Enough of reliving Columbine again. And again. And again.

Where does it stop? How much more trauma, tragedy and loss of life from shooters with powerful guns can American teenagers, children, parents, grandparents, families, teachers, pastors, churches, the whole society take? I hope and pray and wish and plead that it stops at Parkland, Florida.

I will never forget April 20 of 1999 when the shooting at Columbine High School happened. I had just spent three months in the States visiting friends and family and one person very dear to me was a high school student at the time. Minnesota is far from Colorado but schools all over the country were holding vigils and grieving. It broke my heart and it is still one of the most harrowing images I can think of. Those two guys slowly walking through their school as if they were on a hunt. And here we are 18 years later and similar horror gets repeated again and again. And again.

I grew up with drills in the school. We learned how to hide under the tables, how to run to the basement, how to find shelter and how to put on a gas-mask in the fastest way possible. In the USSR this was not a practice for ‘active shooter’. This was a practice for ‘active nuclear weapon’ coming in. (Like you could really hide from a nuclear explosion!) I know that this may be a very bad analogy but it is the closest thing I have experienced that helps me to relate to the fear it brings in children. And when this fear gets cultivated year after year, it becomes the new normal. In those days the answer to nuclear threat was more nuclear weapons. We were on this race who will have the biggest stockpile and it was never big enough. The whole world could blow itself up and everyone felt less safe.

I would have never ever believed that American children and teenagers will have to grow up with school drills for ‘active shooters’. Again, there are two little boys in Minnesota whom I dearly love and I think of the time when they start going to school. What will be their ‘normal’?! This is the post-Columbine reality. Just like post 9/11 reality for me is the airport routine of security checks. No sharp things, no liquids, take your shoes off, take your electronics out. It was enough with one incident of someone trying to use a liquid to build explosives and I cannot carry water or any drink on board.

But here are people with powerful weapons built to inflict the biggest amount of damage who are thought to pose much less threat. My water bottle is obviously more dangerous than AR15 semi-automatic rifle. (I don’t mean to be sarcastic. I am actually dumbfounded.)

I am not joining the gun debate as such. I am not a gun owner, I am not an American citizen  (I do pay taxes in the US, though) and I have no right to vote on those issues (some may say that I have no right to voice my opinion then) but I do believe in common sense. And right now the truth speaks from the mouths of children. Like everyone else who has watched any interview with the survivors of Parkland shooting, I have been overwhelmed and more than impressed by the maturity, intelligence, focus, determination and eloquence of these students. They are right to ask though: “Why is it us who have to fight for this issue to have gun reform? Why is it us who have to march and protest?”

Jack Haimowitz, 18, a survivor of last week’s shooting said: “Before you put your pen to paper, stop and feel something.” He blames the people “who don’t want to come together. The people who don’t want to unify and to love each other.” Listen to what Jack has to say in this short video! It will only take 1 min of your life but this teenager says more in few words than many who have spoken and written on the issue of gun violence and reform.

“We sat in the these classes ready to learn and now we are standing in front of the world ready to teach.” (J.Haimowitz, Parkland, Fl)

May we learn! May America learn!

 

 

 

The barricades and my experience of nonviolent resistance

It is January and it is another cold one in Latvia I am not in Riga but I do know what a cold winter day or night feels like. And in 1991 it was a cold January. Still, most people in Latvia (including me) remember it with special warmth because it was also a time of campfires and hot tea and passionate living.

I wish I had the kind of good memory my dad has. He always fills me in with details since some of those events 25 years ago are starting to blur. In January 1991, my beautiful city of Riga was filled with barricades – all around the Old City, around any important government building, around the national TV and Radio stations… The barricades were built with an amazing speed and determination, using anything that could create an obstacle. Huge blocks, tractors, public buses, piles of wood…

We were in the middle of Latvia’s peaceful independence movement. The previous year in 1990, the Latvian government with the overwhelming support of the people had voted to restore the independence of Latvia. It had been occupied by the USSR for many decades but everyone could sense – now is the time for freedom! For many people it felt like ‘now or never’.

People were also afraid the Soviet power will not go without a fight. Nobody knew what to expect. It was a critical time and it was obvious that there will be provocations to restore the control of Moscow. The worst provocations came that month, January of 1991, when the Soviet tanks attacked the main television tower in Vilnius, Lithuania. 14 people died and the news went around the world. As the news reached Latvia, Latvian government and the people reacted quickly and started building the barricades to protect government buildings. Thousands of people gathered in Riga.

