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Wednesday, November 30, 2011


The Holiness of No

“I cannot bring myself to say congratulations when I see one of my friends get married, because they haven’t done anything yet!” Chico preaches flamboyantly under a big tulip poplar at Jubilee Partners on a brisk November day. My friends Corey and Lauren sit at the front of those gathered, listening to this challenging wedding sermon. “Marriage is a call to suffering! It does not save us from ourselves as our culture supposes, but rather is a school for conversion in which to learn the way of love in a world so filled with violence.”
The monastic impulse can take on a variety of expressions, but it is something we all possess. Feelings of anxiety are often described as feeling “unsettled,” and what truth this speaks to our physical life and our need for stability and limits. The monastic impulse is a response to the unsettled feeling we all hold inside when things do not quite line up in our lives, when we functionally believe that we are without limits. This creed is so much a part of the culture in which I was raised. Parker Palmer captures it well when he writes, “Like many middle-class Americans, especially those who are white and male, I was raised in a subculture that insisted I could do anything I wanted to do, be anything I wanted to be, if I were willing to make the effort. The message was that both the universe and I were without limits, given enough energy and commitment on my part. God made things that way, and all I had to do was to get with the program.”
How often my thinking has fallen in that track and misplaced my agency as a human being. The monastery is the place where we settle. “Our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you,” St. Augustine writes in his Confessions. By placing the limits of place, people, and practice upon one’s life the voice of God, our vocation, becomes gradually clearer. The monastery is the place where we learn that our freedom comes from the confines of orthopraxy, the holy drone that becomes the foundation of the creative project of God speaking into our lives. The psalter sings to us: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Later in the afternoon I take Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw to look at a house in Comer, the small town where Jubilee is located. They have been eagerly anticipating moving here for months. A man from the local Baptist church is the landlord and comes over in his pickup to opens up a little white house behind the Kangaroo, the largest gas station convenience store in town. It is small but nicely finished inside with new carpet, freshly painted beige walls, and not a cockroach in sight. They look around for barely two minutes before nodding at me.
Na hso ga mo dee leh—What do you think?”
Ya hso ga mo bah—I think it is right.”
They sign a yearlong lease the next day and we plan the move for the next weekend. A deep joy unfurls inside of me knowing that my brothers and sisters will be in this quieter, safer place where they will be seen as people. Just the previous day I thought there would be no housing options here for them to look at as I had promised we would this weekend, but here they are to my surprise committing their lives here for the next year. Just a few blocks away in Comer, my friend Eh Kaw and his family recently purchased a home where they will soon move.
We often deny ourselves the things we need most. It is my Karen friends who are signing leases and putting down roots, while I wrestle with an eternal spiral of questions regarding vocation and relationships. Yet I desire to discern these things in community with my Karen friends working in poultry plants, most of who are married with several children, and offer a much different perspective. I want to crucify this white savior complex I possess and vanish into obscurity, embracing the holiness of “no.” At what point are we ready to say enough already, leave the world of the mind, lay down on the earth, and let the Kingdom rise out of our hearts and come into consciousness like a cloud shape?
I am staying with Lesley, a gracious friend who opened up her house in Clarkston to me while we are figuring out the next step.  Bernard and Amber, my friends from Jubilee who recently moved back to Georgia are staying there also. There are quite a few of us former Jubilee volunteers, now in the vicinity wondering what we are doing with our lives, most of us jobless, yet knowing there is life in our connection with the Karen people whom we know, knowing that there is something true growing in the places we inhabit.
I made the decision not to move to Comer with Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw at this time because of my own limits—my need for fellowship with my cultural peers, as unsettled and frustrating of a bunch as we might be. I am not the same person as when I moved in with Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw five months ago. I have learned courage and hope in the face of uncertainty from the love of their family. Baw Baw speaks much more English and I much more Karen now from countless hours of joking and conversing.
The first week living with gaw lah wah again, I purchase my first ever package of monosodium glutamate. Bernard and I go into Kroger together dressed in our Karen longyis. I will never be Karen, but my life speaks the desire to commit to this obscure ethnic group, to bring meaning to such jargon as “Christian” and “American” through a life together. 

Simple Living

“This month Georgia Power is too much!” Baw Baw says showing me the paper statement that just came in the mail. I look at the bill and am surprised to see double what they usually pay for one month. “Weh… too much!” I agree, “We did not turn on the heat or air.” There appears to be a remaining balance from the previous month.
“Did you pay last month?”
“It says you didn’t pay last month.”
Baw Baw rummages through the file box I gave her and produces a money order receipt for the exact amount. I brace myself for another phone adventure of talking to robots, holding to fuzzy elevator music, and arguing with inept employees.

