Author Archives: erasingborders
Martin Luther King, Jr. commented to Nat Hentoff in the mid-1960’s, “I would say unequivocally that the emphasis on non violent direct action in the civil rights movement is due more to A.J. (Muste) than anyone else in the country.” During the early years of the movement, A.J. Muste as President of the Fellowship of Reconciliation hired the principal organizers of the “freedom rides” on buses in the south. Among them were Bayard Rustin, leader of the 1963 March on Washington, James Farmer founder of CORE and George Houser, founder of the American Committee on Africa.
I wrote several blog posts in 2020 on the pioneer U.S. organizer of non-violent protest A.J. Muste. Following the police killing of George Floyd that year, the human right to demonstrate publicly against the actions of government and powerful institutions was exercised repeatedly as the most effective counter force to policies of the outgoing Trump administration. Civil disobedience and non-violent resistance had at the time already proliferated with the spread of authoritarian regimes worldwide.
Although the life and work of Rev. A.J. Muste has yet to be celebrated in a comprehensive biography, I want to share news of four videos made recently focusing on the leading U.S. revolutionary non-violent resister of the 20th century. The videos total over 6 hours recounting the progression of Muste’s life from his pacifist opposition to WW I to Trotskyite labor organizer, his return to the church and subsequent leadership in civil rights and anti war movements.
The videos’ interviews with trainers and organizers of non violent resistance such as civil rights leader Rev. James Lawson and founder and head of the War Resisters League David McReynolds establish Muste as having introduced non violent theory and practice to key U.S. protest organizers in the last century. In his eighties he continued to organize or serve as lead consultant for anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and draft resistance public actions. His role in shaping the civil rights’ struggle’s reliance on non violent civil disobedience is emphasized by several of the interviewees.
All four videos were made by David Schock, former English professor at Hope College in Michigan, Muste’s alma mater, in collaboration with Dr. Kathleen Verduin also of Hope College. Here is the link to an excerpt, the final minutes of the second video “The No. 1 U.S. Pacifist”, which concludes with Muste’s dream of a peacemaking U.S. foreign policy:
The four complete videos can be accessed on the web site A.J. Muste: Radical for Peace. Also on the site is a request to donate to help cover the video project’s costs covered by the two creators of the film.
In another tribute to Muste’s prominence as the leading opponent of the U.S. war machine and foreign interventions, Professor Noam Chomsky in 1967 wrote at length about the recently deceased Muste’s contributions in the Sidney Lens/Muste Liberation magazine. It is at:
The clock read 2:46 on March 11, 2011 when the quake shook Japan’s biggest island. It was the most severe jolting ever experienced on the islands of earthquake-prone Japan. Some registered the impact as over 9 on their scales.
The teachers and students of Okawa Elementary School 400 kms. north of Tokyo knew this was not like former earthquake And they knew to duck under their desks as they had been instructed to do first. They then had to evacuate the school buildings and head out to the expansive playground whose new shoots of grass had just begun appearing. What the occupants of the buildings did not then know was that the real danger was yet to come.
Less than 4 kms. away the Pacific Ocean seethed in turmoil as though angered by the quake’s insolence. A massive wave was gathering force for a pounding of the land. The river close to the school fled in a mad rush inland from its estuary. Students and teachers gathered closer as they listened intently to the playground’s speaker amplifying the announcement that a tsunami was preparing to strike the area.
Although the word “tsunami” is derived from the Japanese language and many “tidal” or “harbor” waves have repeatedly struck modern Japan, school personnel and officials of Okawa’s prefecture were not prepared for the 2011 disaster. The evacuation measures following a quake were familiar and unambiguous. What to do to escape a tsunami of such size and power was yet to be decided.
With no directive coming from the radio, the teachers began a frantic discussion. It was clear they were divided. Bordering the school grounds stood a hill rising in a steady incline over 1000 feet. Even the school’s smaller students had partially climbed it. They had planted and harvested mushrooms there and upper level students enjoyed running or ambling up the hill. When teachers rejected a climb as the best escape route, at least one sixth grader voiced his disagreement. The teachers feared multiple injuries among younger students sliding on the light snow covering the hill.
No one on the playground knew they had 51 minutes between the quake’s first jolts and the wave’s appearance. Or that it would rise above them 30 meters high one minute after the loudspeaker warning. When the river suddenly overflowed its banks and roared as its water surged inland, a handful of sixth graders fled the playground. Four of them along with one teacher survived when the river water began slamming the playground and school buildings. 34 students and 5 teachers perished. When the earthquake occurred, most of the student body had already gone home. The victims were preparing to board the last bus whose driver was also killed. There were over 200 fatalities in the houses near the school.
The tsunami terror left the newly organized Church World Service Japan with a valuable lesson. At a coastal elementary school in a Sendai suburb there were no fatalities. There, immediately following the shock of the quake, students and teachers followed the school stairs to the roof. They witnessed and heard around them the ghastly destruction. But there were no injuries. For Church World Service it was as though the disaster had scrawled a message to guide its future. Disaster Risk Reduction would be their emphasis in preparedness work across Asia.
