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Author: Tama

writer, milker, mother of teens

Paths Not Taken: On the Franklin Expedition, Indigenous Spiritual Knowledge and Climate Change

Driving home from the farm recently I heard Michael Pallin interviewed on CBC Radio 1 about his new book Erebus, which recounts the ill-fated attempt of the British Naval Captain Sir John Franklin and the 129 officers, scientists, and crew to find a Northwest Passage through the arctic sea in 1845.

Thirty Years in the Arctic Regiions. New York, 1859.
Panel 4: Search for Franklin

My long-standing intrigue with Europeans out of their depth in their early exploration of Canada was sparked enough that when I got home I went straight to our bookshelf in search of a title I’d held on to while clearing out my Dad’s library some years back. The Search for Franklin: A Narrative of the American Expedition Under Lieutenant Schwatka is one of those distinctively undersized volumes with ink-sketches typical of a 19th century library.

It recounts one of dozens of similar expeditions launched in the mid-to-late 1800s to piece together the fate of Franklin and his crew who were locked in ice for 16-months before abandoning ship and venturing across the frozen expanse in a quest for survival. None of them made it out alive

Only a few pages into Schwatka’s account I was struck all over again by the pathos of the demise of Franklin’s officers and crew. In hindsight it seems obvious what would have kept these men alive as they staggered half-crazed across a foreboding and frozen landscape on which they had no bearings: accessing the indigenous knowledge base that was all around them! 

For his part Schwatka had the common good sense in his search for clues to interview the Inuit. Of course, they were the only potential witnesses to the last days of Franklin and his men.

One such witness was an Inuit woman by the name of Ahlangyah who recounts to Schwatka her firsthand encounter with “ten white men dragging a sledge with a boat on it.”   She describes how she and her husband put up a tent near the white men “at the crack in the ice”. Apparently the two parties remained together for five days. “During this time the Inuit killed a number of seals which they gave to the white men.”  Ahlangyah’s account goes on:

At the end of five days all started for Adelaide Peninsula, fearing that, if they longer delayed, the ice, being very soft, they would not be able to cross [to the mainland]; and they travelled at night when the sun was low, because the ice would then be a little frozen.  The white men followed; but as they dragged their heavy sledge and boat, they could not move as rapidly as the Inuits, who halted and waited for them…

The white men they never saw again, though they waited at Gladman Point….In the following spring, when the ground was almost clear of snow, [Ahlangyah’s party] saw a tent standing on the shore at the head of Terror Bay. There were dead bodies in the tent, and outside lay some covered with sand. There was no flesh on them, nothing but the bones and clothes… Numerous articles were lying around such as knives, forks, spoons, watches, many books, clothing and blankets.  (pp. 35-37)

Perhaps the word “stuff” didn’t exist back in the mid 1800s.  Or perhaps the Inuit or the British press were too polite to point out the obvious.  Either way, it seems clear that Franklin’s naval officers didn’t survive because they were dragging around too much of it. 

I get that their boats must have held out for them a fast fading hope of making it back to England alive. But hauling Shakespeare across the tundra? And a full library of scientific tomes? To say nothing of silverware, watches (wouldn’t want to be late for high tea), and rank-confirming uniforms? In hindsight it seems like the full onset of madness. 

One can’t help but wonder if the story might have been different if they had only found the courage to let go of the rope that dragged the sledge, that held the boat, that carried the stuff, that gave them the last vestiges of a sense of security. What if they had stopped clinging to their perceived identity and dared to trust that the Inuit could teach them a whole other way of living on the earth.  Who knows? Schwatka might just have found a few survivors living among the Inuit who could have told him their tale in full.  

I’m not one to point out the obvious but let it be noted that the parallels to our own time are painful. Our attachment to fossil-fuel derived comforts and consumption-driven economies all but rubber stamps our own demise and yet we carry on, dragging around a lifestyle that the earth is incapable of sustaining for 7.53 billion people and counting.

The Feather

This past fall I organized an event to raise money for RAVEN, an indigenous people’s legal defence fund, and as the evening wrapped up I was surprised to be presented with an eagle feather by Anishinabe land defender, Stacey Gallagher. I’m not sure why I was singled out for this honour. Perhaps because of the stand I took outside the gates of Kinder Morgan alongside other Tsleil Waututh allies, or perhaps because of my vocational commitment to nurturing spiritual resiliency in the lives of children and youth.

