cathleen falsani

Full Transcript of Cathleen Falsani & Maurice Possley Interview re: Racist Incident in Laguna Beach

FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW BETWEEN CATHLEEN FALSANI AND MAURICE POSSLEY
WITH TWO LOCAL REPORTERS IN LAGUNA BEACH, CALIF.,
REGARDING THE RACIST INCIDENT AT THEIR HOME ON 12/27/2016:

(The interview transpired between Cathleen, Maurice and two reporters from Laguna Beach media outlets in the parish offices of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and in the presence of the Rev. Lester MacKenzie, St. Mary’s priest in charge. The transcript is complete but the reporter’s names have been removed for the sake of privacy. The interview began with Maurice reading his statement, copies of the statement were given to them [and can be found HERE].
Then the conversation opened up to questions from the reporters.)

Reporter 1: “How has the school responded?”

Maurice Possley: “Without characterizing or without being specific, they are responding, I think, in a very appropriate manner, given that this did not happen on school property and on a break. There are measures that will and are being taken. But as you know, these are juveniles, although we know who they are. The disciplinary or what will become the disciplinary actions are something we will be aware of on a confidential basis because these are juveniles.

Reporter 1: “So the administrators have said there will be some punishment?”

Cathleen Falsani: “They are working through the repercussions.”

Maurice: “Let me just back up and say something about last spring.”

Cathleen: “OK. There are two boys who are involved in this who also were involved in an incident in a classroom with our son racially harassing him.”

Reporter 1: “Also reported?”

Cathleen: “Yes. Not to the police, but to the school [Laguna Beach High School]. And the school dealt with it in what we felt was an appropriate and swift manner. The two boys clearly did not learn much from that incident. Our son has had almost no contact with either one of them since. I mean, it’s a small high school. You see people. One of the boys was, when the boys were little —so in grammar school—they were very friendly. But I’m not friends with my fifth-grade best friend either. Kids grow apart. There was never a big falling out or anything. They move in different social circles, they play different sports.

Reporter 1: “OK.”

Cathleen: “So, that was very distressing to us to learn that those two boys were involved in this again. And, in fact, the one who threw the racial epithet was one of the two boys.”

Maurice: “And just to make it clear, the other of the two boys knew where we live. It’s not difficult to find out where people live, but when you see what the video [time stamp from video at the grocery store] says and they are up at our house before 9 o’clock”

Cathleen: “It takes seven minutes to drive from that grocery store to our front door. They came directly to our house.”

Maurice: “They didn’t waste any time.”

Reporter 2: “So it was premeditated, what they were going to do.”

Cathleen: “It is my understanding that the other boy who was involved in the incident last year, told the boy where our house was because he had spent time at our house a number of times before. So the fact that it was an escalation for at least two of these boys from what happened last year on school property words and some actions, though nothing physical—”

Reporter 2: “You’re talking about the previous incident? It was just verbal?”

Cathleen: “Largely, yes. [To go from last year’s incident] to coming to our home, premeditated, deciding who they were going to target, how they were going to target him, what kind of fruit to throw—and obviously there is a racial component to picking a watermelon that was not lost on them—that is an escalation that is troubling and is also a reason why we are speaking out publicly the way we are. Because history tells us that if left unchecked, these kinds of things tend to continue to escalate. And while our son is physically fine and unharmed, there are plenty of children in this country who look like him who are not—who have been harmed, who have been killed, who have been physically harassed, and beaten; who have been shot. And we want to do whatever we can to nip that kind of progression in the bud, name it for what it is, and call it out, and try to stop it.

“The fact that this happened in Laguna was, to me, shocking because that is not the quality of the character of this town. That has not been the experience we’ve had living here. We arrived with Vasco 7 ½ years ago only a few months after he arrived in this country.

Reporter 2: “And how old was he at the time?”

Cathleen: “He as nine.”

Reporter 2: “And today?”

Cathleen: “He is 17 today. The story of how we came to adopt him is well-documented. You can find lots of information and I can send you links online if that would be helpful. But he is a very special person. And when we arrived here in this very beautiful and very white place—and I grew up in Connecticut—

Reporter 2: “Equally white—

Cathleen: “Equally white although perhaps slightly less so in the part of Connecticut that I’m from, but still. He wasn’t—nobody wants to be ‘tolerated.’ I mean, you tolerate a bad had cold, you tolerate a boil on your butt. As a human you don’t want to be tolerated, you want to be loved. And this town embraced him and celebrated his arrival, and our family. And that has been, by and large, our experience the entire time we’ve lived here. So to have something like this happen was shocking.

Reporter 2: “Can you speculate to the reason, timing-wise? Is it because they’ve become teenagers? Or is it the political climate?”

Cathleen: “We have no idea, but we are all aware of whatever is happening in the zeitgeist right now. It’s a fairly dark moment for us, and we’re afraid that because people in power and in the public eye who are in positions where they are meant to be respected for whatever reason, whether they’re political or cultural or other reasons, have, of late especially, have been using a lot of language that is mocking, is hateful, is disrespectful. And I think with our children in particular, even if you have people at home saying to them, ‘That is not how we behave; that’s wrong,’ it’s in the air like sarin gas. We all breath it.

“And so who knows? With some of the boys who were involved in this, we know them and we know their parents. And I think it’s fair enough to say that for at least a few of the ones we know, that they would learn this at home?—I can’t fathom that. But we can’t control all the influences on our children’s lives, or what they consume in terms of traditional media, social media. We know there’s a problem with bullying in this country. We know there’s a problem with bullying at this his school. There’s a problem with bullying in most high schools.

“At the time I was in high school (and I’m in my 40s) we’ve done a lot as a society to combat bullying. We’re aware of it. Kids are trained early that it’s not acceptable. We talk about it. We didn’t talk about it [when I was in high school] apart from saying so-and-so is a bully. But it’s still there and it’s corrosive.

“So I don’t know. I don’t know why they did this or why they decided two days after Christmas was the right time for them to do this.”

Reporter 1: “But Cathleen, it’s more than this is bullying. It’s racial.”

Cathleen: “Oh no, make no mistake: this is a racially-motivated hate crime.”

Reporter 1: “The police have yet to say that. They will not say that.”

Cathleen: “No, they probably won’t until—“

Maurice: “I think what we can say is that it is a police matter and I believe—they’re limited because it’s still ongoing and they’re juveniles—but I expect that this will be referred to the district attorney’s office.”

Reporter 1: “They all are. The cops don’t prosecute.”

Maurice: “Well, police can make a decision not to send it over—“

Cathleen: “Or how to send it.”

Reporter 1: “There is a prosecutor who specializes in hate crimes. Has he been referred?”

Maurice: “I don’t know. The boys were just interviewed on Monday. If you take into account that before any kind of referral could be made, you’d have to do paperwork. So I don’t know the timing, but I’m very confident that it will be referred if not hand-walked [to the district attorney’s office.]

Reporter 2: “So they waited until the school year started on Monday?”

Maurice: “They asked us to keep it as quiet as possible because what they wanted to do was to get together with school officials when school was back in session. They knew, because we had told them, of the prior incident (and by ‘they’ I mean the prior bullies.) And people were on vacation. So they wanted to get together with school officials to coordinate it.”

Reporter 1: “What was the discipline of [the boys] in the first incident?”

Cathleen: We actually don’t know. They cannot tell us.

Reporter 1: “Was there discipline?”

Maurice: “We believe there was. This is my speculation: is that it was in-school suspension. But we don’t know that for sure.”

Reporter 1: “Alright. That’s the question.”

Cathleen: “The school district can’t tell us.”

Reporter 1: “Well, ya know, some of that, those suspensions, they does show up in the school board agenda, when there’s an expulsion or when there is a long suspension. They do become public records. They’re never identified.”

Cathleen: “But honestly, we don’t know.”

Reporter 1: “So you don’t know for sure whether that there was discipline?”

Cathleen: “We were told there was disciplinary action taken. We don’t know what it was.”

Reporter 1: “OK. So you were told this by [the LBHS vice principal]?”

Maurice: “It might have been [the vice principal]. If it wasn’t [the vice principal] maybe it was Vasco’s teacher or another administrator, but I’m not sure.”

Cathleen: “I’m fairly sure it was [the vice principal.]

Reporter 2: “Was they told to apologize or was there an attempt to apologize at that point?”

Cathleen: “Last year? I think it was—I mean they were told to stay away from him. But I recall that at least one of the boys asked if it would be OK for him to apologize and we said yes and he did. The other two didn’t, as far as we recall.

Reporter 1: “So there were three kids involved first incident?”

Cathleen: “Yes. And the boy who apologized last year was not involved in this incident this year. We also never heard from any of the parents, last year.”

Reporter 2: “Really? That stuns me.”

Cathleen: “This year, because, like I said, we know some of the parents, we have asked the police and the school to tell them [the parents] to please wait until we say it’s OK for them to approach us about anything. It’s just too soon. While we appreciate that there are people who immediately want to apologize and to ty to make amends, we’re self-caring for our family. This is not ‘We’re angry and we don’t want to talk to you,’ but sometimes when people come to apologize they need more from you than you need from them. And we just don’t have a whole lot of reserves to give to anybody else right now. We will.

We’re meeting in the offices of the church where we worship. We are people of faith. We are Christians (or at least we try to be Christians) and reconciliation and redemption are idea of our faith. As you can see the way we’re talking right now, we’re not spitting angry. Are we angry? You bet. But we’re not looking for revenge, we’re not looking for retribution, we’re not looking for the boys’ lives to be ruined in some fashion, we’re hoping, just as Maury said when he read [his statement], that this is a teachable moment, a learning moment for all of us. But some of these lessons are very painful. This has not been easy for our family. This has been painful for my child.

Reporter 2: “How is he doing?”

Cathleen: “Remarkably well. He is—I said to somebody yesterday, I’d like to be more like my son when I grow up. He has these deep reserves of peace and calmness and wisdom that are not only well beyond his years, they’re rare in any human. He’s not perfect. He’s a kid. But he has handled this with such grace and thoughtfulness.

Reporter 2: “What was your immediate reaction when it happened?”

Cathleen: “I called the police. Maury mentioned my brother, who is an Air Force pilot, was sitting in the living room. We had just ordered a curry and were sitting own to watch ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’ because we watch it every year and my brother hadn’t been here in time for Christmas. We have a sunken living room and we were sitting down there. And the front door is open because it’s always open. And Maury is the one who got up and went to the door just as the watermelon landed. He turned around and said, ‘We just got punked. Somebody through a watermelon.” And my brother and I immediately said, ‘A WATERMELON?!’ I immediately went for the phone. My brother immediately went outside to take a look at what had happened. Vasco was just sort of stunned. He knew that a watermelon meant something different than a roll of toilet paper being thrown at the house.

“He spent the first nine years of his life in Africa, so there are some thing—well, in fact there are many things about racism in this country that he didn’t absorb, thank God—so at some point later we had to explain to him the nuances of the racial connotation of the watermelon. That was heartbreaking.

“But he is—the night it happened, he went down to his room and wanted to be left alone, which is unusual. But he was writing in his journal. A little while later I went to check on him again and said, ‘Are you OK? Can I make you a hot chocolate? I’m so sorry, honey. Is there anything I can do?’ And he said, ‘I just don’t understand why anyone would hate me like this.’ Words a mother never wants to hear her kid say.

“So he, more than ‘What’s going to happen to them? What are the police doing? Are they going to be punished?’ —more than anything what we’ve heard him says is, “At some point I would like to speak to these boys and ask them why they did it.’ He doesn’t understand the thought processes that went behind the choices they made that night.

Maurice: “One of the things we’ve talked to him about is, What is a victim? And what we stressed is that he was a target, not a victim”

Cathleen: “He’s not a victim. Because a victim is something that you can almost absorb into your identity, and he’s not that.”

Maurice: “It can become like a cloak.”

Cathleen: “There is a fear that can come attached to that word that we don’t want him to feel. And we don’t think he does. He is a pretty brave boy. I know [Reporter 1] knows more about his story than [Repoter 2] does, but just the two-cent version: He was born in Malawi. Both of his biological parents died, we believe, by the time he was about five or six. He spent a considerable portion of his life living on the street as an orphan. And he was also born with a congenital heart defect and he was in very poor health for most of his life; and when we met him in 2007 when we happened to be traveling in Africa as journalists, he was dying. It’s a long story and I can send you some clips if you want to know more, but the fact that he survived long enough to make the trip to Chicago, where we lived before we moved here, to have heart surgery is a miracle. His doctors have all said he is an incredibly strong person physically. Even when he had the lung capacity of an end-stage emphysema patient he could still—I remember our son-in-law teaching him how to hit a baseball, and the second time he did (and this was before he had the heart surgery) he hit the ball over the roof of our garage in Chicago. He is a strong human being, and deeply, deeply kind.