I remember watching the news from Vilnius, shocked at seeing a tank run over a young man. Was this really happening? Will this happen in Riga, too? Everyone knew that the people stand no chance against the mighty Soviet army. What do you do when you are so powerless? Nobody had taught us about non-violent resistance. Most had never studied the methods of Gandhi  or Martin Luther King Jr but somehow we all knew what to do. We knew that the barricades are no obstacle for the tanks. We would be a human shield and if the tanks came, then the whole world would see what kind of regime was the USSR.

There were many Western journalists in the Baltic Sates. This was before cell phones, internet and social media but the communication was swift and effective. I asked my dad how did we communicate back then? He replied, “Don’t you remember there were pay-phones everywhere? And people used land lines?”

My mom was the activist in the family… If you ever knew her, you would know what a gentle woman she was but she could get really passionate when it mattered! I don’t think I had ever seen my mom so determined and unafraid. My grandmother told me that in one of the meetings where things got rough with the police and she could get arrested, my grandmother tried to talk her out of it. Telling her to go home because she had three children to raise. My mom had replied that she is not worried because my dad will do a fine job raising us. I doubt if she had asked my dad for his opinion…

So my mom and I went to Riga as soon as we heard that something needed to be done. I don’t remember the details but I do remember that we walked around the streets, talking to other people, watching the campfires being built, people starting to bring out food to those who were out of town. Big tractors appeared on the small streets and the barricades were built. We spent the whole night and next day went home.

Then it was my dad’s turn. The men from our village got organized to ‘protect’ the national television tower. They would stay there day and night, sitting around the fire and trying to keep warm. I visited him once or twice and remember thinking, “This is like the movies. Women visiting the men on the front lines and bringing them food and drinks and news from home.”

Well, it was not a movie (even though it sometimes seems so unreal) and I was just a normal high school student. Guess how much time did I spend studying that year? It helped that the teachers were ‘distracted’ from their responsibilities, too…

And then there is another important detail I remember. The churches! They were open day and night and served as the place of rest, refreshments and, most crucially, the place of prayer. Many people who had never stepped inside a church, were there. Riga has many beautiful old church buildings and they really served their purpose then. Places of peace and hope and faith in the One who is above all this ‘madness’. Peace in the midst of fear and anxiety. Hope and prayer that it will not get violent and that freedom will come peacefully. Trust in God Almighty because there was nobody else to trust.

And our trust and hope was not disappointed…

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Photo by Boris Kalesnikov

Latviskais variants:

Ir kārtējais aukstais janvāris. Šobrīd neesmu Rīgā, bet varu iedomāties aukstas dienas un naktis. Un 1991. gada janvāris arī bija auksts. Taču mēs to atceramies ar zināmu siltumu, jo domājam par ugunskuriem, karstu tēju un dzīvi ar pilnu krūti.

Žēl, ka man nav tik laba atmiņa kā tētim. Viņs vienmēr atgādina kādas detaļas , bet man šie notikumi pirms 25 gadiem jau sāk zaudēt nianses. Atceros, kā mana mīļā Rīga piepildījās ar barikādēm. Turklāt tas notika tik ātri. Betona bloki, traktori, autobusi, malkas grēdas…

Atceros arī to sajūtu, kas virmoja gaisā – tagad vai nekad. To neziņu, kas būs tālāk.

Mājās skatījāmies ziņas (man liekas, toreiz televizors gandrīz netika izslēgts), un sāka rādīt kadrus no Viļņas. Tur bija kāds jauns puisis, varbūt pat mans vienaudzis, kuru sabrauca tanks. Vai tas tiešām notiek? Vai tas notiks arī Rīgā? Visi taču saprata, ka pret vareno Padomju armiju vienkāršā tauta nevarēs nostāvēt. Ko darīt, kad jūties bezspēcīgs? Neviens mums nebija mācījis par nevardarbīgu pretošanos vai Gandija, vai Martina Lutera Kinga metodēm, bet pēkšņi cilvēki zināja, kas jādara. Zināja, ka barikādes nebūs nekāds šķērslis tankiem. Bet aiz šīm ‘barikādēm’ būs cilvēku vairogs, un ja tanki brauks virsū, tad visa pasaule redzēs, kāda ir PSRS vara un sistēma.

Rīgā bija rietumu žurnālisti. Bet nebija mobilie telefoni, internets vai sociālie mediji. Tomēr ziņas izplatījās ātri un efektīvi. Es prasīju tētim, kā mēs toreiz sazinājāmies. Viņš atbildēja: “Vai tad tu neatceries maksas telefona automātus uz ielām? Un to, ka katram mājās bija telefons?”

