Weirdness on Parade

This week's UPI column

So There I was...

At the galactic HQ of non-conformity, Berkeley, California. Visiting some friends, I was also taking in the annual “How Berkeley can you be? Parade.” Let me tell you, they have no trouble being extremely Berkeley down there. They have earned their adjectival status.

The parade included environmentalists and activists galore: local, regional, national, international, global and extraterrestrial. Many of them seemed to be anti-something: war, fur or government in general. But some were supporting things: creeks, the use of sign language, cheerleading.

There was the traditional nudity, despite the fact that the fall Sunday was crisp. I wasn’t always sure what purpose this nakedness served. But the unadorned hermaphrodite made it clear that you weren’t in Kansas, Dorothy. This individual was carrying a sign that read “hermaphrodites for peace” – good thing, because they aren’t letting you into the army, honey.

There was a man in a bright pink unitard riding a unicycle. There was a Wiccan martini lounge orchestra. There are the faux groups (at least I think they were faux) like “Billionaires for Bush” -- formally attired persons carrying signs that say, “thanks for paying our share,” “Taxes are not for everyone” and “Dick Cheney speaks for me.”

There were art cars. A form of artistic expression that involves thousands of objects you have acquired at Goodwill and glued to your car. There was a camera car – early Brownie to digital, and cars covered in rubber animals, including singing bass. There were a few Volkswagens in simple tie-dye paint – elegant and traditional.

One of my favorite moments was the convergence of a marching band of Klingon warriors with a battalion of Stormtroopers. The cognitive dissonance generated by having the Star Wars world mingling with the Star Trek world was phenomenal. The fact that these creatures were marching in this world did not even register on the radar of weirdness.

But the abiding moment for me did not occur on the street in front of me, it happened in the crowd next to me. At some point I became aware of a family on my right. Tie dyed mother and ponytailed father and their two small boys, one in a stroller. Mother and father were entranced with the spectacle, cheering each entry, and pointing out the nuances to their older son. This boy was about five, and he was taking in the whole thing. But his countenance did not mirror the joy and approval of his parents. He was watching this display of flagrant freedom with what looked like detached disdain. Not even the science fiction retinue peaked his interest. He thought these people were strange. He thought they were a little scary. The only words I heard him say were “Can we go home now?”

I looked at him and saw a future Republican, a neo-con in the making.

Parents, take caution. It is easy in your enthusiasm to slip into an extremity that repels your children. It is easy in your oh-so-subtle indoctrination to fail to notice that your children think you are strange, or out of touch. It is important to tell them what you think, to transmit your values. But it is also important to ask them what they think, to let them speak to you. They may have some important observations. Listen to them.

Churches across the board in this pluralistic society have discovered that they have a common problem -- keeping the kids in the faith after they leave home. I suspect that some of the problem is the failure to attend to our own weirdness. A young man dating one of my daughters pointed out to me that you can tell a Christian song on the radio within seconds if it includes a reference to barnyard animals, usually sheep. He thinks the obsession with sheep is a little weird. He is right.


An Historic Event

Yesterday, with great joy, Freedom Friends Church celebrated the fresh recording of T. Vail Palmer. Here is the official minute

Minute of Recording
Freedom Friends Church
Salem, Oregon

At a regular meeting for worship through business on the 14th day of May, 2006, T. Vail Palmer was recorded as a minister of the Gospel. This recording was approved in recognition of Vail’s previous recorded ministry and service in New England Yearly Meeting, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and Northwest Yearly Meeting. Vail came to us from Reedwood Friends Church with a letter recognizing 25 years of dedicated service. We recognize Vail’s public ministry to the Religious Society of Friends as a teacher, scholar, historian and vocal minister. Vail’s ministry has continued among us, and we are grateful to God for his service. We witness this gratitude by the signing of this minute.

