A big ‘thank you’ to all volunteers around the world!

There is a commercial on CNN which shows all their international reporters documenting important events around the world and the slogan says “Go There”. So simple and cliché but profound. Sometimes you simply have to get out of your chair/sofa and “go” because you are needed. Sometimes “there” is around the corner and other times it is on a different continent.

It gets me every time because there is this powerful invisible string that ties my heart to many places. This week as I watch the super Typhoon Mangkhut roaring across Philippines, Hurricane Florence on the coast of the United States and the scenes of flooding and destruction, I think of all the volunteers who will be needed to clean up and rebuild the communities. I know what it’s like to pick up the remains after such devastating natural catastrophes when the local resources – human and material – are completely overwhelmed. My husband and I have volunteered at many such sites.

Khao Lak, Southern Thailand in 2004 after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami; Bay St.Luis, Mississippi in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand after terrible monsoon floods… and also refugee camps and poor communities living in the slums. Yes, many times I have been one of those strangely dressed foreigners who stand out as a sore thumb while trying their best to blend in, manage without a translator by using creative sign language, politely refuse a meal if it is too ‘challenging’ to stomach (like soup with blood curds) and often behave in culturally insensitive ways despite my best intentions. Welcome to the life of a volunteer!

Another cliché is that everyone takes photos with adorable local kids but it’s true. And I am not ashamed of it! Because the children are always the ones who quickly break the ice and at difficult moments remind you why you are there and teach you many important things about resilience and hope. In the small Thai fishing village of Baan Nak Khem which was completely destroyed by the tsunami, the children worked almost as hard as the adults to rebuild their homes. Even the little ones were carrying sand and water to the builders.

I count it such a privilege to meet so many ordinary but incredible people who will never write a book or make a documentary about their selfless acts or get an award for their sacrifice of time, money, skills, careers, fame and comfort. But these thousands and millions of volunteers – locally and globally – know what their true award is.

As my husband likes to challenge me or anyone else who will listen, it is easy and natural to ask, “What will THEY do about it? What will the government do about it? What will my  work/school/church do about it?” But the question that actually matters is “What am I going to do about it?”

And one heartfelt handshake by someone who does not speak your language, one lavish meal cooked by someone who does not have much, one hug by someone who usually does not show emotion or one happy face of a child who thinks that you came half-way across the city, state, country or across the world just for him or her is like the whole world saying “Thank you! Thank you so much!”

Funeral like no other making love great again

One Lord. One Faith. One Baptism.

I could not get my eyes off this pulpit. And could not turn off my TV for hours even though it was getting late (or early morning) here in Latvia. I had just been changing  the channels to watch some news and found that CNN was showing Aretha Franklin’s memorial service in Detroit at Greater Grace Temple.

The event lasted seven hours!!! I wonder how many of us have been to a funeral this long. And one that did not feel like grieving but like Easter morning church service. In the beginning the TV anchors followed the script and inserted some breaking news (like Trump’s trade wards with Canada) but soon they realized this event is not going along any script. This was a celebration of life which ignored all the ” protocol” of time and schedule. The CNN reporter laughed and said, “We are already 3 hours behind schedule” and then they just let the cameras roll without any further interruptions.

I have never visited an African American church but this was a beautiful glimpse into what it means to be a community that celebrates life (birth, death, joys and sorrows) and faith in the fullest. With passion, emotion, laughter, tears and ever present hope.

Oh my, can they sing!!! The preachers go up to talk and suddenly bust into a song. (I have never seen my pastor do that 🙂 )The singers don’t just sing a song but tell a story with their whole body and the audience responds. The choir is ready at any moment and don’t need a conductor; the band can improvise for hours; the audience can jump up on their feet at random and start moving, shouting, dancing. There were people falling asleep after sitting through so many speeches and eulogies but suddenly they would be wide awake when there was a soulful song or some rousing statement.

