And though there was a general strike in France and transportation was next to impossible, 70 of us got together to encourage and celebrate our special guests. Those guests are from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Guinee, Rwanda, Sudan, and many other difficult countries. The night was sponsored by Serve the City Paris and The Refugee Ministry of the American Church in Paris. We also had many guests from Kabubu who help refugees integrate into France through sports.
Have you ever found yourself labeling those who are different from you? I have. I grew up in the 60’s and became a teen in the 70’s; it was a predominately white culture where it was normal for me to hear words like fag, queer, and from time to time the ‘n’ word. I never thought much of it, no one seemed to. My world was small and the demographic was mostly unicultural. It was the way we interacted. But I must say that those three words, as a boy, sounded unusual to me. But I was never actually aware of anyone who fit in those categories, at least not for a long time. As for the ‘n’ word, I would go to the corner store and ask the owner to fill up a little paper sack with 10 cents worth of ‘nigger babies!’ What? Yep, those delicious black licorice candies in the shape of little people were called nigger babies. That was my world. And I never knew the effect that these labels would have on me as I grew up.
The demeaning label that I heard most was ‘fag or faggot’. Boys would sometimes call each other that in jest, but it was meant, in a weird sort of way, to degrade the masculinity of the other. The label was powerful. I recall a conversation I had years later in a Chiang Mai restaurant. A visiting friend found out I loved watching the Amazing Race on television. The current season at the time featuered a gay couple. That was rare then. As I was always a week behind watching the series, when the visitor let it slip that the gay couple had won, I responded in disgust, “No way, not those fags!” The words came out so quickly that they surprised even me. I had believed in the label.
Months after that conversation about the gay couple, I was at the Don Muang airport waiting for guests to come through the arrival’s gate in Bangkok. I saw a white man dressed as a woman. I immediately went into critical mode. “Man, that’s a white guy! Shoot! And he can’t even put lipstick on right!” As I silently mocked him, another inner voice spoke to me, “Peter, would you be so offended if that was your own son?” It felt like a spiritual slap in the heart! The phrase ‘if it was your son’ woke me up to my bias against the gay community. I was guilty of seeing that man as less than part of the human family, judging him as somewhat unworthy, all because of the lens of my demeaning label.
I am Canadian. We are known for their tolerance. So when NHL commentator Don Cherry castigated immigrants to Canada on live television as, “You people,” it riled up a lot of people. How could he talk like that! Don was upset because, in his view, the immigrant population disrespected Canada by not wearing a poppy during the Remembrance Day holiday. He called them, “You people!” Then off he went about these people not appreciating the sacrifices our soldiers made to give us Canadians ‘milk and honey.’ Soon it was frontline news worldwide! To the surprise of some, Sportsnet fired Don faster than a Bobby Hull slapshot! To a lot of boomers it seemed like a lot of hoopla about nothing. But was it just a slip of the tongue? We’ll never really know, but what we do know is that no one appreciates being dehumanized with a label.
And this is the thing, we all have used labels at some time or another. Throughout our lifetime we have unconsciously accumulated these biases and, for the most part, are unaware of them. Those sneaky biases snuck through the backdoor of daily conversations, politics, culture, and even religion. Religious and political leaders disguise labels and biases as concerns. One is worried that their followers will be contaminated by too much relationship with the world, while the other stokes our fears by repeating their concerns for the safety of the country, families, jobs, and the future.
“If we let all these people in they will make it worse for all of us!”
So take a look at us now, thousands of years of humanity living together on earth and we still see whole people groups through the lens of demeaning labels. We seemed to have forgotten our history lessons about the pogroms and genocides and religious wars! Here in France the majority of descendants of immigrants still feel like they can never truly be French. Why? White French culture told them to wear the label ‘not-really-french’.” It’s too easy to see that labeling remains present in every realm of life. And honestly they do nothing to bring healing to our world.
I’ve had to come to grips with my own biases and labels and change the way I saw certain groups of people. It could be that, like me, you do too! Maybe the way you see gays, asylum seekers, overweight people, handicapped folks, old people, blacks, and any race for that matter, etc, as nuisances at best and unworthy at worst.
What should we do then? Begin by reminding yourself of how easy it is to fear those who are different than us. Start there. Do you harbour fears and biases towards those who look different than you or believe passionately in things you don’t? If you do then realize that any labels you use will only divide the human race. It begins with avoidance and usually ends in some kind of judgement. We divide the world into good and bad, worthy and unworthy, etc. The last step is the one we most need to hear. Please listen to the words of Jesus in my paraphrase, “It’s easy to love those who like you back. Nothing special about that at all. But I say go and love even those to whom you have given the label ‘wrong’, ‘unworthy’, or ‘enemy.’” Can’t find any advice much better than this in today’s bookstores!
I have had to let go of my labels, many times in fact. It took time and a deep look at my own heart. I finish with a story of a boy, a son, who came out as gay. He was 15 years old when he wrote to Patricia and I something like this, “Dear Mom and Dad, I need to tell you that I am gay!” That day my world was turned upside down. Though my label of ‘gay’ had started to be dismantled in a Bangkok airport, I was still holding on to the idea that gay people are just damaged by sin. I told my son that evening he was mistaken, that he was straight. I took him rock climbing and did more father things with him. But he remained gay. We took him to counseling. The counselor, a christian, sat us down and said, “Your son is really gay. Love him without trying to change him into your image.” And through love, ours for him and his for us, we have learned to never look at gay people through the lens of dissapointment, derision or scorn.
It’s time we drop the demeaning labels that have to do with gender, race or religion and chose to love unconditionally all people. This has become for me the only way to live in the neighborhood!
I have a hate affair with anger. I simply cannot bare to watch violence up close. But I’ve seen it erupt quite a few times in France, far too often. So not to sound self-righteous, when I think of anger I have to admit that it has at times burned in me. I know what it feels like to lose perspective and control. We’ve been told it is good thing to express your anger. I am not sure its a licence to go nuts though! Nonetheless, there are some things that should make us angry and we need to express it with conviction. Injustice is one of those things, it should elicit a strong sense of emotion and then action in us. Yes, we can be angry without becoming aggressive and hateful. All anger and wrath that leads to harsh words or hurtful actions is what we all, every human, should put away.
I’m writing about anger because I don’t want to forget what I just experienced. You are undoubtedly aware of the refugee crisis. It’s worldwide. However in Paris the amount of asylum seekers living rough on the streets begs an answer. The large group of refugees and asylum seekers that came today for the feeding program that includes a simple baguette and tea and instant coffee was staggering. Lines of waiting people were longer than usual. And the patience of some wore thin. Then a fight broke out. One man who had cut the line numerous times to pick out a piece of bread was shoved by another and it escalated. They were from different countries and that might even have made things worse. I found myself jumping to action squeezing between the two and temporarily shoving them apart. It was impossible to stop the anger. One took off his shirt to show his sculpted muscles and I knew this was not good. That’s when I took an errant fist to my chin by the other. It wasn’t hard, but it rang in my ears for a bit and my jaw ached. So many people came to stop the two and common sense took place and the muscular one laughed and the two stopped. That was fight one!
The second fight occurred about five minutes later and was even crazier when one of the asylum seekers snatched a knife from the bread cutting station and chased another who had offended him. Luckily there are some refugees that hate violence too. And a few strong refugees were able to wrench the knife away. Soon after it was calm again. But one of the leaders of the Association was telling everyone that if they continued this stuff they’d close down shop!
In a way I was glad that my visiting six young men and women from Quebec saw this. It was a reality shock for them. I had asked them to organize activities with the men and they planned accordingly to do so with this same group of men. However after the fights there were second thoughts. I was wavering too. I wanted the asylum seekers and refugees to have fun. I talked to a Palestinian woman who volunteered as a lawyer to help these men figure out next steps about what just happened. We discussed the trauma of living rough in Paris especially for those who had seen so much violence and hardship in their homelands, not even counting the arduous and dangerous journey to get here. My heart was being stirred again.