Mūsu ģimenē vislielākā aktīviste bija mamma… Tie, kas viņu pazina, zin, ka mana mamma bija ļoti mierīga un maiga, bet viņa varēja kļūt ļoti dedzīga, ja kaut kas likās svarīgs. Nekad nebiju redzējusi mammu tik mērķtiecīgu, apņēmīgu un bezbailīgu. Pat vecmamma (kura ir vēl lielāka aktīviste) stāsta, ka vienā no mītiņiem, kur varēja izcelties kautiņš vai arī policija (toreiz milicija) kļuva draudīga, viņa mēģinājusi atrunāt mammu no iesaistīšanās. Lai ejot mājās, jo tev taču trīs bērni! Mamma esot atbildējusi, ka viņa neuztraucoties. Viņa uzticoties mūsu tētim, ka viņš mūs labi izaudzināšot. Šaubos, vai viņa prasīja tēta domas…

Mēs abas ar mammu braucām uz Rīgu tikko, kā dzirdējām, ka kaut kas ir jādara. Atceros, ka staigājām pa Rīgas centru, runājām ar cilvēkiem. Vērojām, kā rodas pirmie ugunskuri; kā rīdzinieki nes siltu tēju un ēdienu tiem, kas uz ielām. Mazajās ielās iebrauca lieli traktori un mašīnas, un visur barikādējās. Mēs pavadījām to pirmo nakti pilsētas centrā, un nākamajā dienā braucām mājās.

Tad bija tēta kārta. No Ķekavas un no tēta darba vietas tika noorganizēts, ka viņi ‘sargās’ televīzijas torni Zaķusalā. Tā viņi tur pavadīja vairākas dienas un naktis. Arī šēžot pie ugunskuriem. Mēs aizbraucām apciemot (lai gan bija tāda kā neizteikta pavēle, lai sievietes un bērni paliek mājās). Atceros, ka man bija sajūta, it kā es piedalītos kādā filmā. “Lūk, sievietes apciemo savus vīrus un dēlus frontes līnijā… aizved ēdienu un pastāsta, kas notiek mājās.”

Bet tā nebija filma, lai gan reizēm liekas tik nereāla pagātne, un es biju vienkārši viduskolniece. Skaidrs, ka par mācībām es toreiz daudz nedomāju. Izglāba tas, ka arī skolotāji daudz ‘nedomāja’ par saviem pienākumiem…

Un vēl viena ļoti svarīga lieta, ko atceros. Baznīcas! Tās bija atvērtas dienu un nakti. Kā patversmes, kur atpūsties, pagulēt, pasildīties, iedzert kaut ko siltu, un galvenais, aizlūgt par Latviju un mums pašiem. Daudzi, kas nekad nebija kāju spēruši baznīcā, bija tur, un vecie, skaistie Rīgas dievnami vistiešākajā veidā kalpoja savam mērķim. Vietas, kur rast mieru, cerību un ticību Tam, kurš ir augstāks par šo ‘trakumu’. Miers baiļu un uztraukuma atmosfērā. Cerība un lūgšana, ka nesāksies asinsizliešana, un ka brīvība atnāks mierīgā ceļā. Paļāvība uz Dievu Visspēcīgo, jo nav cita, kam uzticēties,

Un mūsu cerība un paļāvība un uzticēšanās nepievīlās…

Peek into my library…

One of my New Year resolutions is to read even more books. I love reading and through the work and travels I have collected a small library. Unfortunately my library is scattered – most books are in Latvia, many in USA and a few in Thailand. I have a dream that one day I will be able to have a proper office with a nice big desk and all my books within a reach.

I have friends in Minnesota who have this great book-reading tradition called “Theology Pub”. They read one book per month and then meet at a local pub for discussion and reflection. If I lived in Minnesota, I would join them. I love a good discussion and thought-provoking books. The last book they read in 2015 was “Jesus and the nonviolent revolution” by André Trocmé.

I was not able to join the discussion. (So, if any of you have read it, I would love to hear your thoughts.) Timely and relevant book even though the author died in 1971. André Trocmé was a French protestant minister who led a nonviolent resistance in south central France during WWII. The people of the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon saved thousands of Jews by hiding them in their barns, farms, homes. Their actions were very much inspired by their theological beliefs that every human being has a God given dignity and worth and no system or government has right deny it.

Here is a glimpse into André Trocmé’s writings: “Every nation is inclined to equate its fundamental values with the institutional shell built to protect and express them. Consequently its leaders are tempted to use lies to defend the truth, violence to protect the peace, and persecution to save charity.” He talked about (and practiced) nonviolent resistance to evil. God is love, so André Trocmé argued that we have to use different kind of weapons – the weapons of the Spirit.

