18 April 2017

RISSE And Its Children:The Power Of Sports

The Power Of Sports

Ali (Amjad Abdalla Mohammed and Dave Zimmerman come to RISSE from different places. Both are natural teachers who love working with children, Ali is studying to be a chemical engineer, Zimmer is a student at a New York State University, he wants to be a teacher.

Both men love working with the refugee children, both see the soccer program as essential and important to children. Soccer connects them to their pasts in their own countries, it gives them a chance to bond with and support one another, it also, says Ali, keeps them engaged in healthy and supervised activities as they adjust to America.

Ali is a natural teacher, the kids adore him and listen to him with great attention. Ali grew up in Egypt and came to America when he was 17. I said I thought he was a natural teacher, he just shook his head and said he was set on being an engineer but his passion in life was working with kids.

I'm not at all certain he won't end up teaching in one way or another, he seems to natural at it. He and Dave are a solid coaching team, there is a lot of hard work but no drama or shouting. These kids don't seem to need it.

The very idea of sports is a complex one for me. My father, himself a life-long athlete, desperately wanted me to be an athlete as well, he believed sports was the pathway to assimilation and connection in America. My father and I fought about this and it damaged and ultimately destroyed our relationship permanently.

I do see at the RISSE practice that sports is very important to these children, they are serious about it and excited about it. The Risse kids do not have any of the resources available to the other teams they play against, there is just no money to support them other than what they can scrape together, and Ali and Dave they do a great job of scraping.

Ali and Dave are serious but also gentle with the kids, there is no screaming or bullying or posturing, and the team members respond by being serious, paying attention and working hard. I hope to go to some games and see how this evolves.

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Meet The Mighty RISSE Soccer Team

The Mighty RISSE Soccer Team

I went to Albany this afternoon to meet Ali and see the mighty RISSE – the Refugee And Immigrant Support Services Emmaus of Albany – soccer team at one of its first practice sessions at a middle school field in the city just outside the downtown..

Today I began working with Ali and his assistant coach Dave Zimmerman to figure out to help this team – composed entirely of refugee children, new immigrants to America – compete this Spring and Summer in the regional soccer games and competitions.

I can't think of a better project for me to work on, as refugees are being demonized and offered up as scapegoats all over the country. These children are no threat to us, they are loving and generous and have suffered more than enough.

When I pulled into the school parking lot, a half-dozen kids were standing by my car door. "Hello, Jon," each one said, shaking my hand as I stepped out of the car. "Thanks for coming."

I confess I was startled to learn of the costs of playing soccer – the game most of these kids played in their own countries – in our country. Some tournaments cost $1,000 to enter, the fees for some games are $500. Then there are uniforms, balls and cones,  special shoes and practice clothes.

RISSE has little money and the team has to raise all its costs on their own. I hope I can help.

Ali would also like to join a nearby gym with a pool where the kids can practice in bad weather and also swim and exercise in between games. He means for the team to be competitive. I had a beautiful couple of hours on the practice field on a beautiful day. Next week, I plan to bring Red along, he is a lucky dog.

Ali and Dave and I are going to be talking in the coming days to see how me and the Army of Good can help them field a team, they are eager to be competitive, they are working hard.

Today, I brought Ali colored shirts called Pinnies, brightly colored jerseys that help the referees and coaches see which team is which. They are wearing them in the photo above. Last week, I didn't even know what a Pinnie was. We are trying to figure out how donations can be estimated and transmitted and collected.

The 90 art kits from Rachel Barlow were distributed last week, and the refugee children are tearing into them.

Ali asked me if I wanted to have my name on the uniforms if he needs more. I laughed. No, I don't.

These are the kids who will be going to the Great Escape in July, courtesy of a generous person from Minnesota. Ali gave the kids a strong and clear coaching speech. Time to practice and work hard and pay attention, he said. Everybody was.

I have to figure out how all this can work. I have to figure out what I can do myself, and when I need to ask for help, how much, and what for. I need to figure out what can be done for RISSE and also how to get the money quickly to the children.  Ali is thinking of setting up a special Paypal donation page for the children. I think it's a good idea. In the meantime, I can help out with my own pages.

I need to figure out how we can collect the money and get it directly to these kids, I can see how important it is for them. We'll work it out. I think the kids are coming to the farm soon, they can see a bit of my world – the working dogs and the donkeys – and see some cows milked and get some excellent pizza.

If I need help, I ask for it, and I will stay involved in the process. It will go precisely where Ali says it will go, and where you are told it will go. If there is an extra money ever collected, it will go to help the children, much of their lives center around RISSE classes and activities.

