Works in Progress: My latest tattoo and I

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Huffington Post version of blog HERE

Neither one of us are particularly religious, this tattoo and I. We are decided works in progress– raw still, easily irritated, gloriously incomplete. Both of us. Lumped together like that, our flaws make us a perfect match for one another as well as for our makers. That is, God and Lui Renzo.

I was working in New York City last week and Renzo is a crazy talented tattoo artist in Secaucus, New Jersey, just west of the Lincoln Tunnel. A day earlier I’d asked if he could ink three Hawaiian words (pule ‘ole ho’opau) onto my left forearm. He reacted as if I’d raked fingernails across a blackboard.

“Yeah, I could. … But you’d be destroying prime real estate.”

To tattoo lovers and artists the wide open stretch elbow to wrist is a beautiful canvas begging for expression. It’s one of the few areas on the body where something personal and meaningful can be permanently sewn and seen straight-on by the person wearing it. No mirrors, no circus flexibility, no selfies required. From the forearm a tattoo stares up at you. A constant reminder.

I reviewed Renzo’s art, a diverse portfolio collected through five years of professional work. On his own left forearm is a finely detailed black and white of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. At age 35, Renzo, a Catholic who grew up rough in New Jersey and Puerto Rico, has evolved into the archetype renaissance man. He’s worked as a truck driver, waiter, cook, reggaeton musician, barber, and, until the predator nature of the sales world clashed with his ethics and morals, as a $30 per-hour Verizon salesman. Today, he inks meaningful works of art or words into the skin of strangers.

Renzo at work.

Loosely translated “pule ‘ole ho’opau” means to pray without ceasing. I’m not a biblical scholar by any means, nor am I what anyone who attends church would call religious. When asked about religious affiliation on websites I leave the spot blank or write, “It’s complicated.” But my Baptist father told me I should never throw the baby out with the bath water, and I believe much of New Testament scripture to be profound regardless of the religious fraternity you pledge. The Apostle Paul’s advice in First Thessalonians is an ideal example. In it, Paul encourages the early Christians to be patient, caring and loving, to never return evil with evil, and to rejoice and be grateful always and in all things. This stuff applies to everyone. 

For me, First Thessalonians 5:17 sums it up beautifully and succinctly: “Pray without ceasing.”

In book talks and lectures I often explain how that verse reminds me to be more aware of how my words, thoughts and actions affect others. For the better, hopefully, but far too often, for the worst. Long ago, when I was a Native Hawaiian Affairs reporter in Honolulu, a revered healer from the Big Island explained to me how he is unable to cure the sick of anything if he is not pono at that very moment. He described pono as a state of perfect righteousness– right in word, right in thought, right in action. For most or all people, the religious and non-religious alike, Christian, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, agnostic or atheist, pono waxes and wanes. It can be strengthened and maintained only through dogged awareness and vigilance.

Three miles west of the Lincoln Tunnel in a small tattoo parlor named Our Lady of Ink, I explained some of this to Renzo and told him how I do not believe Paul is saying that we should always walk around with our eyes closed, heads bowed. Just the opposite. To me, Paul is saying we should keep our eyes open, our minds focused, and that we should live in a state of blessed awareness. Live pono, that’s what Paul was saying long before I met the kahuna on the Big Island.

In Renzo’s portfolio one tattoo jumped out at me. Praying hands. The detail was phenomenal. He explained how it was the only tattoo of praying hands that he’d ever done. He’d drawn them just once.

“If you can duplicate that first effort,” I told him, “I’ll have you put it on my arm’s prime real estate.”

He thought about it for a few seconds.

“I can’t duplicate it. … I’ll do better. I always get better the second time.”

Today, a Lui Renzo Original points up at me lovingly and points me in the right direction. That’s not saying I will always follow the direction (I’ve already screwed up every which way from Sunday) but I can’t overlook the advice or easily disregard it.

Like me, the tattoo remains a work in progress. One day soon I will return for Renzo to add pule ‘ole ho’opau to it as well as the names of two people who look up to me as a role model– for better and for worst. My sons.That’s a reminder I need to carry with me (and on me) daily.

The finished product. For now.

In God (and Winnie the Pooh) I trust…

UFC champ Jon Jones (R) defeats Glover Teixeira (L) in Baltimore on Saturday, April 26, 2014

UFC champ Jon Jones (R) defeats Glover Teixeira (L) in Baltimore on Saturday, April 26, 2014

Immediately after UFC champ Jon Jones defended his light heavyweight title last Saturday in Baltimore, Jones, a Christian with a tattoo on his chest reading “Philippians 4:13″ (I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me) kissed a forefinger and pointed toward heaven — or, depending on your secular versus religious leanings, toward the incandescent arc of the cage’s klieg lights.

“All glory be to God,” he told the pay-per-view audience. “Forever and forever, he reigns forever.”

Moments later, before answering questions from UFC broadcaster Joe Rogan, Jones gave Christianity its usual post-fight shout out: “First and foremost I want to thank Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior. Without him I would be nothing.”

Great athletes — and Jones is without question a remarkable MMA fighter — frequently give credit to God or Allah. On Saturday’s pay-per-view main card three of the five winners (Jones, Anthony Johnson and Max Holloway) immediately credited God or “my Lord and Savior” for the victory.

Although I feel certain that neither the Christian God nor his son aka Savior favored any one fighter in Saturday’s various beat downs, I believe that Jones is absolutely correct. Without his belief in a personal connection to a higher and omnipotent power, Jones, as well as other superstar athletes who say they are anointed with God’s blessing, would not perform in ways that appear otherworldly.

