There and back : #FreedomWay for Belarus

Last Sunday, August 23, I went on a very special pilgrimage to Lithuania. Quite different from what some may expect when hearing this word, but the kind I find the most meaningful spiritually – for a special cause and on behalf of others. This time to show support for the ordinary people of Belarus who have been protesting against the authoritarian rule of Alexander Lukashenko,  the rigged election results from August 9 and the state brutality and injustice that has followed.

Belarus borders Latvia but in so many ways it seems like a far far away place. Actually I have never been to Belarus. Not that I do not want to, but we, Latvians,  tend to live with our backs turned to the East (namely Russia) and faces turned to the West (European Union). Metaphorically! Especially since joining the European Union in 2004. The eastern borders in ways remind us of the not-so-distant past and the oppression by the totalitarian system of the USSR. The antagonistic feeling has grown stronger because of the authoritarian regimes in Russia and Belarus and the ways that Soviet past is still glorified in those countries.  Alexander Lukashenko has been in power in Belarus since 1994 and has been steadily building up the “strong man” myth – that it is better to be ruled by iron and fist as long as you have food and security. When this ” iron and fist” brutally and violently came down on thousands of peaceful protesters this August, any kind of pretense was gone. A president, who walks around in army fatigues, brandishing an AK 47 assault rifle and threatening a swift punishment of all opposition,  has lost any legitimacy as a leader.

I have watched the horrifying eye-witness videos, read the victim’s stories of beatings, arrests and torture, seen the photos of massive protests, read the statements from the church leaders in Belarus calling for the end of violence and police brutality… and have felt helpless. How can we show practical solidarity and compassion to our suffering neighbors in the time of such struggle for freedom and justice? People in Latvia have been demonstrating in front of the Embassy of Belarus, have been donating and sending money to different groups and NGOs and the social media profiles are flooded with the flag of Belarus.

I knew I had to put my feet where my Facebook is. So, I signed up to join a group of grassroots volunteers and activists to drive to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and to show solidarity by joining the human chain from Vilnius to the border of Belarus. It is a distance of only 32 km. “The Lithuanian human chain marked the anniversary of a mass protest on August 23, 1989, when 2 million people joined arms across the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Known as the Baltic Way, it was a peaceful protest against authoritarian Soviet rule.” I have very vivid childhood memories from 1989 when we stood there, joining hands physically but also sensing the support from people all around the world who understood our longing and hopes. Now in 2020 we, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians, find ourselves on the “other side” of this post-Soviet reality and domain, while the society in Belarus is in the middle of an existential struggle and nobody knows if it can reach the tipping point.

So, we went by bus. It was a long day and very long drive. The organizers estimate that up to 50,000 people participated, many of them dressed in white and wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the corona-virus. One thing we did not expect was that we (and thousands of vehicles) would get stuck in a major traffic jam since so many people were trying to make their way to this Vilnius – Minsk highway. Our bus crawled and crawled until we realized – we cannot reach the highway by the designated hour at 7pm. And we did what everyone else did – jumped out of cars and simply started joining hands wherever we happened to stop. Our group had the Latvian flags and soon other Latvians joined us. Then more people came and joined. Afterwards we found out that our small chain had participants from Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

I felt very emotional and still feel emotional writing these words and remembering these faces of the young people from different countries. Actually I did not see everyone’s face since most of us wore the face masks. But I remember the eyes and the eyes were communicating more than words. We looked at each other, joined our hands, will, mind, heart and experienced something truly spiritual and unforgettable. I knew that in that moment on some small road in a suburb of Vilnius we had a very clear understanding of “who is my neighbor”. The people of Belarus are our neighbors and right now they are in an urgent need of support, compassion, justice, solidarity, prayers and help.

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12)

Vilnius Freedom Way

Patience is another name for peace

It has been a very long pause… long pause in blogging, writing diary and social networking. I started February with a great determination to get back to regular schedule of weekly posts and then it happened. Someone very close to me was facing a difficult situation when unexpectedly becoming a primary caregiver to his newborn baby while the baby’s mother was in the hospital for an extended period.