A variety of measures for risk reduction have been introduced by CWSJ in multiple countries of Asia. Working through local partner non-profits Church World Service Japan implements Disaster Risk Reduction projects in Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and elsewhere. In most instances, the locale’s evacuation planning is first assessed. Some areas of DRR demanding specialization in expensive technology, such as radiation control measures, are addressed in international conferences CWSJ has helped organize.
That the twelve year old NGO has assumed a leadership in the DRR field is more evidence that government and other NGO’s have been slow to respond to the need. Although 14 countries in Asia experienced over 227,000 fatalities from the 2004 tsunami centered on Indonesia, Japan appears to be setting the standards across Asia in earthquake and tsunami preparedness. There are two major earthquake fault lines on the main island, with one running vertically through Tokyo.
ANOTHER SCHOOL’S STORY
There continues to be surveys and accounts of the decline in attendance and affiliation with churches in the U.S. Although often characterized as evidence of the increasing secularization of the society, I believe this mischaracterizes what is really happening. At the very least, more consideration needs to be given to the trend among persons under the age of 35-40 to adopt practices of meditation and even faith in a power beyond our self from a buffet of beliefs. It is long past time to reject the label secular for any non-Christian or non-Church organized belief or form of meditation.
I am certain that for a majority of U.S. Christians the ten days I just spent in Japan were devoted to a “secular” cause. In accepting the privilege of meeting with the staff of Church World Service Japan for the second time, the first being pre-pandemic in 2018, there was no intention to gain adherents or bolster the churches there. My aim and that of the CWS Japan invitation was for me to assist in developing a public fund raising and outreach strategy for the humanitarian aid agency in a land where 98% of the population is non-Christian. Only one of the six full time staff members, Ms. Yukiko Maki, is Christian and active in the United Church of Japan. Her portfolio as Director of Programs includes cultivating the relationship with the Christian international aid network of the World Council of Churches’ ACT Alliance.
Since its creation in 2011 to help respond to the devastation of the massive earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster, CWS Japan has grown significantly in its capacity and programs. Its General Secretary Takeshi Komino is now a leading voice in Japan and across Asia in the field of Disaster Risk Reduction. In a few years Mr. Komino has led other chief executives in Japan’s non profit sector in setting standards of accountability and engaging in partnerships with the Japanese Government and corporations.
So were my preparations and efforts to help further the presence and public support of CWS Japan to be considered as “secular” in nature? Only if we define religious, as do many U.S. Christians and analysts of social trends, as confined to activity advocating or espousing belief in Jesus Christ.
In fact, in my own tradition of the Christian faith, proselytism has for decades been superseded by another aim of “mission” in other lands. The founding of indigenous-governed churches in Asia, Africa and Latin America has made redundant and obsolete mission and “missionaries” primarily focused on conversion. The joint Global Ministries office of the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the U.S. now recruit their partisans to “accompany” Christians and non-Christians in tasks which enhance and protect lives and the land where they are invited to do so.
One may well respond to this “call” to “accompanimiento”, as the Latin American origin of this approach to mission describes it, as a pilgrimage with people abroad and our Creator to restore and “make all things new”. This is, however, a significant historic departure from the traditional U.S. Christians’ view of “mission” in other countries. The Global Ministries avoidance of referring to their personnel deployed overseas as “missionaries” in favor of the term “Mission Co-Worker” grows out of the dramatic changes in the 20th century world. The struggles for independent nation status and self reliance resulting in the decolonization of the Euro-American colonies found support among progressive and aware U.S. Christians and their church denominations.
The new outlook on world mission that emerged in the more contemporary church bodies demanded a wholly different set of skills of their mission “co workers” in other countries. Gone was the emphasis on sending “authoritative” voices on the scriptures and preachers of “the Word” to be replaced by mutual learning, listening, affirmation and “accompanimiento”. To build relationship in an effective partnership with a colleague or colleagues in the foreign setting, one first had to devote oneself to learning about the local context. Never appropriate or needed was someone who, with little listening or learning in the local context, presumed to offer “expert” advice on any activity or program.
My rewards in taking such a posture and approach flow from the sense of solidarity and mutual affirmation I have experienced. Rather than a tally of converts I celebrate the beginning and the growth of relationships with those who fulfill the purpose of their lives with life-enhancing, loving works. Following my recent trip, I am grateful for the meeting of new CWS Japan staff and for the deepening of my relationship with those staff I interacted with in 2018. Vastly different but equally fulfilling have been the relationships enabled by mission assignments in Congo (1969-71 and 2010), Mexico (2012-2015), and with Church World Service US donors in Kenya (periodic visits 2003-2011).
A primary difference in my recent experience in Japan has been the strengthening of my conviction that there are many paths up the mountain of faith. Christians are by no means alone in their life work of seeking and paying homage to the hope, peace, joy and love we celebrate at Christmas as Jesus’ offering to all humankind. During this latest Japan visit, I found new strength and assurance from those of other faith traditions and no faith at all in my own trek up the mountain of faith. As we join persons taking a different path we can all know the solidarity and love of Christmas every day as we climb to the mountaintop.
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Visit the CWS Japan English website at https://www.cwsjapan.org/english/. Make a monthly or one time donation while there!
