Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sakartvelo 6/21/10

Yesterday we finished our last AVP workshop. It was with refugees from Ossetia who fled in the conflict with Russia in October of 2008. Many times during this workshop we paused as they shared their stories: stories of being bombed, of leaving there homes with only their clothes, of two elderly sisters walking 80 kilometers to reach safety, of families separated and some still not rejoined. Hearing their stories made it even more poignant that each and every one had joy to share; each one was full of warmth and love. I feel so clear that this is the true state of the human spirit. It is what we are all called to reach out to in one another.

Over the last five weeks as we have done AVP workshops with many different groups in many different circumstances; from members of the worship group to orphans to refugees, I see over and over again how important the work of AVP is. Within each group, I have seen participants grasp a clear understanding of transforming power and heard stories of how it has begun to change their lives - even within the three days that we spent with them. We know that many seeds of change have been planted. We leave behind twelve apprentice facilitators (three men and nine women)who are bright and enthusiastic and who, we believe have grasped an understanding of the power that we name as transforming power and so, AVP Georgia is reborn. She will need to be nurtured. Maia Gonjilashvili is a long time facilitator but she is not clear that she has the skills to train new facilitators and so a Training for Trainers workshop will need to happen here. But the work has begun and, even as we prepare to leave, it bears fruit. Nothing touches my soul more deeply.

Last night we shared our last meeting for worship with Tbilisi Friends Worship Group. At the end, there was a bottle of wine and the traditional Georgian toasting (Tamada). Shirley and I were toasted in traditional fashion and I returned a toast, thanking them for all that they have done to support us and the work of AVP in Georgia and for their deep caring for others. They endorsed our travel minutes in English, Russian, and Georgian.

Sakartvelo is a land that prides itself on it's hospitality, and with good reason. Everyone has been so helpful and welcoming. The street vendors that we buy most of our food from have gotten to know us and are quite good at guessing what we want. I've taken to keeping paper and pen in my pocket so that I can draw pictures of what I hope to buy. Between the pictures and pantomime we manage to figure it out. The women in our local shop seem awed when I ask for 6 kilo of Samarkho cookies(We find that many who practice the orthodox faith fast a great deal of the time and so eat no meat, fish, eggs or milk products - "Samarkho" is fasting.) Often they will have a few English words with which they try to guess why we're here. I've been unable to explain to them that I'm buying for workshops or to share with them that we're leaving today.

And so, this morning is filled with packing - bags filled with gifts from the worship group as well as a souvenir or two of my own. We'll clean the flat and return it to it's original configuration. There are the final meetings to be had, an hour or two of sleep and then off to the airport at 1:30am. I am longing for my own bed but at the same time there is a tug in my heart and tears in my eyes as we prepare to leave this country and people that I have come to love.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Tskneti Orphanage

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Sakartvelo 6/17/10

It's Thursday in Tbilisi. Finally a day off for Shirley and me. Having completed the AVP mini-workshops for two groups of children at the Tskneti orphanage (Saturday and Sunday), on Monday we began a full AVP workshop for teachers and staff at the same orphanage. This group was all women. Several had worked at the orphanage for more than twenty years. Aside from a seminar here and there none had received any specific training in working with the children. They seemed clear that while they love the children and do their very best that the children need much more than they have to give. The workshop was wonderful. Full of open spirits, laughter and tears and as we parted there were hugs and thank yous from both participants and facilitators. As we did our final evaluation our participants talked about the new skills that they had found within themselves and how they were already starting to put them to use in their lives and in their work with the children.

Tomorrow, we begin our final workshop with a group of South Ossetian refugees from the war in 2008. These refugees still live in refugee housing provided by the Government of Georgia. In this instance it is an abandoned school building in the middle of Tbilisi - only a couple of blocks from the flat that Shirley and I are staying in. The building is in quite a state of disrepair. One of the woman at this refugee center will host this workshop in her room. I suspect that the space will be challenging as it is quite small. We expect to find the trauma of war in this group and so we are doing our best to prepare ourselves and our apprentice facilitators for that eventuality.

I find my thoughts beginning to wander to home. I wonder how Max, my cat is doing in the house for five weeks and how he'll react to my being home again (Max was a feral cat before he decided to adopt me). I know that my car, with a blown head gasket and ring problem will not run very much longer and I know that I don't have funds to replace it. There will be a tax bill waiting. I look forward to hearing my daughter's voices and to meeting with my care committee and my home meeting. At the same time, there is a sadness as I think of leaving Sakartvelo. There is a Spirit here of welcome and love and joy, even in the midst of severe poverty and oppression, that calls out to me. There is a longing for Peace. I know in my heart that the work of peacemaking is needed in all corners of the world, including my tiny hometown in New York. For me, creating this blog is part of the work of peacemaking and so, as I return home and continue to share my spiritual path and insights, that too feels like peacemaking.

Society talks about doing "random acts of kindness". I believe that we who choose the path of Peace are called to radical action: not random acts of kindness but "conscious acts of Love". For Love is the only power strong enough to overcome evil and to lead us to peace.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

AVP mini-workshops at Tskineti Orphanage

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Sakartvelo 6/13/10

We've just finished two, two day mini workshops at Tskneti orphanage. We worked with two teams of apprentice facilitators for these workshops. They met and exceeded out hopes and expectations. The workshops themselves were difficult. We were expecting that our morning group of children would be 10 - 13 years of age and that the afternoon group would be 14 - 18 years old. I think that we had younger in both groups. The first day was extremely challenging with a great deal of disruptive behavior. The second day was a huge improvement. We had already been told by officials at the ministry (This particular ministry has only existed for 5 months!) that oversees orphanages that their ombudsman had reported finding instances of abuse happening in the orphanages so we were not completely surprised by the children's behaviors. Nonetheless, as we left today, we had a sense of hopefulness. A sense that we had planted seeds of change - of another way. We will not know what the fruit will be, but the seeds are good.

For me, the work of peace making is often about the planting of seeds. I rarely get to see the outcomes but I know that I must continue to plant the seeds moving in faith and in faithfulness to answer the leading I've been given.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Sakartvelo 6/10/10

Yesterday we completed a training for facilitators workshop and graduated thirteen people who are excited and anxious to bring the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) to their countrymen. This weekend we will begin working with some of them as apprentices. AVP was active here in the late seventies when a UN employee was paid to bring the program to Sakartvelo. She acted in the capacity of coordinator, trainer, and lead facilitator. She had UN money available and used it, in part, to pay stipends to AVP facilitators. When she, and the UN program and it's money , left Sakartvelo, AVP stopped. The facilitators refused to work without pay. Today all but one of the facilitators from those times still refuse to work without pay and so, our work here in the Republic of Georgia is to raise up a cadre of facilitators who will work as volunteers and to work to breathe new life into AVP in this country.

Sakartvelo is a country steeped in violence. As a tiny country (about the size of North Carolina) wedged in between many larger countries she has been invaded innumerable times in her history and still managed to retain territory but only through fierce fighting - violence. Her culture is pervaded with violence of all kinds. The work of AVP is so needed here!

These last weeks, in the few free moments that we have, I find myself rather amazed to be carrying this work. I remember when I was first asked to take over the correspondence with Tbilisi Friends Worship Group: to listen to their requests and to discern how to move forward. My first inclination was to say "no". I hadn't had any experience in such things and wasn't clear that I had the skills or knowledge to proceed but I stopped and took the time to pray for guidance. In my inner silence I heard a very clear voice with a very clear message "Just do it!" and so I stepped into the work in faith, believing that if I continued to listen, to be faithful, that way would open. That has been true. I am amazed by the good work that is being accomplished.

I remember one Christmas morning in meeting for worship receiving a message. It was the revelation that Mary said "Yes". She didn't have to. She knew that it would change her life completely and probably knew that it would be challenging and put her in painful places but she said "Yes". I have never come to an answer for myself around the question of virgin birth but I am clear that the message for me is that Mary said "Yes". Each time that I open to the Spirit, each time that I say "Yes" it makes the next time that much easier for I know that God walks beside me and will not abandon me. Thanks be to God!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Medical Aid program funded by NYYM

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Sakartvelo 6/6/10

The last few days have been a rush of sightseeing as our Georgian hosts try to make sure that we see as much of Georgia as we can in the minimal amount of free time that we have left. On Friday we were headed to The Cave City of Vardzia in the Meskhet-Javahet region of Georgia. The Cave City was begun as a cave monastery and is dug into the side of the Erusheli mountain in southern Georgia near Aspindza. It was founded by Queen Tamar in 1185. The monastery and complex was constructed as protection from the Mongols and at it's height consisted of over six thousand apartments in a thirteen story complex. The city included a church, a throne room, and a complex irrigation system watering terraced farmlands. The only access to the complex was through some well hidden tunnels near the Mtkvari river. An earthquake in Samtskhe destroyed approximately two thirds of the city in 1283, exposing the caves to outside view and collapsing the irrigation system. Today about three hundred apartments and halls may still be visited. The site is maintained by a small group of monks.

Our route took us through Borjomi, a famous resort town with hot springs. We stopped to fill bottles with this precious water which we were exhorted to drink. Both Shirley and I tried it - extremely salty with a touch of sulfur. A taste was about as far as we got. Then we were on the road to Svaneti. Borjomi was about a two hour drive west of Tbilisi with Svaneti about another hour and a half to the south. On the way we wound our way through beautiful mountain passes with hanging foot bridges over a fast moving river the only connection for the inhabitants of mountain towns to any form of modern transportation. About half way to Svaneti we came upon a stretch of fresh asphalt and pebbles. It was so hot that the asphalt had melted. Pebbles and asphalt became lodged inside the wheels of Misha's car forcing us to turn back. Because we now had extra time we stopped at a traditional Georgian restaurant. We had a wonderful spicy black bean soup with a local variety of corn bread followed by yet another variety of cachapuri (bread with a tasty cheese filling - each region has it's own variety)and kingali (a dough, filled with a delicious meat filling and boiled - looks like an inverted mushroom). Shirley tried the local beer while I stuck with mineral water. We remarked that the bottled water tastes very different from the water at Borjomi! From there we headed back to the flat for a nights rest.

Misha picked us up the next day (Saturday)at 11:45 and we were joined by Vova (the current clerk of Tbilisi Friends Worship Group)for a day of exploring old Tbilisi. We viewed the hot springs that caused King Vakhtang Gorgasali to move his capital here from Mtskheta in the middle of the fifth century and roamed the streets of the old city stopping briefly to listen to the chant at a Georgian Orthodox church service and to marvel at the beautiful handwoven locally made rugs in a shop.

The weather here is unseasonably warm. The normal temperature this time of the year is normally in the upper sixties and lower seventies. For the past week the temperature in Sakartvelo has been consistently in the upper eighties to upper nineties.

Today we begin team building for our Training for Facilitators workshop. The predominantly young people who are anxious to become facilitators are so full of hope for their country; so anxious to be part of moving to a knew way of thinking and being and away from the violence that is so prevalent in this culture. It fills me with hope and reinforces my belief that world peace is possible.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Sakartvelo 6/4/10

It's Friday morning and we have the weekend off! Yesterday evening we completed our second AVP Georgia workshop with a group of Abkhazian IDPs (Internally displaced persons)who have been in Sakartvelo since the first conflict about twenty years ago. (see photo below!) Many of them are students. They were bright and enthusiastic! Many of them will be part of our training for facilitators which will begin on Monday. We expect to have about fifteen in that workshop. From here on out an AVP marathon begins. After the T for F we will spend Saturday and Sunday (6/12 & 6/13) working with youth in an orphanage in the mountains. For two days, in the mornings we will do a mini-workshop with youth 10 - 13 and another mini-workshop in the afternoons with youth from 14 - 18. On Monday 6/14 we will begin a full three day workshop with members of the orphanage staff. Following that we will do a workshop with South Ossetian refugees from the 2008 conflict. That workshop will end on 6/20. Our flight home is in the wee hours of the morning on June 22nd.

In the midst of this hustle and bustle our hosts are determined that we will see Sakartvelo and have an opportunity to experience their culture and customs and so today and tomorrow Misha Elizbarashvili (member and former clerk of the worship group) and Maia Gonjilashvili (our Georgian AVP facilitator) will pick us up to go on "excursions". I am grateful for their attentiveness and for the wonderful Georgian tradition of hospitality!

As we move through these days filled with hustle and bustle I have been called to more and more time in silent prayer. That deep listening - opening to Spirit - help me to know my center and remain grounded. I am reminded of Brother Lawrence - an early monk in the Christian tradition who was so spiritually centered that people traveled great distances to hear his wisdom. Brother Lawrence spoke of the practice of the presence - an understanding that we can be just as close to God while peeling potatoes in the kitchen as we can be in our places of worship - reminding us that we only have the present moment. I find that I slow myself down just a bit as I begin to rush through preparations - the gathering of food for workshops, planning exercises, choosing gatherings and light & livelies - to be aware of Spirit in the midst - to give thanks for that moment. When I am able to do this I find my days are filled with Light and Joy.
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