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Community Panel Offers Hope for Happy Valley’s Future

by on August 27, 2020 11:39 AM

I’m not a big fan of meetings, but this one was meaningful. And I’m definitely not a fan of virtual meetings, but this one was unforgettable.

Three veteran community leaders joined me on Monday morning to consider the matrix of challenges that threaten Happy Valley’s happiness this fall and how we can have hope. Connected by Zoom, we discussed such concerns as the local impact of COVID-19, the struggle to improve our community’s racial understanding and the economic impact of Penn State football’s schedule postponement. 

Taking part in the 75-minute conversation were:

  • Lydia Abdullah, a Penn State graduate, who served her alma mater for more than 40 years in functions of accounting, finance and budgeting. She retired in 2017 from her last role, Director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion for the Senior Vice President for Finance. Married 44 years to Gary Abdullah, she is a mother of two and grandmother of three, and she has volunteered with a multitude of State College and Centre County organizations.
  • Gary Moyer, a native of State College and graduate of Penn State who succeeded his father as head of Moyer Jewelers and later founded two other local businesses, Lion’s Pride and Collegiate Pride. He and his wife, Judy, have three grown children and four grandchildren.
  • Dan Nold, the lead pastor for the multi-site Calvary Church. Married to Lynn, he is the father of four and grandfather of three. Dan has been a subject of several of my earlier columns because of his ability to apply biblical wisdom to contemporary challenges and because of his personal experience as a COVID-19 patient.  

It wasn’t an especially humorous discussion, and given the serious issues being discussed, that wasn’t surprising. But it was emotional at times, especially when Gary Moyer spoke from the bottom of his heart in expressing sorrow for the pain felt by Lydia Abdullah and others in our African American community. Although they didn’t really know each other before our meeting and they were connected only by Zoom, the touching expressions of kindness and respect between Gary and Lydia created a wonderful foundation for the entire 75-minute discussion.  The following are edited portions of that discussion.

I’d like to begin by asking you to take the temperature of our community as we enter this challenging fall season. How would you describe the current mood in State College?

Moyer:  The folks I talked to recently, just before the return of the students, were nervous. I see a lot of concern about how the students are going to behave. Will they show their maturity and cooperate and work with us, or is it going to be a different story? So that's a little scary.

Abdullah:  I would add that people are just so tentative because of a lack of information or changing information. I have two young adult children with their own children. So, between their jobs at Penn State and the hospital and their kids in the school district, it’s been a case of things changing daily. And that puts people on edge. I don't know what I’d do if I was a parent of young children right now.

Nold:  I think the word that I go back to a lot is the word “uncertain” which dovetails with what both Gary and Lydia are saying. I guess I would also use the term “conflicting information” but really we're just watching science unfold as we go. And that just adds a lot of uncertainty to the decisions that we make. I've heard more in the last couple of months about decision fatigue than I ever have before. So I just think that uncertainty is part of it and everybody wants clarity.   If you go into a grocery store and there's like 3,000 choices for peanut butter, you know the one or two that you're going to take and you just ignore everything else. We want certainty.   

And then I'll just jump right in and say I know this isn't meant to be a political discussion, but I think the partisanship, the divide, is working against us nationally. I had a hope that when we went into the virus in March that people would set aside some of their harsh divisions and say, “Hey, let's focus on beating this thing together.” But that hasn't happened. So “divided” and “uncertain” would be two of the terms I would use for our situation.

Have any of you heard one particular comment that you think capsulizes the spirit of the community?

Abdullah:  Yes, “Not ready.” You know, around the school district you hear parents and teachers say, “We just weren't ready.” I deal with Penn State, and people there really were not ready either. I hear a lot of that. 

Gary, could you speak to the situation with the local business community? Is it also in a state of “not ready?”

Moyer:  Well, I think the business community is in a semi-state of shock. As Dan said, news might not be so bad if you can get the information that you need. But the problem is the information keeps changing daily and weekly. You hear good things and then you hear bad things. And so it's back and forth and up and down, and there’s just no manual to guide us through this.

