Archive for March, 2015

The real St. Patrick — a slave for Christ

Published March 14, 2014

Near the entrance of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin a simple plaque marks the location of the well, where, legend has it, Patrick baptized converts to the Christian faith in A.D. 450.

I visited that Church of Ireland cathedral while in Dublin in 2010, and it brought back memories of worshipping, 10 years earlier, at another Anglican cathedral, in Belfast, where there was a big, beautiful mosaic of Patrick — or Padraig in Irish. The saint is said to have first landed on Erin’s green shores at Downpatrick (thus the name), in Northern Ireland, and in that town, both the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals are named for him.

We have all heard the myths of Patrick — how he drove the snakes from Ireland (there were never any there), and used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity. There are fantastical tales of his use of magic, such as the time when he changed his shape, and that of his companions, into deer to elude capture by fierce pagan warriors.

When I was in Ireland five years ago, I walked the Hill of Tara, where ancient Druids offered human sacrifices to their false gods. It was on the nearby Hill of Slane that Patrick, in defiance of the high king of Tara, lit the paschal fire of Easter that signaled to the king and his druids that the light of Christ had come to Ireland and would never be extinguished.

This tale, whether or not it is factual, comes closer to illustrating the truth about who Patrick was — not a wizard, but a bishop and evangelist.

As the 15-year-old son of an aristocratic Celtic Briton who was both a Roman official and a Catholic deacon, Patrick had been captured, probably near the River Severn, by pagan Irish raiders and taken across the sea to be a slave. He believed this was his punishment for a sin he committed, but in his writings he doesn’t say what the sin was. While he was a slave, his faith in God grew, and while tending his sheep herds, he prayed sometimes as many as 100 times a day, from morning until night, according to the written record he left behind.

Patrick escaped from Ireland, but had a dream, which led him to believe he was being called back to the Babylon of his captivity to spread the gospel. After being educated to become a priest and bishop, he did eventually go back and served the church as a missionary for the rest of his days. His writings consist of his “Confession,” similar to St. Augustine’s, and a letter to a British chieftain Coroticus, excommunicating him and his soldiers for slaughtering Christian converts in Hibernia (Ireland) on the day of their baptism.

I was preparing for a short mission trip of my own to Northern Ireland with Habitat for Humanity in 2000 when I read “The Spirituality of St. Patrick” by Lesley Whiteside, a thin paperback published in Dublin by Morehouse Publishing in 1996. It is an explication of Patrick’s writings. Here is an excerpt from his best-known work. It gives us a better understanding of the real Patrick and why he matters.

St. Patrick’s confession

The Spirit elsewhere is a witness that even uncultivated ways have been created by the Most High — I am, then, first and foremost unlearned, an unlettered exile who cannot plan for the future. But this much I know for sure. Before I had to suffer, I was like a stone lying in the deep mud. Then he who is mighty came and in his mercy he not only pulled me out but lifted me up and placed me at the very top of the wall. I must, therefore, speak publicly in order to thank the Lord for such wonderful gifts.

Who was it who called me, fool that I am, from among those who are considered wise, expert in law, powerful in speech and general affairs? He passed over these for me, a mere outcast. He inspired me with fear, reverence and patience, to be the one who would if possible serve the people faithfully to whom the love of Christ brought me. The love of Christ indeed gave me to them to serve them humbly and sincerely for my entire lifetime if I am found worthy.

Require insurers to pay for colonoscopies

Published March 7, 2015

The idea behind preventive health care is that if conditions are discovered and treated before they get worse, people will be healthier and pay less in the long run. But I believe insurance companies put profits before people, which is why regulation is necessary.

Last year this belief was reinforced by a personal experience that resulted in frustration and financial hardship.

In 2004, I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, condition that affects one out of five adults. I’m usually able to control it by taking a fiber supplement and watching my diet. But last winter, I began noticing a dull pain in my lower right abdomen, where I thought my gallbladder was. I made an appointment with Dr. Bennett Asher, my family physician in Winchester for 40 years, and he found nothing to indicate gallbladder disease, but sent me to Clark Regional Medical Center for a CT scan, which confirmed his diagnosis. He also had me follow up with Dr. David McMenamin, a gastroenterologist a few doors down, whose practice, like that of Dr. Asher’s, is owned by the community hospital, which was recently bought by the for-profit company LifePoint.

Dr. McMenamin also concluded I had nothing more serious than IBS, but he wanted me to have a colonoscopy because I hadn’t had one in 10 years.

