A Festival of Nations travelogue—Part 1

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In 1956, Minneapolis born Lew Ayres (1908-1996) traveled the world to produce a film at his own expense on the religions of the world. His purpose was to promote better understanding between the peoples of the world to in turn promote world peace. That film, “Altars of the East”, is available today on video tape and disc. Check your local library. Lew wrote a companion book by the same title, which reads like a travelogue.

The purpose of St. Paul’s Festival of Nations is also to promote better understanding between the peoples of the world thru cultural sharing of song and dance, food and crafts, art and history. Something of the religions of the world is also not unheard of at these Festivals though not so openly featured. And here in Minnesota today we have virtually the whole world represented in our ethnic and national immigrants new and old, all calling Minnesota home. The following is offered as a travelogue of our local world population in recognition of the one hundred year anniversary of Lew Ayres’ birth (28 Dec. 1908).

Over 90 different nationalities and ethnic groups were represented at this year’s 76th Festival of Nations, one quarter of which were Asian or Pacific Islanders, a significant difference from the first Festival in 1932 dominated by, though diverse, European cultures both East and West, North and South. We are much richer today for our greater diversity.

At the Ethiopian exhibit I met Melat Woldegebriel and saw her art work on display there depicting the story of the Queen of Sheba traveling to Jerusalem to meet King Solomon and the reign of their son, Emperor Menelik I, as the first king of Ethiopia, an early ancestor to Emperor Haile Selassie of this past century. The rest of that story is the Ethiopian claim of the Ark of the Covenant (of Moses fame) following Menelik I from Jerusalem and secreted to an island on Lake Tana (the source of the Blue Nile) and later to Axum where it has been kept safe ever since. Some believe that Ethiopia is the original Biblical Garden of Eden. If indeed Ethiopia is, according to science, the place of origin of all of humanity then how fitting that the Ark of the Jewish Covenant also be there. I have no cause to dispute these beliefs.

Visiting the various Cultural Exhibits one does not find all the Asian exhibits together, all the African side-by-side, all the European next to each other, but rather they are all mixed together, like the tossed salad eluded to earlier. Surely that was a planned decision to give greater variety to our visit.

Part of what keeps families with small children going from one exhibit to another is to get a stamp from each culture in their Passport book sold at the Festival for 75 cents. Many exhibitors will write a child’s name in their script under their stamping. Adults may stop to visit longer while the smallest children may be more eager to fill their Passport with more national and ethnic stamps.

While visiting at the Chinese and Tibetan exhibits political conflict between the two countries did not come up in conversation, at least not for me. This is part of the intent of the Festival originators and organizers. There other times and places for these discussions.

Then too while visiting at the Burmese exhibit news of the deadly cyclone there did not get mentioned in my presence and I did not learn of it until Monday morning. My attention was elsewhere as I was taking photos and notes all day Sat. and Sun. for this article. We can only hope and pray that the Myanmar military government will accept all the aid and assistance that is offered. They have a bad habit of not. Many Karen people from Burma have become refugees here in America because of inhumane treatment by the military junta there. Many of the Karen are Baptists today because America’s first foreign missionary, Adoniram Judson, went to Burma in 1813. Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis is named after him but the Karen settled here live closer to First Baptist Church in St. Paul. Thus they have been made most welcome there. Surely First Baptist first reached out to them.

Judson’s life in Burma is a fascinating read, which has been recorded in perhaps a half dozen different books. My favorite is “To The Golden Shore” by Courtney Anderson, Judson Press, Valley Forge, 1956. And a fictional story based on the real life and real death experience of the Karen in Burma is portrayed in the latest Rambo film. Violence for violence sake or entertainment is not my choice nor my recommendation but I did choose to see this film because of my familiarity with and concern for my many Burmese friends here and their families back home.

A first this year was the Minnesota Alliance for Geographic Education (MAGE) of Macalester College in St. Paul. They brought a giant floor map of Africa which visitors could walk on, shoes off, to explore and seek answers to a list of physical geography questions. The giant map was supplied through the MAGE partnership with the National Geographic Society. MAGE also helps schools teach social, economic and political geography. This was a rather popular exhibit, if only for small children to run around on while a few others worked the list of questions. We hope MAGE will come again next year and maybe bring the Nat. Geo. Soc. giant map of SE Asia. Learn more at: www.macalester.edu/geography/mage

Said map was laid out in the Cultural Exhibits area where the Ethiopian exhibit was one of several directly across from and facing the map. From the disciplines of anthropology and DNA studies we are now learning that the whole of humanity had its origins in the Horn of Africa or Ethiopia. Many of us learned this for the first time from the Science Museum of Minnesota and their exhibit, “Race: Are We So Different?” which opened a year ago on Martin Luther King Day. This is a traveling exhibit, which originated here in St. Paul but is now at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center in Mashantucket, Connecticut, May 17-Sept. 7, 2008. Accepting this premise we are thus all Africans, its just that for some of us our ancestors migrated from Africa longer ago than others. Go to: www.understandingRACE.org.

There is much we can all learn from each other and the Festival of Nations is one of the best places to suggest and encourage that in our daily lives year round, not just for one long weekend. Learn more about the Festival at: www.festivalofnations.com and the International Institute of Minnesota at: www.iimn.org.