#BlackLivesMatter and The Legacy of Slavery

Much of what the “Black Lives Matter” movement is doing makes us uncomfortable, particularly those of us who are white. This is as it should be. If we’re comfortable where we are “at”, we won’t move, we won’t improve, we won’t change. If the injustices that exist are to be righted, we must be made uncomfortable. We must be made to see those things which are invisible to us because they’ve “always been that way” – working well for us, and so we ignore them or are unaware that they operate in our favor: that’s the very definition of “structural racism.” Yet, these same structural prejudices that are so deeply intertwined within our society and legal system do not work so favorably for others.

The first slaves arrive in Massachusetts on board the Desire, December 12, 1638.
The first slaves arrive in Massachusetts on board the Desire, December 12, 1638.

We often forget that slavery was everywhere in the US until the early 1800’s, and it was no prettier in Massachusetts, New York, or New Hampshire than it was in Texas, Delaware, or Virginia.

Some of the best known Blacks in U.S. History – such as Sojourner Truth, William Still, and Lucy Terry Prince – were born into slavery in the North, or were transported here as slaves from Africa.  Many of our most famous native sons here in New England (such as John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) sanctioned slavery.  Many of the wealthiest families of New England and New York in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries built their fortunes upon the slave trade.  And, we forget that slavery was very much present in places like Massachusetts for over 150 years.  In fact, with the sole exception of Vermont, slavery was not abolished in any Northern State until after the American Revolution, and was not fully abolished from all Northern States until 1865.

Another aspect of oppressive systems, such as slavery – and like any institution or behavior deeply embedded in any society or organization – is that its effects persist long after people even remember that it was there. You see this in how some churches keep on “chewing up” new Ministers, in how corruption keeps on toppling one political figure after another in certain communities, or in why we here in America drive on the right hand side of the road, or why we set the table with the fork on the left.

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Sermon: Forgiveness

Our God is a God of second chances, a God of Healing not just for us, but also for those who hurt us. We cannot deny the pain they cause, nor should we, but we can receive God’s healing. We begin this process for ourselves, and those who sin against us, through forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s love in action.

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni
The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni

With the recent mass shooting in Charleston and the death sentence for the Boston Marathon Bomber we are once again witnessing the spectacle of one who is a purveyor of hate being confronted by those who have survived their brutality and evil. Some say such monstrosity can never be forgiven.  Others say that while justice must be done, it is wrong to answer evil with evil.  Both are correct.

We’ve seen the survivors in Charleston confronting the unrepentant murderer, and forgiving him. They’ve been lauded as an example of what Christian forgiveness is really all about. But is that true? Doesn’t their forgiveness seem too soon, perhaps even forced?

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To the Guy Flying a Confederate Flag in Exeter, New Hampshire

Rev. Heath is Absolutely right…

Emily C. Heath

I saw your truck parked in front of the Rite-Aid, right by the Dunkin Donuts. Two large Confederate flags were attached to the back of it, waving in the wind. The American flag was, incongruously (and in violation of the flag code), in the center. And, I have to confess, I don’t get it.

Part of me wanted to ask obvious questions: You know you are in New Hampshire, right? And, you know New Hampshire was not a part of the Confederacy?

11709431_400316456841007_5791455240479926301_nI ask this because I’m not so sure you do. Here we are in a northern town, a place that gave her sons up to the Union Army and lost them on the battlefields of the Civil War. A place where locals organized early against slavery and led the charge against it across the country. A place where 150 years ago that flag would have been seen as…

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Not White Enough, Not Black Enough

Rachel Dolezal

You’ve probably heard the story of Rachel Dolezal in the news: a young woman who is (apparently) “White,” but who some now claim has been masquerading as “Black” for most of her adult life.  She is also the [now former] President of the NAACP chapter in her community of Spokane, Washington; and a professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University.

The concern of many is that she is not a “real Black” even though she claims to be.  But, what is a “Real Black” – or, for that matter, a “Real White”?  And, is all this controversy over her perceived racial makeup relevant in any case?

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Sermon: Making Room

…when we walk out of this church, the question of whether we are going to face the issue of racism and race-based injustice is a choice we can make, because we are all white. And, unlike our black brethren, we can choose to forget about it. … King said “the time is always ripe to do right.” And so I say “yes, the time is always ripe; but are we willing to do right all the time?”

martin_luther_king_cover.jpg.size.xxlarge.promoMy self-image as a strong supporter of Civil Rights crashed in ruin one Sunday morning, in the Spring of 1996. At the time, I was a member of an African American church in Virginia, and their sound technician. (…But please don’t tell our worship team that!) That morning, as I was setting up, a young woman, maybe 16 years of age, came in with her friends, and sat down in front of me and my sound board. She then leaned forward in her chair, so that I could not miss what was printed on the back of her orange t-shirt in big block letters: “I WASN’T EDUCATED IN NO F***ING WHITE MAN’S SCHOOL”.

I must apologize for even hinting at such language here. But it is important for this morning’s message to give you a good sense of what that moment was like.

Obviously, this is not one of my lighter sermons. So, let’s take a moment to pray…

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Risky Business

The Third Slave recovers his buried talent.
The Third Slave recovers his buried talent.

Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, November 16, 2014.

Scriptures:
Matthew 25:14-30 The Parable of the Talents (The Voice Bible)

The Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 has always left me a little uneasy. For one thing, parables, by intent, are meant to end with a question mark: leaving their audience with an anxious and counterintuitive decision that they would rather not face and can’t quite pin down. And yet, in this parable, the answer seems pretty clear – “Put our God-given talents to use.” In fact, this is so widely accepted that the word “Talent” itself came to be used in the English language as a reference to our God-given gifts because of this parable; transformed from its ancient use as a word for a standard measure of great wealth.

So, from that point alone, I am curious as to whether the traditional interpretation that we’ve probably all heard in many sermons is actually in line with the intent of Matthew’s Gospel, or Jesus’ intent, for that matter.

Increasing my unease is this: Jesus is the Social Revolutionary, constantly campaigning against the evils of privilege and position and power.  And yet, in this story, the person who already holds position and power seems to be eager to acquire even more through the efforts of others, and engages with his servants in ways that would have been perceived by the original audience as unfair and dishonest.

But first, let’s look at the setting for this parable… It is part of a very clear and intentional sequence of events and teachings in Matthew’s narrative, all of which focus on the issue of the return of Christ.

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All Too Silent a Witness

The irony of the watching the famous slow motion chase of OJ Simpson as I stood next to Ben Kinchlow alone in that room struck me as I stood there, and is one I still think of from time to time even now, 20 years later: There I was, a theologically progressive Christian working for a conservative Christian organization, standing next to a man who had once been a black nationalist, heavily influenced by Malcom X; then ordained as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church and who was founder of an organization dedicated to helping underprivileged African American kids and a man who for many years had been a prominent member of CBN’s leadership.

OJ and the Slow Chase

NB: A recent CNN opinion piece by Dorothy A. Brown entitled “Why Holder Remark Made White People Mad” has a lot to say that is right in line with what I say here.

You know, 20 years is a long time, and yet not so long…

Late in the evening of Friday June 17, 1994, I was in the lobby of The Founder’s Inn in Virginia Beach, VA watching the news on a television there while waiting for my (first) wife to finish up her work for the evening at the hotel’s bookstore and gift shop.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the conservative Christian universe, The Founder’s Inn is on the campus of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), the headquarters for Pat Robertson’s television ministry. I had only recently been hired there, to manage a software development department in their IT Division.

As I stood there, up on the screen came a “news alert” followed by a live telecast via helicopter of the famous “slow motion chase” by police down Interstate 405 in Los Angeles of a white Ford Bronco carrying O. J. Simpson, who was sitting in the back seat of the vehicle, pointing a gun at his own head.   At the time, he was the prime suspect in the murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman.

