Out of the Zoo: What will I teach on days like these?

Annie Thorn is senior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie reflects, as a future teacher, on January 6, 2021—JF

January 6th, 2021. I had just arrived home from a busy day of substitute teaching in a 6th grade English class. My skin was dry and flaky from layers of hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, my feet sore from standing all day in my black heeled boots (I have yet to purchase sensible teacher shoes). Breathing a sigh of relief, I sat in the warmth of my parked Chevy Avalanche for a few minutes before braving the Michigan cold that waited for me outside. I pulled out my phone and checked Instagram, scrolling through posts and double tapping the ones I liked. After swiping through a few stories at the top of the screen, a startling image greeted me. It depicted an angry mob, rushing toward the Capitol in Washington D.C. The headline above the photo indicated that the People’s House had been breached.

Confusion clouded my brain and I wondered if the article was real. Would someone really try to break into the U.S. Capitol? No, it can’t be true, I thought. I turned my phone off and made the trek inside, greeted by my family’s energetic puppy who was excited to be liberated from her crate. As I played tug-of-war with her in the living room, I almost forgot about what I saw on Instagram. For a moment, the photo’s scary scene was nothing more than a fading memory, an unpleasant dream. 

My mom arrived home a few minutes later and we turned on the news. “Did you see what’s happening in D.C.?” she asked. Sure enough, it was all real. What I saw on Instagram wasn’t a hypothetical scenario or a figment of my imagination. An angry mob of protestors had broken into the Senate Chamber, attempting to “stop the steal.” As reporters interviewed legislators, showed photos and read concerned messages from foreign leaders, I felt like I was watching a dystopian novel unfold in real life. I sat in front of the T.V. all night, trying to comprehend what was happening. Tumultuous thoughts hummed ever-louder in my brain like an angered beehive. 

While I love being at home with my family, that night I found myself wishing I was back at school. I wanted my professors and mentors to explain how and why something like this could happen. The professors at Messiah have a way of making their students feel safe and loved, even when the world around us is full of chaos. I wanted to see my history major friends so we could make sense of it all together. My friends–especially my friends who love history–help me make sense of hard questions, even the ones that don’t necessarily have answers.

Three weeks have passed since the insurrection at the Capitol. I’ve moved back to Messiah University for my final semester of classes before I complete my student teaching. I am taking a lot of education this spring. It’s crazy to think that less than a year from now I won’t be the student anymore. I’ll be the teacher. When another day like January 6 arrives, my students will come to me with questions–questions I may not be able to answer. 

Every generation, it seems, is defined by a series of events. By the days that we remember clearly–even weeks, months, or years after the fact. Some days we are proud to be Americans, and other days we hang our heads in shame. There will always be days filled with death, tragedy, and scandal. There will be mornings when my students will come to class with questions. What will I teach on days like these? Whatever I teach, I know I will not do it perfectly. There will be lots of trial and error. I know I won’t have all the answers, and the ones I do give I will have to craft carefully. But on days like these I will do my best to teach mourning. I will teach respect. I will teach love. And I will teach action.

Out of the Zoo: Traditions

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about a Messiah University history department tradition.—JF

Some of my fondest college memories are from Christmas caroling with Messiah University’s history club. We history majors gather on a cold December night, pile into cars with packets of Christmas carols in hand, and weave our way through the greater-Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania area on our way to visit each of our professor’s houses. After singing a few tunes on their doorstep, they invite us in and serve an array of hot drinks, baked goods, and sweets. We chat about our semesters, meet our professor’s spouses, and pet their dogs. They ask whose houses we’ve been to already, and where we’re going next. It’s a beloved tradition, cherished by many, and I hope it continues for a long time.

For a few different reasons, the history club’s Christmas caroling tradition had to take a pause this year. Due to Messiah’s altered schedule this year we won’t be on campus between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I suppose we could have sung “Silent Night” on our professors doorsteps in mid-November, but it wouldn’t have been the same. On top of this, COVID restrictions–which advise against singing in groups and gathering in each other’s houses–added a few more obstacles. We didn’t want to nix our tradition altogether, so we had to be creative. Instead of Christmas caroling, we planned our own little Thanksgiving parade. My friend Chloe, the current president of the history club, planned the event and advertised it as “Thanks-giving back to the professors.” 

Our little caravan wasn’t much when compared to the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. We didn’t have giant balloons or fancy costumes or marching bands, and we had to keep our numbers small and spread out to maintain social distance. But we did have home-made gifts, colorful signs, determined spirits, and grateful hearts.

Like any other year, we wove through Mechanicsburg and stopped at each professor’s house. At each stop we got out of our cars, held up our signs at the end of our professor’s driveways, and cheered. Some professors waved and thanked us from their windows, while others came outside to chat from six feet away. A few of them requested we sing a Thanksgiving song, and when we couldn’t think of one we laughed and promised that our Christmas caroling would be extra special next year. Some professors still served us sweets, this time prepacked and individually wrapped. I joked that the coffee mugs we dropped off (signed by several history majors) would be worth a lot of money if one of us becomes famous someday. For those few minutes, things almost felt normal again. Even in the midst of all the craziness and change around us, we still found a way to show our professors that we care.

With COVID cases on the rise, schools shutting down and the holidays rapidly approaching, the traditions we love will undoubtedly look a little different this year. History club Christmas caroling may have been the first holiday tradition I’ve had to change, but it certainly won’t be the last. In the next few months my family will have to make tough decisions about gathering with our loved ones. I haven’t seen my grandmother since the summer, but visiting her in the middle of COVID’s second wave could pose a significant risk to her health. As much as I long to go back to church and see all the friends I’ve missed for months, my family might have to have our own candlelight Christmas Eve service at home. We usually head to the cinema to see a movie every Christmas day, but I suppose this year we’ll cook our own popcorn, dim the lights, and pretend our television is about fifty times larger than it is. 

There’s no doubt that a lot of our holiday traditions might have to change this year. But at the same time, a lot will stay the same. COVID-19 may change our family gatherings and our New Year’s Eve parties, but it will never change how much we care about the people we love. It may modify our Thanksgiving dinner, but it will never take away our ability to be grateful for the blessings that we still have. It may alter our church services, but it will never separate us from the love of Christ, Emmanuel, whose birth we celebrate during this season. We can still celebrate him, give thanks and shine his light to our loved ones who are struggling. Our traditions may change, but our love doesn’t have to–we might just have to be a little more creative.

Out of the Zoo: Wonder Woman

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about her reaction to the Biden-Harris victory.—JF

My adolescence was defined by superhero movies. The first Avengers was released when I was twelve, which was followed by at least two new Marvel films every year after that. Whenever a new superhero movie would come out, some kids would go out late on a school night to see it. Out of respect for future movie-goers, classmates were usually careful not to share spoilers too loudly. Other peers, whose excitement wore through their spoiler-alert filters, were not quite as careful. My freshman year of high school, our homecoming week was even superhero themed. All throughout school, “Who’s your favorite superhero?” was a failsafe conversation starter. Likewise,  “Who’s the hottest Avenger?” was a contested debate among friends and at sleepovers. 

