Remembering Jeff Rickert

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The following prayers and sermon were delivered at a memorial service for Jeff Rickert at the AFL-CIO  in Washington DC on January 17th, 2015.  I post them here for the friends and family who could not be in attendance.  

Walking with Grief

Do not hurry

as you walk with grief;

it does not help the journey.

Walk slowly,

pausing often;

do not hurry

as you walk with grief.

Be not disturbed

by memories that come unbidden.

swiftly forgive;

and let God speak for you

unspoken words.

Unfinished conversation

will be resolved in God.

Be not disturbed.

Be gentle with the one

who walks with grief.

If it is you,

be gentle with yourself.

Swiftly forgive,

walk slowly,

pausing often.

Take time, be gentle

As you walk with grief.

Adapted from a passage in David Elginbrod.  By George MacDonald in Celtic Daily Prayer:  Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community,2002.  USA: HarperCollins.


Today we walk with Grief together.    In these next hours, let us be gentle with ourselves and one another.

Let us forgive Jeff for the wrongs he did during his too brief life.  Let us forgive ourselves for the things we said and did, and didn’t say, didn’t do for Jeff.

Today let us take time to celebrate Jeff’s life and give thanksgiving for Jeff’s presence in our lives.

Today as we walk with Grief together, let us feel the love that brings us together,  a love which continues beyond death–our love for Jeff,  Jeff’s love for us, our love for one another,  and the eternal love of God.

Homily, The Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding

We have heard about Jeff’s passions, about his friendships, about his work and about his love for his family.

I loved Jeff.  He was my friend and my colleague. He called me when he fell in love.  We sat in conference hotel lobbies and he told me about his break-ups.  He listened to my anxieties.  He was my confidant when I was in a bad place and he was my friend in spite of my failings.  He told me about his family and we griped together about work.  He came and sat in my Berkeley breakfast nook and we strategized about workforce development projects, and we imagined together a new green economy in which all workers could find dignity and together we would thrive as a nation.  He brought friends to my place for dinner, and he appreciated my cooking as well as my policy work.

But today my task, is not only to continue this conversation about what made Jeff’s life meaningful and what he gave to all of us, but also to try and help us all make sense of his death.

In some ways, it is an impossible task.  Jeff died too soon.   It was not right that he should die at this young age.  I am angry that he died—I’m angry at Jeff for having died, I’m angry at myself for not preventing his death,  I’m angry at God for not keeping him safe.  I find myself lamenting as the David the psalmist lamented, raging about the unfairness of his death.

Over the past few weeks, in my tears of anger and loss,  I have also been listening for, praying for, some resurrection angle, some divine intervention that will transform this loss into new life.

Finally this week,  I went back to the Bible story about the death of Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary.

In this story found in the Gospel of John, Jesus’s friend Lazarus was dying.  Lazarus’s sisters, Martha and Mary sent for Jesus and asked him to come and save their brother.  But Jesus didn’t come.   He stayed two days longer in the place where he was.  Lazarus died. When Jesus finally arrived,  Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days.

 Martha said to Jesus on the road and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” . . .  32 When Lazarus’ sister Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Usually when Christians retell this Gospel story, they tell it as a story about faith—Lazarus was raised from the dead as proof of Jesus’s power and as a testament to Martha and Mary’s faith.

So why would I tell this story here now to a room full of friends and colleagues—likely among you are some Christians, but I know that some of you  have different faiths, some are agnostics, some adamant atheists.   I am not, I assure you, telling this story to convert you.

No, I hear in this story something universal, a truth about life after death. God’s role is not to prevent death.  Death is a fact of our human existence.  While we fight against it,  it comes to us all.  No God, no faith, no divine intervention can prevent our human lives from ending.

Instead of preventing death, Jesus comes to assure Martha and Mary that their brother will have new life.  So today,  I listen to that story and ask,  what is that “new life” that Jeff has today after death?

I ask, is Jeff’s new life in the work that will continue here at the AFL-CIO?  Is it in the building up of the trade union movement, the organizing of workers and fighting for decent wages and working conditions?  Is Jeff’s new life in the janitors, the hotel workers, the building trades apprentices, the manufacturing line workers who will earn decent wages, be able to afford homes, have health care, save for retirement because of the labor movement?  When I meet the newly organized workers who are fighting for their first contract, or when I meet a group of retirees who were able to spend some years with their families because they had a decent pension—maybe Jeff’s new life is in them.

I ask,  is Jeff’s new life in the work that will continue around workforce development and job training?  Last Friday, I was with a group of pre-apprentices who were graduating from a certificate program based on the new Multi-Craft Core Curriculum developed by the building trades.  They were a group of men and women who were full of hope—hope that the certificate that they’d earned would lead them into an apprenticeship program that would give them a lifelong career ladder, with increasing skills and increasing pay.  Jeff hoped that those students would get trained for jobs that they could be proud of.  Maybe Jeff’s new life is in the realization of that hope.

I ask, is Jeff’s new life in the ongoing work around the clean, green economy.  As we develop new programs to create green jobs,  build infrastructure that is needed to address climate change and ensure that people who have been left out of a market driven economy, will find prosperity in the new clean economy that we are creating.  Maybe when we see new solar farms going on line and wind projects gradually replacing our fossil fuel economy, we’ll see Jeff’s new life.

But I don’t think that Jeff’s new life is only in the work that he started that we will all continue.

I ask,  is Jeff’s new life in the relationships that he created here among us.  When Jeff loved us and made us his friends, he changed us forever.  Maybe his new life is in the friendships that we will continue and in the new relationships that we will make, the new people that we will love because in some way his love ripples out through us.

I ask, is Jeff’s new life found in the sardonic humor that he shared with us, the dark jokes that were funny and painful, and opened us up to some truths that without his humor we might not have seen.  When we laugh at things that are not really funny, when we point at the ridiculousness of our reality, maybe Jeff has some new life in those moments.

And today,  as I’ve met Jeff’s family for the first time,  I ask is Jeff’s new life in Blake.  Jeff loved his family so powerfully, so passionately.  That love doesn’t end because Jeff isn’t here.  Jeff continues to love his family, and they continue to love him.  Blake will grow up and live in Jeff’s love, the love of his parents, Jeff’s brother Kevin and his sister-in-law, Jill, the love of his grandmother Ginny and the love of all of Jeff’s friends.  Jeff will find new life in Blake.

I am nearly finished.  But before I conclude this sermon,  I want to go back to the story of Lazarus. Jesus told Martha and Mary that Lazarus, their brother would rise again.  But when Jesus came to Lazarus’s tomb he wept.  When Jesus was confronted by the reality of losing his friend, he was deeply disturbed because he loved him.  I hear in this part of the story, that the belief that Jeff might have new life (in these different ways) doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t weep over his having left us.  For some time, the comfort that we need may be in crying together, knowing that we are not the only ones suffering this loss.  When it seems an unbearable loss,  maybe it is just time for weeping together.

After Jesus had wept with Martha and Mary, he went to the tomb and said to them,  “Take away the stone.”  They didn’t want to,  but Jesus commanded it and they did it.  Jesus then called in a loud voice,  “Lazarus come out.”  And after the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

In this conclusion of the story,  I hear Jesus saying that Jeff’s new life requires our participation.  It is up to us to roll away the stone, to unbind him and let him go.   In time, in good time, our weeping will begin to subside and we’ll be ready to live with Jeff, in his new life.  When that time comes, tomorrow, or a year from now, or gradually over many years—we might hear a voice inside of us saying “Jeff come out.”  When we hear that voice, it will be time for us to do hard work, moving the stone away and unbinding Jeff.

If Jeff is going to have new life, in the work of organized labor, in building a better system of job training, in creating a clean economy—then it’s up to us to roll away the stones that block that work.  It’s up to us to unbind, and overcome the forces that would prevent Jeff’s vision from being realized.  It is up to us to carry Jeff’s work forward with his energy, his passion and his wit.