Standing next to me watching that broadcast was a gentleman I barely knew, but whom I heard a great deal about and admired: Ben Kinchlow, a prominent Black evangelist and activist, and (at the time) co-host of Pat Robertson’s daily “700 Club” broadcast.

We stood side by side, wordlessly watching the spectacle unfolding before us for around 20 minutes before we both went our separate ways.

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It’s not about Wingnuts and the “N” word

Racism is far from merely being about wingnuts using offensive language or people oblivious to the issue admitting they once spoke in that way. Racism has changed in some ways, but the basic mechanisms and patterns of it have not. What has changed is that people have gotten better at hiding their racist attitudes from others and even from themselves. The way we express our racism may have changed, but the basic issue still exists, and is a pervasive cancer in our politics and society. The real (and far more dangerous and despicable) racists are those who seek to exclude specific groups from participation in the political process when those groups are seen as not supporting the political party that is already in power. The biggest obstacle to change is that racists assume they are faultless.

Let’s begin by saying that the “N” word is an offensive, ugly word, and one I never willingly use. Racism is a topic that I feel deeply about, and am absolutely committed to confronting whenever (and wherever) it rears its ugly head.

So – when Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy makes racist comments, when celebrity chef Paula Deen admits to using that ugly word, or when LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling is accused of making racist remarks – yes, I’m angered; and I will speak up.

But, I’ve done (and said) racist things, too.

In my early 20’s, I worked in a retail store.  One day, when I was the only sales clerk on duty, an elderly black man came in to ask for help with a particular item. Right then I was waiting on another customer, a woman, and so ignored him for the moment – in fact, I hardly noticed him. He waited patiently at the counter, since he saw that I was almost done with her.

In the meantime, another person came in – a white male – who walked around the first man and came over to where I was, at the other end of the sales counter.  When the woman left, this second man immediately began talking and I allowed my attention to focus on him, rather than turning to the man who had been waiting.

The first man immediately spoke up, saying (and I quote, as it is burned into my memory!), “Hey, I’m a customer too!  Or, is it that you don’t like to wait on n—-rs?

I was mortified, as you might imagine, and immediately turned to help him.

Was I racist, or acting in a racist way?  Well, I didn’t think so. I had long prided myself in being “open minded” and respectful of others, no matter who (or what) they were. But I was being racist because the one who determines whether we are racist (or not) is not us, but those who are impacted by our attitudes and actions. The elderly gentleman was right: I was acting in a racist way, even if unintentionally.

Racism is far from merely being about wingnuts using offensive language or people oblivious to the issue admitting they once spoke in that way. Racism, as the columnist LZ Granderson points out, has changed. Or, to put it another way, the basic mechanisms and patterns of racism have not changed. What has changed is that people have gotten better at hiding their racist attitudes from others and even from themselves. The way we express our racism has changed, but the basic issue still exists, and is a pervasive cancer in our politics and society.

Continue reading “It’s not about Wingnuts and the “N” word”

Leaping the Gap

I was sitting at my soundboard one day, running sound checks and preparing for worship, when a young woman, perhaps 16 years old, came in with her friends and sat down right in front me, such that I could plainly see what was printed on the back of her shirt in large white block letters: “I WASN’T EDUCATED IN NO F***ING WHITE MAN’S SCHOOL.” I was a bit shocked, as you might guess…

I’ve always been a strong proponent of equal rights and justice for all, but how that has been expressed changed radically one day in the fall of 1995, as a result of an encounter in an all-black church I was a member of at the time, and where I was the chief sound technician for the church’s worship services. …It was (and still is) a transformative moment for me…

I was sitting at my soundboard that morning, running sound checks and preparing for worship, when a young woman, perhaps 16 years old, came in with her friends and sat down right in front of my position in the church’s sanctuary, such that I could plainly see what was printed on the back of her shirt in large white block letters: “I WASN’T EDUCATED IN NO F***ING WHITE MAN’S SCHOOL.”  (Well, OK – I added the asterisks!)