Suddenly everyone in the family was on a steep learning curve of managing a crisis mode while learning all about baby care – milk formulas, nappies, burping, tummy issues, baths, etc. I remember how “relieved” we felt after the pediatrician had the first monthly check-up and gave a good report. It did not help that all this happened during the Covid-19 pandemic when our “lives as we know it” got severely interrupted and most of normal routines had to stop. It added so many complications that I cannot even begin to describe.

But something else happened. An unexpected twist which I will try to put into words. It seemed that during the quarantine the word on the street or, in this case, the word online was “time”. We have time. We have more time. Finally we have got the time. We have been forced to stop from our rat race and now we have time for what really matters. With all the million suggestions in articles, podcasts, interviews and talks to describe, analyze and define what is it that really matters.

But to me it felt like I had lost the time. More precisely, like I was living outside the time. Like the time stood still. Until I realized that this is probably what living in the moment feels like. I was pushing the baby carriage for long walks in the park, smelling the spring in the air, watching how people keep the distance from each other but still prefer to walk where they can see each other. Besides time to listen to some uplifting and inspiring podcasts, I kept reflecting on how this little helpless baby is teaching me something very important. The baby could not speak but every time she looked at me I heard loudly – slow down! I could not fix the difficult situation that my loved ones were in, but through this sense of slowing down I was also sensing a lot of hope in the midst of confusion and pain.

Today I found the exact words I was looking for. In a beautiful little book titled “Living Gently in a Violent World”, theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes: “Peace takes time. Put even more strongly, peace creates time by its steadfast refusal to force the other to submit in the name of order. Peace is not a static state but an activity which requires constant attention and care. [..] So, peace is the process through which we make time our own rather than be determined by “events”over which, it is alleged, we have no control.”

That is exactly how I felt it and saw it – I was learning in a new way how to make personal and social peace through an activity which required constant attention and care. I mean literal attention and literal care. And I am not talking about mindfulness, meditation or any other spiritual practice to “slow us down”. I am talking about listening intently to the “weakest” and “slowest” members of our community.

I would like to think of myself as a very patient person, but the little daily things routinely remind me that I am not. I walk back and forth, while I wait for the public transportation, to “kill the time”. I listen to a podcast, while on the public transport, to “fill the time”. But God through a little baby was revealing to me how to “still the time”.

Because at the heart of “living more gently in a violent world” is the realization that I have all the time I need.

P.S. I borrowed the phrase of Stanly Hauerwas for the title of this post.  It was simply too good 🙂

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

Wrestling with the antisemitism of the past and of the present

I have wanted to write this for a while but kept postponing… and tried to understand why?! One of the simple explanations is that it is extremely difficult to write about national shame, inhumane ideologies, ordinary people with extraordinary hatred or indifference. It is difficult to say something about all of this without too many cliches, too much moralizing and too little personal reflection. But I will try to put my finger on a few very important and timely things…

November 30 is coming up and in Latvia it marks another remembrance day – the mass killings of Jewish people on November 30, 1941 in Rumbula forest near Riga. I don’t want to give the facts and statistics of how it happened or how many thousands got killed. There is plenty of information available online, plus I have written before how we as a society in Latvia are still in the process of talking about, reflecting upon and learning from these very painful and shameful events of our past.

In many ways here in Latvia we are on a very steep curve of learning and remembering while it seems that many people in Europe and around the world are on the downhill slope of unlearning and forgetting. Of course, not everyone in Latvia wants to know, to understand and to change their views or assumptions, but it is getting harder and harder to ignore it. There are more museums, more books, more media attention, more and more people who care to know.

This year we even have the first Latvian feature film about the Holocaust in Latvia which tells the true story of one amazing family, Lipke, in Riga who risked their lives to save more than 50 Latvian Jews during WWII. There were many others who were rescuers but Lipke family has their own unique story. (The English title of this new movie is “The Mover“.)

So, the movie is in the theaters, the remembrance day and lighting the candles at Freedom Monument takes place on November 30… meanwhile I turn on the news and watch programs about the rise of new kind of antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere. It is on the far-right and the far-left and many shades of it in-between. And I ask myself what is going on?!

The experts – sociologists, psychologists, political analysts, historians, journalists, etc. – have their own wise explanations and we can easily find the research and survey data. But what does it tell me personally? For one, it tells that we live in a very fragile time filled with so much anxiety where many of the old mechanisms of dealing with insecurity, instability, rapid global technological and cultural change are being used. One of the classical methods is finding the scapegoat whom to blame for everything. “The Jew” is just so familiar and easy to revert to, but it can be “the Muslim”, “the Russian”, ” the immigrant”, “the black”, “the Mexican”, “the Christian”…

That is why I think antisemitism is also on the rise in those countries where the governing parties are very pro-Israel but very prejudiced against many different groups of people. In this sense any rise of nationalism is a rise of antisemitism. When we talk about ‘making our countries great again’ by which people often mean going back to some kind of ‘ideal’ past and ‘romanticized’ cultural identity we used to have, we are already on this downward slope. It is a whole package where it is very hard to pick and choose our prejudices for this kind of pride comes with strings attached.

The experts mention that many people would be classified as ‘antisemitic’ because they hate the policies of the current state of Israel, especially toward the Palestinian people. I do not support this hatred in any way. Still,  I understand a little bit about not liking a certain countries policies and the struggle to separate the issue. For example, I have many negative feelings and strong opinions about the current politics, ideologies and state of affairs in Russia and it is not easy for me to look at the Russian flag as something neutral or accept people who are very proudly Russian and nationalistic. I immediately start wondering if they support Putin or “Make Russia great again” which would put them in the ” other” camp. Some years ago I would have never imagined that my generation will have to have these inner struggles again of how to love the Russian people from our neighboring country while strongly opposing that country’s political direction.

I am very concerned that we forget so quickly… we forget the Holocaust, we forget Rwanda, we forget Cambodia, we forget the Apartheid.. We forget that every generation has their own ‘demons’ to face which often try to appear as the ‘angels’ or ‘idols’ of ethnic, religious, racial or national identity, infallibility, stability and self-protection…

As we continue to pray in our own brokenness: “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil…”

(The heading photo was taken at Riga Ghetto Museum and this exhibit tells the story of European Jews who were transported from various countries to  be shot and killed in Latvia)

Image result for teva nakts photos

Photo from “The Mover” (2018), a movie about the Holocaust in Latvia

 

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!

 

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’?

Israel-Palestine conflict and my personal challenge

This one is hard. Not because I have nothing to say or because it is too complicated. No, it is because I am a Western Christian and also student of theology/religion. And there is no other international geopolitical issue which can divide Christians as sharply as the Israel-Palestine past, present and future. No matter how gentle or blunt, informed or ignorant, rational or naive, well intentioned or foolish I try to express myself.

This is such a controversial conversation about a long standing conflict, historical justice, human rights and relationships, identity, understanding of the Scriptures and the importance of the land and so on. It is also very emotional because it touches people’s religious feelings in three major world faiths and makes an honest and open dialogue hard to achieve. But dialogue we must. Especially those of us who don’t live in Israel-Palestine but still have some impact through our personal connections, churches, religious organizations and also our governments which represent us as citizens. For example, if Latvia had decided to move its embassy to Jerusalem to follow the USA example (which it hasn’t) , I would form an opinion as a Latvian.

Few days ago in downtown Rīga I was approached by a reporter and her camera person. I had to think fast about the question, “What is your opinion about Crimea?” What is she trying to ask between the lines? I assumed she was asking me about the latest news and how I felt about the newly built bridge between Russia and Crimea which is supposed to cement the Russian claim on this peninsula. How do I feel about it? Quite simple! That Russia is in the wrong and that Crimea was illegally annexed and there is historic injustice happening right before my eyes. And that most people around the world don’t really care because “out of sight, out of mind”. Plus, how are we going to make Russia give it back to Ukraine?

It made me think if I would ever be asked by reporters in Latvia what I think about Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is never “out of sight, out of mind”. That small corner of the world regularly makes  the world headlines, mostly with stories of division, violence and suffering. And that is one of the big problems –  the stories we hear are often superficial and tailored to ‘our’ ears. Or it’s very one-sided depending on our preferred news source and our own political and religious views.

