"Guillaume Fournier," I say as a person besides me rolls over my foot with their luggage, because I had to stop and take a breath, "this is why I wanted to be here two hours ago!"
At the office I told everyone my train left at 2:29 and I planned to leave at noon.
It’s give minutes away, they all said.
What about the fact I need euros instead of Swiss Francs, I asked.
Ok, go like maybe a 1/2 hour early, was the consensus.
Guillaume is the French intern who grew up in New York, and since I’m going to Paris we all decide he can help me figure things out. We go to the ATM which has a huge line. It only gives Swiss Francs. We get in line for the other. It only gives Swiss Francs. We go to the grocery store. Again, Swiss Francs.
At the money changer Guillaume says “We have to run, or you will miss your train.”
While the local rails seem to adopt a casual attitude about time, the transcountry lines close doors two minutes before it leaves.
We run. “What platform do we need to go to?” I pant.
"I don’t know!" We run to a sign. The screen flickers. "8!" we shout, and run, in a circle the opposite way, before I have to stop, and have my little ‘I told you so’ moment. We make it up the ramp to 8.
"I need to have my passport ready for customs?" I practically shout as Guillaume runs ahead of me.
"No, we just passed the customs guy right there," he nodded at the man in a blue shirt as we ran by.
A kind of technical answer, but I’ll take it. We find my car just as the doors are closing, and I hug him and run onto the train.
The rule that has helped me so much, I consider as I sit down across from a man wearing a business suit and reading a French novel, is that you need to build in time to screw-up. For everything. That’s the secret to success.
The train starts to pull away.
The scenery is incredible. Mountains and rivers as far as the eye can see, hamlets with old castles in ports with trains giving over the bay and vineyards. It is astounding how beautiful France is right outside of Geneva. It opens up into rolling hills, and I get up to get a drink.
It has become the custom, I think, that you must at least attempt French in France before any of the folks who know English will speak it with you. I am reminded of this when the server pleasantly smiles as she hands me a coke and tolberone.
I spend the rest of the time standing in the dining car watching the countryside fly by, smiling at three beige cows lazing on a gigantic pasture, looking like a cheese advertisement.
Luckily, the last stop is my stop, and it’s Paris. I know I am marking myself as a tourist, but I am taking pictures of everything.
"Oh look, they put planters on the railstop, how interesting," I think.
"Huh, they put spikes on top of the vending machine," and I snap a photo.
"Weird, this little space invader sticker tells me to look up," and I snap again.
I look up. There’s nothing I can see. I take a photo of that just in case I missed it.
I have a meeting in the states in a few hours, so after I take a picture of an ad that says “Elegance is attitude,” with a horse that makes me think of Mr. Ed, I go to the information center to find out where I can get Euros.
"Hello, how are you," I say to the information center lady, and the smile disappears from her face. I forgot.
"Bonjour madame, si vous plait…" but it is too late. She is not happy. She gives me the wrong directions and I set off, wandering around before I realize we misunderstood each other or she gave me the wrong directions. I follow the signs to the currency exchange.
I forgot to mention the music in Europe. In Geneva, I think you get kicked out of the country if you don’t have classical music going on in the background. That’s unless, of course, your are in an ethnic restaurant. Then you’re obligated to blare music from your homeland.
In the station and on the subway and on the street corner are live musicians. There is a band with a piano and boom mic in the station. A man with a clarinet in the subway. And a saxophone player on the street.
I get some wifi and fries at McDonald’s after getting off the subway and connect to the meeting. I’m a bit scared because I am not sure where my hostel is and without wifi I can’t get the address. I then remember I have to meet curfew at the hostel, and dash off after getting a map.
The hostel is part of a college of some sort, these dorms being connected to more buildings. It isn’t labeled as a hostel, there is a theater attached to it so I walk by it twice. I have convinced myself that the building with the bunkbed and graffiti on the wall - that I can see through a window - must be it. Nope, that is just someone’s apartment. I wonder if I’d let my kids graffiti their walls when I figure out where I’m actually supposed to be and check in. I walk into a rather swanky party where everyone says bonsoirs to me before I realize I’m in the wrong place again, this time *inside* the hostel.
I then figure out that my room is down this long dark abandoned hallway. They were nice enough to give me my own room and shower - an upgrade from what I booked. I spam the internet with everything that happened, planning to cram in a full day of Paris and off the internet tomorrow.
