Spring

Spring is like a perhaps hand 
(which comes carefully 
out of Nowhere)arranging 
a window,into which people look(while 
people stare
arranging and changing placing 
carefully there a strange 
thing and a known thing here)and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps 
Hand in a window 
(carefully to 
and fro moving New and 
Old things,while 
people stare carefully 
moving a perhaps 
fraction of flower here placing 
an inch of air there)and

without breaking anything.

Just when you think you can’t possibly take another snow day, just when you are to the point of screaming at strangers, tearing your hair out; right when you are looking at flights to warmer climates and regretting signing a lease for 14 months, just then spring comes.

Spring is coming in so many ways– not just the buds on the trees, not just finally using my sun-roof, or the cherry-blossom festival. Spring and new life are in having furniture and a house full of tenants who might actually end up being a community and friends. Spring is in recognizing that I have been unbelievably blessed with a job where I meet new people everyday, where I am challenged to connect and care about folks I might have considered enemies, and yet still push for justice. September through December felt like a living hell– all highway, anonymous cold, grieving and a deep sense of loss. Part of that loss was a loss of meaning, of not understanding how I was contributing anymore, or if I had turned my back on true suffering…and another part was simply in confronting once again my foreignness, everywhere. 

I have reflected so often on my rootlessness, my lack of a home-team. The struggle to belong, to make sense of why I have had to be a nomad for so many years, or who I am and where I may someday find a home, this is constant. I certainly don’t have a clear answer right now. But I do know that my first month into this job I met a woman who came from the same neighborhood I had just lived in in Medellin (Buenos Aires), that last month I met a Mauritanian man, that my Jewish-American colleague knows my friends from the Holy Land Trust, that this afternoon I was able to go for a run with a woman who knew Oscar Romero and has lived an outrageously difficult life, and yet who encourages and inspires me. I know that twice in the last month I have used my mediation skills  and that countless times in the past year I have been humbled and educated by being shown my own erroneous assumptions and past mistakes…so I KNOW beyond the shadow of a doubt that in the midst of this craziness, in the huddled-up-lostness of winter there was and is a seed of beauty and meaning waiting to germinate. 

I have come to recognize that the slow and painful realization that there is no “now” moment when things suddenly are simpler, figured out, and good, is liberating. As a child I always envisioned this moment around the aged of 22; perhaps because I knew that was the age my mother got engaged at and we are somehow all under the impression as children that marriage signifies the end of uncertainty and suffering. I imagined that the questions I had, that the difficulty of finding true friendship, that my spiritual doubts and uncertainties about the future would gradually but definitively be resolved one by one with maturity. I will admit that I am not fully mature, but I now know that there is no such moment, and if there were, it almost definitely wouldn’t be the moment one gets engaged or married! I started realizing this when I turned 18 and realized I had known more in second grade than I did at that point; the first half of my 20′s has only served to confirm this point, and has been a process of grieving that reality (as well as so many others). Perhaps now I’ve moved through denial, anger, negotiating, etc and have finally come out on the side of acceptance, and perhaps even gratitude. There is no single path, there is no moment or age that brings absolute peace and clarity. Maybe if I had a home, maybe if I had fewer aspirations, maybe if I thought less, maybe maybe maybe, but probably not. I am having to weave the meaning, discern the wisdom, build the relationships, chose the places– this process is very tiring, and it’s terrifying because unlike in certain times past, I have so much control and agency over all of those things which means it’s on me when I chose poorly. But I am building something, and this spring weather reminds me to have grace with myself about that. 

This feels unfinished, and a little overdramatic, but I guess I just wanted to say hi, Spring, I’m glad you’re finally here. Image

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Six months later, a scattered update?

Being 25 in 2014 is something I think a lot of people are studying, blogging about, thinking about. Of course the unspoken truth most of the time is that every single 25 year old is totally different. Whether we’re talking about sex, love and dating, or views on international issues, justice, and career my perspective will always be shaped by having been raised in a French-American Christian household, by having been tear-gassed by the IDF when I was 20, by having fallen in love with a Colombian man, by having joined the Mennonite Church, by so many idiosyncratic things about me.

