Gregor's Letter

My grandfather, Gregor Riesser, is a boisterous, opinionated, and relentlessly analytical man who has done much in his 80+ years. At different times in his life, he was the son of a Jewish-German diplomat in the years leading up to World War II, a world-class skier, a chemist with many patents to his name, and is now a successful private investor. A loyal Democrat, he's not a big fan of George W. Bush, and often writes letters to the editor giving his opinion on an issue or correcting errors in the writing of others. Needless to say, we don't see eye-to-eye on a lot of political issues, but because we love and respect one another, we can discuss them in a spirited but civil manner, and enjoy a good bottle of wine afterwards. I submit the following as a snapshot of one of these exchanges - Gregor's letter to his Republican congressman, and my response to the copy of the letter that he pinged to me. I wish I had a copy of the letter from the congressman, as I'm sure it would add something to this dialogue as well.

Gregor H. Riesser, PhD

July 8, 2005

Dear Mr. Culberson

I am in receipt of your letter of June 27 on the Iraq War.Let me make some comments:

1) The UN Weapons Inspector had to be withdrawn, because the US attacked Iraq w/o UN sanction.

2) President Bush Senior stopped at the borders of Iraq, because he wrote, that going to Baghdad would bring and endless civil war, which is exactly what happened

3) Donald Rumsfeld was special ambassador Ronald Reagen, to reestablish Diplomatic Relations with Saddam, and to permit him to import certain chemicals which could be used to gas his opponents (hypocrisy in politics is not vice!)

4) Iraq is free now but at a terrible cost, 1700 American troops were killed so far, at according to the New England Journal of Medicine, 50,000 to 100,000 civilians have been killed so far

5) Our intelligence has been a disaster, and in a recent interview with the German Magazine, "Der Spiegel, Colin Powell sadly announced how he was mislead by US intelligence, when he made his presentation at the United Nations

6) The Madrid train bombing and the the recent bombing of the subways in London, probably both by Al Queda, were the result of this war!

7) The war continues and might continue for close to five years, according to Rumsfeld, the cost is a staggering 80 billion dollars a year

8) You voted to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. Do you know of a single case in history of a tax cut in rimes of war?

As a representative of my district, it is imperative that you stay well informed. According to your letter you are not!


And My Response...


Let me hit this point-by-point

1) Iraq kicked the inspectors out for three and a half years, and largely stonewalled them in the time they were there before the war. The inspectors would not have been let back in at all if not for the US and Britain taking some action to back up the empty threats and sanctions that a impotent (and might I add, corrupt, if the oil-for-food program was any indication) United Nations.

2) Seeing as a lot of the "insurgents" (I would call them terrorists, as they seem to kill more civilians than anyone else, but let's not get hung up on labels...) come from other countries, I think it would be something of a stretch to call this an "endless civil war." A civil war would be what would happen if the Kurds started fighting the Sunnis or Shiites.

In 1991, Bush Sr. promised US assistance to any Iraqis who would rise up against Saddam, then let the ones who actually did twist in the wind. Because of this, the Iraqis didn't expect us to follow through on our promises to stay the course until they become a nation. There is something admirable in following through on a commitment to a nation to stay until they get on their feet, even if some of us don't think we should be there in the first place...

3) Completely agree with you on the Rumsfeld point. What disturbs me the most about politicians is that most seem to believe that the ends justify the means, and their end (Democrat and Republican alike) is the assumption and continuation of their own power.

4) Europe is free now because millions of people gave their lives in the effort to defeat Hitler, including hundreds of thousands of Americans who might have avoided the war if Roosevelt had remained uninvolved. Blacks in America are free because the Union won the Civil War at a terrible cost. I don't think any population in the world has ever been liberated without a terrible cost in human life attached. Because these people gave their lives, future generations were able to enjoy what our Founding Fathers (who also suffered a terrible cost in many cases) would call the blessings of liberty. I'd like to think that the Iraqis will someday look at this generation of leaders in their country who have courageously worked at great personal peril to build this nation the same way that we look at our Founding Fathers in America.