Stacy Gallagher teaching me how to refuse the gift of an eagle feather three times before finally accepting it with due humility.

Regardless, I was humbled by the honour though, in truth, being a relative newcomer to indigenous spiritual practices, I wasn’t sure what to do with it.  I knew if I asked Stacey he’d only say something like “You’ll know what you need to know when you need to know it.” Indigenous spiritual practices are not prescriptive in the same way that Christian practises are. He was dismissive when I thanked him for the feather: “I didn’t give it to you. The feather gave itself to you.”

When I got home I set the gift down on a cockleshell from Santiago de Compostela alongside a devotional book and prayer stool from my own tradition.  I then went on with the rest of my life and the feather stayed in place where I had set it.

A month passed. Then two. When opportunities presented themselves I was careful to watch how eagle feathers were used in First Nations ceremony. I had never noticed before. In particular I observed how they were put to work during a smudge to fan the embers of the sage bundle and direct the movement of the smoke toward the person seeking cleansing.

Still, I thought, who am I to assume that role. It felt presumptuous. 

One day I phoned Stacey and told him that I had yet to pick up the feather. He laughed (Lesson #1, Don’t take yourself too seriously!) then went on, his response typically indirect.  “The eagle is a type of intermediary between earth-dwellers and the Creator. On the strength of his or her wings an eagle carries away the negative energy that we release from our bodies during a smudge.”

Stacey went on to explain how the person doing the smudge will often flick the feather at the end so that the negativity falls to the ground below. The earth, he continued, is capable of absorbing and dissipating our negative energy. A type of spiritual recycling program!  “This is how generous our Mother is. She looks after us in every way.” 

This was for me an awakening experience, i.e. what in other contexts I would call an “aha” moment. It was like being put in touch with a truth buried deep inside me that chose this moment to reveal itself. Suddenly many things fell into place…. including my cows.

The Givingest of Creatures

Epiphany waiting for her morning head scratch.

For the past three years I’ve spent my (very) early mornings in the company of a herd of dairy cows where I am one of the milkers on the farm. I know the cows well. Each has a name (Sweet Pea and Jean and Tilly to name a few) and recognized personality traits. I’m sure they say the same about us milkers. The point is, I am comfortable in their company as they are in mine.

So here’s the thing. On more mornings than not I’ll start off my dairy routine carrying a lot of negative energy from my life outside of the farm, i.e. worry over whether my daughter will pass Grade 11 pre-calculus or my son will make the basketball team, a heaviness over harsh words exchanged the night before with my husband, dread at the thought of an upcoming work commitment I’m not prepared for, panic over whether we’ll have enough money to make the loan transfers, and general malaise over whether I’m a credible human being or not. You know, the usual stuff.

Then this happens: over the 3 hours that I’m in the company of the cows – rounding them up, scratching their backs, chatting with them (Me: “Did you know that in India cows are considered deities?” Cows: “What?! Really?! No fair?!”), massaging their udders and pre-stripping their teats to stimulate let down – over that span of time my heavy spirit dissipates. And more often than not a sense of inexplicable gratitude, and at times a giddy gladness, rises in its place.

I’ve often wondered at that transformation, and now, after my conversation with Stacey, I understood this exchange for what it was. The cows absorb my negativity and in so doing lay bare my own inner sense of grounding and goodness. I don’t know how else to explain it. The dark clouds of fear and self-doubt and inadequacy and dread are taken from me simply by being in the presence of these givingest of creatures.

This revealed a new dimension of how the earth is caregiver.  Up until that point I had primarily understood the earth “as mother” to be about the resources she provides to sustain our physical needs (food, air, fire etc.).  Now I saw how the natural world in mystery and silence cares for us spiritually and mentally as well – how the trees absorb our anxiety and how rivers carry our sorrow, how eagles bear away our pain and how ordinary dairy cows hold our ambiguities without judgement.

In my last post I proposed a creed for a low-bar spirituality . One of the tenants of the creed is “I’m an earth-dweller and so are you”.  I see now that I hardly know what this means. The world’s First Peoples are the most credible earth-dwellers and the climate crisis has brought the rest of us (on our knees!) to their storehouses of knowledge.

While the temptation will be to pillage and plunder (after all plundering seems to be in our DNA) their nearly-forgotten but now essential earth-dwelling wisdom, the invitation is to listen with hearts open.  In my experience, the hoarding of such knowledge is not in their DNA. 

My guess is that they will put us to work letting go of those ropes which we are clinging to so desperately in an attempt to haul our lifeboats across the landscape, giving us a false sense of security while all the while being led to our doom.

The Ancestors

My daughter to my surprise and without any prompting picked up the eagle feather the other day. It was after our big Father’s Day meal and we were lounging around in the living room doing some drumming and singing – a ukulele  and spoons somewhere in the mix – when, with complete spontaneity yet full of respectful intention, Abigail stood up, walked over to my prayer shelf, lit some sage, lifted the feather and came around the room inviting us in turn to smudge.

My astonishment had as much to do with how naturally the act came to Abigail as with the beauty of the gesture itself.  Abigail has a Cherokee grandmother in her paternal lineage whom we know almost nothing about. Maybe it was this grandmother’s spirit that came to Abigail in that moment. Maybe the feather was given to me so that it could continue its journey onward into hands more receptive than my own.

 

 

 

 

Statement Made to Judge Affleck of the Supreme Court of British Columbia Three Months After My Arrest at the Gates of Kinder Morgan for Protesting the Tripling of the Trans Mountain Pipeline

Your Honour, I want to tell you about the day in March that I stood at the gates outside of Kinder Morgan attempting, as the evidence has accurately established, to block access to the construction of a pipeline that I oppose. 

The police records and the Crown’s argument tell one side of the story. I’m grateful for your willingness to hear the other.

To be honest I had rather heroic ideas about my actions. I have a 15 year-old son, Oliver, and a 17 year-old daughter, Abigail, and they had become discouraged about their future. It seemed that every day on the news there was another development (You know the headlines): the collapse of the bee population worldwide, the demise of the Great Barrier Reef, the breaking up of the polar ice caps, extreme weather destroying homes and neighbourhoods, the anticipated extinction of orangutangs within the next 10 years. And so on.

There are many things a parent can endure, as I’m sure you can appreciate your Honour, but watching your kids lose hope is not one of them.

So, simply put, rather than sit passively by I decided I would do something to empower them  to reclaim their future. I had read recently that the civil disobedience toolkit has been lost to a whole generation in the west where hard-won liberties are now so taken for granted we naively presume right will prevail.  So I set out the morning of March 24 to demonstrate non-violent protest in action (though, truth be told, I hardly knew what I was doing myself.)   

Yet isn’t it the way with life: just when you think you are way out in the lead you discover that there are others with a knowledge and experience base who have been there long (sometimes centuries!)  before you ever appeared on the scene.

We were a big group that day (50 or 60 I believe). It was biting cold and then it started to snow: huge flakes, the size of saucers (you’ve probably seen the footage). The snow caked on our heads and soaked through our clothes to the bone. No one had come dressed for snow.

And that’s when a man by the name of Stacey, a self-identified Anishinaabe ally of the Tsleil Waututh, began walking back and forth in front of us in his toque and grey sweats and work boots, like an unlikely commander of a legion. And he started to play his drum for us and sing us the resistance songs of his people.  And when our teeth began to chatter he told us jokes and laughed with us. And when we could no longer feel our fingers and toes he walked among us passing out warm soup and bread.

And the day dragged on and as our spirits began to flag, an indigenous woman, whom I believe you have met, stood up on a ledge just to the right front of where I was. She needed a cane to balance her frail frame which was wracked by a lifetime of hardship that I’m sure I can’t begin to comprehend.  Yet with her free hand she held up an eagle feather high into the air above us.  I can’t tell you what she meant by this gesture but I can tell you how I experienced it: as an act of protection, as though to care for us and give us the strength we would need for the stand we were taking.

