Today Magazine • February 2023

Page 1

MLK Day Bus Ride + Rwanda Genocide

Covering the Heart of the Farmington Valley


An American black vulture perches on Sanibel Island in Florida — these large birds live in North and South America, and since they lack a voice box they can make only hissing and grunting sounds, per

Photo by Wendy Rosenberg


4 — MLK Day Bus Ride

Students took a deep dive into history via an Abrahamic Bus Ride and a visit from the only American to stay in Rwanda during the ’94 genocide

15 — Questions Galore

Leaders of local congregations address tough queries about genocide, God’s silence and more

21 — Love Wins

A student refects on lessons learned during Avon High’s frst Abrahamic Bus Ride Against Hate

23 — Genocide Hero

Teacher Stuart Abrams is grateful for his friendship with Carl Wilkens, a hero of the Rwanda genocide

Heavy-Duty History

A WORD TO THE WISE — the February installment of Today Magazine is a heavy-duty edition, dealing with the Twin Tower topics of Avon High’s frst Abrahamic Bus Ride Against Hate and the Rwanda genocide. So once you’re seated, fasten your seatbelt and be prepared as this bus ride progresses for tough turns, and even a “death trap” collision a la the rock classic “Born To Run” by Bruce Springsteen, my fellow New Jersey native.

Speaking of songs and the Abrahamic theme, a musical memory from my childhood is of my Mom singing the children’s song “Father Abraham Had Many Sons” a cappella.

My Mom’s a cappella version was of course devoid of the annoying (to me) techno-auto-backbeat in a few recorded versions I heard recently, so among the various aspects of my growing-up years that I’m grateful to my Mom for, her rendition of this song has risen higher on the list. My Mom’s birth name was Anneliese Clara Stickel... CLICK HERE TO KEEP READING

Today Magazine • Covering the Heart of the Farmington Valley

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Genocide death toll — 800,000



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“When someone doesn’t believe in God, God probably doesn’t believe in the god they don’t believe in either” — Carl Wilkens

MLK Day Bus Ride + Rwanda Genocide

Via Bus Ride + Special Visit, Students Take Deep Dive Into History of Religion, Faith, Rwanda

DOES ANYONE REMEMBER the fun Sesame Street song and game — not to be confused with a song and dance — called “One of These Things Is Not Like The Others”?

Let’s sing the song, or at least play the game, substituting proper nouns for the term “things” — so for what might be the frst time in human history, join Today Magazine for a soulful rendition of the rephrased Sesame Street song and/or game, “One of These Proper Nouns Is Not Like The Others.”

Posed as a question — which one of these fve proper nouns is not like the others:

• Abraham

• Avon High School

• Martin Luther King

• Rwanda

• Carl Wilkens

Actually, this is a trick question — posed, indeed — because all of these proper nouns are connected to one another, believe it or not. How, you ask? You can’t tell the players without a scorecard, the saying goes, so let’s answer this question and connect the dots and see the mosaic these interrelated people and places comprise.

History teacher Stuart Abrams led an Abrahamic Bus Ride Against Hate — referring to the biblical patriarch Abraham — for Avon High School students on Martin Luther King Day in January. The bus trip featured visits to three local houses of worship, representing the three faiths that look to Abraham as a foundational fgure —



Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The three locations: the Jewish synagogue Beth El Temple in West Hartford, the Avon-based Catholic Church of Saint Ann, and the Avon-based Farmington Valley American Muslim Center.

This accounts for the frst three proper nouns in the above list — the other two are as follows: The day after MLK Day, Rwanda became the focus of a special event at Avon High.

At Abrams’ request, Carl Wilkens spoke to students and staf about his career calling in Rwanda, a central African nation located just south of the equator. Abrams and Wilkens met as a result of their shared work with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


Wilkens has been described and documented as the only American who stayed in Rwanda during the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

Known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, Rwanda is about the same size as Massachusetts, square-mileage-wise. During this genocide about 800,000 Rwandans were mass-murdered by fellow citizens in a state-sponsored extermination campaign that lasted about 100 days — from early April through July 1994 — according to multiple media reports and historical documents.

Afterward, Wilkens and his wife Teresa founded the organization World Outside My Shoes as a platform for sharing stories not only about the

genocide, but also about how Rwanda has moved forward in the past three decades via restorative justice.

Along with their three children, they were in Rwanda for the four years before the genocide as representatives of ADRA, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency that pursues humanitarian work worldwide as an ofcial arm of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

On the World Outside My Shoes website, under a bold-blue heading that says OUR WHY, is the following simple yet profound statement:

“We believe the possibility for healing, restoration and connection exists — even when it seems unattainable.”

Right under and after that amazing

The MLK life history


and quasi-paradoxical afrmation, with the bold-blue heading OUR MISSION, is this gem: “To equip and inspire people of all ages to build trusting relationships through restorative thinking and practices.”

Meanwhile, one of Abrams’ goals for the MLK Day bus ride is to underscore the shared values of the three faiths connected to the venerable Father Abraham.

Abrams is the advisor for Avon High’s combined UNICEF and Amnesty International club, which sponsored this inaugural bus ride — he hopes it will become an annual event.

Avon students started the club, according to Abrams — “they needed an advisor, and for some reason they asked me.”

• Martin Luther King speaks with media

• Map of Rwanda — artistic rendition

• Abraham — artist’s rendition — biblical patriarch who is seen as a foundational fgure for three faiths — in chronological order, they are: Judaism, Christianity and Islam


The symbolism of a bus ride on MLK Day is rich, hearkening back to the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 195556, one of the pivotal early events in the civil rights movement.

During Avon High’s initial Abrahamic Bus Ride Against Hate, Beth El Temple rabbi Jim Rosen noted that his predecessor, rabbi Stanley Kessler, protested side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr.

