Frederick Mayer:  Leader of the Real ‘Inglourious Basterds’

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In 2009 Quentin Tarantino made Inglourious Basterds, a fantasy revenge movie about a group of Jewish American soldiers in World War II whose sole purpose was to kill Nazis.  But in yet another example of truth being stranger than fiction, I give you Sergeant Frederick Mayer, leader of Operation Greenup and the inspiration behind the real ‘Inglorious Basterds’.

By the Winter of 1945 it became clear that the Nazis were in retreat.  However American intelligence believed they were building a stronghold of underground fortresses in the Tirol region of Austria, outside of Innsbruck, that would allow them to continue fighting and killing for months and maybe years.  So the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, devised Operation Greenup—a plan that asked three American soldiers to parachute into the Austrian Alps and clandestinely make their way into Innsbruck.  Once there, the three men would gather information about the heavily fortified Alpine Redoubt.

Who were these heroes?  The leader of the trio was Frederick Mayer, a Jewish American soldier who emigrated with his family from Germany in 1938.  His radio man was Hans Wijnberg, a Jewish American soldier who’d emigrated from Holland, and had lost his mother, father, and sister to Auschwitz.  The third member of the trio was Fredrick Weber, a former Wehrmacht soldier and prisoner of war who, as a devout Catholic, had deserted the German army for reasons of conscience.  Weber’s family lived in Innsbruck and would end up housing the three spies.  With European backgrounds and the ability to speak German and French, all three men could blend in.

So, on a dark evening in February of 1945 Mayer, Wijnberg, and Weber parachuted onto a frozen lake in the Austrian Alps 10,000 feet above sea level, and trekked down the mountain in waist deep snow.  They made it to Weber’s family home, and went to work.

Mayer obtained a German officer’s uniform and infiltrated the German barracks.  He lived there, gathering and sending radio operator Wijnberg top secret information.  Wijnberg, working from the Weber home, then sent the intelligence on to the OSS.

After three months Mayer was given a new assignment:  investigate an underground factory that was building jets for the Nazis.  So, posing this time as a French electrician, he gathered intelligence at the factory for several weeks until he was captured by the Gestapo.  Mayer was tortured but never revealed the names of his accomplices, which enabled Wijnberg and Weber to escape.

Assuming that someone entrusted with this much responsibility must be a high ranking soldier, the Gestapo brought Mayer to the home of Nazi Supreme Commissar of the Tirol region Franz Hofer, who was interested in making a deal for immunity.  Bluffing, Mayer assured Hofer that this could be arranged in exchange for the peaceful surrender of the German army in Innsbruck.  Mayer was then given permission to communicate “terms” to the OSS.

And when the Allied Forces arrived in Tirol in May of 1945 Sgt. Mayer—his face still swollen from his torture—singlehandedly delivered Hofer and the entire German Army to them without the loss of even one life.

For his heroic service, Jewish emigrant and American soldier Frederick Mayer was awarded the Legion of Merit medal.

He is a Hero You Should Know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

From the Ground Up: Robin Emmons

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The call can come from anywhere at any time—to leave what you know for something…more.  You don’t have to go looking for the call, you just have to be listening.

In 2008, 39 year-old Robin Emmons made the decision to leave her job of twenty years in the financial services industry.  She didn’t know what she was meant to do, but she did know that banking was no longer it.  It took all of one week for her to find a new direction.

While visiting her brother who’d recently been placed in a mental health facility, Robin noticed that both his physical and mental condition had worsened.  She discerned that the decline was connected to a poor diet that lacked fresh produce.  And after a little exploring she realized this was not just her brother’s problem.  A combination of financial hardship and difficulty accessing well-stocked markets restricted the facility from offering a healthier menu to its residents.

Robin could have shrugged and gone back to her reality, where she had the money, the knowledge and the access to better food and a healthier lifestyle.  And after all, it wasn’t like the residents were starving.  But heroes don’t just live for themselves.

So she began donating fresh fruit and vegetables to her brother’s facility, so the residents could benefit from a healthier diet.  And as Robin watched her brother and his new friends growing stronger, her vision grew.

And when she discovered that unhealthy food options was a systemic issue—that in Charlotte, North Carolina alone where she resided more than 72,000 low-income city residents lived in areas without a supermarket with fresh food—she knew she needed to act.

She ripped up her back yard, planted a garden, and went from weekend gardener to full-time activist.

