Tag Archives: USA

Today is a good day to be in Atlanta

I’m in Atlanta this week for the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. It’s an amazing opportunity to meet and hear from thousands of scholars who share similar passions and interests. I previously blogged about how inspiring it is to participate in a gathering of people who love what you love.


But I’ve also had the chance to do a small amount of sightseeing in Atlanta this week and it’s two places in particular I visited that I want to share about today. Two places and the two people they honour, who inspire me greatly: Martin Luther King Jr and Jimmy Carter.


MLK was born in Atlanta, grew up here, pastored a church here, and is buried here. The King Historic District is today a National Park and well worth spending a few hours at. Jimmy Carter is from the state of Georgia and his Presidential Library is here in Atlanta, along with the Center he established which works for peace.


What have I loved about visiting the places dedicated to these two people here in Atlanta? 

The King District includes Martin’s birth house, which has been lovingly restored and so provides a fascinating glimpse into what daily life was like for a relatively well off African-American family here in the 1930s.


The church Martin’s maternal grandfather and father both pastored before him is a beautiful place of worship as well as a moving insight into his funeral which was held here after his assassination at just 39.


The museum tells his story, one I am familiar with to some degree, and which last year’s excellent film Selma gave me a helpful entree into. His dual commitments to justice and non-violence are powerfully portrayed.


The Carter Library likewise provides an overview of one man’s life, from humble background, to Naval Officer, to peanut farmer, then Senator, Governor, and President. I find it fascinating to explore the life of a man my grandparents’ age and the ever changing times he lived through.


And of course insights into occupying one of the most powerful roles in the world are always intriguing.

Reproduction of Carter Oval Office
Reproduction of Carter Oval Office

But Carter’s story is moving and inspiring in many ways more because of what he has chosen to do since his “involuntary retirement” from that office. His commitments to justice and peace, from the Middle East to free elections in Africa, to the mistreatment of women around the world. He has tried to use his influence to do what he thought right and fair.

Carter's Nobel Peace Prize
Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize
What have I learned from spending time “with” these two men in Atlanta?

Born just 5 years and 250km apart, as far as I can discover, these two men never met. (Although MLK Sr became a great supporter of Carter’s, and Carter credits MLK Jr’s work with opening the door to make his presidency possible).


The two men differ, most obviously in race and longevity, but also in career paths and the paths by which they came to their shared views. I’m sure if you dig deep enough you could also find some topics on which they would not always have seen eye to eye.


But they share not only this city and their Nobel Peace Prizes, but more importantly, a commitment to justice and a willingness to stand up for what they believed to be right no matter the cost. One paid a high price professionally and reputationally for a time. The other paid a far higher price, his life.


They also share an underlying source and motivation for their passions and convictions: a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. I feel some sense of pride that I am part of the same faith tradition as these two great men.


And as I face a world struggling with fear and hatred, tempted to build walls between races and communities, I want to keep being inspired by the example of these two men. I do not have the influence or recognition that they have, but in whatever opportunities I do have, how can I live and speak justice, peace, truth and hope, no matter what it costs me?



Today would be a good day to visit the White House

I haven’t done a Monday morning travel post  for a while, when I take some time to reflect on a place I have visited and what I loved about and learned from it. It’s been a little while since I have travelled and there has been a lot else going on. But as I’m starting to prepare for a trip to the US, including Washington DC, in just over three weeks time, I’m thinking it would be great to pop in today to one of the most iconic buildings in the world, and be reminded again about the responsibilities and opportunities of influence and power, as well as its limitations.

View of the White House from the Washington Monument
View of the White House from atop the Washington Monument

As a foreigner, it’s not easy to organise a visit to the White House. Apparently it is possible to book months in advance through the Australian embassy, but I have not yet come across anyone visiting as a tourist who has actually made that work. For me, it was arranged through a friend of a family member who was working at the White House and got me onto the public tour – as well as taking me to a couple of places “behind the scenes” (no photos from there – and only mobile phone photos from the tour so apologies for the lack of quality!)


What did I love about visiting the White House?

First of all, I’m a huge fan of the TV series The West Wing, so it actually felt like I was already very familiar with the place 🙂

Front view

A number of scenes in various episodes were shot outside these gates …


… I’m pretty sure this entrance hall looked familiar …

Entrance Hall

… I remember that the OEOB building next door is where the VP and other “less important” staffers work …


… and for bonus points there was even an episode with protestors about what is in this room!


It was December when I visited, so there were all kinds of beautifully decorated Christmas trees everywhere.

Tree 2

Some had ornaments belonging to various dignitaries,


while others stood in places normally occupied by a podium from which the “leader of the free world” speaks.

Tree and Seal

And the gingerbread version of the White House certainly puts my annual attempts  to shame.


Like most people who visit, I think there is an excitement in getting to see just a small glimpse of the corridors of power and places where so many significant decisions have been made and worked out.


As a lover of history of all kinds, the portraits of previous Presidents remind me of the stories of the different times and situations through which they led,

Washington portrait


… and the various ways in which the world has been shaped by those who have passed through this place.

What did I learn from visiting the White House?

As well as touring the White House, I managed to secure tickets in the annual lottery to attend the National Christmas Tree Lighting at which the President speaks and numerous entertainers perform.

The Obama family with Jane Lynch
The Obama family with Jane Lynch

(This did involve about five hours of sitting in the pouring rain on a cold, December, Washington night, which wasn’t the most fun I (or my Dad!) have ever had).


But it was really interesting to see the patriotism on display, a challenge perhaps to someone like me who comes from a country where we do not always show our political leaders respect or even courtesy.

At night

It was also fascinating to compare and contrast this event with our Aussie traditions of Carols by Candlelight.

Outside tree

My main reason for wanting to go, however, was to hear the President in person. As a lifelong student of politics and history, for me it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear anyone who occupies such an office and try to get a sense of them for yourselves. And I thought Obama lived up to his reputation as an inspirational and persuasive orator.

The President speaking
The President speaking

But something else that sticks with me from that night is the contrast between the trappings of power and wealth and influence seen in this place, and the message that we were there to celebrate. The story of the most powerful king of all, who chose humility, service and sacrifice as the way He showed His glory.

Front view 2

The White House represents power and status in this world, and I will always be keen to understand what takes place there, to recognise its influence in the world and to reflect on the lessons to be learned from the decisions made there. But in the end, I follow an even greater leader, a leader who speaks a message that seems upside-down to everything I see here and throughout this world: that the way to true greatness is found in service, and that the way to exaltation is found in humbly giving yourself up for others.

Today would be a good day for me to be in Las Vegas … for a reason you may not expect

I’m aware my Monday travel posts can get a little bit “gushy” as I talk about places I’ve visited and what I loved about them. Today is not going to be like that. Because to be honest, I really didn’t like Las Vegas. I’m sure it’s different for those who live there, but in terms of the ‘tourist’ centre, the Strip, I found it a difficult place to be, and I’m not sure I’d ever really want to return.

Welcome sign

But I had an experience there that I sometimes think about, perhaps because of its unexpectedness in that place, or because of the stark juxtaposition between the images Las Vegas conjures up for many people and the strongest image I took away from the place. Revisiting that experience challenges me about the way I live in and respond to this world, a challenge that I think I need to reminded of today.

New York in Las Vegas
New York in Las Vegas

I hadn’t really planned on visiting Vegas, but I went there on my way to the Grand Canyon. I know many other people love it so I figured I should spend the weekend there and see what all the fuss was about.

Looking down on the Strip
Looking down on the Strip

It was the middle of winter and so it was freezing outside. But that doesn’t matter in Las Vegas. You can pretty much make your way from one end of the four mile long Strip to the other and back again without ever having to step outside, and that’s what most people do. From brightly lit casino to brightly lit casino, with shows and bars and zoos and buffets and hotels lining your path. You are totally unaware of whether it is light or dark outside, cold or warm. Time becomes irrelevant. There is constant noise and movement and entertainment and lights and money and food and excess . And it made me feel, for the first time in my life … claustrophobic. I was desperate for some fresh air, and it was like a maze trying to find a way out into it.

Paris in Las Vegas
Paris in Las Vegas

When I got out onto the street, things could not have been more different. Hardly any people around, as it was cold and getting dark even though I think it was mid afternoon. Who I remember seeing on the street were two different kinds of men. First, there were those flicking their little cards advertising ‘escorts’ at you as you walked by. Second, there were those begging for money. I walked outside down the Strip in Las Vegas that day, and I found myself crying. I’ve been to villages in Africa and Asia where people have literally nothing, and yet this felt to me like the saddest place in the world.

Egypt in Las Vegas
Egypt in Las Vegas

I went to get dinner at a Chinese takeaway. After getting my plate of food, I was still feeling stifled, so I went to the tables outside. No other patrons were crazy enough to be out there eating in that cold! As I sat down at the table, a man came up and began to go through the garbage bin nearby looking for food scraps. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t question it. It was somehow instinctive and perhaps even involuntary. I just got up, walked over to him, pointed him to my full plate on the table, and walked away. And that is my abiding memory of Las Vegas.

Monte Carlo in Las Vegas
Monte Carlo in Las Vegas

That’s what I learned from Las Vegas, and why I sometimes wonder if I need to go back there. Somehow what I saw and felt there led to this completely spontaneous and natural act of compassion, and it has stuck in my mind ever since. Because to be honest, that’s not normally how I respond to situations like that.  I tend to analyse everything (some would say over analyse!) I’m the person who passes the beggar on the street and then thinks, “I could have helped them. Should I? Can I go back and give them something? What do I have? How much is right? What if they use it for the ‘wrong’ kinds of things? Is it better to try and fix the systemic issues rather than give money to an individual?” For many years those questions would paralyse me, or I wouldn’t even think of them until it was too late. As I get older, I’m learning to go back quicker, to turn around when I get the first thoughts of “I could have done something to help.” But it’s still not always the case for me that a compassionate act just comes so automatically and spontaneously. So why did it happen that way in Las Vegas?

Chinese Garden in Las Vegas
Chinese Garden in Las Vegas

Perhaps it was the stark contrast between money being thrown away at the gambling tables and people rummaging through garbage bins for food. Perhaps it was the subtle sense of people being bought and sold on the street. Perhaps it was seeing so clearly the excess with which some of us in the world live (myself included) side by side with the reality of poverty that many more face every day. Perhaps it was realising that all the glitz and the glamour I saw there, as displayed in these photos, is a façade. What might look impressive is not actually real.

Italy in Las Vegas
Italy in Las Vegas

Whatever it was, sometimes when I find myself caught up in the materialism and consumerism and selfishness of my world, I think maybe I need to go back to that moment in a freezing Las Vegas fast food courtyard, and to look the ugly contrast directly in the face again, and so to hopefully be moved with compassion to take some small act to make a difference, even if it’s just for one person in one moment.