More about Vail: Vail was born on June 9,1927 to Thompson V. and Esther L. Palmer. Vail graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1948, attended Oberlin Graduate school of Theology, and the University of Chicago as a recipient of the Lily Fellowship and earning a PH.D. in 1965. Vail served his God, and set an example for his country, by serving a term in a Federal Prison as a conscientious objector to war during the Korean conflict. He was a pastor in New England Yearly Meeting and first recorded there. Discerning that his gifts of public ministry were more educational than pastoral, he was recorded afresh at Arch Street Meeting in Philadelphia while that Yearly meeting still practiced the recording of ministers. He was a contemporary and lived in a communal setting with Lewis Benson and others seeking a revived Quaker experience. Upon moving to the West Coast in 1979 he joined Reedwood Friends Church, and his recording was received by transfer to Northwest Yearly Meeting. He was editor and co-editor of Quaker Religious Thought from 1974 - 1982. He directed Reedwood's Center for Christian Studies for 25 years. In 2005 he transferred his membership the Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon. At that time he told his new pastor that he had been "waiting for this particular expression of Quakerism." Freedom Friends Church is honored to receive Vail.

We believe that it is possible that we witnessed a unique event in the Quaker world.

Vail has been a recorded minister in a FUM, FGC, EFI and now an unaffiliated "Convergent" meeting, a Fourth(!) distinct expression of Quakerism. If there are any other ministers out there who have been recorded in four expressions of Quakerism, we would like to hear about them.


Also in my Pack

is this fellow -- who says he looks forward to the day that Africa stands on its own so that he can go back to being a spoiled rock star. When I was in Burundi they had not heard of him. I told the children that they should ask God to bless this man every night in their prayers. I noticed that on his recent trip that he visited Rwanda and Tanzania. Flew him straight over Bujumbura and the DRC where my friends are. Not safe enough yet for a rock star I guess - good thing that I am not a rock star. I played some of his music for the kids - they liked the Beatles better.


And now for a really Dangerous Topic


yes that's right, fluffy and fido.

At right is daughter Emily and our mutt Alex.
Alex is opening HIS Christmas present. We also have a cat name Casper.

When my African daughter Daniela was here last year, the part of our culture that she found most apalling was our pets. She had to do some serious discernment to decide if we were all crazy and actually thought they were 'people'. Her final assessment was "You people have things to WASTE!"

I understood her concerns. When I came home from Africa it was one of the most jarring dissonances. American pets, by and large, have better nutrition, shelter, and health care than almost all third world children. Pets have toys, they have clothes, they have hair salons. They have psychiatrists. They have schools. Pet Care is a billions of dollars industry.

Last fall after my father died, Alex the dog tried to follow him, I mean he really fell apart physically. Alex is ten, and my dad was his best friend. Alex got hundreds of dollars of health care to bring him back. He was on Cipro in December when I got word that Daniela's younger sister Anna, was very ill in Bujmbura. There is no cipro in Burundi. They nearly lost Anna -- for want of pills that I was shoving down the throat of my dog. It was hard. Really, Really hard.

I feel that I have a moral responsibility to this creature that I have taken under my care. But why do I not feel the same moral responsibility for those children? These days I do.

A few weeks later when the dog was doing better the vet suggested he needed to go to the doggie opthamologist for a non-painful. non life threatening ailment.

I am sorry Doctor. I do not believe in doggie opthamologists, or oncologists, or any other specialist until every child in this world has at least basic health care.

I decided I could do this: We have supported Food For the Hungry's child sponsrship program for years. We have raised a line of boys in Cambodia, one boy at a time. We have two pets, and one third world child. I decided to add a girl from Rwanda to our family.

If everybody in America sponsored one child for every pet they keep - there would be NO hungry children in the world.


I like Rick Rubin.
I like that he gave Johnny Cash to a new generation
I like the he is producing the Dixie Chicks
I like that he doesn't care much about the buzz
He is hereby initiated into my motorcycle club

Learning to Listen

Today's UPI column

So There I was...
Standing at the deli counter of our local Safeway. I was on a quick dinner break from seeing counseling clients at my Salem office. It had been an intense day, and looked to be an intense evening, so my agenda was to get some food with a minimum of human interaction. Funny how often the universe ignores my agenda.

