Standing up for what’s right isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s just plain difficult, maybe even doomed to fall short. But we do it anyway. In this travelogue-meets-teaching, Rev. Joan Amaral recalls “Operation Bring John Home”—an effort to break through the bureaucracy that kept a married couple apart—while living one’s values and remaining unbowed.
“On the first bell, sit down, feel the earth beneath you, give yourself to her. Take a breath and expand within, filling your whole body with fresh energy. On the exhale, expand into the space around you. Occupy that space. And now on the second bell, like Avalokitesvara in her posture of royal ease, with that one knee up and her foot on the ground, rise up and share your heart with the world, that heart of yours that burns for justice, and peace. Just to do this continuously is called the host within the host.”
—Chan master Dongshan
“Courage has nothing to do with our determination to be great. It has to do with what we decide in that moment when we are called upon to be more.”
—US poet Rita Dove
Wednesday 4/24/19 10:30 pm Nairobi: Operation Bring John Home, Day 1
I’m in a very comfortable queen bed with fresh pillows, sheets, and a comforter. It’s got mosquito netting all around. Outside, dogs barking, the chirping of something—frogs? Esther’s brother Jack owns this place.
Dr. Esther Ngotho is a public health nurse, US citizen, a Kenyan immigrant from the Kikuyu tribe, and my friend. A tireless advocate for vulnerable people, she will eventually become a board member of my sangha, Zen Center North Shore, and will run for mayor of Beverly, Massachusetts, in 2021, her campaign opening up our city in ways never seen before. Esther and I have a pact: to fully actualize our respective Black experience and white privilege in the service of getting shit done. In the midst of social injustice and racial prejudice, we will not be victims of our own lives or these times.
I’m lying here now, somewhat cool, somewhat sweaty, having awakened from a sleep which began at 4 in the afternoon. Coming from the airport last night, we had gotten to bed around 3:30am and were up at 6 to get over to the embassy. I reflect on the events of our first day here:
Esther and I left Boston at 3pm Monday and arrived at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi just before midnight on Tuesday. After a stop in Amsterdam, we got to Nairobi and stood in line for an hour at Immigration. There was John out in the parking lot in the middle of the night, laughing and saying my name—“Jo-an.” He didn’t know I was coming; Esther wanted to surprise him.
We got into Jack’s place and talked about our plan at the kitchen table. I’m here as a spiritual advisor/support for this family. I’ve been helping Esther in the US to advocate for their reunion by getting John’s visa process moving. It has been stuck in limbo, like many others’ during these xenophobic times. Part of our case includes the fact that Esther lives with trauma from an earlier life experience in Kenya that led to her refugee status more than twenty years before. She landed in Beverly with her daughter, she and I meeting in 2016 at our local farmer’s market where the Beverly Multifaith Coalition held weekly meditations/prayers for peace in that tumultuous campaign summer. Ever since then we have shown up together to move things toward justice in all kinds of situations: at ICE headquarters, in Suffolk County prison, at Mass General Hospital, at Spaulding Rehab, in legal battles against Wells Fargo, at our local auto mechanic. Everywhere there is oppression and injustice. So everywhere imaginable.
With this case now—breaking through the bureaucracy of the US immigration system—Esther is almost desperate. She needs her husband. She cannot sleep at night and has to keep all the lights on. She is falling into a deep depression. They were married in Kenya but have still not lived together, two years later. Before we left, Esther had expressed concern that this might “go to a new level,” so she asked me to contact an immigration attorney friend of mine, as well as the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network (BIJAN). I’ve been working with BIJAN for years as we free undocumented innocents from the cells of Suffolk County prison. BIJAN’s prevailing attitude is: “We expect messiness, confusion, and discomfort, and we also choose courage and trust.” We keep this mantra close. We are determined, and we don’t know how this is all going to go.
Such not-knowing has never stopped us. Esther, a good Christian woman, is the embodiment of what Shunryu Suzuki-roshi called beginner’s mind. She says she likes to come to the zendo to sit because, after the raucousness of 1,000 people singing at her church, she wants a little quiet. She is curious about the social justice work of a group of people sitting in zazen. We are studying together, over the passing years, how zazen and social justice are not separate, but rather mutually illuminating. Both are devoted to process—the process of awakening, of returning over and over again, of not giving up, and not being too convinced of views on success/failure along the way.
This morning we got to the US Embassy at 6:55. It’s located in the north of the city, next to the indigenous Karura Forest, protected by the great Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai twenty years ago. We invoked Wangari’s fierceness more than once throughout this trip. It’s really helpful to be guided by a vision so clear as hers. What she did was just the right thing to do—protecting sacred trees threatened by development. So clear and so simple, and so effective. And so threatening to the status quo.
At the embassy, we walked over to meet with the US ambassador (McCarter—a Trump appointee). We got shuffled along to various gates before arriving at the last window where we were put in touch with someone named Landry who turned out to be a Boston University grad. We wanted to meet with embassy staff to seek assistance for John’s interview on Thursday, to do what we can in advance to resolve any last barriers to getting his visa. Our goal is to bring him back to the US on Sunday.
Landry took John’s name and case number and asked us to wait. He returned a few minutes later to say that Esther could join John Thursday at his meeting, but not me. Later we thought it was good how engaged he was with us and that we were on their radar now. We’re watching. Later over lattes and croissants, we commented on how the owner was interacting with me, not them. That’s race, in Africa as in America. My being there changed how they were treated.
Esther and I are used to this and work it at every opportunity. We got our picture taken by the restaurant owner—the three of us smiling—and I posted “Day 1 in Nairobi” and that’s now making the rounds across social media. It’s out there that we’ve arrived.
Later that morning, we met with a man who works with President Kenyatta. Apparently we’re taking some kind of expedition on Friday to see some land of Esther’s where she wants to build a clinic, dig a well, and create a multifaith village. She envisions a zendo there. We would also like to visit her mom, and John’s, in the village. This is all being discussed in Swahili and Kikuyu, so right now I am just along for the ride. But first we have to see what happens tomorrow.
I am moved to the core by Esther and John, grateful to be in their lives like this, humbled by all of it, which seems to cut through to what’s real.
Thursday 4/25/19 1:29 pm: Operation Bring John Home, Day 2
I came up with Esther’s dharma name, Konsen Jundo (“Determination River, Pure-Hearted Way”), on the spot after having spent the morning at the Italian café while she and John were in his interview. The name “Nairobi” comes from a Maasai expression meaning “cool waters”—a reference to the stream that flowed through the area. Even though Esther is Kikuyu, not Maasai, it still feels fitting. Two years ago we attended a Maasai ordination in the middle of the “bush” (as Esther calls it), and I understood for the first time the meaning of holding the kotsu (the Zen teacher’s wooden staff). The Maasai warriors and elders hold something similar to both the kotsu and the hossu (the “fly whisk”; another indicator of the Zen teacher’s authority). That experience is what allowed me to finally pick up the kotsu I had received almost five years before in my dharma transmission ceremonies. I love the magic of these unexpected familiarities that connect us in mysterious ways across culture and circumstance.
Here at the café, I started reading Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed until Esther and John walked in, just before noon. Esther was furious, shaking, and John’s smile was sad and nervous.
We decided to go back in, she and I. She didn’t want John there. So in very bad, uncertain, shaky moods we walked back up to the consular entrance. At the first station, I let the guard know I was outraged and I wasn’t requesting but demanding to see embassy staff. (White privilege, deployed.) The issue was that the interviewer told them she needed more information—information that had already been given. We wanted an answer today; if not the visa itself, then at least we wanted to know: what exactly is the problem?
Next came out Peter, a Kenyan guard. The Kenyans really understand. We felt his solidarity but also his limitation. After a while, Kevin, head of security, moved us right through to the Deputy Consul General, whose name is Rachel. Through the window she gave us the gift of a clear answer: the problem is that they felt John had committed “marriage fraud.” This was the first time Esther had heard that phrase in the whole years-long process of trying to get him this visa. It took us several minutes to explain to her that John had a daughter from another woman, and while Kenya is polygamous, even though John himself isn’t necessarily polygamous, it’s still murky, how to prove what a marriage is and what it’s not—a complicated cultural translation. I was filled with disbelief that Rachel as a diplomatic officer would not understand this cultural difference, and I expressed this, much to her displeasure. No one had indicated any of this to Esther or John for all these years?
Rachel eventually said she would get the paperwork moving, but it wouldn’t happen today. Esther felt we were being pushed around, and wanted to do a sit-down, hell-no-we-won’t-go thing, so, halfway out the door that would have locked behind us, we went back in, sat down in the lobby chairs, and refused to move. Esther’s cousin used to work at the embassy and told us the Consul General has the power to push things through.
Kevin meanwhile came back with maybe five Kenyan guards and three US soldiers in combat fatigues and with serious looking guns. They filled the lobby around us.
Kevin: “Don’t do anything stupid, don’t lose your cool.”
Me: “Kevin, please break through the bureaucracy.”
Kevin: “We will call Kenyan police and you’ll be put
in Kenyan jail.”
Me: “We’re prepared for that.”
Kevin: “If that happens, it will jeopardize John’s case.”
At that point I said I was there to do whatever Esther felt was right. There was a silence. We had come to a standstill, a showdown, a very, very tense moment.
I asked for time and space so Esther and I could talk, and I kind of couldn’t believe it, but all the Kenyan guards and the white American soldiers left us alone. Maybe they, like us, had no idea what to do next.
There in that lobby, Esther and I just looked at each other. In the moment, I didn’t know what would happen, how bad things could get. Granted, no one was shooting their guns, just showing them. But I don’t know how bad a Kenyan jail is, nor how much a Trump-picked ambassador would have come to our aid. So I went to what I know: I took off my shoes, sat down on the floor, and began sitting zazen.
[Now, years later, I realize how much this experience has informed how I teach zazen currently. How the practice of zazen is meeting just what’s right here, however unpleasant it may be. The training in zazen posture and its insistence on lengthening the spine right in the midst of mental anguish and physical pain is precisely the way we meet what comes. To paraphrase Roshi Joan Halifax: Fearless tenderness, with the spine long so the heart has something to hang on and can shine forth. I think of Dogen’s description of the courage of a patch-robed monk: Lay out your cushion and sit, set out your bowls and eat. Exhale through the nostrils, radiate light from your eyes. Do you know there is something that goes beyond?]
When all the soldiers and guns came back a few minutes later, Esther and I were still there on the floor, not talking, just breathing together in stillness. Kevin approached and told Esther he would work with Rachel, but she was angry now so it wasn’t a good time. He asked for Esther’s number, and then the soldiers and guns escorted us all the way out the embassy compound, through the endless doors and corridors, ‘til they deposited us in the parking lot.
Esther, depressed and angry, didn’t want to speak in the car. I kept thinking: What just happened? By 4 we were stuck in downtown Nairobi traffic, and Esther’s phone rang: it was Kevin, calling to tell Esther and John to meet with him and Rachel at 8:30 the next morning. Don’t bring Joan, he added.
OKAY! We whooped. We are taking it as a victory for this step. May this next step be the last, so we can buy John’s plane ticket home.
Tuesday 4/25/23 1:29 pm: Operation Bring John Home, 4 Years Later
How did this end? Did we succeed?
My journal notes end there, with a brief mention the next morning of what I ate at the Café Italiano next to the embassy while waiting for John and Esther in their meeting with Kevin and Rachel (delicious passionfruit juice, large coffee with hot milk on the side).
We ended up getting on the plane without John.
We weren’t really sure what had happened. Later that day we processed the events with Esther’s close friend Martha, who had hosted their wedding and who is the top judge in the country. Martha was sure the embassy staff had never experienced something like this before, not in Kenya. Kenyans up ‘til then hadn’t risen up at the mighty US embassy. In 1998, al Qaeda had blown up a bomb at the old site of the embassy (along with the one in Dar es Salaam), destroying it and killing hundreds of people, including Americans. But individual, protesting Kenyans? Never, til that time.
We didn’t know how to feel.
And it would take another year and the intercession of our US Congressman to finally break through and bring John home.
And what of the dharma here, how exactly to skillfully work with power? We can only talk about it so much. Who knows, in the moment, what will be most skillful? It’s like the Zen practitioner at a conference, who at the end of a panel on racial justice asked what books to read. “More relationship, less reading,” I replied. Because none of this is hypothetical. This is real, and it’s particular to its own place and time, context, and relationships.
What I can say is this:
When I left the monastery after years of training in zazen in those quiet mountains off the grid, as I was walking through the Tassajara gate out into the parking lot and into the rest of my life, I heard a voice, clear and true like the temple bell. What it said, it said in two languages: