About Neal

An expressive writer, talker, rapper, and kazoo player; passionate about the expression of wisdom, love, sports, and grace in today’s world.

The Gospel According to Flava Flav

Michael Tran

Ironic as it is:


 “Aiyo, these are some serious times that we’re livin in G
And a new world order is about to begin, y’knowhutI’msayin?
Now the question is – are you ready, for the real revolution
which is the evolution of the mind?
If you seek then you shall find that we all come from the divine
You dig what I’m sayin?

“Now if you take heed to the words of wisdom
that are written on the walls of life
then universally, we will stand and divided we will fall
because love conquers all, you understand what I’m sayin?

This is a call to all you sleepin souls
Wake up and take control of your own cipher
And be on the lookout for the spirit snipers
tryin to steal your light, y’knowhutI’msayin?
Look within-side yourself, for peace
Give thanks, live life and release
You dig me? You got me?”

-”He Got Game” (1998)


More Day 2: Lessons from the Community Garden

If you’re just joining us, click here to start at the beginning.

Or Continue with part II

Below was written by Mackenzie O’Connell

Today I went to an Open Land farm. Open Land farms are community gardens in Chicago that aim to supply the community with free vegetables and fruit, and raise local property values. My group went to a garden owned by a sweet lady named Queen. Queen is 70 years old, almost completely deaf, and takes care of the large garden all by herself. Before arriving at the garden, everyone in my group was in need of a nap and dreading our three hours of labor in the dirt and hot sun. I thought that this garden would be extremely overgrown and dead, but once we arrived, it was beautiful and filled with blooming flowers and green grass! At the garden my task was to weed, but others in my group mowed the grass, weed-wacked, and organized a compost pile. Throughout the day Queen said whatever popped into her mind, and it was hilarious and helped make our work much easier! I asked Queen what she did with the vegetables after she harvested them and her response will forever stick with me. She said “When you eat the vegetables alone, they don’t taste good, but when you share them with others and eat them together, they taste much better.” Queen’s comment meant so much to me because often times I focus on what I don’t have, rather than the abundance of things I do have. I realized that I should be re-focusing all of that energy towards giving other people what they don’t have and what they need. After we finished gardening, my group stepped back to look at what we had done. The garden looked even more beautiful and every single one of us felt accomplished! I wouldn’t trade this day for anything and being in Chicago has opened my eyes to a different kind of world and because of people like Queen, my life and attitude towards things will forever be changed for the better.

-Mackenzie O’Connell


Day 2: Finding What We Didn’t Know We Didn’t Know

Click Here to Read Day One


The following was written by Abbey Bolinger about an experience as described to her by Hayley Sinclair.

When Hayley got home today she was openly excited about her day and how she saw the effect she had on one man. His name was Millard. He is currently living in a daycare facility for senior citizens with Dementia. Hayley decided to take a seat next to Millard and began talking to him. She was surprised how much he was willing to discuss, and also how happy he was when he talked, even though he had difficulties remembering details about the stories of his life. The man told her how he played in the Chicago traveling orchestra. He couldn’t remember any of the places they went, except Germany. He loved talking about Germany, because he repeatedly told her that it was beautiful. Hayley then asked him if he played any other instruments, however he couldn’t remember. So, Hayley asked if he could play the piano. He responded with, “I don’t know any songs, but I just love playing around on the keyboard.” Millard asked Hayley if she could play for him, but she was hesitant. Surprisingly, she told me how she played songs from Phantom of the opera and Fur-Elise. She noticed how mesmerized he was by her playing, so she asked him if he wanted to be taught how to play the same songs she had just played. I was shocked at how open she was to teach him, but thought it must have been an amazing moment. Hayley was interested when he told her that he could think of absolutely everything in his brain, but he couldn’t get it out to talk about it. He enjoyed just spending time with her, even though they were only playing patterns on the keyboard. At the end of playing, Hayley had made such a connection with this man that she wanted to know more, so she asked him about his family. He was a little reluctant at first because he was having trouble recollecting, but then told her he had children and grandchildren. It was like Hayley was helping him remember music and that was helping him remember his family.At the end of the day, he told her how thankful he was and what a good day he had spending it with her.

