“Recovery’s Rhythm and Blues” in Numéro Cinq


View from the Skakavac mountain waterfall, outside Sarajevo

“Recovery’s Rhythm and Blues,” an essay of mine about an unforgettable road trip through Bosnia and Herzegovina with Goran Simić in the summer of 2014, appeared this week in the Canadian literary magazine Numéro Cinq. The essay is here, free and online.

Posted in Bosnia, Human Rights, Peacebuilding, Poetry, Politics, Religion and Spirituality, Social Justice, Sports, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Series: Resources for Teaching About Religion, Violence, and Human Rights

booksTo keep “Wayne Street Soul” alive during the academic year, I’m launching a new series of posts on my teaching. I’ve had such an exciting set of conversations with students this spring in seminars on human rights, the Holocaust, and religious diversity in the United States, that I wanted to start compiling and sharing distilled versions of the curriculum.

My hope is that these resources will be of interest to a wide audience; they all relate directly to fundamental questions about diversity and coexistence in the 21st century.

So for starters, here’s a little about day 1 in the course on religious diversity in the U.S. I learned a long time ago how important it is to hit the ground running on day 1 and not lose the whole period to coma-inducing administration. So after brief personal introductions and an introduction to the course, I have students watch Valarie Kaur’s “Oak Creek: In Memoriam,” a nine-minute film about a 2012 shooting in Wisconsin that targeted Sikhs. In an arresting, memorable way, the film brings the central themes of the course — religious diversity, freedom, conflict, and coexistence — to the fore, and it prepares students for a sustained analysis of the long American experiment with religious freedom. I have the students share their responses with the rest of the class (what did you notice? what questions do you have?), and by the end of the period we’ve established and focus and momentum that will extend to the conversations to come.

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5 Films for International Women’s Day

In honor of International Women’s Day, here is a list of the films at the heart of the seminar I just taught on women, gender, and religion in film.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell (Abigail Disney and Gini Reticker, 2008) — a spellbinding documentary about the struggle of Liberia’s Christian and Muslim women to rescue their nation from horrific violence. Part of PBS’s excellent “Women, War, and Peace” documenrary series. Winner, best documentary, Tribeca Film Festival.

Where Do We Go Now? (Nadine Labaki, 2011) — a brilliant, often hysterically funny fable about women who will do whatever it takes to knock sense into their Lebanese village’s warring men. Un Certain Regard, Cannes Film Festival.

Snijeg (Snow) (Aida Begic, 2008) — a gorgeously evocative story of women’s desperation and resilience in the aftermath of war, set in a small eastern Bosnian village in the late 1990s. Winner of the critics’ week grand prize, Cannes Film Festival.

Wadjda (Haifaa Al Mansour, 2013) — the first feature-length film shot in Saudi Arabia, a beautifully textured tale of a ten-year-old girl who wants nothing more than her own bike. Winner of numerous international film awards.

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2014) — an absorbing and haunting film about cultural identity and memory in post-Holocaust Poland. Oscar winner, best foreign language film.

The films themselves — all of which have captivated me in recent years — generated the idea for this seminar, which has offered my students and me a fresh new way to explore the enduring complexities of religious identity, gender, and power.

Posted in Bosnia, Christianity, Ethics, Feminism, Film, Gender, Human Rights, Islam, Judaism, Peacebuilding, Race, Religion and Politics, Religion and Spirituality, Social Justice, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Video and Plenary Lecture: The Global Citizens Youth Summit

This summer I had the distinct pleasure of being a faculty member during the 2015 Global Citizens Youth Summit, organized by Yumi Kuwana and held at Harvard University. The summit gathered 24 youth from around the world, with a curriculum focused on roundtable discussions about global ethics, global leadership, and social change.

A short video about the summit is here, and more information about the summit is here.

Curricular materials I used in class included: the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Jane Elliott’s “A Class Divided” experiment on racial discrimination, and the Agricultural Justice Project’s documentary Hungry for Justice: Spotlight on the South.

The slides and text for my plenary lecture on leadership, “Extending the Table,” are here. In it I offer three portraits and brief case studies of leadership, derived from the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute, and my travels in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It felt like one of the most important talks I’ve given in my career, an articulation of my intellectual and ethical commitments to a group of youth I profoundly admire, and from whom I learned so much in an extraordinary week together.

