The Wisdom of Strangers

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I have been accused of being too friendly and too willing to talk to strangers.

Here’s the thing: I’ve met some amazing people this way and also learned from each of them, and I wouldn’t forego these experiences for anything.

After having to put my cat down last week and then cancel an event that I had my whole heart set on, I was feeling pretty aimless when I drove 1,100 miles to Georgia but decided to go anyway and see what happened.

What I had hoped would happen was fairly clear would not when I arrived in the city I came to. As Bono sang, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” To make matters worse, the place I was renting a “studio” apartment from for a couple of weeks was shoddy and not terribly clean; it certainly looking nothing like the pictures on the Internet.

Still, I thought, okay, maybe I’ll learn something new here.

I returned to my room today to find the staff electrician fixing the two-burner stove that wasn’t working. I was very hot and very tired after an eventful morning and lunchtime and just wanted to lie down and take a snooze.

The stove job turned out to be pretty complicated, and the man was in and out and in out of my room getting more supplies, turning the electricity on and off, and getting even more supplies. I sat down at the little table to check Facebook. Then I heard him humming and asked him whether he was a musician.

The man is probably in his late 30s, dark-skinned, and with what I thought as a Hispanic accent. For the next half hour we talked about our favorite classical composers, blues musicians, and Michael Buble’s CD of Sinatra music. He also told me about getting a French press for his mother and that he would be visiting her that night to teach her how to use it.

It was when I finally thought to say, “My name is Cynthia, by the way” that he told me his name in both Italian and Spanish. Was he both Italian and Spanish, I asked?

“My mother is Spanish and my father is Italian and Native American,” he answered.

Does he have any Cherokee blood? I asked.

“Ottawa,” he answered.

I explained that I had asked because the two times now I’ve driven to Georgia, I’ve been appalled by the way “Cherokee” is used for the names of stores and such that have no relationship to the Cherokee nation.

He smiled ruefully, and then told me that his mother being Spanish came from a heritage that was partly to blame for the ravaging of his father’s ancestors in the Americas.

He spoke softly and succinctly. “I did research on all the countries that were responsible for that for my master’s thesis.”

“What was your degree in?”

“Linguistics.”

I kicked myself even as I asked, “What are you doing working here?”

“A lot of people ask me that.”

“I take it back, I take it back! I’m not trying to demean your job. God knows, not just anyone could do what you’re doing. I was just thinking that you have so much knowledge and wisdom to share; you would make a wonderful teacher.”

He spoke ruefully again, and slowly. “I do think of myself as a teacher. I do try to engage people and show them how that history repeats itself.”

“And is repeating itself right now.”

“Yes.” We agreed that corporations were enslaving people all over again.

Then he told me about a 16th century monk who had seen what went on in the “new world” and had tried to get the ear of Isabella and Ferdinand to stop the plundering and depredations.

“You have a calling,” I said. “It’s almost a ministry.”

He nodded.

He was done by now fixing the stove and putting all the supplies back on his cart.

“Thank you for all I’ve learned from you today,” I told him.

“It was my pleasure.”

And he rolled the cart away.

For the curious, here is what Wikipedia has to say about the monk he told me about, Bartolomé de las Casas:

Bartolome de las casasBartolomé de las Casas (Spanish: [baɾtoloˈme ðe las ˈkasas] ( listen); c. 1484[1] – 18 July 1566) was a 16th-century Spanish colonist who acted as a historian and social reformer before becoming a Dominican friar. He was appointed as the first resident Bishop of Chiapas, and the first officially appointed “Protector of the Indians“. His extensive writings, the most famous being A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and Historia de Las Indias, chronicle the first decades of colonization of the West Indies. He described the atrocities committed by the colonizers against the indigenous peoples.[2]

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Why I Love Howard Thurman

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I’ve written about my favorite theologian before in this space, but I have to do so again.

Why?

Because no matter whether I’ve heard or read Howard Thurman’s wisdom before, it zaps me in new and different ways upon second or third or even fourth reading. He touches my heart and my soul to a depth where I just thank God for this beloved servant.

Pretty good for someone who died more than 30 years ago! I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have known him or sat in his congregation or been taught by him.

Even the way I was introduced to Howard Thurman has the divine written all over it. I was sitting in centering prayer when suddenly the faces of several older African-American women and men appeared in my vision. The faces sort of circles around until one man’s face came forward and the others faded away. A couple of months later I came across Pastor Thurman’s name during Black History Month. I looked up his writing and it pulled me in from the first. I bought recordings of him giving sermons and leading meditations. I bought his books. I learned everything I could about him.

Yet it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized that his was the face I had seen. I was, quite literally, awestruck. A few days after that revelation came a notice in a diocesan newsletter about a retreat in Sewanee, Tennessee, that would focus on Howard Thurman and contemplative practices. I was signed up and paid within a few minutes. I no longer ignore such synchronicity.

I find such solace in his words, whether he is writing or talking about contemplative practices, racism and the disinherited (Martin Luther King Jr. considered him a mentor), humble ruminations about his own failings, his ecumenicism, and most of all, his deep, deep conviction that we are all united by a loving God who has a dream of whom we are to become.

The passage that prompted this outpouring is “God is making room in my heart for compassion: the awareness that where my life begins is where your life begins; the awareness that the sensitiveness to your needs cannot be separated from the sensitiveness to my needs; the awareness that the joys of my heart are never mine alone – nor are my sorrows.”

Thurman grew up in segregated Fort Lauderdale; his grandmother had been enslaved. He was the first African-American to matriculate at Colegate College’s seminary. He walked the walk, and he also maintained the gentle humility of someone who knows his own worth as developed in him by God.

tagoreIt also gave me great joy to see how Thurman’s witness often coincided with the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. I would read a passage by each man every morning and sometimes be amazed at the similar sentiments behind the Christian’s and the Hindu’s words. Tagore’s Gitanjali (Song Offerings) also came to me by chance long, long ago. They are short poems that can be appreciated by people of any and all (or even no) faiths.

“Thou hast made me endless;
Such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou carriest again and again
Yet fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed
thou hast carried over hills and dales
And hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
My little heart loses its limits in joy
And gives breath to utterances ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine.
Ages pass and still thou pourest,
And still there is room to fill.”

 

 

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Julian of Norwich

Tagore was the elder, and perhaps Thurman gained inspiration from him. They both, I would dare to say, gained inspiration from Julian of Norwich, the 14th century prioress who had a series of divine revelations that she chronicled in “Showings.” Such a flow of love for all of humanity and all of creation can be felt in each person’s witness that one truly can’t help but feel that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

Film producer Arleigh Prelow has spent years making a documentary, “The Psalm of Howard Thurman,” which is now in post-production. She first conceived the idea after Thurman’s death and, amid other producing and directing work through the years, she has interviewed Thurman’s wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, and many other people who knew and loved and worked with him. Actor Sterling K. Brown provides the voice of Howard Thurman. Funds are still needed to complete the work and donations may be made here.

Never Forget Hiroshima, Nagasaki

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I tell myself never to forget the horrible things of history that we must not let happen again.

Despite years of participating in Hiroshima Day memorials, this year August 6 made no impression on me.

The havoc and chaos of following the daily outrages of this vile regime have warped my brain into a single, obsessive thought: What will it take to bring these criminals to justice?

But today I did remember that President Barack Obama made a historic visit to Hiroshima to lay a wreath and meet survivors of the atomic bomb just a little over two years ago.

In his reporting for The New York Times, Gardiner Harris wrote on May 27, 2016:

“President Obama laid a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial on Friday, telling an audience that included survivors of America’s atomic bombing in 1945 that technology as devastating as nuclear arms demands a ‘moral revolution.’

“Thousands of Japanese lined the route of the presidential motorcade to the memorial in the hopes of glimpsing Mr. Obama, the first sitting American president to visit the most potent symbol of the dawning of the nuclear age. Many watched the ceremony on their cellphones.

” ‘Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed,’ Mr. Obama said in opening his speech at the memorial.”

A 91-year-old survivor, Sunao Tsuboi, met the President. ” ‘I held his hand, and we didn’t need an interpreter. I could understand what he wanted to say by his expression.’ ”

The world has changed again, just since May 2016. An immoral revolution took place and we have heard the regime say that it will strike North Korea with “fire and fury” and threaten Iran with a disaster never before unleashed on a country. I have already documented many, many of the other daily outrages and high crimes and misdemeanors wrought in fewer than two years.