Out of all the superhero movies that came out when I was in high school, Wonder Woman–the one with Gal Gadot that was released in 2017–might be my favorite. I actually cried watching it for the first time. There’s one scene in particular, in the middle of the movie, that made me emotional. It shows Diana (Wonder Woman), decked out in armor, charging through World War I-era no man’s land. As I watched her jump in and out of trenches, stop bullets with her bracelets and shout instructions to the other good guys, I remember smiling and weeping and feeling tingly all at the same time.  I had no idea a movie–much less an action movie–could affect me in such a way. But then again, in all my 17 years of life and out of all the superhero movies I had watched, this was the first one I had seen that was all about a woman. Diana was not simply a love interest, a side character, or an afterthought. She was the hero. She wasn’t stuck in the background–she took center stage. She didn’t need someone to save her–she was the one saving the day.

Last week, Kamala Harris was elected as the first female Vice President of the United States. As far as I know, Harris is not secretly a superhero. She doesn’t wear bullet-stopping bracelets or red white and blue armor. She doesn’t carry around a lasso that forces people to tell the truth, as useful as something like that might be in Washington D.C. Yet at the same time, seeing Kamala address the nation last weekend had a huge and lasting impact on me. She thanked all the women who fought for equality, the girls who secured our right to vote, and tears began to form in my eyes. A feeling of gratitude and determination bubbled up in my stomach when a few seconds later she said,  “While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last.” The whole time, I couldn’t stop smiling.

I had no idea that such a short address from a Vice President elect could affect me in such a way. But then again, I am the product of many generations of American women who have been silenced, oppressed, and pushed to the side. We have never, not in 250 years, seen another woman like us hold one of the nation’s highest offices. For once in our country, a woman wasn’t confined to the background. Kamala wasn’t waiting for someone to save her–she was ready to take action. Her simple presence on stage reminded me that as unsurpassable as they may seem, barriers are not dead ends.

A quarter of a millennium is a long time to wait for a female Vice President–much longer than the 17 years I had to wait to see a blockbuster movie all about a female superhero. And girls like me will have to wait even longer for a woman to become president. But until that day comes, and as we continue to make more progress, we will celebrate this victory.

Out of the Zoo: Why I (almost) didn’t vote in the 2020 election

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about some anxious moments as she prepared to vote for the first time in a presidential election.—JF

My mom doesn’t normally call me while I’m in class.

At the beginning of each semester, my siblings and I send her our schedules and she puts them on our family’s shared Google calendar. With three different kids in our family and three different course loads, it’s a very busy calendar. But it’s helpful for my mom, who uses it to keep track of the times when she can reach us. If she has news to share and she sees we’re in class, she usually sends a text or waits to call when we’re free.

As you can probably imagine, I was alarmed when my mom called me not once, but twice in the middle of my Joan of Arc class. Thankfully my phone was on silent, but it was still a shock when I checked the time and noticed two missed calls. There was also a text: “I know you’re in class but I need to talk to you about your ballot.” I grabbed my phone, excused myself, and caller her back. When she didn’t answer, I went back into the classroom and tried to discreetly send a text response. “I need to talk to you,” she messaged back. Visibly flustered, I went into the hallway for a second time, called again, and my mom finally picked up.

“Yeah so they don’t have our ballot request forms,” my mom said, even though our entire family had requested our absentee ballots in June. I had been anxiously checking my mailbox for weeks to no avail, so I should have known something went awry. Nevertheless, I was beyond frustrated with the fact that my ballot hadn’t even been sent yet. My Mom continued: “And the county clerk only works on Wednesdays. So if you want to request a ballot you need to fill out the form again, take a picture of it, and email it to them ASAP.”

“Well that’s stupid,” I replied, checking my watch. It was already 2 p.m.–well into Wednesday afternoon. If I didn’t get my ballot request in by the end of the work day, the county clerk wouldn’t see it for another week. There’s no way I would get it in time. “Why the heck do they only work one day a week when there’s a Presidential election less than two weeks away?”

As soon as my class was over, I dashed to the printer down the hall and printed out another ballot request form. I wrote down all the required information–my school address, my home address, and my signature–and snapped a picture. On my way to Theology with Dr. Weaver-Zercher, I typed out a quick email and sent it off with a prayer. Who knew it would be so hard to vote.

Yesterday, October 27, a week before the election, my ballot finally came in the mail. I practically skipped back to my room and filled it out right away. It even came with an “I voted” sticker, which I wore with pride for the rest of the day. After weeks of waiting and checking my empty mailbox, I finally got to vote in my first Presidential election.

Out of the Zoo: Stories Matter

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about how she is putting her love of C.S. Lewis to good use in the community.—JF

The first chapter book I ever read in elementary school was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I watched the movie version first, which came out when I was six years old. A year or so later, I read the book–followed by the rest of the series. And so began my Narnia craze (which, to be honest, hasn’t completely gone away). Throughout my childhood, I read the Narnia books again, and again, and again. When the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out on DVD, my family borrowed fur coats from a friend and dressed up for a Narnia movie night at our church. I had all the Narnia merchandise you could imagine; I carried my bible in a Narnia bible case until the strap broke, put a Narnia paperweight on my desk and kept a tattered Narnia poster on my bedroom wall until I graduated high school. I still hang up my Narnia stocking and Narnia Christmas ornaments with pride every holiday season. While my Narnia obsession has died down slightly over the years, the story still holds a special place in my heart. It has strengthened my faith, inspired my imagination, and comforted me on some of my hardest days.

Every education major at Messiah is required to take a class called “Teaching English Language Learners in K-12 schools. The class, taught by Dr. Tina Keller, comes with a 20 hour cross-cultural requirement meant to encourage us to gain hands-on experience with English learners outside the classroom. At the beginning of the semester, Dr. Keller compiled a list of schools, churches, and organizations still holding English classes and encouraged us to sign up as a volunteer. After a few email exchanges with Anna Halbersma, the Director of Intercultural Ministries at Immanuel Christian-Missionary Church,  I agreed to co-teach a book club for English learners over Zoom on Thursday mornings. As you can probably imagine, when she told me we would be going through none other than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe I was beyond thrilled. 

I was pretty nervous on my first day of English teaching, but now Thursday morning is the best part of my week. For one, I’m getting a taste of what it will be like to be a teacher someday as I make lesson plans, write discussion questions, and attempt to coach students through technical difficulties. On top of that, I get to read my favorite book of all time, re-discovering the amazing story I love alongside my students who have never heard it before. Through the class I’ve met amazing people from all different places and cultures with unique stories of their own. I got to call a couple of them after class last week and they shared even more stories with me—about their families, their home countries, and their experiences learning English. I know it’s cliche for teachers to say that they learn more from their students than their students learn from them, but in the case of my English class the cliche is 100% true.

Stories are so powerful. They’re important too, and there are so many of them to learn. They teach us more about the world and all the different people living in it. Discovering people’s stories is one of my favorite things in the whole world. I think that’s why I love history so much. After all, as historians, it’s our job to learn about people’s lives—who they were, where they were from, and what mattered to them. The world is full of interesting people with fascinating lives, just waiting to share their experiences with anyone who will listen. In fact, it always has been. There are stories all around us just waiting to be uncovered. So let’s pick up a shovel and start digging.

Out of the Zoo: Do Better

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie considers lessons she has learned from studying the history of dueling in early America—JF

A little less than a year ago, I wrote a blog post about Alexander Hamilton’s “deathbed conversion.” Ten and a half months later, I’ve returned to researching the faith of our ten-dollar founding father. I’m particularly fascinated by the religious implications of dueling–the means by which Hamilton met his tragic end. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, dueling was an established method by which men could settle their disputes and restore their honor. Though it was illegal in many places, challenges were still made and accepted. Men still perished on the dueling grounds–including Hamilton’s own son Phillip. Christian ministers often spoke out against the practice. One minister, Reverend Benjamin Moore, even denied Hamilton’s initial request for communion from his deathbed, solely because he had fought in a duel.