I was waiting for my corned beef on rye, when a woman wafted my way. I say wafted, because despite being a rather large woman, she was dressed head to foot in flowing saffron silk, and was literally dancing her way across the Safeway towards me. Now, our local Safeway is a little divergent. In our neighborhood there are several group homes for people with unusual realities; so seeing these good folks at the store is nothing strange. I know many of the regulars by sight. What was strange was that this woman seemed very interested in me. She danced up to me. I quietly turned the other way. She flitted around me. I gazed off into the distance. She looked me up and down. I ignored her, using all my willpower in an attempt to get the sandwich girl to hurry.

The saffron woman said, “How very unusual!” I glanced at her, unable to control my thoughts about pots and kettles. I looked away.

“Excuse me,” she said, “You're not from around here, are you?” I assure you, in my business attire, I looked local and mundane.

“I live nearby” I said, and turned away.

“No, I mean you come from somewhere else, don't you?” I stopped trying to avoid her.

“I was raised in Illinois” I said, starting to wonder if I went to high school or something with this crazy woman.

“That's not what I meant, and I think you know it. Do you know who you remind me of?”

Exasperated, I replied, “No, tell me who I remind you of.”

She grinned. “Well, there's this book, you may have heard of it, it's called The Bible. And you remarkably favor a woman in that book. Her name was Judith. You look like Judith to me, well, Judith with a little bit of Bath-Sheeba, but don't worry about that bit.” Then without explaining herself further, the saffron woman floated away. I have never seen her since then. I took my corned beef and went flying back to my office to grab a Bible. Judith has her own book in the Apocrypha. She’s a cool woman when she isn’t decapitating people. If you don’t know the story, I encourage you to read it. It’s quick and good.

After this encounter I got to thinking about whose testimony I accept and whose testimony I reject -- especially if they want to talk to me about me. I mean, I like self-definition. I am a full-grown post-modern, post feminist, American woman -- nobody tells me who or what I am. If I want feedback, I’ll ask for it, but don’t hold your breath or quit your day job. In my old age I have learned that I do need a check-in once in a while, and so I have gathered a small group of people that I trust, and I seek their advice on a regular basis.

The criteria to belong to this group are:
1- I choose you -- not the other way around.
2- You must be smart.
3- I must respect you.
4- You have to like and respect me.

Unasked for advice from dumb, crazy, or unrespectable people who don’t necessarily appreciate me will not be entertained. Well, that’s my standard attitude, if I am honest. Funny how often God likes to mess with my standard attitude. Funny how a reality challenged individual can sometimes speak the truth straight to my heart. And if they can speak God’s voice to me, what about the person across the room or the table? What do I lose by not listening?

A year or two after this I had another encounter with another person who would not be considered to be a trustworthy witness by most people. I was doing some traveling preaching out in eastern Washington State. I was at a potluck dinner, conversing with the folks. There was a fellow there who physically did not stand out in any way; middle-aged, working class or maybe not-working-enough class. He took me aside.

“Peggy, you may find this hard to believe, but I am the Holy Spirit.”
“Really, wow, that’s gotta be a tough gig.”
“You’re telling me!”
“Friend, you have told your doctor about this – right?”
“Oh yeah, mostly he doesn’t believe me.”
“Yes, I can see how that would be a problem. So what’s it like being the Holy Spirit?”
“Oh, I go to a lot of churches – mostly they don’t listen to me. I went to the White House once, but they didn’t listen to me either. But I keep talking to ‘em even when they don’t listen. It’s part of the job.”
“Well, thanks. Hey, anything you need to say to me?”
“You? Oh, your doin’ just fine. Don’t worry about a thing.”
“Thanks – really? – Thanks, I mean it.”


Feeling dangerous - part 2

Thanks for the encouraging comments
really, I mean it.
But now I want to see the next ten reasons why
YOU are a dangerous Quaker.
What thing do you do, or refrain from doing
that if everyone followed your example
would rock the world?
What industry, policy, administration, societal habit
would fall?
Who want to start with reason #11?


Feeling Dangerous

This week's UPI column
This column needs a little introduction, perhaps a disclaimer, nay, a Claimer!
I fully support the position of the Friends Committee on National Legislation
on domestic spying. I am appalled by my government spying on its citizens.
I am equally appalled that so many non-Quakers think we make a good punch
line in a "how stupid is the government" joke.
(go ahead google "dangerous Quakers" - use the quotation marks).
I am also concerned that many Quakers do not see our testimonies for the threat that they are; a threat to governments and economies built upon greed and abuse. I think that Quakers make fine citizens, for lots of reasons, including the fact that some of us are willing to protest and some of us are willing to go to jail. I hope you enjoy this little rant. Feel free to use the comments to declare the threat that you are!
If everybody lived like you, what industry would fail? what government policy would tumble?

