Our New Mission Statement, and my Trip to Lithuania
*Note: The names of Lithuanians who shared their stories with me have been changed in this blog to respect their confidentiality.
I went on a mission trip to Lithuania at the end of August, 2013, with a team of 10 other people at my parents’ church in Neenah, Wisconsin. I have been to Lithuania 5 times since 1997, when I was part of the first team from Green Bay, which would form a still vibrant partnership with a Methodist church in Pilviskiai, Lithuania. This partnership has deeply influenced my spiritual journey, as I have walked alongside of a people who had only had the freedom since 1991 to worship as Methodists, after the Soviet Union crumbled.
Our mission trips have always been relationship oriented, and this trip included worship services, devotions every evening with their church, home visits, and pilgrimages with the Lithuanians to significant places in their country.
Upon returning to NYC in early September, Church of the Village was unveiling its new mission statement, and I was struck first by the closing lines: Welcome home! In a superficial way, I felt welcomed home from my trip to Lithuania, but I was also moved to realize that I really did have a home to come back to, in the deepest sense of the word.
“The Church of the Village: Creating a diverse and dynamic community…”
When I left for Lithuania, I had been thinking a lot about the diverse community I am part of at COTV. A few weeks before, the verdict of the Trayvon Martin trial had exposed the difficult truth that racism still has a deep hold on the American consciousness. Of course I was greatly bothered that an armed white adult had murdered an unarmed black child, and walked away with a not guilty verdict.
But I was perhaps hit more deeply when I heard an interview after the trial between Anderson Cooper and Juror B37, who stated clearly that none of the white female jurors felt race had played a role in the murder. After learning how those white female jurors came to a not guilty verdict, I felt deeply ashamed to be a white female. The first time I went to Church of the Village after the verdict, I had trouble looking my African-American brothers and sisters in the eye, for fear that they might think I am like those white female jurors.
I was also thinking a lot about our diverse community at COTV as I travelled to Lithuania because many of them were travelling to the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. I really would have liked to be there in that diverse crowd that day, and as I began my mission trip, I was very aware of being part of an all-white team from America, going to a very white community in Lithuania.
I was quickly reminded, however, that although my skin color is the same as my Lithuanian brothers and sisters, there is a major divide between our political experiences as Americans and Lithuanians. In this dividing line, my African-American brothers and sisters fell on my side of the line, this time with our nationality unifying us.
We heard many people’s stories that week. Elzbieta told us about witnessing the Jewish massacre in Pilviskiai as a 12-year-old child, when Hitler’s Nazi party forced all the Jews (over half the population of the town) to dig their own graves before shooting them and pushing them in. She had been happy in the Methodist church as a child, but was not allowed to worship during the 45 year Soviet occupation.
Sofija was forced to go to a Siberian jail at age 19, because her brother was a rebel against the Soviets, living in the woods. She spent 5 years in the harsh conditions in Siberia, and was fortunate to survive the conditions that killed many from hunger or cold. Eventually her brother was killed for fighting as a rebel.
Amalija’s grandfather had an extensive library when he was deported to Siberia, and when he returned, the library had been given away, even the original copy of a book he had written. Amalija’s grandmother gave birth to Amalija’s mom when on the train to Sibera, and they lived there from 1949-62, the first 12 years of her mom’s life. Her parents had once put up a Christmas tree, and celebrated Christmas, and were not allowed out of the country for many years because of it.
Viktoras had been told by the Soviets that he was going to Latvia for a training, but they locked him into the train and took them to Chernobyl in 1986 to clean up the power plant explosion. He was forced to work for 2 ½ months being exposed to deadly chemicals.
In addition to the stories we heard, we also went to the site of the mass grave in Pilviskiai, where the entire Jewish population had been massacred by the Nazi party during WWII. We spent a lot of time in silence and prayer there, staring at humanity’s darkest hour.
We went to a Methodist cemetery and learned about a woman in the town who had tended to the graves in the middle of the night during the Soviet occupation, at the risk of her life if she was ever caught.
Diversity. Being in community with the ‘other’ is a challenging call. It involves a sometimes painful look at our own selves. We cannot ignore ourselves when we are in community with any person in the ‘other’ category. But diversity in community also forces us to break down the lines that traditionally divide us. As Edward Said has brilliantly articulated in “The Clash of Ignorance,” “How finally inadequate are the labels, generalizations, and cultural assertions…how much simpler it is to make bellicose statements for the purpose of mobilizing collective passions than to reflect, examine, sort out what it is we are dealing with in reality, the interconnectedness of innumerable lives, ‘ours’ as well as ‘theirs.'”
This next line of the COTV mission statement is important. If diversity is going to be beautiful and enriching, and not an experience that leads to brokenness and violence, we need a language and framework that leads us beyond ‘us’ and ‘them.’
In one of the devotions I led in Lithuania, I read sections from Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon, “The Death of Evil Upon The Seashore.” It spoke to me on 2 levels, as it spoke about both the Holocaust and the African-American experience within the same essay. I can re-arrange this part of the COTV mission statement to capture the essence of this sermon: Courage to love brings about justice. When we make a conscious effort to love those in the ‘other’ category, evil dies on the seashore.
Roze was one of the people we talked to during the week, and she was a history teacher in the local school. She was shaking badly when she came to meet with us, and told us she had taken anxiety medication before coming to talk to us. It was difficult for her to share stories of the Soviet occupation with a room full of strangers. Her brother was part of the rebel group living in the woods, and she, as a sibling of a rebel, feared she would be taken away by the Soviets. To avoid being taken, she slept frequently at friends’ homes throughout her childhood, because the Soviets always came for people at night. Her brother was shot, and they never recovered his body. After meeting with us, she said how deeply relieved she was to see how lovingly we received her. When we love each other, evil dies on the seashore.
Jokubas was in seminary before WWII, but left when the war started, and was not able to pursue his calling to the ministry under the Soviet occupation. Instead, he told us that he spent many years thinking about religion, while unable to practice his faith. He said he was anxious to meet with us, but when he saw the love in our eyes, he was comforted because he could see that we were all going in one direction – towards love, and thus towards God. When we love each other, evil dies on the seashore.