WATERVILLE — In front of a crowded house at the Universalist-Unitarian Church on Silver Street, nationally recognized author Kate Braestrup spoke about rights, civility and understanding. And she began with a story.

Braestrup, a game warden and a chaplain at the Maine Warden Service, told the story of Fiorello La Guardia, who was mayor of New York City during the Great Depression.

Braestrup said that one night, La Guardia went to a courthouse where poor people were more typically tried. La Guardia was allowed to act as judge that night, and the first case that came before him was that of a grocer suing a woman who stole a loaf of bread for her starving family. The grocer would not drop the charges because he wanted to send a message to the rest of the neighborhood about stealing. Rather than let her go to jail, La Guardia paid the woman’s fine and also charged everyone in the room 50 cents for allowing a city to permit such poverty.

At face value, she said the shopkeeper was clearly the bad guy for wanting to punish a poor person. But Braestrup said there was little choice for the shopkeeper. Was he supposed to just let her steal the loaf, and what about more food in the future? And then if he just gave her food, shouldn’t he then have to let the rest of the neighborhood have free food?

“Is the whole burden of her support to be borne by the shopkeeper?” she asked before asking how long it would be before that shopkeeper went out of business.

The story exposed the often complicated “language of rights,” she said.


Braestrup spoke about a project she’d been working on called her “year of thinking dangerously.” Identifying herself politically as a liberal Democrat, she said the idea behind the project was to seek out people with much different political ideologies and “engage in meaningful conversation.”

She said it was made easy because she works with law enforcement, whose members tend to be more conservative, she said.

“I knew in my bones that conservatives were not necessarily jerks,” she said, but instead they are “incredibly kind and caring people.”

During these conversations, she said she learned more about the rights of American citizens. She said when the same rights are awarded to some citizens and not others, it ceases being a right and is reduced to a privilege.

“Talking to people we don’t agree with may be the best contribution to the great American experiment,” she said.

Coreine Fletcher of Palmyra said she thought Braestrup’s sermon was “fantastic.” She said that while there is good and bad in every country, she didn’t think it was acceptable for a country such as the United States to place a ban on immigration.

Colin Ellis can be contacted at 861-9253 or at:


Twitter: colinoellis

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