ON ATHEISM AND DIEGO RIVERA

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Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

A few weeks ago, a friend and I went on a tour of Guanajuato, Mexico.

Our tour guide, Dali (named after Salvador Dali), was born and raised in San Miguel de Allende, and educated at the University in Guanajuato. He was knowledgable about the state’s capital city and its rich history, and this made the tour fun.

The first place he showed us was Diego Rivera’s childhood home, and the museum that was built next to it in 1975.

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At the museum, we learned about Diego Rivera’s family, and his upbringing, and saw some of his paintings (unfortunately, most of them were unavailable for viewing because they were being restored).

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As we looked at the paintings in the museum, Dali told us a story about how Diego Rivera came to be an atheist.

He told us that when Diego Rivera was a five-year- old child, he wanted to know why his twin brother had died. His parents and teachers told him that his brother’s death was God’s will. “God wanted another angel,” they told him.

The young Diego Rivera rejected this explanation, and later, he told people that he became an atheist at age five.

This did not make him popular with the higher-ups in Catholic Guanajuato. Although as a young man he was a promising painter, and longed to go to Europe to study, the city officials refused to give him a scholarship.

Rivera found a way to go to Europe, anyway, and he became Mexico’s most famous painter. After his enormous success — in part, due to the murals he painted in Mexico and the United States — the Guanajuato town officials wanted to open a museum, but he refused to let them.

Later, after the town officials issued a public apology, Rivera consented, and the Museum of Diego Rivera was built adjacent to his childhood home.

Over lunch at the town’s beautiful Jardin, I told my friend that the story about Diego Rivera’s atheism bothered me. I said it reminded me of something William Sloan Coffin, a former pastor of The Riverside Church in New York City, said in the eulogy he delivered after his son, Alex, was killed in a car accident.

Rev. Coffin said, “when a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said — that the death was God’s will.”

“For some reason,” he said, “nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels.”

Was it God’s will, he asked later, that no one put up guard rails on the road where Alex was killed? Was it God’s will that Alex had one too many beers the night he attempted to drive home?

Was Diego Rivera wrong, I wondered, to refuse to believe in a God who would will the death of a child, and take him away from his mother?

How could such a God be called “good”?

Sometimes I think atheists are better theologians than believers. At least they are able to say what God is not. In refusing to believe in a “cosmic vivisector” who would rip a child away from his mother and brother, they invite a more serious and thoughtful inquiry into the nature and purposes of a God we say is love.

Before we left the museum, Dali took us to see a duplicate of one of Diego Rivera’s most famous murals (the original is in the Diego Rivera Museum in Mexico City).

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We learned so much about Mexico’s history from this one mural, which is crammed full of historical figures, and people who were important in Diego Rivera’s life.

The biggest figure, the one in the mural that towers over the rest, is Benito Juarez, the Mexican President who, in 1859, guided the nation to the separation of church and state, and started public schools. Juarez is the only Mexican hero whose birthday, on March 21st,  is celebrated in Mexico.

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Two blocks from where I live, there is a wonderful park that’s named after him.

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Now I love it even more.

Guanajuato is a beautiful city, and after visiting the museums there, and the famous Juarez Theater, we were both left wanting to learn more.

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THE GATES OF HELL ARE ALWAYS OPEN, EVEN AT MIDNIGHT

 

“As my muscles weakened, my writing became stronger. As I slowly lost my speech, I gained my voice. As I diminished, I grew. As I lost so much, I finally started to find myself.”
          — Neil Selinger

On Sunday morning, the church bells in San Miguel de Allende are ringing wildly.

Carlito, my landlady’s skittish cat, is now happy to share the patio outside of the downstairs unit of the house where I’m living now in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.IMG_20170527_160828

In spite of the heat of our summer days, it stays cool here. Since I don’t have to work, I’ve been able to focus on a creative project for days.

I left the house only once this week — to pick up  a bag I’d ordered from a shop a friend recommended when I asked her where I could find a well-made, leather bag. I needed something big enough for a laptop, and with pockets on the outside for a cell phone, and a passport.

It was 9:30 in the morning when I got to the shop, and discovered that the store wouldn’t be open until 11. So I decided to walk down Pila Seca, away from the trendy shops on Zacateros, and find a place to have breakfast.

On Jesus Street, a few blocks away, I found a restaurant with a lush, indoor garden  where  hummingbirds come to drink the sweet nectar from the red hibiscus flowers, and the sugar water from the glass feeders that hang along the sides. IMG_20170612_153144

As I sat in the cool, green space of the garden, eating gingerbread pancakes with hot applesauce, and drinking fresh orange juice, and coffee — all for $5.00 —  I stopped to write in my journal:

Forget the afterlife. This is paradise enough for me.

