Category Archives: Spiritual – Religion

Passover Seder in Baltimore

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Tonight I joined a Passover Seder in Baltimore where Jews, Muslims and Christians gathered to read and sing the Haggadah prepared by Jewish Voice for Peace.

As I understand it, this is a very special ritual for Jews to retell the story of how God liberated them from slavery and oppression under the Pharaohs in Egypt nearly 3000 years ago.

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Moses parting the Red Sea

This time we cannot cross until we carry each other, all of us refugees. All of us prophets. No more taking turns on history’s wheel. Trying to collect old debts no one can pay. The sea will not open that way. This time that country is what we promise each other. Our rage pressed cheek to cheek until tears flood the space between. Until there are no enemies left. Because this time no one will be left to drown and all of us must be chosen. This time it’s all of us or none. – Aurora Levins Morales

Many of us did not know each other before we sat down together tonight. We shared some of the social actions we’ve been working on — stopping an anti-BDS bill; passing a fracking ban; working on transgender issues; and others.

Tonight we have a powerful group of people gathering around this table telling the Exodus story as one way to gain a deeper understanding of oppression and refuel our work for liberation in our time. We are involved in many struggles, in our local communities and around the world, all intersecting and inseparable.

After we raised the first cup of wine (Kadesh) to education, we washed our hands before eating a green vegetable which we dipped in salt water (Karpas).

We dip a spring vegetable into salt water — the spring vegetable reminding us of potential and promise and the salt water reminding us of the tears and the pain along the way. This is an invitation to hold complexity — a reminder that change is possible even in what seems like endless darkness. As you dip the green vegetable into the salt water, affirm for yourself the potential for justice even as we hold the tears of oppression.

Then we broke the matzah.

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Systems of oppression break our world in so many ways large and small. They shatter bodies, families, communities, sometimes whole nations. The militarism we spread at home and abroad unleashes forces we cannot fathom or control. Rarely do we stop to comtemplate our own complicity in systems that wreak havoc in our name.

As we break the matzoh now, we ask ourselves: how do we benefit from the perpetuation of oppressive systems? What are we willing to do about it? And where might we start?

What is broken can never be what it once was. But it can be repaired.

I was really struck by the relevance of the words in this Haggadah to our world today.

As we begin the Exodus story, we read that the oppression of the Israelites resulted from Pharaoh’s fear that their growth would somehow overwhelm the Egyptian nation. These verses certainly have an ominous resonance for the Jewish people. Indeed any member of a minority faith or ethnic group knows all too well the tragedy that inevitably ensues when a nation views their demographic growth as a “threat”.

Today it is all too common to hear Israel’s leaders and supporters suggest that the “Jewish character” of Israel is threatened by the demographic growth of the Palestinian people. How should we react to the suggestion that the mere fact of this group’s growth necessarily poses a national threat to Israel? As Jews living in the Diaspora, how would we respond if our leaders raised questions about the “demographic threat” of a particular minority group to the “national character” of our country? In a multi-ethnic society, can a state’s identity ever be predicated upon the primacy of one ethnic group without the oppression of another?

Memories of Gaza flooded me, especially the olive harvest, as we read from this Haggadah.

The olive tree is one of the first plants mentioned in the Torah and remains among the oldest species in Israel/Palestine. It has become a universal symbol of peace and hope, as it is written in Psalm 52: “I am like a thriving olive tree in God’s house, I trust in God’s loyal kindness forever and ever.” We add this olive to our seder plate as a reminder that we must all be God’s bearers of peace and hope in the world.

At the same time, we eat this olive in sorrow, mindful that olive trees, the source of livelihood for Palestinian farmers, are regularly chopped down, burned and uprooted by Israeli settlers and the Israeli authorities. As we look on, Israel pursues systematic policies that increasingly deny Palestinians access to olive orchards that have belonged to them for generations. As we eat now, we ask one another: How will we, as Jews, bear witness to the unjust actions committed in our name? Will these olives inspire us to be bearers of peace and hope for Palestinians — and for all who are oppressed?