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A Moderate Political Manifesto

I recently heard a Republican voter state in a radio interview that her primary goal is to “get rid of Obama”.  This same statement can be heard out of the mouths of many other Republicans – voters, candidates and power brokers alike.

Yet,  there seems to be a strong move within the Republican Party based on the premise that ideological purity is what is needed to carry the day and put America back on the right track.  An approach identical to that which the Republican Party adopted in 1964 when they nominated Barry Goldwater to oppose Lyndon Johnson, and which worked so well for them.

It would seem to me that our Republican friends, if they are serious about making Obama a one term president, would be seriously considering a middle of the road candidate, one who would appeal to independent and moderate voters.  Yet, candidates who might appeal to moderate voters – such as Jon Huntsman and perhaps Mitt Romney – are gaining little traction with those likely to vote in the primaries.  Perhaps this is why there has been so much interest by Republican power brokers to find another candidate, such as Gov. Chris Christie.

Personally, I am totally fed up with the politics in Washington.  While I think Obama had (and has) a lot of promise, he has shown himself to be ineffective as a leader, and has made some unforgivably huge gaffes, such as the recent tiff with John Boehner over when to schedule a Obama’s presidential address announcing the latest jobs bill.  A simple phone call would have gone a long way towards preventing such an embarrassing incident, and would have also at least provided some hope that the bill would be seriously considered by the Republican leadership in the House.

So, you’d think that the Republican Party would recognize that they have an opportunity to capture those many voters who are as disenchanted as I am.  It seems not.  Candidates like Herman Cain, and the antics of the Republican leadership in both the House and Senate over the last couple of years, lead one to wonder whether the Republican Party will focus so much on ideological purity that the concerns of the majority of Americans will simply be ignored.  — It seems they believe that their way is “right” and competing views are to be given no credence at all – I won’t draw parallels between this and the way other regimes have governed, but one can say in general that those who govern with such attitudes are not remembered with fondness, nor are their administrations considered successful.

So, will I support the Democratic Party in 2012?  No.  The Democrats are as bad as the Republicans – think of how Nancy Pelosi handled the House when she was Speaker.  But, I won’t be supporting the Republicans, either.  Instead, I’ll be looking for someone who really cares about the “little guy” and who knows that those who are unemployed, have seen their standard of living decline over the past decade, have huge medical and insurance bills, are facing losing their home, have burdensome college debt, are seeing their business or jobs threatened due to unfair competition from foreign manufacturers or unreasonable government regulations, face an an unfair tax burden, or have their kids attending failing schools, need to be heard.  We need a candidate who is pragmatic and doesn’t adopt extreme (climate change is a fantasy!!) inflexible (no new taxes!!) or ill-considered (don’t infringe on people’s right to carry automatic weapons!!) positions.  We need someone who understands that they and their party do not have all the answers, probably don’t even ask all the right questions, and believes it is critical to put the best interests of the nation ahead of ideological purity and political advantage.

So, who will I support and send donations to this coming year?  Not any of the national political organizations, nor any special interest group campaigning on a single issue.  — And I am boycotting companies and organizations that do.  Instead, I’ll put my money, and my votes, behind those who have shown they are committed to the principles I state here, and who do not have a vested interest in maintaining the combative and dysfunctional environment in Washington (and in many state governments as well).

 

Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Which is More Important: Social Justice or Faith?

Yet, in pursuing Social Justice, it is easy to fall into a trap, the same trap that Karl Barth resoundingly destroyed in his famous book “The Epistle to the Romans”: the trap of thinking that the pursuit of Social Justice has anything to do with achieving salvation, that our status as believers in God and our work to spread Christ’s message while performing good works makes us any more worthy than anyone else in God’s eyes. It doesn’t.