Robin founded the non-profit Sow Much Good, dedicated to ending “food deserts” where the under-served have to depend on fast food chains and convenience stores to feed their families.  Additionally, Sow Much Good offers educational outreach and advocacy to support “food justice” around the country.

And her backyard movement has grown to include 200 volunteers, who help her tend three micro-farms on nine acres.  To date Sow Much Good has donated over 26,000 pounds of fresh, organic produce to underserved communities in the greater Charlotte area.

“I’m up sometimes at 4:30 a.m. and don’t quit until midnight,” Robin says. “I get joy loading up the truck and seeing the same faces come back to load up on good food. I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is my bliss.”

Robin Emmons is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Stetson Kennedy

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Stetson Kennedy was a man of the South—a white man, from a well-to-do family, and a descendant of plantation-owning signers of the Declaration of Independence and Confederate officers.  He could have easily hid snuggly in his comfort zone, and avoided the pressing racial issues that festered all around him.  But that’s not what he chose to do.

His parents expected him to work in the larger community of Jacksonville, Florida.  So, from an early age Kennedy went door to door, collecting payments for his father’s furniture store.  And this exposure opened his eyes—to the suffering of whites and blacks alike.  And as heroes do, he decided he’d do something about the injustice he witnessed.

So he wrote.  And by age 21 he was put in charge of the Florida Writer’s Project collecting folklore, ethnic studies, and oral histories of the state.  He was also given the responsibility of supervising the work of fellow writer and African American, Zora Neal Hurston.  Watching her endure the hate that was so often spewed at her only deepened his empathy.

In 1942 Kennedy gained a larger platform, becoming the Southeastern Editorial Director of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the CIO).  He investigated and wrote articles on discriminatory activities undermining democracy in the United States, but simply writing about injustice proved unsatisfactory.

Unable to fight racial hatred overseas during World War II because of a back injury, Kennedy decided to go to war at home against what he called “homegrown racial terrorists”—and he chose the Ku Klux Klan as his opponent.

He used the name of a deceased uncle, who had been a member of the Klan, to gain the trust of local Klansmen and joined their ranks as an “encyclopedia salesman.”  As a folklorist he had a natural understanding of ritual and quickly learned the secret code words of the Klan, which he was able to share with Federal law enforcement, the Anti-defamation League, and The Washington Post, as well as the Klan’s chain of command and its plans for violence.  He even leaked information about the Klan to the producers of the popular Superman radio program, who used the information in a story line titled, “Clan of the Fiery Cross.”

And with evidence he found in the wastebasket of the Klan’s grand dragon, Kennedy eventually helped the Internal Revenue Service file a tax lien against the Klan in 1944 of $685,000 ($9,481,139 in today’s dollars!).

Stetson would also testify against Klan members in Federal Court, in cases involving bombings and violence aimed at suppressing Black voter turnout.  Finally, he helped draft the brief used by the state of Georgia to revoke the Klan’s national corporate charter in 1947.

One would be hard-pressed to find a single individual who did more to de-fang the Ku Klux Klan.

Stetson Kennedy is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Mohamed Bzeek

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There is no greater fear parents have than the thought of having to bury their child. And perhaps this partially explains why some choose to abandon their terminally ill child, especially when he or she is also profoundly disabled.

It’s a scenario most would prefer to not even consider, let alone enter into.

But Mohamed Bzeek isn’t like most people.

Since 1995, this bear of a man with a bushy beard and a heart of gold has been serving as a foster-parent. He and his wife Dawn agreed that this would be their vocation when they first married, and specialized in fostering children with medical emergencies. The couple loved and cared for dozens of children—and buried ten—over the years. And when Dawn died two years ago, there was never a doubt in Bzeek’s mind that he’d continue this labor of love. He decided to not just continue, but to exclusively foster terminally ill, profoundly disabled children—children who can’t see, hear, or talk and have very little time left to suffer.

Mohamed now cares for one child at a time because the work is so physically and emotionally demanding, and for this remarkable service to humanity he is compensated $1,700 a month.

Currently, he is caring for a six year-old little girl who was born deaf and blind, and has mycrocephaly (a condition that keeps the brain from developing normally). She weighs 34 pounds, has daily seizures, and her arms and legs are paralyzed. The only way Mohamed can communicate with her is through touch. So, he holds her several hours each day when she is not hooked up to her breathing and feeding tubes, comforting her and letting her know that she hasn’t been abandoned.

And when he’s not taking care of his foster daughter, Bzeek is caring for his biological son, who is 19 years-old and has brittle bone disease.

