© 2021 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES     9/6/21
Feeling most American on September 11
By Sherry Robinson

All She Wrote
            It was not just another day in paradise. At 6 a.m. I was walking on a beach in the Indonesian nation of Bali, when a man told me in broken English that an airplane had crashed into a building. An accident, I thought.
            In September 2001, this was a long-anticipated, extraordinary trip. I’d always wanted to see Bali, but this was about to became a much different journey.  
            Later that morning we encountered an American who broke the news. It was unfathomable – far too much to comprehend in a single conversation.
            We hunted down an internet café. Hunched in front of small computers halfway around the world, we devoured word after terrible word on newspaper websites. Numb, we went back to our room. I sat on the step and sobbed.
            In search of more information, we surveyed red tile rooftops for a satellite dish and found our way to a hotel, where the bar’s TV was tuned to CNBC. A handful of Americans watched in stunned silence. People drifted in a few at a time until there were about 20.
            For the first time we were seeing it all. The little computers of the internet cafes weren’t powerful enough to produce photos. Now we took in the images that were already painfully familiar at home – the plane, the fireball, the collapse. We watched wordlessly, dabbing our eyes with napkins.
            Finally, a guy wondered aloud how he was going to get home. Airports were closed.
            When a member of the family dies, the relatives gather, in part out of custom but really because they draw comfort from one another. So when 3,000 members of the American family died, not in war but just going about their daily lives, all any of us wanted to do was go home.
            That wasn’t possible, so we dragged ourselves around, going through the motions of being tourists. Nothing in the guidebook was appealing. Instead of buying souvenirs we spent our money on the great fiberoptic umbilical cord tying us to home. In a small boat we were supposed to be watching dolphins and saw only burning buildings.
            There were moments of warmth. An Australian woman threw an arm over my shoulder the way you would to a friend who’d suffered a loss. Instead of being objects of resentment and jealousy, as Americans often are abroad, we’d gained great sympathy.
            A Balinese waiter, learning we were American, put both hands across his chest in an expression of sorrow. He mentioned that two Indonesians died in the towers. We learned from the Jakarta Post that ten Indonesians worked in the World Trade Center. As the death toll became better known, more nations would be drawn into our tragedy, including third-world countries like this one.
            Not everyone sympathized. As we walked around a small town on Bali’s remote northern coast, some teenagers joked about our dead and laughed. We walked away. Later one of them apologized. We were often asked if there would be World War III. We knew nothing but said we didn’t think so. The Balinese were buying extra rice just in case. In neighboring Jakarta there were anti-American demonstrations.
            It dawned on me that the terrorists may have struck a blow, but they couldn’t kill who we are, couldn’t kill our ideas. Even here were traces of the United States. Indonesia was using our governance as a model in trying to administer its far-flung islands. Business was conducted American-style. Mickey Mouse was everywhere.
           Back home, finally, we could properly grieve and mourn. Twenty years later, there is one thing about this whole experience that I wish I could call back, and that’s the golden moment when we were all Americans together.


Sherry Robinson photo

Show your support by safeguarding your organization’s money
By Merilee Dannemann

Triple Spaced Again
            When was the last independent audit of your church’s finances? Or of your favorite nonprofit?
            This might be, for some people, the most offensive question I could possibly ask. “What do you mean,” you might say, “my church or my organization? What are you implying?”
            There are two likely answers to the question.
            The first answer is, “I have no idea.”
            The second is, “We have a financial review every year. It’s routine.”
            If you gave the second answer, present a gold star to your treasurer. Hold a dinner in the treasurer’s honor. The treasurers of churches and nonprofits are unsung heroes.
            If your revenue exceeds $500,000, New Mexico state law requires an annual audit by an independent certified public accountant. If your revenue is below that, a review by an independent CPA using generally accepted accounting principles is recommended. Churches are exempt from the legal requirement but should do this anyway.
            The reasons for doing financial reviews routinely are in two categories, which can be described as catching bad guys and affirming good guys. Audits affirm the good guys, such as treasurers and bookkeepers, by verifying that they are doing things right in protecting the precious dollars donated by their members.  
            Catching bad guys is something you hope never happens. But it does. Here’s the hard part: The person who steals the money is almost always someone everybody liked and trusted.
            It’s so easy for a church, where everybody trusts everybody, to skip the audit because audits are expensive and there are many more compelling uses for the money. As one embezzlement victim commented to me, con-people know this.
            Tsiporah Nephesh, executive director of New Mexico Thrives, a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits, explained that the less expensive alternative is a Letter of Review, which can vary in scope. For moderate-sized organizations a good practice is to seek competitive proposals from three or more accounting firms, avoiding close friends and relatives.
            Bad news stories are easy enough to find.  Some reports from recent years:
            In 2016 a pastor in Ruidoso was convicted of stealing more than $20,000 from his church. One news report said it was more than $70,000.
            The business manager of a very small New Mexico school district pleaded guilty to embezzling $3.4 million from 2002 to 2009.
            In 2015, the principal’s secretary at an Albuquerque middle school was connected to the theft of $25,000 from the school’s activity fund.
            In 2016, a former church secretary in Clovis was convicted of embezzlement totaling $227,650.50. The news report said, “She was responsible for paying the church’s bills and got board members to sign blank checks in advance so she didn’t have to hunt down signatures to pay routine bills.” 
            Apparently in these trusting environments, the blank check method – or perhaps an online equivalent – is not uncommon.
            According to the victim I mentioned above, many more stories are kept out of the news by congregational leaders anxious to avoid embarrassment.
            If your organization has reasonably tight financial practices, it will not attract people who are looking for opportunities to steal.    
            The degree of prudency needed may vary with the complexity of the organization. I belong to a few organizations where the treasurer routinely provides reports. I get bored listening, but I am grateful that this person is a volunteer who puts time and effort into balancing our books to the penny.
            And I belong to one little group that has about $3,000 in the bank and collects dues plus $5 per meeting from nonmembers.  For that group, I will continue to ignore my own advice.  And I will always thank the treasurer.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

Columns appear here a week after they're sent to newspaper subscribers.