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From Your Bishop: Amidst confronting horror, interfaith leaders commit to peace and strong relations

Posted: September 26 2023 at 06:00 AM
Author: Bishop Dan Schwerin

A ginkgo of resilience pushes through the rubble

by Julie Schwerin
We were reminded when we landed in Warsaw that none of the buildings we saw predated the war because everything had been reduced to rubble. One small section of the Warsaw Ghetto wall, however, remains standing. In an out-of-the-way corner of the city, this short section of brick wall offers a reminder. There is a plaque and a space where a brick had been removed and placed in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Slightly off to the side is a small ginkgo tree. There is no mention as to how it came to be growing there, but it seems apt. Ginkgos are considered signs of longevity and resilience as they were some of the few trees that survived the bombing of Hiroshima. And this one, growing in a place of atrocities and resistance to these acts, felt to me like it offered hope for the Jewish people particularly and humanity as a whole.

Warsaw Ghetto Wall

A remaining part of a wall in the Warsaw Ghetto with a small ginkgo tree.

Rabbi Yehiel Poupko of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and Rev. Dr. Javier Viera, president of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, invited Julie, me, and other faith leaders in the Chicago area to an instructive tour this past summer of the Holocaust sites in Poland. The rising tide of nationalism in Poland and the ongoing polarizations in our own country suggested an opportunity to bear an interfaith witness to peace and strong interfaith relations among leaders in Chicago. 

Rabbi Poupko reiterated his hope that we would come to strengthen our relationships with the Jewish faithful in Chicago by coming to know a people the way they know themselves. To prepare, our interfaith group gathered for evenings of historical study, readings, and breaking bread together at the Jewish Federation offices in Chicago. (Northern Illinois Conference apportionments did not underwrite our trip, aside from some continuing education reimbursements by means of the Episcopal Fund in the denominational budget.)

Bishop At Memorial

Bishop Schwerin reflecting at the Nathan Rappaport Memorial to Heroes of Warsaw Ghetto.

We were humbled to see the site of the Warsaw Ghetto and cemetery, and resistance sites in Warsaw. From there we traveled to Tykocin, a small community that looks like a hamlet in the Midwest. It was the site of the first phase of the Nazi Holocaust, when the murderers went to the murdered, before engineering a system to bring their victims to the murderers. We saw the street where the Jewish people in the town were led out in full view of their neighbors and made to walk to a woods where they were killed.  

Rabbi Poupko noted that “locality is morality.” In some places citizens resisted the Nazis. Many gentile Poles died at Auschwitz. In other places, neighbors turned in neighbors to the German authorities.  

We heard the stories of Treblinka, Majdanek, Kazimierz, Sandomierz, and Auschwitz.
I had not appreciated that some camps were extermination camps. People were transported directly to their means of murder.  

The Nazis extracted from them anything they wanted—from shoes and clothes to the gold fillings from their teeth. Some captives were sent to do hard labor while others were tortured and murdered.

Look at the Book of Kings, Isaiah, or Amos and learn how Scripture warns of the human penchant to extract from others what we want for ourselves. Scholar Walter Brueggemann has written how Pharoah, Ahaz, and Rome not only occupied other nations, but also extracted wealth from the people.

Our vision as an annual conference is important. One of the clearly articulated goals of the Annual Conference Shepherding Team is that by our teaching and practice we would make clear that racism is incompatible with Christian teaching. As I review our vision process in my heart and mind, I pray:

    By your Spirit Makes us One as
    a beloved community life together,
    living a theology of abundance,
    for developing vital faith communities
    that make disciples of Jesus Christ
    for the transformation of the world.

Julie and I are still processing the trip, reading post-war Polish poets, Yiddish poets, and poets who died at Auschwitz.

It brought to my mind that earlier this year—70 years after the armistice on the Korean peninsula—our Northern Illinois Conference Korean leaders blessed our annual conference session with a prayer service that deepened our understanding of the continued harm war leaves and galvanized our commitment to peace.  

To close this reflection, I will leave you with a sijo I wrote, a poem in the Korean verse form that flourished during the Chosun dynasty. It has a musical spirit and ends in a resolution, something I appreciate about the form. (This appeared in Hummingbird: Magazine of the Short Poem, issue 33, p. 17.)    

On Mixing
Trust a farm porchlight
to travel straight across the prairie.
I have wanted the high road,
and yet light mixes with the world.
Praise the night that falls on grasses
without bruising even one.

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