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!

In Remembrance and Solidarity

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

This evening I joined a gathering of people at Trinity Episcopal Church for a prayer vigil of remembrance and solidarity following the violence in Orlando. People of various denominations, faiths, and communities celebrated in a simple service that included silence and music—not too many words. Being together in the Holy Presence of Love, however one names it, was enough.

I felt a profound sense of peace sitting in that welcoming church. Clergy and community leaders spoke and shared their thoughts and voiced prayer for all: an Episcopal priest, Methodist minister, Jewish rabbi, Islamic leader, a member of the LGBT community, and a representative of the Ohio Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Perhaps the most moving moments were those spent standing in silence, listening to the bell toll 50 times, once for each life lost.

We held candles during the final musical piece and benediction. “What’s a vigil without candles?” rector Rev. Richard A. Burnett asked.

True. Candles bring light into darkness, a symbol of Love, of prayer, which do the same.

a round tray filled with sand and small, lit tea candles

PHOTO:Mary van Balen


As we left the church, a table held information from a number of community organizations that invited participation.  Love is the motivator, the power. But, as Stephen Colbert said as he began his show after the attack: “Love is verb. Do something.” It’s not enough to remember. Each in our individual way must make Love live. One suggestion? In November,  vote, and vote to elect those who will not build on hate and division, but who will work for the common good and protect the civil rights of all.

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?


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.

Hope for our Planet

Hope for our Planet

A picture taken on November 25, 2015 in Le Bourget near Paris shows the entrance of the venue that will host Paris' climate summit, also known as Cop21.

A picture taken on November 25, 2015 in Le Bourget near Paris shows the entrance of the venue that will host Paris’ climate summit, also known as Cop21.

How wonderful to read the New York Times headlines this morning and find an article about cooperation among world leaders on climate change. Hope! In the midst of so much fear mongering and violence, hope is what we need.

The agreement’s not perfect, everyone agrees, but it is an  important starting place. Maybe a moment that future generations will call a pivotal moment when worldwide recognition of the problem and a common will to do something about it took root.

Of course, here in the U.S., we have lots of politicians who don’t accept the overwhelming science supporting the reality of global warming and many who want nothing more than to obstruct anything that might smack of an Obama success. This includes most if not all of the Republican slate of presidential candidates.

eiffel tower with "No Plan B" message in lights referring to the importance of world leaders to make the climate change agreement work.

In Paris, the Eiffel Tower lights up with the message that there are no second chances to address climate change

Maybe they will be shamed into supporting the agreement. Maybe our citizens will make their voices heard. This is not for big oil or coal or fossil fuel companies. This action is for the generations that follow ours.

This is not only a political issue. As Pope Francis has made clear, response to climate change and care for the planet, is a moral and spiritual issue.

The road ahead will be difficult, but for the moment, I want to enjoy a bit of hopeful celebration!

Pope Francis and the Common Good

Close up of Pope Francis addressing US Congress 9 24 2015






This past Sunday, while spending an evening with the Nuns on the Bus, I heard one man say that the words “the common good” had all but disappeared from public discourse. Today, Pope Francis put it back—front and center. He stood before Congress and in the first minutes of his speech, reminded those legislators: “You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.”

I hope they were listening.

The organization of the Pope’s speech was masterful. He reminded us of values and struggles for liberty, freedom for all, social justice, and openness to dialogue and prayer by holding up four Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Many of his listeners may not have heard of Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton. Their lives and writings were integral to the development of my own values and spirituality in my late teens and early twenties. Thomas Merton’s books have a place in my study, and his quote from his theophany at Walnut and 42nd in Louisville, Kentucky hangs on my wall.

Pope Francis highlighted the need to address poverty and climate change. To welcome refugees and those seeking a better life. He warned against reducing complex issues of violence done in the name of religion to labels of “righteous” and “sinners.”  When speaking of the need to  respect life in all its stages, he called for an international ban on the death penalty. Throughout the fifty-some minutes that he spoke, he emphasized the imperative of working not for wealth or personal power, but for the good of all.

And, in a place where it has been tragically lacking, he called for cooperation:  “We must move forward

together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good. The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States.”

Pope Francis in front of assembled US Congress.

Pope Francis addressing US Congress 9 24 2015

Life the man himself, Pope Francis’s speech was also full of hope and optimisim. Of joy and love.

And then, when he finished, he left the halls of Congress and the assembly of rich and powerful to share lunch with homeless of Washington.



The Nuns on the Bus Come to Columbus

The Nuns on the Bus Come to Columbus

A vertical banner reading: The Nuns on the Bus, Bridge the Divides:  Transform Politics

Photo: Mary van Balen

Sunday, Sept. 20, Lutheran Pastor Gary Sandberg warmly welcomed the Nuns on the Bus at the Kerns Religious Life Center on the campus of Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. The space, made available for the town hall meeting,  was filled with people of all ages and religious backgrounds. I was pleased to be part of the diverse group that shared one thing in common: concern for social issues and the failure of current political structures to deal with them. As one man said, the term “The Common Good” seems to have disappeared from public discourse.

Sr. Simone Campbell and six other nuns from across the country weren’t interested in presenting a lecture. They wanted participation, and from the start, had small groups of people talking with each other about local challenges and divides and how we could move forward to address them.

The list was long and included human trafficking (I didn’t know that Columbus ranked 7th in the country), Gerrymandering (There’s an issue on the ballot…Issue #1… Vote.) payday lenders, lack of affordable housing, ethnic and racial divides, LGBT issues, polarization, school-to-prison pipeline, lack of shelters for the homeless, especially homeless families, infant mortality (Again, Columbus ranks near the top of the list of US cities with this problem.)

You get the idea. People had suggestions: Join B.R.E.A.D., vote, take time to listen to those who have views that differ from your own, put a face on the problem by sharing stories with those in positions of power, publicize things that are working (because some things are working), and the list went on.

Sister Simone Campbell PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Sister Simone Campbell PHOTO: Mary van Balen

This meeting energized people. It broadened knowledge of issues and solutions right where we are. It was hopeful. It pointed to prayer and action and the difference one person can make. It articulated Catholic social teachings in a way that encouraged participation.

A piece of wisdom: Find one thing that you are passionate about, and become involved. Every one needs to do something. And when we do, we make a difference. We can bridge the divides. We can change politics.

I stand with The Nuns on the Bus!


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.