Exactly. Because God Says So.

God - lightThere seem to be a growing number of mortals on the planet who are convinced they have a direct line to the Almighty. On the face of it this looks like a pretty good thing – until you get to the point at which God is telling you something different from what She’s telling me. And that’s when I think it goes from good to scary.

I had an interesting conversation with a handsome Lyft driver named Zaid the other day. It included a crash course on the Quran. Zaid can (and did) quote extensively and verbatim from the Quran – so my Biblical/theological expertise was quickly outclassed and I figured I would do well just to listen. I am sincerely eager to understand all faiths better, so listening was easy. About five or ten minutes in, the conversation went thus:

Zaid: “So, do you even know what language Jesus spoke?”

Me: “Ummm, Aramaic?”

Zaid: “And how many years later was the Bible even written down?”

Me: “Well, the Old Testament, maybe five or six centuries B.C.; the New Testament I think about 50 or 60 A.D.?”God - sign

Zaid: “Exactly. On the other hand, the Angel Gabriel spoke directly to the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, who transcribed the words of Allah directly into the Quran (which I read from beginning to end at least once every year.”)

About this time I was grateful to be near my destination. Because we had reached the point at which I was to understand that Zaid’s God is right and mine is wrong. Now, although the God of my puny understanding has not responded sufficiently to a lot of questions about the injustices and inequities of our little planet, I’m cool with Her general compassion for me. And so far I haven’t found anything Jesus said about loving one’s neighbor, caring for those less fortunate, etc to be off the mark. (Actually, I think God may have said, in a sort of aside from time to time, “Who’s responsible for injustice and inequity? Me?? Or perhaps, you people down there?”)

I admire those who take their faith seriously enough to study on a continuing, regular basis. What I don’t admire is their conviction that they’re right and I’m wrong, and whatever they’re doing is right because God says so. It doesn’t take much history to see what trouble this has gotten us into. Or awareness of current events to see what trouble it’s causing all over the planet today.God - sunrise

God knows I have enough trouble with my fellow Christians. Particularly those of them in power who are telling me (for example) that God says a fetus has rights greater than those of the woman in whose body it resides. Or that I may not choose to lop off a week or two of intractable pain when I’m ready to die because God says I should suffer a bit longer. God seems continually in favor of laws that they like and I don’t. Not to get political or anything like that, but these folks are in cahoots with a guy who has broken most of the Commandments more times than can be counted, and if he’s done anything lately that Jesus might approve of I haven’t noticed.

In decades of working with the San Francisco Interfaith Council and other such groups I have met countless Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and followers of faiths I’m still learning to pronounce, all of whom simply seek peace. At community breakfasts etc everyone prays in his or her own tradition and listens, as well as possible, with an open heart. We actually stay pretty far away from suggesting that anyone’s god (or faith journey of whatever sort) is better than that of anyone else. But it’s a little disheartening to read every day about the meanness and murder going on around the globe in the name of the poor, abused Almighty.dove of peace

I could easily be a Brahma Kumari. The Brahma Kumaris believe all religions are valid. Just about all they preach is peace. And not incidentally, their leaders are all women (who make decisions in cooperation with the guys, but still.) As far as I know, no Brahma Kumari has ever started a war.

Which is more than can be said for the rest of us righteous folks.

 

 

Season’s Greetings — & New Year’s Hopes

Christmas letter w bowHoliday letters? I am definitely ambivalent. It is lovely catching up with old friends (many of whom, on our holiday list at least, I only hear from once a year.) I’m interested in what’s been happening in their lives over the past year. I’m somewhat less interested in what’s been happening in their children’s or grandchildren’s lives although they’re usually pretty spectacular. But too many paragraphs about the latter and my eyes tend to glaze over. I resist all political messages – whether I agree with them or not. I love the letters that include remarks about books the writer has enjoyed over the year.

This year my own greeting was a learning experience.