Kessler joined MLK in 1963 for protests in Alabama, per the Hartford Courant, and at the March on Washington where King gave his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. Kessler helped established Beth El in 1954.

“There is a spark of holiness and goodness in every human being,” Rosen

said. “We share dignity as human beings. Everybody comes from a common ancestor, so we can’t aford to hate and demean and hurt others.”

At Avon’s Saint Ann church, pastor Alphonso Fontana reminded his bus-riding visitors of a sometimes forgotten fact: “Christianity’s roots are in Judaism — Jesus and his family were Jewish.”

While anti-Semitism has no place anywhere on earth, this scourge should especially be nonexistent in Christian churches. Fontana spoke of common human values like peace and justice, and defned virtue as the pursuit of “what’s good and true and beautiful … love is the greatest of all virtues.”

He observed, “There’s no evil at a societal level that didn’t start out at a

MLK in CT Memorial features a series of fve glass panels, each explaining a stage of Martin Luther King’s history — unveiled on MLK Day in 2021, the memorial is located on the front lawn of the Simsbury Free Library
ON THE COVER Clockwise From Left
tell my students that they’re heroes-in-waiting — just waiting for the opportunity to demonstrate their courage”
— Avon High teacher Stuart Abrams
Courtesy Images — Pixabay • Wikipedia • other sources

personal level — change has to start with ourselves.”

Fontana addressed the issue of genocide and the human desire to “overcome atrocities” by saying simply: “We can’t do it without God.”

A few moments later, he underscored his point: “We need help —

we need God’s help. We need a relationship with God.”

The Saint Ann building was constructed in 1957, he noted.

At the Farmington Valley American Muslim Center, imam Safwan Shaikh explained the Islamic view of the three religions represented in the

MLK Day bus ride: “We believe Islam is a continuation of Christianity and Christianity is a continuation of Judaism,” he said.

He emphasized the importance his mosque places on interfaith dialogue and community service.

In addition, he said, “We want to

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Courtesy Image — Nations Online Project

Unearthing History: The Discovery of a 12,500 year old Paleo-Indian Site Along the Farmington River


The LIDAR Revolution in Earth

Surface Mapping, presented by Will Ouimet, Assoc Professor, Departments of Geosciences and Geography, Univ of Connecticut He will explain the techniques used by LIDAR for locating historic human settlements and land use patterns

LIDAR = Light Detection and Ranging using lasers for 3D scanning


Hunting Techniques of the Paleoindian, presented by Richard Boisvert, retired New Hampshire state archeologist, who is very familiar with the discovery and analysis of the Brian D. Jones (BDJ) site and other Paleoindian sites in northern New England.

SEPT. 21

Paleoindian Sites, Site Patterning and Travel

Corridors along the Southern Arm of the Champlain Sea, presented by Jess Robinson, Vermont State Archaeologist, Vermont Archaeology Heritage Center, Barre, VT. He will compare and contrast Paleo sites in Vermont with the Brian D. Jones site in Avon.

OCT. 12

Update on the scientific analysis of the Brian D Jon (BDJ) site in Avon, CT 2019, presented by Eric Heffter, Senior Prehistoric Archaeologist, Archaeological and Historical Services, Storrs, CT His presentation will be 90 minutes with time after for Q&A October is Archaeology Month in Connecticut!

in Avon, CT with

MAY 11

The Big Importance of Small Things: Microscopic and Blood Residue Analysis of Ancient Stone Tools, presented by Heather M. Rockwell, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Cultural and Historic Preservation, Noreen Stonor Drexel Cultural and Historic Preservation Program, Salve Regina University. This presentation will examine the process and limitations of blood residue and use-wear analysis, and how they have contributed to our understanding of ancient people.

Photoprovidedby Archaeological andHistorical Services,StorrsCT

Watch the webinars from the 2021 and 2022 series on the Avon Library’s YouTube Channel: www youtube com/user/afplct

Webinar series created by : Avon Historical Society, Avon Free Public Library, Avon Senior Center

2023 series sponsored by a grant from


• On MLK Day, Avon High teacher Stuart Abrams — front-center row, wearing blue shirt

• This stop on the tour was at the Farmington Valley American Muslim Center — Avon and other visitors took part in a constructive discussion — there were two other stops

provide a safe place for our people to gather.”

Referring to the time that 21stcentury citizens spend on and devote to their cellphones — the ongoing scrolls, the familiar human devotion to celebrity culture and the like — he noted, “Humans can’t not worship … trust me, everyone worships.”

The Farmington Valley American Muslim Center was established in 2013. Their Avon location was previously an Episcopalian church.

Both Avon houses of worship demonstrate their commitment to the Farmington Valley community by hosting programs that generously help their neighbors. Saint Ann is the site of the Avon Food Pantry, while the American Muslim Center hosts a mobile Foodshare and a mobile medical clinic.

Abrams’ classes at Avon High encompass human rights, genocide and other heavy-duty historical topics. The genocide class considers horrifc 20thcentury events such as the Armenian genocide during World War I, the

Holocaust during World War II and the Rwanda genocide in the 1990s.


A Today Magazine reporter spent only two days with Abrams and Avon High students, yet it appears evident that his work at the high school has been fruitful and worthwhile.

In the face of unfathomable questions and his ongoing study of human depravity, he somehow maintains a hopeful outlook.

“I tell my students that they’re heroes-in-waiting — just waiting for the opportunity to demonstrate their courage,” says Abrams, who began teaching at Avon High in 1994.

Of course, confronted with a crisis such as genocide, it’s safe to say that no human being can truly predict how he or she would react.

Abrams says that he struggles with the following historical conundrum: Some atheists saved Jewish people during the Holocaust. In the face of these centuries-old philosophical and theological quandaries, he ofers some

disarming and refreshing honesty: “I have a lot of questions — I don’t have any answers.”

