Freedom

Stories Worth Telling

Ronit Avni, photo courtesy of Changemakers

IN HER JEWISH school in Montreal, Ronit Avni learned the tragic history of her people. Her Canadian mother and Israeli father had met in the ’60s when her mother was living in Israel and working as a folk singer, often performing for Israeli troops. Her older sister was born in Tel Aviv, but the family settled back in Montreal in the mid-’70s before Ronit was born.

Not strictly religious but committed to the values of Judaism, Ronit couldn’t help but ask probing questions as she listened to the stories of the birth of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Am I hearing the whole story? How do Palestinian perspectives differ from what my educators and community leaders are teaching? How can we transform this situation from a zero-sum equation to one that respects the dignity and freedom of all?

Years later, having graduated with honors from Vassar College with a degree in political science after studying theater at a conservatory in Montreal, Ronit trained human rights advocates worldwide to produce videos as tools for public education and grassroots mobilizing.

By the time I met Ronit a few years ago, she had narrowed her worldwide focus to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where her heart was most deeply drawn. She is the founder and executive director of Just Vision, an organization dedicated to increasing media coverage and support for Palestinian and Israeli efforts to end the occupation and conflict without weapons of violence.

During the last several years, my engagement in the Holy Land has been significantly shaped by Ronit. Her film Encounter Point, about Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members, land, or liberty to the conflict yet choose forgiveness and reconciliation rather than revenge, gave me hope that peace can emerge from pain.

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Soaking in the Word of God

AS THE SEAONS after Pentecost unfolds, we might think that summer calls for a kind of “church lite” in which we shouldn’t expect much to happen. With the dramatic commemorations behind us, the scriptures seem miscellaneous. But this season has its own purpose of soaking in the Word. Just let go of dependence on drama.

Our month’s reading opens in 2 Kings 5 with the healing of Naaman, the distinguished Aramean general, told with a dry humor that Jesus appreciated, since he specifically mentions it (Luke 4:27) in his teaching about faith found outside the bounds of Israel. At first Naaman’s dignity is offended by Elisha not bothering even to meet him in person. His pride receives a further blow in the ludicrous banality of the prescription that Elisha’s assistant passes on: “Go, and wash in the Jordan seven times” (verse 10). Naaman’s fuming about the short shrift he got, and the humiliation of being prescribed a business of splashing in a local stream, are quite comic. Paddling in the Jordan indeed—a ditch in comparison to the storied rivers of Damascus! Smiling, we recognize the storyteller’s shrewd knowledge of psychology. The tale has a good ending. Finally getting off his high horse, Naaman allows his aide to persuade him to try the simple bathing routine. Over time his skin is healed and rejuvenated.

The church behaves like that shrewd aide when it invites us to trust in the power of hearing the scriptures again and again, however overfamiliar some of them seem, and others obscure.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ July 7 ]
We Can Get the Accuser Fired
2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 66:1-9; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

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Children of the Street

INTRIGUING AND believable characters are part of what makes Janna McMahan’s new novel Anonymitya memorable read. Through the story, which is set in Austin, Texas, the author provides a well-constructed and evenly paced plot that brings to light critical themes around home and homelessness.

Early in the story we discover classic contrasts between the two protagonists. Lorelei is a young, homeless runaway whose daily grind revolves around finding food and a warm, safe place to sleep, while Emily’s major mission centers on branching out from her bartending job to take up a more artistic endeavor as a photographer. One buys organic greens from the high-end Whole Foods Market, while the other seeks sustenance in restaurant dumpsters.

This interesting juxtaposition of characters reels us in. But as we swim through the thickening plot, we discover the startling similarities between the two: Lorelei’s rebelliousness and grit compared to Emily’s disdain for the superficial lifestyle of big-box shopping and Corpus Christi vacations; Lorelei’s refusal to seek help and get off the streets weighed against Emily’s desire to break from the overindulgence she grew up around. As Emily’s mother, Barbara, observes, “Emily liked the frayed edges of life, a little dirt in the cracks.” It should come as no surprise that Emily takes an interest in Lorelei’s hardscrabble existence.

