Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Workshop of Babel

You may not know this, but this year PBI (Peace Brigades International) - not to be confused, Mom, with IBP (Iowa Beef Packers) - is celebrating its 30th Anniversary.

30 years of accompaniment. 30 years of protection. 30 years of making space for peace.

In honor of the occasion, several of PBI's national branches hosted conferences to bring together the European politicians and public with some of the human rights defenders we accompany.

Check out what one Guardian journalist had to say after attending the London conference here.

The conference we held in Berlin was also regarded as a success. After morning panel discussions featuring German politicians and human rights defenders from six different countries, the afternoon was split into workshops.

PBI is an international organization based on adaptation and flexibility, and the workshop I attended testified to this. The room quickly proved to be too small, providing no more space for the overcrowded circle to expand.  But no matter -  the floor's as good a place to sit as any.

And who needs fancy headsets and simultaneous translations to overcome a language barrier?

The moderator will conduct the workshop in German.

The guest from Chad will speak through a French-language interpreter.

The Indonesian guest will speak through a Bahasa-Indonesia interpreter.

The guest from Colombia will speak through a Spanish-language interpreter.

And I will desperately try to keep up in a parallel, whispered interpretation of German to English for our Australian guest.

I firmly believe that such a potential chaos and cacophony of languages was worth it.

Because I'm convinced that when one human rights defender told of his situation and struggles, there was something that resonated with the others, despite it having gone through two lingual translations. There were stories with which they could identify, even though they took place on a continent worlds away.  There was, before their very eyes and (indirectly) in their own ears, the affirmation that they are not alone in this struggle for peace and justice.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

You're not as brave as you were at the start

Last night as I was heading into the grocery store, I passed by a Hinz & Kunzt (the local 'street magazine' that covers homelessness and other social issues and which is sold by those without a permanent residence) salesman. I didn't yet have the December edition, so I made a mental note to  save the correct change to buy one on the way out.

 As I passed by the store's bakery, the Brötchen looked too good to pass by, and so I decided that I would, for once, offer the salesman some food instead of just buying the magazine.

By the time I left the store, however, the salesman had left his post to smoke and chat with a friend/acquaintance.

And that was all it took to lose my nerve.

After buying my magazine, I lost the courage to offer him a snack. Simply because there were now two potentially homeless men instead of one.

And the question is why?

Why is it for me even a question of courage or boldness to offer someone something that he did not ask for but might appreciate?  Why is it a question of shyness rather than cost that prevents me from making this offering to others I pass on the street?

It's not the fear that something would happen to me but rather the fear that if I were to get a glimpse of her worries or burdens, I might walk away leaving us both the worse because I can't do anything go help. The fear that, because it's not within the setting of a soup kitchen or something similar but rather on 'their turf', the offering to share a bite to eat or a bit of conversation would be unwelcome, would be seen as intrusive. The fear that I'll be rejected.

Do good intentions need an invitation?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

And lead us not into temptation

A few weeks back, I started helping out at the local fair trade store. Perhaps not the most logical decision, seeing as how my time here is coming to an end. But it sounded like fun, it's a very important initiative, and, unlike the other efforts I attempted to establish contact with over the past year and a half, it was simple to arrange.

Plus, I know these cashier skills will come in handy once my student loan debts have reached such epic proportions that I have to ditch these volunteer gigs and get a job at McDonald's.

The problem, however, is that I spend multiple three-hour shifts a week stocking, selling, and otherwise staring in the face of temptation.

Do you know how hard frugality is in the face of fair trade and a good cause? Do you???

And oh the abundance! There's no corner in which I can direct my eyes that isn't filled with some item of seduction - be it the scarf whose prettiness outweighs the rational fact that I already have several or the handbag who preys on my particular weakness or the multitude of other items who whisper to me what great Christmas gifts they would make....anyone want some free trade underwear?

Yet, wonder of wonders, I have so far managed to avoid falling into the hands of these tempters. The food department, however, is another story.

There are the very sensible items like rice and tea. And there are the solidarity purchases like the couscous from Palestine. And then there are the wild and crazy things like manioc chips and mango-coconut balls that I buy just because they are fun and exotic. And I'll tell you this: you haven't had salad until you've had it with a Philippinian mango vinaigrette.

Consequently, I think I have yet to leave a shift at the store without having purchased some overly fairly priced good.

Who would have thought that volunteering could be so expensive?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Take all the courage you have left

In a book I read a while back, I stumbled upon the following lines:
That's the thing about activism. It isn't a members-only club. We don't get to choose who is, and who isn't, an activist. The ability to stand up, to do the right thing - to be active - is in every human being.

I found this idea to be quite motivating, and while that hasn't changed, I now question to what extent it is true.

What if we in fact don't all have what it takes to be an activist?

These doubts come after my experience in the Tel Aviv airport a few months ago. I think I was doomed from the start. Several people had told me that as a young woman traveling alone, I would be one of the top profiling targets and warned me not to bring along clothing with the word 'peace' on it or anything that would mark me as an 'activist.' This only increased my natural tendency to worry. Besides this, I am really bad at lying and have a rather irrational fear of 'getting in trouble.' On top of it all, I stepped off the plane at 4:30am after spending all night traveling.

True to prediction, I had barely taken my place in line for passport control before I was approached by a security employee who asked if I had been to the country before and what my plans for the visit were. Upon reaching the counter, these questions were repeated as well as inquiries about where and with whom I was staying. Apparently, my answers were unsatisfactory, as the woman behind the counter conferred with a second woman (in Hebrew, of course) before the second woman took my passport and led me to another room.

Here I faced an intimidating man who repeated the same questions and added ones about what I do in Germany (try explaining an organization called "Peace Brigades" without using words like peace and human rights!), if I knew anyone in Israel, what I knew about the conflict, and if I had any ties with Palestinian groups or plans to go to Palestine. He then moved on to his problems with the American pastor (who previously attended the same church as my parents)that I was planning to stay with because 'why would someone who doesn't even know you invite you to stay with him?'

Despite the fact that it was not yet 5:00am, he then proceeded to call Pastor Fred, question him about his alleged guest, chide him for inviting others to Israel when he himself was a guest in the country, promising to make remarks in his passport, and threatening trouble if anything suspicious were to turn up. Perhaps the most absurd element was his suspicion caused by Fred's and my shared connection to a church called Bethlehem Lutheran.
Read Fred's account of it here:

The security officer then demanded my cell phone and proceeded to search through its contents. It was all I could do to conceal my fear, as I had repeatedly claimed not to know anyone else in Israel and there were in fact two ICAHD contact numbers in my phone. Luckily, security man only found the most recent calls (bonus points for German-language phone!), though he even seemed suspicious of these German contacts ("Who's Gaby? A friend in German, really?")

As he then led me across the hall to a waiting room, I quickly pulled out my phone and deleted the two Israeli contacts as secretly and subtly as I could. But of course, just as I was flipping the phone closed, security man turned around and saw me: "What are you doing?! Why are you deleting messages?! Give me that phone!" And so my phone went off to join my passport in the land of confiscation.

The make-shift waiting room to which I was taken was quite surreal. In it were about a dozen security workers and soldiers who appeared to be on break: some were dozing, some were eating, and some were playing games on their phones. Besides me there were two young women who, if I were to make a guess based solely on appearance and attire, were part of some sort of prostitution/trafficking ring. Above the vending machine, a TV was playing without sound and appeared to be showcasing some sort of 80's workout video with three leotard-clad people doing sit-ups on some mountaintop with a sea or ocean in the background. This would later switch to them doing jumping jacks on a cruise ship, with the instructor wearing a captain's hat. If the officials were trying to play mind games with their detainees, it was definitely working.

After a second round of answering the same questions (from a different official in a different room) and another wait in the jazzercise break-room, I was taken to a third room, where I was greeted by yet two more security officials and told that:
"We are going to ask you some questions that we already know the answers to so that we can see if you are cooperating."
Security man then proceeded to tell me that they had spoken with Fred five minutes before and he had no idea who I was. Further, Fred's letter of welcome was something I could have typed up myself and after he brought up the internet on his computer came the following exchange:
"Please sign into your email and show us your conversations with Fred."
No, I won't do that.
"Why not?"
Because I don't show my email to people.
"We are not people - we are the authorities."
I don't have to show you my email.
"You don't have to enter Israel...What are you hiding?"
I'm not hiding anything - I have the right to privacy.
"You have no rights in this room." (It was this statement that just about did me in). "So you are refusing to cooperate - you know this will prevent you from entering Israel. We are also friends with the USA, so if you don't cooperate with us, you will be in trouble there."

And with this, they sent me back to the waiting room, but not before asking exactly how much money I had, having me take out my cash, and keeping my wallet and the rest of its contents.

So there I sat. Fighting tears. Expecting to be sent back to Germany. Hoping that nothing worse happened, that somehow they would find proof of something and arrest me.

After a while, I was approached by yet another anonymous official who informed me that they knew I was lying and if I continued not cooperating, I would not enter Israel.

I was then led into another screening room, only to be taken out again so they could Fred again, this time without me being able to hear what they said to him. When I returned, security lady told me they were willing to let me into the country if I signed an an agreement that I would not enter areas under control of the Palestinian Authority and if I left a monetary deposit as a safeguard that I would do as promised.

