Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Good Neighbors Retreat, a weekend like no other

By Maria Jose Garcia
Vicariate Consultant, Ministry with Youth Office

My name is Maria Jose Garcia.  I am a Consultant for the Ministry with Youth Office in the Diocese of San Bernardino.  I am a 28-year-old Hispanic, Catholic, married woman and I would like to share with you an inspiring story.

I got to my office one special day and I noticed that I had received an invitation to participate at a retreat called: “Good Neighbors”, which was going to take place at a resort in La Quinta.  I got excited right from the start.  The invitation said that it was going to be a time to reflect and share on the current violence among young Hispanics and African-Americans, and to work towards healing and understanding between both cultures.

Coming from my work experience, where I have worked with teens and young adults who have faced the criminal justice system because of these issues and in the worst cases, attended Juvenile Hall… I immediately rushed to finish all of my pending projects and cleared my work schedule so that I could leave for a few days and head my way to La Quinta.    

On the first day, I was introduced to my roommate.  I was able to spend the entire retreat with a sweet, young, African-American woman.  We clicked immediately.  In fact, we were asked to participate in an activity before everybody’s time to set up in their rooms.  We took the activity very serious and together worked it out.  During this time, I got to know a little more about my roommate and noticed that we were very much alike.

During dinner, we were able to share more about each other.  I was thrilled to witness the diversity among us and what a good participation there was.  There were people from both gender groups, both ethnic groups – Hispanics and African-Americans, people from different faith backgrounds, and also different types of work expertise…However, we all had something in common, and that was that we all worked with youth in some way and that we were all people of faith seeking healing and peace among both cultures.

During the whole retreat experience, there were many interesting and educational talks.   There was a lot of time to share and learn from each other and also connect with each other.  I believe that this experience helped us open our eyes to a new reality, a new way of understanding and building relationships with our brothers and sisters.  Culturally speaking, there were countless things that we did not know about each other and yet we were able to share and learn.

It was also important that we all found a common ground to start: awareness and education.   It was said that we need to know were we are all coming from to know where we all are going.  Knowing about our history and how African-Americans and Hispanics have helped shape the current values and views of our nation to the point of shaping and influencing the American consciousnesses – freedom, respect and equality; we are all aware of the need for collaborative work between both cultures to better these values and principals.   

The Good Neighbors Retreat helped us realize our common and shared history but also challenged us to empower our nation to find perfection.  We can start out simple in our communities, work places, and social environment.  We all believe that through education, healing, faith sharing and most importantly making connections, this dream can be achieved.

I am grateful for this experience and for the people who made it possible, especially Dr. Daniel E. Walker, who has a passion for bringing peace and healing among both cultures.  He is a great example of true commitment, and serves as a model for all of us of what can be done.

If we really want to do something greater, we really need to fight for it now, and also remind ourselves that in order to achieve such a goal we need to start with ourselves, having a true and honest understanding that we are here to love and protect our brothers and sisters…. without judging. Needless to say, we need to be a Good Neighbor to one another.

Good Neighbors Retreat: A project of the BLU Educational Foundation and Reach Out West End, the endeavor is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s historic Racial Healing Initiative - Inland Empire Organizations Awarded Historic American Healing Grant from W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  Project Seeks Pastors to Work on Latino and African American Unity.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A background to modern Egypt

By Father Gregory Elder
Parochial Vicar, St. Martha Murrieta

I have often written about the wonderful land of Egypt. I have traveled there, met its people, and studied its history and culture for many years. Unfortunately, what most people know about Egypt is the world of antiquity, with its pyramids, golden caskets and the wonders of the pharaohs.  But as we watch our television and computer monitors, there is another Egypt to be considered.  As we wait for further political developments it is worth recalling the history, religion and culture which has made the modern events what they are.

