Archive for Faith & Arts

Are you a sacred activist?

Are You a Sacred Activist?   Take the Quiz!

  • Do you have a burning desire to change the world or make a difference?
  • Is there a cause or issue that breaks your heart?
  • Are you devoted to a spiritual practice such as prayer or meditation?
  • Are you concerned about the environment, social justice, non-violence and personal wellness?
  • Are you seeking for deeper meaning in your life?
  • Do you believe love is the essence and creative force of life?
  • Are you anxious about the current state of the world and looking for a way to pitch in?

If you answered YES to two or more of these questions then you are being called on to become a Sacred Activist – what author Andrew Harvey defines as a humble and divine agent of change to birth a new world of compassion, peace, justice and harmony.

In his new book, The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism, Harvey sounds an urgent clarion call to all who care deeply about the future of humanity and of the planet. “We need to not only fix the existing system but radically transform it so we no longer, by our choices, threaten our lives or the lives of millions of species.”

Harvey’s book reveals how the large-scale practice of Sacred Activism can become an essential way for preserving and healing the planet and its inhabitants. Harvey believes the current crisis at hand drives us towards the positive practice of justice, equality and harmony with nature such as the new movements towards ecological sustainability, social justice and non-violence, the advent of new alternative forms of technology and energy, and more.

In his book, Harvey offers seven powerful laws for Sacred Activism and he shows that neither the noble, pragmatic work of the activist nor the passive spirituality of the individual is enough to change the world. These two must be fused to become an unstoppable force of transformational love and compassion in action to affect meaningful change –beginning with ourselves.

This year Harvey officially launched The Institute for Sacred Activism , which offers a year-long global curriculum for implementing his philosophy and vision and is dedicated to continuing the tremendous work of extraordinary ordinary people such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and Desmond Tutu. Each of these individuals rose up to meet the challenges of their time with great spiritual grace and integrated inner contemplation with decisive action.

For more information on how you can become a Sacred Activist or purchase a copy of The Hope: a Guide to Sacred Activism, visit: http://www.AndrewHarvey.net.

Reprinted with permission, published in the September 2009 issue of Spirit Seeker Magazine, www.spiritseeker.com.  Also found at The New Consciousness Review at http://www.ncreview.com/are-you-a-sacred-activist.

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Previewing “My Name is Rachel Corrie”

By Suzanne Gladney and Alan Lubert

“My Name is Rachel Corrie” is a play you should see. There’s a lot to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gaza is an area filled with strong emotions. This play is one piece to add to the understanding and to give us more to think about. The play is surrounded by its own controversy. Some say it is anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian propaganda. Some have staged protests. Other strong voices have threatened to resign from theatre boards or pull back theatre funding. For others, Rachel was a young idealist with a passion to help people in a dangerous area of the world.

The play is a one-woman performance based on the journal and writings of Rachel Corrie. Rachel, 23, was a volunteer in Israel, in the Gaza Strip. She had been in Israel for less than two months; a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a group both criticized and praised for its activist but peaceful methods. Rachel was involved in an ISM protest against the destruction of Palestinian homes. On March 17, 2003, she was struck and killed by an Israeli bulldozer.

Good background reading: The Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tolan. The strong voices against the play urge people to visit: http://www.RachelCorrieFacts.org. Rachel’s parents have established the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice.

We saw this play and met Rachel’s parents at the first US production two years ago. With the recent events in Israel and Gaza, the Kansas City production is timely and likely to be controversial.

The play shows at the Unicorn Theatre (3820 Main Street) for four weekends starting March 19 (Thursday-Sunday) and ends April 12. Tickets are $21.00. Unicorn box office: (816) 531-7529.

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A reflection on “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden”

NOTE: “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” is no longer playing in Kansas City. The video is expected to be released this fall. 

By Matt Smithmier

He’s arguably the most wanted man in the world. But in the new documentary “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” director Morgan Spurlock tackles the question that the United States military has been asking for seven years.

Back in better health after his fast-food experiment in “Super Size Me,” Spurlock is still the slightly sarcastic, regular-guy journalist on a mission. This time, instead of a global corporate empire, he’s taking on terrorism and its uncomfortable cohort the “war on terrorism” – another sort of global empire.