The four questions followed, with each of us taking turns reading from the Haggadah. Then the Ten Plagues.  We raised a second cup of wine to solidarity!  Haggadah_15th_cent

Solidarity is hard work. It requires ongoing self-reflection, clear accountability structures, continual learning and critical thinking. Also: humility, empathy, commitment, hope and love. True solidarity unites communities with different levels of oppression and privilege in the common struggle for liberation. It involves community building, support in struggle, awareness of our own relationship to different forms of oppression, and commitment to action that is accountable to those most directly affected by injustice.

So as we join together tonight to celebrate liberation, we recommit to struggling together for a world where everybody can have their voices heard.

We raise our glass and re-ignite our commitment to the work, responsibility and the joy of solidarity.

L’chayim to solidarity!

Jews will find the following rituals familiar, but it was a first for many at this Seder.

Rach’tzah: washing hands before eating matzah

Motzi & Matzah: blessing over matzah as food and as a special mitzvah

Maror: eating the bitter herbs

Korech: eating a sandwich of haroset & bitter herbs

Shulchan Orech: Then we shared the potluck dishes that everyone contributed.

Tzafun: eating the afikomen

Barech: grace after meal

Third Cup of Wine – L’chayim to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions!

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In the long and varied history of Jewish experience, we are inspired by those who have resisted injustice and fought for freedom. At JVP, we strive to live up to those values and extend that history. This is why we proudly support the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as part of our work for freedom, justice and equality for all people. We join with communities of conscience around the world in supporting Palestinians, who call for BDS until the Israeli government:

Ends its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantles the Wall; recognizes the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respects, protects and promotes the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

We believe that the time-honored, non-violent tools proposed by the BDS call provide powerful opportunities to make that vision real. By supporting the Palestinian call, we follow in the footsteps of those who supported similar calls to support struggles in the Jim Crow South and apartheid South Africa. In so doing, we make our hope real and our love visible and we claim our own liberation as bound with the liberation of all.

As we raise our third cup of wine, let us rededicate ourselves to the call!

Hallel: praise — torgether we sing songs of peace & hope.

Lo yisa goy el goy cherev

Lo yilmedu od milchama

Nation shall not war against nation,

and they shall study war no more.

And then it was my turn to read from the Haggadah when we raised the fourth cup of wine to community. It was absolutely the perfect spot for me. Very meaningful!

We come together to envision the world we want to live in: a world where every individual has the right to self-determination by participating in shaping our future together. In this world, we look out and care for one another; we practice trust and kindness; we respect each other’s personal (physical and emotional) space; we lend an ear or ask for a helping hand; we believe that everyone comes to do this work with good intent; and, we hold each other accountable when we err.

We will affirm each other in our spectrum of identities. We will model our shared vision of the world by creating a space that is safe, inclusive and supportive as possible for all of us. This includes having thoughtful coversations with each other if/when we hear language used pejoratively or language that perpetuates stereotypes. We all feel the stress of the present state of affairs, and it is physically and emotionally draining. Though it is sometimes difficult to see, we know there is a rainbow on the other side of the storm cloud of injustice; if we didn’t know this, we wouldn’t be participants in the movement for peace and justice. It is because of the rainbow, not the storm cloud, that we act. We raise the fourth cup to the rainbow.

(Adapted from the JVP 2011 National Membership Meeting: Building a Community of Respect and Trust, a note from Stefanie Brendler, JVP Board member)

L’chayim to community!

Nirtzah: Conclusion

Next year in Jerusalem! Next year in al-Quds! Next year in a City of Peace!

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#MLK50AWAKE – Remembering Dr. King

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True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.

–from Stride Toward Freedom, 1958, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Most of us have those “before and after” moments.  That time when we clearly feel a break with the past, and the beginning of something new. The moment when our lives have changed forever, and we know we’re in new territory now.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

–from ‘Letter from Birmingham, Alabama Jail’, April 16, 1963

My visit to the Gaza Strip (9/2012 – 5/2013) was that moment in my life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but since my return to the U.S. and with some reflection, I see my personal timeline divided — before Gaza and after Gaza.