If Jeff is going to have new life in friendships that he created and the ripples of his friendships into new relationships, then it’s up to us to unbind him by loving people as he loved.  Sometimes loving people who are hard to love, loving people who have issues, maybe loving people who don’t love us back.

If Jeff is going to have new life in his family and in Blake, then it will be up to us to continue the love and support that Jeff shared with them. In moments of joy and success,  we’ll have to remember Jeff’s joy and carry that forward.  And when things are hard for Blake and his family (as they are in any family), it will be up to us be there just because Jeff would have been.

I am a person of faith.  I believe that Jeff has a new life in all these ways that I’ve mentioned.  I believe that this is a resurrection life, a life in God.  But whether you believe in God or not, there is comfort for us in weeping together.  And when the time comes,  I believe that Jeff will rise.  His life, his work and his love for all of us will continue in our ongoing work and our love for one another.

Thank you all for coming together today to share in this celebration of his life on earth and this beginning of his new life in God, his new life in us and our love.


Irish Funeral Prayer

Death is nothing at all.
 It does not count.
  I have only slipped away into the next room.
  Everything remains as it was.
  The old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
  Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
  Call me by the old familiar name.
  Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
  Put no sorrow in your tone.  
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
  Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.  
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
   Let it be spoken without  effort
.  Life means all that it ever meant.  It is the same as it ever was.
  There is unbroken continuity.
  Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?   
I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner.
   All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
  One brief moment and all will be as it was before.   
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting,  when we meet again.

― Henry Scott HollandDeath Is Nothing at All



What will I be for Halloween?

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We missed Halloween last year.  We did a party at the American Corner in Tuzla–the four of us wore costumes and we carved pumpkins and showed Young Frankenstein.  It was fun, but not exactly American Halloween.  People didn’t seem to understand the appeal of getting dressed up to be something other than ourselves.  We tried to explain, about how you could be a thing–an animal, a character from a book or a movie, or you could be a concept.  Joe went as the Bosnian stamp–he had a sandwich board with stamps marking “official approval”.  Averil was the Bosnian and American flags combined.  But Bosnian friends couldn’t imagine what they might be, or why they would want to dress up.  For the ones who did dress up, there were several in V for Vendetta masks–speaking to the spirit of revolution that was brewing last October.  Then there were children in superhero costumes–speaking to the need for special powers that all children need in the face of grown-ups overriding controls.

So this year, I’ve been thinking about how often I dress up, play a role, put on a mask and become what is expected (or not expected) in a given situation.  I wonder if all Americans do this more than people in other places.Yates with blue hair

I was at a Sustainable Communities meeting last week with teams of planners and economic development organizations, and advocates for equity and affordable housing.  I was a panelist and my role was to talk about strategies for improving prosperity in the Bay Area.  I had planned to structure my remarks around 3 categories of policies that we believe would improve the wages and benefits for workers in low-wage jobs.  I was prepared to highlight the need for joint labor-management training trusts, for policies that would raise wages in an industrial sector, or create on-ramps to jobs with middle wages.  I was going to talk about anti-displacement strategies and career navigation networks.

If you are not one of my colleagues working in this area, you may be wondering what I am talking about.

Sustainability conference 1And that’s my point, the language that I use when I talk to regional planning groups, or economic development groups or workforce development groups is coded–it is a specialized field (multiple fields really) and the people who work on these issues talk to one another using language that only other specialists recognize.  There is a way that I put on my “planning costume” and become one of this club, recognized by others in the group, but almost inscrutable to people outside this field.

But while I had my prepared remarks in my bag (and my powerpoint presentation on my laptop), I listened to another panel–and the panelists said many of the same things that I had prepared.  I realized that we were talking to one another about concepts that we basically agreed on.  I realized that giving my talk to this audience was not going to change anyone there, or add much new information to the field.  While I would have given good local examples, it would have been more of the same.

So on the spur of the moment, I switched costumes.  Well I didn’t really have to switch, since I was already wearing my priest’s collar.  I just stood up and said,  “To the surprise of co-panelists, I am not going to give my prepared remarks.  I am going to talk to you about my theology.”  There was a tittering in the audience.  Maybe a slight discomfort from the West Coast funders and the East Coast policy advocates.  But the audience had a lot of African Americans, government officials from the South and the Midwest, some rural planners from Utah and Idaho and Kansas.  Some of them smiled and tuned in, looked straight at me, and got out their pens.

See my talk at 29.30

I gave a three point speech–talked about God’s preference for the poor, talked about loving your neighbor and talked about working together as a Body to bring the Kingdom here, now.  I related my theology to the work we’re doing to create more prosperity for everyone in the Bay Area.  And then I sat down.

Over the course of the rest of the day, people came up and talked to me about their own faith communities, about working with Mormons in Utah, about engaging with their neighbors as they develop plans and sort out the needs and barriers that communities who are trying to move people out of poverty face.  One Obama appointee told me about her experience of Episcopal Church Christmas pageants when she was a child.  The people who talked to me were complimentary, thanking me for my remarks.  Maybe those who didn’t speak to me hated what I’d said, or just felt like it was inappropriate or confrontational.  But I tried to explain that I hoped that sharing my theology might help all of us at the conference name what matters most–why we do what we do.  Maybe by switching language completely, using different metaphors, framing in this unexpected way–we might think again about what’s possible, what’s urgent, what our role is in the work.

IMG_1419Since last week’s conference, I’ve been thinking about whether what I did was appropriate or inappropriate, whether I crossed a boundary or broke some rules that I really shouldn’t have broken.  Today, I’m thinking about how it is that Halloween is like that–it allows us to switch into a different identity, show a different side of ourselves, be “real” in an unexpected way.  In the fantastic, flamboyant, or simply unexpected, we can be seen in new ways, understood differently.  There is permission on Halloween to break these rules that keep parts of ourselves hidden.

But under our masks, we are ourselves.  The language of economic development is one of the many “roles” I play.  The priest’s collar is another.  The litigator that I was when I practiced law still emerges sometimes.  Maybe when I switch from one setting to the other (in and out of costumes) I do make people a little uncomfortable, but maybe in that discomfort they might know more about me, or we might share things that would otherwise be obscured.  Maybe as they see me in an unexpected costume, they feel empowered to bring forth parts of themselves that are not in their usual surface presentation.

Yates Pink HairSo who will I be on Halloween night?  Maybe a carnival character, maybe a mom making halloween cookies, maybe a film director . . .   I’ll let you know.Mad hatter









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Yates' birthdayIt’s been two months now since we moved back to the US from Tuzla, Bosnia where we lived all last year.    We’ve been back in our house in Berkeley, back to school, work, friends.  It’s time to write again, but I’ve been having a hard time finding the right things to say. I guess I’ve been so overwhelmed that I didn’t trust that anything I might say would be true–or rather what seemed true at 9 a.m., seemed irrelevant by 3 p.m.

So now after eight weeks of this stew, I think I’ve found something that is real–I’m tired.  I feel sort of guilty about this.  Somehow being tired is a moral failing.  If I was a better person, I wouldn’t get so tired.

It’s not that I’m sleeping badly–I go promptly to sleep at 10:30 and wake up without much grumbling between 5:30 and 6:30.  That’s not a ton of sleep, but it’s enough I think.  I’m back to exercising–swimming several miles a week, running once or twice a week–so it’s not that I’m feeling sluggish.  I think maybe that I’m just overloaded.  Overloaded with thoughts, feelings, complexities. Some friends have suggested that what feels like tired is really culture shock.  It takes awhile to find your balance (when I look back at our blog posts from September 2013, I can see that I felt off balance at the beginning of our time in Bosnia).  And finding our balance takes a lot of unconscious energy.

