Saturday, March 26, 2016

At the Wall: Bethlehem Experiences

The separation wall, the 650km wall separating Palestine and Israel
How you experience holy is different than you expect it to be.” -Rev. Carrie Ballanger Smith

After a year of travel, seeking faith and justice across four continents, there are lessons that I am still unpacking. Between the busy schedules of church, master’s thesis work, and travel and work with the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF), it takes a moment of pause to catch up with my experiences. And so, I pause, I look back to remember.

In February I spent two weeks in Palestine representing the WSCF in a reference group for the Pilgrimage of Peace and Justice, organized by the World Council of Churches. A world of different christian expressions was meeting in Bethlehem to witness and be in solidarity with Palestinian brothers and sisters living out their faith in trying times, to seek with them peace, to seek with them justice.

One of the most valuable knowledges I walked away with, aside from relationships and the meeting of the global church, is an understanding of the relevance of contextual theology. Sitting in the courtyard of Wa’am, a Palestinian reconciliation centre only meters from the Western Wall, theology takes a different shape. It is different than what has been taught to me in the prairies, where I have no enemies walking into my home at night, no walls preventing my freedom of movement.  
Tear gas canisters, littering the gardens near the Western Wall.
Made in Pennsylvania, USA

Understanding God as a wall, a fortress that protects people, does not connect in a place where a giant wall oppresses an entire people, removing freedom and rights. God takes a different shape in those places. In a place where my Palestinian friends have literally prepared a table for me (and the delegation that represents a diverse world communion of church), in the presence of their enemies watching them from the walls, love and God takes a different shape. Even the sounds are different, even if some are more familiar.

Palm trees in Bethlehem
We sit together, hearing stories and laughter and of a plethora of different lived realities among us,  eating our lunch on the sunny patio, at tables prepared lovingly for us by our new Palestinian friends. Our backdrop is the graffiti of Western Wall, separating the West Bank in Palestine from greater Israel, and we do not forget where we are. These are still holy places.

Pop pop pop.

Blossoms in the West Bank
You can hear the backdrop of tear gas bombs being lobbed into the Palestinian refugee camps. The sounds are foreign to us foreigners, and I do not register it until the wind shifts and the air turns chemically sour, singeing the insides of our noses, making our eyes water. A minute later the wind shifts again. We return to the patio, our lunches, our fellowship. We go on. We eat. We pray. We listen. God is not a wall here, God is in the perseverance that exists because of the oppression of the wall.

I leave Bethlehem and return to Winnipeg, a cold wintery paradise of freedom. I do not forget. These are still holy places. These are my confessions.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Political Nativity

Reflections on the politics of the nativity: the biblical Christmas story of forced migrants & refugees

It’s December, Christmas is swiftly approaching, and already here. Plans are made, and family will journey to meet other family. Chances are that there is a Christmas tree up in the corner, and some twinkly lights afloat somewhere. Somewhere in the corner there is someone like me, wincing to the sound of so called Christmas “music”(cough...noise!), and a Grandma or maybe Grandpa has just pulled out something warm and baked from the oven. And, most likely, somewhere in a prominent position, on your mantle or even your lawn, you’ve set out the nativity scene.

Christmas in Sicily
After attending and returning from a conference on migrants and refugee justice, with the World Student Christian Movement (WSCF) in Palermo, Sicily last week, I am unable to view the nativity scene as anything less than political.

Why? That is the first question that pops up, and I understand. The nativity scene is common, so familiar that we don’t even look twice as we pass it. In Palermo, you can find giant market tents filled with only nativity scene items. It’s part of the Christmas economy, so familiar, and yet contextually its relevance and political origins are rarely thought of.

The story that created the nativity scene is extremely political. Joseph and a very pregnant Mary were forced to migrate to Bethlehem because the political empirical structure demanded that they be counted in specific spaces in specific times. Once they arrived, no one had room for this family. They were constantly rejected by any who might have hosted them, with the claim that ‘there was no room’.

In a very real understanding Joseph and Mary and an unborn Jesus were forced migrants, due to a political situation beyond their control, and no one wanted them. I fairly positive that Mary’s ideal place to give birth was not a barn, but she willing took it in her moment of crisis when someone made room for them.

I wonder at times if the “no room!” excuse looks like a Canadian’s excuse when greeting a migrant or refugee... that cabin at the lake, that spare bedroom, a room just for the office... not exactly ‘no room’ when you think about it tangibly - just no room in our hearts.

