People and Places

Halki Summit — Part II

Posted on June 20, 2012

An amazing three days here at the Halki Summit.  Amazing in a variety of ways.

I’ve already written about the setting, bucolic Heybeliada.  Even on the hottest days, a constant cooling breeze blows off the Sea of Marmara.  Emptied of weekend day trippers from Istanbul, the little seaside village is quiet, aside from the now much hated sea gulls and the well-cared for stray cats and dogs.    Tavernas line the water front, supplying shawls and blankets to ward off the late evening chill.  They provide an array of mezza, the small hot and cold dishes that begin all Turkish meals, and then amazing grilled fish (replete with head and tail, of course).  We have become loyal to Mavi, where the staff now knows us and greets us warmly.

We kicked off the Summit on Monday evening at the Halki Theological School, riding up the hill in a parade of horse drawn carriages.  One of the brothers led us on a tour of the now closed school, sitting empty but for a custodial staff with stunning 360 degree views.  The place looks frozen in time, as if the students had just left earlier in the day.  The blackboards, old fashioned wooden desks, and wide plank floors look like something from a Dickens novel.  We also visited the chapel with its ornate gold ornamentation and icons.  In the large, formal reception room we were greeted by the Ecumenical Patriarch, the most important figure in the Orthodox Church. 

In many ways, he gave a speech that I wish we could hear from our political leaders: a call for us to live more modest lives in order to save the planet, to move away from rampant consumerism, and to address the growing wealth gap between the world’s wealthy and poor. Sadly, no politician is willing to say aloud this fundamental truth.

 He was followed by Jim Hansen, the government scientist from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who in his opening address provided the irrefutable data on climate change.  He remains the leading voice on the urgency of the situation.  The government tried to silence him, but he has been a brave and persistent voice on the topic and the message is stark: the data shows beyond question that we are overheating the planet with catastrophic consequences for our species.  The interesting takeaway was his comment that science can provide the data and the models and outline the problem, but it is not proving effective at telling the story and educating the public.  This is a challenge that religious leaders, journalists, and educators can help address and the need is immediate.

We returned to the Halki Palace Hotel (“palace” may be pushing it a bit given the faded glory of the charming old place) for dinner.  At the head table I sat across from the revered Patriarch and had the opportunity to hear his story, reminded again of a basic truth about powerful and famous people: they are humans with stories not so different than yours and mine in the essentials.  An ethnic Greek born to a poor family on a Turkish island, he did his mandatory two-year service in the Turkish military as a young man and spent 11 years at the Halki School, first as a student and later as an administrator.  The politically delicate effort to reopen it means a lot to him.  He is very funny.  We discussed the tradition of the Orthodox clergy to wear long beards, originally meant as a symbol of not caring about earthly things like appearance, but soon becoming objects of vanity for some.  He gestured to Bishop of London Richard Chartres down the table, asking me what I thought of his short beard.  Mumbling something neutral in reply, he laughed and teased that it was not nearly as impressive as the long beards of the Orthodox.  I’m sitting there thinking, “The Patriarch is talking beard trash.  Really?”

Rahmi Koc, the famous Turkish billionaire and patriarch of one of the country’s two most powerful families, flew in on his helicopter to join us for dinner.  He sure knows how to make an entrance, hulking body guard at his side and sporting an ascot and flower in his lapel.  Koc Holdings, owner of some 120 companies in every sector, accounts for 7% of Turkey’s GNP and pays 11% of the total taxes collected, he told me!  A Muslim, Rahmi has been a friend and supporter of the Patriarch (despite some occasional criticism).  He was utterly charming – twinkling eyes and easy smile, the kind of guy who gallantly kisses women’s hands.  Very old school (in fact, he is around 80, I think), he was delightful dinner company.  He had to leave quickly as it began to get dark and flying helicopters is forbidden after dark, even for billionaires apparently.

All three of our keynote speakers have been spectacular: Jane Goodall, Bill McKibben, and Gary Hirshberg.  Any one of them would be the headliner at some other event, but we are here in an intimate setting and with only about 50 people.  But what people!  Journalists from the NY York Times and the Economist, the aforementioned Bishop of London and Ecumenical Patriarch, scientists from the World Bank and Greenpeace and Dow (not that’s a mix), academics from SNHU, MIT, Smith, Turkish universities, nuns, an investment banker, and our students.  In many ways, it is that cross-sector mix that has made the gathering a success.  As one journalist commented, he attends such meetings all the time, but it is usually segment specific and everyone already agrees or at least agrees to incessantly argue the same question.  At the Summit, people are in conversation with people from other worlds and as in so many things, magic can happen at the boundaries.