Two more points -

a) www.iraqbodycount.com put the count in the neighborhood of 25,000 civilian deaths, a little less than half of which were caused by US-led forces. I agree with you that civilian deaths are untenable, and I will not make the argument that the ends justify the means. However, I question the practice of blaming the acts of suicide bombers, criminals, and terrorists on America (more on this later...).

b) You forgot to mention the several thousand US troops who sustained serious injuries from combat. Let's not forget their contributions here...

5) The intelligence that we based our case to the UN on sucked. No argument there.

6) The Madrid train bombings and the London subway bombings were the result of radical Islamic terrorists, of their own free will, choosing to kill hundreds of innocent people in western nations. Though they obviously weren't happy about the Iraq war, they hated America and Western civilization well before the Iraq war, and they will long after. Exactly which bombings would you blame on the Iraq invasion and which bombings would you blame on the Afghan invasion (I'm sure they're not happy about that one either.)? Using this logic, you would have to blame us for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (for invading Iraq the first time), the Embassy Bombings (for our ill-fated involvement in Mogadishu), the USS Cole bombing (for sending a cruise missile to destroy that factory in Sudan), and 9/11 (for sending a cruise missile that almost got Bin Laden). Why not blame us for Munich 1972 and the Beirut marine barracks bombing and be done with it, since terrorists are apparently not responsible for their own actions?

7) I felt the Bush administration was deceptive from the start on the cost of the war, and did not fully consider the question "Can we afford to fight this war and do everything else we want to do without busting the budget for the forseeable future?" Someone in the administration had a pretty good idea what the cost of this war would be (I think Paul O'Neill was one), and these people were either ignored or fired as Bush made his case for this war to the American people. This really bothers me more than the intelligence issues. With the intelligence, at least there was data both supporting and calling into question the WMD-based case for war. With the budget, I think the Bush administration intentionally misstated their information, fearing that if the true anticipated cost of the war was known, they would lose much of their support.

Tangental point - they didn't calculate the political cost very well either - if we hadn't gone to war with Iraq, Bush would have won the election in an absolute landslide. Instead, he eked out a win over a candidate that no one really seemed to like. But I digress...

8) My biggest problem with the Bush White House - bringing the fiscal ethic of a sorority girl with a credit card to the federal budget. I enthusiastically voted for Bush in 2000 for a lot of reasons, but the biggest was this - he promised to curb growth in government spending at 4% per annum, which would therefore allow him to keep taxes as low as possible (Keep in mind, I had just started working, and was a little shocked at the amount of taxes taken out of my paycheck each month.). After 9/11, we instantly went from surplus to deficit, which would not be a big deal for a short period of time, but it seemed to me that that would be a good time to keep costs as low as possible, especially when seeking tax cuts to spur an understandably sluggish economy (the result of 9/11 and the bursting of the high-tech bubble). Instead, we increased spending at an irresponsible rate, and then added the Iraq war expense on top of that, which will keep us in deficits through the end of Bush's second term.

That said, I don't know if I agree with you here. What was your point again? It's too late to think right now...

One last observation - the Democratic Minority Leader (Harry Reid) is a pro-Life Mormon. If he runs for President in '08, I would probably vote for him based on my "Any pro-Life Democrat automatically gets my vote" Rule. I may even campaign for the man if he runs and stays true to his convictions...

Hope the Astros can get back on track and win this Wild Card. I give them a 25% chance of doing so. Take care, Gregor.



Louis's summary of the Russia Trip...

...which explains the trip far better than mine did. He had pictures with it too, which I couldn't get to come up. If you're interested, I can forward you the email - just leave a comment at the bottom...

2005 Summer Mission Report
St. Petersburg

Our mission team that worked in the orphanages and institutions for the disabled in Russia had an awesome two weeks of ministry this summer! Because we had team members coming from Texas, Ohio, Florida, and Massachusetts, it was impossible to have inclusive team meetings before the trip, but everyone came together for a common purpose once we arrived in St. Petersburg, and we were blessed with a real spirit of unity. Though the pace was often exhausting, and we were feasted upon nightly by hoards of mosquitos, everyone served joyfully and without complaint. In addition to our 9 American and 4 Russian teammates we were daily joined by others that included guest members from California, Massachusetts, and Nigeria as well as numerous local Russians. Our mini-bus was always packed.

We spent our first 3 mornings going to orphanage #2 for disabled children in Peterhoff and the afternoons at the neurological hospital for adults located just a few miles from the orphanage. Unusually hot days kept us outside with the children playing games, blowing bubbles, and working on Bible coloring books. While most of these children have limited conceptual skills, they display an abundance of joy and affection when given a little attention. The message we seek to communicate is that God loves them and they are very important to Him.

The adult facility in Peterhoff has more than 1000 residents and it can be a bit overwhelming the first time one sees the sheer number of severely handicapped people in one place. We would pack groups into open areas in the hallways to sing and dance, although for many dancing meant rocking back and forth in wheelchairs or on scooterboards. Even though they were adults they were very enthusiastic about the Bible coloring books. Team members also made visits to the bed ridden and elderly who could not join the group activities. Some of these dear people received their first hugs in years. They and the staff assured us they are already waiting for a return visit.

The orphanage for handicapped children in Pavlovsk cares for more than 500 , and to my knowledge is the largest orphanage in Russia. We spent 4 days there working with groups of children that do not usually have an opportunity to see visitors. The mornings were more structured with music, Bible stories, and craft projects while in the afternoons we went outside to throw frisbees, do face painting, or just hang out with the kids and build relationships. We played soccer one afternnon and the Americans were covincingly defeated by some of the speedier and obiously more skilled residents. One of our favorite things to do was to take some of the non-ambulatory children, who don't normally get outdoors very often, for walks (and even races) in wheelchairs and strollers. Our last day there we were caught in a late afternoon downpour while strolling. Everyone got drenched, but the kids were delighted.

Our team also visited 2 more adult facilities, #10 and #7. Neurological hospital #7 has 850 reidents and had never had a mission team visit before. The director and staff graciously received us and were eager to share their faith as Russian Orthodox Christians. Some Orthodox believers can be very territorial and at first we were wondering if they were sending a warning to our evangelical group, but it soon became apparent that they were very happy to have us. The tea and pastries they served were delicious. Our only disappointment was that the time here was too short, but we hope to return in the future. On our last day in St. Petersburg we also went to Fyoder, a facility for runaways and street children. All of the kids at Fyoder have sad stories and we wished for more time to do ministry in this place. Fortunately, a couple of our Russian teammates have made commitments to continue relationships with some of the children they met there. Encouraging and supporting Russian Christians to continue in these labors after we are gone is essential for our mission efforts to bear lasting fruit. Thanks to the generousity of our own supporters we were able to leave medicenes, hygene supplies, sports equipment, and craft supplies in most of the places we visited.

If you have read this far, please don't stop now. On July 16 our team took a day train to Moscow and for 2 days did ministry among a group of refugees from Uzbekestan. When I was in Moscow last February I met Alexandra Kalashnikova who invited us to join her in the work she was doing with this needy group of people, made up mostly of children, who live in make-shift huts next to a garbage dump. Fleeing poverty and miserable conditions in Uzbekestan they have arrived in Russia to find more of what they left behind in their home county. The children provide income by begging on the streets and when they don't bring in enough they are beaten by the adults. Before food can be bought they must first pay a land owner for squatting on his property and the local police must be given fifty dollars a week to avoid harrassement.

They were all incredibly friendly and open to us and we brought them Big Macs and cheeseburgers each day we came out which disappeared in a hurry. We did street dancing, chalk art on the sidewalks, skits, and the Bible coloring books. On the second day team leader, Nate Laughlin, presented the Gospel in a clear, easy to understand message that was attentively listened to by all the children. One teenage boy said he knew he was a sinner because he often hit his younger brothers. Though nominally Muslim, children and adults alike were eager to hear about God's love and forgiveness that come through Jesus and many of them prayed a prayer of repentance and then asked to receive Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.

