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.

Back In The Zoo: Trust in the Valley

Erasmus Club dinner

Messiah students engaged in discussion at the latest Erasmus Club dinner with Dr. Bernardo Michael. Photo by Keanan Wolf

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 a recent discussion with fellow history major about COVID-19 –JF

How will COVID-19 be remembered in 50 years? What about 100 years? What about 500?

Will future generations condemn us for the way we handled the pandemic? Will they look down on us for not doing enough? How will the hardships we experience today compare to the sufferings experienced by the generations that came before us?

I don’t have answers to these questions, and I’m not convinced anyone does right now. Yet, it is these questions, and many more, that we wrestled with at the history department’s Erasmus Club dinner earlier this month. We pushed two round tables together in Martin Commons, piled our plates with various dining-hall entrees and began our discussion. We were supposed to discuss the intersection of history and memory, but within minutes our conversation veered off course and steered toward the coronavirus. No one consciously tried to bring it up, but because COVID-19 was already on everyone’s minds the topic was inevitable. The Saturday before the dinner, I found out that the first two cases of coronavirus had been discovered in Pennsylvania. Now, three weeks later, there are a few thousand cases in Pennsylvania and my home state of Michigan is a week and a half into a stay-at-home order. It’s crazy how fast things change.

How will I remember COVID-19? Right now it’s hard to be sure. Cases are still rising, the markets are still plummeting, and it’s hard to tell just how big of an impact it will have on my life, and on the lives of the people I love. I have never experienced anything like this in my entire life, and neither have my parents or my grandparents. It seems like whenever I think I have a grip on what’s going on, things change yet again.

But in the midst of all the uncertainty, I am sure of one thing: I worship a God who is working all things out for my good and his glory. At the beginning of the year, I started reading this book called Trusting God by Jerry Bridges. My boyfriend and I started it as a kind of New-Year’s resolution for the two of us. The book is all about trusting that God is in control, even when bad things happen. Even when we lose our job, even when our vacation is rudely interrupted, even when death and disease run rampant, God is still sovereign and worthy of our confidence. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

God doesn’t promise that bad things won’t happen. As long as we live on this side of eternity, there will be trials, there will be suffering, and there will be tears. But he does promise to be with us through it all. He promises us peace and strength to endure. He tells us that when our foundations are shaken, when the world falls apart before us, He still remains. Isaiah 41:10 says, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” 

I hope that future historians will be able to look at this season in my life and see that I trusted God with everything. I hope they will see that I chose to trust God even when it wasn’t easy, even when I didn’t feel like it, even when my heart ached. I am not there yet, but I hope I will get there someday. Will you join me?

Back in the Zoo: Life Interrupted

bob goff

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 coronavirus experience thus far.  She has also changed the title of her column from “Out of the Zoo” (Kalamazoo, MI) to “Back in the Zoo.” I love it! –JF

I left Messiah College at 5 A.M. last Saturday and began my nine hour trek home to Kalamazoo, Michigan. I had never made the drive by myself before, but it was actually much less taxing than I expected. My beloved college campus receded further and further in the distance as the sun rose from behind the Allegheny Mountains, turning the sky from black to grey to blue. I listened to several episodes of the “Love thy Neighborhood” podcast my sister recommended, which made the time pass quickly. With my cruise control set at 5 mph above the speed limit and a few breaks at rest stops along the way, before I knew it I was back home watching a movie with my family and my boyfriend for the first time in over two months. I love going to school at Messiah, but it felt good to be home. Little did I know though, I wouldn’t be coming back to Messiah College for the rest of the year.

I am one of the many million college students across the globe whose life has been hastily interrupted by COVID-19. My classes are moving online, which means I’ll have to get used to an entirely new routine and style of learning. My ministry with Young Life will look different for the rest of the semester as well, for while my team is still reaching out to our high school friends virtually, I can no longer spend my afternoons and evenings in Boiling Springs attending sporting events or hanging out with girls. Two and a half months of meals, conversations, and adventures with my friends, classmates, and professors at Messiah seem to have vaporized into thin air. Indeed, Coronavirus has interrupted my life in a way I didn’t see coming. 

Yet, despite these inconveniences, I know I am still privileged above many. I have a healthy, safe home to be quarantined in for the next three weeks. My family has a freezer full of food and our internet works. My dad still has a job and even though Michigan K-12 schools are closed, my mom still gets paid. No one in my family has died from, or even been diagnosed with, the coronavirus. There are many college students in the United States, and across the world, who are not blessed with these luxuries.

In times like these, when our lives seem to be so inconveniently interrupted, I think it’s also helpful for us to remember that 2020 is not the only year in which people’s lives have been impacted so. Countless lives came to a screeching halt during World War I and World War II as civilians and soldiers alike faced death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. On September 11, 2001 thousands of New Yorkers and millions of Americans saw the world as they knew it crumble before their eyes. Civil war in Syria, economic collapse in Venezuela, conflict in Somalia and South Sudan displaced (and continue to displace) thousands of refugees every day. While a catastrophic interruption of life may be new ground for most of my fellow American college students, it may be comforting to remember that the new land we tread is not completely foreign. 