A “Call to Act Together” for reconciliation and unity concluded the recent Assembly of the World Council of Churches. Charged with sharing the message of “a unity founded in God’s love” the 4000 Assembly delegates cited the scripture “the love of Christ urges us on”. The delegates represented many of the World Council’s 325 Orthodox and other church bodies active in 120 nations. There were also 160 Roman Catholic observers attending the most diverse gathering of Christians held every seven years. Jewish and Muslim observers also attended the 11th Assembly.
Since the founding Assembly in 1948, Council membership has shifted from a majority European and North American body to a gathering which reflects the growing number of Christians in the global South. Summarizing the experience of living and listening together for 11 days, the delegates celebrated that “amid all our diversity, we have relearned in our assembly that there is a pilgrimage of justice, reconciliation, and unity to be undertaken together. ”
The Assembly experience and its “Call to Act” stands in contrast to the current trend of political leaders worldwide to foment division and distrust. Its call should be taken as a response to the use of division and disinformation to gain unfettered power. Voters in the U.S. would do well to consider the language and aims of their preferred candidates as the Republican Party sows distrust, antipathy and scorn of others. Over 150 Republican candidates in this week’s U.S. midterm election reject the 2020 presidential election of Joe Biden.
The Republican candidate for Governor in Wisconsin, construction company owner Tim Michels, promised that were he elected his Party will never again lose an election in Wisconsin. (as reported by Martin Pengelly of The Guardian, Nov. 2, 2022) Republican candidate for Governor of Arizona, former Fox News anchor Kerri Lake, was asked if she would accept defeat in the election. Appearing prepared to challenge such a result, Lake responded she would not lose.
The U.S. election featured the former President Trump campaigning for midterm candidates backing his “Stop the Steal” denial of results of the 2020 election. No one doubts he will again run for President in 2024 particularly should his Party seize control of Congress in the midterms. His campaigning takes place following dismissal of dozens of court cases in which his backers advanced claims of election malpractice and fraud. In the cases where a ruling called for an audit, no evidence was found of malfeasance.
In an era when the global economic order is incapable of effectively responding to the climate crisis, increasing inequality, and unprecedented migration of people, the World Council Assembly’s reminder of God’s vision of unity is especially timely. “As reconciliation brings us closer to God and each other, it opens the way toward a unity founded in God’s love.”
See all the photo galleries from the Assembly at:
The thirteen points of the Assembly’s Call to Act Together can be found at:
There were some years in the 1930’s when B. Traven was the most widely read fiction writer in the world. Today, his many novels and collections of stories have exceeded 25 million in sales and been translated into more than 30 languages. In spite of his huge legion of readers, his biography and even his name continue to be debated. After his death, in his late 70’s? or late 80’s?, in 1969, his first and only wife Rosa Elena Lujan, suggested “He believed that individual stories are not important until they flow into the collective life”. She elaborated that he was “very much in love with communal life and communal thinking”.
Lujan, translator of many of his books into English, also revealed that Traven had indeed been the German revolutionary Ret Marut. Condemned to death by firing squad in 1919 in Munich, the former communications officer of the Bavarian Socialist Republic escaped from his captors and sought refuge on a freighter that took him, an undocumented man claiming to be born in the U.S., around the world. We know for certain that for more than five years, he was a man without a country.
In 1925 he chose life on land in México and jumped ship in the northern port of Tampico. Two novels that he had likely written while at sea were published a year later in Germany by the author B. Traven. The Death Ship tells of an undocumented sailor and his mates exploited ruthlessly by the captain and owners of a global freighter. Gerald Gales, the sailor, is also the protagonist of The Cotton Pickers, first titled The Wobbly, who tells his fellow farmworkers that he identifies with the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World). Wobbly publications and artifacts remained stored among his personal items to his death.
Not surprising that many literary critics as well as readers have described Traven as a proletarian writer. This is true to a limited degree but there is a larger view of the man’s work and his life as a whole. I prefer thinking of him as an internationalist with exceptional compassion for people of all nationalities, tribes, and cultures. And a man with an unsurpassed talent for expressing that compassion through tales set in the highly diverse environments of México, his adopted country. A foremost example of what I see as his “internationalist” affiliation is found in his dedication of The Bridge in the Jungle:
“To the mothers
of every nation
of every people
of every race
of every color
of every creed
of all animals and birds
of all creatures alive
This begins the story of a mother’s and her Chiapas villagers’ anguished search for her exuberant pre-teen son. The same “internationalist” devotion can be found in most of Traven’s fiction. While exploitation of the workers by the man with capital is present in his best known book in the U.S., The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, other non-proletarian specific themes prevail. The grizzled old prospector cures an Indian on the way to the “treasure” and finds his place among his patient’s people. Thompson renounces the pursuit of great wealth for the envisioned peace with a loving wife and small farm in the Midwest. And Dobbsie, who resembles Traven the most, is tamed through the grueling pilgrimage to more knowledge of himself.
The passion of celebrating the worth and dignity of every human being drives Traven’s creativity. The writer’s utopian dream was of a world where the work of the typesetter, the secretary in the publisher’s office, the mailroom clerk, and the writer were all equally valued. What sets Traven apart from other modern writers in the hundred years since his fiction first appeared is his embrace and affirmation of all peoples and cultures. While his focus continued to be on the surviving Mayan cultures and people of Chiapas, southern México, he didn’t romanticize or set them apart from other “pre-modern” cultures or our own today. Traven lived off and on in Chiapas for a total of at least two decades and his ashes were scattered over the jungle there.
In her introduction to The Kidnapped Saint and Other Stories Mrs. Lujan wrote of his love for Chiapas. “Traven went to the Indians of Chiapas as a brother, a friend, and a comrade, not as most outsiders did, to steal from or exploit them.” She heard from her husband how he lived among them: “At night Traven slept on the hard ground with only his serape wrapped around him. In the morning he rose early and ate tortillas and chili with them.” She notes that her husband had a gift for languages and could converse in several Mayan dialects.
Why B. Traven spurned the great wealth and fame that would have come from his life work he explained in 1929. Writing a German professor who lectured on his books, Traven wanted it understood that “I do not want to give up my life as an ordinary human being”. To do so would have undermined his aim to “do my part to get rid of all authorities and the veneration of authorities so that every man can feel stronger in the knowledge that he is absolutely as indispensable and important for the rest of humanity as every other person no matter what they do.” Our duty as human beings was to “serve humanity according to our understanding and capacity, to lift up the lives of others, bring them more happiness and direct their thoughts to meaningful goals of life.” Forty years later, at his death, Traven could look back on a lifetime of remaining faithful to this goal. B. Traven, presente!
There were networks of trade that fed the Native American people in the United States long before the arrival of the first European settlers. Their corn, a staple for them, came from the South, Mexico and Guatemala, before they learned to grow the crops for themselves. Several varieties of bean imported from the South were also added to their diets. The hunter gatherer people of the U.S. imported from the same areas cacao, peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, and the tomato. And tobacco was introduced along with the food crops.
According to the theories of the late Russian geneticist N.I. Vavilov, most of the world’s basic food plants originated in a relatively few places on the planet, most of them close to the equator. Experts in this field call these places Vavilov Centers to commemorate their importance to our world.
The diets of the first European settlers on the Atlantic coast benefited greatly from the well established trade networks with the South. Had they been restricted to consumption of what were native plants only, they would have had to make do with the sunflower, blueberries, cranberries and the Jerusalem artichoke. Development of trade between the settlers and the “Old World” sparked cultivation of almonds, carrots, flax, hemp, lentil, onion, peas and wheat from Central Asia. Asparagus, beets, hops, lettuce and olives originated in the Mediterranean. The settlers’ tastes governed which of the plants were favored and cultivated more widely. “American cuisine” largely relied on what were “non-native” crops.
In the last 50 years diets in the U.S. have been transformed not by imports of new crops so much as by the addition of new dishes introduced by immigrants to the country. Mexican restaurants and recipes have swept the country. When I returned from a year in Guadalajara in 1980 I had to search for a Mexican restaurant in U.S. cities I visited. Today our favorite “neighborhood” take out meals in Kansas City are from a Mexican restaurant and a Palestinian restaurant/grocery store less than two miles from home. Hummus and the fresh pita bread have become staples of my diet. A primary attraction of most U.S. urban centers today is the variety of ethnic restaurants opened by immigrant families across the country.
For many residents of and visitors to our urban centers the diversity of ethnic foods offered is part of the appeal. Any major city stages an international feast every night. In some venues the food is accompanied by music and/or dance enhancing the flavors of the culture. Beyond the food, music and art work decor, there is, however, little exposure to the culture. In most restaurants, we eat at separate tables. That might change though.
Someone asked Myles Horton at the beginning of the Civil Rights era how he was able to get whites and black residents of the South to meet and learn together at the Highlander Center. Horton quickly replied, “First, you set the table; then you call everyone to dinner and serve the hot meal.” We can imagine one long table for everyone gathered at Highlander. This story reminds me of my own experience in New York City in the mid-1960’s. One of the most popular restaurants in Manhattan’s Little Italy was Mama Leone’s. You usually had to wait for places to open up but you were seated at one of the two or three long tables with strangers already enjoying their pasta fagioli and lasagna. I never left the place without a happy stomach and a full spirit.
May we all find places in the future where new dishes are enjoyed and the tables are long. And may the delight in sharing a meal with people who are strangers lead to thanksgiving for and celebration of the diversity of food and cultures in our lands today.
Since moving to Kansas City six years ago, my identity as a city boy, an urbanite, has taken on new meaning. We now live three hours from the small town of Neodesha, KS, where my partner spent twenty plus years before our marriage. I have gotten to know some of her long time friends and like all of them a lot. They live in small towns of southeast Kansas like Chanute, Coffeyville, Yates Center, Fredonia and Climax and I have enjoyed thinking about what if anything makes them different from the big city residents like myself
The observation that there is a greater appreciation of the value of community in small towns I accept as true but inadequate. Spending a recent weekend on a Lake near the town of Emporia, KS yielded for me a better understanding of what community in a small town feels like. And it was a pleasure to experience. Almost all those present resided in a small town of the region. Some still lived in the town of their birth, some nearby in the state college town of Emporia.