This past week, I’ve been sorting through Lyman Beecher’s sermon, “The Remedy for Dueling.” The sermon is extensive–55 pages in length–and cannot be easily summarized in a few sentences, or even a 600 word blog post. Beecher equates dueling with murder and exhorts all who practice it to change their ways. Further, he calls Christians to take a stand against the cult of honor by refusing to vote for duelists. He voices his distress regarding the flawed character of public men, but also chides Americans for not encouraging them to do better. Beecher writes, “But how has it come to pass (if true) that so many public characters are immoral men? It is because we, the people, have not even requested them to behave better. We have never made it necessary for them to be moral.” Beecher condemns the behavior of duelists, but his sermon does not end there. He concludes by challenging men of honor to change their evil ways. He spurs his congregation–and even the duelists themselves–toward love and good deeds.

A couple summers ago, I worked my first summer at a traveling day camp called Springhill. Every day–and sometimes twice a day–all of our campers gathered for high-energy large group sessions. We danced, sang songs, played games, and ended each session with a skit. The heroes of the story that year–Agent M and Double J–were top-secret spies on a mission in the jungle; they wore badges and carried blasters. Meanwhile Dr. Con–the villain of the story–tried to keep Agent M and Double J from finishing their mission. Dr. Con spoke in a nasally voice and wore a yellow polo shirt–complete with white knee-high socks, glasses, and a fake mustache. 

As counselors, my coworkers and I tried to make large group sessions as exciting as possible. We yelled and danced and jumped around, and interacted with the skit so our campers would be engaged.  So at first, we thought it might be a good idea to boo Dr. Con whenever he shuffled onstage–after all, he was the bad guy. It didn’t take long for our campers to catch on and start booing with us. But things quickly got out of control–the boos got so loud that they distracted from the important gospel story the skit was supposed to tell. Some kids gave up booing entirely and just started screaming–so loud that no one could hear any of the lines. It was obvious that something needed to change. So, instead of booing Dr. Con, we decided to shout “Do better! Do better Dr. Con!” I can’t say the booing immediately ceased, but soon enough our campers began to follow our example. Instead of screaming whenever Dr. Con showed up, they called him to do the right thing rather than continue in his old devious ways–to choose good instead of evil.

It might seem rather strange to compare an early 19th century sermon with a skit from a summer camp written over 200 years later, but I think both can speak into the moment we’re in right now. It’s now the middle of October, and the 59th Presidential election is less than three weeks away. It seems like almost every commercial that pops up on my television is a political advertisement. I’m still waiting for my absentee ballot, but millions have already voted. Many Americans see a clear hero and a clear villain in this chapter in our country’s story, while others aren’t too thrilled about either of the men on the ballot.

Yet before we sulk that “so many public characters are immoral men” we should ask ourselves if we “have even requested them to behave better.” Have we really called for change, or are we enabling complacency? Does character really matter to us? Do our votes reflect that? At the same time, even if there is a clear “bad guy” in our personal political narrative, we should not boo them off the stage. We shouldn’t yell so loud that we can’t hear anything they have to say. Instead, we should offer encouragement. We must urge them to do the right thing rather than continuing in their old ways, to choose good instead of evil. Instead of “boo,” let us say, “Do better!”

Out of the Zoo: Coronavirus Diary

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie gets us up to speed on coronavirus at Messiah University—JF

A month and a half into the semester, Messiah University has settled into a new kind of normal. We’re getting used to shouting answers to discussion questions so that others can hear us from behind our mask. We know now to check our emails regularly in case a professor decides to meet over zoom last minute–due to COVID exposure or otherwise. We’ve become unphased by the strange microphone headsets our professors wear, relatively unconcerned with the ever-fluctuating number of students who tune in to class remotely. We’re finding creative ways to connect with our families and friends when we can’t go home over fall break or see them in person. Certainly none of these situations are ideal, but we’re getting used to them anyway.

After a spring and summer of live-streaming church, I’ve finally returned to in-person worship. The church that I attend when I’m at school has been holding all of its services outdoors in a huge field, which makes social distancing much easier to maintain. While this season has shown me that the Church is so much more than a place, it felt good to be back, singing with other believers and listening to a sermon in church clothes instead of pajamas. Doing Young Life ministry this year has been challenging in many ways, but my team has been making it work. We’ve been hosting all our Young Life events outside–at parks, around campfires, and in backyards–and require students to bring a mask. We’ve lucked out in terms of weather so far, but we’re making preparations for when the weather gets colder and we may not be able to gather in large groups. 

We’re expecting to get an email sometime this week about changes to Messiah’s COVID restrictions. There have been 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on campus since the beginning of the year–17 students and 2 employees. Our numbers are still relatively low, but the slight uptick in cases has many on edge. Nonetheless, we’re still hoping that Messiah will keep loosening-up the rules to give us more things to do on campus. Since we can’t go into each other’s apartments or dorms right now (even with masks on) students have been taking trips off-campus to hang out. We’re all hoping that Messiah will decide that increased visitation is the lesser of these two evils.

In the meantime, Messiah’s campus has been abuzz with political fervour. Some students are certainly more passionate than others, but political conversations abound nonetheless–before class, during meals, and on social media. We talk about the issues that are important to us–issues like criminal justice reform, abortion and education. We talk about the pandemic. In other discussions, I listen to my friends and mentors express their concern about a lack of empathy and understanding on both sides of the political spectrum. We reveal our voting plans too, whether we’re voting by mail, in-person, or hand-delivering our envelopes on election day. I’ve been checking my mailbox periodically for my absentee ballot. My sister (who studies journalism at Northwestern University) got hers last week, so I think mine will come soon. I’m excited to vote in my first Presidential election, even though I won’t get a patriotic  “I voted” sticker to show for it.

Last Tuesday, I watched the first presidential debate. My housemate Chloe (another history major) and I shared a bag of popcorn as we watched Trump and Biden duke it out on stage, the script of the Declaration of Independence’s Preamble displayed on a blue backdrop behind them. Our housemate Rebecca, who grew up overseas, joined us too. She was born in the states, but had never watched a presidential debate. I told her she should at least watch the first 10 minutes of the debate so she would be able to understand Saturday Night Live’s parody video of it a few days later. To my surprise, she watched the whole thing. “It’s just so fascinating!” she said.

Six months into the coronavirus pandemic and a month and a half into school, much remains uncertain. Will COVID cases go up any more on campus? Will my friends continue to stay healthy and safe? Will we be able to keep Messiah open for the rest of the semester? Will I still be able to connect with my Young Life students when it’s too cold to meet in someone’s backyard? Will my absentee ballot come on time? If I’ve learned anything about this COVID-19 season, it’s that every answered question will be replaced by a new unanswered one. We grow, we adapt, we adjust, but there’s always one new thing to get used to. Uncertainty has become the new normal, change a strong and constant force.

Out of the Zoo: Joan of Arc

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie reports on her class on the trial of Joan of Arc—JF

I loved The Lord of the Rings movies growing up. I watched them for the first time with my mom in elementary school–she skipped all the parts that were too scary or gross. I didn’t really know what was going on, but when I watched them again a few years later I understood more. After that, the Lord of the Rings saga became a staple in our family–for sick days, movie nights and especially long car trips in our Dodge minivan with built-in television screens. My cousin Abby, who is now a children’s librarian in the Grand Rapids area, even took my siblings and I to see a midnight showing of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug when we were in eighth grade.

One of my favorite parts in The Lord of the Rings movies is a scene from The Return of the King. As Frodo and Sam draw ever nearer to Mount Doom, Legolas, Gimli, and several other familiar faces are left to defend Minas Tirith from a giant army of orcs. In the middle of the heated battle, the evil Witch-King shows up and picks a fight with Eowyn, a noblewoman from Rohan who disguises herself as a man to defend Middle Earth. “You fool, no man can kill me,” the Witch-King rasps, with Eowyn in a choke-hold. “Die now.” A few seconds later, Eowyn escapes from the his grasp and rips off her helmet to reveal long golden hair. “I am no man!” she exclaims, thrusting her sword forward and striking the Ringwraith with a fatal blow.

As a self-proclaimed tomboy in elementary and middle school, I wanted to be like Eowyn when I grew up. I probably could have quoted her battle scene in my sleep. She was bold and strong and brave–the ultimate example of girl power. I think I liked watching Eowyn because I saw some of myself in her–but I also saw the kind of person I wanted to be.

At Messiah University this semester, I’m taking a class about a young woman who reminds me a lot of Eowyn–Joan of Arc. She wasn’t a noblewoman from Rohan, but a peasant girl from Domrémy, France. To be frankly honest, I didn’t know much about Joan before my class started, and I still  have a lot to learn. But in the month that I’ve studied her thus far, I’ve encountered a devout, loyal, fearless young woman who cast aside gender norms, listened to God’s voice, and tirelessly sought the greater good of France. Like Eowyn, Joan was brave, and she wore men’s clothes into battle too! There’s no magic ring or Witch-King in Joan’s story, but she did live in a world that looks a lot different from our own. To someone who loves history–and even to someone who doesn’t–Joan’s life is just as intriguing as a fantasy novel. Like Eowyn, I see some of myself in Joan of Arc–in her stubbornness and her passion for justice. Yet in Joan I also see the kind of person I want to become–someone who is bold, courageous and full of faith.

I am grateful to my professor, Dr. Joseph Huffman, for introducing me to Joan of Arc this semester. As we progress through the transcript of her trial in the coming weeks, I hope I will better comprehend with greater fullness the woman she was–a task which may never be completely achieved. Because unlike movie characters, historical figures are complex and ever-changing. They can’t be easily captured in a few words on a page or a few minutes on a movie screen. Nonetheless, we still have lots to learn from them.

Out of the Zoo: The Stoning of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie reflects on the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and how some evangelical responded to news of her death. —JF

On Friday evening, my phone buzzed. I was in the middle of writing a book review of Speaking of Siva, but I was glad for a distraction. “Did you see about rbg??” My heart sank to the pit of my stomach. I searched “Ruth Bader Ginsburg” on my phone, even though I knew deep down what probably happened.  It didn’t take long for Google to confirm my worst suspicions. The infamous 2020 had taken another life.

I went upstairs and shared the news with my roommate Rachel, who had been reading Henry V for her Shakespeare class on one of four couches in our upstairs living room. When my housemates Emily and Chloe got back from a late night Walmart trip, we mourned the nation’s loss together. An hour later, the four of us cuddled up in blankets and watched On the Basis of Sex together in her honor. We had a discussion afterward about the barriers that we will never have to overcome because she knocked them down for us. We talked about the challenges women in our country still face.

Whenever the world loses a celebrity, the internet gets a rapid facelift. I still remember when Robin Williams died in 2014 and Facebook was plastered with sketches of a tearful Genie hugging a cartoon Robin with the caption reading “We ain’t never had a friend like you.” Just a few weeks ago, the world said goodbye to King T’challa and beautiful artwork depicting Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther dominated the web. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death proved no exception to this phenomenon. Yet between what seemed like hundreds of photographs, quotes, and condolences in her honor, I scrolled past a Facebook post that caught me off guard.

The status update, which had nearly 5,000 comments and twice as many shares, held nothing back in calling down God’s wrath on Ruth Bader Ginsburg (and the American Christians who supported her). Peppered with scripture, the post compared her to King Herod and Hitler. For her support of abortion, her rulings on homosexual marriage, and her apparent attack on religious liberties the post names her Jezebel, a woman who suffered “on a sickbed that GOD himself threw her on!” Towards the end of the post the author writes, “Ginsburg has now discovered that there is a court higher than the one called ‘Supreme’ and she does not sit in the seat of the judge, but as the defendant… The justice of God knows no delay, and the law of God knows no limits.”

I choose to believe that the man who wrote this post comes from a place of sincerity. He seems to disagree with many of the decisions that have defined Ginsburg’s career—and he has the right to.  He genuinely sees her as the personification of everything that is unrighteous and ungodly, a true and worthy enemy. In many ways I do agree with what he wrote. While I recognize the issue is incredibly complex, I am unashamedly pro-life. I affirm a traditional view of marriage. Like the author of this post I believe that God cares deeply about justice. I believe that we will all have to stand before the judgement seat of God someday. Without the saving grace of Jesus covering my sins, I know that the Judge would certainly not rule in my favor. Yet I will not pass judgement on Ruth Bader Ginsburg because it is not my place to do so.

It is not my place to pass judgement on a woman God created. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is hardly my enemy, but there’s no denying that many Christians view her as such. However as I understand it, the Bible doesn’t say to damn your enemy, call her Jezebel, and rejoice when she draws her last breath. It says to let God, the king and author of the universe, be the judge. It reminds us to forgive, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. There’s a story in the Bible—in John 8—about another woman a lot of religious people didn’t like very much. Except she wasn’t the second female justice on the Supreme Court–she was an adultress caught in the act. When defending this woman from the Pharisees who were about to stone her to death, Jesus himself said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Minutes later, every stone dropped to the floor.

Out of the Zoo: 2,254 COVID Tests

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about the recent COVID-19 testing at Messiah University—JF

The mass email came on a Monday afternoon, right before my last class of the day. “Did you see that they’re doing mass COVID testing?”  a housemate asked a few minutes before I logged into zoom for “Theology and American Culture” with Dr. David Weaver-Zercher. “We all have to get tested? When? Why?” another housemate asked. I didn’t have time to read the email blast before class started, but I thought about it throughout the whole zoom call. Was there an outbreak or something? I thought. Should I pack an emergency bag just in case? Question after question filled my mind like air in a balloon. Even after class was over and I got the chance to read through the announcement, uncertainty still swirled in the pit of my stomach.

It didn’t take long for rumors to consume Messiah University like a raging wildfire. Some said the apartments designated for quarantining students were already almost filled to capacity. Others were convinced Messiah wouldn’t be open for much longer. A Messiah student I follow on Instagram even posted a picture with a friend holding up lyrics to a Taylor Swift song. In plastic red script the letterboard read “I think I’ve seen this film before… and I didn’t like the ending” with #covidsucks in the caption. Even though Messiah only had five confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the time, horror stories coming from other universities–of hundreds of positive cases and thousands more students in quarantine–had us all on edge. But can you blame us?