 I loved hearing her story.

Sometimes on a mission trip, it feels like we didn’t do any work, and then sometimes we feel like all the work we did won’t do a bit of good, but then other times like today, it all feels like it made a huge difference. I think Hayley made a big difference and I think Millard did too.

Hayley & Millard


Read what happened on Day III


Happy Birthday, Burger! (A Letter to My 1 Year-Old Daughter)



Little Casey,

Five minutes ago, I found out that you were inside mommy’s tummy – or at least that’s what it feels like! But it’s actually been a whole year! Everybody was right when they told me how fast your first birthday would come, and the truth is, I like it! Now, you are turning into such a real live human being!! You already have 3 teeth – with the potential for having many more. :)

You are 27 inches (nice and tall like your mommy) and have a huge forehead with little hair (like your daddy).

You love animals (like daddy) and from all we can tell, they seem to love you too (like your mommy). Don’t worry about Mia though, she’s not capable of loving anybody, but we’ll talk about that when you’re three.

You light up at the sound of music (daddy) and are working on palming your first little basketball (mommy). You eat lots of fruits and vegetables (mommy) and shove them in two hands at a time (daddy). You sleep through the night and love to be babied first thing in the morning (frankly, that’s both of us).

For this entire year, you have been the type of baby that tricks suckers like me and your mommy into thinking that we might be able to do it again.

And just recently, you have become very good at leveraging your tantrums to get your point across. This doesn’t bother me, but it is different than your first several months. You really only cried when you needed something, which in your case was either a bottle or a nap.

But now, when you want something you can’t reach, or something I’ve taken away, you’ve become very good at producing the full sound of crying without a single tear. To your credit, it’s usually a matter of seconds before you’re on to your next adventure/obsession.

So here it is, burger, it seems like our task for the upcoming year is to focus on the difference between wants and needs. And I mean both of us.

This past year has been both the most joyful and the most cumbersome year of my life. I’ve had the best problems: great wife, great family, great job, great community, but words can’t tell you all about the hard time I’ve had remembering the difference between wants and needs.

I want more money. I want to be the best youth minister. I want to discover what I’m supposed to do to provide for my family so that you don’t get stuck for what you didn’t sign up for. But I need to be a good daddy. And I need to be a good husband to your mommy. And I need to enjoy all that I am blessed with now before I worry about the future.

We both know that at times this past year, I have confused my wants and my needs.

You see, it’s not that I need to be with you all of the time. Matter of fact, you’re going to need for me to be off doing “daddy’s thing” before I come home to do the daddy-thing a lot of time, as much as I’m going to want to be with you every waking second. It’s just that I’m going to have to work on making sure that I’m not always home when I want to be, but that I am always home when I need to be.

And it’s not that it is a bad thing to want things. Like you may want your B-Ball Bunny or an extra snuggle, or even a little bit of personal space (although that one is gonna hurt at first). I’m going to want things too. It’s just that you and I both are going to be a lot more free when we can identify what we want and what we need.

I want to raise you under the assurance that God’s greatest blessings are those around us. I want you to know the peace and freedom of having everything you need. I even want you to have a few of the things that you will want in this life.

And I need you to know that you and your mommy comes first.

So let’s do it, Burger. Let’s figure it out together.

But now, you’re up from your nap and it’s time for me to join you as we begin your 1st birthday party.

Because that’s what I want to do.

And because that’s what I need.


With All My Love,



P.S. Next time you do something cute, will you remind me to take the camera from mommy so that SHE could get in the picture… it would sure make for a prettier photo!!


