Constructing a Swing Set in the Amazonian Jungle

Last summer, we spent 2 days at a jungle lodge in eastern Peru.  While there, we visited a local school and promised to construct a swing set.

Earlier this year (2015), David Torres, the brother of our Cuzco guide, traveled to Puerto Maldonado to fulfill our promise.  He constructed a wooden swing set (with 6 seats) at Shajao School located just outside of Puerto Maldonado.

Swing Set Installed at a School near Puerto Maldonado in eastern Peru.

Swing Set Installed at a School near Puerto Maldonado in eastern Peru.

Getting to the school is not an easy trek.  David had to take an arduous 12-hour bus ride from Cuzco over the Andes to Puerto Maldonado.

In 2014, David constructed a 3-seat swing set for us at a preschool in Cuzco.  He is an excellent fabricator and does great work.

We have now constructed 4 swing sets in the Peru/Ecuador region and plan to construct 2 more in Peru this summer.

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The Case of the Dueling Holy Spirits (Ghosts)

Recently, a LDS bishop fired a Sunday School teacher for discussing pre-1978 Mormon black history, the groundbreaking 2013 essay titled “Race and the Priesthood,” and other historic racial documents with his class of teenagers.  Here is how the story was reported in the SLTrib:

“Anything regarding black history before 1978 is irrelevant,” Dawson (the former Sunday School teacher) recalls his bishop saying, “and a moot point.”

Then, the former teacher says, his bishop insisted during a February interview that Dawson agree never again to bring up the essay or discuss “black Mormon history” in the class.

Dawson declined–even after believing he would be “released” from teaching the class for disobedience.

“If the [Holy] Spirit guides me in a way that involves these multitude of documents,” he asked the bishop, “who am I to resist the enticing of the Spirit?”

The bishop replied, according to Dawson, “The Spirit is telling me to tell you not to use those documents.”

And so it went.

The ironic part of this story is that Brian Dawson is white and his wife is from Nigeria.  They have 4 children, all pictured in the SLTrib story.  They look like a wonderful family.

So here we have it:  dueling promptings from the Spirit or Holy Ghost.  Obviously the bishop’s Spirit won and Dawson was canned.  But the question still remains:  Which prompting was real and which one was imagined?

While I come down on the side of Dawson, it’s an interesting conundrum.  Mathew writing at, makes a very worthwhile observation:  “Mormons have a hard time just owning their sh*t.”  Commenting on Mathew’s post SGNM states:  “It’s a shame we’re not as averse to taking the Spirit’s name in vain as we are to taking the Lord’s in vain.”

My wife, a few years ago, had an interesting conversation with our bishop at the time.  (I was a party to the discussion.)  The bishop wanted to release my wife from being the Sunbeam teacher in the Primary and call her to be the Relief Society clerk.  A huge part of my wife’s life is teaching in the Primary, and she is not gifted with secretarial skills; she likes artsy stuff.

The bishop indicated that he had come to his inspired decision while meditating in the temple, implying a Spirit connection.  His proposal was devastating to my wife.  She is not easily brought to tears, but she immediately began quietly crying.  The bishop then asked me if I could sustain him in his proposal.  I pointed out that this was clearly a problem for my wife.  In retrospect, I wish I had been more forceful.  Luckily, the next day the bishop called and said she could remain as the Sunbeam instructor.  A position that she has held to this day.

I think we all need to be careful about dropping the name of Holy Ghost or Spirit.  I personally don’t believe that God and the Holy Ghost are stirring the pot.  I doubt that the Holy Ghost was either on Dawson’s side or his bishop’s side.  Can’t we just have a discussion where each side expresses their opinion?  Does a bishop really need to set up his conversation with “while I was in the temple”?

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We Need to Be Careful About Who We Venerate

There have been two recent examples of misplaced religious veneration; both examples insult Native Americas.

The first example involves a book recently published by Deseret Book, a LDS publishing firm, and written by Clark B. Hinckley.  The book–titled Christopher Columbus:  A Man among the Gentiles–alleges that Columbus was inspired in his trans-Atlantic missions.  According to the Deseret News, a LDS newspaper:

The key to understanding Columbus is found in the Book of Mormon, Hinckley said.  He sites 1 Nephi 13:12, in which the prophet Nephi describes a man among the Gentiles who is wrought upon by the Holy Ghost and inspired to go forth upon the many waters.

Similarly, Columbus, a deeply religious man, recorded that he felt the hand of the Lord opened his mind to the fact that it was possible to sail to new lands.

The problem with this assessment is with the events that followed Columbus’ discovery.  The Deseret News rightly acknowledges the genocide of Native Americans which followed.  And Hinckley states:

Columbus opened up the new world . . . but we shouldn’t blame him for everything that other people did wrong.

Which is true.  However, we need to be careful about alleging that his explorations were divinely inspired by a God who can predict (or at least intuit) the future.  Let’s have some serious compassion for what eventually happened to the Native American populations in the New World.  Hinckley’s book is ill-conceived and poorly timed.

The second example is the recent proposal by Pope Francis to declare Father Junipero Serra a saint during his upcoming September visit to the United States.  The Pope recently referred to the 18th-century Franciscan priest as “one of the founding fathers of the United States” and praised his willingness to abandon the comforts and privileges of his native Spain to spread the Catholic message to the New World.

According to the LA Times:

In California, Serra has been criticized by Native American activists for his role in a Spanish colonial system that mistreated and displaced indigenous people, and some have accused him of forcing people to convert to Catholicism.  The state Senate voted last month to replace a statue of Serra in the U.S. Capitol with astronaut Sally Ride.

Professor Robert Senkewicz of Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school, indicated that Serra is being canonized because “on balance, [he did] more good than none good.”  Which seems like a pretty low threshold for sainthood.

Historian Steven Hackel, a professor at UC Riverside, noted that:

What [apologists] are trying to say is that Serra protected indigenous people from soldiers and settlers, and things would have been a lot worse without him.  There’s very much truth in that . . . but the other side of the equation was what did those missions . . . mean for tens of thousands of Indians.

After Serra died in 1784, conditions worsened, with many Native Americans deaths and a general ethnocide occurring.  Unfortunately most of history is written by the dominant culture, and the events described in history books frequently give short shift to minority cultures.

Deseret Book and Pope Francis (who I greatly admire) need to develop more cultural sensitivity.  There was a genocide in the Americas and we need to be careful who we venerate.

Posted in Books, catholicism, mormonism, Religion, Social Justice, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Nobel Prize Laureate Visits Montezuma Creek’s Navajo Schools

On April 1st, Dr. Lars Peter Hansen, 2013 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics, dropped by for a short visit at Whitehorse High School and Montezuma Creek Elementary, both in Montezuma Creek, Utah.   At the high school, he spent time with two math classes discussing probability and uncertainty.  He also encouraged the students to stay in school.  Lars explained that he struggled in high school, but really found his way while attending Utah State University.

At Montezuma Creek Elementary School, Lars spoke to a combined class of 5th and 6th graders.  He explained that his field of econometrics is a combination of economics, math, and statistics, and that mathematics is an important subject to study and learn.  It is important in all walks of life.

The week before his visit to Montezuma Creek, Lars was lecturing at a university in Moscow, Russia.  Just prior to coming to southern Utah, he was consulting with students at California Institute of Technology in Southern California.  Since receiving the Nobel Prize, Lars has done a lot of traveling.

There was a big difference in the reception between the Navajo elementary school children and the high school students.  The former seemed more engaged and more eager to learn.  There were several questions after Lars’s presentation, not all relevant, but interesting ones none the less.  One of the children even asked Lars for his autograph.  The high schools students were more distracted, and seemed to have lost much of their inquisitiveness.

Lars Talking to 5th and 6th Graders at Montezuma Creek Elementary School

Lars Talking to 5th and 6th Graders at Montezuma Creek Elementary School

A recent NASA study indicates that the best time to get students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is while they are young, in the later years of elementary school.  This would certainly seem to be true in the Navajo Nation.  (Granted this is an extremely small sample size.)

Lars flew into Durango, Colorado.  From there it is a 45 minute trip through the mountains and an hour trip through the desert to get to the small oil town of Montezuma Creek.