So much about Lorelei remains a mystery, which serves to add tension and compel the reader forward. We sense she is searching for something, and there’s no way to prepare for the powerful punch McMahan delivers when we discover what Lorelei’s quest is about.

At the same time, we follow Emily on a kind of hunt of her own—a hunt for freedom from the status quo as she attempts to separate herself from materialistic parents and a society that insists happiness requires a college degree, a high-paying job, marriage, and children.

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Inspired by Faith

Kristin Hart, photo provided by family

KRISTIN HART planned on moving to New York City to become an advertising agent with a sleek apartment and a stunning wardrobe. But one day all that changed. A humble missionary couple spoke at her church in Gainesville, Fla., about their experience fighting human trafficking in Asia, and after hearing the horrors of slavery, Hart knew she had to do something.

As she prepared to graduate from college in 2011, she applied for an internship with International Justice Mission (IJM), a Christian organization that rescues victims from trafficking and other violent oppression. A few months later, she found herself confronting the harshest cases of exploitation in south Asia.

“I saw people forced to work 18 hours a day, with their families taken from them,” Hart says. “I never imagined that humanity could be stripped from a person like that.”

Hart gained valuable advocacy skills while working with IJM, and when she finished her position, she fully expected to find a job fighting trafficking in one of the world’s farthest corners. Little did she know her passion would lead her full circle back to Florida, where trafficking quietly plagues hundreds of young women each year. “I knew trafficking existed in America, but not to this extent,” she states.

Through a twist of connections, Hart began working as an advocate for Rethreaded, a faith-based organization in Jacksonville that employs women affected by the sex trade by helping them to “sew a new story.”

Now Hart encourages others to take part in the global fight, just as one couple inspired her years ago.

“I still have big dreams to empower the oppressed to live with freedom and dignity,” she says.

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Enslaved at the Border

MARTA AND LUISA had always fantasized about leaving their small town in northern Mexico to become dancers in a big city.

As the teenage sisters sat in the bed of a rusted pickup truck speeding toward the U.S. border, they thought their dreams would soon become reality. After sunset, the truck screeched to an abrupt stop. A middle-aged man with a skeleton tattoo on his arm hopped out of the driver’s seat, gritted his yellow teeth, and mumbled, “Vamos.” The time had come to complete the journey by foot.

Marta and Luisa walked closely behind the man and his two associates for hours along the desert paths they believed led to a brighter future. When they crossed the border into Arizona at about midnight, the tattooed man forcefully grabbed 16-year-old Marta and separated her from her older sister.

He explained that although he previously offered to help the girls cross the border for a small fee, the transportation cost had risen. Now Marta would have to work to pay off her debt. Alone.

Cecilia Hilton Gomez, director of Hispanic outreach programs for Free for Life International, describes the way that many human traffickers prey on vulnerable girls hoping to emigrate to the United States from Mexico and other parts of Central America. Since girls like Marta often have little education, lack formal paperwork, and have no knowledge of English, they become prime targets for traffickers looking to profit by selling women to brothel owners in the U.S.

“This is an epidemic, and it’s increasing,” Gomez states. “A lot of people think slavery has been gone for years, but it’s one of the largest criminal enterprises that exists now, and it’s right here in America.”

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National Day of Prayer: Text of Presidential Proclamation

Editor's Note: Below is the text of President Barack Obama's Proclamation for the National Day of Prayer. 

Americans have long turned to prayer both in times of joy and times of sorrow. On their voyage to the New World, the earliest settlers prayed that they would "rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work." From that day forward, Americans have prayed as a means of uniting, guiding, and healing. In times of hardship and tragedy, and in periods of peace and prosperity, prayer has provided reassurance, sustenance, and affirmation of common purpose.

Prayer brings communities together and can be a wellspring of strength and support. In the aftermath of senseless acts of violence, the prayers of countless Americans signal to grieving families and a suffering community that they are not alone. Their pain is a shared pain, and their hope a shared hope. Regardless of religion or creed, Americans reflect on the sacredness of life and express their sympathy for the wounded, offering comfort and holding up a light in an hour of darkness.

The Key to Entrepreneurial Success

leedsn / Shutterstock.com
Business man push the button on virtual touch pad. leedsn / Shutterstock.com

Some enterprises, like tech start-ups, are all dream and no structure.

A founder’s dream of making a world-changing product compels other pioneers to work long, self-sacrificial days. In what resembles religious fervor, they are like monks in constant prayer, hunched over computers, collaborating at white boards and talking shop deep into the night.

Investors, however, want structure and a return on their investment. So, eventually, do employees, who want stock offerings, benefits, and some sense that the dream has a future.

This awkward transition from dream-only to dream-plus-structure is where many enterprises fall apart. Freedom collides with accountability, jealousy emerges as some get better titles and more stock options and the freedom of “all in this together” gives way to stratification.

Why We (Still) Can't Wait

DURING THE unseasonably warm autumn of 1951, 22-year-old Martin King Jr. began his doctoral work in systematic theology at Boston University. Wearing his good suit in a stifling classroom, he was first introduced to the work of philosopher and ethicist Josiah Royce. King read Royce's well-regarded 1913 book The Problem of Christianity and wrestled with Royce's metaphysical values of loyalty, communitarian ideals, and the role of the individual within a group.

But don't let the high academic or philosophical language fool you. Royce was interested in only one thing: Love. It was the hidden heart of all his endeavors. And King began to study—and embrace—Royce's most important philosophical concept: the Beloved Community.

Though Royce had first written about the Beloved Community nearly 40 years earlier, King heard it in the context of his own time and place. He heard it in the context of the insidious Jim Crow laws of the South. In 1951 he also heard it in the context of the bitter race realities of the North. The July before King started classes at Harvard, a race riot had erupted in Cicero, Illinois, outside Chicago. A mob of whites attacked an apartment building that housed one black family, that of Harvey Clark Jr., a WW II veteran and bus driver who had moved into the all-white neighborhood.

According to the Chicago Tribune, "In two nights of rioting, some 3,000 persons battled police and National Guardsmen. Twenty-three civilians, police, and Guardsmen were injured and 119 persons arrested." Buildings were burned. Mr. Clark and his family moved away.

If the Beloved Community was to be authentic, King knew, it must not only impel us to action but also carry our suffering. Would it stand up in situations like Cicero or Montgomery or Birmingham?

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Freedom Tastes Like Hummus

Photo: Hummus plate, © Dan Peretz / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Hummus plate, © Dan Peretz / Shutterstock.com

Freedom is hummus. Perhaps not to you. But to me, hummus is what freedom tastes like. The relationships I have built with survivors of human trafficking have propelled me to redefine freedom, as it exists from their perspectives. 

Watching a survivor taste hummus for the first time brought so much joy to me. In a room of 25 survivors, no one had ever tasted it; many were hesitant to even dip a chip in it, let alone a carrot stick or pita bread. But the wide smile on the face of the first survivor who ‘dove in,' was all they needed to form a new love for this strange chickpea blend. And that one smile led the rest of the women into a new world of ‘healthful’ eating. It was a bold move early on by one of our volunteers — but she knows that part of her volunteer work is to continue to introduce the survivors to freedom and choices that have been unknown and unavailable to them. 

The Seeds of Epiphany

In the dark days of Advent, we wonder when the birth pangs will end: Will light break into the darkest corners of our hearts, our families, our lives? Will God—can God—take the twisted sinew of our warped world and redeem it? Will we—can we—hold on through the night? Can we trust that light to come? These are the questions of Advent.

As we enter the season of Epiphany, new questions arise: Will we allow the light that has broken forth to illuminate the darkest corners of hearts, our families, and our lives? Can we—will we—follow Jesus as he untwists the mangled metal of our shattered souls ... and redeems it? Can we—will we—trust the light or will we hide from it? These are the questions of Epiphany.

The light of Epiphany illuminates in two directions: It flashes inward, revealing our twisted and fragmented souls, and it flashes outward, revealing the carnage and consequences of the lies our world has embraced and used to craft public policy, the lies we have believed and reinforced through our complicit acceptance, and the truth we must speak.

As we enter 2013, we look back and see that over the past four years much public good was done. Remember: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act made it easier for women to fight pay discrimination. Remember the drama when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act and the Supreme Court upheld it, creating a path for tens of millions of Americans to finally receive health care. Remember the image of the last troops leaving Iraq.

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