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.

So What CAN You Do With a History Major?–Part 59

You can be the President of the United States.

Six former presidents have studied history in college or graduate school. They are Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and now Joe Biden. (Some websites say Eisenhower and Kennedy majored in history, but I can’t find any evidence to back this up. Kennedy actually majored in government).

Biden graduated from the University Delaware in 1965 with with a double major in history and political science. He is also the first president to graduate with a history major from a public university. Here is historian Sarah Lipton, a historian who arrived at SUNY-Stony Brook (my Ph.D. Alma mater) just as I was leaving:

Read this entire series here or, in part, in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

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: 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: 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.

Night four at the 2020 DNC convention

Biden nominee

It was a great night for the Democratic Party. I don’t think they could have done this convention any better. Frankly, it may have been more effective than a traditional arena convention. The GOP has a tough act to follow.

Below are a few thoughts, based on some of my live-tweeting.

Let’s start with the segment on Biden’s Christian faith:

A few thousand white evangelicals from Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Arizona might decide this election:

But here is a way that Democrats can keep more white evangelicals after November 2020:

Delaware Senator Chris Coons gave a good speech that echoed yesterday’s Fox News op-ed on Biden’s faith. But Coons did not address anything I wrote about in the tweets above. If Biden can address these issues between now and November he could win a record number of white evangelicals. He could easily connect his platform to a real conversation about abortion. The religious liberty stuff will be a little more difficult without offending the left-wing of the party.

Let’s move on to history.

I am still waiting for someone to tell me when the last time a historian spoke in a prime time slot at a political convention.  Jon Meacham was excellent:

So please take the following tweet in that context:

My historian students–both at Messiah University and the Gilder-Lehrman
“Princeton Seminar”–know that the roots of the United States are located in more than just the British settlements.

And as long as we are talking about history:

You can also do a lot of other things with a history major.

The segment with Biden’s Democratic primary rivals was amazing. I could have watched another hour of this conversation. As Cory Booker said, it was like the show with all the contestants “voted off the island” on “Survivor”:

A quick thought on Michael Bloomberg’s speech:

Not all evangelical celebrities support Donald Trump:

Biden gave a great speech. I appreciated his call to find one’s “purpose” in life.

The exact quote was: “As God’s children each of us have a purpose in our lives.”

And the following:

I was also pleased to see this speech seasoned with the words “hope,” “humility,” and “history.” I feel like I’ve heard those words before. 🙂

Here is the Seamus Heaney quote from “The Cure at Troy” that Biden used in the speech:

History says,

Don’t hope on this side of the grave,

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme

The next verse (which Biden did not use in the speech) reads:

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle

And cures and healing wells.

Read Biden’s entire speech here.

In Australia, fees for history courses will rise by 113% to encourage students to enroll in STEM

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 The national office of the Department of Education (Canberra, Australia)

What is going on in Australia? The government plans to increase university tuition for humanities, social sciences, and law because they apparently do not make students “job-ready.” Here is a taste of Anisa Purbarsari Horton’s piece at the BBC:

Australia’s government recently announced some bad news for prospective university students planning to take subjects in the humanities, social sciences or law. To enrol in courses like history and philosophy, they’d have to pay more than their peers studying the sciences, maths or healthcare. In the case of history, for example, the government proposed that course fees would rise by 113%. The cost of many science-related courses would fall by 20%, with the biggest drop visible in mathematics and agriculture – where fees would drop by 62%. 

The announcement came as part of a higher education reform package entitled “Job-Ready Graduates”, which contains complex changes to funding structures and still needs to be passed by parliament. The element that has stirred debate is the plan to reduce student tuition costs in fields expected to produce the most job growth and increase them for courses seen as less vital to the economy.

In a speech to the National Press Club, Education Minister Dan Tehan said the government wanted to “incentivise students to make more job-relevant choices”.  The next wave of graduates would have to power the post-Covid economic recovery, he stressed. “A cheaper degree in an area where there’s a job is a win-win for students.” 

Tehan’s plans, with a proposed start in 2021, generated a wave of headlines. Many in the higher education sector wondered whether the change would really lead to more places in “job-ready” courses, whether it was the latest battle in a continuing attack against the humanities and whether it would exacerbate existing inequalities within higher education

I understand why this is happening, but it is not based on any solid evidence. The skills taught in humanities courses are absolutely essential to a thriving economy and robust democratic society. And it seems that we need these skills now more than ever.

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.

Back in the Zoo: My Struggle with Anxiety

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I took this photo at a protest in Kalamazoo following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.

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 honestly about mental health in the midst of our current moment. —JF

On Monday, I logged into my computer for my first virtual counseling appointment with Desert Streams Christian Counseling. Many don’t know this about me, but I have struggled with anxiety for the past couple years. It’s by no means constant or dangerously severe, but it hits me every once in a while–especially in seasons of unexpected change or hardship. Because of my anxiety, I worry more than most. Sometimes I worry about specific things–like school, COVID-19, the people I love, or the uncertainty of the future–but other times, there’s just a general sense of unease that settles in the pit of my stomach.

Perhaps you have felt a similar  sense of unease over the past few weeks. Despite reports of the curve flattening, COVID-19 cases continue to rise. The reopening of businesses and restaurants across the nation brings joy to some and anxiety to others who fear it’s still too soon for the country to reopen. More Americans are still plagued with job loss and economic hardship caused by the pandemic. I won’t deny that life is hard right now. Whether or not you struggle with anxiety like I do, it’s not hard to find things to be stressed about in our current moment. Yet the recent murder of George Floyd–and the tumultuous events that followed–reminds us that these sources of worry pale in comparison with the constant hatred, anxiety, and injustice that has weighed on the shoulders of black Americans for the past 400 years.

Because I struggle with anxiety, I am no stranger to fear. Yet because I am a white, straight, middle-class, Evangelical Christian woman, there are many anxieties from which I am spared. I am spared from  the multi-generational trauma experienced by African Americans whose ancestors were forced into chattel slavery, grandparents were lynched or parents were burdened by Jim-Crow era segregation. I don’t have to fret about people judging me because of my race, or thinking less of me because of the color of my skin. When my Dad drives to work, I don’t have to worry about him getting pulled over just because he looks suspicious. If my brother throws on a hoodie and walks to 7-Eleven at night to buy some skittles, I can know with virtual certainty he won’t be attacked. When my boyfriend goes for a run in the middle of the day, I don’t fear that he’ll get chased down and shot.

I’m not trying to belittle my own anxiety, or that experienced by others. Mental health struggles are serious and real, especially in times like these. Yet I know that for every obsessive thought and irrational worry that makes its way into my mind, there are real, ever-present sources of fear and anxiety for America’s black community. 

When injustice seems to have the upper hand and righteousness seems so far out of our reach, let us remember to listen–especially to those who are different from us. When fear is ever-present, let us remember that the creator of the universe is a God of love, peace, and justice.

To quote my professor, Dr. James LaGrand, who I exchanged emails with last week:

“Even this week, God is God. God loves justice; in fact he’s the author of justice. And it is with perfect justice and peace and shalom that his story will end for his people and his whole creation. It’s hard to wait for this. But it is coming.”

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: 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: Trust in the Valley

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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: “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.