In my somewhat-altered decision-making capacity, I agreed to the conditions, even though it's quite possible that the monetary sum (which I can no longer remember) was more than I even had available. But at this point, after having repeatedly denied any intention to go to Palestine, I figured it would be unwise to turn down the agreement.

I was sent once more to the waiting room and upon return was greeted with the ever-so-gracious announcement that "We now believe you, so you don't have to leave a deposit."

They, however, did not believe me enough to forget about the agreement, which threatened deportation, a fine, and a 10-year ban on Israel if I were to enter PA-controlled zones.

And so, four hours later, I received my passport, complete with stamp, and continued on my way.

There were many true activists headed for Palestine that day. More than 300 were on blacklists sent from the Israeli government to European airports and were thus not allowed to board their planes.

Others arrived and, unlike me, boldly and purposefully stated their intentions to visit the Territories. As a result, they were arrested and imprisoned for four days, some of whom were harassed or beaten (

And this is of course is nothing in comparison to the threats and violence that face Palestinians and activists around the world on a daily basis.

Yet, against the background of a safe, spoiled, and secure life, my airport experience was one that shook me to the core.

And this begs the question: if I am so troubled by a few uncomfortable hours and some intimidating questions in an airport, how can I hope to handle facing soldiers at a checkpoint or settlers on an accompaniment? If such a minor incident affects me so greatly, how can I believe I have what it takes to take part in these actions of solidarity that so interest me?

I know, of course, that there are many ways to take action that involve neither threat nor risk nor fear. But somehow, to me, it's not the same.

And what if activism, this kind of activism, truly is a members-only club? And I don't belong?

Monday, October 31, 2011

May you experience this vast, expansive, infinite, indestructible love that has been yours all along.
May you discover that this love is as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in your heart no one else knows about.
And may you know, deep in your bones, that love wins.

- Rob Bell

Friday, August 26, 2011

Because my dad told me to...

Last month I took a trip to Palestine, or more accurately, the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I have much to write about the experience, but due to the very real danger that I will never get around to it, for now I am posting, at my father's suggestion, a few words I wrote for the organisation's donors:

It has been about a month since returning from ICAHD's summer rebuilding camp, and in that time countless people have posed the same question: 'How was Palestine?'

And the first word that comes to my mind (as if you could describe the experience in a word) is hard. The physical work in the heat and sun was hard, of course, but so much more so was witnessing injustice at a magnitude I had never yet encountered. As the camp came to a close, I couldn't escape the feelings of anger and despair that weighed me down.

Yet, in those two weeks, I also encountered so much courage, perseverance, and sheer goodness that I couldn't help but leave that place inspired.

I was inspired by my fellow international volunteers, who came from all around the world to join in this common goal. Being united in communal work and life with them was refreshing, and hearing of their steadfast efforts in their respective homelands was motivating.

I was inspired by our Israeli leaders, who have the insight and vision to see beyond the system in which they are living. I can't imagine what it is like to work not only against the policies and practices of your own government but also against the values and prejudices of your own community, yet the Israeli activists we got to know engage in this effort tirelessly, some at the cost of relationships to friends and family.

And, most of all, I was inspired by the many Palestinians we met and worked with, who, simply by remaining in their homes and continuing their daily lives in peace, are exemplifying resistance. Despite being denied both rights and basic needs by a regime bent on getting them to quit and leave, they refuse to give in.

Beyond this, I was touched by the generosity and hospitality which
our various Palestinian hosts bestowed upon us, be it welcoming us into their homes, sharing delicious meals with us, or inviting us, strangers who neither spoke the language nor really knew the culture, to take part in a family's wedding festivities.

One moment I found particularly touching was when one of our hosts returned from the hospital with her newborn daughter. Even amidst the occupation, the joy of new life continues, and we were fortunate enough to welcome it.

When we weren't busy meeting and being inspired by people, we were of course building a house.

And it was this aspect that drew me into the camp from the moment I heard about it. I currently work in the office of a human rights organisation, and when sitting at a desk day after day, busying myself with translations and grant reports, it is difficult to feel like, much less see that, I am making any sort of contribution toward the fight for peace and justice. At the camp, it was different. There, when I left the work-site each evening, my eyes could see what we had accomplished that day, and my tired muscles could attest that I had done my part, however small it may be.

The way I see it, ICAHD's Summer Rebuilding Experience allows volunteers to do three great things. First, it provides people from various countries the chance to witness the occupation firsthand: to see the demolished houses and uprooted olive trees and to hear the personal stories, and thus equip us to share our experiences with others upon our return. Secondly, the camp provides a home to a family who had been robbed of one, a fact that, amidst all the politics and symbolism, should not be overshadowed. Finally, the camp provides the chance to take action in peaceful resistance, the chance to set a sign that, ultimately, injustice cannot win.

