In October 1983, two dozen peace activists gathered in Philadelphia as war raged in Nicaragua. U.S.-backed forces known as contras were carrying out a campaign of terror and mayhem against the civilian population. A woman from North Carolina, who had led a church delegation to the embattled country three months before, reported that while she and her colleagues were there the mortar attacks, kidnappings, and massacres had temporarily ceased. What to do?
The answer was obvious. If the presence of U.S. citizens was enough to offer protection to Nicaraguans, we needed to figure out how to make that presence permanent. Someone voiced what I assumed all of us in the room were thinking: “You mean we’re going to ask people to risk their lives in a war zone for strangers—and make them pay to do it?” Exactly.
Thus was born Witness for Peace. It seemed clear to some of us that if we were going to issue such an invitation, we needed to be the first to go. Two months later, I headed to Nicaragua with the first team. In the meantime, U.S. military forces had invaded Grenada, and fear was running high among Nicaraguans that they would be next. Hearing their endless stories of anguish and loss, documenting contra atrocities, and standing in prayer with Nicaraguans at sites of attacks and massacres was life-changing for me. Continue reading
She was standing by my mailbox yesterday afternoon, a thin woman with gray hair holding a little black dog. “Have you seen Sadie’s house?” she asked as I rolled down the car window.
“Can you describe it?”
Her face went blank. “I don’t reckon I can.”
“Did you walk up this road?”
“No,” she said, “I came over the mountain.” I looked at her frail limbs and her thin-soled shoes and had a hard time imagining it. She pointed up the dirt road that crosses a cattle pasture and dead-ends at Sara and Buck’s home, insisting as she took a step toward it that Sadie’s house was up that way. I pictured her opening the gate and tangling with either the cattle or Buck’s highly protective dogs, and I said, “Why don’t you get in the car and we’ll try to find Sadie’s house together?”
She smiled, introduced herself as Hazel, and settled into the passenger seat with her dog on her lap. I didn’t actually have a plan, other than to drive around the neighboring hollers until Hazel recognized someplace or somebody. Blessed providence, as I was turning the car around at the end of the road, she spied the mailbox with the name Campbell on it. “Why, Campbell, that’s my son’s name,” she commented. I asked her his first name. “Jack,” she said. Continue reading
During an overly pious phase in my childhood, my favorite holiday was Maundy Thursday. I had nothing against the traditional favorites of Christmas, Easter, and Halloween. I did, after all, grow up in Hershey, Pennsylvania—raised in the First United Methodist Church on Chocolate Avenue, where the domes on the street lights resemble Hershey’s kisses and the fragrance of chocolate hung often in the air. I had no complaint against holidays that brought bonanzas of candy and gifts.
But, at some point in my young life, I began to understand that not every child lived in a town with a chocolate factory, an amusement park and zoo, four swimming pools and nine golf courses. Some children were hungry and lonely and had no home in which to live. When this first glimmer of comprehension about suffering in the world came to me, I began to like Maundy Thursday. Continue reading
Once a week for three hours in the middle of the day, a group calling ourselves Mujeres Unidas en Fe (Women United in Faith) gathers in a church on the other side of the mountain from my home. About a dozen are Spanish-speaking women who are learning English, and an almost equal number of us are English speakers who want to improve our Spanish.
Two weeks ago, we crowded into the kitchen while Carmela gave us a lesson in making mole verde. Beatriz moved among us with a photo album from her daughter Gabriela’s quinceañera, the 15th birthday celebration that is both religious ceremony and party—and a very big event in Mexican culture. Beatriz pointed out every member of her extended family in the many pictures, and we oohed and aahed at the beaming and beautiful young woman in the middle of them, dressed in a shimmering royal-blue gown with cascades of ruffles and lace to the floor. Laughter and animated conversation filled the parish hall when we shared a feast of the mole and heaps of tamales, refried beans, and rice, followed by slices of sweet dulce de leche caramel cake. Continue reading
“My little girl should be with his daddy,” said 30-year-old Basem Alkahlani, his voice cracking with emotion. Like so many Muslims, he was plunged into fear and uncertainty by the recent executive order banning travel to the U.S. from his native Yemen and six other majority-Muslim nations. His hope to reunite with his wife and two-year-old daughter has been put on hold indefinitely. Yesterday, more than 200 people huddled in the cold to hear his heart-breaking story. “You coming here picked me up,” Basem told us, “and I feel I am not alone.”
When my partner, Bill, had asked members of the Asheville Islamic Center how allies could show our support in this frightening and difficult time, they warmly invited the public to yesterday’s mid-day Jum’ah prayer. Grateful for the gift of a headscarf from a friend at Christmas, I rummaged through my closet and located my only long skirt and joined the other women at the back of the prayer room, sitting in a small sea of colorful hijabs, saris, and burqas. So many people showed up from local churches and synagogues to offer solidarity that we had to move the gathering that followed outside. After several more testimonies and heartfelt exchanges of thanks, we gratefully received hospitality in the form of donuts and plates of hot Pakistani curry. Continue reading
Almost half the Africans forced to this country in chains first touched its shores at Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. A historical marker planted on that quiet spot of coast pays tribute to the courage and resilience of those uprooted generations and their many descendants. It was our first stop on a post-Christmas pilgrimage that Bill and I made to Charleston.