Here I come to the Christian part. I cannot count how many times I have heard other Western Christians say, “I had no idea there are Palestinian Christians. I assumed that all Palestinians are Muslim”. It is amazing how for some of us things change when we start thinking about Palestinians not only as fellow human beings but also as brothers and sisters in Christ. And how ‘inconvenient’ it becomes. When we find out that there are actually churches in Gaza and that when people suffer hardships in this overcrowded and besieged strip of land, everyone is suffering together – Muslims, Christians, others…

Before someone jumps in, “here we go… talk about objectivity… she is so one-sided”, I strive to be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. I don’t know many things, I am no expert and I have never been to Israel or Palestinian territories in West Bank and Gaza, but I have met and learned from many people in that land. I have met musicians from both backgrounds who formed a band called “My Favorite Enemy”and wrote songs in Arabic, Hebrew and English, expressing common pain, fears and hopes. Here is a link to one of their songs called Stones written from a perspective of a stone being thrown…

I have met, listened and read theologians from both backgrounds. One of the books on my shelf is “Through My Enemy’s Eyes: Envisioning Reconciliation in Israel-Palestine” written by Salim J. Munayer ( a Palestinian Christian and faculty member at Bethlehem Bible College) and Lisa Loden (an Israeli Messianic Jew and faculty member of Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary). I have met them in person and listened to their amazing, challenging and deeply moving journey as friends.

The point I want to make is that if we really care, we need to seek out these local voices. People who actually live there and deal with this conflict on day to day basis as they have a much closer view on what is helpful or unhelpful to the peace process and reconciliation efforts. On things that our governments do or don’t do. On views that our churches support or don’t support. On what is loving and what is not. On what is just and what is not.

Here is another book I recommend. “Light Force: A Stirring Account of the Church Caught in the Middle East Crossfire” by Brother Andrew, the passionate old Dutch minister.  Who was very popular in the West when he wrote “God’s Smuggler” about taking Bibles behind the Iron Curtain and sharing his faith with the communists. But not so many Western Christians were interested when he started ministering in the Middle East, even meeting with leaders of PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah and other such groups. Brother Andrew is very open about his own preconceived ideas and Western Christian approach as an outsider trying to fix the problems in the Middle East. But nobody can criticize him for living out his passion for the good news of God’s love.

It has to be good. It has to be news. And it has to be love for all people. Brother Andrew often asks what kind of people does the Book produce? Speaking of the Bible.

Finally… some Christians (or non-Christians) may say that we should not get political. Only focus on the spiritual. When it is us, Westerners, speaking while enjoying the freedoms and peace which did not come without political will, I find it ironic. When Latvian Christians supported the independence of Latvia from Russian and German empires and later from the USSR, was it political or spiritual? Was Martin Luther King and non-violent civil rights movement in the USA political or spiritual? I could give many more examples like South Africa, Northern Ireland, anti-slavery, anti-human trafficking but then I would be getting really really political 🙂

We may have many strong opinions on who is to blame for failing peace efforts in Israel – Palestine and we may have strong beliefs about the eschatological future of this region, but we should never forget that this is not some theory for the people there. If I had been born in Gaza instead of Rīga, I would want the world to think of me as someone who matters. I certainly would not want to live in Gaza, a virtual prison controlled by air, land and sea. If I was a member of Gaza Baptist Church, I would want the brothers and sisters around the world to think of me and pray for our little, struggling fellowship who are caught in the crossfire.

We have to make much more room in our hearts… this is what the Book says and does.

Platitudes of peace and unity in Korea and one Latvian’s view on it

The 2018 Winter Olympics are called “Peace games” but somehow this message does not stick easily. As my blog page tells, I am all for using every and any platform for peace building, common good, diplomacy, solidarity and sports is one of those forms of fun and entertainment which brings people together. Just like kicking the football will win you instant friends among children from any neighborhood around the world. I could tell so many stories from travels and work where sports was the bridge between cultures, even so called ‘enemies’.

But ‘peace’ is not abstract. It is not a word. It is a state well-being which involves many things. Truth, justice, forgiveness, freedom, choice among them.

And because of this I can assume that the message of these ‘peaceful’ Winter Olympic Games remains totally abstract for most people in North Korea who are supposed to be one of the main recipients and beneficiaries of this message. First of all, the games are not broadcast in North Korea, even with 22 North Korean athletes competing. This is easy to understand – why would the regime show people how South Korea can host such a world event and all the technical, economic and democratic achievements across the border?!

The North Korean people do not need spectacular ‘peace doves’ or over-used John Lennon songs like “Imagine” (I am sorry if you think it is one of the greatest ‘peace songs’ ever written, but I simply disagree with the lyrics and, to be honest, I am tired of it. If we really want universal ‘unity’ anthems, we need new songs to inspire our hearts and minds in this day and age.)