The best thing I’ve found in San Miguel, though, is the vibrant artist and activist community that’s here.

I’ve met so many intelligent and creative women  — visual artists, photographers, political activists, and writers — who are passionate, growing, and curious.

They are proving to me that these years can be the happiest and most creative of our lives.

Jane Fonda is right, I think: the metaphor for ageing is no longer the arch: “you’re born, you peak at mid-life, and decline into decrepitude.”

The new metaphor for ageing, she says, “is a staircase that represents the human spirit as it continues to evolve upwards, bringing us into wholeness, authenticity, and wisdom.”

Even with physical challenges, we can still grow, and realise our potential. We can flourish.

Last week, I had coffee with my friend, Eli, the woman who introduced me to San Miguel Allende. She and her fiancé led the personal growth retreat I participated in last October, when I came to San Miguel de Allende for the first time.

When Eli and I were hiking along a trail in the amazing silence of El Charco, a botanical garden and ceremonial space about forty-five minutes away from San Miguel, Eli suggested that moving here might be the answer to my prayers.

As in the Paul Simon song, she “planted a seed in my brain that still remains, in the sound of silence.”

As we drank our cappuccinos last week, she told me I should be proud of myself for making this change.

I told her that moving here didn’t require too much courage, since I was so drawn to this city —  the music and art, and the friendliness and beauty of the Mexican people  — and I was ready for an adventure.

I  told her that I didn’t come here to escape Donald Trump, but neither was I sorry to be away from the noise in the United States.

We talked about the many opportunities that exist in San Miguel de Allende for political action.  And the alliances that have formed here as a result of shared concerns about what’s happening in the United States — the cuts to programs that benefit human beings, the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, and the 20 percent rise in hate crimes against already vulnerable populations, since the election.

“I’d never wish Trump and his gang on anyone,” said San Miguel activist, Cate Poe, “but I have to appreciate the new ways this travesty has brought us together. After five months of house meetings and political actions, now we have each other.”

So, yes:  I’m proud of myself for letting go.

Letting go of stuff.

Letting go of certainty.

Letting go of the familiar.

Lately I’ve been thinking about a Slovak proverb I heard quoted by a Jungian psychologist a few years ago. The saying is, “The gates of hell are always open, even at midnight.”

The Proverb was shocking, at first, but the more I think about it, the truer it is.

The saying speaks to what I learned at the personal growth retreat last October. In a moment of clarity, I saw that the quality of my life was totally up to me.

Eight months ago, I didn’t even know this joyful place existed.

As Eli likes to remind me, I didn’t even have a passport.

Now I have a passport, and an outside pocket on a new bag to keep it in.

And a not-so-skittish cat, who is scratching at the screen door, wanting to come in.

Even the cat knows, as Joni Mitchell sings in Down to You,

“It’s down to you….
You can crawl, you can fly, too.
It’s down to you.
It all comes down to you.”

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KIDS, TRUCKS, AND THE LOVE OF LIFE

LIFE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WALL:
Kids, Trucks, and the Love of Life 

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I met Francisco, a mixed-race, bilingual, three-year-old, at the Geek and Coffee in Guadalupe two weeks after arriving in San Miguel de Allende.

Adjacent to the coffeehouse, there’s an enormous yard with picnic tables set in the shade of gigantic palm trees, brightly-coloured lawn chairs that are perfect for reading, and a children’s playground where parents bring their kids to play while they relax with an iced latte or cappuccino.

Francisco’s mom was untying a large, golden retriever from a metal stool the dog was about to pull over, when I noticed her children, and said, “hola!”

Her son came over, and immediately began talking to me in that spontaneous, open-hearted way that kids sometimes do — as if he’d known me all of his life.

When his mom saw how happy I was talking to him, she gave me a warning:

“He’s going to want to talk about trucks,” she said.   

Right away, he showed me his yellow dumpster truck with the big scoop attached, explained how it  worked, and said he wondered what would happen if a persona got picked up in the scoop.

I told him that would probably be dangerous for the human being.

Next, he showed me his other truck, which had a recycling logo on the side.

When he’d shown me all the doors that opened and closed, he moved closer to me, and began to tell me what seemed like a serious story in Spanish until he yelled out the last part of the story, and howled with laughter.

He looked at me, waiting for my response; but, unfortunately, my Spanish was too limited then to get the joke.

I told him I noticed that one of his trucks was a recycling truck.

He wanted to know what recycling was.

I explained that recycling is when you use something, like plastic, over and over again. For example, instead of throwing your plastic bags away, you can give them to the people at St. Paul’s Church, and they will make mattresses out of them for children who don’t have mattresses to sleep on.