The story of Corrie Ten Boom and “The Hiding Place” makes clear that some professing Christians also saved their Jewish neighbors when the German nation was essentially hijacked and kidnapped by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi bullies and miscreants and sociopaths.

The account of German pastor and author Dietrich Bonhoefer makes clear that at least one religious leader in Germany took decisive action vis-àvis Nazi atrocities, for he participated in one of many Hitler assassination attempts.

The movie “Valkyrie” documents another, one of numerous attempts to kill Hitler by those directly in the Nazi military, according to historical sources.

The plot Bonhoefer participated in failed, and his decision — his attempt at a heroic stand in the face of unspeakable evil — resulted in his execution in April 1945, less than


shirt and tie — led an Abrahamic Bus Ride Against Hate Avon students and staf, Muslim members and staf, stops

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a month before the Allies achieved victory in Europe. Meanwhile, many German pastors apparently sat on the sidelines silently while the Nazi war machine systematically and brutally killed 6 million Jewish citizens and millions of others in concentration camps, spewing smoke and ashes from incinerated human bodies into the air over their beautifully pastoral German neighborhoods.

Presumably, many of these pastors lived to see many more days, long after World II ended and the Allies overcame the Nazi regime. So Dietrich Bonhoefer dies as a criminal in Germany — while countless other professing Christian pastors who apparently didn’t share his dismay and disgust for Hitler’s Nazi kingdom keep moving forward in postwar Germany.

When Abrams says, “I have a lot of questions” — he isn’t alone. And yes, answers can be elusive.


Yet Abrams and his fellow educators would surely agree that in order to be a caring human community — and to make a constructive diference in society — we must fnd the best answers to society’s worst problems, even when those answers seem evasive.

True, we humans are fnite, and we sometimes vacillate, our confdence and uncertainty alternating like foggy days trading places with sunny days. But across the ages, theologians and philosophers and poets have observed this reality: Whether we want to or not, everyone will eventually have to decide on an answer to life’s most essential questions and most thorny issues.

Abrams raised one of these ancient queries during Wilkens’ presentation to Avon High students and staf, asking Wilkens about the proverbial “silence of God” during dark chapters in human history.

One time-tested way to answer a question is to ask a question in return. Asked about God and genocidal sufering, Wilkens began his answer with a query: “What about God?”

Best-selling author Philip Yancey similarly asks questions as he searches for answers via these books:

• Where Is God When It Hurts?

• What’s So Amazing About Grace?

• What Good Is God?

• Prayer: Does It Make Any Diference?

• Disappointment With God: Three Questions No One Asks Aloud

Tough questions, indeed. Let’s return to Wilkens’

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Stuart Abrams Alphonso Fontana Jim Rosen Safwan Shaikh Carl Wilkens
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Rwanda-connected query: “What about God?” He continued: “In Rwanda tradition, there’s a saying — this country is so beautiful that God may wander the world during the day, but He returns at night to sleep in Rwanda.”

He explained that after the genocide, some people in Rwanda asked: “Has God forgotten us?”

Others said: “God doesn’t like us — so let’s forget about God.”

Wilkens said that after some time passed, many in Rwanda reconsidered, saying wistfully: “We got really lonely — so we decided to try God again.”

In his presentation, Wilkens addressed what is typically considered one of the biggest philosophical and theological dilemmas in human history: If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why is there so much evil and sufering in the world?

This has been described as the problem of evil or — wait for it — the problem of evil and sufering. The knee-jerk assumption and frustration underlying the question is this: Since

evil and sufering exist, either God isn’t all-powerful (aka omnipotent) or He isn’t truly loving and good.


Here is one component of Wilkens’ take on the dilemma, as expressed to the Avon High students the day after MLK Day:

“If I were all-powerful and loving, I would have stopped the genocide, but what does that do to choice? When you talk about God’s love — I don’t believe there’s any sustainable love without choice.”

Some people — from so-called brilliant philosophers to so-called everyday citizens — claim that the problem of evil is a cogent argument against the existence of God.

Regarding the person who professes to be an atheist, Wilkens said: “When someone doesn’t believe in God, God probably doesn’t believe in the god they don’t believe in either.”

Wilkens began his talk at Avon High with two compelling and haunting and staggering questions:

• “How can someone who is a kind, generous neighbor become a murderer?”

• “And how can someone who becomes a murderer be trusted again?”

He followed up the second question with this riveting query: “And can they become even more human than they were?”

After the 1994 genocide, some of the Rwandan people who survived the massacre essentially lived side-by-side with neighbors who had murdered their closest loved ones.

Wilkens observed, “Some have survived, some have been killed — how do you rebuild trust?”

Yes, a further cogent question.

In addition to riveting queries, Wilkens told some riveting stories — this is just one: During the Rwanda genocide, an 18-year-old youth killed a woman’s closest family members.

“He was on the killing squad that murdered her husband and sons,” Wilkens said.

Instead of giving this young man

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Can you see the smiling woman and young man on the video screen? He killed her husband and sons, and she forgave him, and he not only confessed but also has made amends — and now he is essentially her new son

a death sentence — or, at the very least, a lifetime prison sentence — a civilian community court set him free after determining that he was genuinely remorseful.

But there’s more — the bereaved woman forgave the young man. Wait, there’s more — when one of her daughters got married, she asked the young man to be the emcee at the wedding reception. And — can you believe it — there’s more: When the bereaved woman welcomed a grandchild into the world, she asked the young man to be the child’s godfather.

Wilkens asked, “How did he convince her that he’s changed — that he’s a diferent person?”

