Thoughts On Brexit

I spent a year going to school in London. At the University of London, I was surrounded by people from all over Europe and the world. The amazing diversity of London has always been one of its best assets, and I can’t reconcile my memory of London as a place of unity and diversity with the reality that is Brexit.

Turning in seems to be the majority sentiment for a county that once ruled much of the world. I am in no position to judge the British on how they rule themselves, but I am confident that focusing only on one’s own self-interest is never a good plan. Any time decisions are made based on how one party – whether that be a person, a group, or even an entire country – can get more for itself, the result is rarely a strategy that works well in the long term.
I believe that finding ways to be generous to neighbors and engaging with people who are different from ourselves has been the most effective business and social strategy for hundreds of years, and I hope that Britain will find a way to avoid isolating themselves while at the same time exercising their autonomy. Obviously, that’s a hard balance to strike.

Like many Americans, I pray that the British exit from the EU does not lead Americans to say we should follow the same path. We live in a complex world and it is critical that we find ways to better engage the rest of the world, not isolate ourselves from it. I am confident that the Christian path is to welcome strangers into our midst and to go into all the world. Anything short of that is not following the path Jesus set before us. Sadly, too many people who claim to follow Jesus would rather we circle the wagons and only share our abundant resources with those who look just like us.

My experience living in London opened my eyes to remarkable people and powerful ways that others around the world live out their lives of faith. None of us are able to love God fully by just following our own understanding of how God created the world. We truly need each other. If America is to be a great nation, we must open our hearts and arms to all who would want to be in relationship to us. It says it on the Statue of Liberty, but Jesus also says it in the Sermon on the Mount.

I pray we will listen closely to God’s desire for us to engage the whole world in acts of love, justice, and joy. Anything other than that is a path that no Christian should be willing to take.

Remembering Harry Peel

Harry Peel was a drummer. He played what John Kilzer sometimes referred to as a ”big bongo.” I loved to listen to his playing, but I was also one of his doctors.

I have to be honest: Harry was a terrible patient. He would nod along in agreement whenever I told him he needed to improve his lifestyle to better-manage his diabetes and his heart disease, but I knew he was probably not going to do it. He marched to his own beat. After all, he was a drummer.

When John Kilzer started his music-based recovery ministry known as The Way, Harry immediately signed on as the drummer. John called the band “The Harry Peel Orchestra.” It was sort of a joke, but not really.

John and Harry played together for over 30 years. They were like brothers, which was both good and bad. One time when I knew they were not getting along very well, I was talking to Harry about a gig John had played. The  people had not paid John what I thought was reasonable to pay him. Harry indignantly said, “Don’t those people know he is JOHN KILZER?” Harry was true to John even when they were going through a rocky patch.

Because of his diabetes, Harry’s foot had very poor circulation. We tried everything we could to improve the blood flow, including multiple surgeries. Those helped for a while, but then we had to amputate his foot. What could be worse for a drummer?

I would see Harry in the clinic. I could tell he was down but he kept going. The beat kept going.

Then one day he was back playing at the Way. The big bongo was back. It was exciting, and I could tell John was pleased.

Then all too soon Harry didn’t show up for a gig at the Blue Monkey. Who would now keep the rhythm?

Harry died sitting in his chair.

Harry Peel played the drums for almost every successful musician that has played in Memphis over the last 30 years. People didn’t always know his name but they could feel his beat. Harry was a drummer.

I will always remember him playing with John Kilzer. The Way’s band will always be the Harry Peel Orchestra for me. He was never the guy out front, but he proved you can make a difference in life by being the guy who keeps everyone else on track by keeping the beat.

Thank you, Harry, for teaching us that lesson.

The Radical Act of Cultivating Love

When I was in the eighth grade in 1968, I had the only fist fight I have ever had in my life. I started it, but for the life of me I cannot remember why.

It happened after football practice. I was the quarterback of my team. One of my teammates, Ben, had been a Pop Warner All-American football player when he was 12. I guess that put a chip on his shoulder. For some reason he irritated me.

We were both new to the private school we were attending. I don’t know what got into me, but one day we started arguing in the locker room. I thought I was Muhammad Ali and put up my dukes. What was I thinking? I hit Ben in the face. It didn’t seem to phase him. My hand was hurting. Others stepped in and broke it up. That was it.

I immediately felt ashamed, but others who didn’t like Ben started patting me on the back. I was a hero. Of sorts.

Is my middle school altercation in the boys’ locker room an anecdote for how violence begins?  What is it that makes it acceptable? Can we just blame TV and the movies?

I have never known anyone who experienced true, life-shattering violence who was glad for the experience. Violence changes you. It makes you afraid. It makes you angry. It makes you want to build fences, to run away.

