My God, We Need Change!


Some days I think, “What difference can I really make?” I am nothing but a tiny dot in this vast universe. I have practically no political influence and my voice is reduced to 5,000 friends on facebook and some twitter followers! If you are reading my blog, I am surprised, but honoured, because deep down, I want to make a difference somehow in this tiny little planet called earth.

I want to see our world able to thrive, survive, be alive with all the beauty that can be! I want a world where animals can roam, forage, and run like the wind. I don’t want to see another dead whale with a belly full of plastic bags and bottles! Let every environment be clean and our living spaces are safe for children and adult alike. Listen, I want a world where women can be respected and not fear for their safety. I want a world where war is no more, violence is shunned, marriages are sacred, rich nations help poorer ones to become better. I want a world where religion is about living out the highest ideals and living it humbly.

And even though I am a minor player in the grand scheme of things, I will continue to live out the change I want to see in the spaces that I inhabit here in my city of Paris. And maybe, just maybe I can bring some hope and love to someone, somewhere and somehow.

May we all bring the change we hope for and need in 2019!

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Everywhere…


“later that night i held an atlas in my lap ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered where does it hurt? it answered: Everywhere everywhere everywhere.” Warsan Shire    globe

My wife, Patricia, and I have lived overseas for 37 of our 57 years. During those years we have seen humanity at its most loving and perhaps at its least. We have held babies decimated by AIDS. We have walked the raunchy red light districts to meet women longing to turn their lives around. We have been robbed. And we have been treated so generously by many of the locals. For 22 years our home was Thailand, a land where more people were involved in the industry of sexual exploitation than there were born-again believers.

Just nine months after our arrival  in 1991, we experienced the first of two military coups. Scenes of  angry protests, the burning of cars, and more tragically, the shooting of live ammunition against unarmed student protestors filled the nightly news. The second coup d’etat, occurred in 2006, and was more divisive. The following years were filled with accusations and violence between the red (pro-democracy) and yellow (pro monarchy) shirts.  One morning in 2008 we woke up to the news that the yellow shirts with bats and clubs had seized the International Airport in Bangkok.  It became a prison and a dump for a week as they held  control for what they believed would lead to a final showdown.  The real turning point came in 2010 when the the red shirts decided to  blockade the downtown core for several weeks. The army was called in to disperse them once and for all.  I remember too well the panic in my wife’s voice as she exclaimed over the phone, “They are sending tanks into the streets, Peter!” The red shirts fled, but not after torching dozens of important government and commercial buildings in their wake. 

We moved to France in 2014, thinking life would be calmer. But anti-semitic riots broke out less than a month after we arrived. This time we encountered riot police, smelling the tear gas and burning tires as we zigzagged our way to join our two teenage daughters in the apartment. Six months later we heard never ending sirens signaling a deadly terror attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.  A dozen were left dead and others injured. Nine months later came another well-coordinated attack, this time on the famed Bataclan theatre and a few bars. It happened just as Parisians were settling down for a calm evening with friends. The death toll was over a hundred.  And then, six months later, after a short vacation, we left Nice only to find out upon our return that a man drove a large truck into a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day crushing to death over 80 pedestrians! Add to these horrendous events the brazen attack on an 85 year old Catholic priest who’s throat was slit while performing his duties in front of his Catholic congregation. Understandably the country of France lived in paranoia believing the enemy lurked everywhere and the easiest group to identify came from those seeking refuge from all the wars in the mideast.

The Somali poet repeated the same word thrice, “Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.” My work required me to travel from time to time. I personally became aware of a divided world, everywhere its systems broken and lacking. This reality sunk deepest when in 2017 I travelled to Iraq to be with some of my American friends who worked for Preemptive Love Coalition. They were struggling with daily death and violence they had witnessed. I went to be a friend for them, but deep down I wanted to see, smell and be moved by the brokenness. 

When Matt sent me a possible itinerary of where we would visit I was most excited and afraid of a planned trip to Mosul. He asked if I would be up for that, to take part in a food delivery? Of course, I was. However, when I got there I breathed a simultaneous sigh of disappointment and relief when the team was told by American Intelligence that it was unsafe to go in. Instead we spent hours in a large camp called Arbat where thousands of displaced people lived in non-descript cement block rooms. There workers with arbatPreemptive Love Coalition had made many friends and created opportunities for self-sustaining.  It was there I was reminded of the need to show up and do something. This group lived out generously their slogan: 

“We are the first to show up and the last to leave…”

I returned to France where I was introduced to a young Syrian named Khaled. He had been largely depressed and rarely liked to leave the tiny one room apartment he lived in. The first time I met him was over a coffee. After the formalities, he blurted something that surprised me, “I hate all religion!” That was pretty well his opening line. I think I might have said, “Ya, me too!” And then he told me his story, how he loved his country and how  he joined the peaceful student revolution with high hopes to bring about needed change and freedoms. And then the government turned on them. Soon after the country imploded into sectarian and religious violence. Now I’ve known Khaled for over a year now. We have become friends. He has helped me get insight as to why people in that part of the world and in any part of the world would hate religion, one word, hypocrisy. 

Everywhere. War, violence, persecution, hatred and poverty continue to wreak havoc on our globe. Since World War 2  there has never been a time on our earth when so many people have been forcibly displaced.  The UNHCR reports that at present 68.5 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced. That’s an astronomical amount. Syria, now in its eighth year of a civil war, accounts for the greatest number of people fleeing. Almost 65 percent of its population is either internally displaced or have fled elsewhere in search of safety and a new future. Other countries like Afghanistan, South Sudan, Yemen, Eritrea, Venezuela, or even Colombia have broken down. The famines in the reclusive country of North Korea are starving it’s most vulnerable. While the genocide in Myanmar that dominated the headlines for weeks is sadly forgotten by most. Thank God for the many relief organisations worldwide that provide relief to the weary and broken. But the never-ending need has stretched most them to their limits.

Of course solutions never come easy. Until our politicians and leaders are stirred by the present crisis, our weary world will continue half-heartedly to use hit and miss strategies. In the meantime the need for resilience on the part of refugees has never been greater. After treacherous journeys over mountains, deserts and seas they find Families-who-have-fled-th-009themselves in strange places where language, money and boredom are their daily grind. They battle on with a lack of belonging and no neighbour to call when they need help. Their futures point to a bleak life on the streets and not much better in overcrowded refugee camps.  The demanding solution requires all of us, just like the various organisations and associations, to show up and do something.

Perhaps the most virtuous thing we all could do is to provide hospitality to those who no longer have a home, a culture or a sense of belonging. I love a new program dubbed 100 Nights of Warmth that one of the churches in Paris is creating. Nightly, twenty men, all refugees, will have a warm space to spend the cold winter’s night. They too need more volunteers to show up. And that is the lifeblood of our world, caring people who volunteer their resources, energy and time so our world will thrive into the future.

And so, here we are, now 37 years of living in countries not our own.  My wife and I are in some small way displaced people, but by choice, and with a roof over our head, a salary and comfortable with the local language. But we understand, to a degree, the culture shock, the adapting and the feelings of being lost. Perhaps this is why our hearts are being turned towards the despair of the Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, and other migrants of poverty and war. We want to show up by living out a story of generosity. If we could, and it’s in our heart to do so, we’d create a space here in Paris where those who were chased by bombs and bullets, those who don’t belong, the broken and afraid,  could sit and be safe and find ‘home.’ It will be a beautiful place where Hope is resurrected and Dignity gets restored. Travelers from a far-off country will come and be embraced with the a message of sonship and daughtership. It will be for many a happy place and maybe of new beginnings.

Goodness is Contagious


Just last week I experienced a beautiful human moment. As I was looking down from our Parisian balcony, five floors above, I saw an old man walking with a cane. I could tell he was begging as he took his little steps forward. He motioned to people with his hand that he was hungry. I continued to watch. But sadly no one wanted to even lift their heads! For some reason I dug into my pockets for a coin. It wasn’t much of a coin. And I dropped it from the fifth floor hoping he’d hear the ping. He did not and kept limping forward. But other heads below lifted and looked above to see where the coin descended from. One lady even grabbed the bronze coin and looked up at me questioning on her face. I motioned with my hand pointing sheepishly at the beggar that just passed her by. She understood. And she walked to the beggar and gave him my coin. I waited to see if she’d look up. She didn’t, but was looking down into her own purse by then. She caught up to the beggar a second time and gave him another coin, most likely worth more than mine! Then she looked up at me. I waved. She waved back. A beautiful human moment between strangers took place.

 

small-acts

Suicide


“He is absolutely the last person in the world I would have ever dreamed would do something like this!” Gladys Bourdain.

Suicide is like that, a shock, a sad surprise. When I read what Anthony’s mother said above, I wanted to invite you to grapple with this sensitive subject, suicide. Anthony Bourdain’s death comes sadly on the heels of designer Kate Spade who also took her life a few days before. Her husband, too, expressed great shock and surprise. There were no red flags. Suicide rates continue to rise alarmingly in North America. Someone said if it was classified as a new virus suicide would be called an epidemic. In the States, statistically, you are three more times to be killed by your hand than by someone else! Japan, one of the richest ABcountries in the world, is also known for having one of the highest rates of suicide in the world.

But really, it comes closer to home when a friend or family member attempts and maybe succeeds in leaving this world. That is why I write today, I have friends both young and old who have taken their lives. When something like that happens to a close friend, family member or associate we don’t really like to talk about it. Perhaps we feel too ashamed? Deep despair is never easy to talk about. I read today of a caller to a radio show that lambasted the selfishness of Anthony Bourdain, “How could he do this to us all?” That question: How come? It keeps being asked over and over by those who have to come to terms with a loved one’s death.

Not only are the young prone to suicide, in 2012 the highest suicide rate occurred with those aged between 45-59. Males are four times more likely to die by suicide than females! And if I may interject here, there’s another group, the LGBTQ community whose rates of suicide attempts among are significantly higher, maybe up to three times higher! But what may have surprised us most about this past week’s news is that suicide strikes even the most successful. These two celebrities both enjoyed wonderful careers that would be the envy for most of us.

I don’t have the definitive answers to the question, “How come?” But I have read enough and lived long enough to tell you that one of the greatest stressors today is the pressure to always be strong and successful. So much so we find it nearly impossible to admit our darknesses and flaws. We hate being in the furnace of self-doubt, even though, if we let it do it’s work in our lives, it can refine us and make us stronger. It takes the same grace to carry our less than perfect self as it does to live joyfully.

I believe we should teach acceptance of the fact that we all struggle with the darkness or the ‘dark side’ of who we are. All of us have an ‘achilles heel.’ The question then becomes can we carry this personal struggle honourably and with grace? Grace not shame. If society or a religious community or the workplace or our families attempt to shame us into change, rarely do we change. We merely hide. And that especially is lonely and painful.

I wish there were more answers. Being aware and connecting with those struggling with sadness or loneliness is a good start. And it is not easy to know who is struggling in a ‘social media’ culture of putting forth our best face, literally! We must allow others, ourselves included, to show up with our less than smiley faces. Creating safety allows our friends and family members to be vulnerable with us without the shame. Conversations now become safe.

Some other ides that come quickly to mind to help those in the throes of depression:

Let them know personally that their lives have meaning and bring real meaning to us.

Let them know that their struggle is not an anomaly. Others too, many others, have been through times like this.

And continue to communicate that things WILL get better. Time has a way to bring good things, better times, laughter even, to our lives. Weeping lasts a night, yes, maybe many nights. But there will be a morning when joy fills our hearts again.

Finally, telling the stories, your survivor stories, can only bring about more courage in the soul of the one who is ready to give up.

“Joy is an Act of Resistance.”


“Joy is an act of resistance.” This stirring phrase is a revelation to me on how to live in troubled times, and anytime!  It is a call for an inner revolution that transforms our response to our outer realities. As a realist and one who is susceptible to seeing the negative side of everything, it is a summons to choose joy no matter what I perceive to be happening on the ground! Joy insists on resisting the negativism and self-doubt and lean into the positive possibilities come what may!

Last Friday I went to an event that brought refugees and the rest of us together. I saw the event on Facebook and was intrigued by the idea of playing sports and eating food with refugees. I clicked I would go. Since it was Ramadan and many refugees come from Muslim countries, the food would wait till after sundown. Okay, I can do that!

So that evening I trekked the 30 minutes  underground on Metro line 8 to Ecole Militaire station and then walked the rest of the way. When I came to the sprawling ‘Champs de Mars’ next to Gustave’s marvel, the Eiffel,  I searched for what might look like a group of refugees  ready to play games. But I just couldn’t find the group among the myriad of picnickers. I walked and walked some more. No luck. When I asked some guys selling beer to tourists if there was a playing field somewhere they gave some dubious directions and walked some more in the wrong direction! Of course the joke was on me!

So I pretty well gave up and sent a few ‘woe is me’ texts to my wife and making the last full circle of the ‘champs’ I had decided to leave. “Oh well, at least I got to see the Eiffel Tower” I sighed. Then in the corner of my eye I saw a makeshift volleyball net being erected. That’s them, I was sure of it. So I made my way to join. Time to forget my tired legs, my feelings of frustration, and my empty belly. Time to hang out, and play sports! Right?

raineiffelWrong! The skies decided otherwise, and opened up and dropped rain drops. The lightning eventually partnered with the increasingly heavier rain drops and I found myself huddled under a tree with complete strangers. Some hard-core sports types tried to play volleyball but soon gave up too. The event was over in a flash. Then I noticed an unused mini umbrella at the foot of the tree still wrapped tightly in its bindings. Seeing no one else go for it, I did. And holding it up I was joined by two others, refugees wanting to stay dry like me. The conversation began to flow and what seemed like a waste of time for the realist, became a moment of joy to live into. We said our goodbyes and ran at once under the wet heavens and earth to our metro and bus stops. The rain really did wipe out our night!

The next morning listening to a podcast with my wife I heard the phrase, “Joy is an act of resistance.” I had to write it down. Afterwards the podcast was done Patricia asked me how have I seen this act of resistance, this joy at play in my life? She knows my natural tendency to negativism. So I had to think hard. And then I realized how precious my rain filled adventure actually was. She said, “You were present. You made an effort. ” I saw it, just as she said, I realised that even though I was cold, I was present in the moment and surrounded by people from countries none of us would choose to live in. No, this wasn’t a waste of time. I knew then and there I needed to resist more. Joy was calling my name!

So I will pray and invite you to pray these words with me even if you aren’t a prayer kind of person: “Help me, God of creation, to resist all negativity in my life. Don’t let my thoughts go there. Make me know your joy. Let it be in me today. Let me feel it all day long. No matter the responses around me or circumstances I find myself in. I resist all negativism and complaining. Amen”

 Hebrews 12: 2, 3  Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!