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 Time for Stories

A Time for Stories

Close up of springerle cookies

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Originally published in The Catholic Times, February 12, 2017

On my way to work, I stopped at the Cambridge Tea House to buy a currant scone. The crusty outside is just sweet enough and surrounds a tender center filled with currants. No jam needed. I prefer mine just as they come out of the oven, and when I’m early, they’re still warm.

Waiting for the young woman at the counter to ring up the purchase, I noticed small packages of intricately stamped springerele cookies resting on a glass plate. My daughter and I bake a few hundred each Christmas. Ours are anise flavored and decorated with bells and angels, but these were smaller, almond flavored, and covered with flowers and hearts for Valentine’s Day.

“They’re beautiful,” I said as the tea house owner and baker emerged from the kitchen.

“A local woman makes them,” she volunteered. I picked up one of the clear bags for a closer look. “The recipe’s 150 years old.”

I wondered aloud if she used baker’s ammonia or some other leavening.

“What’s baker’s ammonia? the younger woman asked.

So began the story. I told them about baking springereles using an old family recipe from a friend of my mother. “Baker’s ammonia is used in many old recipes. I used to buy it at pharmacies, but it’s more difficult to find now. You can order it online.” I described our technique that evolved from using a traditional wooden board carved with designs that we pressed into the dough to our current biscuit cutter/cookie stamp routine.

“After we cut and stamp the cookies, we spread them over the counter to dry overnight. Baker’s ammonia is heat activated, so they form a crusty top that keeps the stamped impression crisp when it bakes.”

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

As the story unwound, the three of us stood still, caught up not only in my story, but in the personal stories it evoked in each of us. Images from deep heart-places, rising to the surface, pulling along sights, sounds, smells, and emotion as they broke into consciousness. In silence, we breathed stories.

We recognized them in each other’s eyes, memories both unique and the same: delight in the preparation and sharing of special foods with loved ones, anguish faced over steaming cups of tea and coffee, or reverence before moments of grace when the veil of ordinariness slipped away revealing the extraordinary that’s always present.

modern painting circle of five people in an embrace

Painting by Richard Duarte Brown

Motionless, we paused, heartened by our connection. There we were, members of one family, God’s beloved community.

We should give thanks for the humble story, for the telling that reminds us of the basic connection of all human beings. It isn’t “them and us” as some would have us believe. “Other” is a fiction. Really, at the core, we are much the same. How to remember this in times of division?

Sharing story is one way, the ancient sacrament as old as humanity. Sometimes the details are unfamiliar: Details of lives lived as a part of the minority or of the privileged majority; details of living in poverty or in wealth; details of raising children or living as a single person; details of enjoying good health or suffering physical or mental illness. The list is endless.

But, if we listen to the stories of people who at first glance are “not like us,” we recognize common threads: Courage. Fear. Love and need for it. Desire to care for our children. To have enough to eat. The search for meaning and self-expression, acceptance and reverence.

PHOTO: Mary van Balen Rev. Robert Graetz telling his story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and current civil rights issues to a class of adult learners in the Even Start Program and their guests

PHOTO: Mary van Balen
Rev. Robert Graetz telling his story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and current civil rights issues to a class of adult learners in the Even Start Program and their guests

There are many stories we need to hear today from people both within and outside our usual circles: stories of people who think like us and those who don’t. People dealing with uncertainties of jobs and homes. There are stories of refugees, undocumented immigrants, ethnic and racial minorities, indigenous people, LGBT people, those who are abused.

Their stories cry out to be heard. Sometimes stories are told in books like “Hidden Figures” and film like the movie “Lion.” An Oscar nominated documentary on James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro,” was released last week, and from reviews I’ve read, it’s filled with stories that can help us better understand race in our country.

Jesus used the power of story, moving his listeners to open their hearts to the stranger, to follow his example, to love. Story has the power to break barriers, to unite, to give heart, to change history. Or, less lofty, to shine the warm light of common humanity on an ordinary morning trek to work.

©2017 Mary van Balen


To the Face of Evil, Bring Love

To the Face of Evil, Bring Love

Old Man in Sorrow - Vincent van Gogh 1890

Old Man in Sorrow – Vincent van Gogh 1890

Before heading out to work this morning, I’m heading to church. Drawn there by grief and not knowing what else to do. The hate and fear that could move one human being to massacre innocent people is unfathomable to me. As is often the case in the face of such horror, I feel helpless.

