Unquenchable Spirit: Irina Ratushinskaya RIP

Photograph: Jane Bown for the Observer

Russian dissident poet and novelist Irina Ratushinskaya, known for writing poems in her bars of soap and then memorizing them while she was in a Soviet prison camp, died in Moscow on July 5, 2017, at the age of 63. There are many fine obituaries of this courageous woman, but what follows is one of the best profiles of her indomitable spirit. 

By Kathy Keay (Third Way, November 1990)

Irina Ratushinskaya was sent to a Soviet hard-labor camp in April 1983. She was beaten, force-fed, put in solitary confinement in brutal, freezing conditions, and became so gravely ill that many feared she would not survive. Her “crime” – writing poetry. For this, she was branded “a dangerous state criminal” and was sentenced a second time to seven years hard labor and five years internal exile – the maximum possible punishment for this offense and the hardest on any woman since the Stalin era.

Irina was the youngest woman in the Small Zone – a special unit for women political prisoners at Barashevo in Mordovia. She repeatedly protested against camp practices which flouted Soviet as well as international law. In May 1986 her first book of poems, No I am Not Afraid, was published in the UK. Her plight, by now a matter for world public concern, finally led to her release on October 9. Two months later she was allowed to come to Britain. Continue reading

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My Joshua Tree

By Steve Beard

Thirty years ago, I drove 500 miles with college buddies to see U2’s “Joshua Tree” tour stop in Houston. “I can’t change the world / But I can change the world in me,” Bono had sung on a previous album. Young and idealistic, I believed it then. Strangely, I still believe it today. I’ve never forgotten that night – nor the long drive back to get to class the next day. U2 was recently back in Houston to mark the anniversary of the album that arguably handed them the keys to the kingdom of global rock stardom – #1 album in 23 countries. I’ve written extensively about these Irishmen over the last 20 years, but this full-circle “Joshua Tree” tour still triggered moments of emotional daggers-through-the-heart, tribal fist pumps, and Pentecostal hanky waving – transcendence.

The album concept was titled after a prickly and ungainly desert tree named Joshua by settlers because it resembled the Old Testament prophet’s out-stretched arms toward the heavens and deep roots – strangely symbolic for an Irish band from a country divided with sectarian barbwire and religio-political quagmires. Raised by a Protestant mother and a Catholic father, Bono lived the brutal divide. With the loss of his mother at age 14, he grew up under the weight and anguish of tragedy. Then there was the whirlwind of a charismatic revival among some of the bandmates and the stirring of a struggle between rock ‘n’ roll’s narcissism and an unseen kingdom where the first shall be last and the backstage passes are given to those who honor humility as a prime virtue.

Through all this, Bono remains rock ‘n’ roll’s most effective spiritual provocateur. He sees every stage as a pulpit and every coliseum as a cathedral. He talks breezily about the theological superiority of grace over karma to jaundiced rock journalists, launched the humanitarian One Campaign (one.org), and recently wrote the forward to the Bible paraphrase The Message. “My religion could not be fiction but it had to transcend facts,” Bono wrote in a forward to the Psalms in 1999. “It could be mystical, but not mythical and definitely not ritual.”

U2 has sold more than 170 million albums, collecting 22 Grammys along the way. This world tour features a stunning visual spectacle with a 200 x 45 foot high-def LED screen choreographing imagery with the music. For me, three vitally essential images stood out.

First, a Salvation Army brass band accompanied U2 during the haunting “Red Hill Mining Town.” Never before played live, the song is about the devastation and helplessness of an unemployed miner. “Love, slowly stripped away/ Love, has seen its better day.” The Salvation Army is the most reliable global Christian symbol for faith in action – soup, soap, salvation, and loud music. Under the 150 year old banner of “Blood and Fire,” this ministry – operating in nearly 130 countries – has extended the hand of grace to the down and outers, prostitutes, alcoholics, morphine addicts, unwed mothers, and victims of human trafficking. The original plan was for a brass band to play at every stop on the tour, but the film of them playing in the Santa Clarita Valley of California provides a keen juxtaposition about U2 identifying with the historic message of Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth that help is only a drumbeat away (salvationarmyusa.org).

“This was a privilege to be a part of and so much fun to film,” Jacqui Larsson, a member of the ethnically diverse Salvation Army band from Southern California, told me. “It was great to represent The Salvation Army to such a wide audience. We have already heard a few stories of how this video has had a huge impact on people’s lives in a way we had never expected.”

In a long list of poignant moments, the second occurred when we were introduced to Omaima Thaer Hoshan, a 15-year-old Syrian girl in a refugee camp in Jordan. In the midst of the chaos of her circumstances, she voiced her aspirations and hopes for a better tomorrow. A gargantuan banner with her face is passed hand-to-hand throughout the stadium. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that there is a hellhole on the other side of the globe. At bare minimum, pray for her safety and be grateful you are not where she is.

