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.

 

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.