And there were many rousing statements. It revealed again and again that the legacy of someone like Aretha Franklin was not just her amazing powerful voice and memorable music but it was a legacy of human dignity, strength, love, civility, solidarity and, of course, respect for each other. R-E-S-P-EC-T

Many civil rights activists were speaking as were famous artists, actors and former presidents. Barack Obama sent a letter in which he wrote, “Whether bringing people together through thrilling intersections of genres or advancing important causes through the power of song, Aretha’s work reflected the very best of the American story, in all of its hope and heart, its boldness and its unmistakable beauty… In the example she set both as an artist and a citizen, Aretha embodied those most revered virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Last one to perform was Stevie Wonder and he played a beautiful rendition of “Lord’s Prayer” on his harmonica. “Were it not for God’s goodness, God’s greatness, we would’ve never known the queen of soul,” he said. And he talked about “making love great again”.

He finished with his song “As” written in 1976 and the whole place exploded with celebration…

“We all know sometimes life’s hates and troubles
Can make you wish you were born in another time and space
But you can bet you life times that and twice its double
That God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed
So make sure when you say you’re in it but not of it
You’re not helping to make this earth a place sometimes called Hell
Change your words into truths and then change that truth into love
And maybe our children’s grandchildren
And their great-great grandchildren will tell
I’ll be loving you ”

(P.S. I highly recommend watching the recording of the service on You Tube! It will inspire you!)

 

 

Oregon diary: The art of sanctuary

I will admit the sign in the shop window first surprised me. I was entering a store for used books, looking at the posters and local advertisements and there it was. You could not miss it! “WE WELCOME… ALL RACES… ALL RELIGIONS… ALL COUNTRIES OF ORIGIN… ALL SEXUAL ORIENTATIONS… ALL GENDERS… WE STAND WITH YOU… YOU ARE SAFE HERE”

Safe? In the store? In the city of Salem? In Oregon? Safe from what?

Then I remembered that there are U.S. cities and counties which declared themselves as sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. What I did not realize that there are also five sanctuary states with laws that limit how local police can cooperate with federal immigration agents! Oregon is one of them and actually the first state to pass such a law. The others are California, New Mexico, Colorado and Illinois.

According to Salem Weekly News, “This state law, passed in 1987, did not begin life as a specific sanctuary law for undocumented immigrants. Some say it was in response to racial profiling of U.S. citizens born in other countries, while others believe it was a way for local police to get out of footing the bill for enforcing Federal Immigration laws. Whatever the original intent, this law is a tug-of-war issue in the controversies over the rapidly shifting U.S. Immigration and Customs policies.”

Immigration is such a hot and divisive issue. Even while writing, I know that it is very complicated and certainly not “either/or”. We see how many government elections and referendums around the world are wrapped around this question. Who belongs and who does not. Who is welcome and who is not. Who is local and who is immigrant (no matter how many generations later). Who is “us” and who is “them”. Who is “good” immigrant and who is “bad” immigrant. Which religion is “acceptable” and which one is “threatening”. Which country’s citizens we want and which ones we don’t want.

I love America and certainly feel very welcome and accepted here on my visits. But I do know that not everything in the story of this “country of immigrants” is as it seems or as told by the “official” version. For example, friends in Minnesota can tell me about the days when there were signs “Irish are not welcome”. And the Protestants in certain communities did not want to welcome the Catholics and vice versa.

Recently I heard a comment from an American friend who was very reflective, “Yes, we are a country of immigrants. But we, the European descendants, do not think of ourselves as the immigrants in America. The ones we call ‘immigrants’ are the non-Europeans – Asians, Africans, Hispanics… everyone who does not look like us.”

When I saw the sign in Oregon, it reminded me why I like this Pacific Northwest state so much. It is not perfect by no means but I like the strong spirit, broad mindedness and the attitude of being pro-active. Oregonians have strong opinions, choose to act and obviously this shop was making a loud and clear statement.

How fitting for a store that is selling books and stories of our interconnected and shared human existence and experience!

 

Off the beaten path or where in the world is Zumbrota

Last week there was an article in TIME magazine how Europe is overwhelmed with tourists. Particularly Italy, France, Spain and specifically some of the popular cities like Barcelona, Venice, Rome and Dubrovnik in Croatia. “Of the 1.3 billion international arrivals counted by the U.N. worldwide last year, 51% were in Europe. Americans, in particular, seem drawn to the perceived glamour and sophistication of the Old Continent. More than 15.7 million U.S. tourists crossed the Atlantic in 2017”, said TIME. “France received 87 million tourists last year.”