Lastly, during a visual montage of notable female politicians and musicians (Sojourner Truth, Patti Smith, Angela Merkel, etc.), one stood out as a sister-in-arms with U2’s sonic art. Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), a personal heroine, was the undisputed queen of rock and gospel music, shredding an electric guitar and boldly taking her sanctified skills and songs outside the four walls of the church – taking church to the people. Keep the faith, she would say to U2, and rock on. Bono has called “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” an anthem of both doubt and faith. Whichever side of the coin you’re on, it continues to reverberate in the souls of saints and sinners alike. In the midst of uncertainty, it is anchored in redemption: “You broke the bonds / You loosed the chains / You carried the cross / And my shame / And my shame / You know I believe it.”

Bono sometimes mentions music producer Quincy Jones’ observation about waiting for God to walk in the room while making music, letting him fill in the blanks. It’s true. Sometimes. On occasion, divine intervention occurs with albums and concerts. Thirty years ago, I sensed the raucous epiphany during “Joshua Tree.” It was sweet relief, most recently, to experience it all over again.

Steve Beard is a religion and pop culture writer. He is the creator of Thunderstruck Media Syndicate. 

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Unreasonable Faith

To help Dr. Tom Catena, go to www.amhf.us. Photo: www.cmmb.org.

Dr. Tom Caneta has spent the last nine years sequestered in the Nuba Mountains of the African nation of Sudan. Around the clock, he heals the sick, bandages the broken, and takes cover from bombs dropping overhead. Caneta is the last doctor left in this civil war-torn region marked by starvation, disease, and death. He treats up to 500 patients per day.

In June, Caneta was named winner of the Aurora humanitarian prize – $100,000 to Caneta and $1 million split between three charities of his choosing. Accepting the award, Catena said: “When the bombs are raining down, I think that any job must be better than this – even being an accountant. But when one little kid unexpectedly pulls through – it’s all worth it.”

The war-zone Mother of Mercy hospital is a long way from his previous life. Originally from Amsterdam, New York, Catena played football at Brown University and earned his medical degree from Duke University through a Navy scholarship. Catena visited Kenya while in medical school and returned as a medical missionary following his residency in Indiana.

“My decision to stay here was a simple one,” Catena told Catholic News Service (CNS). “As the only doctor at the only major hospital in the Nuba Mountains, I could not leave in good conscience. Also, as a lay missionary, I felt it was important to show the presence of the church in this time of need – to show that the church does not abandon her people when a crisis arises.” Continue reading

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Half Full of Grace

An excerpt from a fantastic piece written by screenwriter Dorothy Fortenberry in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

I do not impress anyone at church. I do not say anything surprising or charming, because the things I say are rote responses that someone else decided on centuries ago. I am not special at church, and this is the point. Because (according to the ridiculous, generous, imperfectly applied rules of my religion) we are all equally beloved children of God. We are all exactly the same amount of special. The things that I feel proud of can’t help me here, and the things that I feel embarrassed by are beside the point. I’m a person but, for 60 minutes, I’m not a personality.

Another thing that I value: When I go to church in Los Angeles, I am a white person in a majority nonwhite space. In a city that’s an oxymoronic 70 percent minority, that shouldn’t be a special occurrence, but it is. Even more special is that I have come with no particular agenda. I have not come to teach or volunteer or try a new (to me) cuisine or inhabit a new (to me) neighborhood. I have not even come to act as an “ally.” I have come to sit next to people, well aware of all we don’t have in common, and face together in the same direction. Halfway through church, I turn to the congregants next to me and share the peace. I wish that they experience peace in their lives. That’s it. They wish the same for me. Our words are identical. Our need for peace is infinite.

To read full essay, click HERE.

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Happy World Oceans Day

Photo by Steve Beard. Newport Beach, California.

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Humanitarian Dr. Tom Catena wins Aurora Prize

Nicholas Kristof Instagram photo of Dr. Tom Catena

The Aurora Humanitarian Initiative honors esteemed Catholic Missionary physician in war-torn Sudan for rekindling faith in humanity.

The $1 Million Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity was awarded to Dr. Tom Catena, a Catholic missionary from Amsterdam, New York, who has saved thousands of lives as the sole doctor permanently based in Sudan’s war-ravaged Nuba Mountains where humanitarian aid is restricted. The Aurora Prize, granted by the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors, was announced at a ceremony in Yerevan, Armenia. He was selected as the 2017 Aurora Prize Laureate from more than 550 nominations submitted from 66 countries.

George Clooney, Academy Award-winning actor, Co-Founder of both The Sentry and Not On Our Watch, and Co-Chair of the Aurora Prize Selection Committee, commended Dr. Catena by stating, “As violence and war continue to threaten people’s spirits and perseverance, it is important to recognize, empower and celebrate people like Dr. Catena who are selflessly helping others to not only survive, but thrive. Dr. Catena is a role model to us all, and yet another example of people on the ground truly making a difference.”

Dr. Catena will receive a $100,000 grant and the opportunity to continue the cycle of giving by donating the accompanying $1,000,000 award to organizations of his choice. Dr. Catena will donate the award to three organizations: African Mission Healthcare Foundation (AMHF), USA; Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB), USA
; Aktion Canchanabury, Germany.

For the last nine years, Dr. Catena – known by locals as “Dr. Tom” – has been on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the Mother of Mercy Catholic Hospital to care for the more than 750,000 citizens of Nuba amidst ongoing civil war between the Government of Sudan and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement. Patients have been known to walk for up to seven days to receive treatment for injuries from bombing attacks and ailments varying from bone fractures to malnourishment and malaria. It is estimated that Dr. Catena treats 500 patients per day and performs more than one thousand operations each year.

On being named the 2017 Aurora Prize Laureate, Dr. Catena said, “We all have an obligation to look after our brothers and sisters. It is possible that every single person can make a contribution, and to recognize that shared humanity can lead to a brighter future. With my faith as my guide, I am honored to continue to serve the world and make it a better place. ”

Time Magazine Profile: HERE

Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column: HERE

Continue reading

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Top 7 indispensable hits from Sun Studio

Art and article from Garden & Gun

Garden & Gun asked Nina Jones, manager at Sun Studio in Memphis about the Top 7 hits from the legendary recording studio

“The Wolf Is at Your Door (Howlin’ for My Baby)”
Howlin’ Wolf: “Sam Phillips claimed that the Wolf was his all-time favorite artist to record. He had a raw, gruff sound that was exactly what Sam was looking for. When Sam heard him sing, he said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of a man never dies.’”

“Blue Suede Shoes”
Carl Perkins: “When most people hear this song, they think of Elvis. Perkins wrote it, performed it, and saw it top the charts before Elvis ever touched it. My favorite behind-the-scenes fact: Sam promised that whoever gave him the first gold record would get a brand-new Cadillac. Sure enough, he bought Perkins a Cadillac for this one—using Perkins’s own royalty money.”

“That’s All Right”
Elvis Presley: “This was the first release from a young kid named Elvis Presley. Fusing blues and country, the song was energy, speed, spirit. It was rock and roll.”

“Great Balls of Fire”
Jerry Lee Lewis: “Wild man Jerry Lee Lewis gave Sun the two biggest hits the label ever had: ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and this one. This song was everything your parents would’ve hated at the time.”

“When Love Comes to Town”
U2 and B. B. King: “After Sun Studio resurfaced in 1985, U2’s Rattle and Humalbum showed other artists that we were back on the map.”

“Rocket 88”
Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats: “This song features some of the earliest distorted electric guitar, and because of that, it is considered by many music historians to be the first rock-and-roll song in history.”

“Cry Cry Cry”
Johnny Cash: “Cash came here with gospel songs. ‘Go home and sin,’ Sam Phillips allegedly told him, ‘and then come back.’ Cash then wrote ‘Hey Porter’ matched with the B-side ‘Cry Cry Cry.’ He became Sun’s most consistent hit maker.”


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Mumford opens up about faith at HTB event

By Joseph Hartropp, Christian Today

Famed musician and Mumford & Sons front-man Marcus Mumford has spoken up about his faith, saying, ‘I really love Jesus. I always have and I always will’.

You can watch his interview HERE

Mumford made his comments while hosting an interview at Holy Trinity Brompton’s annual leadership conference earlier this month.

Introducing himself, Mumford, who has spoken about his ambiguous relationship with ‘Christianity’ before, said: ‘I really love Jesus. I always have and I always will.

‘I feel we live in a time of heightened hostility, whether it’s in the increasingly divisive political atmosphere here in the west, or the more catastrophic human disasters and conflicts further east and south of us.

‘And of course, we ask ourselves what it is we should do. And I like many of you would want that answer to be informed by what Jesus thinks.’

Continue reading

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Prez Bush on Bono

Bono is the real deal. He has a huge heart and a selfless soul, not to mention a decent voice. @laurawbushand I are grateful he came to the ranch to talk about the work of @thebushcenter, @onecampaign, @PEPFAR, and our shared commitment to saving lives in Africa.

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Bono on Prez Bush

More than 11 million people are alive today thanks to this man’s creation of PEPFAR, the U.S. AIDS program that has been saving lives and preventing new HIV infections for over 10 years, with strong support from political leaders right, left, and center. That progress is all at risk now with President Trump’s budget cuts, which will mean needless infections and lives lost. – Bono

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