Historically, many African Americans disdained Paul’s Epistles in the Christian Bible because slave owners often selectively presented his writings to their illiterate slaves, quoting him out of context: crassly using religion to control their slaves.  Yet, most Theologians, including African American Theologians, would agree that Paul was committed-to a gospel of radical equality. Even so, some fault Paul for diluting his message in favor of expediency: for his retreating from his ideal of radical equality in the face of the dominant culture’s values. It is true that Paul allowed short term concerns to take precedence over the primary goals of his ministry and preaching. What some have overlooked is why he did so.

Some say that Paul lacked courage in his convictions; that the liberating ethics inherent in his theology are often set aside in favor of practical considerations. Yet, Paul clearly did not back down in the face of threats, even physical attack. If anything, he was more likely to confront such challenges head on. We have numerous examples of this, such as in Lyca where Paul went back into the city after being stoned (Acts 14:19-20); in Phillipi, where Paul and Silas revealed their Roman Citizenship only after being beaten and jailed (Acts 16:11-40); in Ephesus, where Paul had to be restrained by his followers from going into a murderously hostile crowd (Acts 19:30); in Jerusalem, where he addresses and re-incites a mob that had tried to kill him only a few moments before (Acts 21:31-22:29) and finally his imprisonment and eventual execution.

Paul was 100% devoted to his mission, which was to spread the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection by every conceivable means, driven to redeem as many people as possible before the Day of Judgment came. He had a sense of urgency: derived from his Apocalyptic Theology, which stated that the day of Christ’s return was imminent.

Paul was very clear that Christians must “hold firmly to the message I preached to you … that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day” (I Corinthians 15:2-4). Earlier in the same epistle he says “I … become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (I Corinthians 9:20-22). Finally, he said in Galatians that the Gospel proclaimed to him was a direct revelation from Christ (Galatians 1:11), and that a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through faith in Christ (Galatians 2:16).

Clearly we see that, to Paul, the Gospel was more important than any earthly consideration. He was certain that securing a place in the Kingdom to come was far more important than any worldly goal. He was as flexible and approachable as he needed to be, even to the point of death, if it meant enabling a few more to be saved for Christ.

Therefore, it is no surprise that Paul, despite preaching a Gospel of radical equality of all humanity before Christ, had no problem with making accommodations so that a community of believers could survive within the oppressive and highly stratified culture surrounding them. What mattered to him was whether their faith was strong and pure.

Slavery was an inescapable fact of life in Paul’s time: it was a violation of his message that all are equal before the Lord. Yet, it was an issue of this world, not the next. Paul was not focused on trying to make the world better for its own sake, since he felt Christ’s return would soon reshape the world anyway; and since Christ’s return was soon, Paul was intent on reaching as many people for the Gospel as possible beforehand.

Being a slave is evil and wrong, and Paul certainly encouraged slaves to gain their freedom if they could (I Corinthians 7:21); but whether one is a slave (or not) is irrelevant to a person’s worth in the eyes of God. Paul would not have made any aspect of the issue of social justice central to his ministry since he would have seen any achievement in that area as, at best, a victory with only limited value in the face of Christ’s imminent return. Making it central to his ministry would have been a distraction from what he saw as his primary mission, which was to recruit as many into the Kingdom of God as possible in the short time left.

Where does this leave us in today’s world? Certainly, now that experience has taught us that Christ is unlikely to return any time soon, social justice issues should no longer be set aside in favor of winning over souls to Christ.

Yet, in pursuing Social Justice, it is easy to fall into a trap, the same trap that Karl Barth resoundingly destroyed in his famous book “The Epistle to the Romans”: the trap of thinking that the pursuit of Social Justice has anything to do with achieving salvation, that our status as believers in God and our work to spread Christ’s message while performing good works makes us any more worthy than anyone else in God’s eyes.   It doesn’t.

We no longer feel the urgency to “spread the Gospel” that Paul felt. It is also certainly true in this day and age that “spreading the Gospel” does not mean what it meant to Paul. Yet, Paul and I share a conviction, one he shares with us in his Epistle to the Romans, which is that none of us can achieve salvation through our own efforts, but only through Faith in God.

