Parliament 3–The Star Teaching

For an hour and a half, I was afforded a glimpse into the world of First Nations.  I attended a talk about the Star Teachings from an elder of the Mi’kmoq Nation, David Sanipass.  When I went to the seminar, I thought I was going to hear some ancient First Nations lore and stories.  I was waiting the whole time for the Star Teachings.  Instead, his wife opened the seminar by telling a story.  She said that David had encouraged her to go to the bank with a twenty-dollar bill she had, and change it into single dollars.  Then she was to start giving away the dollar bills.  That proved more difficult than she had imagined.  She went to a grocery store and tried to give the cashier a dollar.  But the cashier exclaimed, “I can’t take that!  I’d get fired!  But you could go to the next cash register and give it to the woman in line there.”  So she did.  Then she went around the store giving out the dollars.  In the long run, giving these dollars out got people talking about why she was doing it.  It transformed the whole atmosphere of the store.  While she was telling her story, I was waiting for the Elder to start talking.  And I was waiting for the Star Teachings.

The Elder did speak.  He opened with a 24,000-year-old story about Creation.  As he spoke, the Elder would pick up his flute and play tunes.  The story began before Creation.  There was a great bird who had the most wonderful song.  Since humans couldn’t speak, the bird was going to give them the gift of his song.  But his grandfather came to earth in the form of an old man and coaxed the humans into talking.  The bird got mad, thinking himself duped, and decided to hide his song in a cedar tree at the centre of a swamp.  He returned to the swamp later, but couldn’t find his song.  David asked his father if that was a true story, or just a legend.  His father told him to go to the swamp and listen.  He did, but a woodpecker kept pecking at the tree.  This bothered young David because it was interfering with the song he was trying to hear from the primordial Great Bird.  But when a woodpecker pecks a tree, he makes holes in it, like the holes in a flute.  Young David missed the song.

David told two more stories.  One about him giving last rights to a woman pinned in an overturned car.  When he was young, David had been authorized to give the Catholic Last Rites.  Once, there was a woman pinned in a car that had overturned from an auto accident.  David climbed in the car and gave the woman the Last Rites.  All the while, gasoline was dripping onto his shirt, and the First Responders tried to get him to leave the overturned car before it exploded.  “No,” David said.  He stayed with the woman until she went into infinity, back to the stars.

His last story was the longest.  It was about a bear hunt.  Feeling excluded from the other elders at a story-telling gathering, because he didn’t have white hair, David went to an elder for advice.  “Go on a bear hunt,” the elder said.  David decided he would shoot the bear with a camera.  Trying to photograph a bear, despite the dangers, occasioned many hilarious adventures.  The story ends with David running from the bear which he awoke with the flash from his camera, running through the forest and getting bent double by running into a fallen tree, climbing another tree to escape the bear.  But the bear sniffed and followed him through the field, climbed up the tree and stared him face to face.  The bear talked, “You lost your camera when you ran into the tree in the forest, I came to return it to you.”  So saying the bear climbed down the tree and walked into the forest.  Shaking with fear, David discovered that the film had all fallen out of the camera.  When he got home, David looked in a mirror and saw that he had white hair!  He held the whole lecture hall in rapt attention.  In the telling of his story, David had carried us all into a special collective experience of love and interconnectedness.  By the time the bear hunt story was over, we’d run out of time.

David said he would give us the Star Teaching.  All he said was, “Don’t let the moment end now.  Bring this message out into the world.”  I was left to wonder what the Star Teaching is.  What I came up with, and I’m not sure I got it right, was that David’s wife’s story about giving away dollar bills, and the story about staying with the woman in the overturned car, and the bear hunt were all the Star Teachings.  It is a teaching about love.  It is a teaching about going out of our way to bring love into the moment, onto earth.  It was about the power we have to make the world a more loving place.

I was personally and professionally transformed by my experiences at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.  And I have more experiences to narrate in the upcoming days.  After the intense seminars, the guided Vedanta meditations, the Indigenous stories, the Nithya healing I underwent, I came away a different person.  It will take some time to integrate everything I learned with my own Swedenborgian faith tradition.  For learning something new, even personal transformation, doesn’t mean abandoning what we know about religion.  Rather, it means accommodating, and integrating it all together.

I’ve been practicing my understanding of the Star Teachings lately.  I’ve been buying food for homeless men, confronted convenience store clerks who didn’t understand why I was doing it, meeting the barrister at my local coffee shop, trying to make all my relations a real human interaction.  Spreading the message of love, the Star Teachings as I understood them.

I knew these teachings from my Christian background.  But for some reason, they never spoke to me the way they did when David Sanipass spoke.  Hadn’t Jesus said, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. . . . But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High” (Luke 6:30-35).  For some reason, it took David’s stories to energize me to act.

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Tacit Complicity in Racial Injustice

I recently attended the Christian Unity Gathering of the National Council of Churches of Christ, USA.  The theme was “A.C.T. to End Racism—Awaken, Confront, Transform.”  I entered the world of African-American experience from narratives spoken by speakers in seminars.  Being a white, suburban male, I appreciated hearing stories about the African-American experience in the US.  One speaker said that probably every African-American in the audience at one time or another, probably several times, was told to be careful in how they act and respond to white authority figures in public.  One participant who worked at a high-profile financial institution shared an experience in which he was pulled over by police on his way home from work.  He was pulled over for no other reason than the fact that his skin was black.  His race mattered more than his high standing in the financial institution.  We learned that 80% of police are white.  I recalled a story of one African-American man who told us he always has to keep his hands in plain sight whenever he enters a convenience store, so the proprietor would see he isn’t carrying a weapon.

White people like me don’t often hear stories like these.  And I think that it is fair to say that I don’t actively promote racial injustice.  But I am part of a socio-economic structure in which racism is embedded.  Statistics could be produced about income disparity, job disparities, incarceration rates, and silence in educational institutions about racial atrocities like the 1919 Red Summer in Elaine, Arkansas or the 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  I took away from a dinner speech one important idea that I took to heart.  The speaker talked about the silence of white people in the presence of racism.  By keeping silent in the presence of racism, we are tacitly supporting the structural injustices in society.  I thought about a racial slur that a man sitting next to me in a blues club made about another patron down the bar from us.  I said nothing.  I thought about the many disparaging remarks a new acquaintance made about First Nations’ people at a dinner party.  In order to ingratiate myself further in this new friendship, I said nothing.  While we may not actively promote racial inequities, by silence in the face of racism we are complicit in the structural inequities of Western society.  Awaken, Confront, Transform.  In the future, I intend to do just that.  The conference awakened me.  I have the power to confront.  And the hope of transforming.