Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mama God

This morning, I decided to do church on my own.  I've had an interesting relationship with church over the last few years.  I have been blessed to find inspiration and support in various communities outside of church, especially at EMU.  Over and over, I found myself seeing and talking about God in conversations over dinner with my housemates, as we read poetry for our prayers, or in classes as we talked about love and vulnerability, or on the porches of our neighbors, as we shared healing stories of grace and the sacred feminine, in response to the terrible truths we also encounters together.  Church, then, has been an additional space, but far from the only space where I find God.  More often than not, I also feel like a spectator, rather than a contributor in churches.  I enjoy spectating, but when I take time to intentionally think about and interact with God on my own or with others outside of an organized space, I find myself much more moved and connected with God.  And so, this morning I took a break from spectating and thought.

A dear woman-friend shared this poem with a small group of women several months ago:

Bakerwoman God
Bakerwoman God,
I am your living bread.
Strong, brown, Bakerwoman God,
I am your low, soft and
being-shaped loaf.
I am your rising bread, well kneaded
by some divine
and knotty pair of knuckles,
by your warm, earth hands.
I am bread well kneaded.

Put me in your fire,
Bakerwoman God,
put me in your warm, bright fire.
I am warm, warm as you from fire.
I am white and gold,
soft and hard,
brown and round.
I am so warm from fire.

Break me, Bakerwoman God.
I am broken under your caring Word.
Bakerwoman God,
remake me.
- Alla Bozarth Campbell

This morning, I baked bread, and prayed to Bakerwoman God.  I've been thinking about women so much recently- about the impact that countless women have had on my life, and about both the suffering many quietly endure and the endless fountains of strength they find.  And yesterday, another dear woman-friend asked me how I had encountered Mama God's "untamed edgelessness" here in Colombia.  And so- here is a prayer, for women.

Mama God,
Thank you for the baker women in my life.
thank you for my mother, and grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, who have been baking bread for all of us.  thank you for making my mom's bread always turn out better than mine, because it reminds me that there is wisdom in her years of hard work.  thank you for my favorite childhood memory- warm oatmeal bread and homemade strawberry jam.  thank you for a home, and thank you that this year, you watered the grain my mom planted.  thank you for gardens.
thank you for my sister, and the constant reminder that we grow from difference, especially when we reach across and share.
thank you for Mama Carolina, Jua and Agnes, who knew that they could transform their gender-decided place in the kitchen into a powerful cooking pot of female strength.  thank you for the simple combination of yeast, flour, water, and salt.  thank you that kneading can be done in any language.  thank you that women pass wisdom through their strong shoulders that carry the water, and their palms that knead, and their rhythmic steps in the Sudanese dust.  thank you for blanketing us in the same stars.  thank you for crossing borders.
thank you for Arundati Roy, Anais Mitchell, and Andrea Gibson, who remind me to speak.
thank you for Marvat, and the radical hospitality she shows to the enemy.  thank you for the simple resistance of sharing warm pita together in an occupied land.
thank you for Maria, and her graceful stubborn belief in the power of children, dirt and plants, mixed well and watered.  thank you for Amanda, who heals us all with her gentleness and listening wisdom.  thank you for Meg, and the way she sees brokenness and wholeness at the same time.  thank you for Emma, and her sense of ecosystem and wild beauty. thank you for Hannah, who reminds me to love myself even from far away, by putting a painting of naked dancing women on her wall.  thank you for Jess and her boundless, encompassing, comforting joy.  thank you for Greta and her sense of self.  thank you for Chrissy and her honest, unflinching search for connection.   
thank you for the many, many women of EMU.  thank you for giving them the wisdom to challenge even the definition of woman.  thank you for the conversations behind the counter at the coffeeshop and the library.  thank you for the tattoos and the poems.  thank you for the fierce denial of other definitions.  thank you for spirit-chasing.
thank you for the baker women I have met here in Colombia.  thank you for the women who believe in bringing peace through determined solidarity and know that that often means just sitting together.  thank you for good food, and laughter over the table.
thank you for the Senora, who reminds me that bread is what Jesus chose to give us life, to prove the universal truth of abundance and enough.
thank you for incredible generosity, of giving your gifts to all humans, men and women.  thank you for not having eyes that define through gender, even though we are so determined with our boxes. thank you for men.
thank you for the wide arms of the ocean.
thank you for my body, my soul, and my heart.  thank you for waking me up every morning, and giving me the strength to carry on.
thank you, Shenandoah, river and mountains.  I know your reckless daughters make you proud.