We met two mothers who had given birth to their babies in huts beside the dump. Their biggest complaint was about cold they were in the winter. We left funds with Alexandra to provide new shoes and socks for all the children and to purchase blankets for everyone. Alexandra would like to provide a shelter where these people could come to receive food and warmth in the winter and she could teach the children to read. They are bright and inquisitive, but most of them are totally illiterate. They also need to be discipled in their new faith. Alexandra has a vision for this ministry, but her resources are very limited at this time. This would be a great project for a church to partner in. Please contact me if you think the Lord may be leading you to help. If some of these children could be educated and discipiled, they could return to Uzbekestan and have an impact on their nation.

I want to thank all who prayed and gave to make this trip possible and to provide for the many needs we encountered. You were an integral part of all we did, and you have blessed many.

Louis Fry


A Few iTunes Recommendations

Sure sign that my life is slowly returning to normal - Like a crystal meth addict rushing into a 7-Eleven trolling for Mountain Dew, I'm back on iTunes. Therefore, I thought I'd take this opportunity to make a few eclectic recommendations to you, my faithful, obsessive readers, of song that I downloaded in the recent past that you should download in the near future...

Seasons of Love by the Cast of Rent - I saw the trailer for Rent in the theater the other day, and it was one of the best I've seen in a long time. It consisted of this song, sung by the cast on a stage, with cutaways to scenes from the movie. Like the song, it's simple but beautiful. The movie will star the original Broadway cast, which includes two of my favorite actors in Taye Diggs and Jesse L. Martin.

I Play Chicken with the Train by Cowboy Troy - Sitting at my friend Tommy's place the other night, I stayed around long enough to see hear this guy on Jay Leno. Nothing could prepare me for what I saw - apparently, Cowboy Troy is the pioneer of a type of music known as "Hick Hop," a hybrid of hip-hop and country music. The performance was audacious, well-done, and more than a little unintentionally funny. Needless to say, I now consider myself to be a big fan. He is part of something called the Muzik Mafia, and is good friends with Big and Rich, who backed him up on this song. Cowboy Troy is also a proud graduate of the University of Texas. I don't think it's too early to nominate him for a "Distinguished Alumnus" Award - If Matthew McConaughey can win one, why not Cowboy Troy? (Last note: Check out Cowboy Troy's iTunes Playlist - I think it's one of the better ones I've seen...)

Seven Spanish Angels by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson - Two timeless American voices that work very well together on a great song that plays to both of their strengths. Great track - there are few who can match these two for duets.

Shine by Dolly Parton - A lot of country recommendations today, huh. This is a Dolly Parton cover of a Collective Soul song that Josh Brannon and I once covered at a youth group talent show (I played bass... poorly). Dolly is one of the most talented songwriters and performers of her generation, but is grossly underrated because she's well known for other, uh, things. Perfect illustration of this - when Dolly performed this song on an episode of Austin City Limits, she played the guitar, and played it well, but had to do so while awkwardly trying to maneuver the guitar around her, uh, self. Great performance, and a solid 85 on the UCR.

That's all for now...


Pictures and Thoughts of Russia

Below you will see some non-sequential photos and a long, rambling personal rant by me about the Russia trip. Felt restless tonight, so I thought I'd post these. Hope you enjoy...

The Kids in Moscow

In Moscow, we spent 2-3 hours a day with a group of three families of refugees from Uzbekistan, bringing them burgers from McDonald's (their request) and doing activities with them. The families include about 20 total, live in a shanty behind an auto repair shop, are harassed by police, and make a living by the kids begging for money at a nearby market.

Cute Uzbeki Kid in Moscow

This kid was one of the Uzbeki refugees that we spent time with in Moscow. All of these kids were absolutely beautiful.

Horsey Bidet

I guess it takes one to know one (or four)...

The Team in Red Square

The team, with St. Basil's Cathedral in the background.

Arteum and Onya

Arteum and Onya were two people we met on our first trip to Pavlovsk. Both have had difficult lives since moving away from Pavlovsk, and both were happy to see us come to their new home in a facility in south St. Petersburg.

White Currents on the Metro

These white currant berries were offered to me by a cute Russian girl out of a Rubbermaid container on the Metro. I took them, and ate them, and told the rest of the team to never do the same. I found out later that, as team leader, I'm no longer allowed to do stupid, irresponsible things like this...

