Celebrating Alabama

Celebrating Alabama

This morning I stopped at my favorite local stop for tea, quiche and scones—The Cambridge Tea House—for quiche and an order of bacon.

“I’m celebrating Alabama,” I said. The cashier smiled. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Home, I read the paper’s headline story and enjoyed my breakfast while perusing The Washington Post’s
Preliminary exit poll results: How different groups voted in Alabama.”  It’s worth a look. And before I hurry off to work, I have to say “Thank you,” to the Black Alabamian voters for overwhelmingly casting their ballots for Doug Jones. The number of women who voted for Moore baffle me. Well, to be honest, anyone who voted for Moore baffle me at some level.

Still, it’s a victory to savor. The former U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted two of the Ku Klux Klansmen who bombed the small church in Birmingham in 1963 bested the outspoken, bigoted Roy Moore. After work, I’ll take a closer look at the Washington Post’s informative infographics. For now, I’m walking with a little spring in my step.

Doing What We Have Learned

Doing What We Have Learned

Abstract painting of people of all colors embracing

Painting by Richard Duarte Brown

Originally published in The Catholic Times  Oct. 8, 2017

Perhaps it’s because I’m weary of the divisive speech that is becoming more commonplace in our country and of the racism and ignorance of the “other” that undergird it. Maybe it’s hearing hateful comments, seeing intolerance, and recognizing that choices are being made to stoke fear and anger rather that to encourage true listening and dialogue. It’s these things and more that make me read and reread Paul’s words this Sunday, healing, like balm on an open sore:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4, 8)

A friend at work gave me a flyer about a unity celebration being held at a local Episcopal church that Sunday evening. I’m glad I went. It was something gracious and lovely that reminded me of the many good people who, in ways large and small, are being love in the world.

A woman opened the celebration with a drum call to gather everyone, including the ancestors. I thought of my parents. Of people who have gone before, working for civil rights. I thought of the communion of saints.

The rector welcomed us and read “Blessing When the World is Ending” by Jan Richardson. It finishes on a hopeful note:

This blessing/will not fix you,/will not mend you,/ will not give you/false comfort;/it will not talk to you/about one door opening/when another one closes./ It will simply/sit beside you/among the shards/and gently turn your face/toward the direction/from which the light/will come,/gathering itself/about you/as the world begins/again.

A young Syrian refugee, 13 when she arrived speaking no English, 17 now, shared her powerful poetry. A woman pastor reminded us that while we look different on the outside, we are the same on the inside and pointed out the fact that human beings are made with two ears and one tongue, perhaps indicating we should listen more and talk less.

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Two young women in flowing white dresses gracefully danced their prayer to the One we can’t live without, expressing with their movements the prayer in my heart. An Imam spoke of Islam and respect for all prophets. We listened and learned.

A folksinger led us in “We shall not be moved,” a song loosely based on verses from Jerimiah about one who is like a tree firmly planted by the water surviving drought and yielding fruit. A young girl called out that we should sing for peace. And we did.

A Jewish rabbi considered that we have many names the for same Holy One. She spoke of the prophets of old and wondered about today’s prophets. About being prophets and being bold.

A soloist shook the rafters and sang about God breathing on us, and I felt the Spirit-breath.

A community organizer pulled wisdom from each presentation and put them into questions for us to ponder.

Afterwards, we shared food, listened to stories, and wondered why all churches don’t have evenings like this.

Paul’s final words in that verse from Philippians—Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you—prompted me to consider that what we learn from Paul, he learned from Jesus. What have I learned and heard and seen in Jesus that transforms me?

painting: The Good van Gogh Samaritan, by Vincent

The Good Samaritan by Vincent van Gogh

In the gospels, I have learned that love, not power, is important. That one’s life doesn’t consist of possessions. That everyone is my neighbor, and I must take care of them. I have seen Jesus heal the sick, feed the hungry, hang out with those on the margins, and eat with outcasts. He was welcoming, patient, and merciful. He was a man of prayer. On his last night on earth he prayed “…that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me…” I watched Jesus wash his disciples’ feet and instruct them to do the same. He spoke truth to power, faithfully lived that truth, and was murdered for it.

