Hi, my name is Doug.
I write little essays about faith and life.
I also laugh at my own jokes and correct other people's grammar.
I'm far from perfect.
This is my blog.

Letter from Lucerne, Switzerland

Here’s my October column for the Holland Sentinel…

The Swiss like to shake hands. They like a firm handshake with lots of eye contact. In Switzerland, it’s considered rude not to shake hands with everyone before leaving a social gathering, even if doing so requires a considerable amount of time.

Earlier in my life I learned to give a firm handshake, so I was well-prepared for my move to Switzerland several years ago, and my integration officer, the one I was required to meet with each year, seemed to think that I was integrating well. (He tended to overlook my slow progress in learning the local language.)

As it turns out, however, shaking hands can be problematic for some people from other cultures. Muslims, for example. Shaking hands with members of the opposite sex, except for certain relatives, is often not allowed for religious reasons. In August, 2018, a Muslim couple in Lausanne declined to shake hands with the three-person commission which interviewed them, and they were denied Swiss citizenship, an incident reported in the American press.

A similar story occurred a couple of years earlier when two male students declined to shake hands after class with their female teacher. Shaking hands with one’s teacher after class is a well-established Swiss custom and is considered a sign of respect. Faced with the possibility of a $5,000 fine, the parents, who were Muslim, nevertheless refused to allow their sons to comply—on religious grounds.

Americans, in my experience, are generally supportive of people who refuse to engage in certain behavior for religious reasons. Our country was founded, at least in part, on the principle of religious freedom. But, like the Swiss, we aren’t used to religious objections coming from a faith other than Christianity. What do we do when newcomers to our country refuse, at least initially, to accept long-established ways of doing things and therefore do not integrate as quickly as we would like?

After moving back to the U.S. a year and a half ago, I was glad to be home again, but I recently moved back to Switzerland for a four-month assignment. Instead of Zurich, where I lived during my previous stay, I am now living in Lucerne, which is not exactly hardship duty. And yet, I am struck all over again by the challenges that the Swiss are facing with their immigrant population, and how similar those challenges are to the ones we face in the U.S.

I need to be clear that I am not taking a stand here either for or against immigration. I am simply asking the question about people who live legally in the U.S., first- or second-generation immigrants who are attempting to integrate within American culture.

Immigrants often bring with them good and pleasing contributions to American culture. We enjoy, for example, the food and music that come along with immigration. In those cases, our culture is enriched. But along with food and music, other habits and customs are introduced as well. Certain clothing, for example, can be problematic. The wearing of a hijab (or veil), in particular, can be disturbing to western sensibilities, and several countries have passed, or tried to pass, legislation having to do with clothes, especially for women. It turns out that freedom of religion has its limits.

What I am discovering during my current stay in Europe is that a more fundamental question is at stake in immigration debates—namely, what does it mean to be Swiss? The Swiss are having to ask themselves what is essential to Swiss culture, which turns out to be an unexpectedly difficult question. Is a handshake with a teacher after class essential to being Swiss? The Swiss parliament notably decided to leave this decision to local governments. Famously, though, in a 2009 national referendum, the Swiss decided that building minarets on mosques would not be allowed. So, no minarets, but handshakes only in certain places.

In the U.S., the questions are no less difficult. What does it mean to be American? Can anyone suggest a definitive list of traits or qualities? Let’s assume the ability to speak English. What else is peculiar to being American?

When I first moved back from Europe to western Michigan, I did a considerable amount of research into my family history. All of my ancestors came from the Netherlands to the U.S. in the last half of the nineteenth century. They were desperately poor when they arrived, and they were grateful to find work. They took with them, and held tightly to, the customs and language that they brought with them from the old country.

Slowly, reluctantly, they let go of much of their heritage. By the second generation, no one in my family spoke Dutch. In hindsight, they integrated rather quickly within American culture. But, in those first years after their arrival, integration was slow and often painful.

I’m guessing that the current wave of immigrants to the U.S., including those from Muslim-majority countries, will experience a slow and sometimes painful integration as well, but will eventually find themselves assimilated into a new culture. Let’s hope so. I’d like to shake their hands.

