Postcard from Little Rock with famous stairs from segregation to inclusion

A visit to Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, a National Historic Site? Done! Ever since watching the documentary “Eyes On The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement” and learning more about the Little Rock Nine and the events in 1957, I wanted to see this site of former social and political struggle. (I call these my “pilgrimages” to meet God and fellow human beings in a deeply challenging way.) Using religious and biblical language, this place has an aura of holiness where I want to take off my shoes like Moses in front of the burning bush.

Absolutely gorgeous and majestic building! If I did not know that it is a high school, I would think it is a big, old university or government building. Like the beautiful state capitol buildings all around the USA. To me, it looks even more majestic because of its troubled history.

To quote a History Channel website, “The Little Rock Nine were a group of nine black students who enrolled at formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957. Their attendance at the school was a test of Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. On September 4, 1957, the first day of classes at Central High, Governor Orval Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to block the black students’ entry into the high school. Later that month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine into the school.”

As we know, history is not just about facts. (Those you can learn by simply searching for  ‘Little Rock Nine‘). It is about the truth that it stands for and the mirror it holds out to us. We can judge the past generations, but they always push back with a rhetorical question –  what would you have done? I looked at those beautiful stairways and the large platform at the LR Central High School and though to myself, “What a stage! What a platform for the whole world to see!” Much of the Western world did watch the ugly face of blatant racism on full display.

And then I think about all the other schools and institutions around the world, past and present, which are not under such a spotlight but ,nonetheless, struggle with the same issues. ‘Us’ and ‘them’. ‘Insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. Those who ‘belong and deserve’ and those who ‘don’t belong and don’t deserve’.  Separating people by race, gender, language, religion, ethnicity, etc. Little Rock Central High School could be anywhere and, in some ways, it is everywhere.

Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia, North America… all parts of the world. Ask the Rohingya in Burma, ask tribal people or anyone with dark skin in Thailand, ask Aboriginal Australians, ask the Gypsies in Latvia and other European countries, ask the Sudanese in Egypt… I think of all the conversations I have had with friends who have experienced different forms of racial prejudice.

Racism comes in many shades of attitudes and forms. I never knew I could think as racist and speak as racist until I found out that I could. And I am very grateful for dear friends who called it out! I have been blindsided many times. Just like many of us who don’t think about “racism” because we think we can choose not to think about it.

The neighborhood around Little Rock Central High School is another powerful visual reminder that the struggle for our common human dignity is continuing. The neighborhood is an obvious “hood”. For me as a visitor, it looks like a Hollywood movie about gang-ruled, run-down, trashy, poor neighborhood, but unfortunately this is not a movie set. I drove around thinking how I would not want to live here, how I do not even want to park my friend’s  car anywhere and how out of the place the beautiful historic high school building looks. It is very easy to imagine that, back in 1957, this was a mostly white (or maybe all white) neighborhood. Now the residents are mostly black. Obviously at some point the demographics were completely switched. Even as the high school was becoming integrated.

I saw many white high school students coming out of the buildings, but they did not walk very far. Getting into their cars, parked right in front of the school and school buses and driving away. To some, surely, nicer, newer and much safer neighborhoods. The contrast between the two realities  – the school and the neighborhood – could not be any starker.

This short pilgrimage to Little Rock Central High School grounds reminded me that of us, not just Americans, are on a continuous journey. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There are many more beautiful, but difficult stairways to climb.

 

The lessons of humble courage from my long-time hero

How to respond when people make statements about the Church being full of hypocrites? My favorite answer was given by Shane Claiborne, a hero of mine, who said: “No, the Church is not full of hypocrites. Not yet! There is room for more!”

It makes me laugh out loud but also touches something deeper and more profound than a good sense of irony. It speaks to our imperfect humanity and shared vanity. All of us are hypocrites in one sense or another. In or outside of religious communities. With or without any religious beliefs. We often don’t practice what we preach. Still, as a long-time practicing hypocrite I would rather be in the company of others who recognize it in ourselves and desire to follow a better way. The way of humility which for me is the way of Jesus Christ!

I finally got to meet and hear Shane Claiborne in person. He is a best-selling author, speaker and founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia.  Mainly known for activism inspired by his Christian faith, advocating for the homeless, nonviolence,  to end the death penalty and being involved in other social causes. His latest book “Beating guns” (2019) focuses on ways to stop gun violence. I have read Shane Claiborne’s books, ” The Irresistible Revolution”, ” Jesus For President”, agreed with many of the stances and followed his public activities for some years now. Needless to say, I got very excited to see him listed as one of the speakers at Justice, Mercy and Humility conference @  AudioFeed Festival in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

Audiofeed Festival is an Arts and Music community whose goal is “To create an environment where unconditional love is nurtured, encouraged, and shared without regard for appearance, religious belief, race, societal status, or any other thing that separates us from each other in the world at large. We believe that the perfect example of that Love was expressed through Jesus Christ and we do our best in fitful and imperfect ways to follow His example. Exploration, questioning, doubts, fears, hopes, joys… all are welcomed and encouraged. Ultimately we’re people who want to support each other and experience great music and art with others who feel the same way.”

I can truly say that it is a space and an event where the atmosphere of community, authenticity and inclusion is palpable. From organizers, volunteers, artists to the audience. Lots of it can be explained as inheriting of values and philosophy of Cornerstone Festival (1984-2012). (If you never had the chance to attend Cornerstone Festival in Illinois, USA, I will not even attempt to describe it. I can only recommend watching the documentary, dedicated to its 20th anniversary.)

Creative authenticity and humble courage are qualities the world needs. ” Entitlement is the opposite of humility”, one of the statements from Shane Claiborne that has really stuck with me. Often we talk about pride as the opposite of humility but entitlement is something that points to the deeper root of pride in our hearts. The way of Jesus turns the notion of entitlement on its head! “Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:6-7)

I apologize if this too much Christian and Bible talk for some, but these simple truths get twisted and misrepresented so easily. This is the reason why I enjoy being in company of people who acknowledge that we are all imperfect hypocrites, together on the journey of faith.

P.S. AudioFeed Festival is not Cornerstone, but it is close as it gets. Highly recommend it!!!

 

 

Hong Kong stands courageous and defiant

After visiting Hong Kong, you never forget this unique, vibrant and beautiful island. I find this city, which has the most skyscrapers in the world, simply breathtaking. This is especially true when viewing the city from the Sky Terrace on the top of the mountain overlooking Victoria Bay or capturing the skyline at night.

Still, Hong Kong is much more than one of the financial business centers of the world. Last week it made the headlines as the center of political activism with large protests against a controversial law that would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to mainland China. I want to join the Hong Kong people in the hope that the world will take notice. Not just take notice as in 3 min news clips but speak up for the democracy and freedom that is threatened in this part of Asia.

Hong Kong’s political future is clearly at stake. “One country, two systems” is a constitutional principle which means that there is one China but certain regions, for example, Hong Kong, have its own governmental system, legal, economic and financial affairs. When Britain transferred Hong Kong to China in 1997, the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984 guaranteed these rights to Hong Kong for the next 50 years. How Hong Kong will be governed after 2047 is an open question – reintegrate with mainland China or stay under separate administration… Nobody knows what that future looks like.

It is very clear that China under the leadership/rule of Xi Jinping is becoming more and more authoritarian. Surveillance of its people like no place else; a social credit system to be fully implemented by 2020 which will monitor the behavior of all citizens  and rank them based on the “social credit“; a continued oppression and re-education of Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province which human rights groups describe as the largest mass incarceration in the 21st century; increased religious persecution, closing of Christian churches and jailing pastors who do not submit to the government control.

These are only few of the obvious abuses of universal human rights in the name of order and control of this vast country with large population and turbulent past. I would dare to say that in China the line between authoritarian and totalitarian rule is very fine.  The age-old idea of one strong hand (party), one ideology, one strong man (supreme leader, king, emperor) is steadily enforced and Hong Kong feels increasingly targeted and pulled by force into this authoritarian orbit.

I don’t understand all geopolitics and I have no idea what goes on behind closed doors. Nevertheless I can’t shake the feeling that the democratic nations are either completely consumed with their own domestic problems or care much less about using the “soft power” of diplomacy to support democratic initiatives around the world. Recently I was discussing these issues with a Hong Kong friend. I made a remark how Western governments, including in my home country of Latvia, are suspiciously quiet on these obvious human rights abuses and erosion of any signs of democracy in China while focusing on trade wars and economics. My friend replied: ” The only place to stand up to China is Hong Kong!”

After seeing the photos of 2 million people marching on the streets of Hong Kong last Sunday, I have to agree with her. Hong Kong may be afraid about its Chinese future but people are not willing to accept it without strong resistance and letting their common voice be heard around the world. At the forefront of this political activism are young people who are no longer passive about their future prospects.

Another friend of mine who grew up in China but few years ago moved to Latvia, told me that he does not think the Westerner societies care about Chinese people (he meant the effects of authoritarianism). Those were sad words to hear and, I am afraid, mostly true. Still, I hope that this time Hong Kong people will not feel completely on their own.

 

 

 

 

Communicative memory through three or four generations of family

I love browsing through my grandmother’s photo albums, especially, searching for visual glimpses of her life before or during World War II, before and during the Soviet, then Nazi and then again Soviet regime. There are not many photos to find.. First of all, they were a simple farming family who did not have many photographers around their village. Secondly, the war, deportation of her parents to Siberia, confiscation of their family farm, scattering of family to all corners of Latvia and Lithuania, hiding in the post-war years… I am amazed that there are any photos left at all.

This is possibly the last photo of my great-grandparents Jānis and Margaret (sitting in the middle) and their eldest son Miķelis (on the far left) enjoying life, family and friends at their farm in Butinge, Lithuania. This territory belonged to Latvia until 1921 therefore most of the local population in surrounding area were Latvians. The photo could be taken circa 1942-1943. In the autumn of 1944 their village was again taken over by the Soviet troupes. In 1944 two of my grandmother’s brothers, including Miķelis, crossed the Baltic Sea as refugees and in 1948 my great-grandparents and great-great-grandmother (who was well into her 90-ties) were arrested and deported to Irkutsk region in Russia.

They were allowed to return to Latvia only in 1957, few years after Joseph Stalin’s death. They had nowhere to go since the farm was confiscated, except move from place to place to stay with their children who themselves were struggling to find places to live. Plus, anyone, who had been deported, carried the sentence of “enemy of the state” for the rest of their lives, making it very difficult to re-settle. You were discriminated and marked (as if with leprosy in Jesus times) and some avoided you for fear of the regime.

For anyone who follows the science of memory politics, social, collective and cultural memory, etc, you may be familiar with Aleida Assmann and her well-known  thesis about communicative memory which is limited to the recent past. “It evokes personal and autobiographical memories, and is characterized by a short term (80 to 110 years), from three to four generations. Due to its informal character, it does not require expertise on the part of those who transmit it.”

Here is my family. Almost 80 years since this photo was taken. Three to four generations that are connected with a particular memory, a particular story and this story tells of a very deep trauma. There is the first generation – my grandmother, her siblings, her parents – who experienced it first-hand. Often if the experience has been very traumatic, this generation becomes the “silent” generation, focusing on survival. In our family, this would be my grandmother’s generation. But there was an added layer of trauma – in the Soviet Union they were not allowed to talk about it. These memories were simply “erased” from public memory and official history because they did not match the ideology of the regime. When the memory is repressed, there is no chance for healing.

Then there is second generation which grows up with these “silent” parents. Even though my grandmother has never been the silent type, she was afraid to tell many details of her past to her children and grandchildren. Not until Latvia started shaking off the totalitarian Soviet regime and became an independent country again. Suddenly there was a flood of stories. Being the fourth generation in this chain of communicative memory, I now regret that I did not ask more questions before my grandmother’s memory got badly damaged by old age and before my mom passed away from cancer.

Recently I got a stark reminder how deeply this trauma still affects the older generation of Latvian society. My grandmother is the most cheerful, positive person I know but she started to complain about bad nightmares which she could never remember the next day. Only word she kept repeating was “mud” and “wading through mud”. One morning while I was staying with her few weeks ago, she woke up from another one of those nightmares. Only this time she could remember it and described it to me in vivid detail.

She dreamed of being arrested and taken from her home, loaded into an open truck together with a large group of other women (she told me there were no children and nobody had luggage) and driven through Siberian taiga. When I asked her what time of the year it was in her dream, she replied: “Oh, it was late autumn. There was no snow on the ground but there was mud everywhere. Very deep mud. The truck kept getting stuck in the mud and we had to wade through this mud. It was horrible.” And she kept repeating: “They were taking us to the death camp. They were going to kills us there and we knew that this was our last journey.”

The thing is… my grandmother herself was never deported (someone had warned her and she went into hiding). Her parents were and so were many of her neighbors and friends. This was a collective trauma which affected so many families in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. In Latvia alone, on March 25, 1949, approximately 43 000 people were arrested and deported to Siberia. It took 31 train cars to transport them on the long journey across Russia.

I asked grandmother why she thinks she has these nightmares about camps in Siberia if she was never there. Her reply: “No, I was not there with my parents, but I have suffered as much. I have lived in hiding, I have slept in the forests… Those were terrible times.”

When I think I know something, I learn how much I don’t know. Only to realize that healing takes a long, long time and even at the age of 95, this repressed trauma can haunt. And to realize that these communicative memories remind me why we have to be on constant guard against any kind of totalitarian ideology and system. Left wing, right wing, atheist, religious, etc. … I don’t care. Anything that decides who is “in” and who is “out”, who lives if they obey and who dies if they disobey. (I plan to write a separate post on how I see the danger and deception of totalitarian  “seeds”)

Meanwhile my grandmother holds onto these words: “He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.” (Psalm 147:2)

Evasive confessions, elusive healing

Years ago I read “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller which had become somewhat a cult classic (and later a movie) among young evangelical Christians. One of the most memorable and provocative stories from this memoir was the story of small group of Christian students setting up a sidewalk confession booth at Reed University campus in Portland, Oregon. It was during a renaissance festival called Ren Fayre, and the booth had a sign “Confess your sins”. Instead of asking people to come inside to confess their sins to the Christians, the Christians were confessing the sins of the church to people who don’t have a religious affiliation. Apologizing for horrible things done in the name of God. Apologizing for inaction toward loving things which God desires.

I am thinking about this story in the context of Lent. Ash Wednesday was not a part of my particular church experience. Neither was Lent with its contemplation and fasting. Even today I admire friends who fast for 40 days. Not only from certain foods and drink, but also from social media and other things. I am always afraid to make  such vows public since breaking too many past promises.

No doubt we need to put new ashes on our foreheads and heads… heaps and heaps. My religious beliefs teach me that it is normal and important to acknowledge brokenness, sin and to repent. It brings healing to ourselves, and it helps us to restore broken relationships with others. At the same time I am fully aware that we, Christians, don’t practice what we preach. Too often I don’t practice what I preach. And one of the most shameful experiences is to be exposed of our dark secrets and efforts to whitewash the sad reality.