So There I was...
…feeling dangerous. I could have taken my great big motorcycle out for a fast run, but that didn’t feel dangerous enough. I was tired of my government, my society. I could have joined the large rally at the State capitol a few blocks from my house, “Si, Se Puede!” but they seemed to have things under control and did not need me. I whipped a few e-mails off to my congressional representatives about torture, and detainment without legal recourse and rendition, but it did not cool the fire in my belly. I needed to do something way outside the bell curve, something so radical that if everyone followed my lead, it would shake foundations, topple governments, create societal chaos – I was in that kind of mood. So this is what I did. First, I took a chunk of money that I was planning to use for a nice shopping excursion and sent it to a group in the third world. I thereby robbed the US economy of that money and I robbed the US government of the taxes on that money. Then, I went out and put into the hands of a young person a piece of paper that they could use to make sure that the US military could not aim its recruitment lies in their direction. Then to cap the day, I went to meeting for worship, and I, the preacher did not preach. I did not tell them what to think, I did not tell them what to believe. We sat silently and let God talk to the folks completely without theological middlemen.

You see, I am a dangerous Quaker. You have heard about us I am sure. Over at the
New York Times they report that Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) was recently asking the FBI why they were spying on groups like the Quakers and the Raging Grannies. Apparently there were about a hundred anti-war groups that were spied on that could have been mentioned. I suspect that the Quakers and the Raging Grannies got named because they seemed so patently and ridiculously undangerous. With all due respect Mr. Senator, if you think that an enraged grandmother is not a dangerous thing, you have never seen one. And please, do not count the Quakers out yet.

In addition to the FBI, the Department of Defense and the NSA have been spying on us. Apparently they haven’t found anything worthy of detention or harassment, yet. I feel kind of sorry for these guys. They have fallen on hard times. Their info is all swiss-cheesy. So as an act of charity, I am going to make it a little easier on them. Tune in your web data miners to this station and stay tuned.

I cannot and DO NOT speak for all Quakers. But I can speak for me. I am about to give you some solid intelligence. So listen up!

The Top Ten Reasons why I am a dangerous Quaker and should be watched carefully.
By Peggy Senger Parsons

1- I believe that there is a seed of God and goodness in everyone. It may be small, starved, buried and stepped on, but it is there, and can be reached under the right circumstances. This includes Osama Bin Laden, Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. The right circumstances for reaching that goodness do not include bombings and assassination attempts.

2 - I cannot in good conscience say the Pledge of Allegiance. My patriotism is expressed through informed voting and paying my taxes; but my allegiance is to a Kingdom not of this world. I pledge to no other. Even if I could pledge my allegiance to this country, I could not say THAT pledge because I attempt to only say true things and it includes the patent and obvious falsehood that we are “one nation under God.” This, I have not observed to be true.

3 - I cannot swear an oath in court, not on the Bible or any other book. That book contains the instruction to not swear oaths because it implies that you have two standards of truth. That book says to let your yes be yes and your no be no, and leave it at that.

4 - I believe that ALL war is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. He said that we were to love our enemies, and I think that this meant at the very least that you should not kill them. Our present war is immoral, as has been every other war; and yes, I include World War II and the American Revolution in that list.

5 – I do not believe in the death penalty. We may indeed need to keep some citizens safely locked up for life. But I would not put any human to death as a consequence of crime. And that includes Timothy McVeigh, or Ted Bundy. It’s the “Love your enemies” thing again.

6 – I respect my fellow voters rights to disagree with me; to fund and support a military. But I think that military recruiting, like other sinful behavior, should be limited to consenting adults. It should be illegal to aim military recruiting at secondary school students.

7 – I do not believe in living beyond my means. This is also in the teachings of Jesus on the subject of simplicity. Our Household is presently living with no consumer debt beyond our house. I hope to keep it that way. I am not a very simple Quaker; many do much better than me in this spiritual discipline. But if everyone in the US shopped even as liberally as I do, the economy would crash, big and bad.