This historical family didn’t return to Nazareth, their home, for several years. They encountered persecution as the empire pursued to kill their holy child. Their status of forced migrant quickly turned into refugee status in Egypt. This is the reality of their narrative, and it is not pretty. It is a story that takes place in oppression, violence, displacement and selfishness. However, these are the very reasons it is a remarkable story, because despite all this, peace on earth is the dominate message.

While the nativity is the result of ancient politics, it also has the capacity to comment on current politics regarding forced migrants and refugees. Putting up a nativity scene, a 3-D portrait of the space someone made for some forced migrants, is a conviction to how we live thinking we do not have space to take care of forced migrants and refugees in our context.

I say this: If you put up a nativity scene, you are in fact saying you are making room for those that others declared they have no room for.

If we make room for the nativity, we declare that we are making room for the forced migrant and the refugee, for that is what the Christ child was born as.

I would encourage you to never look at a nativity scene again without a conviction of being hospitable to a  forced migrant and the refugee. You don’t have to fix their situation, you just have to make room - be a friend, a neighbour, be a provider, an encourager, an educator.

If we believe in promoting the Christmas story, we need to be prepared for the politics we are also stating, silently or loudly, as we put out our nativity scenes, for the politics do exist. Luckily, among the communities I engage in there does exist a strong response of making space, of living into the reconciling politics of the nativity we so love to portray. I am thankful for you, for as I travel and discuss with voices around the world the migrant and refugee crisis, I can can give testament to the faithful responses of my own people.

The question still remains: will you let yourself be convicted by the political nature of the nativity?


Saturday, November 14, 2015

Living on the Corner -- In the Wake of Terror in Paris/Beirut/Baghdad

Once again, we have lived through a moment that will continue to define our century. The wake of the triad of terror that has happened in the last days, in Paris and Beirut and Baghdad, will create rhetoric similar to 9/11, the attacks in New York and Washington. Our mindsets and attitudes will bend, our politics and apologies will twist, all to address this day.

The last 14 years have been lived out differently because of 9/11 and the resulting accentuated fears of the unknown and the assumptions we have embraced to create a culture of fear. Islamophobia has been a definition of that culture of fear. It has been a dividing wall between corners of our world, led to wars and violence, exclusion, racism, sexism, and devastation at grandiose levels.

Tragically this has led to poor postures of heart; to the inability to love, to the root of all of our failures.

I took this picture when I lived in Paris in 2011
We, being the church in this critical moment, are living on the corner of holy history. We have an incredible opportunity to step up and be prophetic voices of love, to change the narrative of the next decade. We can be a part of changing a global response, we can be catalysts to a movement of global compassion and kinship. We can do this.

What does this mean, practically? This means tolerance, the combating of racism, the pursuit of just policy and immigration, and a plethora of other things.

It means reaching out to make relationships with those in the Muslim communities and showing them we will not blame their religion for the actions of a few extremists.

It means addressing Islamophobia, exhibited in the dominating perspectives on the refugee crisis. In the words of my friend Rev. Jé Hooper of New York, the combatting of Islamophobia begins “with me and removing the fear and the shaming of my kin-faith-family”. This occurs when we denounce “narrow-mindedness we see from the media, politics, and ignorance for other faith institution(s).” It occurs when we pursue fervently love as our first and last option.

These are what faithful responses look like in wake of a defining world event.

While I could get into what the politics of this look like, this is not a political blog post. This is post in particular is call to have a faithful response in a critical moment that will define our social context.

We are living on the corner, the place where what direction we choose, directly or indirectly, will define our future. I call you now, as my community of faith, to posture your hearts in love. Choose a posture of love over fear, over islamophobia, over anti-immigration, over blaming, over avoiding the refugee crisis, over apathy.

We are living on the corner, with a choice to make. Make your choice love.

I leave you with the words of my friend Hugo Brousté, a citizen of France. His family hosted me for several nights when I was living in France four years ago.

“Love is stronger than death! During this time of grief and sadness, pray for our country, our capital, our families, our government, our military, our churches. Let us not be afraid, fear leads to panic and we don't need this. The fear has never defeated fear, but peace and love keeps us in confidence and serenity! We will stick together and we will love because nothing is stronger than a united people!”

“L'amour est plus fort que la mort! Pendant ces temps de deuil et de tristesse, prions pour notre pays, notre capitale, nos familles, notre gouvernement, notre armée, nos églises. Ne soyons pas effrayé, la peur amène la panique et nous n'avons pas besoin de cela. Le peur n'a jamais vaincu la peur, mais la paix et l'amour nous garde dans la confiance et la sérénité ! Serons-nous les coudes et aimons nous car rien n'est plus fort qu'un peuple uni et qui aime! “

Monday, August 31, 2015

Portraits of Justice

Click for story: Evette, Rwanda

While I have been busy studying and traveling this year, I've also started a project, one that has been in motion for a few months and is a big part of my heart. It's meant to capture the beauty and the struggle of justice, and to see justice across our world can look like. It's meant to be personal, and it's meant to share the faces and hearts I see and meet when I travel our world.