That is a lot of people. I read an article like this and become very self-conscious. Conscious of how convinced myself that I blend in better than most tourists. Conscious of being privileged one because of my European passport and income while I meet so many people around the world who cannot even dream  of such travel. Conscious that I want to see these famous cities and places, too, but do not want to be one of the millions.  (Certainly do not want to compete with crowds to take a photo with a view) Conscious of all the times I have searched for low-cost flights while some of my friends choose not to travel by air because of environmental concerns.

Many of us who travel for work or pleasure have these thoughts. I know how many places and countries build their whole economy on tourism but what about the ugly side of it? Local businesses and vendors compete for the money and people start harming their own land, environment and historical heritage. And what about the environmental print of all these millions on the move every year? Including my own? It is perplexing.

While living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I often heard the frustration and dilemma of my local Thai friends who wanted to have a business but were weary of visitor’s attitudes and behavior and the big changes happening in their city. One time I witnessed how Chinese visitors expected the Thai staff to speak Chinese and practically yelled at them. “We have the money and so many of us are coming and why are you too slow to learn our language”.

I stood there thinking how dare this Chinese guy be so rude. And then I remembered that I speak English and I kind of expect to go places and to be understood. (Without the yelling, though 🙂 ) Plus, Thai culture is so polite and accommodating that an average visitor will never know how many times a day he or she may be breaking the cultural taboos. I have seen what my fellow countrymen, Latvians, will do and say in places like Thailand while I hesitated to open my mouth to confront them for  promoting the “ugly European” stereotype. Since I am the polite and culturally sensitive one, right?

Anyways… this summer you can call me a European tourist in America! Besides a busy schedule with meetings, I get to explore. Some small towns and communities. Have you ever heard of Zumbrota, Minnesota? Well, I had not but now I can say “I was there”. What a hidden gem with a typical main street, art shops, beautiful small state theater, best fish and chips I have had in Minnesota and even a unique, old covered bridge!

The lady at the art gallery who sold us tickets to go and see two great local bands, was very friendly. “Latvia? You certainly have come a far way to hear them :)”, she exclaimed. I was equally impressed ’cause she knew exactly where Latvia was. After receiving another compliment how good my English was (that always makes me even more conscious to speak), the lady directed us to Coffee Mill cafe where we had the delicious battered cod.

Don’t know how many visitors a year come to Zumbrota but in 2018 I was one of them! Hopefully not as a statistic but as a Latvian charmed by rural Minnesota.

 

Minnesota diary: Refugees speak about their dreams, struggles and marginalization

I was sitting in the shade under a tree in Loring Park and watching the Twin Cities World Refugee Day performances. Stories, poetry, songs, dances, more stories… Many thoughts were going through my head. First of all, I felt bad for the young Hmong dance group who performed four beautiful dances but were visibly exhausted. All that make-up, changing of costumes, waiting for the next turn. All that during a very hot and humid afternoon (many people would have no idea how hot it gets in Minnesota during the summer).

Secondly, I wished the audience and the attendance was bigger. Maybe the heat, maybe lack of promotion, maybe lack of interest – there could be so many reasons. But many people who knew and who cared, came and supported the immigrant and refugee community of Minneapolis and St Paul metropolis.

There were some refugee groups highly represented – Southeast Asians from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma) and Africans from Somalia and Liberia. Just now I looked up the statistics and read that in the last three decades (1979-2016), more than 100,000 refugees have come to Minnesota. This state has welcomed some of the largest communities of Somali (23,400), Hmong (22,000), Karen (14,000), Vietnamese (15,000) and many others, including Ethiopian, Bosnian, Iraqi, Sudanese, Bhutanese.

I remember when I lived in Thailand – Burma border teaching English in refugee schools and talked with many of my Karen friends whose families were hoping to relocate to the United States. Minnesota had one of the most welcoming programs but I was wondering how would someone from Burma, a tropical Asian country, resettle in a new life in northern Midwest. It seemed like the craziest idea and the most unlikely place. But when you are a refugee, you are not picky. You are grateful for the chance to start a new life in peace and security.