That is, if I can get some wifi to get me a map of where I need to go, first.
So this is a post just about the video above. We do a live talk show every week, and this week it was international day of the woman.
And on this day my computer was like “no sound for you lol” so I spent the first 15 minutes of the show flipping out and then stealing an intern’s computer.
BUT! About halfway in, you see me and my boss chatting up International Women’s Day and she’s fantastic.
No, I don’t kiss butt, she doesn’t even read this blog (that I know of) but she founded an international organization that protects basic human rights and prevents torture. She’s basically a living saint.
And she’s curious and excited about everything. She glances at the caregiver video I’m editing and marvels about how we can turn elder care into a blessing instead of a burden. She sees someone wearing a shirt of a place she’s been and two seconds later they’re best friends.
She is a human rights lawyer too - and very practical about how to get things done effectively. In this video you can see how we get along like peanut butter and jelly.
It’s so important to be in work that feels gratifying to be a part of. And just as important, it’s fantastic to work with people who inspirational and are actually changing the world, like Karen. Anyway, enjoy the video!
After the forest, I went to work and stayed there until after midnight. The file upload is incredibly slow in Geneva, so it took hours for the videos to upload.
While I was waiting I wrote for the interfaith vigil page, finished up some other work for the states, and called my brother.
"Stephen, I wouldn’t even ask this unless I was in Switzerland going to Paris tomorrow and would be totally screwed if I can’t put a new page on the website."
IBJ had an FTP server, and I had no idea how to make changes. I thought I could google it, but learning HTML seemed more difficult than learning French.
"It’s fine. Call Squeaky or Blackwood."
Those were his two friends who wrote code and developed apps. Squeaky wasn’t around, but Blackwood was.
He courageously helped me for two hours, something I promised would only take 15 minutes. It’s time like these that get me through tough places, when I know I can trust people I barely know to come through. Well, when you’re calling from Switzerland and are going to Paris tomorrow, at any rate.
After I left the office, it took me another hour to figure out there wasn’t another train coming to take me to Versoix.
I hailed a cab.
"Credit?" I said hopefully, holding up my card.
"Non," said the taxi driver, "ATM."
I got in, and he started driving before I could say another word.
"Please," I said in the worst French possible, "I go to Versoix?"
He nodded furiously.
"Oui madame," he said. "First we go to ATM in Belle Vue, then we go to Versoix."
At least that is what I think he said. On the way, I see the Human Rights Commission. Then, at one in the morning on the 6th day in Geneva, I see the United Nations. I didn’t know it was so close. The flags were shining brightly, dazzling in the night.
"Is that the United Nations?" I exclaim. The cab driver turns around and smiles at me.
"Beautiful, no?" he says and he zips on by.
He drops me off and doesn’t charge me. I insist on at least giving him 10 franc after the whole ATM business, but he smiles and waves me off.
I used to think I had the best of luck because I was young, or blond, or good looking. But as all of those things have changed. It must be because most people are kind. The few who aren’t probably need kindness the most. I think that even when I’m a gnarly old lady people will still be doing the best the can with what they have, and there is nothing more I can ask than that.
The forest needs an offering.
I suppose you could classify me as agnostic about the supernatural. While I believe there is a force at work greater than any of us, I’m not sure what precisely it is or how it affects our daily lives except it’s always with us. So I classify myself as a theist, but that label is fluid.
I like my mom’s view of the supernatural. Whenever someone says there are ghosts, she believes them. She knows they exist. “Ghosts don’t bother me,” she often says, meaning that she’s never seen or heard one or care that much about them. But sure they exist and other people talk about them, so why not?
I take the same attitude, except ghosts do bother me. My rational mind knows their unlikelihood and yet I feel them.
In the ancient forest which was the site of many Celtic rituals, I wonder if my mother would be bothered.
I’m up early taping for the Church of the Larger Fellowship. The wind picks up, and the woods creak. The sound is eerie as my camera stand is blown over. Even though I rang the gong as I came in, I distinctly get the feeling I did not ask for permission.
The video I make ends up having the wind blowing into the mic making it almost unusable. When I’m done, I issue a public apology and promise I will bring an offering to atone next time.
I have been in old forests before. The shrine in Suzuka, Japan is thousands of years old. But there the woods felt respected, happy. Thousands came to visit them and paid their respects. This forest, with a tiny bit of land protected and bulldozers a short away breaking down trees, felt a little bit angry for being forgotten.
Karen wants me to help with a labyrinth in her yard, and I think the forest needs an altar for offerings.
"You have to go to Paris."
This the bombshell my spouse Tom delivers to me five minutes from the airport before I leave Nebraska, him, and my kids for an entire month.
"This is not a sightseeing trip honey. I am going to work all day for IBJ, and all night for CLF and the International Office. I am not going to Paris."
I’d been pushing back on the idea that this was a glamorous trip across Europe where I’d get to see the sights and travel and have fun. I was going there to do justice, dammit, and that’s what people need to know. And I planned to do it while doing everything else I do in the states. I’m getting paid an intern’s salary, my student loans are due, we have a family, and this was not an all-expenses paid business trip to fart around Paris.
Tom knows me too well.
"You can’t be a good minister," he says, "if you don’t understand humanity. And if you pass up the opportunity to see the apex of art at the Louvre, you’ll be committing a crime."
I grunt. I agree with his point, but I’m not happy about it.
"Fine," I say, before kissing him and the kids goodbye.
"If you’re going to go to Paris," says Karen, "do it now. Because later this month we’ll be full steam ahead and Paris will drop out of view."
This morning I get up really early, shower, and dash off to the office. I have to be there to open it this morning and I snap pics along the way to make up for the poor photos yesterday. I try to stop at the rail station to get a pass, but it’s too busy. I make it to the office and book a rail ticket to Paris and a hostel near the rail station and the Louvre. Paris is happening.
After that, it was a 4 hour meeting on how to follow up from progress made at the world economic forum. It was interesting to see how NGOs tie to corporate vision, and how we needed to situate ourselves.
"I think the best thing is that we talk about how we are preventative. It’s not just that we end torture, but we stop it from happening in the first place," I say. "Warren Buffet famously refused to give to charities, saying he could make a lot more money with his wealth until he died, and that if he gave to charity, he wouldn’t make as much. He planned to wait until his death before passing on the majority of his wealth to charity, as his kids are not going to inherit it. But Bill Gates came to him and told him that for all that he could make as a master of wealth, he’d never be able to cover how expensive problems will be later on. He appealed to Buffet’s financial sense of investment, of paying a little to prevent instead of spending a lot to cure. And after that, Warren Buffet gave $40 billion to the Gates foundation."
There were nods around the room.
"So I think that’s what businesses want," I said, "investment in a stable country free from torture."
After the 4 hour meeting is my meeting about the interfaith page.
"Our page will have three levels of engagement," I say, drawing it on a whiteboard.
"Before that, we’ll have something that explains what this is about - Religious Leaders Speaking Out against torture, and how the world economic forum event set the stage for it. Then, we’ll have a proclamation with religious leaders’ signatures on it, and an interactive way for religious leaders to sign it. The next level is the day of advocacy and witness on the International Day Against Torture on June 26th. Finally, we’ll ask faith communities to become a certified community of conscience sanctuary by following a five step program to end torture and provide shelter to the oppressed."
We hash out some details, and agree to go with the plan to develop this. Other interns report on the Interfaith Youth Corps and the Charter of Compassion as models to look at for interfaith organizing.
After the meeting, I run down to the church again. It’s Ash Wednesday. I remember when I was in college, the local Episcopal church had a 15 minute service so we could get ashed while on lunch break. This service is an hour long, high church chant, making me rest.
I am reminded that I need to get the opera that the organist made. She created one just for the occasion of the dedication of Servetus’ statue - the first person who was ever killed for the Unitarian Heresy - and I knew a talented music director who could probably make that opera happen.
I think back to the conversation with the interns earlier in the day.
"Are you a wedding planner?" one of them asks, holding up my card that says "Worship - Weddings - Witness" for my title.
"I just had a wedding, but no. That’s the weddings I do. I marry people. You know, to each other." They all go ‘ooooooh’ and I tell them about what I do as a minister in the states.
Another staffer, who is married to a Unitarian Universalist, walks in.
"They’re all atheist commies!" he says, jokingly.
"We are not! You see, in the 1960’s-"
"That’s your first clue! The 60’s!" he interrupts. I jokingly shut the door in his face.
"That’s so not true. Our roots are way deeper than that. In fact," I open the door again, "the first Unitarian ever was burned right here in Geneva hundreds of years ago by John Calvin. And he was no commie!" and shut it.
