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!”

No hiding from horror

My eyes see it and my mind and heart chokes. How many more dead, injured, crippled, orphaned, traumatized and scared children are we going to see in our news? A report after a report, a story after a story. I know this is not new or isolated tragedy and many atrocities are happening in other parts of the world. But Syria alone is enough to shock and shake the global community. What happened to our “Never Again”?

I am just going to vent my frustration, anger, grief and sense of helplessness here. I don’t have any brilliant advice for the United Nations or European Union or USA or Middle Eastern leaders. (I do have a few things to say to Vladimir Putin of Russia but he is not asking for my opinion.) I am no expert on diplomatic, political, military or even humanitarian solutions. I have lots of experience from working as a volunteer in places around the world, including helping people from war zones  but at the moment I feel so distant and powerless. Still I feel deep inside that the little children in Syria would ask me the same question they would ask any adult: “Why is this happening to me? Did you know that this was happening to me? Did you try to help me? Did you try to stop this?”

Chemical attack??? Growing up in Latvia and learning our history, the only time people in Latvia experienced this kind of terror was during WWI when the German army used poisonous gases in the trenches. We are still shocked and horrified and it took place in 2016. That was 100 years ago! Think about it… 100 years!!! And I thought that humanity had learned something.

Yes, of course, the chemical attacks is not the only form of violence that shocks us to core. So is beheading people and torturing them and burning them alive or any other form of attack on human life and dignity. Tragically we have become so desensitized that we accept much of it as normal or inevitable.

I know many people who are doing their best to help children affected by war and suffering. I support these kinds of projects and initiatives as much as possible because there is always something practical we can do. If we want to be the hands and the feet that deliver the aid, there are always possibilities and ways to do it.

Also I don’t underestimate the power of our prayers. I almost hesitated to mention prayer because it can stir strong emotions. “Don’t even mention God. If there is a just and good God, why is he allowing this?” For others, they believe that God cares but they don’t believe that our interceding matters.

I believe that it does matter but I also believe that we need to be ready to be the answer to our own prayers. If we pray for the children to be protected and healed and restored, we can support those who are on the ground in Syria giving this kind of help. Or those who are helping Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. Or helping the Syrian refugees in our own countries.

If we pray for our governments and leaders to do something about it and for people who can make the difference to have the political will, wisdom and courage to make decisions and implement them, then we need to be ready to support those decisions. Or to keep the pressure where the will, strategy and vision is lacking. Which embassy or government building we need to protest in front of?

The headlines say “The Syrian war is the deadliest conflict the 21st century has witnessed so far.” You have to agree that not just this century but this millennium has not started very well. But these children don’t need to hear about historical mistakes, geopolitics, ideologies, ambitions and the rest of our junk. They need real love and justice in action.

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(photos from internet)

 

Giving thanks for my vivacious sojourners

I love this photo and I love the memory of this moment. Mae Sot, Thailand may be a small town (developing and growing fast) on the Thailand – Burma border where tourists go for border crossing and locals for shopping and business, but for me it is “home away from home”.

These kids from Mae Sot are my sojourners in life and part of my story of “peaceroads” and I am very thankful for them. I am not thankful that they were always on the streets begging or collecting plastic bottles. I am not thankful that they were not attending school or that they had to carry small babies to attract the foreigner’s compassion. I am not thankful that they were bathing in the dirty and smelly town canals.

No, my heart was sad and angry that these beautiful, smart kids were so adopted to the life on the streets that they thought this is normal and even kind of fun. Of course, it was not fun when they had to be out at dark or when their parents told them not to come home until they had collected a certain amount of money. It was not fun when they were hungry or yelled at or treated like some stray animals.

A little comfort but I was grateful that at least they were in a small community like Mae Sot where people tend to watch out for each other more than in the big cities like Bangkok or Manila with too many children-at-risk to count.

This photo was taken at one of my favorite tea shops “Borderline” which is a cooperative for women in refugee camps making handy crafts. Borderline also serves delicious vegetarian food and refreshing drinks. Whenever we could, we would buy the children something to eat and Borderline was one of their favorite places to go. It had a nice garden and calming atmosphere. An oasis of peace on a busy, dusty, noisy street.

The kids were so energetic, funny and savvy. They perceived things differently and they always looked out for each other. I realized that they did not like to be patronized (don’t we all) and they didn’t like to be pitied (don’t we all). But they wanted to be loved (don’t we all).

We communicated in beginner Thai and lots of signs and body language. The universal language of hugs, smiles, welcome, concern, pointing, nodding or shaking head… Sometimes I went home exhausted because in the West we are much less concerned with body language and much more concerned with the exact words. In Thailand and Burma it is the opposite and my brain was slow to adjust.

They read me. They read my walk. They read my talk. They read my eyes. They read my mouth. They read my hands.