This is why I must never forget August 6. Tomorrow, August 9, is the 73rd anniversary of the day when the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

 


 

Published At Last – Barracoon

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Can you imagine being known as the last living African kidnapped by slavers and brought to the US 50 years after the outlawing of the slave trade?

Zora Neale Hurston, novelist, playwright, essayist, and anthropologist, did try to imagine, and her curiosity drove her to patiently tease out of Oluale Kossola (slave name Cudjo Lewis), the story of his ordeal.  When she first met Kossola and told him what she was hoping to learn, he said, “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and somebody say and callee my name and somebody sayn ‘Yeah, I know Kossola’,”

Part of the sadness of Hurston’s book, Barracoon, is that it was never published until this year, when it is so unlikely that anyone in West Africa would remember Kossola’s name. Several publishers refused it when she finished her last draft in the 1930s.

Kossola was a member of a sub-group of the West African Yoruba tribe. The US banned the slave trade in 1808, but people found a way to continue to smuggle enslaved people through the Middle Passage. A major supplier of slaves was the king of Dahomey, who acquired wealth and political dominance through the trade. Kidnapped Africans were held in bondage in barracoons (Spanish for barracks) along the coast, and Ouida (or Whydah) in Dahomey was a major shipping point.

It was there that, in 1860, Timothy Meaher and William Foster sailed the Clotilda to bring 110 lost souls to the “New World.” The 19-year-old Kossola had been captured in a raid on Bante; his family and most of the citizens were slaughtered outright. The young men were yoked and brought to the barracoons of Ouida.

Though Kossola at first expressed joy that Hurston wanted to know his story, in 1927 when she traveled to Plateau, Alabama, to meet him, he was often reluctant to talk to her. He was 86 years old, but his grief at never having been able to go home was still upon him. Some days she would bring peaches and watermelon as bait to get him to sit down with her; other days he would just ignore her presence and continue to garden or pursue other hobbies while she waited patiently.

Her persistence paid off. Reading Barracoon, one feels as if one knows this elderly man who has undergone so much pain, outliving his beloved wife and his sons and daughter. His voice is rendered perfectly, and you can hear him saying “you unnerstand me,” his oft-used interjection.

After emancipation, the Clotilda slaves had no way to earn the money to go home. And home didn’t exist anymore, though they couldn’t have known that. When they were kidnapped, their rest of their entire tribe was killed, and there was no Bante anymore.

So they re-created their home where they were, calling it Africatown (now Plateau). It was meant to be a place for only those born in Africa, but because of intermarriage among slaves there were many black people who were born in the United States as well. Renting land from their former owner until they could buy it, 11 families “created a community that embodied the ethos and traditions of their homeland,” writes editor Deborah G. Plant in her afterword.

Thank goodness this book has finally been published! Most memoirs of formerly enslaved people were born into the “peculiar institution.” To hear firsthand from someone who was actually born in Africa 200 years after the first enslaved people were brought here is to learn more about the horrible mechanics of slavery and how one little band of people created their own homeland in Alabama.

It also teaches about the persistence of memory and the longing for that place called home. This should be an important part of our national conversation about dismantling racism. I have recently seen people who consider themselves “progressive” basically say that African-Americans today have no right to say they are victims of slavery.

Yet, knowing one is descended from people who knew no other home than a slaveowner’s plantation does cause soul damage. Knowing that one’s ancestors were considered sub-human does cause psychic damage. Knowing that the whole history of white supremacy gives white people today a feeling that they the right to trample on the freedoms of African-Americans – whether they’re having a barbecue or mowing someone’s lawn or waiting for someone outside a store – yes, that is victimization. We can’t stop it until we own it

A Map of the World

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As a bumbling, stumbling out-of-control toddler lurches his way across the world, knocking alliances and good will into the trash bin and trying to redraw the map of the world, people wonder how he can still be followed by any sane person, let alone be shown homage by the majority of the one group that’s supposed to keep him in check.

A quote from Oscar Wilde came to mind this week and I was introduced to another from Thoreau by my Facebook friend Christopher. I see similarities in them and also a diagnosis of what is wrong with those who continue to enable a narcissistic, greedy wannabe dictator.

