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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

 

 

2019… what do I see

It is time for New Year’s resolutions and I will confess… I usually don’t make them. I am not good at keeping promises to myself because most of  my time and energy is spent trying to keep promises to others and that is difficult enough.

But if I was to have my way, I would ‘plan’ more fun. Like dancing, swimming, reading classic novels, live concerts, hikes in the woods, museums and traveling around! Maybe this is how every student feels in the final year of his/her studies when Facebook becomes really annoying 😦 It somehow gives a (hopefully false) impression that others have all the time in the world.

So, what do I see when I think about 2019? In a larger, even global sense. Nothing rosy! Things used to be more predictable, forecasts more popular and every new year promised to be different and somehow better. And for some odd reason I have the feeling of ‘same old but more of the old’ to come. What I mean is that every new year, in fact, every month, week and day brings new challenges which also provide great new opportunities. Yet we stubbornly miss those opportunities again and again. (Don’t even get me started on sustainable global development issues!)

Here I am speaking of my sentiment over current affairs. Not gloomy but simply sad. Sad that many of our countries have become so consumed by domestic concerns and politics that our interconnection with the rest of the world and the global ecosystem is neglected, ignored or even bemoaned. Why should we care about other’s problems? Look how many problems are right here and right now!  Why should we think critically and use our brains when we can just go on social media and stop caring for facts and find people who will tell us what to think? Especially what to think of those “others”! Much easier and much more pleasant  is to live in our imagined ‘Whoville’ and get all upset when we are told it simply does not exist!

I know that this sounds like a broken record and we, especially in the West, keep going in circles with our discussions of politically divided communities and nations. But not until we are really fed-up with circling our ideological, theological, national ‘wagons’ and desperate enough to enlarge our hearts to love all our neighbors, we will just keep muddling through and keep up the frequent ‘mud-throwing’.

What we need in 2019 are more prophets! Not as fortune tellers or social protesters, but as people who, according to theologian Walter Brueggemann, “understood the possibility of change as linked to emotional extremities of life. They understood the strange in-congruence between public conviction and personal yearning. Most of all, they understood the distinctive power of language, the capacity to speak in ways that evoke newness “fresh from the word.”

I do not claim to have this kind of prophetic voice but I do know people who speak, write and, most importantly, live with this prophetic ‘newness’. I gravitate toward them because they see something that most of us do not see yet. They themselves do not claim that they ‘know’ or that they ‘see’. To me this is actually one of the marks of a prophetic person – they are never know-it-all or the expert. They are simply on the road less traveled which requires more courage and trust in hope…

So, here is my New Year’s resolution – I want to walk on the road less traveled! And I see a small, winding path and it probably goes uphill…

 

 

 

 

 

Smells Like Old Spirit

China! Have no idea how to write it down without rambling … but something deeply troubles me and there is no easy way around or out of it. It troubles me a lot, it creates a huge challenge and also brings a certain sense of helplessness.

In the West, we are very worried about the rise of authoritarianism in many places around the world, including in our midst. But there is another large elephant in the room – what about about the dilemma and conundrum of our dealings with the Communist government in China? The system and power which reminds the Chinese people who is in charge and plans to stay in charge and tells the rest of the world “Stay out of it if you want our business”. And, oh, we want and need that business.

If you are an American reading my blog, this has nothing to do with the current trade wars between the US and China because you may have noticed that the human rights, liberty and democracy question is not even on the table. All we hear is talk of money and superpower competition. If you are an Asian, you have your own strong opinions which I am familiar with after having lived in Southeast Asia for many years. It is always difficult to be the smaller and weaker neighbor next to a regional hegemony and world superpower. Just ask the people in Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, etc…

Remember Francis Fukuyama and his famous (or by now infamous?) 1989 thesis of The End of History? Well, this “end” is turning into the “same old, same old”. My personal strong emotions and reflections come from the fact that I still remember my childhood and the life in the USSR – a totally oppressive and repressive system – and for those  who know what it smells, tastes and feels like, there is a strong aversion to these kinds of manifestations of power, manipulation, abuse and denial of freedom.

I also remember the propaganda and how hard the Soviet regime tried to manufacture a pretty image of a happy society. especially to the outside world. And I sense such a familiar spirit when I think of China  and when I watch how carefully and masterfully it manufactures and lobbies its image around the world  as the most “peace loving, truthful, pragmatic, benevolent, long-term thinking, secure, wealth producing and well-wishing” government. There are too many cracks in this facade.