Was the cancellation of Penn State's fall football season the straw that breaks the camel's back for community morale?

Moyer:  Well, I run a business which is dependent upon, to a large extent, activities of the university. And of course, the big one is football. So that hurt. But on the other hand, it's so easy to say, “The world is ending because football is ending.” Well, that's baloney. We survived before football and we'll survive without it for a while. It just changes the picture drastically.

Abdullah:  And you know, I may run with the wrong crowd, but football is not our god. We are more than able, as he was saying, to survive pre- and post-football. I think what is more concerning, you know, is helping those who are financially hurting. It's easy in this community to have blinders on and not be aware of the number of poor people. And then there's the whole other class of the working poor. That's the group that is oh, so vulnerable, that make a little bit too much to qualify for programmatic money. If the rest of the community doesn’t pay attention, we will have a vast number of people who may never recover from this economically. 

My heart bleeds for the businesses. When I drive downtown my heart just aches! But I am so much more concerned for that family with four children that is getting by with two jobs—one at Walmart and one at a restaurant. How are they going to make it?

Nold:  We have a number of small business owners, whether it's restaurants or cleaning companies, at Calvary. And I know they've taken a hit and are likely to take a bigger hit in the coming months, depending on what happens with the students. But then like you said, Lydia, there's another group of people being affected. When the coronavirus stuff first hit, the very first thing that we did at Calvary was set up a community relief fund. And we raised a hundred-some thousand dollars. That was used during March, April and May to help support some of the nonprofits but also to help support individuals who couldn't pay rent. But that money was gone in three, maybe four months. And I think at that point we were hoping maybe we were coming to the end of this, but the next two to four months could be just as difficult.

Abdullah: Don't you think a lot of it is dependent on us individually, listening to what God tells us to do? My husband and I were really struck with helping teachers. So we got gift cards for teachers we know. They always have to buy extra supplies, but now they've got to buy even more supplies to take care of themselves personally. Look down the street and see who has eight kids and one parent not working. Take them some food.  

Lydia Abdullah believes a deeper and more meaningful definition for “Happy Valley” will arise in the future.

What do you all see developing this fall? We're starting out with an economy that was already struggling, and not having Penn State football this fall is going to cost our economy tens of millions of dollars. Are you all fearful of an economic disaster?  

Moyer:  Well, I'm not sure “disaster” is the right word. It'll definitely be a difficult time for lots of people. On the other hand, our part of the economy is much, much better than lots of other places. So from that standpoint, we've got a lot to be thankful for. And we've got a community that has demonstrated in the past a willingness to help one another. I think compared to lots of other places, in State College we've got a lot going for us. But it won't be easy.

Nold:  I appreciate what you’re saying, Gary. I also don't know that it's going to be disaster. I ran across something—it was probably a Facebook meme—that said, “If you were born in like 1905 or 1910, here's what you went through. You went through World War I, you went through the Spanish Flu when millions of people died, you went through the Great Depression, you went through World War II.” I think the factor that makes this feel more daunting is that although we’ve had pockets of great tragedy, as a nation we haven't experienced things like this for a long time. The 9-11 tragedy hit us in the soul, but that wasn't like the Great Depression. So I feel like in the last few decades our goal has been centered on comfort and control and pleasure. Right now, we’re facing tough times, and who knows what else will come up? Like the pair of powerful hurricanes. But I'm pretty hopeful that there's a toughness in us, a spiritual toughness as well as a grit that is still deep within us.

Abdullah:  Yeah, and I’m also not ready to concede we are looking at a disaster for our community. I do believe there are probably pockets in the nation where this is a disaster. But we are very blessed here in Centre County. I mean, I go back to the last Centre Foundation’s “Centre Gives.” It was the largest ever (the 2020 campaign, held in May, raised $2.179 million, $750,000 more than the previous high). It's truly wonderful to know that we are capable of great things during hard times.

I am, though, very concerned about what politics is doing to the way people relate. Between now and the first week of November, it's probably going to be more nasty than we can even anticipate. I think that adds to the disastrous part, how relationships and tonality are going to be impacted by the election.

All of you are pointing to our attitude and our community connectedness, saying that if we have grit, if we have faith, if we pull together, we’ll be okay. It makes me think of the great Franklin Roosevelt quote that said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Nold: The Bible has a lot to say about fear, but the go-to for me is, “Perfect love casts out all fear.” You know, courage is not really the absence of fear. The absence of fear in some situations is stupidity. But when I love somebody or something—a cause or person—more than I love myself, I'll do courageous things. That can happen with a mother or a father loving a child, a neighbor loving another neighbor, or a community member having love for their community.

So I think there’s an opportunity to be courageous in the coming months. That word “grit,” I remember a definition that I heard for it during a message by University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth. She said that grit is the combination of passion and perseverance. When you love something or something, you're not going to give up. So what do we love and what are we going to endure? 

Abdullah:  But I think we have to balance that grit with a component that we often miss—the self-care part. People are worn out. You know, on any given day I could scream if I have another Zoom meeting. So, along with the grit has to be that balance of, “Am I doing all I need to do to take care of myself physically, emotionally, mentally?” So I know we have to take better care of ourselves and, and I'm especially watching our young adults. They're burning the candle at both ends, especially those who are working for the university or the school district. They're balancing so much, and we have to be mindful not to ask them to do one more thing.

Moyer: I am in a slightly different situation because I've got 25 or 30 employees. It was easier to take care of them when we had the famous PPP program from the government. But now that money is gone, and we're on our own dime. And basically my job is to be a cheerleader for them to try to keep morale up. So I say to them, “Business is way, way, way off, because most of what we sell is related to events and most events are canceled. But there's still some business being done. Maybe we can't keep you busy the whole 40 hours a week. Maybe we’ll keep you busy 35 hours or whatever we can.” We've got to spread the pain a little bit.

But I’ll do whatever it takes to care for these folks, even if it means pumping our retirement money into it or grandkids’ college money into it. We’ve built a family of all these people who've been with us for years and years. We can't abandon them now.

Abdullah: Gary, as an owner you could close the doors and forget about people. But it's your heart that's allowing you to push forward and to care for others. I am concerned though, for people like you, that you don't get worn out. And that's why it's real important that we keep our business leaders and political leaders in prayer. Because if you and your wife go out, how many more families are out?

Nold: I really appreciate what you’re saying, Lydia, about self-care. This is a draining time. And then, Gary, what you said about how the people who work for you are not just your employees; you've built a family. These are some things that will help us get through tough times.

Gary Moyer appreciates State College’s strengths but still anticipates short-term economic difficulties. 

Let me jump in with a question relating to Lydia’s point about our own needs in the midst of all this stress. I think a key source for personal strength is found in our churches, but ironically, the churches can’t bring many people together at once because of the virus. Can they really feed the souls of our people through Zoom?

Abdullah:  Let me give you a lay person's perspective. I think the churches are really at a point of redemption to soar and make it clear what this walk is really about. It's not the church buildings we've been blessed with. It's the outreach, whether it’s by Zoom or making a phone call to check on someone you haven't seen. 

Nold:  Yes, I think that God is more interested right now in how we scatter than how we gather. That doesn't mean gathering isn't important. But in this season, I think he's trying to say to us to remember that part about “Love your neighbor.” Love yourself, love God, love your neighbor, love each other. Those things don't require buildings.

Abdullah:  It's bringing us back to a place we’ve needed to be. My husband and I just finished participating in a community effort to go through the book The Color of Compromise with folks from other churches. I don't know if that would have happened if we were still attending our physical churches on a regular basis. But here we had an opportunity to interact with people from other churches and still have Christ at the center. So it's been a time of opportunity. And I don’t think Unity (she is a member of Unity Church of Jesus Christ) would have pushed so quickly to offer online services. So when things are re-opened, we'll have more than one option.

I wanted to ask about our community’s racial relationships. There was a lot of dialogue soon after the death of George Floyd, but I'm wondering if that is getting forgotten because we're consumed with the virus and the economy.

Abdullah:  I don't think it has been forgotten, at least locally. We have enough things going on here. There’s RUN, the Racial Unity Network, there’s Community Diversity Group, the NAACP, and there’s a group effort within State College Area School District (Race and Marginalized Populations Workgroup). They are still functioning at a high capacity and are trying to stay visible. And my husband's putting on a program this Friday at the MLK Plaza downtown. It's going to be virtual, but it's still going to celebrate the 1963 March on Washington. I think the issues around racism are still being dealt with.

Particularly regarding the situation with George Lloyd, my husband and I got to meet neighbors that we never met before. There were people showing up at our door with food or flowers, not knowing what to say or what to do but wanting to express their lamentations with us. So that is very hopeful for me, that people were touched to action. They didn't know what to do, but they wanted to portray their heart.

Moyer:  Lydia, for everybody that showed up at your doorstep and brought food or flowers or good wishes, there are a lot of us…that had no idea what to say…

Abdullah:  It's true. Gary, your heart still comes through. You may not know what to say, but you lament with me.

Moyer:  Exactly.

Abdullah:  You feel. You can just draw to my side, even on a screen, and feel my pain. That's what tears down the sin of racism. That you feel my pain…that means more than anything else you can do. And that's what God honors. That's what he honors, that your heart is tender towards him and towards his people. And I think if we had not been in this time of isolation and quarantine a lot of us might have missed that. We would have been too busy with other things to feel each other's pain.

Dan Nold expects to see local residents demonstrating spiritual strength in response to various challenges.

Nold:  I think the word lamentation is important right now. I think that's the place where I've seen the white church—I'll just say the white evangelical church—step forward a little bit, be pushed forward a little bit. In the last few months more of the leaders have been saying, “Hey, you know, my tribe has had a part in this,” and showing a lamenting heart. The picture I feel God has given me for our situation is when we take lamentation and add to it hope. That's when we travail.  And we need to travail for new life to come, for the birth of a new chapter, for something new in our community.

Abdullah:  I really do believe this is a time to take a hard look at our lives. But my encouragement, my hope comes from 2 Chronicles 7:13-15. Here’s what it says: “When I shut off the heavens so that there is no rain or command locusts to devour the land or set a plague among my people, if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

This time is not without purpose. It is an appointed season so that each of us, wherever we’re at, can let God clean up our act. Whether it's over racism, whether it's over selfishness, whatever is in my heart that needs to be cleaned out. So that's why these are not desperate times.

Nold:  It's the story that we tell ourselves and tell others about the difficult time that makes the difference. And, you know, honestly, I just, I think Happy Valley needs a new story.

Abdullah:  Yeah, yeah.

Nold:  It can't be the university story or the football champion story or the go-out-and-party-at-the-bar story or even the economic story. I think there is a story that will give us a lot of hope. It’s a deeper story that’s waiting to be discovered and told. It has to do with the idea that God’s got a plan, and we’re in this time for a purpose. There’s meaning in the difficulty. It’s not a temporary interruption, but it’s a transitional disruption. God’s preparing us for the next chapter. 

Abdullah:  And there’s joy for all of us in doing the right thing. Like Gary's discussion on how they're committed to helping their employees. Now, does it make him happy to have to dip into his personal savings to meet some of his employees’ needs?  Not necessarily, but there is a joy in keeping families afloat. So he can take his walks in the morning without the pain of knowing he could have done something and didn't do it. Happy Valley is getting a chance to have a deeper and more meaningful reason for being happy.  

You know, when we were going through the Sandusky stuff, and I was right in the midst of it in Old Main at the time, we thought for sure there was no lower pit. But what did it show? A resilient people. I've never seen employees so determined to prove to the world that we are good people, you know? And that we mean good for our students. So that was a glimpse for us to prepare for now. And now we are faced with a situation where we're going to give new definition to Happy Valley.

Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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