Quality Jobs Meeting

Quality Jobs Meeting

When we first arrived in Bosnia, the culture shock was pretty easy to explain–we didn’t speak the language, we didn’t understand the daily rhythms, we didn’t have friends or clear routines.  But here, I’ve come back to MY life–all of those routines, rhythms, friends, work that I made over the course of the past twenty five years.  But somehow I have to look hard at what I’ve come back to and reevaluate it.  I’m changed in subtle (and not so subtle ways) and my old ways may not fit as well as they once did.

I went to a birthday party a couple of weeks ago.  I knew almost all of the guests and I was incredible happy to see them.  I talked to close friends and some people whom I only see once or twice a year at parties.  I came home from the party with very mixed feelings–I felt real love for this circle of people and from them, I got to hear about what had happened to them in the past year–their accomplishments, their losses, the changes and the things that were the same as when I last saw them.   But I also felt a little bad about myself–my friends have all done more amazing things than me, they are better parents, they have more interesting careers, more fantastic vacations.

At the council of institutional investors

At the council of institutional investors

Everyone said that it was wonderful that we’d had a year in Bosnia, but of course, their lives had gone on while we were away.  I felt a bit like I was in my teenage nightmare–I was supposed to be in math class every day, and I’d forgotten to go for the entire semester.  My life in Berkeley had carried on and I’d forgotten to show up for it.

Two interwoven themes have come out of this evening–one a general US obsession with ranking. My Bosnian friends just aren’t insecure in this particular way–they don’t seem to compare themselves to other people.  When we made friends, we had the sense that they liked being with us, not that they admired us or that they felt like they were better than us in particular ways.  Bosnian friends never talked about one another’s accomplishments–they tended to talk more about common concerns–politics, music, movies, language, families.  When they have fun, it’s immediate and real.  Parties aren’t about the “amazing” collection of assembled guests–they are about being yourself with people you love. And then a second theme–that of lost time, lost connection.

Belma and Tarik's wedding

Belma and Tarik’s wedding

Even though I talked to people in the US often over that year when we were away, I hadn’t kept up with the daily stories.  While I was working in Tuzla absorbed by protests, plenums, flood relief, new language, culture and politics–they had been here engaged in their own pursuits.  The things I learned and experienced, while interesting to people here, are not in their realm of experience.  I can’t begin to “catch up” with people I haven’t seen in a year, what they have experienced in the past year, I can’t be part of. And so maybe the culture shock is meeting people anew, finding old friends where they are today and being open to what these connections will be.  Not that I have to start from scratch–we have years of knowing one another, but we pick up from a new place–like knitting a sweater in two colors–I had been knitting along in blue for all those years in my past, and now I’ve picked up an orange yarn.

Just one more example–I’m back in my work here.  I’m preaching and presiding as a supply priest at various churches.  I’m working for Ceres thinking about sustainable investment practices.  I’m chairing the Economic Prosperity Working Group for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and writing and speaking about what policies would create “quality jobs”.   This is all good work.  I am intellectually engaged and I have some sense of satisfaction that what I’m doing might make some difference. My days are full, but I’m still managing to have dinners with Joe and the boys most nights.

But it’s incredibly complicated work.  Each piece is complicated and as a combination of different strands it’s exponentially more complicated.  I find myself using specialized language in each venue.  I have different colleagues for each part of my work life.  I travel back and forth to do meetings–in San Jose, Marin, San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Silicon Valley, Oakland City Center.  I consistently drive at least an hour a day, often three or four.  I prepare agendas, write briefing papers, follow-up with minutes and action steps.  I write sermons and prayers, think about spiritual development and pastoral concerns.

Green bonds workshop with Climate Bonds Standards Initiative

Green bonds workshop with Climate Bonds Standards Initiative

In this part of my life, it might seem like I’m tired just because I’m doing too much.  But that would suggest that I wasn’t doing very much in Bosnia–which wasn’t true.  I think the culture shock is about the complexity and the scale of projects.  In Bosnia, when we strategized about government reforms, we strategized with 10 colleagues, and another 200 would participate in meetings.  When we worked on flood relief, the same 10 colleagues got organizing and another 200 put systems in place and actually did the physical work.  When I engaged in “witness”, I showed up at whatever was happening that day and I recognized people from yesterday. In Bosnia, I could make a difference by engaging with ten civic organizations doing good work in Tuzla.

In front of San Mateo County Board of Supervisors offices with protest

In front of San Mateo County Board of Supervisors offices with protest

At Alex Lough's funeral

At Alex Lough’s funeral

Here my economic prosperity work engages 200 organizations, thousands of members and other constituents. In Tuzla, I could get to my desk at the public library by walking 20 minutes or taking a 5 minute bus ride.  Here the distances around the Bay Area are vast and it is not possible to just work in Berkeley on the issues that I care about. While the efficiency, and levels of organization among faith and civic organizations here is deep, I feel somehow that in the bureaucratization of our US society we have lost some depth of connection.  Those 10 colleagues/friends I worked with in Bosnia share a deep vision that transcends disciplines and projects–the same people are writing, thinking, organizing together–about cultural events–gallery exhibits, or concerts, about academic seminars, about advocacy with elected officials.

This depth of shared vision means that organizing and working is not so much about action items, written briefs or “deliverables”.  Instead its about relationships between people and incremental movement that emerges over multiple conversations. I think I’m missing the opportunity to draw out themes with people I care about, people I work with.  I have so many disparate projects with wonderful friends and colleagues in each one.  But I have to do the work of connecting these projects up (theologically, socially, systemically) by myself because no one else is there in all the conversations I’m having.

So there are some thoughts about being tired and suffering culture shock;  don’t get me wrong.  I’m not unhappy, or particularly frustrated.  I’m missing Tuzla a lot, and wishing I felt more completely at home here.  Maybe just noticing what it is that makes me feel tired will help me continue my knitting–bringing the strands from a year in Bosnia into the fabric of life here in Berkeley.

Apologies to those friends and family I have not yet seen or spoken with back in California.  Give me a call or drop by at tea time and talk to me about the themes that are running through our shared life.  And to my wonderful friends in Bosnia, know that I miss you and am thinking about you all the time.


Lessons learned?

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This past month, as I am preparing to leave Tuzla and return to the US, I’ve felt like I’m just on the cusp of some big breakthrough.

I might really start speaking Bosnian.  I know a lot of words.  I understand a lot of what other people are saying, but somehow I still have trouble making a sentences.  I am so frustrated that after a year of daily lessons, I’m still not able to really communicate.

I might  have glimpses of understanding about how the trauma of the war impacts Bosnians–those who were old enough to fully experience the war and those who were babies in the nineties, now young adults.  As I have listened and studied, written and prayed, I’ve come to know how deep these wounds are and I can see them on faces and in the patterns of work and family, friendships and civic life.  There are obvious wounds–broken families, missing fathers and uncles, men who are disabled, wives who have not found their missing spouses.  Blueberry farmersThere are subtle signs of depression, distrust, anger, hopelessness.  But I can’t really understand.  I don’t think I’ll ever really know what it means to have lived through this war and I can’t really understand the complex ways that people are shaped by the trauma of this war.

Then there’s the economy,  Joe has done so much thinking about it.  He’s preparing to teach a course on the economic model of the former Yugoslavia.  But I have some experience of it and now I have some ideas about what the barriers to economic prosperity are.  I have less of an idea about the causes of the economic collapse.  And I am constantly stymied by questions about what it would take to make a change.  Each time I think I see one answer, I see more reasons why my answer is at best insufficient and at worst, just wrong.Solidarnosti meeting in July 2014

Immediately after the mid-May floods, I was full of outrage and intensely engaged in tragedy of losses–lost homes, farms, communities.  I started working with all the relief agencies and learning about what works and what doesn’t here in terms of humanitarian aid.  I made new friends in the NGO community, got to know all these people who do have hope and are doing fantastic work providing support to those affected by floods and landslides.  I found some answers in this work. I found projects and people who are so competent and so effective here.  In this work, I found the core of the community that Tuzla can be in the future–a community that is defies nationalist tendencies and is united around a vision of real prosperity for everyone.  A community that cares for all its people and works hard to create fair and just systems to provide for its people in a crisis.  KiseljakBut I also found myself left with big gaps in my understanding.  I am not at all sure what the right role for the international community is; I can’t figure out how to expand on this core of effective systems beyond the immediate flood relief work  to scalable economic development; and I’m battling to see how this work in the non-governmental sector overcomes the inefficiencies of the government and the corrupt political system.

