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Category: Feature Stories

Voice of a Burundian Refugee

Alex - Refugee Camp, Rwanda

Alex – Refugee Camp, Rwanda

In 1972, ethnic conflicts forced my parents out of their homeland, Burundi. It is a small, poor country located in central Africa. Our tribe spoke Kirundi, and family was very important to them. My parents escaped with other families and moved to a neighboring country, Rwanda. They lived a difficult life in a refugee camp, where I was born in 1986.

In 1994, my family was caught up in yet another ethnic conflict when civil war erupted in Rwanda following the assassination of President Havyarimana. Soldiers and militia forces targeted defenseless civilians and savagely slaughtered them with bullets and machetes.

Many people were killed in front of our eyes. Thousands were wounded and traumatized. I lost family members, uncles, aunties and friends. The infamous Rwandan genocide claimed the lives of an estimated 800,000 people in only one hundred days of ethnic cleansing.

My parents fled Rwanda with their five children. I was eight years old. Escaping the gridlocks of Rwandan warlords and their death squads was a terrifying experience for us, but God and our strong desire for freedom guided us throughout the dangerous journey to Tanzania where we expected to find a safer place. It took us three weeks to reach Tanzania. We walked through the night, kept out of sight during the day and slept in the bush to protect ourselves.

Thousands of refugees leaving Rwanda to Tanzania, 1994

Thousands of refugees leaving Rwanda to Tanzania, 1994

When we arrived to Tanzania, we were tired and hungry. International humanitarian organizations, such as UNHCR, UNICEF, and ONU assisted us. They supplied food, clean water, and provided care for people who were sick and wounded. We lived in tents for shelter. We ate only once a day because food supply was rationed every two weeks. As a result, malnutrition was a serious problem.

I did not speak any of the local languages in Tanzania, so communicating with the host community and other refugees who were from diverse linguistic backgrounds was a challenge. I quickly understood that the resilience that my family had shown until then was not going to be enough.

It became clear to me that formal education was an important pathway to self-sufficiency and freedom. UNICEF provided primary schooling for the children with emphasis on French, Kirundi (my native tongue), math, history, and geography. However, instructional materials were very scarce.

The school at the Lukole Refugee Camp that Alex attended

The school at the Lukole Refugee Camp that Alex attended

We attended school under trees even if the weather was bad. It was usually extremely hot. We were hungry and thirsty most of the time. It was hard for me to focus, especially when I thought about the loved ones I lost. Yet, the pain and psychological turmoil I experienced were not going to discourage me from pursuing my dream for freedom.

I prayed hard to God to save our lives and give us a good place to live, a place where we could have peace, rights, and liberty. In the meantime, I pursued my education at a secondary school while also growing stronger in the informal education that my family and community were giving me around our cultural beliefs and practices, including the traditional Burundi drumming.

My family came to the United States in July 2007 through a refugee resettlement program.  I was 21 years of age. I started my American journey in Arizona armed with the basic formal education skills I developed in Tanzania refugee camps and the invaluable informal education that my family instilled in me. This gave me values that allowed me to always hold myself to high standards and believe that no achievement is beyond my reach, if I set my mind to it.

I quickly learned that I would have to fight for my American dream of freedom, and prosperity. I knew it would not come easily. I was in a new culture, among new people, with a new language. Everything was so different here! My life was a continual struggle. It was like asking a right-handed person to write with the left hand.

Two ladies from the University of Arizona were kind to my family, and they taught us English. I asked them many questions, and I practiced reading, writing and speaking. They took me to the library and introduced me to basic books in English. I learned about life in America and how to get a formal education. I learned that America is a place with so many opportunities!

After living in Arizona for two years, I moved to Salt Lake City where my brother and his family lived. I took some tests and was accepted into SaltLakeCommunity College. Now, I am taking math, English, and psychology to fulfill the general requirements.

I became the leader of the Burundi Community in Utah that is about 500 people strong.  I translate and advocate for them. I know how hard life is here in America, and some of the people are lost. Many are separated from their families and traumatized by living in refugee camps for sometimes 40 years. They have problems speaking English and getting a job because of no education. They fail to control their children, so some families are breaking up. Younger generations are joining gangs instead of focusing on education.

Conference-BurundianDrummers,stage-cropped-low-2012We work to bring people together to solve problems, and we organize meetings and workshops on how to live here. It is powerful to see people doing right and giving to others what they want to get back. I also teach our youth the Burundi traditional drumming and dance. We call ourselves the Burundi Drummers. Through this informal education program, I hope to help preserve and perpetuate some of our best cultural practices.

However difficult the struggles have been in my life, they have taught me important lessons. It takes courage to be a refugee. There is no success without pain, sacrifice and effort. When my people feel vulnerable and hopeless around me, I encourage them and remind them that they have freedom, rights, and liberty in America. By working together, hand in hand, we can learn to respect one another, share what we have and improve everyone’s life.

