Back in 1991 when Bernie first started his street retreats, folks would ask him: How much ,money do you bring to the people on the street? And he would say: “No money.” Clothes? Blankets? Extra shoes? And he would say: “None of these. We bring ourselves.”
I remembered this today, sitting under a grove of cottonwoods at Fort Laramie along with 35 others from around the country on this, our second day of retreat with Native American Elders. Fort Laramie, of course, is where we Americans signed two treaties with the Lakota Indians, and broke both very quickly.
Yesterday we drove south to Hot Springs from Rapid City in South Dakota, took a tiny nibble of Nebraska before turning west and driving into Wyoming. Except for some 10 months in New Mexico, I have spent the entirety of my American life on two coasts, New York/Massachusetts and California. I am reminded of this whenever I am in Wyoming, its small towns punctuating long, straight stretches of highway, sites of past trading posts and Pony Express stations, places that actually made history.
Today the sky was blue for most of the daylight hours over Fort Laramie, and as we sat together with Violet Catches, Manny and Renee Ironhawk, along with their children, the cottonwood trees wept small clumps of white cotton that fell down to the grass like snow in summer. As we listened to them talk, I remembered a conversation I had just 2 weeks ago with Sami Awad, head of Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, Palestine.
I was in Jerusalem to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday, and as usual, I went into Bethlehem to visit Sami, crossing through the wall that separates the West Bank from Jerusalem. We talked about many things, including the agreements that Israel had signed with Egypt and then with the Palestinians.
Sami said: “People still cry about what happened to the Camp David and the Oslo Accords. But the truth is, those agreements were bound to fail because the people weren’t meeting. They weren’t coming together. They had fought each other and loathed and hated each other for many years, feared each other, and in the middle of all that their leaders signed political agreements to create some kind of peace. But without that personal coming together, without bearing witness to each other, they weren’t going to lose their fear. Political agreements are nothing in the face of fear, fear will always win out.”
Some two weeks later I am sitting in Fort Laramie, where we broke two very important treaties with the Lakota Indians, dooming many of them to a life of loss and brokenness. And us white Americans? Maybe also to a life of brokenness, a loss of connection to the old wisdom that connected the stars and the earth, that told us how to live as responsible inhabitants of a generous earth.
I disagree with Sami, political agreements and treaties have their uses. We must work to repair our brokenness on all levels, including the political. But we also must come together and bear witness to one another. Learn the other’s language, their name for God, their ceremonies, how we need two words to describe two things while they use one word to reflect a more fluid reality, their rules of kinship within the family, their view of all of life as their relations. We must come together to lose our fear and illusions of superiority, see into the one big heart that includes all differences and commonality. Be the fragments coming together with other fragments, revealing the unimaginable mystery of the whole.
“We just bring ourselves,” Bernie said long ago. You can support and help, but you can’t fix or repair other people’s lives. What you can do is bring yourself.