How I’d Improve the Presidential Election Process

At 29 1/2, I’m barely old enough to vote. But as a young adult, registered independent, in Florida, if my vote is really as important as all the pundits say, here’s what I would do to make this whole election process more appealing to people like me:

10. Get-to-Know-You Games in the Line of Voting Precincts

Maybe it’s just the youth minister in me, but I see this as a win-win. With a long, necessary wait, we all need something to pass the time that is more productive than typing “Gee, these lines are so long…” on Facebook. Also, by November, we should all be ready for a holiday season full of “Forced Family Fun”. One more wouldn’t hurt, especially with our neighbors on both sides of the aisle.

9. Amendment Voters Must Demonstrate an Understanding of Said Amendment

I am scared by Amendments entitled, “Amendment to Love Puppies” that then begin with “Whereas the prohibition of this amendment will prohibit the prohibition…” because it always leaves me unclear as to whether or not said amendment is actually saying puppies are good or bad. Therefore, any person who wishes to vote on an amendment may do so after proving that they know what it says.

8. Candidates Must Say Five Nice Thing About The Opposition

Courtesy of Sarah Lund

Don’t start your victory speech with a call for bi-partisanship, START your campaign with one. My parents used to implement this rule when my little brother and I would fight, it seemed to work okay.

7. Any Political Facebooker Must Yield Equal Time to Opposite-Minded Friends

You know, we’ve been hearing about the cyber-bullying that comes as a result of one-way, near anonymous communication. And this is another example in a grown-up (sorta) environment. While these posts are not annonymous, too many of us have been posting without accountability to those wishing to disagree in dialogue. If it’s not worth a dialogue, save it for a debate. It’s far too easy to be disrespectful and impractical when we’re talking to a screen and not a human.

6. Veri-Sign Ability to Track Our Votes

Unfortunately, we are living in an age where it is appropriate to question the integrity of EVERY process. If I am able to track my Ebay orders from door to door and everywhere in between, I oughtta be able to track my vote to make sure it counted. Don’t ask me how? Not my job. I’m too busy changing the world here…

5. Greater Emphasis on Fact-Checking

Courtesy of Huffington Post

Please people, instead of covering every corner of my TV during the debates with charts and graphs about who’s happy and sad and which candidates facial tic is saying what, show me a + or -, is what he saying fact/crap? That’s what I wanna know.

4. Anybody Who Asks Me Who I Voted For is Subject to a Punch in the Face From the Same Lady Who I Once Asked, “How Much do You Weigh?”

Remember when it used to be rude to tell me how to think and why I was wrong if I disagreed? Yeah…

3. If You Aren’t Allowed to Vote for a Certain District, You Should Never Have to Even Watch the Commercial for Either Candidate

Living in Vero Beach, I’ve been watching the West Palm feed of Allen West vs. Patrick Murphy in what is the most grotesque political battle I’ve ever seen! Each side claimed the other was an absolute jackweed. And they were right. But after hours and hours of research, I picked the least jerkier of the two. I can’t even tell you how pissed I was in the voting booth when I realized that these yahoos weren’t even on my ballot. By my estimation, that’s 497 commercial breaks I will never get back.

2. Jon Stewart Moderates ALL Debates.

For the love of God, we need to start having a sense of humor about these things, it was the only thing that saved professional wrestling… Seriously though, Stewart’s liberal bias is no more than the same liberal bias put on all media and Stewart has a good record of following-up, clarifying, and not backing down from his questions, even with those he disagrees with in a way that is still polite and fair. And Number One…


I have a colleague who saved her “I Voted” sticker from early voting and retaped it on her blouse. How awesome is that?!

Bigger stickers.

Shinier stickers.

What says America more than pinning a brand name to your clothing.

Courtesy of houstonpress.com

Stickers! Stickers for all!

I’m Neal Watkins and I approve of this message.


One Week After Sandy: A New Kind of Power

Donna Schaper is a friend of mine who I met when I was far too young to understand her brilliance. Sometimes, I worry that I am still too young to understand her brilliance.

She is a pastor at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square in New York City. Recently Donna has been posting updates about her experiences in the first several hours after Sandy. You may read them here.

The other day, after leading a community vigil, Donna shared these thoughts.

