Friday, January 30, 2009


Dr. Sonia Robbins is a brave, tough-minded woman I met in Daheisheh refugee camp just outside Bethlehem the evening of November 17, 2008. A British reconstructive surgeon working at Gaza's Shifa Hospital, she had been denied access to her patients there since the imposition of the Israeli blockade on November 4. When near fifty of us decided to peel away from the Sabeel Conference * we were then attending to stand in solidarity with the humanitarian NGOs we had learned would seek to enter Gaza the next morning, Sonia volunteered to go with us to the Erez Crossing, offering sound advice on how to behave with the Israeli security personnel and foreign media we were soon to encounter. I will not forget the day - November 18 - nor Sonia. Here is her unvarnished, unscrubbed report from the day before yesterday from Gaza. She finally got in...and this is what she found. I offer it without further comment. It needs none.


From: "Sonia Robbins" <>

Date: January 28, 2009 10:51:19 PM PST

Subject: from dr sonia

hi, what to say? the aftermath of the massacre leaves destroyed families and buildings, no sign of cement coming in, rafah still intermittently closed, many patients transferred to egypt and lost into black hole of buearocracy and families cannot trace. medical staff and people still shellshocked although cars and people on the streets again but all people have the memories of the events of 20 days bombardment, charred bodies and probably no family is intact. we visited a number of homes where people often children sit with legs in plaster, dressings on multiple wounds not sure what happened and what is going to happen as the medical services probably did break under the strain and now only with all the visitors is there an ongoing care. medical staff here need time off but still sit in clinics trying to cope. Money will no doubt pour into the system now but unless there is some justice over the use of unconventional weapons on a civilian popultation so the extent that almost every street had bits of phosphurus mixture that kids play with to make it ignite 20 days later in some cases. That also needs clearing up safely particularly as rain water or heat of the summer could reignite these remnants. children are already getting fingers and faces burnt as they play with remnants in the streets. reports will come out but all effort must be made to bring some justice to the palestinian people.Phosphorus and possible other materials used may also have a later carcinogenic effect. I am ok and being accompanied by Greek and Uk colleagues some of the time which is good when seeing and hearing about these events. such weapons should not even be produced for any use. there are also very disturbing reports of executions by il ground personnel. no wonder il has done its best to keep all journalists and foreigners out as long as they could and for most of the war and still making it very difficult for entry with egyptian beaurocratic help even to deciding that a psychiatrist was not 'medical enough - not needed' in thi situation and therefore not allowed in. knowing when to leave will be difficult as it will take many years and perhaps never for all the physical scars and rebuilding to be done as well as the unseen psychological ones. but much will be healed and helped if there is some justice here. without that the physical scars on the bodies and buildings here may be patched up but the deeper psychological ones will remain without the healing salve of some restorative justice.

the picture is as it says - the american school in gaza targetted by il probably with munitions from usa. what an education we are giving here.



* We were attending an international conference to mark the 60th anniversary of the Nakba or Catastrophe experienced by the Palestinian people in 1948. The conference was sponsored by Sabeel (The Way), an ecumenical Palestinian Christian liberation theology group centered in Jersusalem and Nazareth.



I've waited for this year for forty years…and it's only just begun…a few weeks ago.  A member of the "might have been generation," I'd feared it might never come.  The youthful hopes of '68 dashed in the hail of bullets and burning cities, I learned to make the best of the numbing mediocrity and worse my country had become.  I feared I might never again experience the open-ended optimism of that long-ago time.  I even feared to hope and, in these most recent years, came close to despair.


Then, of a November morning, the sun came out; the long bad dream was over.  I reached for that copy Langston Hughes' Let America Be America Again on my bedroom bookshelf.  Somewhat giddy, I began to read to a dog and a cat:


O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.


And, for the first time in forty years, I could hope again that it might yet be.  Oh, I realize that there's a lot to be done, a lot to be repaired, but we were free again to try and dream we might succeed.


And, soon enough, it was Inauguration Day, a bright clear morning in Washington…and here in California.  A time to dream.


I waited till they had left the steps of the Capitol to put out the flag, now flapping crisply in the morning chill…a morning marked for me by silence…a silence that was palpable, as I walked Cocoa, my dog…silent waves of recognition from passing strangers, and just the sounds of distant barking dogs.  And, with that sound of silence, peace rushed in, crowding out the anger and discordant noise.


How good, how fortunate the computer's crash last night.  Enforced silence – now embraced – a chance to listen to the wind chimes, to watch the fish, to read, to reflect, to refresh - that monk-like silence that is the predicate of action – Friday?  Next week?  In all due time.  For this is a special time, this time that is an unexpected gift.


Already the urge to poetry, to poetry not of anger, but of hope, has returned.  While walking Cocoa, one word from Barack's speech crowded my thoughts – "endurance."  He spoke of all we had endured and, I added, struggled for.  I thought of those who had struggled and endured; of how few they were at the start, at the darkest time; but, oh, how right and righteous they were…the remnant.  They were the recurring remnant that is always there to call us back, push us forward. 