Thankfully, in the end the atmosphere calmed down and the Quebec team felt safe enough to play a quick game of soccer with some of the men. I sat while they played with four afghans in the park. I tried to figure the game of cards they were playing. While we politely chatted exchanging names they put away their cards. They wanted to talk. They described to me how in the last week two of them had been separately robbed while asleep in their tents. This is far too common a story with people living rough. Tents are often ripped open with a knife and bags stolen without the sleeping one even hearing a sound. Sadly for these afghani men, all their valuable papers were gone. The smiles were gone, it was a moment of despair. Now this, I say, is exactly what should make us angry! And in that moment I felt deep compassion and righteous anger, I guess, stirring in me again. “Next time”, I said, “If you have really important documents, give them to me, I’ll hold them for you!” They appreciated the gesture.
Our little world is brimming full of anger because of repeated injustices inflicted on the helpless, including, or especially on the asylum seekers. Paris has made me realize once again that many thousands have little in life. Over one hundred thousand people applied for asylum in France last year, a record. Once here is nowhere else for these men to turn. They left their horrible situations with hopes of a better life. The journey to get to Europe was fraught with danger, hard and rough. Not all who attempt to cross the sea make it alive, the latest statistics say every day six people drown trying to cross the Mediterranean! The ones who finally made it to Europe, to what they thought was salvation, discover this is no heaven here. It is lonely. It is dangerous. Its is poverty. It is disdain. It is a loss of dignity. It is almost without mercy. No wonder fights do break out; its surprising there aren’t more!
As I write these words, I need to call out, ” Peacemakers come forth!” We may be hesitant to get between two fighters, but the real call is to leave the safety of our comfort zones and bring encouragement, practical kindness and love! Maybe you are one of those? My jaw doesn’t ache now, but my heart still does, for my Parisian world, and for all those other distant places where dignity is stolen by war, poverty, culture, religion and racism, places like Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, Guinea, Chad, and Syria and……. and ……. where peace is almost non-existent.
The world of humanity is fractured. All of us, at some time or other, have contributed to the problem. We are a divided bunch. Chalk it up to our upbringing with it’s differing cultural values and education. Or blame the media for it’s fear mongering and biases. Even the varied climates and geographical terrains can and have shaped people’s lives and responses to the outer world. But perhaps our take on politics, race and religion is the greatest fracture-factor in the deepening of divisions. You would think at least religion would bring us closer as brothers and sisters in the human family.
I have visited Sri Lanka often over the years. I can still remember the many sandbag checkpoints throughout the capital city of Colombo with soldiers toting machine guns. At each checkpoint our driver would have to stop and produce papers and be questioned by the soldiers as to where and who was in the car. A few times I tried to speak some Sinhala, but never got as much as a smile. Those were tense times! The country was deeply divided among ethnic lines. Though the war was officially declared over in 2009, tensions remained over politics and religion. Even those of the same religion or denomination had a hard time getting along! When feelings get hurt, there is resentment. Where there is favoritism, there will be jealousy and envy. We become so childish that we no longer have the maturity to apply wisdom to the situations that occur. And you know what? All the sermonising in the world won’t make a difference!
So what will?
Well, before I get there let me tell you what won’t change our world, in fact I can guarantee these two evil twins will make our world worse: they are hatred and revenge. The late Maya Angelou once wrote, “Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.” Think about that! The problem as I see it with hatred is that if we hate those who hate, we now become haters like them. It’s like trying to build a positive building on a negative foundation. Will that building really be positive and can it stand when the hatred in its various forms comes towards us? We cannot perpetually attempt to make our world a better place with the practices of hatred, violence and exclusion and think we can remain innocent ourselves. All manners of hatred simply generate new manners of hatred. Yes, we do need to hold responsible all those who do evil. Their ways are loathsome and diabolical. We do not close our eyes to their evil crimes against the human race. But to become haters ourselves only leads to more hate and revenge.