During the early decades of the 20th century, William Allen White’s opinion pieces in Emporia’s newspaper were read nation wide. He became famous as the voice of small town residents in the “heartland of America”, People in the big cities, and the nation’s capital in particular, saw him as a kind of oracle, a modern day sage expounding on the enduring values of what made the U.S. a “great” nation. The origin of those values he attributed to the community life that grows in small towns across the Midwestern United States.
The weekend festivities at the Lake began with a rousing jam session Friday night where the musicians joined around the lead guitars of Kenny and Jeff, both leaders of popular regional bands thirty or forty years ago. Two or three newcomers to the “shrimp boil” weekend joined to sing or play some fiery rock-a-billy” and blues, including a few songs written by the musicians themselves.
The harmonica player in Jeff’s band and his wife, who now live on 40 acres of woods on the outskirts of Neodesha remain among Kate’s best friends. Though not herself a musician, Kate has been a fan of the bands represented at the “Shrimp Boil” since moving to southeast Kansas. Later in the weekend I was amused to learn that “Uncle Vance” who trucked the seafood up from the Alabama Gulf Coast had been an eager fan of hers forty years ago.
The fact no one needed a ticket to be present either for the jam night or Saturday, when one of Kansas City’s favorite rock-a-billy bands played, added to the joy, ambience and charm of the weekend. Most of the Lake’s families who attended did bring a dish and all were displayed on a crammed L shaped table arrangement. Uncle Vance supervised the preparation of a delicious gumbo soup made with the shrimp, mussels, crabs, scallops. For me the melt in your mouth scallop was the eating highlight.
There seemed to be an instant community created at the “shrimp boil” by the seafood smorgasbord, the music that summoned us all to “let the good times roll” and the lifelong relationships renewed and restored by the gathering. It had the feel of a family reunion which all present had looked forward to attending. People were at their best: not a despairing word, not an offensive gesture, not a cutting remark, no wrestling for the limelight. William Allen White would have been proud.
I returned to Kansas City assured that human beings are social creatures who thrive in community. We are made for life in communities. Whether it be a community of musicians, a church congregation, a union local, a small town. We are most productive, we are more creative and satisfied when we submerge our personal interests to participate in a group. For many people in this heavily urbanized country, the small town they live in or were raised in is that “something bigger than ourselves” which transmits the values they seek to defend and represent.
Life in a small town encourages a panoply of values, sometimes conflicting and all seen at risk by some of the residents and former residents. There is first the identity of belonging to a community created by geographic isolation. Relationships with persons who hail from the same town endure often in spite of age, class and vocational differences. One honors and elevates one’s own existence through reminiscencing about shared experience and the persons, alive and dead, whose lives continue to intersect with our own. Each conversation with persons of the community, after a prolonged absence or not, reinforces our recognition of the sacred quality of relationships and our desire to preserve them against threats both perceived and real.
That commitment to preserving the community and the relationships rooted there means once a community member always a community member. Unfortunate and at a disadvantage is the politican who cannot announce his or her candidacy in the community which nurtured them. How distressing it is, though, whenever politicans twist and distort small town values to stoke fear and division. Recent history of the U.S. proves there is nothing good, whether it be faith in a loving God, the values fostered by life in a small town, democratic ideals expressed in our founding documents, nothing good that cannot be used for the pursuit of self interest and power. Loyalty to a community’s way of life becomes easily transformed into opposition to the changes required by the climate crisis, opposition to acceptance of migrants fleeing from injustice and violence, or opposition to the truth of the nation’s oppression and cruelty. But rather than close this blog on a somber note, let’s consider some lines written for books or articles by the sage of Emporia, KS William Allen White.
“Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others”
“So, dear friend, put fear out of your heart. This nation will survive, this state will prosper, the orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given them to utter what their hearts hold — by voice, by posted card, by letter or by press. Reason never has failed men. Only force and repression have made the wrecks in the world.”
“My advice to the women of America is to raise more hell and fewer dahlias.” (Prior to passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote)
“Youth should be radical. Youth should demand change in the world. Youth should not accept the old order if the world is to move on. But the old orders should not be moved easily – certainly not at the mere whim or behest of youth. There must be clash and if youth hasn’t enough force or fervor to produce the clash the world grows stale and stagnant and sour in decay.”
“If each man or woman could understand that every other human life is as full of sorrows, or joys, or base temptations, of heartaches and of remorse as his own . . . how much kinder, how much gentler he would be.”
Elena Huegel is a “Mission Co Worker” in San Cristobal de las Casas , Chiapas, Mexico. She is assigned to work with INESIN, a local human rights and peacemaking agency, and leads workshops for the staff and community. INESIN is one of many “partner agencies” of the Global Ministries work of the theologically progressive U.S. Protestant denominations, the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Disciples of Christ (DOC).
Like most partners of Global Ministries outside the U.S., it is ecumenical in nature and does not aim to found churches. Mission churches started decades ago with the help of missionaries of the two Global Ministries denominations are now self-governing and self-propagating. Most are growing much faster than the U.S denominations and benefit from Elena’s and other Mission Co Workers’ presence in the their programs of community economic development, agriculture, healthcare, education and protection of human rights.