And through those cracks, if we care to know and look carefully, we know that all is not what it seems. But these days we have to look hard because we don’t hear these stories in our media. Every once in a while there may be an article about the oppression of ethnic Uighur, a primarily Muslim group in Xinjiang province. We can read the reports about “re-education” camps and massive abuses of human rights. Or we can read the stories about the escalating crackdown on personal religious freedom and religious groups . In case it has completely escaped your attention, read this article by the Washington Post.

It has nothing to do with my personal Chinese friends whom I love and cherish. It has nothing to do with the amazing culture, history, cuisine, hard work, entrepreneurship and simply amazing people and the beautiful country of China. I have been privileged to visit it and have my claim of having walked on the Great Wall. And I certainly hope to return because there is so much more to see and to learn.

But what about those things that the Chinese government does not want the rest of the world to see? Working very hard to keep this poster image and somehow succeeding. What about the proponents of the ‘liberalism’ theory of international relations which proposes that the Western liberal values will get planted and automatically bring fruit in places like China through closer ties, trade and co-operation? Is it really working out??? I wish it was. I am no expert on Chinese politics but from what I can hear, read and sense, instead of the liberal values gaining momentum, the system is cracking down and making another hard effort to convince the Chinese people and the rest of the world that exchanging your freedom, including your faith convictions, for some kind of national security, financial gain and state control is a perfectly good way for the future.

Last night I went to hear a lecture by an American historian Stephen Kotkin and few things he said triggered this post because it reminded why many things in our Western approach to Chinese “capitalist” communism does not sit well with me. The most important question is always the personal one – even if my government will not criticize and speak out against these massive human rights abuses, I do have a voice. Small and insignificant but a voice.

After the lecture I had two short conversations and one person used the example of a woodpecker – how it keeps pecking and pecking and pecking until the branch or even the whole tree is hollow enough to come down. I would like to borrow this metaphor. So, while churches are getting closed down, people jailed for all kinds of political, ideological and religious reasons and minority ethnic groups being “Sinicized” in China, we need to keep pecking and pecking… that it is not OK and that we refuse to accept it as the new ‘normal’.

 

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

 

Beating the swords into plowshares? One day…

Today is centennial Armistice Day in western Europe and around the world to mark the end of World War I (1914-1918). 100 years is quite the landmark! In Latvia November 11 is named after Lācplēsis who is a national, but fictional hero from an epic poem. He fought for freedom from the evil forces, in his case, the German knights.

100 years is long enough and personally I never met anyone who fought in this “war to end all wars”. But the scars are still visible. Cemeteries, monuments, battle fields… an unbelievable bloodshed and suffering. Around the area where I grew up and went to school, we would go on adventures to find the trenches from WWI. And there were many because there were many heavy battles fought along the front line which went through our area of Kekava and Daugmale.

Also, nearby on the river Daugava was a place called “the Island of Death” and just hearing its name gave me the shivers. We were taught the history of Latvian riflemen who fought on this small strip of land to stop German imperial army from crossing the river. This was also a place where chemical weapons had been used in a form of poisonous gas. The loss of life was heavy. What else can you call it but a place of death!

Today I think of the biblical vision of the day when God “shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4) I have friends and family members who serve in the military, I know people who train for war, I know people who are war veterans and I think of them when I read a Scripture likes this. Obviously we are not there yet and sometimes we feel further from this prophetic vision then ever. I imagine that masses of people during WWI felt like the very end of times was upon them.

Little boys and girls like to play with swords. I liked to use sticks as swords and cut the heads of flowers in one swift move. It was a romantic notion of knights and honour and bravery. But now I am afraid to hold a real sword when I see it in someone’s collection. It is so sharp, so heavy and so real. It is certainly not to be toyed with.

When I think about WWI, it seems such an absurdity, evil and stupidity which led to so much suffering. Yes, it led also to Latvia gaining a nationhood and statehood which I can be grateful for, but the cost was so high. The Latvian riflemen who fought for freedom and independence for our nation are certainly our brave heroes. But how I wish it had not been necessary and how I wish they themselves could have enjoyed living in this free and beautiful Latvia.

So, this is a day of remembrance, day of heroes and day of somber gratitude!

rigas_bralu_kapi

Brother’s Cemetery in Rīga: a military cemetery and national monument