Today Messiah students and staff go back to school–this time in a completely virtual format. We will, I’m sure, become all-the-more familiar with the way coronavirus interrupts our lives and learning in the days to come. As for me, I’m trying to keep my eyes on Jesus. I can’t go back to school, and at this point I’m not supposed to leave my house until April 13. But I can send an encouraging text, check in on my friends, and continue to love people in the best way I can. One of my favorite authors of all time is this guy named Bob Goff–if you need a book for your quarantine reading list, I highly recommend Everybody Always or Love Does. He offers a challenge fitting for this season, which I will leave you with: “Loving people the way Jesus did means living a life filled with constant interruptions. Bring it.”

Out of the Zoo: National History Day

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Messiah’s state qualifiers. Photo by Chloe Kauffman.

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 at this year’s regional National Day competition–JF

National History Day is a non-profit organization that encourages thousands of kids to engage with the past each year. Students pick a topic connected to an annual theme, research it for several months, and then find some creative way to present their findings to the public–through an exhibit, performance, documentary, website, or paper. Students who put together a particularly excellent project can proceed to the regional, state, or even national levels of the competition. Every year, Messiah College hosts one of the 12 regional NHD contests in the state of Pennsylvania. Messiah students, professors, and community members all pull together to evaluate the several hundred projects that come through the doors in what feels like a big history pep rally. To read what I wrote about NHD last year, click here.

I love National History Day for a lot of reasons. For one, it gives kids the chance to research something they’re passionate about. Competing in National History Day also introduces students to the kind of history that involves active inquiry and detective work, rather than monotonous memorization of names and dates. It allows students to explore the past in a creative, active way. National History Day shows middle and high school students that history is not a closed issue–it is something that is continually done and redone, with real relevance to the present. On top of all this, NHD gives Messiah’s history department the opportunity to reach hundreds of members of our community.

National History Day also gives me a glimpse of what my life might look like in a few years. The day before Messiah hosted its History Day competition last week, I sat on my dorm-room floor and read through the eight junior (middle school) research papers that I would be judging. As I scanned each paper and wrote comments on my evaluation sheets, I imagined helping my students with their own projects someday. I imagined advising them on their topic choices, pointing them towards primary sources, and encouraging them to research what they’re passionate about. The next day, as students and their families buzzed around Boyer Hall and the High Center, I pictured corralling my students and making sure they get to their judging sessions on time. As one teacher excitedly knelt in the aisle to photograph his students when their names were announced at the awards ceremony, I imagined cheering at the top of my lungs in support of my own students’ success. 

Judging NHD is helpful for me–and for any future history teacher for that matter–because it reveals the many challenges students face when doing their own research. It allows me to brainstorm ways I’ll encourage and push my students to try their hardest and to engage in the historical process in the future. It forces me to think about what I’ll say to my students when they’re frustrated or discouraged or feel like giving up. I even started a list. It’s far from complete, but here’s what I have so far:

  1. Research is hard. It can be frustrating sometimes. Some days you will spend hours looking for a source that isn’t there. Other days you might spend thirty minutes rewriting the same sentence over and over again before it sounds right. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad researcher or a bad writer–it’s all part of the process.
  2. History isn’t just about reporting facts–it’s about telling stories and analyzing those facts.
  3. When you come to the end of a research project, you’re now the expert on your topic. You now know more about some area of history than 99% of the rest of the people in the world. No matter where you end up placing in the competition, that’s something to be incredibly proud of!
  4. And most importantly: practice makes perfect.

Out of the Zoo: “Just Mercy”

Just MercyAnnie 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 reflects on the film Just Mercy. –JF

The best movie theater in the world is in Plainwell, Michigan. I might be a little biased, but I have yet to find a movie theater that can beat M-89 Cinema’s $2.50 ticket price for morning showings and $5 price in the evenings. M-89 even has popcorn buckets that you can refill for free on Thursdays and for just a few cents the rest of the week. Whenever I’m home on breaks from college I try to see as many movies as I can–over winter recess I went to M-89 four times. I saw Star Wars, Little Women, and Frozen II (twice).

I’ve found only one movie theater in Pennsylvania so far that’s cheaper than M-89, and that’s the one we have on campus at Messiah College. Every week there’s a different “Lost Film” (usually a movie that’s been in theaters for a while, but hasn’t yet been released on DVD) playing there for Messiah students to watch for free. This past weekend, hundreds of students flocked to Boyer 136 to see Just Mercy, a film that tells the story of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, a “nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons.”

Anthony Ray Hinton, himself freed by the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, plugged Just Mercy a few times throughout his lecture at Messiah a couple weeks ago (read about it here). Inspired by Hinton’s lecture and determined to learn more about the EJI, I made plans with a few of my friends (most of them fellow history majors) to go see it Friday night. Parmer Cinema was packed. Those who couldn’t find an empty seat sat in the front below the screen, or leaned on the walls next to the side aisles. We all sat together for the next two hours, often in tears, and watched our nation’s all-too-recent history play out before us on the screen.

I left Parmer Cinema that night with the urge to do something. I’ve seen Hinton speak, and I’ve seen Just Mercy, so what now? Is there something, anything, I can do to help those wronged by the criminal justice system? I know men are still unfairly placed on death row across the nation (one such man is scheduled to be executed in Alabama tomorrow), but what can I do about it? I’m not a lawyer like Bryan Stevenson and I don’t plan on becoming one, so I know I cannot personally free innocent convicts from death row. I am not a millionaire with the ability to donate thousands of dollars to the Equal Justice Initiative, nor am I a legislator with the power to enact criminal justice reform.

I may not be a lawyer or a millionaire or a legislator, but there is still plenty for me to do. Because I am a historian, I can uncover stories like those of Anthony Ray Hinton and Walter McMillan. Because I am a future teacher, I can then share those stories with young people and encourage them to fight for what they believe in. Because I am a United States citizen, I can vote for lawmakers who will protect the vulnerable members of society from injustice. Because I am a follower of Jesus Christ, I can pray and trust that one day, whether in this world or the next, all wrongs will be put right. Indeed, there is plenty of work to do. 

If you do nothing else, please go see Just Mercy. It will open your eyes.

John Wesley and the Life of the Mind

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“I am an evangelical Christian, so it was nice to hear a lecture about evangelicalism that was not related to contemporary politics.”

This was our intern Annie Thorn‘s response to Bruce Hindmarsh’s lecture “John Wesley, Early Evangelicalism, and Science.” Hindmarsh, the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology and Professor of the History of Christianity at Regent College in Vancouver, delivered this lecture on Tuesday night at Messiah College.  Hindmarsh is the author of three books published by Oxford University Press: John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (1996),  The Evangelical Conversion Narrative (2005), and The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism (2018).  He is the past-president of the American Society of Church History.

Hindmarsh, whose lecture drew upon his 2018 book on early evangelicalism, argued that the rise of evangelicalism coincided historically with the reception of modern science in mainstream eighteenth-century culture.  The new science was generally embraced by evangelicals as a source of what Hindmarsh describes as “wonder, love, and praise.”  Few did more to popularize the new science than John Wesley.

According to Hindmarsh, Wesley accepted the findings of the new science, but he “nested” these new ideas in the “glory of God.” In other words, there was no tension between the two. Wesley was not an anti-intellectual. He wrote a host of books and pamphlets on science. His contemplation of the created order, and his advancement of society’s understanding of the new science, aroused the same kind of “doxology and praise” that stemmed from his conversion experience, that moment in Wesley’s life when his “heart was strangely warmed.”

I left the lecture with several thoughts.

First, like Annie, I was glad to hear again about evangelicals, like Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, who were intellectuals. If you read this blog regularly, you know I have been re-reading Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectual in American Life.  In his chapter on evangelicalism, Hofstadter argues that New England Puritans were people of the mind, but the project integrating faith and learning all but disappeared with the revivalism of the First Great Awakening.  (Edwards, Hofstadter argues, was the exception here).  Hindmarsh is one of several scholars of evangelicalism who has challenged this idea. (Although I am not sure Hofstadter is completely wrong.  I am inclined to think of Edwards and Wesley as outliers).

As I listened to Hindmarsh in the context of my fresh reading of Hofstadter, I realized again that much of the motivation behind the work of the previous generation of evangelical historians–George Marsden and Mark Noll come immediately to mind–was to challenge Hofstadter’s portrayal of evangelicalism as anti-intellectual. Marsden, Noll, and others authors showed us that evangelicals did care about thinking. They also showed us with their lives and work that “evangelical intellectual” is not an oxymoron.

Hindmarsh’s lecture, and my post-lecture conversation with Annie, made me think about Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll argues that the anti-intellectual populism of present-day evangelicalism was more of a 19th and 20th-century phenomenon than an 18th-century one.  Modern day evangelicals can find serious thinkers in their history.  Noll showed that it is possible to explain the evangelical move toward anti-intellectualism as a rejection of the intellectual pursuits of evangelicals like Edwards and Wesley.

Second, it was good to listen to a scholar talk about the 18th-century. I told Bruce that his lecture made me long for the days when I used to spend most of my time doing early American history. Indeed, it’s a lot safer there. 🙂 I hope to return to this world once this whole Trump thing dies down!

Third, I left with a question about Messiah College, the school where I teach.  Messiah is rooted in the Anabaptist, Wesleyan, and Pietist traditions of the Christian faith. Of these three traditions, Anabaptism seems to be the one that gets the most attention.  I think this is because Anabaptism’s commitment to peace and social justice often fits well with the progressive mindset of many academics.  But if there are Anabaptist and Pietist intellectual traditions, they often get overshadowed by a kind of activism (Anabaptism) and experiential religion (Pietism) that does not always draw heavily on the life of the mind. (This, I might add, is changing–especially on the Pietism front). But Hindmarsh made me wonder if Wesleyanism, at least as articulated by Wesley himself, might help us with the heavy intellectual lifting necessary for a Christian college to sustain a robust life of the mind.  I will continue to ponder this.