Motivated by the upcoming birth of his first child, he sets out on a journey to find bin Laden, the Sept. 11 puppet master and leader of al-Qaida, with the hope that the world will be a safer place for his new kid once the ringleader is found. “If I’ve learned anything from big-budget action films, it’s that complicated world problems are best solved by one lonely guy,” he declares to the camera in the introduction.

Because this is a Spurlock film, we get plenty of zany effects and antics to accompany us on the journey. Thankfully, however, as we get to the meat of the movie, Spurlock gets a little more serious and we can really see what we’re here to see – that the real issue is not where bin Laden might be but why and how a bin Laden ever existed in the first place.

After completing extensive security training and a battery of vaccinations, Spurlock takes us to all of the hot spots: Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan. He talks to people on the street, journalists, students, tribal leaders, even children. He doesn’t waste time proselytizing to his audience about his theories (for the most part), and he doesn’t have to. The voices of the people who live in the thick of this environment spell out the story quite effectively. The film feels less like an opinion piece and more like a day-in-the-life exposé.

And while Spurlock talks to many locals who are ashamed of bin Laden’s actions and blame him for the war in their backyard, he doesn’t shy away from finding those dissident voices, even tracking down relatives of some of the 9/11 hijackers. He asks all of them not only where he can find bin Laden but also what they think of America and 9/11.

It’s no big spoiler to reveal that Spurlock doesn’t actually find bin Laden. But what he does uncover is infinitely more illuminating of the pressures and motivations that drive extremism, which ensure that this “war on terror” is nowhere close to being won – or lost.

With supporting testimony from some of his interviewees, Spurlock proposes that much of the unrest is actually due to America’s actions through the last several decades, including our financial and military support of authoritarian leaders who restrict their citizens’ political voices and oppress the local culture. As a result, Islamic fundamentalism was able to grow by leaps and bounds by seemingly offering the only real avenue to freedom and activism. “Extremism nourishes itself from darkness,” one interviewee says.

Spurlock has a couple of theories about what’s causing the darkness today. While he is very grateful and respectful of the U.S. military’s presence in the region – including their safe escort into Afghanistan’s Taliban country so he could interview locals – he questions the destruction and lack of promised rebuilding that drives a wedge between the American government and the local residents. He also visits the Gaza Strip and wonders if the ongoing conflict between Israelites and Palestinians isn’t actually fueling the need for terrorism. If peace in the region was declared tomorrow, would there really be a need for bin Laden?

It seems a little strange to report that a film about such a dire and threatening topic actually leaves you with hope. But in fact, Spurlock manages to inspire with his documentary, showing viewers firsthand that the majority of the people who live in such a war-torn landscape are not the extremists that we should fear. They are people who want peace – not only for their own families, but for the United States as well as the entire world. Spurlock himself changes his own mission – from catching a madman to make the world safer for his unborn child to discovering the reasons for the fear and hatred so the world will be safer for everyone’s children.

The film leaves you with the hope that these “ordinary” people will eventually win out over the extremist on all sides, that humanity will someday right itself, dissolving fear and hatred with understanding and hope. But like most complex problems, treating a symptom – in this case catching bin Laden – does nothing to cure the root cause. And it will take more than a declaration of “Mission Accomplished” to change the hearts and minds of the rest of the world.

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Breakfast with Meister Eckhart

By Michael Humphrey

“God waits on human history
and suffers as she waits.”

– Meister Eckhart

Over the past six months, my wife and I have spent our breakfast time with Meister Eckhart (1260-1328). Perhaps it’s strange to start your day with a 14th century German mystic and theologian once condemned by the Church for heresy, but I can tell you it beats the morning news.

Eckhart’s ideas do not come in easily digestible bites. His sermons are thick and wondrous, his defenses during his inquisition are reasoned and intricate. But in the early 1980s, Dominican Father Matthew Fox compiled a concise and beautifully translated book entitled, “Meditations with Meister Eckhart.” (Bear & Company, Santa Fe). That has provided the inlet to a system of thought that really does make each day seem more meaningful and manageable all at the same time.

Lately the concept of justice has been served with oatmeal and tea. For instance, last week we read:

“People ought to think less about what they should do
and more about what they are.
For when people and their ways are good,
then their works shine forth brightly.
If you are just,
then your works are also just.
Works do not sanctify us — but
we are to sanctify our works.
Holiness is based on being, not on a single action.
If you wish to explore the goodness of action,
explore first the nature of the ground of the works.”

