Hannover and Hiroshima and the church without roof

So many reflections after my recent trip to Hannover, Germany. I had the most unusual tour of the city. It told a story of significant past, diverse community, powerful kings and fascinating facts, but also tragedy, violence and beauty from the ashes. In the literal sense.

In just one night of October 8, 1943, more than 200,000 bombs were dropped on the city of Hannover. Not much was left standing. I think of my own city, Riga, and what it looked like after the war. I think of Sarajevo in Bosnia, Aleppo in Syria, Gaza in Palestine, towns and cities in eastern Ukraine…

Now you walk around and enjoy beautiful buildings and parks and street-side cafes. You see people enjoying a good life. You see diverse cultures welcomed here. Hannover is a very nice place to be. Still, the scars remain and I appreciate how people in Germany do not hide from these scars. As painful and ugly as they are. It speaks about healing and restoration.

There is a church without roof, now covered by our beautiful sky. Aegidienkirche originated in the 14th Century. It was destroyed in a bomb attack in 1943 and has not been rebuilt. Its ruin is now a memorial to the victims of war and violence. Like many other people before me, I stood there thinking, “If these ruins could speak…”

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The church has a Peace Bell, which the city of Hannover received in 1985 from its partner town of Hiroshima. The bell has a twin, which hangs in Hiroshima. Every 6th August a special memorial service to commemorate the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima is held in this church. As part of this service the peace bell is rung at the same time as its twin in Hiroshima chimes.

There is a statue of person who embraces. The person is on his/her knees. To me it shows humility, brokenness and longing to embrace and to be embraced. When we speak about forgiveness and repentance and redemption, there are many powerful and beautiful symbols. During workshops on reconciliation I ask for mental pictures and commonly people see ’embrace’ or ‘handshake’.

‘Ubuntu’ is an African thought and expression which is usually translated as “humanity toward others”. No wonder my African friends love to hug and to hold hands. There is something deep within us that tells us that an act of embrace is the acknowledgement that ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’. Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa describes it like this, “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

And one more thought as I reflect on this embrace. Theologian Miroslav Volf from Croatia said it the best: “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.”

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Do you know who is serving your food?

I like food. Yes, Latvian food is wonderful and delicious but I enjoy diversity. Thai, Italian, Mexican, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian… grateful for international cuisine. In Latvia this year I have noticed two popular trends – kebab and burger.

This story is not about food though. It is about people who serve our food and about hospitality.

First story: One rainy afternoon in Riga city center, we looked for a quick bite. Noticing a new kebab restaurant, we decided that some gyros and fried potatoes would be the perfect ‘comfort’ food. I could not help but notice that two of the guys working there did not look Latvian. They were Asian but spoke fluent Latvian and were very friendly. After the meal we thanked them for the food and then casually asked where they were from.

“India”, answered the guy at the register and gave a big smile. “Well, we have never been to India but would love to visit one day”, was our reply. “Oh, you should definitely visit India. You are welcome. I can give you contacts there”, he kept smiling.

I told him that the closest I have been to India was a trip to Burma. “Burma? That is where my ancestors are from! My grandmother is from Burma and she can still speak Burmese. Are you Burmese?”, he gave me a curious look. When I said that, no, I was Latvian, I could tell he did not really believe me.

“What do you do here in Riga?”, was my next question to which he replied, “I study here. I am doing my master’s degree at the university. I like Riga and I like studying here. Working at the kebab restaurant is a part-time job.” Now it was my turn to say, “Welcome to Riga! I am glad you chose to study here.”

His name was Pravi. He asked me a second time if I was a ‘real’ Latvian and I assured him, yes.

I walked away wondering if a guy like Pravi who is educated and speaks Latvian and English, would consider staying in Latvia after finishing his studies. I don’t know his plans and I cannot offer him a job, but I can offer a sincere “Welcome to Latvia!”

The second story is from a few years ago. On one of our visits to the United States, we were invited to a Vietnamese restaurant. The guy who invited us, was praising the food and mentioned that he eats there every week.

When we ordered the food, I noticed that the waitress who spoke very little English, recognized him. “Do you want to order the usual?”, she asked and our host nodded. Later we were talking about hospitality and how easy it is to be friendly to people. As an example, I pointed to the waitress and said, “It is as simple as talking to the people who serve your food. Surely you know this waitress. What is her name?”

“I don’t know her name. We have never talked and I have never asked her name”, he was a little embarrassed. But she knew what kind of food he likes and what he wants to order!

This came to my mind recently when a friend asked for some practical ideas how to welcome people. Immigrants, refugees, international students… It can start with something as simple (and important) as this – meeting people who serve you and simply saying,

Welcome to Latvia! Nice to meet you!

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Latviski:

Man patīk ēst. Jā, latviešu ēdiens ir brīnišķīgs un garšīgs, bet man patīk daudzveidība. Taizemiešu, itāļu, libāņu, vjetnamiešu, ķīniešu, indiešu… priecājos par visām garšām. Novēroju, ka šogad Latvijā modē ir kebabi un burgeri.

Bet šis stāsts nav par ēdienu., bet gan par cilvēkiem, kas mūs apkalpo. Stāsts par viesmīlību.

Pirmais stāsts. Kādā lietainā pēcpusdienā Rīgas centrā mēs meklējām, kur varētu ātri iekost. Pamanījām jaunu kebabnīcu un nolēmām, ka giross un cepti kartupeļi būs tieši laikā. Ievēroju, ka puiši, kuri mūs apkalpoja, neizskatījās pēc latviešiem. Viņi bija no Āzijas, labi runāja latviešu valodā un ļoti laipni apkalpoja. Vēlāk mēs pateicām paldies par ēdienu un vienkārši pajautājām, no kurienes jūs esiet?

“No Indijas” atbildēja puisis pie kases un plati smaidīja. Teicu, ka nekad neesam bijuši Indijā, bet labprāt aizbrauktu. “Protams, jums jāredz Indija. Laipni lūgti! Es varu iedot kādus kontaktus!” viņš turpināja smaidīt.

Es ieminējos, ka vistuvāk Indijai ir Birma, kur esam bijuši. “Birma? Mani senči ir no turienes. Mana vecmamma ir no Birmas, un viņa prot birmiešu valodu. Vai tu arī esi no Birmas?” viņš uzmeta pētījošu skatienu. Kad teicu, ka esmu no Latvijas, vienalga nebija pārliecināts.

Prasījām, “Ko tu dari Rīgā?” … “Es šeit studēju. Esmu maģistra programmā universitātē. Man patīk Rīga un manas studijas. Kekabnīcā es piestrādāju brīvajā laikā.” Tagad bija mana kārta teikt: “Laipni lūgts Rīgā! Priecājos, ka izvēlējies studēt tieši šeit.”

Viņu sauc Pravi, un atvadoties viņš vēlreiz pārjautāja, vai tiešām esmu latviete.

Ejot projām, pie sevis nodomāju – vai tāds jaunietis kā Pravi, ar augstāko izglītību, ar labām latviešu un angļu valodas zināšanām, vēlētos palikt un strādāt Latvijā pēc studiju beigšanas? Nezinu viņa plānus, un arī darbu nevaru piedāvāt, bet vienu gan varu izdarīt. Varu patiesi teikt: “Laipni lūgts Latvijā!”

Otrs stāsts no ASV. Pirms dažiem gadiem viens paziņa uzaicināja uz vjetnamiešu restorānu. Viņam ļoti garšoja šis ēdiens un lielījās, ka ēdot tur katru nedēļu.

Kad pasūtījām ēdienus, es ievēroju, ka viesmīle, kura slikti runāja angļu valodā, viņu pazina. Viņa jautāja: “Vai vēlaties to pašu, ko parasti?” un viņš apstiprināja. Vēlak mēs sākām runāt par viesmīlību un draudzīgumu pret iebraucējiem. Kā piemēru es ieminējos par mūsu viesmīli, kura viņu atpazina. Kā šo sievieti sauc?

“Nezinu. Es nezinu viņas vārdu. Nekad neesam runājuši, un nekad neesmu jautājis.” Bet viesmīle zin, kas viņam garšo, un ko parasti vēlas pasūtīt!

Atcerējos šo gadījumu, kad nesen viens draugs lūdza praktisku padomu attiecībā uz viesmīlību. Pret imigrantiem, starptautiskiem studentiem, patvēruma meklētājiem… vārdu sakot, viesmīlība pret iebraucējiem. Tā var sākties ar tik vienkāršu lietu kā iepazīšanos ar cilvēkiem, kuri mūs apkalpo, un vienkāršiem (bet svarīgiem) vārdiem –

Laipni lūgti Latvijā! Prieks iepazīties!

European and grateful? Let’s see…

We are getting better and better at the blame-game, anxiety, complaints and arguments. Those pointing fingers are growing longer and longer. “It is Germany’s fault… it is Brussels’s fault… it is those Eastern Europeans who want the benefits of EU, but not sharing its burdens…”

As a European, who spends a lot of time outside of Europe, I have noticed that outsider’s  perception of Europe is changing. Our reputation as the region of stability, peace, hospitality,  solidarity, compassion, rule of law, social justice, humanitarian values is suffering. Here I am addressing the failures of Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations in their treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and now the spotlight is on my own nation and region.