Lars attended high school in Logan, Utah, and then went on to college at nearby USU.  While at USU, Lars developed his interest in mathematics and economics, and suddenly became an excellent student.  After getting a PhD at the University of Minnesota, he eventually took a job at the University of Chicago where he is currently the Director of the Becker Friedman Institute.

Note:  For more on Lars’ visits to elementary schools click here.

Note:  For information on a NASA visit to Navajo schools click here.

Posted in lars peter hansen, Navajoland, Personalities, Social Justice | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Lars Peter Hansen: My Visits to Elementary Schools

by Lars Peter Hansen, PhD

My brother Roger [web host for TRW] is doing considerable work in the northern region of the Navajo Nation, located near the Four Corners of the southwestern USA.  He asked if could talk to students there.  I decided to add such a visit to my recent travel schedule.  Of course this experience was very different from many of the recent experiences that I have had with visits, talks and seminars over the last year and half.  [Lars was a Nobel Laureate in Economics in 2013.]

Over the past several months, I have had the opportunity to talk to students in three grade schools: Adams Elementary School in Logan, Utah, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, and most recently Montezuma Creek Elementary School.  I enjoyed very much all three visits, but each one had a different character.  I appreciated the principal at Adams Elementary School who reached out to me, and I was particularly impressed by his commitment to the school.

Lars with Students From Adams Elementary High School

Lars with Students From Adams Elementary High School

The teachers at Adams Elementary School and the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools had talked to their students in advance of my visit, and encouraged their students to think of interesting questions in preparation for the visit.  What impressed me about the teachers at Montezuma Creek Elementary School is their commitment to helping their students start thinking about their longer-term future.  One of the teachers specifically asked me to talk about the advantages that I saw to getting education beyond high school.

Lars Talking to 5th and 6th Graders at Montezuma Creek Elementary School

Lars Talking to 5th and 6th Graders at Montezuma Creek Elementary School

Both teachers at Montezuma Creek Elementary were happy to pitch in during my presentation by providing ways I could better communicate with their students.  My talk was about uncertainty and the challenges it poses in decision-making.  I had help and advice from Amy Boonstra, the Managing Director of Programs and Outreach at the Becker-Friedman Institute.  Given the material that I presented, examples are essential, and the teachers added some that were very helpful to their students.  Overall, the elementary students were very upbeat and energetic, and the two teachers were very engaged.

Lars with Students at Montezuma Creek Elementary School

Lars with Students at Montezuma Creek Elementary School

I also talked to some mathematics classes at Whitehorse High School in Montezuma Creek.  Here I felt I was less effective in my messaging.  This was my first time talking to high school students in many years.  I remember one Navajo student stayed a bit after class and asked two questions.  One was about how long it took to complete my research that led to my award [Nobel Prize].  Then she asked me an additional question and prefaced it with “please do not take this the wrong way, but why did you chose to come talk to us?”  This question got me thinking afterwards.  It was clearly asked by a student who was both paying attention and thinking independently.  Overall, my experience at Whitehorse left me with an even greater appreciation for high school teachers who are truly successful in having an impact on their students and broadening their horizons.

Note:  for background on Lars’ visit to Navajo schools click here.

Posted in lars peter hansen, Navajoland, Personalities, Social Justice | 1 Comment

Armenia: A Personal History

I’m not from Armenia (the majority of my great-great grandparents are from Scandinavia), but since college, I’ve had a fascination for the country and it tragic history.  I first “discovered” Armenia during a graduate history class at Brigham Young University.  I wrote a short paper on its medieval history.  Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its state-sponsored religion, predating even the Roman Empire’s conversion.

Armenians were, and still are, amazing craftsmen.  Their early churches, many of which predate the Romanesque and Gothic churches in western Europe are masterpieces of architecture, and many are decorated with elaborate stone carvings.  During the Middle Ages, many Armenian craftsmen migrated west to find work, and had a major influence on western European churches.

Little Remains of the Ancient Armenian City of Ani

Little Remains of the Ancient Armenian City of Ani

Twenty-five years ago, as a high school graduation gift for my twin sons, I took them to Turkey for a month.  Some of the places that I wanted to visit were the remains of Armenian churches located in eastern Turkey.

