Tag Archives: community

Star Sightings

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One week after the terrible mass shooting during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, interfaith gatherings appeared all over the nation like tender flowers sprouting from the bloody soil.

My new friend, Rabbi Michael Schwartz, who is new to Malibu, graciously invited me to take part in an interfaith service at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue as Sabbath began last Friday evening. Rabbi Schwartz conducted a beautiful service filled with thoughtful songs, prayers, and reflections, and the musical gifts shared by Cantor Marcelo and his special guests were deeply moving.

At the outset of the service, we who represented local clergy from various faith backgrounds, along with important community leaders, were invited on stage to light eleven candles in honor of the lives that were tragically taken in Pittsburgh. We were then asked to share a short blessing. Without knowing exactly what to say at such a difficult moment, I chose to share a quote from Dr. King’s famous mountaintop speech, the last before he was assassinated: “Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.”

Looking at those flickering candles and out at the diverse audience in the synagogue, I can say with confidence that I saw stars shining in the darkness.

There is plenty of darkness to go around. May we see the stars. May we be the stars.

Manzanar

ManzanarI elbowed my way through afternoon L.A. traffic to begin a four-hour mountain drive that ended in a surprising thunderstorm and finally some peace and quiet. Early the next morning I drove the few remaining miles to my destination: Manzanar.

I forget exactly when I learned about Manzanar, but it should have been sooner.

Asian-Americans endured prejudicial treatment prior to Pearl Harbor in 1941 but that terrible attack brought specific ethnic hostility to those of Japanese ancestry. In early 1942, FDR signed Executive Order 9066 that authorized the military to remove “any or all persons” from the West Coast and ultimately over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in ten American concentration camps simply because of their ethnicity. Ten thousand of those Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants were incarcerated in California at Manzanar.

My interest in visiting Manzanar intensified a few years ago when I learned that two of the ten wartime camps were located in Arkansas—I grew up in Arkansas and taught history in Arkansas and had never been told that Arkansas incarcerated 17,000 people of Japanese descent from California, half at Camp Jerome and half at Camp Rohwer. I knew then that I needed to visit Manzanar to feel the pain of a camp and ponder this terrible connection between my two “home” states—and my native country.

Manzanar is easy to visit on one hand: It is free, uncrowded, and only takes an hour or two to see everything there is to see. But it is difficult to visit as well. For what it represents, and what it proclaims.

Out of the 110,000+ imprisoned out of fear of espionage or sabotage, exactly zero were convicted of espionage or sabotage. That unwarranted fear destroyed many lives and families and even flirted with destroying a culture. In Hawaii where 158,000 Japanese-Americans faced less prejudice and enjoyed more freedom than those on the mainland, they were still discouraged from speaking the Japanese language and practicing the Buddhist religion. Hawaii’s military governor explained why: “We must remember that this is America and we must do things the American Way.”

And what, pray tell, did this chapter of American history communicate about the American Way?

The barbed wire at Manzanar stands as a reminder of how fear and power work together. But Manzanar also reminds us of the potential resilience of oppressed people and that even when fear and power lace up on the same team that victims can band together and rise above their circumstances. Possibly my favorite poster in the visitor’s center hung outside the theater and featured a quote from Hank Umemoto: “We were screwed, but then we made the most out of it and we turned Manzanar into a community.”

May there be no more Manzanars. But in the meanwhile, may all such peoples find that kind of courage and hope.

This Is Life

Flipping through television channels is one of my least favorite things to do, but that is what I was doing Sunday evening when I discovered CNN’s “This is Life with Lisa Ling,” a series that describes itself by saying that Ling “goes on a gritty, breathtaking journey to the far corners of America.” The episode I watched was more grisly than gritty as she journeyed to the L.A. County Coroner’s office (like “This is Death with Lisa Ling”).

The show was creepily captivating—and a little personal since I learned that everyone who dies in L.A. County outside of being in a hospital under physician’s care is taken to the warehouse that Ling toured for the world to see. I live in L.A. County.

I also learned that approximately eleven thousand dead bodies are processed in same warehouse each year, which if you do the math, is a lot. The crazy number is at least understandable since L.A. County is the most populous county in the nation (ten million people!), which is like Arkansas plus Mississippi plus Oklahoma (or, for easy math, the nation of Sweden). But still. That thirty dead people on average show up there every day is just difficult to imagine.

Ling introduced viewers to several employees filling several roles at the Coroner’s, and in so doing, basically walked us through the entire process. In particular, we followed the path of the unidentified dead, from the search for family members to the eventual cremation of those whose families cannot be found.

I mean, it was a fun show. Sort of a new Addams Family!

No, it was heartbreaking. Until, that is…

At the end of the hour, Ling shared that the Coroner’s office periodically hosts a multi-faith service in Evergreen Cemetery to honor the unidentified, which sadly numbered over a thousand at the one featured on our television screen. That part was still heartbreaking. The heart-mending part for me was the point Ling made that although these souls died alone, their ashes are honored in community.

That part—the honoring of all people in community—fits the name of Ling’s show. That is what life is all about if you ask me. Now, if we can just work backward and honor the lonely while they are still alive, we will have arrived at someplace worthwhile.

Time to Learn

I have a recurring dream where I am in a school hallway searching for my locker. Everyone else is safely scurrying into the proper classroom, and the air is thick with anticipation for the tardy bell, but I cannot find my locker. My mind is racing to remember the number while my eyes fly back and forth across the expanse of puke green metal rectangles as if watching a world-class table tennis match, hoping that something will trigger which one is my locker, but all hope is apparently lost. I suddenly remember that there was a locker assignment list posted on a bulletin board on the first day of classes, so I race to the wrong bulletin board a time or two or five or at least to one where the anxious search through names and numbers reveals no clues as to the location of the lost locker. The tardy bell is simply taunting me now, threatening to pierce the silence of the hallway at any moment and ruin me.

It is a terrible dream.

Sometimes I find my locker, or maybe I do. At least I am at a locker, fumbling with a combination, clearly not remembering anything helpful. Or maybe God likes me after all and I both find and open my locker but then cannot remember my class schedule and/or which books to take to class and/or if I even have the right books and/or what day it is in the first place.

Welcome back to school, boys and girls. May it haunt you for as long as it has haunted me.

Ha!

Other than the occasional traumatic nightmare, I am generally a happy person who likes school so much that it is now my place of employment. If you count about a decade when my first day of school role was simply as dad, I have now participated in a first day of school since 1975; in fact, I cannot remember a year without one, and there is no end in sight. At my place of work, today is the 2015 version of that tradition. It is going to be awesome.

We call it Launch Week now, and we are going to blow the minds of these students and not just because we will assign them lockers today. They are in for a life-changing week (and year), and I could not be more excited.

That recurring nightmare reminds me on a semi-regular basis that formal education has the potential to be a teensy bit psychologically disturbing what with teaching us how it feels to be last or late or lost. But, my oh my, the potential upside is so fantastic that even if I could find the words I’d be afraid to write them because their intense goodness might just explode and leave an awful mess.

Welcome back to school everyone, and in particular welcome to the Pepperdine University School of Law you budding lawyers. Together, we will laugh and cry and question and dream and love and argue and struggle and hope and disagree and grow and encounter new people and ideas and friends and challenges and be better from the experience.

Today is one of my happiest days. May you, too, regardless of your station in life this fine day, seek the opportunity to learn in community.