NOTE: Alex Ngendakuriyo now has a family of his own. He and the Burundi Drummers are in high demand as performers and speakers in their community. His story was first published in One World, Many Stories – Seeking Freedom and Dignity.

Joaquin Lequerica Vasquez

by Joaquin Lequerica Vasquez

I was born in Iquitos, Peru and grew up a little further up river from Yanamono II and then downstream. I am currently 72 years old. I grew up in a suffering type of life because my father abandoned me when I was little and my mom took care of me. When my father left, my mom moved from our village to Iquitos. My mom could hardly afford clothes and food and I had to work at an early age to help provide for us. Because of that I did not have an education but I decided on my own to learn and study. When I was 14 years old my mom left me and went to Lima. I had to clean my own clothes. I had to cook for myself and I continued to work.

Joaquin Lequerica Vasquez

Joaquin Lequerica Vasquez

When I was fifteen, I left Iquitos and came to a village on the Amazon, in the rainforest. I met a friend, from Spain, who had a beautiful house. Together we decided that we would work with wood. I didn’t know that kind of work at the time. It took us four days journey to walk to a place where my friend knew that there would be good wood. We took our machetes and cut down a very big pine tree. It was a lot of work. We cut off the branches of the tree and cut in into pieces. After four months of preparation, we brought the wood to Iquitos to sell the wood for money. In Iquitos the people paid my friend and gave him the money. My friends mislead me and lied to me.  Although we worked together we were not paid separate and He did not give me any of the money. He said, “I will pay you what I want and when I want.”  That was a very bad thing that he did to me and we almost got into a fight. He said, “one day I will pay you.”

The next day he said, “Tomorrow, let’s go for a trip.” A group of twenty of us travelled about eight hours above Iquitos and then up a tributary in a large boat. We stopped there and then started walking through the mountains cutting our way through the Jungle. We finally reached a big lagoon. The water was very pure, very pretty. It was sparkly and shiny. For thirty days we panned for gold in the pretty waters and found many small pieces of gold that weighed a kilo in total. We left for Iquitos to sell the gold. The total trip took four months. The Spaniard gave me his address where he lived in Iquitos and said, “Tomorrow I will pay you.” The next day the twenty of us in our group got together to have him pay us. We went to his house and knocked on the door. The Spaniard was not there. We returned in the afternoon. He still was not there. The next day we went and we called for him. He still was not there. We looked for him for a whole month – we wanted to get paid. All twenty of us grouped together to see what we could do to try and get him to pay us. We went to his house and we broke down his door. A man came to the door that was very big and very strong. He asked us what we were doing. We told the man that this Spaniard had been cheating us and he told us to “go tell the authorities.” A secretary wrote down our statement as we explained what happened to the authorities. The Spaniard finally came but the authorities couldn’t make the Spaniard pay.

When I was 22 I came to Yanamono. I began to grow agriculture here – plantains, yucca and corn. I met my wife during a fiesta. We were married one year later and we have lived here ever since. I have thirteen children. All thirteen of my children have left Yanamono except for two. Some of my children are living in Lima.

When my children were young I worked in a convent for four months cleaning it. The convent was large with two floors. The boys were on the bottom floor and the girls were on the top floor. It also had a school in it. At night we locked the doors to the convent. One night a nun told me to come with her. Some Indians had kidnapped one of the nuns. They were looking for her and noticed that the doors were unlocked. They said that I was the one responsible and they blamed me and told me I couldn’t work there anymore. The nun never returned to the convent.

An Old Hawaiian Fisherman

This project was a collaboration of the Pacific Islander Health Partnership, Juliet McMullin, Associate Professor of Cultural and Medical Anthropology at UC Riverside, and Christen Hepuakoa Marquez of Paradocs Films,
Watch more community stories from Southern California’s diverse Pacific Islander community here: www.vimeo.com/album/2207829

What the American Flag Means to Me

Marian and Paul Flandro  in front of their home

Marian and Paul Flandro in front of their home

When I was a boy at Douglas Elementary School in Salt Lake City, I remember stopping my play on the school grounds when I heard the bugle call that preceded the raising of the American flag before school. All the children on the school grounds faced the American flag, and with hand over heart, watched reverently as the flag was raised up high on the flag pole. This launched my respect for the flag.

Through the years, the school morning began by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as we faced the flag in our classroom. We studied the history of this great nation and were instructed to appreciate the blessings of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We were proud to be Americans!

On the day I graduated from the University of Utah in 1943, I received my orders to report for duty in the United States Marine Corps. World War II was raging, and I me an artillery officer with the 2nd Marine Division in the South Pacific Campaigns.

Paul Flandro

Paul Flandro

Our nation sacrificed and rallied to support all war efforts at home and abroad. My father was an active field officer in the U.S. Army. My brother fought for our freedom in the European Theater of combat, and my mother and siblings missed those of us who were far away from home, serving our country.

On July 15, 1944, I joined the combat troops on the island of Saipan, which was needed as a main staging location for attacks on Japan. U.S. Marines had just faced a horrific banzai attack, and thousands of bodies on both sides were stacked on the beach. We were assigned to bury the dead and clean out the caves, tunnels and pockets of resistance.

A whole city was under the ground level. The Japanese men were belligerent. We often used flame throwers, napalm fire bombs and explosives in the caves, which forced them out. As Marines, we were so regulated that we just did what we were told. Mostly, it was hand-to-hand combat, the worst fighting of my war experience.

Our objective was to raise the American flag on the Mt. Tapotchau on Saipan. During the fight, our men could see the flag and it boosted our morale.

The capture of Iwo Jima was vital to Allied success, and Japan knew it. The purpose of capturing the tiny island was to serve as a rescue, repair and refueling stop for allied aircraft. Iwo Jima was protected by Japan’s elite Imperial Palace Guard, the best military in Japan. The island was their front line in the Pacific.

During the invasion of Iwo Jima in February 1945, our 2nd Marine Division was launched to the waters off Iwo Jima as floating reserve. We were equipped with combat gear and landing crafts as secondary backup, if and when more manpower was needed.


Flag raising atop Mt.Suribachi

On February 23, 1945, news was broadcast over loud speakers on all ships that our American flag had just been raised on Mt. Suribachi by five Marines and a Navy Corpsman. This was a moment of triumph! Ships blew their horns for hours afterward. The most famous combat photograph in history was taken that day, the flag raising atop Mt.Suribachi.

This was one of the turning points of World War II, a great military morale boost when the situation looked so bleak. We could have easily been defeated there, but an American flag flew on Iwo Jima! Many said prayers of thanksgiving on that day.

Then, there were thirty more days of fighting to secure the island. It was blood, sweat and fear. About 25,000 of my fellow Marines were killed or wounded. On March 16, 1945, U.S. Marines took over Iwo Jima, and allied supplies began pouring into the island. Gratefully, our unit was never called upon to go ashore.

After Iwo Jima, the next military objective was the island of Okinawa, just 330 miles southwest of mainland Japan. Prior to the invasion, the Allies assembled an enormous armada of ships from ports all over the Pacific Ocean. Everything was very secret. The armada concentrated off of Okinawa’s west coast and stood coiled to protect 182,000 Marines landing on the island.

Our ship’s mock landing on the back side of the island worked, which is the reason I am alive today. The Japanese thought they had made a mistake and started moving troops to that end of the island. Then, the Allies invaded, and two other Marine divisions carried the Battle of Okinawa. The fighting was fierce and extended.

In our transport, we witnessed many Kamikaze air and sea attacks, wave after wave over several days and nights. When we finally won the last battle, the American flag went up on Okinawa’s Shuri Front. In August 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allies, but only after atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

<Photo>Nagasaki, Japan after the atomic bomb, 1945

After V-J Day in September, I was directed to take a detail of Marines into the canyons in Nagasaki to evaluate the effects of the atomic bomb. Our findings were shocking! We saw people burned on one side, waiting to die. It was a horrible sight, a hard thing for me to stomach, to be honest. The bomb annihilated civilians who had done nothing against us, but it was enough to stop the war.

As a combat Marine, the American flag is a treasured symbol of hard won freedom, security and hope. Without a doubt, I love my country and respect the flag of the United States of America! Each morning as I post the flag by my front door, I honor it with a patriotic salute. Hopefully, our children and grandchildren enjoy and appreciate the freedoms we fought to preserve.

NOTE: Captain Paul Flandro, now 92 years of age, still posts the colors every morning, and because he talked about his military experiences, his children understand why. His story is featured in the book, One World, Many Stories – Seeking Freedom and Dignity.

The Headlee Amendment


Richard Headlee

When Dick [Richard Headlee] managed George Romney’s gubernatorial election in 1966 in Michigan, Dick and George connected like birds of a feather. They spoke the same language, so to speak, believed in the same conservative values and had the same work ethic.

Through all their activities together, Dick tried to work the political arm to help the common people and not let government over tax them.

The Union of Auto Workers (UAW) is a very powerful union in Detroit. The mob runs the UAW, and there is a great deal of fear and corruption.

We were living in RedfordTownship in 1966 during the Detroit Riots. All summer there were riots between unions and workers with uprisings, fires and broken windows. It got as close as five miles from us. If it had come closer, we would have moved.

I have no idea how George Romney got elected that year, except that the mob had its hands full with the riots, and it wasn’t into politics yet.

In Redford, the little beer and wine stores on the corners were run by families. That’s where the kids went to buy candy. By about 1970, the mob unionized the grocery stores. At the time, the minimum wage for checkers was $2.35 an hour. Suddenly, wages went up to $17.00 an hour.

Every family member who worked at the shop was expected to pay the high union dues. The union representatives were told to collect the weekly union dues from every worker in cash. When the little mom and pop stores couldn’t pay, we watched the shops we loved shut down. Only the big chain stores could afford to stay open.

The mob was a Detroit phenomenon. Its leaders wanted power over everything. They knew they could have it, if they got control of the government. We became anti-union because of the abuse of power.

Top mob bosses lived an elite lifestyle, but the workers were told, “You go collect those dues or break their legs.” If the union guys didn’t get the cash, lives were taken. Everyone was afraid, and the mob made enemies. People kept quiet because they were afraid to speak up.

In Michigan, there was a lot of corruption. The wealthy got wealthier, and big money rackets made big money. Dick believed the excessive property tax problem was caused in part by officials trying to buy votes and by putting people in office who aren’t qualified. People agreed with him.

The Headlee Amendment

Dick continued working for Alexander Hamilton, and he was active in politics on the side. He travelled all over the state with the tax limit committee that he formed to try to educate people.

The campaign supported what was known as the Headlee Amendment. It depended upon which side your bread was being buttered whether you agreed with tax limitation or not.

Headlee amendment campaign sign

“Limit all taxes. Yes E, Headlee”

Mike often traveled with Dick as Mike had his father’s talent for public speaking.

They had to be able to answer questions like, “How did we create this big national deficit?” It’s still a good question.

I disliked that period of time. The Detroit Free Press printed nothing favorable or accurate about us. When I signed checks, people asked, “Is that name Headlee?” It was very uncomfortable.

Notes from Natalie:

When Dad worked for Alexander Hamilton and we moved to the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills in 1972, the property taxes on our home were $1,200 per month.  That is astronomical!

Loopholes in the law made the tax abuse possible and put more money into the hands of the corrupt politicians. This upset our father, who I heard say with a smile, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Aren’t you aware of this?”

By 1976, Dad was very involved in politics. He proposed amendments to the Michigan State Constitution (Article IX, Sections 24-34) to limit the state and local government spending each year. These changes became known as the Headlee Amendment.

The amendment limits total state spending each year, limits the fiscal relationship between state and local units of government and provides for the funding of state mandated programs like education.

In Detroit, the mob had all the power and wanted all the money. The Detroit Free Press, run by the mob, fought the tax limitation amendment. The Michigan Education Association (MEA) feared the loss of property tax money, so it also organized against the Headlee Amendment – with mob money.

Dad was fearless, and he was never intimidated by anyone. Nobody could out debate Dick Headlee. When I heard questions that stumped me, I worried how Dad would answer, but he chuckled and then gave the answer.

Dad treated the press like they were best friends, and he knew them by first name. They respected him, and he gave them respect. The debates evolved into respect and humor. Even though the press kept jabbing him, he never reacted.

Dad had recall that was unbelievable. He remembered facts and percentages. He knew about a million quotes from other people. In a debate, he could use their words to befuddle the opponent and do it with a smile on his face.

Earlier in 1978, [my future husband] got a summer job at Monahan Construction on the docks in Detroit. The job paid enough that summer to sustain us for a year. The union dues were $40 a week, which was big money in those days. It was to be paid in cash to the union guy on Thursday or else. We experienced the intimidation factor first hand, and it is beyond what you could ever imagine.

Notes from Doug:

I drove Headlee to all his speeches in Michigan during the tax limitation amendment campaign in 1978 and again when he ran for governor in 1982. We spent hundreds of hours driving.

While I was driving, he was preparing, and he was always prepared. He’d read part of a speech and ask, “Is this good?” He was a gifted speaker and had the ability to win people over because he helped them understand.

Whenever you run for public office, people want to know who you are. So, Headlee and I went into many hostile environments. He was one of those rare people who could go into contentious situations and walk out with those people being his friends. He was genuine, and people could sense that. Not everyone agreed with him, but they knew he was a genuinely good guy.

Once, I went with him to the Upper Peninsula to the annual meeting of the Lions Club. They weren’t endorsing him when he arrived, but when he left, they were endorsing him. He was magnetic.

In 1978, we had to get 360,000 signatures to get the tax limitation amendment on the ballot. Headlee’s proposal locked in property tax rates and solved the education funding problem. It did so many things that helped stabilize the economy of Michigan…

The Headlee tax limitation amendment passed on November 7, 1978. For his efforts, Dad received huge name recognition and respect.

Note from Howard:

When Dad proposed the amendment to the Michigan Constitution in 1978, I was fourteen years old. I was his travel companion and his technical assistant, setting up the slide projector.

I watched Dad, night after night, as he presented a superior argument. After presenting to 30-40 audiences, we got excited that he would win again. In Michigan, people were mad, and they didn’t know why.

He helped them focus their anger in a positive direction. People would catch a dream from him, even if they didn’t want to. It was exhilarating to make a difference with a little group of people each night.