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My understanding of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s impact on the world is a case in point. “Before” — I honored Dr. King’s memory each year knowing his contribution to the civil rights movement intellectually. I could recite most of the great milestones of his life, and I was grateful that America had such leaders. I had read his “I Have a Dream” speech but none of his other speeches.

“After” — something clicked in me. When I learned that April 4, 2017 was the 50th anniversary of his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, I was motivated to read it in its entirety. When he talked about a “revolution of values” and the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” — I knew he was speaking to me, to my world, and to my generation.

The blunt truth of his message was much more than an intellectual respect for a great leader but a heart filled with love and sadness that his truth has not rung deeply within the halls of power. To many Americans, the radical revolution is merely hyberbole, and they can’t be bothered with the difficult struggle required to change our society.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

–from Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, New York, NY

On April 4, 2017, I spent the afternoon and evening at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC just two blocks from the White House with an amazing group of clergy and lay people from many different faiths. We gathered to remember and celebrate Dr. King, and to send a message to the White House that Dr. King’s message of #LoveThyNeighbor – with no exceptions – is alive and well.

New York Ave Presbyterian Church is a Sanctuary Church that opens its doors to anyone who feels “threatened or vulnerable.”Church welcomes immigrants

Some people may feel their spiritual calling requires them to stay above the political fray and partisanship that permeates most discourse in Washington these days. Not these clergy members.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.

—from King’s 1963 book Strength to Love

We began the afternoon by getting to know each other, standing up, clapping and appreciating each other’s differences. The Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Quakers, the LGBT, the old and the young, the poor and those who had plenty, and from all different parts of the country and the world.

“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. – Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1958.

Then we broke into groups for workshops on such topics as “Personal healing from Racism to Action” — “Faithful Resistance, Advocacy and Organizing” — “Powerful, Pragmatic and Spirit led Lobbying”, — “Increase Militarism in the Trump Budget” — “Addressing Poverty – Breaking the Silence”.workshop

I joined the Quakers who led the lobbying workshop because I wanted to know how to be more effective on the Hill.  We learned about some of the priorities of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (easy to agree with these priorities), and then went through the nuts and bolts of an office visit with our member of Congress.  The discussion was both concrete and very encouraging.

The take away message for me was: Come to the meeting with my Senator or Representative with the right spirit, with the goal of building a long-term relationship. Our members of Congress need to hear stories from real life to anchor them as they discuss policy and new laws.

At 5:00 pm we picked up signs from the sanctuary and marched down to Lafayette Square in front of the White House. There were about 30 – 40 people marching, with some drumming and others chanting. Probably the most well-behaved March I’ve ever participated in.

The time is always right to do what is right.

–from Oberlin College Commencement speech, 1965

We stood in a straight line, singing, chanting and then mic-checking to the words of leaders who encouraged us to lift our voices to the White House and the visitors and tourists who were gathered around.

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At 7:00 pm some of us reassembled at the church for the 49th observance of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination. Several hundred members of the community joined to listen to people eulogize Dr. King; to hear his words come alive with the reenactments of some of his speeches; and listen to the DC Labor Chorus, the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church Male Chorus, and others fill the church with music. I wish I could have recorded it all.

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The highlight for me was second-grader Kiye Bashiri Corbitt who read some passages from Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream Speech”. He stood up straight, and with great composure read his lines on cue in front of an audience of several hundred adults. Dr. King would be very proud of this future generation following in his footsteps.

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—from Dr. King’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize (1964).

After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.

Bless you Dr. King.

And thank you to the organizers for planning this very special day.

Rev. Aundreia Alexander, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches

Christine Ashley, Friends Committee on National Legislation

Cherie Brown, director, National Coalition-Building Institute

Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director, NETWORK (“Nuns on the Bus”)

Rev. Richard Fernandez, (In 1967) executive director, Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam

Rev. Roger Gench, New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC

Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, director, Office of Public Witness, Presbyterian Church USA

Rev. Mike Neuroth, Washington Office, United Church of Christ

Jacqueline Patterson, Director, Environmental Justice, NAACP

Bishop Dwayne Royster, political director, PICO National Network

Imam Talib Shareef, Masjid Muhammad, Washington, DC

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center

 

 

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Why I’m Marching in DC on Saturday

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Public Garden in Boston – Photo via Allie Kroner

My PussyHat is knitted, my sign is drying, and I’m ready to hop on the bus Saturday morning in Baltimore for the short ride to DC.

