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Emily Belz

Hong Kong protesters at Washington Square Park in New York City (Emily Belz)

Sound of solidarity

New Yorkers sing and chant in support of Hong Kong protesters

A New York moment: 

While WORLD’s June Cheng faced tear gas and violence as she covered protests in Hong Kong, I was lucky to go to a peaceful, sunny gathering in New York’s Washington Square Park, where activists assembled in a show of support for the Hong Kong protests. 

New York has had several protests—in front of the Chinese Consulate and in parks—over the last few days. There is some division of opinion here, as a pro–Hong Kong wall for posters in Chinatown has been repeatedly defaced with pro-Beijing slogans. 

On this gorgeous Saturday, a small orchestra materialized in front of the Washington Square Park arch, which is emblazoned with a quote from George Washington: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.”

The orchestra was clad in the attire of the Hong Kong protesters: black clothes from head to toe, and yellow hard hats. A small crowd gathered, also dressed in black, and the band played “Glory to Hong Kong,” an anthem of the protests, as the crowd sang in Cantonese and English. Then the band transitioned to another song identified with the protests, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Misérables.

Between the singing, the crowd chanted protester slogans: “Five demands, not one less!” People handed out literature, including “The Hong Kong Protestors’ Letter to the Free World,” which reviews the oppressive history of the Chinese Communist Party, starting with the Cultural Revolution, and paints a picture of a totalitarian regime that is trying to bring down “the new West Berlin,” Hong Kong. 

“We call for the free world to join us and stand as one against the greatest threat it has ever seen,” the letter reads. Protesters in Hong Kong have sought U.S. support, with many waving American flags and singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as they march.

Worth your time:  

Comedian Gary Gulman, one of my favorites, appears on this podcast episode and gives a pastor advice on how to be funny in sermons. 

This week I learned: 

The only survivor from the spot where a plane slammed into the World Trade Center’s south tower on 9/11 is now a Pentecostal pastor.

A court detail you might not know about: 

Some handwritten notes that Supreme Court justices have passed to each other during oral arguments over the decades are now public. 

During the 1973 National League Championship Series, aides brought updates on the game to the justices, who passed the notes to each other while listening to court arguments: “[Ken] Griffey flied out to center, w/bases loaded. NO SCORE,” reads one note.

Culture I am consuming:

The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s mobster film coming to theaters Nov. 1, played at the New York Film Festival last weekend. It’s very good. Joe Pesci’s performance especially stands out.

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Family attraction

New Yorkers ask: How can cities become more appealing to families with children?

A New York moment: 

For the last century New York City, particularly Manhattan, has been a place that families leave once they have school-age children, a migration mostly due to high rents and a spotty education system. Last week smart New Yorkers—The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, the Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz, and property developer Brad Hargreaves—gathered at a Manhattan Institute event to discuss this issue over the clatter of tiny plates of cured meats and marinated olives.

New York reflects a historical trend of families leaving all major cities east of the Mississippi, minus an outlier or two like Indianapolis, according to Thompson, who has written several pieces on the changing demographics of cities. But that trend seems to be accelerating even as crime levels are at historic lows and urban gentrification has taken off. 

Thompson worried about the “equality of opportunity” for families when most high-paying work is “in places where families cannot stay.” (This Vox piece makes a compelling case for why raising children in the city is not as terrible as many think. I’ve seen the positive picture the author paints play out among families in my church.) 

Meanwhile, Hargreaves has two companies: One is riding the wave of roommate households (which outnumber nuclear families in New York), and the other is trying to make more space for families. The first, Common, rents private bedrooms that have shared kitchens and common spaces. The second company, called Kin, plans to construct residential buildings designed for families, with shared child care and play areas in the building. 

Kin is piloting its first such family building in the rapidly gentrifying Long Island City, a Queens neighborhood one stop out of Manhattan. The photos make this building appear designed for a wealthier set, but perhaps if wealthier families stay in the city, they will help improve institutions for other families in the city. 

Worth your time:  

Elite chess is extremely athletic, according to experts. Players can lose 10 to 12 pounds in one tournament. One grandmaster playing in a tournament “had burned 560 calories in two hours of sitting and playing chess—or roughly what Roger Federer would burn in an hour of singles tennis.” 

This week I learned: 

Median household income has jumped 17 percent in the last decade in Democratic districts, and it has fallen 3 percent in Republican ones, according to data from the Brookings Institution. 

