— Part 4 of a series —

Editor’s note: An ongoing series chronicling Greene County residents’ travels resumes this week after a 1-week hiatus.

As a child, I spent hours thumbing through my parents’ extensive National Geographic magazine collection. Without ever leaving my community, my mind traveled to remote locations — planting seeds of wanderlust in a world unknown.

These initial experiences fanned the flame of curiosity within and drew me to the last, the least, and often repressed people and places on the globe.

As a college student in the 1990s, I seized an opportunity to study abroad in Russia for a semester. Experiencing Russian life in 1997, a country emerging from a communist fog, regulating capitalism and exploring democracy opened my eyes to a world I did not know existed.

This experience also forced me to see myself in a different light and made me question: What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be human?

My father would describe this experience as the cultivation of my wanderlust, as the travel bug took root.

As a local history teacher, and now a high school administrator, global doors opened, allowing me to peak into various cultures including Eastern Europe, Cuba, and Israel. In each country, part of me remains behind while humanity tattoos stories on my heart.

The same lesson reveals itself: Preconceived notions do not shape reality, and the least expected moments are the most enduring.

I have a few stories to share with you from travels beyond Tennessee’s boundary lines.

RUSSIA, FALL 1997

As a Milligan College student studying abroad in Russia, I worshipped regularly in a Russian Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church varies greatly from those in Greeneville.

A few differences include the building purposefully selecting to forgo pews or chairs. The faithful stand for the duration of the service. Each Sunday, the Gospel’s entirety is shared through a sung liturgy as worshippers freely enter and depart throughout the four hour service.

One chilly October Sunday, I entered the church after the service began. I found a spot in which to stand, observe, listen, and learn. When the Orthodox priest sang, a chorus from above would accompany, singing in unison or echoing words from the loft above the open area. The arrangement of the choir loft and acoustics of the church conjured angelic images in the mind as the ear processed the vocals.

However, on this Sunday, a man near to me sang every word the priest and chorus sang with a harmonious, robust baritone voice. His pitch and joyful spirit did not make the situation tenuous, but rather brought joy to the parishioners in his midst.

I delighted in my proximity to gregarious man and could not help but notice his features: His clothes were tattered and thread bare, his hands rough, and his feet were fully exposed. While he sang, he moved about in his place, and I quickly noticed the bottom of his feet were bleeding and bloodstains were readily visible on the church floor. The man did not indicate he suffered; instead, rather exuberant joy emanated from him.

America cherishes its First Amendment – the freedom of religion. This Russian citizen embraced his ability to worship freely.

I ventured back to that congregation week after week during my semester. Never did I see that man again, but the lessons he taught me remain in my heart over 20 years later.

GERMANY, SUMMER 2009

Touring Germany with 12 Tennessee social studies teachers through the Atlantik-Brücke program, my heart was immediately captured in Dresden, Germany.

Prior to World War II, Europeans referred to Dresden as “Florence on the Elbe” for its culture, art, and architecture. Following the Casablanca Conference in 1943, Allied forces engaged with a strategic bombing plan to cripple Germany. Dresden became a target for its cultural significance not its military presence or power – a controversial decision.

Following the war, Soviets occupied the city in rubbles; Dresden would not be part of Germany again until 1990. Tour guides, shop owners, and the innkeeper where we lodged echoed the threads of resilience in the survival stories shared.

A pivotal landmark for the community was a Lutheran Church named Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady). Due to the extensive Allied bombings, and later under Soviet occupation, funds were limited, and this church sat in rubble until 1994. To reconstruct the church, the community collected funds globally, used tarnished stones from WWII fires and newly cut stones, offering a balance of light and dark finishes on the building’s exterior for the mind to construct metaphors.

Standing at the ascent of the dome gave me pause: How does collective memory shape a community? How does a community maintain its identity and grow into something better?

A Lutheran church once built in rebellion to a Catholic ruler now stands as a symbol of unification and reconciliation for Dresden.

POLAND, SUMMER 2016

Auschwitz.

I am unsure how many hours I have devoted to reading and researching the Holocaust. Auschwitz represents the worse in humanity and the chapter I hope no person dares to repeat.

Leading a community tour with 34 Greeneville residents daring to travel to Eastern Europe, we visited central landmarks pertaining to the Jewish experience during WWII. Entering Auschwitz is surreal, and the extensive grounds are separated in three parts: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III–Monowitz.

The first part of the camp served as a Polish military base, offering a deceptively tranquil setting of brick buildings, gravel roads, and, added under Nazi occupation, a metal sign that greeted those entering “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free).

Guiding questions in my daily work are how I might share lessons learned from the Holocaust. How can humanity better see people for their heart — not their place of worship, skin color, socioeconomic status, or other factors? When did humanity lose sight of one human race?

Peering at empty canisters of Zyclon B cyanide-based poison in the museum; experiencing the loneliness of the iconic railyard where death awaited because those arriving were Jewish; being in proximity to the crematoriums — all wrapped in contemporary Jewish men singing the Kaddish, a prayer for the deceased in which the men ask God, full of compassion, for comfort and everlasting care of the departed — left our group exhausted from this experience.

After an emotionally wrought day, the Greeneville travelers concluded with prayer led by Bill Hughes, pastor at Hardin Chapel United Methodist Church. Each heart in our tour group was knitted together through this shared experience.

CUBA, SUMMER 2017

America’s longstanding Cold War enemy became my oasis to refocus and learn. My guiding question on this trip: What is the juxtaposition between government and a free press?

Having spent a week in Havana in one steamy summer does not make me an expert, but simply an observer.

Cuba is a country with little visible crime, high rates of education and world-renowned cash crops – tobacco and rum. However, the most valuable export Cuba has are its medical doctors. Cuba boasts 50,000 doctors in 60-plus countries.

The group of friends I traveled with hired a tour guide to help us acclimate ourselves to Havana and explore Cuban points of view. Our tour guide was a trained dermatologist and, on her off days, a guide. She earned more money as a tour guide than as a physician and used her extra earnings to better support her aging parents.

While in Cuba, I was unable to access the internet, and only government publications were allowed and available. Our well-educated tour guide explained world problems in ways that did not make sense to me.

Quickly I gleaned how suppressing the press, limiting the procurement of information and affording pervasive political domination, twists truth from reality. While American news has slants, Cuban journalists were controlled by entities shaping the country’s realism.

A free press is a safe guard for democracy. Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to John Jay (1786) in which he wrote, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”

ISRAEL, SUMMER 2019

As a guest in Israel, I spent eleven days in Jerusalem and several other days in Tel Aviv and northern Israel. During my stint in the capital, I grew comfortable with the hotel staff, the campus of Yad Vashem, which is Israel’s Holocaust Museum, and the American teaching cadre who were my classmates.

Having traveled to Auschwitz with Greeneville community members in 2016, reframing the European Jewish experience in the 1930s and 1940s was a paradigm shift. “Echoes and Reflections,” in partnership with Yad Vashem, the Anti-Defamation League and the USC Shoah Foundation, highlights Holocaust survivor Abel Herzberg’s sentiments when he wrote, “There were not six million Jews murdered; there was one murder, six million times.”

Learning how hatred infects humanity left me feeling hollow and forced me into therapeutic walks.

People ask if I would return to Israel, and I offer a heartfelt “yes” to that question.

Outside of daily, robust learning, what do I miss? Israel is a symphony of the senses. The gleaming, warm sun illuminates the iridescent, arid climate. Smells of lavender, rosemary, spices, and meddling wisteria infiltrate one’s nasal cavity. The contrast between ancient and modern is visually striking — not to mention the landscape dotted with minarets, crosses, and Stars of David.

The boisterous grind of the old city’s alleyways begin to hush as the Shabbat grows near on Friday night. As the sun dips beneath the horizon, jubilant holy songs increase in volume, and the devout assemble to pray, sing and dance at the Western Wall. Mediterranean foods dance across one’s palate – hummus, challah bread, shakshuka, falafel, and freshly snipped mint leaves steeped in hot water.

Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, wrote a poem that encapsulates my experiences traveling:

“Inside the brand-new museum

there’s an old synagogue.

Inside the synagogue

is me.”

As often the case, I travel home with meager tchotchkes but maintain a rolodex of memories in my weathered journal and mind.

Humanity’s sinews weave a rich tapestry of life. Offering the soul an opportunity to remove the foggy, blurring cataracts of indifference, bigotry, and prejudice with lenses of acceptance, understanding, and openness enhances civility. Allowing one to ponder what it means to be human and carrying an internal passport without an expiration date fuels my journey.

One does not need to leave Greene County to explore faraway lands; one simply needs an open mind to entertain foreign thoughts and seek new stories to expand life’s journey. Examine the person in the mirror in contrast with the person outside the window — one human race with textured faces, worn hands, loving souls and kindred spirits dancing, singing, laughing, mourning, comforting and caring for others.

As I return to our community, stories are my favorite souvenirs to fill students’ ears as I carry small vessels of personhood from the globe and across the Greene County line. If offered a chance to travel, pack a small bag and carry a big journal. Look for the fibers that unite humanity and join the celebration of life.

If going to a country that people are shocked you will visit – please, invite me!

(Editor’s note: This article has been updated since publication to reflect USC Shoah Foundation’s involvement with “Echoes and Reflections.”)