Thursday, October 15, 2015

Diary from Washington DC

We share these notes from Dr. Thea Iberall, reflections on her time in Washington DC during the Pope's visit and over Yom Kippur. -- KZA

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

8:30 AM
It was trying to get to the Logan Express. Last minute things to pack, traffic delays. The most important thing was to figure out goals for the trip. Plus make sure I'll be warm enough, cool enough, covered enough, safe enough. It'll be a magnet for terrorist attacks but I can’t think about that. I'm going to be with peaceful people on the Jewish holiest day of the year and then a peace vigil with monks. My goal is to discover why I was drawn to this gathering. The Pope has distilled a message of moral action at a time when there is no time for anything but. I embrace it.

The sky is gray-streaked. They say this is how it will be for the next 1000 years. Will our great-great-grandchildren curse us for our excesses? I've stood on the ancient ruins of vast civilizations. Did the Romans know they were dying as they raised their glasses of leaded clay? Could they imagine a world without their way of life? Can we?

6:00PM
I am in Washington, DC. I stand in front of the Vietnam war memorial. My generation fought this war, the boys I went to high school with died in it, their names on these walls. Walking here, I passed the US Institute of Peace. Someone tells me it's a new building. In this city, our wars are conceived and plotted out next to this institute of peace while the slain and the distracted look on. It looks a bit ephemeral.

Then I walk to the Lincoln memorial and stand below Daniel Chester French's magnificent statue of Lincoln. I remember the article I read by Garry Wills on "The Words That Remade History", how in the Gettysburg address, Lincoln did a sleight of hand that remade the constitution.

6:30PM
Jews in white clothes gather on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking out over the reflecting pool. The Washington Monument is lit by the setting sun and reflected perfectly in the water. I help hand out prayers and cards to the gathering participants. They are from Washington, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Oregon, New York, Massachusetts. A clarinetist plays, he's got a purple tie and purple shirt in. Two women Rabbis lead the service. The sound system doesn’t work but it doesn’t matter. It’s nothing but amazing to be sitting here with 200 Jews from around the country on the holiest day of the year because a Catholic pope is in town and he has something to say about climate justice. The sun sets, the moon tries to be visible. A line of bicyclists goes by.

Rabbi Mordecai gives a sermon, reminding us it's the fall equinox. He has a reading light attached to the portable lectern. He reminds us that the Capitol building was erected on the bones of Native Americans, that this is Piscataway land that our nation stole from them. He talks of other bad things we have done. These are some of the sins we atone for on this holiday. He says we can't give up on democracy even if it has fostered a system with inequality and separateness. He says science and spiritual wisdom teach us connectedness, that everything exists in relationship to something. Atonement is noticing effect on others and not repeating it. To be at one-ment. He quotes Pope Francis about turning the negative things happening in the world into our own suffering. He quotes Thich Nhat Hanh who said we need to hear within ourselves the sounds of the earth crying. Feeling the pain of the world is a measure of our humanity. He offers Joanna Macy's suggestions for not being overwhelmed, and he says hundreds of thousands of groups are working towards the good with 25,000 churches, synagogues, and mosques doing grassroots efforts.

We sing more and then 9 people get up to read what we have written on the cards. "For the harm, the hurt and the damage we have caused by...Not recycling, letting rainforests be cut down," on and on, I can't remember them all. It was powerful. We sing ve-al kulam eloha selichot after each one. For all our sins, forgive us. The moon is hidden at first but then it comes out. Three geese take off over the reflecting pool. After the mourners Kaddish, Rabbi Waskow yells out to look at the moon, it's an egg waiting to hatch. He is the wise sage that brought us together, he leans on a cane with sparking eyes. The leader reads Francis' Prayer for the Earth and we end with oseh shalom in beautiful and spontaneous harmony. May the One who causes peace to reign in the high heavens let peace descent on us. I can't say I've ever done anything as remarkable as tonight.