Elena’s grandfather, Frederick Huegel, went to Mexico early in the twentieth century, as a missionary trained in preaching and evangelism with the intention of growing the Disciples of Christ presence in central Mexico. Elena’s parents also worked with the new churches of the Disciples of Christ in Mexico. Bilingual at an early age, Elena has been a Mission Co Worker in Chile for over twenty years and in Paraguay before returning to Mexico to work with INESIN staff.
The following interview with Elena Huegel took place last August while driving her to a speaking engagement in the U.S.
DS: So Elena what does INESIN stand for?
EH: The Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research.
DS: Tell us a bit about the history of that organization.
EH: When Rios Montt was President of Guatemala and all the refugees from the country were crossing the border into México, the Catholic Bishop (Bp Samuel Ruiz) had people all along the border helping with the refugee crisis. The UCC and Mennonites from the States had mission workers helping as well and they all got to know each other. In fact when opportunities opened for resettlement back into Guatemala the mission workers all began to accompany them back as human rights watchers. That resettlement began in January of ’94.
That’s also when Canada, the U.S. and México signed the Fair Trade agreement (NAFTA) and the Zapatistas had said that if the trade agreement was signed they were going into open warfare against the Mexican government. It was signed and the revolution explodes, the heart of it being San Cristóbal and the communities around it. So with that the inter-religious turmoil that there already had been between Catholics and Protestants was heightened. It took on a whole different turn because the government began taking advantage of the Protestants who were among the most oppressed of the population. The government encouraged creation of paramilitary groups among the Protestants. The groups were mainly children of Protestant converts from what I can tell.
DS: But you say there had been turmoil and tension between Protestants and Catholics before the Zapatistas came on the scene. What was that about?
EH: This is a simple question to a very complex situation. To read more I suggest:
There are many points of view as to why there are conflicts between the different protestant and Pentecostal groups and the different Catholic groups as well as newer religions (mainly Muslims) in Chiapas in general and the Chiapan Highlands (including San Cristóbal de las Casas) in particular. I would summarize by saying that there have been and are political and economic forces that have used religious differences to divide and conquer the Mayan communities. Nowadays, organized crime has also come onto the scene sowing further confusion and chaos within communities and, in some cases, bringing different religious groups together in the struggle against the cartels while in others causing further unrest and division. There is a very long history of violence connected to the different religious expressions, with victims and perpetrators connected directly or indirectly to different religious affiliations.
DS: So the Protestant grievances about the Catholics had been long standing and were used by the government.
EH: The government was trying to get at the Zapatistas from different directions. And as the inter religious strife got worse the Bishop (Samuel Ruiz) realized that he needed someone to help him build a bridge and talk to the Protestants. He had already done quite a few things to build bridges. There were a whole lot of Protestants driven off their lands in the Chamula area and he supported the ones who fled to San Cristóbal. As the Bishop saw better what was happening, he went to the UCC and Mennonites who had worked with Catholics on the border and together they went on to found INESIN, the Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research. It was to create a space for inter-religious and inter-cultural dialog using various forums and projects to do that.
DS: Did the UCC have people in place there to participate in INESIN’s creation with the Catholics, Bishop Ruiz in particular?
EH: The UCC overseas mission office, Global Ministries, had a couple down there at the time. The couple were preparing to go down in late ’93 but finally arrived in February ’94 and were there then for some pretty incredible things. They were Paula Biddle and George. They knew the area as they had been working with Guatemalan refugees in Chicago and had been traveling back and forth from Chicago to Chiapas since the refugees began crossing the border.
DS: And what are you doing at INESIN now?
EH: So I am helping in staff development and education in trauma healing and conflict transformation primarily with the staff of INESIN. Protestants in Chiapas have seen INESIN as a Catholic organization and there is a lot of distrust and suspicion of any Catholic program among the Protestants. It’s going to take a long time of trust building before they join with Catholics in a process of trauma and conflict healing. So I’ve had some small groups and I’ve done some Christian Education trainings for Protestant Sunday School teachers which have attracted larger groups. I do other things as a way to start building up trust and relationship. I am also the local, national and international coordinator, facilitator, and trainer of the Retoños en las Ruinas: Esperanza en el Trauma (Roots or New Shoots in the Ruins: Hope in Trauma) program with facilitators in Chiapas, different states of Mexico and 5 other countries in Latin America.
DS: In addition to your training for trauma healing and conflict transformation you’ve been trained in environmental education?
EH: My undergraduate training was in recreation and outdoor education and my first love has always been environmental education.
DS: What is the tie between trauma healing and the environmental education?
EH: I came to realize there is a soul wound in our relationship with the earth and that’s one of the great things about being here with the Mayans. There’s the opportunity to come full circle. It used to be environmental education was concentrating on how we take care of the earth. Now, coming full circle with the help of the Mayans and other indigenous groups we understand better how the earth takes care of us.