“Press two for billing…bawp…Press 1 for your current account balance, Press 2 to make a payment…Press 9 to speak with a representative…bawp. Doo boo dee bop shoo boo doo dee bop bop. Dee doo wop shop mop wee woo wop…”
“Hello, can I have your name please?”
“Yes, Zachary Cooke, but I am calling on behalf of your customer Hei Nay Htoo.”
“Can I speak with him?”
“He is not here, but his wife, Baw Baw, is here. She cannot speak very much English though.”
“I am sorry, but her name and your name are not on the account so I cannot discuss anything with you. You will have to call back later when he is available.”
“Really, his wife can’t speak with you?”
“No, he is the only name on the account.”
“He can’t speak English. Do you use language line?”
“Ok. Thank you.” Click.

“GRAAAAAH! They can only talk with Wonderful Pa.”

(Two days later)

“Press two for billing…bawp…Press 1 for your current account balance, Press 2 to make a payment…Press 9 to speak with a representative…bawp. Doo boo dee bop shoo boo doo dee bop bop. Dee doo wop shop mop wee woo wop…”
“Hello, how can I help you?”
“I am calling regarding my friend Hei Nay Htoo’s account, but I believe you have his name as HEL Nay Htoo.”
“Is he present, sir?”
“Yes, but he does not speak much English.”
“Ok. What language does he speak?”
“Karen. K-A-R-E-N. Not Korean.”
“Hold on just a minute while I get an interpreter on the line. Doo boo dee bop shoo boo doo dee bop bop. Dee doo wop shop mop wee woo wop… Ok, sir. I have the translator.”
I pass the phone to Hei Nay Htoo and he says hello. The faint murmur of the interpreter’s voice travels across the room. A perplexed look slowly encroaches upon Hei Nay Htoo’s face. The wrinkles intensify across his forehead as he shakes his head and passes me the phone.
Na may pwa ga nyawahh—Are you Karen?”
“Sorry sir, this is Korean,” the woman’s voice says, “I’ll get a Karen interpreter on the line. Please hold.”
The interpreter evidently encountered this situation often enough that she could understand this Karen phrase. A Karen interpreter finally gets on the line and the Georgia Power agent confirms Hei Nay Htoo’s identity and gets permission for me to speak regarding the account. I explain that they paid last month, but were charged again this month.
“The payment was never received. It must have been lost in the mail. They have to send their payment before November 17th or their power will be cut off.”

I turn to Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw who are looking at me intently.
“They never got it,” I say sullenly, “The mail man must have lost it. You have to pay again before November 17, or no more electricity.”
Mayahh—really?” they say in unison. They discuss this in Karen for a while before Baw Baw to ask, “In Comer the same Georgia Power as here?”
“Yes. I think it is the same.” They discuss again.
Hei Nay Htoo slows his speech to ask, “Du pa leh luh Comer, pa duh a thaw a meh oo ta oh bah thayahh—When we go to Comer, can we not have electricity in our new house?”
A smile creeps across my face as I imagine them living in a carpeted and enclosed Western home as though it were a bamboo hut—the primitive occupation of our overly complicated society, an integral demonstration of simple living, Occupy Wall Street as second nature. Baw Baw says she can cook over a fire outside; they did like that in Thailand “No problem. We don’t need,” she says, looking somewhat defeated.
“I guess you could not have power out there. You really don’t want electricity anymore? Na meh oo may ta oh bah na tha ku nay meh oo ohahh—Are you happier without electricity than with it?”
They seem perplexed by this question, which was perhaps expressed with strange syntax. Hei Nay Htoo is looking very serious and says, “I don’t know.”
“Do you still want a car?”
Ya da tha law gah luh bah. Ya ga pghay ga boh yoo—I don’t want a car anymore, I will buy a plane!”
Na ga leh peh leh—Where will you go?”
Ya ga gay luh ya gaw—I will go back to my country.”
Ya gay tha goh na thayahh—Can I go with you?”
Uhh. Na ga noh gab oh yoo—Yes, you will drive the plane!”
Pa ga thee—We will die!”

A couple days later I see Pa Saw Paw, a good friend of myself and Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw.

“Wonderful Pa told me he hasn’t slept in two days because you told him they can’t have electricity anymore after November 17th.”
I break into laughter, unable to believe what I am hearing.
“I told them if they don’t pay the bill again before then, it will be cut off. I thought they didn’t want electricity in Comer?!”
“Haha. I told them that it is no problem; they can still have power. But Wonderful Pa was very worried.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


A young man holds up a colorful zippered case. “Maybe they thought there was money inside,” he says, opening it to reveal the crisp white pages of a Karen Bible. His sister was carrying this, walking home from a worship music practice at a neighboring apartment with another young Karen woman, when three men attacked them. Thorns snagged their flesh as they fled from their aggressors into the woods. They went to the hospital later that day for their injuries.

Thara, aw may—Teacher, eat rice,” the brother tells me.
Ya aw may wee lee—I’ve already eaten.”

The mother, father, and younger brother sit at the table eating rice with some kind of fried meat and bamboo shoots. I recognize the younger brother from the guitar class I sometimes assist with at the Community Center.

“You went to the guitar class on Friday, right?”
“Yes. I saw you there,” he says smiling.
“Do you go every week?”
“Yes. Every week.”

I gradually realize that I know the older brother as well. He taught me a Karen praise song just last week while I was visiting another friend’s apartment, but at the time I had thought he was a relative of that family. He talks quickly and calmly in Karen with Tha Htaw, my friend who brought me to their house, I listen attentively as though I can understand. Waiting for a pause in their conversation, I interject,

“I am sorry about what happened to your sister. Let me know if you need anything. Especially a ride to the hospital.”
“Yes, yes. Ok. Thank you.”

I follow Tha Htaw out of the apartment and thank him for leading me there. We walk together towards his apartment several buildings over and I say goodbye to him at the base of the stairs before commencing the ten-minute walk back to the apartment complex where I live. The sun is lazing behind the trees creating a soft white glow in the sky. The temperature is dropping and the cool evening air nips at my exposed arms. I pass by the unoccupied wood and red plastic playground adjacent to Tha Htaw’s apartment, and stroll down the hill towards the gate.
By the mail pavilion at the bottom of the hill there is a large gathering of children. In the center of the circle, a Karen boy stands across from an African-American boy roughly the same age. They are no older than ten or eleven. A slightly taller African-American girl stands between them, asking the Karen boy in slow and simplified speech, “Do you want to fight him?” I slow my pace and watch them conspicuously from the sidewalk, stopping at the corner feeling a sudden sense of responsibility to prevent this from escalating. I fiddle with my phone there for a couple minutes and then decide to take another lap around the building in order to pass the gathering again. As I approach a second time, a bold woman arriving home at her apartment shouts to them, “Go home all of you! You are too smart for all of this! You think you’re too young to go to juvie?”
The children slowly disperse. “Go on! You’re too smart for all of this!” She looks my way for a moment and shakes her head. I watch the Karen boys walk away towards the gate of the complex and the African-Americans in the opposite direction. I walk slowly behind the Karen along the drive leading to the exit. I feel this burning in my heart to dissolve distinctions, yet feel utterly apart from all of this as a silent observer, an outsider.
The white experience is characterized by a particular uncertainty. It is a search for ethnicity. In a town like Clarkston, for me it is an experience of otherness. In the past two generations, my family gradually migrated further and further outside of Baltimore city. As distinctive European ethnicities dissolved into a racial label, white became a unifying color, the absence of color. Thus my people fled the ethnic infusion of the city to seek refuge in a more homogeneous environment.
This is a natural tendency, which becomes perverted when we think in terms of race. The word, “discriminate,” literally means, “to make distinctions.” Author and journalist Christopher Hitchens states, “It especially annoys me when racists are accused of 'discrimination.' The ability to discriminate is a precious facility; by judging all members of one 'race' to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination.” Our brains automatically create distinctions between people because of superficial differences. It is part of our instinct for self-preservation. We are meant to know and love our own distinctive ethnicity, and in so doing recognize that this is a universal human experience.
I recognize in myself the need to recover this healthy psychology, to know myself as an ethnic person, a German Catholic American. It is only from this distinctive place that I am able to enter into the human arena, to carry on a corporate desire for preservation. I enter with a desire to do something positive in this place of interethnic tension and to engage in the recovery of my own ethnicity as I am immersed in Karen culture. I seek the knowledge that I am not blind.
A boy on a bicycle calls out behind me, “Here they are!” Several other children on bicycles follow them. I turn to him with a stern face and say, “Leave them alone.” I hear the woman call out from the distance, “HEY! GO HOME!” The children gradually turn back down the drive, and gravity carries them down the hill and they glide away into dispersion among the trees and brick buildings.
My cell phone goes off in my pocket and I look at the screen to see the name of the brother of the girl who was beaten. I am surprised he is calling me already, but assume they need a ride to the hospital or something. I flip open the phone and say, “Hello?”
“Hello. You left your bag at my house. If you have free time, you can come and visit. Next week we will have thanksgiving, worship God at my house, if you can come.”