Out of the Zoo: “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”

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Anthony Ray Hinton

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 reflects on Anthony Ray Hinton‘s recent talk at Messiah College.  -JF

I love history, but sometimes the past makes me angry. Learning about Nazi concentration camps makes me angry. Images of chattel slavery, newspaper articles about lynching, and documentaries about Jim Crow all make me angry. No amount of historical exposure can prepare the human heart for the amount of sorrow, frustration, and rage that comes upon seeing images of slaves scarred by their masters, of innocent black men hanging from trees, or of Civil Rights protesters knocked down by fire hoses. Indeed, historians are no strangers to the fact that we live in a fallen world, broken by sin.

I came face to face with the fallen state of our world yet again last Thursday, when Anthony Ray Hinton delivered the keynote address of Messiah’s 2020 Humanities Symposium. Anthony Hinton explained that back in 1985, when two restaurant owners were murdered in Birmingham, Alabama, he was wrongly accused—and wrongly convicted—for the crime. As a result, Hinton spent nearly thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit; those thirty years in a five-by-seven cell, Hinton explained, were nothing short of hell on earth. Now an ally of the Equal Justice Initiative and a New York Times bestselling author, Hinton travels around the world sharing his story at places like Messiah College. 

Hinton had every right to be angry about spending thirty years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Yet, over and over again Hinton reminded his audience that we can’t let our anger get in the way of our compassion. Guided by his faith in Jesus Christ, Hinton forgave his oppressors, prayed for God to send him his “best lawyer” to reveal the truth, and shared the gospel with others on death row. Hinton even showed the love of Christ to Henry Hays, who was in prison (and eventually executed) for lynching a young black man. “No matter what anyone does, they still deserve compassion,” Hinton said. Even from hearing him speak for just a couple hours, I could tell Hinton lives out this truth each and every day.

Hinton’s lecture made me realize that sometimes I let my anger get in the way of my compassion—in my study of the past and in my everyday life. I find myself condemning people for their crimes, for their injustice and their hatred; I criticize others’ wrongdoing, and all too often forget that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. I forget that all people, guilty or innocent or wrongly convicted, are made in the image of God and invited to be in a relationship with him. I forget that Jesus died for everyone—not just the ones who have their lives together or sit in church every Sunday. Jesus died for liars, he died for murderers, and he died for slave owners. I think that we as historians, and as human beings, need to remind ourselves of this truth daily.

In the wake of injustice, we are to choose love instead of hate. We are to choose light instead of darkness. And then we must trust that the God of the universe will work all things out for our good. It’s okay to be angry about oppression, and to be saddened by sin. But we cannot let our anger get in the way of our compassion.

Out of the Zoo: “World War III”

World War IIIAnnie 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 challenges us to take war seriously.  -JF

About a month and a half ago, after President Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and the Iranian government promised retribution, the internet briefly exploded with fears of a third world war. I remember opening twitter on my computer to see that  “#WorldWar3” was trending worldwide. American teenagers were the primary culprits of the trend, for they (in true Generation Z fashion) took to social media to express angst about their “impending doom.” They posted memes comparing Soleimani to Franz Ferdinand, and filmed tik-tok videos joking about how they and their peers would respond to a draft. It took me a few minutes of Google searching to be assured that the possibility of a third world war was rather unlikely; yet I was struck by how quickly young people like me turned to social media to craft fears of World War III into a budding internet trend. It was curious to me that my peers could so easily make light of an escalating national crisis, even one with a potentially devastating outcome.

This semester at Messiah College I’m taking a class on Europe in the twentieth century. Over the past week we’ve been reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a fictional story which details the experience of a World War I soldier through the eyes of its twenty-year-old narrator Paul Bäumer. Not much older than most culprits of the “#WorldWar3” social media trend, Paul witnesses the gruesome tragedies of war first-hand as a volunteer in the German army.

In one chapter Paul describes a man crying out from no-man’s land for days on end, never to be found despite several search parties. In another chapter Paul stabs a Frenchman who falls into his shell-hole. He is unable to escape his hiding place in the daylight and is thus forced to watch him die a slow, agonizing death. Later still, Paul gets injured and makes his way to hospital nearby, where men with amputated limbs, tetanus, lung wounds, abdominal injuries, and a host of other atrocities are carted off to the “death room.”  They never return. Paul and his comrades hearts’ are quickly hardened by the horrors of war—poisonous gas, trench rats, exploding shells and meaningless death after meaningless death. 