And when the police arrived, they positioned themselves in a line in front of us to begin their arrests. It was at this point that an indigenous man wearing a felt bowler hat stepped out from the crowd of supporters. I learned later that he is an artist and activist who goes by the name Ostwelve. And he planted himself eye-to-eye in front of each of the officers in turn and urged them to re-consider their options:  “History doesn’t have to unfold like this.” I overheard him implore. “None of us, not me, not you, has to follow the script life has handed us.”

As the hours passed I was worried about my daughter who had come to support me and as far as I knew was standing by herself lost in the crowd in the snow and the cold.  And I asked for news on her and word came back to me that she had been invited by the Tseleil Waututh youth leader, Cedar George to join a group of indigenous youth for a special youth-focused ceremony in the shelter and warmth of the Watch House.

And I thought “Who ARE these people?”   From what I know of the historic record all we’ve ever done is swindled, robed, bribed, and used whatever means available to us to take their land out from under them.

In the days following my arrest it became my quest to find an answer to this question. I went to the Tsleil Waututh camp by the Watch House on the soccer field to find out.

If you haven’t already done so I hope you get the chance to visit the Watch House, Your Honour.  I think you’ll be surprised as I was surprised to discover that this protest-based surveillance camp, before it is anything else, is a place for spiritual grounding.

The first thing you’ll be  invited to do on entering the camp is to offer prayer at the Sacred Fire. It’s an act that starts you down the road of reaffirming your connection to the Creator and to all living things (animate and inanimate alike). And the more time you spend at the camp the more you will remember what it means to put human relationships before personal acquisition and the health of the earth before material comforts.

I won’t take any more of your time, Judge Affleck.  My account has come full circle.  I crossed the injunction line not to bring discredit to the court but to bring hope to Abigail and Oliver. 

I believe we found the hope we were looking for though not as we expected.  It comes from the knowledge that at the forefront of the struggle there are indigenous leaders, not only here in our city, but across our country and around the world who understand  that caring for the earth is a sacred duty and comes at a great cost.

Regardless of the penalty you have assigned me today, my actions will have cost me little more than a sliver of my white privilege. In contrast the cost to the leaders I met on the mountain that day is incalculable. They have laid everything on the line for the sake of the struggle.  They are the true heroes.  It has  been an honour to stand with them.

Post script:  I pleaded guilty on June 26, 2018 and was sentenced to 25 hours community service.  The standoff on the mountain continues.  Click here to volunteer at the Watch House. 

Sign above the dish pit at the camp on Burnaby Mountain.

Loving Jesus and Letting Him Go, Again

I’m letting go of the Jesus I love. Which makes it twice now.

Out-growing a religious skin is scary.  I panic. My instinct is to crawl back into the old. Sure it was too tight and left me feeling irritable much of the time but at least it was familiar (and with familiar comes familiarity’s close cousin: security).

Still, I’ve lived long enough to know that that shedding an old skin is not so much a loss as it is a gain. Let me explain.

My Evangelical Innards

I grew up in a world I would describe as gently yet thoroughly evangelical (I say gentle to differentiate from the hard-edged, moralistic, Bible-thumping evangelical traditions that people often flee later in life and which can leave them with permanent spiritual scars.)  My evangelical upbringing had mostly to do with where you stood in your personal relationship with Jesus.

There is a story told in our family of one of my brother’s-in-law who as a youngster was disecting the carcass of a bird he had brought down with a slingshot. When asked what he was doing his reply was “Looking to see if Jesus is in this bird’s heart.”

When we were children where you stood on this matter was all important. It was your ticket off the sinking ship and into the next life, which we all learned at a young age, was the life that really counted.

I was a devout enough child. I had no reason to doubt what I was told by my adults about the value of, in their words, developing a personal relationship with Jesus.  I grew up going to prayer meetings with missionary aunties who would close their eyes, raise their hands up into the air and sing love songs to Jesus.  Never mind that my brothers and I would mimic them in jest afterward.

I did go forward once. It was during a religious rock concert at a highway church near Peterborough that my parents took my brothers and me to.  The drummer dazzled his audience with an instrumental rendition of Amazing Grace and while we were all on our feet clapping called forward those who were ready “right here, right now, to invite Jesus into your heart.”  My brother and I went up. When we got home everyone got a bowl of chocolate ice-cream to celebrate.

We were baptized soon after by a stout, grey-haired preacher with a thick Scottish accent in a Baptist baptismal tank with navy blue, velvet curtains. This formalized things.

My missionary boarding school encouraged morning devotions and gave us each a book called Daily With the King. I was one of a handful of keeners from my dorm who would get up before dawn and sit in the common room in my pyjamas to read the day’s reflection on Christian living with the accompanying prayer and Bible verse.  Each page would get a big checkmark with my bic pen when I was done. I had fuelled up for the day.

My love for Jesus was true. I felt an energy around it and aspired to be like Dorothy Day or Tommy Douglas or other such followers of Jesus who were concerned for the poor and for justice. So much so that I went on to study theology and to become a Baptist minister. I worked in a suburban church (where I wore a black clerical robe and drank wine and discussed justice issues) and two urban churches  (where I dressed in jeans skirts and cardigans and drank beer and further discussed justice issues).

The First Letting Go

Still, when I turned 40 I began to feel boxed in by my faith tradition.  As I’ve described elsewhere it felt like living in a bungalow in the suburbs peering out at look-alike streets through plastic venetian blinds.

So I moved.  Across the neighbourhood into the Catholic church. This was my first letting go.  I let go all the securities of my childhood faith and the evangelical Jesus that went with it.

It’s not that Catholics don’t love Jesus. Of course they do.  But the emphasis in Catholic spirituality is different. Jesus is not so much your best buddy, the way evangelicals would have it. For Catholics, before Jesus is anything else, he is the Real Presence in the eucharistic.

So every time I go to mass and receive the host I receive the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. He becomes a apart of me. His suffering and his resurrection are absorbed at the cellular level of my existence.  All roads lead into the heart of this mystery for a Catholic.

Of course it has its funny side. Like the time a priest accidentally dropped the host during mass and it went down his sleeve and there was a great kurffufle at the alter in an attempt to retrieve it, and a murmur of snickering through the congregation.

I think I’ve become more human as a Catholic because I think I’ve become more attentive to life on earth as the dwelling place of God. As one teacher puts it: “God comes to us disguised as our life.”  Everywhere is God. The Real Presence is all around me. Catholics get this scandal.

Which is also, I believe, what has led me to the second letting go that I’m in the midst of right now.

The Second Letting Go

The catalyst for this change has been the global climate crisis and a fast-growing community of ordinary people around the world (me included) waking up to what is at stake for our common home, the earth.

For me, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with climate activists has meant standing alongside humans from every walk of life on this planet: indigenous peoples and children lead the way and everyone else follows – religious and secular and anarchists and grandparents and academics and poets and scientists and environmentalists and buffalo farmers and business owners and my two teenagers and black preachers and banjo pluckers and bagpipe players (to name only those to my immediate left and right).  Its an amazing feeling.

Religious differences don’t seem important anymore, superseded by a shared and urgent concern to rethink how we live and reduce our water and air of human-generated toxins.

I’ve always been interested in low-bar spirituality and recently made up the following creed.  I say it now (usually to myself inside my head) wherever I am to whomever I’m with:

I am human (and so are you).  I am held (and so are you).   I am storied (and so are you).  I am an earth-dweller (and so are you).                                                                                                                                                                 

It’s a start anyway.

I like how it points to the similarities between us rather than the differences. How it joins who I am to who you are.

What’s amazing to me is that in the process of letting him go Jesus hasn’t become less but more. More human. More divine. More universal. More local. More accessible. Marching along beside us as brothers and sisters. Full of laughter, full of hope.

And as a result I find myself more deeply in love with the earth community and the earth that sustains us.  Maybe  to have its well-being in my heart is to have Jesus in my heart.

Maybe, when all is said and done, all I’ve done is come full circle.

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All the Reasons Why Not To Become Catholic and Why I Did Anyway

As an outpost dweller when it comes to religion (in my case Christian/Catholic) I know how susceptible I am to converting. Outpost dwellers are naturally curious about “the other” and for that reason often see the lure of another tradition or cause, religious or otherwise.

At least that’s the way it is for me.  I watch one movie and I’m ready to march, I hear a public lecture and want to know where I sign up. Even being pulled off focus by a pesky Facebook video can leave me teary-eyed and wondering if I’ve missed my life’s purpose.  I want to become that, I want to be that.

I think that’s typical of outpost dwellers. I think that’s why we waffle in our own religious tradition or belief system. There are those at the centre of our respective traditions who see our endless longing as a weakness of conviction. Maybe, but what can be done.

I prefer to think of our outward-looking stance as a unique capacity to  recognize the innate beauty of human/divine breakthrough in “the other”, even when it contains elements that contradict our own adherence.

I share the story of my “conversion” to the Catholic faith not for the purpose of enticing others down the same path (I’m too much of an outpost dweller to have that sort of agenda). Rather I share it to illustrate my conversion to a tradition that is completely outside my own homegrown, bred-in-the-bone, the-air-I-breathe Protestant/evangelical moorings.

And to reflect on what it means for outpost dwellers like myself to straddle two, or more, religious traditions.(My kids joke with me: “What’s next Mom? Hinduism? Islam? Buddhism? Indigenous spirituality? Ha, I laugh out loud. Then under my breath….”Maybe.”)

You might think the starting point in any conversion experience is euphoric conviction, rose-coloured glasses and all that. That wasn’t the case for me.

Crippling doubt was my starting point.

For every reason I could find to become Catholic (acutally I could only find one but I’ll get to that later) there were one hundred valid and important reasons why not to convert. Most of them you could probably come up with yourself:

#1  Why voluntarily place myself under the weight of a religious institution from whose gender-exclusive hierarchies the enlightened conscience of the 21st century has finally emerged?

#2  What possible logic could there be in me, a theologically trained and gainfully employed Baptist minister,  rendering myself vocationally obsolete by turning my life over to the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church?

#3  How could I so blatantly betray the historical sacrifices and cultural distinctiveness of my Protestant heritage? What will my parents say? And what about my Protestantly-dedicated children?

#4  Why go through all the hassle of changing religious traditions when, at the end of the day, prayer is prayer (Do you really think God favours the prayers coming from a Catholic Church over those coming from a Protestant Church)?

Of course there was no shortage of people in my wider sphere of influence who were appalled at the thought of anyone voluntarily choosing to join the Catholic church.

#5  A Mexican acquaintance likened the methods of the Catholic Church in his country to multinational corporations which gut the continent for institutional and financial gain.

#6  A literary friend raised her eyebrow and suggested I read Angela’s Ashes, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that paints a scathing portrait of the Church’s privilege, arrogance, and abuse in turn-of-the-century Ireland.

#7  My Italian brother-in-law who was raised Catholic in the heartland of Catholic culture is at war with the Church over its stand on gay marriage and viewed me as a traitor for even considering joining the ranks.

#8  My Catholic-raised Canadian sister-in-law warned me about the legacy of guilt imposed by the Church’s relentless systems of checks and balances. (“And believe me, Tama, you’ll find that you are always one down.”)

Nor was I immune to the headlines in the daily news: the devastating revelation of #9 sexual abuse by clergy, #10 cover-ups by bishops, #11  the devastating history of the Church’s involvement in running Canada’s residential schools.

And note that I haven’t even touched on theological objections all of which were well rehearsed at my Protestant boarding school (#s 12-99): Mother Mary, purgatory, indulgences, penance, beatification, the Magesterium , the Pope, the Apocrapha, transubstantiation, priests as mediators. Have I forgotten any?

But it was one of the teachers at my kid’s (Catholic) school who summed it up best. When she heard what I was thinking she looked truly perplexed:

#100 “I understand for those of us born Catholic. It’s the burden we bear.  But who in their right mind would cross the line and voluntarily relinquish their freedom?”

So as you can see, I didn’t have too much encouragement in my decision.

I was swimming upstream against a forceful counterflow.

But so were the salmon in the rivers where I live on the west coast of British Columbia. Driven by an inner compass that keeps them going (apparently it has something to do with their sense of smell….?!). A migrational pull so strong that the run can be suicidal.

Nevertheless, they swim.

So what was my inner compass, my homing signal?

Answer?

Simple.

The invitation to step (“through the wardrobe”) into a sacramental universe.

That was “the hidden treasure” for which I sold all that I owned and bought the whole field.

Father Gino lighting the Pascal candle from the primal bonfire at the Easter Vigil midnight mass.

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