A devout Muslim who immigrated to the United States from Libya in 1978, Mohamed believes these children have great worth and deserve to be loved for as long as possible.

In December, the 62 year-old Bzeek underwent cancer surgery and reported gaining even greater empathy for the children who have no one to care for them, or about them, in their time of greatest need.

“The key is, you have to love them like your own,” Bzeek said recently. “I know they are sick. I know they are going to die. I do my best as a human being and leave the rest to God.”

And the angels bow, and Heaven sings.

Mohamed Bzeek is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Shelia Fedrick

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Alaska Airline flight attendant Shelia Fedrick didn’t board the plane that fateful day in 2011 thinking she’d become a hero.  But soon after the flight from Seattle to San Francisco took off, Fedrick noticed the young girl with dishevelled clothing and greasy-blonde hair.  She looked like she’d been through hell.  Next to her was a well-dressed, much older man.  Fedrick’s instincts told her something was wrong, so she attempted to strike up a conversation with the two.  The girl remained silent while the man became defensive.  At that point, Fedrick devised a plan.

She went to the bathroom and pasted a note for the girl on the mirror.  Fedrick then returned to aisle 10 and whispered to the teen—whom she guessed was around 14 years-old—to visit the bathroom.  Once there, the girl found the note asking if she needed help.  The girl wrote on the note that she did.

Fedrick then notified the pilot, who quickly contacted law enforcement officers in San Francisco.  They were waiting for the man at the terminal when the flight landed.  He was questioned, taken into custody, and arrested.  And the fourteen year-old was saved from sex slavery.

Five years later, Fedrick and the girl she rescued—now a college student—are still in touch.

The International Labor Organization estimates that there are currently 4.5 million people trapped in the sexual slavery worldwide.  In 2016 2,000 people were arrested for human trafficking by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and 400 victims were freed.

Airline Ambassadors International, an organization that teaches flight attendants to look for signs of sex trafficking and provides training on intervention, is doing its best to ensure that there are more Shelia Fedricks in the not-always-friendly skies.  To date over 1,000 flight attendants have received this special training.

All angels fly.  And at least one wears a uniform.

Shelia Fedrick is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Listening to Hummingbirds

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In Hispanic culture the hummingbird has historically symbolized a messenger from the otherworld, who brings a message from the dead to the living. So when Robin Reineke decided to found a non-profit organization that helps bring closure to the family and friends of missing immigrants, Colibri (‘hummingbird’ in Spanish) was chosen.

Founded in 2006 in Tucson, Arizona, within the County Coroner’s office, The Colibri Center for Human Rights assists families mostly in South and Central America discover the whereabouts of missing loved ones. Colibri takes information from families who’ve contacted them about their loved one, and then works to connect the missing person with forensic evidence collected from searches in the desert.

The Colibri database has detailed information on over 2,000 active missing person cases, including everything from dental records and photographs of scars and tattoos to articles of clothing and jewelry. It also has information on 2,500 bodies (900 of which remain unidentified). Colibri will also conduct searches in the desert themselves, and is committed to working with anyone, regardless of nationality or citizenship status.

For United States citizens, the search for a missing person is relatively easy. But for those living outside the U.S., searches across international borders is far more complicated. Some families are foreign nationals living in Central America or Mexico, and are turned away by government officials who don’t have the time or inclination to search for undocumented immigrants. Still others are themselves undocumented workers living in the United States, and are afraid to file missing persons reports with authorities.

The actual number of annual migrant deaths is nearly impossible to verify because of the number of people who remain missing. What is known is that between 1998 and 2013, over 6,000 men, women, and children perished somewhere in the unforgiving desert just north of the Mexican-American border alone. And in 2014, over 300 deaths were officially reported. Harsh weather conditions are often the cause, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports that many also fall prey to violence—to sexual assault, human trafficking, and forced labor.

Reineke shares, “I can’t tell you how many families have said that the pain of not knowing is far worse than knowing and being able to begin to grieve and move on.”

Colibri offers a service to families of missing migrants, but it serves a larger purpose as well. It puts a human face on the immigration issue, challenging citizens to see children of God and not just policies.

Colibri collects pieces of the shattered hopes and dreams of those who sought a better life at all costs and against all odds in the Land of Opportunity. Here are stories that cry out to be heard, still. Because every life is precious.

Listen to the hummingbirds.