I had learned that Anthem, my employer’s group insurance carrier, covered routine colonoscopies at 100 percent, so I agreed, as long as there would be no out-of-pocket expense.

The day of the procedure, someone at the hospital told me I should make sure the operation was coded as routine rather than diagnostic, so I called the specialist’s office and was assured it was.

Imagine my surprise when I got a bill from the hospital for $900, plus a bill for outside lab work.

I couldn’t get anyone from the hospital’s billing department to return my calls, so I took time off from work to go there, and was told that because some tissue was sent off for a biopsy, it made the procedure diagnostic, not routine.

“I can’t pay this! It might as well be $9,000,” I said, but all the hospital offered to do was set me up on a payment plan.

I argued with the insurance company, and my employer’s HR person set up a conference call with a health benefits expert in our corporate office, the insurance company and the gastroenterologist’s billing person, who told Anthem the operation was coded as preventive. I thought we were getting somewhere until I got two calls in one day from Anthem telling me the coding was wrong.

I took more time off from work and made another three-hour round trip to Winchester to meet with the doctor and get copies of the paperwork, which showed that the colonoscopy examination was “completely normal” and that “a random biopsy” was taken from “the whole colon.” Nothing about a polyp.

The doctor was apologetic that his coding had been changed.

“They do it all the time,” he added.

I threatened to sue the hospital and the insurance company and even talked to a lawyer, but I’ve now paid about half of the bill, and I’ve given up. Maybe that’s their strategy, to wear you down and make it too costly to challenge them.

I’m still bitter about it, and I’ve said I’d never have another colonoscopy until the government does something about this practice.

Maybe it won’t be a long wait.

Last week, the Kentucky House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 61, sponsored by another Clark County doctor, Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester. The bill, similar to one Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, shepherded through the House in February, would require insurers to cover follow-up colonoscopies resulting from colorectal cancer screenings without imposing additional deductible or insurance costs on patients. With Burch’s leadership, the Senate bill passed the House last week, 95-5, and was sent to Gov. Steve Beshear for his signature.

I hope the governor will, with a stroke of his pen, remove this financial barrier to encouraging those of us over 50 to do what we should to avoid the second leading cause of cancer deaths in Kentucky, but also one of the most preventable.

Wouldn’t that be a fitting way to mark Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month?

Christianity, Islam and understanding

Published Feb. 28, 2015

Following the horrific murders of innocent Americans by jihadists, the president went on television and said “Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country” and should be respected and not feared or blamed for what happened.

Millions of Muslims in America and around the world were just as “appalled and outraged” as the rest of us were by those evil acts, he said.

“These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith, and it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that,” the president said. “Islam is peace.”

Some of you might be surprised to learn that the president who made those remarks was George W. Bush, and that he made them less than a week after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

President Barack Obama has continued the war on terror. He gave the order to kill Osama bin Laden, took out many of Al Qaeda’s top leaders with drone strikes and carried out airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which is neither Islamic in the normal sense nor a state.

Like Bush, Obama has been careful to make a distinction between ordinary Muslims, who make up a quarter of the world’s people, and the religious extremists whose understanding of Islam is as different from that of most Muslims as the Ku Klux Klan’s understanding of Christianity is from that of most Christians.

Speaking at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, Obama took what I thought was a Christian stance against pride (the original sin) when he said that we shouldn’t “get on our high horse” and think that violence committed in the name of religion is unique to others. He mentioned Christian attempts to justify atrocities committed during the Inquisition, the Crusades, American slavery and the Jim Crow era in the South by saying that throughout history, some people have “committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

It didn’t matter that he made this statement in the context of his strong condemnation of the Islamic State as “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism” against religious minorities, although he might have strengthened his argument if he had specifically mentioned that Christians have been the minorities most victimized by this cult.

All some listeners heard was that he was bringing up the Crusades again (as liberal secularists almost always do), and that he was comparing some Christians to Islamic jihadists.

Within moments, what was trending on social media were the same tired untruths about the president having been brought up as a Muslim and being anti-Christian. It doesn’t matter to these people that he never knew his father, a Muslim convert to atheism before Barack was born, nor that it was a Catholic school, not an Islamic one, that the future president attended in Indonesia for two years. And there was the same tired arguments about the true nature of Islam.

Many conservative evangelical Christians don’t want to hear that jihadism is an aberration. Misled by celebrities such as Bill O’ Reilly and the Rev. Franklin Graham — who has called Islam an “evil religion” — they think Muslims are the enemies of Christians.