Years ago, I saw a play by David Hare called “A Map of the World.” Hated the play but loved the title’s allusion: “Any map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at.” Oscar Wilde

Then this from Thoreau: “Friends . . . they cherish one another’s hopes. They are kind to one another’s dreams.”

Both quotes are about vision and how one sees oneself in relation to the world. First, a person has to have a vision of the map of the world and then acknowledge the billions of other co-inhabitants of what the Book of Common Prayer calls “this fragile earth, our island home.”

How do people grow up thinking that they are the only people on earth who deserve any rights, any privileges, any chance of a fulfilling life? How do they grow up never, ever thinking about the needs of anyone else other than their closed community?

How is their curiosity so suppressed that they don’t ever wonder what it’s like to be an African kidnapped from her homeland and brought to a strange country where she must work and possibly (probably) be raped by someone who thinks he “owns” her?

How is their imagination so stifled that they cannot imagine what it was like to be a Vietnamese or Laotian or Cambodian peasant and suddenly find you’re the “enemy” to airplanes that drop bombs and napalm on your or murder you just because you happen to live where the “enemy” lives?

How did they never develop any sense of empathy that would allow them to imagine having their children kidnapped by the very people they thought would help them?

While “utopia” literally means “nowhere” (from Greek, uonot and topos – place), it was coined by Sir Thomas More to mean a place where all are equal in social status, in economic status, and in political status, a Garden of Eden if you will. More himself, we know now, cared little for the equality of women, whom he scorned, and married only so that he wouldn’t burn in hell for having sexual thoughts and desires.

Still, More’s notion of Utopia lives on, and Wilde’s concern was that our map of the world ought to include a vision for that perfect place. Being gay, and being therefore a criminal who was sent to prison for being gay, Wilde would have had a vested interest in a place where homosexuality was not a crime.

So should we, and let’s include color of skin, religion, language, and ability in there.

As for Thoreau’s beautiful sentiment, shouldn’t we extend cherishing others’ hopes and being kind to other peoples’ dreams to everyone on this planet? Why limit our empathy? Who are we to say that anyone else should not have hopes that we respect and dreams that we do not trample on?

Only willful and determined and carefully cultivated ignorance could possibly account for people to think they are supreme and that anyone not like them is not to be regarded equally. By “ignorance,” I mean ignoring everyone else who does not look, act, or talk like them.

If their ignorance wasn’t so destructive, I might look for excuses why white supremacists grew up without a map of the world or the empathy to cherish other peoples’ hopes and dreams. But that ignorance is evil and deadly, and there is no excuse for it.

 

 

Genocide in Burma

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It is easy to be distracted from what is going on in the rest of the world by the crazy clown show that has become the US’s daily life.

On a recent road trip, my sister Sally said more than once, “But why isn’t anyone paying attention to the Rohingya people?”

I stood accused, because I hadn’t been attention either. I am now.

It turns out that the Muslim minority in Buddhist Burma has been persecuted for many, many years, despite the fact that generations of them have lived in Burma. Other ethnic/religious minorities, such as Hindus, are also persecuted. None of them is allowed to actually be considered a citizen of Burma and so have rights under the “law.”

Thanks to Twitter, I am following several people, most of them Rohingya themselves who are either in Bangladesh or in other countries as well as people inside Burma who are smuggling videos out. Some of them are following me, and I can tell you that it is beyond humbling that they appreciate my adding my voice.

It was in the mid-1990s that I first heard of Aung San Suu Kyi from a summer intern at the newspaper where I worked. She was being hailed as the savior of Burma’s soul to the extent of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, she has isolated herself and gives weak excuses for the genocide of the Muslim minority of her country.

On September 13, 13 fellow Nobel Laureates and 23 other influential people signed an open letter to the UN, and so to her, asking the Security Council to intervene in Rakhine state in Burma, where the military is systematically destroying Rohingyan villages. It is reported that upward of 400,000 Rohingyan people have fled to Bangladesh, which has a Muslim majority; despite its own problems with catastrophic flooding, Bangladesh is setting up camps for the refugees. It is also reported, however, that the Burma military is trying to avert aid ships from delivering help to Bangladesh.

Those refugees will never be able to return to Burma. They are stateless.

In addition, according to a story by Betsy Woodruff of The Daily Beast, reported on September 18 that Rohingya activists inside Burma and in Western countries report that Facebook is suspending or deleting their accounts when they try to document what is happening.

I have managed to find horrific pictures of dead children and burned corpses of Rohingya Muslims. I wasn’t looking for them and God knows, I wish the images could fade from my mind. They never will.

The Burmese military’s latest tactic is to kill Hindu men while wearing uniforms without insignia on them so that Hindus will think the murderers are Rohingyan. Hindus have been pressed without success by the military to side with it against the Muslims.

 In fact, there are radicalized Rohingyans and the latest round of genocide began when they attacked police stations on August 25. In return, the military has systematically been going through village by village, burning, raping, killing all in their way.

Disinformation is being spread that the radicalized are part of ISIS. Rohingyans who have tried to get word out on Facebook, the only social media available in Burma, are finding their posts and accounts deleted.

The more than 4 million who have managed to make it to Burma will never be able to return to their homeland; hundreds of them are children whose parents were murdered.

It cannot be forgotten that Burma is another of the many unstable countries around the world that were once part of the British Empire. So was Bangladesh, of course, or East Pakistan as it was known after the disaster known as Partition brought to you by Great Britain.

The politics aside, the straight-up fact is that people, fellow human beings, are dying or living on the edge of death. They need help. Here are links to some agencies that are doing relief work. Please consider donating.

Save The Children

Islamic Relief USA for Myanmar

United Muslim Relief Burma/Myanmar

International Rescue Committee

 

 

Haroon Moghul: How to be a Muslim

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I heard Haroon Moghul speak about his new book, How to be a Muslim, on “Fresh Air” and was moved to read it.

Little did I know how much his story would teach me about myself.

Mr. Moghul is a Fellow in Jewish-Muslim Relations at Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a contributor at the Center for Global Policy, and an academic and speaker on Islam. He grew up in a traditional Muslim-American family in Western Massachusetts. That traditional upbringing caused a great deal of inner turmoil in his youth as he navigated adolescence and all the usual hormonal conflicts that arise.

Being eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder did not help. His guilt about questioning his faith, questioning Allah, questioning relationships with non-Muslim girls, and having a neuro-biological disease brought him to the brink of suicide.

How he pushed through it all, and despite (or because) of it all being a successful organizer of Islamic centers for students and speaker on Islam, is important reading for understanding not only Islam, but also for understanding any faith journey.

Perhaps Mr. Moghul didn’t plan his book so, but that is what it brought to this reader.

Even as I listened to his interview with Terry Gross, I couldn’t help but think about being raised Catholic in the 1950s and ‘60s and the tremendous burden of guilt weekly sermons told me I must shoulder. The guilt was enhanced, I have since learned, by the disease of depression from which I have suffered since a small child.

It was when an elderly priest yanked me from a praying position and slapped me for not wearing a hat in church, not long before Vatican II decreed that women didn’t need to wear hats in church, that I vowed to brush Catholicism off my feet and move on.

The trouble was, I confused Christianity with Catholicism. And even as I trumpeted my unbelief, I realized that I wouldn’t be yelling at God if I didn’t fundamentally believe in God. And through it all, I still knew in my heart and soul that Jesus the Christ was my shepherd.

At one point in Mr. Moghul’s seeking for health and wholeness, a therapist told him to try spending just five minutes a day with Allah. As I was reading the book, and believing myself happily faithful now in my Episcopal/Lutheran church, I realized that my anger about American politics and racism and white supremacy was undermining my faith. I had lulled myself into thinking that the prayers I say each morning were holding me in a good place. But many days the prayers were said automatically and without intention.

So I took a cue from Mr. Moghul and started reading Morning Prayer from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer again. I started talking to Jesus about my anger and my anguish at the state of the nation. Oh, what a blessed difference it made! I’m still angry and my Twitter account shows it, but beginning the day with an organized routine of prayer has allowed light in that helps me channel the anger and keep depression from overwhelming me. I can push back against the darkness; as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Of course, Mr. Moghul’s book is not about me, and the world’s problems are not about me. Yet it is impossible to resist the darkness when everything around seems dark, whether that darkness comes from neuro-biological illnesses or the state of the world. I do think that is what Mr. Moghul writes about, and it is what he helped me see.

So I thank Mr. Moghul and I thank Him/Her, the Eternal Spirit, the Father and Mother of us all who draws us from darkness into light.