I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

If you’ve done it for the least of these: Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez

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When the Valley Springs Manor, a residential home in Castor Valley California, had its license to operate revoked on Thursday October 24, 2013, the state inspectors were supposed to insure a transition plan to a new home for the nineteen older adults, many of whom were either bedridden or suffering with dementia.  Valley Springs had previously been cited for safety violations, under staffing, lost medical records, and not having enough food, or access to prescribed medication, for the clients.

 

When an inspector came by the next day and found that the facility had still not closed its doors or found new homes for their residents, she promptly fined the manor $3,800 for not being in compliance, gave her final report to the cook on the premises, and left for the weekend.

All but two of the staff members at Valley Springs Manor had left on Thursday.  But after arriving at work Friday, and surveying the situation, Maurice Rowland and his childhood friend Miguel Alvarez knew they had to stay.

 

Rowland, the cook who had only been working there for three months and hadn’t been paid in over a month, and Alvarez, the custodian who had just been hired three weeks earlier and had not been paid at all, understood that this was a critical situation as there was no way the nineteen residents could possibly care for themselves.  Who knew if life-saving help would come in time?

 

For two days, Rowland and Alvarez ministered to the nineteen vulnerable and fragile older adults.  They cooked and cleaned for the residents, bathed and toileted the residents, found and administered the proper medications to the residents, and kept the residents calm and safe.

 

On Saturday afternoon Rowland had to make calls to 911because two clients appeared to be ill and running temperatures.  The dispatcher who took the call then contacted Alameda County sheriff deputies to investigate, and by the evening the evacuation of the patients had begun.

 

As a result of the Valley Springs Manor nightmare the Residential Care for the Elderly Reform Act of 2014 was enacted, protecting the health, safety, and security of residents living in residential facilities.

 

The cook and the custodian were in the right place at the right time.  Of course so were several other people, including people who had far more training and education in care of the elderly, who left.

 

The takeaway?  When you’re talking about heroes, what will always matter more than what’s on a resume is what’s in a heart.

 

Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez are heroes you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

‘Listening very much’: The real point of Advent

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Holiday.  You’ll read that word a lot in the next several weeks.  We know what the term means to many nowadays:  time off from work, vacation, a chance to get last minute shopping done, parties, lots of food.

But what did it originally mean?  Halig (Holy) daeg (day) was a Middle English word, first used in the 12th century.  It marked special days set aside by the Church.  General work was suspended in order to frame, consider, and celebrate “holiness”.

Holy days help us understand what holiness really is—and how we too can become holy.  In the Christian world, every Sunday is considered a Holy Day—the Sabbath.   And of course we have days like Easter and Christmas to remind us why we have a faith.  Most believers will make some effort to get to church on these days at a minimum.

But if it’s just about Church attendance, we’re missing the point!

Do you see signs of holiness in yourself, and in those around you?  My guess is that you’d know it if you saw it, or experienced it, even though you might not call it “holiness.”  It’s found in love, and gentleness, and goodness, and sacrifice, and faith, and joyful humility.  I’ve been blessed with many examples in my life, but I want to focus on an example from my seminary days which still stirs my heart.

For a couple of years, I lived next door to a beautiful Chinese family.  Grandma Yen, the matriarch, was well into her 80’s when I first met her but still very much in love with Jesus.  One day she knocked on my front door to ask a favor of me.  Would I be willing to read her favorite Bible verses while she recorded me?  I agreed, thinking Grandma Yen was wanting to practice her English, and quickly affirmed her desire to become more fluent.  With a smile, she politely corrected me stating that it wasn’t about her English, it was about her spiritual life.  As she explained it, because she didn’t have a strong command of the English language, the recordings would challenge her to “listen very much when God talks to me.”

Grandma Yen has been in Heaven for twenty-two years now, after a lifetime of listening very much to God’s words to her, and then following His directions.  I think of her every time the Holidays Season rolls around.  She will always serve as an example of holiness for me, and provides a clue for how we can all stay connected to the original meaning of the Holidays.

During this Advent Season, this season of waiting and preparation, may we all listen “very much” to the words of God, and what He’s trying to tell us…and help make this Holiday Season truly holy.

Living “thank-you”:  The virtue of gratitude

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“Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.”

-Joseph Stalin

 

“A man’s indebtedness is not virtue; his repayment is. Virtue begins when he dedicates himself actively to the job of gratitude.”

