days later Governor Carnahan sent me a copy of the letter he wrote to President Clinton.

The Governor wrote to the President: “I want to make you aware of an outstanding individual and a group, both of whom are making outstanding progress in the Kansas City area in their fight against hate. The individual is Dr. Ed Chasteen, and the group is called HateBusters. Ed is the founder and president. I urge you to invite Ed Chasteen and HateBusters to come and be an inspiring part of your Conference on Hate Crimes. They will inspire you and all with whom they come in contact.”

When that letter came I knew I was invited. I knew, too, that I could not go alone. A team. I had to have a team. Ruby, Bronia, and Mom had to go. And my son, Brian. Students from Jewell. The Excelsior Springs Job Corps. Al Plummer. Within a week I had the names of 25 people I wanted on my team. Before I began their recruitment, I had to have a way to get them there. I went to see John Pritchard.

John makes things happen. Back in 1987 he got me invited to see President Carter on my ride across the country. I had been to John and Mary, his wife, on numerous occasions over the years in search of financial and moral support and names of other people who could help. I had never been disappointed. Awed and amazed many times. But never disappointed. “John, President Clinton has invited me to the White House Hate Crimes Conference. I need to buy plane tickets for 25 HateBusters to go to Washington. I need money for lodging and meals.” John wrote a sizable check and gave me names of people to ask for more. I called the airline and bought the tickets.

The next morning early I was at Ruby’s Soul Food. “Ruby, President Clinton has invited me to Washington.” Before I could say more, Ruby cut me off. “I want to go. When do we leave?” Mom and Bronia were just as eager. Everybody on my list said yes. I got calls from others. “I want to go,” they said. I reluctantly cut it off when our number reached 27.

Bobbie has always kept me grounded. “You can never do anything simple. You always have to make it grandiose.” She told me this often. Early on I had protested her description. But she was right. She knew me well. And she wasn’t shy in telling me. Now she said, “You haven’t been invited to the White House.” “Yes, I have,” I said. “Show me the invitation,” she said. “I can’t right now. It’s on its way. Those no way the president will turn down the governor,” I said. “I can see the invitation right here in my hand. But it will be a while before others can see it.”

I sent out a press release. President Clinton has invited HateBusters to the White House conference on Hate crimes on November 10. A team of 27 will leave Kansas City on Saturday morning November 8. Before we return late on Wednesday evening, we will visit schools and churches, a Job Corps, the House and Senate and the White House.

Our team includes Christians, Jews and Muslims. We are black and white, male and female. In age from 18-82. One of us survived the Holocaust. We all have read our book, How To Like People Who Are Not Like You, and each of us will teach our book when we go to Washington.

Ruby is a member of our team. She is closing her restaurant and going with us. On Tuesday night, November 11 in Washington at the Calvary Baptist Church, Ruby will cook a Soul Food dinner and we will have a Human Family Reunion. People of all colors, creeds and cultures will come, bringing food from their ethnic roots to showcase what Ruby has prepared. Who’s right will be the wrong question this night. Getting to know one another is our only purpose. “Eat first, ask later”, will be our rule.

Our team has been brought together specifically for this Washington Project. We have not yet all met each other. So on Thursday, October 2 at 1 PM, we are gathering at Ruby’s Soul Food Cafe, 1501 Brooklyn, 421-8514. We will be there wearing our HateBusters T-shirts. We will eat together, get to know one another and talk about our mission to Washington. Everyone who would like to meet us and encourage us is welcome to come to Ruby’s.

A team of 27 HateBusters left for Washington on Saturday, November 8 at 7:50 in the morning aboard USAir. Our team included students from Excelsior Springs Job Corps, William Jewell College and Penn Valley Community College. Bronia survived the Holocaust. Ruby is closing her Kansas City Soul Food Cafe for the five days we will be in Washington. Queen Mother McFarlane will teach us all to sing “Pass It On”. Al, for 18 years Director of the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, Brian from DeVry, Mark from Southwestern Bell, Melissa from Ad Hoc, Mike and Cynthia, Job Corps staff–all HateBusters. All going to Washington.

May 19, 2015

1987

On my way by bicycle from Orlando to Seattle to Anaheim

If I had known, I might not have stopped by Ruby’s on the way in. One the other hand, I might have stopped anyway. I hadn’t seen Ruby since about a month before I left. Ruby’s Soul Food Cafe, 1506 Brooklyn. A dump! A bit of heaven! Ruby. Earth mother. As fine a cook as ever lived. As beautiful a soul as ever visited among us. We could not ride past. We hug and kiss. She has to know about the trip. She has kept up with me in the papers and on TV, the same way I, and all of Kansas city, regularly keep up with her.

Partly to excuse leaving without eating and without spending enough time, I say to Ruby that we will be back at two o’clock. And though I don’t ask, I know she will serve us family style, with wave after wave of mouth watering foods; salads of every conceivable kind, fried chicken, chicken and dressing, chicken and dumplings, smothered steak, baked ham, catfish, meatloaf, neckbones, miced greens, homemade rolls and cornbread. And when we have been made miserable by gluttony, Ruby will insist that we visit the desert table: peach and cherry cobler, sweet potato pie, apple pie, banana pudding, pecan pie, several cakes, and homemade ice cream. Of course, everything at Ruby’s is homemade. She would give me a good cussing if she thought you thought otherwise.

Though there are only two of us, and to eat family style requires 12, I was never more certain of anything in my life than that we will not be given a menu to order from. Of one more thing I am equally certain: it will all be on the house. Ruby wouldn’t take our money if we put a gun to her head.

So when we get to Habitat and see that they have lunch for us, I know we have to eat twice. John and Mary Pritchard are remarkable people. They live in Liberty, and I have known them for the 22 years I’ve been there. Every time I see John, my first thought is of the remark I first made to him years ago and have repeated often to him. “John,” I said, “I can’t go anywhere in the Kansas City area where good and noble things are done without seeing your name on the board of directors, or a plaque or a cornerstone or without hearing your name mentioned in conversation.”

I would never turn down anything John and Mary offered. They have made a sizable financial contribution to my ride and had been at the airport to see me off. They had also given one of their daughter’s names on the west coast for me to contact when I get there.

We would have eaten more if we had not known what was waiting at Ruby’s. But we did eat. After lunch, John takes us to the building site where volunteers from a college in Illinios are working, and he calls them together so I can talk to them.

We’re back at Ruby’s at two and everything transpires just as I knew it would. After an hour and a half of eating, resting, and visiting, the two of us stagger onto our bikes for the short ride back to Habitat where we are scheduled to spend the night before riding to Liberty tomorrow for the giant welcome on campus.

We detour slightly to ride up Prospect and through the heart of the black community as we make our way back. When someone calls to me, I stop. He wants to know all about the trip. When we get back to Habitat, John is sick. All that food, the heat, and that last little ride have him ready to go home. He has already arranged with John Pritchard to go back to Liberty when he comes up to our fourth floor rooms where we are to sleep. John asks if I want to go. We can leave our bikes here. Sharon, his wife, will bring us back in the morning so we can bike the 20 miles to Liberty. At first I say no, I will stay at Habitat. But the thought of sleeping in my own bed and sitting in the Jacuzzi to ease my aching back proves irresistible.