Did teenagers growing up in 20th-century Europe joke about World War I? Did they make light of international crisis by laughing about it with their friends? They didn’t have twitter or tik-tok, but did they too cope with wisecracks about their impending doom? There are several instances of humor woven throughout All Quiet on the Western Front, but for the most part the book reminds us that war is no laughing matter. It reminds us that World War I brought fear, death, and destruction on a scale wider than anyone expected. What went through the minds of nineteen-year-old boys when they volunteered for the war, or were drafted? Did they laugh? Were they hopeful, or were they just plain terrified?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions, nor do I quite know how to reconcile my peers’ naive response to threats of world war with the actual experiences of young men and women whose lives were turned upside-down by global conflict just over a hundred years ago. But comparing the two certainly helps put things in perspective.

Is America More Polarized Then Ever?

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Annie’s recent Out of the Zoo column raised this question.  Check it out here.

I think Annie must have inspired University of Virginia Civil War historian Gary Gallagher. 🙂

Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation:

It has become common to say that the United States in 2020 is more divided politically and culturally than at any other point in our national past.

As a historian who has written and taught about the Civil War era for several decades, I know that current divisions pale in comparison to those of the mid-19th century.

Between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox in April 1865, the nation literally broke apart.

More than 3 million men took up arms, and hundreds of thousands of black and white civilians in the Confederacy became refugees. Four million enslaved African Americans were freed from bondage.

After the war ended, the country soon entered a decade of virulent, and often violent, disagreement about how best to order a biracial society in the absence of slavery.

To compare anything that has transpired in the past few years to this cataclysmic upheaval represents a spectacular lack of understanding about American history.

Read the rest here.

Out of the Zoo: The Divided States of America

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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 what about how history helps put our “divided nation” into perspective. –JF

“The United States is more divided than ever.”

It seems like this trope becomes more popular every day. I see it in newspaper articles and read it in Facebook posts. I overhear it on radio broadcasts and in the hallways of my school. Distressed citizens paint dismal pictures of red and blue soldiers steadily marching in opposite directions, stretching the country thin between them. How long will this go on? How long until the once-United States shatters into a million pieces? Will our nation agree on anything ever again? These and many more questions seem to reverberate ever-louder in our ears. The events of the last few weeks–the impeachment trial and Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address–seem to provide dismal answers to such inquiries.

I won’t deny that the United States is divided. Our country is filled with people who don’t appear to have the word “compromise” in their vocabulary. Democrats and Republicans alike villainize their political opponents, all too often pointing out the speck in their enemy’s eye before first removing the log from their own. Venomous words seem to fly through the air like whizzing arrows hurtling towards a target. Yet despite all this, when people assert that the United States is more divided than it has ever been, I can’t help but chuckle.

As a student of history, I know that division in our country is nothing new. Before and during the Revolution, the colonies were split into loyalist and patriot factions. Soon after the war was over George Washington’s own cabinet diverged right before his eyes–feuds between Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans resemble the political quarrels of today with striking similarity. 

As a student of history I also know that in terms of national division, things could be worse. They could be much worse. In the years leading up to the Civil War, slavery became such a divisive issue that physical violence often broke out on the Congress floor. For example, on May 22, 1856 South Carolinian Representative Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death with a cane, after Sumner scathingly criticized another South Carolina legislator for supporting slavery. In another instance, a fist fight between Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow and South Carolina Democrat Laurence Keitt turned into an all-out brawl with 30 participants. I need not remind most Americans that division over the issue of slavery contributed to the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives during the Civil War.

There’s a lot of things I love about history, but one thing I like most about studying the past is that it gives me scope for the present. It reminds me that things might not always be as bad as people say they are. Life is hard, and I’m not denying that fact. Every day we interact with people who go through hardships we’ll never completely understand. Our country is divided, and I’m not denying that either. But sometimes it’s comforting to know that the struggles we deal with now are not entirely new ones.

Out of the Zoo: “I Am A Man”

I Am a Man

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 experiencing the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 through a virtual reality experience. –JF

“I AM A MAN, a virtual reality (VR) experience”

The subject of the mass email stood out from the rest in my inbox. Normally when I log into my college email I’m greeted by a host of messages–Canvas announcements, grade updates, etc.–but this one stood out from the rest. I had no idea what “I AM A MAN” meant, nor had I ever tried a virtual reality experience, but I was intrigued. A quick read of the email notified me that the “I Am A Man VR Experience” was going to be held in Murray Library during Martin Luther King commemoration week. The announcement promised that the experience would allow participants to literally walk in the shoes of the civil rights activists who organized the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. Fascinated by prospect of VR history, and realizing that time slots for the experience were filling up quickly, I promptly reserved a session for myself.

On a brisk afternoon the following week I made my way to the Library’s Athenaeum, where the experience was being held. The room was divided in two, with a floor-to-ceiling curtain stretching down the middle. I made my way to the other side of the curtain, which was empty save for the virtual reality equipment and a small X taped in the middle of the floor. The experience attendant fitted my VR headset, twisting the dial in the back until the headpiece was snug against my brow. He showed me how to hold the controls, and as I slid my hands through the wrist straps he explained which buttons I would need to use throughout the program. Finally, he guided me to the X in the middle of the floor, where I waited for the experience to start.

