Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Heroes You Should Know: Maria “Meva” Dobrucka

Maria Dobrucka, nicknamed “Meva” (“seagull” in Polish), was born in 1927 and grew up in Czortkow, a small Polish town in present-day Ukraine.  Czortkow had a large Jewish population, and by March of 1942 the Nazis had established a ghetto where all the Jewish inhabitants---approximately 6,800 people---had to relocate to.  And within six months, the Nazis had begun shipping people from the ghetto to the concentration camp at Belzec. 

It was around this time that the Hausers, a Jewish family, got message to their friends the Dobruckas, begging them to help save their two year-old daughter Inka Hauser. 

Because of her size, it was decided that 15 year-old Meva would sneak into the ghetto through a tiny window in the wall, get Inka, and sneak back out.  The plan seemed to have little chance of succeeding, and if Meva had been caught she surely would have been executed on the spot.  Yet into the ghetto she crept, at dusk on that August night in 1942 with a Star of David on her arm in case Nazi soldiers spotted her.  Meva met the Hausers, took Inka in her arms, and climbed back out and into the night undetected.

For the next three years, as the Nazi atrocities grew, and roughly half of the Jews in the Czortkow ghetto were killed, Meva and the Dobrucka family raised Inka.  It would have been more than heroic enough for teen-aged Meva to have the courage to sneak in to the ghetto, get Inka, and sneak back out without the guards seeing her.  But the teen-ager also had the compassion to continue comforting and caring for Inka as a sister for the duration of the war.
In September of 1983 Maria Dobrucka-Mikusz, along with her parents Aniela Dobrucka and Andrzej Dobrucki, was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel for her heroism.

Miraculously, the Hausers survived, and after the war came knocking on the Dobrucka’s door.  Inka did not recognize her parents at first because she had left them when she was so young.

Now living in California with her own children, Inka Hauser-Huber has remained in close contact with the woman who had literally carried her through the valley of the shadow of death so many years before.

Maria “Meva” Dobrucka-Mikusz is a hero you should know.  And I‘m Dr. Ross Porter.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Listening very much…

Holiday.  You’ll read that word a lot in the next several weeks.  We know what the term means to many nowadays:  time off from work, vacation, a chance to get last minute shopping done, parties, lots of food.  But what did it originally mean?  

Halig (Holy) daeg (day) was a Middle English word, first used in the 12th century.  It marked special days set aside by the Church.  General work was suspended in order to frame, consider, and celebrate “holiness”. 

Holy days help us understand what holiness really is---and how we too can become holy.  In the Christian world, every Sunday is considered a Holy Day, the Sabbath.   And of course we have days like Easter and Christmas to remind us why we have a faith.  Most believers will make some effort to get to church on these days at a minimum.

But if it’s just about Church attendance, we’re missing the point! 

Do you see signs of holiness in yourself, and in those around you?  My guess is that you’d know it if you saw it, or experienced it, even though you might not call it “holiness.”  It’s found in love, and gentleness, and goodness, and sacrifice, and faith, and joyful humility.  I’ve been blessed with many examples in my life, but I want to focus on an example from my seminary days which still stirs my heart.

For a couple of years, I lived next door to a beautiful Chinese family.  Grandma Yen, the matriarch, was well into her 80’s when I first met her but still very much in love with Jesus.  One day she knocked on my front door to ask a favor of me.  Would I be willing to read her favorite Bible verses while she recorded me?  I agreed, thinking Grandma Yen was wanting to practice her English, and quickly affirmed her desire to become more fluent.  With a smile, she politely corrected me stating that it wasn’t about her English, it was about her spiritual life.  As she explained it, because she didn’t have a strong command of the English language, the recordings would challenge her to “listen very much when God talks to me.”

Grandma Yen has been in Heaven for twenty-one years now, after a lifetime of listening very much to God’s words to her, and then following His directions.  I think of her every time the Holidays Season rolls around.  She will always serve as an example of holiness for me, and provides a clue for how we can all stay connected to the original meaning of the Holidays.

May we all listen “very much” to the words of God, cherish them, follow them…and help make this Holiday Season truly holy.  

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Heroes You Should Know: Neerja Bhanot

Twenty-two year old Neerja Bhanot was the senior flight attendant on Pan Am Flight 73 bound for New York City when it was hijacked in the early morning hours of September 5, 1986, during a layover in Karachi, Pakistan.  As four heavily armed terrorists, members of the Abu Nidal Organization (an offshoot of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction of the PLO) boarded the plane, Bhanot notified the cockpit.  And since the plane was still on the tarmac, the pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer were able to escape through a ceiling hatch.

Suddenly the senior member of the 13 person flight crew, the terrorists demanded Bhanot gather the passports of the 360 passengers so they could identify the Americans on board and execute them.  Bhanot instructed the attendants to hide the 41 American passports, under seats and in a trash chute.
After a seventeen hour stand-off, the terrorists opened fire inside the plane and began setting off explosives.  Bhanot opened the emergency exit, and as the first closest to the exit could have easily escaped.  But she chose to stay, and began helping people get out.  Pakistani commandos stormed the plane and took control.  In the chaos, Bhanot, shielding three children with her body, was shot multiple times by the terrorists and died.

Because of her quick thinking, and extraordinary bravery, Bhanot was able to keep the plane from taking off, helped to stall the hijackers, and limited the massacre to 22 dead.  It had been believed that the hijackers intended to use the plane to pick up Palestinian prisoners in Cyprus and Israel.  However, in 2006 one of the hostages wrote that he’d heard the hijackers discussing the plan of crashing the plane into a target in Israel.

All four hijackers were eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison.  By 2008, though, all four hijackers had been released.

Bhanot was posthumously honored with India’s highest peacetime medal of bravery, the Ashok Chakra Award.  She was the first woman, and the youngest person, to receive this distinction.  Her parents and Pan Am Airlines honored her memory by establishing the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust, which awards prize money each year to one flight crew member worldwide and one Indian woman who act with remarkable courage for social justice.