However imperfectly, I hope that I was able to communicate the most important thing: ” I see you and I know that you see me. I am here because you are here. I am your teacher but you are teaching me things, too. I love you because I am loved. The image of God in you is the image of God in me.” Thank you for being you!

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Smile that spoke volumes (photos from personal archive)

Bubbles and simple beauty of joy

London is one of my favorite places in the whole world. I have visited many times but have never lived there. So, I am allowed to keep my “honeymoon” feeling 🙂 It is a city of stories. On every turn you feel like there is an interesting and important story. Buildings, bridges, parks, statues, paintings, museums, theaters, train stations, markets, underground.

But my favorite thing to do is people watching. Believe me if you have never visited London; it is one of the best places to do it. The world is here. Literary. And for that reason I love walking along the river Thames. The view of the city does not change but every time it feels different because of the people. The story of London has a new chapter each day.

This last time I experienced a chapter about joy. The art of bringing joy. How little it costs but how much it does.

Who does not like soap bubbles? Children and adults alike are mesmerized by them. How they form, how they start floating in the air, how they change shapes and how far they fly. Some we catch, some get in our eyes or mouth and some get away. I love the colours and the rainbow reflection and I try to catch a glimpse of our world looking through a soap bubble.

There was a guy making large amounts of soap bubbles. Hoping to make some money but also enjoying it. And so was everyone walking by. The children forgot about their tantrums and wishes for sweets or rides or toys. They just wanted to play and catch and wait for that incredible moment when out of nothing (well, some soapy water) comes something as incredible as these simple objects of beauty.

Joy is bursting out as these bubbles burst out. I realize that I experience something that is fleeting. We describe it as “having fun”. The bubbles burst or float away and disappear. The children walk away and after 10 min they can be unhappy about something. The adults take the photos and then promptly forget about it. But this is a small glimpse into something bigger, more beautiful and lasting.

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”, said poet John Keats.

Famous German theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote on theology of joy. “Joy is enduring and puts its mark on one’s attitude to living. Fun is short-term and serves amusement. True joy is only possible with one’s whole heart, whole soul and all one’s energies. The feeling about life which underlies the party-making fun-society is, I suspect, more boredom with life than true joy. True joy opens the soul, is a flow of spirits, giving our existence a certain easiness. We may have fun, but we are in joy. In true joy the ecstatic nature of human existence comes to expression. We are created for joy. We are born for joy.”

For me, the simple fun with soap bubbles is like a door that opens for a short time to make us all stop and behold and then reflect why our heart so instinctively responds to it.

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Along the Thames (photos from personal archive)

 

Living between ‘Now’ and ‘Not Yet’

Today is Christmas Eve and I am looking forward to celebrating it with the family in Minnesota. At the same time missing my family in Latvia.

Many of us have favorite Christmas memories, so let me share mine. Growing up in Latvia while still part of the Soviet Union, we celebrated Christmas behind closed curtains. We would light candles and have a nice dinner but it was kept as a very private affair. Remember, we were living in an officially atheist country and you never knew who was watching. Somehow it made Christmas even more special, though. I liked the ‘secrecy’ and ‘mystery’ and the ‘underground’ feel of it before it became so mainstream.

My parents were not Christians and I don’t remember any conversations about God or my parents ever explaining to me what Christmas was. I just knew that it was a time of the year when you go to church and when you think about God. And I started to piece it together by listening to Christmas carols I heard in the church or from my grandmother’s stories.

Yes, I went to church on Christmas Eve. And this is my favorite memory – my dad and his childhood friend taking us, children, to the Lutheran church in Sarkandaugava, Riga. Neither dad were churchgoing but this was something they decided to do. And I loved it. I liked sitting in the balcony, listening to the choir, looking down on the huge Christmas tree and enjoying the smell of pine and candles. It felt like I was in ‘heaven’.

But the greatest impression was the Story. Usually someone read from the gospel of Luke 2:14, retelling the message proclaimed by the angels to the shepherds. “Glory to God in Heaven, and upon earth Peace, Good News to the children of men.”

I would start to cry. As soon as I heard that there will be peace on earth, I felt something in me explode. Is it really possible? It seemed too good to be true – Peace on Earth. This was the best news to me.

As I have mentioned in my previous blogs, I grew up in an atmosphere of fear and anxiety because of the Cold War. As children, we heard about all the threats, including the possibility of nuclear war. Also, my dad liked to watch programs on politics and history and I heard about all the different wars going on around the world. It certainly looked like people just don’t know how to get along. Even the experts did not have any answers. It was frightening to feel like there is no hope.

Then I heard it – God has an answer and His answer is Jesus. I felt power and assurance and hope and joy in this proclamation. If God is truly intervening in human affairs, then this is for real. Then nothing can stop this because God is all powerful and keeps His word.