I struggled with the message I want to share at the Women’s March, and decided my friend’s sign in Barcelona, Spain was the perfect message. Gracias Barbara. In Spanish, she wrote “Build Bridges, Not Walls”.  The message is positive, simple and complex all in one. I asked my friends in Gaza to help me write the message in Arabic.

Palestinians know better than anyone the evil associated with walls, as Israel has perfected the process of division, humiliation, and death with the erection of “security” walls and fences. I don’t want America building walls — literally or figuratively. We must expand our spirit of generosity, build bridges at home and abroad, and grow our understanding and appreciation of each other.

Donald wants to build a physical wall, but he’s already succeeded in dividing Americans. I will do my part to resist Donald and shed the light on a different path.

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

We Were Made For These Times by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, American poet, post-trauma specialist and Jungian psychoanalyst, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves

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IMCL conference day #1

Rome is an excellent location for an international conference about making cities livable. If my first impressions are any clue, this city has a mixture of both what works and what doesn’t (yet) work as a livable city.

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Rome, Italy

On the positive side, I count the historical buildings, monuments and architecture, along with the great public transportation, delicious food, and very kind people. On the other hand, the graffiti is a big distraction (it’s on every surface visible to spray paint). The homeless sleeping under the bridges, and the urban poor are clear reminders of the inequities that exist. I rode a city bus to the end of the line on the far west side of Rome and saw poor neighborhoods that most tourists won’t see.

An Italian architect who helped make the local arrangements for this conference lamented that his colleagues didn’t even bother to show up. “They could learn so much from IMCL speakers,” he said, “but instead we [architects] are making life worse and worse in our cities.”

The four days are jam-packed with presentations. Participants (I’m guessing 100+) are a mix of architects, urban designers, planners, policy folks and elected officials from around the world, and the venue (Pontificia Universita Urbaniana, Vatican City) is well-equipped for the program.

I presented a paper about Gaza on the first day (more in a future blog post) but my two colleagues from Gaza are not here. Israel wouldn’t allow Yaser to leave the Gaza Strip, and Italy wouldn’t give Eman a Visa to enter the country. (More here about the travel restrictions.)IMG_4555

Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, IMCL Co-Founder and Director, opened the conference with words that easily resonated with me about what’s wrong with our city-building today. There are two competing value systems at work, she said. The first is based on GDP, where the city is seen as an economic engine, and its function is to fuel growth and raise the standard of living; while the second is based on the Quality of Life. In this model, the function of the city is the “care and culture” (Lewis Mumford) of people and of the earth.

Some of the highlights from her presentation:  Extreme capitalism creates a consumer society where we find hundreds of ghost cities in China; vertical sprawl in cities like Hong Kong (the least affordable housing in the world); and New York City with its “safe deposit boxes in the sky” (investors are stashing their $$ in high-rises, seen as good investments). In Tokyo’s housing, there are high levels of hikikomori — people who suffer from severe social withdrawal. Some estimate there are more than 700,000 hikikomori in Japan. Teenagers will not leave their bedrooms for days, weeks, even months at a time while their meals are left on trays outside their door. High-rise living can be detrimental to physical and mental health, and we see higher rates of obesity and related chronic diseases. Paris has a population of 20,000 people per square kilometer in 6 stories, but now is considering adding high-rises to its skyline.

Suzanne summarized the IMCL Principles of TRUE URBANISM: (as opposed to new urbanism?)