                                                  God bless the remnant

  That held firm to truth

  And kept the faith,

  Endured, struggled,

  Its voice once faint

  Became a roar –

  Hope, believe, yes!


  Now, in the winter chill,

  A solitary sign –

  "We have overcome!"

  And, in a poet's words,

  The primacy of love,

  The light again of promise.


There were other things to reflect upon – the music of simple things…and of a rising, and of "who we are, what we'll do, and what we won't."


And then there were all those thoughts of children and the child-like that came together last night and this morning in God's serendipity.  There was that moving inter-faith service at Grace Cathedral last night – one long prayer for Martin and Barack.  But, before and after all the pomp and prayers, I paused before the open Book in the side chapel.  It was open to Mark 10:13:


                        And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch

                        them; and the disciples rebuked them.  But when Jesus saw it

he was indignant, and said to them, "Let the children come to

me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of

God.  Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the

kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.  And he took

them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.


This morning Barack, too, spoke of children, but in a different way.  He called upon us to grow up, "to put away the things of childhood."  And, yes, we must.  But for me the juxtaposition of Mark and Paul conjured up paradox.  But so much of the Book is paradox.  Man is paradox…and so is God.


But this was not a time to struggle with paradox, but rather to confront the simplicity of the children themselves.  Joseph Lowery's cheerful, playful words echo in my mind, especially his loving nod to "angelic" Sasha and Malia.  So too those of Jesus: "Let the children come to me…."  And, in those words of Jesus, last night and now, I couldn't help but think again – and weep inside – for all those children in Gaza who have now gone to God…and those I left behind in West Bank towns and camps, their hope still so bright in my memory.  Soon after our return from Palestine, a friend spoke of avocations and vocations – mine being to keep alive the collective memory and current reality of Palestinians, a people facing oblivion under the heavy weight of injustice, ignored by an uncaring world.


And, once again, I was angry.  But having dipped into Obery Hendricks' Politics of Jesus, I found it okay, appropriate, because I was angry not for any injustice visited upon me, but for the "mistreatment of God's children.  I took solace in Hendricks' words:


                        Jesus…shows us that there are things we should be angry about,

                        There are things we must say and do as a testimony against

every action, system, policy, and institution that excludes any

of God's children from the fullest fruits of life for any reason.

That is to say, we must endeavor to love everyone, but we must

also take sides.  We cannot be against injustice if we do not take

the side of justice.  We must be angered by the mistreatment of

any of God's children.


Content that I could now act upon that anger with calm resolve, I turned to my Sunday Times, as always, my week's reading.  Even there I found today the stuff of inspiration and reflection.  There amidst the 'hard' news of the "Week in review," was Benedict Carey's thoughtful essay on that "Miracle on the Hudson" and "The Afterlife of Near Death."  How, he wondered, do people face death…and live with that confrontation?


In "Arts and Leisure," there was a piece on the movies that "made a President," the movies of a lifetime, Barack Obama's 47 years.  It was a good enough list, but, my life having been a bit longer, I wondered why they left out "Nothing But a Man.'


In "Sports," there was George Vecsey's reminder to a younger generation of springtimes sixty years ago, of Jackie, Newk, and Roy, and of "a journey from Ebbets Field to the steps of the Capitol.


And, in "Style," there was a jarring full-page Ralph Lauren ad…a light-skinned black kid, lolling on a classic wooden Chris Craft, wearing a straw skimmer, lots of bling, and a Trump-like arrogance.  Different color, same message, appropriating someone, something new to all the old wrong ways of Me-Generation materialism.


But even that couldn't mar the joy, the incredible lightness of being of a sunny day of new beginnings…and happy endings.  How else to describe that buzzing "It's done" alarm of the Bush countdown clock, that helicopter lifting off disappearing from view?  The nightmare is over.  It's morning in America.   




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Saturday, January 17, 2009

On "Weighing Crimes and Ethics in the Fog of Urban Warfare"

As the carnage in Gaza winds down, some observers, including Steven Erlanger in the January 17 New York Times, have begun a discussion of what he calls "crimes and ethics."  His article "Weighing Crimes and Ethics in the Fog of Urban Warfare," is provocative, recommended reading and is available at  While you're there, I urge you to click onto the three-minute video imbedded in the article.  It includes Erlanger's interviews with UN and Red Cross officials in Gaza.  
"Opportunity" is an awkward and probably inappropriate word to use in the context of all the killing these past three weeks, but this incipient discussion does offer all of us an opportunity to clarify our own thinking about war and peace and, in particular, the morality and ethics that apply to the conduct of war.  The very literal post mortem on Gaza that has already begun offers, moreover, an opportunity to air such issues in our several communities, dare I say churches.
For those of us willing to open such a discussion, there are myriad resources available.  Just War Theory, which encapsulates the traditional Christian, Western stance vis-a-vis war, is based on the writings of Augustine and Aquinas.  You would do well to go to the source, but those who want a quick introduction can turn to that 21st-Century crib sheet, Wikipedia.  There is a very helpful article on Just War Theory at  With regard to the issues in Gaza raised by Erlanger, focus on  
Jus in Bello or the Law of War as it relates to conduct in war.  The 1983 report of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops "The Challenge of Peace" takes a more thoughtful look at Just War Theory from the Christian perspective.  It can be found at
Those who want to gain some insight into the moral/ethical dilemmas faced by individual soldiers in the fog and horror of war would do well to check out the hour-long film "Soldiers of Conscience" ( and Chris Hedges' Losing Moses on the Freeway which incorporates his moving 2002 New York Times interview with Episcopal Bishop George Packard, Bishop Suffragan for Chaplains, which can be found at