Wednesday, September 23

7:00 AM
Since I have the time, I walk the 3 miles to the Lincoln Memorial. What once was a canal all polluted noisy and unhealthy as raw materials were unloaded for Georgetown is now a beautiful park where white people jog and bike, and people of color sleep on the benches. I walk a labyrinth asking for direction in my life. I see two birds flying and maple trees clinging to the Earth. Rowing crews travel up the river, a police boat roars past me. I walk past the Watergate Hotel and the Kennedy Center. The Institute of Peace looks like a bird taking off.

10 AM
We are a smaller group today gathered at the Lincoln Memorial steps. Today our sound system works. A helicopter flies over the White House. As our service starts, we can hear the President speaking and then the Pope. Rabbi Malcha says to not worry about the planes. That we should bless the people in them on their way. The Rabbi Waskow says to breathe in while the planes fly overhead as we wait. Since we are not inside a synagogue, we use another word for God – the Hebrew word Yah, the breath of life. But when the planes fly over, I can only think of the polluting jet fuel which doesn't feel like the breath of life.

We read Pope Francis’ Prayer for the Earth. It's like we are reading it directly back to him since he is just beyond the reflecting pool. Rabbi Mordecai gets us up and milling around. The Marine Band is playing, a choir is singing. We stop in front of someone, take their hand and thank them for their choice to come here to Washington. We mill around again and stop again and appreciate this new person. Again and we acknowledge another's courage. Again and we feel someone else's humanity through evolution. The sun clouds over and then comes out. I feel truly blessed bonding with these special souls who have joined together for this experience. I am one with these strangers who are no longer strangers but committed deeply feeling activists for tikkun olam-healing the world. We read Joanna Macy's Beings of Three Times and as I think of the future children, I begin to cry. So do others.

We chant the avinu malkeinu (Barbra Streisand’s rendition always in my mind). We pair up and look at our hands and think of our species and the service we all do. As we chant the adonai el rachum prayer, we read from the Pope’s encyclical. By fasting, we are in touch with our bodies and feelings.

Rabbi Phyllis leads the Torah service. She asks anyone who connects to ancestors to come up for the aliyah (special honor to stand by the Torah). Some of us go up, say the prayer, and listen to Rabbi Judy Weiss chant directly from the Torah scroll on Leviticus about the duties of the high priest. A larger group goes up for the second aliyah for children. For the third aliyah, we all go up to stand for the Earth. Afterwards, Kohenet (high priestess) Shoshana reads a haftarah (extra lesson) that combines words of Martin Luther King, Isaiah, Amos, Heschel, Pope Francis, and Starhawk. I am amazed. It's not anything I've ever heard in a Jewish synagogue, even a reform one.

Rabbi Mordecai brings the service to a close quoting Martin Luther King saying all life is connected, tied to a garment of Destiny. What affects one, affects all. I am looking at the flags, the monument, the water, the geese, the little bugs, the wind blowing the papers, the planes. He speaks of Gaia, the living breathing realm we all live in. We chant the Kaddish (prayer for the dead). We then pair up and finish this sentence: When I think of the world, it breaks my heart because..... We are in tears by the end. We chant the Kaddish again, this time for all species.

5:00 PM
About 40 people meet for the afternoon service. We Jews are fasting for one day but the BXE (beyond extreme energy) people are in their 16th day of fasting, the Franciscan monks in their 10th day. We sing We've Got the Whole World in our Hands. Rabbi Waskow reads the letter that over 400 rabbis has signed. Rabbi Malcha tells the story of Jonah and relates it to our sending out our own messages. She asks what they are. We suggest things like solidarity economy, wake up and keep the oil in the ground, turn off your TV. I see a hawk in the area and it kills a mouse. The crows are cawing loudly. The people of Nineveh heard Jonah's message that they were doomed. They changed their ways, even the king humbled himself. Will Americans change their way? Will its leaders humble themselves?

Rabbi Mordecai asks us to imagine having a magic wand, what would we ask congress to do? People answer things like quadruple EPA budget, end fossil fuel subsidies, think of future generations. He reads Joanna Macy's poem Bestiary. It's like Noah and the ark in reverse, checking off animals, but those who are dying. When we sing We've Got the Whole World in our Hands again, it sounds different, incredibly sad.

The Neilah service starts. By now, the sun is setting. The sky has pink streaks. The crowd has doubled in size as people gather for the all night vigil. When the leader talks of people's fates being sealed on Yom Kippur in the book of life, he lists recent people who have died by fire, by water, by the sword. At the end of the service, it is dark, we bless the bread and share in it.

8:00  PM
We Jews break our fast and eat. The monks as well break their 10 day fast with us. The all night vigil begins: monks talk, reverends speak, a high school student who shook hands with the Pope, some Sikhs as well. It will go on all night but I am too exhausted to stay.

Thursday, September 24

7:30 AM
I am with a friend from 350Massachusetts. We’re confused where to go and accidentally wind up in the ticket holders line. But we are going to the rally which is about a half mile from the Capitol building on the national mall. The sky is pink streaked, the air is cool. It's a beautiful day and we find space right in front of the stage set up by the Moral Action on Climate Justice. Behind us people hold large banners with quotes from the encyclical. In front of us is the Capitol.

A parade of speakers come to the stage, one by one. Rev Sally Bingham of the Interfaith Power and Light, Jay Winter Nightwolf of the Echata Cherokee Nation, Kumi Naidoo from Greenpeace. Dolores Huerta, a migrant worker activist talking about GMO labeling. Pax Chisti, Sierra Club, NAACP, Earth Day Foundation. Everyone talks about moral obligations of our political leaders. There are singers, it's a great party. The crowd grows, but it's hard for us to see how many people are behind us. I’m holding the Jewish Climate Action Network sign and people come up to me and ask me about it.

Then the Pope speaks and we sit on the ground and listen and watch on big screens. I like how he uses four Americans to frame his message. I also hear some subtle manipulations which makes the speech very clever, I feel. We all cheer at the same time the congress gives him standing ovations.

When he is done, he comes out on the balcony and we can see him on the big screen and also see his tiny version in the distance. Then he is whisked away and we hear more speeches and singing. I see three people I know. But the crowd disperses quickly and we go sit with the 18-day fasters who are breaking their fast tomorrow at noon at the FERC offices (the federal office that okays gas pipelines).

1:00 PM
We go to our MA senators offices and talk to staffers about FERC. We have temporarily adopted a young man who is one of the fasters and he is amazed how easy it is to go talk to Senator's offices. Since he's from CT, we take him to his Senator's offices and watch him energize.

7:30 PM
We go to the Coming Together in Faith on Climate – an interfaith gathering at the National Cathedral. The emcee quotes a poet, "when you find your place, practice starts." The faith leaders are impressive in their credentials and in their words. The president of the UCC churches talks about peoples of faith uniting. Sister Simone Campbell, leader of the nuns on the bus, talks about anguish leading to hope. The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, talks about breathing and faith doing wonders. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse talks about hearing the voices of the bumblebees. Rabbi Shoshana sings her new song The Tide is Rising with Minister Fred Small. And there was so much more. They have replaced 1500 light bulbs in the Cathedral and that’s just a start (there are more bulbs). The emcee ends it by talking about their 5 initiatives: engage congregations in climate solutions, energize by joining a clean energy group in our faith communities, divest and invest our personal and congregational investments, vote and make climate one of our top 3 issues when we vote, and educate staying informed and educating others.

It is a great low key ending to a phenomenal week, one I'll never forget.

In all, it was a week of talking, of praying, and of atoning for our personal 'missing of the mark' and for the harm we have caused our environment - For the harm we have caused other species, for the harm we have inflicted on native Americans and people of other races and religions. The Hebrew prayers swirl through my head as do Pope Francis' words about a great country- one that defends liberty, stands up for rights, fights for justice, and creates dialogue. Is our America a great country or is it going the way of ancient civilizations, smug in its commercialized capitalism? I'm afraid I know the answer but it won't stop me from helping to wake up people.


Thea Iberall, Ph.D. is the author of The Swallow and the Nightingale - a fable about a 4,000 year old secret brought through time by the birds. A scientist risks her life to help her daughter and heal the world. She is a storyteller, writer, and climate activist.

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