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The presidency of Donald Trump has made many Americans angry, frustrated, sad and fearful for the future. But in my case, the presidency of Donald Trump helped turn me from a staunch atheist into a Christian.

Let me explain.

I was raised by my grandparents. My grandfather was an Episcopalian, and my grandmother was a Catholic. My first exposure to religion came from my grandfather taking me to Episcopalian services in my hometown of Mentor, Ohio, whenever he was up early enough on Sundays. I remember those experiences fondly: I got to know the other kids in Sunday school, and enjoyed the fun arts and crafts that reflected the values of the Episcopalian Church.

Then came a sleepover at a friend’s house when I was 9. The next morning, we all went to my friend’s Baptist church, where rather than being nice, the teachers told us fire-and-brimstone stories that frightened me. After a few interruptions by other kids, the pastor came into the classroom, yelling at us—and praying for Jesus to save us from evil.

I never wanted to go to church again. When my grandfather would go to the Episcopal parish, I’d ask to stay home.

Later in life, I practiced Buddhism for about a decade; I even had a refuge ceremony performed by a Theravada monk on my 21st birthday. However, I never really found my place in Buddhism; the Asian cultural elements didn’t mesh with my life in the United States, and I didn’t get the answers to questions I needed from my teachers and fellow Buddhists. After that, I abandoned religion, and came to embrace atheism.

Earlier this year, I found myself in a deep depression. I was spiritually drained as I tried to make sense of my life in these uncertain times. I turned to books written by Ram Dass, who I had always admired; they helped. Then, of all things, the royal wedding uplifted me: The sermon by Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, at the ceremony for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was nothing short of remarkable. I began to think about the things my grandfather believed in and tried to instill in me as a child—values inspired by his Episcopal faith.

Ram Dass once said, “Faith is what is left after all your beliefs have been blown to hell.” I had essentially reached that point: I was questioning all that I believed in, and ironically, the only thing I felt faith in was that there had to be something greater than myself.

I’ve been shaken to my core several times during my life. I dealt with an alcoholic mother who died at the age of 40; my father abandoned me before I was born; even my grandfather was not as accessible to me as I would have liked during my childhood. Despite the despair I’ve felt at times, I’ve always survived—through the grace of God, I now believe. There were many times when things could have turned out much worse. An open mind and a new perspective have led to my newfound faith in God.

What does the current president have to do with all of this? The climate he created helped blow all of my beliefs to hell. The despair he’s fomenting is inescapable on television and on social media—from Milo Yiannopoulos bullying people over the internet in the name of “free speech,” to white supremacists hitting activists with cars, to the general dark cloud that seems to be hovering over our country. Political discourse has turned ugly, and people are becoming more and more vindictive over political matters.

A fairly recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute showed that, incredibly, 75 percent of white evangelicals still support Trump. Famous religious figures such as Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell Jr. have turned faith into a partisan game. Trump and his cabinet have been using religion as a means to promote an agenda that opposes diplomacy abroad, and both human rights and civility at home and beyond. 

Given my life experiences—including those as a gay man—I’d come to see religion as part of the problem rather than the solution. In many ways, I still feel that way. I also couldn’t wrap my head around the concept of a vengeful God, and I was disgusted by the “loving intolerance” expressed by many so-called Christians regarding people who believe differently than they do, and people with lifestyles different than theirs.

When I told friends I was starting to think back to the values instilled in me by my grandfather and the Episcopal Church, and that I was thinking of going back to church, most were supportive. Others were—and are—deeply concerned about me. I am often asked how the person who once fervently denounced religion is now a regular churchgoer.

I’ve long known the Episcopal Church is LGBT-affirming, stands for social justice, and allows clergy—both male and female—to marry. Still, I was wary when I first found myself at the Church of St. Paul in the Desert in Palm Springs. The rector, the Rev. Andrew Green, encouraged me to explore my new interest and told me I was welcome to attend services at the church whenever I was ready.

I began attending services on Saturday afternoons. At first, I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect, but I soon felt welcomed and comfortable.

One particular service “sold” me: The Rev. Green was talking about what makes someone a good Episcopalian. He pulled out three simple rules that were on a sheet of paper: “Love God; love others; and love yourself.”