If you use things over and over again, instead of throwing them away, then there’s not so much garbage in the ground, and it’s better for the environment— the earth, the trees, and the animals  — and it’s better for human beings, too.

It was hard to know if that explanation made sense, but he stood still for a while, contemplating it, and thinking about it, before he ran off to play with his friends in the playground.

His mother and I talked for a while about our recent moves to San Miguel de Allende, and how much we loved the city, before she ran off to prevent her two-year-old daughter from chasing the golden retriever she’d untied out of the gate leading to parking lot.

I wanted to say goodbye to him before I left, so I yelled across the yard, “Adios, Francisco!”

He looked puzzled. Who was shouting his name?

When he saw me waving, he yelled back in a loud voice, “Don’t forget what I told you about trucks!”

Everyone in the yard was grinning.

I assured him I would not forget what he told me, and, in fact, I thought about trucks all the way home. Now, I can’t help but notice each one:

The yellow dumpsters with forklifts; the fanciful trucks in the windows of the art galleries; the small pick-up trucks that carry vegetables down the narrow cobblestone streets to the local markets and grocery stores; and the flatbed truck my friend and I saw the other day that was stacked high with coffins, all wrapped in black cloth — a sight you’d only see in Mexico, where death is so much more in the open than it is in the United States.

But, so is the love of life more in the open in Mexico than it is in the United States. Every  week there’s another festival, a new reason to celebrate in the town square, and another reason for fireworks at 5 a.m.

As I walked home from the Geek and Coffee after meeting Francisco, I thought about trucks; but I also thought about the beauty of children, their innocence and trust, the passion and excitement for life that exists in the youngest of children.

I thought about how eager they are to connect with us through stories, especially the ones that make them howl with laughter, and the sweet, patient way they look at us, waiting to see if we will get the joke.

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Don’t forget what I told you about trucks!

 

LIFE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WALL

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At the hotel where the San Miguel Writers Conference took place in February of 2017, I sat by the pool, and enjoyed talking to a friendly  older woman who, I soon found out, was Naomi Klein’s Mom.

It was a cool moment.

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve paid more attention to Naomi Klein  — not only because of her writing on climate change (she’s the author of  “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate”), but because every time I heard her talk, I went away with a reason to hope.

I think she talked many of us back from the edge of despair during those difficult, post-election weeks.

I told her Mom, Bonnie Klein, that every time I listened to her daughter, I went away feeling better.

As we watched her four-year-old grandson playing in the water with his grandfather, I asked her about Naomi’s spiritual background, and enjoyed our dialogue about the left-leaning Judaism that  influenced her.

When her grandson came out of the pool, cranky, and needing a nap, we laughed about the joys of these golden years, which include sending kids back to the care of their nannies or parents when they get cranky.

I was happy that week, talking with the local people who were glad to help with the Spanish, dining with my friend who came with me to the conference, taking workshops, writing and sharing poetry, and listening to the addresses of the various writers (among them Mary Karr, Judy Collins, and the poet, Billy Collins) who encouraged us to put our stories into the world.

“There is a place in movements for people who know how to tell stories,” Naomi said.

20170216_103542“Your voice wants to make a sound in the world,” the poet, Judyth Hill, told us, “but remember to write about what you’re for, not only about what you’re against.”

Naomi agreed: “Make space for what you want, not only for what you’re resisting,” she said.

In the evenings, we listened to the music in the hotel lobby. There was a good piano player who played the Great American Songbook (Gershwin, and Cole Porter), and a guitar player who played and sang my favourite Mexican song, “Cucurrucucu Paloma.”

Music and art are well integrated into the culture of San Miguel de Allende, and this is part of what drew me to this beautiful, multi-cultural city.

One day my friend and I were shopping at a local organic market, and we were startled to see four men carrying a casket down the street, followed by several guitar and violin players, and about a hundred people.

It was a somber moment, and yet we could feel the sustaining power of the music that is so much a part of the culture, and the life of the Mexican people.

The colours are amazing, too: the green walls with white accents; the oranges and reds of the old buildings that line the narrow cobblestone streets; the roof top gardens where bright pink bougainvilleas topple down over the orange brick walls; and the indoor courtyards with white lilies and red hibiscus that surprise you inside of rustic doors.

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It was for the music and the art that I decided to move to San Miguel — but also for the economics: I learned I could live there cheaply, without a car, and the horrendous traffic of L.A..

It was bittersweet saying goodbye to the music students I had for so many years; still, something else called to me.

It was hard to explain.

“What? Why Mexico?” so many people asked me.

(Subtext: “Is she crazy?”)