So I’ve been writing all year.  Telling my friends, colleagues and congregation about what it’s like here.  I’ve been trying to understand, to appreciate and to learn.  But real understanding is still elusive for me.  I look back at the blog posts I’ve written and I worry that I’ve made judgments that I no longer think are right.  I’ve raised the wrong questions sometimes asked questions that are just plain irrelevant to what’s going on here.  I’ve made suggestions from my US perspective that are way off the mark from the Bosnian or former Yugoslavian perspectives.

For all these failings, I apologize and promise that I’ll continue to try and learn and listen more closely with less attachment to what I know and more openness to that uncomfortable place where I just don’t understand.

So maybe the lessons learned are not so much about Bosnia, but more about me and the people I’ve met here. Here are a few of the real lessons.

Getting to know people is fantastic.  The start of new relationships was (is) exhilarating as I learned about what people want, who they are, what they love, how they think about themselves, their families, their communities. I got to share myself, opening with what I like best about myself and my family.  Alenka and AmirThe deepening of relationships is hard–you get to see people’s cracks–the places where they aren’t what they’d like to be, where sometimes they are mean or scared or insensitive.  And worse, other people get to see the places where I am not the person I wish I could be.  And then there’s a settling in.  I now feel like I have made some friends for life.   There are people here who I care about and who I think care about me.  We might have been friends anywhere, but we met here and this place at least partially defines us.  These are relationships that I will miss terribly, even as I maintain them from afar.  Maybe everyone doesn’t think that getting to know people is fantastic.  But for me, it was the best thing about this year.

Learning new things is hard.  This life lesson is one that I’m going to have to keep working on.  I thought that in a year I could learn about Bosnia, learn Bosnian, learn about Yugoslavia’s history, the economy, the war, the politics, the future.  But learning all these new things at my age means incorporating them into the fabric of the old things that I already know.  And that means that I have to open up spaces in what I had already settled in my mind to make room for truly new understandings.

Take a silly example.  The first few months I was here, I dove into learning about Bosnian food.  I made stuffed vegetables, ate fresh cheeses, dried meats, pies of every variety (and rakija).  It took a lot of effort to figure out what the ingredients are, where to buy them, what to do with them.  But gradually (after gaining considerable weight) I came to realize that the recipes were not the main thing I needed to learn.  I could eventually master Bosnian pie making (although I haven’t yet attempted one on my own).  Hanka's SirnicaBut much more important is learning about what food means to people here–how they eat, with whom, with what ingredients.  And here I find myself still on the cusp of understanding.  I can love the dishes I’ve had but not really understand how a Bosnian family appreciates them or how community, feeding and eating are related.

On other subjects I have this same experience.  I know about nationalism from reading and study, from experiences in South Africa, by analogy to American racism.  But understanding nationalism here means breaking down some of my notions about how communities should function, how they are “naturally” structured, how people communicate, and create identities.  Or another example, I took women’s studies courses in college.  I wrote about feminist and womanist theology in Divinity School.  But here I am confronted with a gender discourse that is shaped by communist ideals, by an experience of non-Soviet socialism, by secular norms in a Muslim majority community.  I find myself confused about what being a feminist means politically, socially and in personal interactions.  Learning new ways of being a feminist here means opening up what I had developed as my own feminist identity to scrutiny and maybe rejecting some of the things I have thought for a long time were true.  It’s challenging.

We just want to fit in.  It’s just so hard to be a foreigner.  But it’s not just being from another place, it’s being unsure of our place.  What am I supposed to do?  What’s my job, what’s my role?  Should I be part of this group, or part of this discussion?  The language barrier created lots of challenges to fitting in.  But then there were just some human challenges–could I “belong” when everyone knew that I was only going to be here for a year?  Maybe it didn’t make sense to incorporate me into projects that had been going before I arrived and would carry on after I left.  Maybe I could only be an observer to events that needed to be shaped by Bosnians.  But this feeling of not fitting in is supremely uncomfortable.  It requires a lot of work to find a centered place in myself independent from the community I’m in.  And it was hard to figure out how to belong here. This lesson for me was confirmed a hundred-fold by Averil and Yates’ experiences.  Novi Grad goodbyesTeenagers are the epitomy of conformists.  All they want is a circle of friends who think they are OK.  But how to find that and affirm it?  Not as easy as showing up at school and being popular or a good student.  Really fitting in means knowing and being known.  This is hard work.

Maybe the lesson is not that being a foreigner is hard, but rather that everyone wants to fit in and helping the people around us find that sense of belonging is big work that we need to do.

So those are just a few of the lessons.  I’m sure there are lots more that will occur to me as we continue this transition.

We’re back in Tuzla this week (returned from a fabulous Greek vacation).  We pack up and say good-bye (see you soon) to friends and then go to Massachusetts on the 11th for a week with my family.  We land back in Berkeley on August 17th.    It’s been rich and wonderful, and now it’s so so hard to leave.


No Economic Policy Changes (yet). Blame the Linden Trees.

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Last Monday, I attended a Plenum session on economic alternatives.  An English economist, Fred Harrison talked about the possibility of tax policy change that would shift taxes away from income taxes and instead focus on property-based corporate taxes.  (Georgism is the name of this theory.)  This would ensure that businesses were really contributing to the well-being of the community.  It could potentially stimulate the economy through consumer spending and increased employment.  It would not “renationalize” the industries (in the way that local folks have been advocating), but it would certainly help generate more money for government spending on community benefits.

Linden treeTuesday, I took Fred Harrison and his filmmaker colleague out to Brčko, an independent district on the northern border with Croatia.  We spent several hours getting tax information out of the District offices.  It was interesting because the District is a tax haven for businesses, but still has very high unemployment (over 44%), very low wages (lower than the surrounding areas) and very few businesses  with production facilities or other significant real property in the area (more than 90% of Brčko registered businesses are micro enterprises with less than 5 employees).

For all the tax and other incentives that Brčko gives business, there is no apparent benefit to the community that lives in the district.  A case study of how business profits do NOT “trickle down.”  They filmed me in my clerical collar expressing my outrage (Fred and his filmmaker’s term.)  But I didn’t have to manufacture my outrage.  I am genuinely disgusted, ashamed, distraught.  The economy is not working for anyone except the oligarchs in Bosnia.

The Dayton Accord (that the US imposed) created the Brčko District for the benefit of foreign enterprise.  I wonder how many of the businesses registered in Brčko are managed and run by Bosnians.  But the creation of Brčko (the Bosnian equivalent of the Cayman Islands), is just one example of policy that has destroyed the Bosnian economy.

The unemployed people of Tuzla can name all the policies and corruptions that have deprived them of work.  Privitization of industry eliminated four chemical industry firms in the area–Polihem, DITA, Guming, Konjuh.  Other industries were also privatized. The railroads have not been rebuilt since the war.  The public sector has grown huge, but the bureaucrats don’t focus on improving the lives of the general population , instead they seem to focus on maintaining their own political and economic power.  Thousands of police stand idle on every road waiting to catch a speed violator, but there is no one focused on providing basic services and aid to the unemployed or the flood victims.  There are no jobs for teachers (our tutor has been told she’ll be on a waiting list for a job for at least ten years).  There are few jobs for social workers or health care workers.

But this post is not really a analysis of what policies destroyed the local economy.  (While we’re sick of hearing it, everyone you meet here will tell you,  “It’s complicated”  when you ask why it is this way.)  This post is really about how it feels to be here in the midst of it.

