Politics and Religion…We Need To Have That Conversation

imageAt times we have all been told, “Avoid talking about politics and religion.”  But as a devotedly religious person, it was never part of my DNA to avoid talking about religion.  In fact, after I was ordained a priest in 1991, I quite publicly shared my faith especially when teaching and preaching and celebrating the Holy Eucharist in a parish setting.  Even in non-church settings, most people soon came to know that I was a priest, and religion was usually dialed into most conversations.

While I felt free to talk about religion, I never felt free to talk politics in public after I was ordained.  In every parish I served, there were parishioners on both sides of every political issue, and so I tried to remain neutral.  Perhaps I even went into survival mode at times as I did my best to avoid becoming a parish political lightening rod especially when the rhetoric heated up.

After retirement, I found it easier to wade into political discussions again.  It actually felt very freeing when I signed up to do some canvassing for Obama in the 2008 Presidential Election.  It was like a release from confinement when I attended public rallies for Obama and Biden here in the Tampa Bay area.  Suddenly I felt less politically restricted than I had been for so many years.

Now I find myself longing to find a way to bring my religious and political views into the public discourse.  I thought it would be pretty easy for me to sit at my desk in the comfort of my own home and to write about the refugee situation in Europe from both a political and religious perspective.  I was wrong.

For several days, I have written and deleted several blogs about how people of various religions could, maybe even should, advocate on behalf of refugees fleeing for their lives across Eastern Europe.  Every time I would read what I had written, I knew it wasn’t the right tone, and I wasn’t really able to say things how I wanted them to be heard.

I have been able to speak privately, but I hit a huge writing block every time I sat down to write a post for everydayblessingsplus.wordpress.com

I also found it annoying that wordpress kept reminding me of how many days it had been since my last post.  It started to get annoying…let’s see…about as irritating as listening to your GPS trying to recalculate the route you were supposed to be on to get to your destination.

In the future, I will try not to overpromise how often I will post to my blog, no matter how many times wordpress presses me on this issue.  I want to write from my heart, and when I am ready, and when I think I have something truly worthy to say.

Having said all that, I’m going to hit Publish and hope that this post clears the blockage that I’ve been feeling the last few days.

And perhaps enjoying one more Birthday treat will get me back on track!  Won’t you join me at the table?

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Crossing Earthly Borders and Boundaries

imageI remember seeing my first full glance at Planet Earth back in the 1960’s.  It looked like a Big Blue Marble when seen from outer space.  From that vantage point, no one could see any boundaries or borders…or people migrating from one part of the planet to the other as they have throughout centuries upon centuries.

As a student of European and Church History, I find it fascinating to study how borders and boundaries have come into being and constantly keep changing.  At first, most of the world was populated by nomadic tribes, who appear to have roamed freely from one place to another until they encountered other tribes.  Then they had to decide whether to form an alliance with their new neighbors, or to fight them until one side surrendered or decided to just move on to another place.  Over time, tribes joined together to form kingdoms or empires, commonwealths or countries.

The first European Super Power was the Greeks.  Their empire was so extensive that it is hard to believe how it could have held together for so long.  Their fall gave the Romans a chance to expand, and they governed their conquered territories with the strategy of Pax Romana.  They would allow the people under their rule certain freedoms and privileges as long as they were willing to pay tribute to the Emperor.

After the fall of the Roman Empire came next Super Power, the Turks.  They moved into Eastern Europe, and got as far as the borders of what eventually became the Austrian Empire.  The Turks also moved across Africa and entered into Spain, and there is still a Turkish influence in parts of that Western European Country.

During our recent trip to Eastern Europe, our guides still talked about the influence of the Greeks and Romans and Turks, and how they shaped and formed the countries that we visited.  Throughout the rise and fall of these empires, borders changed many times over.  And during the 20th century, as the result of two World Wars, borders were drawn and redrawn depending on the alliances made before, during and after those wars.  Even up until the 1990’s, borders were changing, especially with the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yogoslavia.

Now most border disputes in Europe are being resolved through the European Union and the United Nations.  Those are the major powers now in the region, and they will have to deal with the current refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands of refugees, even into the millions, are on the move throughout Eastern Europe.

Every day on television we see borders that are open one day and closed the next, as countries try to deal with the flood of refugees passing through their lands.  How these countries, the European Union, and the United Nations deal with the crisis will depend a lot on border control and documentation of the refugees.  I search the daily news looking for maps that explain just what borders are still open and which are closed.

I pray for those crossing earthly boundaries and borders as they try to escape the horrors of war and destruction that they are leaving behind.  I pray for the leaders of the European countries as they struggle to deal with one of the greatest humanitarian crisis that they have had to face.  I pray for the leaders of the world that we can look past borders and boundaries to see the plight of those who are forced to flee their homelands.  There seems to be no easy solution to this situation, yet my hope is that we will find a humane and compassionate way of dealing with all who are affected by this crisis.  Perhaps the major world religions can play a part by bringing relief to those in need.

Tomorrow’s Blog:  How can People of Faith, Christians, Muslims and Jews, come together to bring hope to this refugee crisis

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The Unfolding Refugee Crisis

imageAfter spending two weeks in Eastern Europe, I now sit here in the comfort of my Florida home, and try to make sense of the unfolding refugee crisis in the countries we have just visited.  In order to recapture moments of insight I received during our travels, I have rearranged my desk and assembled a kind of altar to jog my memory with things I purchased or picked up along the way.

First and foremost is the Bulgarian icon I purchased in Veliko Tarnova, Bulgaria.  This unusual icon of Mary just drew me in.  Usually she is pictured with the infant Jesus in her arms, but in this one she is pondering her son on the cross with the Heavenly Father hovering over him in the clouds.  On the opposite side of the icon is a fiery cloud signifying the presence of the Holy Spirit, Sophia Wisdom.  Even though Mary is surrounded by the Holy Trinity, she dominates the scene.  “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

I am told by our guide that religion is a thing of the past in Bulgaria.  Communism practically wiped it out of people’s minds and hearts.  He said that most people in his country look at religion as part of their history but not their present or future.  As I child attending Catholic School in Chicago, I remember praying for the conversion of Russia and the fall of Communism.  His statement brought home to me just how devastating it must be to live under a regime that does not allow freedom of religion.

At the center of my “collage” is a map of Eastern Europe that I found in a little souvenir shop next to our dock in Vukovar, Croatia…a town still struggling to rebuilt after a brutal civil war.  The map was just what I needed to help me sort out the countries that were visiting on our river cruise down the Danube.  As this mighty river meandered towards the Black Sea, it often formed the border between countries along the way.  Now that I could see it on this simple map, I started to get my bearings.

While in Croatia, we visited with a local family in Osijek who invited us into their home and served us refreshments.  We spend about an hour and a half asking them questions about their life and work and the history of their country.  The mother, a lab technician, had just come back from working a few days in Germany where she could earn a better income for her family.  The father was retired military, and shared a few stories about his service under the auspices of the United Nations.  For twenty years his job was to detonate land mines left over from the recent wars throughout their part of the world.  Their teenage son often acted as an interpreter, and had ambitions to go to school and probably find work in a more prosperous Western European country after college.  We learned that is the dream of most young educated people in Eastern Europe as they don’t see a bright future in their home countries.

While we were at the airport on our way home from Bucharest, Romania, I picked up a copy of the European version of TIME Magazine as I was hungry for information about the refugee crisis.  That, along with newspaper and television accounts, didn’t paint a very promising picture.

As I mentioned, I picked up a few little things along the way including some gifts from Mother Nature.  Among them are rocks I gathered along a path by the Fortress in Belogradchik, Bulgaria.  The most special rock, however, was one I received in the Executive Lounge in the Palace Hilton in Budapest, Hungary.  It was there that we spent several hours in conversation with a woman from London, and as we were saying goodbye she handed me a small, heart shaped pilgrim rock from Apparition Hill in nearby Medjugorje.  It was a blessing to me then and now as I realize how little acts of kindness can bring people together from all over the world.

Another little “nature collection” was inspired by my wanting to travel “light as a feather.”  So throughout the countries we visited, I picked up little feathers along the way.  A dear friend had suggested that they would all have stories to tell, and she was right.  But the overall story was that at the end of the day the birds who dropped their feathers in my path knew no borders or boundaries.  They flew above checkpoints and boarder guards, over various land terrains and rushing waterways.  As they migrate, they need no transportation other than their own wings to fly high above the troubles they found on earth.  No passports to carry or currency to exchange…now that is traveling light.

Tomorrow’s Blog:  Crossing Earthly Boundaries

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Making Our Way to Budapest and Beyond

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We hit the “restart button” and made our way to Dulles Airport where we caught a flight to Brussels and then another flight that took us to Budapest, Hungary. This time things went smooth, flights were on time, and we arrived safely at our beautiful hotel, the Palace Hilton, in “Old Buda.”

At the same time, refugees were making their way, mostly by foot, from Serbia into Hungary where they hoped to catch a train from Budapest to Austria or Germany.  Most had just the clothes on their backs, some currency, and perhaps a cell phone to help navigate their situation.

After we got to our hotel, we learned that we had missed the city tour, and that our best option to see Budapest was to hire a car and driver for an informal tour.  Soon we were on our way, crossing from Old Buda into Pest on the other side of the Danube River.  One of the first sites we saw was the main international train station, with a crowd of refugees standing outside, shouting demands to open the train station.  From what we saw, the demonstrations were peaceful.  There were also media trucks and television crews covering the situation along with what appeared to be a limited number of non-confrontational police or military personnel who were there to keep order.

The protesters had been stunned to learn that the Hungarian Government had closed the main international train station that day.  It meant that there would be no trains entering or leaving the city or country until further notice.  Most assumed that the closing was going to be temporary, for maybe only a day or two, on the eve of a scheduled European Union Meeting to discuss the refugee situation.  Reporters said that Hungary wanted to make a statement about the necessity of having border controls.  Hundreds of thousands had been entering the European Union through Eastern Europe, and many came without any documentation.  The EU countries had a long standing policy of welcoming refugees, but the current situation was stretching their resources to the breaking point.  Government officials were starting to think that the EU was incapable of absorbing the anticipated millions of people who were looking to Europe as their only hope of escaping the terror of war back home.

As soon as we connected with the internet, we started receiving messages from family and friends asking us if we were ok…and were we in the middle of the protests…and what did we think about it all.  Fortunately, our Viking representatives and local guides were very open about the situation.  They welcomed our questions and gave us honest answers.  The next day, as we were leaving Budapest, we learned that refugees who had been trapped at the train station had decided to start walking to the border…and that Hungary was going to provide some buses to help them get there safely.

It was difficult, at first, to grasp what was going on.  While we were planning to make our way down the Danube River to visit several Eastern European countries, thousands of refugees were moving the other way trying to reach Central and Western Europe.

For the next week and a half, we continued to cross paths with the refugees as we moved from Hungary to Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania.  Each country had strong feelings based on their history, culture, and ties to both Europe to the West and Russia to the East.  We were suddenly caught up in the center of a crisis that we didn’t understand nor did we get the sense that the European Countries were going to work together to solve this problem.

Tomorrow’s blog: The Refugee Crisis: A Test of Whether New European Unity Will Prevail or if Europe Will Break Apart Into Old Historical Alliances

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Experiencing Travel Delays

There were storms inimage the area as we waited to board our first of three flights that would take us to our travel destination… Budapest, Hungary.

We watched as the sky turned from light blue to dark gray and then to charcoal black as row after row of passengers hurriedly entered the plane in the hope of beating it out of Tampa before the storm hit.  Then the skies lit up with streaks of lightening and we heard the crash of thunder just as the pilot announced that we were no longer cleared to pull away from the gate.  We sat helpless as our plane was battered with gusts of wind and pelted with rain.  People began checking their cell phones to catch the local weather report and check the radar…it didn’t look good.  Everyone began looking at their watches and calculating how much time they could afford to delay before there were serious consequences, like missing their overseas connecting flights in Washington, DC.

Half way around the world, there were refugees on the move.  They had made their way from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries to Turkey where they were waiting for smugglers to give them the go ahead to inflate their rubber rafts that would hopefully carry them across the Aegean Sea to Greece.  They too carried cell phones in plastic bags in order to keep them dry during the crossing.  Their greatest hope was to be picked by rescue boats and taken to dry land where they would begin their trek across Europe to a new way of life.  Their greatest fear at this stage of their journey was death by drowning.  For them, it was worth the risk.  These modern day refugees would continue to rely on their cell phones to keep in contact with those who would help them navigate their way to the freedom and a new life.

Our plane was finally cleared to take off after an hour and a half weather delay.  There was still a slight chance that we would make our connecting flight to Europe…that is if we could make up some lost time or if our flight from DC to Frankfort would delay their departure for about a half hour or so.  During the flight it became obvious that neither of those options was going to work out and that we would be stranded overnight in DC.

On the other side of the world, rubber rafts filled with refugees were being buffeted by rough seas.  People were dying while making this dangerous journey.  The news carried a picture of a lifeless little boy lying on the beach in Turkey, as the grieving father found his body.  He was trying to give his son a better life, but his decision ended in a devastating tragedy.

After standing in line at the overcrowded customer service desk in DC, we finally got hotel vouchers for the Dulles Hilton and plane tickets for a flight to Brussels with a connecting flight to Budapest the following afternoon.  It was 1:00 am by the time we reached our hotel room.  We were tired, hungry and thirsty…and very disappointed that we weren’t on our way to Eastern Europe.  As we curled up in our clean, comfortable bed surrounded by all the amenities one could hope for, we felt weary.  It was hard for us to appreciate our situation.  We were safe and well, and would get a good night’s sleep and try again to reach Eastern Europe the next day.

When we turned on the TV the next morning, the major news story was the mass migration of refugees trying to make their way from the Middle East to Germany or Austria or one of the Scandinavian Countries.  Their journey would take them across Eastern Europe, and that is where our paths would cross.

Tomorrow’s blog: Making Our Way To Budapest.

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Reaching Eastern Europe

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After months of planning, the time had come to travel to Eastern Europe. Our suitcases were filled with all the essentials: two week’s worth of freshly washed clothes, travel guides and maps, plus a journal to record our newest travel adventure. For added comfort, we would hand carry a new travel pillow that would support my aching head and neck which was still recovering from a car crash in July. I was still stunned that I had been cleared by my doctor to travel halfway across the world, and I was determined make the best out of this opportunity.

Our Goal: to look behind the “Old Iron Curtain” and get a glimpse of the history and culture of peoples in countries such as Hungary and Romania, the lands my husband’s grandparents left behind in order to begin a new life in America.

When we booked our trip, we had no idea that massive numbers of refugees and immigrants would also be making their way to and through Eastern Europe this year, with the hope of leaving behind their old lives in Syria and other parts of the Middle East in order to make new and better lives in Europe.

Today I begin a series of blogs that will reflect on the current situation in Eastern Europe through “two different but connected lenses”…my recent experience of our travels to that part of the world and also the plight of refugees and immigrants also passing through those countries at the same time.

Please join me on this journey of discovery. Also, I invite you to ask others to travel along with us as we explore how our stories connect with the stories of others around the world, and how we can learn from one another.

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