Fear sometimes leads to buying a gun. To moving to the suburbs.

I recently was told by a friend that he and his wife are moving to either Northern Ireland or New Zealand because those are the only places they believe they can be safe from ISIS. Violence and fear lead us to doing dramatic things.

But fear of violence cannot rule our lives. While we know that violence is all around us, we also know that there is no where we can truly hide. No place is safe if what you mean by “safety” is the state of being impervious to hurt and pain. Pain is lurking at any moment.

The only way to confront violence is with courage born of love. Violence can bring any of us to our knees, but seeking to experience love no matter where it leads is the only way to live. The New Testament tells us over and over and over to “fear not.” Jesus does not intend this to be simply an inspirational intimation. It’s a mandate. If we’re going to stand for righteousness, love, equality, and nonviolence, we must put our own fears aside and depend on God to guide us.

Saturday’s mass murders in Orlando do not mean that nowhere is safe; it means that all of us need to lead lives born out of love and its accompanying fearlessness every day because we do not know what will happen next. It means that we live in a broken world that needs our light now more than ever, that we must advocate for the oppressed and the hurt. We must stand in solidarity with those in the shadows and denounce violence. We’ve always been called to create the change we want to see in the world, but with acts of dehumanizing murder such as these becoming more and more frequent, that call is even more urgent.

I have not seen Ben in 40 years. If I did see him, I don’t know if he would remember the day that I hurt him, but even if he didn’t, I would tell him I am sorry for fighting with him and hurting him. Knowing that the kind of violence I enacted on him so many years ago is within me scares me, but it makes me focus even more on the need to cultivate love.

A Proud Namesake: The Story of Dr. Menachem Leasy

Sometimes chosen family matters as much or more than the family we are born with. That is certainly true for my wife Mary and our “adopted” son, Menachem Leasy.

Dr. Menachem Leasy

Dr. Menachem Leasy

Menachem was born in Tupelo, Mississippi during the time of the Camp David Accords. These were talks between the USA, Egypt, and Israel that lead to a brokered peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that has lasted for over 35 years. Menachem’s mother was so enamored with the possibility of peace in the Middle East that she decided to name her baby after one of the three national leaders. She was choosing between Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin. She chose Begin.

Menachem was a good student who has always worked hard. When he was 11 years old, he got his first job working on the back of a garbage truck. After his shift, he’d head to school.

He played football in high school and was good enough to go on to play fullback at Rhodes College here in Memphis. He wanted to be a doctor and made good enough grades to be accepted, but he just missed being admitted to the University of Tennessee, his first pick. So, he became a clinic assistant at the Church Health Center.

He worked for us 40 hours a week, but had a second job as well. It was on a Sunday afternoon when Mary and I ran into him at his third job that we decided to adopt him with the full blessing of his mother Dorothy.

I worked hard to help him get ready for medical school and to help him along the way once he was admitted. During his senior year, he and I took several trips for him to interview for his residency. I have always hoped that he would be a physician who would care for the poor and eventually come back to work at the Center.

At least the first part of my wish came true.

From the first time Menachem set foot in Manhattan, he fell in love with New York City. He began his residency to be a family physician at Beth Israel Hospital in lower Manhattan. As a Jewish hospital, many Hasidic Jews would pick their doctor from a list that only had the doctors’ names. Naturally they were surprised when their doctor named “Menachem” turned out to be something different than they expected: a young, African American man. Quickly, however, they realized they were in excellent hands.

When he finished his residency, I in no subtle ways began making plans for him to come to work alongside me. Sadly, for Memphis, Dorothy, and Mary and me, the New York bug was too powerful. For the last three years, Menachem has worked at a clinic in Harlem that provides care for the poor. He is everything I hoped he would be, only he is doing it Manhattan.

His mothers and I hope that one day he might again come back to Memphis, and he does not rule that out. For now, we are stuck with twice-a-year visits. Recently he came home to Memphis and I gave him the tour of Crosstown. I am hoping that seeing what is possible there has gotten his wheels turning.

No matter what I know, he is an excellent physician. It is evidenced by the fact that many of his Hasidic patients have followed him to Harlem even though they live on the lower east side, which in New York is a long way to travel to see your doctor.

While peace in the Middle East is still elusive for the world, I have to believe that all three world leaders would be pleased with knowing that a baby born in Mississippi at the time of their work has gone on to do the type of work based on justice that all three hoped for. I am especially sure that Menachem Begin would be proud of his namesake.

Drs. Menachem Leasy and Scott Morris

Drs. Menachem Leasy and Scott Morris