Living in this World

Sunday, December 09, 2012

#115 Assimilation

Dear all,
I am in the midst of preparing for three weeks in Kenya and Northern Uganda with Chuck, sharing our listening and counseling skills as deeply and widely as we know how.  It feels strange to be giving up all our beloved and traditional holiday activities, but I am confident that we will be both stretched and blessed.
I wish you a bounty of stretches and blessings as well.


We arrived at the Sikh temple (or gurdwara, as it is called) just as the vigil was scheduled to begin.  “It will be in the parking lot, closer to Main Street” said the instructions.  There were a scattering of Sikh families coming out of the gurdwara, but we saw nobody we knew, no obvious gathering.  We had come in response to the violence against Sikhs in Wisconsin, more specifically in response to a request from the mayor of this tiny borough, squeezed between the edge of Philadelphia and the next town.  He felt the weight of the need for religious tolerance on his shoulders and hoped that the Quakers might help.

So here the two of us were, in a strange place, wondering what to do next.  We followed the drift of people, looking for the local Quaker who had invited us, feeling pretty out of place.  Everyone was offered a candle and cup, and we joined the line that was starting to form along the sidewalk. A scattering of non-Sikhs began to arrive, and then our friend with her family.

The vigil started with a long untranslated prayer, then a series of messages in English about religious toleration and peace—from the mayor, the state Representative, an interfaith peace group, our friend.  At the conclusion we were all invite back to the gurdwara for a meal. One older woman thanked us for being there as we moved back across the parking lot—our first interaction with a member of the congregation.  Since I had spent the afternoon at a block party, eating was not high on my agenda, but perhaps this would be a good opportunity for fellowship.

Inside the gurdwara there was first a room lined with cubbyholes where everybody took off their shoes, then a hallway with sink for handwashing, and a shelf full of bright yellow and orange scarves for anybody—male or female—who had neglected to bring a headcovering.  (I had thought to dress modestly on that hot summer day, but had no scarf.)  The dining room was large, with an industrial kitchen off in one corner, and rows of narrow brightly colored rugs on the rest of the floor.  Most of the congregation was already seated, but we found a spot and sat down.  Men and boys moved around with baskets of flat bread and big stainless steel buckets of food, ladling rice, cabbage, potatoes and yoghurt onto each person’s Styrofoam plate.

We visited with the woman next to us; her Sikh boyfriend enabled her to bridge both worlds.  Families ate and drifted away.  The men cleaned up.  Our new friend asked someone to show us the room where the services were held.  Then we returned the scarves, reclaimed our shoes, found the car, and drove the ten minutes that took us from deep in far-away India back home.

The story of that evening could be told in many ways.  Most obviously, it could be a travel adventure, a trip to an unexpected foreign country right in one’s own backyard.  It could also join the collection of heartwarming stories of ordinary people in small towns across the country standing up against intolerance and violence.  Or it could be a more personal story of a young mayor of a tiny now-majority-Asian borough, stepping up and reaching out to keep his new constituents out of harm’s way.  But the story that stays with me is the one about assimilation and the American melting pot.

There were signs of assimilation.  While some of the men had turbans, beards and traditional attire, others wore slacks or even jeans, and some did not even have turbans, but covered their heads with an orange cloth.  Most of the women wore traditional dress, yet some of the younger ones were in tight pants and t-shirts.  A mother and daughter pair, arm in arm, so differently dressed, clearly had a story to tell that we outsiders could only guess at.

Yet this community has not melted in.  It felt like we stepped into their world through some kind of portal and then stepped out, leaving it as whole, self-contained and separate as before.  The included us on their terms—quite generously—but showed no interest in our lives—accepted our solidarity, perhaps with gratitude, fed us and let us go.

I wouldn’t have missed that evening for the world, but I came home feeling somehow unsettled.  I finally understood that it was the separation that troubled me, the feeling that our visit had left no trace.  Greater homogeneity is not my goal.  I would wish that all of us could hold on to the richness of our cultural traditions, and have a place where we feel understood and deeply at home.  The idea of a dominant culture penetrating a more vulnerable one with its norms and values seems a lot like rape.  Yet I think we do need access to each other, if only to learn from that richness, and access was eluding me here.

It took days to see the possibility of access.  I drafted a note that our group sent to the gurdwara, affirming our support for religious freedom, thanking them for their hospitality, and looking forward to future contact.  This felt like just a thread cast across the miles and the vast cultural chasm.  But throwing threads is part of the work of weaving the web that must ultimately connect us all.

Baby power

End of the working day
headed home in the growing dark
to disappointment and struggle.

A bright-eyed baby on the trolley
catches my eye
and hold me in his clear-eyed gaze.

As we look into each others eyes
slowly, slowly, I can feel corners of my mouth
being drawn up— I have no choice
and we smile.

DARE TO THINK--A New Economy is Possible! 

Lessons from Iceland’s 2008 economic collapse.

Where everyone else bailed out the bankers and made the public pay the price, Iceland let the banks go bust and actually expanded its social safety net. Where everyone else was fixated on trying to placate international investors, Iceland imposed temporary controls on the movement of capital to give itself room to maneuver. (Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman)

According to high ranking officials at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Iceland holds some key lessons for nations trying to survive bailouts; their approach—ensuring that the restructuring of the banks would not require Icelandic taxpayers to shoulder excessive private sector losses—led to a “surprisingly” strong recovery. Iceland’s commitment to push losses on to bondholders instead of taxpayers and the safeguarding of a welfare system that shielded the unemployed from penury helped propel the nation from collapse toward recovery.

Evangelical Pat Robertson is one of many would like to see us follow Iceland’s response to bank fraud: They are putting people in jail.  Prime ministers are being indicted. They are going after banks. Suddenly, Iceland is turning around and they look like a big success story! … We could start putting all of those [US] bankers in jail.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently

King County, Washington, home to 1.9 million people, which passed an ordinance two years ago, to embed the principles of "fair and just" in all aspects of its work, that is transforming every department and agency in the county, from measuring economic outlook, to public transit decisions, to treatment of felony convictions.
Unity College in Maine, becoming the first university to pledge to divest its financial holdings from fossil-fuel companies (see Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” campaign).

Residents in over 150 cities and towns who had the opportunity to vote in November's election on measures calling for an end to the doctrines of corporate constitutional rights and money as free speech, passing every measure offered, often by an overwhelming margin (see

The law recently passed in Peru, banning all genetically modified ingredients, despite concerted lobbying efforts by numerous multinational agribusiness corporations.

New:  posts on other people's blogs:

More resources:

Muscle Building for Peace and Justice; a Non-Violent Workout Routine for the 21st Century--an integration of much of my experience and thinking over the years:, a website that I've contributed to often (check the archives), a home for all the parenting
writing I've done over the past 20 years. START: a way to study and work together with
others to create a better world.

My favorite magazine:  YES! Magazine reframes the biggest problems of our time in terms of their solutions. Online and in print, they outline a path forward with in-depth analysis, tools for citizen engagement, and stories about real people working for a better world: