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Introduction: Spiritual joy

By Mack Winholtz

A time of suffering comes to every life. It may come in the form of a serious illness or the death of a loved one; in the ending of a relationship that has been central to our lives; in the unraveling of a vocation to which we deeply aspired; or it may come in the form of natural disaster or war. When this passage of suffering comes to our lives it helps to have guides who have traveled that path before us, and whose lives and words can help show us the way.

Following are brief stories of five such people who, as a result of World War II, faced unavoidable suffering or felt compelled by conscience to take actions that led to their suffering. A time of suffering represents a critical juncture in our lives because, depending on how we respond to it, suffering can shadow our lives with sorrow, bitterness and despair. Or, as the lives of these five people show, suffering can be a catalyst for spiritual transformation—evoking a person’s inner capacity for courage, compassion, integrity, love and even joy. In his book New Seeds of Contemplation the Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes: “Spiritual joy ignores suffering or laughs at it or even exploits it to purify itself of its greatest obstacle, selfishness. Pain can serve him as another opportunity of asserting—and tasting—his liberty . . . Pain cannot touch this highest joy—except to bring it an accidental increase of purity by asserting the soul’s freedom.” Despite the diversity of their backgrounds and circumstances, the lives of these five individuals seem to offer confirmation of Merton’s words.

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Spiritual joy: William F. Roberts

William F. Roberts was born to Episcopalian missionaries in China where he lived for thirteen years. In the spring of 1942 when he was required by law to register for the draft he was a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Yale University. He of course weighed his decision carefully, but in the end “there was no internal struggle or agony of decision; I realized, almost as a matter of course, that I must follow the path of a conscientious objector.”

Like John Griffith, William felt compelled by conscience to resist war by refusing to register for the draft. After he was sentenced and put in prison he struggled with the question of whether he should cooperate with the prison system, in part because it functioned in effect as the enforcement arm of the conscription system. He writes: “Internally, there was always the unresolved (and unresolvable) tension between the merits of working within the system despite its evils and of refusing to accept those evils. I could not look to logic for a solution to the dilemma, for perfect consistency in noncooperation with the evils of the system meant refusing to eat or to be more than a limp rag doll, and I rebelled against that extreme. My reaction to the dilemma was like a pendulum, swinging from one side to the other, never achieving a stable resolution of the tension. As I wrote in April 1943 from Ashland [Penitentiary]: ‘My desire to act with complete honesty toward my feelings at the time, regardless of the act’s consistency with the past, has led me a merry chase trying to keep up with myself’.”

Rather than trying to rely on reason alone to guide his course of action, William increasingly surrendered to what his heart led him to do. In a letter to his mother he described his reaction to harsh criticism directed at him by a man who had been a close family friend: “six months ago, I would have given him a very confident, lofty-sounding answer in terms of absolute principles to any question he would have asked. In the ensuing months my answers have sunk from the intellectual, theological plane to the depths of feelings.” These words are reminiscent of a verse from the Tao Te Ching which portrays a person who has achieved a degree of mastery of spiritual practice. An excerpt from the verse goes:

The master gives up
To whatever the moment brings…
He doesn’t think about his actions,
They flow from the core of his being.

After serving one year of his three-year prison sentence, William was unexpectedly released on parole to work in a Boston hospital. Although he was content with his work situation, he struggled with whether he could in good conscience cooperate in this way with the prison system; he felt uneasy in part because he had left behind in prison other war resisters who had become close friends and were continuing to bear witness to their opposition to war as prisoners. In a letter to a friend in prison he wrote: “I think it will make you happy to hear, Larry, that the longer I am out here the more strongly do I know that I shall not compromise at all with Selective Service to stay out of jail. It is not on as idealistic a plane as it was before prison, but it is lots deeper and more a part of me.” In a subsequent letter he said “things are happening inside me—maybe I’ll see you soon.” And finally he wrote to say: “Congratulate me, Larry—I am a free man! I sent, a few days ago, a letter to the parole board saying that I no longer consider myself on parole, that the obligations and implications of parole are no longer tolerable. This is no sudden decision—nor can I point to a moment in which the decision was made. I never decided—I have known within myself that this thing was inevitable for many weeks—and suddenly it was natural and right to go ahead with it, which I have . . . What I have found out during these seven months [on parole] is that a real life requires the ingredient of a basic honesty—in the same way that human life requires food. And now I feel freer than I have ever been.”

In response to his letter to the parole board, William was rearrested by the FBI and taken to the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, to serve the remainder of his sentence (with no credit for the seven months he served on parole). A year or two after his release from prison William became a Trappist monk.

[Source: William P. Roberts, Jr. “Prison and Butterfly Wings,” in A Few Small Candles: War Resisters of World War II Tell Their Stories, Larry Gara & Lenna Mae Gara, eds. (Kent State University Press, 1999) pp. 152-173.]

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Spiritual joy: Maximilian Kolbe

Another remarkable individual whose life illustrates the arising of spiritual joy in response to suffering is the Polish Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe. At the outset of World War II Father Kolbe, then age 45, was head of a monastery which was home to over 600 Brothers, over 100 seminarians, and the largest religious publishing center in Poland. Despite his prominent leadership position he is described by those who knew him as humble, soft-spoken and open-hearted.

Patricia Treece (author of A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz) says that when military invasion by Germany appeared imminent Father Kolbe spoke to members of the monastery: “[He] spoke on how to use suffering to benefit oneself and others; how to rejoice in spite of sufferings and trials and, even in them, how to remain free—hence fearless—in any circumstances; and the importance of loving and praying for one’s persecutors. Kolbe said: ‘My sons, a frightful struggle threatens. War is much nearer than one can imagine. Whatever happens, everything will be for our good. We are in such a position that nothing can do us any harm. The moral and physical sufferings will only help towards our sanctification. In short, we are invincible’.” On another occasion he said “it is only through suffering that we learn how to love. In suffering we reach a high degree of sanctity and, at the same time, bring our persecutors to God.”

With the invasion of Poland in September, 1939, Father Kolbe was arrested by German soldiers and placed in an internment camp. After several months he was allowed to return to the monastery but a year later, in February, 1941, Father Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Pawiak Prison, which the Gestapo used for interrogation and sometimes torture of prisoners before they were consigned to concentration camps or were taken to be shot. At that time members of the clergy were the target of systematic repression in Poland; thousands were imprisoned, and hundreds were shot. In times of crisis the Polish people had traditionally turned to the church for guidance and spiritual strength, and the occupation authorities apparently sought to preclude any opposition from this quarter. In May, Father Kolbe and hundreds of other prisoners were put in railroad freight cars and transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Because he was a priest Father Kolbe was often assigned to the hardest work details under the most brutal guards. On one occasion Father Kolbe’s work squad was assigned to clear a section of swampland. A fellow prisoner recalls that Father Kolbe “was singled out to carry loads that were two or three times what nonpriests carried” and then ordered to run with his load. When he fell to the ground the guard “kicked him mercilessly in the face and stomach.” He was then beaten so severely with a rod that he was unable to move and had to be carried back to the barracks by fellow prisoners. In the face of such brutality Father Kolbe maintained his belief in the transformative power of suffering for oneself and others—he prayed for his oppressors that their hearts might be transformed, and he urged his fellow prisoners to do the same.

Many of Father Kolbe’s fellow prisoners were struck by the sense of calm and peace which they felt in his presence. During the tense period of time just prior to the outbreak of war Father Kolbe had told some of the Brothers at the monastery that “in spite of the anxieties and worries of each day, at the bottom of my heart is always a peace and joy I can’t describe.” Consistent with this, a man who shared a cell with Father Kolbe at Pawiak Prison said “his whole person exuded something so calm and soothing that we all clustered close to him.” And a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz recalls that when Father Kolbe was admitted to the hospital for a time with a serious illness “at night under cover of dark,” other prisoners crawled on the floor to Father Kolbe’s bed, “begging him to hear their confessions or seeking comfort.”

Like the other prisoners at Auschwitz, Father Kolbe suffered from malnutrition, yet he sometimes shared a portion of his own meager rations with other prisoners. He also secretly gathered small groups of prisoners together for prayer and spiritual support, and he heard the confessions of those who requested it. A fellow prisoner recalls that when prisoners asked to receive communion “Father would take his own piece of bread, bless it, and give us each a piece. He refused to let us pay him back out of our rations.” Religious practice was prohibited in Auschwitz, so Father Kolbe risked a severe beating or death for these actions.

Another former prisoner at Auschwitz recalls that “morally, things had really broken down. The struggle to conserve one’s life had assumed a form so brutal that it was very rare for a prisoner to aid another.” In the face of this Father Kolbe “urged us to persevere courageously. ‘Do not break down morally’, he pleaded . . . He assured us that, although not all would survive, all of us would conquer.” Father Kolbe “kept encouraging us not to be afraid of dying, but to have at heart the salvation of our souls.”

