Friday, May 20, 2011

Heroes of Love: A Talk Given at Interfath Communities United for Justice and Peace

This morning I would like to talk about the heroines in my life—four women who have inspired me with their courage and faithfulness. I am titling my talk “Heroes of Love.”
First, I’d like to begin with some quotations about heroism that are relevant to what I want to share with you this morning. Joseph Campbell defined the hero as “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”
      By this definition, everyone in this room is a hero since all of you are giving your lives to something bigger than yourselves--the cause of peace and justice. 
Campbell went on to say:
“When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”

Christopher Reeve had this transformation of consciousness when tragedy struck his life. His definition of heroism came out of his own painful experience:
“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

Finally, I’d like to share the definition of heroism given by Eleanor Roosevelt, a woman who showed extraordinary courage and grace in the cut-throat and often nasty world of American politics. She said:
“We do not have to become heroes over night. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”

My Mother when she married
As I began to think deeply about heroes in my life, I was surprised to realize that my mother fit these definitions of a hero. I’d never thought of my mother as a hero. After all, she did what good wives and good mothers are supposed to do—she loved her children and her husband, and gave of herself selflessly. That’s a mother’s job, for which few receive the credit they deserve. So I’d like to begin by lifting up my own mother whose birth name was Anne Milne (as in the author of "Winnie the Pooh").
First, the very fact that she married my father was an act of bravery. Not that my father was a dangerous man; he was, in fact, very kind and gentle. My parents met in a very scary time, however, in the midst of World War II, when my father was serving in the US infantry. He was stationed in England, where he met my mother—a young woman in her early 20s. They were an odd couple. My mother was Scottish, my father Greek, and he was 20 years her senior. But they fell in love practically at first sight and decided to marry after the war ended. I realize now how much courage it took for my mother to leave England and go to the United States to marry a strange, Greek-speaking man she’d known less than a year and had seen only a few times. But her love was real and deep and that love gave her the courage to go to a new land and start a new life.
      My mother and father had a very happy marriage, and I was born soon after their wedding. My sister was born 12 years later. Then misfortune struck our family. My father had to quit his job for health reason and became permanently disabled. For the next 12 years, my mother took care of my father and my sister and me. We didn’t have much money—my father had worked as a janitor at Princeton University—so my mother became a seamstress to earn extra income to supplement the meager funds provided by Social Security. Her hard work and diligence helped me to get through college and begin my life as teacher and writer.
Looking back on my mother’s life, I realize she is one of those heroes that Christopher Reeve talked about—“an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”
Her strength came from her loving heart, and her faith in God. She wasn’t a church-going person—in fact, she had a deep mistrust of organized religion—but she had a simple faith that could be summed up in six words: “Believe in God and help people.”
Gene and me in 2003
The next hero in my life was Gene Hoffman, who became my spiritual mother. I first heard of Gene when I was doing a Soviet-American reconciliation project for the Quakers in Philadelphia. Gene was doing similar work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Santa Barbara. We finally met until I came to California to be married, but I admired Gene from afar for her creative efforts to dispel stereotypes about the Russians and to show that they are people just like us, who want peace. When I actually met Gene in Santa Barbara, I was enchanted by her warm and enthusiastic personality. She loved people—that was the basis of all her peacemaking efforts. And she was a tireless bridge-builder, and as you know, a compassionate listener.
Throughout her life Gene showed unwavering chutzpah in following her convictions. Her wealthy parents were staunch conservatives, supporters of Richard Nixon, but Gene became a Quaker and an unapologetic liberal. Her parents were ashamed of a Jewish relative in their Danish family tree. Gene was proud of the fact that she had the “blood of the prophets” in her veins. In the 1950s, when neighborhoods in Pasadena were almost as segregated as those in the South, Gene sent her kids to an integrated school and had black and white children play in her home—something that shocked her neighbors. Gene ended up writing a column for a black newspaper called the Amsterdam News. During the 1960s Gene went to Watts for interracial dialogues which took courage since sometimes these dialogues became very heated. Gene demonstrated for peace during the Vietnam War and opened up her home to peace activists. Much as she worked for peace, her home life was not peaceful. When her husband left her, and her teenage children became involved with drugs, she had a nervous breakthrough.
      What Gene did next was perhaps the bravest thing anyone can do. She looked at her own psychological problems and issues, her own demons; and she worked hard, extremely hard, to accept herself, warts and all, and to become whole. Because she accepted the shadow side of herself, she could do the same for others. She went back to school and became a pastoral counselor and started counseling programs in Santa Barbara. She became what Henri Nouwen called a “wounded healer.”
      When Gene turned sixty, she decided to devote the rest of her life to peacemaking. She traveled around the world to study what peacemakers in other countries were doing. And then she came home and began to apply what she had learned. She developed a  program she called “Compassionate Listening.” She used these techniques gleaned from pastoral counseling and Quakerism to bring together Israelis and Palestinians, and to help them to hear each other at a deep level. This work is now being carried on by Leah Green who has taken interfaith groups to Israel/Palestine and trained Israelis and Palestinians in listening skills.
Listening deeply takes courage. We have to acknowledge the fears, the negative feelings, and the pain in ourselves and in others in order to hear the Other’s story and to honor that story as a gift. I consider Gene a hero for facing her own inner pain and for helping others to appreciate the partial, but nonetheless sacred truth each of us carries deep within.
There are two other courageous woman whom I want to honor this morning.