Wednesday, January 14, 2009




That was the question asked by the Contra Costa Times Sunday before last, January 4.  This last Sunday, January 11, the paper printed close to two dozen responses including mine repeated here.  I'd love to hear yours.


What is happening in Gaza is not a "war," but a long-planned, one-sided massacre being carried out under cover of journalistic darkness.  It was initiated only after getting a green light from the outgoing Administration, and continued thanks only to American vetoes of UN ceasefire efforts   – the parting legacy of a failed presidency.


What is being done is immoral and damaging to American – and Israeli – interests.  It is not too late, however, to pull Israel back from a self-destructive brink and retrieve our own self-esteem and tarnished image. 


The current Administration must immediately join the global consensus and demand of both Israel and Hamas a full, mutual ceasefire and the long-term opening of Gaza's borders.


The Obama Administration must then – on day one – engage all parties – Israel, Fatah, and Hamas at the highest level (Now there's a job for Bill Clinton!)  to negotiate seriously on the basis of the Saudi plan – '67 borders, divided Jerusalem, reparations for the refuges of 1948 and 1967, and full recognition of Israel by Palestine and all Arab States. 


No more rockets, no more settlements, no more eye-for-an-eye idiocy.  Enough!  In the name of God, enough!   


Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Want to know more about the sources of conflict in the Holy Land and gain some first-hand insights about what's happening there today? Here is list of books in which you can begin your search for answers.

And, in your search for these and other books, please turn to your independent book dealer and, for that cheap used copy, to, a worldwide network of independent book dealers. I would sincerely appreciate your take on those you've read and your suggestions for other books I've overlooked and that you recommend. Just click on the comments tool below. Happy reading!

Naim Stifan Ateek, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989)

Naim Stifan Ateek, A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008)

Naim Ateek, Cedar Duaybis and Maurine Tobin (eds.), The Forgotten Faithful: A Window into the Life and Witness of Christians in the Holy Land (Jerusalem: Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, 2007)

Anna Baltzer, Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2007)

Benjamin Beit-Hallami, Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel (New York: Olive Branch Press, 1993)

Meron Benvenisti, Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000)

Roane Carey and Jonathan Shainin (eds.), The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent (New York: The New Press, 2002)

Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006)

Mahmoud Darwish, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003)

Sami Hadawi, Bitter Harvest: A Modern History of Palestine (New York: Olive Branch Press, 1993)

John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)

Taha Muhammad Ali, So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971-2005 (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2006)

Sari Nusseibeh (with Anthony David), Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

Naomi Shihab Nye, 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (New York: Greenwillow Books, 2002)

Amos Oz, Israel, Palestine and Peace: Essays (San Diego: A Harvest Original, Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1994)

Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: One World Publications, 2007)

Ilan Pappe, A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Edward W. Said, Out of Place: A Memoir (New York: Vintage Books, 2000)

Mariam Shahin, Palestine: A Guide (Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2006)

Raja Shehadeh, Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine (North Royalton, VT: Steerfort Press, 2002)

Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape (New York: Scribner, 2007)

Maurine and Robert Tobin (eds.), How Long O Lord? Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Voices from the Ground and Visions for the Future in Israel/Palestine (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2002)

Sandy Tolan, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East (New York: Bloomsbury, 2006)

Jean Zaru, Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian Woman Speaks (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008)

Gaza: What Now?

What is happening in Gaza is not a "war," but a long-planned, one-sided massacre being carried out under cover of journalistic darkness. It was initiated only after getting a green light from the outgoing Administration, carried on with American-supplied weaponry, and continued thanks only to American vetoes of UN cease fire efforts – the parting legacy of a failed presidency.

What is being done is immoral and damaging to American – and Israeli – interests. It is not too late, however, to pull Israel back from a self-destructive brink and retrieve our own self-esteem and tarnished image from the shame of complicity. The current Administration must immediately join the global consensus and demand of both Israel and Hamas a full, mutual cease fire and the long-term opening of Gaza's borders.

The Obama Administration must then – on day one – engage all parties – Israel, Fatah, and Hamas - at the highest level (Now there's a job for Bill Clinton!)to negotiate seriously on the basis of the Saudi plan – '67 borders, divided Jerusalem, reparations for the refuges of 1948 and 1967, and full recognition of Israel by Palestine and all Arab States.