However, the same might be said of my devout belief in Winnie the Pooh. I was born the same year (1961) that the rights to Winnie the Pooh were licensed to Walt Disney Productions and, in no time, Disney had worked its magic. I became a believer. Chubby, benevolent Pooh, always dressed in a preshrunk red shirt (or was it an ill-advised midriff?), battled an insatiable appetite for honey. With my weakness for peanut butter fudge and my mom’s early attempts at sewing our clothes, I related. Like our refrigerator door, Pooh was a light in the dark. Even though he had it far rougher than I did, god bless him, he maintained a sunny disposition. He could be naive (I just thought of him as innocent) or slow-witted (understated and modest, I suspected) he developed a massive following, earned billions of dollars for Disney, and, unlike the most heavily perfumed girls in high school, he attracted more friends than bees. Tigger stalked him; Piglet adored him; Christopher Robin was loyal and steadfast.

Yeah, yeah, I know: What in God’s name does this have to do with Jon Jones kicking Glover Teixeira’s butt?

Wow, really? Pooh was also patient. He taught me to listen without interrupting. And if, say, my parents had dragged me to a sanctuary every Sunday where we sang hymns in praise of Pooh and listened to robed men yammer on and on about Pooh’s miracles and Pooh’s wisdom (“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though”) and Pooh’s unconditional love for humanity, I might also believe in Pooh’s omniscience, omnipotence and benevolence.

If, then, I believed that this same power were in me as sure as the blood coursing my veins, I might be able to relax to the point where I could compete with no self-doubt and no fear — utterly comfortable in the belief that the almighty Pooh is in me and will watch over me even as the heavy fisted Teixeira is trying to separate me from consciousness. As long as I am living by the lessons of Pooh and treating others as he did — e.g., as I would want to be treated myself — then maybe the Power of Pooh would be mine.

And it is. It always was, no matter if I pledged Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Atheist, Agnostic or Pooh. When I truly believe that the power of the universe resides within me (this belief waxes and wanes apparently) I act in such a way that I am able to tap it. Jesus or the Buddha or Winnie the Pooh, these are merely conduits for the almighty energy that lies in wait.

Yes, Jon Jones, all glory be to (insert empowering role model/teacher here).


Read Huffington Post version HERE

 

Weapons of Mass Construction: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic

[This week every year Graduation Day reverberates through the Klong Toey slums of Bangkok for hundreds of poor students (nearly 1,000 this year) who are completing the Mercy Centre's three-year preschool program. Several years ago I attended the ceremonies. That experience became Chapter 1 in The Gospel of Father Joe. In honor of Father Joe Maier and Mercy it is excerpted below. The world remains indebted to Father Joe's wisdom and his peaceful way of combating poverty, terrorism, and human trafficking.]

Father Joe delivering the commencement address to Mercy’s preschoolers, March 2007.

[For the Huffington Post version click HERE]

The story begins like the parable it’s become, in a no-man’s-land with the seed of dreams strewn in the most foolish of places: slum rubbish. This was the 1970s when few people believed anything good could grow from the backwater of the undeveloped world. There were no official addresses or property deeds in the cordoned-off corners of Bangkok, nothing much for the municipal books, just putrid ground so primal and bleak that land was free for the staking. It’s where squatters pretended to own real houses and children made do with make-believe.

But these seeds were sown by an angry young Catholic chased from finer society. A priest, stubborn and cursing. The local Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians nurtured that seed, and in time the people and the priest, the abbot and the imam, worked together, as though the Buddha, Muhammad, and Jesus Christ were brothers and best friends. No doctrine, dogma, or creed was lorded. No growth tethered chapter to verse. The only belief that mattered was the one they shared. In the children. That was common, sacred ground.

Nourished like this, the seeds exploded with growth. There was a harvest, then another and another. The seeds grow still today, more than three decades later, a genus of hope thriving in the muck, as if it had been indigenous to the slums all along. Tales of it grow too, spreading from those roots in Thailand to the media of North America and Europe, and in the retelling, it can begin to sound legendary. How in Gideon’s name does something grow from nothing and multiply like New Testament fishes and loaves? But nothing about it is myth. Every tale is true.

You can see for yourself when a new crop is gathered each year just before the yearly monsoons. For two, three, and often four days, a cordoned-off corner of the world blossoms in a brilliant hue of graduation gowns.

So it was on the sun struck first week of March 2007– thirty-three years after the first seeds were planted.

The Mercy Centre preschool graduation was standing-room-only; moms, dads, aunties, uncles, siblings, cousins, the neighbor next door and next door to that one. Seven commencements stretched half the week and through a half dozen slums in celebration of seven hundred graduates from thirty-two schools built “officially illegally,” as the priest says, on the Thai government’s squatter land. Children six and seven years old accustomed to flip-flops and hand-me-downs strutted around in black mortarboard caps and matching silk gowns trimmed in a shade of blue my folk back home call Carolina. And while girls and their mothers and aunts fussed with lipstick and rouge, the boys did what boys do: swirl their heads until the tassels on their caps whir like the blades of a helicopter. Dizzy, they fall to the ground.

The priest was there, of course, more bald with each and every harvest. He conferred the diplomas and delivered the commencement address wearing the black and burgundy of Thailand’s revered Thammasat University. Draped across his left shoulder was a velvet sash with white stripes of cotton, thick enough to brush and braid: three stripes in front, three in back representing the honorary rank of a Thammasat Ph.D. If you were new to the slums or to their graduation rituals, a sash like that in a place like that might stop you. It might even if you weren’t.

Arriving at each school, the American known by tens of thousands of Thai as simply Khun Phaw Joe (“Mister Father Joe”) would park down a ways and out of sight. He’d pull on the gown, fix the sash just so, and then begin “the Walk”– a purposeful stride intended to put education on parade. Each route was different but familiar: past walls of plywood, lopsided floors, rusty tin roofs, and bare-bottomed babies; through humidity flavored by garbage and a subsistence watched over by sun-wrinkled village matriarchs who smiled even as they spit pinpoint tobacco-brown streams of betel nut juice. Heads turned to watch. Motorbikes slowed in deference. Cars stopped to let him pass. Old and young joined in, falling in behind or alongside, knowing full well where he was headed, knowing it was time.

In a backwater where nothing good was supposed to grow, graduation today is a rite of passage.

Some of the hardiest seed will scatter and continue maturing. There are graduates thriving now in the high school and college classrooms of North America with majors in economics, business, biology, computer science, and neuroscience. It’s why Khun Phaw Joe gave the Class of ’07 the same speech he has given every class since the Class of ’95 , the same he will give the Class of ’08. Something about it seems to work.

As the Walk approached the first podium, the room fell silent. Pigeons gurgled their Rs, a mobile phone tweeted, somewhere a baby shrieked. Khun Phaw Joe waited. A small, heavy statue of the Virgin Mary sat in a May altar (on cloth surrounded by flowers) next to a Buddhist shrine of joss sticks and a portrait of the Thai monarch (Massachusetts native King Bhumibol Adulyadej) framed in gold leaf.

Fitted for kid-sized attention spans but fired like buckshot, the commencement address was aimed at everyone crowded into the ceremony.

Khun Phaw cleared his throat.

“If you don’t have anything to eat in the morning,” he began, speaking Thai and scanning his attentive audience of children, then go to school!”

Most of the students sat erect or leaned slightly forward on the edge of their benches or chairs.

“If you don’t have any shoes to wear … ,” he continued, pausing for effect, “go to school!”

“If Mommy or Daddy says you can stay home … go to school!

“If your friends want you to sell drugs … go to school!

“If Mommy gambles and Daddy’s a drunk … go to school!

“If all the money is gone and you can’t buy lunch … go to school!

“If your house burns down and you don’t have anything or anywhere to sleep … go to school!

“Go to school! Go to school! Go to school!”

Children joined in, louder and louder, chanting what sounded to me like “Tong by wrong rain high die!”

Go to school! Dhong bai rong Tien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai!

Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, and the neighbor next door joined in.

Khun Phaw Joe directed the burgeoning chorus, his Thammasat gown waving until the bell sleeves billowed.

Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai!

And that’s the sprint from beginning to now, three decades of harvests. But in the journey, as in the parable, lie the lessons and wisdom of a social revolutionary who bucks convention, the law, and what the rest of us might consider common sense or self preservation.

Father Joe Maier

The Reverend Joseph H. Maier, the eldest child of a philandering Lutheran father and pious Catholic mother, survived his own poverty and dysfunction to become a throwback of sorts: the durable, American-made export. It should be no surprise, then, that he settled on the wrong side of our economic divide and discovered a comfortable fit.

The neglected children of Klong Toey (three hard syllables sounding like a curse but meaning “canal of the pandanus,” a plant growing near the water and cultivated for its flavorful leaves) would put a nice sheen of perspective on his own welfare beginnings.

Today, whenever Khun Phaw Joe feels a pang of self-pity, and often when he sees it rising in others, he quashes it with self-mockery and echoes of an earlier time: “Yeah, yeah, everybody hates me, nobody loves me, all I’m ever fed is worms. That’s my life story. Blah, blah, blah…. Well, guess what? The sun is rising, the rooster is calling, and another day is here. I guess ol’ Joe better get his ass out of bed and get going.”

 

One Texan’s remedy for War: ‘Preemptive Love’

Jeremy Courtney, Author of "Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time" and cofounder of the Iraq-based charity, the Preemptive Love Coalition. (Photo courtesy of Howard Books.)

Jeremy Courtney, Author of “Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time” and co-founder of the Iraq-based charity, the Preemptive Love Coalition. (Photo by Abigail Criner.)

When a native Texan named Jeremy Courtney took the stage at the 2012 Q Conference he had no idea he would, in effect, be pitching his 2013 memoir, “Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time.”

Q conferences are progressive yet evangelical (yes, both) Christian forums, similar in format to the more secular TED talks. This particular Q (stands for Question) occurred in April 2012 in Washington, D.C., seven months before President Obama was reelected. More than 30 speakers ranging from a peacemaking Palestinian Christian (yes, both) to a hawkish Southern Baptist firebrand descended on Washington to inform, influence and otherwise inspire the nation’s sagging Christian majority (not to be confused with Moral Majority). In talks scaled to fit the capital’s rushed schedule and attention span, each speaker was allotted slots of three, nine or 18 minutes.

Courtney, a slender, shaved-headed humanitarian who looks more like a Buddhist than his native Baptist, had scored one of the conference’s grande sizes. Nine minutes. He’d fly six thousand miles from his home in Iraq to speak for less time than it took to board any of his connections. In the Andrew Mellon Auditorium, three blocks south of the White House, he paced on the stage in front of 700 Q “participants,” as the conference refers to its influential attendees. Nine minutes gave Courtney no time for colorful narratives, long anecdotes or drawn-out punchlines. He hardly had time to clear his throat. He got straight to the point.

“It wasn’t an easy morning,” he began, “when I woke up in Iraq with my wife and kids and found out that a fatwa had been issued against us calling for our death(s).”