Our airplane landed in Istanbul, and from there we took a ferry up the Bosphorus and east along the southern coast of the Black Sea.  We debarked at Trabzon.  From there we traveled overland to Kars, in extreme eastern Turkey.  From Kars, my sons and I took a taxi to the ancient and deserted ruins of the ancient city of Ani.

This incredible and holy archaeological site sits right on Turkey’s border with Armenia.  (But when we were there, it bordered on Armenia SSR, USSR.)  Mt. Ararat is nearby, the mythical landing spot for Noah’s Ark.  I will describe our visit to Ani in another blog post, so I won’t repeat it here.

Mt. Ararat in What Is Today Eastern Turkey

Mt. Ararat in What Is Today Eastern Turkey

This post, however, is about the loss of 1.5 million Armenians at the end of WWI.  According to a blog post by Haroon Moghul on

In 1913, the Committee of Union and Progress, a xenophobic, nationalistic and militaristic junta seized [control of what remained of] the Ottoman Empire and attempted to rebuild it in the image of secular European nationalism.  In 1915, a few months after joining the fighting in WWI, CUP organized for the elimination by transfer, and other far more brutal and direct means, the Armenian Christian population of eastern Anatolia.

Today, Turkey is far more homogenous than it used to be.  That’s the price of modernity.  Ethnic cleansing, population transfer, slaughter.  It’s ugly, but we should not look away.  The [Turkish] Armenian population was systematically eliminated.  That’s genocide.  There’s no way around it.

This is the one-hundred year anniversary of that genocide.  Commemorations are going on at various locals throughout the world.

The Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex in Erevan, Armenia

The Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex in Erevan, Armenia

Pope Francis recently sparked the ire of the Turkish government when he said that humanity had lived through “three massive and unprecedented tragedies” in the last century, the first being the genocide of the Armenian people.  Pope Francis said it was his duty to honor the memories of the 1.5 million Armenian who were killed:

Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding with bandaging it.

Turkey, unconvincingly, has always disputed the 1.5 million figure and said the deaths were part of a civil conflict triggered by WWI.

Many of the victims of the genocide were civilians deported en masse to barren desert regions where they died of starvation and thirst.  Thousands also died in massacres.

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Why Is Playground Equipment Important in Developing Countries?

In 2014, my friends, colleagues, family, and I have installed playground equipment in Ecuador, Peru, Ethiopia, Uganda, Cambodia, and the Navajo Nation.  In the last 6 years in Uganda alone, we have installed swing sets and other playground equipment at over 30 sites.  Installing playground equipment is important for a variety of reasons.

Installing Playground Equipment at a School near Lira, Uganda

Installing Playground Equipment at a School near Lira, Uganda

A group working in Kenya called Grassroots Alliance for Community Education (G.R.A.C.E.) recently published a promotion that explains why outdoor playgrounds and recreational activities are important:

Article 31 of the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Children states that countries should recognize the right of children to rest, leisure, play and recreational activities and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

Play is a means of developing the skills needed in adult life, as it helps children interact with each other, develop language, learn how to set and adhere to group rules and develop physically.

A [large] number of poverty stricken children are forced to engage in farm work and heavy domestic work.  [And I would add activities like rock crushing.]  This is compounded by the shortage of safe spaces within the communities where children can play and interact in a relaxed and meaningful way.  These factors are major obstacles to exercising their right to play, rest and recreation.

During our January 2015 trip to a community in Rwenzori Mountains of western Uganda, we installed a 4-seat swing set.  I recently received the following email from the community leader:

Due to the installation of the swing set in the school, the number of students has increased from 240 to 287 this first term of 2015. My finding therefore is that there is high competition of pupils for the swing set during playing hours. And so there is also a need of another type of game to occupy some of the pupils during play hours.

So swing playground equipment in developing countries can serve as important kid-magnets, encouraging younger students to stay in school.

Installing a Swing Set at a School in Kyarumba, Uganda

Installing a Swing Set at a School in Kyarumba, Uganda

In my humble opinion, the value of installing playground equipment in developing countries is seriously undervalued.

Posted in Africa, ethiopia, Playground, Social Justice, Sports, uganda | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments