Thursday, July 28, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Kate Munger

When asked how the Threshold Choir came about, Kate Munger first recalled a happy childhood, where her loving mother would often sing lullabies to her and her four siblings each night at bedtime, and to campfire songs with her fellow Girl Scouts as an eight year-old.  But as its name reveals, the Threshold Choir is about more than happy times.  And Kate remembers facing down her own fears by singing for the first time at the bedside of a dear friend who was dying of AIDS. That was in 1990.

In March of 2000, Kate gathered fifteen friends at a home in El Cerrito, California---fifteen women who believed that for too long our society had distanced itself from the reality of suffering and death, and that compassion should have a voice.

And the first Threshold Choir was born.

Within a year Kate had founded chapters, always made up of volunteers, in Marin, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Sonoma Counties.  And today there is a network of over 125 a cappella Threshold Choirs---connected typically though the internet and consisting mostly of women’s voices---comforting those at the threshold of time and eternity in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Cambodia.  Their mission is simple, and profound.

“…To sing for and with those at the thresholds of life.”

The word ‘threshold’ is associated with crossing over or passing through, but Kate also chose the word because the threshold is the place through which one passes from outside to inside---to join with others. 

Threshold Choirs sing to those in a coma, and those who are dying.  But they also sing to newborns and children in hospitals, and women who are incarcerated.  Whether it be the beautiful voices, the songs, or the gift of presence, the fruit of this work is peace and love. 

The Threshold Choir’s repertoire consists of some 400 songs, and includes everything from spirituals and hymns to lullabies and soft pop songs that are fifty, sixty and seventy years-old.  They can even work in an occasional Beatles ballad or a less raucous version of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” if there’s an interest.  Kate reports that family members and friends will often join in.

“We like to think of our work as kindness made audible.”

Making kindness audible---“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

Kate Munger is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Christian de Cherge

Father Christian de Cherge was the Prior of the Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas, and his tragic martyrdom was presented in the movie Of Gods and Men.

But he is a hero for how he lived, not how he died.

Born into a French military family, Christian first met Islam when he was five and his family was stationed in Algeria.  He was moved by the prayer life of the Muslims around him, and his mother taught him to respect their search for God.

As a twenty-three year old seminarian, de Cherge returned to Algeria in 1959 to complete his compulsory military service.  Technically a French soldier fighting against the Algerians, Christian formed an unlikely friendship with a Muslim police officer named Mohamed a father of ten.  They would take long walks together and discuss religion, politics, and life.  But on one of these walks the two men were ambushed by Algerian rebels.  De Cherge, dressed in his military fatigues, would have been killed on the spot but for Mohamed interceding and convincing the men to let the young Frenchman go free.

“I will pray for you,” was all de Cherge could say to his friend.  The next morning Mohamed was murdered for what he’d done.  From then on, Christian committed himself to peacemaking in Algeria.  He was a brilliant student, and the hierarchy had him pegged as a rising star in the Church.  But Christian wanted the lonely desert of Algeria, not Paris.  After ordination, he studied Arabic, Islam, and the Quran, and eventually had his request to return to Africa granted in 1971.

There, in Tibhirine, Algeria, in the shadows of the Atlas Moutains, he would become the Prior of the Trappist monastery.  For decades he and his fellow monks lived with their Muslim neighbors in peace.  His form of evangelism was to offer the locals employment, medical care, and literacy tutoring.  De Cherge also organized an annual interfaith conference to foster Muslim-Christian dialogue, and even invited Muslims to stay at the monastery as his special guests.

But as the relationship between the Christian monks and the Muslim community grew, the radical Islamist group GIA became more agitated.  Several times Fr. Christian and his monks were advised to leave, but after prayer and reflection they decided to stay as witnesses to the reality of the peaceful Christian-Muslim co-existence that had been established.

Just after midnight on March 27, 1996 twenty heavily armed GIA soldiers broke into the monastery and took seven of the monks, including Fr. Christian, hostage.  One month later, after the French had refused to negotiate, the extremists released a letter stating that they had beheaded the monks.

After news of her son’s death reached Christian’s mother, she opened a letter he’d given her two years earlier, “to be opened in the event of my death”.  In it, he predicted that he would die at the hands of extremists, and then closed his letter by addressing his ‘friend of the last moment”—his murderer:

“…Yes, I want this thank you and this good-bye to be a ‘God Bless’ for you, too, because in God’s face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both.”

The cause for Fr. Christian de Cherge’s beatification has been opened.  He is a saint for our troubled times;  a true peacemaker who loved beyond limits.

Christian de Cherge is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Faraaz Hossain

20 year-old  Faraaz Hossain wasn’t thinking about becoming a hero on the evening of July 1, 2016, as he met two former high school classmates from Dhaka, Bangladesh for a brief reunion at their old hangout, Holey Artisan Bakery in the business district of Dhaka.  The three friends were home for summer break from studying in America---Hossain as a graduate student at Emory University, Abinta Kabir (age 18) as an undergraduate at Emory, and Tarishi Jain (age 19), a student at Berkeley---and wanted to catch up over some bagels and coffee. 

But then heavily armed seven ISIS terrorists stormed the bakery shouting 'Allahu Akbar!' and took Hossain and more than thirty customers hostage.

The standoff lasted for almost twelve hours, during which time the terrorists questioned the hostages about their religions and nationalities, and then reportedly told them that if they could not recite passages from the Quran they would die. 

Muslims were separated from non-Muslims, and the terrorists had the staff cook meals for the Muslim hostages so they could eat before the Ramadan fast started at sunrise.  A group of women dressed in traditional Islamic hijabs were eventually allowed to leave, and then the terrorists told Faraaz that because he was Bengali and Muslim he too could leave.

Eyewitnesses report that Faraaz asked about his friends.   Because Abinta wasn’t Muslim and Jain admitted to being an American citizen he was told that they would have to die.  “Then, I’ll stay with them” was Hossain’s response.  Soon after 20 of the hostages, including Faraaz, Abinta, and Jain, were brutally hacked to death.

Faraaz’s brother Zaraif reported that the autopsy showed wounds consistent with someone who tried to fight back.  “Our mom has raised us to always protect and respect women.  And he (Faraaz) did so till the end.”

One can only speculate as to why Faraaz chose to stay when he could have left.  Did he think he could somehow overpower seven men, armed with guns and knives?  Did he believe the terrorists would eventually let them all go free?  Or did he simply feel that he couldn’t abandon his friends, even knowing that it meant his own death?

What we do know is that Faraaz Hossain was a brilliant and personable graduate student who, at 20 years-old, had a world of wonderful personal and professional options in front of him. And he could have left.  Some…perhaps many…would say he should have left.  He was destined for success.

Destined for success?  Faraaz Hossain was more than successful, he was significant.

Faraaz Hossain is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.