Tag Archives: Brian Peterson

“Entertaining Angels” . . . from Syria

Thanks to colleague Brian Peterson for another guest blog post. Read his previous post, A Flame of Hopelinked here. (This post was originally published August 2016.)

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13: 1-2

 

What does an angel look like? For some, an angel is a super human-like creature who looks out for you; a gauzy, ethereal presence that makes you feel good. For others, an angel is a cute, adoring cherub in a fifteenth-century painting. A case could be made for each, but I’m skeptical of both.

The Bible speaks of angels, but without much detail. In Greek the word “angel” is rendered άγγελος and refers less to physical appearance and attributes as to function. They are by definition bearers of some sort of message. The word is related to another familiar biblical word, evangelism, Ευαγγέλιο, which translated literally means “good news,” encompassing a lot more than some sort of prefabricated Christian sales pitch. The mere presence of angels holds the possibility of seeing and hearing something completely new and unexpected, something good and even holy. If that’s what angels are all about then I must confess that I’ve encountered more than a few in my lifetime. Truth be told: angels are all around hidden only by our lack of imagination.

I want to tell you about five angels who recently showed up in my life. Late one night this past April, Adna, her husband Ahmed (not their real names), and their three young boys aged 13, 10 and 5 arrived on a flight from Iman, Jordan via Paris and Houston. Jordan had been their home for the past four years where they had fled the increasing violence of their hometown of Damascus, Syria. And as these five Syrian angels descended the airport escalator in Austin to the baggage claim, something profound began to occur.

We’d been preparing for them, of course; we being the gifted folks of AustinLutheranWelcome, the welcome team comprised of my congregation, three other local Lutheran congregations, a couple of progressive Baptists and a friend of forty years, all of them angels in their own right. Our journey had begun a couple of months earlier when we signed up with Refugee Services of Texas to assist in resettling a refugee family in the Austin area. Trained and vetted, but anxious like first-time parents, we waited for our family to arrive.

The folks at Refugee Services of Texas assured us that we’d have three weeks to get things together: locate furniture and household items to set up an apartment, arrange for airport pickup, prepare a first meal and help them get to various appointments those first few weeks of their arrival. So, imagine our surprise when we learned that it wouldn’t be three weeks of prep time, but one! With no time to waste, our team of angels got to work. A few other angels got in the act—my nephew and his best friend brought a pickup truck and picked up and delivered a leather couch and a bed.

Monday afternoon of our Syrian family’s evening arrival came and not surprisingly, we were frantically still getting things together. I found myself in IKEA-hell, knee-deep in slats, grommets, and hardware, hopelessly attempting to assemble a queen-sized bed for the mom and dad. As my frustration began to boil over, Jeff, one of our intrepid welcome team members called to check in. Before I could get too far venting about my predicament, he interrupted to say he had a friend who assembles IKEA furniture for a living. Yes! Jeff made a phone call and before I knew it, an angel named David was there ready to pitch in. Then there was just enough time for me to rush home for a shower. I stood in the living room and took time to say a prayer of thanks for the company of angels who had pitched in and that the five angels who would soon arrive would find joy and happiness in a new life in their new home. I then rushed to the airport.

Which brings me back to where I started, standing at the bottom of the escalator watching Ahmed, Adna, and their precious cargo make their way to greet us for the first time. We were told to watch for their white United Nations tote bags. Sure enough, they were the last ones to come down the escalator. Their long journey had left them exhausted, so we ferried them and their small bags home where a traditional hot meal, a pantry full of food and soft, clean beds awaited them.

In days to come team members got them to the Social Security office, doctor visits, job interviews, grocery stores and even provided a bus riding tutorial. More importantly though, we got to know them, a beautiful family, eager to begin a new life in the United States and who continue to be grateful beyond measure for a new life full of opportunity.

Impromptu English lessons were a blast and left all of us laughing until our sides ached. Over time, we learned their story, leaving everything behind as their Damascus neighborhood became increasingly dangerous, making a difficult journey to Iman, Jordan where they lived for four years applying for refugee status, vetted by both the UN and US State Department, until finally they boarded a plane headed for Austin, Texas.

All these angels have reminded me once again about how in the giving and receiving of hospitality we are all transformed. Early on we found out that a visit with Ahmed, Adna, and the boys involved the ritual of drinking tea, savoring sweet fruit and delicious homemade pastries, and sharing in conversation. Impromptu English lessons were a delight as we learned to understand each other more and more with each passing week.

In early June we all headed to the first annual Austin Refugee Festival where the boys experienced the wonder of the Velcro Wall and a jump castle for the first times in their lives. A couple of us showed the boys how to toss a football and a baseball. Even Adna got in on the act, tying her abaya in a knot at her feet so she could jump rope. Joy and laughter abounded even if we couldn’t completely understand each other. We’ve shared many other great experiences with our family of angels, most recently helping the boys get off to their first day of school. A picture of one of the boys boarding the school bus, backpack in place and thumbs up almost brought tears to my eyes.

I’ve thought often these past few months about these beautiful angels who have profoundly impacted our lives. They are Syrian—they are Muslim—they are refugees. Before all that, however, they are human beings looking to make their way in the world. I want to try to protect them from the kind of hateful rhetoric that demeans and diminishes them and the thousands of others like them who have endured so much. Certainly, they will face difficult challenges, but our lives shared together—Christian and Muslim, neighbors in the same human family—serve as a witness, a testimony, and as good news in angry and fear-filled times.

Maybe in our own small way, all of these angels point us to a path paved not with suspicion and resentment, but with the hope, joy, and love that God wants for us all.

 

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Brian Peterson (pictured) is pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Austin, Texas. Along with pastoring, he plays and teaches clarinet. He is the proud parent of two adult sons, Max and Luke. Brian regularly travels to Honduras and Nicaragua to brush up on his Spanish and make connections within the wider human family. Contact him at brianpeterson1965@gmail.com.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

 

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A Flame of Hope

Thanks to colleague Brian Peterson for this guest blog post. Email: brianpeterson1965@gmail.com

I’ve seen the flame of hope among the hopeless. And that was truly the greatest heartbreak of all.” – Bruce Cockburn, “The Last Night of the World,” Breakfast in New Orleans Dinner in Timbuktu, High Romance Records (1999).

Canadian musician and poet Bruce Cockburn reminds us that even in a world of apparent moral ambiguity, there are those moments in which one is confronted with unquestionable injustice that is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.

A brief encounter with poor people in the Zacate Grande region of southwest Honduras this past July was for me was just such a moment, one that opened a window to a world I never knew and that undoubtedly has changed me forever.

I happened to be there along with seven others as part of a delegation sponsored by the Alliance for Global Justice. We had been travelling for several days already studying the impact of neoliberal inspired mega-projects throughout the region. I’ll leave it to others far more versed in the verities of geopolitics and economics to parse out just exactly what that means, but suffice to say that I caught a glimpse of how just as the day follows the night, corruption, impunity, and failure of democratic institutions to do what they are supposed to do leaves some of the most vulnerable people in our hemisphere with nothing—nothing but hope.

As our intrepid driver Rey pulled our van off the main road into the parking lot of what appeared to be a house or some kind of community center it was clear that something was happening. A large crowd of people had gathered: young women in brightly colored dresses undoubtedly pieced together in some nearby sweatshop but now having been returned as first world cast offs; serious looking young men; campesinos and fishermen whose sun-baked, hard worked skin conferred upon them the visage of old men; and, gracious elderly women who like their poor hermanas throughout Central America are ever the ones to soothe and comfort the suffering while silently bearing their own heartbreak. Last but not least were the barefoot, rag tag children impatient and fussy in the way that children everywhere become when the grownups have to talk about serious matters.

We were there to listen, to endeavor through the lenses and layers of hegemonic privilege to understand and perhaps walk in the shoes of these courageous human beings for whom the accident of birth had consigned them to lives of struggle and fear, determination and hope. They insisted we sit and so some less than enthusiastic young boy was assigned the task of rounding up chairs, white plastic ones as ubiquitous to Central American life as tortillas, rice and beans. In the very least, having walked for miles to get there, our hosts should have been the ones resting their feet – not us! But we were their guests and to do otherwise would have seemed a rejection of what they had to give that day, so we sat.

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Brian Peterson, front row, third from left. Zacate Grande region, Honduras.

Beneath the shadow of a great Guanacaste tree, we heard from the priest, a brave man of devotion, faith and courage, far more so than this pastor could ever imagine conjuring. They had all come that day from ten or so communities along the coast of the Gulf of Fonseca which for some had been quite an ordeal. Rich Honduran oligarchs, in league with US-backed political leaders, have effectively put their country up for sale on the US stock exchange. Like Babylon and Ancient Rome these proposed model cities bear the marks of toxic imperial domination. In these playgrounds for the superrich that are effectively free of burdensome environmental and labor laws the fruits are ripe for the picking—IMF and World Bank funded development projects include a deep water port, scenic beach properties, tourist destinations to rival any other in the world. About the only thing standing in their way though, are the men, women and children who stood before us that day.

We heard too from an attorney working with a local non-governmental organization who described in detail the legal difficulties these communities face, the threats and intimidation, and the probable end of their livelihoods and subsequent inability to provide for their families. The oligarchic control of executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government makes for an easy accommodation of rich benefactors by executive decree, and the changing and rewriting of laws and their brutal enforcement by with thugs armed with US made weapons and machinery.

Perhaps even more heartbreaking than the injustice being carried out against these hard working poor people was their hope; hope in us because we had simply shown up, because we were among the few outsiders who have taken the time to listen and try to imagine what life must be like for them. As we wrapped up our meeting a community elder expressed what I suspect was the hope shared with his compañeros there. “You will go home and get your government to change its policies that are allowing these things to happen here, won’t you?” And as much as I wished I could say, “Yes, absolutely,” I knew better. I knew and know all too well what they are up against—economic, political and military systems that choose not to serve the people, but the powerful few hell-bent on extracting every ounce of life from those who want no more than to live and work in peace, to provide for their children and families, to live lives of quality and meaning. I couldn’t help but lament at the seeming insignificance of my lone voice and what I could ever hope to accomplish on their behalf.

And yet, a broken heart does not inevitably lead to despair and hopelessness but can serve to transform and change. The lyrics of Cockburn’s song describing the “greatest heartbreak of all” go on to declare “and that was the straw that broke me open.” A heart broken-open is a heart that can be filled with something new, with something that for whatever reason couldn’t enter before. So in the time since that brief encounter under the Guanacaste tree what has come to fill the cracks in my own heart?

My broken heart is filled with compassion. The faces, the words, the hospitality shown to us that day are forever etched in my memory. The world is terribly unfair and unjust. By mere accident of birth I live on the other side of the fence enjoying a lifestyle that in many ways is borne on the backs of poor people like them and so many others around the world.

My broken heart is filled with frustration at the apparent disinterest and apathy of those here at home who ask “Oh, how was your trip?” but who have no interest in being open to any meaningful response other than “Oh, it was great!” I’m frustrated at the church I have served as a pastor for almost twenty-five years, a denomination that extols the virtues of “accompaniment,” that raises millions of dollars a year to support helpful and well-meaning development projects and ministries staffed by hard working dedicated people around the world, but a church that perhaps out of fear of upsetting an overwhelmingly monochromatic, upper-middle class, middle to right of the road constituency or of demonstrating “questionable theology” shies away from addressing the systemic issues at the root of poverty and injustice. And so my heart weighed down with frustration, I am left reluctantly agreeing with a synod staff person’s observation nearly ten years ago after an effort to raise justice and poverty issues to a level of highest priority. “Well, Brian, that’s all well and good but you know it’s not going to go anywhere.”

My broken heart is filled with rage at the powerful voices in our society that demonize and dismiss those whose options have been taken from them and have no choice but to become immigrants. I am outraged that poor and vulnerable people like the ones I met have become pawns in political games and are deemed “dirty, rapists,” and parasites in search of a free education, health care and a refrigerator; leeches who are out to take American jobs. My blood boils at the thought that my government supports a country whose leaders act with utter impunity, without any regard for basic human rights, for whom personal gain and profit are valued above all else. I am furious that the presumptive nominee for a major political party has been given a pass with regard to her collusion as Secretary of State encouraging and later justifying a 2009 coup that overthrew the democratically elected president, a properly elected leader who, much to her consternation and all those like her held captive by the chimera of so called free trade and rule of law, had begun to broach the taboo subject of political reform.

That being said, a broken heart is just that, a heart cracked and fissured, a heart that can be open to other possibilities. A heart filled with compassion, with frustration and even rage is nevertheless a heart that can also be filled with hope. Yes, in the hopeless hope of poor desperate campesinos and fishermen of Amapala I find hope in their courage and determination, in their willingness to strive for a better life for them and their children, and unwillingness to accept the world as it is. I find hope in the brave Roman Catholic priests and human rights workers I met there who literally put their lives on the line every day. Among the women, men and children of the small community of faith that I serve as pastor back here in the US I find my hope renewed, as they listen, understand and even encourage their sometimes hair-brained, crazy-talking pastor; we support one another in the covenant God has made with us in baptism “to serve all people following the example of Jesus and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” The flames of hope are stoked as I reflect on the work of others, a dear friend, a pastor like me who has gifted the church and the world with a book that challenges us to consider the common good; an activist friend on the ground in Honduras who though not a person of faith shares a sense of compassion for those on the margins, of rage at the present order of thing, of hope in a world where people can live lives of quality and peace; another friend who brings hope and healing to poor disabled children in Nicaragua through a newly founded nonprofit. What I find even more hopeful is that my list is rapidly growing.

Finally, hope abounds in in the conversations and connections with others who are willing to at least listen, to question their assumptions as well as mine, to be open to new perspectives and maybe even a new world. The kind of world a young, frightened girl sang about centuries ago, in which the proud are scattered in the imaginations of their hearts and the rich sent away empty, while the lowly and hungry ones are lifted up and filled with good things; the same hope proclaimed by an often misunderstood John of Patmos—a day when the tears of all those who suffer will be wiped dry, when their mourning and crying and pain will be no more. The accident of birth has afforded me great privilege in life and so while God’s word clearly implicates me convicting me of my own hard-hearted complicity, at the same time it opens the way to transformation and change, to the power of God at work today, in this present moment that is making all things new, even a heart scarred and cracked to be filled with compassion and hope for a world in need and for the new Jerusalem that awaits us all.

Brian Peterson pastors Ascension Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Austin, Texas. He has been travelling to Nicaragua and Honduras on a yearly basis since 2008.

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