Those three simple rules, combined with my experiences in reading both The Book of Common Prayer and the Bible with my newfound open-mindedness, have given me a perspective on life that not even the horrors of the Trump presidency can diminish. The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi has also become important to me, and I have recited it to myself many times: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

In this confusing and dark time, Donald Trump has not only led me to reaffirm my beliefs in the values of human rights for all, equality for all, and social justice; it has also led me to a place where I have found solitude, comfort and a belief in civility—even at times when civility is seemingly nowhere to be found.

Brian Blueskye is the assistant editor of the Coachella Valley Independent.

Published in Community Voices

WASHINGTON/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters)—The Trump administration wants to revamp and rename a U.S. government program designed to counter all violent ideologies so that it focuses solely on Islamist extremism, five people briefed on the matter told Reuters.

The program, “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE, would be changed to “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism,” the sources said, and would no longer target groups such as white supremacists who have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States.

Such a change would reflect Trump’s election campaign rhetoric and criticism of former President Barack Obama for being weak in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) and for refusing to use the phrase “radical Islam” in describing it. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for attacks on civilians in several countries.

The CVE program aims to deter groups or potential lone attackers through community partnerships and educational programs or counter-messaging campaigns in cooperation with companies such as Google and Facebook.

Some proponents of the program fear that rebranding it could make it more difficult for the government to work with Muslims already hesitant to trust the new administration, particularly after Trump issued an executive order last Friday temporarily blocking travel to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Still, the CVE program, which focuses on U.S. residents and is separate from a military effort to fight extremism online, has been criticized even by some supporters as ineffective.

A source who has worked closely with the Department of Homeland Security on the program said Trump transition team members first met with a CVE task force in December and floated the idea of changing the name and focus.

In a meeting last Thursday attended by senior staff for DHS Secretary John Kelly, government employees were asked to defend why they chose certain community organizations as recipients of CVE program grants, said the source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.

Although CVE funding has been appropriated by Congress and the grant recipients were notified in the final days of the Obama administration, the money still may not go out the door, the source said, adding that Kelly is reviewing the matter.

The department declined comment. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.


PROGRAM CRITICIZED

Some Republicans in Congress have long assailed the program as politically correct and ineffective, asserting that singling out and using the term “radical Islam” as the trigger for many violent attacks would help focus deterrence efforts.

Others counter that branding the problem as “radical Islam” would only serve to alienate more than 3 million Americans who practice Islam peacefully.

Many community groups, meanwhile, had already been cautious about the program, partly over concerns that it could double as a surveillance tool for law enforcement.

Hoda Hawa, director of policy for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said she was told last week by people within DHS that there was a push to refocus the CVE effort from tackling all violent ideology to only Islamist extremism.

“That is concerning for us, because they are targeting a faith group and casting it under a net of suspicion,” she said.

Another source familiar with the matter was told last week by a DHS official that a name change would take place. Three other sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said such plans had been discussed but were unable to attest whether they had been finalized.

The Obama administration sought to foster relationships with community groups to engage them in the counterterrorism effort. In 2016, Congress appropriated $10 million in grants for CVE efforts and DHS awarded the first round of grants on Jan. 13, a week before Trump was inaugurated.

Among those approved were local governments, city police departments, universities and nonprofit organizations. In addition to organizations dedicated to combating Islamic State’s recruitment in the United States, grants also went to Life After Hate, which rehabilitates former neo-Nazis and other domestic extremists.

Just in the past two years, authorities blamed radical and violent ideologies as the motives for a white supremacist’s shooting rampage inside a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C., and Islamist militants for shootings and bombings in California, Florida and New York.

One grant recipient, Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities, a Michigan-based group led by Lebanese Americans, has declined a $500,000 DHS grant it had sought, according to an email the group sent that was seen by Reuters. A representative for the group confirmed the grant had been rejected but declined further comment.

“Given the current political climate and cause for concern, LAHC has chosen to decline the award,” said the email, which was sent last Thursday, a day before Trump issued his immigration order, which was condemned at home and abroad as discriminating against Muslims, while the White House said it was to “to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals.”

(Reporting by Julia Edwards and Dustin Volz in Washington, Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington; editing by Jonathan Weber and Grant McCool)

Published in National/International

As I watched thousands of the faithful cheer ecstatically at the release of Rowan County, Ky., Clerk Kim Davis, I felt both revulsion and empathy.

If I’m being honest, the revulsion and the empathy were not in equal parts.

To be clear, my empathy is with the faithful—not Ms. Davis, nor the politicians using her gambit for their own electoral power grabs. I believe that, for many, religion is a balm, something that provides genuine comfort and guidance. I honor and respect that. I also happen to believe that, for some, religion is a convenient cloak behind which bigotry in its most virulent forms finds justification.