We can’t be fully healed unless we attend to this relationship with the earth and how this is an essential part of our wholeness. Many people among the Mayans have that very clear. How a healthy relationship with the earth is essential to our relationship with oneself, with others and with God. So I’ve been thinking more in the last four years here about how our reconnecting with nature brings about our healing and how for example a sense of awe is essential to our recognizing something bigger than ourselves, something where hope lies, something that moves our souls. I’m doing more work around that now. How immersing people in nature can be part of their healing process.
DS: So how is this Mayan tradition of relationship with nature transmitted these days?
EH: I would say that not all Mayans today practice or have experience of the relationship. One of the things that the Institute has been doing especially on the Catholic side is helping to reconnect to that spirituality that was connected to Mother Earth. So one of the things that is still practiced but not everyone practices is the Mayan altar. The Mayan altar is always transitory. It is made from things from nature. It is created by the community. Using different flowers but it can also have dirt and seeds and fruit. These are placed in four quadrants representing the four cardinal directions.
And that transitory altar also has candles on it. Once the candles are lit they’re not put out. And the altar lasts as long as the candles last and once the candles die down, the altar is taken apart and the fruits are eaten and everything goes back into nature again.
DS: And the altar is built at a certain time of year.
EH: No it can be at any time the community needs to gather. And we at INESIN always have groups that visit us build a Mayan altar together.
In the last six months we’ve lost three leaders whose contributions to peace and reconciliation will last beyond our lifetimes. Desmond Tutu’s work on behalf of interpreting and organizing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa is best known today. Among activists and advocates for peace, Thich Nhat Hanh’s role as the leading Vietnamese Buddhist peacemaker is well known in the U.S. and Europe. Less widely known at present is the African-American feminist and Buddhist writer bell hooks. Her meeting with “Thay” or “teacher” as Nhat Hanh was called by his followers bolstered hooks’ growth in Buddhist thought.
The former Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) Emma Jordan-Simpson described bell hooks’ account of meeting Thay in the late 1960’s with these words:
“When she (hooks) was introduced to Thay, she blurted it out: “I’m so angry!” Immediately she felt ashamed. In the presence of a loving teacher, she was only able to bring up the ugliness she was feeling inside!” Simpson continues with Thay’s response. “Thay’s words to bell hooks are the words that all of us who are exhausted and depleted by what it means to live in a world perpetually at war, but who are still able to feel anger, need to hear and to hold.”
Thay said to hooks, “Hold on to your anger and use it as compost in your garden.” The FOR Director commented on hooks’ encounter, “We are angry that we live in a perpetual state of war and we are angry about what these times are revealing to us. But we reveal who we are when we can find ways to use that anger as compost in gardens growing peace”.
Martin Luther King acknowledged Thich Nhat Hanh as having helped lead him to oppose publicly the U.S. War in Vietnam. After his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in April, 1967 King nominated the Buddhist leader for the Nobel Peace Prize. His conversation with Thay was arranged by the FOR, which sponsored Nhat Hanh’s tour of the U.S. after the escalation in Vietnam. Thay’s gentle, forceful presence accompanied by words of profound compassion for perpetrators and victims of the War on his country led many other people in the U.S. to question if not strongly oppose their nation’s mission in Vietnam. His stories and views had a profound impact on people’s stance on the War. But it was also his interpretations and descriptions of Buddhist practices that made a lasting impression on the lives of many.
In a 1974 article for Fellowship magazine, the journal of FOR, Thay wrote about one encounter with a U.S. Christian. “One day I was asked by a Christian in a bus: ‘Why do you monks burn yourselves to death? It is an awful thing.’ I tried to explain to him what Thich Quang Duc wanted when he set himself on fire. But the gentleman did not want to listen. He said ‘I can’t understand a religion that allows its members to burn themselves.’”
Thay then reflected in the article on the encounter, “I could have told him that I did not believe that Christianity could allow its followers to go and burn other people either. Thousands of women and children have been burned by napalm that was dropped from the sky. But what is the purpose of such a discussion?” Nhat Hanh concludes, “The only thing that counts is the ability to understand the pain of a brother. And this brother is neither a number nor a concept. This brother is made of real flesh and skin and feeling.” He then comments with the insight, “We cannot recognize our brother through an ideology or a political label. People have been shooting at labels and by doing so they have shot many of their brothers and sisters.”
Thich Nhat Hanh concludes the opening chapter of his best known book in English, The Miracle of Mindfulness with the question, “If you spend all day practicing mindfulness, how will there ever be enough time to change and build an alternative society”. His answer follows with his calligraphy on the next page:
His practice of “breathing mindfully” is clearly and powefully elaborated for readers unfamiliar with Buddhist thought and many in the West have integrated his instructions in their own meditation. When one is able to live mindfully one is in control of our constantly distracted mind and be fully present in the moment. The essential component of “mindfulness” is attention to our breath. Thay explains, “You should know how to breathe to maintain mindfulness, as breathing is a natural and extremely effective tool which can prevent dispersion. Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of our mind again.”
Order a copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness from your local indie bookshop. It comes in all formats including audiobook.
Read about the friendship of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Thich Nhat Hanh in a book available in the Fellowship of Reconciliation bookstore. Also available at the website below is a copy of the Spring 2020 issue of Fellowship magazine devoted to Thich Nhat Hanh’s articles and poems for the magazine as well as peacmakers’ tributes.
