Nostra Aetate for Real

September 25th, 2015

“What do you know about Nostra Aetate?”

 

I was a bit taken aback by the question. It wasn’t a question that often comes up in casual conversation. It was especially unusual for me to hear it asked by an Orthodox Jewish friend right after the completion of Shacharit on Shabbat morning. The person who asked the question was Jay, an older man who serves as the “gabbai” in the Shul. The position of gabbai can roughly be translated as sexton, but to me Jay is like a master of ceremonies, keeping the Jewish service running smoothly. A Jewish service on Shabbat has at least as many moving parts as a Catholic Mass. Jay brings an extensive knowledge of the Jewish liturgy, along with a deep understanding of the Hebrew language, to his work in the synagogue. He knows his stuff.

 

Since Jay is so deeply immersed in his own religious tradition, it was a surprise to me that he would ask about the Vatican II document concerning the relationship between the Catholic Church and other religions. As it turns out, Jay, along with his wife, Deena, are part of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which is connected with the Catholic Jewish conference, which is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Nostra Aetate. So Jay is interested in the document, and how it has affected the relationship between Jews and the Catholic Church over the last half century. He is looking at it from the Jewish side of the equation (by the way, Jay is a mathematician). I think that he is most interested in how Catholics have changed their view of Judaism.

 

I thought for a moment, and I tried to answer Jay’s question. I told him, “If it weren’t for Nostra Aetate, I wouldn’t be here. Not at all.” That’s the truth.

 

I was suddenly struck by how much this document from Vatican II has affected my life. I have been hanging out at Lake Park Synagogue for almost six years now. Without Nostra Aetate, I would never have even ventured into a synagogue, much less attended the services. Without it, I would not have close Jewish friends. Without it, I would not love the Torah and Jewish spirituality.

 

Let me say at this point that I am a bit of an outlier. Most people, most Catholics are not interested in other religious traditions. I am odd in the fact that I actively try to learn about other faiths. I spend time with Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, and Jews. This isn’t normal, so I have probably been impacted more by Nostra Aetate than the average Catholic. Even so, the document has created huge changes in attitudes, both within the Church and outside of it.

 

 

Fifty years isn’t a long time, at least as far as religion is concerned. Things move along at a glacial pace. Prejudices die hard. So it is with Nostra Aetate. Relations between Catholics and Jews have indeed changed, but not as much as one would hope.

 

When I first came to Lake Park Synagogue, I met Rabbi Shlomo Levin. He was probably the perfect person to introduce me to Orthodox Judaism. He was friendly and open and funny. I am not sure that I would have stayed as long as I have with this Shul, if it had not been for him. He invited me and my wife to lunches at his house on Shabbat. We met his wife, Noa, and his children. That is when I really learned how it felt to be part of a Jewish community. I talked with him, and we told each other about our families. We became friends. That was the most important thing. We became friends.

 

I have learned a few things about the practical aspects of Nostra Aetate over the years. For one thing, people have tended to be suspicious, at least initially, when I have tried to learn about other traditions. The first question I got from the Jews was, “So, you want to convert?”. My answer was “no”. The next question from some of the members of the synagogue was, “So, why are you here?”. Actually, that’s a good question. My eventual answer was that a Christian who does not understand Judaism is an orphan. We get 95% of our spiritual DNA from the Jews. We ought to know something about them. I now know a little bit.

 

Just because I am interested in Judaism does not mean that my Jewish friends are interested in Catholicism. They aren’t. Well, Jay is interested, but in some ways he is an outlier like I am. My point is that there is not necessarily a reciprocal relationship. People at the synagogue are glad to tell me all about Judaism, but they often couldn’t care less about my faith.

 

Patience really is a virtue. Not long ago, another friend of mine, Ken, invited me to his house for lunch on Shabbat. He often has me over to visit, but this time he wanted to talk about prayer. We had a long and fruitful conversation, for which I am very grateful. The fact is that we didn’t have this particular discussion until we had known each other for several years. We had to trust each other and be comfortable enough to talk about the things that really matter to us. We had a very deep and personal conversation that would have been impossible earlier in our relationship. Things take time. If I really want to talk about religion to somebody from another tradition, then I have to have that trust first.

 

Religion is experiential. Books and films can help a person learn about other faiths, but being there is essential. For me, going to the services on Shabbat and celebrating the holy days made it real. An authentic faith tradition involves every aspect of a person’s life. To learn about that tradition, I have had to try to live it, at least somewhat. I had to be there.