At the Harbor House—Messiah University’s special interest house for members of the honors program—we were particularly apprehensive. Because we are considered the biggest “nuclear family” on campus, all twelve housemates needed negative test results in order for us all to avoid an impromptu two week quarantine. We hoped and prayed against positive cases as testing approached, but an ominous sense of unease still hung in the air. “I have a feeling at this time next week things will be a lot different,” my housemate Emily Decker predicted grimly.

Messiah University’s staff did what they could to put students at ease. All week, professors let us know that they were praying for us. They checked in at the beginning of class and offered comforting words. They let us know they were available for us if we needed anything–even if we just needed someone to talk to. President Kim Phipps sent out a video message on Thursday morning–the day testing was set to begin–with encouragement and clarification. She assured us that no, Messiah was not on the verge of closing and no, the swabs the nurses were going to use would not go all the way up to our brain. Over the next few days Messiah students made their way to Brubaker Auditorium during their assigned time slot. On a normal year chapel services would be held in Brubaker twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Instead of rows of chairs and drowsy students, Brubaker showcased lines of X’s, spaced 6 feet apart, two giant jugs of hand sanitizer at the doors, and busy nurses donning lab coats and masks. Heading to the auditorium last Thursday morning felt both familiar and strange, but mostly just strange.

A few days after testing was completed, we received another email blast. “Check your mass emails!!” Emily Decker texted in our house group chat. “2,254 tests and only one positive!!!!!!” The bricks that had been weighing on my shoulders all week clattered to the floor. After a week of tension and uncertainty and strangeness, I could finally breathe again. Only one positive out of over two thousand tests–nothing short of a miracle. All the girls in my house were safe and healthy, and none of us even had to quarantine. God is so good.

Out of the Zoo: Building Bridges

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about her church’s journey toward racial reconciliation—JF

On June 14, 2020, I logged into my laptop and connected it to my family’s living room television for our weekly Sunday morning church live stream. Nibbling on my strawberry toaster strudel and trying not to drip the icing on the journal I use for sermon notes, I watched the pre-service announcement slides cycle-through on the screen. My parents settled into their usual spots on the couch as we waited for the five-minute countdown to reach zero. I was still in my pajamas. It seemed like a regular Sunday.

The break from normalcy came after the first worship set came to close. Pastor Bryan Tema took the stage, but the typical table he usually uses during sermons was replaced by two armchairs. “Today is a very unique day in that we are going to have a conversation,” he explained. Pastor Michael Brown, the CEO and President of the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, would be joining us to talk about what’s been going on in the news–but not about politics or the coronavirus pandemic. Pastor Brown, Tema explained, would be leading the congregation in a conversation about race.

Pastor Brown had given sermons at gracespring before, but this time he spoke words I never expected to hear at my church in the middle of Michigan suburbia. He talked about the Black Lives Matter movement, explaining that using the term “All Lives Matter” is like spraying a fire hose on a whole neighborhood when only one house is burning. Pastor Brown shared his own weariness, expressing that people of color in the United States are just plain tired of the way they’ve been treated. He pointed out that in order for meaningful change to take place, we’re going to have to shake things up. We’re going to have to leave our comfort zones.

At the end of the service, Pastor Tema offered a next step. Whoever was interested in learning more about racial reconciliation was invited to participate in a virtual book club led by my old youth pastor, Kenneth Price and his wife Monica. I signed up the very next day. Over the next several weeks, we progressed through Latasha Morrison’s book, Be the Bridge. Like during Pastor Brown’s sermon, in the book club I heard words–like “white privilege,” “microaggressions,” and “whitewashing”–that I never thought would be uttered at church. Three generations of congregants gathered over Zoom every Wednesday night to learn how to lament our nation’s racist past, confess our own stereotypes and complacency, repent and seek reconciliation. We learned how to build bridges of racial reconciliation and even talked about how our church, our “family” as Kenneth puts it, can continue to build more bridges in the weeks, months, and years to come. 

This is what the Church is supposed to look like. Brothers and sisters in Christ coming together with open hands and open hearts, ready to listen and learn. Believers seeking justice instead of passively accepting injustice. Christ-followers refusing to shy away from conversations because they’re uncomfortable or because the work of reconciliation is too hard. Family members celebrating diversity, seeking understanding, and spurring one another toward love and good works.

Ten weeks later, my Be the Bridge book club has finally come to an end. I actually finished the last two weeks of the study from the basement of Messiah University’s Harbor House. I’m not sure what my next major steps will be on this journey, but until I do I’ll keep studying history and reading The Hate U Give. I’m not sure what the future holds for gracespring either, but I pray this summer will prove a catalyst for a family-wide journey towards racial reconciliation.

Out of the Zoo: Trying Our Best

IMG_20180904_195550199Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie reflects on the challenges of teaching and learning in a pandemic.  —JF

I remember how excited I was to work out at Messiah’s Falcon Fitness Center for the first time. Brand new, nearly 15,000 square feet, and decked out with state-of-the-art equipment, Messiah’s gym was a serious upgrade from my high school weight room. Plus, I heard on a campus tour that you could use the screens on the treadmills to play Netflix or Hulu while you exercise. As a freshman and a sophomore I remember going to the gym nearly every day–sometimes twice, if my fitness class was meeting–to lift weights and run. Needless to say, I finished several seasons of The Office, Brooklyn 99, and New Amsterdam over the past two years, all while getting my steps in. 

Due to recent circumstances, I don’t go to the fitness center as much this year. In fact, I haven’t been there at all since I moved in a week and a half ago.  Don’t get me wrong, the fitness center staff has implemented and enforced strict social distancing guidelines to keep Messiah’s community safe from COVID-19. Many students are comfortable going to the gym right now, but I’m just not there yet. So for now I’m getting up early to run a couple miles around the block before everyone is out and about on campus–with a mask hanging around my neck just in case. It looks like I might need to find another time to watch Netflix this year. 

It’s hard to be a college student during a pandemic. Classes, internships, volunteer opportunities, even exercise routines have been hastily interrupted, altered, or cancelled altogether. Names are more difficult to remember, friends harder to connect with. Every additional rule and extra responsibility feels like another weight added to an already-heavy backpack. The fear of an impromptu fourteen-day quarantine is ever-looming. We’re encouraged to have a suitcase of essentials packed to take with us if we start showing symptoms or have been exposed to someone with the virus. 

I’m sure it’s hard to be a professor during a pandemic, too. Technological difficulties arise. Masks muffle students questions and make conversations challenging to facilitate. At Messiah, classes are often held in two different rooms and professors are expected to teach students in both classrooms simultaneously. Even the most experienced teachers are thrown for a loop, apologizing to students when they feel they have not been able to deliver their usual caliber of education.

There are plenty of angry voices out there claiming they know what’s best for students and teachers alike during this season. “OPEN THE SCHOOLS!” a typical Facebook post reads. “CLOSE DOWN CAMPUS!” someone else writes on Twitter. They don’t ask. They don’t empathize. They just shout. They don’t listen or show compassion. They just politicize the millions of students trying to learn and teachers trying to teach in the midst of a world turned upside-down. 

Before you post,  before you reprimand a student or teacher or school board for the decisions they’ve made, please keep the following in mind. This year we are juggling what feels like a thousand things at once. It is a hard time to be a student, and it is a hard time to be a teacher. We are trying our best, and our educators are doing the same. We are all doing what we can. Instead of criticism, instead of hatred, some of us could really benefit from an encouraging word or two right now. And like always, we could all use a little bit of grace.

Out of the Zoo: Back to School

IMG_20200825_145436125Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes  about her return to Messiah University. —JF

“Our primary goal is to keep campus open.” 

The weighty words hung in the air like dust near a sunny window. My housemates and I gathered in our basement as Wyatt Sattazahn, our Assistant Resident Director, hosted a mandatory back-to-campus meeting on Zoom. Along with the typical exchange of contact information and the reminders about parking passes and roommate agreements, Wyatt explained Messiah’s reopening plan. He talked to us about proper mask-wearing techniques and emphasized the importance of social distancing. There will be no visitation in any capacity (for at least two weeks), no large gatherings, and no unmasked interactions (outside of “nuclear family” units). Wyatt’s addendum didn’t catch me by surprise, but it did remind me of the sacrifices my peers and I will need to continue to make in order for Messiah University to remain open for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Whether we like it or not, sacrifices are vital in order for communities to flourish. We Messiah students have been reminded of this fact several times this year already. But we learn the same lesson from history, and from the Christian faith. In the eighteenth-century, when American colonists thought Britain had burdened them with an unjust tax, they banded together and sacrificed their preferences for imported British luxury goods. Two centuries later, in order to strike an important blow against segregation in Alabama, Montgomery’s black community sacrificed the convenience of riding the city bus for over a year.

Additionally, as followers of Christ, we know from Philippians 2:4 that we are not to look out for our own interests only, but also for the interests of others. We are called to put others’ needs before our own. We do this not because it is easy or fun or comfortable, but because it’s the example that Christ has set for us. May 2020 will be remembered as the year we sacrificed our own preferences for the health and safety of others.

My life “Out of the Zoo” will look a lot different this year. Messiah’s campus, once plastered with posters advertising Union dances, free concerts and festivals, is now decorated with one-way signage and reminders about social distancing. Instead of dealing solely with the “syllabus shock” that normally comes with the first week of classes, I now have a global health crisis to worry about. Young Life, which largely involves attending high school sporting events and large gatherings of students, will have to continue to be creative about finding a safe and healthy way to bring the gospel to kids. There will likely be fewer visiting speakers, movie nights, and history club events for me to write about and reflect on for this column. |

Yet with everything that’s changing, some things will remain the same. I am confident that my professors will continue to offer high-quality teaching, guidance, and relationships despite circumstances that are far from ideal. I will continue to learn–from my classes, from my experiences, and from my friends. I will dive deep into the study of the past and seek to understand how it informs this tumultuous present. And as we all learn, grow, and make sacrifices for the common good, the Lord will continue to be faithful.

Back in the Zoo: 1920 Meets 2020

1920 meets 2020Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes  about a recent visit to North America’s largest auto museum during a pandemic. —JF

North America’s largest auto museum is ten minutes away from my house. However, despite its close proximity to my childhood residence, I’ve only been there a handful of times. Evidently my parents took me there when I was in a stroller, but I don’t remember it one bit.  I have a vague memory of attending a graduation party in a white tent on the museum’s lawn, and a much clearer one of getting a side-splitting cramp on a cross country course that stretched around its 90-acre grounds. Yet it wasn’t until very recently that I explored the Gilmore Car Museum for myself.

Shortly after I returned to Michigan in March, museums and other non-essential businesses closed due to COVID-19 and the Gilmore Car Museum was no exception. Three months later, with Barry County in phase four of six in Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan Safe Start plan, the institution has re-opened with stringent social distancing measures in place. Looking for something new to do after months of lockdown, curious about what it would be like to visit a socially distanced museum, and suddenly eager to explore the piece of local history immortalized just ten minutes from my house, I decided to make the six-mile trip on a Saturday afternoon. 

With several barns and buildings filled with exhibits and over 400 vintage automobiles, the Gilmore Car Museum is a sight to behold. In one building you can see the first Model A ever produced, which Henry Ford gave to his friend Thomas Edison hot off the assembly line. Another car barn–my personal favorite–houses the “Women Who Motor” exhibit. In addition to an antique Shell gas station and a walk-through timeline of automation in the museum’s main building, Gilmore also displays a mint green Cadillac that I think looks just like Flo from the Pixar movie Cars.

While I was impressed by the exhibits at the museum, I was even more impressed with Gilmore’s strict adherence to social distancing guidelines. When they weren’t answering our questions or directing us through the exhibits (from 6 feet away of course), the limited museum staff kept themselves busy cleaning exhibits and highly-trafficked areas. With the exception of an occasional held door, museum patrons were also diligent about maintaining six feet of social distance. Signs, hand sanitizing stations, and floor markings reminded us of our duty to keep ourselves and others safe and healthy. With the exception of two teenage girls who pulled their masks back over their faces when we came into view, virtually everyone at the museum wore face coverings. I saw more masks there than I’ve seen at the grocery store, the gas station, and the restaurant where I get take-out. 

Unlike hand sanitizer and toilet paper, there’s no shortage of people calling 2020 a historic time. We look back at the moments of our past and catalogue the COVID-19 pandemic alongside the terrorist attacks of 9/11, World War II, and other events that have shaped the nation. Even standing in the middle of a reconstructed past at the Gilmore Car Museum, walking alongside Henry Ford and Thomas Edison and many 20th century automobile-collectors, I was constantly reminded–by the masks, the signs, the floor markings–of our nation’s present moment. The world looked a lot different in 1920 than it does today, and that’s a strange, beautiful, and fascinating thing.

As we continue in our own historic time, we need to remember to check our rear-view mirrors every once in a while.  Often times looking back and tracing our steps is the best way to chart a course forward. Delving into our past through research, books, even socially-distanced museums can help us stand our ground even in the most tumultuous times. In order to know where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been.

Happy Birthday to “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” Blog

12th-birthday-wishes-and-messages

On June 24, 2020, The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog turned twelve years years old.

Here are a some of the year’s highlights:

  • We dropped seventeen episodes of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast with some greats guests, including: Johann Neem, Larry Glickman, Darren Dochuk, Sarah Myers, Rick Bell, Mandy McMichael, Melissa Ziobro, Jeffrey Engel, Thomas Mackaman, Gillis Harp, Eric Miller, Serena Zabin, Susan Fletcher, Lindsay Chervinsky, Paul Putz, and Scott Hancock.  We also said goodbye to the podcast co-creator and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling. If you are not already supporting our work, please consider helping to keep this podcast (and blog) going! Learn how you can help via our Patreon page.
  • 59 authors visited The Author’s Corner since our last birthday. You can read them all here. Annie Thorn continues to do a great job at facilitating this feature.
  • Speaking of Annie, check out all 31 of this year’s “Out of the Zoo” columns.
  • We started posting all our blog posts to my new Facebook author’s page. If you want to follow the blog that way, feel free to follow the page. The comments are open.
  • Our readership continues to grow steadily.

We will continue to bring you the kind of content you have expected from us over the last twelve years! I want to thank everyone who has read and supported the blog and encouraged me in this work over the years.

Back in the Zoo: “Essential”

Annie at Greenhouse

About 15 years ago, I visited Westrate’s Greenhouse with my family. Now, I’m employed there as an essential worker.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about her experience as an “essential worker.” –JF

A little over two weeks ago, I became an essential worker. I finished my last virtual exam on a Friday afternoon and reported for duty at a local greenhouse on the following Monday morning. Some might be surprised that greenhouses are considered essential businesses, especially those that don’t grow food. Surely we can survive without decorative plants in our gardens or baskets hanging from our front porches, but as an agricultural enterprise the greenhouse at which I am employed has not been forced to shut its doors. Further, quarantine has made gardeners out of many of us–my family included–so I’ve had no trouble keeping busy at work.

