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.

Sewing Seeds of Peace & Justice

Rally 7.10.16-crowd

I have always drawn the line at public demonstrations. Writing letters to editors or legislators, signing petitions, calling representatives, even publishing blogs & the occasional tweet – those   reasonable, genteel efforts in behalf of justice – have satisfied my self-righteousness self-image just fine. Marching, picketing, that sort of in-your-face activity I have happily left to other more courageous friends.

Rally 7.10.16-G.L.

But now? Mass shootings, killings of seemingly innocent African Americans by police, sniper killings of police “in retaliation”? A dangerously polarized country facing a presidential choice between the two most unpopular candidates in history – one a widely mistrusted history-making woman and the other a scary narcissist egomaniac (IMHO)? No peace, little justice.

What can you do?

Rally 7.10.16-Do Justice

When a couple of guys who have become unlikely close friends decide to put together a rally on the steps of City Hall, you show up. One leads a mostly white, fairly traditional Presbyterian church in an upscale neighborhood, the other leads an African American Pentecostal congregation in a depressed area across town. Within a few days, at the end of a week that saw the shooting of an African American man in Minnesota and the killing of five policemen in Dallas, the two friends arranged an event to argue for sanity:

FAITH COMMUNITIES UNITED FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE. Nothing big, nothing political, nothing advertised as changing the world. A chance, though, for people from across the spectrums of race, politics and religion to show up and share their hope for a better world. For this writer, and strangers of assorted skin colors and garb (yarmulkes, hoodies, religious robes, flip flops) it was a chance to stand shoulder to shoulder, sign to sign, and catch one’s breath after recent weeks of tragedy and horror.

Rally 7.10.16-David Chiu

One of the ministers in attendance, who happens also to be a professionally trained singer, warmed up the crowd (which grew incrementally as the hour progressed) with a group sing-along to an old spiritual: I feel like going on. Though trials mount on every hand, I feel like going on.

An Asian American legislator told the crowd he had brought along his 4-month-old son. He and his wife have just bought a home in the depressed area. “so that my son can grow up,” he said, “with Black and Latino friends. I hope they will all be judged by their character.”

An interfaith leader quoted Martin Luther King, Jr’s phrase, “Returning violence for violence multiples violence.” He argued for turning this trend around – and drew applause when he said, “We need to support gun laws.”

A tall, young African American man holding an orange sign that read “LOVE & PEACE” spoke of his own father being shot by a policeman when the son was 16.

Rally 7.10.16-2 signs

 

A public official told of an incident several days earlier in which an armed man had been talked down from a threatening situation, “and no one was injured or killed.”

A rabbi quoted a Jewish prayer from Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue . . .”

One of the leaders of a Muslim organization that promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding spoke of the message of peace which is central to Islam.

Signs were waved – they carried words and phrases like: Walk Humbly. All Lives Matter. Light Overcomes Darkness. – and – Imagine all the people living life in peace.

Rally 7.10.16-Keith

 

When the crowd disbursed, stepping out of the shadow of the City Hall steps and back into the summer sunshine, there was a demonstrable sense of light overcoming darkness. The word is that rallies and demonstrations for peace were taking place across the country on the same day. Out of them all, perhaps, will emerge a few seeds of justice and compassion to push back against the anger and hostility that has claimed every news cycle of recent months.

Because, as another widely quoted saying also heard from the rally lectern goes, You have to give them something to hope for.

A Ramadan Birthday Dinner

Ramadan - dinner crowd

Dates, rice and eggplant moussaka for birthday dinner? It works.

A recent birthday of mine happened to coincide with a long-planned Ramadan Interfaith Iftar Dinner co-hosted by Pacifica Institute and Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. Since I was minimally involved in the planning and execution of the event, and maximally involved in the birthday, it made sense to combine the two. Plus, I got a lot of mileage out of responding to questions about birthday plans with news we were expecting 225 or so friends for dinner.

The eventual total number of guests will remain a mystery, because so many kept showing up without reservations and we were simply told not to turn anyone away. Attendees were Muslim and non-Muslim, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Buddhists. (“You know the difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist?” quipped Rev. Ron Kobata of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco; “The non-Buddhist thinks there is a difference.”)