The woman, who manages a family farm, ofered this simple yet profound answer to Wilkens’ question:

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Carl Wilkens at Avon High School

“Each planting and harvest season, he’s there — he does things for me my sons would have done.”

Humans long for answers, but sometimes agonizing questions are left hanging in the air and no answers — whether human or divine — are immediately given.

Meanwhile, life goes on, and we all have no choice but to move forward, the proverbial one day at a time.

Do you have questions — about life and death … about churches and prisons … about church and secular leaders who abuse power and people, and others who instead care for congregations and constituents … about pain and pleasure … about the problem of evil and the gift of good … about God’s existence and goodness and justice?

Let the conversation and dialogue in our community begin and/or deepen.

Martin Luther King was a proponent of civil conversation among friends and enemies. He proposed interfaith dialogue, even as he was rooted in a tradition that proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as the one-and-only Son of God and Son of Man. He proclaimed nonviolent social protest, even as black citizens and peaceful civil rights marchers were assaulted by white citizens and police across the South who disgraced the uniform, as police today agree nationwide.

By the way, every police chief in the fve core Farmington Valley towns unequivocally denounced and grieved the murder of George Floyd by former police ofcer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis.


Martin Luther King was born on January 15, 1929

He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964

He was assassinated on April 4, 1968

Yes, MLK favored civil conversation, interfaith dialogue and nonviolent protest. He also promoted freedom and grace and truth — as best he could, for of course he was a human being with strengths and weaknesses, like every other person on the planet.

Six decades ago, in Washington D.C., he powerfully voiced his universal and quintessential human dream, concluding his legendary speech with these words:

“Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

To be sure, freedom has been championed here in the Farmington Valley for many years — yet does freedom ring clearly enough from Talcott Mountain and the Valley’s other hills and high places?

So many questions have been raised in this single story — why not conclude with a few more: Could a genocide occur here in Connecticut? In a worst-case scenario, what action would you take and whose side would you be on?

Upon further review, are virtual genocides or close parallels occurring right now in Connecticut — and if so, what are we doing about them?

Indeed, let the conversation and the appropriate constructive action continue. +

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Bus Ride + Genocide Q&A

Searching Questions for Local Faith Leaders and Sole American to Stay During Rwanda Genocide

Page 4 — Cover Story


MLK Day Bus Ride + Rwanda Genocide

ON MLK DAY, longtime Avon High School history teacher Stuart Abrams led an Abrahamic Bus Ride Against Hate — highlighting the biblical patriarch Abraham — to three area houses of worship, representing three religions that revere Abraham as a foundational fgure.

In chronological order, those three religions are Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Synonyms for religion include the following: belief system, worldview, philosophy, paradigm, faith, and many more fascinating terms, of course. Meanwhile, some Today Magazine readers might subscribe to this popular sentiment: “I’m not a person of faith and I’m defnitely not religious” — do you hold such an opinion?

If so, it’s an understandable perspective, but let’s evaluate and reconsider its relative merit, based on some basic dictionary defnitions.

In a postmodern American society where fewer people attend formal faith-based services, according to some reports and polls, religion is typically viewed as an approach to life that focuses on God or another transcendent reality. Therefore, people who practice age-old faiths like Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam are considered religious.

This does agree with one of Webster’s defnitions for religion — “an institutionalized system of religious beliefs and worship.”

However, another defnition seems more accurate and more inclusive: Religion is what a human being ultimately values — a Google Dictionary

entry defnes religion as “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.”Another inclusive defnition: Religion is “something of overwhelming importance to a person: football is his religion.”

Further, ofers this take on religion: Religion is “something one believes in and follows devotedly” — and isn’t everyone devoted to something and/or someone?

After Avon High students, staf and guests completed the Abrahamic Bus Ride Against Hate on Martin Luther King Day — but before disembarking, while they were still on the bus — Abrams praised students for their dedication to further education on a

school holiday, when they could have stayed home, slept in late and played video games or the like.


Then he asked the students for comments about their experience visiting the trio of locations for three of the world’s major religions. Here are some of their responses:

• “The common theme is love — loving everyone because they’re human — we need to have compassion and empathy for all people”

• “It was cool — it was inspiring to learn about other religions”

• “There is inherent goodness in everyone, and we should pursue it to make a better future”

• “Enlightening”

• “A beautiful way to spend MLK Day”


4.9” wide x 3.65” high

• “Our responsibility as the next generation is to take back to our community what we’ve learned — to make a diference”

Today Stories CLICK HERE — MLK Memorial Coming to Valley ———————————————————————————— CLICK HERE — Ceremony Unveils MLK Memorial

• “Everyone on this bus is curious about religion — and it was good to be able to learn more”

Even before students voiced these sentiments, Abrams told them he is hopeful for the future because of their commitment and desire to contribute constructively to the neighborhood known as Greater Hartford.

The above comments — along with the insightful questions they asked at the various faith locations — reveal their yearning for a community-focused conscience and a common-sense moral compass. Indeed, if the demeanor of these students is any indication, Abrams’ hope is well-placed … at the very least, we can always hope.

Speaking of questions — the day after MLK Day, Abrams invited one bus-riding guest to speak to a sizable group of Avon High students and staf about his three decades of vocation and service in Rwanda. The topic of his talk raises questions galore about life, faith, religion and the human condition.

Abrams refers to him as a “special guest” — he is a U.S. citizen named Carl Wilkens.

Located in central Africa, the nation of Rwanda is roughly the size of Massachusetts. A timeless proverb in the Kinyarwanda language says the country is so beautiful that God spends the day elsewhere, but He sleeps in Rwanda. In 1994, that beauty was tragically transformed into incomprehensible brutality.

For 100 days, from early April through mid-July, about 800,000 Rwandans were massacred by their neighbors and colleagues and fellow citizens in a mass-killing campaign.