Fast forward to 2015 and I still feel the same emotions and have the same thoughts when I hear, “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Yes, the conflicts and wars are still there.  We still live between that night in Bethlehem and the future day when there is truly Peace on Earth! That is why Christmas is not the whole story… later there is Easter and even that it is not the whole story…

We are encouraged to be like children because the children are simple. They know that God keeps His word.

Merry Christmas! God bless Us, Every One!

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This is one of my younger brother’s Christmas memories

Ir Ziemsvētku vakars, un priecājos sagaidīt to kopā ar ģimeni Minesotā. Vienīgi skumstu pēc saviem radiem Latvijā.

Daudziem no mums ir mīļākās Ziemsvētku atmiņas, šoreiz pastāstīšu savējās. Manā bērnībā svinējām ģimenes Ziemsvētkus aiz ‘aizvērtiem aizkariem’. Ar eglīti, svecītēm un gardām vakariņām, bet bez liekas uzmanības. Tolaik vēl bija sajūta, ka dzīvojot valstī, kur oficiālā ideoloģija ir ateisms, labāk nereklamēt savu privāto dzīvi kaimiņiem. Turklāt klāt tāds nacionālais elements. Tas lika izjust Ziemsvētkus kā kaut ko īpašu, slepenu, kā ‘pagrīdes’ aktivitāti. Ja godīgi, tā sajūta man patika labāk nekā tagadējie komerciālie, vidusmēra Ziemsvētki.

Mani vecāki nebija kristieši, un es neatceros nevienu sarunu par Dievu vai šo svētku nozīmi. Es tikai zināju, ka tajā dienā daudzi iet uz baznīcu, un tur runā par Dievu. Un es pati sāku ‘lipināt’ savus priekšstatus, klausoties Ziemsvētku korāļus vai vecmammas stāstus.

Jā, Ziemsvētkos mēs pat gājām uz baznīcu. Un tā ir mana mīļākā atmiņa – vienreiz mans tētis un viņa bērnības draugs ved mūs, bērnus, uz luterāņu baznīcu Sarkandaugavā. Neviens no tētiem nebija baznīcā gājēji, bet viņi tā nolēma. Un kā man tas patika! Man patika sēdēt balkonā… klausīties baznīcas korī, kas likās kā eņģeļu balsis…patika skatīties uz milzīgo egli un baudīt skuju un sveču smaržu. Man likās, ka esmu ‘debesīs’.

Bet vislielāko iespaidu atstāja pats Stāsts. Kāds lasīja vārdus, ko eņģeļi pasludina ganiem Lūkas vēstījumā. “Gods Dievam augstībā, un miers virs zemes cilvēkiem, pie kā Viņam labs prāts.”

Es sāku raudāt. Kad izdzirdēju vārdus par mieru pasaulē, kaut kas manī uzsprāga. Vai tas tiešām ir iespējams? Vai varu ticēt savām ausīm? Tās bija vislabākās ziņas.

Kā jau rakstīju agrāk, es uzaugu Aukstā kara baiļu un nedrošības atmosfērā. Bērnībā mēs ‘zinājām’ par draudiem, ieskaitot atomkaru. Vēl mans tētis skatījās daudz raidījumus par politiku un vēsturi, un es klausījos par visādiem kariem un konfliktiem pasaulē. Man kā bērnam bija skaidrs, ka cilvēki nemāk sadzīvot viens ar otru. Pat eksperti bija neziņā, kā to atrisināt. Ir briesmīgi dzīvot bez cerības.

Un te pēkšņi dzirdu – Dievam ir veids, kā to atrisināt. Es sajutu spēku, pārliecību, cerību un prieku. Ja Dievs ‘iejaucas’cilvēces attiecībās, tad tas ir pa īstam. Tad nekas to neapturēs, jo Dievam viss ir iespējams, un Viņš tur savu vārdu.

Patinot uz priekšu, 2015. gadā es izjūtu to pašu, kad dzirdu vārdus: “Jo mums ir piedzimis Bērns, mums ir dots Dēls, valdība guļ uz Viņa pleciem. Viņa vārds ir: Brīnums, Padoma devējs, Varenais Dievs, Mūžīgais tēvs un Miera valdnieks.”

Jā, konflikti un kari nav beigušies. Mēs joprojām dzīvojam starp nakti Betlēmē un dienu nākotnē, kad patiesi pienāks Miers virs Zemes! Tāpēc ar Ziemsvētku stāstu nekas nebeidzas… vēlāk seko Lieldienas, bet arī ar to stāsts nebeidzas…

Mums atgādina, lai topam par bērniem, jo bērni ir vienkārši. Viņi zina, ka Dievs tur savu vārdu.

Priecīgus Ziemsvētkus! Lai Dievs mūs visus svētī!