I heard him say that whatever we do to the least among us, we do to him. And when it came right down to it, when someone asked him what was most important, he had two things to say: Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.

These are the things we need to keep on doing, each of us bringing the God of peace who dwells in us into our times and places. Through all people of peace, God transforms the world.

© 2017 Mary van Balen

A Confluence of Events

A Confluence of Events

Originally published in the Catholic Times September 10, 2017

Sometimes disparate events come together, touching a common place in my heart. Only after reflection and usually some writing, do I understand their connection and what they are saying.

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White supremacists clash with police (36421659232)

By Evan Nesterak

Protests and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the responses that followed uncovered what we’d rather avoid. Racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy raised their ugly heads reminding us that, no matter what we thought or what we want to believe, anger and hatred based on race, ethnicity, and fear of the “other” remain a blight on our country’s soul.

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Pencil drawing of Blessed Fredric Ozanam

Blessed Fredric Ozanam

Perusing this week’s liturgical calendar, I discovered Blessed Fredric Ozanam (1813-1853). He moved to Paris at 18 to study at the Sorbonne. Conditions were wretched for the poor and working class. As a result of its old and public alliances with the aristocracy, the Catholic Church was attacked by intellectuals as oppressive and harmful. Ozanam had a different view. The Church was more than its hierarchy. It was all, clerics and lay alike, and he understood service to the poor as central to the call to discipleship. Actions must accompany words. He organized debates and argued that the Catholic Church had brought much good to the world.

There is a story that during one of these debates, when challenged to show what the Church was doing to help the poor and suffering in Paris, he had no answer. A few days later, Ozanam gathered a small group of Catholic students and together they began what would become the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. They were helped by Sister Rosalie Rendu who served the destitute in the Mouffetard area of Paris and insisted that the young students visit them in their homes and learn what was truly needed.

painintg of Saint Peter Claver surrounded by African slaves

Saint Peter Claver

I read about St. Peter Claver (1581-1654), a Spanish Jesuit who found his life’s work in Cartagena, a hub of slave trade, in what is now Columbia. When slave ships arrived, he managed to get into the hold and minister to them with food, water, and medicine.

“Deeds come first, then words,” he said.

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NASA photograph of the total solar eclipse taken at Oregon State Fairgrounds by Dominic Hart

PHOTO: NASA

I joined two daughters, a friend, and other family to experience the eclipse in Columbia, South Carolina. We gathered with others in a school’s athletic field. The mood was festive and people moved in and out of the green space to observe the moon sliding in front of the sun. But, with fifteen minutes to go, they found a spot, put on eclipse glasses, and didn’t move.

When totality arrived, glasses came off. People clapped, shouted, cried, or stood in awed silence as the black disk of the moon covered the sun, revealing its brilliant corona. For those two minutes and thirty seconds, we were one people, small creatures on a single planet in the vast universe.

Of course, it didn’t last. Totality passed. Eventually people picked up their chairs and coolers and walked home or to their cars. The one family became tribes again.

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Photo of poet Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni

Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast featured an interview with poet Nikki Giovanni. Tippett describes her as a “revolutionary poet in the Black Arts Movement that nourished civil rights.” Now in her seventies, Giovanni is joyfully alive, a professor at Virginia Tech, and still writing.

“…race was a bad idea 200 years ago, 300 years ago. It’s a ridiculous idea today,” she said in the interview. “Hatred was a bad idea, and it’s a ridiculous idea today. We’re on the third planet from the yellow sun. We have got to come together to see—and how to make sense out of this…How do we find a way to make the best of us?”

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How indeed. How to root out hate and anger? How to stand with the marginalized and oppressed? How to bring Love into this time?