So, here we are again faced with the awful Easter Day terror attacks in Sri Lanka. The fatalities keep rising and thousands of people are adversely affected, a whole country in mourning. The latest revelations say that what occurred was the result of revenge attacks to avenge the fifty who were killed in a Christchurch mosque by one hateful shooter. It’s the same lousy narrative we have been hearing over and over in our world since time began. Friends, we need to break this cycle of hatred. It won’t be broken by nice words, Facebook posts, or as I’ve said, by sermonizing. It can only happen by an opposite force that recreates our way of thinking and identity.
Darkness will not lift the darkness. Only love can overcome hate! Now you may think I am getting all ‘religiousy’ with you here, but hear me out. I am a follower of Jesus. That’s not a secret. So let me talk about Him for a moment. Jesus came with a message of love, reconciliation and a new kind of kingdom paradigm. When He started to speak publically it began with a call to ‘repent’ and that had more to do with rethinking everything, our perspectives on God, on blessing and our responses to evil and hatred. The word repent, you see, had not as much to do with crying for our past mistakes as rethinking our future. (Although crying once in awhile over our mistakes might be a healthy thing to do!!!) When He cleansed people of ‘unclean spirits’ (however we understand that term) and made the lepers clean, His aim was to reintegrate the excluded into the human community.
Another observation of the life of Jesus was that His love knew no boundaries. Think of that. He wanted to break the walls of exclusion, recreate us all, regardless of culture, background, geography and the like, into a family. And that is why he little trouble hanging with ‘sinners,’ prostitutes, tax-collectors, and all manner of people. I am sure that if His mandate happened to be in our day He would have lots of LGBTQ friends, refugee and homeless friends. You may not like that, but that just the truth of the matter. His was a message of a purity of heart and learning to see God in all places and people. His hardest command was to love our enemies. Can you imagine how that went over in a culture where destroying the enemy was a spiritual duty!
In the end the greatest question could be, “Did Jesus live out His own words, you know loving even the enemy?” Well, that’s the Easter story you are asking about. The story of His betrayal, the trumped charges, the mocking, and the torturous crucifiction would shout out yes! While the nails ripped through His flesh, hear Him pray aloud, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” If we could learn to love our enemy and bless those who curse us, and stop calling others ‘idiots and heretics’ it would nip so much bad stuff in the bud! We don’t know what will be the end of the story in Sri Lanka, will the church with resurrection life rise above rhetoric that divides and live into the newness of a life that loves? My hope is, and it is the hope of all who are born of love, is this will be the church’s finest moment in Sri Lanka.
no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbours running faster than you breath bloody in their throats the boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory is holding a gun bigger than his body you only leave home when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you fire under feet hot blood in your belly it’s not something you ever thought of doing until the blade burnt threats into your neck and even then you carried the anthem under your breath only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets sobbing as each mouthful of paper made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land no one burns their palms under trains beneath carriages no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled means something more than journey. no one crawls under fences no one wants to be beaten pitied
no one chooses refugee camps or strip searches where your body is left aching or prison, because prison is safer than a city of fire and one prison guard in the night is better than a truckload of men who look like your father no one could take it no one could stomach it no one skin would be tough enough
the go home blacks refugees dirty immigrants asylum seekers sucking our country dry niggers with their hands out they smell strange savage messed up their country and now they want to mess ours up how do the words the dirty looks roll off your backs maybe because the blow is softer than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender than fourteen men between your legs or the insults are easier to swallow than rubble than bone than your child body in pieces. i want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark home is the barrel of the gun and no one would leave home unless home chased you to the shore unless home told you to quicken your legs leave your clothes behind crawl through the desert wade through the oceans drown save be hunger beg forget pride your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying- leave, run away from me now i dont know what i’ve become but i know that anywhere is safer than here.
I took a trip to Sarajevo, the Olympic City! I left Paris feeling nervous that I’d not care much for this city. Hadn’t war just happened there 20 years ago or something? Would the buildings be full of bullet holes and would poverty be around every corner? Driving from the airport to the center of town did not help change my mood. It was wet and grey and the nondescript apartments that lined the road did little to make me have hope. But my fears were not realized. But something happened, maybe after day two… I fell in love with the people and the city. I saw the hopeful signs of life.
May I tell you of a very personal, but perhaps for you, an odd experience? I do tread a bit here worried of your disapproving frown. Please do not rush to judgement. The rain had finally stopped and I ventured outdoors on my first evening. I was glad to only have to walk for about five minutes into the Old City. Immediately I could feel ancient history on cobbled stoned roads and through narrow alleyways. It didn’t take long to discover that there were many mosques. I had no idea of the make-up of the population. I did not know that over 50 percent of the population were muslim. I had a lot to learn about this land.
While walking further into the old section of town enjoying the architecture of one particular mosque, the call to prayer sounded. I know that sound well because in Thailand I lived near a mosque for years. I had never gone into a mosque there, to my shame! So I listened and caught the call to Prayer on video and watched as a small number of young men went into the mosque to pray. I wanted to go in and observe, but was quite hesitant. “Is it allowed,” I thought? That’s when I caught the eye of a more elderly man motioning me to come in. I pointed to my boots, I knew that they had carpets everywhere. But he motioned and gave me a thumbs up. I followed him in the small well-lit domed mosque. He showed me the proper place to put my boots. And I hesitantly joined the sparse second line of men who had come to pray. And that’s the part you might find that odd, unless you really know me. You see, I am at heart an adventurer and like to see where life and God will take me!
There I was, my first time in a muslim service. No expectations. No knowledge. And no one looked at me weird. At the front facing a wall, Mecca, was a young man in a cleric’s garb. He might have been barely thirty years old. He sang in perfect pitch his prayers beautifully. He then led the men in bowing, holding out the hands in a prayer position and then the literal touching of the head onto the carpet. It felt like humility was happening, the recognition of a greater God and His supremacy over us. And yes, I followed the actions awkwardly eyes open and silently praying to my heavenly Father. Over and over we did this for what seemed like about fifteen or so minutes. And then near the end, when we all were sitting on the carpet, one of the young men grabbed a basket of beads and threw me a set to use in order to recite more prayers. I prayed my own prayers starting with the Lord’s Prayer. Before I knew it everything was over. No sermon. No singing by a congregation, although there was one 30 second solo effort by the same young man who threw me the beads. My first Muslim service was simply participation in the movements of the body, respect for God, and for mostly silent prayer.
Afterwards I shook hands with each young man. One took the time to hug me. Smiles. Camaraderie. The older gentleman who invited me in stayed by my side. He introduced me to another older gentleman who spoke a few words of english. He began pointing at things in the mosque and telling me the meanings. I understood maybe 10 percent of his words. Maybe he was hoping I would convert? He showed me a newspaper article that pictured a Muslim cleric, a Jewish rabbi, a Christian Orthodox priest and a Catholic priest. Was it his way of saying we all need to find ways to love each other? I left that night feeling light. I had prayed. I felt close to my Lord. I used my own words coming from my own heart. This wasn’t at all about religion but the heart. My heart and my God.
The next day I heard the bells of the cathedral ring. It was Catholic Mass. I went to the door to go in and observe. The man at the door told me I couldn’t go in! I said I wanted to observe. He looked at me and said, “No pictures!” And the church was quite full. It was beautiful inside. There was a trio of singers, professional singing. It was pretty, violin and all! But no one joined in, even as I tried to harmonise. The reading of scriptures was done a couple of times. A long sermon. I didn’t understand the words but I was familiar with the structure of the service. I quickly began to be bored as the Dominican priest droned on and on. I wasn’t participating really. There simply was nothing to do but watch others, professionals, do their “holy” thing. And I left that night no lighter and wondering what had just happened? For me, the best answer I can come up with lies in the participation. I was truly invited to participate in the first service. In the second service I was more of a spectator. I enjoyed being in both services, but what I came back with is that participation equals value. Its true of everything in life.
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!