During the weeks before I moved to Guadalupe, the neighbourhood where I live now, as I sold or gave away most of what I had, a line from a Jack Gilbert poem, “Tear it Down,” kept coming to mind. He wrote:

“…Love is not enough.
  We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time.”

We only have so many years on this earth. Will we spend them merely surviving, or will we take the risk, and answer the call to flourish? Will we live for security, or adventure? Will we follow the guidance of the indwelling spirit within us, that sense of inner knowing, or will we get caught up in what other people think we should do or say? Will we accept the status quo, or will we be like Naomi Klein and Judyth Hill, writers who call humanity to a different way of living?

20170401_134342There are problems in San Miguel, as there are problems in every city.

However, as I sit this morning at my favourite new hang, looking out the window at the colourful mural across the cobblestone street, and listening to the sweet melodies of a spanish guitar, I’m glad that I didn’t listen to the naysayers (including the naysayers within myself).

I am grateful for the poet who told me I should insist — but, shouldn’t we all insist? —  while there is still time.

 

WHY I MARCHED (SINCE YOU ASKED)

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“When the sun came shining, then I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving, and the dust clouds rolling,
A voice was chanting as the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.”

— “This Land is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie

I marched in the Women’s March in Los Angeles on January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration, because it was the most patriotic thing I could think of doing in response to the election of Donald Trump.

Flag-waving and excessive displays of nationalism are not my thing. I feel, like millions of other people in the world, that this is a time for global cooperation, and creative alliances. It’s a time for a change of consciousness. It’s a time to see ourselves as brothers and sisters, as Jesus called us to do (and every other sane and thoughtful person who ever lived on this planet).

Donald Trump’s America First campaign, which, notes Susan Dunn, “echoes the name of a 1940s anti-Semitic national organization that wanted to appease Hitler,” makes me cringe.

Still, I marched — for our democratic values; to protect our hard-won rights, including reproductive rights and voting rights; and to show my solidarity with the most vulnerable among us.

In the beginning, the Women’s March on Washington was criticized for being a white woman’s march. It was heartening, therefore, to hear the speeches by Tamara Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour that morning, three women of color who were brought in by the original organizers (as Mallory explained in a Breakfast Club interview), to lead the historic March, when the numbers reached 100,000.

Before leaving to catch the train going to downtown LA that morning, I wrote Carmen Perez’s words in my notebook:

“Injury to one is injury to all. We are not helpless. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are who we need.”

It was a sunny day. It was the only sunny day, in fact, we’d had for weeks. For one day, in the middle of weeks of rain, the sun came out, as if to wink at us, to let us know that Mother Nature was on our side.

The Metro Station at Universal City, where I went to catch the train, was jammed, with hundreds of people waiting in line to get tickets. However, moments after arriving, I heard a Metro employee shouting, “It’s free now! You can all ride the train for free!”

We took the unexpected gift, and moved together through the green turnstiles, and down the stairs, where we waited on the platform for the train going to Pershing Square.

We crowded as many of us as we could into the Metro, packing ourselves in like bits of styrofoam in a giant cardboard box, until not one more would fit, and we let the doors close.

A mother with an infant in a stroller, a six-year-old daughter, and an eleven -year-old son, stood next to me.

She told me she was taking all of her children to the March because she wanted them to know that during a dark time, she stood up for herself and her rights, and for them. “This is big,” I told the girl, “you’ll be able to say, ‘I was there!'” and she grinned.

It was touching to see how supportive the boy was of his mother. When she told him they should get off at the stop before Pershing Square because of the crowds there, he insisted, “No! Let’s go to Pershing Square. That’s what you wanted to do.”

“This is an adventure!” he shouted.

He was my new hero.

I opted to get off at the 7th Street Station, and walk to Pershing Square. Although I was too late to meet up with friends, I enjoyed talking to people there, marching, and taking pictures of the signs.

There were many men at the March, and I met several fathers who brought their daughters. “They feel empowered,” one of them told me.

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It was a festive atmosphere. The signs were great fun.

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It was an historic moment, “likely the largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history” reported The Washington Post.

In her article for the Nation, Joan Walsh noted that more bus tickets were sold for the Women’s March on Washington than for the inauguration.

According to recent estimates, as many as four-and-a-half million people marched in over 600 cities around the world. 700,00 to 1,000,000 marched in Washington.

People in Belgium, Ireland, and Antarctica made their presence known.

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Large numbers of the disabled community participated virtually.

On the train going home, I couldn’t help but notice the smiles on the faces,  the upbeat conversations, and how everyone’s mood, including my own, had brightened from a day of being together.

“So, you marched. What’s next?” a friend asked me the following day.