And worry about the freezing temperatures later. One winter I saw elderly Karen women walking down the street wearing winter coats but only sandals on their feet. At the event on Sunday my husband mentioned it to one of the Karen volunteers. “We had no idea what to wear in the winter”, she laughed. “We put many layers on our upper bodies but did not know what to wear on our legs. It was a long time before someone local introduced me to the leggings.”

Who were the locals these refugees met when they started living here? How many of the refugees feel ‘local’ even after being here for many years? What makes you a local? What makes you belong? Where are your roots? So many of the refugees feel like nomads and wanderers the rest of their lives and this feeling passes from generation to generation.

Many of the artists on the stage were super talented communicators and the spoken word was exceptional. Many were highly educated second generation immigrants and still they had this incredible deep need to tell their parents heartbreaking story and their own struggles growing up in America as children of refugees.

The richness and beauty of all these cultures meeting, mingling and bonding in this one big country is something to behold. And the annual Twin Cities Refugee Day is truly a day of gratitude and acceptance but also a reminder that this beautiful social fabric is very fragile and vulnerable. And needs to be cherished and nourished as a special gift. And someone always needs to be the good neighbor who says “Welcome to your new home! Welcome to Minnesota! Let me show you what to wear in the winter 🙂 ”

 

My Minnesota diary: Indians and cowboys

Every writer needs a break. After a busy year of university studies, I was deflated. Emotionally and mentally. Who wants to write a blog after staring at the computer screen for days and weeks and months? After a one month hiatus ‘peaceroads’ is back… the world keeps spinning and there is too much happening to keep thoughts to myself (or for my poor husband to be the sounding board 🙂 ).

And let me start with ‘Minnesota diary’ since I am spending summer in the US, mostly in the beautiful Midwest. The name ‘Minnesota’ is based on the Dakota Sioux word “Mini sota“, the native name for the Minnesota River which means “cloudy water” or “sky-tinted water.” Many locations in Minnesota are derived from native American languages including Cree, Sioux and Dakota.

I must admit that on first visits I took it for granted. Well, just some strange American names! Minneapolis sounds cool and that’s it! Minnehaha… haha… But then I started to wonder about these names of streets, neighborhoods, counties while driving through cities. What a unique and interesting name is Minnetonka or Chippewa or Shakopee… where it comes from and what it means.

Quite obvious that these were not typical European/Scandinavian/Anglo names so common in the area. I figured it must be Native American heritage. Ever present even if the people whose language was used are marginalized.

I love maps. I have scoured the map of Minnesota, the land of thousand lakes, and find it so fascinating. And my eyes are always drawn to the Native American tribes and their territories. To me, a foreigner and visitor, this is like a movie. Reservations! The name always raises so many questions in my head. Reserved for what? Reserved from what?

Nowadays most Native Americans (78 %) live in urban centers, not on the reservations. But even in the cities I rarely meet someone from First Nations. My one ‘token’ friend is from the Lakota tribe with relatives in South Dakota and she has invited me to “powwow”, a traditional community gathering with food, dance and song. Sad to admit I still have not taken up this offer because the time is always too short.

Here is the thing… most of my American friends would be totally surprised to find out that I grew up with movies about the cowboys and the Indians. In USSR? In communist Latvia? Did they show American movies? No, these were made in East Germany and undoubtedly used as anti-American propaganda. Guess what?! In our movies Indians were always the good guys and the cowboys were the bad ones. The cowboys were greedy and powerful and wanted to rip off the Indians who were brave and honorable and oppressed.

And we wanted to be Indians! I wanted to be an Indian girl, my brother wanted to be an Indian boy and so did the other kids in our neighborhood. The justice was on the side of the Indians who were treated unjustly and we, the children, wanted justice. We would find bird feathers and put in our hair. Sometimes the shops would sell ‘Indian’ head covers with paper feathers and my brother was lucky to get one of those. I was so jealous…

Recently I had a conversation in Duluth, MN. I was describing some of the tensions and historic ethnic fault lines in Latvia and one young woman commented, “This sounds so strange and foreign to me to have these kind of historical grievances and prejudices between groups of people. Here in northern Minnesota we do not have anything like it.”  Not wanting to be the know-it-all but I had to point out the reservations, legacy of boarding schools and the general Native American experience. What if I asked them about grievances and prejudices? I have a feeling their answer would be quite different.