No more rockets, no more settlements, no more eye-for-an-eye idiocy. Enough! In the name of God, enough!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


I am heart sick and writing through tears, having returned just a month ago from the West Bank and Gaza's Erez Crossing and looking now at the Christmas lights out my front window. Through the tears I see the once hopeful faces of bright-eyed children in Hebron and in refugee camps like Aida and Balata, of optimistic university students in Nablus, of a British surgeon seeking to return to her patients in Gaza City, and of young Israeli Jews who've said "Enough!"

And, through those tears, I also see – on CNN - the bloody bodies in Gaza, the confrontations in Hebron, Ramallah, Nazareth, and Jerusalem, and I grieve for new-found friends in all those places, Palestinians and Jews alike.

And, in sorrow and growing anger, I contemplate the premeditated nature of the Israeli onslaught, the outrage expressed by governments and peoples around the world, and the outrageous silence from America.

Our media, with the notable exception of CNN, has given short and one-sided shrift to events that demand thoughtful, contextual response. MSNBC has been missing in action, its allocation of the public interest airwaves filled with pre-canned prison fare and year-end "specials." Fox, as expected, has assumed its self-assigned role as cheer leader for the on-going carnage.

And nowhere to be found in the coverage is there mention of the two-month-long strangulation of Gaza, an illegal act of collective punishment that has denied 1.5 million people of adequate food and fuel and driven them to desperation. All we hear is the standard prefatory canard about rockets – feeble, errant, home-made Kassems that Israel now uses as an excuse for a long-planned operation, the timing for which is designed to take full advantage of our Christmas holiday lull and the inter-regnum between our election and Inauguration. Anyone who professes not to understand those calculations or those of Tsipi Livni or Ehud Barak vis-à-vis Israel's February elections is either a fool or a knave.

Print media have done no better. For its part, the Washington Post turns over its New Year's Day op-ed page to Israeli hardliners (Ephraim Sneh) and their American cheer leaders with not a demurring word in sight. God forbid you live in a "small" town of 120,000 like Vallejo, California where I live and where our local "paper of record," the Vallejo Time-Herald, printed not a single word on Gaza on the first Saturday and Sunday of bombing and has since buried brief reports on events there on its deep inside pages.

But, word counts aside, the pictures are telling the story. And in those pictures of bombed out universities, prisons, mosques, and of hospitals over-flowing with bloody bodies, among them so many women and children, one senses a shifting of sensibilities, an awakening to reality among American viewers.

But what of our "leaders?" Where is the official, collective voice of America?

Our President-Elect, in whom I still have great hope, maintained a sphinx-like silence in Hawaii, a silence he has continued since his return to Chicago and now Washington, his spokesman, David Axelrod, spouting stale AIPAC-approved lines from last summer and declaring that "We have only one president at a time."

Who might that President be? George W. Bush who spent that Christmas week of bombing and death cutting bush in Crawford, Texas? Now back in Washington, he and our Secretary of State only occasionally show their heads from the shadows, their parting legacy being to turn over the voice of government to young Gordon Johndroe – Gordon who? – to talk one-sidedly of Hamas "thugs" and give an implicit green light to an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza. This, while the UN Secretary General, the Pope, and presidents, prime ministers, and religious leaders around the globe call in unison for an end to a worsening humanitarian catastrophe.

So, here we stand, the self-purported "leader of the Free World," alone with Israel as it lurches out in anger like a taunted, blinded giant bringing down upon itself – and us – the crumbling edifice of what we might have been…and still might be.

It's not too late. Someone has to speak for America. Someone has to say, on our behalf, "Enough!"

Someone has to remember – and heed – the words of Leo Baeck, the President of the Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden, 1933-43, who, in the face of another onrushing catastrophe, said "Nothing is so sad as silence."


[This report was written just days before the brutal Christmas week assault on Gaza. Since then, the heart-breaking conditions it describes have worsened markedly. In Hebron, for example, young boys are now throwing stones at the IDF soldiers who are firing back tear gas and - so far - rubber bullets. From Nablus, one of the author's student guides reports that the city is again under seige, adding "I hope you will pray for God to help our people in Gaza" and asking again that we listen to the Palestinian's story. Is that too much to ask - to pray and to listen? The hope of so many young people hangs in the balance.]

Just before Thanksgiving, I returned from a two-week visit to Palestine with a team of 22 Christian peacemakers, most from around the Bay Area. We went to mark the 60th anniversary of what the Palestinians call the Nakba or Catastrophe – the destruction of 531 villages in 1948 and the expulsion and scattering of their people. We went also to stand in solidarity with the suffering Palestinians, especially the dwindling flock of 160,000 Christians among them, and to provide witness to their suffering.

The initial portion of our learning process was a week-long international conference in Nazareth and Jerusalem sponsored by Sabeel – The Way – an ecumenical Christian liberation theology center run by The Rev. Naim Ateek, an Episcopal priest. The line-up of speakers – 15 Muslim, 13 Jewish and 21 Christian – was impressive, and we learned a lot.

There is, however, no substitute for first-hand experience. And mine in Palestine has proven to be life-changing. I was stunned, heart-broken, and horrified by what I saw. I still am…and fear I still have a lot to process.

Before and after the conference, our small group travelled the length of the West Bank and to the shuttered gates of starving Gaza. We visited big cities like Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, and Jericho; squalid refugee camps like Aida, Abour, Daheisheh, and Balata; and two tiny villages I will never forget.

In all these places, the Nakba – the Catastrophe – is not history. It is an on-going moral outrage and a story that is unknown in this country. "The time has come," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said, "to say these things." So let me try...with just a few impressions from along the road.

In Aida refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem some 10,000 souls struggle to survive in one half sq. km. The streets – mere alleys – are impassable except on foot. No sunlight gets in the few small windows and those inside look out at gray concrete walls. Little boys pick through the garbage beneath a scrawled "Don't Forget Palestine" on the larger wall that pens them in and a brown-eyed girl asks plaintively "Why do you come?"

In Hebron, the city center, taken over by extremist settlers, has become a ghost town. One has to pass through a pedestrian checkpoint to gain entry to Abraham's tomb, now a mosque. We had hoped to pray there but were turned back by Israeli soldiers…for no apparent reason. Strolling instead through the now near deserted market, we found it covered by chicken wire…littered with dead animals and garbage tossed from the windows of settler apartments overhead.

Up in Nablus, we walked through a section of the old town that had been besieged for months at a time and that was still subject to nightly raids by the IDF. There were several bombed out or bulldozed houses and, on nearly every corner, their was a makeshift memorial to one or another "martyr" – "Heroes," my young guide from An Najah National University whispered. Maybe they were, defending, as they were, their homes and alleyways.

It was at An Najah, I must add, that I experienced the brightest ray of hope on the whole trip. Our student guides from the Zajel Youth Exchange Program were bright and optimistic and, as we mingled with the more than 10,000 students on two sparkling campuses, we experienced no animosity – only curiosity and a desire to be in touch with the rest of the world. Zajel, by the way, means carrier pigeon – a symbol of communication and peace.

In the far southeast corner of the West Bank, where the Hebron Hills begin yielding to the desert of the Negev, we visited two villages. The first, Az-Zuweidin, is a Bedouin settlement, a collection of tents and corrugated metal shacks on the outskirts of the much more substantial Israeli settlement of Karmel. While the expansion of the latter continued unabated, the IDF, just the week before, had demolished one of the Bedouin shacks. Walking through the rubble, a shiny object caught my eye. I reached down and held it in my hand – a tiny yellow bear once part of some larger toy. It remains my dearest souvenir of Palestine.

The second village, At-Tuwani, is but a collection of stone hovels on a rock strewn hillside, where some 150 people eke out a subsistence living from a small olive grove and as shepherds. Lying in the shadow of the forested Israeli settlement of Ma'on, it has but four substantial buildings – a half-finished well, a clinic, a tiny mosque, and a school attended by eighty children from At-Tuwani and two neighboring villages. With the exception of the school, all those structures are under current demolition orders. The mayor's home had already been demolished and his family now lives in a tent.

Living among the villagers are a few "Internationals" – members of a Christian Peacemaker Team or CPT who accompany shepherds in the fields and escort school children on their daily three hour walks to school from the neighboring villages. Those children are attacked most every day by stone-throwing settlers and, two days after we were there, twenty settlers from Ma'on – all wearing black ski masks - attacked a shepherd and a CPT member, killing a donkey, scattering the flock, and injuring the CPT member. All I could think of at the time was "What kind of God do these people believe in?"

And then there is Gaza, cut off from the outside world since November 5 and denied adequate fuel and UN food and humanitarian assistance in a brazen display of collective punishment. The lights have gone out there and 1.5 million men, women, and children are slowly dying of starvation. And the world does nothing.

For our part, we could not do nothing, when we learned that a collection of international NGOs would again try to gain entry to Gaza November 18. So we traveled - on the spur of the moment - to stand with them at Erez Crossing "as a united people of conscience in non-violent solidarity with the people of Gaza and in support of the NGOs" as they were again refused entry. While we explained our stance to European and Israeli journalists, we could hear the sounds of sonic booms and bombs…and, from America, the continued, deafening sound of silence.

I tell you these things not because I believe Palestinians are better than Israeli Jews – or any worse – but just to let you know that there is a Palestinian people and that they are suffering. All they ask is the dignity that comes with recognition of their humanity.

You should know also that, in Israel, there are many good Jews who are speaking truth to power, resisting the occupation, and exhibiting great moral courage. I met several and found in them a great source of hope.

Most poignant of all was Josef Ben-Eliezer, an aging veteran of the Palmach, who, as a teen-ager in 1948, had participated in the expulsion of Palestinians from Lydda. He had journeyed to Nazareth from London to tell the story of that horrific event and to ask, toward the end of his life, for forgiveness. I will never forget the breaking of the hushed silence, as Samia Khoury, a member of the Sabeel board, strode to the front of the room and, standing before Josef, said simply "Josef, I forgive you."

And that's what it's all about – truth and reconciliation.

So, how do we, as Christians and Americans, promote truth and reconciliation in the Holy Land? As individuals and as a church community, we can:

- promote truth-telling about Palestine and afford the Palestinian people the dignity that comes with the recognition of their humanity;

- support the courageous efforts of the many Israeli and American Jews who seek honest reconciliation;

- urge our church and government to divest from those companies that enable occupation and oppression in the Holy Land;

- urge the new Administration in Washington – as a first priority and at the highest level – to re-engage in the peace process and to bring it to a just and speedy conclusion; and, yes,

- pray.

With that last task in mind, let me offer the following prayer, a collect for the Peace of Jerusalem:

Creator of all – Abba, Adonai Elohenu, Allah: we offer our

prayers today for Israel and Palestine, and especially for the

peace of Jerusalem, that one day she may shine as a beacon

of peace and reconciliation to the world, through Jesus Christ

our Lord. Amen.


[The following, the text of a spring 2007 fundraising speech on behalf of Mare Island's St. Peter's Chapel, is offered here as a re-introduction upon the re-opening of a long dormant website. Hopefully, it will answer in advance those who might ask: Who is this Vicki Gray? Where is she coming from?]

Once upon a time – actually, twice upon a time – I ran for city council in Vallejo. I had been energized by the efforts to save Mare Island. I lost, but Mare Island won…and so did we.

During my campaigns, one of my flyers asked "Who is Vicki Gray?" Having read it, one lady exclaimed "Your life reads like Forrest Gump's – always in the company of great people, on the edge of great events!" Yes, I did march with Martin. I did earn a Bronze Star in the Mekong Delta. In the Department of State, I did brief Secretaries of State and Presidents. I did earn a Ph.D and teach at the National Defense University. And once I was a man.

But you know all that. Is that, however, all there is to Vicki Gray? To any person? A resume…of things we did? Are we what we do? Or who we are?

Those are all questions that were swirling in my head when Myrna asked me to speak today and say something about myself and a life so shaped by the Navy and the Church. And, so, the title: "From Destroyer Deck to Pulpit." It's a title I cribbed – shamelessly - from Martin Niemoeller, a World War I submarine commander who became a leader of the Confessing Church in Hitler's Germany. On the eve of being sent off to Dachau, he wrote a book called From Submarine to Pulpit. He has always been a hero of mine.

Another hero of mine and one of my favorite theologians is the Greek poet Nikos Kazantzakis. Toward the close of his autobiography, Report to Greco, he describes "three kinds of souls, three kinds of prayers. One: I am a bow in your hands, lord. Draw me lest I rot. Two: Do not overdraw, Lord. I shall break. Three: Overdraw me, and who cares if I break! Choose!" I guess I fall into the third category, though the choices were not mine, but God's.

Today, I'd like to talk about those choices – God's choices – the events, the strains, the losses – that have made me – for better or for worse - who I am.

Again, I've done a lot of exciting things, participated in small ways in big events, and had my share of worldly accomplishments. But far more important than what I've won is what I've lost. As I'm sure many of you have also experienced, we become – we are – what is taken away from us. As we go through life – if we are honest – we find ourselves being peeled…like an onion or an artichoke. And – if we are lucky – we are like one of those brightly colored Panamanian molas in the hands of God, allowing God to cut through life's accretions, always leaving what's important of each layer, but cutting through relentlessly, skillfully, to the core, the heart, the essence of what we are intended to be – something bright and beautiful.

In my case, God has cut deep and with sometimes wild abandon. I've lost a lot. In Vietnam, I lost my innocence. Then I found and lost the love of my life. And, toward the end of her life, I lost myself, or, at least, a great part of myself. But, in the process, I developed a sense of what was important, what had to be held onto. I leave it to you – and to God - to judge whether what I held onto is worthwhile, bright, or beautiful.

At the start, I didn't think about such things. Isn't that always the way of youth, so full of innocence and optimism? Growing up in the Bronx wasn't always easy. We weren't rich and I wasn't very healthy. But I did go to a good school – Fordham Prep -and, after the Naval Academy, escaped to a life at sea on the deck of a destroyer.

But, even then, the clouds were gathering – our national struggle with civil rights and my personal struggle with my gender identity. They both demanded attention. Then came Vietnam, a cloud, it seemed with silver linings. I would make the world safe for democracy and prove to the world and to myself, that I was a man…and a damn tough one at that.

Oh, I was tough. The Bronze Star citation says so. But Vietnam, like any war, was never like a John Wayne movie. My narrow world of jungle canals was more like "Apocalypse Now," a dark nightmare that still sends shivers up my spine. Death – up close – has a way of doing that.

Two weeks after I got there – to Long Phu or, as I call it, "the place I learned to cry" – my counterpart was killed, shot between the eyes at pointblank range. Worse yet, I had already killed my first human being and, soon, the killing became a blur.

There was, however, one death I will never forget. We had received a lot of fire from a notorious island – Cu Lao Dung. I called in an airstrike and soon the shriek of the jet was followed by a series of thuds, bright orange balls of flame, and black clouds that reeked of gasoline. Then, in what has become a recurring personal nightmare, a young woman emerged from the stinking black cloud of burning napalm we had just unleashed, paddling toward us in a sampan,. We stopped her. Caked with mud and soot and tears, she looked much older than her years. Reaching into the bottom of the boat, she held up a tiny chunk of something – black, still smoking – the remnants of her baby. She broke down shrieking – growling - to God and to us! The sound still rattles in my head.

But Vietnam also brought me a far happier dream – a dream of love. It began one September Saturday in 1965, when Vic, a young naval officer on his way to Vietnam, encountered Mimi, a school teacher, four years younger. We fell madly in love.

"Thank God for Vietnam," I've often thought, for it left me with a stack of letters – hers and mine – that attest to the authenticity and urgency of young love. Just weeks after my return to "the world" we were married in Carmel on January 7, 1967. Over the years, neither of us forgot the clarity of each other's smiles that day or the honesty of our shared vow – "Till death do we part."

It was a vow that was tested by the same familiar trials that millions of married couples endure. They were trials, however, that were trumped by a full measure of happiness, adventure, and worldly "accomplishment." We travelled the world and dined and danced with presidents and movie stars, and lived, in every way, abundant lives.

It would have been wonderful to grow old together, to live "happily ever after." But such endings happen more often in fairy tales and B movies than in real life, and, what passes for happiness is, as often as not, ephemeral tinsel. Our epiphany of that truth came much too early or, as we later thought, just in time. For, in the real tests that followed, we found salvation and produced something beautiful.

Those real tests were life-threatening, life-changing, and, ultimately, life-affirming. They were breast cancer and something called gender identity dysphoria. The latter - my confusion - was something we struggled with together for much of our married life. Mimi's cancer overtook us much more suddenly – on an April morning in 1988. They were tests that intertwined and defined our last dozen years together. We found ourselves engaged in prolonged grieving, having to say "Goodbye" to each other in multiple ways.

Making our way "home" to California in the midst of it all, we found ourselves at St. Paul's in Benicia. Mimi was recovering from chemo-induced heart failure, and I, still "in the closet," was embarked on the final stages of the transsexual journey. We knew there would be more, traumatic changes, but, for the moment, felt secure in a church that brought us the solace of a loving family, and a pastor, Harold Clinehens, who stretched our spiritual envelope. Our "outing" could wait…or so we thought.

But we were being pressed – by the growing intensity of my obsession; the growing, self-destructive depths of the depression that accompanied it; the growing need to be honest with family and friends; and the growing sense that our time to do so was limited. We prayed and cried together and determined we would share our truth. We could do no less with those we loved, and, given a new found understanding of Grace, knew we had nothing to fear.

And, so the unfolding began. Each step of the way, it became easier to begin with the simple, declarative "I am a transsexual." So, we began, our disclosure to Mimi's mom, Adrienne, who replied, relieved it seemed, "Oh, that's not so bad; I was afraid you were getting divorced." And, then, there was my Ash Wednesday confession to Father Harold, who replied "I don't see any sin in this," adding honestly, "I don't understand it, but we'll work our way through it together." And we did…together.

I remember vividly my first day at church as Vicki. You want guts?! Mimi had them, as she walked before me to communion. It was a breeze for me, thereafter. Mimi was always there before me; I sensed Christ there behind me; and we all smiled on the way back. Mimi was there, too, that morning, when in our prayer group, someone insisted on speaking his mind about my "sin." She held my hand, as I held his, as he read from his Bible about how I was an "abomination." I will never forget the trembling and perspiration of his hand and the coolness and firmness of Mimi's.

The loss of Vic was not easy for Mimi, or for me. We both grieved his quickening disappearance. For Mimi, Vicki was never an adequate substitute for Vic, but she was always there, each step of the way, supporting me as a wife, teaching me as an "older," wiser sister, loving me as a friend and soulmate. And, in the vulnerability of her own illness, she unknowingly kept me from feeling sorry for myself, from imploding into the self-centeredness that afflicts too many transgendered people. She was always there to allow me to care for her…as she cared for me. And, together, we incarnated an "issue." "Here is transsexuality," we said. "Touch us. Feel us. Interact with us. Above all, love us, as we love you."

And Mimi and I loved each other, too…till the very end. As she lay dying, I said a lot of inane things. And, selfish to the end, I asked, "Do you still love me?" All she could manage through her morphine haze was "Uh huh." But that was enough! I pressed her hand. She smiled. We had kept our vow.

Toward the end of our life together – Mimi's and mine – I got to know the British writer Jan Morris, also transgendered, and her beloved Elizabeth. In Conundrum, she said of their marriage: "It was a marriage that had no right to work, yet it worked like a dream, living testimony, one might say, to the power of mind over matter – or of love in its purest sense over everything else." Nor did ours have a right to work. But it continues to work – like a dream – in those shared dreams that we – Mimi and I - retreat to each night. (Am I in hers or is she in mine?) And, in those love-filled dreams, I sense eternity.

Mimi died on an April afternoon – much like today. It was 2000. God had cut this mola to the core. There was nothing left to reveal. I had reached an end of sorts – a bottom – a widow now, Mimi's ring upon a necklace, no one to care for, not knowing what to do, waiting. For what?

The next summer, I set out on a two-month search for answers – a Celtic pilgrimage to rocky cliffs and islands on Ireland's westernmost edges and to the very top of Scotland. I visited lots of beautiful - and empty - churches, but found God strong and well in the most god-awful places. And, in myself, I found new strength and purpose.

There had to be more to life and church than what I found when I returned. It was September 2001. The shared grief we all endured that second week and the death of a dear young friend a month later shook me hard. I found myself shaking my fist at heaven and shouting "What in the hell are you doing up there!" No I didn't hear the response, But I felt it. It seemed to say: "Quit the whining! Life is tough. Get on with it."

And get on with it I did. I soon found myself at the Episcopal School for Deacons at Berkeley and, after a long and arduous process of discernment and affirmation, I was ordained last December at Grace Cathedral. As a result of that and my various ministries in San Francisco, I've faded somewhat from Vallejo's struggles. Now you can find me at St. James in the Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco – doing this - preaching. You can also find me with the ladies of Pod D in the San Francisco Jail, among the chemo patients at UCSF Mt. Zion, and, if you were there last Sunday, leading morning prayer on Justin Hermann Plaza.

Life is rich and life is good. And, toward the end, I can report, like that Greek poet, "I am full of wounds and still standing on my feet. Full of wounds, all in the breast, I did what I could…."

And, at the end, I will report – what more can any of us say – "I tried."




A week ago, on Christmas Eve, a hero of mine died.

In his December 26 obituary of Harold Pinter, Mel Gussow wrote: "His plays often take place in a single, increasingly claustrophobic room, where conversation is a minefield and even innocuous-seeming words can wound." But, Gussow continued, "it is what comes between the words that he is most famous for." He was, in Gussow's words, the "playwright of the pause."

Wednesday night – no, Thursday morning, the first hour of 2009 – I watched, listened again to Pinter deliver that 2005 Nobel speech so strewn with mines and wounding words and, in the pauses, reflected on the rasping breaths of a dying man speaking of his art…and the task of every man. Toward the end, he said:

A writer's life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity.We don't have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection - unless you lie - in which case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician….

When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror - for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.

I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

I found many of Pinter's words in that remarkable speech – words about my country and my dereliction as a citizen – wounding…stinging all the more because they spoke of self-inflicted wounds. But it is these closing words – and what lies between them - that stick with me this morning, not so much wounding as goading. And now, I find, I've got to act on the words…and pauses…the silences any monk will tell you are the proper, necessary antecedent to action.

I have been a politician, too long self-protecting, self-deluding in a swirl of lies, personal and national. Now I try to write, to smash mirrors, to stare unflinchingly at truth. But how to smash those mirrors in such a way that others, too, will want to look?

I've tried, like Pinter, poetry, seeking to cut to the bone, to cut to the chase, leaving old delusions on the floor midst all the broken glass. But I've found my poems too much like crutches to help me navigate through shards of shattered dreams, too often an opiate to ease the pain of loss and what will never be.

And, so, upon my return from Palestine just weeks ago, I tried through poetry to ease the pain of a truth that still waits for others behind our elaborate polished mirror – the real truth of children still hoping in the garbage of their refugee camps for justice and deliverance.

Aida broke my heart

As did Balata and Aroub.

Children picking through the garbage

Beneath an obscene wall,

Others asking, hands upraised,

"Why do you come?"

Why, indeed, I ask myself

Now safe at home,

Still crying for the children

In their dusty alleyways.

The grafitti on the wall

Cries out loudly:

"Don't forget Palestine!"

And other voices

From another place

Haunt my soul this sunny Sunday.

"Don't forget the children,"

They shout in unison.

How could I, how could I,

Condemned now to remember

A place called Palestine

And all its lovely children?

But, then, just days ago, I found all the hopes and yearnings – theirs and mine - buried once again beneath a recurring avalanche of hate and lies and bombs, no longer visible through clouds of ash, no longer heard above the concussions and screams and sirens. In the long moment of a holy week of so much death, the poet's pen seemed so effete, so ineffective. Reaching through my tears for every verbal stone I could find, I found solace in the despairing solidarity of yet another hero, Bertolt Brecht:

What times are these

When to write a poem about love

Is almost a crime

Because it contains

So many silences

About so many horrors….

What times indeed. How deep, how sad the silences. I raged for awhile at the horrors, frustrated that all I had with which to fight the crimes were verbal stones and wounding words. But, in the silence of the monks and the "unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination" of the Pinters, Brechts, Bonhoeffers, and Kings, who still live in their words, I've regained my balance, restored my strength, and am ready to write again in other ways, to take up again the duty of a citizen, the moral imperative that is the search for truth.

But what to write? How to write?

I think I'll pick up where I left off two years ago when I unplugged this blog in anger and frustration. I ended, then, with a tribute to Molly Ivins. My last lines were hers – "Keep banging those pots and pans!" Mine have been silent these past two years and, for that, in shame and sadness, I apologize. But, as they say, I'm baaack! I've got some big pots and pans and a bigger metal ladle to bang them with.

Let's get on with it.