Another reason why all this makes me sad and angry is because I have seen it before. Growing up in the USSR, we were raised to believe that we live in the most peace loving nation in the world and that every other system is oppressive, racist and violent. I know what it’s like to live behind the ‘curtain’ and to be told lies about the life on the other side of it. Even worse, to be told lies about the life we ourselves were living. It is hard to accept that in 2018 there are millions of people who live in this kind of ‘cage’ and prison.

And the injustice continues. The gate keepers get to travel, to act like they care, to pretend they are interested in real peace for their people. The sister of Kim Jong-un gets to sit in the VIP box at the opening ceremony and I can only imagine how most of defectors from North Korea felt watching it. I know how I felt. We talk about ‘interests’ of our free nations or Kim Jong-un and his regimes ‘interests’ and I certainly worry about the tensions and nuclear weapons but what about the people of North Korea? What about the people of South Korea?

The North Korean athletes get to go to South Korea, they get to see and experience things that millions of other North Korean people cannot even dream about but they are still prisoner’s who are just let out for few days and they are on a very short and tight ‘leash’. You can already guess that there are more secret service staff than athletes. How many people are watching each athlete? Do you believe that North Korean athletes get to actually hang out with other athletes and form new friendships? Do you think the women on the united hockey team get to be left alone and freely talk? No way! Even without the staff or officials, they cannot talk freely because they are made to inform on each other.

Can you imagine how many ‘interviews’ and ‘reports’ they will have to give upon returning home? This totalitarian system of spying and informing on your colleagues, friends and family is one of the most painful scars that our nation of Latvia bears and we are still struggling to reconcile with this past. It has done something horrible to our collective and individual soul. And multiply it when you think about North Korea.

And what about South Korea? If you follow the surveys and research, you will see that the younger generation in South Korea has more reservations about the prospect of future ‘unification’ of two Koreas. The reasons are many but among them economic and financial. If the two Koreas will one day unite, the South will have to cover the bill and it will be trillions of dollars.

I believe that this ‘wall’ will fall in our life time but I also know that it will be only beginning of hard work toward reconciliation and unity. It is easy to win ‘war’, but it is very hard to win ‘peace’. Still, there is no alternative. The people of divided Korea need it and the rest of us will have to help but no more platitudes like “above us only sky… imagine all the people living for today”, please.

While waiting for hope and history to sync

Did you know today is a special day? I forgot! I have a calendar to remind me but life is busy. Plus, how do you single out any day when it comes to peace, freedom, justice, right relationships? A day like any other which started by me getting up, enjoying that first cup of coffee, looking through the window at new season, changing clothes few times because I can’t make up my mind, crowding in public transport, running late for class, trying to stay focused in lectures but getting distracted too easily, promising myself to keep my mouth shut but always breaking the promise, coming home hungry, cooking dinner, checking the news… just another ordinary day.

And now I see it is International Day of Peace. How many people actually know it? How many care? What does it even mean? How is this one day making a difference in the world? When the difference is needed desperately. As U2 sings, “Heaven on Earth/We need it now/I’m sick of all of this/Hanging around/Sick of sorrow/Sick of pain/Sick of hearing again and again/That there’s gonna be/Peace on Earth”

I try to be disciplined with my blog and post weekly. Usually on Thursdays. Thanks to the calendar, it is Peace Day and it is Thursday. Let me write down just a few things which came to mind immediately.

Friends… are people who inspire me. I have been blessed to meet many people around the world and fortunate to call many of them my friends. Something I treasure above material possessions, diplomas, accomplishments, etc. It is hard to pick one photo since there are lots of wonderful people in my life. These three friends from Rwanda and Nigeria I will see next week in England and I am already smiling just thinking about it.

Faith… is a strong anchor. We all need deep inner resources and my well is faith in loving and just God who is not distant or impersonal. I have never lived through war, exile or violence unlike many of my friends. Some of them are refugees, some experienced genocide, some have been in prison and persecuted, some are serving in the military and facing difficult situations, some are sick or lonely. Everyone believes in something or Someone, though. Even not believing is believing that there is nothing worth believing in.