I consider myself honored to have been given the chance to take part in this amazing experience, and I sincerely thank all those who made it possible for me as well as those who enable the participation of others in the future.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Man teou!

Several months ago (yes, I am rather far behind in my documentation efforts), I visited a friend in his hometown of Bad Driburg, a quaint destination known for its spas, scenery, and men on benches.

Yet, the real highlight of the weekend was experiencing a true German Karneval celebration. Karneval precedes Lent and is the German equivalent of Mardi Gras, with the same level of public intoxication but with costumes instead of beads and nudity. Case in point: monkeys distributing bananas and booze.

The most interesting/amusing/disturbing part of the experience was the evening event, which consisted of countless middle-aged, small-town Germans clad in a wide assortment of costumes and gathered in an explosion of flower power.
If you can't imagine what that looks like, let me show you (bonus point for finding the gnomes, my personal favorite of the evening):

Once all had gathered and admired each other's apparel, the program began. This consisted of various groups marching to the stage (accompanied by the band's marching song) as we all stood up and clapped, the group presenting some sort of dance/skit/speech, and then marching from the stage (accompanied by the same song) as we yet again stood up and clapped.

And if this wasn't enough slightly creepy ritual, I found myself joining in (I'd like to see you resist this type of group conformity and peer pressure)on the battle cry cheer 'Man teou!' with accompanying arm wave that was passed back and forth roughly 500 times throughout the evening.

This fanfare continued for more than four hours.

This may all seem rather excessive and ridiculous, but there were some very important persons to honor:

George Washington wanna-bes

The Shriner-types who organised the whole event

More majorettes that I've seen in my lifetime

The Karneval King and Queen!

The women drumming on giant exercise balls

The lingerie-clad, pole-dancing crowd pleasers

The teen girls disturbingly clad in hooker outfits and performing virtual strip-teases

The teen girls even more disturbingly clad in matching wigs and ruffled underpants and performing the can-can.

There was, of course, much more to see, but my camera couldn't handle all the excitement.

While the whole event was quite bizarre and left me with burning eyes and smoke-scented clothing, I am grateful for the rare glimpse of instinctive German behavior in its natural habitat.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

My personal crossing guard

When cruising the bike lanes of Hamburg, who you end up behind can be crucial, as any number of annoying traits or simply the slowness of your forerunner can set you on a treacherous attempt to pass them, in which you narrowly miss colliding with pedestrians.

Today, however, I wound up behind my newest role model.

First, she had a review mirrior sticking off her handlebars, something not all too uncommon among Hamburg's bikeriding senior citizens.

Even better, anytime she crossed an intersecting street, onto which cars were waiting to turn, she would hold up her hand in a symbolic effort to halt the vehicles. Or, as I imagined it, as if to say 'Oh no, you don't!' to any drivers who would rob her of her right-of-way.

As humorous as this was, I, having been very nearly hit by turning vehicles on multiple occasions, could easily understand the rationale of her defensive riding.

Sadly, she turned in another direction, and I spent the rest of my commute feeling just a bit less protected.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The weekend's best

Visit from a friend and how much better everything is when done with company. Pakistani bread. Tour guide failures. 'To your left, you will see the Messe, again.' Planten un Bloomen after a long absence. Marzipan-cherry ice cream. The absurdity of the Reeperbahn. Narrated vocational tests and finally discovering my calling as a vineyard worker. Hamburger Hafen and pondering potential life on the high sea. Ewan McGregor on the big screen. 'What? We're not allowed to interact with the art?' The German genius of baking Brötchen with hazlenuts and pumpkin seeds. Sun on the beach. Attempting to justify the game of baseball - 'If you need a 7th inning stretch, then the game should be over by the 5th inning.' Fresh cherries. View from the boat and view from above. Reading in the park while Bob Dylan sings to me a few hundred meters away.

And this (which you may or may not be able to see, but I can):

Saturday, May 28, 2011

I'm so much older than I can take

I turned 25 the other day.

In the week surrounding this life anniversary, I did the following:

- through a mix of bikeride-stripping and careless clothing placement, allow my beloved sweatshirt to be so tangled in the bike gears that it had to be surgically removed

- experience a minor bike collision that left with me with bloody knuckles for the rest of the day

- engage in a culinary miscalculation and thus delay the dinner of 30 hungry national assembly attendees (and trigger slight emotional breakdown)

- somehow manage to drop my cell phone precisely into my mug of tea, thus depriving me of both communication and time-keeping ability

- break my office's coffee press just as said assembly attendees were arriving, desperate for a caffeine jolt

Obviously, in my case, grace does not come with age.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

In a Land Without Cracker Jack

Today I was heading through the maze of overstimulation that is an electronics store in search of a paper shredder (so that we can destroy all evidence of our peace-keeping secrets) when I happened past the TV section.

And what should greet my eyes but baseball! A for-real MLB game (Reds vs. Phillies) in the middle of soccer-obsessed Europe.

It was a glorious yet bittersweet sight. I'm entering my third summer apart from America's pastime, and nothing rubs that in more than seeing it blaring on 30 television screens.

In light of this, I hereby offer free food and lodging to anyone who will come play catch with me.

Monday, May 2, 2011

No hip-hurray for the stars and stripes.....we only cried

Since moving to Germany, there have been numerous times when I've wished I was in the US.

Today was not one of those times.

Upon opening the internet this morning, my CNN homepage greeted me with the headline "Osama bin Laden dead," and the accompanying picture, jubilant Americans holding the nation's flag, filled me with unease and stuck in my head as I trekked to work.

This unease continued and turned into sadness and frustration as I read about people's reactions and watched videos of young adults jumping up and down, chanting "USA!" and "Ole ole ole!," and singing "na na na na, hey hey, goodbye..." as if they were celebrating a World Cup victory instead of a man's death.

Because after all he's done (and this is in no way an attempt to lessen or excuse it), bin Laden was still a man, a member of the human race, and as such, was granted the inherent worth and dignity that are granted, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights tells us, to all members of the human family.

Even more disheartening are the responses the media publicizes from Christians. An excerpt from a CNN story:
"There is a sense that justice has been done," said Joel Hunter, senior pastor of the 12,000-member Northland Church in Orlando, Florida, and a spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama.

"There is a scripture, Genesis 9:6, that says, 'He who sheds man's blood, by man his blood be shed.' There is a certain kind of sense of relief that that has been accomplished," Hunter said.

"This man was symbolic of much that threatened our country and our way of life," the pastor said.
Hunter also cited the verse promising that "those who mourn will be comforted," saying they might "find some sort of solace in this event."

Those verses are much more relevant than Jesus' admonition to "turn the other cheek," he said.

"That particular scripture has to do with insult and not with self-defense," he said.

The terror attacks that bin Laden authorized are "not even in the category of forgiveness," so killing him "really is in a category that, for 99.9% of Americans, would be beyond question ... the right thing."

The idea that there is a 'category of forgiveness' terrifies me, and even more so if my fellow Americans think they can decide what merits forgiveness and what doesn't. As far as I've understood the Bible, aren't matters of justice and forgiveness best left up to someone a bit wiser than us?

I don't know anyone that was killed in the attacks on September 11, so I can not assume to have any idea what friends and relatives suffered on that day, what they have gone through in the past decade, and what they feel like today. And I realize the powerful role that the longing for justice and the need for vengeance plays in our psyche. But I personally can not believe that pain and sorrow can be cured with death and destruction, and a healing process that is only complete with loss of life is really no healing process at all.

Many Americans felt the need to commemorate this day. And by all means, let us. But instead of shouting out our victorious chants, let us fall silent, maybe light some candles, and pause to remember and honor those whose deaths we're so keen on avenging.

There are many things to celebrate and be proud of in the USA. Let's not make death one of them.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

For Easter

Stellen Sie sich an einem schönen Frühlingstag in die Natur.
Schliessen Sie die Augen. Öffnen Sie die Hände zur Schale und versuchen Sie, ganz im Augenblick zu sein.
Spüren Sie die Sonne, die auf Sie scheint. Spüren Sie den Wind, der Sie zärtlich streichelt.
Öffnen Sie die Augen und schauen auf das Leben, das um Sie herum aufblüht. Nehmen Sie dieses Leben in sich und um sich herum mit allen Sinnen einfach nur wahr.
Wenn Sie für ein paar Sekunden ganz gegenwärtig sind, ohne Gedanken und Überlegungen, sondern einfach nur im Sein, dann wissen Sie, was Leben ist.
Berühren Sie das Leben.
Denn das Leben ist in Ihnen, das stärker ist als der Tod.
Dann verstehen Sie, was Auferstehung ist.

- Anselm Grün

My English translation:

On a fine spring day, search out a place in nature.
Close your eyes. Stand with open hands and attempt to be completely in the moment.
Feel the sun that is shining upon you. Feel the wind that tenderly caresses you.
Open your eyes and behold the life that is flourishing around you. Take this life within you, and embrace it with all of your senses.
When for a few seconds you are totally present, without thoughts and deliberations, but rather simply just being, then you know what life is.
Take hold of that life.
Because that life is in you, and it is stronger than death.
Then you understand, what resurrection is.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sunday afternoon bliss

A park bench basked in sunshine. Finding myself on Prince Edward Island amidst the endearing characters and the poetic style of Lucy Maude Montgomery. Alternatively, closing my eyes, lifting my face to the sun, and letting my mind wander where it will. Defying both convention and manners by stretching out on the bench for some sun-induced dozing. Further defying convention (as well as the temperature) by freeing my feet from their boot-constrained bondage and wiggling my toes in barefooted freedom. The unceasing amusement of duck-watching. The sight of a multitude of crocuses, beautiful in their simplicity, across the way. The splendor of spring that even the smell of fertilizer cannot deter.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A recollection of a Lenten reflection

 If you were to do an internet search for quotations about disappointment, as I have done, you would find countless motivational proverbs attempting to paint it in a rosy light and deem it as a necessary factor in the search for success.