Continuing the thought: “The state – the way of power – can only work from the past to anticipate the future and determine its course. As long as the church abandons its calling, that state will know nothing of repentance. But the church in its midst does know repentance, and it knows only that, and it bears witness to that before the state, for the healing of the nations. If Christ’s followers do not surpass the state in justice, they do not belong to God’s kingdom; they leave the world to fend for itself in the agony of its abandonment.”

I like reading autobiographies of people who either inspire me or give me something to reflect upon. For example, “The Story of My Experiments with Truth” by Gandhi or “The Seven Storey Mountain” by Thomas Merton, an American writer/monk. Also, “Light Force” by Brother Andrew, telling the story of his work in the Middle East.

Last year I read “I am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai, a Nobel laureate, and “A Journey” by Tony Blair, the former prime minister of UK. Regardless of what you think of Tony Blair, I was very interested in his experiences in the peace process in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. It gives a lot of insight into mediation and conflict resolution processes and challenges.

Then there are lots of books on forgiveness and reconciliation. At the top of the list would be “Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace”, “Exclusion&Embrace” and “The End of Memory” by Miroslav Volf, a Croat theologian and thinker who teaches at Yale University. I highly recommend anything he has written.

Since I promised only a peek, this is a short list. I look forward to more good reading this year. Also, friends in Latvia, my ‘library’ is open for anyone…

Next time I am in Riga, I intend to spend some time at the National Library which, besides a great collection of books and resources, has the best view of Old Town. Who would not want to enjoy it?!

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Define ‘happy’ and ‘new year’

A Rwandan friend of mine posted a question on Facebook: “what does ‘happy new year’ mean?” He inspired me to write my own response.

It is January 1, 2016… the first day of a new year. We measure time by counting years but I like to think more in terms of ‘seasons’. There is no magic line that gets crossed just because the date changes. Most things carry over into the next year.

What will carry over from 2015? Thinking globally, I will say that most of the events and responses of last year will continue to have ripple effect on our future. I remember a song from 1991 that was relevant to my generation. Yes, Generation X.  The British band Jesus Jones sang:

“A woman on the radio talks about revolution
When it’s already passed her by
Bob Dylan didn’t have this to sing about you
You know it feels good to be alive
I was alive and I waited, waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now, there is no other place I wanna be
Right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history
I saw the decade in, when it seemed
The world could change at the blink of an eye
And if anything then there’s your sign
Of the times

I was alive and I waited, waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now”

I wonder how many of us still feel this way?! I wonder what kind of song would Jesus Jones write right here and right now? I cannot count how many times I have heard the words “the world has gone crazy” this last year. Mostly from my friends in the so called ‘Western countries’. One of the lines stuck in my mind are the words of a well-known Russian TV host and journalist, Vladimir Pozner, “I get an impression that the world has lost its mind. I want to say: Stop the Planet! I want to get off…”

This is an understandable way to respond. Wanting to withdraw. And many people are choosing to do just that. The other option is to call to arms and try to fix it. Usually by force because ‘people just don’t obey’ or ‘don’t know any better’. There are plenty of people who believe that the end justifies the means and trying to build their visions of  ‘happy new era’ by violent force. (yes, I am speaking of the extremists – ISIS and such)

So, the common options for making the ‘happy future’ is fight or flight. Personally I don’t choose either because I believe in another way. This is what my friend also mentions in his post. And this is also the way I am trying to learn from Jesus whom I consider the greatest example of how to bring a radical change around us.

André Trocmé, a French minister who helped to rescue thousands of Jewish people during the Holocaust, wrote: “Jesus’ refusal to use force was therefore not some extra historical dream of a mystic trying to forget the concrete realities of this world. He did not ignore the human condition. His way was a step-by-step journey through the obstacles, mountain passes, snares, and cliffs of history. Jesus carved a new path into the hardness of human realities, a path he trod first, carrying on his shoulders the way of the cross and all the requirements of the kingdom of God: social justice, radical transformation, commitment to truth, and personal regeneration.”

When I think of next year, I can see lots of these ‘obstacles, mountain passes, snares, and cliffs of history’. Or to use the words of my friend Noel, “I am not going to promise you that this year will lead you on smooth roads, but you will be reminded that you got shock absorption abilities.”

What are our shock absorption devices? What is our definition of ‘happy new year’? What are we going to do make this next year happier for those around us?