For the next 15 minutes, I lived the life of someone else.  Surrounded by history, I saw the world not through my own eyes, but through the eyes of a black man deep in the throes of the civil rights movement. Scenes faded in and out, interspersed with narrative interludes explaining the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. One moment I stood in front of a beeping garbage truck backing down an alley, and the next I watched scores of men marching down the street holding signs that read “I AM A MAN.” In another scene I stood in the parking lot at the Lorraine Motel and waved at Martin Luther King standing on the balcony. Seconds later, a gunshot rang out and the scene faded to black. The darkness receded to reveal the same street that I stood on earlier, now in shambles. Forlorn-looking men stood scattered along the street; the signs they once held with pride littered the sidewalk. President John F. Kennedy spoke sorrowfully from a television inside a barred store window about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent riots. My heart started pounding when police car headlights pierced through the fog, and quickened further when the officer inside demanded angrily that I put my hands above my head.

I thought I knew what it meant to step into other people’s shoes. I thought that by studying history, by reading words and amplifying voices that I could effectively empathize with the struggle of others. Yet it was not until I literally stepped into an African American man’s shoes, until I literally saw the world through his eyes, that I was able to begin to feel what he felt–to comprehend the fear, stress and sorrow that people of color experienced in the 1960s and must still experience today. I thought I understood the struggle that marginalized people have faced throughout human history, but “I Am A Man” made me realize that I’ve only been scratching the surface.

Out of the Zoo: Meeting Minnijean

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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 meeting Minnijean Brown-Trickey,, one of the famed Little Rock Nine. –JF

Last week was Martin Luther King Commemoration Week here at Messiah College. From Civil Rights trivia, to a virtual reality experience called “I Am A Man,” to special showings of Harriet in Parmer Cinema, the MLK Committee packed the week with a wide variety of events that allowed students to remember the legacy of the late Dr. King.

The week kicked off with a campus service day Monday and a common chapel service on Tuesday morning. Students, some released early from their morning J-term classes and others gearing up for an afternoon session, filed into Brubaker Auditorium while Messiah’s gospel choir United Voices of Praise sang “We Shall Overcome.” The stands were packed with familiar and unfamiliar faces—most were those of Messiah undergrads and professors, but many more belonged to teachers and students visiting from nearby school districts. So many bodies filled the old gymnasium that someone instructed audience members to shuffle towards the center of their respective rows to make room for more people who continued to trickle in.

The morning’s speaker was Minnijean Brown-Trickey, and I had been looking forward to hearing her speak for weeks. One of the nine African American high school students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 in the face of tremendous opposition, Minnijean Brown-Trickey has since dedicated her life to continuing the fight against social injustice. I had seen Minnijean Brown-Trickey featured in several documentaries, read about the Little Rock Nine from textbooks and museum exhibits, and even used documents detailing Minnijean’s eventual expulsion from Central in a lesson plan. After Don Opitz, Messiah’s campus pastor opened the service in prayer, Minnijean was welcomed to the stage with a standing ovation from the lively crowd.

Minnijean’s speech was a delightful whirlwind. She touched on anything and everything in that short half hour or so, from her first interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, to the principles of non-violence, to the puzzling mixture of religion and hatred that she first noticed in 1957 and continues to notice in the present. Minnijean told stories, a few jokes, and called her audience to action; she assured the crowd that there’s no shortage of things to do when it comes to fighting against injustice. I scribbled down notes in my journal throughout her address, trying to capture as many of her words as I could. I usually bring my notebook along to chapel, recording a few scattered quotations here and there. This time I ended up with three pages.

I cleared my evening’s schedule and came back to Hostetter Chapel Tuesday  night to see Minnijean speak again. Like Brubaker that morning, Hostetter was packed—filled to the brim with professors, college students, high schoolers, and even some elementary school children hoping to hear more of Minnijean’s story. After the scheduled hour of Q&A came to a close, Minnijean and her daughter Spirit warmly greeted anyone who stayed afterwards to chat. My friends and I waited in line to shake her hand—she insisted on giving us hugs instead—and to pose for the photo featured above. As history students, we were clearly in our element.

What a good day to be a Messiah College history major! I have never had the privilege to meet someone who truly made history, and last Tuesday I got to do just that. Someday when I teach my students about the Little Rock Nine, I will tell them that I met Minnijean Brown-Trickey. I’m not gonna lie, I’m still a little starstruck.

Out of the Zoo: Conversation Starters

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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 reminds us that when we study history, strangers can become friends. –JF

I think airports are fascinating places. In airports, people from all walks of life come together for a brief moment–whether they’re sitting next to each other on a plane, waiting together for a TSA screening, or paying way too much for food at the same kiosk. Then after the plane lands, after they get through security,  after their breakfast is ready, travelers promptly part ways.

I spent a lot of time in the Detroit Metro airport a couple weeks ago en route back to Messiah after Christmas. My connecting flight took off several hours late, leaving me in Detroit for several hours before I boarded my next plane. During my extensive layover, I found ways to entertain myself–using up a Starbucks gift card, people watching, and walking to the other side of the terminal to get Chick Fil A. It wasn’t an ideal situation by any means, but I made the most of it.