Hear the brilliance in the grief and hope she shares:

Many Different Kinds of Power

Last night at Judson about 20 of us gathered, along with one dog, to light candles, sing a few songs and say a few prayers. We also walked the giant canvas labyrinth, which was easy to put out in the dark. It has white stripes. We observed what our hearts know: there are many different kinds of power. Too many people are saying they are “out of power,” or “powerless.” More precisely, we are without electrical power.

Last Sunday I innocently preached about the need for new folkways, new rituals, and new ways of being. I actually said, “For most of us, the major ritual of our lives is to remember to plug in our cell phones.” I pontified, “Wouldn’t it be great if we kept a good Sabbath with such rigor or also prayed intentionally before we ate or before we slept? Not to mention how great a Jubilee, an automatic normalized forgiveness of debts, would mark our political economy?” Well. Since Sandy hit, we have been wandering around with cell cords in hand in lower Manhattan, looking for a plug that had power. No lights, no traffic lights, no hot water, and no working plugs: that is the reality post Sandy. It is dark outside and sometimes also dark inside.

To keep from being a complete fibber, we just had to do a service. We had to remind ourselves that there are different kinds of power than the kind we don’t have. There is people power and candlepower, physical power (you can’t volunteer for the Red Cross if you can’t lift 50 pounds or stay for 12 hours), magical power, the kind that makes you think the A train will be humming again soon. There is the power to hear words anew: infrastructure, nature, air, wind, fire. There is the power to recognize, as the labyrinth shows, that in every end there is a beginning. New York will never be the same. We know that. Worship helps us say what we know out loud. The word Katrina came to mind. We have known for a long time about climate change and aging infrastructure. Now we know that we know, in a different kind of power, the kind that moves people to change.

As we went back to our dark homes and our meager food, we didn’t forget to give thanks for the Sabbath we had just had because nature had demonstrated astonishing infrastructural failure.

Reflections from Donna Schaper: Days One and Four

“Through Earthquake, Wind and Fire, the Still Small Voice of Calm”

The first thing that happened this morning at 7 a.m. was that my seven year old neighbor, Zoe, ran out to visit me in my car, where I was charging my cell phone with my car charger and getting what news I could off the radio. Zoe said, “Let’s go to Stuy Town and see my friend. Her car was floating last night.” Zoe thought this w

as good news but since Stuy Town is two blocks away, in “Zone A” and we live two apartment buildings in from Zone A, in Zone B, I declined. I We could go tomorrow after the cars stopped floating. The high tide was due at 8 a.m., the sun was peeking through the clouds, and the streets were littered with much more debris than usual plus leaves, leaves, leaves. Will the wind ever stop blowing? That was Elmo’s question just now on a blessed NPR broadcast, and I didn’t care whether Big Bird was there to answer or not. Now writing later on Tuesday, which normally would be the day before Halloween, the wind has stopped, the rain has picked up, and we have survived the 8 a.m. high tide, at least on Second Avenue and 18th Street.

Before I could post this, by driving to my daughter’s in Brookyn, where she has email, I drove through and past Stuy Town. The FDR was closed, dozens of cars had trees on top of them, much of the river’s throw-up remains on the street. There are no traffic lights downtown, a unique courtesy on the road, and long lines outside the few open Bodegas. Pedestrians abound. I may also visit my grandchildren in Brooklyn, one of whom is three and announced on facetime this morning, “Bube, I can’t be a good boy any more.” To say that this storm has been long anticipated is to misunderstand what it’s been like Friday through Monday night. I can’t be a good girl any longer either and thus drove across the bridge the second it opened.

My mother called. She had clearly been watching too much television. We posted on the church site where the pastors would be, how to reach us and how ill advised it would be for people to come to us. Two nurse friends of ours moved in, early, to our apartment because they thought they would be pulling double shifts at NYU Hospital up the street. They brought their partners. They live in Brooklyn and couldn’t walk in on subways that had closed or bridges and tunnels that closed right after. “No man is an island,” they like to say, but right now Manhattan is more than an island than imaginable, 24 hours earlier. The NYU Hospital generator failed so they were sent home, and all the patients moved to another hospital. They had tested the generator on Friday and it was working then.

At the height of the storm, we had to take a walk. Three of us made it arm and arm in a four-block circumnavigation; two of us made the full eight blocks. The streets were vigorous. The avenues strenuous. The W hotel lobby was jam packed with people aggressively using their cellphones. Our partner who left us was standing in the foyer, praying for our safe return.

Now we pray for a few more things. First, can we find a way to live without power? Of the electrical kind? Second, what will happen with this many people being without goods or services? We already know to walk the avenues, not the streets, from now on, due to the inevitable need for people to pick pockets and steal from each other. How will we ever mourn the loss of the New Jersey Shore line? Is the Atlantic City Boardwalk really no longer with us? What will happen to the subways? Who was thinking about infrastructure anyway? How much of it is gone, as in gone, I mean gone? What will happen next October? Last October it snowed. This October, the East River moved to First Avenue. What will we tell the children about the floating cars? Is there really an environmental and economic opportunity in a crisis as inconvenient and comprehensive as this one? Maybe now we can think about nature and the economy in new ways. Imagine being grateful for Sandy!

The pleasures are as large as the worries. My next-door neighbors on both sides agreed to help bail, if we needed bailing. My upstairs neighbor came down to ask what she could do. One of the nurses brought a chicken. Amid things crashing and trees touching their toes in the street, there is an odd “I told you so”, a validation of the midnight thoughts of both heart and mind. Nature always trumps technology. And electrical power. And political power. That great sense that we are living wrong, too addicted to plugging in, too soft, too dependent on the wrong things or at least undependable things, has increased. Maybe after the storm is cleaned up, we will do more than buy generators or better flashlights. Maybe we will bridge and tunnel our way to deeper connection with each other and with what power really is. For now, these questions are too large. The smell in the street is increasing, as the sewers back up. People wonder whether to drink what water there is coming out of faucets. There is an odd and full freedom in these moments. I have the cleanest Tupperware drawer in Manhattan. My sock drawer is sorted, and I have matched last year’s orphaned gloves with each other. Later, I will sweep the street and kiss the trees that didn’t fall and go to my friend’s house, where she has power

Day Four:
So the sounds of the fourth day: many whistles from cops who are makeshift traffic lights, the whirring sounds of generators, outdoor grills firing up, then quiet, quiet, quiet. People don’t’ even bother tooting their horns. No where to go, nothing to do. The scale we are using is bonkers/bananas/ or the bonkers/banana combined metric. Personally I am an 8.5 on the combined scale…and I know

 people who are doubling that. The only people left in the village are schizophrenic people, addicted people and pastors….and the first two groups are faring much better than the third. Yes, Bellvue evacuated…but today in the lobby no one seemed to know where the patients had gone. “Where is my brother?” said one man in, the hard way, from Jersey.

Happy SoundTech Appreciation Day!!

Some of us have jobs where we never get noticed… unless we screw up.

Last night, during the 7th inning stretch of what will be the last baseball game for 6 months, what first sounded like bad music, turned out to be a faulty sound production.



That’s right, half of the microphones weren’t working…like, the half that had the melody.


I implore you tonight, to find your SoundTechs, the people who cover your butt, and tell them thanks. Thank them for making sure your worst day never winds up on YouTube.

A Dad’s Prayer for the Day

My daughter thinks that when I wake up, I’m excited to meet the day; she thinks that I value the health and happiness of my family way more than the stresses of work.

My daughter thinks that even when it feels like it’s time to cry, her daddy still laughs; she thinks her mother is our hero and that it’s my job to support her in any way I can.

My daughter thinks that I love to play much more than I love to worry; she thinks I’m patient and full of grace.

My daughter thinks that everything I say is sincere and honest; she thinks that I’m the hardest worker she knows.

Yesterday I managed to fool her. Today, may she be right.