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Teaching Human Rights

IMG_3874In the spring of 2015, I taught Phillips Exeter Academy’s senior seminar on human rights for the first time. I had an extraordinary group of students, which included youth with strong passions for global justice and deep family connections to communities across the globe, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Turkey, and China.

Limiting myself to what we could cover reasonably well in just shy of 40 class periods (this involved painful cuts, which I addressed at least in a limited way by giving ample freedom for students to conduct individual case studies at the end), I developed this broad outline:

  1. Preliminary Considerations and Inquiries. Reading Naguib Mahfouz’s The Journey of Ibn Fattouma – the global architecture of civilizations, the abuse of power, the utopian dream, and the human struggle for freedom, dignity, and justice. Preliminary readings of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
  2. Historical and Philosophical Foundations. The evolution and definition of “human rights” in historical, philosophical, and cross-cultural perspectives. Case studies of women’s rights, migrant workers’ rights, and LGBTQ rights as human rights.
  3. Human Rights in the Age of Genocides. Case studies of Bosnia, Rwanda, and the International Criminal Court.
  4. Human Rights in the 21st Century. Human rights after 9/11: surveillance, torture, counterterrorism, and the future of global human rights.
  5. Student Projects. Individual case study of a human rights organization (Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Journalists for Human Rights, etc.), a human rights issue (press freedom, prisoners of conscience, mass incarceration, female genital mutilation, sex/human trafficking, rights of indigenous/first peoples, food sovereignty, etc.), a human rights activist (Aung San Suu Kyi, Wangari Maathai, the Dalai Lama, Bryan Stevenson, et al.), or the human rights landscape of a particular nation (the United States, Syria, China, Russia, Myanmar, etc.).

These books figured prominently in the course, in my preparation and assignments:

  • Naguib Mahfouz, The Journey of Ibn Fattouma
  • Excerpts from Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society
  • Andrew Clapham, Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction
  • Richard Falk, Achieving Human Rights
  • Jack Donnelly, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice 
  • Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide

These films played a central role in the course:

Guest speakers with connections to human rights policy also enhanced the curriculum immeasurably: Jackie Weatherspoon shared her experiences from the Beijing and Beijing + 20 conferences on women’s rights as human rights (as well as her work in Bosnia-Herzegovina with OSCE), Alexis Simpson spoke about agricultural labor policy and food justice, and Vicki Riskin introduced the students to the work of Human Rights Watch.

Throughout the course, we examined the obstacles to achieving a world in which human rights thrive, as well as inspiring examples of individuals, communities, and organizations standing up for human rights, international solidarities, and global justice. In the end — I’ll admit some bias 🙂 — I came away feeling that this sort of course constitutes a perfect capstone for education in the liberal arts.

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Bosnian Summer (2015)

Images from my most recent sojourn in Bosnia & Herzegovina. More to come…


Mostar’s lovely new Cafe de Alma

courtyard of Bey's Mosque, Sarajevo

courtyard of Bey’s Mosque, Sarajevo


view from the Skakavac mountain waterfall, outside Sarajevo

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Remembering Srebrenica (2015)

IMG_1079I started this blog four years ago with a humble post called “Remembering Srebrenica (2011).” Today I reflect on recent, painful revelations that have shaken the ground beneath our feet.

This spring, I taught a senior seminar on human rights for the first time. In our studies of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we relied heavily on Samantha Power’s damning account of the international community’s failure to prevent the 1995 genocide in the UN “safe area” of Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia.

In recent days, survivors — still waiting for a semblance of justice, and often still waiting for the positive identification of their loved ones’ remains — have had to absorb the shockwave of fresh revelations and indignities. The revelations came via a feature-length piece by Ed Vuillamy and Florence Hartmann for The Guardian called “How Britain and the US decided to abandon Srebrenica to its fate.” It is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the mindsets and negotiations that led thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys to the slaughter. It is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the twentieth century and the situation we find ourselves in in the twenty-first.

Days later, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution referring to the horrific violence at Srebrenica as “genocide.” (See Samantha Power’s important response to that veto here.)

It has been extraordinarily painful for me to hear the response of Bosnian friends and colleagues to all this. And yet they persist, bravely, in setting the record straight and working tirelessly for justice, human rights, and a sustainable future for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their work represents the best of humanity. It deserves our celebration and solidarity.

For more powerful responses to these recent developments (this is not an exhaustive list by any means), see Refik Hodžić’s “Twenty Years Since Srebrenica: No Reconciliation, We’re Still at War,” Edith Lederer’s Boston Globe piece on the powerful testimony of survivor Adisada Dudić before the UN (here), Jasmin Mujanović’s “On Serbia’s Pyrrhic Veto,” and Women in Black from Belgrade’s plans for a show of solidarity with the victims of Srebrenica. Valerie Hopkins has an excellent piece in Foreign Policy called “In the Shadow of Genocide,” and Eric Gordy’s “East Ethnia” blog is essential reading as well.

In the human rights course, the primary sources on Bosnia and Herzegovina that I relied on were excerpts from Zilka Spahić Šiljak’s Shining Humanity, Dževad Karahasan’s Sarajevo, Exodus of a City, a biography of Tuzla mayor Selim Bešlagić, and Goran Simić’s From Sarajevo with Sorrow. We also drew on the brilliant journalistic accounts of Peter Maass (Love Thy Neighbor) and Barbara Demick (Logavina Street). We also watched the powerful film Calling the Ghosts and video of the 2012 “Sarajevo Red Line.”

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The Valley of the Shadow

On the morning of July 5, 2015, I offered the following reflection, in place of a traditional sermon, at the Congregational Church in Exeter, New Hampshire. It’s about going home to mourn the loss, and celebrate the life, of my beloved mother, Deborah M. Simpson, who died suddenly last month.

“The Valley of the Shadow”

Olean sunset

Olean sunset

Scriptures: Psalm 131 and Luke 10:25-37. Hymns: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” and “Be Now My Vision.”

Good morning. I’m Tom Simpson, and I’m filling in this week for the incomparable Emily Heath. You should know that I am not a pastor, but I do play one on TV.

No, seriously, I’m not a pastor. I’m a teacher. I teach religion, ethics, and philosophy to high school students at Phillips Exeter Academy, right up the street. I love what I do, and I love talking about what I do — so much so that I volunteered to speak to my son’s entire third-grade class last month during “career week.” As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy to explain my job to third graders. I boiled it down to this: “basically,” I said, “my students and I read books about the meaning of life and how to live a good life, as individuals and in relationship with all kinds of people. Then we sit around an oval table and have amazing conversations.” When I finished my presentation, I opened the floor to questions, which were marvelous. One kid asked me what it was like to live in a dormitory with teenagers. Another asked what I would want to be if I weren’t a teacher. Then one of my son’s friends, Julian, innocently raised his hand. I called on him, and he asked, “So what is the meaning of life?”

Talk about being blindsided. I laughed, stammered, and fumbled my way through for a minute, talking loftily about how these are precisely the great questions, the questions that have far more power than our inevitably limited attempts to answer them. I may have even quoted Elie Wiesel on that; I’m not sure. All I know is that I was struggling. I tried to gather my wits. I thought about what had lit me up over the past year, about what had infused my work with such urgency and energy. I thought about my courses on existentialism, the Holocaust, and human rights; my work with the Academy’s Martin Luther King Day Committee; my travels in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Eventually I mustered this, for Julian, about the meaning of life: I said, “I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with taking care of each other instead of tearing each other apart.”

That was June 1st, and I had no idea then that I was about to get blindsided in the worst kind of way. That day, my mom was in Buffalo, just shy of her 71st birthday, for what our family thought would be a fairly routine knee replacement surgery. After the morning operation, there was no sign of real trouble at all until the next day, when medical staff got her up on her feet. Suddenly she lost consciousness and went into cardiac arrest. When my father arrived at the hospital for his morning visit, he was shocked to find a team working frantically to stabilize and revive her. Within a few hours, she was gone.

My dad, my brother, and I were left dumbfounded. What had happened? The medical examiner concluded that it was probably a pulmonary embolism. That I guess I can understand, that I guess I can live with. The more haunting question for me for the last month has been: why wasn’t I there when she died?

In some ways the answer is entirely simple and straightforward. I haven’t lived in my small hometown of Olean, New York, since I graduated from high school. At that point I headed down south for college and graduate school, figuring I’d try to be a professor somewhere, just like my parents, wherever the most exciting and fulfilling available job might be. So here I am. I’ve been here for seven wonderful years. I have a family here. I have a life here.

But when I think harder about why I wasn’t there for my mom, and for my dad, maybe the best answer is “it’s complicated.” Really, really complicated. That’s why I would need the nine-hour drive home — across New Hampshire, across southern Vermont, and along the Southern Tier of New York — to gather myself as I started to mourn the loss, and celebrate the life, of my mom.

I should orient you a little further: Olean is nestled in the Allegheny River valley, about seventy miles south of Buffalo, not far from the northern border of Pennsylvania. With a population of 14,000 people, it is the largest city in rural Cattaraugus County. If you catch it at the right time, and in its best light, Olean can be spectacular. In its surrounding foothills, a young Thomas Merton found some of the solace, companionship, and inspiration he would need to become one of the great writers and spiritual guides of the twentieth century. And when you see Olean’s strong June sunlight filtered through bright green maple leaves, you can start thinking about staying forever.

And yet the landscape is every bit as stark and forbidding as it is beautiful. Winters are long, leaving the trees and hills utterly barren. And despite some economic bright spots, like St. Bonaventure University and the headquarters of Cutco knives, the regional economy is stagnant and depressed. Cattaraugus County, in fact, is the third poorest county in all of New York State, in terms of median household income. The fourth and ninth poorest counties are right next door, combining with Cattaraugus to form part of the northern border of Appalachia. Accordingly, the signs and stories of local poverty can be staggering. Population has been declining steadily for years, and kids with bright prospects tend to leave for good. Once abundant local oil deposits dried up generations ago, and a long history of environmental extraction and exploitation has left the region with a wealth of toxic insecurity. All my life, distant elites have eyed and enjoyed the region as a dumping ground for nuclear and urban waste, and now they spy it as one of fracking’s next frontiers.

This is the world where I was born and raised, where I learned the ropes and found my way. It was a world where at the local elementary school, a favorite recess game among boys was called “smear the queer.” One of us would toss a football up for grabs, and then everyone would rabidly pursue and gang tackle whoever was brave or stupid enough to catch the ball and run. It was a world where I figured out early on that my exploits on the baseball field would earn me just enough social capital to be left alone as I cultivated friendships and interests that offered alternatives to the cutthroat culture of the schoolyard: interests like instrumental and choral music, theater, church, and academic scholarship. (Of course, this was all within certain fixed and obvious parameters of masculinity. Every time I hear the hymn “Blest Be The Tie That Binds,” for instance, I remember sitting in the Olean High School auditorium as a teenager, steeling myself during a moving performance of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to make sure, above all else, that I wouldn’t visibly cry.)

This was the world where my mom and dad had started carving a life for themselves back in 1970. They had just finished graduate school at Kent State University, and my father was joining the English Department at St. Bonaventure, following literally in Thomas Merton’s footsteps. For her part, Mom imported toughness, compassion, and a piercing intellect from her native western Pennsylvania, where she grew up just outside of Pittsburgh, along a wider, fuller stretch of the same Allegheny River that courses more feebly through Olean.

Eventually she settled into a brilliant career as an educator at the local community college, where she directed the learning assistance center for more than twenty-five years. She trained fiercely devoted tutors and offered soothing space and expansive time to local students who were often struggling desperately to put it all together.

Her work in the trenches was a labor of love, and it could be grueling. Like me, like so many of us, she often dreamed of elsewhere. Most evenings she’d retire early and get lost in other worlds of literature and the visual arts, and her rare trips to Scandinavia and Greece offered her a glimpse of a fuller integration of nature, body, mind, and spirit. In one of her letters to a dear friend in Sweden, which I read recently for the first time, she wrote:

Home is where the heart is was one of my first discoveries in Sweden. Do you remember the day you, Signe, Rick, and I went to the beach? You and your mother had packed a picnic. I stood on the shore and felt perfectly, exquisitely at home. Was there something in my brain, perhaps even in the physical configuration of cells, that matched so perfectly the contours of this shoreline, the blues and greens of sky and sea, the uncompromising acceptance of fellow human beings?

She harbored dreams of retiring in Portland, Oregon, a city that entranced her the few times she visited. And yet through all the pitch and roll of her struggles and longings, she had made a home for herself, and a home for me, in Olean. I didn’t realize how true this was until I went home in June, expecting to feel estranged and alone in my own hometown.

What awaited and greeted me instead was an incredible outpouring of love and support. The walls that so often prevent us from visiting one another, and bearing one another’s burdens, had suddenly come down, and a parade of teary-eyed old friends streamed through our front door, for days. They brought us food, they gave us hugs, they shared their stories. Most important, they offered my dad, my brother, and me affection and consolation in the valley of the shadow of death. Like the Samaritan, they found us battered and bruised along life’s Jericho Road and offered us unspeakably abundant provision, tenderness, and compassion. They held us up as we braced ourselves for the unimaginable: writing Mom’s obituary and planning Mom’s funeral. Then they came in droves to the services we held for her. I have never loved Olean as much as I do now, even as I grieve for it and grieve for my mom.