My sister Elizabeth, Kathleen and my Mother
The first is my wife Kathleen of blessed memory who passed away two years ago, almost to the day, on May 23. Many of you know her, so I don’t have to sing her praises. This booklet I compiled for her memorial service is filled with moving testimonies from those who knew and loved her—people of diverse religious faiths, and diverse backgrounds—the Bishop of her church, the executive director of the Islamic Shura Concil, a young man whose life was changed because of his involvement in one of her many youth programs, a homeless couple who loved upon her not only as their pastor, but as their friend and mother. Kathleen reached out to everyone in love and was loved in return. What you probably don’t know about Kathleen is that she was a painfully shy teenager—so shy that she said she recognized adults by their shoes since she was too shy to look at their faces. In college and grad school she overcame her timidity, thanks to God’s grace and her growing confidence in herself, and she became a gifted preacher as well as a compassionate pastor.

I admire Kathleen because she was never afraid to stand up for what she believed. For a while, she was a war tax resister. She went to the Nevada test site to protest. And during the run-up to the Iraq war, she was practically the only pastor in Torrance to take part in anti-war protests.
Perhaps the bravest thing she ever did was to marry me, a rather eccentric Quaker who was divorced and not exactly prime marriage material. But she took a leap of faith and married me in spite of my failings. She saw in me (as well as in others) the divine potential. And somehow her faithful and courageous love helped turn me into the kind of person she knew I had the potential to become. For this, I am eternally grateful to her.
Today, I’d like to pin the badge of courage on another amazing woman—Jill Shook, my wife-to-be.

Jill demonstrating
I know many of you are thinking. Wow! How did this happen so quickly? I admit this has  been a whirlwind courtship. Jill and I met at the Palm Sunday Peace Parade on April 16th  and I proposed to her 25 days later, at the Getty Villa on my birthday, May 9th. When she accepted my proposal, my heart leaped for joy. It was the best birthday gift I have ever received.

Jill is a woman of many gifts, and achievements. A visionary, organizer and catalyst, she started a nationwide program for Food for the Hungry, taking teams from Berkeley to Harvard into developing nations to do work projects and living in Mexico for two of her four years with FHI. She created STARS (Students and Tutors Achieving Real Success), an after-school program out of Lake Avenue Church that has helped hundreds of low income students to succeed in life as well has help this 4,000-member church to have meaningful relationships across racial and economic disparities. She authored and edited Making Housing Happen: Faith Based Affordable Housing Models, a book that features unique ways that a breadth of denominations across the US have created affordable housing. She also helped build several networks, one to address the gang violence by networking churches, the courts, schools and Pasadena City College to bring the Parent Project to hurting parents looking for answers to their sons and daughters entering gangs and a West-San-Gabriel-Valley-wide network called Family Promise: This network of 14 churches rotate hosting 3-5 homeless families in their facility for one week, with a day center where a full time social worker helps them find jobs and housing. It is scheduled to start in June.
          I admire Jill for taking seriously and literally Jesus’ injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” I also admire her for having courage to move out her “hood” and explore other lands and cultures, sometimes all alone. She has traveled all over the world on missions of one kind or another. She’s been to China, South America, Europe, and Africa. Everywhere Jill has gone, she has made life-long friends and spread the gospel of Love.
       Like my mother, like Gene Hoffman, and like Kathleen, Jill has what Martin Luther King called the “strength to love.” This is a great gift, and a blessing.
      I feel blessed that Jill has opened up her big, loving heart to me, and agreed to be my wife. Proposing marriage can be a pretty scary thing, especially when you’ve known someone less than a month, but as Jesus said, “Perfect love drives out fear.” I wasn’t afraid to propose marriage to Jill because I know her life is dedicated to the kind of Love that never quits and never dies.
The good women in my life are my heroes because they have taught me the meaning of  perfect love—love that is mature and committed and willing to make sacrifices joyfully. Perfect love is what I feel for Jill, and perfect love is what she has shown me. Jill is my latest hero, a hero of Love.

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