Click for Story: Rachel {Southern Ireland}
This photo-narrative, or photo journalist, project which I have entitled "Portraits of Justice", looks at justice around the world. It is stories and photographs that let us glimpse into the hearts of people, and it is full of 

15 published issues in, I've interviewed and photographed people from 13 countries and 15 different contexts around the world. Currently waiting docket to be published, I have Myanmar, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Argentina, China, South Korea, Egypt, and Palestine (to name but a few). 

I've interviewed and photographed this project mainly in Bogota (Colombia), Sweden, the United States, and various locations across Italy. Some of the interviews are translated, but all of the stories are in the voice of person photographer. 

Please, see the photo albums, share the stories, and look into worlds that are different than your own. Justice may have many faces and contexts, but it has one heart. I think this project shows that.
Find the project here:
With love from Winnipeg, Canada, - B.

Click for story: Immanuel {Sri Lanka}

Maria: story yet to be published

Click for story: Milka {Pakistan}
Click for story: Marco {Italy}
Click for story: Are {Sweden}

Italian Adventures in Inter-Religious Dialogue

Greetings from Prali, Italy!

Photo cred: E. Toribio
I have spent the last week in the beautiful Alps of Italy, at the Agape Ecumenical Center, gathering with an international community to delve into inter-religious dialogue. I am both the only Canadian, and the only Mennonite. But considering how often it happens when I travel abroad, I have stopped being surprised by this.

Speakers and participants come from across the globe, from every continent, and with a plethora of languages. They speak of the conditions of dialogue, of reconciliation, forgiveness, and cultural perspectives that influence religion. Translations happen simultaneously in at least four languages, and meal times become amusing moments of bilingual shared fellowships.

photo cred: B. Friesen Thorpe
As we attend to the materials presented to us, we not only discuss, but practice inter-religious dialogue. Stories are shared from every corner, from Myanmar to Senegal to Chile to Iraq and back again. Amidst the exchanges there is vast wisdom shared, and little nuggets tucked into the corners of our minds and hearts to carry homeward.

I can observe in this week that inter-religious dialogue requires one not only to encounter the other, but to confront one's own religion. When genuine dialogue is encountered, genuine relationships are formed, and you begin to love the person you speak with. You then learn to ask: Are there ways in which I practice my faith that is harming the person I am trying to speak to? If the answer is yes, you begin to examine who this can be reconciled, for you do not wish to harm a person you love.

Photo Cred: B. Friesen Thorpe
It further pushes me to continue examining how I analyze the theology and faith practices that I have inherited. If there is unwittingly any traumatic theology that I hold, it must be reconciled. I myself must be changed in order to enter inter-religious dialogue with the justice, mercy, and humility that is required. If I cannot expect myself to confront my own faults, a inter-religious dialogue that is defined by our differences ever not find a peaceful place to continue. Overcoming prejudice, racism, and hate that occurs when one religion judges another will only happen when one confronts their own systems of prejudice, racism, and hate.

It is but one small wisdom I have encountered in the beautiful mountains of Italy. It is the one I take home, and offer to you, my own community.  We must see our own violence and seek to reconcile it before we ever hope to see peace in this world. 

Love from Italy, 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Ally or Accomplice?

Ally or Accomplice? What Does the Lord Require of Us?

There is a popular language arising in the church when it comes to justice work, that of “being an ally.” It means to align yourself with whoever your “other” is, so to love your neighbour and serve the Lord. But what happens when words are not enough, and when having only words of an ally can make injustice? What happens when being an ally is not enough?

“I'm tired of having allies that don't actually walk with us but say they support us. I am looking for someone who will be considered an accomplice, who will act with us.” This was the testimony of my New York City friend who does the grassroots work of addressing injustices in racism. Words have ceased to be enough.

In hearing the testimony of brothers and sisters in NYC, I have new language for the conviction I am learning to walk in. Solidarity is an essential status of heart but falls short when battles for civil rights are close to rupturing the social fabric of a nation. To be an ally, it is no longer enough to have only words. Our world is a critical point where actions are needed, where those seeking justice need active accomplices.

Consider Baltimore, where a community is currently reeling from the death of Freddie Grey, yet another young black man who was killed at the hands of police. Looking at a broader narrative, 2015 is but another picture of what happened in 1968, with the civilians rising to resist systematic oppression, resisting those in power who ordered those with weapons to restrain and harm.

The difference in timing is this: in 1968 Martin Luther King Jr., a young black pastor, was leading with words based on biblical truth. The church was involved. The church answered. The church was an ally, and more—it was an accomplice. It actively defended the weak and sought a social picture that participated in a gospel in which the freedom and liberty were accessible to all. Where words were not enough, the church became an accomplice and helped change the course of history.

In Canada today a critical moment is also arising where words will not be enough. As we speak, indigenous and settler pilgrims from across our nation are meeting in Ottawa for the final gathering of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This is meant to be a healing place for harms the indigenous people suffered at the hands the government and the churches in Canada. As the church, we have a place in the reconciliation commission. Words of an ally are a good beginning, but we will need to learn to be an accomplice of justice as well. This commission is not the end of a healing process but the beginning.

Will the church be an accomplice now, in 2015? We are not in Baltimore, but we are here in Canada, in a context that still asks for the church to be an ally, an accomplice. In addressing racism that in tearing the social fabric in our Canadian context, there is much language around becoming an ally. While I do not dispute that this is important, I am adamant: we need more than the words of an ally. We need the actions of an accomplice. The indigenous people in Canada are being “Idle No More” and are asking for the support of their settler neighbours.

To be an ally or to also be an accomplice? What does the Lord require of us? To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). This scripture has requirements that are actions: doing, loving, walking. Will we be guilty of being counted among the doers of justice, the lovers of mercy, of being pilgrims on the road to humility? Will we do more than pay lip service support and let our lives' actions speak louder than words could?

Martin Luther King Jr had a dream, and I have one too. I dream of a church who walks with, loves, and does justice with our indigenous neighbours. In my heart, I do believe it is what the Lord requires of us. It is for this reason I join the masses in Ottawa this week, in the hope that I will learn to not only be an ally to my indigenous neighbours but an accomplice also.

This was also published online with the Canadian Mennonite

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

I Can't Breathe: Racism and the Social Context of Faith

After a recent experience in New York comes this reflection on racism and the social context of our faith.

I can't breathe. At this moment, this is one of the most politically charged statements you can say in the United States. It drudges up a social context where racism and state brutality are killing innocent people. It evokes a memory that causes resistance to injustice. It is a call to action. It is conviction.

I can't breathe. In this statement we are reminded of Eric Gardner, being unjustly and violently arrested. We are reminded that because of racial profiling, a judgement to the colour of his brown skin, the powers in place suffocated him. While he cried out saying “I can't breathe”, the police would not relent, and Eric Gardner died. We remember he was not the first to die this way. 

I can't breathe. Place this statement of “I can't breathe” with the image of Jesus being crucified – remembering that crucifixion is a death that slowly and excruciatingly suffocates its victims.

Remember that Jesus was a political prisoner. That he died an innocent, and that politics found him politically innocent. That he was discriminated against by the Roman Empire that ruled his culture because he spoke out for justice that looked like the kingdom of heaven. Remember that Jesus' message called for equality between man and woman, slave and master, Jew and Gentile. Remember that the message of his teachings cost Jesus his life. Remember we are called to be like him.

The social contexts of oppression overlap so powerfully between Jesus and Eric Gardner, despite being separated by 2000 years. When I think about my faith and how it ought to be practised out in my social context, the life and death of Jesus serve as an unavoidable conviction. So does the death of Eric Gardner.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend a leadership conference in New York City, put on by the World Student Christian Federation, a global ecumenical peace and justice NGO. As a group we tackled conversations of faith in the context of social injustice. We unpacked the social context of Jesus' reality, and connected it to our own. In doing so, I was again convicted to pursue systematic justice as an expression of my faith.

Jesus addressed racism in his context, crossing boundaries with Gentiles, the Samaritans, the Romans, and more. In my context, I can see the racial divides between settler and Indigenous. In the USA, this looks like addressing the racial and power divides between coloured persons and white elite. We are called to cross these boundaries.

Jesus addressed racism while modelling Kingdom principals, even thought it cost him everything. Will we remember to do the same? Will we remember the life of Eric Gardner? Will we remember the life of Jesus?

Be convicted that there are many who cannot breathe, because injustice is suffocating.
Be convicted to pursue some social justice, a sort of social CPR for those suffocating.
Be convicted to live out your faith in your social context.
Be convicted that faith, without action, is dead.
Be convicted to just action, with the knowledge that it will be costly.

Be convicted, Jesus will meet you as you act.

- by Brandi Friesen Thorpe