Why the right to vote is my privilege

Election day in Latvia is coming to an end… the important part is behind us but the interesting part is still ahead. The polling booths have closed. Now all is left is to wait for the results.

I have bittersweet feelings. While voting today at the nearby polling station, I was thinking about my 95 year old grandmother who stayed at home and was not able to cast her vote. Not able because of the advanced dementia. I knew that I probably could find her passport, dress her, walk down the stairs, stand in line and help her to do the talking, registering and voting. Yet somehow it did not feel right (and probably not even legal) since the person is so confused that they cannot make their own decisions anymore. I did not want to “use” my grandmother to get her to vote for the party I chose to support.

So, I voted for both of us. I mean, I felt double responsibility. My grandmother has lived a long life and she has given a lot for me and others to have the best life we can. She has risked her life in the years when it was not allowed to have your own political views not matching the Communist party. She aided the Latvian underground resistance groups after WWII which meant to live in hiding for few years when she was found out. Later she became a devout Christian and joined a Baptist church at a time when religious people were persecuted. My grandmother was not perfect and we have disagreed on many issues but I  always knew that she is courageous and passionate. She was not one to just stand by.

And I don’t want to stand by either. Latvia is a free and democratic country with its own challenges and faults and there is plenty to improve. Nevertheless, the life here has never been so peaceful, stable and secure. And the right and the responsibility to vote and participate in the present and future of this nation is not something to take lightly. I know that it sounds very cliche but there are many countries around the world where ordinary citizens don’t get to decide. For them my life and freedom is a dream.

For many years I lived in Thailand where for the first time in my life I experienced a military coup in 2014. And the country still has not had free elections and there is no sign of a change. People with military background now have 143 seats of 250 member parliament in Thailand. So, it is very easy for me to compare and to know what kind of “democracy” I don’t want. It is “peace and order” by might.

Yes, we have the ugly side of our democracy and every election year highlights the usual problems – the examples of corruption, the lack of transparency, mutual respect, wise compromise, norms of civility, problems with lobbies and shady money, etc. And we get the expected response from voters  – from protest votes for populists to apathy and those who don’t even bother. But I believe that many of our negative responses and attitudes come from not counting our blessings.

Today I voted. My grandmother will be proud of me. Just as I am proud of her. The Latvia she dreamed off is mine to nurture, to protect and to cherish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funeral like no other making love great again

One Lord. One Faith. One Baptism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Oregon diary: The art of sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Off the beaten path or where in the world is Zumbrota

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Minnesota diary: Indians and cowboys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Love and its more than fifty shades of green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Why bother crossing this particular bridge on May 9

The usual parade of special dates. May 1, May 4, May 8, May 9…  The weather exceptionally beautiful and ‘woe is me’ for having to study and sit in lectures. Not that I care much about official events but glad to participate in smaller grassroots initiatives to give these days a personal meaning.

Every year in May I write about reconciliation and bridging of collective memories in Latvia. May 8 is the day to celebrate the end of war in Europe and May 9 is the day to  celebrate the start of peace through European unity. It is known as Europe Day even if many Europeans have no idea what it is and what it represents.

But my post today is about the other May 9. The one I choose not to celebrate. The one that most Latvians choose not to celebrate. The one that stirs much controversy and discussion ever year. The one celebrated on the other side of the river Daugava which divides our beautiful capital. The one where thousands of people gather at the Victory Monument built in Soviet era and during celebration proudly display the Soviet red star and old Soviet slogans. The one where you get a very strong “us” and “them” vibe.

The bridge I am standing on leads directly to this Victory monument and many many Latvians who don’t live on that side simply choose not cross it on May 9. During the day you will hear, “Stay away from there! Do not cross the river! Avoid it! Ignore it! Go around if you can! It is madness.” And so we continue every year. One group streams toward it and the other group keeps their distance as far as possible.

But I chose to go across this year. As I did last year. Why? It is hard to explain. Maybe I am simply that kind of person who likes to do the opposite of what I am told. The opposite of mainstream if you will. You may think it is idealistic but I know that I have to do something about it. That I have to get in the midst of it. That I have to try to understand how and why. Someone has said that “Holiness is walking toward the darkness”. I don’t mean to use religious or spiritual language to say that I am on the side of ‘light’ and the others are on the side ‘darkness’. I just know that for me personally this represents one of the most challenging things to experience without passing strong judgment.

I go and watch older people get emotional and carry photos of loved ones they lost in WWII. I can understand the pride about the sacrifice of forefather’s who fought against the Nazi regime and in the end prevailed. I can understand the younger generations listening to these family stories and feeling the same pride about their ancestors. I can understand the traditions and the importance of remembering.

But I cannot support the Soviet nostalgia, the glorification of those tragic WWII days as some kind of ‘holy days’ and some kind of ‘holy war’. I cannot accept the concept that this is main and only event for the majority of Russian community in Latvia to be united around. I can be inclusive of people’s memories but I cannot embrace the political overtones and agendas. There is an invisible line which I refuse to cross because of my values, beliefs and understanding of history.

Foreign friends visiting Rīga have asked me, “What is this? Why does Latvian government allow it? Why do you guys allow it?” Once I walked through these May 9 celebrations with an American friend and she actually got afraid and kept asking me how I felt about it.

How do I feel about it? I feel this bridge building will take a little longer (and, of course, it is directly connected to who and what and how long governs in Russia). I also feel hopeful because most of Latvian society lives and dreams and works and loves and makes friends outside these ‘Latvians’ and ‘Russians’ boxes…   but until we get rid of these divisions completely, we must keep crossing back and forth.