My friends Susan and Andy Nelson threw over successful careers (his in law, hers in corporate America) some time ago to join the foreign service. They spent two years in Managua, Nicaragua, two years in Hanoi, and are now representing our country — the very best of our country — in Delhi, India. Susan posted the following on her Facebook page recently. It’s been tugging at my heart every day since; I hope it will tug at yours:
Last Friday we received the devastating news that the High Courts of India decided to reunite these two beautiful boys with their physically abusive parents, for a one month trial. Our family sponsors Chandan and we do monthly play dates at the children’s home where they live. The father is out on parole after serving a shorter than expected sentence for murder. And the mom is violent, threatening, and unrelenting in her struggle for power. The boys were forced by their parents to beg as street dancers, like trained monkeys, which is what led to their rescue and move to the children’s home two years ago. The parents will be back in court on Nov 14, fighting for permanent custody. If they win, these kids will slip through our fingers – likely forever. Between now and Nov 14, Andy and I are trying to do anything we can to influence the Court’s decision that day. We’ve reached out to lawyers, reporters, clergy, friends, child welfare advocates, even a Nobel Peace Prize winner – and now I’m reaching out to you. I believe in the power of prayer. And even if you don’t, hopefully we all believe in the power of LOVE. Please shine your love and light into the world for Chandan and Nandan – every day, several times a day, when you lay your head down on your pillow each night, when you wake up and have your morning coffee….PLEASE!
Please keep these boys in your heart for the next 3 weeks – and send love to them, to their parents, to the courts, to the children’s home where they are loved and where they were safe, to the child welfare watchdogs….to everyone involved! Our love can influence this decision on Nov 14. I believe that. Andy and I are working every angle, chasing every lead or creative idea we can think of, here in Delhi. If you could do the loving part – HARD – we would be forever grateful! Please don’t stop!
Seems like prayer, if you’re into praying, and hard loving wherever you stand on prayer, are easy things to do.
“It would just be like my life ending,” he said. He was an attractive 20-something with piercing black eyes and a neatly trimmed beard. “I was a Dreamer,” he added, “but now I just have nightmares. I’ve lived here since I was 8. I did really well in high school and am halfway through college. But I could be sent back to a country I hardly know, to a very dangerous situation. I’m afraid for my whole family.”
His name is Antonio, and he is an undocumented immigrant. He is one of at least 11 million people in the U.S. today who go to bed with the fear they might wake up to their worst nightmare, deportation. It’s a fear that will be multiplied many times over with installation of an administration that came to power with more than a little help from ripples of xenophobia.
Immigrants. Refugees. Migrants. Humans.
Worldwide, well over sixty-five million people have been forced to flee their homes, with one source reporting that 24 people were displaced from their homes every day in 2015. By now, most of us have an overload of images in our heads – Syrian children fleeing war-torn cities, terrified people clinging to the sides of capsized boats, acres of tent cities housing human beings facing an unknown future.
Some hope for the hordes of migrants and refugees in Europe lies in the countries and organizations – UNICEF, Save the Children, other nonprofits – that provide shelter in the form of “temporary” camps. The people there, many of whom spend years of their lives simply existing, at least receive food and minimal care. But it’s hard not to consider how little the U.S. is doing (and how much less we’re likely to do in the coming years)
“What is our unique role, as religious communities, and how can we put it into practice?” Lee asked. “Does our faith require us to provide sanctuary for those who feel threatened?”
The IMHI maintains the answer to that latter question is a loud Yes. “There is a growing need for faith communities to be a part of the (sanctuary) map,” she says, “which already includes college campuses and cities around the country – responding to God’s law of offering protection to the vulnerable.”
Her organization, Lee explains, hopes to enlist one (or more) “sanctuary congregations” in cities across the U.S. where someone facing final deportation orders can find protection. There are also migrant families arriving in the San Francisco Bay area, Lee says, “who are seeking protection from deportation and applying for asylum, but who are without official refugee status and resettlement services.” For these, IMHI seeks congregations that can provide either support or hospitality housing.
The idea of sixty-five million+ people forced to flee their homes looks like a tragedy too big to consider. But listening to Deborah Lee talk about how every human being is sacred, or having coffee with Antonio, puts a face on possibility.