God’s infinite nature cannot be comprehended by the human mind. Therefore, and as I’ve said before, I find that I cannot condemn or dismiss the value of other faiths: they each have value in helping us to better understand God. Yet, even so, what matters first and foremost is that we have faith in God. I am convinced, based on what Paul and both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and traditions teach us, is that how we chose to express and act on our Faith is between us and God. These great Faiths, and others, teach us how to live as creatures of God, but the starting point always is, and always will be, our Faith in God.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Reflections on “The Prioress’s Tale”

Let’s not make the mistake of turning those beautiful, rich colors and patterns we are a part-of into a jumble of pastels or shades of grey.

1280px-Cliffords_Tower_York_UK
Clifford’s Tower in York, England

I recently saw “The Prioress’s Tale,” an Operetta written by Delvyn Case as a retelling of Chaucer’s famous story.  The story as presented by Case describes a cultural clash between the Jewish and Christian residents of a medieval community.  While watching this tale unfold, I was struck by several thoughts…

First, I remembered an episode from my journeys as a student in England in 1983: One day, on a whim, I visited a tower built on a high mound just outside the walls of the city of York.  Now known as Clifford’s Tower, it stands on the site of a massacre that occurred in March 1190, when most of the Jews in York took refuge there, seeking to escape the riots that had erupted against many “outsider” groups as “Crusade Fever” swept through Western Europe.

I read a description at the site of what was found after the riots had ended: the tower’s courtyard was littered with corpses.  Surrounded and without hope of escape, the families had lain down together in the courtyard.  The fathers then killed their own children and wives before setting fire to the fortress and committing suicide beside the bodies of their loved ones; a very Masada-like scene.  Those who survived were later massacred by the mob that surrounded the burning tower.

I reflected that many of my ancestors came from Northern England.  Therefore, it is possible, if not likely, that some of my own forebears were in that mob.  Yet, my family does not preserve any stories of that time or those events.  (Similarly, whites in the south are often unaware of the brutality their ancestors inflicted upon African American slaves.)  History likes to remember and celebrate the times when we were brave or victorious; but tends to forget the times when we were cruel, avaricious, or oppressive.

Second, I was struck by how everyone in the Operetta was seeking to do the best they could, despite the fear, loss and pain they were experiencing.  They realized their actions were wrong only after the fact, when it was too late to repair the damage.

We have all been in situations where our own actions, undertaken with what we thought were the best of motives, have resulted in harm to others.  So, we must avoid being cocky about being more “enlightened” than those who came before us.  I’m reminded of what Jesus said in Matthew 23:30-32: “And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have participated with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ By saying this you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up then the measure of your ancestors!”

Finally, in the mid 1990’s, I was a member of a church whose membership was mostly African American.  One Sunday, I was the target of a shocking act of racial prejudice.  After listening to me recount this a few days later, a friend of mine from the church said “…what that teenage girl did was wrong, but you need to understand, you’re white: if you experience discrimination, you can always walk out the door and never have to deal with it again.”  She paused and then added: “I can never leave my skin.”

The two lead characters in this production were in exactly the same positions as “that teenage girl” and me: she lashed out in fear and anger because of what I represented to her, not because of what I’d done.  I learned from this that I may never fully understand what it means to be the target of discrimination.  I can empathize, I can work to promote understanding, but I am limited in what I can achieve because I am not a member (at least, not yet) of a group that experiences such things every day.

Does this mean I should ignore that discrimination and prejudice exist?  No. Should I wallow in guilt and remorse because of my own past actions, or those of my ancestors?  No.  Should I try and remold myself so that I will never offend or oppress another person in such ways?  No!

I’ve come to believe, as a speaker said after the performance, that we need to respect and celebrate our differences.  Our differences make the world a place of vibrant colors.  Let’s not make the mistake of turning those beautiful, rich colors and patterns we are a part-of into a jumble of pastels or shades of grey.

Text is copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).