On Monday night at the forum, there were unemployed workers (all the leaders of the new union Solidarnosti), young plenum activists–lawyers, academics, artists, students.  There were a few foreigners who care.  There were not any policymakers–no government officials, no political party leaders.  Somehow, the good guys are talking among themselves and the local powerful are impervious to our discussions.

So among the good guys (all the people who are talking among themselves), there is new anger and frustration.  The workers are accusing the academics of having “sold them out”.  After all, the professors have jobs and the workers don’t.  We (the foreigners) have also let them down.  We’re giving aid to flood victims and not to the unemployed.  They are angry.

Some of the union leaders confronted me directly–“Where is the computer you promised?”  I never promised a computer, but for sure they need one.Over the past four months, I had a series of meetings with the union trg to help them articulate their demands to the International Trade Union Confederation and the AFL-CIO.  Founding SolidarnostiThe AFL-CIO Solidarity Center finally gave me a response which I had to convey–the AFL doesn’t (and won’t in this case) give direct aid.  They provide ongoing support to build institutions.  It turns out that the ITUC, the AFL-CIO and other labor organizations poured money into the Bosnian labor movement from the mid-nineties through 2002.  But the labor movement here couldn’t build a national governing body because of disputes between Republic of Srpska affiliates and Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina affiliates.  Nationalism and corrupt linkages with political parties kept the labor movement divided.

The new union (Sindikat Solidarnosti) that I’m working with is clear–we’ve got to build locally and then create linkages with others who share a non-nationalist agenda focused on worker solidarity not party interests. Solidarnosti But this commitment isn’t enough to convince the international labor organizations to provide support now after years of not making progress.  As the Solidarity Center leader explained, there’s no plan for self-sufficiency.  They are looking to the international community to support them, but there’s no obvious path towards changes that would give the unions sufficient power so that they would not need support.

The in-fighting among plenum activists has the same general flavor.  Why haven’t the plenums resulted in more policy change?  Who is to blame?  The young lawyers (many of whom are unemployed) are furious that the academics haven’t called more meetings.  The academics are frustrated that the union leaders and the lawyers haven’t put forward an agenda that would warrant another meeting.  There is a simmering rage, distrust and frustration.  I am saddened and conflicted when some of it is directed at me.  I’m distraught that the beacon of hope that the Plenums initially generated is being sullied by cross-talk that confirms the old conviction that nothing can get better in Bosnia.

Summer is here, the lakes are full of sunbathers.  The Linden trees smell sweet.  The air is too thick–hot and humid– to run around during the day.  At night the squares are full of people meeting for coffee or a beer, but people tell me it’s not the time for strategizing and mobilizing. Productive activity stops in the summer they tell me.  Even my own little work world is disrupted–the library has closed my “American Corner” workspace because it’s too expensive to run the air conditioner and the librarian is needed as vacation relief in other departments.

I’m also frustrated.  I wish felt that their organizing was making a difference.  I wish that I could do more to help get a plan together.  In my first world, wealthy American context, if you are mad about something you can change it.   But the Bosnians are right, I can strategize, organize, mobilize because I already have power.  I’ve got enough to eat, I’ve got a house, an education, access to resources.

So today, I’ll live with the anger that is directed at me.  I’ll try to show up and be with the activists and unionists and academics who are picking at one another. In our different ways, Joe and I will continue to offer support to the smart people who are offering policy alternatives.  But maybe the focus of my conversations right now should be on redirecting that anger.  Once again, we need to focus on the politicians and policy makers.  Maybe there’s a way to rekindle that hope.   If there were one breakthrough change, there could be renewed energy towards collective action–even though the linden trees are in bloom.





Finding the rhythm

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Perhaps you have already seen this video clip of me dancing at my ordination.  I was overwhelmed, joyous, full of the Spirit.

Coming back to Bosnia from my brief California trip has been a bit disorienting.  Maybe it’s mostly jet lag.  I felt off-balance for three days–tired at the wrong times, unsure of what I am supposed to be doing and then alternately overwhelmed by all that I “need” to do.  Thursday, as I was getting back into a Tuzla rhythm, Joe went off to speak at an economics conference in Banja Vrućica.

So the boys and I decided to join him for a night.  We left after the boys’ school party on Friday. We drove through Doboj to the resort town of Banja Vrućica in the Republic of Srpska.  The banks of the Buna River are a mess.  The road is washed  away in parts reducing traffic to a crawl as we narrowed to one lane and avoided the four foot drop at what used to be the highway shoulder. On one side of us, the river–now receded, but leaving a quarter mile swathe of mud–covering former fields of strawberries, corn, onions and peppers.  On the bank of the river are ruins–houses that have slipped into the muddy flow, cars and trucks half submerged, barns and sheds in heaps of rubble.  In some places we could see people working at retlling, replanting the fields.  In others the mud just sits a heavy grime over everything.

We arrived in Banja Vrućica.  Five hotels in a complex around the thermal springs.  Luxury hotels with fancy cars in the parking lots, four star rooms, pools and beauty treatments, an expensive restaurant. IMG_0198 I felt lost and uncomfortable in this posh escape.  I worked in our hotel room for the afternoon and then  at dinner joined Joe for the conference dinner and dance.  A room full of economists dancing to Serbian turbo-folk star Sneki (Wikipedia says she has insured her incredibly long legs for $1mill. each).  Dressed in a tiny spangled leotard, she draped herself around the academic men, to the bemused smiles of their wives and junior faculty.  Sneki I guess i just wasn’t in the mood–or somehow the contrast between the floodplains of Doboj and the conspicuous consumption of the hotel tasted sour.  I danced on the outskirts of the crowd, feeling out of place in my clerical collar and pant suit.  Trying to figure out how to disappear as I crossed the dance floor and escaped back to our hotel room.

But Saturday morning, we took a hike and then made our way back to Tuzla.  Averil and I made a cherry pie.  A beautiful corn salad.  Lemony chicken.  Cleaned house.  Watched a family movie Saturday night.  Things looked better and I felt more myself.

Sunday morning shopped at the open market and went to Kiseljak to spend the day with our friends Hanka and Šabaz, Belma and Tarik.  A leisurely barbecue with calves’ liver and chicken, new potatoes and tomato salad.

Then we went to a housewarming (roof raising) party of Hanka and Šabaz’s neighbors.  The women, including Hanka danced.  A young belly dancer stood on the bench and performed.   Two dads imitated her dancing with one another–suggestive and amusing, good dancers having fun.  Unlike my experience of Sneki, this time I wasn’t put off, I was in the moment.  I wished I knew the steps and could dance myself.  I tried, but kept bumping the wrong way into the line of dancers.

We returned to Hanka and Šabaz’s place, and after a coffee, Hanka spent an hour showing me how to make cheese pie (sirnica).  She kneaded the dough, stretched it gossamer thin and filled it with fresh cheese and eggs.  We talked about her daughter’s upcoming wedding and plans for a honeymoon in California.  The music from the housewarming party down the lane continued.  Hanka’s sure gestures with the pie timed with the distant beat of the music that rocked the valley.  While the pie cooked in the oven, she showed me the dance steps–not complicated but fast. We danced on the kitchen floor in our sloppy slippers. For a clumsy American, it was easy to get out of synch.  For a Bosnian, as natural as making pie.

Before we returned home, we stopped at the Kiseljak spring to fill bottles with sparkling water.  I met with the cook at the displaced person’s center and asked what he needs for fresh vegetables and fruits this week.  We went to bed tired and full of good food and friends.

I am looking forward to the week, continuing to talk to people and focus on flood relief and economic development.  I will deliver donations and food to organizations I’ve been working with.  I will make nice dinners for Joe and boys before I leave again for work in Massachusetts.  I will have coffee with friends and take walks with the boys.

The rhythm is not always even, but I know we can dance with whatever music comes.


From Emergency to Recovery

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There is sort of a let down this week. It’s getting harder to help.