I miss my mom like crazy. And there’s an uncertain road ahead. But I’m reminded of what Anne Lamott often says, borrowing from E. L. Doctorow, about the life of a writer and the life of faith – she says it’s “like driving at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Because of the abundant, sustaining love of family and friends, in Olean, in Exeter, and in so many other places, I can carry on with an abiding sense of my mom’s presence in my life, an abiding sense of her beauty as a parent, friend, teacher, and writer. And I can carry on knowing that my mom is at rest, at peace, and at home after her body could no longer bear the burdens of walking through Olean the way she did almost every day for forty-five years. Her struggle is over. Ours remains, in all the shadow and light of our lives. As we make the pilgrim journey together, let us bear one another’s burdens, and let us love one another. Amen?

Please join me in singing hymn number 393, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.”

Posted in Autobiography / Memoir, Christianity, class, Gender, Photography, Religion and Spirituality, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Nightmare in Charleston

I woke up this morning to the horrific news from Charleston.

It would be difficult, and perhaps misguided, to rank the most important churches in U.S. history, but if I were to do it, the Charleston AME church targeted yesterday would be very high on the list. It’s at the center of the history of race in America — and at the center of a brilliant PBS documentary series called This Far By Faith: African-American Spiritual Journeys, which I’ve been using in classes for years. It is a church that has boldly proclaimed since the early 19th century that suffering, injustice, and terrorizing violence will not get the last word. May its surviving members be sustained in that hope.

In classes on African American religious history — and religious identity, diversity, and conflict in U.S. history more broadly — I have relied especially on episode 1 (“There is a River,” on slave religion, Denmark Vesey, and Sojourner Truth), episode 4 (“Freedom Faith,” on the Civil Rights Movement), and episode 5 (“Inheritors of the Faith,” primarily on The Nation of Islam).

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Dining in the Bosnian Diaspora

House salad with shrimp and Nina's bear sandwich, Old World Mediterranean, Concord NH. Photo: Alexis Simpson

House salad with shrimp and Nina’s bear sandwich, Old World Mediterranean, Concord NH

A couple of months ago, a news item from the St. Louis Bosnian community caught my eye. It said that three siblings from St. Louis’s Grbić family had appeared on the Food Network’s contest show “Guy’s Grocery Games” and won. (The episode is here.) It was great to see Bosnian culinary wisdom and expertise getting some of the recognition it deserves. Hey, even Guy Fieri knows good burek when he sees it now.

Every time I visit Bosnia-Herzegovina, I get my fill of fresh, flavorful salads, sandwiches, soups, and sweets. When I’m back in the States, I get my fix anywhere I can, and in recent years I’ve had phenomenal meals at Bosnian-owned restaurants across the country: Toasters in Salt Lake City, Restaurant Sarajevo in Chicago, Balkan Bistro — now FIG — in Charlottesville VA, and Sabur in Somerville MA.

My latest finds, thanks to my parents and my wife, are Balkan Dining (in Buffalo NY) and Old Europe Mediterranean Fine Dining (in Concord NH). My parents found Balkan Dining months ago and have been back several times since for the mixed meat plate, šopska salad (chopped cucumber, tomato, cucumber, and feta), chicken noodle soup, and homemade desserts (they recommend the baklava and the cakes).

My wife has made Old Europe a regular lunch stop on the days she’s working at the New Hampshire state house. At Old Europe, Nina Mujaković and Emin Halilović have produced her new favorite meal, the house salad with shrimp (pictured). Just as important, Nina and Emin give her a chance to catch her breath, collect her thoughts, and feel rejuvenated before getting back to work. It’s been a welcome infusion of Bosnian life and rhythm into an otherwise long and dreary New England winter.

When we ate together at Old World for the first time yesterday, I took Nina’s recommendation to try her “bear sandwich” (also pictured) of feta, tomato, and basil on a pain rustique. It was her favorite as a child with a finicky palate, she says, and I can see why. Emin made me a mean Turkish coffee (two, actually), and I can’t wait to get back to combine a meal with a trip to their new international fresh market / grab-and-go shop next door, Nina’s Pantry.

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