Saturday, October 10, 2020

values...ideals....sabbatical

It’s been hard to update the blog over the past 6+ years for a variety of reasons. One is that I didn’t feel much inspired by a life in administration. It was interesting to learn the administrative side of this organization, the “behind-the-scenes”, the parts of the group that made it possible for me (and continues to make it possible for many others) to do what we are being sent to do. That being said, though, there hasn’t been much to really write about.

Another major reason is that so much has been going on in the world. As soon as I started to write something over the past few years, suddenly there was something that came up in the world (often on a daily basis, it seemed), and what I saw in our US politics/social structures made whatever I was writing about seem so trivial. As a result, I’ve put many started updates aside over the past years and have dwelt in a place that feels a bit stunned, disappointed, distracted and, at times, angry. I’ve remained shocked that roughly half our country (give or take 3 million) support the direction our country is going/has gone over the past 4 years. I remain disbelieving that so many “Christians” support such un-Christian (and un-American, un-human) values that are being put forth – where is the love of neighbor, of the stranger, of the immigrant? People claim that is what they believe and they go to sing about it on Sundays, but then go home to live and react out of fear – not out of the love they are professing and singing about. I’ve been struggling to grasp some understanding of this. A year or so after the election, I asked some friends/family in the US if this was “normal” – to have the president in the news daily, spouting so many idiotic and hate-filled messages and receiving constant coverage – or, was I just in an environment now (having constant internet access and electricity) that it was possible for me to be more aware of things.

There has been such a constant barrage from someone who seems to want to stoke fear and hatred of the unknown, of strangers, of people who are different in some way… it was hard to absorb and process what was happening….but, finally I have had a bit of time to think through and process some of it - - to get thoughts together and I feel the need, some inspiration and even an obligation to write something. If I stay silent, what does that say about my values?

Last year, a few months before finishing my time in Rome, I asked our “superiors” if I could have a sabbatical. As usual, now that my current assignment had been completed, I wanted time and distance to figure out if staying with them is still the direction for me. I also wanted some time to talk with people I care about (in and out of the organization), some time alone, some time to camp, pray, etc. I gave my plan for the sabbatical, which included visits to some of the other countries with our organization and with people I’ve come to know over the past years – both laity and priests – as well as visits to family and friends, some of whom I haven’t seen for many years. I had some extended camping I planned to do. I also included a request to have some time in the Holy Land for a course and/or retreat, to explore some things in a structured way. I wanted to do this and I felt it was expected as part of a sabbatical – something structured with someone to discuss and reflect upon things. My sabbatical request was accepted, for which I am very grateful.

I began in January by visiting some of the countries and people I’ve come to know, including some time with friends I haven’t seen in about 20 years – hearing everyone’s words, thoughts, stories, advice. That’s how I had hoped to continue for the first 3 – 4 months of 2020, with plans to return to the US in April or May.

COVID tossed a curveball, though, and has continued to do so. As a result, I ended up back in Rome the day before it shut down and stayed there for roughly 3 extra months, cancelling the rest of my visits to colleagues and friends in other countries with our organization, postponing a canoeing/camping trip in the Boundary Waters between Minnesota and Canada with two of my nephews and one of my sisters. I eventually got to the US mid-June, roughly a week after Italy “re-opened”.

Meanwhile, George Floyd had been killed and the US seemed to be erupting – finally – over systemic racism and injustices. So many of us, myself included, have been complacent over the years, even complicit through our complacency, by choosing not to be on top of things and as a result allowing our country to be what it was and not making powerful statements and demands for changes, and then following through on those demands with the work and commitment, even in small steps, needed to achieve the changes. The last four years of politics in the US, and in much of the world, has opened the eyes of many of us – at last – and pushed us to take action (marching, voting, running for office, talking, writing, getting angry, becoming aware….etc.) – realizing it doesn’t have to be the way it has been, even realizing and acknowledging that we all have a voice and need to use that voice.

Following a 2-week quarantine (to be on the safe side) upon my return to the US, I met briefly with my US “superior” with hopes to discuss future options, only to be told I should enjoy the rest of my sabbatical and we will talk about the future as the sabbatical draws to a close. I again adjusted my plans and decided the safest way to make the most of the sabbatical in a pandemic world where I didn’t want to fly, where most people are isolating, distancing and where many things are still closed, would be to rent a car, drive, camp and be outdoors as much as possible, especially when visiting loved ones with whom I hoped to have some time during the remainder of the sabbatical. Yet, I was completely prepared to accept precautions people were taking if they chose not to see me. 

second camp


"hidden" alpine lake

I usually feel closest to God when alone in the beautiful creation around us. A camping trip…a hike…looking up at the stars…being silent in God’s creation is easily a retreat for me. I don’t feel the need for a chapel or church, since the chapel or church is all around us, if we choose to see and feel it. I mentioned to my “superiors” that an extended camping/hiking trip often feels synonymous to a retreat for me, and it seemed some of them scoffed at that idea, leaving me with the impression that, in their eyes, a retreat can only take place if there is a human-made chapel structure and retreat center, time spent in meditation in a chapel, listening to and discussing with someone who is guiding the retreat, etc. A retreat like that can be profound and beneficial, I agree, and had been part of my original plan, but I don’t see it as possible or wise during a pandemic. I also don’t see it as superior to a silent journey through the chapel God gave us, i.e. the earth and the people we meet on the journey. It is just another way, meeting other needs. I still hope to have a guided, individual retreat at some point post-pandemic. It’s helpful to have that extra ear, that guidance, another perspective and the structure.   

 

However, my extended road trip, a mix of camping alone and seeing some family and loved ones along the way was a perfect blend of deep and thought-provoking discussions followed by time alone to think and reflect. Time in the car was a blend of landscapes that left me in wonder, thoughts, a range of music, NPR… Fox News and….Rush Limbaugh. I wanted to try to get an understanding of how and why…I wanted to be open to hearing what “the other side” thinks. I was surprised at how many religious stations there were in some places – and how Rush Limbaugh was on those stations. This angry, shouting, hate-filled man spreading fear, rejection, prejudice and hatred over the airwaves was difficult to listen to for very long, but I repeatedly tried. I ended up not being able to understand how any station purporting to be “Christian” and “religious” and about “God” would associate themselves with so much hatred and anger and prejudice.


I read an article while I was on the road that talked of a community in PA that was pro-Trump back in 2016. They felt he stood up for them and their values…that finally there was a politician who did that. They didn’t agree with his lifestyle and values, but they felt he had their back. What I can’t understand: if their values are so important to them, if they are strong in their beliefs, values and lifestyle, how can they be so afraid of people who are different? How is welcoming an immigrant a threat and not a way to live out their values? How is it a threat to have a Muslim or a person of another color in their community? If they are strong in their values, then, in my understanding, there shouldn’t be any threat – it’s not an "either my values/or your values" situation. Welcoming immigrants does not mean losing your values and culture – it could even mean enriching them. Two people of the same sex marrying each other does not threaten “traditional” marriage – the most traditional thing about marriage is two people sharing their love and committing to share their lives. The list could continue, but the point remains the same – not knowing about something is an opportunity to learn and to grow and to put into practice those “Christian” values so many people claim they have. Not knowing does not mean losing those Christian values. Saying “Black Lives Matter” does not mean other lives don’t matter or matter less – it means we recognize that for far too long, it is black lives that have mattered less in our society  - - and we are tired of it and angry about it, and angry at ourselves for allowing it to go on this long.
 
Saying we value our democracy and country does not mean blindly accepting the fear and hatred that comes from some of our leaders. It means being able to reflect on that hatred, think for ourselves and use our voices to call them out when their values do not represent what we are about, what we profess our lives, faith and values to be about, and are not what our country has been striving to achieve since before it was independent – and has not yet succeeded in achieving. Our country was founded upon the ideal that all people “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In the US, we all grow up knowing this line from the Declaration of Independence. Sadly, we have not succeeded in making that line a reality in our country.  
 
Fear, hatred, racism and prejudice are not the way to ever achieve that ideal.

 

Monday, October 14, 2019

updates and travels


Over a year after the previous blog update and my sincere intentions to start updating more regularly, I’m finally doing another update (and once again have intentions to resume posting more often than annually). 

Soon after my last post, when I wrote about Hope for Life and Sarah, I intended to give an update about Sarah. Within about 24 hours of writing about her, several people offered to contribute to what was needed for her to acquire a new leg. It was amazing to me – I had described her situation and what a beautiful woman she is, but I hadn’t expected to raise money. So, about a month or two following the blog update, thanks to donations received, she was at the rehab center getting her new leg. Since then, she’s been getting around well. I had fully intended to do an update immediately to express my appreciation – but I didn’t.