The families affected by the floods and landslides are beginning–just beginning–to move forward.  Now it’s coming clear, which families will be able to return to their homes once they are cleaned out; which families can never return to their homes or their neighborhoods.  People have found places to stay–shelters for a few of them, and friends and family for the vast majority of displaced people.  Those who are hungry are finding ways to get food.

For those of us who were doing relief, its now clear that food packages are no longer needed.  So what’s next?

We drove across the border into Serbia twice this week.  I went the Zvornik route the first time because I hit landslides on the Bijeljina road and had to turn back.  IMG_0147The Zvornik route took me more than 4 hours.  The drive along the Drina river was slow.  The flooded river banks are covered with debris–sometimes extending a half kilometer from the banks over forest land or fields until the now broken sandbags litter the edge of the road.  The fields are a mess-you see what used to be neat rows of plants covered by mud.  IMG_0139Or in some areas just flats of mud now drying in cracked desert patterns, covering all the tilled, fertile soil below.  The second time I drove the Belgrade route, I was able to cross at Bijeljina.  The Sava River is still swollen.  The Raya bridge was still wet.  But as I drove through the towns, the evidence of devastation was everywhere–piles of furniture by the sides of the road–soaked broken couches, wardrobes split open, armchairs and dining tables–things that have just been reduced to rubble.  And the cars–all with a mud line just under the windows.  Some of them driving around, others parked in driveways.  I wonder what they smell like–will they ever be able to get rid of the moldy musty damp?  Will the engines run properly if they have been completely submerged in a muddy river?  The livestock–I didn’t see them, but I’ve heard about truckloads of drowned sheep, cattle, goats being taken to garbage dumps in Serbia.  I saw a farmer driving a trailer with a pair of cows in it.  Did he save these two and was now bringing them back to his land?  Or maybe he lost his whole herd and these were the first two replacements.

IMG_0002And then I saw the crowds of people.  Groups of men gathered in front of the agricultural feed shops.  Twenty sitting outside at a roadside cafe.  Smaller groups of women talking over the garden fence, walking along the road in groups carrying buckets of water.  Trucks selling cherries and strawberries were out.  But they must have come from other parts.  I imagine neighbors comparing notes–what did you lose?  where are you going?  where did so-and-so end up?  And in the gossip, the unspeakable horror of what has happened must be slowly becoming the new reality.  Communities will never be the same, and their new formations will not be clear for the foreseeable future.

So this week on my rounds of relief agencies, there was a sort of quiet depression.  Their role is not yet clear.  The youth volunteers who had been manning the Red Cross were gone.  Now the permanent clerical staff accepted my donation of cleaning supplies.  When I asked how it would be distributed, they said they would send it to a central municipal dispatch but they didn’t know where they’d go from there. The youth center that I’ve been working with was quiet when I showed up this week.  The coordinator was off in Banja Luka (4 hours away).  We corresponded again by e-mail a couple days later and she asked if I had any ideas about how to distribute some work clothes that they had collected.  It’s not clear who needs them.

I talked to World Vision and they said the same thing–not going out into the field this week, they are moving into “recovery phase” figuring out how to begin to rebuild.

The only agency working at full speed was the Mercy Center.  Operating a soup kitchen, preparing hot meals for hungry people is a full-time, year round occupation.  They increased food production for three weeks. and they’ll continue to feed displaced families and those who, even before the floods, lived on so little money that without warm meals they would go hungry.  So I gave them chickens and oil–donations that are harder to get because they are more expensive items.

The individuals who have been doing relief work are still energized.  People are now driving to places outside of Tuzla–Doboj and Maglaj, places where entire cities were under water.  Carloads of 20-30 year old men with shovels and boots are helping clear paths through the mud to people’s front doors.  It’s still easy to see what’s needed there.  You stop at the gate and ask if the occupants want help with heavy labor.  If they don’t need help, they direct you to the family down the street.  You can put in a full day of hard work.  My friends who have been doing this work are proud, energized, engaged.  For some, it seems that this helping gives them a new identity.  For years they have wanted to be useful, but there was no work for them.  Now they can prove their value by serving others.

But what is the next phase for them?  Who will organize the recovery work?  Who will coordinate the transition from emergency relief to rebuilding.  How will farmers get the help they need to begin to remediate fields and restock their herds?  How will families figure out how to salvage homes, buy new necessities and begin to get back to individual and communal life?  Who will lead the rebuilding of schools, the restocking of libraries?

Once again issues of trust are at the forefront.  No one believes that money flowing into governmental (or even NGO coffers) will be fairly spent.  My friend at the library who is a representative of her government workers union told about how the union is debating whether their collection for relief funds should go into an 8 Canton kitty or whether it should be kept in the “affected areas”–three Cantons.  If it goes into a central pool, will the desperate union members ever get the relief money that their fellow union members contributed?  If it stays in the affected areas, then will there be distrust by the members of the 5 unaffected Cantons who wanted to make sure that their contributions went to those who had the greatest needs.

The open markets (flea markets) are now selling goods clearly marked with an “H” indicating that donations for humanitarian aid didn’t get to families for free.  Seeing these products at the markets reminds people of the war-the black markets that had plenty of food and goods when people were hungry and in need of necessities.  That familiarity of war time dysfunction is hard.  There is an almost anarchist impulse.  There is a pride that people will take care of one another through famiies and social networks–and even networks of strangers.  But there is a conviction that if any institution tries to organize these activities they will be corrupt and ineffective.

So I have not distributed significant funds or goods this week.  The projects that must go forward in the recovery phase have not yet solidified.  I am hopeful that projects that will capitalize on the energy of young people who want to work can be captured and coordinated so that the rebuilding efforts will have impact and scale.  I am hopeful that the compassion for sufferers that has been so evident will not dissolve into distrust of institutions.

Community building, good organizing and hard work will be needed over the next few months.  All of my friends, colleagues and readers who have contributed to my relief fund, your donations will be targeted to this next phase, but I’m not sure how yet.  It seems better to keep working with people and encouraging them to think and organize before spending.  Knowing that our small funds will be available to support the next phase has a catalyzing effect–people can imagine and begin to implement significant projects when they know that some support will be available.  Your donations are making a difference even when the money is not yet moving.

If you can make a new donation, please send it to Episcopal Church of the Nativity, 333 Ellen Drive, San Rafael, CA  94903, with a memo: to Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding, Discretionary Fund.  I so appreciate your help and support.




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This week I’ve been listening more than helping.  But I think that both are needed. And figuring out how to help takes a lot of listening.

After my first humanitarian aid deliveries of the week, I went to tour the DITA factory. DITA is a famous case here.  The firm was privatized.  The new owner dismantled the factory step by step–laying off the workers, cutting production, turning it into a packaging plant for products made in Serbia and finally closing the doors altogether a year ago.  Many of the union leaders whom I work with came from DITA or related firms.  So I know the story well, but I had not been out to the plant before. Here are some pictures.

factory entranceIt was a detergent manufacturing plant.  The workers tell me proudly about the quality of the products.  They showed me the equipment, giving me their estimates of the current value of the machines.  The factory was new in 1977, now 35 years old, the equipment that was state of the art is now still functional, but maybe not competitive with other production facilities.   packaging production lineBut the story that they really want to tell me is about what it was like to be a DITA worker.

Emina tells me proudly how she got the job at DITA straight out of school (high school, I think).  Her uncle was a plant manager.  She loved working at DITA.  She showed me the fruit trees that surrounded the parking lot.  She showed me where the workers planted and tended vegetable gardens on their lunch breaks.  There were roses between the factory and the warehouses. fishpond Then she showed me the fish pond they built, the benches under a grape arbor.  The factory was not just where she worked, it’s where she and her friends really lived well.   She introduced me to other workers, they also came to the plant as young people, they married other DITA workers.  They laugh as they count the number of marriages in the plant.