This was a striking pronouncement to me, even though everything we read from Eckhart was leading to this point. His spiritual direction is known as the four-fold path –

1) Creation

2) Letting Go and Letting Be

3) Breakthrough and Birth of Self as Child of God

4) The New Creation: Compassion and Social Justice.

“Eckhard insists in very strong language,” Fox writes in the introduction, “that our spiritual life is not ended with creativity but rather we are to employ creativity for the sake of personal and social transformation.”

This thought is not new. It is steeped in the lessons of the Hebrew Scriptures, the life of Christ, the letters of Paul and in many doctors of the Church. But what Eckhart has to offer is a path that leads to justice, not one where justice leads to the path.

That is an important distinction, because it assumes the interconnectedness of all living things with God, in God. Seeing this creation as dynamic and joyful, washing the mind of all attachment to our own concepts, then re-finding the path with pure eyes – this leads to a new vision of justice. It sounds like it will take too long, but God waits patiently, and perhaps, so should we.

So specifically, the path looks like this:

1) Creation: “We ought to understand God equally in all things, for God is equally in all things. All beings love one another. All creatures are interdependent.”

2) Letting Go: “Outside of God, there is nothing but nothing. … I pray God to rid me of God.”

3) Breakthrough: “In my flowing-out I entered creation, in my Breakthrough I re-enter God. Only those who have dared to let go can dare to re-enter.”

4) The New Creation: “Compassion means justice. And compassion is just to the extent that it gives to each person what is his or hers.”

These are angry times. It is natural to feel overwhelmed by the powerful forces that seem intent on undermining basic structure that would create a peaceful world. And perhaps the frustration is easiest to apply to our own country, because we understand the ideals of democracy. We understand the standard by which our nation’s rhetoric is severely belied by sanctioning pre-meditated war, torture, degradation of civil liberties and reactionary mistrust for the very heart of who we are as a people – immigrants.

The truth is Meister Eckhart’s time was no more ennobling. A growing fear of heresy was making the Church suspicious and soon the Spanish Inquisition would be unleashed. The Church, ostensibly established on the rather clear principles of peacemaking that Christ implored, was in fact fractured and warring amongst itself. These were hard times to avoid outrage as well.

And yet Eckhart says all action for justice must come from within an inner integrity, from a spring of love and compassion created by union with God. And in union with God, we enter union with all beings. Including those who would choose war over peace, profits over people, struggle over compromise.

If we can’t act in love and compassion, Eckhart says, we can’t act. Then again, when working in love and compassion, no greater action is demanded of you than to be fully present in that grace and do what is before you.

“A person works in a stable.
That person has a Breakthrough.
What does he do?
He returns to work in the stable.”

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Review: A Book of Hours by Thomas Merton

By Anna Foote

I think of Thomas Merton first as a writer—he did leave us plenty of books. Second, I think of him as an activist, engaged in conversation with the world around him; his stance against the Vietnam War comes to mind.

But with these images, I overlook the life he chose when he was 26 years old, when he walked through the gates of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, when he chose to become a cloistered monk.

As a monk, Merton entered into a life of contemplation. I was reminded of this recently, when I ran across a lovely new book of his words, A Book of Hours, edited by Kathleen Deignan. She explains why Merton drew her into this project of finding and organizing his words for daily prayer.

“The experiential contact with the Living God encompassed Merton on all sides: in the glories of nature, the pathos of society in the stimulating conversations with countless dialogue partners across the planet, and in the monastic liturgy of ceaseless prayer,” she writes.

It is this monastic liturgy of ceaseless prayer that the book evokes; it offers an invitation to slow down—an act so essential this time of year—and pray as monks have for centuries. With entries for Sunday through Saturday, this Book of Hours gives readers words for contemplation and prayer four times per day: at dawn, day, dusk, and dark.

Craving silence and slowness, I entered into prayer with Merton. Pausing four times a day to make a short prayer went a long way in slowing me down, but the experience was enhanced by Deignan’s choices from his books.