The ultimate demonstration of Father Kolbe’s convictions came one day when the deputy commander of Auschwitz ordered the 600 prisoners in Father Kolbe’s barrack to assemble in lines and announced that a prisoner from that barrack had escaped. As a reprisal for the escape the officer then walked down the rows of prisoners and began to randomly select a group of prisoners who were to be locked in “death cells” and starved to death. When a man standing near Father Kolbe (a former sergeant in the Polish army) was selected, he began to sob for the wife and children he would leave behind. Although Father Kolbe apparently didn’t know the man personally, he stepped out of line, approached the deputy commander and asked if he could be sent to the death cell in the man’s place. The officer consented, and Father Kolbe and the others were led away.

A fellow prisoner who had been assigned to a work detail in the cell where Father Kolbe was held recalled that Father Kolbe retained his composure throughout the ordeal and did what he could to comfort the other condemned men. He also recalled that Kolbe “looked directly and intently into the eyes of those entering the cell. Those eyes of his were always strangely penetrating. The SS men couldn’t stand his glance, and used to yell at him, ‘Look at the ground, not at us’.”

[Source: Patricia Treece, A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz (San Francisco, Harper & Row Publishers, 1982).]

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Understanding the National Council of La Raza’s boycott of Kansas City

By Theresa L. Torres, OSB

In June 2007, new elected Mayor Mark Funkhouser made a number of appointments to several city boards. He made one appointment, Frances Semler, in which he bypassed the usual appointment process. He did not select from the over 100 resumes of qualified individuals who had submitted their resumes for membership on the park board commission. Funkhouser selected someone who had worked on his political campaign and who did not give him a resume at the time of her nomination. She first declined the position but the mayor asked her to reconsider due to her strong interests in parks. She agreed to be on the parks board and submitted a resume; one that did not include her participation in the Minutemen and later she explained that she only noted those items in her resume that she thought were relevant and membership in the Minutemen was not.

When local Latino leaders heard that Semler was appointed to the city parks board, they were upset because of her local activities with the Minutemen. These leaders requested that Semler resign or be removed from the parks board because of her association with the Minutemen. This request was not acceptable to the mayor, who told them he did not have to have their approval for any putting anyone on a board. When Semler heard about the concerns, she offered to resign from the board but the Mayor refused her resignation and “stood his ground.” As a way to get a hearing from the Mayor, Latino leaders went to Janet Murguia as the Director of National Council of La Raza and requested that she consider removing their scheduled convention from Kansas City. Their hope was economic pressure would help the mayor change his mind.

The mayor’s decision was incomprehensible to the Latino leadership of Kansas City. These leaders, largely members of non-profit organizations who daily work with Latino/as and immigrants, recognized the implications of giving credibility to someone who is a member of the Minutemen. The Minutemen have harassed, threatened and in some cases, caused bodily harm to immigrants. While she has not participated in these types of events, Semler has repeatedly stated that what she wants is the enforcement of immigration laws and believes we must end all immigration. Of concern, is her attachment to a group that promotes racism and anger towards the Latino members of this country. Racism exists when certain individuals are singled out for being who they are. Racism does not separate out citizens from non-citizens, which is a major concern for Latino/a leaders.

If this issue was not about race, then the Minutemen would be about protecting all at-risk borders but they do not. They are only concerned about the borders between Mexico and the United States, not the Canadian border nor our seaports. Of major concern is the continuing anti-Latino/a rhetoric in the media, particularly talk-radio, and talk shows. The discourse on these shows, as well as a number of the Kansas City Star letters to the editor, reveal hateful messages and the promotion of violence against this population. In his discussions, the mayor never offered to address the core issues so the city lost of the National Council of La Raza Convention. This is not the end of the discussion. Latino leaders believe they need to stand strong against racism and for the civil rights of all, whether documented or undocumented.

Theresa L. Torres is assistant professor of anthropology and religious studies at UMKC.

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Interview: Delores C. Huerta, winner of 2007 International Peace Award

Dolores C. Huerta, President of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, co-founder and First Vice President Emeritus of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO (UFW). She is the mother of 11 children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Dolores has played a major role in the American civil rights movement.

She is interviewed here by Andrew Bolton, coordinator of the Peace Colloquy held at the Temple in Independence, MO.

AB: I was wondering if you could talk about faith, how Jesus has made a difference.

DH: It goes with the whole spirit of nonviolence that’s nothing tangible that you can see. I also compare it with love. Love is a very strong force and you can’t see it, but you can see the manifestations of it. And the same thing with nonviolence, you’ve got to solely act on faith because you can’t see it, you can only see the results of nonviolence. This also has to do with patience. When we started the Farm Workers Union, people said “Farmers can never be organized. They’re too poor. They don’t speak English. How can you possibly ever do this?” And of course, the way you do this is with faith and hard work. But you have to really know that it can happen even if you can’t see it.

AB: And in fact, when I talked with Alicia, who I didn’t know was your daughter at the time, Alicia represented you really well. When I asked her about the Jesus question she said, “Of course faith, hope, and nonviolent methods informed by Jesus is inspirational.” So it was very simple, what Alicia said, but it really caught me.

DH: Well she was raised in the movement and the philosophies that we have lived by.

AB: The other thing I think which will be really interesting is how you sustain movements—how you start movements and sustain movements and lead movements to victory. Because in a sense where our denomination (Community of Christ) is at the moment, we’re just beginning to understand, we have this call to peace and justice as the primary mission of the church. How do we understand ourselves as a movement that others can participate with us on as partners in coalitions and so on? What about a theme, what can we call the theme so that it covers the multitude of things you could speak about and yet will help people come?

DH: One of the things that I have been thinking about is, in society we have to be able to have peace in order for people to be able to reach their aspirations and their potential. So we have to create a safe haven, so to speak, or a safe society so that people can do this and the only way you can do this is with peace. If we don’t have that then people are kept behind, people are oppressed, people live in poverty, and they have to struggle just to be able to survive. So as a society we’re not doing what we are supposed to do which is provide this safe, peaceful society so that people can function and society can function. And that has to be the responsibility of everyone, not just those in governance because we are the ones that put people in power to govern us and if we don’t hold them accountable then we can’t create this place. It’s everybody’s responsibility, not just those we elect and those in power. It’s our responsibility to make sure they’re accountable and do what they’re supposed to be doing, especially when they’re working with our tax dollars—we are paying them. We individually and collectively have got to be more responsible and not just blame others for what whatever is going on. Especially this center of violence in society that we are creating. Now especially in view of what happened—

AB: Yes, this week.

DH: —these people who were all killed. I guess now more than ever we need to start looking at peace. I remember when Barbara Boxer put in a bill for peace studies and everybody really killed her when she did that. They thought that was so weird and strange. But now it’s almost prophetic that we do need peace studies so that people can start learning about practicing peace and practicing faith. We need to do that because we are creating such a violent society in the United States. I don’t know if you saw—I was watching the news last night, and we are the only country—or we are the leading country that has a pattern of mass flames.

AB: Yes, and British. And the murder rate is 20 times less.

DH: And even in underdeveloped countries—we have a higher murder rate and we have more people incarcerated and our schools are becoming militarized. So it’s like we’re going in the wrong direction and yet we’re not doing anything to counter that at this point. And even religions—Kathleen Kennedy just wrote a book called Failing [America’s] Faithful—this is Robert Kennedy’s daughter, and even in our religions we are not taking the initiative to say that we’ve got to start peace studies, peace actions. Just in terms of our young people. And I feel that we are not doing enough in terms of the religious community—faith community—to fight racism. Right now when all of this Imus thing came out, and of course this is ongoing—the people that they lynched in Texas—all of the stuff that they’re doing against the immigrants right now, all of the hate talk out there against the people who are taking care of our children, cooking our food—I know Cardinal Mahoney came out really strong, but I don’t even think he’s doing enough to just fight the racism that’s on these radio shows and talk shows—attacking women, attacking immigrants, attacking people of color. We have to be more proactive, I guess that’s what I’m saying.

Andrew Bolton: You worked with Cesar Chavez in founding the United Farm Worker’s Union.

Dolores Huerta: Right. I co-founded the union.

AB: We hear about Cesar but we don’t hear so much about you. Is that a gender thing that has been happening?

DH: I think it always happens when you have women. That’s why they call it history. I think women tend to be overlooked. And also because Cesar was the president of the union—I was the vice president—he was the spokesperson. But even myself, and all the work that I did and thousands of other people that also did a lot of work. The work that I did—I was the political director, I was the strike director, I set up the contracts for the union, so I had a major role.

AB: And this was in the 1970s.

DH: We founded the union in 1962. We started as an independent organization—the National Farm Workers Association. And before that I had organized another farm worker organization called Agricultural Workers Association. I worked very closely with a priest, Father McCullough. We collaborated in forming that group. And that organization became AWAC (Agricultural Workers Association Committee) and then I worked with that organization—they started working with the labor contractors which were very damaging to the Latino community so then I left, and Cesar in the mean time helped to form another group for the packing house workers union and that one fell apart. It was at that point that we decided that we had to do it ourselves. So that’s when we started the National Farm Workers Association.

AB: I was from England and I was picking grapes—raisin grapes—in Selma—San Joaquin Valley. I thought to make some money and I was awful. It took me so long, and Mexican workers were so much faster than I was, and the Mexican workers were also very kind to me. I slept in a tractor shed. I was a student. So I’ve always felt a kind of resonance with these—and I’m a supporter of the United Farm Workers, have been for years, so it’s very interesting. That whole story connects with my story a little bit. So, you were successful in getting contracts and so on.

DH: Yeah, and I also directed the boycott, the boycott from New York to Chicago. And once we got the grapes out of the stores then we came out to the west coast and directed the boycott out here.

AB: And then you got the contract. That was successful in what year?

DH: That was in—the big grape contract was in 1970.

AB: Tell me the highest moment in your struggle for justice, or some of your best moments in the struggle for justice, and some of the lowest.

DH: The highest is of course when we got the contract—I think two really high points—one of them is the contract, when we signed those grape contracts, and knowing that the whole nonviolent effort that we had done, we did it. The growers had to sit there and sign these contracts. For the first time they gave workers their health plan. The other high point was when we got the Amnesty Bill back in 1986 so we were able to legalize 1,400,000 farm workers.

AB: Legalized as immigrants.

DH: Yes, which we’re working on right now.

AB: We’re hearing terrible stories about ICE agents in one of our congregations in California.

DH: The low point would have been of course when the teamsters came in and took away our contracts, which then resulted in the deaths of farm workers, and low point, I guess, is the five martyrs in the union that were killed. The first one was a young Jewish girl named Nan Freedman.

AB: Five martyrs. So teamsters came in…

DH: 1973 and those contracts expired and the union to this day has caught up to where it should be.

AB: So the teamsters, this was another union, right?

DH: It was a conspiracy between President Nixon, the head of the teamsters union Frank Fitzsimmons, and Alan Grant, the national president of the Farm Bureau Federation.

AB: That’s terrible. Unions are supposed to show solidarity. So then, the five martyrs, when were they killed?

DH: The first was Nan Freedman. She was killed, I believe, in 1970. Maybe it was ’72. And then the second martyr was an Arab, Nagi Daifullah, and he was killed during that whole teamster thing in 1973. The next one was Juan De La Cruz. He was killed within 24 hours after Nagi and was a farm worker. And the next one was Rufino Contreras, and he was killed in a strike in Imperial Valley—a lettuce strike. And the last one was a young farm worker from Fresno County, from Caruthers—Rene Lopez—and he was killed after they organized his company to vote for the union. They asked him to come to the car because they wanted to talk to him. He put his head up to the window and they pulled out a gun and shot him in the temple.

AB: Tell me how Jesus has inspired your struggle for justice.

EH: Pretty much what I mentioned earlier about the work that he did. Always working with the poor, giving dignity to the poor, which is of course what you do when you organized workers into a union—give them dignity and respect. And it’s always been interesting to me in terms of our Catholicism, the virgin Mary, whenever she’s appeared, she’s always appeared to farm workers.

AB: You wonder why Jesus turned out the way he did read Luke’s account of the Magnificat, the song that Mary sings while she’s pregnant with him. She’s not the nice young maiden in the pictures, she’s a radical. “My heart magnifies the Lord.” You hear about it a lot in mass.

DH: I’ll have to revisit that.

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We shouldn’t be causing this

NOTE: Kathy Kelly will speak Friday, Sept. 14 in Independence and Sunday, Sept. 16 in Kansas City about the situation in Iraq.
By Kathy Kelly
Amman, Jordan
August 22, 2007

Here in Amman, Jordan, a British teenager, Sonia, age 12, recently spent four days interviewing and befriending Iraqi youngsters close to her in age. She wanted to learn, firsthand, about the experiences of Iraqi youngsters who have fled war and violence in their home country.