Ozanam, Rendu, and Claver saw what is often forgotten: Every person is a child of God deserving respect and love. They responded to physical needs as well as spiritual ones; actions accompany words. We are called to do the same, recognizing all are God’s people—Black, White, Latino, Indigenous people, refugees, LGBT, Jews, Muslims, prisoners, the poor. All one family on this planet. No exceptions. As Giovanni said, there is no place to go but forward. We do what we can. We love. We speak the truth we have been given. Bit by bit, we let go of what separates us and hold on to what binds us together. We listen. We pray. Like Mary, honored this week with the feast of The Nativity of Mary, we are called to birth Christ into the world.

© 2017 Mary van Balen

Fountain Fullness and Good Stewardship

Fountain Fullness and Good Stewardship

éFirst published in The Catholic Times  July 16, 2017 issue

Close up of fountain at the Vatican

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

And since the nature of goodness is to diffuse itself…the Father is the fountain-fullness of goodness.        Ilia Delio

Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.      Pope Francis

Standing Rock is everywhere.   Chief Arvol Looking Horse

 

Water has been on my mind. As Ilia Delio, O.S.F. writes in Simply Bonaventure: An Introduction to His Life, Thought, and Writing, the 13th century saint whose feast we celebrate on July 15 referred to the first principle of the Godhead as the fountain-fullness of goodness. (Bonaventure referred to this self-diffusive Goodness as “Father,” not in a biological manner, but in the sense that God is generative, Delio explains.)

I first heard this phrase over fifteen years ago while attending a lecture by Delio. When she made time for questions, I was unable to formulate any but sat in silence allowing some of the imagery and expansive thought she presented to find a place within me. The image of God as infinite fountain-fullness, pouring out Divine self, has always remained.

Niagra Falls

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

I’ve thought of it while standing at Niagara Falls, getting soaked in a rainstorm, or while drinking a refreshing glass of water: God, ever-flowing outward, creating and sustaining all.

In his encyclical, Laudato Si’, from the conviction that “…everything in the world is connected…” Pope Francis reminds us that fresh drinking water holds primary importance because “… it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.” As with the effects of other instances of environmental degradation, the lack of clean water and the consequences of that fall most heavily upon the poor.

He addresses the people of the world, calling for a change of lifestyles of consumption and immediate gratification into lifestyles of sacrifice and sharing. Pope Francis quotes Patriarch Bartholomew’s eloquent words saying we all need to repent since in some ways we have all harmed the planet.

That realization deepened for me when I recently viewed a water bill for my apartment. The amount of water used was surprising.

I began to notice that water usually runs while I wash my hands and brush my teeth. Without a dishwasher, I often fill the sink with soapy water, even when only a few plates and glassed need cleaned. As weeks passed, water and my consumption of it became an exercise in mindfulness. A big water drinker, I usually find two or three half-filled glasses on tables or counters at bedtime. No longer dumped down the drain, the extra now waters my plants. In a month’s time, my water use decreased by half.

Who would’ve thought that such small efforts would make a difference? Patriarch Bartholomew realized that we all “generate small ecological damage.” Some is unavoidable; some is not.

Water came to mind again this week when a longtime friend sent a copy of an article published in the June 26 issue of America Magazine. “The Spirituality of Standing Rock: Activists see a moral imperative for protecting our water” by Eileen Markey begins with the historic gathering of Native Americans and their supporters from around the globe at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to prayerfully protest the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline under their water supply.

“Water is life,” the women said. While oil now flows beneath their land, the stand to protect the environment, particularly the water, continues as groups and individuals across the country carry on the protests, calling for action from governments, corporations, groups, and individuals. The setback at Standing Rock was not the end of the issue.

“Standing Rock is everywhere,” Lakota chief Arvol Looking Horse said in the article. Indeed, it is.

Summer, with its long spells of hot, dry days interspersed with sudden storms or a day or two of soft showers, is a good time to reflect on water and how we use it. To change wasteful habits. To stand with Pope Francis in his call to work together to move into lifestyles that reflect reverence for the earth and recognition of the importance of good stewardship, especially as it affects the poor. And it is a good time to join our voices with that of Saint Francis, in thanksgiving and in praise of the Creator, the Fountain-Fullenss, the source of all that is.