Jane Goodall is of course famous.  In fact, Kyle Coumas, one of our students, was at the airport holding a sign with her name on it and waiting for her to arrive and he was getting tons of questions and having his photo taken.  She is a very small woman and soft-spoken and an absolute giant.  She held the room spell bound, describing the first time a chimpanzee reached out to her and touched her hand and communicated, animal to human.  She has probably told the story of that fateful encounter with Gray Beard, as she came to call him, ten thousand times (she told me she is on the road 300 days a year), but she nevertheless told it with drama and emotion and you could have heard a pin drop.  She described Roots and Shoots, her youth empowerment organization that helps people create projects of their own making, though all must address three things: the environment, animals, and humans.  Her stories – of the abused little girl who had to ask “What’s a rabbit?” or the child in the ghetto who adopted the cause of chimpanzees used (and abused) in marketing – could melt the heart of a Dick Cheney (well, technically he has no heart, figuratively too for that matter).  We could have listened to her all day.

One of the highlights for me was seeing her eagerness to meet our students and sitting back and just listening as she chatted with Kaitlin Sampson and Bri Stockly, who quickly volunteered to start a Roots and Shoots chapter at SNHU.  Everyone here was eager to have their picture taken with Jane and she patiently complied, later confiding in me that she can’t walk through an airport without being crowded by admirers.  On the other hand, what a world we might be if scientists were celebrities and the Kardashians were unknown.  She left here on Tuesday, flying to Rio +20 and joining Bill McKibben at the global environmental summit.  Bill was also terrific, even if his presentation was frightening.  Echoing Jim Hansen, the basic beyond-a-doubt message is that we are running out of time.  Anyone kidding themselves that this is not so is denying the objective data.  Gary Hirshberg was the last of the keynote speakers and shared the amazing Stonyfield Farms story and the genuine promise of organics.  It was hopeful, inspirational, and I think we were grateful for the uplifting last third of the Summit.  We’ll have videos of each keynote on the Halki Summit site (www.halkisummit.org) by next week – I urge you to watch them.

Our students have been amazing.  They have worked very hard for starters.  Scott and Kyle spent much of Saturday making airport and ferry runs.  At the same time, Bri and Kaitlin were preparing materials, stuffing folders, and checking people in at the hotel, assisted by our able high school intern, Grace.  They also videotaped the sessions, blogged, photographed, and ran any necessary errands.  They did it with typical energy and good nature and humor and all the participants loved them.  One said to me, “I never heard of SNHU, but your students love the place.  What are you guys doing so right?”  One of the benefits of our co-sponsoring the Summit has been the exposure.  We’ve had offers to help with various projects.  I did a long interview with the NY Times reporter.  Important people now know us.  It’s always hard to know how that exposure might eventually play out, but I know from experience that this kind of relationship and reputation building often pays off in myriad ways.

There were lots of other fascinating tidbits:

  • The government security officers that monitor the Patriarch and his activities, wielding cameras instead of guns and slouching around the conference room entrance.
  • Sitting on the hotel porch early in the morning and chatting with the erudite Bishop Chartres, possessing the single best voice here: deep, sonorous, and oh so British.  Better yet are his wit, charm, learning, and intelligence.
  • Indeed, fascinating conversations with really, really smart people.
  • Speaking with young Turks who are relieved that the military dictatorship has been vanquished, but pessimistic about a conservative Islamacist ruling government that seems to be curtailing individual liberties (heavy taxes on alcohol, curtailing abortion rights, and making it illegal to criticize the government), oppressing journalists, and worrying the country’s minorities. 
  • Hearing our foreign colleagues make a very justified critique of America’s dismal role in addressing environmental issues, including the way we are gutting the proposed statements for the upcoming Rio+20 meeting.
  • Seeing my old student Sarah Kahn (she was my student when I was a newly minted graduate student and TA at Boston College), now a researcher of food and culture, and her husband Henry, one of America’s most expert art historians and on the faculty at the U. of Wisconsin.

In sum, it has been a wonderful few days.  More to come later.

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