Then the story of the lockouts, the protests, the places where they first picketed, when the picket line moved on the second and third actions.  Finally the room where the “strikers” (locked-out workers) now stay guarding the plant.  They come every day in shifts to sit at the factory.  Women during the day, men at night.  They explained that if they stay at the factory, the managers can’t come and dismantle the equipment.  If the equipment is still there, then there is some chance that the factory could reopen.  If the equipment is gone, there will be no chance of reopening.  So sitting vigil is a way of maintaining the hope that those jobs might return.

I was touring the plant with a young journalist from the Netherlands.  He asked a critical question near the end of our interviews.  Would you be satisfied if the courts award you the back wages you are owed, or will you stay here until the plant reopens?  IMG_4020 IMG_4018The workers consulted among themselves and came to consensus–they need the money for sure, but if the plant doesn’t reopen, then there is not future for their children.  They are now nearly pension age, but their children will have no opportunity to work (or to have that life with the pleasures of friendship, fish ponds, gardens, roses) at the factory.  It was a high point of the interview–the workers spoke passionately and with conviction about what they stand for, what their struggle is about.

But then the microphone went off and they began talking about what is in the news.  They are watching the relief efforts and worrying about all those who need help because they have lost their homes.  They are listening to the stories of young people helping with digging ditches and trying to stop the landslides.  There was a sense of solidarity with all who suffer.  They extend their struggle as DITA workers to the struggle of those who have lost everything in the floods. But that solidarity was followed by some bitterness–it’s not fair that those people are getting foreign aid when we are not.  The DITA workers have no money, no savings.  They have their lawsuits against the company, but these are not paying out quickly.  And the realistic estimates (at least in my assessment) are that if they re-nationalize the firm (and win the lawsuit that claims that the privatization was at its inception unlawful), then there will be new jobs, but not much in the way of back pay, pension contributions or health care.  So the workers who are fighting for their rights today won’t get much in restitution.

For the DITA workers, it’s a struggle for fairness, for respect, for the ideal of a job that makes a good life.  But it’s also a struggle to survive. They sit vigil in a dingy room with a tin of processed meat and a couple of bread rolls.  One apple.  They generously make me coffee and offer cookies.  But there is not enough to eat at home.   I can’t imagine it–how would I get by if everyone in my family was unemployed for a year?

So I came away thinking about the levels of struggle and the need to rebuild the economy, the country, and the homes damaged by floodwaters and landslides.  The struggle for food every day, the struggle for clean water.  It’s so many levels.  Material aid doesn’t begin to resolve the issues.  But it’s needed.

I made deliveries to the Mercy Center (that feeds people–4000 meals a day!)  The Red Cross and Civil Defense.  To Mercy Center I delivered chickens.  Chickens are relatively expensive.  So if I can bring 5 or 10 chickens, it helps the daily expenses a lot.  To the Red Cross, I brought bleach.  They hadn’t asked for bleach, but given the problems of unclean water, I decided they were going to need it.  My donation was met with puzzlement.  Clearly the volunteers who received my case of bleach couldn’t figure out why I was bringing it.  They are dealing with mud–shovels are needed, not bleach.  Oh dear.  I tried to explain that bleach is for purifying water, but we couldn’t communicate clearly enough.

To Civil Defense, I brought 75 1-liter bottles of water.  These are for the work crews.   I spent 100 KM (about $75).  I’ll spend more over the course of the week as needs arise.

Then I set myself a long list of appointments for the week.  I need to know more about who is doing what and really what coordinated efforts there are to meet the struggles–at every level.  I’ve got meetings around the beginning a new farming coop to deal with the hunger from the flood destroyed farms next winter.  I’ll take a tour with the social workers who are assisting displaced families.  I’m meeting with the union leaders at the ratification of their new union’s bylaws and elections of officers.  I’ll meet with some of the international relief agencies–World Vision and the EU group that are delivering aid.  I’ll meet with a new Plenum created coordination group that is trying to reconcile (rationalize) the coordination of non-profits who are providing aid to flood victims. I’ll reach out to some groups who I’ve heard might work on health education.

In each case, I’m trying to figure out what good work they are doing today.  I’m trying to identify needs that I can fill with small amounts of cash (with your help).  And I’m trying to figure out how to support the organizations and projects that have some chance of surviving after the emergency relief efforts conclude.  Because the struggles existed before the floods hit and are going to continue long after the flood waters subside.

If you’d like to contribute, please send a check to Episcopal Church of the Nativity, 333 Ellen Drive, San Rafael, CA  94903 with a note that it’s for the Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding Discretionary Fund.  Thanks.


An Afternoon in Kiseljak

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Early on in our stay here in Tuzla, I wrote about a trip to Kiseljak.  It’s a place with a natural spring that pours out sparkling mineral water.  Our friends Hanka and Šabaz have a weekend house there.  Last September, my post was about a glorious barbecque, vineyard, a gorgeous lake.  It was a day of abundance and pleasure.

Today I went back to Kiseljak to a displaced persons center.  I hadn’t noticed it on our first trip because it’s behind a fence.  It used to be a summer camp for children of Bosnian war veterans.  But since the war ended in 96, those kids are now grown up and don’t come to the camp.  So a few years ago it shut down.  But in January, the city began to rehabilitate it–thinking it would be an international youth camp with summer activities, a garden, a pool.  Thankfully, the first few dormitory rooms were finished a few weeks ago.  So, now 26 people have moved in–people who lost their homes to Tuzla landslides.

I went with two volunteer psychologists who are working with Zemlja Djece.  They are providing services to the youth.  My role was simply that of driver–in the craziness of this moment, eight trucks of food arrived from the EU today.  The food had to be distributed this afternoon (and tomorrow) by local agencies.  So all local agency vehicles were devoted to that project.  So I agreed to take the psychologists to the center in Kiseljak because otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten there.

Picture of a houseWe sat in a pretty rec room with a long table arranged for all the residents to have a dinner.  A group of men sat on the other side of the room having a coffee break.  They are continuing to work on rehabilitating the camp while they live there.  After a few minutes, a couple of the children showed up and gathered the others.  They came and did pictures with markers and paper that we brought.  The psychologists talked to them about their drawings–one little boy did a picture of a house and a man. Fatima A little girl did a heart drawing.  They traced their hands on the papers.  Then they took turns reading aloud from a cartoon story book.  The littlest one (who said she was five but looked about 3) threw a tantrum, refused to hand out cookies to the others.  Generally, a typical gathering of kids.  Mostly looked like they were having fun.

But the story is tough.  These are all Roma families.  Gypsies they are still called here.  They are discriminated against badly in Bosnia and all over Europe.  And they mostly stay to themselves.  This community (Kiseljak) is largely a Roma community.  But these displaced families had lived in the hills above Tuzla, much closer to town.  I recognized a couple of the children as kids whom I have seen in the City Center picking through the trash looking for recyclables.  I recognized one of the young men as someone I have seen carrying tin and bottles on his bicycle in town.  They are families who were already marginalized.  They weren’t homeless before, but they lived in deep poverty.  Now they don’t have a home and they are still in poverty.  The psychologists pointed out a wedding at a house that we passed on the way to the camp.  They told me that Roma families marry off their daughters at age 13.  I’ve heard that several times before.  It must be true, but there must also be exceptions.  The little girl who was drawing with us was 10, her brother was 12.  So impossible to imagine them being married in three years.

The camp had three bungalows.  One room we looked in had ten bunk beds set up.New Bunks  Another had a family room for eight people.  There were a couple of babies with their moms taking naps.

The young staff person who is overseeing the camp showed it off proudly.  All the new furnishings, the new roofs, the new plumbing.  REnovated bungalowsThe men were working today in a steady drizzle, moving gravel to set up a patio  where they will open a cafe (presumably serving people who come to get water from the spring and might want to sit for a coffee or a beer as part of their outing).    He showed me the kitchen and introduced me to the chef.  He’s one of the Roma community–but trained in kitchens in Germany and Austria.  He served me beautiful fresh cheese rolls and coconut cakes. The staff person told me that they have not been getting fruits or seasonal vegetables since they arrived a week ago.  So the chef told me what he has and what he needs.  I made a promise to bring bananas and strawberries, tomatoes and cucumbers tomorrow.