  1. Facilitate community social life. Key to achieving a high quality of life for all is the way we treat the public realm. The most essential task is to make it possible for people to come together, to form friendships and face-to-face social networks, and to develop social capital and community, but we seem focused on over-investment in private property and under-investment in the public realm.
  2. Facilitate contact with nature, including nature everywhere in our cities, and make nature accessible to children. My ears perked up when Suzanne mentioned community gardens. I wish my defunct community garden in Albuquerque was growing and active.
  3. Facilitate independent mobility. We must focus on balanced transportation planning that first prioritizes walking, second on biking, third on public transit, and lastly on the car. Living streets (“Wohnstrasse” designated by the international blue sign) have been traffic calmed and are safe for children and elders.
  4. A hospitable built environment that frames social life. Human-scale and mixed use environment instead of the mono-culture zoning districts in the U.S. which divide uses.

“Profit is privatized

Loss is socialized”

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Richard Jackson (r) and Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard (l)

 

Richard Jackson, a physician and professor of environmental sciences at UCLA, shared some provocative thoughts when he asked “will we merit gratitude from our grandchildren?” Dr. Jackson says the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) has been right about everything it has projected for the past 20 years with the exception of one thing.  The pace of change is occurring much faster than the IPCC experts thought it would. He used many of the same climate change slides that I have used when I talk about climate change —- but one stood out for me.  The IMF tells us that the fossil fuels industry is subsidized to the tune of $10 million/minute!! Estimate of $5.3 TRILLION for fossil fuels, much greater than our total expenditures for healthcare.  (At that point, my blood pressure was rising.)  He said there are 20 Attorney Generals in the U.S. filing a lawsuit against Exxon, similar to the tobacco litigation of the 1990s.

Are we guilty of child abuse?  Maybe, but certainly we are guilty of child neglect by our acts of omission — our failure to protect our children and grandchildren from the ravages of climate change, and subjecting them to a life of inactivity, in large part by the way we’ve built our cities.  There’s a lot of research out about the impacts of the built environment on our children’s health. I’m going to look for the May 2016 JAMA issue when I return home. Finally, Dr. Jackson mentioned British Columbia’s carbon tax which has dropped carbon use by 16%.  It’s working and others should follow their example.

Father Alejandro Crosthwaite, Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences, Pontificia Universita San Tommaso, Vatican City, addressed how the Pope’s Laudato Si relates to city planning.  I read the Laudato Si last summer when it was released, see here. Father Crosthwaite said The Holy See was shocked with the impact of the Laudato Si, especially among non-Christians. A number of good questions followed his presentation. Someone observed that the church hierarchy has been slow to teach and speak about the Laudato Si, another thought the Vatican needs a good marketing campaign to spread the word. Father Crosthwaite acknowledged that a lot more needs to be done and applauded the laity for taking the leadership around the world. The “structures of sin” didn’t come from outer space, they came from each of us as individuals, and so we need to do this both as a community and as individuals. Key for the Pope is “dialogue.” The Vatican city-state is now carbon neutral. They bought a forest to offset the carbon use within the Vatican as well as transitioning to solar energy. The Vatican also works closely with the United Nations, influences the meetings and discussions about climate change.

Richard Economakis, architect and professor at the School of Architecture, University of Notre Dame, shared a presentation entitled “Streets of Hope: Outlining an Urban, Environmentally Responsible Approach to Housing EU Asylum-Seekers”. I want to visit some of the refugee camps on the Greek Islands and was keenly interested in how Richard proposed to meet the challenges presented by this “migration of biblical proportions”. He mentioned that IKEA is producing housing for refugees using PVC components, non-degradable materials and designed to last 2 years. The Swiss government rejected IKEA’s housing as a fire safety hazard.

Professor Economakis stressed the “principle of repurposability” – meaning that designing and building human settlements for the refugees should consider the future reuse or repurpose of the structures once the refugees have moved on. Richard and eight of his graduate students prepared a Master Plan for the creation of temporary Refugee Villages to serve as processing centers for the refugees seeking asylum in the EU. He was kind enough to give me a copy. I hope I can find a way to send it to my colleagues in Gaza.

Statement of Intent

Let us build modest homes to serve as temporary shelters for the dispossessed in those ports and towns of their arrival. We must do so responsibly, using natural materials which have no carbon footprint, and in such a way that buildings can easily be torn down when they cease to be useful, without significantly impacting the environment – or else they should be able to stand for generations. Let us arrange the houses to form real communities of hope, villages that dignify the waves of tired men, women and children while they wait for their asylum requests to be processed. When the crisis abates and the refuges have moved on to new places and new lives, these towns may serve the hosting nations by being converted into affordable neighborhoods, academic villages or resorts.