 

I’m a full-time community organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation now which means I’m learning the craft of the “individual meeting” as the fundamental building block of community organizing, which means learning to introduce myself succinctly with stories that illustrate who I am and why I organize. I talk a lot about my Papi, my French grandpa who will forever reside in a café plotting justice for African immigrants in my minds’ eye; I talk about encountering time and again walls (economic, social, physical) between people; I describe time and again being tear-gassed in Bi’lin; I describe starting a student divestment group in college. Sometimes I talk about visiting the gold mine in Guatemala. But I’m still having a really hard time telling a good story about Colombia.

 

Last year I was in love, in Medellin, I walked to the metro, or the bus, or to where I was going. I bought groceries a few blocks away, cooked nearly every day. I woke up in my wood-floor room and stepped out onto my balcony to create my work everyday. I knew where to go swimming, dancing, who to call for help, how long I would be there. I spoke Spanish, usually only Spanish all day long. I did very few helpful things, few things that I think really lasted, other than being there, being me, and caring—but the issues I thought about were how to get victims’ rights respected, how to keep youth out of street gangs, how to build a more social-justice-focused theology and culture in the church, how to work as a network better, how civil society voices should and could influence peace talks, how to create a team and culture that was non-colonial and based on true justice, how to build resistance to oppression in Latin-America, how to be in solidarity.

 

All that thinking changed who I am profoundly. But it’s hard to tell as a story, especially since I didn’t achieve all those lofty goals.

 

And now my life is so different.

 

I drive every day; I pay 4 dollars for coffee without blinking an eye; I just got a credit car; I’m learning about affordable housing in the US, Arlington specifically, about the internal issues and politics of one of the richest counties in the US, including the strengths, weaknesses and challenges of public schools. I’m meeting with county board members, lawyers, construction workers, defense contractors, house-cleaners, teachers, DREAMERS, and priests and trying to figure out above all who the leaders are, what will motivate them to act, what the winnable issue is. And I fit in. I’m not the minority, the sole gringa, any more. I’m so white, so average, so on a par with all my peers battling with finding housing, finding love, finding friends and community, finding a path, and having our shit together.

 

 It makes my head spin sometimes—the professional, interpersonal, internal, spiritual, physical, and geographical shifts I’ve made in the last 8 months.

 

Where I felt like screaming I needed silence so badly in Medellin after the constant roar of salsa and folks in buses and streets, here I scream for the quiet loneliness of my car; where I despaired at the presence of gangs on every corner and a total lack of efficiency in grocery stores now I am bored by the pristine-cookie-cutter streets and annoyed by the overly-ambitious career-focused yuppies all around…

 

Spin is the right word. I feel I have been spinning, in varying degrees of despair or joy, for the past 8 months. So being 25 in 2014…I don’t know. At this point I’d just like to maybe stop spinning for a bit. Find a place to live with friends, near a running path, where I can settle my body and mind for a while.

 

That being said, in some tired and unstable way, I know I’m generally where I need to be for now. I’m learning important things. I’m having to deal with realities too long pushed under the rug. So that’s good. And I’m grateful for all of you providing love and support along the way.

 Image

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Keep Knocking

A little over a month ago Larisa and I flew back from Colombia. For both of us it would be the first time in two years we would set foot on US territory. Larisa was leaving only to come back for another two years soon thereafter, but I was coming back not knowing exactly when I would be back in Colombia. I was a little sad, a little nervous, but ready. 

Truth be told the past two years have not been easy; and though I have learned to love Colombia for its people, its “berraquera”, and for so many reasons, I have long known that if Colombia were a man, I would want to be friend with him, not marry him. But Colombia has taught me so much, and stirred up innumerable questions in me. Questions like: Where am I personally most effective in creating change? How do I evaluate my success when I’m no longer being graded and am so often working on long-term processes? Do I actually want to work at changing specific policies if I’m unsure I trust the system as a whole? And many many more. 