“I’m writing thank you postcards to the congressmen and women who are resisting Trump’s policies —  people like Maxine Waters, and John Lewis,” I told her, and sent her the link to the Women’s March list of 100 actions.

I’m also being more conscious about supporting efforts to link movements so that we’re not divided between white and black, and gay and straight. As Tamiki Mallory said, “we need to respect each others’ justices. We can march for reproductive rights, and for racial justice.”

Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, wrote in a recent op-ed piece that, in spite of her initial cynicism, she decided to  participate in the March. “Cynicism will not build a movement,” she wrote,  “collaboration will.”

On the evening of the March in LA, I was inspired as I listened to the speeches from the March on Washington, including a speech by Gloria Steinem, who is as amazing at eighty-two as she was at twenty-two.

“This is a day that will change us forever,” she said, “because we are together. Each of us individually and collectively will never be the same again. When we elect a possible President, we too often go home.

We’ve elected an impossible President. We’re never going home. We’re staying together, and we’re taking over…and we’re never turning back.” .

Most definitely, we are never turning back.

I confess I had to laugh this week when Donald Trump told Fox News reporter, Bill O’Reilly, “California in many ways is out of control.”

As if that were a bad thing.

As if this were not a land that was made for you and me.

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Resist!

VOCAL AND VISIBLE: FROM GUILT TO SOLIDARITY

 

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“The guilt remains, more deeply rooted, more securely lodged, than the oldest of old trees; and it can be unutterably exhausting to deal with people who, with a really dazzling ingenuity, a tireless agility, are perpetually defending themselves against charges which one has not made. One does not have to make them. The record is there for all to read. It resounds all over the world. It might as well be written in the sky.”

— James Baldwin
Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes 

Several months ago, I was asked to deliver the closing remarks at a Racial Justice Ministry event at All Saints Church in Pasadena.

Tim Wise, an anti-racist educator and author, spoke a few weeks earlier.

After his talk, the Racial Justice Ministry I work with decided to follow up with a screening of Tim Wise’s film, “White Like Me,” and afterwards, have a dialogue about white privilege.

White privilege, as Wise defines it, is as much a psychological matter as a material one.

In his essay, “explainingwhiteprivelege,” he writes:

“Whites have the luxury of not having to worry that our race is going to mark us negatively when looking for work, going to school, shopping, looking for a place to live, or driving for that matter: things that folks of color can’t take for granted.”

Privilege is obliviousness.

As I sat on my patio on a sunny day, thinking it would take no more than an hour to come up with some closing remarks, I saw it was taking longer.

Was I stuck in “white guilt?”

I definitely felt ashamed of what my people, white people, did to black people in this country — not only in the days of slavery, but in the days of Jim Crow.

There’s a book, “Without Sanctuary,” that includes images of postcards white people sent to their friends after lynchings. The postcards showed them posing next to the corpse, along with body parts they’d taken for souvenirs.

It wasn’t that long ago.

I have a history of activism; still, I felt baffled, impaled, as James Baldwin put it, like a butterfly on a pin, unable to move forward.

I’d faced the history of systemic racism in this country, and the ways I’d benefitted from it, but I didn’t know what to do about it.

Then I remembered Tim suggesting we study the history of the white allies who were active in the Civil Rights Movement.

He mentioned Anne Braden.

Anne Braden was a newspaper reporter who lived in the South, in Alabama, in the 50s and 60s.

She became involved in the Civil Rights Movement after covering the events at the Alabama Courthouse (which were horrific).

Initially, she joined the movement, not to help black people, but to help white people who, as a result of racism, and a belief in white supremacy, were turning themselves into monsters — her own father, included.

Besides writing about the movement, she and her husband, Carl Braden, went to jail numerous times on behalf of the cause. ANNE-BRADEN-SOUTHERN-PATRIOT                                     Anne Braden with Rosa Parks

In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King mentioned her as one of the few white people he could count on.

As I read Anne Braden’s story, I was struck by what she said about white guilt, and how unproductive it was:

“I never knew anybody who really got active because of guilt…I’ve never seen it move anybody. I think everybody white that I know who’s gotten involved in the struggle got into it because they glimpsed a different world to live in….Human beings have always been able to envision something better…All through history there’ve been people who’ve envisioned something better in the most dire of situations, and that’s what you want to be a part of.”

Anne Braden’s story spoke to everyone, white and black.

From that day on, I took Sincere Kirabo’s advice, dropped the white guilt, and focused on imagining a better church, a better community, and a different world to live in.

Now I could hear what people of color were actually asking of white people in the movement — not to feel guilty or ashamed, but to educate ourselves, speak up, and use our privilege for the good.

After the event, I talked to an African American friend who told me about a party she went to a few weeks earlier where she was the only person of color in attendance. When someone at the party said something derogatory against African Americans, she felt compelled to speak up.