Not that I am worried about our “moral high ground”. All of us have fallen short in so many ways. Still, I am privileged and blessed to be a European and I do not take for granted the good life we can enjoy. I have been to too many places around the world where people just cannot understand how Europeans can be so ungrateful for what they have.

We, Europeans, are very very privileged and one of our big problems is trying to deny, ignore or downplay it. We are the ‘rich club’ of the world. I remember some of the conversations in my own family. My mom who was definitely in the category of ‘lower social status’, would say, “I am ‘poor’ compared to rich Latvians, but I am very rich compared to people you visit and help.” And she was not talking about money and things only. She was talking about safety, security, healthcare, roof over her head, beautiful country, loving family around her… ‘Man does not live on bread alone’, right?

Another personal example – I received a last-minute invitation to attend a conference in Germany next week. I had to make a decision very fast and within one hour I had an airline ticket, registration for the conference, information about train times to get me from Lubeck to Hannover… As I was falling asleep last night, I was thinking to myself, “This is incredible. I don’t need a visa for Germany; I just had the money for this trip; I speak English and even some German and will not feel lost traveling by trains. This will be a good trip.” How many people around the world would love to be in my shoes!

But there are problems with this good life and too often it comes at the expense of others. “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Wise words by Gandhi. I could say a lot but another time.

I want to encourage those of us who feel like we don’t have enough or feel threatened that those ‘immigrants’ or someone else from outside will take this good life away. That we will have share our goods and privileges with someone. We have more than enough, but we act like we don’t. Many of my friends around the world feel ‘poor’ compared to Latvians. Latvians feel ‘poor’ compared to British. British may feel ‘poor’ compared to Norwegians. Hmm, who can Norwegians compare themselves with?

I guess, Norwegians are the most grateful and therefore the most generous and welcoming people in the world! Are they? Are we?

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Crisis of conscience in the land of confusion

The speed of changes in our globalized world seems faster than the speed of light. My mind and my whole being cannot travel so fast… as the events and situations and challenges and questions swirl around us. I suspect I am not the only one who feels like the whirlpool is getting stronger and harder to resist. Like a scene from the “Pirates of the Caribbean”…

Our common responses are – engage or escape. I can say, “Well, there is nothing I can do. I cannot change this world.” I can blame global conspiracies, corrupt politicians and weak governments and greedy people. I could say that all of this is normal and expected and therefore I should just accept it and go on with my everyday life.

I strongly believe that we have to engage our world on the deepest level possible – our conscience.

One of the main problems of our times is undeveloped, weak or confused conscience. We cannot reap where we have not sown. Which means that if we have not constantly cultivated and cared for our conscience, we cannot expect any good fruit. Especially now.

Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize because he was known as a man of conscience. He said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Also Lev Tolstoy challenged his fellow Russians and all of us, by writing, “The changes in our life must come from the impossibility to live otherwise than according to the demands of our conscience not from our mental resolution to try a new form of life.”

We know that the life styles of the privileged have become unsustainable; conflicts because of power and resources are repeating; suffering of the underprivileged is continuing; the damage of our environment seems irreversible; the lack of good leadership is undeniable… Many years ago the British band “Genesis” were singing, “There’s too many men…Too many people… Making too many problems… And not much love to go round… Can’t you see… This is a land of confusion” Well, the wise king Solomon already said that there is nothing new under the sun.

Therefore my thoughts on conscience is nothing new either. I believe that conscience is a God-given instrument and without it life is impossible. It has rights and it has duties (J.H.Newman) but how do we care for our conscience? If we believe that we are the only true judges of our conscience, than we are in grave danger. I know how deceiving and corrupt my heart can be. I know how to quiet my conscience and I have done it many times. I need a higher judge than myself. I need God.

I conscientiously object selfishness, confusion, greed and indifference not because of personal moral integrity but because I believe in a higher law.

Many people are concerned and anxious about the infringement on our privacy. You know, the Big Brother is trying to watch us. But I believe that I am already living under 24/7 ‘surveillance’. I have rights and I have duties because I am created in God’s image and He has given me dignity and worth. And He has given me my conscience as the best instrument for living with dignity.

Do I live according to my conscience in the time of comfort and in the times of challenges? Or is it abused and compromised? If we lose or disengage our conscience, then we lose the whole world!

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