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!!!

 

 

Crossings that change direction

“Some people cross your path and change your whole direction”… Looking at these words written on a wall in front me while sitting at the most popular coffee shop on my grandmother’s street. (btw, this franchise is called Hedgehog-In-The-Fog in case you are looking for a cool place to hang out with friends in Rīga)

Simple but profound statement! Not just people, but also places… change the direction. Like Cairo, Egypt where I had the privilege to do volunteer work in different projects some years ago. For many Egypt may be a place to go on a vacation to some Red Sea resort, visit the Giza pyramids or other  places of ancient history. For others it may be a place to stay away from since there has been such political turmoil in the last decade and the news headlines often give a grim and confusing picture.

For me it was a place where I met some amazing people and learned some very important things. To name just a few – I learned about the Coptic church and other Christian communities and the challenges they face; learned more nuances about the geopolitics of the region; learned more about the Islamic culture and faith. I learned the life in different suburbs of Cairo (after spending time in most of them) but I cannot say I learned to love the public transport (you have to learn to be pushy) there. And, of course, the food (most of it very delicious).

The greatest impact on my life was the people. Like the team of Sudanese refugees who were learning to become teachers for their community in exile. The man with the vision was pastor Abraham (almost wrote “father Abraham” 🙂 ), a refugee from Sudan himself. He was from the southern part of Sudan before South Sudan was officially formed as an independent nation. He was so tall I had to bend my neck to look him in the eye (most of Sudanese men were very tall) and had the biggest, most reassuring smile.

“Cush Mission for Rebuilding” was exactly what its title meant. “Cush” is the name for the ancient kingdom mentioned even in the Bible. “Mission” was the calling and passion and “rebuilding” was the vision, dream and even courage. Many afternoons I stayed with the group as they were sitting in the circle and discussing all the challenges they were facing as refugees. And all the challenges they would face one day returning to their homeland. The group was inter-faith (Christian and Muslim) and they openly discussed the religious aspects of the violence, conflict and war in their communities back in Sudan.

Just by listening, I was overwhelmed by those hardships and obstacles but also inspired and personally challenged. In the midst of  a conflict where many people would blame religion as one of the causes of sectarian violence, I saw how religion can also be the greatest resource for peace building, restoration, healing and reconciliation. There were no easy, glib, cheep answers or solutions but there was an acknowledgment that faith and trust in loving, just and merciful God is a source for this hope and vision. What amazed me and went against all my preconceived ideas was how both Christians and Muslims were together learning from the life, words and works of Jesus of Nazareth!

As I continue being involved in peace building work and often in a religious setting, I often think of this experience in Cairo. It gave me a glimpse of possibility, not impossibility; an example of confidence, not fear; a taste of hope, not despair. Just like this letter which I kept.

Sudanese 17

In the church this side of the barricades

In January expect a real winter in Latvia. Icy sidewalks, snow piles, slush, messy driving… this time of the year I walk the streets of Riga watching every step and practicing good balance.

January with its cold temperatures is also a month that brings memories from 1991. Every year Latvia commemorates January 20 and The Time of the Barricades. It was one of the most tense and dangerous periods during mostly peaceful transition from the Soviet regime to a democratic and free Latvia. There was a real threat that Soviet regime would use military force to stop these changes by taking over strategic buildings and institutions – TV, Radio, Parliament – in the capital city of Riga and other regional centers. People in Latvia quickly mobilized to protect those institutions by building barricades.

The awaiting for confrontation lasted January 13 – 27. Thousands of people participated in taking turns on the barricades. My dad and his whole group of work colleagues took position at the TV tower in Riga, and I went to visit him there a few times, bringing food and hot tea. Actually in our family, mom was usually the one who went to demonstrations and protests and took more risks. Dad reminds me how mom and I had gone to Riga immediately after hearing on the radio that the barricades need to be built. I remember walking around the center of the city, amazed at all the big trucks and bulldozers that came out of nowhere and the huge concrete blocks being pulled, pushed, lifted and piled on.

It was a very cold January and people started small bonfires on the streets. Those became more than meeting places to get warm, rest and exchange the latest news. I remember people sitting around those bonfires singing and praying. At the same time the church buildings were  open for shelter and refreshments.

Memories are an interesting phenomenon. What we remember and how we remember! One of my favorite theologians, Miroslav Volf, in his book “The End of Memory” writes about collective memories as “sacred bonfires” which people gather around. It symbolizes the strong bonds and identity created by shared experience. The Time of the Barricades was certainly one of those collectively shared experiences which I remember as a highly spiritual time. I mentioned the church buildings being used as kind of headquarters and many of us had never spent so much time inside a church

I was just a teenager and certainly not religious. Still, I joined thousands of others in realizing that we need a higher hope against all odds (honestly, those barricades could not have stopped a serious attack). The churches had people praying but more significantly I remember feeling the streets were the church. The bonfires was where the fellowship took place and the shared food was like the Eucharist. Everyone was sharing what they had and there was no difference in social status, ethnic background or religious affiliation.

Two weekends ago I was sitting in one of those churches that were so central in the Time of the Barricades. Dome Cathedral was hosting a special commemoration concert and it was packed. Not as packed as it was at times in 1991, but the emotions of many, especially elderly people, were visible. I was moved by the beauty of music and lights, but mostly I was moved by memories. And I cried.

And afterwards I was deeply touched by some of the overheard conversations. People commented how easily we take something for granted or become ungrateful. On the other hand, I was thinking how much the church struggles to remain the prophetic voice and to be out there on the streets when the system changes and the brutal persecution stops. How in peace times the church retreats from the public sphere and  tends to focus on individualistic spirituality!

One of the songs that night was “Prayer”, a very popular song during the days of national awakening and transition. It ends with words:

Let us walk through ages toward the unknown times,
Give us strength, give us courage, give us one mind, Father!

 

 

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!)

 

 

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…