When the U.S. Embassy evacuated more than 250 Americans on April 10, Wilkens and his wife Teresa made a courageous decision: Teresa and their three children (two daughters and a son) would escape the carnage, along with other U.S. citizens and essentially all foreign nationals in Rwanda — but Carl was staying behind.

Yes, Carl Wilkens is the only American who remained in this breathtaking nation throughout the senseless atrocity that is now known as the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

Wilkens has written a book and produced a documentary flm — “I’m Not Leaving” — chronicling the ordeal and the life-saving diference he was able to make because he stayed.

Abrams met Wilkens via their joint work with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In three decades at Avon High, Abrams has taught recurring classes on human rights and 20th-century genocides.

Following are the three houses of worship Abrams arranged to visit on this inaugural MLK Day bus ride — the Jewish synagogue Beth El Temple in West Hartford (his home congregation) and two Avon congregations: the

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Carl and Teresa Wilkens Courtesy Photo

Catholic Church of Saint Ann and the Farmington Valley American Muslim Center.

Today Magazine formulated a series of eight questions and asked leaders of these congregations to answer our Q&A, along with Wilkens and Abrams. We can imagine these queries at the heart of a metaphorical storm that engulfs the Abrahamic bus riders and spurs them to search for answers.

• Today Magazine asked our interview subjects to limit their Q&A responses to 100 words or less per question — here are the questions:

1. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the content of character and the color of skin: What do you believe about human origins and related implications about race and racism — do all humans share two ancestors as identifed in the Genesis creation account, or does evolution explain our origin perhaps with various ancestors?

2. For centuries, people have questioned the silence of God in the face of tragedies such as the Rwanda genocide — how could a Creator who is altogether good and powerful allow sufering and evil?

3. The God of the biblical story — aka the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — is described as the source of true love and forgiveness and compassion, and also as a God who gets angry and sometimes furious: How can God’s love and wrath be reconciled and understood?

4. One focus of the nonproft World Outside My Shoes is “Finding The Good” — how is it possible to fnd the good in the face of ongoing human disasters such as genocide, natural catastrophe, starvation, divorce plus other family trauma, and more?

5. In the biblical account of the conquest of Canaan, God is quoted as directing the people of Israel to kill the ethnic groups in Canaan, aka the Promised Land — and therefore some observers have accused God of ordering a genocide: How do you think God answers such an accusation?

6. The Holocaust has been described as a crime against humanity — do you believe there is a reality that could be called a crime against divinity that justifes a loving God deciding to put people to death?


7. While genocides in Rwanda and elsewhere were occurring many people around the world played sports and games, ate tasty meals, and shared friendship and laughter — and this is the case today as homeless people sometimes die in America: How can human beings justify such enjoyment and fun while fellow humans and neighbors are sufering so much? You can also address whether you think this is a fair question.

8. In the aftermath of genocides and other horrifc and harmful acts of injustice — as well as horrifc inaction — what do you see as the path toward reconciliation and peace and forgiveness? • Additional comment — as you wish • Answers listed in reverse alphabetical order by last name

Shoes • Medical Lake, Washington state

Human Origins and Racism Question

Scientists tell us we are 99.9% identical genetically speaking. I like to keep that as a primary focus.

Silence of God and Sufering Question

I begin most conversations about God with my understanding of love. I see God as the source of true love. And this love is eternally sustainable because it is unconditional, and founded on the idea of free choice without a hint of coercion, manipulation or fear. With this extreme level of free choice people do choose, for diferent reasons, to make incredibly harmful choices, while at the same time other people make kind, compassionate and selfess choices. This became very real for me during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

One of the challenges of believing that “God is in control” is that it I can easily neglect or squander opportunities to practice unconditional love while waiting for God to act. I lean strongly in the direction of God’s unconditional love infuencing and empowering our choices. I continue to search for the most meaningful ways to consistently connect with this source of love.

God’s Love and Anger Question

I believe that we struggle to describe God. That’s why Jesus came to earth, to make clear the character of God which is rooted in unconditional love. Since it is perfect unconditional love, it remains unchanged by our actions, free from anger or rejection. I don’t take Old Testament accounts of God’s “wrath and anger” as seriously as I do the life and teaching of Jesus.

Finding Good in Face of Genocide Question

I try not to see things though a “quantity” lens or a “balancing scale” lens of love and harm. A kind selfess act of one person is not destroyed or erased by a thousand violent inhuman actions by others. Through the science of neural plasticity and a belief that all people are capable of even a small amount of good, I’m rewiring my brain to not be dominated by beliefs such as “people don’t care.” Rather, I believe that the vast majority of people do care, we just often don’t know how to care.

Canaan Conquest: God-Ordered Genocide Question

I would refer back to question #3 and the struggle we have to understand and describe God, specifcally God’s actions or apparent inactions. I see these Old Testament stories more through the lens of people’s choices and whether they allow God’s love to infuence and empower them or not. I try to take into account that these stories have traveled to us across thousands of years and from very diferent cultures. The author’s recording of them are impacted by their experiences as well as their cultural values and beliefs.

Holocaust and God Putting to Death Question

I’ve not been able to reconcile a loving God putting people to death. At this point in my journey I see a greater likelihood of people withdrawing from God, the source of life, and making decisions to kill others while at the same time destroying themselves.

Enjoyment While Others Sufer Question

I do my best to come alongside those sufering physically, mentally and emotionally, doing my best to listen and work together toward a better way. I concentrate on those closest at hand, recognizing that “close at hand” is not always defned by geography. I also do my best to practice selfcompassion as Dr. Kristin Nef defnes it:

1. Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment

2. Common Humanity vs. Isolation

3. Mindfulness vs. Over-Identifcation

Lastly, I work toward loving goodness and beauty more than fghting injustice and harm. This is how I care for myself so that I can continue to strive toward a better way today and tomorrow.

Post-Genocide Path to Forgiveness Question

Choosing restorative thinking over blame and punitive thinking. The transactional approach of blame and punitive thinking has an important place at times, especially when the involved people take a combative and adversarial approach. However, if we constantly adopt transactional approaches to all situations we may very well miss the wonder and healing experiences that are so often connected with restorative practices. Letting go of what some might call our right to a transactional response to harm and prioritizing healing over justice — while not excluding all forms of justice — often brings change in people’s thinking and behavior that breaks the chain of violence.

Additional Comment

My short version of restorative practices is built on the foundation of strengthening relationships and community bonds before trying to understand the harm. Building on this foundation, we can begin to unpack the harm, both current and past, which can allow us together to come up with a repair plan that has a chance of being both doable and sustainable. For this to work, we need the voices of all who are involved and impacted. And while the repair plan should have some elements of justice, we must always make healing our top priority, even if only for the sake of our children and grandchildren. +



Beth El Temple • West Hartford, CT

I regret that due to a number of congregational needs, I am only able to respond briefy and in a general sense. The key and revolutionary biblical idea that is the source of human dignity for all people is the idea that everyone is created in God’s image. As such, nobody is superior to anyone else, and afront to human beings is an insult to God.

The God of the Bible is one who is intimately concerned with humanity. God also grants human beings free will. Without which we would be the equivalent of robots.

Our tradition teaches that we are here to develop a conscience, to live with lives of generosity, caring and love. That human beings often do the opposite and turn hatred into unspeakable horror is the world’s greatest tragedy and must be countered.

There is much justifable mystery and anger over God’s actions, or inaction, in this world. But we must not use these agonizing questions as an excuse to let humanity of the hook for events such as the Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide. +


Church of Saint Ann • Avon, CT

I’ve been very busy in the ministry with funerals. Thank you, but I’m going to decline this interview. +

BRUCE DECKERT — Publisher + Editor-in-Chief

Today Magazine • West Simsbury, CT

• While I don’t lead a local church, it only seems fair for me to attempt to answer the questions I’ve asked these local congregation leaders — I grew up in a Presbyterian church and have attended several churches since then.

Human Origins and Racism Question

If humans evolved in diferent ways and places, racism has a foundation — but if humans are descended from one man and one woman, created by God, racism has no philosophical or practical basis whatsoever. I believe humans share biology with animals, not ancestry — so Genesis seems the best explanation of human origins. Modern science supports this: Per Merriam-Webster, advances in the feld of genetics have determined “no biological basis for races ... all humans alive today share 99.99% of their genetic material.” The doctrine of distinct human races has “little scientifc standing” except for common physical characteristics, culture and history.

• Editor’s Note — I wrote the essence of this answer before reading Carl Wilkens’ answer to this question.

Silence of God and Sufering Question

This question haunts me often yet seems to misconstrue God’s power/love while being rooted in unhealthy criticism. If/since Jesus of Nazareth is Son of God + Son of Man — the amazing incomprehensible God-man — the Creator of the universe shoulders essentially all responsibility for making the universe right and new by enduring sufering, not

escaping it, yet appears to rightly abandon the blame game. As posed, this question appears to blame God for sufering/ evil without being thankful for God’s good gifts — and if God isn’t there, where does good come from and who will deliver what humans desperately need?

God’s Love and Anger Question

This question disturbs me profoundly — a Jesus biographystory portrays God as an unjust judge who doesn’t care and isn’t fair and, my mind extrapolates, isn’t there. How can God be so angry and so seemingly unreasonable and uncharitable and unforgiving that His own Son is required to endure agony and be condemned for a crime He apparently didn’t commit? Some say God and His anger need not be feared — I believe the opposite is the case. Fear God supremely and intimately, and that somehow dovetails with receiving and knowing God’s true love that liberates from fear.

Finding Good in Face of Genocide Question

Another thorny question — is there a rose somewhere among these queries? Yes, I know, I wrote down this probing quiz, but I digress … if/since God is the giver and source of all that’s good and true and beautiful, evidently the only sure path leading to the ultimate good — in this life and on the other side of eternity — is to go straight through death, disaster, deprivation, divorce and the like. Sharing God’s pain and sufering somehow goes hand in hand with knowing God and His love and receiving the gift of His evilovercoming good.

Canaan Conquest: God-Ordered Genocide Question

Presuming to know God’s answer to this allegation is paradoxically unattainable yet essential, a life-and-death proposition fraught with the clif-hanging anxiety of the human riddle: We can’t be so cocky that we think we can speak for our inscrutable Creator — yet speak for God we must. Indeed, as God’s image-bearers we voice every day either His heartbreaking-and-hopeful answers and words, or another’s twisted copycat words. Accusing God can be a human tendency, yet since God is presumably the rightful and ultimate judge of who lives and dies — and of when a genocide is inescapable — how can we truly accuse Him?

Holocaust and God Putting to Death Question

I wrestle often with heaven-and-hell anxiety: the conclusive death decision. Since God is the source of goodness and joy and true life, being separated from God — by our choice and/or His choice — is hell and death, our most terrifying scenario. Conversely, the heaven outcome — actually, a new creation is evidently God’s fnal intention for the human dilemma — fulflls beyond-amazement our human hopes and dreams. How could a loving God kill people and allow hell? Is there a better question: How could a loving God not sanction hell and put an end to people who would vindictively harm others forever?

Enjoyment While Others Sufer Question

It seems categorically uncaring and unfair for anyone to enjoy a delicious meal while others in our neighborhood or


global community are dying of starvation. So I believe such a heart-sentiment is always appropriate — when we lose sight of this, we cease to care. An ask-not-for-whom-the-bell-tolls worldview seems foundational for humility — and how can our next heart-step not be to pursue care for the hurting and dying, so we can stay that bell as best we can? Not caring for hurting neighbors is wrong, and it’s also wrong to not appreciate God’s good gifts and tasty meals — a classic Catch-22.

Post-Genocide Path to Forgiveness Question

The path of reconciliation, peace and forgiveness is evidently our only and best way home. This path is the most demanding and taxing and agonizing way — and somehow, at the same time, the most nurturing and freeing and pleasure-producing way. Whatever the cost, at the end of the day — and at the end of my days — I want to know reunion and reuniting with our Creator, the only One who can deliver what my heart desires: true love, genuine wholeness, bona-fde life … and a heart-mending homecoming. Do you see many ways home — or is there one guide, one Sherpa, one way?

Additional Comment

Wow, such heavy-duty questions … who came up with them? Wait, don’t blame me, I’m just the scribe for these age-old queries — welcome to the quest and the game and the test! Let’s keep pressing on and moving forward, onward and upward, despite life’s roller coaster ups-and-downs. Yes, with our Creator on our side — who must know the best solution for the human conundrum — we can pursue answers to the questions that truly matter and trust God with the rest … and we can somehow choose God’s best solution, with His sure support. I hope and pray for such a resolution for you and me and those we love. +


Farmington Valley American Muslim center • Avon, CT

Human Origins and Racism Question

In our faith tradition, all humans started with a male (Adam) and female (Eve). Quran 49:13 — “O humanity! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may get to know one another. Surely the most noble of you in the sight of God is the most righteous among you. God is truly All-Knowing, All-Aware.”

Silence of God and Sufering Question

God did not cause or do the harm. We (humans) did that to each other.

God’s Love and Anger Question

Fear and love are like the two wings of a bird. A bird cannot fy high and soar without a healthy balance of both.

Finding Good in Face of Genocide Question

I believe that fortune and misfortune are two sides of the same coin. There are endless examples where tragedies have strengthened people and made them come out better on the other end, and where luxury and decadence have ruined people’s lives.

Canaan Conquest: God-Ordered Genocide Question

As a Muslim, I cannot comment on what the Bible says.

Holocaust and God Putting to Death Question

Again, we humans did this to each other. We need to elevate ourselves above the evil tendencies of ourselves and do only what’s good. I believe that is what God calls us to: love, respect and dignity for every human being, even those who do not believe in Him. God mentions in The Quran that He dignifed human beings, meaning we are his best creations: “Indeed, We have dignifed the children of Adam, carried them on land and sea, granted them good and lawful provisions, and privileged them far above many of Our creatures.” Quran 17:70

Enjoyment While Others Sufer Question

I think we have a responsibility to the extent we can afect change. Those who can change things with action, should act. Those who cannot act but can speak up against the atrocities should speak out. Those who can neither act nor speak out should at least condemn those atrocities — even if in their heart — and continue to look for ways to help bring about change.

Post-Genocide Path to Forgiveness Question

True return to God, the source of all good. +

STUART ABRAMS — Social Studies Teacher

Avon High School • Avon, CT

Human Origins and Racism Question

I’m not at all certain about the story in Genesis and the creation story, nor am I knowledgeable enough to know how to respond to questions regarding any scientifc investigation of evolution. One thing I do feel confdent about is that, as humans, we are much more alike than we are diferent. MUCH!

Silence of God and Sufering Question

You got me! I did have one Holocaust survivor once tell me that she “felt sorry for God to have to watch His/Her children do this to each other.” My thinking about this challenging question is still a work in progress.

God’s Love and Anger Question

Sorry — questions like this are above my pay grade. Personally, I do not feel as if I am at all qualifed or competent enough to answer questions of this nature.

Finding Good in Face of Genocide Question

One way to “fnd the good” is to read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” on a somewhat regular basis. I think that once you can answer the “why” question relative to what it is you have to live for, you are on the road to fnding the good in life. I believe that this “why” question revolves around love in some manner, shape or form. Finding someone you love or something you love allows us to overcome all sorts of obstacles, and … fnd the good in life.

Canaan Conquest: God-Ordered Genocide Question

You’ll have to ask the religious leaders about this.



A great egret on Sanibel Island in Florida — the great egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society, one of North America’s oldest environmental organizations

No Place For Hate

Bus Ride Shines Spotlight on Love

MONDAYS. The worst day of the week. The transition from the careless weekend to the responsibilities of the real world, the day so dreaded there are countless pieces dedicated to the hatred of it.

Mondays in New England at this time of the year are not helped much by the miserable winter weather.

But somehow, against all odds, a group of students, administrators and members of the Farmington Valley community showed up on the Monday morning of Martin Luther King Day (a day of from school) to go on a bus ride.

This Abrahamic Bus Ride Against Hate, as it was dubbed, was a creation of history teacher Stuart Abrams and the UNICEF/ Amnesty club at Avon High School. The goal was to hit three houses of worship, discuss pressing topics that have puzzled the great philosophers of humanity since the beginning of time, and

Holocaust + God Putting to Death Question


Enjoyment While Others Sufer Question

Not fair. This is an indictment of us all. And yet… “When the historian of the future assembles the black record of our days, he will fnd two things unbelievable: frst, the crime itself; and second, the reaction of the world to that crime.” — Weizmann, 1943

Post-Genocide Path to Forgiveness Question

Again, I do not have a very good answer. Other than to say

I don’t think there is one simple solution. Situations vary. Experiences vary. Consciences vary. It seems to me that the road to forgiveness is paved with human rights, not the rights according to any divinity.