I have learned that I am weaker and more prone to failure than I thought; I have learned that where there is poverty, money will always be an important factor in any equation, regardless of the topic. And I have learned that trust, love, and affection are necessary conditions for existing. 

One of my fears in working in Latin America, after already being familiar with part of the Middle-East, Africa, Europe and the United States, was that by dedicating part of my life to this new region I would inevitably become aware and care about a whole new set of issues, people and peoples, feel even more the weight of structural evil in the world and be all the more geographically-torn in my relationships. This of course happened. For I now know far more than I did about the United States’ history in Latin America and Colombia specifically; I know more about drug-trafficking, gangs, urban conflict,  and the effect of neoliberal capitalist economic models on community development than I did two years ago. Tragically, I do, and tragically few people care to hear what I have learned about these things. Returning service workers will always tell you this: People are surprisingly lacking in curiosity about your time of service abroad. I am grateful that several people, especially in Harrisonburg, have taken the time and energy to ask me some about Colombia, but the general statement has a lot of truth to it. 

Up until a week or so ago everything felt pretty surreal. It was like watching my life as a movie. “Oh, now I’m leaving Medellin. Oh, now my relationship is truly over. Ok. Now I’m in Bogota. Now Seed is over. Hey, I’m seeing these people for the first time, how interesting…” and so on in a sort of detached-if-content-blur. It was too much. Perhaps it still is; yet I’m feeling that numbness thaw. Anyone who knows the feeling of frozen toes coming to life knows that thawing is definitely good, but it is also ever-so-slightly-painful. Painful to recognize and face that not all in Colombia ended as I would have wished; painful to see and know that my relationships there will change; difficult to face a new set of challenges and the knowledge that all these questions that have opened up for me do not have answers yet, and that much that I learned disturbs more than it comforts. Yet the thawing also allows me to truly feel and know the blessing of old-friends’ arms around me, to truly hear the wise words of mentors and friends, to truly be excited about renewing my relationship with my sister. 

Thawing, I hope, means that soon I will be able to care about seek the answers to those questions I put on ice, and will be emotionally an intellectually capable of sharing about Colombia in an intelligible way. I hope so.

For now I have committed myself to do a three-month trial period with VOICE, an affiliate of the IAF. It means buying a car and working in the suburbs, but it also means being allowed to take leadership and help communities become aware of and harness their power for political change. It is an organization with equally strong yet fairly opposed self-understanding as MCC; an organization that emphasizes success and ends over process and means. It is quite the shift, but it feels like what I need to do right now. 

For a while, I kept thinking to myself  “I don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to work. My passion has run out.” I’m thankful I didn’t make myself feel guilty about that, or worry too much about it, because today my beautiful sister posted a poem that suddenly spoke to me (as Rumi often does). My favorite part were the last three stanzas:

 
“Work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about getting off from work.
Water is there somewhere.

Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that
is a ring on the door.

Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there.”

This morning I went for a run. This week I did nothing impulsive or stupid (I think); that feels good. I think I’m ready to dig in, to not let the doubts and questions over-run the joy and hope I have seen in the past two years. I will need help along the way, but I’m excited to keep pushing, knocking, to keep seeking to drink from the source of light that lets us fight the darkness. 

This isn’t a synthesis reflection, or a conclusion to two years of my life. How could it be? Colombia is now part of me, just as Palestine is, just as Harrisonburg is, and they will all keep teaching me lessons and working inside of me. 

