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.

 

Going to hell, or going to dance — hate group meets celebration

A small but extraordinarily vitriolic hate group out of Topeka, KS visited the San Francisco Bay Area this past week, picketing a variety of targets — anything Jewish, homosexual or supportive of same seems to do. It is, in fact, hard to find many people these folks don’t hate. You are welcome to check out their website — Westboro Baptist Church — it’s just not recommended after eating.They are headed to Dallas next.

Most people simply ignored them. But groups at several local high schools and at Stanford University took the occasion of being targeted for a little creative anti-hate-group celebrating, and some of these events are chronicled on the Not In Our Town site:

Hillel at Stanford University, one of the institutions targeted Jan. 29 by Westboro, invited the entire Stanford community to stand together Friday morning “for a peaceful gathering in celebration of our diversity and our unity,” according to the invitation they emailed to students and campus groups.

“We chose to use the incident as an opportunity to align the campus around shared values and issue a call to action,” said Adina Danzig Epelman, executive director of Hillel at Stanford. Students were instructed not to engage the Phelps family in any way, and to bring signs with positive rather than negative messages.

About 1000 students  representing dozens of campus organizations, or simply themselves, along with a number of faculty and staff, showed up at 8am for 45 minutes of musical celebration, including an unexpected bagpipe player who launched into “Amazing Grace” on the front steps of the Hillel building. It was, Epelman said, “a very broad gathering, representing the diversity of our campus.”

In a message of support earlier in the week, the Hindu and Muslim co-founders of Stanford F.A.I.T.H. wrote: “If we did not stand alongside Jews, gays and lesbians, or any other group that may be maligned this Friday, we would not be the Hindus and Muslims we strive to be.”

At San Francisco’s Lowell High School, another target, the handful of picketers were met by an exuberant horde of teenagers who seemed to agree with one sign proclaiming “We’re not going to hell, we’re going to dance.” My personal favorite sign read “Jesus had two Dads;” had he been around I suspect Jesus would have been dancing.

The only gloom, in fact, was on the faces of the young picketers. They looked more wistful than hateful. It’s easy to believe they would rather be dancing too.

Of COURSE there's a Santa Claus

We are, it turns out, born to be believers. And that’s a good thing. According to a recent article by Wall Street Journal reporter Shirley S. Wang, imagination is a valuable asset, beginning in childhood:

Imagination is necessary for learning about people and events we don’t directly experience, such as history or events on the other side of the world. For young kids, it allows them to ponder the future, such as what they want to do when they grow up.

“Whenever you think about the Civil War or the Roman Empire or possibly God, you’re using your imagination,” says Paul Harris, a development psychologist and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies imagination. “The imagination is absolutely vital for contemplating reality, not just those things we take to be mere fantasy.”

So we start out with Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and grow up to comprehend health reform. As my daughter, a nurse, said to me today, “Really, Mom, I just have to take everyone else’s word for it; there’s no way I can read those thousands of pages.” Nor I — but we are people of (varying) faith.

Although we grown-ups may have gotten realistic about Santa, studies say most of us have faith. Faith in God, Allah, the teachings of the Buddha — doesn’t make a lot of difference. But faith — belief in some power that controls human destiny, belief that doesn’t rely on logical proof — is worth having at any age. Mary McLeod Bethune, a great lady who was smarter than most of us, said, “Without faith, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.”

Many of us celebrating the babe in the manger this week, along with many who celebrate other happenings and symbols, cling to the belief that there will actually, someday, be peace on earth. Even if it seems impossible.

My son (who is now 50, so don’t tell him I’m still repeating this story) was a true believer child. We had, at our house, a little green elf who arrived on December 1 and spent the next 23 days perched on light fixtures, curtain rods and high cabinet tops; Elf moved around a lot. He watched to see if everyone was good or bad, and on Christmas Eve he flew off to cruise with Santa. One December night, when my son was about 8, possibly older, I was turning out the light as he posed one last question. “Mom,” he said, “I know about Santa Claus, and I know Dad is the Easter Bunny, and all that — but… but how does the elf get from one room to another?”

You gotta believe. We have a health bill, not what we wanted, but the biggest reform in generations and something to build on. The jobless recovery means millions of kids belong to jobless parents, but Santa will come to many of them with the help of a host of community groups. All over the country, Muslim and Jewish volunteers are pitching in to relieve their Christian friends at soup kitchens so the latter can go home and read The Night Before Christmas to their kids.

Peace on earth, goodwill to all.

God, Thanksgiving & Mother Theresa

Former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos spoke briefly, and with holiday hilarity, this morning to several hundred Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and assorted other believers at the annual San Francisco Interfaith Thanksgiving Breakfast — “the biggest crowd I ever addressed at seven in the morning.” The event highlighted some of the work the SFIC does in the city: an annual winter shelter for homeless men, a citywide disaster preparedness program, a variety of ongoing efforts to promote understanding, cooperation and general interfaith goodwill. Agnos told a tale of encountering Mother Theresa which is condensed and paraphrased below as a Thanksgiving present from this space.

Coming home one Sunday night during his tenure, the mayor got a message (this was in the late 1980s, pre-cellphones) from his wife saying Mother Theresa was at their door. (“What should I do?” “Let her in.”)  When he walked into the living room, sure enough, there was the diminutive nun in her blue and white habit, seated on the Agnos’ sofa with another nun on each side. She wanted the mayor, she explained, to secure a particular piece of property for her good works. It was after 9 PM.

“I’ll get right on it, first thing in the morning,” Mayor Agnos said.

“No,” said the tiny nun in her quiet voice. “God’s work does not wait until morning.”

The property in question was in an area of town into which few ventured after dark. When that factor was mentioned as cause for caution, however, Mother Theresa would have none of it. “God,” she said in her still-quiet voice, “will protect us.”

So the mayor, the three nuns, the mayor’s wife (who wasn’t about to miss this experience) and a police bodyguard Mayor Agnos invited along just in case God wasn’t paying attention, climbed into a police car and drove to the building in question. Working their way through a fence which had long before been erected around the property, they walked around the back to find a small group of homeless men gathered around a fire. It was not only getting later all the time, it was mid-winter.

“Oh,” the men said in unison, “it’s Mother Theresa.” She blessed them. Then the mayor asked if the building did indeed belong to the city. “Well, yes,” they said, “but we’ve been living here for several years and nobody’s bothered us.” So the mayor assured the nun that he would get to work on her request first thing in the morning.

She was not finished. Next, she wanted to see about another piece of property, this one necessitating a trip to San Francisco General, the City/County hospital of last resort for citizens in need. By now it was getting on towards midnight.

At that hour at San Francisco General, Mayor Agnos explained, most of the people on site are the cleaning crews and base-level helpers — all of whom immediately recognized Mother Theresa. “When we got ready to leave,” said Agnos, “it was like a football huddle. Everybody in the area gathered around this tiny nun you couldn’t even see in the middle of the crowd.”

“When you die and go to heaven,” said Mother Theresa to her fellow laborers, “you will meet God. And God will bless you for your good work.”

“So,” concluded the Mayor as he opened his arms to indicate those around the room, “when you die and go to heaven, you will meet God. And he or she, whomever, will bless you for your good work.”

Makes you thankful to be in the presence of so many people doing good work.