© 2017 Mary van Balen

Connecting through the Columbus Crossing Borders Project

Connecting through the Columbus Crossing Borders Project

Project Director of the Columbus Crossing Borders Project speaking to audience

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

People gathered at the Martin de Porres Center last Sunday to see the traveling art exhibit, Columbus Crossing Borders Project, and to hear Project Director/Producer, Laurie Van Balen, share its vision and mission.

She spoke of the refugee crises around the world and in our country and the need to welcome the “other” into our spaces: our country, cities, neighborhoods, and home.

Before and after her presentation, people viewed the exhibit of 34 paintings by Ohio artists whose work draws the viewer into some aspect of the reality of the refugees’ journeys, hardships, and successes.

a mother and daughter viewing an art exhibit

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

People took their time, reading the artists statements that were posted below the paintings. Pointing out how some element of each painting crossed over into the space of the painting to its right—crossing borders and creating a powerful visual testimony to the love, strength, and resilience that sustain those who must flee their countries and build a new home in a strange land.

“I had to move away from the group of people looking at the painting with me,” one woman confided. Her eyes were filled with tears. “I was afraid they’d ask me something, and, well, I just couldn’t speak. It’s overwhelming.” She paused for a moment and then said, “How could anyone think these wonderful people have nothing to offer to us, to our country? How many gifts they bring!”

Conversations like this or the longer ones among artists, refugees, immigrants, and others gathered around the tables or standing in clusters in the room, are one of the most important result of this amazing exhibit. It opens hearts. It opens doors. People share and get to know one another. Like the title of this project suggest, they cross their own borders and leave enriched and changed in some way. Come, and experience it for yourself.

the logo for the Columbus Crossing Borders Project shows silhouettes of immigrants, men, women, and children, against a blue clouded sky.

The Columbus Crossing Borders Project is currently being exhibited at:  the Martin de Porres Center, 2330 Airport Drive, Columbus, Ohio through June 30.

Next exhibit: Schumacher Gallery at Capital Univeristy, 2199 E Main St, Columbus OH from August 28 – September 2 with a reception on August 31.

For more information visit the Columbus Crossing Borders Project website

Columbus Crossing Borders Project

Columbus Crossing Borders Project

the logo for the Columbus Crossing Borders Project shows silhouettes of immigrants, men, women, and children, against a blue clouded sky. The Columbus Crossing Borders Project was begun by Columbus area artist, Laurie Van Balen, in response to the alarming spread of anti-immigrant sentiment that is sweeping the country. Visit the website to learn more about the artists, traveling art exhibit, and documentary film that is the result of 34 artists, refugees willing to share their stories,  a film crew, and many volunteers.

You can watch parts of the video made by Doug Swift,  meet some of the artists, see their work, and hear some of the refugees’ stories. This project aims to inspire compassion and encourage critical thinking when considering the plight of refugees in our country.

Columbus Crossing Borders Project is working with the Community Immigration and Refugee Services (CRIS) in Columbus.

Currently in production, the traveling art exhibit will open on May 21, at the Cultural Arts Center in Columbus. You are welcome to attend the opening reception:

“As we seek to inspire compassion and support for the 65 million people in our world who are fleeing war, terror, persecution and hardship, The Columbus Crossing Borders Project warmly invites you to attend the initial public presentation of our traveling art exhibit and documentary film.

Sunday, May 21  2 – 6pm    Cultural Arts Center  |  139 W Main St, Columbus, Ohio 43215

This event is being presented with support from the​ Greater Columbus Arts Council.”

I hope to see you there!