This was not just a celebratory dinner, it was an Iftar dinner, the sunset meal at which Muslims break the fast they have observed since sunrise. To be clear about it, sunrise on June 8th in San Francisco was at 5:48 AM, and sunset was at 8:37. That is considerably longer than this weak-willed Christian generally goes without sustenance. Having had a perfectly good lunch, and  swiped a half-dozen or so dates while putting bowls on the tables, I still had to sneak a glass of milk from the kitchen to keep from fainting away at the welcome table.

Given that dinner would not be served until after the call to prayer at 8:37, the program preceded the meal. It included a video about Pacifica Institute, which was founded in 2003 by a group of Turkish Muslims dedicated to social justice, interfaith cooperation, relationship-building and partnership for the common good – any tiny advancement of which would make a pretty fine birthday present for anybody. Pacifica is aligned with the worldwide Hizmet Movement (“the Service”) which promotes service to humanity regardless of faith, tradition, gender or ethnicity.

Fatih Ferdi Ates giving the call to prayer

Fatih Ferdi Ates giving the call to prayer

We also saw a video about how fasting strengthens one’s spirituality in multiple ways. Muslims observe the fast – abstaining from food, drink, smoking, sexual activity and bad behavior including lying or cursing – every day during the month of Ramadan; which does not exactly compare with giving up chocolate for Lent.

Keynote speaker Dr. Scott Alexander, Assistant Professor of Muslim Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, spoke to the evening’s theme: The Art of Living Together. “Sharing the joy of fasting,” he said, “fills us all with hope. It stands in opposition to the strident voices of hatred that want us to believe our troubles are the fault of others.” Alexander ended with a prayer that “God will allow others different from ourselves in all ways to touch our hearts.”

One of the co-leaders of the event, who served as MC along with Pacifica Institute’s Fatih Ferdi Ates, was Calvary member Robin Morjikian, whose father is Armenian. Ates, when thanking her, noted that the evening involved the daughter of an Armenian working with a group of Turkish Muslims on an event held at a Presbyterian church and featuring a keynote speech by a professor from a Catholic University. Buddhist Rev. Kobata presented awards to three honorees.

In lieu of birthday cake, dessert consisted of mixed fruit and baklava. I’m not sure how next year’s birthday will stack up.

On Jazz, Optimism and World Peace

Some of the things in short supply these days: optimism, compassion, comfort and joy and the conviction that light will always overcomes darkness.

Dave Len Scott Photo by Nicholas Wilson-nwilsonphoto.com

Dave Len Scott
Photo by Nicholas Wilson-nwilsonphoto.com

Two San Francisco-based musicians are quietly at work to advance all of the above. Dave Len Scott and Vernon Bush lead multi-pronged lives that are exhausting to consider, but they offer a strong endorsement of the energy that derives from choosing this particular line of work.

Occasionally the two get together to reinforce the notion that faith, hope and love continue to win out.

Scott, who teaches at Sonoma State University, is a trumpet player, pianist, composer, conductor and dispenser of peace and joy. His bio explains that he is “equally comfortable in improvisational/jazz and ensemble/classical idioms.” Bush, noted for his “Inspire Choirs” that are premised on the African proverb, If you can speak you can sing, is a singer, composer and performer who works closely with San Francisco’s historic Glide Memorial Church. He is also co-founder, with Marybeth Tereszkiewicz, of Tree of Life Cross-Cultural Arts Camp, a yearly two to three week summer program for children in the small school communities of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Both Scott and Bush make a respectable living through their art, but what they do essentially for free, for the benefit of their brothers and sisters on the planet, sets them apart from many (happily by no means all!) of their fellow musical professionals.

The two get together occasionally (and will do so regularly throughout the spring of 2016) for “Live at Five” evening services at another San Francisco church, of which this writer is fortunate to be a member. Scott advertises the musical segments of the events thus: “Vernon Bush is a gentle soul and a gifted choir leader. To shine positivity and love is just Vernon’s way. Anyone who comes to sing with Vernon (first Monday of every month, 7 pm) at Calvary will come away feeling better about everything, feeling loved! I am certain!”

Certainty of goodness (and feeling loved) might be added to the things in short supply today. But a recent “Live at Five” service led, musically, by Scott and Bush, featured a chorus-with-drums rendition of this Chinese proverb:

Where there is light in the soul

There is beauty in the person

Where there is beauty in the person

There is harmony in the home

Where there is harmony in the home

There is honor in the nation

Where there is honor in the nation

There is peace in the world.