A versatile and talented child, Sonia loves to play the trumpet and perform classical Indian dances, the latter being somewhat unusual for a Muslim girl. When she was eight years old, shortly before the U.S. and the U.K. attacked Iraq, she wrote a poem urging respect for the rights of Iraqi children whose lives and hopes would be destroyed by war. The poem reached many people, intensifying efforts of peace activists to stop the war before it started. Sonia continued her efforts on behalf of Iraqi children, even founding an organization called “Children Against War.” (www.j-n-v.org/Action/Appeal_Children_Against_War_delegation_July_2007.htm – 36k)

In the spring of 2007, she asked her mother if she could raise money through music and dance performances, to pay for a trip to Amman, so that she could film Iraqi children speaking for themselves. After talking it over with other peace activists, her mother agreed to accompany Sonia, and so, last week, they arrived here for a four day trip.

We began our visits at the home of two teenage girls who speak English fluently. They have been living in Amman, Jordan for several years. Their father still is not allowed to work in Jordan, and so the family has almost no income. Since I’ve known them, these young girls and their mother have tried to help families who are among the neediest in Amman. Sonia later told me that the friendly and easygoing manner of her first interviewees helped her get over feeling nervous about filming people.

Next, Sonia met 16 year old Abeer, who spoke enough English to communicate with Sonia about common interests. They listed favorite singers and film stars: Shakira, Hilary Duff, Beyonce, and Brad Pitt. Abeer showed Sonia dance steps she has been learning, and the two of them danced a bit to music played on a mobile phone. Abeer then began to show Sonia pictures downloaded onto the mobile, photos of her cousins in Baghdad and of Baghdad monuments.

At one point, Abeer raised her eyebrows and announced “This is an explosion,” and clicked onto a horrifying photo of wreckage following a car bombing she had witnessed. “I was sitting in an office,” said Abeer, “waiting for my mother. And I was holding a baby, another mother’s baby. I was playing with this baby, and then the bomb exploded and the baby was gone! I don’t know what happened, just that next I saw the baby on the floor and she was crying for her mother.” Abeer’s terrified panic was followed by sheer relief, once she realized the baby was alive.

At another home, Sonia and her mother were laughing with four Iraqi teenagers over who supported Manchester’s soccer team and who was for Liverpool’s. The conversation abruptly changed as younger sisters translated for their 19 year old brother who recalled that when he was 16 he was kidnapped, in Iraq. . His family worked for several days, collecting $15,000 to secure his release. He explained that throughout his ordeal, his captors chained one of his ankles and suspended him upside down from the ceiling.

Sonia’s watchful mother exchanged glances with me. Was this too much for young Sonia to absorb?

That night, Sonia awoke from a dream crying out, “I shouldn’t be filming this. I shouldn’t be filming this.”

Her mother worries about protecting her child from being overwhelmed by the accounts she has heard. Yet Sonia’s mother also feels remorse for all of the youngsters whom Sonia interviewed. “What protection is there,” she asked, “for the children to whom this has happened?”

Many people believe that protection lies primarily in being able to use threat and force against enemies. Yet Sonia and the Iraqi teenagers whom she interviewed showed the potential to build security by forming friendships and expressing mutual empathy.

Gifts were spontaneously offered. Abeer took a ring from her finger and slid it onto Sonia’s finger. Another young girl removed her prayer scarf and gave it to Sonia, asking that they remember each other when they pray. Families served whatever they could, ranging from a full meal to a shared glass of water.

During Sonia’s visit, I read an August 17th Jordan Times article about a strange set of “gifts” which the U.S. will deliver to this region, ostensibly to ensure greater security. Summarizing the multibillion dollar military aid agreement, the AFP article reported that “Washington will boost its military aid to Israel, providing $30 billion in assistance over a decade…The US military bonanza includes a $20 billion weapons package for Saudi Arabia, a $13 billion package for Egypt, and reportedly arms deals worth at least $20 billion for other Gulf allies.”

It’s difficult to comprehend how peace and security in the region can be achieved by fueling a new arms race and destructive wars to come. The billions of dollars spent on U.S. war in Iraq have led to countless tragedies, a mere handful of which were related to Sonia during her brief trip.

Please “stay tuned” for Sonia’s film. The exchanges she recorded represent a trustworthy form of person-to-person “diplomacy.”

I can’t know what nightmare fears awakened her when she cried out, “I shouldn’t be filming this.” I hope she’ll be soothed by appreciation for her initiative. I think she’ll help many adults cry out, “We shouldn’t be causing this.”

Kathy Kelly (kathy@vcnv.org) is a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org)

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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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