Almost exactly fifteen years before 9/11, Neerja Bhanot showed once again that there is nothing more powerful than the willingness to die in order to save lives.  It’s the opposite of terrorism, and the stuff of greatness.

Neerja Bhanot is a hero you should know.  And I‘m Dr. Ross Porter.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Heaven, Hell, and the virtue of Hope

“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” -Viktor Frankl

Dante, in his Inferno, wrote that the gate leading into Hell carries the inscription, “Abandon all hope, you who enter.”  Indeed life without hope is hell.  But can hope be found in the midst of hell?  I’m talking about the here-and-now, in this world and this life, in the midst of suffering, and pain, and despair that threaten to rob one’s life of meaning?  Can hope be found when all that matters most seems lost, or in real danger of being lost? 

To fully understand the virtue of hope, one must recognize that “hell” is actually the best place to find it.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr. Viktor Frankl described an intimate moment that speaks to this point.  Early one morning he was marching with fellow prisoners inside the concentration camp of Auschwitz when he began thinking of his wife.  He imagined her smile, her reassuring facial expressions, and a dialogue they might have if they were together.  And he suddenly realized that whether she was in fact alive or dead, at that moment he was changed.  He had connected with something transcendent, and the hope it inspired lifted him above the horror of his present situation and gave him a reason to go on. 

Surrounded by death, Frankl discovered that which death cannot swallow up. 

Hope is what makes life worth living.  It is the virtue that confronts cynicism and despair.  It is the anchoring conviction that there is meaning in life, and it is the force that urges you to find it…and keep finding it.  But hope is more than this.

Hope is grounded in the reality that in the eternal battle of good versus evil, good will win.  In the end, things will make sense.  If optimism is lighting a candle in the darkness, hope is the knowing that whether the candle goes out or not the dawn will eventually come. 

It may not look that way sometimes, in fact it may not look that way many times.  And if one only considers the present state of the world, and passing circumstances, disillusionment and fear can set up permanent residency in the heart. 

Bad things do happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, and life is not always fair.  Hope does not deny this reality, but it does challenge the belief that this reality needs to be final and ultimate. 

Do you believe this?  Do you believe in your heart that good is more powerful than evil, that love is greater than hate, and that death doesn’t have the last word?  And are you moved to act?  I pray you are. 

Because the ongoing search for meaning and purpose is essential to being fully alive.  It is only in this search that one finds reasons to hope, and thus reasons to go on.

Heaven and hell do begin in this life.  Hope is the virtue that decides which one you’ll choose.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Dobri Dobrev: The Beautiful Beggar

You’ve seen his type before, at the bottom of Freeway off ramps, sitting outside a church, sleeping in dark corners.  His clothes are worn and dirty.  He’s haggard, despairing, defeated.  Or is he?

A familiar figure who spends his days sitting outside the Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria Dobri Dobrev, seems to fit this description perfectly.  His weather-beaten face, long white beard, and scraggly hair coupled with his homemade clothes and shoes certainly give one the sense that he is a lost soul.  But the man commonly known as ‘Grandpa’, who just turned 101, is anything but.

Dobrev remembers little of his childhood, where his widowed mother struggled to make ends meet.  During World War II, a bomb exploded near him, and left him almost completely deaf.  Along the way he married and had four children.  And sometime around 2000 he gave away what little he had to the Church, and began begging.  Until recently, in sunshine, rain, or snow, he’s walked a 15 mile route with his little donation box in hand to the Cathedral to ask for money from passersby. At his advanced age, he’s finally agreed to take public transportation, but nothing deters him from his work.  And for a long time people assumed he kept the money he collected.

Recently, however, it’s come to light that Dobri has given away 100% of the donations received from his decades of begging, and has lived only on his monthly state pension of 80 euros (about $85 U.S.).  Churches and orphanages have been the beneficiaries of Dobri’s generosity to the tune of 40,000 euros (almost $43,000 U.S.).

Ultimately, however, generosity should not be measured by how much one gives, but rather in how much the giving stretches the giver.  Like the widow in the Gospels who gave a mite, Dobri Dobrev has been out-given by many in terms of amount donated.  But because his life has essentially become a continuous act of giving, you’d be hard pressed to find someone more generous than the old man of Bajlovo.

And why does he do it?  His answer is simple.  “We must love each other as God loves us.”

It’s been said that we make a living by what we get, but a life by what we give.  Dobri Dobrev is a living testament to that truth.  What a beautiful life.

Dobri Dobrev is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Alok Dixit and Laxmi:  Celebrating beauty

In Agra, India, one mile from the breathtaking Taj Mahal something just as magnificent is taking place.  Sheroes Hangout is a cafĂ© where women who have been maimed in acid attacks work---and heal.

In 2014, there were a reported 309 acid attacks where men purposely threw acid in the faces of women to scar them?  Often the reason involves the rejection of a marriage proposal.  As barbaric as it sounds until 2013 it was difficult to even prosecute the attackers because of archaic laws and prejudice toward women.

Alok Dixit, first confronted the horror of acid attacks as a journalist, and soon became a full-time crusader for the victims when he founded ‘Stop Acid Attacks’ in 2013.  He realized well that in India, a person bearing the scars of an acid attack is typically shunned and finding employment is virtually impossible.  Thus the idea of Sheroes Hangout was born.  The business, launched by ‘Stop Acid Attacks’ in 2014 served over 5,000 customers in the first six months of its existence and has continued to grow since then.  Here, these survivors are empowered to leave the shadows of shame and learn to embrace life again.  Here, these remarkable women are free to develop new skills---both personal and professional.  And here, society learns to see facial and body scars as signs of courage and perseverance.

And as if this story couldn’t get more inspirational, in his quest for justice, Alok found love.  He met Laxmi, a television host and advocate for acid attack survivors.  She had survived such an assault herself at the tender age of 15 when a man more than twice her age threw her to the ground and splashed acid on her face and arms after she rejected his marriage proposal.  Alok and Laxmi have been inseparable ever since, and welcomed a baby girl into the world in 2014.