“If you ask any of his friends at the high school, any of his friends, anyone who knows him here in Laguna beach, or who has known him throughout his life, one of the first things people say about my son—and I’m not just saying this because he’s my precious baby angel and he is—is that he is incredibly kind. And he’s not going to lash out in anger. And he thinks about things very deeply. He’s not a loud person. He’s got a great sense of humor, but he’s not the class clown. He’s not the one who’s going to be the loudest in the classroom. But he’s been even quieter than usual lately because he’s thinking.

Maurice: “For us, he’s lived with us for almost eight years, but we still learn things about him. It was interesting to see when the police came to the house with the video from the [grocery store] to ask him if he could identify any of the boys, and he was able to identify four of the five. And the detective said, as we were kind of hanging back, he asked [to Vasco]: ‘What do you want to happen?’ I kind of involuntarily twitched and my first reaction was thinking that it was kind of an unfair question and pressure. But to his credit, [Vasco] said: ‘I’m still processing this. It’s too early to talk about that.”

Reporter 1: “Hmm. That’s a very mature answer.”

Cathleen: “It was. And this was maybe two days after [the incident] happened. We didn’t coached him to say anything.”

Maurice: “The way it unfolded, he we were there but we were hanging back. We’d talked to him about what happened, obviously, but didn’t tell him what he should say or feel.”

Cathleen: “And because we wanted the cops to be able to do their jobs, we had to ask him and ourselves to not talk to people about it. So he went all of Christmas vacation as a 17-year-old boy and didn’t manage to blab to anybody about what happened. Toward the very end, he did tell his two closest friends, but not about the police. Just about what had happened. So he’s exhibited a herculean amount of self-control, far more than his mother has. He is an extraordinary person.

“We’re blessed to have a community of friends and chosen family for him, many of whom live here in town. He’s got two godfathers who live here in town and are wonderfully supportive. One of them has two boys who have come through the high school and are just a few years older [than Vasco.] [Father] Lester [MacKenzie] has been a great gift to our family and I would say a great gift to this town and he’s been remarkable in talking with Vasco. For many years we worshiped at Little Church by the Sea and [Pastor] Jeff Tacklind there is a dear, dear family friend and he’s been wonderful. And the friends we do have in town who know and who are starting to hear [about what happened], the support is—there aren’t quite words for how heartening and affirming it is, of many things but also of the quality and character of this town, which was a big part of why we moved here—to live in a town where people know each other’s names and care about each other. It feels like a community.

“Growing up outside New York City in Connecticut, I really didn’t have that. Living for years in Chicago I might have known one or two neighbors’ names. But living in a small town now, where, for better and for worse, we know each other’s names and business, has been, until just recently, has been a beautiful experience.

Maurice: “Can I just say that, if you don’t know much about my background, I couldn’t be characterized as a lifelong died-in-the-wool supporter of police. I work on and write about wrongful convictions and that often takes you into the territory of police who make mistakes, some intention and some not. I’ve never had any dealings with the police department here [before]. But the response to this has been not just reassuring. Detective Cornelius Ashton and his partner have been fantastic. I don’t know if you know you much about him but he is the first black police officer on the Laguna Beach Police Department. Ever. And he has been, just dealing with Vasco, superb.

Cathleen: “Both he and his partner have been amazing. I don’t think he’ll mind me saying this, but the first time Cornelius came to our house to talk to Vasco, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. We’ve never done this before, so our living room is to levels—they sat up above and I sat down below listening. Cornelius was there for about 40 minutes and spent 99 percent of that time talking to Vasco about Vasco’s character and reputation in town, and what Cornelius knew of it when he started asking people questions about it and what he learned, and how, as a young African-American man how proud it made Cornelius to know that Vasco has that kind of character and reputation. Cornelius is a person of faith as are we, and he talked about God’s hand and call and essentially purpose in life, and what trials such as these can do to your character, and how they can be used as opportunities to make the world a better place, help the people around you. And none of this was putting any pressure on Vasco. He was encouraging him in a way that I couldn’t believe it was a cop talking to him. It was so far beyond the call of duty, and I mean that in the very best of ways. His primary concern, and we’ve talked with Cornelius now many times, is always for Vasco’s safety and wellbeing, holistically. How is he doing? How is he feeling? If he needs anything, any time, if he just wants to talk. ‘Think of me as a big brother.’ It’s been just beautiful.

“I was a reporter in Chicago, too. I dealt with police too, though not as often as my husband did. I’ve never had bad experiences, but I wouldn’t necessarily have considered myself a fan until now. They’ve been just fantastic. From start to finished.

Reporter 2: “You mentioned that knew four out of the five boys have been identified.”

Maurice and Cathleen: “No, he only recognized four out of the five boys from the videotape.”

Cathleen: “The fifth boy’s identity we learned on Monday and that’s when we realized it was one who had been involved in the incident last year and that was very upsetting. We had to tell Vasco who the fifth boy was.”

Reporter 1: “What about your description that they had gone out to eat together? Where did that information come from?”

Maurice: “We were given that information and that information emerged—“

Cathleen: “From interviews with police and school officials.”

Reporter 1: So the interviews with the police and school administrators? OK.

Maurice: “Yes. That’s the story that has emerged. Part of the story is so there’s a label on the watermelon and I Googled it and it’s a local farm. So who would buy from a local? …

Cathleen: “I called and talked to the [grocery store] night manager (because this happened close to 9 p.m.) and asked if they carried that brand of watermelon. Yes they did. Strange question, but does anyone remember anybody buying one today? Yes. In fact a group of boys had bought what not long before. And we shared that information with police and that’s how they got the video, inside and outside. And it’s very clear images.

Reporter 2: “Could you see, were they laughing and joking?”

Cathleen: “Yes. And carrying it above their heads. And it was from the video that we were able to identify and police saw and were able to identify that they all were wearing various items of athletic team [spirit wear] from the high school.

Reporter 1: “So what, did you think they had just come from a practice?”

Maurice: “No, no. They were wearing sweatshirts and shirts—I mean how bad of a criminal can you be if you’re basically advertising where you’re from?”

Reporter 1: All the LBHS spirit wear stuff? So they weren’t exactly hiding?

Cathleen: “No. But clearly unaware that they were being videotaped.”

Reporter 2: And clearly not thinking that what they were about to do was terrible or worth worrying about.

Maurice: That’s the question. I think they knew exactly what they were doing. They bought a watermelon and they threw it at the black kid’s house. They bought other stuff, which we believe, we don’t know, probably was used elsewhere, because no toilet paper was thrown at us or no eggs or no eggplant. So that’s concerning, but it’s not part of what we’re aware of. So when you take the trouble to do that, and you come straight to the [our] house, and you use the ‘n’ word and an obscenity, and two of them were previously involved in a racially-motivated incident on school grounds—there’s no doubt in my mind what the intent was. Now, they might not have thought it was in league with burning a cross, but it’s an act of hate based on race.”

Reporter 2: “It’s sad that they didn’t realize what they were doing was—“

Cathleen: “It’s shocking that they didn’t realize what they were doing was as bad as it was. So there are differing degrees of who was driving and who threw the thing and who said what.

“But a word about some of the passengers, if I might. You know, there’s culpability, legally and otherwise, on different levels. What keeps sticking in mind, knowing some of the boys, is that none of them stopped and said let me out of the car or said ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do this,’ or ‘This is a terrible idea’ or ‘I feel sick’ or make an excuse.”

Reporter 1: “How do you know that? How do you know that didn’t occur some place along the way?”

Maurice: “We assume that didn’t happens some place along the way because the story is they were all there.”

Reporter 1: “They were all there.”

Maurice: “The story is they were chanting his name as they drove up the hill.”

Cathleen: “And as they drove away.”

Reporter 1: “And how do you know that?”

Cathleen: “We were told that from police and school officials.”

Maurice: “What we have and what we’re telling you is based on what we’ve learned through our conversations with the police and school officials.

Reporter 1 or 2 (hard to tell which because there was cross-talk): I mean chanting his name as they drove toward your house.

Cathleen: What got our attention, because we live in a particularly quiet spot, and it was evening and the front door was open and we’re all talking—who got the Massaman curry?—and the movie is about to start and where is my papadam? And I said, ‘Is that someone yelling?’ It sounded as if someone was having a fight. And one of the voices, I remember, sounded kind of high pitched, which put me on alert—is a woman in trouble? — and that’s when [Maury] started to walk toward the door.

Maurice: I heard Vasco’s name called…

Cathleen (interrupting): And I didn’t hear Vasco’s name. My brother did. Vasco did hear his  name called at some point. I just heard the yelling and that’s what brought us out there.

Maurice: “But it was stillt he tenor of ‘VASCOOOOO’, trying to call him out.

Cathleen: But louder and taunting to call him out. So but what we learned after police and school officials talked to all five boys, this is what was reported to them, they were chanting his name—‘VASCO! VASCO! VASCO! VASCO!’—as they drove up the hill, down our street, and then as they pulled away, which is when one of the boys yelled what he yelled, which we didn’t hear.

Reporter 2: “That gives me chills.”

Cathleen: “Yes.”

Reporter 2: “I mean, that’s like a …”

Cathleen: “Lynch mob?”

Reporter 2: “There you go. I was going to say The Klan.”

Cathleen: “In a pick-up truck, too.”

Maurice: “It’s a mob mentality, too.”

Cathleen: “I mean it’s gross. All of it is gross. And as we’ve said, this was awful and jarring and shouldn’t have happened, but we are keenly aware that our son is safe and whole and at the high school right now, but there are a lot of parents in this country and elsewhere whose children aren’t, because they have been physically attacked, harassed, killed, because of the color of their skin.”

Maurice: “Again, to stress, we are sitting here now because we didn’t want this to become the subject of over-the-fence, back-alley, gossip and misinformation. I hate to say it but in a growing time of fake news, we didn’t want this to come out in dribs and drabs and in forms of misinformation. So we are here to say this is what happened, please be aware of it. Let’s do something to stop it.”

Cathleen: “Everyone needs to be vigilant.”

Maurice: “I believe—we’re both journalists. We believe sunshine is a great curer of ills if you feel that you’re subject to scrutiny.”

Cathleen: “But also know, you are the only media we’re talking to. I could have flipped a switch and had the entire media establishment descend on this town. We’re not interested in that.”

Reporter 2: Don’t you think it’s going to happen anyway?

Cathleen: “It might.”

Maurice: “And if it does, we will respond. But our instinct was—“

Cathleen: “But this is OUR town. And YOU’RE the media here. If you hadn’t called we probably wouldn’t had called to say hey let’s talk.”

Maurice: “If people are reaching out and it doesn’t take long for word to spread—“

Cathleen: “I mean, how long did it take? Half an afternoon before people started sending you emails about what they’d heard? So there we are.

Reporter 1: “So I mean, as much as you want this to be a teachable moment, don’t you also expect the backlash? You’re calling out five kids as racists.”

Cathleen: “Well, five kids drove up the street chanting my son’s name and threw a fucking watermelon at the front door of my house, excuse my French. I’m not calling them racists.”

Maurice: “They engaged a racist act. We’re not saying these kids are racists. They committed an act of hatred based on race.”

Cathleen: “Vasco has an uncle who lives abroad and is a very wise man. He sent him a note the other day talking about hating the act, abhorring the act, not forgiving or forgetting the act, but the perpetrator—at some point you have to get to forgving them. They’re not monsters. They’re 16-, 17-year-old boys who did something stupid. But it wasn’t just stupid. It was hateful.

“Maury and I are not afraid of standing up and saying this is what happen. The police and the district attorney’s office and the school district can call or categorize it or label it in whatever way they do. This is what happened. Labels don’t do much for me unless it’s a can of beans or an explosive device. I mean, for humans labels are whatever.

“What they did, in my mind, was clearly racist. Are they racist? I don’t think the answer to that question is particularly helpful. They’re boys.

In terms of people’s backlash? We’re not afraid of that and we’re not expecting that. There are always a few people who do not act as their best and highest selves. There are people who are going to be fearful. And make no mistake: there are racists in this town, there are racists everywhere. There are people who are motivated by fear and hate everywhere.

But we can’t let that dictate what we do when we know something is right. And to hide this, to slink away, to allow ourselves or our son to be intimidated, would be the wrongest lesson. And we couldn’t do that.

This wasn’t a decision we made lightly, by the way. How are we going to talk about this? Are we going to talk about this? What are we going to do?

Maurice: “The thing is, we didn’t choose this. We were targeted. And we decided we are going to respond.”

Cathleen: “And this was not a falling out at a party. It wasn’t a fisticuffs in a locker room after a game. This wasn’t somebody was dating somebody’s girlfriend. No. This was seemingly out of nowhere and they came to our home, two days after Christmas, and this is what they did. And you know, people reading this, make of it what you will, but this is what happened.

Reporter 2: It wasn’t at a party. This is more invasive.

Cathleen: Yes. When what happened at school last year happened, we were not happy. And that was the first time anything ‘racial’ had happened with Vasco. And as a white mother of a black child, I knew—I’m an eternal optimist, but I knew—at some point, something was going to happen. And in some ways I think we were really lucky that it took this long. I mean, it could have happened when he was 10 or 12 or 13. Anytime. He’s becoming a man now.

Reporter 2: I thought, how did those kids even know about the watermelon thing?

Cathleen: Isn’t that interesting? It’s kind of an old-timey thing. But I had a conversation with I won’t say whom, but with a friend as is my right in the privacy of her home, and her younger son overheard some of it and said, ‘Oh, I know all about watermelons.” His mom said, ‘You do?’ His mother grew up in the south and she said, ‘But we’ve never talked about it.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s all over social media lately about how all African Americans love watermelon.’ So I don’t know which social media that is or where that comes from.

Reporter 2: There have been some memes about President Obama and watermelon. I wouldn’t be surprised if those have gone viral.

Cathleen: “Lovely. So this young boy who has grown up in Laguna and, whose parents certainly wouldn’t teach him anything about that, says, ‘Oh I know all about that.’ He didn’t know why or what the connotations are, but he said it was ‘all over social media’ that ‘All African Americans are “addicted” to watermelon.’

Reporter 2: And that’s the watered-down version of it.

Cathleen: “Oh believe me, I know. We had to explain the nuances of it to Vasco a little later on.”

Reporter 2: “I was wondering what the origin of that depiction was.”

Cathleen: “One would hope it wasn’t something that any of the children learned at home. One would hope.”

 

[small section redacted for privacy of outside parties]

 

Reporter 1: “Would you be surprised to hear about racial incidents at the high school previously, not involving your son?”

Cathleen: “No. We’ve heard from some Laguna Beach High School graduates about incidents that we had not been aware of.

Maurice: “In all honesty, that played into our decision to not stay quiet about this. We have to speak out.”

Cathleen: [One young man] “urged us to do so. ‘You have to,” he said. ‘It’s been swept under the rug for far too long,’ he said. It’s not an epidemic but it has happened and he was aware of it.

Reporter 2: “How many African-American students are at the high school?”

Cathleen: “I’m not sure. We have to look that up.”++

Reporter 1: “How long ago did that student graduate?”

Maurice: “Four years ago.”

Reporter 1: “How many racial acts did he say he was aware of?”

Cathleen: “Three, I believe.”

Reporter 1: “So what does that suggest to you?”

Cathleen: “That we have a problem. And that we have a problem everywhere.”

Maurice: “Look at society. I spent most of my life living in Chicago, that has been and is to this day one of the most segregated cities, particularly north of the Mason Dixon line. Race drives so many conversations to this day across this country. We just had an African American as president for eight years. Did that change anything?

Cathleen: “Even he said in his final address last night, and I’m paraphrasing, but it wasn’t the magic pill some people thought it would be. But it is better. Some things are better than they were 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago.

Maurice: “But we don’t talk about it here. You don’t feel it here.”

Cathleen: “We don’t talk about it here because we don’t have very many children of color.

Maurice: “It’s ‘not an issue’ because it’s such a small minority here. A minority of a minority. And that’s driving this, our feelings about [what happened]. Just because it is whatever the number is—10, 12, 25—whatever it is out of 1,100 or whatever the enrollment is. I mean it’s more than just African-American kids who are minorities. There are kids from the Middle East, there are kids from Latin America—

Cathleen: “And we’ve heard stories about kids who are Middle Eastern or perceived to be Middle Eastern or perceived to be Muslim being harassed, about LGBTQ kids…

The idea to pretend that it’s not happening in Laguna because it’s Mayberry-by-the-Sea, and it’s so beautiful and we’re all so happy and we hold hands because we’re hippies—which is how I describe the place often and not really tongue-in-cheek because that’s how it feels a lot of the time.

To pretend it’s not happening here is delusional and really not helpful, and it lets it grow and fester. Is it the prevailing culture? No. But it does happen here and we need to fix it.”

Maurice: “And these are kids. They’re gonna learn. And some of them have not learned, apparently. We can only hope that the learning curve flattens out a little bit here.

Cathleen: “I started to talk about the kids who didn’t get out of the car that night. What’ the quote? All it takes for evil for flourish for good people to do nothing, to stay quiet. That’s what I keep thinking about with two boys in particular.

Maurice: “There’s a line the moving ‘Mississippi Burning’ where Gene Hackman, who’s the kind of the old Southern sheriff now in the FBI says, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’ and Willem Dafoe, who’s the straight-laced guy, says, ‘If we don’t, who will?’ So that’s’ something to keep in mind, certainly in my mind. If we don’t, who will?’ So it’s something to keep in mind. It’s certainly in my mind. If we don’t, who will?

Cathleen: And obviously we are speaking to you today because Vasco is a minor. He can speak for himself, but we’d rather he not, that’s also his choice right now. He knows we’re doing this and we have his support, and he knows that it’s important to not hide it. And people have asked what might be helpful for him—from kids to grownups to folks on the other side of the world. Just expressing your support for him.

Maurice: “He said, ‘What do I say when people come up and say they’re so sorry this happened?’ and we told him, ‘Just say thank you.’ People want to express their support for you. They aren’t in your shoes but they feel badly that this would happen to you or happen at your home, and they want to self-identify with you. And all you have to do is say thank you.

Cathleen: “We are expecting that we will hear all kinds of support and that, at some point, we might be able to channel that support into some kind of action in our town. Whether it’s something that originates at the high school with other students…We’re hoping this isn’t the end of the conversation. Yes, it’s a terrible thing that happened and we’re exposing it to the light because that’s’ what you do. And at some point perhaps this will transition into a way to make sustainable change.

Maurice: “Kids, people need to understand that they have a voice. They can have a voice. Some think, ‘Well, it doesn’t make a difference what I say.’ It does. It does.

++[Ed note: The latest publicly available demographics say the black population of the LBHS student body is about 0.8 percent of 1140 students. So about nine.]

-30-

 

 

 

 

Text of Maurice Possley’s Statement to Local Reporters Re: Racist Incident at Our Home

The following was the statement written and read by my husband, Maurice Possley, about the events of 12/27/2016 to two local newspaper reporters in Laguna Beach, Calif., the afternoon of Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017 in the office of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, where our family worships: 

“On December 27, two days after Christmas and just 15 days ago, our son—and our home in Laguna Beach—were the target of a hate crime because our son is black. He was targeted because of the color of his skin.

“We are here to today to tell you what happened, to denounce such behavior as repugnant and offensive, so that our friends, our neighbors and our fellow citizens will understand that even though we live in the bubble of Laguna Beach, we are not immune to hatred.

“And that it must stop now.

“This is what we know:

“Earlier on the night of December 27, five boys who are, just like our son, students and athletes at Laguna Beach High School, ate dinner together at a local restaurant and planned their evening. They drove to a grocery store where video cameras captured them purchasing a watermelon and other items—including toilet paper, eggs, and an eggplant—to be used in their acts of vandalism and hate.

“Chanting our sons name in unison, they drove to our house where they stopped and called our son’s name in an apparent attempt to lure him outside and then hurled the watermelon across our driveway where it smashed into pieces and landed inches from our open front door.

“Inside, we were sitting down to eat a celebratory meal with my wife’s brother, an Air Force pilot who had returned recently from a six-month tour of duty fighting ISIS. It was his fourth such tour of duty and the first time he’d seen our son—his only nephew—in more than a year.

“You could see our Christmas tree clearly from the street where they stopped their car near the lip of our driveway long enough to hurl the heavy fruit and at least one expletive and racial epithet—“F— you, n—-er!”— before careening back up the hill back into the night like the cowards they are.

Shards of watermelon on the ground outside our front door and in our carport after the racist incident two days after Christmas. Photos by Cathleen Falsani.

“On Monday, the five boys were questioned by Laguna Beach police and Laguna Beach high school officials. All have made statements implicating themselves in this hateful behavior.

“We want to praise the police department and school officials for their prompt action and full attention to this matter. At this point, it remains under investigation and therefore we will have no further comment about it or what punishments—legal and civil—the boys may receive.

“We want to emphasize that we are speaking publicly about this matter because we believe that this kind of racist, hateful, intimidating behavior is not what Laguna Beach is about. We are not here to talk about retribution or to paint ourselves or our son as victims. Because he is not. We are not. He is not. Our family was, however, targeted precisely because of the color of his skin and not the quality of his heart or character.

“Make no mistake about it. This was a hate crime.

“We are here to let the people of Laguna Beach know the facts of what happened to us and call upon everyone to stand together to send a clear, articulate message that this kind of hateful act is not tolerated in Laguna Beach. Not because of the color of someone’s skin. Not because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity. Not because of their religion, their ethnicity, or country of origin.

“Moreover, we are speaking out publicly with the hope that by doing so, we can help stop this from happening again. To be silent might embolden others to consider to commit similar hateful acts, believing there would be no consequences for their actions—that they can get away with it because their potential target would be too afraid or ashamed to go to the police or to call them out publicly.

“To remain silent is to give tacit permission for others to engage in similar corrosive behavior. We will not be silent.

“So let this be a teachable moment for our community. We’re known as a community that not only “tolerates” diversity and individuality but EMBRACES it.

“Let’s embrace everyone—not just those who are similar to us, or with whom we agree politically, spiritually, or in any other way.

“We have to try harder as a community. We must do better as a village, as models of behavior, character, and values for our children.

“The actions of these five boys do not define Laguna Beach and should not. We must have ZERO TOLERANCE for any acts of hate, no matter who the perpetrators are or how they express their vitriol.

“We are better—more generous, open- and kinder-hearted, than this, Laguna. Hug your children. Be kind to each other. Welcome the stranger. Reach out to those on the margins. Speak up when you see or hear anyone being mistreated.

“Love is stronger than hate.

“Thank you.”

 

'At the Sound of Mary's Greeting, Elizabeth's Child Leapt Within Her'

''At the Sound of Mary's Greeting, Elizabeth's Child Leapt Within Her'

A child at Little Church by the Sea portrayed St. Elizabeth in the Christmas pageant Sunday.

Can you see the living God in this girl’s face? I can.

Photo by Cathleen Falsani

 

It's the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel … Peace

shutterstock_93428659For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

~ Isaiah 9:6

On the flight home from Connecticut, where we’d buried my beloved father a few days before Thanksgiving, I watched the film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and dissolved into a wailing heap of tears and snot.

The premise of the uneven dramedy starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley is this: An massive asteroid named Matlilda is on a collision course with planet Earth and in three weeks’ time, the world will come to an end. The main characters and others decide how – and with whom – they want to spend the last days of their lives.

Given recent events, this led to some soul searching on my part. If I had three weeks to live, what would I do? Where would I go? Who would I want to make sure I saw?  With whom would I want to share my last breaths?

For most of my life the answer has been the same: I’d want to be with my family and, in particular, with my father.

Which is why I ended up bawling my eyes out for the last 90 minutes of the flight home to Los Angeles, much to the dismay of the fellow in the middle seat next to me.

If I had three weeks to live today, I wouldn’t be able to spend any of those moments with Daddy.

He’s in the More, now. On the other side of the veil. In Heaven. Resting in peace. With Jesus.

And I will have to wait until my earthly life ends to see him again face-to-face.

It’s a terribly disquieting thought, one that had filled me with sheer dread since the father of a classmate died suddenly when we were in junior high. Stefanie’s dad was probably in his late 30s. At the time, my dad was in his 50s. And I was terrified that something awful would happen and he’d be gone.

The idea of losing my father terrified me and made me panicky. I wouldn’t let Daddy leave the house without telling him to be careful and that I loved him, whether his destination was a transcontinental flight or a trip to the Stop & Shop down the street.

If he died, I wouldn’t be able to function. It would be chaos. The planet would spin off its axis. The sky would fall. I’d be utterly lost.

It would be the end of the world as I knew it.

So 30 years later, when Daddy did go home to Jesus – peacefully, in his sleep – I was shocked to find the panic and terror I had anticipated for so long replaced by a palpable, otherworldly sense of peace.

I was in Washington, D.C., when I got the call from my mother in the wee hours of a Wednesday telling me that Daddy had passed. Well, at least I was on the right coast. I could drive north on I-95 to Connecticut in a few hours rather than trying to find a flight from the West Coast.

Instead of hopping in the car right away, I took my time getting ready for the drive home. I sent emails and made phone calls to family and friends, letting them know that my father had passed away. One of the first friends I told was a fellow who was in from out of town to do some lobbying on Capitol Hill. I was supposed to see him at lunchtime, and sent a quick note to say Daddy had died and I wouldn’t be able to make it.

A few hours later, just as I was heading out of the district toward Baltimore, my friend emailed me back saying that he had sought out a quiet corner in the U.S. Capital to pray for my family and me – for God to give us “the peace that passes all understanding.”

Such an articulation of peace comes from the epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians, where, in the third chapter, the apostle writes:

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication make your requests known to God. And the peace that passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  (Phil. 3:6-7)

In other words, God says, “I got this,” and hands us peace.

But what is this peace of which the Bible speaks? In the Hebrew scripture the word used most often for “peace” is shalom. It means more than just a lack of conflict or absence of war. Shalom comes from the Hebrew verb shalam, which means to “make amends.” Shalom describes a completeness or a soundness; a healing or making whole again.

In the New Testament, the Greek word for peace used most often (including in the passage from Philippians 3) is eirene. It describes a state of tranquility and rest, but also a “joining together,” God’s gift of wholeness when all the disparate parts will be joined together.

Eugene Peterson says that “Jesus is the dictionary in which we look up the meaning of words.” Therefore, Jesus himself is both the definition and incarnation of God’s peace – the Prince of Shalom described by Isaiah.

In his book The Magnificent Defeat, the author Frederick Buechner explains divine peace this way:

True peace, the high and bidding peace that passeth all understanding, is to be had not in retreat from the battle, but only in the thick of the battle. Picture Jesus at the Last Supper: He had every reason to believe that the end was upon him, and we see im looking around at his friends who will all betray him and saying, ‘Peace I leave with you,’ he says, when you would have thought he had no peace at all anywhere. ‘My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’ John 14:27)

Christ never promises peace in the sense of no more struggle and suffering. Instead, he helps us to struggle and suffer as he did, in love, for one another….Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought. Go where your best prayers take you. Unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy. Breathe deep…you cannot go it alone. You need help. You need them. You need whatever name you choose to give the One whom Lewis named Aslan.

That kind of peace is what descended on my heart and mind in the wake of my father’s death. I didn’t do anything to get it to arrive.  I didn’t pray the right prayer or read the right thing. It just … arrived. Like a gift.

It feels like a pair of strong arms I can wrap myself in and sink into like a cosmic bear hug. It makes no sense to have this kind of peace when the world as I knew it had come to an end and my greatest fear had come to pass.

Perhaps even in the darkest of times personally or collectively – even when the most horrific evil we could imagine wrecks havoc and terror in the halls of a Connecticut elementary school, violently ending the lives of 26 innocents – there is a peace that can cut through it all.

Even on the day when the Mayan calendar stops, when some say the world will end and the Apocalypse will begin. Even on the shortest day of the year that I will always think of as annus horribilus. Even when all hope is lost and darkness threatens to swallow the last flicker of light.

May you know the peace that passes all understanding in these last days of Advent — as we look with hope to the Incarnation of the Prince of Peace — at Christmas, in the new year, and in all the days to come.

Amen.

Cathleen Falsani is a Featured Writer for Sojo.net. A veteran religion journalist who specializes in the intersection of faith and culture, Cathleen is the author of four books, including The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, the memior Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, and The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. Follow Cathleen on Facebook and Twitter @GodGrrl.

Photo credit: Mayan glyphs by zimmytws/Shutterstock. Photo (bottom): Cathleen Falsani  and her father, Mario “Muzzy” Falsani, at Christmastime 1972. Photo courtesy of the author.

What Americans Think About U.S. Foreign Aid Might Surprise You

Children outside the Anbesame Health Center in rural northwest Ethiopia. Photo by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

In an OpEd that appeared on POLITICO Monday, Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor of Arkansas, and Blanche Lincoln, the former Democratic senator from Arkansas — who together co-chair ONE Vote 2012, a non-partisan campaign to make global health and extreme poverty foreign policy priorities in the 2012 presidential election, wrote about the importance of maintaining U.S. foreign aid to the developing world that has helped make significant improvements in the health and sustainability of myriad nations, including many on the continent of Africa.

They wrote:

We recognize that Americans today are suffering at home from one of the worst economic recessions in modern history. We understand that there might be temptation to cut back on U.S. humanitarian programs and investments abroad. However, the cost of cutting back on such programs is not worth it. Not even close. It would affect too many peoples’ lives and damage American economic and national security interests at a time our world is more interconnected than ever.

It might come as a surprise to learn that less than one percent of the U.S. budget is spent on foreign assistance. It might even be shocking to discover that, despite this relatively small amount, these funds are literally saving millions of lives and improving the lives of many more millions of people.

For example, American investments in cost-effective vaccines will help save nearly 4 million children’s lives from preventable diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhea over the next five years. We’ve also helped to deliver 290 million mosquito nets to Malaria-stricken countries, and put 46 million children in school for the very first time. And thanks to the leadership of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, 8 million HIV/AIDS patients now have access to life-saving treatments, up from just 300,000 a decade ago, making an AIDS-free generation a real possibility within our lifetimes.

A healthier, less impoverished planet is good for all of us.

Read the post in its entirety HERE.

Our friends at the ONE Campaign spent 48 hours asking everyday Americans what they thought about US Foreign Aid.

(Source: The ONE Campaign)

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.

Ethiopian Orthodoxy, Tawahedo, and ‘Being Made One’

GGNFT (Ethiopia Edition): Teddy Afro

Ethiopia: The Face of God

Ethiopia: Motherhood is Powerful, Precious

Ethiopia: God Is Even Bigger Than We Think

Ethiopia: The Face of God

BAHIR DAR, Ethiopia — When I posted this photograph of a beautiful little Ethiopian girl holding a daisy a few days ago, my friend  and fellow author Christian Piatt responded on Twitter with a four-word comment:

 

“The Face of God.”

Christian’s remark stopped me in my tracks … because it’s absolutely true.

The Bible even tells us so.

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. ~ Genesis 1:27

When I look into the eyes of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve met, given high (and low) fives to, fist bumped, hugged, and waived to in the last few days, my thought is always the same: Oh my God, they are so beautiful.

What I didn’t recognize Christian’s profound four words is that Oh my God, they are so beautiful is also a prayer. A “wow” prayer, to borrow an idea from Anne Lamott.

Since Christian called my attention to the face of God, I haven’t been able to look at any of the remarkable souls I’ve spent time with here in Ethiopia without thinking about God’s face.

That Divine Spark reflected in our eyes. Our faces and bodies, hearts and souls all beautifully and wondrously made in the image of the Creator.

Nowhere is the face of God more evident than in the faces of children. They haven’t learned to cover up their divine face with masks yet, like so many of us adults have. Their joy is pure and unfettered, as is their fear and pain.

Below you can see for yourself what I’m on about — the face of God in the faces of a few of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve been immensely blessed to meet on my journey to their truly sacred land. (More on that last bit in a forthcoming post.)

Oh my God, they are so beautiful.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

All photos by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

Cathleen is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.

Ethiopia: Motherhood is Powerful, Precious

Ethiopia: God Is Even Bigger Than We Think

Ethiopia: Motherhood is Powerful, Precious

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

~ Proverbs 31:8-9

ADDIS ABABA — These words of King Solomon have been running through my mind since our ONE Moms delegation — 13 mothers from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France — arrived in the Ethiopian capital on Sunday.

I hear these verses as a clarion call to action. As someone who strives humbly to follow the Way of Jesus and be involved in The Work that God is doing in the world, I want to respond and do what these verses command.

And as a believer who also happens to be a mother (a fairly novice one, still learning the ropes, if you will), I must do.

Sunday afternoon, after us ONE Moms dropped our luggage at the hotel, piled into our chartered bus, and drove to the outskirts of the city to the Mary Joy Aid Through Development Association, we met our Ethiopian sisters who are speaking out for those who cannot; who are advocating on behalf of the destitute, judging with righteous wisdom, and defending the rights of the poor and the needy.

The verses that follow Solomon’s charge in Proverbs 31 are well known. He goes on to describe the ideal woman, mother, and wife — the one who is “far more precious than jewels.” She is industrious, good with money, makes beautiful things with her hands, tends to the needs of her children (and those of others), has strong arms (here I picture Michelle Obama), rises early and works late, spins and weaves and sews.

“She opens her hand to the poor,” Solomon says. “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.”

And her children “rise up and call her ‘blessed.'”

As we alighted the bus at the gates of Mary Joy, dozens of Ethiopian mothers and children — from babes in arms to older teens — greeted us with flowers and mega-watt smiles that would light up even the darkest of places. They embraced us, kissed our cheeks, shook our hands, and then they broke into exuberant singing and dancing.

Our welcoming committee were those “Proverbs 31 women” that, as an evangelical Christian, I’ve heard so much about over the years. Such women are precious — and scarce. I have met only a true few in my lifetime. That is, until Sunday.

You see, the mothers at Mary Joy (with a few fathers as well), have heeded the words of Proverbs 31: 8-9 by reaching out to orphans, widows, the elderly, and others who are struggling to survive amidst poverty and tragedy such as the loss of the family matriarch or patriarch and breadwinner, disease (often HIV/AIDS), or some other cataclysm that has left them bereft, voiceless, alone on the margins of society.

Mary Joy, which is a non-religious, not-for-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) has, since 1994, been working tirelessly to assist and empower women, children and families through a host of educational programs — from HIV/AIDS prevention and hygiene to nutrition and other vocational training — and by assembling a small army of “peer mothers” who act as stand-in parents for children who are parentless.

ONE Moms got to know the Mary Joy organization through one of our own members, Maya Haile Samuelsson, a model and native of Ethiopia who, with her husband, Chef Marcus Samuelsson, supports the education and wellbeing of 10 children at Mary Joy. (Maya’s even more beautiful on the inside than she is out — and she’s absolutely stunning; the picture of grace and a generous heart.)

UNICEF estimates there are 5 million orphans in Ethiopia — about 650,000 of them having lost their parents to HIV/AIDS. Of those orphans, more than 2 million live below the poverty line, which in Ethiopia is about 80 cents a day. Many thousands end up living on the streets.

During our visit with the mamas and children of Mary Joy, we were briefed officially by executive director about the work the organization does. But we learned so much more just by being with the mothers and kids as they celebrated life and welcomed us into theirs.

A group of adolescent boys performed acrobatics, juggled brightly colored bowling pins and blazing batons — one boy even filled his cheeks with lighter fluid and spit flames into the air as we collectively gasped the way mothers do.

And we danced. Some of us more gracefully than others, some of us with a child on our hip, or the hand of new friend in ours. But we all moved with joyful abandon.

We sat in a happy heap on blankets on the ground, flirted with babies, smiled at each other — affirming one another in that motherhood-is-global-and-mighty-powerful way that doesn’t need a common language to be understood. It just takes a look. Straight in the eyes. Deep into the soul. We see each other and we know.

It was a glory day. And it was the perfect the beginning of a journey here in Ethiopia, a land oozing with sacred spirit and beauty at every turn — perhaps most vividly in the places where people have the “least.”

In the slideshow below, you can see some of the faces of the mothers from Mary Joy and a few of my traveling companions from ONE Moms.

The journey continues with blessings, lessons, and audacious grace.

I’ll have more stories to share soon. (Dear St. Isidore, patron saint of computers and the Internet, please put in a good word for this weary traveler).

Thank you for joining us on this adventure.

If you’d like to learn more about Mary Joy or consider sponsoring one if its children, please click HERE.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Calling all Gracespotters: Thursday night in Chicago (4/29/2010)

Please join me TOMORROW NIGHT, THURSDAY APRIL 29, for a reception beginning at 5:15 p.m. and a discussion about GRACE at 6 p.m. at St. James Cathedral, Huron and Wabash in Chicago.

I’ll be speaking about grace – my favorite subject – from 6 to 6:30 and then I’ll subject myself (willingly) to a thorough grilling by “The Seeker” herself – Chicago Tribune Religion Writer Manya Brachear, from 6:30 to 7 p.m.

The event is free and open to the public. If you’re a Facebooker, you can RSVP by clicking on THIS LINK.

Hope to see you there!