We live at a time of so much public exposing. Not knowing what the next spotlight will reveal while struggling to even begin the  process of healing, justice, restoration and reconciliation. Using biblical terms, we could talk about apocalyptic times (‘apocalypses’  means ‘revelation’, not destruction as many think). So many things that were just below the surface are now in the public space and conversation. The hashtag activism  is one strong sign of it like #MeToo movement. And the religious communities are not exempt. I was talking to a Catholic friend, reflecting on the ongoing revelations of sexual abuse by the priests, and he said: “I think of it as a time of healing. A chance for the healing to begin…”

I care, and I need to be reminded again and again that it is not about causes. It is about people. I think of the revelations in the documentary ” Leaving Neverland” about the sexual abuse of young boys by the King of Pop – Michael Jackson – and try to understand the backlash from hardcore fans who simply do not believe these testimonies. And the haunting questions asked again – how was it allowed to go on so long? Why do we have such a hard time facing hard truths? Like idolizing people with fame, money, power, talent and charisma and then being shocked that someone uses their status and power to manipulate and abuse.

We rage against the corruption of our elites and then we turn violent and smash things which are not ours and search for scapegoats to unleash our anger (yes, I am hinting at protest movements which have radical groups that start acting like a classic, violent mob). There is no better to say it than the words of  Martin Luther King:  ” Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”

In Latvia, we are in the midst of our own public exposures. Emotionally and psychologically charged but with very few confessions. Like publishing the KGB files to look at our collective past under a totalitarian system. Learning that every answer brings more questions and there are many shades of ‘truth’. Hoping for at least some honest acknowledgement of collaboration and realizing that this wish and expectation may remain unfulfilled. So far I can think of only handful of people who in different interviews have told their stories of collaboration with KGB quite openly. Only one of those people has publicly stated “I feel very bad about it and I am sorry”. He is a well-know poet who is also a practicing Christian, and he highlighted that his Christian faith drove him to this public confession.

Starting this post I wrote about the confession booth where Christians confess their sins to non-Christians. And immediately wanted to shift or at least share the blame by adding that not only Christians and the church as religious institution have sinned, but so have all of us and all of our institutions. Which would not be a false statement but it proves my point. I am more willing to admit my fault if others start admitting theirs. I don’t want to be singled out. I don’t want to the first. I start protesting “Yes, I have been wrong about this or that. But so have you and him and her and them…”

Our experience shows that an honest confession and taking personal responsibility remains evasive, and it makes the healing and restoration process more elusive.

 

 

 

The surreal reality called Putin’s Russia

Why call it ‘surreal’ when it is very real and even dear to millions of people? It continues to look and feel surreal to me ‘on the outside looking in’ or ‘looking over the neighbor’s fence’. Metaphorically speaking.

This week I watched a documentary “Putin’s witnesses” by an exiled Ukrainian/Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky who now lives in Latvia (which actually makes me very proud that Latvia now is a haven for Russian dissidents but also makes me very sad that people are forced to leave their true home).  The story focuses on what happens right after Boris Yelcin, the president of Russia, on December 31, 1999 in a televised address to the Russian nation announces that he is stepping down as the president and has chosen a successor – Vladimir Putin. Putin then started as the interim president but already three months later won the official presidential elections and has been ruling Russia ever since.

It is also surreal to think back on that New Year’s Eve. The grandiose 2000! The world was celebrating the start of the millennium as turning some page in a magic book. Some were scared, especially many of my American friends expecting the infamous Y2K with stockpiled shelves, but most were euphoric to be a part of this history. (Actually I don’t remember much from that night.) Meanwhile in Moscow, Boris Yelcin and subsequently Vladimir Putin were making their own history.

Mansky has made a very personal film and things are seen through the lenses of his family. I guess I should not be surprised by the family’s reaction on that New Year’s Eve because they had a much clearer picture on the tragedy of this political decision. Still I was struck by Mansky’s wife Natalya commenting on camera: “I am horrified. We got the strong hand now which so many people want. Will see how the screws will start tightening! This is horrible. What will happen to us now. (…) The world is shaken. It will be afraid of us again.”

