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!

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!)

 

 

Traitors, doubters, lovers, pragmatists, self-righteous, dreamers at God’s table

 

Is Simon Peter famous or infamous? To be proud or to be ashamed of? Two sides of the same coin? Every year around Easter (and any other time of a year) his famous ‘infamous’ story of denying Jesus three times is told and retold. The moral lessons to be learned; the wisdom and compassion of Jesus knowing our human weakness; the humiliation of self-righteousness; the bitter repentance; the encouragement and strength that ultimately comes out of this failure.

We know the story. I know the story. All four gospels tell this story. I was reading the gospel of Mark this week and comparing the parallel passages between the synoptic gospels and the gospel of John. And again I had the question why do they all tell the story of Peter. Especially John who has his own perspective on many things. There are so many other important details that could be told but this just had to be included.

Last year while visiting Ireland I saw this public artwork called “Dublin’s Last Supper”. The author of the large photographic modern-day re-enactment of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ is the Irish artist John Byrne. It catches your eye for so many reasons. First of all, Jesus. He is portrayed by an Indian student from Trinity College. Then the disciples. Different ages, races, female included, traditional and contemporary dress. All interacting and reacting to life, God, each other.

Original “The Last supper” by Leonardo Da Vinci is famous for portraying the moment when Jesus tells his closest disciples that one of them will betray him. Collaborate with the authorities. Make money from this betrayal. Save his own skin only to lose it few days later. And the disciples are shocked and puzzled: “What are you talking about? Surely not I? Surely not one of us?”  The only one who does not act surprised is Judas and in Dublin’s version he is the guy in business suit.

The artwork in Dublin is reflection of a “changing society and the growing cultural mix in Dublin” and the artist expresses “positive politics and faith in ordinary people“.

That’s it! Ordinary people. That is why I could not take my eyes of this scene and kept thinking which person reflects me. One of the traitors? Calculating Judas or self-righteous Peter? Doubting and skeptical Thomas?  Dreaming idealist John? Confused Matthew?

So ordinary and extraordinary because they are brought together by Jesus. And they have walked with him and talked with him and watched him. In the pubs of Dublin, the slums of Bangkok, the refugee camps of Mae Sot, the skyscrapers of New York, the streets of Cairo, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the beautiful beaches of Khao Lak.

The Last Supper is a moment of truth and God’s love. And in the end Peter could not deny that he had been at the table.

Happy Easter!

Rohingya and soul searching in Myanmar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My dear Aung San Su Kyi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless you.

Love

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Hermanus, South Africa”

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photos from internet

 

Good Friday and The Cranberries in my head

The keywords  – Ireland, The Cranberries, Good Friday and Jesus – are not equal in importance but they are all part of my story.

I am a big fan of Ireland! I have never lived there (my brother has, my friends and close relatives do) but I have always been fascinated by it. The Celtic art, the history, the music, the land, the people. No, let’s put the hospitality first! Through marriage I even inherited a family name that is well-known in Ireland. Lansdowne road, Lansdowne rugby club and so on.  My American husband is an ‘Irish wanna-be’.

I am a big fan of 90’s rock bands! The Cranberries, Pearl Jam, Jesus Jones and Nirvana to name just a few. While living in Southeast Asia, I discovered how much Asians like to sing cover songs and I cannot count how many times I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirits” or “Zombie“, And every time I heard someone sing “Zombie” in open cafe, bar or street corner, I could not help but think, “They probably have no idea. What if they understood what the Troubles in Northern Ireland were?”

When I first heard this song I did not pay attention to the lyrics either. At the time it was just another popular rock song with great female vocals. We tried to sing as angry and aggressive as Dolores O’Riordan because we felt it was a protest song. But protesting against what? And what is this zombie in your head?

“Another head hangs lowly
Child is slowly taken
And the violence caused such silence
Who are we mistaken

But you see it’s not me
It’s not my family
In your head, in your
Head they are fighting

In your head, in your head
Zombie, zombie, zombie”

This song came to my mind recently! Last week I wrote about Syria and my words felt so inadequate, small and flat.  Innocent children keep dying in this war and I hear this angry and aggressive voice  singing again “And the violence caused such silence, Who are we mistaken?”

Here is the important part – I am also a big fan of Jesus of Nazareth! This week Christians around the world are celebrating and remembering the events that are the cornerstone of our faith . For me it has everything to do with what I see around. Borrowing the words of a Croat theologian Miroslav Volf, “A genuinely Christian reflection on social issues must be rooted in the self-giving love of the divine Trinity as manifested on the cross of Christ.” To many people the cross is an offensive symbol but I think of it as a scandal. This kind of humiliation and seeming defeat is the ultimate scandal. Jesus gives himself for the others but the violence does not stop. It takes his life and the powers-to-be seem unshaken.

But there is no way around the cross. There is no modern or post-modern solution to our or any age. M. Volf thinks that modernity creates “culture of social hope” and post-modernity creates “culture of endurance”. Jesus creates neither. Our world is healed by the “weakness” and “foolishness” of the self-giving love.

Going back to the Cranberries and Northern Ireland, I am also a big fan of Good Friday Agreement! What a beautiful name to have for a reconciliation process! Next year it will be 20 years since it was agreed in Belfast on April 10, 1998. Again I am speaking as an outsider who has neither lived through the violence nor faced the challenges and the walls that still exist. But I have much hope and faith and the people in Northern Ireland show us all something crucial.

Our world desperately needs Good Friday agreements. Unless we want to keep singing, “In your head, in your head… zombie, zombie… du, du, du, du”

Cranberries

The Cranberries (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)

Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes…

I miss her. Today, October 8, is her birthday and I miss going to her home, having a nice home cooked meal, watching some silly TV programs, talking about anything and everything, watching her laugh so easily… so many ordinary things that she made special.

My mom passed away a few years ago. Today she would have turned 67 and we celebrate her life. Without her physical presence but not without her love and legacy. I think about her very often and I know that her imprint is all over my life. I am who I am because she was.

Apostle Paul wrote one of the most beautiful passages about love. “Love is patient, love is kind…” My mom was both of these things. It just came to her naturally. She was even kind in my teenage years when my “normal” state was to be mean, sarcastic and arrogant. I have no idea how she did it.

Love always protects… Mom was a very petite woman but at moments she seemed larger than life. I remember her getting so mad at an older man who was threatening to spank me and my brother. Actually we had gotten ourselves in trouble because we had climbed over a tall fence to steal some flowers from his flower-bed.  We got caught and the old man was so angry. Then our mom leaned outside the window, yelled at the guy and threatened to come downstairs. I remember watching in amazement how this tall, big guy became so meek and changed his tone and even gave us some candy.

Love always trusts… Even when I was not trustworthy. Even when I lied and cheated. Even when things were going hard for my other siblings and there were many reasons for discouragement and disappointment. Something we always felt, never doubted and knew deep inside was that our mom trusts us. Trusts us to make good decisions, trusts us to have adventures and to explore, trusts us to grow up and live well.

“peaceroads” is a big tribute to her life. My mom was a peacemaker. Of course, she was not perfect and she made many mistakes in her relationships. Still, she showed me how to acknowledge the truth, how to repent and apologize, how to reach out and how to hope for reconciliation.

Love always hopes…

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Until we meet again (photos from personal archive)