Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #116. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Mar. 4, 2017; online Mar. 5

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Minnesota Public Radio, United Way of Central Minnesota, and the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. Each has played a notable role this past half-century, and today each is a rampart against erosion of the values they were established to support.

A few years before the station that would grow into Minnesota Public Radio went on the air (Jan. 22, 1967) at St. John’s University, President John F. Kennedy said to the American Newspaper Publishers Association, “No official of my administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.”

As MPR celebrates its semi-centennial, President Donald J. Trump has called the media “the enemy of the American people.” I agree with a true American patriot, Sen. John McCain: “If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and, many times, adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That's how dictators get started.”

The Trump administration has targeted the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides funding for both public radio and public television. The saving? One ten-thousandth of the federal budget. A majority of Americans think CPB gets a hundred times that much, but this doesn’t make it true.

When the administration in Washington calls responsible journalism “fake news,” excludes reporters from briefings, and tells the media to “keep its mouth shut,” the tradition of careful, fact-based and fact-checked reporting that started in Collegeville 50 years ago is more important than ever. By any measure, MPR is the flagship of National Public Radio and, all things considered, one of the best bargains we, as citizens, have.

On Jan. 24, 1967, just two days after that initial radio broadcast from KSJR, a group of St. Cloud citizens adopted articles of incorporation for what has become United Way of Central Minnesota. In its half-century, United Way has gathered resources from across the community to support countless projects that promote the common good.

Recently, United Way has been a prime mover in the identification and furtherance of Community Pillars. At the Pillars conference last month, after reports of good progress on all nine of the pillars, the audience experienced a kind of whiplash when Jon Ruis, United Way’s president, presented a stark picture of poverty in our area.

Some listeners, especially educators, weren’t surprised at all; they have seen up close, for at least a couple of decades, the impact of poverty — generational poverty — on the development of kids, and the ripple effect throughout the community. The news is not new, but the United Way’s calling attention to it is crucial.

The Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research (where I served as executive director 1984-2004) was chartered on April 29, 1967, to “dispel religious ignorance and promote better understanding and harmony” across faith traditions. Earlier in that decade the Second Vatican Council had catapulted the Catholic Church into conversations with other churches that would do just that.

These days it’s hard to remember how suspicious Christians were of one another. Earlier popes had forbidden Catholics to meet with Protestants. Kennedy confronted Protestant fears that a Catholic in the White House would be a pawn of the Vatican.

At the Collegeville Institute people become “caretakers of one another’s stories.” There is no quick-fix avoidance of genuine questions. As the late C. B. Hastings, a Southern Baptist, wrote, “A new concept of ‘peers’ emerged. We had no need to wear masks or hedge our thoughts. Dialogue was fostered by openness, respect, and sometimes grudging admission of the defeat of one’s pet ideas.”

Plenty of knotty issues still divide churches (both from each other and within themselves), but the “religious ignorance” that is particularly dangerous today is the widespread distorted view of Islam that gets so much traction in our area. If you’re looking for “fake news,” that’s it. Stereotyping of Muslims by Christians is no less treacherous than was typecasting of Catholics and Protestants by each other half a century ago. The Collegeville Institute is increasingly alert, as its mission statement says, to “a religiously and culturally diverse world.”

Minnesota Public Radio “assists its audiences in strengthening their communities” by providing, yes, facts. United Way, in a time when safety nets are threatened, takes the lead in “identifying community concerns.”  The Collegeville Institute “dispels religious ignorance” which, unlike Islam, is the real threat.

A vintage year, 1967.