I’m a conservative evangelical Christian myself, and I think Graham and those who think like he does are wrong.

It’s true that Muslims don’t believe that Jesus, whom they call Isa, is God incarnate, or the “Son of God.” Nor do they believe he was executed on a Roman cross.

Based on what I’ve read from those like Ihsan Bagby, a scholar of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky, and Shirin Taber, an Iranian-American evangelical Christian and author of “Muslims Next Door,” I was surprised by the similarities between the two faiths.

Here are a few.

Muslims believe Jesus is the Messiah — the herald of the last days — who will usher in a kingdom of peace and intercede for his people at the time of judgment.

They revere his mother, Mary, and believe Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

They believe he was the only man who never sinned, and that he performed miracles, including raising people from the dead.

They believe the first five books of the Bible, the Psalms and the New Testament are God’s “inspired word,” and they refer to Christians and Jews as “people of the book,” indicating a common religious heritage among all the Abrahamic faiths.

“Allah” is the Arab word for God, and it is used by Arab Christians as well as Muslims.

I’m astounded when I hear some people say Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians and Jews, or that they worship Mohammed, the Prophet, or that Allah is a “moon god,” or some other nonsense.

Maybe, before we are critical of someone else’s religion, we should first try to understand it a little better — not that we should ignore differences.

I believe, as C.S. Lewis did, that there is some truth in all religions, and that, where other religions differ from orthodox Christianity, they are in error. But every one of us is in error to some extent. As the Apostle Paul said, we see through a glass darkly.

I also believe that in discussing matters of faith, we should be open-minded and, perhaps even more importantly, openhearted.

Thomas Merton, who was certainly no syncretist, said: “If I insist on giving you my truth, and never stop to receive your truth in return, then there can be no truth between us.”

That seems to me the Christian way to have a dialogue with people of other faiths.

Lessons in faith from servants of the homeless

Published Feb. 20, 2015

Two out of three Sundays, my niece and I attend a Eucharist service in Lexington’s tony Chevy Chase neighborhood. The liturgy always ends with these words — “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.”

Then we drive back, past stately old houses and leafy yards, bicyclists, bakeries and boutiques, and onto Winchester Road, past greasy diners and gas stations, tattoo parlors, strip clubs and street people, and a brick building with a large Latin cross.

I never knew what the building was until I went there recently with students from St. Catharine College. It’s an overnight shelter, the Community Inn, run by the Catholic Action Center, which also feeds, clothes and provides laundry service to the destitute at other facilities nearby.

In these places, saints and sinners love and serve the Lord by loving and serving those he called “the least of these.”

The St. Catharine students’ class on faith and homelessness is taught by Matthew Branstetter, professor of philosophy and religion, who volunteered for the Catholic Action Center while he was in seminary in Lexington and was changed by his encounters with the poor. Now he wants his students to consider how they are changed once they’ve looked into the faces of those in need, and consider questions such as whether charity is enough and what their religious traditions say about poverty and social justice.

Helping the hard-core homeless can be frustrating and humbling. I know. For many years, I led a group of volunteers from my church who served meals at Lexington’s Hope Center to drug addicts, mentally ill men and some who seemed normal. It was as discouraging to see new faces and wonder how they ended up there as it was to see the same old faces month after month for nearly a decade.

Some of the Hope Center’s guests were ingrates. Others were gracious, like the ragged man who held my eyes with his when I asked how he was and answered with sincerity, “I’m blessed. I really am.”

In that moment my own hurts and disappointments didn’t seem so important anymore.

Sojourners founder Jim Wallis said, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change.”

Ginny Ramsey, Gary McKinley and Barry McGuffin are believers. They spoke to the class on Fridays in February. Ginny runs Catholic Action and often does battle with city officials on behalf of Lexington’s outcasts. Gary is a Purple Heart veteran and cook at Catholic Action’s kitchen and ministers to homeless veterans. Barry is a pastor who operates Bethany Haven, a transitional homeless shelter in Bardstown.

Something I’ve learned from these people — and I hope the students have learned too — is that that to effectively serve those who are broken, you have to look past “their hang-ups,” as Matt said, and see them as our neighbors.

Barry told us Bethany Haven’s success rate — which is defined as someone getting an income and a permanent place to live — is a little better than 50 percent. But he added, “I can’t dwell on the 48 percent who don’t succeed because that would be devastating.”