Today, though, I am celebrating the feeling of thawing, the joy of and blessing of family and friends, and the intention to “submit to daily practice”, to keeping on knocking.Image

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A peaceful neighborhood

Oscar and I were going to go get some juice between church meetings. Oscar noticed the group of youth obviously in conflict at the corner of my street before I did, when I did I stopped, kept watching from a distance and started thinking about what I could do or say. There were four young guys, between 17 and 19 I’d say, obviously threatening and running off an equally young black guy. I remembered a friend of mine recently telling me she and her church were praying their neighborhood not explode with violence again after the recent killing of one of the local gang leaders. What had happened there was that an Afro-Colombian family had huge speakers and loud music out all night, the gang leader and a friend came over, pushign they’re weight around, telling them to shut if off and the Afro-Colombian guy knifed the gang leader. The order was out now that not just this family but any and all Afro-Colombians had to immediately evacuate the neighborhood or they’d be killed, including completely unrelated church members and friends of my friend.

When I saw the three white guys threatening the black guy, that’s what I first remembered. Although in this case I heard the black young man clearly ask “What did I rob?”, leading me to believe it was more an issue of theft than a general “cleansing”.  I kept watching. Oscar told me we should move on and get home. The truth is, much as I felt like I should intervene I also had visions of my last two weeks in Medellin suddenly including the local gang having it out for me and, honestly, I was scared. Besides, the black guy was walking away.

When we got to the house Oscar asked me “What were you going to do? What were you going to say?” honestly asking. The truth is I didn’t have a fully formulated plan, but I said probably just try to act as a buffer, help them actually talk rather than just threaten. At least be a witness, because here, as I told Oscar, I feel like they could have killed the young man in cold blood in the middle of the street and no neighbor would have dared say “boo” or even help with the body. Looking the other way is a deeply ingrained survial mechanism.

Oscar was upset, unsettled. He had seen one gang member punch the other guy in the jaw before I even saw them. “I want to be countercultural in these situations” he said, but he’d had an experience downtown of policemen beating up a young guy and when Oscar intervened and told them to arrest and charge him but not beat him up he was immediately taken aside by two paramilitary men and asked pointedly if he wanted to pay the man’s crimes for him? “The thing is, these things go in stages, they threaten and warn, and then once there’s a kill order there’s nothing you can do. If he robbed more than once there’s probably nothing to be done.” My comment: “What kind of an idiot would steal in this city?” And it’s true, to a degree. Paramilitary groups and gangs generally are extremely protective of their neighborhoods, and jealous of criminality in general; it’s something that gives them at least marginal popular support. But that doesn’t justify vigilante justice.

Maybe I would have intervened and at least surprised them, maybe they would have seperated faster; but I really doubt I could have gotten them to dialogue. The fact is these teenagers, who should be starting college, control the neighborhood. The hesitation I felt to intervene is not irrational– they could kill me, at the very least threaten me, or the church. Were we to call the police, they would very likely tip off the gang leaders. Or maybe not, maybe nothing at all would happen. But just like a Palestinian at an Israeli checkpoint, that’s the power of the control: you never know when it will matter, when it will end your life.

If you asked most people in Medellin if they live in fear, they would probably say no. But fear is only ever inches away; fear is the reason why people have streets and whole neighborhoods they don’t go to, why they avoid visiting strangers’ houses, why they stick their head in the sand so often, why most people don’t want to get too involved in local politics, or in anything.

I’m not scared. I actually have almost never felt scared in my entire two years here. I’ve actually felt extremely safe. I work with churches, I take public transportation, I do excercise, I paint, sing, drink, dance, lead workshops, I do everything I need to do and am not in danger. But when I started thinking about talking to those teenagers yesterday I was scared; and I’m worried about that young black man. But more than anything I’m discouraged and upset that nothing I have done or seen done in these two years gets to a solution on how to change the deep-seated control of this city by young violent gangs.

(Unless of course you count the ever-present evangelical plan to simply do enough evangelistic campaigns that everyone converts and leave all violence and vice behind.)

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Senioritis

It’s like senioritis; that feeling that it’s all going to be over so soon and you’re sad, but also excited, antsy even, and above all you’re letting go.

That’s what I feel like I’m doing here these last two weeks in my service location: letting go. I know that if I don’t call X and Y person, the meeting it’s critical happen may or may not end up happening. That chance has always led me to make the call but now the inevitable truth that if this doesn’t work without me it doesn’t work at all is suddenly all too clear. So I don’t call. (Or, ok, maybe I call at the last minute, or maybe I call a person who could make the calls instead of me…) and above all, I relax.

I care a lot about the church and network processes I’ve been acompanying here. But I also have to acknowledge that if I’ve let myself become a coordinator, and not just a support, that’s a problem and I’m not going to be able to fix that problem right now. So I have to let the system regulate itself ;)  And the amazing thing is, it will. People are stepping in, and it may be chaotic or slower for a while, but it’s important, it will get done.

My comfort-thought has been that I’m fairly decided on coming back to visit in June of next year, hopefully. If I get a job. If I get vacation time. If a meteor doesn’t smack into the earth.

I’m enjoying my last “festivo”, randomely-off-monday here in Medellin and reminding myself, as I have for a while, that life has never been predictable, that my plans have always been more about feeling in control than actually knowing what would happen. I know that I am a different person today than I was when I first arrived in Colombia, and thank God because how terrible would it be to stagnate at 22? I can’t describe to you the changes yet, though, I think that comes with time, with encountering familiar settings while being different yourself. Probably you all will be able to tell me more about the changes than I myself can describe. For now, though, it is important to breathe. Say goodbye well, appreciate all this place has given me, and step forward without fear or arrogance, but with gratitude and hope.

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Mother’s Day

I´ve never been a woman that thinks very much about being a woman. I remember in college that while I could get onboard with gender equality campaigns and theological discussions about the feminine characteristics of God and the way patriarchy and machismo has marked Biblical interpretation, culture, etc….it all fit under the category of injustice generally, one of many many injustices to be rectified and worked against. Moreover, I never was particularly excited about being part of a women’s-only group….I really like men, as a child I really liked boys. I don’t mean romantically or sexually, I mean that I have historically had many really strong male friendships and most of the time when there were gender-specific activities, I’ve tended to rather do the “male” activity than the “female” equivalent ( example: play soccer or stand in a group and chat? Tea party or going out for a beer? (even before I *liked* beer this sounded like more fun), street hockey or jump rope? Men’s retreat hiking or women’s retreat reflecting on ourselves and doing yoga? I realize these are stereotypes, but they happen…) I finally realized I’m not a terribly feminine person, in the traditional sense. I can be, for sure, I have my moments, but I don’t gravitate towards intensely feminine spaces.

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I also have the huge benefit of having been raised (amazingly, given that my childhood was spent in an Islamic Republic and later teenage years in Palestine..) pretty much constantly empowered and made to feel that being a woman was pretty much irrelevent to what my interests or possibilities should or would be. That is to say, I never had to overcome anything, really. When later in life I have experienced oppression or sexism in any form my atitude has run between gut-reaction anger, to pity for the perpetrators and how much they’re losing by having that mentality. It’s never gotten to me because I know who I am, as a human being, and that being a woman is just one of so many aspects of myself that make me neither better nor worst than anyone else.

Reading “A People’s History of the United States” has been an eye-opener in many ways. Learning about United State’s women’s struggle to be seen simply as people and treated as equal has forced me to admit that I have the luxury of not thinking myself exclusively or even primarily through the lense of being a woman (as opposed to a christian, a pacifist, a high-energy person, an advocate, or whatever…) because of the struggle of so many women before me. Women, specifically. Men helped, but without women it wouldn’t have been possible.

Today is Mother’s day, so I’ve been thinking about mothering, the verb, and how nowadays that which we associate with “mothering” is something we expect both parents to participate in. In the end parenting as a whole requires a huge spectrum of things: constant love and affection, discipline, guidance, money, time, etc. and while those different aspects once were neatly divided between Provider (of money and discipline mostly) and Nurturer (feeder, cleaners, care-giver, etc) most of the modern marriages and parents I know now mix fairly freely between these two roles. Maybe there is coming a day when Mothers’day and Fathers’day won’t be thought of or celebrated in such different ways, or where Mother day will be about Mothering, caring, regardless of who (or what gender) the caregiver is. But while I hope and mostly believe that’s the direction we’re heading in, it’s important to acknowledge that women, that mothers in most parts of the world have to a large degree become the all-around-parent, or at least done the lion’s share of parenting and by and large they have done an amazing job.