Conversely, author Thomas Hardy, ever the pessimist, tells us that “the sudden disappointment of a hope leaves a scar which the ultimate fulfillment of that hope never entirely removes.”  While I have only read one of Hardy’s novels and found it so dismal and depressing that I could not bear to try another, he may just have this whole concept figured out. 

When others disappoint us, they fail to meet our expectations; they let us down.  And it hurts.  And the more often or the greater extent to which someone disappoints us, the deeper it hurts us, and the longer that hurt lingers.  

Perhaps the greatest let-down, however, comes when we disappoint ourselves.  We create goals and expectations for ourselves, and we berate ourselves when we fail to meet these expectations, even if they were unattainable to begin with.  We convince ourselves that our failure is a weakness.
Our own weaknesses seem to constantly confront us, and they appear in every aspect of our lives.  To begin with, we can let ourselves down physically.

Last spring, the combination of exhaustion, 90-degree heat, lack of any food for the day, and seeing mass amounts of blood proved too much for my body to handle.  After returning to consciousness, all I could think about was how I had failed my expectations for a trained rescuer and how weak I must appear.  The following couple of days, I tried to prove to myself that I was too strong to let a concussion stop me from my duties of work, school, and junior high lock-in preparation.  Yet, my expectations were opposed by physical limits, and instead of being strong and independent, I ended up unable to do much of anything and requiring the intervention of friends.
The summer found me as a youth care worker in a treatment home for adolescent girls with various emotional and behavioral problems, and it was here that I let myself down professionally and relationally.  Some of my self-perceived strengths included success in my various job attempts as well as my ability to, on some level, connect with everyone with whom I got to know.  Yet, no matter how hard I tried, there were girls with whom I could not relate, girls whose issues and past experiences I could not reach past.  It broke my heart, and I felt like a failure in my job.  Another let-down, another weakness.
 Finally, and what stung the most, was a let-down in faith.  This past semester, I befriended a young woman who had grown up in East Germany.  One day, I started to tell her about what I had seen while leaving church, and before I could even get into the point of my story, she asked with shock "You go to church?....So you believe in God?" And thus started my theological conversation with 28 year-old who was raised in a Communist state and who today doesn't know anybody who goes to church.

It was very interesting to hear from someone with such a background, and I didn't even find myself offended when she stated, as politely as she could, that she has always viewed belief in God as a weakness. My sense of personal weakness didn’t come from hearing this but from the fact that, after having grown up in the church as well as scholastically analyzing various issues of theology, I couldn't provide good answers to any of her questions. I was disappointed in myself because I could not come up with rational explanations for the faith I have followed for twenty-one years. I knew there are reasons for what and why I believe, but I somehow could not identify and relate them to her. I've studied all sorts of ways to perceive God and still could not elaborate on what I believe God to be. I know I've discussed and examined the eternal "If there is a God, why do bad things happen?" question, but when she asked how God could allow 9-11, I couldn't give an answer. I have often shared my ideas of God and faith in settings like this, but when put on the spot by a curious atheist, I was stupefied. I had failed to meet my standards for what a strong Christian faith should be.
In conclusion, if my personal anecdotes can be at all generalized, life appears to be one disappointment after another, a series of illuminated weaknesses.

But there is nothing conclusive about that, “for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested, as we are."

 Jesus came to this earth as part of the divine, blameless and sinless.  Yet, in taking up the physical form of man, he took up the battle of man’s weakness.  As just one person, there was a limit to the number of people he could reach; the number crying out for help always exceeded the amount of help he had to give.   The disciples, imperfect as they were, were given Jesus’ power of healing because Jesus’ expectation of alleviating suffering could not be reached by his physical form alone.  Further, even Jesus became simply worn-out and exhausted.  Multiple Gospel stories tell of Jesus seeking time away from the crowds in order to rest and rejuvenate.  Although that rest was continually denied by the unending need and Jesus’ sense of compassion, by the end of three years of ministry, his body has reached its limit.

 Perhaps Jesus experienced personal disappointment his relational and professional realm as well.  Despite his best efforts, there were some people whom Jesus’ words simply could not reach.  Even the people of Jesus’ hometown snubbed his words and deeds.
 Would it not be easy to view his life’s work as incomplete on the many instances when even his own disciples failed to comprehend his message?  Would it not be disappointing to think that all the meaning and power of his life and coming death were not enough to keep his closest friends awake?

 And even Christ himself was tempted with the weakness of faith.  As he prepares for his coming crucifixion, Jesus prays that, if it be the Father’s will, the cup should pass from him.  After spending his entire life in preparation for such a death, he still finds himself deeply grieved and agitated as the end draws nigh.  
Does a sense of grief weaken his sense of faith?   Knowing the reason why he must die, is it then disappointing to not view his fate as savior of the world with eagerness?

As Christians we are continuously told that, in times of trouble, we should look to Jesus as a source from which to draw strength.  Yet, perhaps just as important, is looking to Jesus as a source by which to validate weakness.  

The Lenten season is often viewed with an air of gloom.  From dust we have come and to dust we shall return.  In this time, we are confronted with our own frailty and forced to acknowledge our own weaknesses.  But let this not lead us to despair. The last forty days of Christ’s life were the days in which he was most connected to human weakness, but they were also the days in which he imparted some of his most meaningful wisdom and bestowed the all-strengthening gift of salvation and eternal life.  

When we sing the words “Take, oh take me as I am” we are beseeching God to accept all that we have to offer but also that which we lack the strength to give.  We may be disappointed by our own limits, but God is not. 

 The men following Jesus for those three years served as more than his disciples; they were there to aid and support him when he had reached his limit.  So too, with each of us, God places people in our lives to aid and support us when we come up a bit short.  

Through Christ, God showed the power that can be found in weakness; sometimes we can not, need not, and should not try to do it all on our own.  And because, through his sacrifice of life, Christ worked through his weaknesses, we are no longer ruined by ours.  

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Facing the Inevitable

Not too long ago, I visited a friend and accompanied her as she helped lead a confirmation event for kids at her church.
As we were leaving, she offered to give a couple of girls a ride home so that they wouldn't have to wait in the cold.  The girls hesitated momentarily, and I, as if guided by a supernatural force, found myself blurting out the concerned admonishment of "You're not even wearing a proper winter coat!"

And then it hit me: I had become my mother.

Why I should never become a telemarketer

A few days ago, I was given the task of calling the offices of roughly 45 German members of the European Parliament to follow up on a conference invitation we had sent several weeks ago.  I am not even fond of calling up strangers on the phone in English, let alone tripping over my German with the impatient underlings of high-level politicians.
But as with everything, practice makes perfect, and after repeating my broken-record speech several times, the calls were no longer so intimidating.
Yet, when making so many calls saying the same thing, it can be tricky to keep track of whom exactly one is calling, especially when I had to skip several names because I didn't reach anyone in the office.  And so it came to pass that I took part in the following highly embarrassing exchange:

Kendra:   "Hello, this is Kendra from Peace Brigades International......and we
                 were checking if Mr.  Republican would be able attend."
Lady:        "Mr. Republican?!  This is the office of Ms. Democrat.  You have the completely wrong  party!"
Kendra:    "Oh, excuse me........but, um, Ms. Democrat is actually on our list as well.  Will she be attending
                   the conference?"
 Lady:       "You should really pay better attention to who you are calling."


Friday, March 25, 2011

Island Adventure

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to attend a two-day conference on peace education.  Aside getting to hear a lecture from an Israeli professor who researches/teaches peace education between Israelis and Arabs, I must say that I found the conference rather somewhat disappointing.

This was ok, however, because the conference was held 1) on a Baltic Sea island 2) roughly 500 meters from the Polish border.  As can be expected, I had several adventures....

Starry, starry night.  Upon taking an evening stroll with a co-worker, I discovered that being in the middle of the countryside on an island makes for spectacular star viewing.  I didn't have my camera with me, but no picture could have done it justice, anyways - I've never seen so many stars and of such brightness in my life.  I was in awe, so much so, in fact, that I couldn't resist laying in the grass to take it all in, despite the below-zero temperatures and a brutal sea wind.

The next morning, I proceeded with one of my new favorite pastimes: walking across national borders.

Poland beckons.

'National Border'
If I were them, I would add 'Please don't invade us.'

My Polish expedition was, alas, rather lacking in cultural enrichment, as I didn't have enough time to get much further than the gardening community next to the border.

The day continued on a rather sober note with a tour of the Golm War Cemetery.  The cemetery is the final resting place for as many as 14,000 victims of a US Air Force bombing raid on March 12, 1945.  The bulk of these victims were German civilians (residents of the town of Swinemunde as well as countless refugees fleeing the Red Army in East Prussia), forced laborers from the Netherlands and Poland, and injured German soldiers.

'Die frierende Frau im Soldatenmantel'
'Freezing Woman in Soldier's Coat'

On a lighter note, following the conference, I had about half an hour to spend at the sea.  Although I would have loved to stay longer, it's probably for the best that I couldn't because it was SO COLD!  So cold, in fact, that the Baltic Sea (a miniscule portion of it, at least) was frozen.  And thus, even more enchanting than normal.

This is likely as close to Eskimo living as I'll ever get.

Frozen waves!

Such views are worth the risk of frostbite.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

January Hymn

On December 30th, ten months after having moved to the country, the German authorities gave me the official document stating that they would stop trying to kick me out (for the next year, at least).
And what do you do when you finally have permission to stay in a country?  You book a plane ticket home for the next day, of course.
And so it was that after 3 flights, 7 time zones, and 24+ hours without substantial sleep, I fell into bed at 10pm.  On New Year's Eve. Partaaaaaayyy!

The party continued as I headed to Nebraska!

Upon crossing the border, it's required by state law to visit Runza, the most disgustingly-named fast food establishment in America.
 RIP Dana
I returned to the metropolis of Blair to pay my respects to the remains of my alma matter.  Despite the absence of life on campus and the empty buildings, it was still hard to believe that the college is no more.

And when we launch our little barks on destiny's deep sea....

I can tell you what's NOT coming to Dana. 
The fact that the bulletin boards are still decorated just adds to the eeriness of it all.

But where will my future be defined now?!

Just to make the visit a bit more surreal, we visited the clan of denim-jumper-clad nuns that have taken up residence in one of the dorms and who rent the gym as their dining hall/chapel.  Best quote of the day, upon passing a tackling dummy stuck on a volleyball pole: "Some of the sisters are learning karate, so they use that to practice."

And in January, we're getting married.....

Going to weddings is one of my favorite pastimes, and being in them is even better.
There aren't many people for whom I would don a white, furry shawl (not pictured).

The journey westward continued to Las Vegas!

I obviously never realized what I'd been missing. Disneyland!

I'd never had any major inclination to visit a Disney park, but it truly is magical!  I'm fairly certain I could spend the rest of my days alternating between Splash and Space Mountain.

Friends that surprise you with such wonder are worth holding onto.

The Price is Right

That's right - we were in the studio audience of this classic game show.  Unfortunately, no cameras were allowed, so I can't show you what it was like.  Even more unfortunately, I was not called to come on down, so I can not share my winnings with you are.  However, let me sum up the experience:
Despite having tickets, spend 4 hours waiting outside the studio, as they herd you progressively closer to the door. 
Have roughly 30 seconds to convince the producer that putting you on Contestants' Row would make great television.
Enter the studio to the sounds of Katy Perry's 'California Girls' and, as if hypnotized, automatically join in on the dance party.  Take in the 70's-style decor and be astounded at how much larger the studio looks on television.
Spend the next hour being prompted how to behave (Applause!  "Higher!  Lower!  It's the frozen pizza, no the hand cream!" close!) and marveling a how much weight Drew Carey has lost.
Leave in defeat after failing to win a fabulous dining room set.

The ocean!

Growing up in Iowa with summer vacations never extending much futher than Minneapolis (go Twins!) or St. Louis (go Cardinals!), I am fascinated by beaches of all sorts and by oceans especially.  A sunny, warm day on my third ever trip to the ocean was nothing short of heavenly.

Cirque du Soleil

There are simply no words to describe this.  A video can't do it justice, either, but it's a start:


You can keep your Vegas Strip, nightlife, and casinos - I'll take the red rocks and snowy mountains any day.

Those desert folk sure have a sense of humor.

The rest of my visit home consisted of soaking up quality time with the family and relishing many other aspects of this American life:

American informality (as evidenced by repeatedly being called 'sweetie' and 'honey' by O'Hare officials).


The sight of my bookshelf and the joy of combing through its contents.

A closet filled with hooded sweatshirts.


A bedroom filled with sunlight.

Dancing with Anna.

American pizza.

Free refills.

An actual laundry basket.

The Waffle Stop.

The dryer.

The gluttony of American junk food.

Bill Bryson and Thomas Merton.

Staying up until 4am with giggly reminiscing.

The Cedar Falls Public Library.

Rocking my nephew and niece to sleep.

TIME Magazine.

Sweet potato fries.

The convenience and comfort of my own car.  A respite from riding a bike in the cold.

Trivial Pursuit.

Grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Bubble baths.

Cup of Joe.

Small-town Iowa and its family-owned restaurant, where everyone does in fact know your (grandmother's) name.


Frozen yogurt.

Strolling down Washington Street, admiring the "My Girl" porches and contemplating how much better my life would be if I had a porch swing.