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The Shovel Mental Contagion
Conversations with Other Human Beings
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Pauline Coffman Oak Park, Illinois
speaks with Gene Dillon


Pauline Coffman is a retired university administrator, wife, mother of two, and grandmother of five. She grew up on a farm in Minnesota and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. She met Rob Coffman at the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. They married the day after he graduated. Rob became a Presbyterian pastor. They moved to Honey Grove, Texas for three years; then to Dallas for nine; Baltimore for 6; and back to Chicago since 1980.

Pauline is pictured here with Reverend Charles Hunter from Dallas, Rob's co-pastor at the church there in the '60s and '70s. The photo on the home page is a statue in the main square of Palenque, a World Heritage site in Colombia. It is the earliest free African community in the Western hemisphere.

GD: Thanks for stopping by Pauline.

I heard that you have just been to Colombia. What were you doing down there?

PC: Thanks for having me! Our delegation to Colombia got back Tuesday evening so I've had a couple of days to decompress. Eleven of us went, as representatives of the Presbytery of Chicago and the Chicago Religious Leadership Network (CRLN) of Latin America, for two reasons: first, to help the Presbyterian Church of Colombia celebrate 150 years, and second, to listen to displaced persons (DPs), especially Afro-Colombians, and learn about their situation. The celebration was great! The listening was hard. Briefly, African slaves brought over 300 years ago are at the lowest rung economically. They are chased off their land and now exist in places without schools, health clinics, sewers, or consistent utilities. And the U.S. government with its "Plan Colombia" is making things worse, not better.

GD: Tell me about your group and some of the people who travel with you.

PC: The group was led by Gary Cozette, Director of CRLN, and Carlene Hyrams, Associate Executive for Justice Issues of Chicago Presbytery. Others included a professor from Northwestern University and his wife, a pastor from an Evanston church, and an Afro-Colombian woman who immigrated several years ago and wanted to see for herself what was happening. We also had a seminary student, a couple of retired school teachers... At least four of our group spoke Spanish.

GD: So how is "Plan Colombia" making things worse? What should the U.S. be doing to help? If the Colombian government is no help, are there any other groups in Columbian willing or able to help the DPs?

PC: Plan Colombia (PC) was designed as a military assault on drugs rather than a way to help Colombia build a civic structure that serves the people. PC was first drafted by a Colombian to address many levels, and the U.S. turned it into a military focus. The U.S. supports military training (at the School of the Americas in Georgia and even by Israeli commandos), delivers arms to the army, supplies planes that spray the coca fields.... I learned that after years of spraying there is the same amount of coca in Colombia. The fields have moved next to the forests so the sprayers can't reach them as easily. Also, the spray is indiscriminate — it causes skin rashes, problems with vision, and intestinal tract problems. What a waste!

There are lots of groups in Colombia trying to help the DPs, but right now the top targets for threats and assassination are pastors, human rights workers, and low-level government officials (mayors of small villages) who seek help for their people. Several Presbyterian pastors that we met are under threat of assassination because they are trying to help their congregations apply for title to the land on which they have been living. Let me explain: Colombia finally adopted a Constitution in 1991. In 1993, Law 70 was passed, which spells out how people who have been living on a plot of land for generations can apply for a title to the land. The pastors began to help their members do this, but the five Spanish elite families who run everything in Colombia, we were told, didn't want to give up the land. These families are responsible for the existence of "paramilitary" troops who carry out the threats and killings.

We met with U.S. AID staffers, U.N. staff, and AFRODES (an agency that tries to help Afro-Colombians). There are lots of others. The U.N. folks are prohibited from going to certain areas of Colombia because of the violence. Also, they cannot take taxis. If they are caught using a taxi, they are fired immediately. The guerilla groups raise money for expenses through kidnappings. I had to sign a waiver before going to Colombia that included a statement that if I was kidnapped, I would not press CRLN or the Presbytery to pay any ransom. That freaked out the rest of the family.

GD: Now that's some rather clear evidence of the real dangers that you are facing, and the selfless courage required to take on the important work. Have you ever found yourselves in a scary situation, either in Colombia or elsewhere?