Another powerful scene is Mansky’s youngest daughter in the bathtub, holding her breath under the water. She is a shy kid who does not want to be filmed but more importantly – she has picked up the stress and anxiety of her family. And she tries to defy or push it away. But you cannot hold your breath for very long.

Of course, the world reacted with suspicion and shock that a KGB officer could become the president of newly democratic Russia. I remember my own shock was the return of the Soviet anthem. Yes, the lyrics were changed to reflect Russian patriotism but the melody was the same. For everyone still remembering this song about the might and eternal glory of Soviet Union, the real message behind the change was not lost.

The documentary reminded of another surreal aspect of bringing back this Soviet past through the national anthem. How it gets blended with more enduring symbol – the church bells! The choir was obviously made to sound like a church choir and the church bells were to give the whole thing a sense of “sacredness” and “eternity”. How in the world do you glorify the Soviet regime side by side with the traditions of the Russian orthodox church which the Soviet regime tried to completely annihilate!

I pulled off my shelf some books on contemporary Russia, realizing how tragically relevant are Mansky’s personal reflections in the film. Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who was assassinated in 2006, wrote in her book “Putin’s Russia” (2004): “We want to go on living in freedom. We want our children to be free and our grandchildren to be born free. (…) This is why we long for a thaw in the immediate future, but we alone can change Russia’s political climate. To wait for another thaw to drift our way from the Kremlin, as happened under Gorbachev, is foolish and unrealistic, and neither is the West going to help.”

Another very insightful book is Peter Pomerantsev’sNothing Is True and Everything Is Possible” (2014) about his time working in Russian media. “It was only years later that I came to see these endless mutations not as freedom, but as forms of delirium, in which scare-puppets and nightmare mystics become convinced they’re almost real and march toward what the President’s vizier would go on to call the “the fifth world war, the first non-linear war of all against all.”

Doing it step by step while well-meaning filmmakers film for history’s sake, while technocrats drink champagne after a successful campaign for someone who will later remove or even kill them, while people are dancing in the streets because they are recovering some national pride. These kind of modern ‘chimera’ states mutate incompatible truths and make you believe that it is desirable and that you are seeing more clearly than before.

So the “normal” in Russia continues but to me it looks like holding breath underwater. And one day you have to come up from this “reality” to start breathing normally again.

The Valentine’s rose from my unlikely friend in San Francisco

I had not thought of Wayne in long time… or the things experienced in San Francisco. But yesterday these special and very significant memories came back so vividly.

It happened while listening to a group of young foreigners, mostly American, who are spending time in Rīga. Not only to experience this beautiful city but also to get to know and bless some of its people. It is a group of young Christians who believe that in some mysterious but also practical ways God can use them to show divine love. Even to random strangers while giving out roses at a local coffee shop on Valentine’s Day. Or giving small gifts, Valentine’s cards and flowers to women who work as prostitutes on Rīga streets.

Suddenly it brought back memories of when I had just turned 21 and joined a very similar group. Except the locations were reversed and I, as a Latvian, traveled to the USA to study in Oregon and later spent one month in San Francisco. And the time in San Francisco changed me and left a very deep imprint on my heart.

Wayne was the biggest part of this story. The least likely person for me to get to know while in San Francisco and I met him on the famous (or infamous) streets of Haight & Ashbury. An area of the city which some decades earlier had become known as the hippy hub. The times had changed and Generation X had taken over but there were still plenty of flower and peace symbols, New Age shops, arts galleries, vintage clothes stores and very strong hippy vibe.

The streets were truly vibrant and there was a strong sense of community. Many friendly, interesting, creative, welcoming people but also many broken ones.  I was very naive and, for example, had never been around so much drug abuse. My mentor had to explain to me the bizarre and even dangerous behaviour I was often observing. But sometimes ignorance and naiveté is a bliss and I simply wanted to make friends without keeping people at arm’s length because of their addictions or mental and psychological issues.

That is how I met Wayne. We were walking down the street together with my friend Heidi, looking for people to hang out with. Then Heidi was approached by a homeless guy who first asked if we had a cigarette and launched into a long, serious conversation about the meaning of life. He was lightly drunk and kind of smug but my friend Heidi was not put off by it and they talked for a long time.

Meanwhile I was completely put off by his homeless friend  – an old man sitting on the sidewalk, completely drunk, dirty and smelly – who kept calling me to come and talk to him. I tried to ignore him and kept thinking to myself “I did not come here tonight to talk or hang out with you, an old drunk. I don’t even talk to old drunks like you on the streets of Rīga. Plus, you are weird and stink so bad. It will make me sick to be near you.”

He kept calling… and finally I gave in. Walked over, sat down on the sidewalk and turned my head where I could feel the fresh breeze instead of the stench of alcohol and uncleanliness. I was shocked to learn that Wayne was not so “old”. I had guessed a man in his 60’s but he was actually in his mid 30’s. Originally from Ohio if I remember correctly but had lived on the streets of San Fran for many years. Sleeping in the parks, under the bridges, eating in soup kitchens, drinking with his buddies and living one day at a time.

Little did I know that this was the first of many deep conversations. With a smirk, Wayne asked if I was with a group of Christians (which was clearly obvious) and then proceeded to talk about his faith in God (probably expecting to be evangelized). He told me he really liked the teachings and the life of Jesus but he did not like most of what is called ‘the church’. He even liked the evangelist Billy Graham and in his youth had sent money to this ministry.

That night I simply listened as Wayne did all the talking. It felt like he just wanted someone to listen. I did not even sense the typical manipulative “feel sorry for me”. His story made me sad, for sure, because he was a very intelligent guy with such a destructive lifestyle. The following weeks when my friends and I went to Haight & Ashbury, I started to look for Wayne and usually he was there. Often sober. Sitting on the sidewalk where we continued our discussions about life, God, joys and sorrows, friends and family.

Before actually remembering my name, Wayne started calling me “the Russian girl” and his “Russian friend”. The word got out and got stuck. Every time his other friends would see me, they would say “hey, you are the Russian girl, right?” (Since then I have learned to explain the geographic location of Latvia differently because as soon as you explain that Latvia borders Russia, many people remember Russia but forget Latvia. I say, for example, Latvia is south of Finland or across the Baltic Sea from Sweden or between Estonia and Lithuania 🙂 )

One evening we brought a big container of hot water, shampoo and scissors for any of the homeless men and women who wanted a haircut since one girl in our group was a professional hairdresser.  The police did not mind as we did it right there on the sidewalk. Wayne also got a haircut and for the first time we saw him without his dirty beanie. Afterwards the whole street block smelled like a shampoo and there were many happy, clean faces.

When it came to our last days in San Francisco, I was hoping to say “goodbye” to Wayne and to simply tell him that God does really love him and sees him whatever situation he is in and knows every hair on his head. And that I will continue to pray for him. It happened to be Valentine’s Day which I did not know since we did not celebrate such day in Latvia. I could not find Wayne in the regular spot but finally spotted him. He greeted me with a big smile and a red rose: “Happy Valentine’s Day, my friend! I was hoping to see you before your group goes back to Oregon. Thank you so much for sitting with me on the sidewalk, thank you for our talks and for listening me! I will miss it.”

So, here is the plain truth and the real mystery… meeting and getting to know this broken, homeless man turned out to be the most spiritual experience from my time in San Francisco and in fact one of the very significant spiritual experiences in my whole life. Which I could have almost missed by proudly walking by or looking over (and surely I have missed many similar mutually enriching connections and even friendships).

I planned to tell Wayne “I am glad I see you. But most importantly God sees you and really loves you.” But he beat me to it. By extending the rose as a farewell gift, he communicated without words which I translated it as: “Thanks for seeing me. I see you and God sees you. Most importantly God sees and loves all.”

For those who read this – happy belated Valentine’s!