I was thinking today about how glad I am I’m not a mother; to be honest, how terrified I would be to be a mother after seeing the level of commitment and life-change it requires. But I was also thinking about the millions of women, many of whom didn’t necessarily plan on being mothers, many of whom perhaps had no desire to be mothers, who nevertheless have given their lives as loving gifts to their kids. These women, our mothers, aren’t just teaching us about being a good mom: most of them are teaching the world an important lesson on what it means to be a good human being, what it means to be a good Christian, what it is to truly love someone. Being sensitive, being gentle but firm, thinking of someone else before oneself are characteristics we should all seek. What terrifies me about motherhood is sacrificing my own plans and desires for someone elses’ well-being. Essentially a fear of being pulled out of my own selfishness.  Eventually I need to get over that; whether I ever become a mother or not, I have much to learn about being a better human being from the mothers I have seen.

The act that first began the tradition of celebrating mother’s day, Julia Ward Howe’s proclamation in 1870 says: “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own. It says, ‘Disarm, Disarm!’”

We do ourselves a disservice lauding this solely as an inspiring act from a woman, or a mother. Of course Julia was both those things, but first and foremost she was a human being, and “charity, mercy and patience” are not only virtues for women, but for everyone, especially for sons who (then and now) are often the first to be told that competition, winning, pride, and manliness are more virtuous than being sensitive or empathetic to the pain of others.

I don’t think women are more inherently gentle, or merciful, or loving then men. I do think we’ve been “socialized to” lean more towards those virtues, and must extremely careful that this be our strength, that we not reject it as part of the historic oppression of women. No, it is not inherent to us, but it is good. Men, young adult women, all of us must now see and acknowledge that the rejection of the violence and the ability to love unconditionally and sacrifice much for others which we have seen in so many mothers is an example for all of us. It is something we must all learn.

Tonight I want to thank and respect all the voices, male and female, that in the face of calls for blood, conquest, economic interests or convenience have spoken out and acted for peace, in love, in mercy, in empathy. I want to value (as an aggressive, competitive, work-minded, fairly “masculine” woman, the “feminine” virtues of care, patience and tenderness which we all need to cultivate—not because it is in our nature, but precisely because so often it is lacking.

And I want to name Judy Sarriot as a mother, a woman, but above all a human being who most brilliantly has shown me with her resilient, humble and constant example what living a life full of mercy, love, and empathy can look like. I honor, respect, and love you deeply.

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The Advocacy/Investigative/Central American SEED tour!

On May 19th, my half of the Seed team headed off to Mexico…. (I strongly suggest you click on the pictures to see them more fully. Photo credit goes mainly to Seeder Daniela Velasquez and in part to Anna Voght, two wonderful photographers who saved this blog entry when my camera´s card gave up the ghost)

When our facilitator Nathan picked us up a the Guatemala airport none of us were in a great mood….Carolina and Juan had been taken to a back room for ¨extra¨questioning because they´re Colombian, and were only released when the interogator saw Larisa and my gringa-faces. Besides that we were all pretty tired from the 5 days in Mexico, interesting and delicious as they had been, and I personally was still getting over (and still am not quite over) whatever fiendish being caused me to eruptile vomit on the airport´s shiny floor in Bogota the day we left. We met up with the other half of our group which had been to Honduras (to the city that currently holds the dubious honor of having the highest murder rate in Latin America, I believe…) and had informal dinner discussions and a somewhat uncomfortable morning sing-along-time with the regional workers and Latin American Reps for MCC. Remember our topic is: What is advocacy? How can it be done? How is MCC doing it and how should it be doing it?

COMMUNITY ONE: Nevaj

COMMUNITY TWO: Salquil

COMMUNITY THREE: San Miguel

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COMMUNITY FOUR: La Vega

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