Friday, June 29, 2007

Surging into first place.

What a difference a day makes - the Harry Tompson Center has gone from fourth to first place in online voting for Campaign For Your Cause. At the time of posting, the Tompson Center has a five-point lead over its nearest competitor, Friends of City Park. Voting is still open, though, so remember to submit your vote for the Harry Tompson Center every day between now and July 13th. Thank you to those who have already given their support, and welcome to those who may wish to join in supporting the cause. AMDG.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Vote early and vote often.

Karen Hall posted an urgent plea yesterday asking Catholic bloggers to come to the aid of the Harry Tompson Center, a drop-in center for the homeless in downtown New Orleans. Founded by the eponymous Jesuit Father Harry Tompson (for whom the Center is now named), the Harry Tompson Center was originally based at the Jesuit-run Church of the Immaculate Conception but was forced to move after its facilities sustained heavy damage during Hurricane Katrina. Efforts to rebuild the Harry Tompson Center may soon receive a substantial boost, thanks to a charitable initiative called Campaign For Your Cause. Basically, anyone can vote online between now and July 13th to decide which of ten New Orleans civic groups or institutions - a group that includes everything from Junior League and the Special Olympics to two Catholic high schools - will receive a $50,000 donation from the Campaign's sponsor, which happens to be Burger King. The nominee that comes in second will receive $25,000 and the one that finishes third will get $11,000. The rest of the nominees will each receive $2,000. Last time I checked, the Harry Tompson Center is in fourth place. With a concerted effort of the kind Karen and others are encouraging, this Jesuit-founded apostolate could make it into the top three. I'm happy to lend my support to the cause - if you want to help the Harry Tompson Center, stop in and vote for it every day between now and July 13th. If want to do more, I also encourage you to visit the Center's website to learn more about how you can be a part of its work. AMDG.

Baghdad Christians find new life in Kurdistan.

In today's New York Times, there's a very brief article looking at the lives of a group of Iraqi Christians from Baghdad who have been forced to settle in Kara-Ula, a small village near Iraq's northern border with Turkey. Here's a sample:
The 70 houses of this tiny village spring from the treeless, arid plain here in the northern tip of Iraq with the uniformity of an army camp.

Built over the past four years of war, they house Christian refugees from some of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods: Dora, New Baghdad and Mashtel.

There the residents did not know one another, busy with their city lives. Now a barber, a bank manager, a news anchor and an electrician are comrades in the misery of flight.

"We saw everything a human can see," said Majida Hamo, a mother of four who came from Mashtel recently. "It was a kind of genocide killing."

"We were saying to Jesus, 'See us and save us.'"

Read the rest here. Though the article doesn't speak to larger issues - such as the precarious security situation that Iraqi Christians face even in their northern "refuge" - it at least sheds some light on a story that has received too little attention from newspapers like the NYT. My prayer for Iraq's Christians is much like the one voiced by Majida Hamo: Jesus, see them and save them. AMDG.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Eliane es loca y infeliz.

Today's New York Times Magazine features an engrossing cover story on a dispute between Yale University and the Peruvian government over the ownership of thousands of Inca artifacts excavated at Machu Picchu in 1912 by American explorer Hiram Bingham and now housed at Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History. The article will be of particular interest to those who follow Peruvian politics - and perhaps also to my novitiate classmates - on account of the prominent role in the story of Peru's controversial former first lady Eliane Karp.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, I should pause here to attempt to explain who Eliane Karp is. Born and raised in Paris and educated in Brussels and Jerusalem, the cosmopolitan Karp met and married future Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo while both were engaged in doctoral studies at Stanford (Karp in anthropology, Toledo in economics). Though he would become the first Peruvian of indigenous descent to win election as the country's president, Toledo was a thoroughly Westernized academic who showed little interest in or attachment to indigenous culture. Not so Eliane Karp, who made up for her foreign roots by embracing Andean traditions with a zest that many Peruvians found unusual and even embarrassing. As the NYT's Arthur Lubow writes, "Even though it is her husband who is a cholo, or indigenous Peruvian, Karp-Toledo far outdoes him in her ardor for the native customs and religious beliefs. Because she is of European origin, she was derided by her many enemies as la gringa and dismissed as the particular sort of gringa who latches onto indigenous styles in a sentimental and condescending way."

Karp was also dogged by allegations of corruption, which made daily headlines during the time I spent in Peru last summer. One newspaper headline that stands out in my mind comes from a tabloid story on a row between Primera Dama de la NaciĆ³n Eliane Karp and Laura Bozzo, a TV talk-show host who was quite controversial in her own right. The headline for the story read something like this: "Laura: Eliane es loca y infeliz." I remember being struck by the editor's decision to use the verb ser instead of estar, suggesting that the First Lady's alleged craziness and unhappiness were somehow innate to her being rather than passing emotional states.

Anyway, those with an interest in Eliane Karp's career will undoubtedly be entertained by the NYT article's description of her role in the ongoing dispute between Yale and the Peruvian government. The article includes an account of a 2002 meeting in Peru's presidential palace between the country's first couple and two Yale-based anthropologists. When Toledo expressed support for a proposed exhibition at Yale of artifacts from Machu Picchu and stated his desire to attend the opening, Karp apparently "raised her finger and said, 'You're not going anywhere,'" after which the President "started to fix his tie" and hastily left the room, saying, "I have to go back to my cabinet meeting. I have left all cultural matters in Eliane's hands." Later on, the article quotes Karp regarding her husband's 2001 presidential inauguration at Machu Picchu, "a place we know and care about and that is part of Alejandro's heritage." The ceremony included some traditional Inca religious rituals which Karp apparently "joined in enthusiastically" - but which her husband avoided. To read more of the story, click here. AMDG.

Library at center of Quebec-Vermont border battle.

Today's Boston Globe reports on a plan to tighten security at the U.S.-Canada border that has upset residents of two close-knit communities that share that border, Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Quebec:
Residents of [Derby Line, Vermont] and neighboring Stanstead, Quebec, are proud of the elegant granite hall that straddles the border between them. It is their rarest jewel: The Haskell Free Library and Opera House, built a century ago as a symbol of friendship between the United States and Canada and shared ever since by citizens of the two countries.

Canadians and Americans borrow books and watch plays side by side at the library, which was deliberately built half in one country and half in the other. No guards are stationed on the quiet, shady streets around the building, and Canadians who cross into Vermont to enter the library do not need to show their passports at a border station, as they do when crossing for any other purpose. Inside the library, where a strip of black tape on the floor marks the international boundary, patrons wander unchecked between the two countries on their way from the stacks to the birch-paneled reading room.

But smugglers of illegal immigrants have begun to notice the unique features of the neighborhood, say agents from both countries who enforce the border in the area, located less than a minute's drive from Interstate 91.

Smugglers are taking advantage of three unguarded side streets near the library to ferry human cargo in both directions, border officials say. The streets must be closed to traffic, officials insist, to help them stem a rising tide of illegal immigration.

The plan has provoked an emotional outcry in these two small border towns, where people pride themselves on their easy coexistence. Their countries may be preoccupied with terrorism and the need for tighter borders, but here, many residents say the change would break down their most valued traditions.

Read the rest here. Before I entered the Society, I used to enjoy stopping in Derby Line and/or Stanstead on yearly motor trips to Montreal from my home in Southeastern Massachusetts. I once visited the Haskell Free Library and Opera House and was charmed by its combination of ordinariness and novelty. In most respects, the Haskell Free Library isn't much different from any other small-town New England Library, with a small but knowledgeable and very friendly staff inhabiting a Victorian structure with creaking hardwood floors and narrow yet high-ceilinged rooms. Unlike most public libraries, the Haskell Free Library is a place where patrons can nonchalantly amble across an international border to find a particular book. Likewise, the Haskell Free Library is fairly unusual in featuring a well-appointed community theater that bears the somewhat grandiose (though not inaccurate) designation of an "opera house."