When I finally got on the plane, I took an aisle seat next to another college-aged traveler named Matt, who was on his way back to Philadelphia for culinary school. Normally I’m a pretty quiet passenger, exchanging a few lines of small talk with my seat-neighbors and then leaving them alone, but this time proved an exception. Perhaps to the dismay of the rest of the cabin, Matt and I chatted through the entire flight. I learned that Matt has traveled to China, took two gap years to work before starting college, and even saw the movie Cats with some of his friends over break. We talked about the shows we watch, the music we listen to, and the places we’ve been. After picking up our giant suitcases from the baggage claim, Matt showed me how to catch the train to 30th Street Station, and got me there just in time to board the 4:45 Amtrak into Harrisburg.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see Matt again. Maybe our paths will cross on a flight back to the Midwest in the future–I sure hope so–but regardless I’ll always be grateful we met. I can’t help but smile when I think about how we got on the plane as strangers and parted as friends. All we had to do was start a conversation.

I love to meet new people. I think that’s partly why I love history so much. As historians, we are in the very business of meeting new people–people we’ve never seen or contacted or even heard of before. Sometimes the strangers we meet are no longer living.  Sometimes, after reading their stories, we find out they’re a lot like us; and other times we discover that they see the world a whole lot differently than we do. Regardless, it is our job to see historical actors for who they are–to seek out their likes and dislikes, their passions and their fears. Then as we work, as we write, and as we research, people who were once strangers become familiar. We just need to start a conversation.

Out of the Zoo: Why I Cried in History Class

hamilton curtain callAnnie 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 reflects powerfully on the last day of her class on Alexander Hamilton. –JF

Anyone who knows me well knows that it doesn’t take much to make me cry. I shed tears during movies, musicals, worship sets and everything in between. I keep tissues close by at funerals and weddings alike, or if I know I’m going to be laughing really hard. If I’m anxious or overwhelmed, or if someone else is tearing up, I usually cry then too. 

When I took my seat in Frey 241 for the last day of my “Age of Hamilton” class though, I definitely did not expect to be crying by the end. When I entered the room that mid-December morning, the air was thick with excitement. Most of us history majors had finished all of our big assignments for the term, so we could practically taste Christmas break. My friend Chloe chatted excitedly about classmates’ Hamilton research papers, persuading them to let her read their essays in the coming weeks. Even though the fall semester was drawing to a close, Chloe and many others in the class were still hungry to learn everything they could about Alexander Hamilton and the world in which he lived. After wrapping up our discussion of Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr at the beginning of the period, Professor Fea launched into a final lecture designed to bring closure to the fifteen-week class. 

Fea, who played the Hamilton soundtrack frequently throughout the course to complement his lectures, thought it would be fitting to finish the semester with the musical’s last song, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” That’s what we historians do, Professor Fea explained to the class. We tell people’s stories. We’re in constant communication with our own world and worlds gone by. No one is around forever, but we as historians make sure they’re remembered once they’re gone. It is our right, and it is our duty. 

Professor Fea pulled up the lyric video for “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” on the projector screen, and the class sat in rare stillness as we watched Lin Manuel Miranda’s words flicker by. It’s impossible to capture the beauty of the song in a few words, but the ballad features several familiar characters voicing their respect for Hamilton and the financial system he created. Hamilton’s wife Eliza steps forward and reveals that she outlived her husband by fifty years. She recounts all the things she’s done to preserve Alexander’s legacy, and even laments that she still may not have done enough. All the while, the ensemble repeatedly voices the song’s title phrase: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

The students who usually spouted-off Hamilton lyrics with passionate fervor were subdued and somber, singing along quietly. I even heard a few lower voices chiming in from the cluster of boys who usually congregated in the back of the room. I hummed along too, thinking about the lyrics–which alone are enough to bring me to tears–and Professor Fea’s speech a few minutes earlier. I thought about the people’s stories I’ve heard, the one’s I’ve shared myself, and all of those that have yet to be uncovered. In those three and a half minutes I was reminded of how grateful I am to give a voice to the voiceless, and how blessed I will be to teach my students to do the same someday. After blinking away a couple joyful tears, I thanked God for giving me this vocation, this duty to tell people’s stories for the rest of my life. 

Sometimes in the midst of final papers and exams I can forget what an important job historians have. We live, we die, but in the meantime we tell people’s stories. We make sure they’re not forgotten. What a beautiful privilege we have.

Out of the Zoo: The Hedgehog and the Fox

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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 reflects on Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”. –JF

I did a lot of reading this semester. Being a history major, though, I suppose it comes with the territory. Instead of spending hours in the pottery studio like the art majors, or agonizing over lab like STEM students, history majors write and read—a lot. I read John Santrock in Educational Psychology, lots of Sam Wineburg for Teaching History and Social Studies, and many words from the pen of Alexander Hamilton for my Age of Hamilton class. Since the beginning of September I’ve been exposed to a number of different voices, some clear and others confusing, some of which I agree with and others that I don’t. Nonetheless, the challenge of hearing each one out is a task that has surely made me a better writer, student, and novice historian.