The Call to Love, Right Where We Are

The Call to Love, Right Where We Are

Rita and Mom's hands

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Originally published in The Catholic Times, January 7, 2017

I spent a nice, low-key last day of 2016. Ran a few errands. Mailed two packages. Share a leisurely lunch with a good friend who came back to my place for a few last Christmas cookies and conversation. As I write and wait for midnight, I hear one of my daughters and friend laughing in the living room, here for a few hours before heading out to a party. A nice, homey, New Year’s Eve.

I admit to looking forward to 2017 with some trepidation, more aware than usual of the uncertainties we face at home and around the world. The issues are not new, but carry an increased sense of urgency: civil rights, immigration, poverty, global warming, terrorism, war.

Over the holidays, a friend shared with me the trauma she is experiencing after returning from working on a documentary in the Holy Land. While she heard lots of talk of Bethlehem as Christmas approached, and the strains of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” filled the air, she was overcome by the suffering she witnessed in the modern occupied city of Bethlehem.

“Both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, say, ‘There is no such thing as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder here because there is no Post, just traumatic stress disorder’,” she said.

Her experience of one small part of the world speaks to the fear and uncertainty of so many in the global “neighborhood.”

How do we move forward into this new year? As followers of the Christ, how do we bring the love and peace of God’s kingdom into the world? How do we live with hope?

Yesterday, I read the next-to-the-last-last chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict which spoke of the “good zeal” of monastics: to show respect for the other, to seek what is better for others, to support one another, and to show patience and love. Above all, to love God.

In the face of great challenges, loving those we live with and encounter in our daily lives seems trivial. What difference can such small actions make?

In commentary following the passage from the Rule, Benedictine Joan Chittister speaks to Benedict’s insistence on listening for God’s voice in one another and in the present moment. She recounts a wisdom story from another tradition: A seeker asks the teacher how to reach Enlightenment. The answer is deceptively simple: No special time or place is required. No special way of listening or unique places to look. Being present to the moment, to the people around you, to the place where you are is what is needed. Enlightenment happens there.

painting: The Good van Gogh Samaritan, by Vincent

The Good Samaritan by Vincent van Gogh

Jesus in the gospels tells his followers that the Kingdom of God is now, in the moment, as well as coming. He said whatever we do for the least among us, we do for him. He invited us to live as he lived, present in the moment to his relationship with God and with neighbor. And Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, clearly shows who that neighbor is—everyone.

Why is hearing God’s voice and experiencing God in the moment and in others so difficult? Why is “Practicing the Presence of God,” as the 17th century Carmelite, Brother Lawrence taught, such a challenge? Reading his work of the same title, we realize being truly present to God in ordinary life is a human struggle, not unique to our time.

The temptation is to imagine, like the seeker in Joan’s story, that God is found in extraordinary places. That to participate in transforming the world with Divine Love requires dramatic action, and that only a few exceptionally “holy ones” are called to do so.

As we enter 2017, the temptation is to be overwhelmed and think our lives too small, our actions too insignificant to make a difference. Jesus tells us “not so.” The temptation is to look to others, more powerful, more “important” to do the work. Jesus turns that upside down, too. He called poor fisherman, women, and people on the fringes of society ordinary people, not the religious or political big-wigs of his day to bring Love into the world.

And Jesus assured us that we don’t act alone. Joined with the Source of all that is, our acts of love are part of the Divine Act of Love that confronts darkness and is not overcome. Here is the hope we carry into the new year. Be present. Be aware of God-with-us right where we are. And trust in the power of the Love that flows through us to transform the world.

© 2017 Mary van Balen

Seeing Everything Shining Like the Sun

Seeing Everything Shining Like the Sun

Photo of a domed stained glass window In Church in Rome, Italy, depicting the universe.Originally published in The Catholic Times, November 12, 2016 issue

Liturgically speaking, November begins with celebrating the holy ones who have gone before and who live among us: the saints and the saints-becoming. Canonized or not, they are those who open our eyes to both the presence of God-with-Us and to the responsibility to reverence that Presence in how we live our lives.

What if we looked at this month through the eyes of the saints? Would we see things we usually overlook? Would we be moved to act in ways out of our ordinary routines?

Trees blazing with color will soon drop their leaves and stand starkly against winter skies. On some days, snow will cling to their branches and cover the ground. Beauty has many faces. Growth often happens deep within, out of sight. While autumn’s riot of color shouts, winter’s muted palette speaks in whispers. Silence guards the life that has withdrawn to the center, content to wait and gather strength.

The great contemplatives speak of encountering God within, spending silent time resting in the Sacred Presence. Often, though, in the midst of contemplative practice, nothing much seems to be going on other than distractions. When tempted to wonder where God is in those times, we can remember the winter trees and landscape where the mystery of life deepens unseen.

The saintly scientists invite us to encounter God in the ordinary and spectacular realities of the universe. St. Hildegard of Bingen living in the 12th century, wrote about ecology, natural science, and medicine. St. Albert the Great, whose feast we celebrate next week, was a philosopher and scholar recognized for his knowledge and writing not only about theology but also about the sciences including physics, and astronomy.

Watching the super moon rise on November 14 or gazing at the dance of the moon and planets can be worship.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest born in the late nineteenth century was a mystic and accomplished geologist and paleontologist. His vision of the evolutionary nature not only of matter but of spirit and his understanding of the Cosmic Christ continues to inspire today.

Looking with these saints helps us see not only the magnificence of creation, but also the connectedness of all things. We are a small part of a universe beyond imagining. From the perspective of such immensity we become aware of our place in the world, participants in Infinite Life. What happens to one affects us all.

The great challenges of our time require such a universal view. Pope Francis has emphasized our moral obligation to respond to protect the earth. He also calls us to be merciful and to create a culture of encounter with one another.

How many stories are told of saints who lived their lives serving the poor and marginalized, the sick and suffering? Elizabeth of Hungary, whose feast is also celebrated next week, was a queen and mother who gave herself so whole-heartedly to sharing her fortune with the poor and nursing the sick, that, when her husband died on the way to battle, she was thrown out into the street by his parents who were offended by her discipline of prayer and good works!

Monument to the Immigrant in New Orleans. A statue depicting a female muse whose flowing gown leads to family of four immigrants. By Franco Alessandrini (1944), American sculptor of New Orleans

Monument to the Immigrant. 1995 New Orleans by Franco Alessandrini (1944), American sculptor of New Orleans.
Dedicated to the courageous men and women who left their homeland seeking freedom, opportunity, and a better life in a new country.
Photo: Mary van Balen

Martin de Porres entered a Dominican monastery as a lowly lay helper, but spent much of his life using gifts for healing not only tending the monks, but also the poorest in his city of Lima, Peru.

Today as millions of refugees leave their homelands destroyed by wars and violence, looking for a safer place to live and raise their families, we do well to remember how these saints saw every person. St. Benedict instructed his monks to greet every stranger who came to the monastery door as Christ. Mother Teresa saw the face of Jesus in every dying person she lifted from the street. How do we see these people, fleeing for their lives? How do we welcome them when they arrive at our shores?

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wondered at God dwelling within every person he saw at a busy intersection in Louisville, Kentucky: “…There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun!”

When we are able to see the hand of God in every speck of earth or distant star, to recognize the Holy Presence in others, or to trust the Indwelling in ourselves, we can pray for Grace so, like the holy ones who have gone before us, we will reverence the Sacred that is in our midst or knocking on our doors.

©2016 Mary van Balen

Paris: Music in the Air

Paris: Music in the Air

Musicians playing bass, banjo, sax, and trombone on Rue Mouffetard, Paris

Musicians on Rue Mouffetard, Paris
Photo: Mary van Balen

Music is in the air! Often, while walking around Paris, I hear music. Train stations large and small have public pianos ready for anyone passing by or waiting for their connection to play. Groups of musicians cluster on corners, a hat or open instrument case sitting on uneven cobbles to collect coins from those who stop to listen.

The first group I encountered was a foursome playing bass, banjo, sax, and trombone. They stood along Rue Mouffetard, a narrow medieval street lined with small shops, cafes, and fresh food markets. The sax player moved with the rhythm, tapping his foot. The thin, white-haired banjo player stood tall and straight. Lots of people paused to enjoy the sound and a little girl smiled while she twirled and clapped along.

Man in black suit playing accordion on street in Paris

Accordion player, Rue Mouffetard, Paris
Photo: Mary van Balem

That evening, my daughters and I had dinner at a restaurant on the same street. A man dressed smartly in a black suit and hat strolled along, weaving between the outside tables of small cafes, playing his accordion. No wonder the “soundtrack” I’ve heard in my mind when thinking of Paris includes accordion music: It’s common around the city, day or night.

Man playing piano on bridge over the Seine

Pianist on bridge over the Seine
Photo: Mary van Balen

No matter what they play, the musicians I’ve heard are accomplished. Once, while walking home from a day of wandering through neighborhoods on the right bank, we heard classical piano. Sure enough, there on a small bridge across the Seine, a man was playing Chopin on a shiny black piano. People clustered along the sidewalk, called by powerful, familiar music to stop and listen.

Music in, for me, unexpected places reminds me to appreciate, to recognize the power of song and the richness of the human gift to make stirring, soul moving sound.

Early one morning, Kathryn and I walked to our favorite boulangerie to buy a baguette and jam for breakfast. Rue Mouffetard was almost empty. Above us, a curtain billowed out of a window along with the sound of a violinist tuning his instrument. I wondered what he or she would be playing.

string ensemble and vocalist in St. Paul's cathedral, Paris, France.

String ensemble and vocalist in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Paris
Photo: Mary van Balen

If you want to attend a concert, they are easy to find almost any night in cathedrals around the city. Kathryn and I listened to a string ensemble preform Pachelbel’s Canon and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. They were joined by a vocalist whose powerful soprano filled the church with Schubert’s Ave Maria.

On an afternoon in the Marais area, we thought a store or restaurant was piping opera music into the street. No. Approaching the art exhibition hall, we saw a woman standing in front of the building singing a piece from an opera. I don’t know what it was, but her strong, expressive voice was mesmerizing. Even armed military police patrolling the area had to stop and listen. One let his automatic droop to the side while he held up a phone to record the moment.

Guns and music. The news from the States is filled with hateful, troubling events aimed at transgender people for the moment. We watched TV in a café yesterday as the loss of an Egyptian Airlines plane was being covered. Security and armed military presence here on the streets as well as in airports and train stations reminds us of terrorist activities. Poverty is visible as homeless men, women, and children make the streets their homes.

Over it all, haunting music awakens the question in my heart: What fear and anger, what wounds make human beings, capable of creating such beauty, do such horrible things to one another?

© 2016 Mary van Balen

Transphobia: Jesus Weeps

Transphobia: Jesus Weeps

Weeping Jesus statue close up

Photo by James McGinnis

Watching a video of Ted Cruz flaunting his ignorance and making a crude joke about Donald Trump dressing up as Hillary Clinton and still not being able to use the girl’s bathroom made me sick. It brought tears to my eyes as his audience laughed. Last week he released a transphobic add portraying transgender women as predators, men pretending to be women.

Article after article. Statement after statement. Law after law. Transgender people are singled out as a danger in public restrooms without any evidence. Is the timing—during a presidential election year—a coincidence?  I doubt it.

Some bright spots appear in this darkness. Entertainers and businesses are pulling out of states that pass discriminatory “bathroom bills.” On it’s website, Target takes the lead and declares that in keeping with it’s core value of inclusivity, transgender employees and guests are welcomed to use “the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity.” Episcopal and Methodist bishops of North Carolina are demanding the repeal of HB2. Some business leaders and government officials are speaking out against these laws.

That this fear-mongering bigotry is often expressed under the guise of religious freedom makes it all the more tragic. Jesus weeps. So do I.