Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Holy Innocents: We can do something

“Blessed are all 
who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2:11b

The Christian calendar today holds one of grimmest of markers for the year: The Feast of the Holy Innocents. The day was transferred to today because of the clogging of the Christian calendar with other feast days that take a backseat to Christmas.

Marla Ruzicka, right, with a family in Iraq
shortly before she was killed
This may seem like a very odd day for a feast. It is, after all, the day we commemorate the slaughter of innocent children at the hands of  King Herod, as told in the Gospel of Matthew.

Herod murdered all of the first born boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus, the one who the Magi had told him would grow up to be a king. Jesus and his family escaped, but the carnage and anguish in Bethlehem was great.


What to make of the Holy Innocents? Should we turn away from the awfulness of this story?


What comes to mind is that the world is full of Holy Innocents – children who are killed or maimed in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya, Syria. Children die as pawns of the powerful. Children die in Gaza and the West Bank, and children die in Bethlehem. And children die from gunfire in their own classrooms in the United States. We don’t need a King Herod to feel shame for the deaths of millions of innocent children in our world.

As I write this, millions of Syrian refugees are fleeing from ISIS, and millions of them are children. Rather than giving them safe refuge, we are letting only a trickle into our country. Instead of showing them our compassion, they have become sound-bites in our presidential politics.

A friend of mine says we should meet them at the airport with balloons and signs saying welcome. It would drive ISIS nuts.

There is something more we can do.

For several years I have been supporting the work of CIVIC – The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, an organization that documents the plight and advocates for refugees and victims caught in the cross-fire of the world’s conflicts. Its purpose:
“Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict works on behalf of war victims by advocating that warring parties recognize and help the civilians they harm. CIVIC supports the principle that it is never acceptable for a warring party to ignore civilian suffering.”
CIVIC was founded by a very brave young woman, Marla Ruzicka, from Lakeport, California, who in the months after 9/11 went to the frontlines herself to document what she saw, and then bring that information to the doorstep of decision-makers in Washington.

Marla was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2005. She was only 24.

It was my privilege to say prayers for her in the California Senate after she died, and I can tell you some very hardened politicians shed tears that day.

CIVIC has not only continued her work, but expanded it, going to Libya, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, Lebanon and Israel. CIVIC works on a shoestring budget but it has had a huge impact by getting Congress to allocate funds to compensate war victims in Iraq and Afghanistan, and bringing the stories of real people caught in warfare to the media.

CIVIC has gone everywhere it can go, working with officials from the United Nations, and with governments in Israel and Lebanon, Russia and Georgia, and everywhere there is warfare. To read a summary of CIVIC’s accomplishments, click HERE.

I know that all of us are inundated this time of year with appeals for funds. But what better way to remember the Holy Innocents than by giving to CIVIC? I will be giving today as my devotion to this Holy day. Please join me. You can make a donation to CIVIC by clicking HERE.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Greatest Christmas Story ever told: Get the kid his peaches

Christmas blessings and greetings!

I have not posted much here during the chaos of our getting resettled in Northern California and starting a new position. I have not had the mental bandwidth for it. But it seems to me this Christmas season is a good time to start once again.

On my old blog, Fiat Lux, I posted once a year the Greatest Christmas Story Ever Told, at least I think it is. Here it is again, by the great Al Martinez of the Los Angeles Times, and many years before that, the Oakland Tribune. We lost Al in January on this year.

A Christmas Story
By Al Martinez

IT happened one Christmas Eve a long time ago in a place called Oakland on a newspaper called the Tribune with a city editor named Alfred P. Reck.

I was working swing shift on general assignment, writing the story of a boy who was dying of leukemia and whose greatest wish was for fresh peaches.

It was a story which, in the tradition of 1950s journalism, would be milked for every sob we could squeeze from it, because everyone loved a good cry on Christmas.

We knew how to play a tear-jerker in those days, and I was full of the kinds of passions that could make a sailor weep.

I remember it was about 11 o'clock at night and pouring rain outside when I began putting the piece together for the next day's editions.

Deadline was an hour away, but an hour is a lifetime when you're young and fast and never get tired.

Then the telephone rang.

It was Al Reck calling, as he always did at night, and he'd had a few under his belt.

Reck was a drinking man. With diabetes and epilepsy, hard liquor was about the last thing he ought to be messing with, but you didn't tell Al what he ought to or ought not to do.

He was essentially a gentle man who rarely raised his voice, but you knew he was the city editor, and in those days the city editor was the law and the word in the newsroom.

But there was more than fear and tradition at work for Al.

We respected him immensely, not only for his abilities as a newsman, but for his humanity. Al was sensitive both to our needs and the needs of those whose names and faces appeared in the pages of the Oakland Tribune.

"What's up?" he asked me that Christmas Eve in a voice as soft and slurred as a summer breeze.

He already knew what was up because, during 25 years on the city desk, Reck somehow always knew what was up, but he wanted to hear it from the man handling the story.

I told him about the kid dying of leukemia and about the peaches and about how there simply were no fresh peaches, but it still made a good piece. We had art and a hole waiting on page one.

Al listened for a moment and then said, "How long's he got?"

"Not long," I said. "His doctor says maybe a day or two."

There was a long silence and then Al said, "Get the kid his peaches."

"I've called all over," I said. "None of the produce places in the Bay Area have fresh peaches. They're just plain out of season. It's winter."

"Not everywhere. Call Australia."

"Al," I began to argue, "it's after 11 and I have no idea . . .”

"Call Australia," he said, and then hung up.

If Al said call Australia, I would call Australia.

I don't quite remember whom I telephoned, newspapers maybe and agricultural associations, but I ended up finding fresh peaches and an airline that would fly them to the Bay Area before the end of Christmas Day.

There was only one problem. Customs wouldn't clear them. They were an agricultural product and would be hung up at San Francisco International at least for a day, and possibly forever.

Reck called again. He listened to the problem and told me to telephone the secretary of agriculture and have him clear the peaches when they arrived.

"It's close to midnight," I argued. "His office is closed."

"Take this number down," Reck said. "It's his home. Tell him I told you to call."

It was axiomatic among the admirers of Al Reck that he knew everyone and everyone knew him, from cops on the street to government leaders in their Georgetown estates. No one knew how Al knew them or why, but he did.

I made the call. The secretary said he'd have the peaches cleared when they arrived and give Al Reck his best.

"All right," Reck said on his third and final call to me, "now arrange for one of our photographers to meet the plane and take the peaches over to the boy's house."

He had been drinking steadily throughout the evening and the slurring had become almost impossible to understand.

By then it was a few minutes past midnight, and just a heartbeat and a half to the final deadline.

"Al," I said, "if I don't start writing this now I'll never get the story in the paper."

I won't forget this moment.

"I didn't say get the story," Reck replied gently. "I said get the kid his peaches."

If there is a flash point in our lives to which we can refer later, moments that shape our attitudes and affect our futures, that was mine.

Alfred Pierce Reck had defined for me the importance of what we do, lifting it beyond newsprint and deadline to a level of humanity that transcends job. He understood not only what we did but what we were supposed to do.

I didn't say get the story. I said get the kid his peaches.

The boy got his peaches and the story made the home edition, and I received a lesson in journalism more important than any I've learned since.

I wanted you to know that this Christmas season.

Al Martinez is a former reporter and columnist for The Oakland Tribune, from 1955 to 1971, The Richmond (Calif.) Independent and Los Angeles Times to now. Born in Oakland, he also has written several novels, for television and the movies. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 25, 1986.