Ms. Davis is a four-times-married, fairly recent convert to Apostolic Christianity. She is also, paradoxically, a Democrat—although we shouldn’t be so surprised. Southern Democrats have been their own rare breed for decades now, so it’s no surprise she is not part of the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing of the party.

When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in June making marriage equality the law of the land, Ms. Davis, who was elected to her post last November, decided unilaterally that her savior’s word carried more weight than judicial fiat and, as such, refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

In what one can only assume was a public-relations effort to avoid being branded a complete bigot, she also stopped issuing licenses to opposite-sex couples. “She is not going to violate her conscience,” her attorney and overalls-clad second and fourth husband (the same guy) responded repeatedly after she was jailed for contempt of court.

The logic here seems ridiculously clear: If you are elected to office and refuse to perform one of its most fundamental job functions, you are unfit for said position. Period. Unfortunately, as an elected official, she cannot be fired. She could be impeached. She should resign. If your convictions preclude you from doing your job, you have broken your promise to the electorate. She is not being discriminated against because of her religion. She is being properly admonished for not doing her job.

Now she’s out of jail after 4 1/2 days during which she was apparently sustained by reading the Bible. I’m glad she was able to find solace. Skeptically, I can’t help but think that she’ll be viewed as a martyr, at least for a little while. She’ll make a boatload of money from personal appearances and book deals and the like—and then she’ll disappear, and the right wing will find another poor, beleaguered, put-upon soul whose Christianity has been allegedly impugned by the big, bad leftist elite.

The real evil-doers in all of this are the professional pilers-on. Fox News, of course. Ted Cruz. And, most annoyingly, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. At various times during this circus show, the good Reverend has compared Ms. Davis to Abraham Lincoln and current California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Really?

Lincoln spoke out against the 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision which held that African-Americans were not full citizens. Newsom, when the mayor of San Francisco, performed same-sex weddings for committed couples to extend civil rights to a maligned minority. (It should also be noted that he stopped doing so when so ordered by the courts.)

Ms. Davis, on the other hand, is defying the law to withhold rights, not to extend them. The case has been settled. After protracted legal battles, a veritable sea of blood, sweat and tears, and a successful advocacy campaign to win the hearts and minds of a solid majority of the American people, marriage equality is the law. Don’t like it? Vote for people who will rewrite discrimination into the Constitution.

On second thought, please don’t.

Huckabee sure knows how to rev up a crowd. And that’s just what he did in Grayson, Ky. Throwing raw meat at the lions to bolster his own hapless presidential campaign is his stock in trade. That’s where my revulsion comes in: He knows better. Separation of church and state is not tyranny toward Christians. It is a bedrock foundation championed by the Founding Fathers who knew a bit about a tyranny themselves.

Huckster Huckabee is the worst kind of charlatan—grabbing handfuls of cash and consolidating power by fear-mongering to the faithful. It’s appalling. People of sound mind and clear judgment will continue to ignore him and his ilk. Sadly, though, it appears that the entirety of the Republican Party is tripping over itself to portray themselves as BFFs with Jesus. Their tactics don’t strike me as very American. Nor Christian. But, God Bless Them.

While this silliness will undoubtedly continue, I’m heartened that it will attract fewer and fewer converts as time goes on. There will always be shrill, bloviating politicians. But eventually, they’ll have to answer to a higher power.

Published in Community Voices

The horrific massacre in Paris at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine that generated much of its reputation via provocative cartoons, has united much of the world in standing against terrorism, saying, “Je suis Charlie!” (“I am Charlie!”)

Our outrage at terrorist tactics by radicals, of course, is justified. However, using a broad brush to stereotype all members of a faith is unjustified and, in my view, un-American.

We pride ourselves on being a “melting pot”—more specifically, a Cobb salad, where everything retains its own status, but is thrown together to make something bigger and better. Yet immediately after the events in Paris, we heard exhortations against all followers of Islam, claiming they are inherently murderous and dangerous. Remember, we’re talking about more than 1.5 billion people in countries all over the world, including 2.6 million in the U.S. It’s the fastest-growing religion in America.

Characterizations of Muslim immigrants are often overblown generalizations. The rhetoric I hear from many callers on my local radio show includes assertions that Muslims only believe in Sharia law, refuse to assimilate, hate the U.S. and everything it stands for, yada, yada, yada. There are even insinuations about Muslims having taken over the White House.