I send holiday letters for the reason given at the outset of ours for 2018: Having reached the point at which we figure we’d better keep in touch or somebody will say, Are Fran & Bud still around? . . .   And sometimes I break my own preference rules as happens at the end of this year’s letter from our house: Without getting overly political, we worry about the future of the ever-warming planet, and this being Christmastime we yearn for the day when our country will welcome the stranger, protect the poor, care for those less fortunate, all those things Jesus talked about.Interfaith symbols

Because many of our year-end missiles go to friends who are Jewish (not to mention agnostic, Buddhist, atheist, you name it) I usually include an expansion of some sort when I detour into my own strong Christian faith. This year, searching for accuracy, I mentioned to my pastor friend that I knew there was something very similar to that last line in the Jewish tradition. “Sure,” she said, “Tikkun Olam.” Ah, so. While Christians celebrate a Messiah who preached all those things not being done very effectively right now, Jews seek to prepare the world for a coming Messiah – by welcoming the stranger, protecting the poor, caring for those less fortunate. “Repairing the world,” is how my pastor friend put it, and she is best buddies with a nearby rabbi and both of them know stuff. So if I don’t have this theologically right, I will be happy to forward your comments to them.

In any event, it is worth considering. Perhaps as we emerge from the darkest days (I’m talking Solstice here) we may still welcome a stranger, try to help someone less fortunate, repair the world. Worth a try.Books

Oh, and books. On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World (James Srodes) somehow gave me hope for years ahead, and After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet (Julie Dobrow) is fascinating. All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) is a treasure.

Happy New Year to us all.

New Year SF

 

 

A Thankful Day in San Francisco

Thanksgvng 2018 programMy favorite Thanksgiving thing has been – for the past 14 years – the San Francisco Interfaith Service. This year it was hosted (every year it’s a different faith community) by the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist in the city’s Tenderloin District, primary locale of the homeless and the down-and-out. Thanksgvng 2018 Church plan(The Christian Scientists have been in their historic building there since 1923, and after endless years of negotiating have recently gotten the green light from the city to build a multi-use high-rise including below-market housing on the site, keeping the façade and interior details –with the church itself staying put.)

Thanksgvng 2018 group

Faith leaders posing after the service

One gets to give thanks, at this event, in every known faith tradition. This year we had a little Greek, a little Hebrew, but I missed the Buddhist bell that’s usually rung and the Muslim call to prayer – both very much present, though, at the Interfaith Prayer Breakfast two days earlier. A few years ago a member of a Native American tribe spoke briefly at he prayer breakfast, opening with the comment, “I want to welcome you to my country.” I told him afterward I’m not sure he should’ve welcomed us. But anyway.

Thanksgvng 2018 Alcazar

The Alcazar

California is giving thanks for the approaching end to wildfires that have ravaged the state, destroying lives and property in the worst such events yet seen. In San Francisco, after days of smoky skies and streets filled with masked walkers, an overnight rain left the city washed clean. So it was a joy to walk the short mile home under brilliant blue skies, past historic buildings such as the Alcazar Theater.

But there was also the sad underside of life: the guy shouting into the sky, the mentally ill man tossing bottles from a recycling bin at passing traffic.Thanksgvng 2018 homeless (Another passerby said he had already called the emergency line to get help.) One can at least give thanks for helpers.

When I reached the corner near our building, another few blocks away I was rewarded with this view of Old Glory against the blue skies.

Thanksgvng 2018 flag

What’s not to love about a Thanksgiving Day in San Francisco?

 

 

 

A New Year’s wish: Human Rights for all

UN emblemBelated Human Rights Day greetings to all. In case you missed it, Human Rights Day was celebrated around the globe on December 10. It was the 69th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris, 1948.

Admittedly, some of us have done a little better than others with this. But before we Americans get to feeling righteous, it’s worth noting that the U.S. is among a handful of countries (Russia, Palau . . .) which have not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW.) We’re okay with the Convention Against Torture, but not with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It’s complicated.

Are women’s rights human rights? What about immigrant rights? Or the rights of workers (tech geniuses, janitors, whomever) to good working conditions? Or the rights of Yemeni refugees to food and shelter?

Fran & Ally McKinney 12.10.17

The author with Ally Timm

One person who believes human rights apply to all of us is Allyson McKinney Timm. Timm spoke recently at Calvary Presbyterian Church, trying to explain the UDHR (and a lot of complicated UN acronyms) and why human rights are basic to Christianity – as well as other religions. “Human rights,” she explains, “are inherent, apply to every individual based solely on the fact of being human. The only requirement is being a member of the human race.”

In the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a document worth reading) “Member States…pledged themselves to achieve, in cooperation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,”

We wish.

Ally McKinney Timm was a successful attorney with a high-powered San Francisco law firm, advocating for justice in the juvenile prison system, when she left that comfortable life to move to Uganda and establish a field office of the International Justice Mission, defending widows and children there. She previously worked with the Rwandan genocide trials. Eventually she returned to Yale, first teaching human rights in the law school and then earning a Master of Divinity degree. All of those credentials and experiences led Timm to found Justice Revival, which she now serves as Director. Having witnessed the worst of what happens when human rights are denied, she has a determined passion for Justice Revival and its mission: to inspire, educate, and mobilize Christian communities to defend human rights for all. (Some conservative Christian organizations have been at the forefront of successful efforts to keep the U.S. from ratifying CEDAW, which is designed to eliminate discrimination against women.)

Eleanor Roosevelt UN monumentAnother woman with a passion for human rights was Eleanor Roosevelt. Wife of Depression-era President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the country’s longest-serving first lady was among many other things, the first U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Her pivotal work on creating – and securing near-unanimous support for – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights won Mrs. Roosevelt an accolade never seen before, or since: a standing ovation for one of its members by the entire United Nations Assembly.

About that Declaration, and what it proclaims? Just a few of the basic rights to which every human on the planet is entitled include:

Life, liberty, security and equality

Freedom from discrimination

Freedom from torture and cruel or degrading punishment

Privacy: freedom from interference with home, family

Freedom of religion, conscience, belief

We wish.

You can read the entire document here. If there were ever a better roadmap to peace on earth, it would be hard to find.

Happy New Year, wherever on earth you may be. And God bless us every one.

Sixty-five Million Migrant Stories

Talk of “Immigrants” and “Migrants” is part of life today: some 65 million human beings are on the move, forced from their homes by war, flood, hunger, persecution, living in overcrowded camps, or simply walking. The talk can obscure the fact that these are 65 million individual stories. This is one of them.

Ke at Calvary 10.8.17

The author with Ke

My new friend Ke came to Calvary Presbyterian Church recently, speaking first to the entire congregation and later to a group grappling with the issue of becoming a Sanctuary Church. More on that later. Ke accompanied the Rev. Deborah Lee, Senior Program Director of Immigration, with the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, whose credentials include several decades of work for social justice despite appearing (to this octogenarian at least) to be 15 or 16 years old at most. Rev. Lee and her organization work to help vulnerable people, and to help people like this writer and others understand how they might help.

It is Ke’s story that I want to tell.

Ke came to the U.S. forty years ago as a very young child, escaping the horrors of the raging Vietnam war. If you’re old enough to remember those days you will remember Vietnam as one of the seriously ill-advised wars of our country’s history. But Ke – whose full name is Nghiep Ke Lam – was lucky to survive the perilous journey to freedom and was granted refugee status. According to this writer’s unscientific research, some 800,000 Vietnamese refugees were resettled in the U.S. in those years, not all into ideal circumstances.

Ke’s family found a place to live in an unsavory San Francisco neighborhood. When he was 7 years old he was confronted by a group of bullies who gave him the option of running for his life or fighting one of them. He decided to fight. After he pummeled the older bully to the ground the others congratulated him – an early lesson in problem-solving by violence. When he was 8 he took a year off from school to care for his new baby brother; his father had left the family and his mother was struggling to make ends meet. Once he returned to school Ke did well enough to be accepted into the city’s most prestigious public high school – but because it was too far from his neighborhood he couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity.

Vietnam war

         Vietnam War 1972                               Photo by Raymond Depardon

At 17 Ke committed a crime that would send him to prison for the next two decades. While there he stayed fit, avoided trouble and took advantage of every chance to pick up new skills and credentials. “I can fix the plumbing in your house,” he told the church congregation. “I can also offer counseling.” But he found a stronger calling: he now serves as fulltime Reentry Coordinator for the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, helping others who face the challenges he faced on being released from prison with no money and no job. A number of sources help Ke find used bicycles which he restores to working condition; he then gives them to those released from incarceration (usually having to teach the new bike owners how to ride) so they are able to seek and find work.

Will Calvary become a Sanctuary Church? We don’t have facilities to offer physical sanctuary, but could offer other levels of help such as advocacy or accompaniment (it can be scary to go to deportation hearings,) those sorts of perfectly legal things. There is no unanimity of opinion on this. Presbyterians tend to be strongly opinionated, and seldom opinionated in unison. Most of us do, though, spend time considering what Jesus might have to say about it all.

immigrants

Photo by Thomas Hawk

Meanwhile, Ke is at risk of deportation. The country to which he would be sent is not currently accepting deportees, something the Trump administration is pressuring countries to change. Also at risk of deportation are the 11+ million individuals now living in the U.S. Some of those human beings are bad people most Americans would want deported. Some of them are working hard at jobs, like Ke’s, that help others and strengthen our nation. Some of them are running businesses they’ve run for decades. Some of them have been in the U.S. since they were toddlers, never knowing any other homeland. Every one is an individual story.

And there are 65 million stories.

“Life’s Work” : A book of life for today

Dr. Willie Parker wants the moral high ground back.Willie in scrubs.full

That ground was seized 40 years ago, to his regret, by those who would deny women control of their reproductive destinies – “when ‘the antis’ adopted words and phrases like ‘pro-life’ and ‘culture of life.’” But Parker, a deeply committed Christian physician who has provided compassionate care – including abortions – to countless women, is out to retake the moral high ground of reproductive justice. With kindness, scientific truth, and scripture. Parker’s book Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice tells his personal story alongside the stories of real women needing to choose abortions and the men and women fighting to preserve their right to do so.

In a recent appearance before a group of residents and other medical/academics at the University of California San Francisco, Parker spoke of his life and work.Life's Work Both encountered a turning point, he explains, on hearing Martin Luther King’s famous last speech which included the biblical story of the good Samaritan. In that story: after others had passed by a man in need a Samaritan stops to help. Those who passed by, Dr. King said, worried, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Parker writes in Life’s Work that “What made the Good Samaritan good, in Dr. King’s interpretation, was that he reversed the question, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” Immediately after hearing that, Parker writes, “Once I understood that the faithful approach to a woman in need is to help her and not to judge her or to impose upon her any restriction, penalty or shame, I had to change my life.”

Parker’s life-change led him from a good job as an ob/gyn in an idyllic Hawaiian locale to becoming an expert in abortion care – both the medical procedures and the many and complex needs of women he sees when providing care. His passion now is to keep that quality of care available, especially to poor and underserved women in parts of the U.S. where access is made more and more difficult by restrictive state laws. Which led him to talk of the politics of abortion.

Fran & Willie Parker 6.14.16

Dr. Parker with a fan

“President Trump has an agenda that marginalizes women,” he told his UCSF audience. “But he does not have a mandate. We have to do a deeper dive into engaging politically, and not legitimize what’s happening. It’s most important not to become disheartened – which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Parker, who grew up poor in Alabama, the descendant of slaves, says he “draws from the history of enslaved people” – in understanding the women he sees and their need to make their own, personal reproductive choices.

Some 60 years ago this writer, faced with a pregnancy resulting from workplace rape, was forced to seek out a back alley abortion. There was no Willie Parker to defend my choice, or to explain why it was morally and spiritually right. No one should be able to claim some moral superiority that supports sending women back to those dark ages, which is the direction we are headed. Now, though, there is a voice to be reckoned with. To quote Gloria Steinem re Life’s Work: I wish everyone in America would read this book.

Bridging the Poverty Gap

On a recent cross-country flight I sat one row ahead of a family I had first noticed in the gate area: a young mother with one child about four and a baby, none looking as though they’d had a bath, a new pair of shoes or a good night’s sleep in some time. They were one row behind me, and I was one row behind six rows of excited high school kids accompanied by several adults from Salinas, California, heading off for spring break. (It was not a quiet trip.)airplane interior

The child was hungry, the baby cried, and the mother looked helpless. Mother and child wore ill-fitting clothes and sandals not well suited to the 40-degree weather. The baby might have needed changing and the mother made me feel sad. In fact, the entire family made me feel sad. At what cost, I kept wondering, could they be flying all the way across the country, to find what relief?

It could have been my imagination, but it seemed as if everyone managed to make them invisible in a way more extreme than how we generally avoid noticing each other when strangers are in close quarters. It felt as if there were two parallel universes – the Regular People one degree removed from the First Class people, and the ignorable family.

airline snacksWhen the flight attendant came by with snacks I was grateful to be able to pass my caramel-filled wafer to the child. This was nothing magnanimous on my part; I’m gluten-intolerant and couldn’t eat it. But what balanced my sadness for the little family happened after we landed. As the exiting unfolded, a young man in an Ivy League college jacket wound up right behind the mother. She was struggling with baby, small child, huge diaper bag and a canvas bag retrieved from the luggage rack. “Here,” said the young man; “Let me help.” With that he slung his duffel bag onto his back, grabbed both diaper bag and canvas sack and smilingly sent mother and brood ahead of him down the aisle. When I passed them at the end of the jetway he was pulling something out of his duffel bag – presumably a snack of some sort – for the 4-year-old.

This flight ended in Washington D.C., where a lot of millionaires are working to cut their own taxes and eliminate funding for a variety of services to people like my fellow-traveling family.

The day after my arrival I had a joyous reunion with one of my best friends from long ago college days, whose daughter drove her several hours through stormy weather so we could visit. Her daughter’s name is Lisa.

Lisa and her husband Gary, it turns out, are moving to the unincorporated hamlet of Lucketts, Virginia. Four miles south of the Potomac River, Lucketts features trailer parks and very fancy new upscale homes, an old schoolhouse now on the National Registry of Historic Places, one gas station, and a stoplight at the intersection of Route 15 and Stumptown Road. Vineyards developing nearby partially explain the fancy new homes; according to Wikipedia, you can hear distant train whistles, and bluegrass music every Saturday night at the community center (former schoolhouse) from October to April. Lucketts manse

Lisa and Gary, who have already met with community members from both ends of the Lucketts economic spectrum, will live in an old (built in 1924) manse across the road from a recently-closed (built in 1885) Presbyterian church. They plan to hold open house – you’ll know you’re welcome to drop in if the porch light is on – at (well, almost) all hours. If it turns out that people get to know one another and eventually feel so inclined, they will reopen the church. Gary had a successful career in business before going into nonprofit work in search of something more meaningful; with their children now grown the couple see this as an exciting new chapter in life.Lucketts church

The point of these two stories – interrupted by an observation on our current political scene that is simply too pertinent to ignore – is not that all shabby travelers are poverty-stricken, or that you have to be very rich to wear a Yale jacket (though you might) or that all baby boomer couples should seek new career paths. The point is: while the rich get rich and the poor get poorer in this divided country, it’s going to take a lot of random acts of kindness to keep us together. And that, happily, they do occur.