and Mama God, I have so many questions.
why, Mama, have I heard so many stories of women, especially here in Colombia, being beaten by their husbands?  why here?  how do we stand up and say no?  why do we still blame women- for being unfaithful, for being provocative, for being anything less than virginal perfection? 
why, Mama, are women's bodies the battlefields for so many wars of power?  why is there a logic of rape?  when did it become a weapon?  when will we learn that our bodies are gifts, not property to be exploited by others?  
why is it that we watch each other through eyes of objectification?  why do we judge? why do we see ourselves as accessories for the men around us? why are we secondary?  helpers?  sacrificial?  where do our standards of beauty come from?  how do we find the intrinsic worthiness you have given each of us?
Mama, what is patriarchy?  how do we step back far enough to see it? how do we find the dances and poetry and fearless love to break through?  how do we find the words? how do we talk over boundaries of gender?
and another thing, Mama.  what is a better word than warrior, to talk about your power?  what does a powerful peace sound like?  how do we not become passive and sacrificial in our striving for peace?  how do we keep our fierce love?
this is too big, Mama.  help us see the world through different eyes.  help us find ourselves.  

thank you, Mama God.  thank you for bread, brokenness, and hope.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Opening the doors

I'm in a field of work.  That's a strange thing to say.  While I would argue that peacebuilding is something that everyone can do everyday, everywhere, I think there's still a very different angle to actually having the job-title of peacebuilder.   A lot of the mental work that I've been doing this last month is trying to wrap my head around what this actually looks like or feels like for me, and trying to integrate so much from my experiences and study- philosophy, tools, theology, memories of conflict, interpersonal relationships, theories of why conflict happens, traumas- into a lived, daily practice of peacebuilding here.  I can't quite put my finger on the difference between studying in the States and working here, but it's something along the lines of involvement- perhaps a shift from mostly taking in to giving my energy out.  Anyway, I want to reflect a little on something one of our presenters said last week about academics and presence.

We were working over some analysis tools with a presenter- the nested model, for example, which breaks the conflict down into four different levels (situation, relationship, sub-system, and system) and different time periods to help strategically understand the stages of conflict.  I made a comment about horizontal networking- essentially, building relationships with other academics/peace workers all over the world, in order to share information with them.  It's a key part of acknowledging globalization's benefits in fighting globalization's harm: building a web of folks that can collaborate against the huge world systems that inhibit alternative and resistance movements.  The presenter responded with a powerful cautionary tale that I really, really needed to hear.  She spoke against our analysis tools, our academic understanding, and our mid-level collaboration.  Or rather, she didn't condemn them, but challenged us to keep them to ourselves.  She shared about working with Colombian women who had suffered severe, specific sexual violence, and her horror at her instinctual response to their stories.  She began to analytically compare them to women that she had worked with elsewhere- this degree of pain, that specific experience, this similar memory, this benefit, that detriment.  Her analysis was her distance.

One thing that has been consistently irking me as we learn more and more about Colombia is the ease with which I am analyzing the conflict.  Hearing about the armed conflict is always exciting- terrible, but exciting.  It's another piece of the puzzle- what was the motivation of that paramilitary group in that massacre?  How did the displaced person tell their story in that setting?  What does that reveal about their needs?  How does the US money influence the governing political elite?  International corporations?  Let's take notes, draw a diagram, have another conversation where we compare and contrast our experiences with agribusiness, arms trafficking, cultural epidemics of fear, chosen trauma, protests... it can get really unemotional.  Callous.  It can get really scientific, diagnostic, strategic.  I worry myself.

I worry myself because I feel like we peacebuilders/workers can tend to respond to conflict in the same style as military officials.  We strategize, and it feels good.  It is a kind of triumph to map it all out, to have long, well-informed conversations about the state of the world.  To track the connections between evil corporations and governments and the education system and poverty and the military and terrorism... and to feel like we are doing a good service by figuring it all out, then strategically analyzing where our peace work can fit it.  And then I wonder what the hell I'm doing.  I'm standing over a map, moving troops in tactical formation.  Where is the grace, the love, the beauty?  Where is the artistic force, the hugs and hymns, the helplessness, the ranting and the middle of the night sleeplessness?  Where are the emotions of our lucha (fight)?  

I'm scared.  I'm scared that we are closing our eyes just as much as we say the other side is.  I'm worried about my callousness.  I've been trying to work against this, intentionally, and I'm thinking that trying to open up my heart and remember what I'm fighting for (and against) is the most important work that I've done here so far.  Recognizing that if we stop at understanding and analyzing, we lose our reasons why.  I forget that the reason I'm here is because sometimes the truth of the world breaks me inside.  Because my family is full of unspoken stories of trauma.  Because Mama Carolina from Sudan escaped from a refugee camp as a child and walked dozens of miles to find her mother, and because she cried with me as she told the story.  Because I feel a little jolt of triumph when I see a new plant sending out leaves.  Because yesterday I was talking in English on my cell phone and a man who was picking through the trash for recycling to sell asked me for a few pesos, and I didn't give him any.  Because I shared a meal with displaced folks on Wednesday, and talked about the joy and necessity of having God in your life.  Because I've seen so many people cry about their loneliness.  Because baking bread always feels like an act of resistance, and a reason to dance.  Because yesterday, someone laughed because they listened to me laugh.  Because I pass so many homeless men when I go running in the morning.  Because someone I know is going off to war.  Because there are so, so many stories of shame and pain and loss here and everywhere, and also because each one is precious and worth listening to. 

These are some of the stories, some of the emotions, some of the pictures that lie underneath our diagrams and maps and strategies.  We need to remember the little pieces, beyond our cynicism and analysis.  So much of my work is and will be trying to keep the doors open and letting the reality in, in its unique and painful ugliness and truth.  I'm trying, and praying for help.

Monday, August 1, 2011


I love looking at things from a slightly different angle, and one way of shedding new light on old habits is... translation!  I want to say first off that language is culture is language- I don't want to simplify the fact that every sentence/phrase/grammatical structure can illuminate something about the people that use them.  For example, there is a lovely structure of phrase in Spanish, "se me rompio," which literally means "the ___broke on me" and neatly places the blame on the object, not the actor.  In other words, you didn't break the glass/chair/window, it broke on you.  I'm not sure what this illuminates about cultures that speak Spanish, but it's certainly different than the English version of "I broke the glass."  

Anyway, to take a turn for the serious, where I've been noticing linguistic differences the most have been in when and where and how I talk about God.  I've never been one to feel particularly comfortable talking about God or Jesus- I can talk about theology til the cows come home, but I don't often refer to God in daily conversations.  It might have been because I didn't grow up doing it, or because I'm not actually that comfortable, or because I don't actually include God very often in my daily thoughts.  I think it's a combination of the three.

Here, I've been thinking about God's place in the language a lot more.  One of the most common phrases of the senora who is hosting Daniela and I is "que Dios le bendiga"- may God bless you.  Another very common one "gracias a Dios"- thanks to God- or "por la gracia de Dios"- by God's grace.  "Ojala" is actually derived from the Arabic "inshallah," which refers to a future event, something like- may God grant that ___ happens.  Prayers often include a lot more repetition of God's various names.  This might not been too different from our many, many different slang uses of God's name in English, but I'm inclined to think that it's more serious here.  

I've been thinking a lot about this shift in language and how this affects my conception of God in daily life.  In every church I've been to so far, there has been a time for sharing of testimonies, or giving thanks for God's presence in our lives.  Most of the time, I probably wouldn't have said what people share.  I've been amazed at several older women especially, who describe everything in their days as an act from God's hand- from getting up in the morning to the food on the table for lunch to a trip going smoothly to a visit from a friend to praying for another... As I type this, I realize that I have heard people give thanks for similar things in many other churches, but I want to emphasize that this sounds quite different to me.  

To me, a lot of what I've given thanks to God for, or prayed for, I've believed God was linked or related to.  I've given thanks so many time for the beautiful, complex, created world we live in, and the people that inhabit it, but I think I've been more likely to see it as a world with a separate God than to see it as God.  I think this might be the difference- I've mostly acknowledged God as a presence in the world, but here I keep hearing about God as an actor in the world.  It's almost as if I'm saying- thanks God, for giving us this beautiful world- and the older women are saying- God, without you, nothing would happen.  Thanks.

I know I'm making quite a few cultural leaps here, but I wonder what this could say about entitlement.  I'll bring this down to the interpersonal level to make more sense.  I have always had enough to eat.  Period.  My prayer- "thank you, God, for the food" acknowledges God, but it's not very serious.  The universe has always treated me well, and will continue to treat me well.  Thanks, in that sense, means that God plays a supporting role.  I don't really need her help.  The Senora (who is hosting me) has gone hungry many, many nights.  She has told me that often the worst pain wasn't her own hunger, it was watching someone else suffer and not being able to help.  Several times, the Senora has invited me for a cafecito (cup of milky coffee) and piece of bread- saying that no one should ever go to bed hungry.  When the Senora thanks God for her cafecito and bread, she means it, just as she means it when she prays for her son's safe journey, or for our work in Colombia, or for her daughter's work situation.  God is directly involved- without God's presence, none of these things would happen well.  The Senora, and every Colombian I have met so far, have lived through enough insecurity that I'm beginning to hear this- we have to be grateful.  It's not guaranteed- and God is within it, around it, behind it, creating it.  God is the goodness.  God is what sustains us, our everyday.

By the grace of God, today:  yucca for dinner, warmth, a view of the mountains, ridiculous teasing between friends, safe arrivals, long distance communication technology wonders, people that work for peace, a world where everyone knows everyone, a capable body, good shoes, early morning coffee, the ability to get around, green leaves....

When you think about it, the list goes on and on.  Thanks, God, for your creating, sustaining presence in our lives.