You could have heard a phone vibrate inside the palatial seven-story auditorium. If he didn’t have them at fatwa (an official ruling given by Islamic clerics) he had them at death.  

It was an evocative beginning to an amazing story (and now book) about a modern-day Gospel. Courtney’s memoir is the Good News of how mending the bodies of children restores hearts— literally and figuratively; theirs, ours and across “enemy” lines. In a blurb I wrote months ago for “Preemptive Love” (Howard Books, Oct. 1, 2013) I describe how the work of Courtney and his upstart international charity could “rewrite the hard wiring that holds humanity hostage.”

The hard wiring, in this case, is the fear that fractures humanity and keeps us locked in our comfort zones. It poses as pride, prejudice, and, often, as absolute faith. It can pit nation against nation, religion against religion, and, ultimately, it’s what drove an Iraqi mullah to order the death of Americans who were saving the lives of Iraqi children.

Preemptive, what I mean by that is this act when we jump to help someone else, to serve another before they’ve done anything for us,” Courtney told to the Q audience. Early in his book he explains it this way:

“I had not named it yet— that passion and joy that caused me to suspend my questions and fears. My military friends had mantras like ‘Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six’ and ‘Shoot first; ask questions later.’ But I had watched Iraq destroy nearly all the people who allowed themselves to live in a constant state of suspicion or cynicism. So I adopted my own motto: ‘Love first; ask questions later.’ Today I call it preemptive love.”

Without any medical training and very little prep, he helped start an Iraq-based international development organization, Preemptive Love Coalition, which facilitates the heart surgeries needed for a massive backlog of sick Iraqi children. Iraqis have suffered three decades of war (beginning in 1980 with Iran), Saddam’s chemical weapons, 13 years of economic sanctions (1990-2003), and countless tons of the depleted uranium and white phosphorus used in U.S. munitions. Its healthcare system is decimated, and, contrary to the controversial findings in a recent World Health Organization study, doctors from across Iraq report alarming increases in cancer rates and congenital birth defects.

Not long after moving to Iraq in 2006 to help rebuild it, Courtney, who’d earned a masters degree in international studies from Baylor University, heard about tens of thousands of Iraqi children suffering from heart defects. On average there are 30 new cases every day in Iraq, he said at the sixth annual Q Conference. But to get the children to surgery, he and his Preemptive Love cohorts took a road less (read: dared not) traveled. At the time, they had no other choice.

They sent Iraqi children to doctors in Israel. In other words, American Christians sent Iraq’s Muslim children to the Jewish state. To be saved. Literally.

In the fatwa, an Iraqi religious leader, or mullah, had used a phrase that immediately resonated with Courtney. “We must stop this treatment lest it lead our children to learn to love their enemies,” he recalled loudly at the Q Conference.

He paused, allowed the revelation to sink in.

“I was scared,’ he continued. “But I was thrilled by the mullah’s conclusion. We were saying the same thing: Be careful, preemptive love works.”

This threat from a high-ranking mullah was definitive evidence for him. It proved the efficacy of preemptive love. Hate could be recast by persistent, selfless acts of charity. War’s barbaric diplomacy could be repaired. Maybe, some day, an enlightened generation of Arab children would bridge the Middle East’s vast divide and make the region whole. Maybe the entire world could evolve.

“Every day in Iraq there seems to be an occasion to wake up again and make the decision to love indiscriminately,” Courtney said, describing for Q participants how his office had almost been blown up, his home broken into and bugged, his staff arrested on trumped-up charges. “Through these postures of preemptive love we’ve been able to go on and earn the trust of Muslims leaders across the country. We’ve made friends out of enemies.”

Eventually, a Muslim friend and sheikh in Iraq intervened on Courtney’s behalf and Preemptive Love continues its work in Iraq today. Better, it no longer needs to choose the road less traveled. Today it is helping to rebuild Iraq’s healthcare system by bringing surgeons into the country and training local doctors to perform the heart surgeries.

“I don’t have time to tell you all of the amazing things God is doing in the lives (of people) across Iraq,” he said, concluding his nine-minute talk, “but I’ll just tell you this: Violence unmakes the world but preemptive love unmakes violence. Preemptive love remakes the world.”

As he exited the Q stage and spoke with participants, a woman asked if she could buy a copy of his book in the store there in the Mellon Auditorium.

“I’ve not written a book,” he said. “I don’t have one in the store.”

She smiled confidently. “Would you like to have one in it?”

Turns out she was an acquisitions editor for a publishing house. That conversation led to others, which soon led to a top-tier literary agent (Chris Ferebee) and, several months later, Courtney signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster imprint, Howard Books. He was given five months to write the manuscript’s first draft.

Between frequent trips to his home near Lubbock, Texas and Preemptive Love’s work in Iraq, Courtney, now 34, expounded on his theology of preemptive love. His nine-minute Q talk quickly blossomed into an inspiring 230-page memoir. At its conclusion, near the end of the Afterword, he writes:

“Where you are sitting in the world as you finish this story may influence how you interpret my idea of preemptive love. If you are in the States, you may think first in terms of American kindness toward enemy Iraqis. If you are in Iraq, however, you may be more quick to see the countless times in this story in which the Iraqis acted first, offering protection, intervening, or taking a risk to welcome us in, even though we were often cast as their enemies. The truth is, preemptive love does not begin in the heart of humanity. Neither Americans nor Iraqis are inherently better at loving first than the other. We are all tribal, programmed to protect our own.

 

Instead, preemptive love originates in the heart of God. The one who made the universe and holds everything in it— the one to whom Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all ostensibly pointing— is the first and the last enemy lover.”

 

See video: JEREMY COURTNEY at 2012 Q CONFERENCE

Words are actions … and can be the seeds of growth

[This posted earlier on The Huffington Post HERE.]

I felt it before I saw it, sort of like when a basketball leaves your fingertips with perfect trajectory. But this felt bad, not good. Last week a gray Dodge Charger barreled toward my rented Toyota Camry at reckless speed. I was idle at a stop sign. From my rearview mirror I could see the driver, his eyes bugging, mouth agape. His expression didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I would be in a wreck. No way to avoid it. My evening was about to get complicated.

A dozen years earlier, a few months after 9/11 and in a crowded Cairo cafe, Egyptian playwright Ali Salem had leaned toward me through a haze of his own cigarette smoke. We were discussing the terrorist charges and countercharges being lobbed recklessly West to Middle East and vice versa — all the finger-pointing of politicians, preachers, imams and mullahs — when Salem told me something that applied to everyday life, something I’ve never forgotten:

“Words. Words are things.”

Salem, 66-years-old then, spoke with a deep baritone, and, much like actor James Earl Jones, the inflection of his rich voice conveyed as much as the English he spoke fluently.

“Good things begin with wooords. Bad things begin with wooords. So when we speak, we need to choose our words carefully.”

Going back even further, maybe five years before I’d interviewed Salem, I’d met someone else who had, in so many words, conveyed the same message. I’d just rear-ended her on Honolulu’s Ala Moana Boulevard. It was only a fender bender, but Hawaii uses an auto insurance law known as “no-fault.” What that means is that someone can rear-end you on Ala Moana and, in most cases, it’s considered to be no one’s fault. Legally speaking. The insurance company of the woman I’d rear-ended would assess the damage to her car and foot the bill. Mine would do the same for me. No fault. I know, right? Sounds crazy.

As I was apologizing profusely, she shushed me. Literally. Waved a finger in the air and told me, Shhhh.

“That’s why they’re called accidents,” she said, smiling maternally. “It’s okay. I’m okay. It was an accident.”

So, back to the Dodge Charger.

I’d flown into Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport about 30 minutes earlier and rented my car from the same terminal where the Avis-rented Dodge originated. The driver of it, a water resources expert named Clay Landry, and I must have left at about the same time, both heading toward the Arizona 202 Loop via I-10 West. Roughly two miles from the airport there’s an awkward off-ramp to on-ramp combo that descends quickly toward an intersection. Too quickly if you’re pushing the 45-mph speed limit, and probably even if you’re not. Just before the stoplight a stop sign attempts to police four lanes of merging traffic. This is where I met Clay.

Funny thing about car accidents. Time is distorted. In the split second or less that I saw Clay’s crazed expression in my rearview mirror to when his Dodge plowed into the Toyota’s backside, I recall thinking: “Wow. No way to avoid this. It could be bad. Damn! I’m so hungry. I won’t be able to get dinner for another couple of hours.”

I probably looked angry as I climbed from the wreck. I wasn’t. I was hungry. It had already been a long day.

“Are you okay?” Clay shouted.

“I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?” he asked. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

I don’t recall thinking specially of the lady on Ala Moana Boulevard or of Ali Salem. Their seeds of humanity (owned by no religion and all religions) were planted more than a decade ago. However, I immediately felt compassion for Clay, who was uninjured but appeared to be rattled. I chose my words carefully and tried to reassure him.

“I’m fine. Really.”

I extended my hand.

“I’m Greg.”

“Clay.”

“It’s no problem, Clay. It’s okay. It’s why they’re called accidents.”

A ‘Partnership with the Poor’ Turns Forty-Eight Years Old

photo by Nitaya Pakkeyaka

Father Joe Maier photographed 29 June 2013 at the Mercy Centre

This weekend Father Joe celebrates 48 years as a Redemptorist Catholic priest. More than 40 of those years have been spent living and working “in partnership” with the poorest of the poor in the port slums of Bangkok. Here’s a few paragraphs from my book explaining what happened when Mother Teresa crossed paths with Father Joe forty-two years ago:

Not long after Father Joe began sleeping on a Slaughterhouse cot, Mother Teresa visited Bangkok and ventured into Klong Toey’s hard middle. It was soon after the 1971 release of her biography, Something Beautiful for God by Malcolm Muggeridge, but before she was a holy icon. Had she already been famous, chances are that the elders of Holy Redeemer would not have risked putting her in the unedited company of Father Joe.

 

Together, kindred spirits in poverty, slum nun and slum priest toured Father Joe’s portside ghetto for three days, walking some of the same planks and catwalks I would walk with him a quarter of a century later. This was long before AIDS and yaba would mix and combust, and still, Mother Teresa pronounced the Slaughterhouse as sorrowful as anything in the gutters of Calcutta.

 

“Spend your life working with these poor … if you can,” she told Father Joe.

 

And with that simple, direct charge, it was as if he’d been anointed.

 

“I remember thinking to myself that if this is what a Christian-Catholic saint is all about,” Father Joe said of Mother Teresa, “I could and would spend all my life trying to imitate her.”

Gay marriage issue is ‘manini’

Hawaiians have a great word for the gay marriage debate, a word I still use 14 years after moving from Oahu. Manini. In the Native Hawaiian language it means “small, insignificant.” Relative to trillion-dollar wars, untold civilian and military casualties, illegal drone attacks, the Israeli strangling of Gaza and occupation of Palestinians, a global economic divide that results daily in the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of “the least of these,” gay marriage is manini.

So why is this — THIS —  issue so important? Why does it get so many Christian churches and their pastors riled up? It allows churches and pastors to armchair quarterback something and pretend to be doing the work of “God” — for which congregants tithe handsomely. Meanwhile, priests like Father Joe Maier and holy women like Kathy Kelly (another Catholic, by the way) are in life’s trenches doing all of the heavy lifting.

The only thing that upsets me about the gay marriage issue is that it’s an issue. Churches, media, etc., are lazily distracted by it at the cost of matters that are truly critical. And for what reason? Because of a sentence in a chapter of a book (Leviticus 18:22) that Moses may or may not have written? Same chapter that tells me in all seriousness to skip the whole kid-sacrifice thing because it shows contempt of God?

Oy vey.

Let’s please put this issue to bed. No pun intended.

Religions: For the love of shalom focus on learning rather than ‘The Truth’

READ HUFFINGTON POST VERSION OF THIS COLUMN (aka Blog) HERE

A friend of mine on Facebook lists as his Religious Views this:

“I don’t know and you don’t know, either.”

Exactly.

By some definitions (Merriam-Webster for these purposes) faith is “a firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Protestant faith, Catholic faith, Islamic faith, Jewish faith, your faith, my faith, devout faith, waning faith, it all springs from the same mindset. Uncertainty. Religious belief requires a “strong feeling” that something is true or real. That’s Macmillan.  And no matter the strength, feelings are not the same as facts. (For example, President Dubya could feel in his gut that Iraq had storehouses of WMD.) You can preach, scream and swear on your mother’s grave that your interpretation of, say, sixty-six books of translated ancient text is literally true and God-inspired, but that’s still just your belief.

And you might be correct. I believe that you are correct about many parts. But I don’t know. And you don’t know, either.

So it is mind boggling to me why some fundamentalists continue packaging their beliefs as The Truth. Always singular, forever uppercase. The Truth silences debate and discussion; it seeks no additional enlightenment or maturity, and, when confronted with biblical contraction it just shrugs its broad shoulders. To The Truth “biblical contradiction” is a contradiction. The Truth is the final and omniscient word. Thus sayeth The Truth. If something reads like a contradiction to you than you aren’t interpreting it properly. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:9)

End of story.

Oy vey.

I write nonfiction, emphasis on the first syllable. As best as I can research, recall and later retell, the anecdotes in my books are entirely true; the quotes verbatim. If spoken words aren’t firmly planted in my memory, notebook, voice recorder or captured on film, they do not reside inside the hallowed quotation marks. Period. I’m a stickler for research. It’s why 69 pages of end notes complete my latest book, “The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq.”

This Rutba book is built on an amazing and little-known Iraqi wartime anecdote, and to some fundamentalists the story can trigger a hiccup in The Truth. They might even dismiss it by placing emphasis on nonfiction’s last two syllables. But the truth is this: During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as a Christian-majority nation was dropping on average 941 bombs per day on an Islamic Republic, Iraqi Muslims from an embattled desert town saved three bloodied and broken Christian Americans. Rescued them from an overturned car, carried them into town, bandaged them in a barren clinic, stitched them, hugged them, and, even, refused payment. This all occurred on March 29, 2003, just three days after Special Forces accidentally bombed the town’s only hospital. I’m not speculating or translating or interpreting these events. They’re not part of my <em>belief system</em>. These are facts. Just as this is:

The Good Samaritans in the story of Rutba are Muslims. Forgiving, loving, compassionate, Allah-fearing Muslims.

In a profound way these Iraqis put into practice the lessons that Christians (fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists) are said to revere: do unto others as you would have others do unto you; treat your neighbor as yourself; turn the other cheek; love your enemy; and etc. All the important stuff that terrorists and warmongers frequently ignore, forget, or, maybe, never fully learned.

Turns out The Truth isn’t always sure what to make of this story. The Good Samaritans of Iraq sound like a contradiction. Like “Christian Muslims” or something. This muddles the proprietary narrative.

I’ve another friend on Facebook who’s an evangelical minister. A good, kind-hearted guy from everything I know. When I asked if I could bring the story of these Muslim Good Samaritans to his Church of the Nazarene congregation, he balked. In an email he responded:

“The challenge is to allow Christians to maintain their evangelism (ie: presentation of Jesus as the way, truth and the life, we are to make disciples). All while engaging in a world view that all men are children of GOD. I wonder if your message will allow for that. Love and compassion are Godly traits, not traits expressed by religions.”

I wholeheartedly agreed with his last sentence but questioned the wisdom of the first. Why would fundamentalists need to be allowed to maintain their evangelism? The Truth as packaged by fundamentalism is solid, immovable, omnipotent. Not fragile. But I assured him that my talks are not theology per se and should not be seen as a threat.

“These are true stories,” I wrote. “Listeners/Readers take away whatever resonates for them.”

I reminded the pastor of the New Testament verse (Mark 4:9) that some fundamentalists use to mute debate. It’s where Jesus explains why he delivers lessons in parables, like Morse code for the enlightened.

“And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”

I’ve not received a response to that email.

At the start of a recent speaking tourfor the paperback edition of “The Gospel of Rutba,” I was invited onto a Christian radio talk show that is broadcast on The Truth Network. Singular, uppercase. I was one of three panelists discussing our books and other works, and toward the end of the show we were each asked to tell about our Come-to-Jesus moment. If you were raised in the South and went to church every Sunday as I did, you know what that means. Your Come-to-Jesus moment is the epiphany when you saw The Truth— the flash of realization that belief in Jesus (and all the baggage that religion saddles on him) is the only way to eternal salvation.

The question presumed far too much. I felt like a kid squirming in the hard pew of my Baptist upbringing. I told The Truth Network of how I’d been dunked in the baptismal of my town’s First Baptist Church at age seven or eight. And how, as soon as I’d changed into dry clothes and accepted my bounty of hugs, handshakes and back pats, my father kept his promise. He took me to Dairy Queen. But, I continued, my true spiritual awakening had been fired by something far more nourishing than a large chocolate malt. Any epiphany from my youth had only gained meaning and maturity after I’d traveled the world as a news reporter. In some of humanity’s bleakest corners (e.g., the slums of Bangkok where Christians, Buddhists and Muslims work together to help the shantytown poor; the western desert of Iraq where Muslims rescued Americans) I had seen how anyone of any faith (or of no faith) could breathe life into Jesus’ lessons and parables. The Truth doesn’t own God. As a wise slum priest working in Bangkok once told me, God (or Allah or Whomever) is like the rain and sun. H/She falls to everyone.

Evidently there is no place in The Truth (or on The Truth Network) for that kind of nonsense. The host felt pressed to confirm that I was, in fact, a fully indoctrinated member of his Christian fraternity. He gave me the modern-day fundamentalist litmus test.

Yes, yes, he said, allowing the Rutba story a begrudging nod, but you have to admit that the Muslims have gone astray, and until they accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior they will spend eternity in hell.

I questioned what he meant by “gone astray.” I recounted how a Christian-majority nation invaded an Islamic nation by dropping close to 1,000 American-made bombs per day on it. I reminded him of the Muslim Good Samaritans who had exemplified the best parts of the New Testament. The rescue, the forgiveness, the stitches, the love.

The interview turned awkward and we parted ways agreeing to disagree.

The Church of the Nazarene minister who declined my offer to speak to his congregation responded last week to a story on my Facebook page. It was about President Obama’s counter-terrorism speech and the need to close the US prison on Guantanamo Bay. Since 2002 it’s been used to skirt international law while the US detains and interrogates (or tortures) “suspects” in Washington’s war on terrorism. More than 100 of the camp’s 166 detainees are currently engaged in a hunger strike to protest years of indefinite detention without formal charges, and more than 30 prisoners are being force-fed.

“History will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it,” Obama said last week. “Imagine a future — 10 years from now or 20 years from now — when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children?”

The evangelical minister said yes.

“Guantanamo is the most humane thing we can be doing. It is who we are and it is who we should be. (Obama’s) speech had nothing to do with us and everything to do with who The President is. He uses our grace to enrich his power, that is all.”

Later, after some Facebook backlash, he clarified his beliefs: “We don’t create terrorists. They are a product of hatred which is a product of GODLESSNESS.”

I countered this Truth the only way I know how. With more truth as best as I can research, recall and retell it.

“In my travels and reports terrorists are also known as warmongers,” I wrote. “I guess it all depends on your perspective and nation of residence. As you say, terrorism might be a product of hatred and Godlessness … but it is in my opinion most definitely a product of fear and anger.”

I explained with this story:

In Basra in 2003 I met an Iraqi preschooler and his school-teacher mom several weeks before the US-led invasion of Iraq. Four years earlier, in 1999, a US missile had gone astray in a Clinton-era no-fly-zone bombing near Basra. Mustafa, then age 4, and his brother, Haider, age 6, were outside playing when the bomb missed its target. It killed Haider and badly injured Mustafa. When I first met Mustafa he was missing two fingers and had more than thirty pieces of shrapnel embedded in him. One piece, the size of a knuckle, was near the base of his spine and caused him considerable pain when he walked.

About two months later, in April 2003, I met Mustafa and his mother again. This time in Ontario, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. They had been brought to the U.S. with the help of US Christian peacemaker Kathy Kelly, actor Sean Penn and several others. In California, Mustafa would receive free surgery and medical treatment. When I visited him and his mother in Ontario, they were living large compared to where they’d been living in Basra. His borrowed townhouse outside of L.A. was gorgeous, and the streets around it were trimmed and cleaned. He had all the comforts of a prosperous Western life. He smiled a lot, much more than when I’d met him in Basra.

On Mustafa’s eighth birthday his new neighbors, kind middle-class Americans, pooled their money and bought him a bike. A local newspaper reporter later interviewed him and asked a question that prompted an awkward but telling response.

“What would you like to be when you grow up?”

Mustafa answered from his heart while his mother translated.

“He said he wants to be a pilot,” Mom told the reporter.

Makes for a good script. The Iraqi boy who lost his brother and two fingers to an American bomb comes to California for healing, and now he wants to be a pilot.  Hollywood endings. Except his answer hadn’t ended there.

When I visited Ontario that same spring the mother told me that she had not translated Mustafa’s entire response. Maybe because she knew me or because Kathy, myself and others had shared a meal with her and her Iraqi soldier husband on the floor of their concrete home, she felt comfortable telling me the fuller truth. Mustafa, a little boy living in the cross-hairs and harsh consequences of the US military industry, had said this about his career path:

“I want to be a pilot when I grow up so I can fly a plane and drop bombs on Americans.”

Why wouldn’t he? Angry and frightened, much like the US after 9/11, he was declaring war on terrorism.

My evangelical minister friend responded with his hands over his ears.

“Let him who has ears hear. Godlessness is Godlessness. Those who don’t understand that do not have the ears to hear or the eyes to see.”

