Paying tax is a duty, an obligation. Taxes pay for our medical care, our education, our roads, the infrastructure on which society is built. Even so, few of us pay them with a smile, confident that our money will be put to good use. But taxes, like death, are supposed to be unavoidable.

So, having accepted that I have to pay my taxes, it is nice to be able to divert even the minutest portion from the government’s coffers and into a cause that is far needier. Hungary allows us to donate 1% of our taxes to a church and 1% to a charity. My church 1% goes to the Hare Krishnas because of the tremendous work they do feeding 1500 homeless and in-home poor in the city almost every single day of the year. Rain, hail, or snow, the lads from the Food for Life programme are out there, dishing up hot foot.

The other 1% needed more research.

I only discovered this second 1% last year and then I gave to an art gallery working with those with psychiatric disorders and mental illness. But as I buy from them fairly regularly, I needed to choose another recipient.

I’d heard tell of Menedék Alapítvány (the Shelter Foundation) and their work with the homeless but I hadn’t heard of their work with victims of abuse – mothers and kids in particular. Abuse, in all its guises, is something no one should have to live with. I’ve been there. It’s not nice.

Through the good auspices of a friend, I went to visit the Menedék Mamásotthon, their mums’ home in Budapest. I’m being deliberately vague about the location as many of the women there are seeking refuge from their abusers.

Space is limited and the waiting list is long. Right now, there are 11 mums and 29 kids in the home. Last year, they had 300 registered applications with 34 families passing through. They are unique among shelters and homes of their kind in that each family gets its own room with a private bathroom and a bed for everyone. The two largest families (one with seven children) occupy self-contained apartments on the premises. The others share a communal kitchen and living area with a communal laundry facility.

When accepting applicants, those in physical danger get priority. Then mothers with children who are facing life on the street with no other option. Hungarian law says that no child should be homeless or living in an unsafe environment. Children are often removed from their parents and remanded to the care of the system. At the Menedék Mamásotthon, mums and kids get to stay together.

Families can stay for no more than 18 months. By this time, it is hoped that mum has a part-time job and that they’ve managed to save some of the children’s allowance (13 700 huf /€45/$47) and her salary to set themselves up in social housing (if they’re lucky enough to get one). Clothes and food donations play an important part in the Shelter’s provision and they heavily rely on public support. Government funding goes to pay building maintenance and upkeep and the salaries of the seven employees who provide the support and counselling the families need.

As I sat there chatting with the director, I couldn’t help thinking, on a theoretical level, that it all sounded rather good. Mums are taught parenting values, the importance of routine in a child’s life, the value of nutrition and personal hygiene. The kids go to kindergarten and to school. They have access to a computer for homework if needed. All rather lovely.

Then I saw the rooms. Bright and airy but small. I can’t imagine three people living in one and not killing each other. One mum I met – let’s call her Kati – shares a room with her two children, a boy and a girl, aged 14 and 16. They’re at that age where space is important and moods are frequent. Yes, they go to school, but they’re home by 7 (a house rule). Kati says she’s lucky. Had the home not accepted them, they’d have been split up. They’ve been there close to 18 months. She has a part-time job as a sales clerk and the kids are doing well in school. She’s managed to save some money and is hoping to be rehoused as part of the social housing scheme. She’s there because of a bankruptcy. Her husband left. She had nowhere else to go. Her kids have adjusted well. They’re old enough to know what life could have been like. They’re good. They manage. But they are looking forward to having their own space. Soon.

Not for the first time, I stopped and gave silent thanks for the blessed life I lead. And I thought, once again, about perspective. Kati and her kids are happy – happy they’re not on the street, that they’re together, that they’ve a clean bed to sleep in that they can call their own, however fleetingly. I was looking at the room unable to get beyond the size of it and the horror of living in such close quarters with anyone. If circumstances dictated, I’m sure I’d adapt. But man, am I grateful I’m not there.

The bridge that Menedék Mamásotthon provides is incredibly important to the lives of those families fortunate enough to get a place. Given that the connection between the various municipalities in the city and those in need of their services is tenuous at best, all too often these families have nowhere to turn.

The foundation itself, Menedék Alapítvány, under which Menedék Mamásotthon operates, has other places, too. This home was once a Baptist church, renovated in 2005, so it’s been in operation for a while. I’m a little wary of religious institutions. I’m not comfortable with the idea of conditional giving: I’ll help you, but only if you attend prayer services and bible study groups or only if you share my beliefs. And while the Baptist foundation and Christian beliefs are very much evident in their literature, neither colour nor creed play any part in the application processes. Attendance at bible study and prayer groups is voluntary rather than a condition of acceptance and support. In a sermon last year, Pope Francis talked about the deception of ‘saying and not doing’, of talking piously but not actually doing anything good. Menedék Alapítvány is an example of doing a lot, with very little by way of saying.

Also in Budapest, they operate a weekly TeaKlub for young people in need of support. And a home for self-sufficient, homeless young men aged 18-35, those who need time to get themselves together. Sometimes, all people really need is a break, for something to their way, a chance to right themselves. This respite keeps many off the streets and that can only be a good thing. Down the country, in Kiskunmajsa, a renovated former Soviet barracks now provides temporary housing for 30 families in Menedékváros (City of Refuge) [and there are plenty of these dotted around the country that could be put to similar use].