I’m glad that I can help in these little ways, bringing the psychologists, providing fruits and vegetables.  But there aren’t any answers to much harder problems.  Where are these kids going to go to school?  They are supposed to be back in school for another two weeks.  Where are they going to send the families from this camp?  This isn’t a long term solution.  But what is?

I think about this camp and why it was founded–it was a place to help children deal with the trauma of war, the trauma of losing their fathers, or of having fathers return different people than when they left.  Here in Tuzla, this camp was designed as a safe zone, a place where there was no bias about nationallity or religion.  A place where your surname didn’t determine your identity as a proud Bosnian.  It was designed as a respite from trauma, a place to rejuvinate, recover and go forward with hope.

Today, I wondered about this new use of the camp.  It’s a place to escape from the danger and crisis of the landslides. Maybe it can it also be a safe haven from discrimination.  Maybe the camp can be a place where the people here today and whomever comes when they leave will get a chance to begin to recover from the traumas of landslides, the traumas of poverty and homelessness.  Maybe that old 1990s idea of a camp where a child could get a break from the tragedy of war can be just slightly reworked.  Now we have a camp where a child can get a break from the tragedy of poverty.  Maybe something new for these people can begin here.


Gifts, Aid and Systemic Change

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Today’s report.  I am not too sore from digging ditches yesterday.  This is good news.

So I got up and made banana muffins for our veterinarian, Jasna.  I’d been thinking about her since the vet’s office is in a part of Tuzla that has some landslides (yesterday the number of active slides in Tuzla had risen to over 1000).  So I sent her a note and asked if she is OK, and whether she could clip Mali Most’s nails.  (For regular readers, Mali Most is our Bosnian cat–found on the Little Bridge, thus Mali Most.) At 10, she clipped Mali Most’s nails while Mali hid her head under my arm.  Mali Most is always submissive with Jasna, whereas when I try to clip her nails by myself she goes berserk.  Jasna pointed to the place on the hill where the slide has started.  I asked if anyone had been out to help the neighbors stop it and she said no.  At least as it’s currently moving, if the slide continues it will destroy some animal sheds, but won’t actually hit a house, so it’s not a priority.  The banana muffins were great.  People haven’t had them here before.  So I hope Jasna will like them.  This was in the category of a gift for a friend–not humanitarian aid.  It’s just what neighbors do for one another.

Then I went on my rounds.  I stopped first at an ex-millitary site in the neighborhood of Solina.  I had heard that they were housing families there.  But the policeman at the gate explained that the ex-base is now University buildings and police barracks.  All the people have been moved to Dubrave.  This move is clearly not a permanent one–it’s just a place to keep people warm and dry while they all figure out what to do next.  I wonder if the people I met yesterday up in Borić will also go to Dubrave in the next few days.

This seems like the only thing to do right now–give them a place to stay.  I don’t know whether the shelter at Dubrave is just one room–a big shelter for many families or whether it’s individual apartments where people could have some semblance of family life.  There aren’t lots of government owned buildings that could be “given” to families who are homeless.  But there aren’t funds to help them rebuild their homes either.  Even if foreign aid does come in, it seems that they shouldn’t be encouraged to rebuild in the zones that have active landslides.  Even when these slides do stop, another rain will come and there is no bedrock to anchor the homes.  My friend Sanja read an article about Sapna, a village that has been destroyed, and a plan to build a big apartment block for all the displaced families.  Sanja suggested that this could be a real answer–everyone gets a home near their land.  The apartment block is much more cost efficient than individual homes and it could be built to withstand flooding in the area.  Then the families could live near their land and farm it, without rebuilding homes that won’t last.  The construction of the apartment block would create some local jobs and might encourage a “community center” with a cluster of businesses and services that would be an economic hub instead of the semi-rural sprawl in which there is no discernible economic engine.  This would be in the category of systemic change–really trying to upgrade the community at the same time as solving the crisis of the flood destroyed homes.  But I’m not sure that the European and American Aid that will come into the country will consider  this alternative.  I’m certainly not sure that the local people would want apartment life after having lived in their own homes on their own land for a long time.  But what are the right short and longer term solutions?

Then I went and bought more hats, gloves and many bottles of insect repellent (this is a relatively expensive item here). (Spent 178KM–$124.)  From yesterday’s ditch digging experience, I know that the water everywhere means intense mosquitoes.  I delivered these to the captain at Civil Defense.  We talked for a few minutes.  I meant to ask (and then forgot) how he got the cell phones that he gave out yesterday.  They were gifts for the hard work of the crew.  Not really pay (because pay wasn’t promised or expected).  But a ten KM credit for the phone was certainly welcomed by everyone on the crew.  If you don’t have any work, then buying phone credit every month is more than an inconvenience on your way to do something else–it’s a necessity that is hard to fit into a non-existent budget.  I see people at kiosks buying credit in one or two KM amounts–you get what you can afford.

That experience made me wonder about a real Works Progress Administration type plan.  Couldn’t these crews be given more work?  Couldn’t foreign aid contribute to paying them by the day for their labor?  Wouldn’t that both increase the number of volunteers and plough money back into the economy, stimulating consumer spending and saving the threatened homes at the same time?  Maybe paying for labor to protect homes and rebuild viable communities would be better than giving money to affected families to spend on new homes (or just keep for living expenses if they find an alternative housing situation).    Or maybe giving people money for work would discourage volunteerism.  Maybe it would create distrust and would lead to scams whereby some bureaucrats would get most of the money and no one on the crew would get paid fairly.  But then what’s fair wages when you  were just trying to save your community and didn’t expect any compensation?

I decided to buy more hats (60 of them)  and gloves because they are both needed and appreciated by the crew.  They are a small “gift” and necessary equipment for the job. I remembered to ask what else the Civil Defense captain needs for next week–more water in two liter bottles.  The workers go through at least that much each over the course of the day–and there is still no potable water in Tuzla.   I’ll bring him more if I can get some at the markets on Monday.

Here’s a short video (under two minutes) of my crew singing while we waited for the transport back to the city center at the end of the day.

I stopped by Zemlje Djece (I learned from one of the leaders that the proper translation is Land of Children, not Children of the Earth as I had guessed), but they were not open for donations or help today.  I hope the youth leaders were taking the weekend to be with their families, but they might have been out in the field.  One of them posted (on Facebook) pictures of the displaced kids doing projects with the art supplies we provided last week.   His caption mentioned keeping the kids busy so that they are out of the house and shielded from some of the secondary trauma as their parents try and figure out what to do now that they are without homes.  There is no doubt that the thousands of displaced families are traumatized.  I heard later today that there are regional discussions about psychological help for these families, but there are no services in place yet.

I went out to Dubrave to find the shelters at the military base there, but I drove around for 40 minutes without finding it.  I saw lots of other landslides, including one that took out more than half the road I was on (coming back to Tuzla via Simi Han).  Three people gave me directions, but the buildings must not be marked so I suspect that I just kept driving right past them.  I’ll go back and see what they need next week.

That’s today’s report.   Still trying to figure out how to really make things better.  And in the meantime, I’m listening a lot and trying to provide a little bit of support.   There was a brief thunder shower this afternoon.  But it didn’t last long and we hope there won’t be much more tonight.

To all of you who have responded to my pleas,  thanks so much for your help.  Please spread the word,  Much more is needed. Checks can be made out to Episcopal Church of the Nativity with a note that it’s for Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding’s Discretionary Fund. 333 Ellen Drive, San Rafael, CA 94903. They’ll get me the money and I’ll report on my spending here and on  Facebook.