PC: The only scary situation I've encountered happens when we must cross through an Israeli checkpoint. The guards are young Israelis — about 20 years old or even younger — who hold large automatic guns. We are warned not to smirk or try to make jokes, so we sit there while they walk through the bus. While this is happening, we watch Palestinians in a long line, crossing through another "chute". It looks like a cattle crossing. I've never felt in danger while in the West Bank or Gaza or Colombia. Hospitality is a key value in the Middle East and we just didn't see the danger in Colombia. The latest version of the "security wall" (which really separates Palestinians from other Palestinians) has automatic door closers and openers, so the person passing through will not encounter a human being. It is surreal.

GD: So, you have been to Palestine and Israel and you have friends there also. It seems like every time we turn on the radio or read a newspaper, we find ourselves saying, "Now, what?" What's to be done?

PC: Yes, I've been to the Middle East. My junior year of college was in Beirut, Lebanon, at the Beirut College for Women. (It is now called Lebanese American University and is co-ed, the same size as the American University of Beirut (AUB)). Since then, I've been back, I think, four times. Twice I participated in traveling seminars that visited Beirut and points in Lebanon, Syria (Aleppo, Damascus, and other cities), Jordan (Petra — wonderful!), Israel, and the West Bank and Gaza.

What's to be done? Well, for starters, Israel could end the illegal occupation of the West Bank, move that awful "security wall" back to the 1967 green line (established and recognized by the U.N.), and find a way to "share Jerusalem" with the other faith groups that have important holy sites there. They could stop demolishing homes, knocking over olive trees, and sending rockets to take out people they designate as "militants".

GD: When I learned about the new wave of bombings in Lebanon, it felt to me like the script had been well-rehearsed — an excuse had been found to launch an attack, and the response was swift. Bush is now calling for a "peace-keeping" force from the U.N.. It smells like a way to get a foothold in another country, which would further enrage militant Muslims everywhere. It's almost like the U.S. and Israel are no longer even trying to be subtle or covert with their aggressions. What do you suppose is the feeling among everyday people in Palestine and Lebanon? Are they resigned to fighting back for the rest of their lives? Does anyone over there hope for or imagine any sort of long-standing, peaceful coexistence anymore?

PC: I think people in Palestine and Lebanon, first of all, regard both Hamas and Hezbollah as "resistors" rather than "terrorists". I've had Palestinians shrug and say "What can we do?" when the so-called security wall (30+ feet high and 400 miles long) goes through their back yards, or when Israel decides to "take out" another "militant". The Lebanese people look us straight in the eye and say "Hezbollah is everyone! They are Lebanese. They are not a separate group. They are honest."

The balance of the violence is telling: Hezbollah says it took the Israeli soldiers to draw attention to the 9,000 prisoners that Israel continues to hold. This number includes women and children!

I don't know how many people know that Lebanon still has Palestinian refugee camps. This is a big issue with many sides to it. Palestinians don't want to leave the camps because that would mean giving up their "right of return" status. Lebanese resent their presence because it draws them into conflicts with Israel. But, since Israeli forces under Ariel Sharon stood by and allowed Phalangist Lebanese forces to massacre refugees in Sabra Shatilla refugee camp back in 1982, things are different and Israel's disproportionate bombing of Lebanon has united the Lebanese.

GD: You have been very active since your sons have grown up and moved out of the house. For a great deal of your adult life, you spent your time excelling in the duties of motherhood. How would you speak to those who feel frustrated and bogged down by their lives, always wishing there was more that they could be doing?

PC: Oh, this is a big, big question. Our work lives demand so much and with children to care for, time is so precious. Lots of us like to sleep in on weekends too. But the internet is a wonderful new way to get connected to others who care about issues. Retirement has given me the freedom to give my time to groups that matter to me. I am still in touch with my roommate from Beirut. She lives in Bir Zeit, where her husband was president of Bir Zeit University until he retired last year. It is important to me that I join in efforts to bring peace with justice to that region. The Colombia trip came up at a time when the Middle East was so depressing that I decided to get some perspective by learning about another hotspot. It did give me some distance, but I learned that U.S. foreign policy is very destructive in yet another country. Why don't Americans know that the rest of the world is very upset with our government? And why?

GD: (*Sigh*) We have every opportunity now to seek out and gather as much information as possible about what is going on all over this world. I'd like to say that a lot of Americans are too lazy, but that can't be the case. In fact, they are so busy with diversions and distractions, and with attaining wealth and getting so many items of alleged value, that they are stressed to the hilt. Therefore, they cannot possibly have time or energy to devote to truth-seeking and truth-telling. Or perhaps they find those kinds of efforts futile or too depressing? I know a lot of good people who wouldn't want to spend a few hours with a film like Syriana after a long day at the office... and putting the kids to bed. They wish to be "entertained" rather than to endure the sometimes painful enlightenment of truth. They want to unwind. Then sometimes they end up torturing themselves with horror movies or sensationalist news programs anyway. On the other hand, I suspect that most Americans actually know what the rest of the world must be thinking right now. I'm guessing that a little over half of them don't care anyway. About 51% of them.

PC: I love it that you mentioned Syriana! That is a wonderful film that shows the flaws of "Empire" thinking doesn't it? Yet I have friends who say the film isn't factually correct. Of course it isn't. It is more of a portrayal of a story of people — U.S. businesspeople and Middle East friends — who get caught up in something bigger than themselves and are blasted away because they want to change the direction of their country so it will help the poor and redirect oil profits. I think of it as a mythical reality that is very, very real.

When I try to tell friends about the situation in Israel/Palestine, eyes glaze over real fast! But I have to admit, that's how I felt about Colombia before I went there. I have the luxury of time right now and I know others do not.

GD: Even those good people who are out there in the trenches, trying to make a difference in this world, are often feeling rather frustrated. They feel that their actions are not even a drop in the bucket anymore; they are more like a drop in the ocean. Or, worse, people too are afraid to take a stand or speak their minds.

PC: It is easy to get discouraged and feel that our efforts are a waste of time. I feel that a lot. I have on my refrigerator, however, a statement by I.F. Stone (from The Nation) that says: "The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight one hundred years hence, a lot of other people have got to be willing — for the sheer fun and joy of it — to go right ahead and fight, knowing you're going to lose. You mustn't feel like a martyr. You've got to enjoy it." I read that every day and it helps keep me going. A couple of months ago, I participated in a march for peace and protest against the war in Iraq that went down Michigan Avenue in Chicago — the major high-end shopping street! A very satisfying chant that we repeated was, "Tell me what democracy looks like! THIS is what democracy looks like!" It was obviously making the point that in a truly democratic country we should speak our minds and that dissent and debate should be welcomed. Remember that last presidential campaign? (How could we forget?) The Republicans would not let anyone who disagreed with their platform even enter the room! I guess it doesn't look good on TV or something. That is not a democracy.

GD: We participated in a march in Boulder right before the Iraq war began. As hundreds of people marched in silence down Pearl street, a man on the second floor of a restaurant opened up the window and yelled out, "U.S.A.!!!" So I yelled back, "That's right!" A police officer reacted, as if he was prepared to deal swiftly with anyone in the march who became unruly. I looked in his eyes and he looked in mine, as I pushed my daughter slowly in her stroller, and I smiled and nodded, with not a just a small amount of appreciation after recognizing the courage and sacrifice of all the policemen and firemen who died in those two buildings in New York on that unconscionable day. He seemed to thaw a little bit. I was glad for that moment. That was a divisive point in time for this country, when the togetherness brought in the aftermath of 9/11 was transformed so quickly into "us" and "them", or "You're either with us, or you're against us." As if the support of an impossible war for invented reasons was suddenly a patriotic exercise and opposition to this new, destructive path of action was practically viewed as treason.

PC: Good for you, Gene! Now I'm remembering the flower children back in the '60s! During marches and protests, women would take flowers over to the police lining the streets and put them in the barrel of the gun. During our march on Michigan Avenue, I remember women yelling "Support our troops!" from the sidelines. I replied, "I do! But not the war." Why is any challenge of the status quo so frightening? I remember thinking that Malcolm X was frightening during the civil rights struggles, but now, when I read what he actually said and did, I think, well that makes sense.

GD: Our president has been reported to be a "man of faith". The 2004 elections indicated that many Americans felt strongly about letting faith guide their decisions, and perhaps influenced them to vote for this man again. Now... I know I have no right to judge, except when it comes to a point when I must choose a leader. I always assumed a man of faith to be a man of peace, a man who cares about the world in which we live. Am I missing something? How is that so many people can accept this label that has been placed upon this man, while turning a blind eye to the detrimental actions and decisions which are having such a profound effect on our lives and our future?

PC: The president says he is a man of faith, that's true. The trouble is, Christian faith (and any other religious faith) has different ways of interpreting their holy books. My read of the Bible tells me to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly..." (Micah 6:8). The president seems to be loyal to the right-wing Christians who believe God "promised" the land of Israel to the Jews for all time. Pat Robertson and John Hagee are responsible for mobilizing thousands of conservative Christians to support new settlements in the West Bank, to support Israel 100%. They are waiting for the Rapture to come and believe that Israel must control all of the land before that can happen. Take a look at the Web site, www.raptureready.com if you think I'm joking! There is another Web site, called www.christianzionism.org that exposes the thinking of the zionists and provides an excellent critique of them. I'd rather listen to someone like Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine who represents what is important to me in Christian faith.

GD: Do you think this 51% of Americans really understood what they were voting into office? Assuming that their Christian beliefs were a match?

PC: I wish I knew. I suppose a lot of it is worry about being safe. 9/11 brought the issue of our security to the top of the list. The right-wing Christians have organized a strong lobby that can deliver thousands of letters and phone calls within 24 hours. AIPAC, the Jewish lobby, sends major contributions of money to every single congressperson and senator. People are terrified of Muslims, thanks to labeling so many as terrorists.

GD: Why are the right-wing voices so strong? Aren't they really in the minority? Pat Robertson is viewed as a dangerous crackpot by so many people. Are these right-wing Christians not only waiting for the Rapture, but also foolishly attempting to bring it about, based on their interpretations of the Bible? In so doing, aren't they breaking some of the rules that were handed to them? They live in a dark world of contradiction. Why don't they worry about the judgement that may come from the sins of murder and deceit?

PC: How do you explain the sales of the Left Behind novels written by Timothy LaHaye? I actually read a few of them to be sure of what I thought they were. They depict the preparation and the actual end of the world. Of course, the end takes place in Israel. Christians are untouched by the events and sit by watching rivers of blood, etc. In fact, Christians who have been wounded in battles or earthquakes are magically healed. It's amazing. They are living in a fantasy world.

Are you aware of John Hagee? He pastors one of the mega churches in San Antonio. He has recently organized a large lobby group that went to Washington, I think back in July, to lobby on behalf of Israel. His congregation sends millions of dollars a week to the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. They see themselves as helping Israel claim the promised land and bring about the second coming.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by all of this. But I count on the common sense of many Americans who want to do the right thing for themselves and for others. We do have another election coming.

GD: Yes, we do have another election coming. We should all push hard for a fair one.

Do you have any more links or information about endeavors and activities in Colombia and the Middle East? Wasn't their talk in the Presbyterian Church about divestment in Israel?

PC: Oh, do I have Web sites! Take a look at www.crln.org (coming soon) for information on human rights issues in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America. This is the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America. For information on the Middle East, try www.btselem.org. The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories and sends out excellent summaries. They have maps to show how the Palestinian areas in the West Bank are dwindling because of the illegal Israeli settlements. There is a wonderful group called the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation. Their Web site is www.endtheoccupation.org and they are a coalition of many groups working together on peace and justice in Israel and Palestine. Not many people know that the majority of Israeli Jews favor ending the occupation. If we could get our U.S. government to pressure the Israeli government to withdraw from the settlements in the West Bank, as they did in Gaza, peace would be possible.

And I'm so glad you asked about the Presbyterian Church's involvement in divestment. In 2004, the General Assembly voted to examine where our money was invested. The Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) was charged with handling the process. MRTI decided to engage in a multi-phased process:
  1. Identify U.S. corporations doing business in Israel that either supported the occupation or harmed civilians
  2. Engage those corporations and try to get them to change
  3. If that fails, initiate shareholder resolutions to educate other investors
  4. If that fails, then MRTI could recommend to the NEXT General Assembly (2006) that we "divest" from that company
They identified Caterpillar (which makes the D9 Cat used to demolish homes and olive trees) and four others. In 2006, there was a big attempt to get the commissioners to "rescind" the divestment overture. I'm happy to say that effort failed! I was part of a network that went to Birmingham, Alabama to help make clear why we needed to support the process and continue it. We succeeded! Anyone who wants more information on this can take a look at www.pcusa.org and search for divestment information.

The divestment action in 2004 caused a lot of fuss. For once, our pronouncements made someone notice! The ripple effect has been great to watch — college campuses are calling for similar actions, ranging from divestment to boycotts. Other denominations are now working with the Presbyterian Church to follow the same steps.

GD: Thanks Pauline. I'm glad you came to visit with us.


 
©2006 Mental Contagion • Making Space for Visual Artists & Writers