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The Hardest Lesson to Learn

By Juliet McShannon
Staff Writer

January 17 -- Burly bikers, surfers and mothers with strollers all converged on the Santa Monica Pier Saturday morning to pay their respects to the more than 170,000 victims who lost their lives in the December 26 Tsunami.

They remembered the dead, donated money, learned about tsunami preparedness and sought solace in the faith of multiple religions and in the waves that softly lapped under the pier on a bright winter’s day.

“The sun has brought people to pier and I’m glad we have all come together,” said Mary Setterholm, a member of the Surf Academy of Santa Monica, which organized the event that was cancelled last week due to bad weather.

“We may be thousands of miles away, but it feels good to reach out in some way,” said Santa Monica surfer James Kendall, emerging after the ceremony from the sea. “This disaster has made me think differently about the sea. How its power can change our lives forever.”

Surf board procession. (Photos by Juliet McShannon)

During the ceremony, 12 surfboards were carried in procession by volunteers and laid side by side before a makeshift stage. Each surfboard, laden with flowers, represented the 11 countries affected by the Tsunami, the twelfth representing visitors who were among the dead.

Participants then donned their wetsuits to ‘paddle out’ on their surfboards into the waves. Those on the pier engaged in a dialogue with those in the water and an ancient “ Four Corners prayer, to the four corners of the world,” was led by Chumash Indian Chief, Mati Waiya.

“The hardest lesson that we learn is death,” Waiya said. “When we lose land, people and creatures, we lose a part of ourselves. We are left with memories and hope.

“We should learn to pay attention to what nature is telling us,” he said. “We need to commit ourselves to how fragile life is.”

When Ven. Mahinda, a Sri Lankan Buddhist Monk, led those gathered in prayer, a stillness descended, and even curious passersby stopped and lowered their heads. Some clutched flowers and linked arms.

“There’s been an outcry on what God’s role in all of this is,” said Sheila McNiff, of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “A Jewish sage once said that ‘natural disasters have no explanation’. We are here today to seek wisdom.”

Representatives from the American Red Cross and Save the Children set up a stall to inform Santa Monicans of the progress in relief efforts so far and to encourage them to donate.

“We see this as a Donor Education event,” said Raina Porecha, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross of Santa Monica. “Apart from encouraging donations we want to teach the public about preparedness.

“Each family here should have a plan if a Tsunami hit Santa Monica,” she said. “We want to make sure people have the tools to do this.”

Mary Setterholm, a member of the Surf Academy of Santa Monica, addresses the crowd.

“We want to have more people learn about what they can do to help those affected,” said Richard Hoff, Western Regional Director of Save the Children.

“We are still working on the emergency phase, such as registering child and adults that come into the camps so that we can unify children with their parents, or relatives,” he said. “In those regions affected the concept of the extended family is very important.”

The response from Save the Children was initially funded by the Halaby-Murphy Revolving Emergency Fund and is now being boosted by the Asia Earthquake/Tsunami Relief Fund whose goal is to raise $60 million.

“We have raised $35 million so far, but the help in those affected areas will continue after the emergency phase,” said Hoff. “We need to help with reconstruction and for that we need to create awareness.

“If any good can come out of this terrible disaster, it is that there is a coming together in the world and an outpouring of compassion and concern,” Hoff said. “It happened over the holidays and it was a natural disaster, it could have happened to anyone. It was just happenstance that some survived and some didn’t.”

Clergy representing five faiths took the stage to talk about how tragedy is reflected in their faith.

“I want to reach out to those who have lost family,” said Hartshorn Murphy, from St Augustine ’s Episcopal Church in Santa Monica. “I hope to keep the memory of what happens alive because the suffering continues.”

Clergy from five religious groups took part in the ceremony.

Biker Don Dougan of the Ventura County Harley Owners Group held up a large American flag with his fellow bikers. “We need to bring people together and act,” he said. “It’s what is needed in the world.”

Some area residents who came to pay their respects had been personally affected by the tragedy.

“Some of our friends were in Phuket at the time,” said Maria and Lyle Martens of Venice. “Thankfully they’re okay. But it’s pretty emotional,”

“I was effected personally by this tragedy as I have family and friends that were in Thailand at the time,” said Vikki Walker, a clergy leader with The Church of Scientology (Mission of Santa Monica and Bangkok ).

“I am here today to let people know that something can be done to try and effectively get help to these people,” she said. “We could even help those relief efforts closer to home with the awful mudslides.”

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