January 17, 1991, was a Thursday. I spent a few hours of it in my university's student union building near where a few lines from Martin Luther King were painted on the wall. With me was a guy from the Reporting I class that was to drive me to tears on more than one occasion. (J-school can be a scary place for people who think they already know how to write.)
Our assignment? Stop students passing through the halls and ask them what they planned to do for the upcoming Martin Luther King Day holiday. These were college kids, of course, and - though they'd been attracted (as I had) to campus partly because it was a place where ideas matter - they mostly fell into two camps: those who would spend the day sleeping, and those who would spend it studying. A few were heading for the beach or mountains, but nobody was thinking of King rallies or public service projects.
Trying to find a story in our interviews was sort of a lost cause. I'm sure we turned in something. I hope we got something more than a story about student apathy.
As we headed back to the dorms we heard about what was apparently the day's "real" story. Another student told us that a wave of bombers had taken off from Saudi Arabia and launched attacks on Iraq. Operation Desert Storm had begun; our country was at war.
Another, much quieter story would develop soon. A guy I'd recently met would lead a team of humanitarians into Northern Iraq to serve and befriend the Kurds who were among those who'd suffered most under their country's regime. He helped Kurds vaccinate their sheep. Odd choice for a pastor and English teacher, but he saw the need and responded. His coming alongside them opened many hearts.
What's a big story? What's a small one? Saturday I had what seemed almost a chance encounter with a young couple from Tucson. As we ate lunch, my friend's fiance told me what it had been like the previous week when someone at his neighborhood grocery store pulled out a gun and shot his representative to Congress. I came home to read the latest in a series of emails from friends on the other side of the world, Tunisia, announcing that it looks like to their great dismay it's time to evacuate.
I've been holding up these two stories next to each other and looking at them from different angles: Tucson, and Tunisia. This weekend I was sort of pleased to see "Tunisia" stories edge out "Tucson" stories in most of the media I sample. Arab lives are worth as much as American ones. I like to see Americans "count" them.
What stories have biggest claim on our interest? Recently a member of the small group I'm part of mentioned the parable of the Good Samaritan, given to address the question "Who is my neighbor?" asked by members of a community who - my friend said he'd read - defined "neighbor" as "those who live within a day or two's journey." With current technology and transportation systems, you and I live within a day or two's journey from almost 7 billion souls. Hmmm.
Our Missions Catalyst news sleuth just submitted her stories for this week's edition. She included the observation that while Christmas came with an overabundance of stories about religious persecution, she's welcoming a new year's focus on stories of cooperation and solidarity. I think conflict and persecution are inevitable in our religious world, but still, blessed are the peacemakers.