-Ruth Benedict

 

As a child, Ioseb Jughasvili was routinely beaten by his alcoholic father.  At seven years-old he contracted smallpox, which left his face badly scarred.  By age 12, he had been in two different horse-drawn carriage accidents which resulted in his left arm being permanently disabled.  He somehow found his way to the Orthodox Seminary at age 16, but was eventually dismissed because of unpaid debts to the school.  After leaving seminary, he became increasingly political and ended up being sent to prison in Siberia seven times.

 

What happened to this emotionally, physically, and spiritually scarred man?  What did he do with his immense pain, and rage, and shame?  He decided that he’d spend his life gathering and keeping power, absolute power.  That way, he’d never have to be indebted to anyone, never have to be vulnerable again, and never have to admit weakness or need.  He even changed his last name to the Russian word for “steel” (stalin), in case someone missed the point.

 

So what in the name of everything good does Joseph Stalin have to do with gratitude, the virtue he considered “a sickeness suffered by dogs?”  As a cautionary tale, a lot!

 

Remember, we learn about virtues by studying life stories…and not just the happy ones.  And the monsterous ways Stalin channeled his pain, hardened his heart, and learned to deny the good in himself and others should speak to all of us.

 

Of course you don’t need to have anything close to a Stalin-esque childhood to feel beaten up by circumstances beyond your control; betrayals, injustices, illnesses, rejections.  And you also don’t have to be responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people like Stalin in order to do significant harm with your suffering.

 

Life is difficult, and pain is built in to human existence…always has been, and always will be.  No one gets a free pass;  read the paper, watch the news, look in the mirror.  And this is why gratitude is so essential.  It helps us return again and again to the positive, and protects us from being victims of pain, and resentment, and despair….and becoming increasingly inhuman in the process.

 

Gratitude is an attitude of thankfulness and appreciation for life and those who give to us, and celebrates generosity of spirit.

 

It shares the same word stem as “grace”, and helps us recognize gifts and blessings in our lives, even in the most difficult times.  And as we feel grateful and then act as ones who have been cared for, what we do with pain changes.  This is when feeling becomes virtue.

 

I have been given the gift of life, and I will work to protect life.

I have been given the gift of love, and I will love as many people as I can.

I have been given the gift of talents, and I will use my talents to make the world better.

I have been given the gift of forgiveness, and I will forgive those who hurt me.

I have been given the gift of freedom, and I will use my freedom to set others free.

 

Gratitude is not just about saying thank you, it’s about living thank you.

 

 

Heroes You Should Know:  The Syrian Santa

 

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Most children would identify Santa’s home as the North Pole, but there is growing evidence that it might actually be in Finland.  Because that’s where 44 year-old Rami Adham lives.

Five years ago, the Finnish national who emigrated from Syria in 1988, watched in horror from the safety of his home in Helsinki as footage of Aleppo was shown on television.  The graphic images of sorrow and agony produced by the bloody Syrian civil war moved Adham to do something.  That ‘something’ turned into a plan that sounded like a Christmas cartoon:  to smuggle toys, along with water, food, and medical supplies to the refugee children of Syria, starting with Aleppo—his birth city.  But unlike a holiday cartoon, if Rami was caught he would be killed.

Since his decision in 2011 Adham—who has six children of his own—has flown to Turkey and then slipped over the mountainous border into Syria on thirty occasions.  He visits refugee camps in several different locations, and each time he carries with him hundreds of toys.  His sack, which can weigh up to 170 pounds, is stuffed with Barbie dolls, teddy bears, and even Buzz Lightyear.  During Ramadan alone, the ‘Syrian Santa’ smuggled in more than 700 toys.   On some trips it’s too dangerous to drive so he walks—up to eight miles.  Depending on the location of the camp and the means of transportation, each trek can take between eight and sixteen hours.

All this effort and risk just to bring toys?  For Rami Adham, toys are exactly what’s called for because they remind the children that they still have childhoods, and that they haven’t been forgotten by the rest of the world.  Today as many as 3 million children live in Syrian refugee camps.  Some go to school, but most work.  And death is everywhere.  In June, while visiting Aleppo, six orphaned children were killed while Adham was there.

To facilitate collection of toys for his trips to Syria, which now average one every two months, Rami has established the Finnish-Syrian Association.  Additionally, the ‘toy smuggler’ has now set up a Go Fund Me campaign to build a school for the refugee children. In just two months, Adham has been able to raise over $66,000 of the $110,000 needed.

Santa appears to have traded in his red suit for mountain fatigues, presently has a brown beard, and now works year-round—but he most definitely still exists!

And a weary world gives thanks.

Rami Adham is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.