Posted by: Harold Knight | 06/26/2010

Falling from a State of Grace into East Jerusalem

In the 1950s in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, besides their families (functional or dysfunctional) school children were aware of church, sugar beets, Mexican migrant farm workers, The Bluff, state championship high school basketball and the Bearcats, Bud Murray, star—see (1) below, President Eisenhower, Willa Cather, Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles—see (2) below, tornadoes, The Dodgers and Yankees, Cornhuskers football, the piano music of Edward MacDowell, Mari Sandoz, “Heartbreak Hotel,” and more church. I should say that one schoolboy was aware of these things.

Except for the occasional sexually abused child, or the boy who set fire to the Presbyterian Church, or the kids whose dad was the town drunk, or the kid whose parents were divorced, or the girl in my brother’s high school class who got pregnant, or the kids who got drunk and died in a car accident out by Lake Minatare, we were all perfectly normal middle class, happy, patriotic, religious, GOOD kids.

I didn’t meet an African American person until I was in sixth grade (a National Baptist couple from some far-away place came to work in our town, and ours was the only Baptist Church). I didn’t meet a Jewish American person until I was in seventh grade (Mr. Schwartz was our orchestra teacher, but he lasted only one year).  We knew one Japanese family from church—they had the same surname as my sister’s eventual married name—see (3) below. As far as I know, I didn’t meet a Palestinian person until I was teaching at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston circa 1990. We met a Dutch family when I was in about sixth grade, but I don’t know if they were visitors or immigrants.  We liked to eat at the King Fong Chinese restaurant,  but I don’t remember meeting any Chinese Americans there. Our church’s organist for a few weeks was a Welsh woman, a nurse who did not stay in Western Nebraska long.

“The 1950’s dream of a white, middle-class American utopia, safely tucked away in a suburban haven [or small town Western Nebraska], was challenged by the realities of a larger world that was more racially and ethnically diverse, much less well-to-do, and that extended geographically far beyond the idyllic world of the 1950’s American Century” (4).

Sometimes I wonder exactly what happened to me, why I did not resist that challenge. Yes, our family moved to Omaha, and I attended the cosmopolitan and racially/ethnically diverse Central High School, where most of my friends were African Americans or Jewish (because they were the people who were in the music organizations I belonged to—not so I could some day say, “Some of my best friends are Jewish”). I was pretty uncomfortable there for the first year, but found my niche with other nerds and musicians, and became quite happy. One of my great triumphs came in my Junior year when our Advanced Placement English teacher read aloud one of my essays, and one of the socially important girls sitting behind me leaned over and whispered, “I didn’t even know you were smart.” The ice was finally broken and I was somehow accepted as I had not been before.

But Central High School alone does not explain my fall from the grace of White Baptist America.

Something far more complex happened to me at some point between 1963 and today. I became, I guess, by some people’s reckoning, an anti-social, certainly anti-Middle America, mostly pacifist, liberal danger to many of my friends, especially those who are my friends because of “church.” (Don’t get me started on the schizoid life I have led working as a church musician all my life while abhorring much of what the church stands for and being skeptical of its teachings. Suffice it to say that most of what I have heard in the church—mercifully my professional life in the church has come to an end, through no bravery of my own—reminds me of Pastor Lorimer in San Bernardino praying every Sunday at the beginning of the Viet Nam War, “Change the hearts of our enemies that we may have peace.”)

In some situations praying for a change of heart in one’s enemies—those who challenge or even attack one’s Utopia tucked away somewhere—may be appropriate as opposed to praying for the change of one’s own heart. That may be in a situation in which the enemy has complete dominion over one’s small home town. One might pray for a change of heart in one’s enemies when the enemy is destroying one’s culture. I don’t know. I do know that, if I believed in the effectiveness of prayers (you see, something awful has happened to me since the ‘50s), I would pray for a change of heart in the enemies of people I know and love.

Yesterday, I received this email from a friend:

I started my day with the news item from the BBC [below**]. The item was no news to me and my first reaction was, “What else is new?” We have been hearing words while watching Israel harassing the Silwan residents for some time now, and coveting the whole area for the establishment of another Jewish enclave right close to the Haram El-Sharif Mosque area in the Old City of Jerusalem. Even our Palestinian Authority has protested that plan, as well as the decision to deport Palestinians from Jerusalem. Ironically Mr. Netanyahu is still hoping for direct negotiations to be resumed.

It is most disappointing that despite the recent Flotilla incident, and the pressure that has been mounting to lift the illegal siege on Gaza, that Mr. Ban would come up with another bland statement that the plan for the home demolitions is “contrary to international law” and “unhelpful” to efforts to restart peace negotiations. A familiar statement that has become meaningless to the Palestinians and it does not bother Israel any more. I wonder when Mr. Ban and the international community are going to surprise us with a UN plan of ACTION to immediately and without further ado to put an end to this illegal occupation which is “contrary to international law.”
Samia, East Jerusalem, June 24, 2010.

Samia is not one of those terrorist Palestinians. She is, in fact, in one way more like the church people among whom I grew up than I am. She is a faithful Christian—a Palestinian Episcopalian living among people who consider her and her family and friends their enemies.

**UN Chief says East Jerusalem demolition plan “illegal”

(1 )
(2) This Blog: posting for 10/13/2009.
(3) Kano, Hiram Yoshinori. A History of the Japanese in Nebraska. Scottsbluff, NE: Scottsbluff Public Library, 1984 (out of print).
(4) Bush, Rod. “The Civil Rights Movement and the continuing struggle for the redemption of America.” Social Justice 30.1 (2003): 42+.


  1. Omaha Central was somewhat schizoid — pushing towards establishment awards and honors (how I loathed the weekly assemblies…), but also in some cases — the teaching of irony in our English classes, Hyman Lubman’s insistence on NOT “tracking” American history classes, the major presences (the only high school in Omaha, I think) of both the Jewish population (and others self-selecting for the best school) with the downtown ethnic mix of blacks and easter European groups then prominent in the stockyards) — all forced us into a better representation of the world we’d live in as adults in the 2nd half of the “American century” than the typical rural and suburban life that wants to pretend all that stuff doesn’t (or shouldn’t) exist.


  2. I remember one African American youngster in Scottsbluff. Doug Butler was his name, and I knew of him from the 23 Club youth baseball organization, in which I played without distinction from 1954-1956.

    And Bud Murray . . . wow. Still have the Star-Herald story from that 1955 state title game. Bearcats 63, Creighton Prep 61, and Murray sank the winning basket with about a minute left in the game.

    I have been enjoying your thoughtful, insightful posts for all their content, not just the Scottsbluff references. But I do have all this Bluffs trivia from long ago rattling in my head.



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