Letter from the Road #28

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


The Way of the Bard


As I sit through this long plane ride back to the States I am flooded with images of my journey to Brazil. How do all these encounters add up? What is being served that is larger than my own desire to serve?

* * *

A large African-Brazilian woman sits across the table from me dressed in a full white hooped skirt with beads around her neck and a brightly covered head wrap. We have just taken part in a Candomble ceremony on a back street in Salvador, Brazil. We are finishing our communion of okra and rice. She is talking with several people at once and suddenly looks at me. “We have a school here for over 150 street children and I have had to let go our professional teachers. Now we are dependent solely on volunteers and they are not as reliable.” I look around the room; I am the only North American. “I have no money to give,” I reply. She answers without hesitation. “Perhaps what you have to give is not money.”

* * *

I have finished my presentation at “Associacao Arraial,” a new residential community committed to spreading the message of deep ecology – a movement that recognizes the environment is sacred and a necessary part of our spiritual well-being. Luis Villares is in his seventies and with his wife has dedicated his fortune to creating this ecological center in the Sierra Mountains of southern Brazil. It is in scale with its place, peaceful, inviting. There is a clean stream, organic gardens and young bright faces. “Maybe this is the best we can do now,” he says. “Create small visions of a more beautiful future”.

* * *

In Sao Paulo I meet with Monja Coen, a Zen Roshi. She spent 10 years in California and 12 years in Japan training. In California she experienced discrimination for being a foreigner, in Japan for being a woman. Today laugh lines crinkle her eyes and her dog sneaks into the zendo and curls up on her prayer cushion. Monja has started a city-wide interreligious council working for peace and against discrimination. She invites me to tonight’s gathering to talk about my experiences this past year in Iraq, Palestine and Israel. Perhaps what I have to give is not money.

* * *

I am invited to spend three days with the elders of Nazare, a residential spiritual community founded in 1980. For the past few years there has been considerable inner turmoil and loss of vision. The community housing is not full, the residents feel a lack of direction. I share stories about other spiritual communities I know in Thailand, Syria and the United States. “What do you serve that is larger than yourself?” I ask. The ethos of small spiritual communities has changed over the recent years. The most vibrant communities I know today are engaged in some larger work that binds them together. Without this a community becomes self conscious and narcissistic. Spiritual life is becoming more engaged.

* * *

Over sushi with Oscar Motomura, 3rd generation Japanese-Brazilian we talk about the tension between long range strategic planning and grass roots responsiveness to societal problems. “The peace and environmental movements need a global strategy so that we know if our actions and programs are accomplishing our mission. It is an axiom of business that successful change requires strategic thinking.” Oscar is the founder and president of Amana-Key, one of the world’s leading corporate training programs, designed to facilitate socially and environmentally aware business practices. He helicopters over Sao Paulo traffic between presentations and meetings.

I remind him that most of the people I meet in Brazil don‘t think in terms of strategic planning. They are busy putting out fires, saving what’s left, defusing anger, feeding the children. Most volunteer their time; there is no money for long range planning. They know in their hearts what is right, proper, and just and they act on it. For them, the end is in the means.

* * *

What links such diverse contacts? Most noticeably everyone I meet is concerned for the sustainability of the planet and the well-being of all people. And each is eager for stories of other programs, projects, and people who are working for social change in other parts of the world. People recognize this is a bleak time, a dying time and that new seeds need to be nurtured. The sense of solidarity with unknown friends in other places is reassuring. We all need inspiration. People want to know they are part of a whole that is greater than its parts, which gives their personal efforts meaning.

My role seems to be one of carrying these stories from place to place and people to people. I like the image, a modern day bard asking questions, listening, and telling the stories. It is a matter of making the world intimate to itself, something the mass media can never do. I believe this is a role many of us can play today – to show up in places in spite of all that divides us, and personally bear witness to diverse visions for a more just world. In the process we advance the narrative of our time, weaving meaning, value and insight across cultures. When I hold up the tapestry, people see how large it is and the pattern that is emerging. It is something beautiful.

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