Additional Comment

These questions and my responses, as you can see, are clearly out of my wheelhouse. Your questions are much better suited for the rabbi, the priest and the imam. I still have far too many questions without any defnitive answers. I think the religious leaders seem much closer to any answers than I do … but thanks for the opportunity. +

MLK statue in D.C. Photo by Wendy Rosenberg

grab breakfast along the way (since there’s nothing like thinking to start a hankering for baked goods).

The frst stop was Beth El Temple in West Hartford. Rabbi Jim Rosen, who has served for over 30 years, greeted us and talked about the connections between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and members of the Jewish community in that time period.

In fact, the original leader of Beth El Temple, Rabbi Stanley Kessler, was present in 1963 at the National Mall where Dr. Martin Luther King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

We talked about hate, and where it starts. Hatred begins with small actions that perpetuate dehumanization, so we must remember to respect each other. We must remember names, faces and identities to ensure nobody’s story is forgotten.

Furthermore, if there is injustice in the world, we must acknowledge it. To remain complacent is to become an abuser.

When there is hatred, it isn’t only the victims who sufer — the perpetrators do too.

After chewing on that (and some bagels), we made our way to the Church of Saint Ann in Avon, where we were greeted by pastor Alphonso Fontana, or Father Al.

In the Roman Catholic faith, the idea of virtue, or the inclination to do good, is imbued within the chapel that depicts saints and miracles. When we discussed overcoming hatred, the solution that kept coming up was the power of love overcoming evil.

As Dr. King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

But where can we fnd it in ourselves to forgive those flled with hate? While many fnd it difcult to “forgive and forget,” maintaining grudges against those who have done wrong only further pains the beholder.

Fostering hate toward others, to any extent, never serves to bring about an improvement to one’s life, but instead continues the detrimental cycle of resentment. The concept of “loving one’s neighbor” is something that can be forgotten in a society centered

around ourselves. By expanding our horizons, we can create deeper bonds than the superfcial ones within our lives that have become so commonplace.

Our fnal stop was the Farmington Valley American Muslim Center in Avon, where we held our discussion with imam Safwan Shaikh.

The Islamic faith puts an emphasis on the larger community and the bigger picture. Muslims often participate in volunteer work in order to improve the society around them — they donate thousands of meals through a mobile Foodshare and even have a mobile medical clinic.

While it is easy to sit around and tell people they need to be better, by being proactive, an actual diference is made.

Finally, imam Shaikh pointed out that a lot of hate comes from misunderstanding. By forming close relationships with others and seeing from other perspectives, people can bridge the gap.

We came from diferent tribes and nations, so diversity is something we should celebrate. Every culture and

every voice deserve to be heard because “without one, we cannot know the other.” Love is important, but love is simply an emotion. Emotions come and go, but our moral conscience stays within us, and that is the common factor that ties us together.

As humans, we all have this idea of right and wrong. If we are all the same, the same fesh and bones, we should make room for others.

Despite the diferent perspectives held by these religions, their collective agreement that hate has no place in our communities elucidates parallels between them regarding the dispelling of hate.

With each group, the idea of humanity’s inherent desire to pursue philanthropic eforts — the idea of inner good — is the common factor they all believe to be essential for creating a change. And that is what we need to carry with us if we want to make our community a more supportive and inclusive place that gives a voice to every person. +

As Dr. King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness — only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate — only love can do that”

Introducing Hero of Rwanda Genocide

When Others Left, Wilkens Stayed

When Carl Wilkens spoke at Avon High School the day after MLK Day, Avon teacher Stuart Abrams introduced him with these words — Wilkens was the only American to stay in Rwanda during the 1994 Rwanda genocide

“Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”

These profound words are those of — perhaps — the most famous Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate: Elie Wiesel. When I realized that Carl Wilkens would be coming to visit us, I have often thought about Wiesel’s words. This has reminded me of the profound infuence Carl has had on me and his impact on all those he meets, especially my students.

In short, Carl Wilkens symbolizes a humanity that brings people together in a way in which we can all “Find the Good!”

In the aftermath of the maelstrom that was Rwanda in 1994, at a time when many in the world could not bear to remember, Carl Wilkens could not bear to forget.

Because of his moral leadership, integrity, intellect and eloquence, he gave voice to those who had been silenced forever and continues to devote his life to fulflling the promise of “Never Again.”

Carl is a messenger to a time many of us shall not see … and yet he remains an emissary to humankind.

At times, the dimensions of a genocide are almost too great to grasp. At times we can feel paralyzed to do anything for fear that we simply cannot make any diference.

Courageous survivors like Carl Wilkens are among the voices who argue against complacency and force us to remember the catastrophe so that we can efect change.

I am forever grateful to be able to

call Carl Wilkens my friend. What have I learned from Carl?

I learned what it means to be a mensch — an honorable person. He helped me to understand what truly matters and how to attempt to live a life of unbending principle. He taught me to aspire to live a life of kindness, integrity, nobility and courageous empathy.

The world, at least to me, would feel incomplete without Carl Wilkens. I can never seem to get enough of visiting with him. With grace, heroism and honor, his life demonstrates the surpassing of the limits of the human spirit I did not think possible.

A transformative fgure, Carl is an exemplar of the ideals and virtues we

all, as human beings, aspire to achieve. Somehow, miraculously, he is able to hold the love and the beauty and the joy alongside the grief and the fear and the pain.

I am unabashedly grateful to have Carl Wilkens in my life. I wish for everyone listening to him speak today the blessing of the gift of friendship like the one I share with Carl.

He has left an enduring imprint on my mind and an indelible handprint on my heart, and I know he will have the same impact on you.

Let me get out of the way and introduce my friend, Carl Wilkens. +

Stuart Abrams has taught social studies at Avon High School since 1994 After the genocide, Carl Wilkens is reunited with his wife Teresa and their children
Courtesy Photo
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