Many years ago, when South Africa was in the stranglehold grip of the system of racial hatred and separation known as apartheid, I visited that country to learn about and report on the freedom struggle there. On one of my last evenings, a young man named Jabulani was showing me around the black township of Khayelitsha outside Cape Town, just as the sun was beginning to set. Domestics and laborers, weary from a long day’s work in the city, were making their way home in the last glimmers of daylight. A stream of women, water jugs balanced on their heads, some with swaddled babies on their backs, moved slowly out from the central spigot of the township’s rutted roads in the encroaching cool of the evening. Paraffin lamps came to life, one by one, up and down the rows of small and fragile homes constructed of plywood, cardboard, and corrugated metal.
At the entrance to the township, spread out on a table, were rows of sheep’s heads, blood still running from their necks and the look of terror from the slaughter on their faces. Women tending fires cut pieces of meat from the carcasses and skewered them for sale. A family with several children that could not afford the mutton bought scores of the sheep’s legs, scraping off the hair and cooking the pile of bones with scant meat for their dinner.
How to hold the heartbreak and the outrage? Hundreds of babies and toddlers, schoolchildren and teenagers wrenched from the embrace of their parents, many now sobbing inconsolably in immigrant detention centers—some unbelievably lost in the system. My friend Rosalinda, who used to earn just pennies an hour working in a U.S. factory on the Mexican border, who had a nephew who was murdered there, felt a need to tell me her own family’s story of escape from desperate poverty and rampant violence. She related a harrowing saga of vulnerable hiding places, grueling river and desert crossings, capture and release by Border Patrol agents, and a second attempt—all endured so that her children might have safety, enough food, and the chance to grow up. It is unimaginable to think that they might have been stolen from her here.
So we make phone calls, write letters, sign petitions, and take our candles to the park to pray and protest. We do it over and over because this is how we know to be human, to stay connected, to make sure that no victim is forgotten. Last month in the park, tears slipped down my cheeks as young American Jewish women slowly read out the names of the 60 unarmed Palestinian protesters who were massacred on May 14 in Gaza by Israeli troops, and then led us in a Hebrew Kaddish of mourning for them. In that extraordinary moment, I realized that there is deep within me a hunger for ritual, for gathering with others to remind ourselves of who we are, to keep ourselves grounded in hope. Continue reading →
I’ve always loved snow. We had plenty of it in my growing-up years in Pennsylvania. But that didn’t prepare me for four college winters in Maine. From October to March, cafeteria trays were our makeshift sleds for hurtling down the small mountain on the edge of our campus, and a pair of cross-country skis took me at night into the silence of the woods that surrounded it. Some days we had to walk through tunnels of snow to get to our classes.
But I’ve never seen anything like yesterday. The morning temperature was 10 degrees, with wind chill below zero—unusual in these North Carolina mountains. The snow had fallen overnight in large crystals, and the effect was stunning: a mountainside sparkling with dazzling radiance, as if strewn with precious gems. Bundled up against the weather, I lingered at the scene until my toes began to go numb and I couldn’t resist the call of the fireplace, a warm afghan, and a mug of hot lemon-ginger tea at home. Continue reading →
Two days ago, a calf was born on the 120-acre mountain farm next-door. On my morning walk that day, I rounded a turn in the trail and spied him under a chestnut tree by the creek, just hours old, still wobbly on his legs, his mother licking him vigorously. Last night a coyote tried to kill that newborn calf. His mother successfully thwarted the attack, but not without injury to her ear and face. On this morning’s walk, I noticed that all the cattle are huddled together at the bottom of the mountain, the calves in the center of their protective circle.
Twenty years ago, when I was in South Africa observing the stunning work of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, friends there who were anxious to increase tourism and stimulate the economy after the devastating apartheid years encouraged me to visit Kruger National Park. Unforgettable are the majestic elephants, the herds of trotting giraffes and graceful gazelles, the hippos bellowing at a full orange moon rising over the Limpopo River. But what I remember most vividly is a trek into the savanna in an open-platform truck to view the lions at sunset. Before we began, our guide gave clear instructions: “Stay in the truck. Don’t separate yourself or make any movement that distinguishes you as an individual. As long as the lions think we’re one huge animal, they won’t attack.” Continue reading →
Here is the gorgeous ofrenda that Mujeres Unidas en Fe (Women United in Faith) created for our Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) service:
Last Thursday Juanita showed us how to craft large, elegant flowers out of tissue paper and pipe cleaners, and Carmen helped us to cut colorful papel picado banners. (Ancient experience making prom decorations and snowflakes came in handy.) We set up tables in a corner of the sanctuary and adorned them with our artistry. Additional decorations by the church youth group appeared on Sunday.
On Wednesday evening several church members joined us for a beautiful bilingual service. Added to our ofrenda were photographs of loved ones who had passed away. By each picture were offerings of their favorite foods: plantains, cookies, and chocolate candy, bottles of wine and cans of soda, believed to quench the thirst of the dead as their spirits make the long journey back to visit on earth. Marigolds, whose strong scent is thought to be a particularly appealing invitation for them to return, sat on the altar alongside burning candles. 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 →