Photo: That’s me enjoying the contemplative life in Switzerland. I’m playing outdoor chess in Meiringen, a fine little village near Reichenbach Falls, where Sherlock Holmes was tragically pushed to his death. Or maybe it was Moriarty. Anyway, some fictional character died near there.

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“How are you enjoying Holland?”

Here’s my September column for the Holland Sentinel…

“How are you enjoying Holland?” my dentist wanted to know last week at my annual checkup.

I had been a new patient only a year ago, so the question was an appropriate one. However, with his fingers exploring my mouth, I couldn’t do much more than nod and give a thumbs up. I want to give a fuller answer here: I’m enjoying it very much. Thank you for asking.

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The moral urgency of “plastic or paper?”

Here’s my August column for the Holland Sentinel:

“Paper or plastic?” the person at the grocery cash register asked, without looking up (or saying hello).

“I brought my own bags,” I said, proudly, holding them up for her to see. And with that, of course, she looked up—to get a good look at the tree-hugging Green Panther standing in front of her.

I’ll never know if I fit her image of an environmentalist, because she quickly looked down again and began to scan my items before placing them in my reusable bags.

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Living with meaning and purpose

Here is my July column for the Holland Sentinel…

I’m still not sure how it happened, but one day I woke up and, curiously, I was retired. Of course I had planned for it, as much as it’s possible to plan for something like retirement. And I recognize that not everyone gets to choose the actual date and get ready for it. So, I am grateful for that.

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Not going to church anymore

Here’s my Holland Sentinel column for June:

I don’t go to church much anymore, and haven’t attended regularly since 1980, when I stopped being a church member altogether.

I have mostly good memories of going to church, with my parents and my sisters, but for most of my adult life I have worked on Sundays.

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Dachau and the Result of Hatred, Racism and Bigotry

Here’s my May column for the Holland Sentinel:

Before leaving Europe and moving back to the United States, my wife and I had in mind one last tourist destination. We had visited all of the cathedrals, museums and battle fields it was humanly possible to see during the four years we lived in Switzerland, but there was still something more I felt I needed to see—namely, the concentration camp at Dachau.

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My Camino de Santiago

Here’s my April column for the Holland Sentinel:

A spiritual pilgrimage, so the thinking goes, consists of both an outward journey and an inward journey.

Last week I returned from my first Camino de Santiago, a spiritual pilgrimage dating back to the 11th century. I walked from Saint Jean Pied de Port (on the French side of the Pyrenees) to Santiago de Compostela (a university town in northwest Spain with a famous cathedral), a distance of 500 miles, which I walked in 29 days.

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Reflections on the “Dead Beat”

Here’s my March column for the Holland Sentinel, which could use an overhaul of its obituary page:

My name has appeared in dozens, maybe hundreds, of obituaries over the years, usually in the last paragraph.

After the date, time and location of the memorial service, my name would be given as the pastor who would be officiating. I think this is the reason I started reading obituaries. Not to make sure my name had been spelled correctly, but because the obituaries would often be revealing.

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A triumph of hope over experience

The lastest from the Holland Sentinel’s community columnist:

Oscar Wilde famously wrote that second marriages are “a triumph of hope over experience.” I feel the same way about exercise.

Sometimes I’m not sure why I bother.

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Called To Be a Loser

Here’s the latest from the Holland Sentinel‘s community columnist:

Several years ago I was invited to give the baccalaureate address at the Presbyterian-related school, Hanover College, in southern Indiana.

As far as I knew, the school’s main claim to fame, other than having me as a speaker, was having Woody Harrelson as a student. He received his degree in English and theatre in 1983, more than 20 years before I set foot on campus.

I titled my address “Called To Be a Loser” and sent that information, along with a publicity photo, to the college president a few weeks before graduation weekend. Within a few days, the president telephoned with concern in his voice, though I couldn’t quite figure out why. Finally, he said, “That’s quite a title you chose for your address.”

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