What about here in the Coachella Valley? In November, there was a report of shots fired at the Islamic Society of the Coachella Valley mosque, which has been around for about 16 years in Coachella. Four people were praying inside at the time. Local police classified it as a “possible” hate crime.

Where were we as a community after that happened? Mostly unaware. Ask your friends and neighbors if they even know a mosque exists here in the desert. I’ll bet few, if any, know there is one.

While we lament that disaffected youth around the world seem susceptible to appeals by terrorist groups, we somehow see that as distinct from our own vulnerable young people being influenced to join gangs. We need to wake up. Terrorism is the extreme politicized and armed version of bullying. The guns are just a lot bigger.

According to the National Counterterrorism Center in 2011, “In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities.” The threat of violence, including death to oneself or one’s family, does tend to keep people quiet in places where that threat comes from their own neighbors.

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, almost 3 million people flooded into the streets of France, with many others marching around the world, to say we stand together in refusing to keep quiet out of fear. With all the claims made by the broad brush folks, here are some myths that to be debunked:

Muslims want to institute Sharia law: While some Muslim immigrants still adhere to the old ways of religious law, there are other cultural and religious traditions in which people prefer to decide their own legal matters. In some orthodox Jewish communities and on Native American reservations, they believe the old ways are preferable to the secular law of the greater community. Throughout history, religious law has often been in conflict with secular law.

However, take heart: The laws of our nation prevail (regardless of the satire about Dearborn, Mich., adopting Sharia law, which was repeated as gospel by political conservatives like Sarah Palin), although legitimate debate does exist.

Muslim immigrants are unwilling to assimilate: Second-generation immigrant Muslims, just like second-generation immigrants from all cultural or religious backgrounds, tend to become more like the communities in which they are raised. This has been true since my grandparents came to America and lived in a “ghetto” with signs in a foreign language and stores catering to their homeland tastes. Most of our ancestors had the same experience—with their children and succeeding generations becoming totally American.

According to Pew Research, social scientists say that “societies in which people feel constant threats to their health and well-being are more religious, while religious beliefs and practices tend to be less strong in places where ‘existential security’ is greater.” So it’s not surprising that in a generally healthy, wealthy, orderly society, there is often a gradual movement away from traditional religion. Also according to Pew, “more than six in 10 (Muslims) do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society, and … that most Muslims coming to the U.S. today want to adopt an American way of life.”

For young Muslims, as for second-generation Hispanics (about which I have written previously), the pattern is the same—but the more they are alienated, the more likely they are to follow the old, more conservative ways. That is the challenge for the rest of us.

Muslims don’t speak out about violence done in their name: They most certainly do. The Islamic Circle of North America, as just one example, strongly condemns “the deadly attack in Paris committed in the name of Islam. … (It is) not only a cowardly and ghastly act; it also goes against everything taught by the person in whose name the heinous crime was done.” There are many others in Europe and America, as well as sheikhs and mosque leaders around the world, who have denounced the attacks. Check out #notinourname.

Muslim countries are not democratic and deny women any rights: Many predominantly Muslim countries have democratic elections and treat women well—including electing them to important leadership positions. Examples include secular democracies (Turkey, Indonesia, Azerbaijan), and religious democracies that recognize Islam as the state religion, but do not incorporate religion into public policy (Malaysia and Maldives). Of course, there are countries, like Saudi Arabia, which are not Muslim and are not democratic, and deny women equal rights.

We can’t paint each other with broad strokes and lump people together based solely on their beliefs about how we all got here and why. We need to remain vigilant and unite with others around the world, regardless of whether we agree with them on other issues, to fight this virulent threat to us all.

We can start by paying attention to what is going on right here in our own community, with our own neighbors. Nobody should ever feel ashamed or threatened to admit what they believe in and freely practice their religion.

Yo soy Coachella!

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Know Your Neighbors

On this week's global Independent comics page: The K Chronicles wonders where everyone went; Jen Sorenson ponders spikes to discourage the homeless; and Red Meet greets some visitors.

Published in Comics

On this week's Independent comics page, Roland and Cid ponder President Obama's Star Wars/Star Trek mashup gaffe; Red Meat gives some religious fundamentalists a thump in the face; The City gets an odd reaction to a chivalrous action; and Jen Sorenson previews SXSW by pondering what could become the next Twitter.

Published in Comics