History… is complicated but our story is not over. The great paradox is that I am encouraged. I enjoy reading history (the best possible interpretations of it) and it gets depressing. Many thick books on my bookshelf not started yet and I keep waiting for that right mood. The view in world’s rear mirror is not pretty but there are so many bright shining stars like William Wilberforce, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen just to name a few of my heroes.

U2 also sings that “Hope and history won’t rhyme/So what’s it worth?/This Peace on Earth”

Yes, hope and history do not rhyme often but it is amazing how often they do. Call me an idealist but I believe that one day they will sync for real.

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Photos from Luton Peace Walk 2014

Rohingya and soul searching in Myanmar

Myanmar is making international headlines again and the news is not good. Tragedy for the thousands and thousands of people who are losing their homes, ancestral land, possessions and fleeing to neighboring country Bangladesh… hundreds are also losing their lives and their loved ones. The story of Rohingya ethnic minority has repeated through the years but the current crisis is a new low.

Myanmar (Burma) holds a special place in my heart. Peaceroads was inspired by my friends from this beautiful but broken country. We have spent many hours talking, working and praying for peace, freedom, restoration and reconciliation in this nation. Many are already experiencing peace and freedom but not everyone. Not yet … and it will take even longer now.

It is racism but this is not just about race. It is religious but this is not just about religion (most Rohingya are Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist country). Nationalism, economics, politics, military power, etc… It is complicated, yes, and long story. There are violent and angry people on all sides, yes, and someone’s freedom fighter is someone else’ terrorist. We don’t know all the facts, yes, and Myanmar government accuses international media of misinformation (while not allowing them access to the conflict area!). Still, many facts are too obvious, stories are real, pictures speak for themselves and there is suffering for the whole world to see.

This is why international community is reacting with such sadness, criticism and challenge to the current leaders of Myanmar. For decades and decades people and governments in democratic countries supported the long journey toward freedom, dignity and rights of the people of Burma, including demand to release Aung Sun Suu Kyi from house arrest and let her lead the nation. Now many of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates are challenging her to speak out, act fast and defend the rights of ALL people.

I deeply care about real and lasting reconciliation in Myanmar and right now it is facing a dangerous moment. There are plenty of evil forces that are ready to exploit this fault line and make it even more violent (Al Qaeda, ISIS and other such groups are looking at this as a new cause to support). It is like a perfect storm brewing if there is no immediate and courageous national leadership and brave decisions. It also requires a deep soul searching in the whole society – who is this country for, who is my neighbor?

I am no expert but I know enough about Myanmar’s pain of the past, the struggles of today and the hopes for the future. This is not just about human rights; this is about right human relationships. How will these communities live? What will happen to these displaced people? If they are allowed return, how do they rebuild their lives? What will make them feel safe, protected and wanted? What about justice? What about forgiveness?

I want to copy an open letter by Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, which expresses many of my own thoughts…

“My dear Aung San Su Kyi

I am now elderly, decrepit and formally retired, but breaking my vow to remain silent on public affairs out of profound sadness about the plight of the Muslim minority in your country, the Rohingya.

In my heart you are a dearly beloved younger sister. For years I had a photograph of you on my desk to remind me of the injustice and sacrifice you endured out of your love and commitment for Myanmar’s people. You symbolised righteousness. In 2010 we rejoiced at your freedom from house arrest, and in 2012 we celebrated your election as leader of the opposition.

Your emergence into public life allayed our concerns about violence being perpetrated against members of the Rohingya. But what some have called ‘ethnic cleansing’ and others ‘a slow genocide’ has persisted – and recently accelerated. The images we are seeing of the suffering of the Rohingya fill us with pain and dread.

We know that you know that human beings may look and worship differently – and some may have greater firepower than others – but none are superior and none inferior; that when you scratch the surface we are all the same, members of one family, the human family; that there are no natural differences between Buddhists and Muslims; and that whether we are Jews or Hindus, Christians or atheists, we are born to love, without prejudice. Discrimination doesn’t come naturally; it is taught.

My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep. A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country.

It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country; it is adding to our pain.

As we witness the unfolding horror we pray for you to be courageous and resilient again. We pray for you to speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of your people. We pray for you to intervene in the escalating crisis and guide your people back towards the path of righteousness again.

God bless you.

Love

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Hermanus, South Africa”

tutu

photos from internet