Are there ideas here that might be applicable to the Gaza Strip?  I think so.

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Step-by-step شوية شوية

Camino map

Before the magic wears off, I must share “my Camino” experience in northern Spain.

I’ve been identifying myself as a pilgrim for the past couple of years on my quest for answers in the Middle East, but Israel, Egypt and the USA have denied me permission to return to the Gaza Strip so I decided to follow the path that thousands, maybe millions, of pilgrims have followed since the Middle Ages to St. James’ burial place in Santiago — looking for answers.

The most popular route is over 700 km long, but I didn’t have 4-5 weeks to walk it and probably didn’t have the stamina either, so I chose to begin my Camino at Leon. I walked six days to Pontferrada and then hopped the bus to Sarria, where I walked another 7 days to Santiago.  Step-by-step  شوية شوية.  In total, my feet carried me just over 200 km (about 125 miles) during the first two weeks in April. Believe me, I now have a heightened appreciation for my feet.

I averaged 18 km each day (about 11-12 miles) while most everyone else passed me going much faster and further, reminding me of the Aesop fable, the Tortoise and the Hare. I kept plodding along worried that I wouldn’t keep up. A few days into the walk, my concerns about the pace and whether I could finish the pilgrimage vanished when I realized — “This is MY Camino, not anyone else’s” — and dropping my competitive nature is part of the lesson I was meant to learn. This insight freed up my anxiety and I was able to appreciate just being on the Camino.

The numbers of pilgrims walking the Camino have skyrocketed in recent years, a local business owner in Leon told me. Good for the local economy, not so good for quiet introspection. They are coming from all over the world. I met pilgrims from Germany, France, Holland, the UK, Lithuania, Denmark, Japan, Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Spain (of course) and yes! — a pilgrim from Hebron, Al-Khalil, Palestine.

Early April turned out to be a very good time for my Camino. Although it seems like pilgrims are nearly tripping over each other during the summer months, competing for a bunkbed in the albergue (Camino hostels) in the next village, more often than not I found myself alone on the path — following the yellow arrow and the boot tracks in front of me — with plenty of time to observe and think. Step-by-step  شوية شوية.

“Why are you walking the Camino?”  – the most frequent ice-breaker when pilgrims stopped for a meal, drink or a bed. Santiago is an important Christian pilgrimage destination, along with Rome and Jerusalem. (I actually met a young man on the path returning from Santiago and now walking to Rome and Jerusalem.) My sense, however, is that many of the pilgrims are not Christians or walking for a religious reason. Instead, they often cite a desire to “get away from real life” to think and find answers, or to challenge themselves physically, or to cross an item off their bucket list.

My American accent gave me away as soon as I opened my mouth, and the conversation inevitably turned to the U.S. elections and Donald Trump. I wasn’t surprised that foreigners are so well-informed about politics and the candidates in the United States, but time and again they shared their fears with me if Trump is elected. America’s power and influence worldwide has probably now exceeded our collective IQ. Several pilgrims — only half jesting — offered me a place to live overseas if I felt the need to emigrate.

I started thinking about walking the Camino after I saw Walking the Camino at The Guild in Albuquerque a few years ago. My interest increased after viewing Martin Sheen in The Way and reading about Ernest Hemingway’s connection to the Camino and his first novel The Sun Also Rises. Friends in Albuquerque who’ve walked the Camino were also very encouraging. Step-by-step  شوية شوية.

After waiting unsuccessfully in Egypt and Jordan for months (October 2015 – March 2016) for access to the Gaza Strip, and feeling angry, bitter and unsure about my next steps, I thought I might find my answers about Gaza on the Camino de Santiago.

I didn’t.

At least I didn’t find the answers I was searching for. How do I return to Gaza? Why is Gaza the faultline in the Middle East? What should I be doing personally to educate myself and other Americans about Gaza?