Do not mean to judge. Just to point out that we get so blindsided because of our cultural bubbles. The ‘other’ story and experience is out of sight and out of mind and simply ceases to be important. Or becomes a page in history book and makes for a good movie. Of course, today and yesterday is not black and white like American or East German movies where we were told two opposing versions who the bad and the good guys were. It is much more complicated but still relevant.

I read a thought provoking and challenging book “Rescuing The Gospel From The Cowboys: A Native American Expression Of The Jesus Way” by Richard Twiss (1954-2013), a minister and theologian from Lakota tribe. Sadly he passed away few years ago but left tremendous legacy for his people and for the whole church in America. One of his observations: “After hundreds of years of missionary efforts, an extremely low number of native people are actively engaged in a life of faith in Jesus and participation in some Christian tradition. This is largely reflective of Euro-American colonial cultural forms, expressions and worldview values.”

As a Lakota man who worshiped Creator and followed Jesus, he knew his stuff…

 

Love and its more than fifty shades of green

May is a beautiful month but this one has been exceptional. In Latvia we experienced the sunniest and warmest May I can ever remember. Everything was blooming all at once. Lilacs, wild roses, chestnuts, rhododendrons, now jasmines … like blooming season on steroids. Makes me want to scream, ” Slow down! Save something for the rest of the summer!”

I took my grandmother who is suffering from dementia to Botanical gardens and she simply came alive. She may not know many things anymore, get confused and forget what she did the day before or even few hours ago but she never forgets the names of flowers! Anything blooming, beautiful and colorful catches her eye. Grandmother will touch it, smell it, adore it… and talk to it.

Yes, she talks to the flowers and tells them that they are pretty and that each is unique. She also talks to a tall tree and asks where does the tree draw its strength and what kind of stories could it tell. We sat down in the grass and grandmother was gently stroking it like it was the smoothest silk. Saying ‘thank you’ for this soft, fresh and green blanket we get to lie on.

My grandmother is a very spiritual person as well and looks at the nature as Creator’s love letter. If she had lived in medieval Italy, I imagine she would have followed the teachings and example of St Francis of Assisi. They would have gotten along very well and probably would have talked for hours about every little creature there is.

Actually I did not mean to write this post about her but about one very important document published by Pope Francis. Encyclical “Laudato si (‘Praise be to you’ from old Italian) was  published in 2015 with the subtitle “On Care For Our Common Home.” It covers theology (creation, nature), science (ecology, global warming), environmental ethics (consumerism, irresponsible development), politics (unified global action)… just to name a few things covered by this paper. Above all, though, it talks about life style described as “integral ecology”.

For a spiritual person, it is a lifestyle that integrates our four relationships – with God, with ourselves, with other people and with all created order (nature and animals).

Read the encyclical which you can easily download or listen to audio! It is long but it is so well written in common language while reflecting serious theological and scientific research. Of course, it does not cover everything on this topic but it does encourage and even force a deep and open conversation about how to have peace and just relationship with all nature and all its inhabitants.

So, instead or writing about the importance of recycling or how to limit our personal environmental print or what to do about systemic injustices to our earth, I decided to write about love. St Francis of Assisi was a lover of nature and has become a patron of animals and the natural environment. You could say the “saint of ecology”.

Pope Francis who obviously picked the name ‘Francis’ for a reason has said that “God always forgives; human beings sometimes forgive; but when nature is mistreated, she never forgives.” Like a scorned lover who has been rejected, abused, enslaved and mistreated. Our relationship has been broken and it will take more that this encyclical, books, world conferences and declarations.

I wish I could say I was my grandmother’s granddaughter when it comes to this awareness but I am not. Just a beginner in what has been described as ‘eco conversion’ but don’t see any other way. How can we care for ‘peace on earth’ without caring for ‘peace with the earth’?