I'm excited, if I need help I will ask for it, and be specific about what it will cost and what for. I'm not much of a sports fan, and I know nothing about soccer, but I like this time. Maybe I'll be standing on the sidelines soon shouting at the refs to wake up.

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In Maria’s Studio, Something New That Makes Me Sit Up…

Maria's New Hanging Piece

Maria had an engaging morning in her studio, she began work on a hanging piece that was striking and enchanting for me. There is a mesmerizing elephant, and a new goddess, and many more things yet to come. She hasn't named this piece, and says she can't yet tell me what it's about. I could tell she didn't want to talk much about it, but she let me take a photograph. I want to see more.

It's not for sale yet. I can't wait to go see it tomorrow, it will all be up on her blog.

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The Merciful Heart: What Can I Feel For A Dead Murderer?


The death of accused murder Steve Stephens brought forcibly home for me the complexity of the very idea of mercy.

I have been writing about the importance of mercy for several days, and about author Anne Lamott's new book Hallelujah Anyway, Rediscovering Mercy.

The book seems especially in this time of hatred, anger and argument.

Lamott believes mercy is the best hope for us and for the world. She believes humanity is starving for mercy. She is correct, I believe.

This morning, I was on Facebook preparing to promote my next book, and I saw a sudden river of posts, many from usually placid people, declaring the "joyous,"  and just, news that a murder suspect named Steve Stephens, who is accused to killing Richard Goodwin, a grandfather and self-taught 74 year old mechanic,  while he was walking home from an Easter meal with his family.

Stephens, said police,  then posted a video of the killing on Facebook so that his girlfriend, with whom he was angry, could see it and know she was to blame.

It was an especially chilling kind of killing, Godwin was a much loved and completely innocent man taking a walk on Easter, the live video transmission on social media was a horrific kind of cultural milestone. Facebook seems not to have imagined this kind of sharing and connectivity when it introduce live video feeds last year.

Haven't people often killed for attention?

The global social media site was alive with vengeance this morning, there was no hint of mercy. "I hope he rots in hell," wrote one man. "I wish he had been shot many times and suffered, I'm sorry he killed himself." It seemed there was almost a competition to see who could imagine the most horrible suffering and end for Stephens.

Justice was done, posted one woman on my Facebook page. Reading her message, I wonder what kind of justice it was when two men, one completely innocent and the other profoundly ill, lost their lives for no reason. I imagine most of the country would agree with her idea of what justice was.

What a test for me about this idea of mercy and it's importance for me, and for our world? Would I put my money where my mouth is? Could I possibly feel empathy for this man? Should anyone? My first emotion was relief, that no other innocent person would be killed by this man.

Mercy is a very broad term in our culture, it generally refers to benevolence, empathy and kindness. The concept of a "Merciful God" appears in many religions, and the performance of acts of mercy is emphasized in the caring for the sick, the helpless and the poor. It is one of those big ideas that is often evoked but rarely practiced.

But these ideas of mercy seemed strained and out of reach in our violent and disconnected time.

In our political culture, the idea of mercy has almost completely vanished, the ugliness and anger in the political system – the lack of any kind of mercy or empathy for opponents, the poor or the weak – is a big black cloud hanging over the country.

I saw no posts on Facebook calling for mercy for this killer. We may need mercy, as Lamott suggests, but there isn't very much to go around.

Mercy is easier said than done.

"An open, merciful heart," writes Lamott, "is a setup for pain, shame and being mocked. We are not stupid. Welcome to Vengeance World."

Can you imagine what might happen to a political leader if he or she expressed any mercy or sympathy for Stephens. Can you imagine the response on social media if I wrote that I felt mercy towards Stephens, who put a pistol to his head and killed himself after  being pursued and trapped by a Pennsylvania State Trooper?

One of the saddest messages on Facebook came from a Muslim immigrant who thanked God that Stephens wasn't a Muslim immigrant. "Can you imagine what the President would have said, what people all over the country would have said?" How sad, I thought, that anyone would see the world in this way in our country.

We are starved for mercy.

I looked deep inside of myself and I see how difficult this idea of mercy really is, even though I fully embrace it intellectually, if not always emotionally. Here is what I felt.

I thought what a tragedy it was that two lives were lost in this way. I thought how awful and broken this man Stephens must have been to be so de-humanized and empty that he could take a life in that horrific way and post it for the world to see. He could not have been sane, healthy or content in any way.

What might the outcome have been if he had gotten help, or if there was any help for him to get? Mr. Godwin might  be alive today.

Stephens could not have done this without being mentally ill. I can't grasp how any rational person could believe he was rational himself, or well.

At the moment I learned of his arrest, it was not possible for me to feel true empathy for him, I couldn't help but think of Mr. Godwin and his family, whose lives were shattered in that awful way.  I just couldn't feel it. I could feel for the waste of another life, and for a culture so quick to judge, so reluctant to feel.

But I came partway across the divide, closer to the middle.  How dangerous, I thought, to be too sympathetic to a man who could do that, was mercy really the appropriate response?

Yet I think  it is.

The calls for blood and vengeance were perfectly understandable to me, we are all, after all, just human. Vengeance is a much more popular emotion than mercy.

I was touched by Godwin's children, who through their tears said they forgave their father's killer, they did not believe in vengeance.  Who are we to hate the killer of their father if they forgive him?

Such grace.

And if they could forgive him, who was I and the raging righteous people on Facebook to howl for his blood and pain and death?  Isn't that just another mob, grabbing their torches?

I thought these children, and perhaps they alone, grasped the true healing and redemptive power of mercy, I thought how much safer and healthier our society would be if we stopped hating and blaming the mentally ill for being crazy and throwing them into jail, and running them down.

If we took responsibility for helping them and protecting them, rather than simply hating them for being so sick.

Vengeance is a habit, it doesn't really seem to do much good, nor does it seem to protect people like Mr. Godwin. It does not square with the idea of a merciful God. It does not make us safer or better or wiser.

I know from my own life that mercy has always been ridiculed when I have expressed it, because mercy makes me look vulnerable, and also more alone. It sounds ridiculous sometimes, just to think of it.

But mercy is better than this, this whirring cycle of violence, bloodshed, cruelty and rage, more and more of it being displayed in the open because everyone can see it, for us and our children to see. Mercy deserves a chance,  every day I believe it is, in fact, our salvation and hope.

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Christy: “Tell My Friends Not To Forget Me”. Little Red.

Christy: Hard Times

Christy and I lost touch for a bit, she lost her laptop and ended up back in the hospital, then was returned to the Indian River Rehabilitation Center in Granville, N.Y. I couldn't figure out where she was. We got back in touch a couple of day sago.

When I got into hospice and therapy work, a hospice social worker sat me down and said, "look, if you want to do this work, you will see a lot of life and a lot of reality, and if you can't handle it, don't get into it."

This was wise and true advice, and for nearly a decade I have handled it and will continue to handle it, it is a calling for me, a selfish think, I think, more than a noble thing, I am coming to terms with the nature of life, and of death. But I am careful about it.

Recently, I have invited many of you to participate with me in this work, by sending letters and messages to Christy and others.

So I suppose you have to be able to handle it also, and I will caution you to be merciful with yourselves and gentle. The news is not always good.

Christy has had a lot of bad news since I saw her last. She was taken back to the hospital for several problems I am not free to detail, and has recently been returned to Indian River Rehab. She got a new laptop, and can now receive my messages, and I now know where she is. I will visit her as soon as I am told it is possible.

She told me she was afraid she could never get back to the Mansion or see her friends again. I asked her why and she told me the health issues that have been piling up for her. I am not free to share them, but Christy has had a rough time and faces some hard realities.

"I want to get back to the Mansion," she wrote me this morning, "but I need to get where I can take care of myself. I am kinda scared that I won't get back. I did not have good news about my health… So, I just have to take one day at a time. Give Red a hug for me."

I am neither a doctor or a seer, but the odds are getting longer for Christy's return to the Mansion, which has kept her room open. That is between her, them and her doctors, I have nothing to say about that and nothing to do with it.

This work teaches boundaries, and it also reminds me not to ever play God or believe that I can alter the trajectory of life or fate. Christy is fighting hard to recover, but she told me she can no longer walk and is dealing with some new issues that she feared might arise. The ones she had were serious enough.

The Mansion is a place where people are quite familiar with life, and everyone asks me about Christy, but they don't ever say she will or won't return. They know better than to predict things. Me too. And the residents need to protect themselves, life at the edge of life is especially challenging.

I will go and see Christy with Red when it is possible, and hope to learn about the even more difficult challenges i know she is facing now. There is not much more than that for me to do.j I will do my best to make sure she is not forgotten.

By the way, Christy told me today that someone sent her a stuffed red dog, and she named him "Little Red." Thanks.

If you wish to write her, the address is Christy L., c/o Indian River Rehabilitation, 17 Madison Street, Granville, N.Y., 12832.  And thanks for the many letters and messages that have lifted her up.

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