Instead, I found a beautiful landscape (walking is the best way to learn about a place). I met amazing people (gaining new insight about Yahweh, God, Allah in the process). And I found peace when I was able to say “goodbye” to loved ones who have died.

Landscape:  The photos don’t capture the beauty of sunrises, the ringing church bells, the treacherous descents, and the sound of running water everywhere. Nearly every house has a vegetable garden and small acequia, and every village has a church with above-ground burial crypts or nichos. The juxtaposition of the very old stone pathways with the ultra-modern windmills on the hilltops showed that Spain is adapting and transitioning into the future with a deep respect for its past.

People:  Before I left Cairo on April 1, a devout Muslim friend urged me to continue reading about the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an. While I was on the Camino in northern Spain, a devout Christian missionary from Canada asked if she could pray for me. Holding me, she asked Jesus to provide the answers I was seeking.

While I was walking, I thought alot about the people I’ve met in recent years who possess such certainty about their faith and their deity, Yahweh for the Jews, God for the Christians and Allah for the Muslims. Religion binds people into groups, or as Jonathan Haidt writes (The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion – 2012): ‘Whatever its origins, the psychology of sacredness helps bind individuals into moral communities.’ I respect their certainty and their devotion but I question whether Yahweh, God or Allah would approve of the divisions that have evolved – “Us and Them” or put another way, the people like us and the people not like us. Does the dehumanization of the “other” — which we find so much evidence of in the world today from believers of all three faiths — really win the blessing from Yahweh, God and Allah?

Certainly not.

During my solitude, walking the Camino, I found the profound spirit of the diety in the people I met. This was truly a personal revelation — that the diety is not outside of us, not sitting on a throne or in a Mosque or in heaven. Yahweh, God, Allah is not apart from us, but inside each living creature, including me.

This insight gives new relevancy to the rule I try to follow — the Golden Rule — to treat others as I wish they would treat me, because when the spirit of the diety is in each person, I must treat each person with respect, honor and love to manifest my respect, honor and love for Yahweh, God, Allah.

Easier said than done. Can I really respect, honor and love the fat man waddling down the village lane? or the young boy who wears his pants below his buttocks? or the wino sleeping on the park bench?  The faithful might find it easier to rock and pray at the Wailing Wall while wearing their tefillin, or prostrate themselves in the direction of Mecca, or kneel in church with hands clasped in prayer, but I believe that Yahweh/God/Allah is sprawled on that park bench. Step-by-step  شوية شوية

Goodbye:  My Camino was an unexpected place for me to say “goodbye” to loved ones who have died. Some were family members I never got the chance to see when they passed. Others were special people whom I’ve carried with me for many years with great sorrow. On my Camino, I thought about each.  Step-by-step  شوية شوية

At some point along the way I realized that each spirit is with me, and will always be with me. I was able to say “goodbye” and ended my Camino on Sunday, April 17th in Santiago with greater peace. Watching the botafumeiro swinging in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral was very special. The following day, I returned to the Cathedral and joined a mass honoring new Spanish Naval graduates.

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I’m not pro-Palestinian

“I’m not pro-Palestinian.”

I uttered those words a few nights ago in response to a very good friend from Gaza who was sharing his thoughts about the characteristics of the activists who are “pro-Palestinian.”

I realized right away how provocative my words sounded, and how they might be misunderstood.  I also knew why my friend from Gaza labeled me “pro-Palestinian.” He’s like a son to me.  If I could shield him from the atrocities he and his family have experienced at the hands of the Israelis, and particularly the Israeli military, I would.

But my love, concern and compassion for my Palestinian friend, and many other Palestinians, doesn’t make me “pro-Palestinian.”  The label doesn’t fit me because being “pro” anything often implies one is also against something, in this case Israel and Israelis.  The world is not black/white, good/evil, wrong/right.  It’s so much more complex than that.

Being “pro-Palestinian” might imply I’ve selected a tribe to cheer for — the Palestinians — and rejected the other tribe.  In fact, I reject tribal allegiances altogether.