The lost world of the pharaohs came to an end over a long period of decline in the centuries before Christ. The last Egyptian kings to rule the land was the 30th Dynasty which was defeated by the Persian Empire in 353 BC.  Not long after, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, and after his death the land was ruled by one of his generals, Ptolemy Soter, who founded a dynasty which bore his name for three centuries.  The last of the Ptolemy’s heirs was Cleopatra VII, the lover of Caesar and Mark Anthony, who died in 30 BC. Roman Emperors would rule Egypt as their personal province until the decline of that empire, when it passed into the hands of the Christian Byzantine Romans, who ruled from Constantinople.

The Egypt we know is tied to the rise of Islam.  When the Prophet Muhammad died in what is now Arabia in AD 632, the world was about to change.  By 639 Egypt was overrun by the Arabs, and it was ruled by the Caliphs, or the successors of the Prophet for 600 years.  About 1250 AD power was seized by a group of Islamic mercenaries called the Mamluks, who ruled the land until the rise of the Ottoman Turks, who destroyed the last of the Byzantines in Constantinople, modern Istanbul, in 1453.  Egypt fell to the Ottomans in 1517, the same year that Martin Luther began the Reformation in Germany.  In later centuries, Ottoman rule was not very effective and foreign influence often penetrated the land.  This was not a good time for the native Egyptian peoples.  But over these centuries of rule by the Arabs, Mamluks and Ottomans, Egypt became an Islamic nation, albeit with a significant Christian minority.

In 1798 the French general Napoleon Bonaparte invaded and occupied Egypt, defeating the power of the Mamluks and the Ottomans.  A minor event in this period was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by French officers, a moment which would later enable the translation of the ancient language of the Pyramid Age, but this was not a major political issue at the time.  Napoleon soon fled Egypt in search of greater political prizes, and his French regime was removed in 1801.  In the political chaos which followed the French occupation, one man emerged victorious, Muhammad Ali.  In many ways, Muhammad Ali is the father of modern Egypt, and he founded a new dynasty of kings who ruled the land until recent times.

Muhammad Ali appears to have hoped for wider conquests, in the Sudan, the holy land and Turkey, but he was checked by the European powers. But he began building a modern military, sent Egyptian students to study agriculture, chemistry and modern sciences in Europe and hoped for the development of his nation.    In 1820, cotton was cultivated in the land which brought in rich income from Europe.  Clever British investors soon learned that, were the cheap cotton produced by human slaves in the Americas to be ended by the abolition of slavery, Egypt might provide an alternative source of the precious substance for their mills in the age of the textile industrial revolution.  It is probable that Egypt’s cotton prevented European intervention into our own Civil War.

Unfortunately for the Egyptians, the Europeans could not keep their hands off of the land.  French developers encouraged Muhammad Ali’s heirs to dig the famous Suez Canal, but the Egyptians spent more than they had enabling the French to gain half control of the canal and its revenues.  When high taxes forced the Egyptian government to sell the other half to the British, popular discontent rose to the level of rebellion.  The British sent in their military and crushed Egyptian resistance.  The Egyptian heirs of Muhammad Ali were kept as symbolic heads of state under various titles and in1914, Egypt became a protectorate of Britain.  Popular rebellion continued and in 1922 Britain granted the Egyptians more self rule and the ability to elect a prime minister to serve under the Egyptian king. Nonetheless, the British maintained a military presence right through the Second World War.  To bring this into modern memory, my wife’s late father served King George VI in Egypt.

The last successor of Muhammad Ali was King Farouk, who was overthrown by a military coup in 1953 after his corrupt rule and colorful morals offended the religiously conservative Islamic Egyptians. The British military was invited to leave the following year and they did.  Power was taken by General Gamal Nassar in 1953, who would later take the title of “president.”  He nationalized the Suez Canal, took a strong position against Israel with whom he would fight several failed wars.  His pro-Russian policies gained him an ally, and the hostility of the United States in the Cold War.  Russian funds and workers would build the Aswan dam, enabling the modern electrical power of Egypt.  The Egyptian military still carries Russian AK-47 machine guns and flies Russian MIGs.  The ones I saw there in 2001 were still in use, a bit battered but still serviceable.

Gamal Nassar died in 1970 and power was taken by Anwar Sadat in 1970. Sadat was significant for his expulsion of the Russian presence, and his participation in a failed 1973 war on Israel along with Syria.   Intervention by the USSR, the US and the UN prevented Israeli attacks on Egypt, and although he lost the war, Sadat was enough of a diplomat to regain the Sinai Peninsula for Egypt and made peace with Israel in the Camp David talks of 1979.  The destruction of the Egyptian military by Israel nonetheless remained a tragedy in the Egyptian mind and the peace treaty did not sit well with all of the Egyptians. My tour guides in Egypt in 2001 made a point of showing us the war memorial to the slain in the unfortunate 1973 war.  Sadat was murdered in 1981 in Cairo by a fundamentalist Islamic military plot. 

With the support of the army, Hosni Mubarak took power after Sadat, and he ruled the land with an iron hand until this year.  When I was in Egypt, there were military everywhere, with towers on the corners and everywhere were well-armed guards. It was a military state. Both popular democratic protests were crushed as well as conservative Islamic religious movements.  One of my Egyptian students said of Mubarak, “he is exactly like Saddam Hussein, except that your country likes him and so you do not hear of the things he does.”  I cannot comment of the validity of this statement, but it is well established that the US gives considerable aid to the Egyptian government.  I see in the media that exiled fundamentalist Islamic leaders are beginning to return to Egypt.  At this writing, Mubarak was removed from power by popular protests as of February 11, and on February 13, the Army dissolved the parliament and has called for national elections.  This is the background to the fall of the current pharaoh.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Valentines Day is Actually A Call to Holiness

By Steve Valenzuela
Director, Small Faith Communities

A colleague recently sent me a text-like email saying “U R a Saint.” I must say I laughed out loud immediately thinking of how un-saintly I often feel and sometimes act. Actually, she was thanking me for helping her at the last minute to get a hold of some large soup pots to use at the reception for a diocesan event.

Her text though got me thinking. “If only being a saint was as easy as borrowing some big soup pots.”  Yet as I continued to ponder this, I realized being a saint is in some ways is that simple.  Someone is called a saint because they lived a life of holiness.  One of the chief ways we live holiness is when we respond openly and freely to the situations and needs of others using our strengths and resources. In Judaism, this act of kindness or goodness is called a Mitzvot and it is the foundation of righteousness. For us followers of Christ, our scriptures teach us, we are acting holy when we respond in love to God and to each other. I think St. Paul said it well as he wrote this Valentine to the churches in Rome:

Love one another with the affection of brothers. Anticipate each other in showing respect. Do not go slack but be fervent in Spirit for he whom you serve is the Lord.  -12:10-11
This month we celebrate the dubious holiday named for some early church martyrs called Valentine. Contrary to today’s popular expressions of hearts, candy, roses and romance, one of the Valentines, a priest, was holy in the way St. Paul writes. This Valentine would write “love notes” to comfort and strengthen his fellow Christians who were facing trial and possible execution during Roman persecutions. He took great risk to provide this spiritual care. These notes are a far cry from the silly or sultry cards we send today.  Therefore, a true valentine is about loving one another, doing an act of care or service that meets someone’s real need, especially when it is difficult, challenging or even dangerous.

This call to love as a call to holiness is both simple and challenging.  Sometimes it is simple like offering to do an errand for someone or agreeing to make a phone call to find some soup pots to borrow. Or it can be difficult, especially with people we are struggling just to tolerate (neighbors, co-workers or family members) or who, especially, have hurt us in the past.  To show them any kind of positive response, let alone love, may feel next to impossible. Yet the words of the apostle Paul to the Church in Corinth come to mind, “love is patient, love is kind…”

So perhaps this year, in addition to buying cards, flowers or chocolate for our beloveds, we might consider acts of loving kindness to meet a real need they have. And if we really want to practice being holy we might consider doing something especially kind for that neighbor, co-worker or family member we really can’t stand. We know we all have them so we might as well let them help us reach heaven.  Won’t we both be surprised at who we find sitting across from us at the eternal banquet.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

For Reflection and Sharing:

What acts of loving kindness might you do for those you love and those you struggle to love this Valentines Day?