It was a simple question about being distant kin to the monkeys. The kind of question, like “Why is the sky blue?” “Where do stars go in the morning?” that any curious third grader might ask. His teacher, however, was irate. “Ridiculous,” she said. “Don’t bother me with impertinent questions.”
This kind of a rebuke did not sit well with the grandson of Peter Klopfer.
Klopfer is a distinguished Duke University biology professor, author of more than 20 books and an expert in animal behavior and evoluntionary biology. His daughter Erika Honore, the questioner’s mother, is a retired veterinary scientist with multiple degrees and the author of A Concise Survey of Animal Behavior. She and her doctor husband know a thing or two about kinship with monkeys, and had – along with his grandfather – passed along enough anthropological truth to the third grader that his teacher’s rebuke had the opposite effect: now he wanted to know the story of evolution.
“Erika and I started looking for an age-appropriate book on evolution,” Klopfer says, “and it was nowhere to be found. That’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, but we couldn’t find a good book for six-to-ten-year-olds anywhere. So we decided to write our own.
Darwin’s narrator, asked the where-did-we-come-from question by her own 8-year-old replies that she’ll tell him two stories. She tells first the biblical creation story – which would presumably please the creators of Texas textbooks (and which many if not most Christians see for what it is: a story.) Then she launches into another story, a tale of a boy names Charles and the discoveries he makes as he follows his own curiosity. It is a delightfully readable account of creation from one perspective and evolution from the perspective of scientific truth.
Scientific publishers who had brought out Klopfer’s scholarly books were less than enthusiastic about undertaking a children’s book. The firm that had published his earlier children’s book had subsequently gone out of business, and he lacked a good connection to children’s book publishers. One atheist publisher was delighted with the idea, but eventually said he could find no way to market such a thing. “So we just put it aside,” Klopfer says now, “and it sat in a file cabinet for years.”
Happily for children everywhere, the father-daughter duo recently dug the manuscript out again and decided to self-publish. Klopfer’s neighbor, a textile design artist, agreed to do the illustrations, and Darwin and the First Grandfather was born.
That third grade questioner? He did learn the scientifically accurate story of evolution, which today’s third graders can learn with the help of his mother’s and grandfather’s book. Currently he is a graduate student in computer science at Yale University.
“If I’d been caught,” she said quietly, “I would have been sent back to North Korea where I would have faced prison, or possibly execution.” She had escaped into China, only to find that refugees were not exactly welcome there. “My parents (who had helped her, and a brother, escape) told the government that my brother and I were dead. For several years, they were closely watched because the government didn’t believe them, but it is somewhat better now.”
The young woman with a shy smile spoke through an interpreter at an event at Calvary Presbyterian Church, in recognition of World Refugee Day – which you may have missed, in the tsunami of news/tweets/rumors about suffering refugees, undesirable immigrants and assorted boundary walls and fences.
The young woman speaker eventually made it to Thailand, and from there to the U.S. where nonprofits such as the International Rescue Committee and Refugee Transitions are helping her piece together a life. It took her seven years. She does not expect ever to see her parents again. We were asked not to take pictures, to protect her.
At a later event on the same day another young woman spoke. Her English was immeasurably better than my Pashto or Dari would be if I studied really hard for the next 10 years. Born in 1992 into an educated Afghan family, she repeatedly cited having educated parents as setting her apart. Most Afghan women of her generation (as with other generations) face a life strictly limited to the confines of the family home. But by the time she was five, the Taliban had taken over and educating girls was forbidden. In her city there was one underground school where girls could learn to read and write, and she and her parents decided to risk it. During regular government inspections the children would hide textbooks in garbage cans. But she survived, and received a rudimentary education that was greatly expanded after 2011 when the U.S. entered Afghanistan. (“In our prayers, we gave thanks for the Americans,” she said. That was surprising, and gratifying, to this American reporter.) She came to the U.S. on a student visa several years ago. By the time she graduated it was clear that she could not return to her country – which has known nothing but war for forty years – to help young women and girls as her hopes and plans had been. So she became a refugee. A refugee is, by definition, “a person who has been forced to leave his or her country in order to escape war, famine, persecution or natural disaster.”
“So many things are hard,” the young woman from Afghanistan says. “For instance, pronunciation. You want to renew your ‘weesa,’ and they don’t know what you’re saying because it’s ‘visa.’” Other things are harder still. Because she was on a student visa, she could not work. After graduation she “couch-hopped,” staying wherever she could, “because the only people I knew were my professors and my classmates.” She has now applied for asylum — a process that also prohibits working for at least 150 days. She was fortunate to find a family who has taken her in, and she hopes to make a life in the U.S.
For many in the audience, it was hard to imagine the endless bureaucratic mazes refugees encounter and patiently endure — possibly because they often come from countries where government bureaucracy is a daily fact of life. It was even harder to imagine spending two or three years of one’s life (a minimum) or well over a decade (an average) in a refugee camp.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 33,972 people are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict and persecution. That is 33,972 people every day. There are, UNHCR reports, 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. That is sixty-five and three/tenths million homeless/stateless people. Human beings. Many of these are simply desperate to escape; a small percentage hope – and yearn – to return to their homeland if it can be safe (and livable) again.
The United States, a nation of immigrants (we won’t get into the viewpoint of Native Americans here) accepts a few thousand refugees per year.
This writer felt, at the end of the day, she should go home and count her blessings.
The Afghan woman, now – though a long way from citizenship still – an American woman, was asked what those in the audience could do to help.
“Support any of the nonprofits that work to help refugees,” she said. “If you have money, that’s good. But if not, you can give your time – or your prayers.”
But the big thing is, both of these refugees said, echoing the clergy of all faiths who have been speaking out in recent days, not only to give something, but simply to see other individuals not as ‘the other,’ but as members of the community of humankind we share.
Repeatedly, citizens and refugees alike said, somewhat wishfully, “Open your hearts.”
My friend Oli, age three, is a philanthropist. Maybe not on the scale of Bill and Melinda Gates, but what were they doing when they were three? Probably not donating 100% of their disposable income to their favorite charities.
Which is what Oli did recently, making him my current favorite philanthropist.
This adventure started when Oli’s bank, something that gives him great pleasure, reached its saturation point. Oli’s bank is an apolitical elephant bank. Oli had been stuffing it with coins received in Easter eggs (the Easter bunny has taken a capitalist turn since I last knew him) or acquired when there was small change from the dairy store, etc. So he enlisted his grandparents to accompany him to the bank, where the bank was relieved of its coinage. The elephant lived to start a new collection career, and Oli took possession of $32.60.
Next, Oli conferenced with his parents about the highest and best use of his $32.60. Right off, he chose his two favorite charities as beneficiaries: the local library that is one of his all-time favorite places in the world, and Mount Nittany Medical Center, which he refers to as “My Hospital.” Oli came into the world at Mt. Nittany, and a few months ago his baby sister Helena did the same. The first experience was significant to others, but the latter was the high point of Oli’s year.
Oli has already had a thank-you letter from the director of his hospital, advising him that he is officially their Youngest Donor. His $16.30, the director said, will be used to buy needed equipment to help the nurses and doctors who deliver babies there.
A grown-up fan of Oli’s, who knows a little about nonprofits and fundraising, subsequently matched his gifts. Thus the elephant bank’s impact has doubled, and the library and hospital have now netted $32.60 each, for a total economic impact of $65.20.
Admittedly, $65.20 won’t change the world today. And Oli may well find something more entertaining to do with his overstuffed elephant bank by the time he turns four. But this seems to me what philanthropy is about: choosing to forgo some small pleasure (half of $32.60 could, after all, have bought a nifty toy and an ice cream cone) and instead show support for some worthy cause that is near and dear to your heart.
Feel free to send a check for $32.60 to your favorite cause, with or without a note that it is an Oli matching gift. Who knows? The elephant bank movement could make the world better
Native American vestments draped over his 2015 business suit, Ohlone descendant Andrew Galvan, whose ancestral lands encompass the San Francisco Bay area, smiled broadly at the 400+ paying guests at a recent event in San Francisco. The attendees had just responded to queries about when their ancestors first emigrated to the U.S.: some in the 21st century, most in the 20th century, a few in the 19th, 18th or 17th.