The interns are highly amused by this show, and I explain the religion.
"Our heritage is christian," I start, "but you could classify us as post christian now. That’s because we continued to believe in the unity of God past religious boundaries - that’s the Unitarian heritage. The Universalist heritage said that there was no hell - everyone goes to heaven. What this means is that we are not waiting for a supernatural force to make things right in the world. We must do it now." Nods and exclamations of how that makes sense go around the room. "The thing is, there are a couple of religions that acknowledge the goodness of people and the holy in all traditions. How we are different is that we also worship as atheists, well some of us do at any rate. That’s because we also believe that you do not need to believe in any supernaturalism if you don’t want to. It’s not essential to be a good person or to make meaning in life. So our services frequent different holy texts, but also philosophy, ethics, poetry, and modern insight," I finish.
"That sounds totally cool!" one of them says.
"I think it’s rubbish for one religion to go around and say it’s better than another," another intern says. As I’ve got to go, I tell them about the UUA website and then I’m off, telling them to ask Karen about it more, as she is a UU minister.
It finally came. On the fourth day, I finally had gotten my luggage.
I knew that my 15 minutes in New York meant that my luggage would stay there longer than I would, but I didn’t know it would take a four day excursion in the state without me.
Everyday I would log in my claim number, and everyday the website would say it wasn’t quite sure where the luggage was, as if it were touring the Statue of Liberty and didn’t make curfew. I started to think of the luggage in The Color Of Magic, that followed the wizard everywhere whether he liked it or not. Except my luggage was determined to not follow me.
I am fat, and people in Europe are typically not, so I was worried about buying new clothes. Thankfully my friend had told me to pack what I truly needed in my carry-on, so the only thing the luggage had was my tripod stand and my clothes. A lot of my favorite clothes.
Karen told me they’d give me a lot of money if my luggage was truly lost, and the delivery service would bring it as soon as they could. I didn’t want the hassle of buying new clothes, most of which I pictured would be some sort of muumuu. I wanted my old crappy thrift store clothes.
I know I’m writing a lot about this, but to be honest, I did not spend most of my day hand-wringing over luggage. I spent most of the day working my butt off.
Tuesday is newsletter day at that’s a big day at Church of the Larger Fellowship with a lot of moving parts. I currently minister to military families, young adults, and am developing social media. That’s quite a load to manage for one organization. It’s another to manage it and organize international justice.
International Bridges to Justice was at the World Economic Forum. With some really important people, they were able to organize an interfaith vigil against torture. Religious leaders took risk by reaching across religious walls to come together and take a stand against torture.
Since it was such an important event, we really needed to get the word out about it and do some serious follow-up. The event lays the groundwork for a worldwide interfaith campaign to proclaim that we can end torture now. At the same time we’re telling about why this was incredible, we need to tell what is going to happen next.
This meant meetings, research, phone calls, emails, writing, website updates, releases, scrapbooks, and all the little moments and interactions that build nations of people making changes that save lives and end oppression.
It was supposed to snow that day, but only a light drizzle came down.
Dinner time is when I felt the pressure the most.
"Meg," I told my boss, at the online church, "how long do I have to be here for the religious education class? Karen’s asked me to go somewhere and I have no idea what it is, but I want to make room for it."
Meg asked me to sit in to talk about social media for the Religion in the 21st Century course taught at CLF. It was two hours long, 7pm to 9pm here.
"See how important this is. We need you here, but if you can’t bear to not do what she needs, let me know."
All day at IBJ we’d been talking about corporate leaders, government officials, and even royal families. When Karen said she needed to go out with me that night, I was thinking that there was an ambassador to meet or a foundation event.
"Thanks Meg," I said, thinking that I have the best bosses in the world. Karen came in.
"Pancake night!" she said, holding up a 5 franc coin.
I was so happy that it was pancake night I almost cried. There is no pressure on pancake night, just have to loosen your belt a bit. The local Episcopal church was hosting a pancake feed for fat tuesday, for 5 francs. We had just enough time to dash down the street, scarf some pancakes, and then run back to the office in time for the online class to start.
I couldn’t think of anything better than being where I was right then, with a belly full of pancakes and a class of congregations from all over the states where I shared my ideas from thousands of miles away.
Maybe, I thought, maybe I’ll have enough time tomorrow to finally get a rail pass and book the trip to Paris.
"My great-grandfather was president of Syria," says an intern, taking a bite of tiki masala. She explained how her father had to work in the states, so she lived for three years with her grandfather in Switzerland, where she perfected her English. She considers herself to be a pure Syrian though she’s lived in the U.A.E. for most her life.
"The thing Putin forgets when he invades elsewhere is that his resources are limited. The opposition in Syria is going to go crazy if he lets the pressure up in Syria even a tiny bit," and for the first time, her words illustrate how Russia keeps peace in the former soviet satellites.
It’s my first day of work. Before the new intern lunch, we had an all staff meeting. Staff and interns are from all over the world: Burma, China, India, Bulgaria, France, Turkey. There are four from the states: Cleveland, Bangor, Atlanta, and of course, Omaha.
I coincidentally arrived on the first day of a few interns who have a few months to do work and are part of a University program. All the interns are younger than me by five years or more, the staff is older than me by twenty years or so. The meeting finishes with us reading poetry from Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The office is outside of the center of Geneva according to google maps, and further away from the United Nations office. It’s small, with one bathroom for 16 people. The bathroom door can’t be locked, so people take a rubber duck dressed like UK policeman with them when they go. If the duck is gone, you know the bathroom is occupied. The office is covered with international tokens of affection; a mask from an African country, a rug from northern India, prayer flags from Tibet and singing bowls from Cambodia. The walls are white and the windows are small. Outside the conference room is Karen’s office and the kitchen, and two rooms where interns and staff sit in a open, dynamic setting. I can sit wherever I want, and people can move me from that spot if there’s a need.
After that introductory meeting Karen takes me and another intern out for lunch, pointing out all the essential sites near the office.
"This place sells a whole pizza for just 10 franc!" She exclaims, pointing to a green, white, and red covered storefront. The manager comes out and starts speaking in French.
"Authentic Italian! You should eat now!" he says. We laugh and say we’ll definitely be back.
Nearby is also the cheapest grocery store, tons of restaurants, and secondhand clothes stores. “If you go there make sure you get something designer,” Karen explains “Because for what they charge for normal stuff like H & M, you can get at H & M.”
This is going to be a real need for me, as when I checked the status of my luggage it still couldn’t be found. I still have to get a monthly rail pass, mobile phone, and withdraw cash in case my card doesn’t work. So far my only expenses are wifi at the airport and a rail pass - Karen has made sure that I have plenty to eat, and like a good host, frets I haven’t had enough.
The best sign of hospitality is the free offer of food, and Karen is more than happy to share. She grew up in the projects of Cleveland and as I grew up in a trailer and then in a duplex, we share the same palate: bread, fried food, soda, mac and cheese, and all kinds of potato. At the lunch, she enjoys the Indian buffet with zest.
"I grew up in Hong Kong," says the other intern. "I went to a Canadian school. My mother is Vietnamese and moved to Hawaii, where she met my dad, who’s from Hong Kong. They moved back there because all of his family is there, but I still get to go to Hawaii on a regular basis, so I am a US citizen."
"Canadian! Why there?" Karen asks.
The intern laughs. “I don’t know! My parents have no ties to Canada. They just thought it was a good school.” She talks more about her background in social media, and how she knew that in order to be a journalist these days, she’d need more than a journalism degree. International studies is her focus now.
"I suppose I’m in this work because politics runs in my blood!" says the other intern.
It’s then time to introduce myself and how I came to work for IBJ.
"I have always been interested in international justice. But in Omaha there are hardly opportunities for it, that I could access, at any rate." I told them how I started out as an international studies major, but quickly switched programs to political science when I realized I’d have to meet with the Dean of International Studies every semester.
"He stroked my palm during our handshake. I was repulsed, and he said it was the international handshake!"
The other women immediately cried out. “There is no such thing!” “Disgusting!” “Nonsense!” “What did you do?”
"I didn’t know what it was at the time, being 20 years old, but I knew it wasn’t no international handshake," I said trying to laugh it off, and remembering that specific gesture as something I’d later learn in sexual harassment training is grounds for filing lawsuits. "I didn’t protest, just switched majors. I later realized that this guy was the boob Bush used to push through his Afghanistan strategy. Karzai is a friend of the Dean’s. I couldn’t figure out why Omaha, Nebraska, of all places, was where they chose their expert on Afghanistan, but I think now it’s because he was the only expert who was stupid enough to agree with whatever the Bush administration wanted," thinking about my only class with the Dean, where he showed us a slide of him on the cover of Time magazine. "He has been blasted repeatedly by other professors on campus, and later slapped a female student in a meeting. He still has his job, I think, because of the connections he had with the White House."
After we laugh about this (because if we weren’t laughing, we’d probably be outraged at how awful it all was).
"Karen, how did you get to be so successful, to run IBJ?" asks an intern.
"Well, I founded it! You must make your own success, especially as a woman. They will always tell you no - more times than they will tell men with the same ideas - so you must keep doing it. I founded IBJ with a vision of justice and three dollars. Now we have 42 justicemakers around the world and 6 country defender centers; changing nations with simple and persuasive grassroots reform." She’s going into policy mode now, clearly passionate. "What people don’t understand is that there are already laws, judges, and smart people at the top who have made the right laws. But how does it happen? Who makes sure it happens? That is where we come in."
I have to dash away from lunch because it’s time for me to do my work for the states. I think that mondays are the worst, as IBJ’s workload is the heaviest and that’s I have to do my work for the states. I don’t think I can actually do both - IBJ during the day and states work in the evening - not if it’s like it was that Monday afternoon.
A half hour before we leave, Karen reminds me we need bread and eggs for dinner at the house. So she sends Melanie and I to Migros, and also for me to pick up a rail pass and get a mobile phone. We go to the rail ticket center first. Everyone has to take a ticket to wait in line. I see that the newest ticket is 50 spots away from being seen.
"We can do this later," says Melanie, ever practical.
As we go down to the supermarket inside the store I pepper Melanie with questions.
"How on earth do you do real estate in Atlanta from here? Why are you volunteering for IBJ? What brought you to Geneva anyway?"
It seems none of her clients notice she’s thousands of miles away. Her assistant shows the properties and she does the paperwork and negotiations, aided by google voice. As her husband got a job here for a few years, they decided to drop everything and move to Geneva. Her parents and friends thought they were crazy.
"What should we do? Sit around and wait to die? This is our life!" she says. We compare some differences: people are quite used to smoking outside everywhere, so there is a waft of smoke walking through the streets. The winter was cruel in the states, with the crisis in her own home city and the polar vortex closing school in my town. In Geneva it was positively mild, with no snow even touching the harbor this year. All of it managed to stay in the Alps. The food here is excellent. Neither one of us knows french.
"She told us to get brown bread?" I venture, looking at the incredible assortment of bread.
"I don’t see any…they are serious about bread. Everyone eats it all the time. Everyone in the states avoids it if they know what’s good for them," she says while looking at packages to figure out which is the brown bread.
"There is only 2 or 3 breads we know of where there is no corn syrup added to it in the states," I reply, grabbing something that’s full of seeds and has to be brown enough. Melanie tells me how the food is fresh and local, and how the food hardly has any preservatives, and since everyone is buying food all the time, the checkout lanes are always long.
That night Karen is out with her sons and I have more meetings. Over dinner, we watch the CLF worship service, everyone riveted by worship that can be so convenient.
"I’m watching this every Monday night from now on!" Karen exclaims, as a hymn comes on. That night work keeps me up until 1am Geneva time, and I keep thinking about the congregational program elements that can bring people to the justicemakers - I suddenly think - what about sanctuary! Surely holy sites around the world can promise that to people persecuted and tortured by their government! And then fall dead asleep to the sound of the ever-rushing river.
"Ok, let me see if I have all this. The idea that the opposing side is not better than us, but wins because they are more creative than us - that’s from Sharon Welch?"
I nod my head while drinking another cup of green tea. I’m sitting at the kitchen table with Rama, a former parliamentarian from India and now worldwide peace activist. We hit it off immediately when I told her about my work to bring women veterans and women from Iraq and Afghanistan together for a retreat in November for peace and reconciliation. I’m facing Karen’s large white stonewashed hearth, rotund and sculpted up to the bare wood ceiling. Her entire house is modern and minimalist, with every accent either being a wood sculpture or a fixture from IKEA. Which I think sometimes she adds wood to, just to be safe. Rama continues the recap of our conversation.
"And reforming institutions from within, rather than being co-opted or apathetic to them, that Appiah’s book the Honor Code…now the idea that individual freedom is worthless without commitment to the larger whole, where is that from?"
"Well, I don’t think it was from him originally, but I most recently read that about religion from James Luther Adams."
She smiles and writes the name down. “How wonderful you remember the books you read!” she exclaims. I’m glad my seminary education is paying off.
"One last thing - the idea that peaceful and creative resistance, and trying to stop to the oppression of the oppressor, only works if the oppressor has a conscience and many of then don’t - where is that?"
I can’t quite remember that one. I’d gotten into a Facebook argument on it but surely there was a source greater than that.
"I hear it from womanist theory, but I can’t quite remember the source." I said, as I do read a womanist blog that is fairly fed up with waiting around for white folks to suddenly realize that getting away with murder is wrong. "Ah wait. I think it is from Malcolm X. I can’t be sure though."
She smiles again, wide and warm, as she’s writing. It’s quite a confidence boost to speak with someone like Rama who insists I need to be the voice of my generation. Most people my generation think I’m probably kind of dull and bossy and so I don’t often speak up unless I think someone might actually listen. In the public sphere anyway. She tells me about her son, about the politicians she’s worked with in Iraq and Afghanistan, about the reconciliation work she’s done in Palestine and trying to convince the Israeli lobby in the states to stop the encroachment and humanitarian violations of Palestinians. It’s dazzling all the work she’s done in her career. I tell her so.
"The day I think that the tyrant can’t be appealed to, that they don’t have a conscience, is the day I give up. I work in religion because I believe there must be a spiritual transformation in peace work or the oppressed will become the oppressor. Surely that’s what’s happened in Israel."
"15th century Erasmus’ peace theory, alive and well," I respond, knowing that the only reason I know that at all is because of the bridgebuilders program at Church of the Larger Fellowship.
Karen whirls in with her son and we’re off. Rama has to drive back to her home in France, and the rest of us are going to church. Karen picked me up at the airport that morning after a little hiccup.
My luggage had been lost at the airport and the Genevans had taken a long time in filing the report. The entire luggage claims department was elated that I lived in Papillion, and that I knew it meant butterfly and that the town was named by French settlers who were amazed at the thousands of monarch butterflies that migrated through there. I had to tell it to everyone, apparently, until I could file a claim for my luggage. It was 45 minutes later than my arrival time when I finally met up with Karen.
The drive to church is incredible. It looks like Tennessee, with the lakes in the hills right along the highway. Except there are a ton of chateaus and instead of rolling green hills the alps rose above the clouds.
Emmanuel Church is in English and Episcopalian. It looks like it’s been there for a long time, with stain glass windows showing different biblical moments, dedicated to benefactors in the 1750’s. The common room upstairs looks like it was redone in the 1960’s, complete with wood paneling going around the room and modern glass domes around naked light bulbs.
Everyone here is an expat. Lots of diplomats, NGO officers, and business folks. Most send their kids to expat schools because they want their kids to learn English, and the public schools teach in French. At the end of the day, everyone ends up speaking English as it’s the lingua franca. Karen introduces me to the minister, who knows more than a few international interfaith groups that we can contact for our own project.
After potluck featuring chili, rice, and all sorts of pastries, we go back to Karen’s house. I put on my rubber galoshes she told me to bring as we’re going into the forest that her house sits on. She wants to put a labyrinth in her backyard, and is so excited that I know how to make them. Before we enter, she rings a gong and asks the spirits of the forest to nourish welcome and nourish me, as her two kids run past her down into the creek. I did feel welcome, and she told me the reason why, in land-hungry Geneva, this was never developed - it’s an ancient Celtic worshipping site. It does seem more alive there than elsewhere. The creek is full of large smooth stones with clear water and meets up to the river. On the other side of the river is a hiking trail. A bridge goes from the sacred land to the trail. Her kids are screaming and splashing in the creek.
"MOM! A BONE! LOOK! A BONE!" her son yells over and over until we look. It is indeed a bone, a turkey leg or something, and they all gawk as a pick it up.
"She’s only doing that because she has gloves on," the oldest boy says. I pull off my glove and hold the bone. His eyes go wide.
"It’s just a bone," I said, laughing. We go to the bridge and decide that its a wishbone. We all make a wish on it as he throws it into the river. I wish that I remember this moment forever - on a bridge, above a pristine river, in the gully of an ancient holy site, beneath a beautiful house with a sod roof, in an incredibly beautiful place, where world leaders meet to make the world we dream about - all of these things I think of as the bone is swept away by the current.