Dawn:
We are what we love. If we love God, in whose image we were created, we discover ourselves in him and we cannot help being happy…
(Merton, from The Waters of Siloe, Deignan’s choice for Tuesday’s Reading)

Day:
Set me free from the laziness that goes about disguised as activity when activity is not required of me…
(Merton, from New Seeds of Contemplation, Deignan’s choice for Wednesday’s Kyrie)

Dusk:
The contemplative life is then the search for peace not in an abstract exclusion of all outside reality, not in a barren negative closing of the senses upon the world, but in the openness of love.
(Merton, from The Hidden Ground of Love, Deignan’s choice for Friday’s Epistle)

Dark:
I have prayed to You in the daytime with thoughts and reasons, and in the nighttime You have confronted me, scattering thought and reason.
(Merton, from The Sign of Jonas, Deignan’s choice for Saturday’s Psalm)

Praying with these words led me to a deeper understanding of Merton as contemplator: He could write, argue, protest because he grounded himself in prayer.

And with this grounding, he was aware he could offer all of us a path into the contemplative’s life, a realization that flowers in his Final Benediction:

I hope these few words from me will be of some help. I send you all my blessings and I join you in your happiness. I am glad to have had some small part in God’s work for you.
(Merton, from The Hidden Ground of Love)

You can find A Book of Hours here.

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Q&A with Randy Smith, author of “A Kenyan Journey”

Note: Randy Smith is an editor at The Kansas City Star and a member of Visitation Parish in Kansas City, Mo., where he’s been involved in a sister community relationship with the Madre de los Pobres parish in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Last year, Smith went to Nairobi, Kenya to work at The Nation, the country’s largest newspaper, and conduct journalism training. When he returned, he decided to write a book about the experience, about the courageous Kenyans building a democracy and the concept of ubuntu, which he discusses in this article.

To read the introduction of the book, go here. To purchase “A Kenyan Journey” go here.

KCOB: How did you put the book together?

Randy Smith: The story actually begins almost a year ago in the spring when Peter Makori came to The Kansas City Star. He had been wrongly imprisoned in 2003 and had gone through a lot of stress and trauma in Kenya. The Committee to Protect Journalists had worked with a lot of different groups to get him out of Africa because his life was in danger. I held up my hand to have him come to work at The Kansas City Star because I thought it would be a good thing for us to do. He had many issues and still does but has had a lot of success. He was a regular columnist for us, writing articles at least once a week. In helping him through these issues, the fellowship opportunity became possible in Kenya. Over the years, many African journalists had come to work for The Kansas City Star on fellowships. We thought it would be great to start a sister relationship with a media company in Africa, particularly Kenya. We had a lot of success with Franklin Awori, a Kenyan journalist who visited in 2002. Currently we have a Kenyan journalism fellow at The Star and his name is Mugumo Munene. All have done particularly well here. So part of the reason I went to Kenya was to try to set up this relationship. When I went to Africa, I taught in the newsroom. They also asked me to teach in the various bureaus. I went in September but I didn’t really have a book in mind at that time.

KCOB: The book is telling the story as you experienced it?

Randy Smith: I was trying to demystify Africa. Growing up, we had visions of Africa. Of course, we had heard about Tarzan. Later, we saw movies of great landscapes and wildebeests and lions and so forth. Most recently, we have heard about Darfur and genocide in Rwanda. So what I wanted to do was to show Africa is a little more complicated than that. Many folks tend to think of Africa as one big country and in reality it is over 50 very diverse countries.

You have to realize the continent has only had democracies 40 or 50 years, which is not long when compared with the rest of the world. So they are very young democracies. Another thing is that people care about what is going on there. Newspapers are very, very important there. They are sold out by 10 a.m.

KCOB: One notion we have here is that Africa struggles with corruption. Did you run into a lot of that? I would imagine it made for a lot of work for the newspapers.

Randy Smith: There is a fair amount of corruption, which makes for a lot of good stories. In Kenya they have only had three leaders since the overthrow of the British. Jomo Kenyatta, who was the George Washington of Kenya, was the first. Daniel Moi was the second, and he was very corrupt. Now with Kibaki, there is less corruption, but there is still a problem…some of it under his control and some out of his control. In the newspaper business, they will shut you down if they don’t like you. A year ago in March, the Standard, which is the second largest newspaper, was raided by government forces and shut down. They literally sent in troopers and the Standard is not some small building. It is a gleaming, bluish tower in the middle of Nairobi and is quite a landmark there. Next to the Nation, which is two giant towers, it is probably the number two landmark.

It shows you how careful the newspapers, especially the journalists, have to be. And they also have to be willing to stand behind their convictions. I really came away with the feeling, if not for the journalism being done there, that Kenya’s democracy would not be a democracy for very long.

KCOB: Do you think there is less skepticism about the media in Kenya than there is here in the United States?

Randy Smith: In Kenya (media are) pretty well defined, whereas here it is so diverse. Some might think of Bill O’Reilly as a member the of the media, when actually he may be an opinion maker but he is not out there on the streets gathering information.

A poll that was done independently found the media (in Kenya) was trusted about as much as doctors. Journalists are way up there on their most-trusted list. So when you are in the media, you are held in highest esteem.

KCOB: There was a time, when newspapers were the primary source of the news in this country, that esteem for the journalist was fairly high here. What’s the difference having watched both system works. Is there any difference?

Randy Smith: Well in Kenya I could get six or seven channels on my TV station. You come back to this country and you have 400 or 500 different channels. Attention is subdivided in America into tiny niches. Everyone votes in Kenya. Here, we can’t get many people to the polls.

KCOB: Did your time in Kenya help you to understand yourself as a journalist better or understand what journalism here in America is about?

Randy Smith: I came out of this with a tremendous appreciation, not just for the Kenyan journalists and what they are doing, but also the American journalists who are trying to tell you what is going on in the sometimes forgotten places.

KCOB: Many risking their lives to do it.

Randy Smith: I wrote a piece about Kate Peyton who was from the BBC and had stopped briefly in Nairobi before going to Somalia. She was killed her first day in Mogadishu. She was one of the beacons there. One of the things I would urge people to do is read deeply into their reports. A lot of their stories can be found on the internet. I know on McClatchy’s site, you can read the longer versions. These journalists are flying in little planes into places where they could be shot..to let us know what is happening.

KCOB: Were you ever in danger?

Randy Smith: Once or twice, when flying in one of those small planes, I was close to the higher being. (Smiles.) Another time, I was getting in my car after being out for the evening. There was a group of people who did not mean us well. But we got out of there quickly. I was lucky to be with people who helped me stay out of harm’s way. There was a Canadian journalist working on the paper that went into an area in Nairobi which he was told was off limits. He was choked unconscious, stripped of all his clothes and had everything taken. When he came to, he was in the middle of the street being passed by cars on every side of him. He got back on his feet and was lucky he wasn’t hurt any worse than he was. They do have lots carjackings and such, but I really didn’t feel any more challenged than I did in any other developing country.

KCOB: Where does Africa fit in the world stage and where does Kenya fit in the African stage? We hear so much about the Middle East and then the impending rise of China and India. It seems par for the course that you hardly every hear about Africa. Where in your opinion does Africa fit for the present and future?

Randy Smith: I think it is the future. Just because we are not hearing about Africa doesn’t mean it isn’t on the rise. The only people who are serious about Africa at the moment are the Chinese. They are building the main airport in Kenya in exchange for getting oil. They are building dams in Uganda and Sudan. China is all over Africa and they are taking things out of Africa to make their economy run better in China. (In terms of) Europe and the US, while we are there, we really are not there in several respects. The US is there because of terrorism in Somalia . But I will tell you this: There needs to be some focus on some other things. When we start paying attention to those things, then I think we’ll start to see how important Africa really is.

KCOB: Do you mean economic issues?

Randy Smith: Economic issues, building credible leadership, helping battle some very tough diseases that they have. You hear a lot about AIDS, but you don’t hear much about malaria. Malaria is about as big a killer as AIDS and it is everywhere.

KCOB: Did you have some conversations with Kenyan journalists or non-journalists on the issue of how the United States and Europe and even China can get involved, without that classic western paternalism which seems to come with our presence, either through colonialization or what seems to be now “philosophical colonialization?” As if we’re saying, “We are not going to rule your country, but imply our values on you.”

Randy Smith: I think they are interested in becoming partners with us on projects but I don’t think they are interested in us coming in and running the show or the British or anyone else. Because they need help, they have been accepting aid from just about wherever they can get it.

For example, we could work on economic development. The Rift Valley is one of the most fertile regions in the world. It is where many believe that man was born. It also just happens to have a perfect year round temperature for growing crops. I think Kenya could really be the bread basket for Africa and for some of the rest of the world too. There is great potential there.

We also can help prevent human disasters. Global warming is everywhere there. Lake Victoria has dropped 9 or 10 feet. It’s the second largest fresh water lake in the world and provides food and power to several countries. The Nile flows out of it, and reduced water means power shortages in many countries in northern Africa.

KCOB: While you were there did you come across that struck you as uniquely African solutions to African problems?

Randy Smith: One of the biggest ones was the term ubuntu, and that just means, “I am because you are.” It means setting aside the concept of winning and losing. The idea is to cross the finish line in life at the same time.

Another thing that I saw there is lots and lots of American religious groups that come over and want to do good. They visit for two weeks or whatever and they dig a well or build a church and then they go home. When they talk about this back in America, they talk about how much better they feel and how much they improved lives in Kenya. But one of the things you see, if you are there very long, is abandoned churches and a lot of empty wells. If you are going to do anything, you have to be there for the long haul, number one, and number two, you have to make people feel they are a part of it. In essence, they have to have some ownership to the well, to the church, to the water supply. When they have ownership, they know how to fix the water supply, they know how to fix the broken pipe. We need to make sure we are not digging too many empty wells and building too many abandoned churches.

KCOB: That is really a profound image. Do you think there has to be a more honest dialogue between Africans and Westerners about what they need and they really want to invest themselves in?

Randy Smith: There is a cultural difference. You know as an American you want to have everything planned. You want to know what you are going to do day 1, day 2, day 3. One of the things I found there was things kind of get done when they have to get done. So if you are big on controlling destiny, you have a lot to learn.

Another thing is conversations there. Their conversations are often times circular and they are asking you lots of questions in a business meeting to find out more about you and your family. That’s really a part of them getting to know you and to find out whether or not they trust you as an individual. I think we go over there with an agenda and want to be done. In Africa, it won’t happen without a conversation.

I remember one morning at breakfast before I was about to do a seminar. I was sitting there and watching a group of about 25 people sitting around a table about ten feet away. I could hear this young pastor from the U.S. lecturing the group for almost an hour. I don’t think anyone else said a word. And he was telling everyone what they were going to do here and how proud they were to be doing this and that and the other. There wasn’t any kind of input. There wasn’t any kind of participation. In Africa everybody participates because everybody wants to know everybody else’s opinions. You make better decisions that way. It’s hard to know if we are crossing the finish line at the same time when nobody else gets the opportunity to speak.

KCOB: I think it is natural for Americans to think what happens in Africa doesn’t really affect us. Global warming is a really good example. How does the Africa impact the United States when it comes to global warming or economic issues?

Randy Smith: I think what global warming will do is actually cause tremendous instability. You know, political and economical instability. As a result, great wars over shrinking resources will create many conflicts and those things will eventually come to affect us.

KCOB: One of the things I’ve wondered about is if people are coming out of the southern hemisphere, if they have to leave, they have to go somewhere.

Randy Smith: Kenya is a catching mitt for refugees. They have people coming in from the wars in Somalia, Sudan and northern Uganda. There is a camp called Dadaab, about an hour and half from Nairobi, where people have been born, lived full lives and died. They have had a couple of generations of people living there, and most are Somalis.

KCOB: Compare Latin America, especially El Salvador, with your experience in Kenya? Are there common issues that come up or are they radically different from each other?

Randy Smith: It’s not so radically different in terms of poverty, but the poverty is on a grander scale in Africa. When you go to San Salvador or you stay in La Chacra, for example, it is a community of around a hundred thousand people on the edge of San Salvador. For the people who are living there, life gets a little bit better every year. You can see roads being built and so forth and so on. In Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, there are 1 million people. You don’t really see any real progress. It is getting bigger and worse. Because Latin America is where it is, a lot of people come down there from the U.S. and provide aid. In Africa, you see people helping out, but there frankly aren’t enough. In Kibera, there’s a lot of children with AIDS who live at the Nyumbani center, which in Swahili means home. The staff at Nyumbani goes door to door in one section of Kibera to help keep the children alive. But they are just a drop in the bucket.

KCOB: What is it going to take for Americans to take African countries seriously and start to help?

Randy Smith: I think one of the things we have got to do is pay attention to what is going on there.

Then you need to organize.

One way is to bring it up in your faith community, where people talk about world issues and what they can do to make a difference.

Another way is to see if your company might be supportive. When I was at the AIDS center in Nyumbani, I met flight attendants and pilots from KLM who work there during the flight layovers. I know that there are a number of companies in Kansas City that support the good work of their employees.

In the end, though, it must be a personal decision. You have to make up your mind that Africa is worth your time. Once you’ve crossed that bridge, you can become a beacon for others.

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‘Crossing the Desert’

Crossing the Desert: Learning to Let Go, See Clearly and Live Simply by Robert J. Wicks, copyright 2007, published by Sorin Books, Notre Dame, IN.Reviewed by Anna Foote

Robert Wicks knows something about the pressures encountered in reaching out to others.

A psychologist, Wicks has seen the aftermath of human destruction. In 1994, he debriefed relief workers who were evacuated from Rwanda in the midst of that country’s atrocious genocide. In 1993 and 2001, he worked in Cambodia, supporting the Khmer people who were trying to build up their nation by overcoming years of torture and terror. In 2006, he counseled health-care professionals who were treating American Iraqi war veterans who had been severely disabled by multiple amputations or head injuries.

In Crossing the Desert, Wicks makes it clear that psychology is not enough to sustain human spirituality in the face of evil. He turns to ancient Christian wisdom, the desert mothers and fathers of fourth century Egypt. Though he does not make a direct connection, it is clear Wick’s reliance on desert wisdom certainly helped him—and his patients—come to some amount of peace with the horrors they witnessed.

But doesn’t the act of reaching out to others contradict the notion of retreating to the desert? Wicks says no, that one reason the desert mothers and fathers retreated to the desert to gain a sense of perspective on themselves and on society. That’s perspectives that all activists and caregivers can use.

He writes, “The desert ammas and abbas of the fourth century saw that worry, tensions, pride, greed, fear, and a desire for power and fame filled much of the world, and even the church. This led them to embrace a spirit of letting go. It moved them to ask some form of the question: What am I filled with now that is holding me back? This is the most basic question all of us must deal with on the journey toward letting go of all that is unnecessary and destructive in ourselves.”

For those of us who are concerned about the violence in the world, and especially concerned about violence that finds its roots in our nation, the message is clear. We must figure out what we are filled with and let go of what is unnecessary, or we risk destructiveness.

One theme Wicks stresses in Crossing the Desert is that the desert monks did not retreat from society to escape, but to gain a sense of perspective that enhanced their freedom and that of others. Wicks insists that the desert model is one of community.

He writes, “To be concerned only with self-improvement and personal security or peace is to distort the very heart of the wisdom of the desert. The fruit of desert wisdom should, in fact, help us let go of what is unnecessary so we can be filled with good things in ways that will enhance rather than subdue our own freedom or that of others.”

That’s a key point for activists. Wicks—and the desert elders—suggest that we must step into the desert, be filled with its wisdom, then share the fruit of that wisdom in ways that enhance our freedom and the freedom of those we serve. If we are too busy to look for wisdom and perspective, how can we know our actions are right?

“Stepping into the desert” is a metaphor for gaining wisdom, a process the ammas and abbas insist begins with losing our attachment to the ways of the world. Wicks writes of the letting-go process of the desert leaders.

“As they sought to discover both God and their true selves,” he writes, “unexpected graces emerged. By appreciating their own ordinariness they were able to become free. And they became strong enough to help others experience the simple presence of God in themselves. They became gentle and strong enough to be truly compassionate.”

To become “gentle and strong enough to be truly compassionate” is good advice for all of us, especially if we’re concerned about bringing forth a good, just world.

And Wicks says if we follow desert wisdom and gain some of those unexpected graces, our gratitude spurs us to action.

“Once graced by God,” he writes, “are we showing gratitude through seeing, embracing, and acting upon these divine gifts?”

In keeping with desert wisdom, Wicks does not prescribe what that action should be. But he implies that if action comes from our center, it is right.

And Wicks recognizes that we will fail, as the ammas and abbas did. But wicks points out that the elders knew how to evaluate themselves without punishment.

“There are a number of reasons the Desert Fathers and Mothers could do this,” he writes. “They embraced sacred scripture and thus realized the role of grace and the place of God. They knew that falling short or sinning was natural. They also knew that they needed the word of God, and periods of silence and solitude so they could reassess their lives. They knew that they needed feedback from others and appreciated at a deep level that to try to do it on their own was pure folly.”

Here again, the importance of community in one’s desert journey is evident.

Suppose we succeed, bit by bit. How would our world improve, if one by one—together—we “embrace a spirit of letting go” as the wise ones of the desert did? If we let go of what holds us back, individually and as a community, we create space to be filled with what is good, and then we act to bring that goodness to bear in the world.

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