Monday, June 29, 2009

Sister Marilyn Lacey - This Flowing Toward Me

Sister Marilyn Lacey came to Kepler's on June 23, 2009 to talk about her book, This Flowing Toward Me: A Story of God Arriving in Strangers. Event host Pam Grange recalled the evening:

Responding to a bulletin board posting for volunteers to help refugees at SFO in 1979, Sister Lacey embarked upon a 30-year journey that changed her life. A self-proclaimed shy person with a Type A streak, she’s a very poised and interesting speaker and, after reading selections from two of the stories in the book, she described her transformation from insular suburban California high school math teacher to a person who thinks and travels globally, and who’s doing as much as she can to help the millions of refugees and displaced persons around the world.

Through these relationships, her ways of thinking have continually been brought up short. For instance, Americans’ fixation with time – such as, “time is money,” and it’s rude to keep people waiting. Then she moved to rural Thailand to work in a refugee camp. She wanted to take a bus somewhere and was told it would arrive at 8:00 a.m. the following morning. She was ready and waiting at 8:00. After two or three hours of sitting in the increasingly roasting hot bus and sharing it with other passengers such as live chickens, she was getting perturbed. Finally, after cobbling together her question from the Lao phrase book, she approached the driver and as politely as she could asked, “When. Will. The. Bus. Leave?” “When it gets full,” he said.

Aside from Thailand, Sister Lacey has also lived in refugee camps in Africa, including southern Sudan and Kenya. She saw many awful things and went through periods of being very angry with God. “For those who believe in a loving God, the horror these refugees endure raises searing questions. Suffering, particularly the suffering of innocent children, tears at the heart, threatening to unravel belief and unleash despair.” She subsequently had a moment of enlightenment one afternoon, while browsing the poetry aisle of Kepler’s. She picked up a volume of Rumi’s poetry, “Open Secret”, and read a poem that brought her peace.

Sister Lacey is totally convinced that we need the values that refugees are bringing to us. A women in one of the camps asked her one day if it were true that in the U.S. it was one person – one room and one person – one plate. She replied, somewhat proudly, that yes, it was relatively true. The woman said to her in all sincerity, “But why would ANYONE want to live like THAT?” Privacy is not a value in many parts of the world.

Sister Lacey also shared some of the cultural differences she faced – which are hilarious if not disgusting. Like the 5-year-old girl she saw walking a scarab beetle on a string. Or the time she was with a group that came across a man roasting chicken in a roadside stand. It smelled great, but she thought to herself, what a shame that it’s all charred and black. After the driver paid for several pieces and they were placed on a palm leaf, the blackened char suddenly flew away! To her horror, the “char” was a solid swarm of black flies!

Then there’s the one about her discovery of what looked like a misshapen volleyball hanging from a tree. On closer inspection, she saw thousands and thousands of large red ants climbing the tree and entering the strange “ball”. When she mentioned it that night to the Sisters in the convent, “there was a respectful pause after which the eldest pronounced in Thai four simple words that affixed themselves horribly to my brain: ‘Yes. Next month. Delicious.’”

Sister Lacey has one major phobia: spiders. As her work took her to new continents and new refugees, she encountered more and more hideous 6- and 8-legged adversaries that tested her. She arrived in Kenya one day and, as she usually did, asked what particular danger she should try to avoid. Responses varied from camp to camp, but this one was infamous for its camel spiders. She asked how she would know which spiders were camel spiders. “Oh, you will know,” came the reply, “by their size and their speed. All you’ll see is the blur going by.” They’re the color of sand, have no humps, and can move 10 mph….much faster than a human. They’re actually solifugids, a frightful cross between a spider and a scorpion and grow to six inches in length. They also are fiercely aggressive when cornered. Let’s just say that Sister’s eventual match-up with one had me laughing out loud, and it’s a good thing she was a terrific baseball pitcher when young!

Sister Lacey’s main message was that welcoming strangers is the secret to happiness and that we have a lot to learn from them. It is extremely humbling to watch these poor beaten people who have nothing, including enough to eat, be so grateful for everything they do have and show such kindness to others.

A lot of her friends and co-workers were in the audience, and it was something of a reunion party. Sister Lacey is also the founder of non-profit Mercy Without Borders, whose mission is to partner with displaced women and children overseas in ways that help them move out of extreme poverty. All in all a great event and a terrific book.