This couple continues to challenge the legal and social systems of India for greater justice, and in 2014 Laxmi was given the International Women of Courage award.

Change in India is slow, but progress is being made.  Since 2013, it has become illegal to buy acid over the counter, victims of acid attacks now receive free medical attention, and acid attackers can be sentenced to up to ten years in prison. 

Alok Dixit and Laxmi remind us all that there is nothing more beautiful than goodness, and their courage and love inspire not just India, but the world.

He is a hero, and she a SHEro, you should know!  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Hunting for zombies: The virtue of authenticity

“Whatever you bury before it is dead will come back to haunt you.”

Zombies are on the loose!  The fact that we see them year-round now, in movies, on television shows, in commercials, and in video games shows that they are no longer contained by Halloween.  And in our increasingly wounded world this is not accidental. 

Like all imaginary creatures zombies are powerful symbols of a very real phenomenon.  With their robotic walk, their dead eyes, and their grey skin tone, they graphically represent the parts of our lives that are “un-dead” and haunting.  We all have painful, ugly experiences we’ve not fully faced, understood, worked through, and finally put to rest forever.  And there can be good reasons for this. 

If the painful experience is overwhelming, one may need to put it off for a while, or make sense of it a little at a time….it’s just too big to do all at once.  For instance, it took me years to work through all the fear I felt about my first born son’s fragile early years, where he almost died three different times.  There was so much. 

And even with disturbing experiences that aren’t life-or-death, the bracketing of these memories can be essential to moving forward.  If we sat with all that has gone wrong, or could go wrong in life…all the possible scenarios where we could be injured in mind, body, or spirit…all the ways we have been and still are vulnerable, we’d literally have trouble getting out of bed each morning. 

So, this “compartmentalizing” of psychological pain is protective and can even be adaptive to a point, giving us time to “get ready”;  to build up psychological resources and relational support. 

But in time, whatever we bury before it is dead will come back to haunt us.

Authenticity is fundamentally about truth.  It seeks truth, loves truth, explores truth, and works at removing anything that might keep someone from living in truth.  And it is especially good at exposing and disposing of “zombies.”  As zombie hunters have special ways of searching for zombies, those who practice authenticity do as well….beginning with key questions:    

Which periods of my life do I not remember well? 
What social situations do I feel especially anxious in? 
What are the big losses I’ve had, and what did I do with the feelings connected to them?  What emotions do I feel most uncomfortable with now?

Zombies are scary, but not nearly as frightening as a life spent hiding from them.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Felix Finkbeiner:  Stop Talking and Start Planting

In 2007 a nine year-old boy in Germany was given an assignment in school to write a paper on the issue of climate change.  Not long into his research, Felix Finkbeiner discovered the story of Wangri Muta Maathai, the Kenyan hero who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her Green Belt Movement that has been responsible for planting over 30 million trees across Africa to fight deforestation and soil erosion.

Trees lower carbon dioxide emissions, and thus diminish the Greenhouse Effect.

Inspired by this great woman, young Felix decided that the rest of the world needed to follow suit.  His initial goal was to plant 1 million trees around the world.  On March 28, 2007 Felix planted his first tree at his school, and Plant-for-the-Planet was born. 

Supported by his parents, who are both environmental activists, as well as his classmates and his school Felix began to visit local schools, and helped them start tree-planting drives.  A website was developed that taught people how to plant trees, provided information about environmental issues, and gave links to like-minded organizations.
Soon the local media picked up the story, and in just three years Plant-for-the-Planet had planted its 1 millionth tree in Germany alone. 

Felix was invited to speak at conferences in South Korea, Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, Italy and China.  And in 2011 he addressed the United Nations, challenging the adults in the room to “stop talking and start planting.”  By that time, Felix had also established an international youth board made up of 14 representatives from eight different regions around the world to facilitate tree plantings, grow the dialogue about environmental concerns, and empower more youths.  Currently, over 100,000 children are participating in the mission of Plant-for-the-Planet in over 190 nations. 

His belief---adults alone cannot be trusted to make the changes necessary.

The United Nations Environment Program was so impressed with Felix and his organization it turned over management of its own Billion Tree Campaign, an incredibly effective tree-planting program in its own right, to Plant-for-the-Planet soon after his U.N. speech.

The number of trees planted since Felix planted his first tree in his elementary school’s courtyard is 14,201,740,128.   His goal is to have 1,000 billion trees planted worldwide by 2020. 

Is anyone questioning that this advocate for Mother Earth will reach that number?

Felix Finkbeiner is a hero you should know. And I'm Dr. Ross Porter. 
Hugh O’Flaherty:  The Dangerous Game of Hide-and-Seek

Hugh O’Flaherty grew up on a golf course, and dreamed of being a professional golfer.  He was good enough to receive a college scholarship offer, but decided to pursue his other great love, religion, instead.  And the world should be forever grateful.

O’Flaherty had planned on being a missionary priest, but because of his interpersonal and language skills (he was fluent in several languages), his superiors decided that he would be more useful as a diplomat.  Between 1925 and 1938, he served in Egypt, Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Czechoslovakia, gaining invaluable experience and contacts that would come in very handy when he was transferred to Rome as a Vatican official in 1939. 

By then, Italy---allied with Nazi Germany---had set up Prisoner of War camps around Rome, and O’Flaherty was assigned to the papal nuncio as an interpreter and assistant.  He visited the POW’s, ensured that they were receiving proper care, and contacted their families to update them on their loved ones.  But O’Flaherty got himself in trouble with the Italian government when he began broadcasting on Vatican Radio not just news about the POW’s, but the poor conditions in the camps.  The Italian government pressured the Vatican to remove him from his POW assignment, and keep him silent in Rome.  This turned out to be providential. 