The answers will come day by day if we are willing to search for them. And I will have a very happy year if I take each step with more love and more courage…

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My nominee for Nobel Peace Prize 2015 is …

The laureate of Nobel Peace Prize will be revealed this Friday, October 9. As usual, the nominees are kept in secret and it will be a secret for next 50 years. So, we will not know who were the people and organizations to choose from.

Having just visited Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, I was thinking about the previous awards. Some amazing people who have given their lives to makes this world a better place. I have my own list of favorites. The official website of Nobel Prize also lists the most popular laureates and there are three Peace Prize awards in the top 10. Can you guess who?

The most popular from all categories is Martin Luther King, Jr. I am not surprised. His life and work continues to speak and challenge us today. We can think of the famous speech in Washington, ” I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” There are many places in the world where it has not become a reality yet. So, the work continues. He also said and believed that “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I believe it.

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One of the people who inspired Martin Luther King, Jr, but never received the Nobel Peace Prize, was Mahatma Gandhi. Geir Lundestad, Secretary of Norwegian Nobel Committee in 2006 said, “The greatest omission in our 106-year history is undoubtedly that Mahatma Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace prize. Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace prize, whether Nobel committee can do without Gandhi is the question”.

Another one of my absolute heroes on the list is Mother Theresa. She needs no comments. Just couple of my favorite quotes from her, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love” and “Live simply so others may simply live.”

Any guess who is another popular laureate? It is the young girl from Pakistan who advocates for female education. Malala Yousafzai is the youngest laureate ever at the age of 17. When she was 11 years old, Yousafzai wrote a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC detailing her life under Taliban occupation, their attempts to take control and her views on promoting education for girls in the Swat Valley. One afternoon in 2012, Malala boarded her school bus in the northwest Pakistani. A gunman asked for her by name, then pointed a pistol at her and fired three shots. She survived and went through intensive rehabilitation. Her advocacy work has become an international movement.

This is what Malala said  at the UN, “The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born … I am not against anyone, neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I’m here to speak up for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all terrorists and extremists.”

So, who will be awarded this most prestigious prize this year? I have no idea but I do know many people I would certainly nominate if I had the authority to do so. There is one person I want to write about but it will have to be the next post. So, I will keep it a secret just like the Nobel Prize committee does. But don’t worry … just for one more week, not 50 years.

Meanwhile, who would you nominate?

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The danger of being a peacemaker

If you lived in unjust and oppressive circumstances, what would you do? If you were desperate to change the life around you, what kind of movement would you join? What kind of leader would you follow?

I think about the events that took place 2000 years ago but are as relevant today. During Easter we reflect on the story of Jesus death by public execution. The people of Israel were living under occupation, oppression, corrupt rulers and poverty. The land was occupied and ruled by the Roman Empire which had brought the so-called Roman Peace (Pax Romana). The occupied nations and people were pacified and controlled and kept ‘in order’. There were plenty of crucified bodies on a display as an ‘encouragement’…

One way I can relate is for those of us who grew up in the former USSR and in a occupied nation like Latvia. We were living in ‘peace’ in the most ‘peace loving Union’ of the world and the large Soviet military force that was stationed everywhere was a great reminder how this ‘peace’ was kept and enforced.

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I believe that life without communal and individual freedom, equality and justice and trust and good relations is no peace. And the land of Israel was no exception. There were always rebellions led by those who were not accepting this Roman version of Peace. Barabbas was one such rebel who took part in insurrection.

Jesus was also accused of being a revolutionary, of leading a movement that will upset this “peace”. Accused by whom? By the powers that be! His lifestyle, message and popularity were too threatening to them. Mostly the religious and political leaders who were trying to negotiate this difficult life under the Roman occupation and passionate about keeping ‘us’ and ‘them’ apart.

In fact Jesus was leading a ‘revolution’ but of a very different kind. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” He was turning the world upside down but without any weapons and violence. Even without wealth and political power. Remember what Jesus said when the soldiers came to arrest him, “Am I leading a rebellion that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?”

But in the end he was deemed more dangerous than Barabbas who actually killed some of his “enemies”. Pontius Pilate was confused. Not because he cared but because he did not see Jesus as a potential danger for the Romans. Even more – Jesus was telling people to love their enemies. Who would not want to keep him around, right?

(Have you ever wondered what happened to Barabbas? Did the Romans really let him go back to his freedom fight?)

So, why were the leaders more afraid of a peacemaker than freedom fighter? Why were they so against this non-violent transformation and healing of society? But then I have a personal choice, too. If I was standing in that crowd, looking at the hated Roman representative who has the power and is asking me to choose between Jesus or Barabbas, who would I choose?

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