I never thought I would be an essential worker. After all, I’m not battling the coronavirus first hand in a hospital or re-stocking shelves with toilet paper and cleaning supplies. I’m not sewing masks or making difficult decisions regarding the public health of my community. I’m really just moving flowers around, and planting some every once in a while. Yet I’m going to work every day during a time when many are still stuck at home, so “essential worker” is a label I bear.

There’s no mistaking that labeling some goods and services “essential,” while deeming others “non-essential” has created controversy. Protestors gather weekly across the nation to voice their complaints. Many express their frustration over social media that abortion clinics and news agencies remain open while small businesses and hair salons stay closed. Last week President Trump declared churches and other places of worship essential, and therefore exempt from social distancing rules. Other businesses, like greenhouses growing flowers for instance, stay open even though they’re not necessarily needed to sustain human life. Evidently, the term “essential” is not as straight-forward as it seems.

However, deeming some goods essential and others non-essential is not a new practice. Nearly 80 years ago when the United States fought in World War II, many of the nation’s factories were converted to the production of military items for the Allies. Luxury goods like musical instruments were deemed non-essential and produced in limited quantities–if at all. Thousands of Americans, many of them women, left their households and became essential homefront workers; not only did they help manufacture critical supplies for the war, but they also made do without certain non-essential items that took the back burner during war-time.

Way back in my junior year of high school, I interviewed an incredible woman named Irene Stearns for a National History Day project. Irene (who I wrote about in one of my first blog posts) lived through the Great Depression and World War II. In a way, she lived through her own “unprecedented time” long before this one. Irene worked for Gibson Guitar in Kalamazoo, a factory that earned three Army-Navy E awards of Excellence in wartime production. During World War II, Gibson produced intricate screw machine products, glider skids, and machine gun products–all “essential” products the military needed during the war. But Irene did not produce any of these items. Instead, she coiled guitar strings for the thousands of less-essential musical instruments Gibson produced under the radar between 1941 and 1945.  While not deemed essential, I like to think that the strings Irene crafted went on to play music that brightened many dark days.

I’m still wrestling with what it means to be an essential worker. I still don’t think my job is nearly as important as those “on the front lines.” But like Irene, I go to work and do my part, however small. I’m not making masks or machine gun parts, but I like to think that the flowers I help grow may go on to brighten many dark days.

Back in the Zoo: The Church Has Left the Building

FB_IMG_1532791182356 (1)Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about what it means to be the church in the midst of a global pandemic–JF

Back in 2018, the summer after my Senior year of high school, I went on one last service trip with my youth group. I had spent all year on my church’s leadership team and looked forward to spending one final week with my Gracespring family before moving away for school. My friend Becca and I were in charge of the Vacation Bible School portion of the trip, and we had been busy writing lessons and planning activities for the kids that we would meet in Pawleys Island, South Carolina. Before loading up in our caravan of vehicles, we posed in front of a few dozen parents and family members snapping pictures of us on their smartphones. Our shirts were red with bold black script reading “The Church Has Left the Building.” We tossed around a few different ideas for the shirts, but I was glad we settled on this one. The saying reminded us that the Church was not the building we worshiped in. Instead, we were the Church, the body of Christ meant to go out and do his work in the world. 

Nearly two years later, churches around the world have also “left the building.” Ever since our governor limited large gatherings back in March, my church–the same church that sent me to Pawleys Island back in 2018–has been using the phrase on repeat. For even on Easter, when sanctuaries are usually packed with congregants gussied up in pastel-colored wares, pews were empty and doors remained closed. Some still dressed up and took family photos in their living rooms, others stayed in their pajamas and streamed a service from their couches, but almost everyone stayed home.

Obviously, this is not an ideal situation. We like worshiping alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ. We look forward to chatting with them after the service. We cherish having a place where we can gather, socialize, and drink a cup of coffee. We appreciate packed-out sanctuaries, well-executed sermons and meticulously planned music sets. It’s certainly not wrong to enjoy these things, or to long for the day when we can have them again. But we must understand that they are not the Church–we are.

I love the book of Acts. Maybe it’s because I’m a historian, or maybe it’s because Acts was the first book of the Bible I read after re-committing my life to Christ, but I could read stories of Paul, the apostles, and the early Church over and over again. Sometimes when we study the past, or read Bible stories, they seem foreign and strange to us. But more often than not, we catch glimpses of familiarity too. Two thousand years ago when the Church was just getting started there were no coffee shops or praise bands or packed-out sanctuaries. When Paul brought the Gospel to the Gentiles he couldn’t do it from the stage of a megachurch. Instead, he shared the love of Christ wherever he was. He was creative, he was zealous, and he was bold. He wasn’t quarantined at home, but he was jailed, beaten, and shipwrecked–and let nothing hinder his witness.

Acts reminds us that the Church is so much more than the place we worship. It shows us that we can share the Gospel no matter where we are. It assures us that Christ’s love can not be hindered by any hardship, trial, or global pandemic. May historians remember 2020 as the year the Church left the building.

Back in the Zoo: “Heil Whitmer?”

Heil Whitmer

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about the coronavirus protests in her home state–JF

A woman donning blue jeans, a puffy jacket and sunglasses stood proudly on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol last Wednesday. In gloved hands she held a poster painted with the phrase “HEIL WITMER” in red and black letters. A crimson swastika took a prominent place on the upper right-hand corner of the sign. Another poster, this time taped to the back of someone’s black pick-up truck, also bore Nazi imagery. This one had a photo-shopped image of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, toothbrush mustache and all, in a Hitler salute with a Nazi flag flying behind her shoulder. In bold white letters the bottom of the sign read, “AMERICAN FLAGS ARE NOT ESSENTIAL ITEMS.”

Frustrated with new stay-at-home restrictions, the individuals who crafted these signs were some of a few thousand Michiganders who traveled to Lansing last week for “Operation Gridlock.” In a lot of ways, I can empathize with their frustration. I like having the freedom to go where I please, when I please, for whatever reason I wish. I don’t like being stuck at home, unable to go to school or church or my favorite restaurant. There is nothing wrong with protesting (safely), voicing your opinions, and holding leaders accountable for their actions; in fact, I have been to a few protests myself in the past. There is nothing wrong with being frustrated, or wanting to go back to work. But equating Gretchen Whitmer and her stay-at-home order with Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich takes things much too far. They are not the same.

I’m no expert on Nazi Germany, but I know enough from my “History of Modern Europe” class that our current suffering in no way compares to that of Jews living under the Third Reich. When Hitler ruled Germany, Jews lost their citizenship under the Nuremberg laws. They lived in ghettos and starved to death in the streets. Millions more were sent to Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, and several other concentration camps where they were immediately gassed or forced into hard labor. Under Hitler’s discretion, the Third Reich exterminated over six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of other individuals in an attempt to establish the Aryan race. Gretchen Whitmer is not Adolf Hitler. Some may not like her or agree with her, but to equate her to a fascist is inaccurate and callous. 

At the same time, though, I am well aware that President Trump has also been caricatured as a Nazi time after time. Before his inauguration back in 2017 and during his impeachment this past year, scores of signs, social media posts, and opinion pieces compared Trump to Adolf Hitler. And yet, since the election of President Trump in 2016, most Americans have not had to re-live the Holocaust. Some may not like him or agree with him, but to equate President Trump to a fascist is also inaccurate and callous.