As bombs fell, Iraqi Good Samaritans rescued American Christians


At the rebuilt Rutba General Hospital in January, 2010. Back row, left to right, nurse Tarik Ali Marzouq and physician’s assistant Jassim Muhammad Jamil, Rutba local, Muslim Peacemaker Teams founder Sami Rasouli, and the rest are Rutba locals. Front row, kneeling left to right, Rev. Weldon Nisly, Cliff Kindy, and Shane Claiborne.  

The synopsis below was published by The Albany Times-Union in advance of an event where I’m speaking on Saturday, March 16. The event, hosted by the Capital Region Theological Center, is titled, “Finding Your Calcutta: Where Does God Call You.” You can register and/or read more about it HERE.


On a sunny Saturday 10 years ago this month three Christian peacemakers from the United States were injured in a car accident that ended violently in a remote desert ditch of war-torn Iraq. It was March 29, 2003, nine days into the Pentagon’s “Shock and Awe” campaign. The U.S. Air Force was dropping on average 941 bombs per day on a sovereign Islamic nation, according to data I gleaned from an April 30, 2003, military report titled, “Operation Iraqi Freedom: By the Numbers.” Those numbers don’t even include ordnance fired by ground troops or allied air forces.

The Christian peacemakers squeezed into a taxi that morning had chosen to reside in this bombardment with the war’s most obvious victims— everyday Iraqis caught in the cross fire between a dictator and history’s most powerful military. Some labeled the peacemakers “human shields.” Others wrote them off as suicidal. They were neither. Simply, their profound spirituality would not allow them to sit idly while their government killed innocent people. In the purest (read: apolitical) sense of the word, they were diplomats. For Christ.

Before going to Baghdad in March 2003, Philadelphia peacemaker Shane Claiborne had explained his motivation in a letter penned like a last testament. In part, he wrote:

“I am going to Iraq to stop terrorism. There are Muslim and Christian extremists who kill in the name of their gods. Their leaders are millionaires who live in comfort while their citizens die neglected in the streets. I believe in another kingdom that belongs to the poor and to the peacemakers. I believe in a safe world, and I know this world will never be safe as long as the masses live in poverty so that a handful of people can live as they wish. … May we stand by those who face the impending wrath of empire and whisper, ‘God loves you, I love you, and if my country bombs your country, I will be right here with you.’”

Weeks later, the Americans found themselves stranded and bloodied in a highway ditch. Indiana organic farmer Cliff Kindy’s scalp was split open and gushing blood. Mennonite minister Weldon Nisly from Seattle had a fractured sternum, shoulder, ribs and thumb. Claiborne, with a separated shoulder, was the least injured. But he felt sick with dread. In the Pentagon’s War on Terror, he feared that Iraqis would see the Americans as the terrorists.

When three Iraqi men in the first vehicle that came to the scene helped the Americans into their truck, Claiborne couldn’t decide if he was being rescued or kidnapped.

A half-dozen miles southeast of that hard ditch, 270 miles west of Baghdad, is a desert town named Rutba. It was the westernmost outpost for Saddam’s Ba’athist regime. Three days earlier, on March 26, 2003, a Special Forces unit from Fort Campbell, Ky., had bombed a suspected ammo depot adjacent to the region’s only hospital. Rutba General Hospital had burned to the ground. So the Americans were taken to a squat building with no electricity and no running water. It’s where Rutba General Director Dr. Farouq Al-Dulaimi, physician assistant Jassim Muhammad Jamil and nurse Tarik Ali Marzouq were treating Rutba’s sick and wounded, and where they would patch up the Americans.

Hearing that the Americans were similar to the Rutba townspeople —peaceful and unarmed — Dr. Farouq told Claiborne, “You are safe in Rutba. We will take care of you. We take care of everyone — Christian, Muslim, Iraqi, American. We are all human beings. We are all sisters and brothers.”

Seven years later, when the peacemakers returned to Rutba to find the Good Samaritans and medical staff who had saved them, Jassim told them that when he heard they had returned, he thought they had left something and wanted to reclaim it.

“I never thought that you came back to say thank you,” he said. “Is it possible that you came back for a simple service [we] provided?”

He later remarked at how the American Christians were behaving like good Muslims, only without the daily prayers.

When the peacemakers left Rutba and the reunion in 2010, they promised to keep telling the story of Rutba’s Good Samaritans. Hearing this, Tarik and Jassim offered to also do their part to bring peace and reconciliation.

“As you do when you go back and you tell your people about Rutba,” Tarik said, “we also are committed to tell our people about your visit and your noble mission.”

Greg Barrett traveled to Iraq in 2003 as a correspondent for Gannett News Service and is the author of “The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq.” He is speaking Saturday, March 16, at the Capital Region Theological Center’s event, “Finding Your Calcutta” at Lisha’s Kill Reformed Church, 2131 Central Ave., Schenectady. For more information go to http://www.capitalrtc.org.

Hey, Middle East! Are you listening?

Here’s hoping/praying that the Middle East and all of its violent players (e.g., Israel, the United States, Iran, the Taliban, Palestine, Egypt, etc.) will someday grow the heck up and absorb life’s lessons.

For example, Ubuntu.

Ubuntu (“OO-boon-too”) is something Desmond Tutu preaches: “It is about the essence of being human, it is part of the gift that Africa will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being able to go the extra mile for the sake of others. We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself.The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.”

Of course we see a living example of this in Father Joe Maier in The Gospel of Father Joe. It’s the same sort of oneness that he discusses in James Lingwood’s documentary, “Father Joe and the Bangkok Slaughterhouse.”

So, yo, Netanyahu! Are you taking notes? Please, for the love of God, Allah, the Buddah and all of humanity, grow up.

Evolve.