While Bethany Haven serves women and families as a transitional residence, there is no emergency shelter or homeless shelter for single men in Nelson County. Barry and others hope to change that.

The need is great. We have people living in caves and woods, and, as I described in a recent story, in their vehicles in the brutal cold.

Some local leaders I’ve talked with about the need for an emergency shelter, who have a heart for the poor, are concerned that the shelter would attract vagrants and undesirables from other counties. It would. But there are ways to coordinate efforts among social service groups and faith-based charities to make sure those people aren’t gaming the system, and there are leaders among us who know how to make that work.

As I write this on Ash Wednesday, I’m reminded that each of us has failed. The fact that others have made mistakes shouldn’t keep us from doing what we can to help them.

We’ve heard it said God only helps those who help themselves. Nothing could be further from the Gospel. God helps those who deserve nothing, and so should we. And sometimes our helping can be the spark that reignites hope in them that they can help themselves.

‘On the Edge’ — Poverty amidst plenty

Published Jan. 31, 2015

On the Bardstown Angels Facebook page, I learned that “Mr. Scott” was no longer living at America’s Inn, where I had interviewed him a couple of weeks ago. He was living in his truck again in the old KFC parking lot.

I went looking for him Thursday afternoon at the Dollar General Market, where he works part-time, and a young lady in the office told me I had just missed him. Moments later I found him walking around the vacant KFC building with a trash bag, picking up litter. The parking lot isn’t his property, but it is his home, and he wants it to look good.

Scott, who is in his 50s, greeted me warmly, and I offered him a cup of coffee and asked him why he had lost his motel room. The manager, he said, had insisted that he come up with $100 by the end of the day he talked with him, and he didn’t have the money, so he showered and shaved, packed up his clothes and moved out.

While we were talking, a friend drove up to take him to look for less expensive insurance for his truck. Scott told me the next day over bowls of chili that if he had $100, it had to go toward his truck rather than rent.

He borrowed money against the truck to pay his last month’s rent at his apartment in Shepherdsville.

“I’m afraid they’re going to take my truck, and if I lose that, I’ll lose everything I’ve got,” he said. “It’s my house.”

Scott Deacon is a good example of what journalist David K. Shipler, author of “The Working Poor: Invisible in America,” means when he writes about how the problems of the poor are interconnected.

“Poverty is a constellation of difficulties that magnify one another: not just low wages but also low education, not just dead-end jobs but also limited abilities, not just insufficient savings, but also unwise spending, not just poor housing but also poor parenting, not just the lack of health insurance but also the lack of healthy households,” Shipler wrote in a 2007 essay, “Connecting the Dots.”

In Scott Deacon’s case, a work-related injury, an increase in his government subsidized rent and a decrease in his food stamp allocation all helped create a perfect storm that resulted in him becoming a minimum wage employee without a home who gets by because of his faith in God in the generosity of strangers.

There are two persistent myths about poverty and the poor. One is that poverty is entirely the fault of the poor person who has made poor choices. The other myth is that it’s all the fault of society for not providing opportunity. In most cases, it’s both. The causes of poverty are far more complicated than any ideology can explain, and any solution must address a myriad of interrelated causes.

Shipler’s conclusion is insightful. “There is no single variable that can be altered to help working people move away from the edge of poverty. Only where the full array of factors is attacked can America fulfill its promise,” he wrote. “Relief will come, if at all, in an amalgam that recognizes both the society’s obligation through government and business, and the individual’s obligation through labor and family — and the commitment of both society and individual through education.”

At one of The Kentucky Standard’s first newsroom staff meetings of the year, our editor, Forrest Berkshire, challenged each of us reporters to find something we’re passionate about and report on it thoroughly throughout the new year.

At once I knew what my issue would be. Poverty. Throughout my career, it’s been something I’ve cared about and written about. But with a series beginning next week, “On the Edge,” I want to explore poverty in a more comprehensive way, understand it better and explain it to readers as best I can.

I also hope that by doing so, I can open people’s eyes and hearts to those who are unfortunate.

Dr. Thomas Boyd, a sociology professor at Berea College I knew when I was a reporter for a daily, used to say many of us are “one paycheck away from being homeless.” There have been many times that would have been true for me had I not had a family to fall back on, and it’s true today for many people we know, even if we’re not aware of it.

Making people aware is my purpose in doing this series, and I welcome any input that might help me help others understand.

You may call me at (502) 348-9003, extension 114 or by email at, or stop by the office to talk.

Parents, teachers, students must end bullying

Published Jan. 23, 2015

As a reporter for more than 30 years, I have covered the funerals of three police officers who were murdered. I have interviewed parents and grandparents of soldiers who died in battle and the young daughter of a firefighter who gave his life trying to save the lives of others at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

In my work for newspapers, I have also attended memorial services for children, including the football stadium funeral of a high school athlete who died in a horrific accident in front of a crowd of onlookers, as well as a concert honoring another teenager, and her mother, who were brutally slain.

I have even sat next to the hospital bed of a young acquaintance in the last days of a terminal illness and talked with him about life, faith and death.

But the saddest thing I’ve ever had to cover was the funeral Jan. 10 of a little 12-year-old girl who took her own life because she was being bullied — at school and after school — and thought she couldn’t bear it any longer.

Reporters, like nurses and firefighters, aren’t supposed to cry. Through training and experience, we learn to steel ourselves against showing our emotions. But on that day, as I sat in that church, surrounded by Reagan Carter’s relatives, friends, acquaintances and many others who didn’t know her, watching images of this child’s once joyful life and listening to songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” I couldn’t help but wipe my eyes with the sleeves of my sweater while trying to take notes.

I have a niece, a couple of years older than Reagan, who won’t go into a school restroom even once during the day because it’s a frightening place. She’s a normal kid with friends and strong family support, but I’ve seen her hurt because of rejection and unkind words spoken by mean girls. I couldn’t imagine losing her.

Being 12, 13 or 14 years old is an awkward time in a child’s life, and it’s hard enough without having to live in fear.

All of us have a responsibility for preventing bullying, but especially parents, teachers, school authorities and other students.

Since this tragedy occurred, I’ve heard from some who say a lack of parenting is a big part of the problem. Many young parents act like juveniles themselves, and instead of correcting their children when they do something wrong and teaching them respect for authority, they let them do whatever they want and confront the educators instead of the child.

Punishment is part of parenting. Sending a child to her room with her iPhone isn’t punishment. Taking it away if she uses it to bully other children is. And any parent who isn’t monitoring her child’s texts, email and social media is neglecting his responsibility.

At a meeting last week with state legislators, the husband of a former teacher’s aide mentioned that teachers are no longer allowed to discipline students. They can’t even touch them on the shoulder to get them back in line, he said. And he told of teenage boys who intimidate teachers by flicking pocketknives open and closed in class. Children shouldn’t be allowed to have anything in school that could be considered a weapon, and their smartphones should be turned off from the time they enter the building until they leave.

We also need to return to strict discipline in schools, including corporal punishment. If parents want to sue, let them.

At the meeting with the legislators, Reagan’s stepfather, Bill Hack, and another man, Jonathan Hahn, asked the lawmakers to look at New Jersey’s anti-bullying law, which Hack said requires immediate reporting of bullying incidents to authorities, investigation of every incident within a short time frame, and more accountability all around. Mediation isn’t the answer, he said, because in his daughter’s case, all it did was give the bullies more information to use against her after they were away from adult supervision. A tougher state law sounds like a step in the right direction, but it’s only part of the solution. One element of it should be to make it easier to take disruptive children out of the school and put them in an alternative program. The victims shouldn’t have to be the ones to change schools.

Changing the toxic atmosphere in schools and among teens is also important. As Nicholasville Police Officer Scott Harvey, whom I knew from church when I was editor of The Jessamine Journal, told Bardstown Middle and High School students last week, “your school will no longer have a bullying problem when the students decide to do something about it.” Students need to stand together and stand with those who are being abused. If anyone deserves ostracism, it is the abuser, not the victim.

Finally, all of us need to engage in a conversation about this problem and ask ourselves what we can do about it. Being role models and mentors, convincing kids that bullying isn’t cool, reporting incidents to those in authority and, as a community, embracing children who suffer ridicule, exclusion and threats are good ways to begin.

Kentucky a model for bipartisan progress

Published Jan. 9, 2015

In his last State of the Commonwealth message to a joint session of the Kentucky House and Senate, Gov. Steve Beshear on Wednesday night was exuberant in describing the progress Kentucky has made under his leadership since he took office at the beginning of a devastating global recession.

The unemployment rate, he said, has fallen from 10.7 percent to 6 percent and is still dropping. Last year alone, manufacturing, service and technology companies announced 350 new location and expansion projects — nearly one a day. In 2013, the state had the highest percentage of business growth in the nation. The state shattered international trade records for the past two years.

Under the state’s health exchange for the federal Affordable Care Act, Kynect, and his expansion of Medicaid, Kentucky had the second biggest decrease in the nation in the percentage of uninsured, from 20 to 12 percent in one year.

The state raised its mandatory high school graduation rate and its percentage of graduates, greatly improved college and career readiness and established rigorous education performance standards.

By almost every measure, Kentucky is better off than it was when Beshear became governor, and compares favorably to most other states. But the governor was careful to give credit not only to his administration, but also to the state legislators — Republicans and Democrats — and he described how a change in attitude and atmosphere had contributed to those successes and the “sense of optimism and energy” they have fostered.

In 2007, state government was “poisoned by rivalries and partisanship,” and an atmosphere of “derision and division.”

State leaders, “distracted by partisan gamesmanship,” forgot why they were elected, and the results were dire.

“Kentucky was broke and broken,” he said.

That has changed dramatically under the leadership of Republican Senate President Robert Stivers and Democratic Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, both of Eastern Kentucky, who earned special mention by the governor.

Left unsaid, but implied, was that Stivers’ more collaborative leadership, which is a stark contrast to the Machiavellian approach of his predecessor, David Williams, has made a huge difference. Stivers is a partisan and a redoubtable adversary, but he also knows how to get things done by working with his friends across the aisle and on the other end of the Capitol without compromising principles.

Bipartisan government is something the extremists of the right and left just can’t comprehend or choose to ignore.

Beshear decried the “inflammatory rhetoric” that substitutes for meaningful public discourse outside the mainstream media.

“Places like talk radio and social media thrive on disrespect, insults, intolerance and downright hatefulness,” the governor said. “It’s easy to get caught up in this negative dialogue, to believe that such rancor is mandatory, and to conclude that consensus and collaboration are cardinal sins. But that’s not what being a leader is about, and it’s not what we’ve seen here in Frankfort in the last seven years. Instead, we have fostered a respectful relationship that reaches across political lines, geographic areas and branches of government. And we’ve done so because we have recognized the distinction between campaigning and governing.”

There is a place for partisan politics, said Beshear, who is strongly partisan when it comes to waging campaigns. But it is not after the elections, when lawmakers and administrators are responsible for putting aside their differences and doing the people’s business.

There’s a lesson that can be learned from Kentucky’s example, from City Hall to Congress. Let’s hope that 2015 will be a year when we see more compromise, civility and mutual respect in local and national, as well as state, government.

The Preacher, the serpent and the library tax

Published Jan. 3, 2015

I remember it like it was yesterday. The Madison County Fiscal Court meeting room was packed with TV cameramen and newspaper reporters jostling for position to get a good look at the Preacher who was leading the campaign against the library tax.

After the ushers passed the plate for an offering, the Preacher asked all of us to bow our heads, which even the reporters did, not wanting to appear the infidels we’re sometimes accused of being. But as the Preacher invoked the Name of the Almighty, suddenly, we were wide-eyed, realizing he was asking Jehovah to smite the library. The daily I was working for then, The Richmond Register, had been solidly behind the petition drive to enact a special district property tax necessary to establish a public library in what was probably the largest county in Kentucky without one. The paper regularly ran a graphic on the front page of a bookworm, and as supporters gathered more signatures, the cute creature was colored in with blue printer’s ink, starting at the tail and working toward its grinning face.

The Preacher, however, thought it was something more sinister. As I snapped away with my Pentax, the slight figure held up a copy of the Register to show to the crowd.

“Isn’t it fitting that the enemy have chosen as their symbol a serpent?” he said.

Or words to that effect.

I was dumfounded, but when I recovered my senses, I piped up.

“Reverend,” I said, “I think that is a bookworm, not a serpent.”

The Preacher glared at me, looked at the picture, then back at me and said: “Son, I grew up on a farm, and I know a snake when I see one!”

That was the tenor of the debate over the library tax in Madison County in the early 1990s. Some of the arguments I heard against the library at a big public forum on Eastern Kentucky University’s campus was that children would read salacious literature that would corrupt their innocent minds, and if teenagers got too much book learning, their families wouldn’t be able to keep them down on the farm.

I remember one of the pressmen, whose name was Michael J. Fox (I’m not making this up) railing against the tax until I told him how much it would cost, and he switched sides on the spot. The only taxable property he owned was an old car, so the tax he paid in a year would be about what he’d pay for a lunch date at KFC.