8 – I try to send as much of my money as possible outside of the US economy. I think we should be poorer and the third world should be richer. I do this by supporting organizations that reduce poverty. I do not pay much attention to whether or not the people helped, or their government, agree US foreign policy. The cool subversive benefit of this is that the government lets me forego taxes on this money, which means less money for the military and other projects of which I do not approve.

9 – I am not actually keen on national borders in general. I am not worried about illegal immigration from Mexico. Fine folks, by and large. Figure out how to tax them. I would gleefully support a national sales tax that paid for universal health care and schools. I think the national anthem sounded great in Spanish.

10 – I think that informed, non-violent, conscience driven dissent is extremely patriotic. I also think that it is sexy.

So there you go, guys. I know that you know my numbers. Feel free to check in regularly. The link at the bottom of the page is my Quaker church. You would be most welcome to spy on and worship with us any Sunday.


Oasis Model of Ministry

From the freedom Friends Church visioning process 2004
in response to a post on Brooklyn Quaker
“Whosoever Will - May” Oasis Model

This is one of our metaphors of the moment for Freedom Friends Church.

If we take any slice of scripture literally we do so take the words of the Spirit summing things up in the last chapter of the Revelation of John –
“Whosover Will, May Come.”

The Picture is that of an Oasis in the desert.

There is one unfailing source of Life - The Present Christ
Around this source is gathered a community practicing health.
-spiritual, physical and emotional health - each according to their abilities
There is rest, renewal, and healing resources available.
There are many clearly marked paths to the oasis, but no fences, no gates
-people come and go, or come and stay as they have need or desire
People are helped in, if they need and ask, but not chased if they leave.
The ones who stay, when healed and refreshed,
will each have something to contribute.

At Freedom Friends church this metaphor will be given form in these ways:

We share our spiritual experience, the source of our strength and our hope for the future, any time and any place it is asked for. We will all be evangelists, but we will impose our beliefs on no one.

We each take personal responsibility for our own spiritual path, and no one else’s. We will listen to the prophet Micah and try and “Do justice, and love mercy and walk humbly (together) with our God”.

The only requirement for being present is a basic respect for others.

The only requirement for membership will be to understand, according to our ability, what the community is about; and to be able to articulate in some form why we want, and need, to belong. The community will seek this understanding and articulation and acceptance of members, together.

The only requirement for public ministry will be that in doing so, the minister will not be a danger to themselves or others. The community will articulate those dangers, for instance - too much stress puts a minister in danger, fear based theology is a danger to others, trying to be a healer without being healed is a danger both to the minister and the community.

Those who know things, teach. Those who have something, share. We set the table, and serve truth and health, it will be up to the guest to show up and eat.

We will keep the entry paths into the community well marked, open and inviting. The ministry of some will be to actively assist people in finding the way. The ministry of some will be to go out and search the roadsides for those dying in the ditches without a chance of making it in on their own strength.

We will be responsible for the community by being responsible for ourselves.
We will encourage the individual priorities of; relationship with Christ - first; individual sanity, sobriety, and health - second; relationships with others - third; and doing the working of healing the planet after that.

Only Christ will save souls. Only His Spirit will convict the person of their sin. We will try and save lives, starting with our own, so that Christ can save souls.


More Family history

After ditching the Lewis and Clark party because they seemed to enjoy
mud camping a little too much, my foremother picked up a new career
as an early wagon train boss



this weeks UPI column

So There I was...

…in a closet of memories. Last year, shortly after his 88th birthday, my father, Mr. Orville Senger, left this planet to pursue other opportunities. He was a good and righteous man. He was a simple man, and did not leave much in the way of possessions, at least by the world’s standards, but he had a small and interesting collection of junk. This collection is stored in various places around my house, which was his home for the last twelve years; the greenhouse, the garage, the basement, the closet in his room. I have been going through them slowly, deciding what to keep, give away, throw away or share with my brothers. It is slow work because it is emotional work. One of my father’s defining habits was labeling things and making signs. He had distinctive handwriting. It was pretty illegible; my mother said he should have been a doctor. When he wanted you to see something and pay attention he wrote in big block letters. I have been finding these notes and signs around the house. I hear his voice every time I find one.

Just before Easter I was in the corner of the basement where he kept his gardening supplies. I found a box with a small space heater in it, the kind he would have used to heat his greenhouse in winter. There was a sign attached to it.


This means that it was broken, but he couldn’t bring himself to throw it away. It was an inexpensive appliance; the part probably would have cost more than a new one. I know that this habit of keeping things was part depression era frugality, but it was also an attitude that he had about everything, including people. He was a “redeemer” -- a person who gave a hand up -- a fixer. He believed that anybody, given a choice and a chance could start over. In his last years of life he was supporting a ministry on the North side of Chicago that helps male prostitutes get off the streets. I can hear him say “There’s nothing wrong with those guys, they just need some help.”

My parents raised me in a church that taught the doctrine of human depravity: that people were inherently bad, fallen, beyond the ability to change without massive cosmic intervention which they clearly did not deserve. My dad taught me by example that people are basically good, worthwhile and respectable. They messed up and made bad choices and needed help; God’s help and each other’s help, but they are worth helping. Note to parents: what you teach by example will trump the doctrine of the church you attend.

I felt very sad holding that heater. Its redeemer had left the planet. It was headed for the recycling bin. I was reminded of the words of ancient Job, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that one day He shall stand on this Earth.” (Job 19:25) Job’s friends kept trying to tell him that there was something wrong with him. Job knew better, and hoped. I am grateful that my redeemer, Christ, who believes that there is nothing in me that cannot be made whole, has indeed stood on this earth and does live, and does continue to work on me.

Today I was in the closet in Dad’s room. I only got about half way through this most secret treasure trove before my heart gave out: Toys from his childhood, favorite music on tape and vinyl, unfinished water color paintings, gizmos, gadgets and widgets galore. And a package with a label that read:


This is a bit mysterious; who did he think he was writing this to, and under what conditions? I did not make it a habit of going through his things. I am not a reckless trasher. If someone were going through his things – it would be under the present conditions – he would be gone. Now how am I supposed to discuss this with him?

The package contained about a dozen issues of The Saturday Evening Post from 1948 through 1952. One of them has a lead article entitled “What kind of president will Dewey make?” Seriously, who would throw these things out? I will keep the magazines – there are enough for all of his kids and grandkids to have one.

I will also keep the sign. I may have it framed. It is another example of my dad teaching theology through everyday life. It isn’t about magazines; it‘s about life.

When something or someone seems useless, antiquated, beyond repair – talk to your cosmic parent about it. Talk to the maker. There is value there. Treasure is found in surprising places. Everything and everyone is redeemable.

Emmaus Ministries – one of my father’s favorite good works


Descending into Powerlessness

Tuesday's UPI column

So There I was...

… On my first trip to what is called the third world. I had been invited to teach trauma healing in Burundi, Central Africa. It was the fall of 2003 and the three-party civil war was still on.

It’s a long trip. There is no direct route to Burundi. That is probably a good thing because the case of the cultural “Bends” that you get, even with several stops, is bad enough. I was traveling alone, and it did not take long for me to realize that my “personal power meter” was dropping precipitously as I proceeded. Seattle -- not home. Amsterdam – losing language and culture skills. Nairobi, Kenya -- things start to get weird. Kigali, Rwanda -- things start to get dangerous. Bujumbura, Burundi – I might as well be on another planet.

The airport in Buja is a strange place. There was one flight a day at that time – sometimes the rebels took potshots at it. About 20 souls disembarked with me. We entered a terminal that looks like it was built for Disneyland in 1964 and then abandoned – aging futuristic.

Half of the passengers are locals and breeze through customs, the rest of us still need a visa to get into the country. This is nervous making because the plane has almost immediately lifted back off for Kigali. I wonder what happens to you if they don’t grant you a visa? We are given instructions in French. I don’t speak French, but I imitate the other people who seem to know what they are doing. I fill out a form, put it and the requested fee in my passport and give it to a man who carries it away with all the others. It is scary when people walk away with your passport. We wait. There are no chairs. The table where we filled out the forms is sprinkled with rat poop -- this place must be fun at night. I wait 45 minutes after they take my passport away. One by one the other passengers are ok’d to go through. I am the last, and starting to think there is going to be a real problem, when the man finally comes back with mine. I wonder if I forgot a bribe or something. Perhaps it is my absolutely virgin passport -- it is a new, fancy, high security type-- it looks fake to me too. The official looks me up and down, in my Khakis, flowered shirt and African explorer hat -- actually, I look like I should be working at Disneyland.

He says “Madame, Parlez vous Frances?”
“No, I have only English.”
“You are here to teach?” He says in perfect English.
“Yes.” I point to my official invitation attached to the form in his hand.
“You have not traveled outside the US before this?”
“No, this is my first international experience.”
He smiles and shakes his head. “Bon Chance, Madam, Bon Chance” He waves me through.

I am finally united with my friend and host, the only person within 5,000 miles who knows my name. He is glad to see me, but lets me know that there is a bit of a crisis going on in his life and that for a few days I am going to be on my own quite a bit. He says that he is sure that I will enjoy the freedom.

In the next few days I bump into significant powerlessness. In the US I am a competent woman. I am educated, professional, and comfortable in most settings. I usually know what I want and how to get it. Here I am nearly helpless. The list of powers that I am stripped of upon setting foot in the country is comprehensive.

§ Language: I cannot speak the local language or the professional language, and furthermore, I cannot trust the non-verbals because the culture is just that different.
§ Self-care: I cannot procure food, safe water, or even relieve myself without assistance.
§ Mobility: I cannot drive. I do not know how to get to my house, or even back to the airport. I do not know the names of any streets. I do not know how to get a taxi.
§ Currency: I have no local money. I do not know how to exchange money. Credit cards do not work in this country.
§ Connection: I have no access to phone or Internet. I cannot phone home.
§ Cultural understanding: I do not know how to behave properly. I am aware that cultural blunders can be fatal.
§ Sexuality: I can’t even smile and flirt with a stranger – my last ditch defense at home. Here, I do not know where “The line” is, and so it is not safe to use my female wiles.

I am a baby -- a baby in a very hostile environment. I sit with that – telling myself that this is a good spiritual exercise. I am totally dependent on God. Then I panic. When I am done panicking, I realize that I have one power left -- the power to attend -- to pay attention. And when I pay attention I start to notice things, and then I learn. I notice that when someone’s name is said they respond with “Ego.” They also say “Ego” when offered something good. I decide that “Ego” mean “Yes.” Soon someone calls my name, I say “Ego”, just as relaxed as you please. Everyone smiles and laughs, but I know I have done it right. I am accepted. I belong, and this is the beginning of power. As I learn, I grow, I become bold, I explore and I learn more.

Within a couple of weeks, I was buying, eating and drinking, traveling, talking, bargaining, driving, laughing, phoning, e-mailing, and even flirting. I was an alien, but I was functional, semi-competent. I gained power back, bit by bit. When I got back home -- I found that I had all kinds of new strength.

I have been thinking about my descent and recovery from powerlessness this week as I watch the struggles and conflicts over aliens and immigrants in our country. I am amazed at the courage of human beings to face nearly anything, and to embrace powerlessness in order to gain a better life, to grow. I am amazed at their growing power and organization.

I have also been amazed by some of the vitriolic critics -- not the people honestly wrestling with the issues -- but the knee-jerk nasty reaction of many people. I have noticed this in my town especially around language issues. Some people get real nervous when a language is spoken that they don’t understand. I think I get this. It isn’t so much racism -- although that is there at times. It is fear of powerlessness. It is fear of losing the power that comes from being in the majority, the dominant culture, and the dominant language. If you don’t know the words, if you don’t understand the culture, you might not be safe. It is the fear of losing your moorings. I get that. I’ve done that. I don’t think many of these people would admit that at the bottom of their anger is fear, but I think it is true anyway. I hope we all get through the panic. I hope we don’t do anything too stupid. Because if you get through that, you get the chance to realize that you do have some power left. You have the power to pay attention, to learn, to grow, to become new and stronger. That is my hope for all of us.