Vernon Bush

Vernon Bush

It may be an unfortunate fact that there is not a lot of peace in the world. But thankfully there are people like Dave Len Scott and Vernon Bush out there bringing light to the soul.

A Memorable MLK Day Celebration

MLK on darkness

Dr. King would, I think, have approved.

One celebration of his legacy involved a collaboration between members of a fairly mainline Presbyterian church in an affluent area of San Francisco and members of a soul-spirited Pentecostal church in the city’s Bayview community, where crime and poverty run rampant. The partnership – and friendship – between the two unlikely groups has been growing ever since its beginning in response to the mass shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel African American Methodist Episcopal Church in June of 2015.

For openers, the African American Pentecostal pastor preached (only minimally more reserved and shorter than is his custom) to the mostly white Presbyterians. His message was primarily about the Biblical admonition to welcome the alien and show hospitality to strangers. He also had a few words about justice rolling down like a river, and about Martin Luther King Jr’s assertion that love will overcome racism, materialism and militarism.

MLK Day cable car

After the service some fifty or so Presbyterians boarded motorized cable cars and sang their way across town to the Pentecostal church. There the white pastor preached to the now-multicolor congregation about the Biblical suggestion that nothing much is required of believers other than to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the Creator. He also had a few words about some of the ads he had noticed on the trip over. Dr. King, he suggested, probably didn’t live, work and die primarily so there would be three-day mattress sales, or a 25% MLK Weekend discount on leather jackets.

During the second service, which another minister termed Presbycostal, there was a generous amount of rousing hallelujah music led by the hosts and several gospel pieces from the visitors, whose choir director and trumpet-playing musician in residence made the trip.

MLK Day Dave & choir

After the second service the hosts surprised their guests with lunch in the adjacent social hall: homemade salads, chips and dips and plates of fried chicken. A dozen or so small children, varying shades of white, brown and black, snagged their fried chicken early and set to entertaining themselves by jumping up and down a stairway below a banner that read “The Audacity to Believe.”

One of the visitors remarked to one of the hostesses, as everyone dispersed, “I think we had a lot more fun than anybody at the weekend sales.”

MLK Day lunch

 

Do Lives Matter? Or just guns?

Vigil with Chiu

California Assemblymember David Chiu, whose district includes The Bayview, speaks to Vigil participants

Candles lit, holding signs that read SPREAD LOVE, NOT VIOLENCE or COMMUNITIES AGAINST GUN VIOLENCE the group stood waiting to start. But nearly half of those expected were missing. It seems there had been a shooting several blocks away. One dead. A lot of police involved, traffic blocked.

 

The vigil to protest gun violence, delayed by gun violence, eventually got underway.

This was on a recent wintry night in San Francisco, when a group from Grace Tabernacle Community Church in the city’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood gathered for one of the regular vigils they have long held in memory of those killed by gunfire. It is a long list. The Bayview holds the unenviable record of having the most deaths and injuries from gun violence – by a large margin – of any area of San Francisco. It would be almost impossible to find anyone in the community who has not lost a family member, friend or acquaintance to gunfire; yet it is still home to generations of good people who continue to work for a better, even gun-free future.

Joining the Grace Tabernacle vigil group were a number of friends from Calvary Presbyterian church in the city’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, an affluent community which holds the unenviable record of having the city’s highest suicide rate. Some by gunshot.

Once the latecomers made it past the scene of the latest shooting, the group walked candles-aloft to a nearby corner where a young man had been killed not long ago. A collection of burned-out candles in colorful holders, some now broken, surrounded the parking meter at the spotVigil memorial.1 where he had fallen; the police had given up on it and let the site remain as a memorial. His name was Otis. No one knows who shot him; possibly he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Grace Tabernacle’s Bishop Jackson said a prayer and the group slowly moved on.

Occasionally they sang. (This Little Light of Mine . . . We Shall Overcome.) The wind repeatedly blew out candles, but there always seemed to be a flame somewhere. One candle-holder said to another, as she re-lit her candle by his, “I was shot in the shoulder on that corner a block away.”

The day after the vigil, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., presumably confident that no troubled person would ever be a student at Liberty, urged his students to arm themselves.

Also on that day the Senate once again failed to pass gun control measures, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill that would have prevented people on terrorist watch lists from being able to buy guns with which to commit terror.

Several days later, some who had attended the vigil heard John Weems, at Calvary Presbyterian, address the issue of gun violence. Weems had been part of the vigil, and made a biblically appropriate metaphor of the candles being blown out by the wind, but constantly re-ignited. Darkness, he said, cannot overcome the light.

At the end of his sermon Weems lifted a stack of 8 x 10 sheets about three inches thick, and a few helpers distributed them among the congregation. There were 353 sheets listing the date, location and number of people killed or wounded in each of the mass shootings (four or more killed or wounded) in the U.S. this year according to the only-in-America website shootingtracker.com. Another 45 sheets bore the names of the known 2015 victims of gun violence in San Francisco, the city named for a compassionate saint.

Gun collage

It would be impossible to know how many firearms are in private hands in this country, but it’s safe to say at least a few hundred million. Some of them – “assault weapons,” “semi-automatic rifles,” “sporting guns” by whatever name you choose – can kill more people faster than others; any of them can kill or maim. A wide range of weapons were used for the 353 mass shootings of 2015; all of them succeeded in wounding or killing human beings. The three sheets left to this distributor read:

DURHAM, N.C.; 8/21/2015. WOUNDED: 8. DEAD: 0

ROSWELL, N.M.; 8/21/2015. WOUNDED: 1. DEAD: 3

CINCINNATI, OH; 8/21/2015. WOUNDED: 5. DEAD: 2

It’s hard not to think about how much darkness might be prevented by having a few less guns in the U.S. Those who know that darkness best continue to light candles . . . and hope.

candles

 

 

 

On Light Overcoming Darkness

MLK on darkness

While governments talked of war and security last week, and innocents in Lebanon, Kenya, France, Afghanistan and elsewhere buried their dead, faith communities around the globe struggled to find ways to make sense of it all. Or at least to respond. Places of worship opened their doors, labyrinths were crowded with walkers, friends called friends.

One response in one corner of the world came on Sunday, November 15 in the form of a service of words and music by Muslims, Christians and Jews at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church which this writer was fortunate to attend. It is, in all probability, exemplary of other responses across the planet.

Calvary pastor John Weems noted, in welcoming a sanctuary filled with visitors and regulars, that ever since the beginning of history there have been times when it seemed the world would end, “that darkness would overcome. But in fact death and darkness do not get the last word.”

And the next word came from Fatih Ates, San Francisco & East Bay Director of Pacifica Institute: “Peace and blessings on us all.” Ates gave the Adhan, or Muslim Call to Prayer. Conveniently for the non-Arabic speaking members of the congregation, an English translation of the Adhan was published in the bulletin. (It begins with repetitions of “God is Greater,” continues through bearing witness to core precepts and ends with “There is no god except the One God.” Believers and nonbelievers alike might embrace the notion that Somebody Else is still in control.)

Later in the service, Ates spoke of his deep faith, and of how that faith – Islam – “strongly condemns acts of violence. Every terrorist act,” he said, “is against universal values and human values.” He emphasized these truths with quotations from the Qur’an. (Chapter 5, verse 32; Chapter 4, v 93, and Chapter 49 v 13; readers are invited to look them up.) “Terrorism has no religion, no faith” Ates said; “we must fight against extremism.”

Among other messages:

Rabbi Lawrence Raphael of Congregation Sherith Israel referred to the last line of the Kaddish, the prayer said at Jewish funerals and occasionally at other times: “May God who makes peace in heaven . . . make peace upon us.”

Calvary pastor Joann Lee, speaking to the children, suggested that in scary times they “look for the helper;” because there are always helpers, something borne out by both scriptural references and secular reality.

San Francisco Interfaith Council Executive Director Michael Pappas spoke of the “solidarity and prayers of people of many faiths” (locally including 800 San Francisco congregations) that would ultimately overcome darkness.

And for the prayer, another Calvary pastor, Victor Floyd, sang the “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord have mercy) familiar to Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox and other Christians — in Urdu, the language of Fatih Ates’ native Turkey.

Finally, there was a moving moment of light. California Assemblymember David Chiu, a member of Calvary who went from social justice work into politics a few years ago, explained the Presbyterian custom of “passing the peace,” greeting friends and strangers. candlesChiu spoke of San Francisco as being a city on a hill, a city of light, and everyone, having been given candles on entering the sanctuary, raised their lighted candles in a room in which the light until that moment was dim.

The act of raising a candle into the gloom, lifting some light of hope, making one small statement against injustice may be primarily symbolic, but it’s a start.

And proof that light can drive out darkness.