Fortunately, the petition passed, the property tax was levied, and the library was established in a vacant storefront in Berea while plans were made to build facilities in Berea and Richmond. Now Madison County has a great library system, and my good friend Ruthie, who was the lifestyles editor of the Register at the time, is its director.

This memory came to mind recently when I was working on a story about judges’ rulings in two tax suits that, if upheld by the state Court of Appeals, could have dire consequences for libraries across the state.

In 2013, the courts sided with the plaintiffs, who opposed property tax increases in their counties. Library districts have for decades been following the 1979 law enacted by House Bill 44 that allows tax increases without a referendum as long as the increase doesn’t raise 4 percent more revenue than the year before. (Nelson County hasn’t had such a tax increase since 1990.) But the plaintiffs found an obscure 1964 law that says a library district created by a petition must submit all tax increases to the voters for their approval, and if it’s upheld, libraries could be compelled to refund taxpayers. In Nelson County’s case, if the board has to go all the way back to the 1990 referendum, it could mean a loss of 59 percent of the library’s funding. “We could survive,” Sharon Shanks, the local library director, told me, but the library would have to severely reduce services.

“For some libraries it would be total devastation,” she said.

That’s OK with Campbell County Commissioner Charlie Coleman, a tea party activist who supports the lawsuits. He told a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader:

“Libraries aren’t bad, but in lean financial times, you can’t be spending all your money on luxuries like libraries when you have other critical needs, like roads and jails.”


Try telling the high school student who’s working on a research report on a Sunday afternoon at the library, or the job seeker who’s filling out an application using the library’s Wi-Fi because she doesn’t have Internet access at home that the library is a luxury. Tell the elderly person on a fixed income who can’t afford books, but who is still reading and learning, that libraries aren’t needed.

Nelson County’s library tax is currently 8.1 cents per $100 of assessed value. On a typical $70,000 home, that’s $1.09 a week, or as Shanks put it, “pennies on the hundred” for thousands of dollars worth of services that belong to and benefit the people of Nelson County.

That’s a pretty good public investment if you ask me.

I wonder whether, 20 years later, the Preacher would disagree.

Books: ‘41’ and other great reads of 2014

George H.W. Bush may be the most under-rated U.S. president of the past century.

Ronald Reagan gets the credit for ending the Cold War, but it was really Bush who did more than he to bring that decades-long conflict to a peaceful resolution.

The 41st president also acted decisively to remove a drug-running Panamanian dictator, built an international coalition to drive invading Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, and laid the groundwork for the economic recovery of the early 1990s — in part by backing budget cuts and a tax increase, for which he was harshly condemned by the right.

Bush was an extraordinary commander in chief, diplomat and leader, but most significantly, he was a gentleman.

In his recent memoir, “41: A Portrait of My Father,” former President George W. Bush, describes a scene that attests to the character of his dad. Early this year, President Barack Obama, isn’t popular in Texas, flew into the Houston airport, and the elder Bush was on the tarmac in his wheelchair to greet him.

“When the president comes to your hometown,” the old man said, “you show up and welcome him.”

“In an era characterized by bitter partisanship, George Bush set an example of a man who put civility and decency ahead of the ugliness of politics,” Bush ’43 wrote.

It is one of the qualities that endears him to so many Americans.

Political memoirs usually have a short shelf life, but “41” soared to the top of the bestseller lists and stayed there. I can see why. It’s the best nonfiction book I read in 2014.

Probably my favorite fiction of 2014 (although I won’t finish reading it until 2015) is the novel I got for Christmas, Patrick Taylor’s “An Irish Country Doctor in Peace and at War.” It is the ninth novel in the Irish-Canadian’s “Irish Country” series that began in 2007. It’s based on the antics of the gruff rural GP with “a heart of corn,” as they in the wee North of Ireland.

The books are set in the fictitious village of Ballybucklebo near Belfast in the early 1960s, before the Troubles. They feature a cast of characters reminiscent of those in the BBC comedy series, “Doc Martin.”

They are different from his earlier, darker work.

At the end of each year, I share a list of books I’ve read throughout the year. Here’s the list for 2014 except for those I haven’t yet finished:

“The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” by Doris Kearns Goodwin

“Unfinished: Believing is Only the Beginning” by Richard Stearns

“The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America” by Thurston Clarke

“The Wily O’ Reilly: Irish Country Stories” by Patrick Taylor

“Sackcloth and Ashes: Penance and Penitence in a Self-Centered World” by Ann Widdecombe

“This Beautiful Mess: Practicing the Presence of the Kingdom of God” by Rick McKinley

“The Vicar of Baghdad: Fighting for Peace in the Middle East” by Andrew White

“Walking Home: A Poet’s Journey” by Simon Armitage

“Paris” by Edward Rutherfurd

“Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering” by Timothy Keller

“Duty, Honor, Country: The Life and Legacy of Prescott Bush” by Mickey Herskowitz

“The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis” by Ira Shapiro

“Captured: An Atheist’s Journey with God” by Anna D. Gulick

“Recovering Redemption: A Gospel-Saturated Perspective on How to Change” by Matt Chandler and Michael Snetzer

“TransAtlantic” by Colum McCann

“Eli the Good” by Silas House

“A World Lost” by Wendell Berry

“The Daring Heart of David Livingstone: Exile, African Slavery, and the Publicity Stunt That Saved Millions” by Jay Milbrandt

“Now and in the Hour of Our Death” by Patrick Taylor

“The Ghosts of Belfast” by Stuart Neville

“Republican Leader: A Political Biography of Mitch McConnell” by John David Dyche

“Eisenhower: A Life” by Paul Johnson

“To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party” by Heather Cox Richardson

“41: A Portrait of My Father” by George W. Bush

“The Snow Goose” by Paul Gallico

“Exploring Advent with Luke: Four Questions for Spiritual Growth” by Timothy Clayton

“The Day Christ Was Born” by Jim Bishop

“The Mad Farmer Poems” by Wendell Berry

Christmas is a season to count our blessings

Published Dec. 19, 2014

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas …

Here in Kentucky, Christmas is more likely to be wet than white, but the meteorologists are predicting a big storm the morning of Dec.25, so one can only hope.

There’s something magical about snow — the crispness of the air, the way it carries scents like cedar and bourbon, the beauty of sunlight on a field of white.

Today is the first day of winter, and I don’t mind. I like all the seasons.

The Season of Advent, which is supposed to be a time to unwind and reflect on the true meaning of Christmas, is an impossibly busy time for newspaper people, as it is for retailers and many others.

As I take a few minutes to write this, I’m exhausted from back-to-back interviews and working well into the night, and I think I may be coming down with the flu.

I’m looking forward to the Christmas season, which goes from Christmas Eve until Epiphany (Jan. 6), so that I can finally get a little relief from the stress.

My family and I have rented a cabin in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and I can’t wait to visit Gatlinburg’s craft shops, drive through the scenic Smoky Mountains or just sit by the fire with a good book and a cup of coffee and enjoy the company of those to whom I’m closest, but separated from by distance.

Those are the things that matter most, and that we shouldn’t take for granted.

On the day I wrote this, I interviewed a young couple — Breanna Miller and Kevin Murray — who are staying in a homeless shelter in Bardstown. The woman was about to give birth any day to her fourth child. They had come to Bardstown because they wanted to be near Brianna’s other children, who live here with her mother, but there was no more room in the house, so almost as soon as they arrived, the couple were without a home until Bethany Haven took them in.

The same day they came to the shelter, they both got part-time jobs. Things are looking up for them, Kevin told me.

Brianna said she would enjoy having her children at Bethany Haven for Christmas.

Barry McGuffin, the shelter director, mentioned another family that had been sleeping in the woods until they came to the shelter, and a middle-aged man who has been sleeping in his truck.

For security reasons, Bethany Haven can’t take in single men, but the plight of this man, who has been living on the streets in Bardstown for months, has resulted in a flurry of activity on Facebook, and a local effort to find food and shelter for him.

Barry told me people here have raised hundreds of dollars to pay for a motel room for him for several nights, and others have provided gas cards and gift cards for food.

The same day I talked with the homeless couple, I was on the scene of a house fire. Kecia Copeland, a new city councilwoman, and her son, Joshua, who had recently rented the house in Wellington, were lucky to escape unharmed before the structure filled with smoke. They, too, may be without a place to call home for a while.

Someone wise, possibly the Scotsman Ian McLaren, said, “Let us be kind, one to another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”

Those are words we should heed year-round, but especially at Christmas, when there is much to occupy our thoughts, and yet many who have it harder than we do.

My wish is that you have a Merry Christmas and a prosperous and Happy New Year, and that you spread tidings of comfort and joy to all you encounter during this time of peace and good will.

March 2015
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