A court case you might not know about: 

In 2009, a small-time Jamaican drug trafficker cooperated with the U.S. government to testify against his boss, a drug kingpin. In retaliation for his testimony, “his sister’s house was burned down, the house of his children’s mother was bombed, six of his cousins have been murdered, and his father was forced to flee the country,” according to a U.S. federal judge.

This year, unexpectedly, the federal government deported him to Jamaica, though his immigration hearings were ongoing. For three days he dodged attempts on his life in Jamaica before a U.S. judge ordered federal agents to bring him back to the United States while his case proceeds. 

Culture I am consuming: 

My relatives and I have started a film club project to watch several of French director Claire Denis’ films. This weekend, it was 35 Shots of Rum, a 2008 film about the relationship between a father and daughter. Denis was raised in Francophone countries in West Africa, so many of her films focus on French-speaking African characters.

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The discipline of listening

For the aching heart, an open ear may be the best comfort

Lately I’ve found myself receiving numerous cries for comfort from my friends. They are cries of anxiety, grief, depression, loneliness, and suffering. As I struggle to respond to them, I am reminded once again that nothing is harder—and yet nothing is easier—than caring for someone in pain.

Many years ago, I received such a cry from a friend who sent me a long email saying he was still struggling with eating-disordered thoughts. He and I had first bonded over our common history of eating disorders, and at the time of his email a year later, I was high with the daily victories of recovery, flushed with a rush of can-do attitude. So after reading his email, I sent him a longer email with what I thought was an empathetic message, adding a healthy dose of Scriptures and advice. I felt good about what I had written, optimistic that my words would uplift him and maybe even spark some much-needed motivation to drag himself out of his rut. 

Instead, my friend responded with an email that jolted me: “Sophia, thanks for your advice, but I don’t need a sermon from you right now. I don’t want a preacher. What I need is a friend. I thought you of all people would understand what I’m dealing with right now.”

As I thought over and over about his email, I realized I had read his signals all wrong: I had assumed he wanted me to make his negative feelings go away, to help “fix” his issues. But that wasn’t actually what I was capable of giving. What he needed—and what I could give—was for me to simply listen, to be with him in his pain, and to share his burdens. Instead, I was giving him what wanted for him—and frankly, my motivation was selfish and arrogant: I wanted him to feel better so that I also felt better. I also wanted credit for making him feel better.

Over the years, I’ve tried to remember that incident every time someone comes to me for comfort. I’ve not always done well. I’m a preacher’s daughter after all. There is a time for advice, and there is a time to shut up and listen. It’s a challenge to discern when those times are right, and I’ve sometimes spoken too strongly without fully trying to listen. At other times, I’ve made the opposite mistake, passively listening when I should have spoken words of gentle yet honest admonishment. 

If anything, being a journalist has helped me in this area. As a journalist, when I’m interviewing someone about his or her story of suffering, my first response is awe and appreciation that someone would willingly share something so personal with me. So the first thing I do is thank the person for opening up. Then I listen: I make eye contact and respond with nods or noises to show that I’m actively engaged. I try to limit my facial expressions. I ask curious and open-ended questions aimed at better understanding the person, questions that reassure the interviewee I’m genuinely interested in him. I try to avoid making presumptions—much easier to accomplish with an interviewee, since I typically hold no preconceived image of him, than with a longtime friend or family member. And when someone bursts out crying, I sit in silence.

There’s something mysteriously comforting about sitting in silence with a person in his pain. 

There’s something mysteriously comforting about sitting in silence with a person in his pain. I know because a while ago, something happened to me, and I called a friend. I was alone in my apartment and just needed to feel the presence of something other than my anguish, fears, and tears. The moment my friend heard my voice over the phone, she said, “Uh-oh. Seems like you need someone to be there with you right now. Hold tight, I’ll be right there.”

This friend lived 9 miles away and didn’t have a car. But she immediately called an Uber and spent about $25 each way to get to me. Then she sat beside me, put an arm around me, and listened. Sometimes we didn’t say anything, but sat in silence as I wept, and she even wept with me. And though she didn’t fix any of my problems, she did the best thing she could have done at the time: She was with me. It told me I was not alone, that I was loved, that I could fall and someone would catch me.

I try to practice the grace, humility, and lovingkindness my friend demonstrated that day. It’s not easy, because I have to fight my natural inclinations toward impatience and selfishness and pride. But it’s also easy, because the burden isn’t on me to fix things—often impossible for anyone other than God—but to simply listen. 

In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.” That encourages me, because it reminds me that the practice of caring for others begins in God. Since this is the sort of fellowship God desires, both with Him and with others, wouldn’t the God whose Spirit dwells in me gladly help me in this process of learning to practice fellowship well?

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