Being “pro-Palestinian” often raises issues of “loyalty” and “deference” and “submission” to the Palestinians and to whatever framing of the “conflict” they’ve chosen.  I’ve learned this by watching and listening to self-identified “pro-Palestinian” activists over the years.  My loyalty is not to Palestinians or to any of their many factions. I will learn from them, but I won’t defer or submit to their framing of the “conflict.”

On the other side ….

Friends, family and colleagues who self-identify themselves as Zionists or “pro-Israel” are hurt and angry that I’m not in their camp. I don’t accept their framing of the “conflict” and I reject their tribal loyalties. If I’m not with them, I must be against them, is the subtle message they often share with me.

One Jewish “pro-Israel” American rationalizes my odd opinions about Israel-Palestine by telling me — “You’re not Jewish, you’re not Palestinian, so of course you can’t understand what’s really going on over there.” — That compartmentalizing might comfort her unease but it only demonstrates how people need to understand the world by putting people in boxes.  I refuse to do that.

Instead, I seek to understand the complexities and the gray shadows cast in the region.  I try to shine a light on the things I learn, and on the things that the mainstream media callously and deliberately ignores.

I try to understand the “other” — both Israelis and Palestinians. I try to learn empathy.

This 28 minute NPR broadcast (March 22, 2016) “What happens when you empathize with the enemy?” is powerful. My Palestinian friends who reject “normalization” may reject the ideas shared by the Israeli soldier and the Palestinian professor regarding empathy but for everyone else, I think there is alot of wisdom here for open minds on both sides.

http://www.npr.org/player/embed/471283599/471350322

This week on Hidden Brain we ask, what happens when you empathize with your enemy? Why does reaching out to another tribe make our tribe so angry? We talk to Avner Gvaryahu, a former paratrooper in the Israeli army, who angered his fellow Israelis for talking about his work as a soldier. And we talk with Mohammed Dajani, a Palestinian professor who now lives in the United States out of fear for his life. His crime? He led a group of Palestinian students to Auschwitz to try to help them understand the Holocaust. We also share an excerpt of a one-man play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Aaron Davidman.

 

Thanks to Libby and Len Traubman from Palo Alto, California for alerting me to this NPR broadcast.

 

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My two cents – take them or leave them

 

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It happened again.

I shared my opinion on Facebook about violence and was told I should keep my opinion to myself (in a nice sorta way).

Here’s my original post.

Day #565 – Violence is a no-win option in every case. Whether it’s political factions vying for power or revenge (Palestine). Whether it’s fans @ a soccer stadium. Everyone is a loser when violence is the option chosen. Egypt no longer allows Egyptians to attend soccer games @ the stadium. They must watch on TV and players must play to an empty stadium because some people resorted to violence following a game a couple of years ago resulting in many deaths. ‪#‎Everyoneloses‬.
‪#‎GoingtoGaza‬

The response came from a pro-Palestine activist from America who counseled me not to “lecture the oppressed” about violence from my “privileged, white status.” He went on to tell me that “no tyranny, no occupation, no colonialising power has ever been solely defeated by non-violent means. i feel it´s not upon us to lecture the oppressed how to resist.”

I’ve heard the same (or very similar) response from others in the past. They’ve all given me pause. Should I keep quiet about my opinions on the subject of violence?

No, I can’t.

I won’t keep silent.

People can take or discard anything I say, and I won’t take offense. I certainly don’t try to hide my “privileged, white status.”  If that disqualifies me in the eyes of the oppressed, then they can toss my thoughts into the trash. But I respect their intelligence and I respect them to make that determination for themselves.

On the subject of violence, maybe my friend is correct that “no tyranny, no occupation, no colonialising power has ever been solely defeated by non-violent means.” But then again, that’s not the point of my post.

Survival requires evolution.  Evolution requires growth and rejection of what has failed.

Violence represents failure on a profound level.

When we’re watching presidential candidates goad supporters to commit violence; when children are killed in their beds by a missile attack on their home; when men jump out of their cars on a busy Cairo street and start pummeling each other —- it’s time for everyone (including the “privileged, white Westerners”) to speak up.

So I’ll keep voicing my opinions about violence.

Even today we raise our hand against our brother… We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death. — Pope Francis

 

 

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