Rev. Karen Tse

Saturday Keynote Speech by Dr. Karen Tse, Founder and CEO of International Bridges to Justice (IBJ)

Report by Pamela Spurdon

In an unexpected take on the event’s theme—Variety:  The Spice of Life?—Saturday morning’s keynote speaker, Dr. Karen Tse, directed our attention to a global variable that is the opposite of an appealing spice:  the variable treatment of individuals before the law, specifically those deprived of humanitarian, basic legal rights.

After completing her law degree and before undertaking theological studies at Harvard Divinity School, Dr. Tse opted to live in war-ravaged Cambodia from 1994-1997, where she met a 12-year-old boy who had been tortured to confess to stealing a bike and then been imprisoned.  As a result of that shock and similar cases, she decided to found an international association to mobilize and train local lawyers to defend the defenseless, International Bridges to Justice, which now is engaged in ten countries around the world.  (Don’t miss her TED talk on YouTube.)

An underlying theme in her life and work is clearly the transformational power of love, a theme she introduced by gently ringing little bells she’d brought from Myanmar, as a way of “connecting all people in the spirit of love.”   She told of meeting a heroin addict in Vietnam who related his story to her of having witnessed a little boy caught stealing an egg for something to eat who was about to be arrested.  The drug addict paid for the egg and took him to a safe place…and subsequently managed to open a safe house for him and other street children, surprising himself at the love he felt for the homeless children and the meaning he’d given his own life.

Karen told of many instances illustrating the blessings of such service to others, the value of strong attachments to one’s community and interconnectedness, all of which she deems significant spices of life.  She quoted Gandhi:   I’m often asked why I help people.  I do not help village people for any other body than myself.  By transforming them, I myself am transformed.

She remarked that gratitude is a choice often overlooked, as we take too much for granted.  She cited a man she’d met in Myanmar who had just been released from 12 years in prison, who had been sentenced to all those years for unproven sympathy to an opposition party.  On being released, he was thrilled simply by the sight of the moon once again, and he was immensely grateful.  To put us each back in touch with gratefulness, Karen suggested we consider thinking of three reasons to be grateful before we rise each morning.

On the theme of forgiveness, Karen quoted a Buddhist tenet that asserts that the reason to forgive is not for other people, but in fact for oneself.   She spoke of her poignant encounter with a Syrian woman lawyer who described being horribly tortured, but to her amazement Karen saw love radiating in the woman’s face, not at all the justifiable anger and bitterness.  The woman said, “I do not want to be defined by people who have wronged me….Our hearts are still strong.  The power of faith and love keep us going.”

In closing Karen drew our attention to the brave hope expressed by all the strong people who had told her their stories, noting that hope is a pivotal spice that we UUs celebrate, too.   The devastating bombings in Colombo this past Easter occurred just a day after she had returned home from working in Sri Lanka.  She immediately called a Catholic priest friend named Father Noel in Sri Lanka to offer her sympathy.  Despite the appalling tragedy, Father Noel responded, “We continue to say ‘Alleluia’ anyway…”