 

So, what do you know about Nostra Aetate?

 

 

Cody

June 8th, 2017

Cody, Wyoming, is a small city surrounded by hills about sixty miles to the east of Yellowstone National Park. The Shoshone River flows through a deep canyon in Cody. Karin and I had once visited Cody in 1985 on our way to my Army assignment in California. It was smaller and more compact back then. This time it looked spread out, with miles of hotels lining the main highway through town. One of the founders of the city was Buffalo Bill, hence the name of this community. The history and legend of Buffalo Bill Cody permeate all aspects of this place. The locals promote the Wild West theme as much as they possibly can. Their patron saint was a Civil War veteran, Indian scout, buffalo hunter, and all around savvy self-promoter. Buffalo Bill’s influence still shows up everywhere in Cody.

Cody is a tourist magnet, but I don’t believe that anybody actually comes to Cody because they want to come to Cody. No, they come to Cody because of its proximity to Yellowstone. People want to go to Yellowstone. After all, Yellowstone has geysers, a beautiful lake, scenic mountains, excellent fishing, and occasional sightings of bison and elk. The problem is that Yellowstone has very limited accommodations. We went to Yellowstone during this trip, and one of the first signs we saw said: “All Campgrounds Full”. This translates to: “You’re screwed, if you are looking for a place to stay.”  This explains the attraction of Cody. Your options are limited. Even Buffalo Bill knew this over a one hundred years ago.

Karin and I had spent the previous night at the Monastery of the Ascension near Boise. We had not set up a place to stay prior to leaving the retreat house there. That proved to be a mistake. Our plan was to drive east along the Snake River Valley on I-84, and then venture into Yellowstone. We had been there three decades ago, and we were due for another visit.

We entered through the west entrance in Montana. The journey through Yellowstone, even if a person doesn’t stop to see anything, takes hours. Of course, nobody just drives through Yellowstone. That’s not real. By God, you are going to at least visit the geysers. You do that, along with the throngs of Japanese, Swedes, Frenchmen, Indians (from India), Brits, Chinese, and other tourists from all over the globe. Oddly enough, I met only one German during our visit, and that was Karin.

In any case, Yellowstone is an all-day kind of gig. Traffic slows to a crawl so people can take pictures of bison, or elk, or geysers, or some damn thing. Also, the roads are not designed for speed. Many year ago, the road to the eastern entrance used to include a stretch called “Corkscrew Bridge”. They have since straightened out the corkscrew, but the road consists almost entirely of hairpin turns and steep grades. We crossed the Continental Divide (8391 feet above sea level) twice. This is not a drive for the unwary. There is nothing like constantly shifting gears on a narrow, winding road to keep a person in the moment. “Focus, Grasshopper.”

Once out of the park, there is another scenic drive going east. A person drives past towering mountains and a roaring river. There is a long tunnel and a lake produced by the Buffalo Bill Dam on the Shoshone. There is an occasional hunting lodge along the road, and a few camp grounds. However, there are no services until a person gets to Cody. Nothing. Nada. It is also an interesting fact that there are no services beyond Cody, at least until you get to Greybull, which is a solid hour’s drive to the east.

We pulled into Cody around 6:00 PM. Karin and I were hungry, tired, and irritable. We stopped at the first hotel in sight, which was aptly named “Cody Hotel”. It seemed kind of upscale, but I figured we would give it a try. We walked into the expansive lobby, and I asked if they had a room for us. The woman at the counter checked, and told me that they had a room available for a mere $200.

I was aghast. This woman actually wanted me to fork out $200 to stay overnight in this cowboy ghetto that barely had enough people to support a Walmart. Naw, I don’t think so.

We got back in the car and drove a bit. We saw a Best Western and drove into their lot. We entered the lobby and immediately noticed the “No Vacancy” sign. There were two young women standing behind the counter. They looked bored.

I sensed some really bad energy. It was all starting to click. Karin and I were in Cody at the height of the tourist season with no hotel reservation. I asked a clearly unnecessary question:

“So, uh, you folks haven’t had any cancellations, have you?”

One girl looked at me stone-faced and shook her head slowly.

“Okay, uh, you wouldn’t maybe have any phone numbers for your competitors?”

The other girl sighed and said to her partner, “Well, I guess he could try to call AmericInn. They might have something.”

The severe-looking girl stared at us like we had cholera, and then gave me a phone number. I called AmericInn. A lady answered, and I asked hopefully, “Do you have any rooms available?”

The lady asked me, “You mean for tonight?!”

“Yeah, for tonight.”

The woman at the other end of the call apparently checked her computer and said, “Well, I have one room here with two queen size beds. It also has a refrigerator and, of course, WIFI and cable. It goes for…let’s see…$176 per night.”

I rapidly assessed our situation as the woman rambled on about nothing. The fact was that Karin and I were utterly screwed on this deal. These backwoods yokels were going to bleed us white no matter what we did. If I didn’t take this room, it was likely that we would be sleeping in the Toyota. I tuned back in.

The woman said, “So, if this works for you, I could book the room for you.”

“Yes! Please! It sounds great! Just what we were looking for!”

The woman was quite pleased. “Let me just get some information from you…”

At that point, Karin asked quietly, “Where are we staying?”

“The AmericInn. The room has two queen-size beds.”

“But we don’t need two queen-size beds.”

“Oh, yes, we do!”

Karin let it go.

I completed the phone arrangements, and then Karin and I drove a mile back to the AmericInn.  The building looked like a three-story log cabin. The hotel had that rough-hewn, faux Western look. It stank of tourist money. Our money.

We staggered into the lobby of the hotel. There was a middle-aged woman standing behind the desk. She had a round face with rounder glasses. A young woman with perfectly applied make up worked next to the lady. I explained who we were. The woman’s face beamed.

She said breezily, “We just have some paperwork for you to sign…initial here and here and here… and sign here.”

I mumbled, “I’ll sign the confession.”

“What was that?”

“Never mind. Uh, my wife and I need to find a place to eat supper, within walking distance.”

The woman’s face brightened. “Well, Bubba’s Bar-B-Cue is right in front of the hotel. It’s quite popular. They have an extensive menu…”

I cut to the chase: ”Do they have beer?”

The young woman burst out laughing. She looked at me slyly and asked, “Long drive?”

“No…not really. I was just curious.”

The girl snorted, “Yeah, mmmhmmm.”

Karin and I dumped our belongings into the room. It was a really nice room. It was just too big and too expensive. We decided to sleep separately. If we were paying for two queen-size beds, then, damn it, we were going to use them.

Bubba’s wasn’t bad at all. Sure, it had all the cowboy crap that it required to look properly Western, but otherwise it was a good place to eat. They actually offered an extensive, all-you-can-eat salad bar. Karin liked that. I was going for the pulled pork sandwich.

A young waitress with a red shirt that had “Bubba’s” embroidered on it came to serve us.

“Would you all like something to drink?”

Karin smiled and said, “I’ll have a water.”

I asked, ”Do you have any local craft beers?”

The waitress smiled and replied, “Oh yes. We have Buffalo Bill Cody Beer.”

Of course, they would have that. Is there anything in this fucking town that isn’t named after that guy?

I said, “Yes. I would love to have a Buffalo Bill Cody Beer.”

The waitress smiled again and said, “I’ll be right back with your drinks.”

The food was good. The beer was gone long before I finished the sandwich. The waitress hovered near me and asked,

“Would you care for another Buffalo Bill?”

I spoke through a mouth full of pork, ”No thanks. Could you bring me a glass of Moose Drool instead?”

“Sure. You know that is a dark beer?”

“Yeah. Sounds good to me.”

Karin and I crashed shortly after supper. It was probably good that we had a room with queen-size beds. I sometimes get night terrors. I don’t know why and I don’t know how. All I know is that I scream and thrash about in my sleep. That used to freak out Karin. I had night terrors that night. It was worthwhile for me to have a bed to myself.

Breakfast we in the lobby. I hadn’t really checked out the lobby closely prior to that time. It had a vaulted ceiling and a grand staircase leading to the second floor. It also had a total of twenty-four stuffed animals (I counted them). These weren’t the plush, cuddly animals that you give to a little kid at bedtime. No, these had been real, live bear and sheep and deer at one time. Now they looked down on us dolefully as we ate our scrambled eggs and bacon. The perfect end to our stay.

Sweet Eugene’s

May 21st, 2017

“Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that’s what.” – Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

Karin and I left Hans’ travel trailer one fine morning and we drove to College Station. College Station is the home of Texas A&M. The university is like the sun; everything in the city revolves around it. A person either works for A&M, or they work for somebody else who works for Texas A&M.

We went for coffee at Sweet Eugene’s. Sweet Eugene’s is a café near the university. It has an artsy feel to it. It’s always had that, ever since it opened in 1993. The café has little niches and side rooms with sofas and comfy chairs. Some of the décor is silly, as if the coffee shop has a sense of humor and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a place that attracts young people, and it provides an antidote to the relentlessly conservative energy of the university. The place tries to be hip and trendy in a way that Texas A&M is totally not.

Karin and I have a history at Sweet Eugene’s. Actually, we have a long history at College Station, a history that goes back to 1989 or so. Karin and I have had coffee at Sweet Eugene’s more times than we can remember. We used to sit together with family and friends, but this time we shared our table with ghosts.

Our ghosts were polite and unobtrusive. They didn’t try to sip Karin’s cappuccino or nibble on my bagel. They just sat nearby, silent, but unmistakably there.  Karin and I talked about them, as they hovered close to us. People from our past who still make an impact upon our present. People like Marc Blaze, Tom, Bob, Delphia, and Shawn’s brother, Mark.

I got up from our table to get a refill on my coffee. There was a young man behind the counter. He wore a baseball cap and t-shirt that showed the Seattle skyline on it.

I asked him, “Have you been to Seattle?”

The young guy worked on my refill and said, “No. A friend went there, and he brought this back for me.”

As he brought me my cup, I noticed an absurdly large class ring on his hand.

I asked, ”Aggie?”

He smiled and replied, “Yeah, I graduated from there last year.”

I thought to myself, “And you’re working here as a barista? Ow.”

Instead of that, I said to him, “I was just noticing the class ring.”

“Oh yeah. The rings are a big deal at A&M.”

I told him, “I went to West Point. Class rings were a big deal there too.”

He replied, “A&M does a lot of things that they do there.”

“I always thought A&M was a southern-fried West Point.”

The guy looked at me for moment. Then he said, “Yeah, that sounds about right”, and he returned to his work.

My younger brother, Marc Blaze, went to Texas A&M. During his freshman year, he was part of the school’s Corps of Cadets. He was as gung ho as anybody could possibly be. He got to be the guide on bearer, which was a major deal in that organization. Marc was an over-achiever with a severe case of OCD. The guy was ruthlessly competitive. He had to be number one, all the time.

Then he met Shawn, his future wife. This rigid, driven, military man fell in love with a punk/hippie hybrid who had an affinity for black berets and Chinese slippers. The agnostic, free-spirited girl fell for the hardcore Catholic cadet. Marc quit school and got a job in town. The two of them married in 1990. They had two daughters, Maire and Roise. Karin and I, along with our kids, drove down nearly every year to Texas to visit Marc and Shawn. We often took Hans, Hannah, and Stefan to meet up with Shawn and Marc at Sweet Eugene’s.

Marc Blaze died in February of 1998. It was a fatal car accident. The crash that tore out his seatbelt also tore the heart out of his family. Now, almost twenty years later, his wife and daughters still wrestle with the effects of that crash. The sound of Marc’s voice echoed in my mind as I sat with Karin at Sweet Eugene’s. I could hear him that morning. I can hear him now.

Marc started a chain of events continues to this day. When Hans got to be a teenager, he spent nearly every summer with Shawn in Texas. Hans eventually found his home there because Marc had found a home there. Marc was Stefan’s godfather. Stefan spent almost two years in College Station, working with people who remembered his uncle. Hannah made connections with her cousin, Maire. Over the years, the web between our families grew more intimate and more tangled. Visits to Sweet Eugene’s were usually part of the process.

Marc Blaze was the first one to leave. In recent years others have followed. Shawn’s mother, Delphia, died from dementia. Shawn’s second husband, Bob, was stricken with cancer. Hans was living with Shawn’s step-father, Tom, when Tom died in a house fire. Shawn’s brother, Mark, killed himself. Karin and I knew all of these people. They were all parts of a family mosaic. They were integral to our lives. They are gone.

Karin and I finished our conversation. We finished our coffee and our bagels. Marc smiled at me. Tom did too, as he held up his hand like he was still smoking a cigarette. Delphia gave me a funny look, as if she was still wondering if I was just some damn Yankee. Bob grinned, amused by the practical joke we call life. Mark, I don’t how he looked. Remorseful? Relieved? Finally at peace?  Maybe all of those things.

Karin and I left the café. The ghosts followed us out.

Our Lady Smokes a Hookah

May 24th, 2017

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people that you do.” – Ann Lamott

“Without the voice of reason, every faith is its own curse.” – Sting

 

St. Stanislaus Catholic Church is in Anderson, Texas. It’s an old church. It’s old enough that you have to walk across the parking lot to get to the bathrooms. The building itself is beautiful, and it is surrounded by huge oak trees. Inside the church there are stain glass windows showing various saints. The names of the saints are written in Polish. For instance, the window holding the image of St. Paul says, “St. Pawel” underneath. The window with St. Andrew says, “St. Andrej”. It’s an old school parish founded generations ago by pious Poles, who somehow thought that Texas resembled the Old Country.

Karin and I try to go to daily Mass. Whenever possible, we did so on the endless road trip. Since we often stayed at retreat houses or at monasteries, this was not usually an issue. When we were staying with Hans, we had to look around for a local Mass. St. Stanislaus had one on this particular day at noon. We got there when it was already hot and sunny.

I should have picked up on the weird energy. When Karin and I arrived at the church, we noticed a family whose members were all dressed the same. The kids all seemed to be in uniform. I figured that they were from a local parochial school. It turned out that they were from overseas, Venezuela or maybe Colombia. This isn’t a big deal. Hell, Karin and I came from Wisconsin, which is damn near as far away from Texas as South America is.

Most Catholics do not go to Mass on a daily basis. Most American Catholics don’t even go to Mass on Sundays. Daily Mass attracts a strange breed. That includes Karin and myself. Most people who go to Mass each day simply have made it part of their core practice. It is like when a Muslim prays five times a day, or when a Buddhist sits zazen each morning. The Mass becomes part of the rhythm of a person’s spiritual life.

Daily Mass also attracts a certain portion of the Catholic fundamentalist population. That’s a tiny slice of the Church, but it exists. Often these are the people who long for the return of a religious golden age, a time when the Mass was celebrated in Latin and the priest faced away from the people. They are convinced that Vatican II was a hideous mistake, and that nothing has been right in the Church since the 1950’s. These folks are not necessarily old. I have met young fanatics. There is a quiet ferocity about these people, and a rigidity. They can be very friendly, at least until the moment arrives when they realize that you don’t agree with them. Then things get a little tense.

People were reciting the rosary when Karin and I entered the church. The rosary is a beautiful prayer. The first time I met the abbot of the Zen Center, he remarked on what a good meditative practice the rosary was. That’s an interesting comment coming from a Buddhist. Even just listening to people praying the rosary helps put a person into a more open frame of mind.

After the rosary, I noticed that there were quite a few people in the church, more than I had expected. One family was there with young girls. The mother and her daughters were all wearing veils. I’m betting that the kids were being home-schooled, seeing as it was still May and these children were not in a classroom. Just before the service starting a couple men carried in a rather large statue of Mary, and placed it near the altar. This particular service was in honor of the 100th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady of Fatima.

It would take too long to explain what is all involved with Our Lady of Fatima. Suffice it to say that in 1917 three small children in Portugal had a vision of Mary, and they received instructions and prophecies from the woman in the vision. After that, things get very complicated.

The priest welcomed everyone to the church. Karin and I had been with him before at his church in Navasota. He was a short, stocky man. He was originally from the Philippines. After the reading of the Gospel, the priest gave his sermon.

The homily started off well. The priest spoke about God’s love and the amazing story of three children being visited by the Mother of God. He gradually grew more agitated in sermon, speaking more loudly and more quickly. Then he kept talking about the evil in the world, and about human sinfulness. Things started to get intense when the priest began talking about the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Apparently, the woman in the apparition had ordered the Pope at the time to perform this consecration in order to usher in an age of peace on earth. After one hundred years, we aren’t quite there yet.

The priest just went off. The sermon turned into a full-on rant.

“Why hasn’t Russia been consecrated to Our Lady after one hundred years!? Why the delay? Why do the bishops and the Pope not obey the Blessed Mother? Do you know what apostasy is? It is the denial of the faith! Even popes and bishops can be apostates!”

Wow. That sounded a lot like this priest had just accused Pope Francis of apostasy. That’s pushing the envelope. I didn’t think the priest could go much further, but he did:

“And you! Do you and your families pray the rosary together every day as Our Lady told us to do? We have all this evil in our world because families are not praying the rosary! Why do you ignore the words of Our Mother?!”

Well, Karin and I don’t pray the rosary together. Maybe we should. However, I can’t imagine getting our children together with us to do that. I can’t even imagine getting our kids together in the same room without the possibility of a fratricide. That’s just not going to work.

The priest went on, ”There will be an accounting! We cannot ignore the will of God without eternal consequences! And I must speak out about these things! If I do not, God will hold me accountable!”

I was ready to bolt for the door. Karin was nervous. I glanced at the other people in the pews. I didn’t notice anybody else appearing to be uneasy. They all seemed to be totally into it. I had the impression that this is exactly what they wanted to hear, and what they had expected to hear.  I had the feeling that everyone besides Karin and myself was looking forward to the Apocalypse. This was an End Times kind of crowd.

The priest ran out of steam. Moral outrage requires enormous amounts of energy, and the man looked worn out. Fortunately, the rest of the Mass followed a specific formula, and there was no room for editorial comments. That’s the beauty of ritual.

Karin and I left the Mass drained. A few people greeted us and hoped that they would see us at next service. Yeah, for sure. We got into the Toyota and drove to Yankee’s, where chicken-fried steak, large salads, and cold beer awaited us. Karin and I spent a great deal of time discussing that liturgy. The whole episode was kind of scary.

It’s strange. During the course of our journeys, Karin and I stayed at four monasteries, a convent, and three retreat houses. We spent time with monks and nuns, and with other people who have given their entire lives to God. Never, not once, did we hear any of those folks talk like the priest in Anderson. None of the monks and nuns showed any anger or bitterness. They never judged us. They were consistently friendly and hospitable. They showed us love.

On our last day in Texas, my sister-in-law, Shawn, wanted us all to get together at the Babylon Café in College Station for supper and hookah. I had never smoked a hookah before. I have never smoked much, period. Shawn was excited about it, so Karin, Hans, and I met Shawn at the café.

“Ahlan wa sahlan” (Welcome) was written on the window of the café. I was pleased that I recognized at least that much Arabic. We went inside and sat on cushions around a low table. Shawn ordered a hookah for us all to share. She decided to try a flavored tobacco called “Sex Goddess”. Why not?

Shawn’s daughter, Roise, was with us too. We ate and talked and smoked. I can see how a hookah could be addictive. Its smoke is smooth and water-cooled. I told Shawn that I would feel more natural if I was wearing a fez, like Sidney Greenstreet is Casablanca. Oh well, I made due without it.

Shawn and I discussed the incident at St. Stanislaus. She told me something interesting. Shawn said that the Catholic churches in Texas seemed to be gradually getting more conservative and traditional. It’s like the Catholics are following the lead of the local Protestant fundamentalists. Since Catholics are notorious for being biblically illiterate, we can’t get hung up on Scripture. However, we can obsess about prayers and ritual and all the other things that really don’t matter. Apparently, that is what is occurring among some of the southern Catholics. It’s like we have to prove to the Protestants that we can be hardcore too.

Shawn and I agreed that it is strange that this should be so. “Catholic”, by definition, means “universal”. The Church is supposed to be open to all sorts of diverse ways of finding God. Unity through diversity. It is good that some people are devoted to Our Lady of Fatima. It is good that other people actively pursue social justice for the poor and oppressed. There should be a place for everyone and every talent. The Church is at its best when welcomes all the varied gifts and traditions of humanity.

I bet Our Lady would smoke a hookah.

 

Like a Refugee

August 1st, 2017

“You don’t have to live like a refugee.”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Here it is at 4:19 AM, and I am writing about refugees. In particular, I am writing about refugees from Syria. To be even more specific, I am writing about Syrian refugees that I know personally.

I teach English to some Syrian children. They live in a big, old house on the south side of Milwaukee. The neighborhood is a little rough. The area isn’t really scary (to me), but I wouldn’t be shopping for a home there either.  The house itself feels familiar to me. It reminds me of the rundown, former farm house in which I grew up. The Syrians live in a building that needs a lot of work and a lot of love. It has to be at least one hundred years old. The house has a history, and maybe a future. I will probably be long gone, and the house will still be standing there on Scott Street.

I went there to teach the kids yesterday. I got there in the afternoon. I rang the bell, and Ibrahim opened the door for me. He’s a young boy. I don’t know his age. He has sandy hair and a ready smile. He looked up at me and said “hi”.

I walked into the living room. The television was on. Um Hussein was standing in the small room. As usual, she wore a black robe and a matching hijab. She didn’t smile. She seldom smiles. Um Hussein is living in a strange country, she doesn’t understand English very well,  and she trying to raise eleven children. If I were her, I wouldn’t smile much either. However, the woman is unfailingly polite. For some reason, she trusts me.

I asked the kids, “You want to learn some English?!” They smiled and said, “Yeah!” We went upstairs to a large empty room. We use that for our class every Monday afternoon. The kids have a whiteboard and erasable markers. We all sat on the floor. I brought a couple books along with pictures. My wife and I had visited some of the American national parks. So I looked at photos of the parks with the kids. I asked them what they saw.

“I see snow!” cried out one little boy.

“Okay, then you go to the board and write: ‘I see snow on the mountain.’ ”

Another child yelled, “No me! I want to write!”

“Let Nizar write first, ” I said.

The boy I had spoken to first said, “I am Ibrahim. My brother is Nizar.”

“Yeah, right. Sorry. Ibrahim, you write first.”

A girl said, “Then I get to write!”

“Yes, Yasmin, you write next.”

She frowned. I am Nisrin. She is Yasmin”, and she pointed at her sister.

“Goddamit”, I mumbled under my breath. “Okay, Nisrin, you write the next time. Okay?”

She smiled at me. She was a pretty girl, with dark hair, grey eyes, and freckles.

This sort of thing went on for a while. At any given time, I was working with six or seven children. That reminded me of my childhood. I had six younger brothers. I’m used to family chaos. Um Hussein came upstairs at one point. She always brings me hot, sweet tea. she brings it up on a small metal platter. There is a teapot and a glass.

Amar, an older boy with black hair, asked me, “You drink tea?’

“Na’am, ashrab ashay.” (Yes, I drink tea.) I know a little Arabic, so that helps a bit. Sometimes my minimal Arabic helps us to keep going, if we get stuck on some words. I take a dictionary with me. I bought it several years ago, and the words have somehow become smaller on the pages, so it’s getting hard for me to read the Arabic translations.

It was hot in the room. The kids were restless, but they were also very interested in what we were doing. After awhile, they wanted to read a book. We all worked on that together. It was slow going. The children are very smart. The problem is that they don’t have enough vocabulary yet. I sometimes try to use an English word to explain another English word, and that doesn’t work well. Often we resort to hand signals and pantomime. That’s just how it has to be for now.

After an hour, I was tired. The children weren’t. Maybe I’m just getting old. They are great kids, but I can’t keep focused much longer than an hour or so. I told them that we would read a book together next time I come. They were good with that.

I went back downstairs.  I spoke with the mother.

“I will be back next Monday.”

She frowned. “Tuesday?’

I said,” Yum ithnain”

“Ah, Monday.” She nodded.

“Okay. I’ll see you then.”

Um Hussein still didn’t smile, but she said, “Shukran. (Thank you)”

“Afwan. (You’re welcome).”

I left.

Later, I spoke with Hans on the phone. He called me, and we talked about his job. Then I told him that I was tutoring Syrian refugees. He groaned audibly.

“Something wrong with that?” I asked him.

“Well, these refugees got to obey the laws of our country. I heard about some Syrian refugees, maybe in Tennessee, that took over a church and held some Christians hostage. It was on the news.”

“Hans, what news were you watching?’

“Fox! It was on the BBC too.”

“Oookay. I didn’t see that report. Hans, I’m teaching English to school kids.”

“Well, I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, but these people got to obey our laws. They aren’t back in Syria any more.”

“You’re right. They aren’t. That’s why they’re called refugees.”

“Dad, I know that! I’m just saying, they have to follow our laws.”

“I think the five-year-olds will obey the laws of the United States.”

“Yeah, I’m just saying they are in our country and they have follow our rules.”

“Hans, I agree completely with that. I’m just teaching them our language.”

“Well, if they are going to live here…”

“Hans, how is your Harley running?’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Boys Living Outside of the Box

October 26th, 2016

Last night I went to visit the guys in the psych. ward of the VA Hospital. I went with a small group of people from the American Legion who have been going there almost every Tuesday night for the last ten years. We brought the patients a wide variety of unhealthy snacks, which they all greatly appreciated.

One guy came up, and I asked him if he would like something to drink.

He said, “Yeah, could I have some of that cherry 7-UP? But not too much ice.”

 

I filled a cup for him. “Sure. How’s this?”

 

“Yeah, that’s good. I’ve never had cherry 7-UP before. I bet it tastes good. Can I have one of these doughnuts?”

 

“Sure, have a doughnut. Have a couple of them.”

 

“This popcorn looks good too.”

 

“Go ahead. Take some. Knock yourself out, Man.”

 

“Okay, cool. Thanks.”

 

I talked with a skinny guy with long hair and a beard. He had been in Vietnam. He told me, “I’ve been here since yesterday. I came in myself. I had been hitting the bottle a little too hard.” Been there. Done that. We talked about the Army. He had been an artilleryman in Nam. Then the man told me about what he had done for a living. He had retired a few years ago.

 

Suddenly, he got up and said, “I have to walk around for a while. I get nervous.” I apologized to him for talking too much. He said, “Oh no. It’s not you. I just got to move around.” He rushed off.

 

I spent some time talking with a man named Paul. I had met him once before, during a previous visit to the ward. He’s sixty-one years old. He’s a Marquette grad, and he went through ROTC there. Then he served as a Military Intelligence officer in the Army. Now he’s staying at the VA, wandering around wearing maroon-colored pajamas and a knit cap that is a couple sizes too big for him. He has glasses that keep sliding down his nose.

 

I noticed with Paul, and with some of the other guys, how childlike they are. It’s like they’re kids again. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. It’s just interesting to me how excited they get about simple things. A chocolate chip cookie is like the whole world to them. They are fascinated when I tell them my lame stories about flying helicopters back in the day. Some of them want to talk, and some of them just shut down after a while. They are in no hurry. They have no agendas.

 

I think about these guys, and I try to understand who they are right now. They have been stripped of all the crap that we usually need to maintain our identities. They have no rank. They have no status. They have nothing to prove, nobody to impress. They have placed themselves in a situation where they are totally dependent on other people to care for them. They just are. How does a person get to that state without following the white rabbit into its hole? They not only think outside of the box. They live there.

 

Day without Latinos…or Immigrants

February 20th, 2016

The rally in front of the capitol in Madison on Thursday was truly impressive. I was amazed by the sheer number of participants, and by their collective enthusiasm. I could feel an intense energy among the people. It was wonderful to see people from every age group there. It was also great to see that people had come from all across the state of Wisconsin to protest the proposed legislation. The demonstration accomplished what it needed to do: it got the attention of the media and the politicians.

 

One thing did bother me about the rally. The population in attendance was overwhelmingly Latino. In a way this makes sense: after all, the two pieces of legislation (AB 450 and SB 533) would primarily affect Latinos in our state. However, these proposed laws would have a negative impact on others residing in Wisconsin. Opposition to these racist bills is not something that is solely the concern of the Latino community. These laws would hurt all sorts of people.

 

A casual observer of the rally would be impressed by the size of the demonstration, but they would also notice the tribal nature of it. I did. I was one of the very few whites in the crowd. Somebody watching the news on television might look at the scene and say to themselves, “This is just about the Mexicans.” The largest flag that I saw waving at the rally was a Mexican flag. That sends a message. Many people could look at the rally, and then easily dismiss the entire protest as being “somebody else’s” problem. That “somebody else” would be the Latino community.

 

The official name of the event was “Day Without Latinos and Immigrants”. That’s a good title, but the “and Immigrants” portion of the name seems to be an afterthought. The ugly nativist sentiment in this country does not restrict itself to Latinos. Other people are also under the gun. The Muslims come to mind. There are all sorts of communities in our state that experience prejudice.

 

My question is this: “Did anybody reach out to other immigrant groups that might be feeling same discrimination that Latinos experience?” Did anybody talk to the Muslims? Or the Sikhs? Or maybe the Hmongs? Racism and bigotry affect all sorts of people, and maybe others, especially other immigrants, should be involved in the struggle to combat these things.

 

Politicians aren’t stupid. They may not be good for much, but they sure know how to get themselves re-elected. Let’s imagine the thoughts of one of those Wisconsin legislators staring out of a capitol building window on Thursday afternoon. What would impress a legislator more: a huge crowd that is purely Latino, or a bigger crowd with an ethnically diverse population? Some lawmakers might not make the connection between their own political future and the sea of Latino faces looking up at him or her. They might need to see some faces that look more like the majority of constituents in their own district.

 

Voces did an awesome job of mobilizing people for the rally. Voces energized its base. Excellent. So, how do we get beyond this base and involve more of the public? What is the next step?