One of the first pieces I read this semester was for my Historical Methods class, an essay by Isaiah Berlin titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” I distinctly remember reading it within a few days of arriving on campus, sitting at one of the picnic tables outside Murray Library when it was still warm enough to do so. Pulling from the Greek poet Archilochus who once wrote “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” Berlin thinks that this statement, taken figuratively, describes a great difference that splits writers and thinkers. Some are hedgehogs, Berlin writes, who “relate everything to a single central vision,” who like to simplify their findings and organize them into a neat and concise conclusion. And then there are others, the foxes, who “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory,” who dwell in nuances and complexity, who run in the many different directions that their thinking, writing, or researching takes them. 

In my methods class we talked about how, as historians, we think and write and research somewhere between these two sects. For while we may start a project with a central topic, theme or idea in mind, as we do research we are stretched in many different directions. No matter how much we desire to organize all our findings into a thesis statement that’s orderly and decisive, we sometimes must face the reality that the past is often far too complex to do so to our satisfaction. We have the spines of hedgehogs and the fluffy tails of foxes, or so it seems. 

As I wrap up my final papers for the semester (which I have already written about here and here) I am continuing to realize the truth of this assertion. I’ve spent the whole semester knee deep in research–seeking out sources, following leads, falling down rabbit holes–all in an attempt to answer the questions I set out to answer.  But after all my research, I’m realizing that the questions I asked months ago are not so easily answered. I’m realizing that there will always be paths that remain unexplored, questions that go unanswered; yet with due dates fast approaching I must bring my research to some sort of end.

Thus, it is here that I will remain. In the tension between the one and the many, the simple and the complex, I attempt to bring my months of research together into a cohesive whole. I try to bring my outstretched hands together and weave the fringes of my research into some kind of tapestry. I can only hope that my tapestry will be a beautiful one.

Out of the Zoo: Holidays Make Us Historians

candy cane lane

The beginning of the Christmas season in my hometown (Kalamazoo) is marked by the appearance of “Candy Cane Lane” in Bronson Park.

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 upcoming Christmas season. –JF

It seems as if the Christmas Season is in full swing. While I (shamelessly) started listening to Christmas music and watching Hallmark movies on November first, on the day after Thanksgiving the entire world seems to turn shades of red and green. Michael Bublé comes out of hiding and sings out on radio broadcasts, coffee shops and supermarkets alike play festive tunes for their customers. Netted fir trees strapped atop SUVs become a regular appearance on highways, supplemented by the occasional Amazon or UPS truck packed to the brim with black Friday orders. Every year after Thanksgiving my family ventures into our dusty attic to retrieve our Christmas decorations; we pull out our snowy Disney Princess village, our singing Christmas clock, and our many, many farm-themed ornaments for the tree. 

I traveled back to Messiah on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and was welcomed by a campus decked out for the Christmas season. After a long nine hour drive from Michigan I was greeted by house-mates Chloe and Amy, hard at work assembling a faux Christmas tree in our living room and stringing lights outside. I’m sure first-year dorms are busy at work decorating for Messiah’s annual “Deck the Halls” competition.

The Christmas season is pretty special on a Christian college campus. Once December hits Messiah’s worship teams dust off the Christmas songs in their repertoire and play them at chapel and other services on campus. Murray Library hosts a Christmas tea and crafting event for students each year, serving homemade scones and striped candy canes. Students flock to Lottie-Nelson Dining Hall for Christmas dinner the week before exams to stuff themselves with comfort food and seasonal desserts. Teachers tell students about their Christmas plans and share their favorite holiday traditions.

I love the Christmas season. I adore the lights, the food, all the time with family and friends; but one of my favorite things about Christmas is that it has deep roots in history. The task of the historian is to remember the past and to recreate it in the present; when we celebrate Christmas that’s exactly what we’re doing. As a Christian I believe that Christ’s miraculous birth was a real event that happened about two thousand years ago, a real event from the past that should be brought to life in the present for the world to see. When we sing Christmas songs, set up our nativities or light our advent candles, we do just that; we resurrect Christ’s story and remember that our God is not just the God of heaven, but He’s also God on earth, God with us, Emmanuel.

Christmas isn’t the only holiday with deep roots in history. All holidays have historical beginnings–even if they’re often entangled with myth, distorted by exaggerations, or littered with omissions along the way. Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and Easter, for example are all meant, in one way or another, to remember and celebrate an event that happened in the past and shape the meaning it retains in the present. When the holiday season comes around, we are all historians, in a sense. We remember, resurrect, and make meaning out of things that happened. Then, as historians, it is up to us to sort fact from fiction, reality from myth. We examine the events and the meanings that they hold all wrapped up in bows and lights and “Christmas magic.” Instead of getting caught up in all the glamour, we seek out what really happened.