Since then, a lot has been happening within SMA and among the lay people who are involved with the SMA. There have been meetings (of course). Some were for the lay people who are involved with the various units of SMA. Then, this past May, there was the big SMA meeting that takes place every 6 years to elect new leaders and set the goals for the next 6 years (a one-month long meeting!!). Following that was a meeting for just the US SMA (only 2 weeks), and then the usual meetings here in Rome. I feel like meetings have been a major part of my life for the past 6 years – meetings and other administrative things, but I knew it would be like this when I agreed to take up the position (which is part of why I hesitated to agree immediately to come live in Rome for 6 years). There were a lot of preparations for some of these meetings – and the meetings had, in my opinion, very mixed results (more on that in the future), as meetings will do.

In Rome during August most people flee to the beaches or the mountains to be with family and in cooler, fresher air. Rome can become a bit hot. The people in the SMA house also leave – the priests who are here to study go for extra classes, to help in parishes and for holidays. The bosses take their leave at that time since the rest of Rome is also on holiday, so it makes it difficult to get official business done. For the past 5 years, I’ve been the one to stay at the SMA house in Rome during August. We can’t all abandon the house, and the mass desertion leaves me happy to be the one to stay and take care of whatever needs to happen. I spend the entire month sweating, but it’s also a solitary and peaceful time, and mostly a time when I can focus on work I want to get done – I enjoy the solitude, setting my own schedule and deciding what and when I want to eat, focusing without interruption on things I want to get done, etc. 

I then get to take my vacation at another time – a time when things are busier in the house and in the city, and a time when there are fewer people traveling…making traveling a bit more peaceful as well. 

Pompeii, with Vesuvius in the background

Vesuvius, from Naples


























This September a couple of friends had time off and came to visit. We spent a little over a week in Tuscany and then another week in the southern part of Italy. Tuscany lives up to all the beautiful descriptions that are out there about it. 


The Vie Cave - what feels like a maze that meanders through what feels like canyon outside of Sorano (but, it is neither a maze nor a canyon)

a view of Sorano - after wandering through the canyon

re-entering Sorano, after going back through the canyon



lunch in Tuscany - with the view seen in the picture at the top of this post

the remains of a castle at the top of Montemassi, a village we stayed in for a couple of nights

view of village from the castle
another view of the village

One of the little hill-towns we stayed in, Manciano, was having its annual wine festival (Festa delle Cantine) for the 3 nights we were there. So, every night found us wandering the streets with a cup of wine, that was regularly being refilled, around our necks . 



souvenirs following 3 nights of a wine festival

The parts of Southern Italy that we visited were just as amazing and beautiful as Tuscany – and with just as many delicious foods and wines. 



Blue Grotto

with Jessie and Arthur - long-time friends who were visiting
the town is Polignano a Mare - this rocky beach we swam at is also seen in the next photo, through the arches that we had to walk under

In spite of a lot of movement, the time off left me refreshed and relaxed…and a bit more hopeful than I had felt following the meeting from May.
One of the Trulli houses of Alberobello (also called "Mushroom Houses") where we spent a night.....unfortunately, those HUGE beer steins were only filled with rain water from the previous day

I can't call this graffiti (painted on a wall in Pisticci)

Pisticci

a couple of "yarn bombed" trees in Sorrento, where we were waiting for a ferry to Capri and the Blue Grotto pictured above

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

the story of Hope for Life and some of its members



In 1995, I was about to leave SMA so that I could get my Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy. I thought I’d be able to do even more if I had “official” education and training in that field. A year or two before that, Jean Thebault (Fr. John), an SMA priest from France, had left Ghana. His life had been (and still is) all about what SMA says that SMA is about – mission to the most abandoned. He worked with prisoners, street children and people with disabilities. He had an open ear and a compassionate, but not bleeding, heart. People visited him and through those visits and discussions Hope for Life was born. JB visited him prior to Hope for Life’s existence. JB, who I wrote about a couple of years ago, had heard that there was a priest who welcomed and sometimes assisted people with disabilities. He went to Fr. John for a wheelchair, and when Fr. John asked why he wanted the wheelchair, JB honestly responded, “so I can be pushed out of my room and sit under a tree.” Fr. John’s response was to advise JB to return home and think about what he could do with the chair that would help him to better his life and to live with dignity. He told JB that when he had a better answer, they could talk about acquiring a wheelchair. Through back and forth visits a plan came to life. To sum it up, a wheelchair and typewriter so that JB could start a business typing letters for people gradually led to a school, under that same tree, of around a hundred students at a time. Some of the students that passed through JB’s school have gone on to be doctors, lawyers and politicians.  