As a student of history, I can’t help seeing the present through the lens of the past. We historians do not typically wear rose-colored glasses, but we do carry flashlights. We seek to illuminate, to expose, and to make known. As we step into the shoes of those who lived in the past, we try our noble best to shed light on the path we walk in the present. It is our job, and it is our duty. And I will complete it with honor in the years to come.

Back in the Zoo: Coronavirus Diary

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The sunsets have been particularly beautiful here since quarantine started. Perhaps I’m just noticing them more now, or perhaps God knows I often need to be reminded how capable he is of turning darkness into light.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie shares some thoughts from her coronavirus diary–JF

If I have a history classroom of my own in a few years, I’m sure I will teach my students about the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020. For while the virus is consuming virtually every part of our lives right now, soon enough it will be a part of our history. Soon enough students, teachers, and historians will look back on our Facebook posts, television advertisements, and journals to speculate what it was like to live through it all. I’ve started collecting primary sources to use in my classroom someday, and have even written a few diary entries of my own. If you would like to help future historians, future history teachers, and future students, I suggest keeping a journal, a diary, anything that will help them step into your shoes and see the world through your eyes.

Professor Fea has posted a couple coronavirus diary entries, so I thought I’d give it a go. Here’s my diary entry from yesterday, April 14, 2020:

It’s been a little over three weeks since Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued her shelter-in-place order for the state of Michigan. I’m becoming numb to it all in some ways, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I used to obsessively check Michigan’s case count multiple times a day, my anxiety heightening as the virus crept closer and closer to my hometown. Three weeks ago, 200 new cases in a day caused a panic. Last week there were 200 deaths in one day in my state and I kind of just numbly accepted that this is the way the world is right now.

I’ve been trying to maintain a sense of normalcy, as much as I can during this strange time. I get up at 6 A.M. and go to sleep around 10 P.M., just like I did when I was still at Messiah College. Before my first Zoom session of the day I try to do an hour and a half or so of work for this job. All of my Professors have been using video chat instead of pre-recorded lectures, so my class schedule has stayed pretty much the same too. My boyfriend and I still Skype every Friday and Sunday, just like we do when we’re nine hours apart. I can’t say all couples are listening to social distancing guidelines right now, but the ones that are have certainly been facing new challenges they never thought they would have to deal with. Nolan and I are frustrated we can’t see each other, but we realize that over a year of long-distance has left us surprisingly prepared to face a global pandemic.

A few new habits have made their way into my life too. My family has started “supporting local businesses”–that is, ordering takeout from local restaurants–once a week on Saturdays. Since I no longer have access to a gym, I’ve started running outside instead of on the treadmill. It’s more challenging to run on hills and in all kinds of weather, rather than on a flat conveyor belt in the temperate climate of the Falcon Fitness Center, but running is especially comforting for me right now. It reminds me that every breath is a gift, and to be thankful that I have healthy lungs with air flowing through them. I’m also trying to text people more often, usually with a song, a few words of encouragement, or a couple verses from scripture. It isn’t much, but I know from personal experience that a simple check-in or a few positive words can go a long way.

Quarantine brings out the creativity in all of us. We pick up new hobbies, and come back to old ones. We discover new ways to keep in touch with our friends, even when we can’t be physically together. My Young Life team has found several creative ways to use Zoom in order to stay connected with our students. We had a scavenger hunt, a talent show, an area-wide trivia match, and we’re even in the process of planning a virtual Bingo tournament for next week. Last weekend my parents tried to find a way to play Euchre over video chat with my brother and his girlfriend. I see families building blanket forts, hosting movie marathons, and competing in kahoot tournaments. And not only that, musicians have been giving free, live concerts over social media, churches are streaming their worship services, and Tom Hanks even hosted Saturday Night Live from his home last weekend.

For the first time in several weeks, it seems like there might be an end in sight. Some speculate that the United States has passed the virus’s peak. Gretchen Whitmer cautiously told Michiganders yesterday that they’re starting to see the curve flatten and the case total stabilize. We don’t know when the end to all this will come, or even what an “end” would entail, but we sense that it’s there somewhere. My family and I are continuing to press into the Lord, to continuously remind ourselves that He is in control and somehow, some way will use it all for His glory. So now we wait, in this period of forced rest, for the world to go back to normal. What that “normal” will be, I’m still not so sure.

Back in the Zoo: The Hidden History of Battle Creek

ellen white at gc session 1901

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about finding history in her own backyard.  –JF

Rumor has it, if you walk around in downtown Battle Creek you can smell cereal wafting through the streets. Home to Kellogg’s, Post, and Raltson foods, Battle Creek well-deserves the nickname “Cereal City.”  Battle Creek is also home to Binder Park Zoo, where you can feed giraffes pieces of lettuce in the summer or go trick-or-treating at the annual “Zoo Boo” in the fall. It also has my favorite grocery store, Horrocks, and an indoor water park where kids used to have their birthday parties.

I usually don’t advertise that I’m from Battle Creek. In fact, in the very name I chose for this column, I pledge my allegiance to Kalamazoo, not “Cereal City,” which lies about 25 miles to the east. In reality, I live in Augusta which is half-way between the two towns. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against Battle Creek. My church, my school, my grandma’s house were all in Kalamazoo, so I just have a lot more memories there. And, after a year studying at Messiah College I’ve discovered most people haven’t heard of Battle Creek, much less know where it is. Plus, you have to admit that “Out of Battle Creek” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

So, as you can imagine, I was pretty surprised when Battle Creek came up in my “Origins Controversy” class last Friday. It was my first Zoom session of the day, and my professor Dr. Ted Davis was lecturing on the history of scientific creationism. A few slides into his presentation, Dr. Davis introduced us to Ellen G. White, who co-founded the Seventh-day Adventist church and was one of the first to vocally advocate for the young-earth, 24-hour day creation view held by Ken Ham and his team at Answers in Genesis today. While her ideas didn’t really take off outside Seventh-day Adventist circles until George McCready Price and later Henry Morris wrote about them, she remains an important figure in American religious history. Not only that, she was a strong and influential female leader in a time when women still hadn’t gained the right to vote. 

Next,  Professor Davis showed us the black-and-white photograph reciprocated above, of E. G. White at a podium, Bible open, speaking to a congregation of men. He asked us to read the description to find out where it was taken. Much to my surprise, the caption read “Battle Creek Tabernacle,” and I excitedly told my class that Battle Creek was only 30 minutes away from my house. Professor Davis continued by explaining that Battle Creek played an important role in the development of the Seventh-day Adventist church, and that the denomination had even founded a college in Michigan. Davis went on to mention that the Kelloggs were also Seventh-day Adventists who first produced cereal as a vegetarian alternative to a traditional breakfast–many Adventists back then chose not to eat meat. 

I finished class that day excited about all the history that took place practically in my backyard. I couldn’t believe that I had grown up twelve miles from Battle Creek and had no idea who Ellen G. White was. My house is even closer to the Kellogg Manor House, yet I had never bothered to learn much about the family’s history. I was blind to the rich history my community had to offer. 

Every community, big or small, has a history. It has a history because it has people–people who lived and worked and impacted other people in a world far different from our own. Sometimes that history is not easy to find, but I challenge you to look for it. You don’t have to live in Gettysburg or New York City or Paris to dig up some fascinating information about your community’s past. There’s history all around you. Sometimes you just need to open your eyes.