Reid's Glorious Moustache

Reid decided to go through a portion of the trip with a moustache. This was one of the highlights of my trip. Now if I could find someone to grow a Russian Ark nosestrap...

Neighborhood Kids

When Milan, our intrepid interpreter/cook, was barbequing shishkabob in the alley behind our dormitory, I encountered this group of siblings who enjoyed our company. Milan sent them to find bricks. I took their picture...

A Taste of Freedom

For a couple of afternoons in Pavlovsk, we took a group of boys from the nonambulatory building outside to a gazebo and around the grounds. A few actually got to go inside our bus, which they found to be thrilling (who wouldn't?). This kid seems to be enjoying it.

Futbol Players

In a renewal of one of our annual rituals, we played an "Americans vs. Russians" game against some of the older children at Pavlovsk. Needless to say, we got pummeled (11-5 was the final count). It was fun to try to argue score and communicate with the Russians, especially without an interpreter...

Louis with Natasha and her husband

We first met Natasha at Pavlovsk five years ago - she yelled out a window that she was locked up in a room as punishment. She often ran away from Pavlovsk, but through sincere love and effort, Louis has become a good friend to her. She prayed with Louis to receive Christ 2 1/2 years ago. Natasha has since moved to the Peterhof adult facility, is married to the chap on the left, and is five months pregnant. They are hoping that the state will grant them an apartment when the baby comes.

Accordion Player in Peterhof Adult Facility

I heard this man playing at the top of the stairwell, and took his picture. He lives in the adult facility at Peterhof, which houses approximately 1100 people who are disabled, mentally disturbed, or have no other place to go.

In Pavlovsk Building #4

Shown here is Reid Porter, a college freshman and Lifer, interacting with a boy in Building #4 at Pavlovsk, where the nonambulatory children reside. These children often have severe physical handicaps, and spend most of their time in bed.

Girl from Peterhof 2

This girl lives in a small orphanage in Peterhof that specializes in children with down syndrome and other disabilities. She really enjoyed the music, and is probably dancing to "Big House" by Audio Adrenaline in this photo...

Been back from Russia a week...

...as of today. I felt utterly spent on the day I got back, and after battling a sinus infection, culture shock, and a pesky inability to focus, I can't say I've completely recovered yet.

This trip was one of our best (This is #7 for me going to the orphanages). I felt that we were productive with our time there, spending a few days each in three orphanages around St. Petersburg that we have continuing relationships with, opening doors to further time with people in disabled adult facilities, and sharing the gospel with a group of three refugee families from Uzbekistan that lived in a shanty near a market in Moscow. The Lord truly blessed us and our time there (and thanks to all who prayed for us...).

I was the "team leader" on this trip, which meant that I took responsibility for devotionals in the morning, schedule and activity decisions during the day, and that I had to be the heavy who pushed the team members (especially the younger ones) to stay on schedule. I didn't have to handle money (Karen and Louis did...), food (Beth Miltner graciously handled it), or any logistical arrangements for transportation or lodging. It was different. On the 15 or so mission trips I've been on in my lifetime, I was almost always involved in leadership, but only so much as I wanted to. I always had someone I could submit to, and this gave me a comfortable, security-blanket warm feeling inside. I never had everyone looking to me to make a decision on what they would do. Louis and Karen could have been the team leaders for this trip, but they delegated this to me. I struggled at the beginning (where I explained to the team how to order pancakes in a restaurant as if it was a sensitive military mission requiring the precision of a jeweler's caliper), but by the last days of the trip, I started to see things coming together better, though not without some effort. I think I realized that, to be the leader, one has to care deeply about what they are doing, be willing to make decisions that may be wrong, not dwell on one's mistakes, be conscientious of the complex situations that surround (as they do inevitably with people), and continuously submit one's will to that of God. That's a tall order, and for most of the trip, I probably didn't live up to it. By the grace of God, I never stopped trying, and by the grace of God, the trip was a success.

This trip marked five years since we first started going to the orphanages. Louis and Linda Fry discovered Pavlovsk #4, the first and largest facility we've visited, by looking relentlessly for the facility where a boy named Sasha lived. Upon their arrival, they found he had recently passed away, but in their brief visit there, they saw a place with much need, and decided to form a team to visit. They asked me to come (I was the "Church session missionary" at the time - I could play a guitar and had ample experience in short-term missions), and we got several others to come with us that summer of 2000. We spent about eight days living in the Pavlovsk orphanage, becoming a part of the lives of the children during that time. We spent our mornings in Building #4, where the nonambulatory children lived. The conditions were heartbreaking, and the children there were the most broken I've ever seen of humanity. We would hold the children, sing to them, and generally love on them as best we could. During afternoons we spent time outside, visiting nearby castle ruins during naptime and playing soccer when we returned. We spent our nights dancing with some of the older children and adults who worked there. We had some medical and developmental professionals on our team who assessed the needs there and made these needs known back in the States. All in all, it was a precious time we will never forget, and a springboard for much more in the five years following.

In going on these orphanage trips, which are so intense in their joys and heartaches, those who have gone together on them have formed a special bond. I think of the Fellowship of the Ring, where the nine companions of radically differing backgrounds come together for the common purpose of destroying the Ring and saving Middle Earth. They have all manner of adventures, fight terrifying battles, fail and succeed, and after they have finished their time together, share experiences and knowledge that no one else but them will ever understand (The scene at the end of Return of the King in the Shire Pub where the 4 hobbits share a beer illustrates this beautifully.). I see those who go on these trips and the Russians that we work with as a Fellowship - a Fellowship of people, imperfect normal Americans who have chosen to act on the words of the Master as best they can: "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me." I've been blessed to know many such people since I got involved with this five years ago. Beth Shanklin is a developmental specialist for disabled children who came on the first trip and continues to go to work with parents of disabled children in Russia who want to keep and teach their children at home. Karen Jones is a City Council member in Ohio who joined us on the 2nd trip, and who has gone to visit the orphanages 15 times since then, bringing her husband Martin and her grandchildren Jocelyn and Micah from time to time. Mike Cantrell moved to Russia shortly before our first trip, and now runs a charitable organization called MIR (Russian for "World" and "Peace") that specializes in aid to orphans and widows. He met and married his wife Olga there in 2001. Sasha Sharoyko, one of our interpreters on the first trip, fell in love with the children in the disabled orphanages and has worked with them and with visiting teams ever since. David and Cris Brown have never been to Russia, but have worked hard (even in their busy lives) to raise support and aid for the orphanages working with Louis and Linda. Louis and Linda Fry had 5 children when they started going to the orphanages, the last two disabled twins named Gabe and John-Michael. As of last December, they had 6 - they adopted a girl named Yelena from Pavlovsk through a grueling process that took over a year. Some of these people I see once or twice a year. Some I see every week. All of them (and many more) I will always have a common point of reference with - our experiences sharing the love of God in these orphanages.

So have we seen any lasting change in five years? I would say yes, though it has been slow. The facility at Pavlovsk has improved, and the children in the nonambulatory building are cared for better. The kids light up whenever we see them, and many cry when we leave. They have heard that God loves them and that Jesus died for them many times, and have played frisbee, colored, built crafts, or heard us sing many more times. The kids who have moved on to adult facilities have had hard lives, and are suprised and overjoyed to see us when we visit them. There are Russians like Sasha Sharoyko and Natasha Baliasnikova who continue to visit these children and care for them even while we are in America (I'd like to think that we can replace ourselves someday with Russians with a heart for these children). On at least two occasions in the last 5 years we had the opportunity to offer life-saving help to people we encountered. I see the Lord at work in what we (and others) are involved in. That is an encouraging thought.

So coming back to Austin, my birthplace, my home insomuch as I have a home on earth, is always a hard thing. To go back to designing power lines, paying bills, mowing my lawn, and everything else is a bit like coming back from a tour of duty - most people don't really understand where I've been or what I've done. "Every heart knows its own joy, but no one can know its pain." That is, no one but God. I still haven't made complete sense of this trip (though this little rant here helped some). Wes Birdwell told me that I always seem to have an "unfocused period" shortly after I return from Russia. That's where I'm at. I need to refocus, and I need help - I don't think I'll be able to do it on my own this time. I hope my friends can be patient with me. I'm thankful that the Lord is...