Archive | July, 2013

On Harry Potter, Amnesty International and the Moral Imagination

21 Jul
Jessica Gray – a.k.a. Iris Imaginoria – uses her own wand to lead the service.

Jessica Gray – a.k.a. Iris Imaginoria – leads the Harry Potter-themed service.

I settled in my usual pew for the Sunday service at First Unitarian – and that was the only usual thing about it. From the pulpit hung four colorful banners, each featuring a creature – dolphin, dragon, phoenix and “wind horse.” Many children and adults were in costumes that connoted magic; they waved their glowing wands in unison at key moments in the service. The offering was collected by people with elf ears – after it was explained that ELFS in this context stood for “Enriching Life through Fun and Service.” A few rows ahead of me, the back of a youth’s t-shirt stated the theme on the order of worship: “It’s better to light a wand than curse the darkness.”

Such was the climactic service of the two-week Harry Potter-inspired “Hogwarts School of Fun and Magic.” Kids from First Unitarian and elsewhere in Worcester participate in the camp, while many of the counselors come from as far away as Baton Rouge, the previous home of Jessica Gray (a.k.a. Iris Imaginoria), director of faith development ministries at First Unitarian. Even though I hadn’t read the Harry Potter books, I knew enough from the films to sense how the books could be read as spiritual texts – preoccupied as they are with good and evil, light and darkness, with faith and self-sacrifice.

Of course, I also couldn’t resist because, face it, what’s the point of even being Unitarian Universalist if you can’t get a little goofy.

Little did I know that for Jessica – excuse me, Iris – the second point folded neatly into the first. When she took the pulpit for her sermon, “Let Your Light Shine,” she referred to humor as one form of light to hold against the darkness.

Erin Vignes as Professor Irene Morgant, one of the heads of the house of WaveRider.

Erin Vignes as Professor Irene Morgant, one of the heads of the house of WaveRider.

Nor could I know that among the activities in the church basement turned castle was the assembly of hygiene and school kits for Syrian refugees.

Nor, finally, had I gleaned the back story of why all this was profoundly appropriate. The “light a wand” was, of course, a play on “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” the Chinese proverb that inspired the  logo of  Amnesty International; the candle in barbed wire, according to the organization website, reflected the hope that Amnesty “would shine a light in the darkest of places where human rights abuses go unpunished.”

What does this have to do with Harry Potter? Only that his creator, J.K. Rowling,  worked for Amnesty International in early adulthood;  Jessica’s sermon referred to Rowling’s 2008 graduation speech at Harvard University, in which she addressed that period of her life in detail.

In that speech, Rowling talked extensively about her experiences at Amnesty, from reading “hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them” to seeing “photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends.” Many of her co-workers were former political prisoners, living exile, forever scarred by brutal experiences; once walking down an office hallway, she heard a scream; it was the reaction of a young man being told that his mother had been executed in response to his own speaking out against injustice. This continual exposure to the darkness of the all-too-real world informed the moral universe Rowling created for her fantasy hero, the young Harry Potter.

Rowling powerfully connected the role of imagination with the call to witness and serve.  “Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

As for those who think they’re happier not having to engage such horrors, Rowling doubts that this is so. “I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.” Whereas her Harry, of course, takes on the monsters, using his light – and more than a little faith – to beat back the darkness.

The Muggles amongst us, meanwhile, need not worry; they don’t need a wand to follow this link to Amnesty International USA. And for further inspiration, try the video of Rowling’s eloquent, witty, and, of course moving speech.

Classroom sign in the basement "castle" at Hogwarts camp.

Classroom sign in the basement “castle” at Hogwarts camp.

Lives of Service, Cut All Too Short

15 Jul
Amanda Mundt two years ago, working at a school in Les Cayes, Haiti.

Amanda Mundt two years ago, working at a school in Les Cayes, Haiti.

The automobile accident could have happened to anyone, anywhere, with the same ensuing sense of deep pain and tragic loss.

But this particular happened to people who had the sympathetic imagination and moral commitment to see and help those in need not just in their New England backyard, but in Haiti. And when their minibus and a truck collided in southern Haiti last Wednesday, three of those volunteers lost their lives, as did their Haitian driver. Three, either directly or indirectly, had Worcester connections. Amanda Mundt, 22, was a student at Clark; the minibus was returning from a Haitian school where she had established a summer program in 2011. Her aunt, Dianna Mundt, also died in the crash. Meagan Bell was the adult daughter of David Bell, the interim director of Clark’s International Development Program. Her father was seriously injured in the accident, as was Amanda Mundt’s father, Kenneth, who was flown to a Florida hospital.

While fatal car accidents seem to happen almost daily in central Massachusetts, this does underscore the risks people take when they choose to put not only their money, but their bodies, where their mouths are. For those of us who believe that all lives matter equally, such news creates a profound conflict in our souls – or, at least in mine. Even though I didn’t know them, the painful truth is that this particular news invokes a particular grief. As a Worcester Telegram editorial states, “It hurts extra hard when people die or suffer while striving to be of service, whether locally or on the international stage.” This is particularly true for the young, whom one could easily imagine making the world a better place for so many years to come – and for whom you wish every joy life has to offer.

But even as the loss and suffering of all weighs on my heart, I have to admit their example was a relief from another bleak week of news, in which I was reminded again and again of the brutal indifference and outright evil lurking in our culture. It’s harder to wallow in despair and discouragement when reading of people who make serving others such a central part of their lives.

The Telegram editorial quotes Brian Concannon, director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, who said of Amanda: “She’s just an extraordinary person. It was kind of amazing for someone her age to care so deeply.” Hopefully the examples of those lost or injured will, in the long run, inspire us to make that kind of commitment less unusual, both for individual volunteers and for our government. Meanwhile, my prayers are with the family and friends who knew Amanda, Meagan, Dianne, and that unnamed Haitian driver, survivors grappling with the void left by the absence of special individuals.

(For more, refer to both the Telegram editorial and original story, as well as this article from the Clark University website.)

Revelry That Serves The Soul

8 Jul
Helping led the way.

Defying categorization early in Santa Barbara’s mind-bending Summer Solstice Parade.

A few weeks back, a friend and I wandered Bourbon Street in New Orleans, ultimately climbing to one of those second-story wrought-iron verandas from which people study the comic hedonism unfolding below, pretending they are above what they see below, even as they obviously aren’t.

My friend fixated on the silver man: Lean and angular, he’d painted himself silver from the toes of his shoes to the hair on his head; since he was shirtless, that would mean a lot of scrubbing later.

This sacrifice I had to respect.

His one talent, however, turned out to be simply standing on a platform and extending his middle finger in a defiant “up-yours” – hoping people would not only take photos, but throw a few dollars into his box. Unfortunately, people did the first, but not the latter. His action only picked up slightly when two other “performers” – two young women who got away with their topless-ness because of the body paint spread over their breasts, belly and back – joined him. Even then, the money went mostly to the women, happy to pose with male tourists already drunk at 5:45 on a Saturday evening.

When we descended into the stench and noise of Bourbon Street, we gave money to neither. Instead we veered off Bourbon to Royal, lined with art galleries and antique shops, where we finally tipped generously a single young man on a stoop, playing steel guitar and singing old delta blues songs with the heartbreaking authority of a true artist. We sauntered on to a splendid evening of great and diverse music in the smaller and more subtle clubs on Frenchmen Street.

Don’t get me wrong. While Bourbon Street is hardly my favorite part of New Orleans, I do honor this hedonistic acting-out as part of a celebrated wackiness that I generally approve of.

One annual tradition is this float containing acrobat dancers.

One annual tradition is this float containing acrobat dancers.

As evidence of how dearly I value such silliness, I cite where I found myself less than four weeks later: Even though I had just arrived in Santa Barbara, where I could hike seaside cliffs or just sit with my friends on their deck and stare out at the Pacific Ocean, I instead insisted they drop me me off at an event they wouldn’t be caught dead at – the annual Summer Solstice Parade.

Even though the “negative energy” of the silver bird-shooting man was a few thousand miles away, I couldn’t help thinking of the City That Care as I hustled to the legendarily comic and creative proceedings – which is claimed to bring about 100,000 people to the city every year. (How they would count this is anyone’s guess, since many of the participants wear costumes designed to conceal their membership in the human race.)

As soon as I hit State Street, I found a retired gentleman positioning himself behind a row of mailboxes and newsstands, perfect for preventing onlookers from blocking his camera’s view of the proceedings. Learning I was from Massachusetts, he immediately identified himself as a former Bostonian, a software engineer, who “woke up one day in February with a foot of snow and ice on the ground and said, ‘What am I doing here?’” While perhaps his New England reserve kept him from being in the parade, he’d shot it faithfully for 20 years. He gave me the impression that the city draws more of a line between liveliness and depravity, even if these are obviously subjective terms. He told me that in the 1990s one year there was some nudity, which the civic leadership then tried to rein in a bit, since this was a family event. He related this with seeming respect for family concerns, but then shrugged. “I don’t know: It is Santa Barbara, after all.”

The Creatures From The Black Lagoon, mother and son.

The Creatures From The Black Lagoon, mother and son.

Of course, Santa Barbara, like New Orleans, is more than one thing – so much is in the eye of the beholder. My particular lens found no topless women – and no signs of angry defiance. But the Summer Solstice parade made the colors of Bourbon Street seem pale in comparison. From the sidewalk chalk wishing the sun “happy birthday” and the scores of observers wearing fairy wings to the imagination and hilarity of the costumes and floats, my surroundings kept me in alternate states of wonder and amusement for two solid hours. The parade’s theme was “Creatures,” and there certainly were some, from Mrs. Creature from the Black Lagoon (cradling her Baby Creature from the Black Lagoon) and a rooster fish to a colorful lost whale shark and the Wizard of Odd. True, there was also joy in the recognizably human forms, particularly the pulsating bodies of dancers, moving mostly to festive Latin beats, while working in some gymnastics along the way. But the happiest moments came when the parade transcended the realm of the identifiable – floats and costumes that were such flights of fancy, I couldn’t easily name them, or guess the rationale behind what I was seeing.

Which I think gets at the difference between the revels of State Street during Solstice and Bourbon Street during, well, almost every night of the week. The latter simply doesn’t serve the soul as well as the former, because many of the aspects of Bourbon Street are all too easy to label – you could cite the list of the seven deadly sins and be done with it. Indeed, perhaps Bourbon Street is simply a cheerful admission of our sinfulness, before folks go back to the grim gray business of being good Christians in their respective towns.

But the communal revelry of Solstice feels fundamentally different. Instead of embracing traditional categories of sin, Solstice seems to shrug off notions of normalcy altogether. Sure, Bourbon Street gives me permission to carry an open container of alcohol – but Solstice tells me it’s OK to wear fairy wings and a rooster head while playing the accordion. (Not that I’m planning on it.)

Big fish, little fish pass in the parade.

Big fish, little fish pass in the parade.

And in this I couldn’t help but feel there is a broader social vision informing the Solstice Celebration. In celebrating every kind of creature the volunteers could possibly conceive and construct, there is an obvious argument for tolerance. There also was a more overt social consciousness: Roughly 70 percent of the float materials are recycled, and every float is propelled by walking humans, part of the thousand or so volunteers who make Solstice happen. Some even sneaked in social messages; the mermaids, for instance, reminded us of the need to respect the ocean.

Everywhere I looked, I saw more than mere entertainment – I saw a celebration of the richness of a community.

Of course, New Orleans has this thing called Mardi Gras – a more appropriate comparison of forms of community expression. Indeed, I neglect it here simply because I’ve never been. Ironically, Santa Barbara’s Solstice Parade suggests that maybe I should give that a try, too.

Mermaids with a message proceed down State Street.

Mermaids with a message proceed down State Street.

Ocean For Life – and Peace

2 Jul
Hang glides off cliff above burro beach.

Hang gliders off cliff above burro beach.

Dolphins arch through the ocean; behind them, 20 miles out in the Pacific Ocean, the Channel Islands rising in a bluish/purple blur. Closer to where I stand, dogs crash into the surf, beneath cliffs where hang-gliders float.

But these things mark almost every visit I’ve ever made to Santa Barbara’s Arroyo Burro Beach, a place I’ve visited annually since two of my best friends had the good sense to mWhat draws my eyes instead are a mass of young people in dark blue t-shirts, gathered above the steps that descend to the beach, listening to a woman shout instructions.

Puzzled, I edge closer, study the t-shirts.

Ocean For Life, they tell me.

Ocean Shirt cropped

My friend arrives and we visit over a drink, but when I see the same group sectioning off the beach, my curiosity remains. I approach a lanky college-age man, ask what they are doing.

“Digging core samples to check on mole crabs!”

For the moment, I’m less interested in the mole crabs than the young people – who are decidedly un-mole-like. It’s a mixed group of 30 high school students from the Middle East and the United States – and, like many forces for good in this world, it has its roots in tragedy. Three victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 Pentagon plane crash were three District of Columbia high school students, three of their teachers and two National Geographic staff members, all of whom thought they were on their way to this idyllic stretch of California coast.

Three years later, Ocean for Life sent its first group of students here to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary – with the goal of affirming our sense of connection to both the sea and to other human beings. Nine years later, the group I beheld included 15 students from all over the U.S. – and 15 Middle Eastern students representing Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. The entities sponsoring the program were similarly diverse.

Or, as the organization’s web site puts it, “Diversity is a strength in the ocean world. So too in ours. … Our lives depend on close connections to the ocean — and on the close connections that link us all.”

Sectioning off beach before digging core samples.

Sectioning off beach before digging core samples.


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