When Fr. John was about to leave Ghana, he asked the US Province of SMA if there were any lay people that could carry on with Hope for Life. Since I was about to leave Ivory Coast and this was my field of interest, I was asked to go to Ghana to continue with Hope for Life (HFL) and happily accepted, postponing the Master’s Degree for a few years. It sounded exactly like what I was going to study. It was still a small community-based project at the time – I think about 150 - 200 members, all people with disabilities, and all with a spirit of support for one another. 

There were no handouts – people earned what they received – and a commitment was formed between HFL, the person, the person’s family and the community. If someone decided they wanted surgery so they could walk upright (albeit often with crutches and leg braces/callipers), rather than crawl on the ground, the surgery wasn’t where things began or ended. The surgery was a result of conversations, visitations made to that person and visitations by that person to others who had received similar surgeries.  The surgery was a step towards something else, as well (as with JB’s wheelchair/typewriter leading to greater dignity and being a valued member of the community). It wasn’t so that someone could become more mobile and go be under a tree, but rather so they could become more mobile and go to school, go to vocational training, go to a job, etc.  The entire process also always came with an agreement for some kind of contribution or reciprocity.  Wheelchairs often required a financial contribution from the recipient. Vocation training often resulted in the member agreeing to train 1 or more other members once they became fully trained and established in their business. Everything had the goal of building up dignity and self-respect.

 

Sarah is a beautiful person, inside and out who, like JB, has been a role model for so many Hope for Life and community members. She has also been someone who became and has remained a good friend and, like JB, an advisor to me and others. When I first arrived at HFL in 1996, she was one of the first people I came to know. She was in her mid-20s and had had a chronic infection of some sort on her leg for most of her life. It was possible to smell her infection, like rotten meat, from across a room. I was with her when a doctor advised amputation. So, the conversation began. After spending a week or so at home with her family to discuss things, she accepted our invitation to stay with us at Bethany House, which was the central point for HFL – a place where people with disabilities could come together for an afternoon or a couple of weeks to have a bit of a respite from their daily lives and know that they would be accepted and be among friends. Her stay was intended to be an opportunity to learn more about amputation as well as to make up her own mind after having input from family and others, but without having ongoing pressure from everyone. During her stay with us we visited others who had leg amputations. We had a lot of talks and sharing - she told me that for at least 10 years doctors had advised her that she would need an amputation, but that no one had ever been with her when the doctor said that, and she was afraid, so she never talked about it. After about a month, she had her surgery, and, following some recuperation and some rehab, she came to stay with us again in Bethany House for a couple of weeks.  She was nervous about returning to her community and family prior to being completely healed and with an artificial leg, however, she eventually realized that everyone would have greater understanding and support for her if they had been a part of the process and it didn’t all just seem to be magic – one day an infection, the next day walking with an artificial leg.  Sarah eventually went on to train in hairdressing and try to open her business. Anytime that she was asked, she was ready to go with us to visit another member and their family to discuss surgery that was recommended. She is now a widow, with a little boy of about 10 years. Fortunately, she has a wonderful family and community around her. 

However, as always, unanticipated things come up, such as needing her prosthetic replaced.  About a month ago she sent me a message to pass on Easter greetings, and mentioned how she is struggling to move around these days because she needs a new leg. I promised I’d write a story about her – I have been wanting to update the blog for a long time, anyway, and this was a good motivator. 

Artificial legs in Ghana are not the high-tech things of athletes in the “West”, however, they do make it possible for people to walk upright, look other people in the eyes and feel they have some dignity. One way or another, I will figure out a way to get her what she needs.

This seemed like a good opportunity to share her story, as well as the Hope for Life story. It seemed like a good way to re-start updating the blog, as well.  I have a couple of other articles already half-started, and just need to get motivated to continue.

Sarah with a niece