So, having done my due diligence, I’m happy to redirect my 1% and work also towards getting them the heavy-duty washing machines they so badly need (40 people makes for a lot of laundry and their current machines just ain’t up to the job). If you want to help them out, and redirect your 1%, this is the number you need to quote on your tax form:  Kedvezményezett adószáma: 19004909-2-43. They’ll also accept in-kind donations of food, clothes, and furniture (delivery by prior arrangement to the main office). And cash donations, too. Specify on the transfer which home you want the money to go to. Details available on their website.

As poet and philosopher Samuel Decker Thompson said:

We are all just a car crash, a diagnosis, an unexpected phone call, a newfound love, or a broken heart away from becoming completely different person. How beautifully fragile are we that so many things can take but a moment to alter who we are forever.

Kati and her family dodged a bullet when they got a place in the Mamásotthon. They were lucky, she said. We can be part of creating that luck for others, too.

Casting shadows on sacred ground

IMG_2164 (600x800)Back in the day, if Hawaiians violated kapu, (the sacred laws), they had 24 hours to reach a refuge, confess to the kapuna, and duly receive absolution. Sounds a lot like purgatory to me, but this one comes with a view.

IMG_2152 (584x800)On the south coast of the big island of Hawaii sits Pu’uhonua o Honaunau. The refuge was used for centuries until 1819 when King Kamehameha II did away with traditional religious practices. Up until then, it had offered sanctuary to defeated warriors and noncombatants in times of war as well as those in fear of their lives. The pu’uhonua (refuge) was separated from where the ali’i (the royal chiefs) lived. The area is still considered sacred – so sacred that you cannot set your bag on the ground. You can just stand or walk. No seats, coolers, chairs. No smoking, eating, or sunbathing. It’s like one massive outdoor church.

IMG_2143 (800x600)The royal grounds had about ten or so thatched buildings lying in the middle of a coconut grove. Some of the huts were storerooms, others communal areas. Servants went about their business tending to the kings. Warriors stood on guard to protect the royals. And those who had sought refuge did their chores.  No commoner could enter the royal enclosure or even let their shadow fall inside. The penalty? Death. A little drastic methinks but then, them were the days.

IMG_2147 (800x600)Dotted around the refuge are old papamu, large rock boards on which the game of Kōnane is played – for all the world like a Hawaiian version of checkers. Some papamu have been discovered with as many as 100 indentations and legend has it that King Kamehameha could defeat his opponent in just one move. I’ve looked the rules and that particular story had to have had a lot to do with  him being king.

IMG_2169 (800x598) The Keono’ele cove is still home to the turtles who stop by – yet back in the day, commoners were forbidden to enter the water. I heard, firsthand, of a Hawaiian hula instructor who entered the usually calm water. It started to churn for no apparent reason and he exited, chanted to appease the gods, and all calmed down. Now science can explain a lot of things, but some things are simply beyond human reason.

IMG_2190 (800x598)The refuge and the royal grounds are separated by a great wall that is about 10 feet high and 17 feet thick. What’s so fascinating about this great wall is that the stones are packed so tightly, no mortar was needed to build it. The heleipalala – a springwater and saltwater pond – was home to the fish that the ali’i would eat. Between the fish and the poi and the fruit, a healthy diet was pretty much assured.

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Over by the reconstructed temple and mausoleum, the Ki’i (wooden images) stand guard. And one particularly eerie one standing in the water warned the people that the canoe landing was reserved for the chief and his attendants only.

IMG_2155 (800x591)Curiously, kapu in Hungarian means gate. But the sacred laws in Hawaii include everything from not looking at, or approaching the chief, letting your shadow fall in his path or on his grounds (wouldn’t that make you pay attention to the position of the sun?) or touching any of his possessions. And if you did get a little careless, then death could be the only answer. Because if you didn’t die, then the gods might stir up a volcano, or send a tidal wave, or famine or even an earthquake – and to be responsible for any of this would be worse that dying. My mother is right in saying that there are worse things than death. If you mistakenly did break kapu, then all you could do was run… and run… and run until you were caught and killed or until you found a refuge. Once in the refuge, the kahuna pule (priest) would work his wonders, perform his magic, and absolve you of your sin. All this makes the common confessional a little more attractive.

Regular readers might remember a blog post about Maltese churches drawing a line and posting signs outside that say ‘no sanctuary offered’. They had so many offenders wanting to hide behind the skirts of the church that the churches were full – of sinners. mmmm…. isn’t that a regular Sunday in most churches?

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It really is a special place. There’s a peace there that is different to the usual sense of tranquillity found on Hawaii. If you’re on the island, it’s worth dropping by and when you’re done making sure that your shadow doesn’t fall on the wrong spot, you can nip around the corner to Two Steps, a famous snorkelling spot, so named because the volcanic rock has been neatly worn away into a convenient two-step entry point for snorkelers and divers. Beneath the water lies a kaleidoscope of colour with hundreds of types of fish and, if you’re lucky, you might get to swim with the turtles. There are good days, and there are great days. And then there are those days that memories are made of.

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