Saturday, March 31, 2007

paul farmer and elie wiesel

Tuesday was an extraordinary day, a rare experience in the span of a lifetime. Due to the good graces of Ron, who is at Wofford College, and Kathy, who is a member of our congregation, I was invited to participate in small group experiences with two of today's leading voices for justice and compassion: Paul Farmer and Elie Wiesel. I will blog later about the particulars of their presentations, but I will say a word about the day here.

Jack Lamour, our student from Haiti and I hit the road early for the hour and fifteen minute drive to Spartanburg, SC, where Wofford is located. Wofford is a fine United Methodist school in a beautiful setting, and we gathered in the Verandah Room for the conversation with Paul Farmer. The gathering was convened by President Benjamin Dunlap, and was in conjunction with an honorary doctorate given to Farmer by Wofford and his reception of the Teszler Award for Moral Courage and Service To Humankind.

Paul Farmer is the co-founder of Partners In Health, the subject of Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, the author of The Uses of Haiti, and the founder of a medical hospital in Haiti. He teaches in the area of infectious diseases at Harvard Medical School, and is something of a modern saint, although he would certainly deny such a designation. I found Farmer to be a humble, engaged and brilliant presenter, open to the questions of those around the table but also prepared to state his own convictions. I was able to meet him, shake his hand and thank him, and he signed my copy of The Uses of Haiti (he is aware that it is not a book that has been read by the masses). Jack, who was with me was able to speak with him in Creole, to the delight of both, and Jack had his picture taken with Paul. I will blog about the particulars of the conversation later, but it was amazing.

We left Spartanburg, and returned to Charlotte in time for a luncheon dialogue with Elie Wiesel, which was to take place at the Duke Mansion. Elie Wiesel is a survivor of the Holocaust, the author of over forty books, and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. More recently he has been an outspoken advocate for those who are experiencing the horrors of genocide in Darfur.

I arrived a few minutes late, but all was fine. We went over the groundrules of the conversation, and then took a break. Wiesel would join us at 1:00 p.m. At about five minutes until 1:00 Wiesel descended from an upstairs room and greeted each of us. He seemed warm and humble, and genuinely at peace among us. About twenty clergy of various traditions were present (Jewish, Muslim, Christian). A prayer was offered from each tradition, and then we ate a meal. Then Wiesel spoke for a time, and afterward we posed questions. Again, the questions were treated with respect and answered patiently. I sensed that I was in the presence of a holy man. All of us had read Night in preparation for this event, and that became a part of our discussion, but we also reflected on current events (torture, war, security). Wiesel was in Charlotte at the invitation of the Echo Foundation, and he would speak to several hundred people later that night at the Blumenthal Center. Again, I was able to shake his hand and thank him for his witness in our world. I perceived in him a total lack of arrogance, astonishing for someone of his stature. His comments were profound, and again I hope to share some of them later in this blog.

I certainly do not want to blur the lines that would distinguish an Elie Wiesel and a Paul Farmer. They are different people, and their messages stand alone. But they were a part of an extraordinary day in my life, and I am still processing the content of the experiences, and giving thanks to God for the opportunity to participate and to meet two of his most remarkable servants.


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