“Why didn’t anyone else speak up?” she asked. “If you want to be an ally, you need to speak up.”

Nancy Fuosto, an Episcopalian priest, told a similar story at a Martin Luther King event I participated in last week. At a gathering where she was the only person of color, someone made a racist comment about Latinos.  “It hurt,” she said, “but I spoke up.”

We don’t have to go out and get all bloody to be allies in the movement for racial justice — we can speak up, and make a difference.

Anne Braden lost friends because of the work she did on behalf of racial justice. She and her husband, like many white allies at the time, became social pariahs in their own communities. However, she was mentioned in “Letters from the Birmingham Jail” as one of the few white people Martin Luther King could count on.

That’s something!

Whenever I feel uncomfortable speaking out against racism, it helps me to remember that it’s far more uncomfortable to have to live with racism on a daily basis. And if I speak up, next time someone else might do the same, and then another.

I believe our cause is noble, and I can let go of any temporary discomfort I feel, because the cause is right.

I also feel, like Anne Braden, that the struggle for racial justice is related to my own humanity, and integrity.

At Martin Luther King said, “All /human beings/ are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

As I move away from guilt, and toward solidarity, I discover that the actions I take on behalf of the most vulnerable among us are liberatory for me, as well.

It’s wonderful, and a joyous thing, to work with people who, in spite of dark times, and dire circumstances, and unspeakable crimes, have the ability to imagine a different world.

As Anne Braden reminded us, we may not see the fruits of our actions, but “that’s what you  want to be a part of.”

THOUGHTS ABOUT HOPE ON CHRISTMAS EVE

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 “…Even a map cannot show you
 the way back to a place
 that no longer exists.”

Sandra M. Castillo,  “Christmas, 1970″

Last night, in LA, the rain came down hard.

I heard it for a long time, as I was having trouble sleeping, being worried about — well, everything.

It’s hard not to look back on the holidays, and remember happier times.

I feel the loss of my father, who died in July.
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I was used to the routine: decorating a small tree for his room; and making my way up the coast with a plate of oatmeal cookies I’d made from my grandmother’s recipe for the aides and nurses who took care of him.

Now, there is emptiness.

Emptiness is not a bad thing, but there’s so much pressure this time of the year to fill it up — to react like the jazz musician who hasn’t learned that silence is part of the music, that it’s okay to let space go by, that listening is half of the art.

Lisa Marion, a writer friend, suggests getting rid of the Holiday shoulds. I don’t want to go to the parties, or decorate this year, but I need not feel guilty, if I read her correctly.

Possibly some of us need advent, the time of  waiting, before the baby bursts into the world. We could wait until Christmas actually starts, on December 25, and celebrate the 12 days afterwards, she suggests.

This makes sense; there is something comforting about living by the liturgical year, the rhythms of grief and joy.

The only thing I’m sure I want to do is attend the midnight service at All Saints Church to hear the music, be with friends, and hear our new Rector, Mike Kinman, preach. He has a gift, and always manages to be both comforting and motivating at the same time. He has a bit of the holy madness, the sense of urgency, that characterized the prophets of old.

I was trying to explain to someone this week why many of us, especially people of color, Muslims, and women, feel vulnerable right now, and why we need space to grieve.

“Then go and have a good cry. Go to the crying room. Here is your Wambulance. What a waste of a life,” he said.

“You don’t think segments of our population are vulnerable?” I asked. “And whose life are you saying is a waste? Mine? Are you saying my life is a waste?” I asked.

If my life is a waste, then what did he think about Jesus, who spent his life loving and caring for the poor, the marginalized, hated Samaritans, social outcasts, and vulnerable women?

As I listened to the downpour last night, I finally gave up worrying, and “had a talk with God,” as Stevie Wonder put it.

In the morning, equilibrium returned, and a sense of clarity.

As I watched the gray sky turning to blue again, and the evergreens standing tall and open to air and the morning light, I realized something:

Christmas isn’t about what we’ve done in the past, it’s about what God is leading us to do now, for the future.

It’s about standing with the marginalized.

After all, It was to the marginalized, the shepherds living in the fields, that the message of hope first came.

The shepherds, as Drew Hart reminds us, were marginalized, not only by  Rome (along with the rest of Israel), but, due to their low social status, they were marginalized by their own people.

And yet the good news of God’s revolution came to them.

The life-affirming message of “peace on earth and goodwill to all” came not to those with the most, but to those with the least.

As I ponder this, I notice that a red-throated hummingbird with tiny, flashing red wings has landed in the bare branches of a nearby tree. He looks like a shiny little Christmas ornament. He has filled up the emptiness with his dazzling beauty.

allans_hummingbird“We can feel sick at heart—we would be fools not to—but despair is not an option,” writes Robert Kuttner.

This – at least right now — is Christmas enough for me. 

 

REMEMBERING ELIE WIESEL AND MICHAEL HERR

 

ElieWiesel speaks at the dedication of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. (© Diana Walker/TIME Inc.)

Elie Wiesel speaks at the dedication of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. (© Diana Walker/TIME Inc.)

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Michael Herr, journalist, photograph by Pierre-Olivier Deschampes 

“…it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.”
— Michael Herr

We lost two great writers this year — Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and author of Night, and journalist Michael Herr, author of Dispatches, a critically-acclaimed book he wrote about the Vietnam War.

Michael Herr chose to cover the war in Vietnam, and Elie Wiesel had no choice but to be in Auschwitz — but both bore witness (to paraphrase Herr) to the death spaces and the life they found inside.

I met Elie Wiesel In the 1980s, when I was involved in the Sanctuary Movement. For several years, my church worked with some activist Dominican Nuns who lived at a nearby convent in San Rafael, California. Together, we housed and protected refugees from El Salvador who’d come to the United States to escape right wing death squads in their country.

Elie Weisel spoke at a Sanctuary conference in Northern California where I’d been asked to lead a workshop. I remember how touched I felt when some Native American Indians who lived nearby found out about our work, and sent a shell, and some herbs to burn, to prepare the room for dialogue.

After the conference, I talked to Elie Wiesel about the work we were doing with refugees.

Someone once said Elie Wiesel looked like Lazarus. It was true, with his thick, unruly hair, and the intensity of the darkness in his eyes. He was the most concerned, and serious person I’d ever met. My father got a kick out of me describing him, for years, as the man without bullshit.

What I remember most from Elie Wiesel’s talk was his warning against indifference, which he regarded as far worse than hatred.

“The opposite of love is not hate,” he said, “it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not  ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.”

In his talk, Wiesel said the worst thing about being in Auschwitz was living with the feeling that no one cared (the title of his novel, Night, was originally The Silence of the World).

Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate in a few weeks, said the same thing about silence:

“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Michael Herr died at age 76, on June 23, 2016, a few days before Elie Wiesel died, on July 2, 2016. Coincidentally, Herr died on the day I started to read Dispatches, one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Like Wiesel, who wrote about the love and tenderness he found in Auschwitz — the prisoner who gave away his only crust of bread to save his father’s life —  Herr wrote about the love he found in the midst of war:

“…Well,  good luck, the Vietnam verbal tic, even Ocean Eyes, the third-tour Lurp, had remembered to at least say it to me that night before he went on the job…Usually it was only an uninhabited passage of dead language, sometimes it came out five times in a sentence, like punctuation, often it was spoken flat side up to telegraph the belief that there wasn’t any way out; tough shit, sin loi, smack it, good luck. Sometimes, though, it was said with such feeling and tenderness that it could crack your mask, that much love where there was so much war.”

Michael Herr spent his life post-Dispatches in London, where he avoided the spotlight. There he met Stanley Kubrick, and wrote the screenplay for Kubrick’s film about Vietnam,  Full Metal Jacket.”

He also co-wrote Francis Ford Copallas’ “Apocalypse Now,” which Roger Ebert called “one of the key films of the century.”

As 2016 draws to a close, I’m grateful for the witness of these two men, and for their life-affirming messages, though they saw the worst of humanity. I’m grateful for their reminder to speak up. “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,” Wiesel said, “but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”  I’m grateful that in writing about the mystery of evil, they did not fail to write about the mystery of the good.

 

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PRAYERS FOR RESISTANCE

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These are the  comments I made at our COLORS (Racial Justice Ministry) open house on Sunday, November 20, 2016, on the first year anniversary of my involvement in COLORS at All Saints Church in Pasadena:

About a year ago, I went to the exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. One of the exhibits in particular fascinated me, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The exhibit was about the different resistance movements that existed in the first century, around the time of the Jesus movement.

There were many resistance movements in the first century that were against what  Jesus scholars Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan call “the domination system of the Roman Empire.” However, according  to the exhibit, all of these movements, with the exception of the Jesus movement, were exclusionary. The  Jesus movement was the only resistance movement that welcomed everyone. (Martin Luther King noted that Christianity was a blend of many myths and influences, but what was unique in it was the social element.)

I’ve been thinking about this in light of my experience this last year working with the COLORS ministry.

On the Sunday after the election, I felt traumatized. However, after hearing Mike Kinman’s powerful and comforting sermon, and attending a COLORS meeting afterwards,  it occurred to me that possibly the greatest gift God has given to us is each other.

Jesus didn’t divide us. He didn’t leave instructions on who should be left out. He didn’t make anyone register before dinner.

I believe our strength is in each other. Our strength is in our diversity.

On my first year anniversary with COLORS, I am most grateful for this ministry, and will keep this gratitude in my heart as we move forward in the days ahead.

A PRAYER FOR RESISTANCE 

Gracious God,

We thank you for your liberating presence here.

We thank you for the gift of this community, for Mike Kinman, and Eric Law, and the leadership of COLORS. 

Empower us in the days head to take bold and liberating actions on your behalf. 

If there is anyone here who is discouraged, may we bring them to hopefulness. 

If there is anyone here who is traumatized or afraid, let them know they are safe with us, and always welcome. 

You have shown us that beyond the cross, the lynching tree, the internment camp, the man-made walls, the unspeakable cruelties so many of us have suffered, there is nothing that can separate us from your love.

Keep us mindful of your will for us so that, ending divisions here, we might be a true witness of the spirit and teachings of Christ, who extended a radical welcome to everyone, and taught us that we are all precious in your sight.

 Guide us in the days ahead so that our attitudes and actions will be aligned with your divine will. Empower us to resist all forces that would divide us, oppress us, or deprive us of the freedom we need to grow and flourish. 

Keep our hearts cheerful, confident that you are with us, as you promised, even unto the end of the age. 

Amen.

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A trio of anti-racist speakers  who shared their life challenges and wisdom at a COLORS open house in 2015: Regina Moses, the first black female school principal in Pasadena; Shizzi Akazaki, who survived life in a Japanese internment camp; and Lydia Lopez, who worked with Cesar Chavez and continues to fight for the rights of Latinos.

I love you all. You are beautiful.

A SMALL WORLD MOMENT


We’re gathered around a large table in Marty Coleman’s backyard.

Marty Coleman, a long-time peace and justice activist at All Saints Church, now in her 80s, offered to let us use her backyard for our Racial Justice Ministry (COLORS) retreat. 

It’s early morning, the sky is overcast, and there’s a chill in the air.  But, after a  string of hot days, no one’s complaining. 

It’s been five weeks since my father died, and the first time life feels back to normal. 

It’s peaceful here in Marty’s backyard, and I’m grateful to be sitting here around this table with people I’ve come to love and admire this last year. 

We were instructed to come prepared to share our personal goals for the year, and when it’s my turn, I talk about my goal to educate through writing and storytelling. 

Claudia Owens Shields, one of the African American members of COLORS, a  psychologist who specializes in healing race- related trauma, is the next person to share. 

She says that her goal is to understand how segregation happens in the church. 

“Martin Luther King said that 11 a.m. on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America,” she says. “How does this happen? I want to find out.”

It’s an intriguing question. I  watched the video of Martin Luther King talking about this a week ago — when I was preparing to deliver my father’s eulogy. 

 

When we’re on our lunch break, Claudia approaches me. 

“What are you writing?” she asks. 

I tell her I’ve been working on a memoir about race in America for a couple of years. “Both of my parents were antiracists. My father integrated a church in Chicago in the 50s, and I’m telling that story,” I say.

“Where did you live in Chicago?” she asks.

“On the South Side,” I tell her. 

“At what intersection?” 

“82nd and Rhodes.”  

“I lived at 96th and Langley.”

“Oh, wow, my Grandmother lived on Langley!” I say.

It’s a small world moment. 

It turns out that Claudia went to the church, Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church, where my dad was pastor. And not only that — she knew Lois Fluss, one of my Mom’s closest friends. Lois was the adult I was closest to as a child. 

Lois brought us Beaman Gum and other items when we were sick. 

She and her husband, unlike my teatotaling parents, were unapologetic about their love for martinis, and “martini,” thanks to Lois, was one of the first words my sister learned to say.

Lois was one of the few white people who stayed in the neighborhood when the “restricted covenants” that kept African Americans out of the neighborhood were no longer enforceable, and the familiar “white flight” followed. 

Claudia told me, “I once asked Lois, ’Are you white?’ She said she was blue and green or something.” 

Integration didn’t last. Chicago is still one of the most segregated cities in the United States — and the church is all African American, but for one white woman who stayed.

I feel lucky, though, for those few brief years when white people and black people worked together for the common good, and from a common faith. 

And I’m amazed that only a week after my father’s memorial service, we are here: two women from the same church, sitting around a common table, breaking bread together, working together to dismantle the racism and privilege that exists in our church and community. And stopping with the others at the table — black, white, and latino — to watch a scarab fly up and through the spaces between the leaves of the wisteria that covers the awning above us ——excited, if overwhelmed, by the work ahead of us.