On Being host Krista Tippett paid tribute to Thay in a podcast this winter and replayed her earlier interview with him at:
If a health care system which serves all residents and citizens
If free quality education for all children from pre school through university
If the public ownership of all natural resources essential for human life – water, power, and natural gas
If foremost priority in public expenditure is given to improved systems serving citizens and residents and not to securing the control of resources in other nations
If an economy driven by production for human consumption and use and not the production of weaponry
If international collaboration rather than competition in meeting global crises: climate change, nuclear weapons proliferation, and pandemics
If progress toward making one or more of these aims our reality requires adopting our own form of socialist rule in the U.S., then I am all for it.
The increasing U.S. rule by a corporate and financial elite supported by the knee-jerk charge that a policy is “socialism” serves to defend a flagrantly unjust and unsustainable status quo. Does making some dramatic changes in this country’s economic and political systems necessitate serious consideration of socialist solutions? Yes, it does and yes it will. Evidence mounts that in European nations with some mix of socialist and capitalist economic policies the people are healthier and happier and increasingly more financially secure than here.
Those nations also prove that adopting a form of socialism does not require authoritarian rule and loss of individual freedoms as most people in this nation seem to think. The youth in this country are more aware than most adults that making socialism a “bugaboo”, as one commentator recently called it, serves only the small minority who gorge on profiting from the status quo. It now appears more likely that the charge of “socialism” assigned universal health care and similar programs by conservatives and some liberals is now approaching its expiration date. As a hold over from the Cold War propaganda of the 50’s, increased allocations for an already bloated budget for defense (and the corporations subsidized by the defense budget) at the expense of increased budgeting for health care, education and public utilities has begun to lose force in shaping public opinion. At the same time, we in this country remain under the sway of an extreme form of capitalist economics that subverts the aims of the majority who work more and die earlier year by year.
As we consider the consequences of ignoring and now in some states banning discussions of race and the history of white supremacy in classrooms, it would be helpful to look at how discussion of contemporary examples of socialist and capitalist economic strategies have also been largely ignored in our schools. That someone is now and has been able for many years to graduate from a U.S. secondary education with the conviction that only socialism leads to authoritarian rule is not by chance. To ignore completely the history of capitalist Germany’s descent into barbarous, genocidal rule in the last century is to avoid by intention serious critique of our form of capitalism which now threatens the country’s survival as a democracy. That many of Germany’s leading corporations and members of the economic elite supported the Nazi regime is still kept secret from most of our students throughout their education.
But I would be renouncing my call as a Christian to neglect mention of some personal and social developments of our time that many U.S. Christians and others ignore. First, on the personal level there is an even more precipitous decline in church attendance and membership in leading Western democracies, such as Germany, than in this nation. At the same time, the China Christian Council of what we identify as “godless” Communist China has experienced growth that would be the envy of “mega-churches” in the U.S. When restrictions were lifted in the early 1980’s by the Communist Party and Chinese state, the China Christian Council as the unified Protestant Church and the heir of the work of pre-1949 missionaries has been hard pressed to build enough churches and seminaries to keep up with the rising number of Christians in China.
On the social plane, is it not time for Christians who oppose universal health care in the world’s richest nation to reconsider their position in the light of Jesus’ example? How can followers of the healer and advocate for the poor favor an economic system driven by one’s own interest over an economic and political system based on “from each according to his/her abilities to each according to their needs”. It is now time to ensure that the mischaracterization of socialism as inherently or practically against faith in a higher power be ruled out of our public policy discussions. To continue to equate socialism with either authoritarian or godless rule is to make an argument founded on lies and fear. How many of the NATO members which have implemented social welfare policies many persons here characterize as socialist have banned religion or severely restricted public religious activity?
How do so many U.S. Christians justify the ethical principles of many members of our corporate/financial ruling elite? Let me single out the example of our former Chair of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan whose ethics were shaped by the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. The system of thought condemns altruistic behavior and elevates self interest as the fundamental principle of a free society. Through his forties, Greenspan contributed articles to the Objectivist movement’s newsletter in the 60’s and remained close to Rand until her death. As an upper class refugee from the deprivations of the early years of the Soviet Union, Rand developed a philosophy of life that extolled the extreme individualistic ethics of capitalism. Greenspan’s background as a devoted Rank acolyte did not hinder his rise to prominence in service of the U.S. economy, deregulation of the financial industries and free market trade policies.
That the influence of a declared socialist Senator from Vermont has risen significantly and that so many of our country’s youth now condemn the unfettered capitalist economy in the U.S. can be attributed to the crises that overwhelm our country today. Not having experienced the fear mongering of the Cold War they perceive lame anti-socialist policy arguments rooted in corporate domination of our political discourse as impeding the nation’s progress in eliminating fossil fuel production, the priority of spending for defense, criminal justice practices which divide white workers from workers of color, and fierce opposition to union and other organizing to make change. Will we in the U.S. progress toward the implementation of a mixture of socialist and capitalist policies in our political economy? Yes, we will, provided our rule by and for the people survives and defeats the current onslaught making voting for many persons harder in defense of a grotesquely unequal and unjust status quo.