The second was Mother Emmanuel AME, an imposing church on a busy street in the heart of downtown. A gathering of flowers, wreaths, and prayers honoring the nine members murdered there during a Bible study in June 2015 stands next to the church’s marquee. It bears a message of thanks to the community for its many acts of kindness.
In the centuries between the terrors of slavery and last summer’s racial massacre, a transplanted African culture took root on the barrier islands of Georgia and South Carolina. In the mid-1980s, when I was a feature writer with Sojourners magazine, I visited Daufuskie Island to cover and offer support to a remnant Gullah community’s struggle against displacement. Still lingering among the live oaks draped with Spanish moss were the suspenseful trickster tales that had been passed down for generations, the “shouts” and ecstatic prayers that had echoed in praise houses all night long, and the lullabies of resistance sung to sleeping infants while maternal hands crafted baskets for rice from bulrushes and pine needles laced with strips of palmetto in the African way. But the ancient whispers were being drowned out by the constant bellow of bulldozers, destroying everything in sight to make way for golf courses and opulent resort “plantations.” Continue reading
Last week was a rough one. Across the globe, images of the destruction of Aleppo broke our hearts, painfully reminding us of all the places in our world torn apart by hatred and violence. At home, on the national level, the president-elect named to his cabinet more billionaires, handing positions of responsibility to men who advocate for increased military firepower, refuse Palestine’s right to exist, and deny climate change. In my state, in a blatant power grab, Republican legislators called a surprise special session, passing bills stripping authority from our Democratic governor-elect and the state board of education. And, locally, the release of the investigative report on last summer’s killing of a young black man by a white police officer left members of the victim’s family angry and distraught.
I was relieved when Friday evening rolled around and the week was behind us. I was headed to participate in a tradition launched more than seventy years ago and now, since 2002, an annual event in our little rural town (except the two years when snowstorms made travel impossible). At the mountaintop home of my neighbors Janet and Sam, a rainbow of humanity gathered in candlelight, the warm room humming with conversation over sips of spiced tea.
Sam, dressed in a colorful green jacket from 1960s Bavaria—a gift he later described as “what a Bavarian farmer wore to the pub on Sunday while his wife attended Mass”—blew a few discordant notes on a long, slender brass horn to get our attention. He read an original poem, exhorting us to “sing to keep God’s world intact…sing hope that kindles courage in our hearts, sing discord into harmony of many parts.” Then, accompanied by piano, guitar, and lute, we sang Christmas carols from music booklets mimeographed in 1941, just before the U.S. entered the Second World War. People shouted out the numbers of their favorites, and we filled the room with joyful noise. Continue reading
I know the contours of this land as intimately as I know the arc of Advent: the slope of the pasture and height of the ridge, the thick canopy of the pine forest and black deep of the pond. I walk every morning on an unchanging trail, secure in the embrace of these steadfast mountains believed to be the oldest in the world.
But, behold, today, a flock of wild turkeys strutting up the grassy hill. Yesterday, a sparkling mist draped the dark trunks of the oaks, and the day before the heavens opened wide to pour out a cleansing rain. Unexpected gifts. A swirl of red and gold leaves surrendering to an autumn wind. A spider web dripping with dew. Spiny horse chestnuts and mottled black walnuts fallen on the path. A riot of pink ladyslippers poking their heads through the damp spring earth, and a huddle of delicate Queen Anne’s lace nodding in a summer dawn. The insistent call of a red-tailed hawk answered with the operatic song of a wood thrush, echoed in the eerily plaintive cry of a screech owl. A shimmering rainbow spanning the cove, and a pink cloud hovering below blue peaks against a sunset-scarlet sky. Enough to take one’s breath away.
This land is always the same. And always changing. Like Advent.
As we walk once more the well-worn path from Hope, through Peace and Joy, to Love, let us take comfort in the familiarity of the way. Let us light each candle with intention, a signpost to guide us through the gathering darkness. We have been here before. It is all the same. And surprises beyond our imagining await us.
Here in the wondrous mountains of Southern Appalachia, we begin Advent in a state of extreme drought, circled by raging wildfires. We wander a parched land through a haze of smoke, eyes stinging and throats burning. Never before have the psalmist’s words meant so much to me: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul thirsts for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1).
We awake every morning anxious to hear the day’s air quality hue: green (go ahead and breathe), yellow (breathe, but do so cautiously), orange (don’t breathe too much if you have heart or respiratory problems), red (take comfort in knowing that breathing is bad for everybody), or purple (consider hibernation). I listen to the regular radio reports but could get the news just as easily from the rooster at the end of our cove. He raises a piercing alarm and crows endlessly whenever we’re shrouded in smoke—the very times he should be saving his breath. Continue reading
On my home altar, among other objects of special meaning to me, is a small chunk of the Berlin Wall. Twenty-seven years ago today, Germans streamed from all over their country with hammers and picks to tear down the oppressive barrier that separated East from West in their capital city. Exuberance and hope demolished that 79-mile, double, reinforced-concrete-and-barbed-wire structure with almost 300 watchtowers.
On this day in 2005, I made a pilgrimage to a crumbling remnant of that wall. Candles still burned there in honor of the almost one hundred Germans who had lost their lives trying to climb or tunnel to freedom on the other side. Placed inside cracks in the wall were dozens of individual roses, symbolizing reconciliation and unity. Continue reading