It's sad to hear that the genial status quo that has so long prevailed in Derby Line and Stanstead is being threatened by larger geopolitical realities. If freedom of movement between these two communities must be subjected to greater restriction, I hope that the spirit that has united them up to now is somehow able to survive. AMDG.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Christian suffering continues in Iraq.

For a while I've been meaning to publish a post with an update on the situation of Iraqi Christians. Those who share my concern for the future of the Middle East's ancient Christian communities don't need to go to this blog for information, but I suspect that most of my regular readers don't get much news about a humanitarian crisis that has received very little attention from the world media. Hence my periodic updates on Christianity in Iraq. I've been meaning to post this particular update for several days, but the demands of my work at Catholic Charities - about which I hope to write more in the coming days - have left me with little time or energy for blogging. With apologies for the delay, here's a brief update on the situation in Iraq as reported by the ever-faithful AsiaNews.

The first story comes from the beginning of the month; I'm not sure how much attention it received at the time, as I was on retreat and wasn't reading the newspaper or checking the Internet. On June 3rd, 34-year-old Chaldean Catholic priest Father Ragheed Ganni and three subdeacons were shot and killed after the Sunday liturgy at a church in Mosul. Father Ganni and his companions were immediately hailed as martyrs by Iraq's Chaldean Catholic bishops. The funeral liturgy for the four men was attended by Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly and Chaldean bishops from throughout the country and abroad. Subsequent reports indicated that the assailants who murdered the four clerics first presented them with a brutal choice: convert to Islam or die. Many other Iraqi Christians are facing similar threats, as AsiaNews reports in a story on the Christian families who are continuing to flee Baghdad.

The second story I have to report is a sadly familiar one: Iraqi Christians continue to be targetted by kidnappers. A young Chaldean Catholic priest who was escorting five young men on a visit to the Chaldean minor seminary in Baghdad were abducted in early June; the five youths were released the following day, but the priest was held for almost two weeks before being released unharmed. Just last week, a group of eight Christians - five students returning home after taking university entrance exams and three of their teachers - were abducted near Mosul. These hostages were released after a couple days, but their brief captivity was enough to persuade local Christian leaders to discontinue a daily bus service running between Mosul and nearby Christian villages. Intended to help Christian university students commute to school, the service instead became an easy target for terrorist groups eager to intimidate Iraqi Christians.

The third story I'd like to call to your attention is the continued debate over the so-called "Plains of Nineveh" project to corral Iraqi Christians into a small region in Northern Iraq where they would allegedly enjoy greater security and protection. This plan to create a semi-autonomous "Assyrian enclave" enjoys the support of many in the Iraqi diaspora and some non-Christian politicians in Iraq, as AsiaNews reported earlier this month. However, many articulate representatives of the Christian community remaining in Iraq have voiced strong opposition to the plan. A lucid and succinct summary of some of the many flaws in the so-called 'safe zone' plan may be found in this article by Father Saad Hanna Sirop, a young Chaldean Catholic priest who spent nearly a month as a hostage last August. As previously noted on this blog, one of the most outspoken critics of the "Plains of Nineveh" project is Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk. Archbishop Sako reiterates his principled - and, to my mind, very wise - opposition to the proposal for a Christian safe zone in two articles posted on the AsiaNews website this month.

In his first article, Archbishop Sako calls on Iraqi Christians "to abandon this risky ghetto project. As Christians, we must have a presence everywhere, to witness our identity among others." Rather than embrace ghettoization, Sako argues that Iraqi Christians should unite across denominational lines to work for peace and reconciliation in their country. Instead of offering "propaganda" in favor of the safe zone proposal, Iraqi Christians in the diaspora should focus on providing material aid to recent refugees as well as assistance to Christians remaining in Iraq. In his second article, Archbishop Sako looks more closely at the safe zone proposal and finds that the proposed enclave lacks the infrastructure to support the thousands of Christians who would presumably flock there. Furthermore, he notes, the putative safe zone may actually leave Christians more vulnerable to attack. Expressing concern that adoption of the safe zone proposal might establish a precedent that would adversely impact Christian communities in other Middle Eastern countries, Sako concludes by repeating his insistence on the critical role of Iraq's ancient Christian community in preserving a pluralistic society. "The problem is not between Christians and Muslims," he writes, "the problem is fundamentalism which excludes others, [and] annihilates them for religious or ethnic reasons. The solution is to encourage a culture of pluralism, [and to] help people acknowledge one another as humans and recognise in each other an absolute value... Creating closed 'cantons' for Christians or other communities would be a catastrophe for our world."

I believe that Archbishop Sako is absolutely right - but I fear that very few are listening to voices like his. In a time of great despair, Sako offers a hopeful vision of a better future for all of Iraq's religious communities. I pray that his voice will be heard, and I pray for the people of Iraq. AMDG.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Cities vie to be home of Simpsons.

Here's a story from the Associated Press, by way of today's Boston Globe:

With a bowling alley, a pub, a prison, and a nuclear power plant just down the road, Springfield, Vt.] likes to think itself a real-life alter ego to the home of "The Simpsons."

Now, the city is out to prove it, joining Springfield, Mass., and 12 other Springfields from across the nation in a contest, with the winner hosting the big-screen premiere of "The Simpsons Movie" July 26. The public will choose the winner in a USA Today online poll. Voting ends July 9, with the winner announced the next day. The movie hits theaters July 27.

The competition is stiff.

Springfield, Ill., has its own nuclear power plant, run by a man who looks a lot like Mr. Burns, head of the nuclear power plant on the show, said Tim Farley, executive director of the city's convention and visitors' bureau. The high school is nearly identical and the city is not far from Shelbyville, the town next to the fictional Springfield, he said.

"We feel like Springfield has a lot of curious similarities," Farley said.

But folks in Springfield, Ore., the home of Simpsons creator Matt Groening, always thought it was their Springfield on the Fox TV show. "It was a shock that we had to prove it," said Niel Laudati, community relations coordinator.
My first reaction to this elaborate exercise in pre-release movie hype is that none of the cities vying to be "the" Springfield should be selected. Since the Simpsons' Springfield is a mythical place, it's probably best for it not to be tied to any particular real-life Springfield. If the animated Springfield is too closely identified with a "real" place, it will inevitably lose some of its universality. On the other hand, if there must be a "real" Springfield, my Bay State loyalty demands that I support the bid made by Springfield, Massachusetts. The whole affair is quite inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but it's entertaining nonetheless. AMDG.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Don Herbert, 1917-2007.

American television icon Don Herbert, better known to fans and pop culture mavens as "Mr. Wizard," died yesterday at age 89. Listening to NPR this afternoon, I heard a commentator (Robert Siegel, I think) allege that only those old enough to have seen Watch Mr. Wizard in the 1950's and '60's would know who Don Herbert was. Not so. I and many of my generation got to know Mr. Herbert through Mr. Wizard's World, which aired on Nickelodeon during the 1980's. In contrast with the loud, flashy programs that tend to dominate children's television, Mr. Wizard's World took a decidedly no-frills approach. Filmed on a set that looked (if I remember it correctly) like it might have been the inside of Mr. Wizard's home, Mr. Wizard's World consisted of little more than Don Herbert conducting low-tech science experiments with items available around the house, assisted by children who (with gentle guidance from Mr. Wizard) could often explain the science behind the experiments.

Quoted in Mr. Herbert's NYT obituary, physicist Frank Wilczek hits upon what I think was the key to Mr. Wizard's popularity: "[H]e talked to the kids as if they were real people." Mr. Wizard took the intellectual curiosity and potential of children seriously, and by doing so he encouraged generations of American kids to get interested in the world around them. As the NYT obit observes, Don Herbert's example helped launch countless careers in science, which isn't bad for an English major whose skills in science were entirely self-taught. Though I never felt the pull of a scientific career, that I enjoyed science as much as I did in elementary school is probably due in some part to Mr. Wizard's World. May Don Herbert rest in peace, and may his example continue to inspire curious kids who want to know more about the natural world. AMDG.

Monday, June 11, 2007

California, here I am.

After an eventful, prayerful and restful two-week hiatus, I'm back to blogging. Today was my first day back at Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, where I had the chance to get reacquainted with old coworkers and to meet some new ones. The refugee program expects to get a lot of new arrivals over the course of the summer, so there's no shortage of work to do. I'll also work with some clients who are already in the program, including some francophones from Africa with whom I hope to practice and improve my French.

Though I'm still a bit jetlagged from a busy weekend, I'm happy to be back in sunny San Jose. From what I've seen so far, the city hasn't changed much since I left here in May 2005. Coming back here has offered me an opportunity to appreciate the wonderfully mysterious nature of human memory, as apparently minor sensory impressions - like noticing the smell of the carpet on entering the door of the Jesuit community, or glancing at the unchanged photos on the office walls at Catholic Charities - bring back a flood of recollections that I haven't consciously brought to mind in two years.

While I'm here, I'm looking forward to returning to places I got to know and love two years ago. I took a stroll down The Alameda this evening to browse at Recycle Books, a locally celebrated used bookstore with a large, varied inventory and a decent amount of comfortable seating. In a perfect world, all bookstores would have a feline-in-residence; Recycle Books happens to have two felines, one of which is larger than most canines and may deserve the attention of scientists looking for the missing link between the cougar and the common housecat. In other news, I passed the Santa Clara In-N-Out today and hope to make a pilgrimage there in the near future.

To report briefly on the past couple weeks, I had an excellent retreat and a great time at province days. For reasons that I'm not sure I could ever fully articulate, I find God more easily in Montreal than I do in many other places, and the days I spent there on retreat were full of grace and consolation. During my time in Montreal, I also enjoyed the chance to return to old haunts and to encounter new people and new places. Notable in the last category is Saint-Louis-de-France, which offers extensive programming for young adults and has the reputation of being one of the most vibrant Catholic parishes in Montreal. Attending Sunday Mass at Saint-Louis-de-France, I got the sense that the parish deserves the praise it has received. The church's lively liturgy attracts a multigenerational crowd that includes many more youth and young couples than I'm used to seeing at Mass, and going there I both felt very welcome and felt a little more optimistic about the future of the Church in Quebec.

Another reason to be optimistic about the Church's future came this past Saturday with the priestly ordination of my fellow Chicago Province Jesuits Kent Beausoleil and Mike Conley. I'm confident that Kent and Mike will both be great priests, serving God's people faithfully and well. Jesuit ordinations also serve as a kind of annual province reunion, and thus this past weekend in Chicago also gave me the opportunity to catch up with my novitiate classmates in First Studies at Loyola University and to see many other Jesuits who I don't often get to see. One such Jesuit, Chi Prov vocation director Patrick Fairbanks, asked me to call your attention to the new vocation website Think Jesuit, a joint effort of the Chicago, Detroit and Wisconsin Provinces. As I've mentioned before, Patrick also has a blog which deserves your attention. While you're at it, check out this new blog by Chi Prov novice Hung Nguyen. As far as I know, Hung is the first Jesuit to blog bilingually, posting in both English and Vietnamese. I look forward to reading Hung's continuing reflections on novitiate life, and I hope you'll give them a look also. AMDG.