What impressed me was the way people responded to him. Dad had the ability to stand in front of a sometimes hostile audience, inform them, persuade them and win them over. It was thrilling to watch him compete in an event of ideas.

Note from Carolyn:

In 1977 and 1978, Dad traveled around the state in support of the Headlee Amendment… I was a senior in high school at the time, and I took a lot of abuse from teachers who didn’t want the amendment to pass.

“Have you read the proposal?” I asked them.

“I don’t need to. I know what it says,” they replied.

I inherited my dad’s cheerful competitiveness, the sense of competition between people who think they have the truth. Dad was never intimidated. He encouraged people to continue in their viewpoint and be better. He tried to make enemies his friends, and if he couldn’t, he smiled and moved on. The truth prevails.

Dick respected greatness, and he appreciated the contributions of all sorts of people. He made friends with many influential people with different political and religious views. He didn’t try to change people’s mind. He was so strong in his own beliefs that he didn’t have to…

Dick and Tipp O’Neill were friends, although they had completely opposite points of view. Dick was a staunch Republican, and Tipp was a liberal Democrat. In 1977, Tip O’Neill became the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives… and Dick introduced him to our children. It was all very exciting!

Note:  Some years later, a state audit found that the Michigan Legislature hadn’t paid       education what it was owed for twelve years. By law, it had to pay $300 million back to Michigan Education Association. By then, the MEA praised the amendment, and Dick Headlee was a hero.        

NOTE:  Mary Headlee is the mother of nine children, 55 grandchildren and a growing number of great-grandchildren. The personal historian for her book was Paulette Stevens.

Headlee-painting,Dick-professional OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I Am Not My Leg

We met because of a mutual need, hers to receive care, mine to give. Doris was about to lose her life due to complications from diabetes. At 82 years old, her choice was her leg or her life. For her, it seemed a no-brainer. She chose life.

Doris faced surgery to amputate her leg when I met her in 2002. Her attitude was positive. She knew she wanted to continue living for her husband of 60+ years, for her family and for herself. Her strength, faith in God and her desire to go on living gave her everything she needed to survive such a trauma to her ailing yet determined body.

The surgery was a success, and Doris wanted to recuperate at home. Enter my in-home care giving company. Because of our service as a personal care agency and the assistance of home health care agencies, Doris was allowed to go home after a brief stay in the hospital.

Her recovery went well. As is the case with amputees, she had to adjust to several prostheses. She was able to walk within a short period of time. At 82 years of age, her recovery was unbelievable.

When I was young, I was a dancer and an athlete. To me, the thought of losing a leg seemed about the worst thing that could happen to a person. On a visit with Doris, I told her how much she had taught me about the courageous human spirit, the love of self, God and the desire to live.

She was surprised at my comments and replied, “No big deal. I am not my leg!”

Wow! That response has stayed with me all these years. I had always thought losing a leg would be worse than dying. I see life differently because of Doris. She taught me so much with those five words, “I am not my leg.”

Doris was our first client, and we were together for seven years and three months, all the time cared for in her home by the same primary care givers. Their compassionate, skillful, one-on-one care allowed her not only to stay in her home but to flourish there.

Doris was preceded in death by her devoted husband. She passed away peacefully last year, in her favorite chair, in front of her television, happy to be ‘home.’

NOTE: Janet Tueller is a provider of at-home services for the elderly. She continues to appreciate the wisdom and courage she has gained from those she serves. Her story comes from the anthology, One World, Many Stories, Seeking Freedom and Dignity.


Visiting Montgomery, Alabama, March 2013

My wife, Cathryn, and I were on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama for five weeks this winter, trying to learn a little about the region. We drove from Biloxi to Montgomery on Monday. We got into our hotel about 3:00, but it was raining so hard we decided not to try seeing any of the civil rights sites, our reason for going there.

When I was a boy in Vancouver, Washington during World War II, there was just one black student, Johnny, in our grade school. Always seeming happy, he was mostly alone. He sometimes walked past our house.

My mother asked me about Johnny and noted that he seemed alone, reflecting that it wasn’t fair. He was effectively shunned. I have always remembered that feeling of it not being fair to shun a person simply because he or she has darker skin.

In December 1955, news of the Montgomery bus boycott came into the local headlines. I was a 20-year-old college student, far from the South. I remember thinking how it wasn’t fair the way those “Negroes” were being treated.

Mentally, I was on their side, but with school, then an early marriage and a growing family I could see no way to help their cause with the boycotts, sit-ins, and marches that proceeded for the next thirteen years. Like many others, I felt far away and helpless. It was only after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968 that I found some ways to help.

Civil Rights Memorial

We had a good weather forecast for Tuesday, and sure enough, the sun was out; all was bright and shiny. First thing we did was go to the visitors information center and catch a bus that looked like a trolley for a tour of downtown.

Our driver/tour guide was a black man who looked to be in his 40s, with a Holy Bible on a low platform to his right and a heavy southern accent. Between his accent and use of regional idioms, it was difficult to catch all of what he said.

He was knowledgeable of the history of Montgomery and stated both the honorable history (“This is the street where the Freedom March from Selma to the stairs of the State Capital took place in 1965”) and horrific (“This is the location of the slave markets”) with the same matter-of-fact tone. When pointing out the square where the slave market was, he described the holding pens and how slaves were displayed and auctioned. Gave us chills.

When the tour concluded, we walked several blocks to the Southern Poverty Law Center. It was part of—indeed, the founder of—the Civil Rights Memorial and Center. The Memorial, out on the sidewalk, was designed by Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Memorial. There are two components to it: a curved, convex, polished granite wall about eight feet high, and, sitting in front of it, a seeming table, also of granite, circular, about eight feet in diameter.

Civil Rights Memorial

Water streams down over the face of the wall in a thin, even stream. Similarly, water flows in a broad, thin stream out of the center of the table and over the edges. On the wall is an inscription of one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous lines from the Bible: “…until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream….”

The circumference of the table is inscribed with specific dates. There are 40 deaths in this record with a brief description of how each person was killed in the struggle for civil rights, beginning with Emmett Till in 1955, which because of the brutality, enraged American progressives. It ends with King’s assassination in 1968.

The other notations are of Rosa Parks’ arrest, President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Congress’ passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. After King’s notation is a notable space, because, as Maya Lin said, “It isn’t over.”

We came to the Memorial looking for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which had the same address. While I was in Portland in the late 80s and early 90s, I avidly read the newspaper about a lawyer by the name of Morris Dees, who sued a convicted killer and his white supremacist organization for wrongful death, the civil equivalent of a prosecution for murder.

Dees won, showing that the entire white supremacist organization was liable. The award was a monetary judgment so huge that it bankrupted the organization and all the people in it. Unfortunately, the deterrent didn’t stop the problem, and there are now close to 1350 hate groups in America.

Morris Dees is one of my heroes. I wanted to say hello to his staff and thank them for their courageous work toward racial justice. Cathryn and I stepped inside the Memorial Center and were met by a white security officer, who, at our request, set about clearing the way for our unannounced visit to the offices of SPLC.

We were ushered into the small exhibit that elaborates on the names on the granite table outside. There are also blown-up photos that we’ve all seen of officers using police dogs, fire hoses, and clubs to attack protesters, so the deaths of the freedom fighters are clearly set in a context. Now, over 50 years later, equality before the law and in public accommodations in Montgomery are proudly proclaimed and protected as a part of the social order.

Inside the SPLC offices, a gracious black woman, the director of donor relations, gave us a generous review of the history of the organization.

On the way to a restaurant, we stopped by the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. We looked upon the exterior and paid our respects to this sacred place. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church from 1954 to late 1959. He began right out of theology school, at age 25. In 1955, he was asked to lead the bus boycott in Montgomery.

Rosa Parks Museum

RosaParksThe Rosa Parks Museum and Library is part of Troy University, and is located near the bus stop at which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. As we were admitted, we were told it would be 15 minutes until the “next re-enactment.” We couldn’t imagine what a re-enactment might look like.

In a small auditorium, a young, nice-looking, well-spoken black man showed a three-screen video of commentary by people who were in Montgomery at the time of Mrs. Parks’ famous defiance of the local social order. They described in some detail the humiliation involved in the regulations and procedures involved in keeping blacks segregated from whites on the city buses.

Black anger had been growing over this situation for some time. There had been meetings of black leaders with city and bus company officials on this subject. In addition, Rosa Parks was active in the local branch of the NAACP, and she had recently attended a training session in Tennessee about nonviolent methodologies to accomplish desegregation.

In another room, we stood, as if bystanders on a sidewalk, looking at the side of a 1953 model city bus as it would have looked on December 1, 1955. In it were clear images of people sitting or standing on the bus. A narrator began talking about what the bus driver was doing, picking people up and letting people off. We could hear the muted roaring of the diesel engine, the front door opening and closing.

Then, Rosa Parks got on the bus. It was explained that the front several rows of seats were reserved exclusively for whites. Blacks were expected to sit in the back. They could sit in the center section, unless a white person of any age had no seat in front, in which case, a black person had to give up their seat.

Mrs. Parks, then 42 years old, recognized the driver as an irascible one with whom she had had a run-in twenty years earlier. Along with Parks, the bus picked up a number of whites. Several blacks stood up to give over their seats, including the man sitting next to Parks, next to the window. Park slid over into that seat.

The remaining standing whites began complaining to the driver that she wouldn’t get up. Some of the black men hurriedly left the bus. The driver, from his seat, told Parks to give up her seat. She said, “No.”

He got up, went back to her and demanded that she give up her seat. She said, “No.”

He said something like, “Well, then I’m going to have to have you arrested.”

She said, “You may do that.”

In the meantime, the whites on the bus were in a serious hubbub; the blacks were stone silent. The bus driver then got off the bus, found a phone and called the bus station, explaining the situation. Bus HQ called the police.

Time went by; tension continued to rise. The police arrived, got on the bus, and asked Parks to leave her seat. She wouldn’t, and they said they were going to have to arrest her. She replied, “You may do that.” She was taken by the arm and removed. She didn’t resist.

That was the end of the bus scene. Rosa Parks was arrested for disorderly conduct, taken to the police station and fingerprinted. She was allowed, after some early resistance by the police, to call a black community leader, who made bail for her, and she left with him. She went to court and was found guilty on December 4, 1955.

The Montgomery bus boycott began the next day. It lasted 381 days. Because most of the riders were black and walked to their jobs instead of riding, the bus company lost $3,000 a day. The black community counts the boycott as successful, but the company and the city never caved in. The boycott ended when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an end to segregated public transportation as a result of a related lawsuit issued from the same community.

The importance of the boycott was in the perseverance shown by the black community and the amount of organization it took to maintain it. The boycott became the model and springboard for the numerous protests that followed, all over the South, as to public accommodations.

There was much more detail to the scene, but this is a taste of what we experienced as viewers of this grave incident. It was enormously impactful. We stood there in dread, as the minutes ticked slowly by, watching, as this woman, virtually isolated from everyone else on the bus, courageously took herself and the whole system right over a cliff, the bottom of which she didn’t know.

After we left the Rosa Parks Museum, Cathryn and I said to each other, several times, the equivalent of something like, “Holy cow!” We were stunned by Parks’ courage.

The next morning, we had breakfast at a large, well-appointed hotel in downtown Montgomery, a quiet and peaceful place. Our waitress was a large, pleasant, self confidant black woman, with whom it was easy to strike up a conversation. She had been raised in Chicago but had moved to Montgomery with her husband ten years ago.

For weeks in the South, I had been dying to ask somebody an important question, and this woman seemed a good candidate: “What is your experience with race relations and work opportunities here as opposed to Chicago?”

“Oh”, she said, “it’s better here.” She elaborated on some of her life experiences. She had been called, she said, “the N word” in Chicago, but not in Montgomery. At one point, all three of us were in tears as she described her personal struggles and those of her family. It was another powerful personal experience.

Montgomery’s civil rights history is vital to America’s continuing cultural growth. I personally have done little to improve American race relations, maybe helped around the margins a little. However, remembering the feeling I had as a boy—of it not being fair to shun or deride people for the color of their skin—has caused me to at least do something to help. And the need for fairness touches my heart still today.

Pete Grundfossen (close-up)

NOTE: Peter Grundfossen is retired in Salt Lake City. During his career he advocated for the dignity and needs of America’s minorities while Assistant Dean of Students at the University of Utah, a member of the Utah Legislature, a Model Cities Director, Deputy Director of the Department of Community and Economic Development, a practicing attorney in Utah, and a human services lobbyist in Oregon.

Telling Myself a New Story

On September 12, 2001, the day after the infamous 9/11, I came to the reality of the personal hell I had created. The falling of the Twin Towers in New York City and the close of the stock market helped me awaken to the realization that I was going to lose the last of my father’s inheritance, $450,000 in all.

After living for six years in an adulterous affair, I knew I would be excommunicated from my church. I had lived much of my life in fantasy. I lied to myself and everyone around me, trying to pretend I was something other than a mere mortal.

I thought I had a direct pipeline to God, but, in reality, I was possessed by an evil spirit that had for many years convinced me that I was above the law of God.  Prior to that, I had lived a lifetime with an inferiority complex on the edge of the commandments of God.

On the outside, I pretended to be a superior being, but on the inside I was a shell, a hollow nothing. I was pretending to be righteous, but was actually living my own brand of religion. I was in a fog, thinking I was talking directly to God, when I wasn’t.

On that day, 9/12/11, I sat in my Lexus, which I knew would soon be gone, having a conversation with the voice in my head. I asked a very pertinent question that I should have asked years before. “If you are God, like you said you are, and I have been doing what you told me to do, why am in such as mess?”

It responded, “I am not God.”

“Who are you, then?”  I asked.

“Who do you think I am?” it retorted.

“Why did you do this to me?” I again inquired.

“This is what I do. You have been had,” it gloated. “You will never get away from me, never get out of this hole. I will destroy you.”

I was dumbfounded. I had believed a lie!

“Now that I know who you are, I will never consciously listen to you again,” I cried. “I may have been had, but I will not be had knowingly.”

After confessing to my precious wife the exact nature of my transgressions, she realized that she couldn’t live with my adultery, lying and arrogant deceit. She packed my bags and set them outside. I moved into a motel with everything I could fit into an old Dodge van. Our children were grown and gone, and we divorced. Pain became my teacher.

I was confused. I had no feelings at all for the other woman in my life, but I had become addicted to sex. It made me sick, like having eaten too much chocolate cake. I had reached for something easy and comfortable, something lazy and selfish, and now I regretted it.

The pain of my guilt was overwhelming. I was racked with torment for my sins. I felt so flat, so broken, so foolish that I would never be worthy of any other human interaction. I felt utterly doomed. Not only did I want to die, I wanted my mind to cease to exist so I would no longer have any memory of the horror I had created for myself and my family. I faced a crisis of hope.

I spent over two years in almost total depression. The jeering voice in my head reminded me daily how stupid I was for believing the lies. My anger was directed inward. I felt ashamed of my very self. I actually helped the de-motivator to do its job of destroying me.

“I’ve not just screwed up,” I said to myself, “I am a screw-up.” In this way, I felt sorry for myself and became my own worst enemy.

I envisioned several means of suicide, and I might have followed through and done it, except for a realization that came upon me. If I tried to go to sleep to this life, I would just wake up miserable somewhere else without the ability do anything to change my situation. The only thing I could imagine that was worse than the hell I was in was to be in that hell forever.

I knew I had to live and change my life.  I left the community where I had raised my children, doing so at the invitation of the religious congregation I had been attending. I moved 1,000 miles away to the area of my nativity. I moved in with one of my married daughters, who had developed an especially compassionate soul. Because of her own experience with pain, she found room in her heart for her disastrous father.

I found a menial job at a local retail outlet and tried to get some semblance of life back. I started attending 12-Step Addiction Recovery meetings, and the process rejuvenated my body and spirit.

In my course of study, I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Franco, who survived the holocaust in Poland during World War II. With all of his family gone, he asked himself, “What is the point of living?”

Then, he turned a corner. Even in the concentration camp, he realized that he still had freedom of thought. He made the commitment not to allow the Nazis to control his thinking or make him bitter, and that became the purpose of his existence. The key to survival is what we think about the circumstance in which we find ourselves.

I looked at my own experience. What could I learn from it? A light went on in my head, and I saw that I had been beating up on myself. Eventually, I realized that there is nothing that happens to me that is not in my own best interest, should I choose to see it that way.

When I was a four years old, someone told me that I was trash. Although it was a lie, I believed it. No matter what I tried to accomplish in the ensuing years to prove that I was worth something, deep in my core, I didn’t believe I was worthy of being loved.

Something similar happened in the Garden of Eden. After being deceived by Satan, our first parents attached a destructive meaning to their experience. They believed the lie and internalized it—“You are naked, flawed, something to be ashamed of, and you should be afraid to talk to God about it.”

In reality, the only way to clear up the deception is to talk to God about it! Our worth in the Creator’s eyes never changes. He loves us unconditionally, like we love our own little children, no matter whether they make messes or perform well.

Addiction is fueled by flawed core beliefs. As I came to understand this, I began developing a new story about myself. Old story: I am a worthless piece of human flesh and will never be any different. If anyone really knew me, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me. I must therefore hide my true self.

New story: My life is not worthless, just out of control. I need divine intervention to restore my sanity. I make a conscious decision to turn my life and my will over to that divine intelligence. I choose to consciously decide what I will think and make a habit of choosing the thoughts that govern how I will act.

Where I had heard a voice tell me, “You are worthless,” I also knew that I had heard a voice tell me, “You are a child of God.” Which of these voices was true? What would a loving Father say to me? I believed the peaceful, benevolent voice.

I acknowledged the painful feeling of being so flawed that I was unworthy, but I was willing to change. I was willing to remember my Savior and keep his commandments. In my mind and out loud, I repeated to myself, again and again, virtuous thoughts, sayings and scriptures. These thoughts drove my behavior, filled up my mind and left no room for negativity. Finally, it broke the shame cycle.

I declared a new me! I erased the old story in my mind and gave myself a new one. At this point, magic started to happen. I felt hope and peace, and my life began to turn around. I learned more from my own addiction experience than I did from getting a doctorate. My professional life improved, and I found a position as a licensed therapist.

The next miracle was making friends in addiction recovery group I initiated. These men got to know me, and they not only lifted me, they loved me. I experienced real love, perhaps for the first time in my life. To be loved in the face of your own reality and still be accepted is the real thing. It made me want to be a better man.

Band of Brothers

Band of Brothers

This band of brothers still meets with me every Sunday morning at six o’clock in the morning. I go fishing with these guys, play scrabble and share my heart and soul with them. They are the returning prodigals around whom God has wrapped his arms in a warm embrace and welcomed back into his fold. These people are my friends, and I love them because they loved me first.

One of the most poignant lessons of my life is realizing that I can change my story. By changing my story, I not only created a new ending, I created a new beginning!

NOTE:  Dr. Steven Bunnell retired after 38 years as a licensed clinical social worker. He continues helping people overcome their addictions by recreating the story they tell themselves.