In 1943 Mussolini was ousted from power and thousands of prisoners were released.  However the Nazis quickly moved into Italy and the direction changed radically.

Immediately they sought to round up the just-released POW’s as well as the Jews.  O’Flaherty responded by setting up Vatican-sponsored underground networks that provided false identification papers for refugees, and employed churches, monasteries, convents, and private homes as escape routes and hiding places for men, women, and children. 

Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, head of the Gestapo in Rome, did learn of O’Flaherty’s activities.  He had a white line painted on the pavement at the opening of St. Peter’s Square, where Vatican City became Italy---and one left the protection of “neutral” soil.  He promised to torture and kill the priest if he ever caught him on the wrong side.  This did not prevent O’Flaherty from making his pastoral rounds, disguised as a street cleaner, a laborer, a postman, and even a nun.  This was described by one saved prisoner as “The most gigantic game of hide-an-seek you’ve ever seen.”

It is estimated that of the roughly 9,700 Jews in Rome, only 1,007 were caught by the Nazis and shipped to concentration camps.  O’Flaherty alone was responsible for saving 1,700 Jews, as well as 6,500 other refugees.

But Hugh O’Flaherty’s most unlikely “save” came years after the war.  Month in and month out, year in and year out O’Flaherty visited his old nemesis---the former head of the Gestapo in Rome Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler---in a Roman prison cell.  O’Flaherty challenged the hate and the fear, and slowly the walls came down in Kappler, and a light shone in the darkness.  And in 1959, fourteen years into his life sentence---and with O’Flaherty as witness---the former Nazi accepted a Jew as his Lord.

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction…and more inspirational.

Hugh O’Flaherty is a hero you should know. And I'm Dr. Ross Porter. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Heroes You Should Know: Marianne Cope---Loving the Unlovely

Born in Germany, Marianne and her parents immigrated to the United States, settling in New York, when she was one year-old.  Her father was in poor health, so Marianne went to work at an early age in a textile factory to support her family.  But at 24, with her siblings able to support themselves, Marianne was finally free to pursue a religious vocation---joining the Franciscans. 

She began as a teacher, and later a principal for schools in the region with a large German-speaking population. But by 1870, she’d moved into the field of health care, and had helped found the first two Catholic hospitals in central New York---with missions to offer medical care to anyone, regardless of race or creed.

Sister Marianne had become Mother Marianne, as the Superior General of her congregation in 1883, when she received a desperate plea from King Kalakaua of Hawaii for help in caring for the large number of patients suffering with Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy.  Over 50 congregations had already refused his request, but not Cope.  By December of that year she and six sisters had sailed to Honolulu, and were working at the receiving station for all leprosy patients from the islands.  The most severe cases were then shipped to the island of Molokai.

Although she’d only planned on staying a year, it was determined by authorities that Mother Cope’s leadership was necessary for the success of the mission.  Within two years the King had bestowed on Cope the highest award given by the government for service to humanity.

But in 1887, a new government changed the policy toward leprosy patients and the hospital in Oahu was closed.  Forced exile to Molokai became the accepted practice, and authorities begged Mother Marianne to open a home for girls and women on Molokai.  Although this full immersion in a leprosy colony almost certainly meant that Cope would never be allowed to return to America, and her home, she accepted the invitation.  There she took over the ministerial duties and administrative responsibilities of Father Damien, the future saint who by then had contracted leprosy and was dying.

And for the final thirty years of her life, Mother Marianne Cope ministered to the lepers on Molokai, running a hospital, a boys and girls home, and a school with her sisters.  She died of natural causes at the age of 80, having never contracted leprosy herself despite decades of direct contact with the disease.  This servant to the untouchables was canonized as a saint on October 21, 2012.

Marianne Cope is a hero you should know.  And I'm Dr. Ross Porter.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Walter Ciszek: Saint of the Gulag

Born to Polish emigrants, Walter Ciszek hardly looked the part of a future hero.  He spent much of his early youth fighting anyone who would oblige him; his parents, other youths, the law.  It got so bad that his father actually dragged him down to the local police station and begged them to place Walter in reform school.  His future looked as bleak as the coal mining region of Pennsylvania he was growing up in. 

So when this juvenile delinquent decided in the eighth grade that he wanted to be a Catholic priest, not many people believed him.  But God apparently did.  And in June of 1928 Walter Ciszek entered the Jesuit novitiate, with the intent of being a missionary to Russia.

This coincided with Pope Pius XI’s appeal for the Jesuits to go into what had become the Soviet Union. There, government persecution of religion was threatening the very existence of the Russian Orthodox Church, where the number of priests had plummeted from 157,000 to just 4,000.

Since he couldn’t enter the Soviet Union directly, Ciszek set up shop in Poland, where he taught at the Jesuit seminary and served as a parish priest.  However, when the Nazis invaded in September of 1939, the seminarians were sent home.  And as the Soviet army invaded Poland from the east, the young priest seized the opportunity to enter Russia with a flood of refugees.  With false identity papers, Ciszek stepped into a train bound for  Chusovy in the Ural Mountains.  There, as “Vladimir Lypinski”, he worked by day as a laborer hauling and stacking logs for a lumber factory, and after hours, snuck into the woods to say Mass and memorize the prayer book in case his Mass kit was discovered.

And sure enough a year later he was arrested and accused of being a spy for the Vatican.  He was sent to Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he sent the next five years mostly in solitary confinement.  Under torture he confessed his true identity and story, and was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in a Gulag in Siberia.  There, he worked in coal mines, shoveled coal onto freighters, and eventually as a construction worker at an ore mine.  Throughout his imprisonment, Ciszek prayed with other prisoners, celebrated Mass, heard confessions, gave retreats, and offered spiritual direction.

In 1955 he completed his sentence and was released with restrictions in Norilsk, a town 10 degrees north of the Arctic Circle.  He wrote home to his shocked sisters and his Jesuit community, who had sent out a notice of his death in 1947.  For the next three years, Father Ciszek worked in a chemical factory as a front, but carried on his duties as a priest in secret, even establishing mission parishes.  However, in 1958 the KGB arrested him again for his religious work, canceled his passport, and gave him 48 hours to leave the region.  He was sent to the southern part of the country where he was put to work as an auto mechanic.

Finally in 1963, President John F. Kennedy secured Ciszek’s release in exchange for two Soviet spies.  He returned to Pennsylvania where he wrote his memoir, With God in Russia, and joyfully served as a priest until his death in 1984.  In 1990, his cause for canonization was opened in Rome.

A beacon of light, placed in the darkest part of the Soviet Union for 23 years, this Servant of God reminds us that no place is God forsaken.

Walter Ciszek is a hero you should know.  And I'm Dr. Ross Porter. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Heroes You Should Know: Mother Antonia Brenner, 'The Angel of Tijuana'

Mary Clarke was born into privilege.  Her parents, Irish immigrants, had built a comfortable life in Beverly Hills, and counted movie stars Cary Grant, William Powell, and Hedy Lamarr as their neighbors.  But Mary was also taught that to whom much is given much is expected.  The Clarke family was regularly involved in service to the poor, both at home and abroad, and this formation planted seeds that would bloom in very unexpected ways for their daughter.

For the first half of her life, Mary was busy raising eight children.  She also suffered through two divorces.  But in 1969, she had a dream.  In it, she was a prisoner at Calvary, awaiting execution when she was visited by Jesus.  He offered to take her place, but she refused.  The dream awakened a religious calling in her, but at that time there were no religious orders for middle-aged, twice divorced women.  This of course did not stop her charitable service in southern California, and also increasingly south of the border.

In the early 1970’s Clarke moved to San Diego so that she could be closer to the work she’d been introduced to by a priest friend---delivering donations to inmates at the maximum security prison in Tijuana named La Mesa.  And when her children were finally self-sufficient, she took the leap of faith, sold her home and her father’s business that she’d been running, and headed for Tijuana, Mexico---to La Mesa---to eventually become Mother Antonia.

And as surprising as this calling seemed---a middle-aged, wealthy white woman from Southern California moving to Tijuana, Mexico to serve in a prison filled with male gang leaders, drug dealers, rapists and murderers---equally strange was the fact that Clarke received permission to do it!  She took private vows and moved into the overcrowded 8,000 inmate prison, and a 10x10 cell, so that she could be close to her flock.  There, she ate the same food as the prisoners, and even lined up for roll call with them every morning.  Within a year she had the official blessing of both the Bishop of Tijuana and the Bishop of San Diego.

Each day she would meet with the inmates, the guards, and their families---to pray with them, listen to them, and offer counsel.  She joyfully chased down material supplies the inmates needed, brought in doctors and dentists from California, advocated for better conditions, and once even negotiated peace during a prison riot.  She hated the crimes, but loved the criminals.  The guards called her the “prison angel”, and the inmates called her “Mama.”  And her ministry grew to the point that in 1997 she received permission from the bishop to found a religious order, the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour---an order for mature women, ages 46-65, who had a love for Jesus and the poor, and could be self-supporting. 

Mother Antonia never left her home in La Mesa prison, and died there at 86 years-old, surrounded by her sisters, and the prisoners who loved her.  She was fond of saying, “Everything you do either adds to the beauty of the world or takes away from it.”  She saw the potential for beauty, she nurtured beauty, and along the way she became beauty.

Mother Antonia Brenner is a hero you should know. And I'm Dr. Ross Porter. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Heroes You Should Know: Shukria Barakzai

When you think of Afghanistan, what comes to mind?  War?  Osama bin Laden?  Taliban?  Warlords?  Violence?  Sadly, yes.  How about “female journalist, entrepreneur, and politician who advocates for women’s rights?”  Not as likely.

Meet Ms. Unlikely, Shukria Barakzai.

Barakzai was born and educated in Kabul.  But unlike many of the educated class who fled Afghanistan in 1996 when the Taliban seized power, she elected to stay and fight the good fight.  And she’s been fighting ever since.

In 1999, pregnant and feeling ill, she left her home to try and get to her doctor’s office.  The religious police, seeing her without her husband (a crime in their eyes) beat her on the street.  This caused her to miscarry her baby.  But it also lit a fire in her.  She was angry, and decided that day to dedicate her life to championing justice in her country.
She started an underground school in her home.  And when the Taliban was thrown out in 2001, she finished her studies at Kabul University, with a major in archaeology and geology.

In 2002 she founded Aina-E-Zan (Women’s Mirror), dedicated to informing Afghan women on political and cultural issues like child marriage, forced, marriage, maternal and fetal mortality rates, and freedom of the press. 

In 2004 she chose to run against her husband for a position in the Afghanistan Parliament.   He was a multi-millionaire, and she had a shoe-string budget.  He spent the equivalent of $500,000 US dollars and championed the status quo.  She had a microphone and a loudspeaker and did a lot of street campaigning, with the dream of democracy and an end to misogynistic practices like polygamy.  Ironically, it was revealed during this time that her husband had in fact taken a second wife, which is legal under sharia law.  She defeated him by a 3 to 1 margin.

Since that day she has received international recognition as International Editor of the Year by the World Press Review, and Woman of the Year by the BBC radio program Woman’s Hour.

Ten years after her election, she continues to be a voice for change in a system that is not exactly known for its progressive politics.  As Barakzai put it, "Our parliament is a collection of lords. Warlords, drug lords, crime lords..."  Not surprisingly she has received numerous death threats, and survived an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber in November of 2014 as she made her way to Parliament. And she is not afraid to challenge the international community either, even taking on President Obama’s military build-up plan in her country, asking him to “send 30,000 scholars or engineers instead of that many soldiers.”

A voice for Afghanistan, a voice for humanity…

Shukria Barakzai is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Heroes You Should Know: Vivienne Harr

Like many eight year-olds, Vivienne Harr decided to open a lemonade stand and make some money.  For an afternoon?  No, for 173 afternoons.  To make some fun money?  No, to end child slave labor.  Not your typical eight year-old.

Vivienne had happened to see a photograph of two boys about her age in Nepal.  They each had a huge slab of granite roped to their back, and were holding hands as they stood at the top of a hill.  They were slave laborers.

She figured out, with a little help, that it would take $100,000 to buy freedom for 500 children.  So, she set that as her goal.  On Monday June 25, 2012 Vivienne placed her little stand in the middle of the public park in her hometown of Fairfax, California, and got to work.  At first she charged money for her organic, homemade lemonade.  But soon she realized that if she let people give from their hearts, she’d do better.  So she simply asked for good-will donations.  The average profit per cup jumped from $2 to $18.  One person even donated $1,000 for a cup.

And day in and day out, rain or shine, Vivienne was at her stand raising money.  On Day #52 The New York Times wrote an article about her efforts, and that same day Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Nicholas Kristof retweeted the story to his million plus followers.  And “Make A Stand” became a movement.  Media outlets from around the world began to share the message.

Finally, at the request of Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York City, Vivienne set up her stand in Times Square on Day #173, and surpassed her goal of $100,000.  Her parents wrote a check to Not For Sale, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending child slave labor, in the amount of $101,320.  But this amazing young lady wasn’t through.  She continued to sell until she reached 365 days straight.  And on the 366th day, her stand moved from the park to the web, and “Make A Stand” Lemonade began selling in bottles.  Today you can also find Vivienne’s lemonade in over 150 stores.

There remain an estimated 30 million human being enslaved worldwide, half of them children.  And Vivienne won’t be satisfied until every one of them is freed.  To that end, Make A Stand contributes a percentage of its proceeds to charities committed to ending child slave labor.

"You don't have to be big or powerful to change the world,” says Vivienne, “you can be just like me." 

What a world that would be.

Vivienne Harr is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Heroes You Should Know: Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Ashley Rhodes was born to an unwed seventeen year-old mother.  And to make matters more difficult, the mother took in a drug-addicted boyfriend and became drug-addicted herself.  When the law pursued the couple, they fled with Ashley and her brother to another state where they were eventually apprehended.  Three year-old Ashley and her brother were placed in a foster home.  And over the next nine and a half years she’d find herself in 14 different homes, and attend nine different schools. 

The living conditions were hellish.  Ashley suffered physical abuse, starvation, and neglect.  She watched her brother almost beaten to death in one home.  Another home she lived in had a convicted pedophile living there.  A third was a three-bedroom trailer she shared with sixteen other children.  Several of the homes she was placed in were “parented” by adults with criminal records.  One would expect this in another century, perhaps in another country, but not in the 1990’s…in America.

And as Ashley was shuttled from home to home the courts continued to block her chances to be adopted, at the ongoing request of her biological mother, hoping the woman would pull her life together and take Ashley back.

By 12 she assumed she was too old to be adopted, and had begun resigning herself to the fact that she’d never have a stable home to grow up in.  And then a miracle happened.

Mary Miller, the guardian ad litem volunteer for another child in the group home Ashley and her brother were in, learned that the Rhodes children had gone five years without representation.  She asked and was appointed to Ashley’s case.  And she would eventually connect Ashley with Gay and Phil Courter.

The Courters were working on a documentary about how children are placed in permanent homes, asked Ashley to tell her story, and quickly decided they wanted to adopt her.  “I guess so”, was Ashley’s response.  By then she’d had eight foster moms, and countless caseworkers and therapists, and the transition was not easy.

But the Courters loved their new daughter through the understandable ups and downs, and eventually Ashley blossomed.  She won a scholarship to Eckerd College, became the Youth Advocate of the year for North America, and went on to earn a Master’s degree in Social Work from U.S.C.

Today Ashley is a guardian ad litem herself, having fostered twenty children and adopted one with her husband.  Her memoir is a best-seller, and she continues to work as an advocate for the roughly 500,000 children in America’s foster care system.

For some, surviving childhood is heroic enough.  But for this inspirational young woman, that was just the beginning.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Heroes You Should Know: Sophie Scholl

The daughter of a mayor in 1930’s Germany, Sophie Scholl was caught up in the swirl of politics at an early age.  And with the rise of the Nazi party, the idealistic teen-ager and her older brother Hans quickly joined the Hitler Youth.  They, like so many, bought the lie that Adolph Hitler would bring hope and prosperity back to Germany.  But between her father’s early anti-Nazi stance and her own careful observations, Sophie soon realized that Nazism was utterly incompatible with her Christianity.

The letters Sophie received from her boyfriend, who had been conscripted into the army, which told of the atrocities the Nazis were committing further convinced her that she needed to act---and the truth needed to be told.

Simply leaving the Hitler Youth was not enough for Sophie, but open dissent in Nazi Germany was tantamount to signing your own death certificate.  So with her brother and four other friends, she formed The White Rose---an under-ground, non-violent resistance movement dedicated to educating German youths about the evils of Nazism.  

The White Rose studied theology, philosophy, and politics together, and initially Hans wanted that to be the extent of Sophie’s involvement.  But she insisted on being fully engaged in the activism, convincing the men that as a female she was far less likely to be stopped by the SS.

The group purchased a typewriter and a duplicating machine, and by 1942 had begun disseminating their leaflets around the campus of the University of Munich where Hans was a medical student and Sophie an undergrad.  They also initiated an anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler graffiti campaign.

As their mission grew, Sophie would buy the paper and stamps at several locations so as to not raise suspicion, and thousands of leaflets were mailed from different posts.  But in February of 1943 a utility man saw Sophie distributing the group’s literature on campus.  She was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured, and sentenced to death for high treason.  

As she was led to the guillotine, Sophie uttered her last words.

“How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

She was 21 years-old.

Sophie Scholl is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Heroes You Should Know: John D’Eri

Inspiration can occur at any time, in any place…even a car wash.  That’s where John D’Eri got the idea of a business that could employee his son Andrew, who is autistic, and other young adults on the autism spectrum.

John formed CanDo Business Ventures in 2011, a non-profit focused on developing scalable businesses for people with autism.  As an entrepreneur himself, he understood how valuable work was to a healthy self-identity, but he also knew how difficult it was for his son, then approaching 22 years-old, to get a job. 

According to the government, about 1 in 68 people has autism spectrum disorder.  And unemployment rates for these adults range from 65-90%.  D’Eri believes this is largely due to negative stereotypes---stereotypes that will persist as long as more opportunities for success are not provided. 

The truth, of course, is that people on the autism spectrum can excel at work, especially where repetition and laser-focus is needed.  And with an estimated 500,000 more people with autism spectrum disorder joining the workforce in the next decade, this business plan comes at a most opportune time.

To insure success, D’Eri and his other son, who had just finished business school, did two years of research, and developed a training protocol in the process.

With the mission of making money by employing men and women on the autism spectrum, the D’Eri family opened the first Rising Tide car wash in 2013 in Parkland, Florida and employed 35 autistic men and women.  John has insisted the car wash be self-sustaining, to show that the model can be done without the assistance of foundations or the government.  People on the spectrum don’t need charity, they just need a chance.

The D’Eri family has the goal of three more for-profit Rising Tide car washes in the next year.

John D’Eri understands that dignity always trumps diagnosis, and ability comes in many different forms.  In a world that still struggles to understand that we are ALL special needs people, this is exceptional.

John D’Eri is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Heroes You Should Know: Guy Gruters

Guy Gruters grew up with a singular ambition:  to be the best at whatever he did.  And a quick glance at his developing resume would confirm that he was well on his way;  Eagle Scout, first in his graduating class in Engineering Science at the United States Air Force Academy, a Master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering in less than one year, pilot training and fighter gunnery school.  And a beautiful wife and two healthy children seemed to round out the picture.  But Gruters wanted more.

So he volunteered for Viet Nam, flew more than 400 successful combat missions, and began collecting awards there too.   

In one spectacular example of courage, Captain Gruters repeatedly flew his unarmed F-100 jet across a ground target, with the intention of drawing fire so that he could expose the enemy’s position and minimize the risk for his fellow pilots.  For this, he was awarded his second silver star for valor.  One month later, in November of 1967, he was shot down over the South China Sea, but was rescued.  At 25 years-old, Captain Gruters seemed remarkably close to golden. 

But on December 20, 1967 Gruters was shot down again.  And this time there would be no dramatic rescue.  For the next five years and three months the man who thought he knew what success looked like got a whole new perspective. 

In the Hoa Lo Prison (commonly known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’), Gruters was starved, humiliated, tortured, and even forced to watch one of his fellow pilots beaten to death.  Without proper clothing or ventilation, he froze in the winter and baked in the summer.

Naturally as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months, Gruter’s heart hardened.  He decided he’d beat his North Vietnamese captors by holding on to his hatred and rage.  But by the end of his first year as a prisoner of war, Gruters knew he needed to change his strategy.  ‘To be the best’ he needed to now embrace a role he’d never dreamed of adding to his resume:  prisoner.  And he knew what that would involve.  In the darkness and filth of his tiny cell Guy began forgiving his captors, and he credits surviving the final four and a half years to this life-changing decision.  Peace replaced rage, and humility replaced pride.

Finally on March 14, 1973, after 1,912 days in captivity, Captain Guy Gruters was released during Operation Homecoming.  He and his wife would go on to have five more children, and today he writes and speaks about the power of forgiveness.

“To be the best”…you can’t give up, but you might need to surrender.

Guy Gruters is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Naoto Matsumura

On March 11, 2011 Hell visited Japan;  a devastating earthquake, followed closely by a massive tsunami, and then the meltdown of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.  Thousands of residents evacuated the area as the Japanese government established a 12.5 miles “exclusion zone” around the power plant to protect people from radiation exposure.

In the town of Tomioka, seven miles from Fukushima, 51 year-old construction worker Naoto Matsumura and his parents fled south to his aunt’s.  But she turned them away, fearing radiation contamination.  And when they reached the refugee camps and found them overcrowded and under-supplied, Naoto decided to go home to check on his animals.

What he found was a town of animals, waiting for their owners to return.  And since none did, Matsumura began making the rounds.  As he did, he found more and more creatures desperate for food and care, and he knew he could not leave.  Although the government has ordered him out of the exclusion zone, he refuses. 

Nicknamed “Radioactive Man”, Matsumura knows the toxic levels of radiation he’s absorbed over the last four years will eventually kill him but believes caring for the animals of his town is worth the sacrifice.

He lives without electricity, running water, or human neighbors as the sole resident of his abandoned town and relies on food and water from outside the exclusion zone, along with monetary donations to support himself and his animals.

When he is not caring for the dogs, cats, cows, ducks, chickens, pigs, ostriches, and horses of Tomioka, Matsumura speaks to media about conditions in his town.

And just last month, four years after the nuclear disaster, the government declared that it was finally safe for the residents of Tomioka to return to their homes.

If they do, they will find one defiant man and a town full of animals who are alive because of his compassion for all creatures great and small.

And in a place that was given up for dead, that’s an incredible witness to life.

Naoto Matsumura is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Heroes You Should now: Eddie Aikau

Eddie Aikau was a son of the sea.  Born on Maui and reared on Oahu, he learned to surf at age eleven, and by sixteen he had dropped out of school so that he could pursue his dream of becoming a champion.  He’d work nights at the Dole Pineapple cannery, so he could surf during the day.  And soon he was a professional surfer as well as a lifeguard at the famous North Shore of Oahu where it was estimated he saved over 500 lives in the treacherous surf.

A striking figure in his trademark white surf trunks with a horizontal red stripe and his fire-engine red surfboard, Eddie was known for riding the biggest waves with his bowlegged stance.  Pictures of him surfing 30 foot waves at Waimea graced the cover of LIFE magazine, his image was used in a nationwide billboard advertising campaign by Bank of America, and he appeared in three surfing movies. 

But surfing was more than a sport for Eddie.  It was a connection with his Hawaiian heritage.  And at a time when many had forgotten the proud traditions of the native Islanders, Eddie was a symbol for many of what had existed before Hawaii had been colonized.  And as he rose in stature, he was also able to confront many of the racial stereotypes that still existed about the native Hawaiians.

And when tensions arose between the native Hawaiian surfing community and the white surfers who came to Oahu to surf from the mainland and Australia, it was Eddie who served as an intermediary between the two factions, and led a fellowship that helped launch surfing as an international commercial sport. 

The highlight of Eddie’s surfing career came in 1977 when he won the prestigious Duke Kahanamoku Invitational in his own home waters of Oahu.

Wanting a new challenge, and an opportunity to champion his proud heritage, Eddie trained to be part of a team that sought to reenact the 2,400 mile ancient Polynesian sea voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti in a double-hulled canoe.  Chosen as one of the Hokule’a crew, Eddie and his fifteen mates set sail on March 16, 1978.  But five hours in, the hull spring a leak in the midst of a terrible winter storm and the boat capsized.  All night the crew clung to the hull, and by 10:30 the next morning, with no way to communicate with shore, and blown outside the shipping lanes, Eddie volunteered to go for help.  On a ten-foot surfboard, 12 miles east of Lanai, Eddie paddled off.  One more time into the big surf.

Later that day the crew was miraculously saved after their last flare was seen by a commercial plane.  And for a week the Coast guard and many private boats searched for Eddie, but his body was never recovered. 

This champion surfer---this champion human being---had paddled into eternity.

Eddie Aikau is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Heroes You Should Know: Clara Hale

Clara McBride Hale, affectionately known as Mother Hale to most, was a widow with three children and a high school education at age 19.  So she went to work cleaning houses by day, and working as a janitor at night.  But being away from her children so much was increasingly unacceptable to her.  So she started a daycare out of her own home for children in her Harlem neighborhood.  And the love in the Hale home was so great many of the children began staying there, seeing their parents on weekends.

As Mother Hale’s family began to grow, she embraced her calling further by becoming a foster parent in 1940.  By the time she retired from her foster care ministry in 1968 she had reared and successfully launched over 40 children into the world, full of love, and self-esteem, and hope. And if that was all Clara Hale had done, she’d be a hero.

But just as Mother Hale was settling into retirement, her daughter brought a heroin-addicted young mother and her baby home.  That afternoon, while Mother made a phone call in the other room, the young mom left…without her baby---returning several weeks later with more of her children to leave with Hale.  By then twenty-two more drug-addicted babies had been dropped off.  And Hale House was born.  At the time, laws restricted foster homes to twelve children at a time, and Mother later confessed they routinely housed thirty to forty---she simply couldn’t say no.

Mother Hale, joined by her own adult children, cared for each one of these babies so well that eventually the public began to hear about this heroic woman and her ministry to abandoned babies.  And the financial support came.  This enabled Hale to purchase a five-story brownstone on 122nd Street in the heart of Harlem for her ever-growing family.  By the 1980’s, Hale House was also accepting babies infected with the AIDS virus.

Eventually Hale House would include a live-in rehabilitation program where drug-addicted mothers would receive medical and psychological care and job training while they got sober.  The goal was to reunite parents with their children, and a true sign of the program’s success was that in 1989, of the hundreds of children placed in foster care at Hale house, only twelve had to be adopted out.

It was estimated that by 1991 Clara Hale had cared for over 1,000 infants and babies.
And she worked virtually til the day she died.  It was reported that to the end she had at least one baby in her own bedroom to hold and love.

Mother Hale was fond of saying, “When I get to Heaven I’m going to rest.”  With her spirit, I seriously doubt it.

Clara Hale is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Heroes You Should Know: The Families of Margraten

Fresh from the breakthrough at Normandy, General Dwight Eisenhower and the Allied forces dreamed of a move that would end the war by Christmas of 1944.  The result was Operation Market Garden, where allied air and ground forces consisting of American, British, Canadian, Polish and Dutch soldiers would liberate Holland by seizing key bridges in Holland, and then rapidly sweep north into the lowlands of Germany while avoiding the German defense line.  

So on the morning of September 17, 1944 thousands of paratroopers descended by parachute or glider into Holland, up to 150 kilometers behind enemy lines.

Unfortunately the Nazis were waiting, and after ten days of fierce fighting the Allied forces had to retreat, leaving over 17,000 of their soldiers behind---having paid the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of freedom.  Heroes you should know among the living and the dead?  No doubt.

But this is about those left to pick up the pieces---specifically at Margraten.  This is where the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial is located, and where gratitude is practiced in a most unique way. 

Established in 1960, it is Europe’s third largest war cemetery for unidentified soldiers.  Rows and rows of white crosses and stars of David mark the 8,301 graves there.  All but 500 of these graves are non-Dutch---men who died on foreign soil, far from their homes and their loved ones.  But you wouldn’t know it.

Because each one of these graves has been adopted by a family.  These families regularly tend to their adopted soldier’s grave, attend annual services in honor of their soldier, and many even hang a portrait of their soldier in their homes to honor his memory.

You would be hard pressed to find the soldiers buried on American soil honored so beautifully.

By military standards, Operation Market Garden was a failure, but this remarkable community in this little Dutch town continues to disagree.  Because courage, and sacrifice, and love never fail.  And each one of these grateful hearts testifies to this truth.  The families of Margraten remember, and they are grateful.

But they haven’t just felt gratitude, they’ve lived it---and keep living it.  And in a tired world so suffocatingly full of entitlement this is remarkable.

They are heroes you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.