The temptation is to hate back. But if we do, hate wins.

Facebook is full of quotes and suggestions. One counseled kindness. Be especially kind today at work and as you go about your day. You have no idea who may be “suffering quietly” after Sunday’s massacre. Good advice at any time, but particularly today. How often do those in the LGBTQ community and those who love them  suffer quietly, their pain and struggle held close and out of sight?

Today I will try to love and live in a way that fosters peace. They will be small ways. I’m not a celebrity whose words will be quoted. I’m not in a position of power to make laws or change the ones we have. At least not quickly. Most of us are not.

modern painting circle of five people in an embrace

Painting by Richard Duarte Brown

But we can refuse to hate, as difficult as that can be at times like this. We can refuse to blame entire religions (Some would like to point fingers at Islam, others at Christianity.). We can offer comfort, listen, pray. We can grieve with those who have lost family and friends, who have lost any sense of safety. We can make our voices heard by speaking up and communicating with those who are political and religious leaders.

But I think, most of all, we can live our ordinary lives with love and compassion. We can walk forward calling on the power of infinite Love in the face of evil. And have hope. What else is there to do?


Different Faces of Beauty

Different Faces of Beauty

photo of small street in Paris lined with small cafes

Small street off Rue Mouffetard, Paris
Photo: Mary van Balen

My sister sent me a marvelous photo of a morning on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick. Sitting in the bedroom of a Paris apartment, I feasted on the greens of trees and grasses, the rocky coastline, and the fog that softened it all. Even through a photograph, the scene “felt good” for my eyes, making me feel like I was looking far.


foggy morning view of coast on the Grand Manan Island

Foggy morning on Grand Manan
Photo: Elizabeth Delphia

Such a difference from walking old, narrow streets of Paris with buildings standing on either side. There is much beauty there, too. It just has a different face.

Isn’t that how it is in our world? Beauty comes in all sizes and shapes. In the tiniest flower or the intricacies of human construction. In the natural world and what we have made.

Close up of the flower Solomon's Seal

Solomon’s Seal Giverny 2016
Photo: Mary van Balen

People, too. We come in many shapes and colors. Standing in line to take an elevator up the Eiffel Tower, my daughter and I were fascinated with the languages and faces of people from around the world who had come to experience the striking monument and the view of Paris spread out around it.

Seeing beauty in its many guises takes practice. We become accustomed to our particular ideas of what is lovely, or our culture’s definition of  what is or is not beautiful.


Paris from Eiffel Tower Photo: Mary van Balen

Paris from Eiffel Tower
Photo: Mary van Balen

If we were able to see the soul’s beauty in all faces, no matter the color or ethnicity; if we were able to appreciate the world through the eyes of a scientist as well as an artist, or a child as well as a tired adult; how different the world might be.

As I travel abroad, the news from home is disturbing. Fear and anger are stirring up the ugliest side of human behavior. Through the dark glass of racism, hatred, and ignorance, Beauty and Grace are obscured.


graffiti in Paris that says L'Autre est ton ami, or the other is my friend.

Graffiti on Paris Streets
Photo: Alan Cummings

If only we could acknowledge that those we see as “other,” those different from ourselves, are also filled with a spark of Divinity, and accept the gifts and visions they bring to deepen our understandings and experience of life and of God.

Walking through Paris, a friend saw some graffiti that, translated, said: “The other is your friend.”  We should heed those words.


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.

President Obama and Pope Francis: Words to Ponder

President Obama and Pope Francis: Words to Ponder

A picture of a smiling President Obama welcoming Pope Francis, also smiling, to the Whitehouse

PHOTO: THe Atlantic

I drove one of my daughters downtown to catch the Mega Bus. It pulled out just in time for me to begin listening to President Obama welcome the Pope to the United States. Eloquent and moving, his words, spoken as a man of faith, addressed the Pope saying “You shake our conscience from slumber; you call on us to rejoice in Good News, and give us confidence that we can come together, in humility and service, and pursue a world that is more loving, more just, and more free. Here at home and around the world, may our generation heed your call to “never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope!”

The Pope’s address, delivered in English, challenged us to address issues of poverty, inclusion of those on the margins, and global warming. Referring to the urgency of dealing with climate change, he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, saying “…that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”

Pope Francis doesn’t avoid difficult topics. I’m looking forward to hearing his address to Congress tomorrow morning. And, just as much, to his sharing lunch with the homeless rather than with the congressional elite.  I love this pope!

Text of both speeches

Encountering the Other

Encountering the Other

modern painting circle of five people in an embrace

Painting by Richard Duarte Brown

Originally published in the Catholic Times, 9. 1315

A few days ago, while driving to work, I heard a story on NPR about the thousands of immigrants arriving on the small Greek island of Lesbos, refugees fleeing war and oppression in Syria, looking for a place to live. They risked a dangerous journey leaving everything behind and set off toward an unknown future. Husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and relatives, all willing to trust their lives to people and places they do not know.

Listening to reporters interviewing newly arrived refugees, I marveled at the joy in their voices. Thrilled to have survived the journey and to be standing on solid ground in a place free of war and the atrocities that accompany it, they spoke with such hope, such faith in God, or if not in God, in fellow human beings.

I wanted to rejoice with them, but concern tempered my delight as I wondered what the road ahead would bring for them: Mounds of paperwork and bureaucracy from governments hesitant to welcome so many people needing work and aid. Hostility and resistance from those who will feel threatened by their presence, by their “otherness.” Soon, frustration will replace the euphoria of the refugees’ first taste of freedom from constant fear and suffering.

Tragedy already darkens Syrian refugees’ arrival. The United Nations refugee agency reports that over 2,500 people have died this year trying to make the dangerous ocean crossing.

Driving home from work that same day, I heard an inspiring story of Icelanders who had formed a Facebook group, “Syria is Calling,” and is pressuring their government to take in more than the 50 refugees it had offered to accept—a lot more, 5,000. While the large number of people the group is proposing to welcome is impressive, it was the outpouring of individuals’ willingness to help that stirred my heart.

People offered to open up extra bedrooms in their homes and provide food, money, and house wares to help new arrivals settle in. This personal response is more demanding than putting a check in the mail, which is my plan. It means living with people who have different beliefs and values. In some cases, like sharing one’s home with strangers or welcoming them into your city, such action means daily encountering the “other” with openness and reverence for their personhood. It means, in the midst of serious complexities, maintaining the belief that we are more alike than different.

This post from “Syria is Calling” eloquently proclaims this truth: “Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People who we’ll never be able to say to: ‘Your life is worth less than mine.’”

These words challenge all of us around the globe to examine our own attitude toward the “other,” not only the Syrian refugees, but the marginalized people who live in our own cities and neighborhoods.

The Letter of Saint James, included in this Sunday’s readings, speaks forcefully about the responsibility of Christians to put their faith into action: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Fear of those who are not like us is no excuse; it is a human failing that must be confronted and transformed by love, a process that can take a lifetime. It is a process that requires encounter.

But suffering and injustice can’t wait for lifetimes. Our faith, our humanity, requires action before we are comfortable. We must respond with love despite our fear, and incrementally, our hearts will change. As Jesus said, love will cast out fear. We are all other to someone. Encounter will transform us: those in position to give and those who receive, privileged with voice and marginalized with none.

© 2015 Mary van Balen

The Long Reach of White Privilege

The Long Reach of White Privilege

silhouettes of people in different colorsA few days ago, Jenny Boylan wrote a great editorial in the New York Times about white privilege. It’s easy to miss it, if you’re white that is. Privilege is like that. When you’ve got it, it’s almost invisible to you while being obvious to those who don’t have it. I am a woman, so I recognize male privilege when I see it. I’m white, too. White privilege can escape my notice. I wouldn’t think of any transgender people, likely the most marginalized people in our society, as being privileged. Jenny Boylan didn’t either…

In her column, she offers her unique perspective on being white, and at on time, presenting as male, being a transgender woman, and  the suffering of trans women of color. Read it here.

President Obama Appoints Transgender Woman to White House Position

President Obama Appoints Transgender Woman to White House Position

rainbow flag flying against blue sky

from Huff Post

This is good news for the transgender community. President Obama had become increasingly supportive of LGBT people and the struggle for equal rights and protections for them. He has appointed Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, who was a policy adviser at the National Center for Transgender Equality, as an outreach and recruitment director. Read about it here and in the Washington Post that first reported the story.