“My ancestors,” Galvan observed, “apparently welcomed all of you.” Coming at a time of crisis and dissension over new immigrants seeking welcome in these old lands, the message was not lost on anyone.
The occasion was the 18th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast hosted by the San Francisco Interfaith Council. Some 800 churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith communities are part of the SFIC. Months before refugees and immigration became a global humanitarian crisis and a U.S. political tinderbox, plans were underway for this year’s breakfast. Its theme? “Faith and Sanctuary: There Are No Strangers.”
Galvan explained that his ancestors acknowledged a Grandfather creator-god – who worked in cooperation with Grandmother Earth. He then led prayers of thanksgiving, with explanations, to the four directions:
To the East, “where the new day begins and we have the opportunity to begin again and again.”
To the South, “where the warm winds come from, as well as our brother the fire. Grandfather, we ask you to control and contain our brother the fire.”
To the West, “where brother sun sets and the moon and stars are in control; and we enter dreamland. Grandfather, protect the children who sleep and keep us clear of nightmares. Teach us to live right that we may die right.” And :
To the North, “where are the snow-capped mountaintops. Grandfather, thank you for our sister water. We thank and praise you for the gifts of Nature.”
There were other explanatory elements, but most notable, for the multi-ethnic group representative of so many contemporary religions, was the business of cooperation among all those Grandfathers and Grandmothers, brothers and sisters.
Toward the end of the program former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi arrived, slightly late, offering as her apology the fact that she had been outside on her cellphone (“You could probably hear me . . .”) with colleagues in Washington threatening to shut down the government unless we stop admitting refugees. “These children,” Pelosi said with no attempt to control her wrath. “Fleeing war and unimaginable horrors.” She went on to cite facts about the current refugee population – such as that well over one-third are children, about one-half are women, a large percentage are elderly – and only two percent are in the category (younger, male) that could, though it’s unlikely, constitute a threat. “And if you are in the U.S. today,” Pelosi continued, “and you are a young male on a terrorist watch list, you can walk into almost any gun store and walk out with the weapon of your choice.”
At one largely Presbyterian table (where a few What Would Jesus Do? comments had been made about the current U.S. debate,) someone remarked, “Grandfather and Grandmother are among the refugees. And I think the Great Spirit is not pleased.”
For most of America’s urban poor, life is hardly a walk in the park. But the Trust for Public Land is out to change that. Every urban citizen, rich or poor, should be able to access a park, playground or natural area in a 10-minute walk, TPL maintains. It may seem just a dream in many cities, but their Parks for People program is making that dream come true.
San Francisco’s Boeddeker Park in the city’s Tenderloin district – one of the few remaining San Francisco communities not yet infiltrated by millionaires – illustrates the dream fulfillment. The Tenderloin is a 31-block area in the heart of the city, much of it now designated Historic Landmark and thus protected from the ubiquitous new luxury condominiums popping up elsewhere. The area recently got its own museum. Long a haven for immigrants and laborers, today it is home to many of the city’s poorest citizens, including large numbers of children who have never seen the surrounding ocean, mountains and bay that accentuate San Francisco’s extraordinary beauty.
A tiny green spot of just under one acre was designated a city park in 1985 and named for a beloved local pastor, Father Alfred E. Boeddeker. But drug dealers and unsavory characters quickly made it of little use to children. (This writer often walked by en route to one place or another, and habitually sped up when passing the park.)
Enter the Trust for Public Land. With TPL working alongside concerned members of the Tenderloin community and a group of dedicated public and private donors, Boeddeker Park was transformed into a haven and refuge, alive with basketball-playing, gym-climbing children and now off-limits to bad guys.
At a recent TPL event for supporters (among whom this writer is happy to be counted,) several current projects of the organization were described. President and CEO Will Rogers spoke of progress made and plans underway. Vice President and Director of Land Protection Brenda Schick outlined some of the land conservation efforts that are leading to preservation of open spaces across the country. (Schick, an avid horsewoman, managed to get her equine friends into many of the stunning images of American countryside in her slide presentation.)
And Jennifer Isacoff, Parks for People Bay Area Program Director, talked of making it possible for every urban American – even those for whom life is not a walk in the park – to walk TO a park within 10 minutes. A reasonable goal: