Tag Archives: leadership development

Captured

Without a sign of problems, my phone captured moments for me.  Quickly shot photographs of students, friends, meals together, celebrations in the community– if I did not want something to slip through my fingers, I saved it on a memory card.

Until the day it happened.

During Young Leaders’ last class of the semester, the camera application that had been opened to record a group photo– inexplicably– showed only a blank screen.

However, when I pressed the “selfie” button, an awkward reflection of my crinkled forehead, squinted look, and exaggerated chin emerged. I’m not campaigning against selfie-taking, but I’m also not of the generation that is good at them.  My eyes dart to the wrong place, uncertain of their focus.  Moments that I intend to keep crisp and clear in memory translate into images that are distorted and fuzzy.

The quick fix, according to internet rumors, can be easily accomplished at an Apple store… The nearest of these is two countries away.  So for the last few months, my camera has only operated in selfie mode.

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Recorded or not, the moments parade by.  I drink tea at the beach with a young coworker, his new fiancé, and their families.  The five-year-old sister learned somewhere to roll her eyes back, stretch her mouth into a tall “O,” and call herself a zombie, whenever a photograph is being taken.

Her mother scolds, “Your face will get stuck like that!”  But she still does the look during our sunset selfies at the beach… and weeks later, during formal shots at her big brother’s engagement party.

I use an old camera during Young Leaders Winter Camps.  What makes a good leader?  we ask them.  IMG_1150

“A good leader helps the team,” the first student answers.  They learn about setting an example and inspiring change, and watch clips of Martin Luther King, Jr.  They learn about listening, and walk in silence around a bird observatory; if they speak too much, the moment passes, the birds fly to a safe zone.  They learn about perseverance and overcoming challenges, piecing together puzzles, giving speeches in English, and participating in their first team game of paintball.

Guess which of these is their favorite.

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Because my camera was working at that moment.

But I grow weary, attempting to be fully present in these moments, while capturing them with broken tools.  A few times– also inexplicably– my phone camera works normally, including twice out of two dozen times I attempted to use it on a recent trip to a neighboring country.  I take photos out of car windows and in airports, desperately recording things I would not have bothered with if I could have counted on the lens to work always.

 

While my camera is limited in its view, I miss many images: shots of new friends, new foods, tender sunsets and triumphs of ancient artists and architects.  But I also learn to approach things from a new angle.

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Layover in Istanbul turned into touring the Hagia Sophia.

Set the camera up, and then step aside.

Or, even more efficient, point the lens toward the sky.

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Ate at this restaurant just because it had about a thousand of these lamps hanging above the tables.

Some of the most splendid details in these places are only seen when the neck is craned back, eyes lifted to the ceiling.

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“Fireworks,” twenty-year-old Yakub told me.  “That’s what I thought it was, when I heard the first round of bombs go off in the city where I grew up.  I was happy about it.  I was just a kid, and I didn’t understand why everyone was so upset.”

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Tea with Yakub and friends.  But I can’t share their pictures, so… tea.

 

A friend introduced me to Yakub on my first day in this neighboring country– a place with a rich heritage of musicians and poets, but also a destructive legacy of war and the massacre of minorities.  He learned English from X-box games that connected people through the internet.  Yakub’s stories of multiple displacements to different countries, bombings witnessed as a child, and infamous neighbors from his town were delivered with humor and casualness.

 

But his stories of separation from family, homelessness, and interrupted high school dreams were cropped out of his conversation, to be filled in later by my friend.

The next day, I traveled outside of the city to a hotel, where a group was meeting for a retreat and had asked me to lend some music.  Arriving a little before the rest, I went into the meeting room and strapped on the guitar, looking at the green hills that stretched past the picture window.

Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for

To be overcome by Your presence, Lord. 

Holy Spirit, Brian & Katie Torwalt

My voice was catching.  To sing about God’s goodness and His glory, in a land that has experienced genocide and destruction, created a tension in me.  Tension between the knowledge that His presence has been there through the region’s long history, and the grief that many haven’t yet experienced that presence.  IMG_4275

Between the good news that many, like Yakub, are tasting real life, and the sadness that they have felt death bitterly.

Between the green beauty of the mountains, and the knowledge that many fled to them to try to save themselves from guns and gases.

Between the sweetness of singing in this place, where many have sung before, and the knowledge that so many, many have not experienced the reason for our songs.

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I want to see healing come to the people of this nation, wholly and with finality.  I want similarly conclusive results in my own life.  Because I know that brokenness can cause us to miss moments.  It can cause us to be in selfie mode in our pain— eyes uncertain where to look, our own image crowding the frame.  Distorted perceiving of the way things really are, and lower resolution, resulting in less clarity of vision.

Overeager attempts to find something which we can hold.  A job, a relationship, a celebration, any lovely thing that we don’t think will always be there.  We grasp at the grand and the mundane, hoping to capture at least a reflection of them so that we still have something nearby when darkness falls.

But perhaps it isn’t resolution, but tension, that beckons me to step out of the way, and to look up.   Perhaps, even in the darkness, my neck should be craning skyward.

Maybe brokenness invites me to see things from a different perspective.

And maybe it is less about capture, and more about release.

 

 

 

 

Not Time.

Some of you are those people.  The ones who really want to know the answer, when you ask, How are you?  No matter how muddy, how messy, how story-filled, or how strange, the answer may be.

Thankfully for me, one of your type meets up with me for coffee each week.   We hadn’t even ordered the mochas yet, last week, but she wanted to know.

“I’m feeling uneasy,” I answered.  Then I gave a very “foreigner”-sounding reason for it: “I have many things to do today, and yet have managed to start none of them….”  Went to meet someone; forgot they are not home.  Wanted to organize my university class from my laptop, while sitting in the lobby of the community center; interrupted by local friends walking in the door.  Shifted other plans to be present at a language lesson; time got changed, last minute, by my teacher.

Unfortunately, my addiction to showing results, to doing things efficiently– in a hurry— did not get left behind on my native continent.

Wednesday, a little before class, one of my students informed me of a special prayer ceremony, which would take place in half an hour.  It was in memory of the fallen soldier.  I assured her that she and the other students would be allowed to attend; my 75 minute lesson was shortened to 15.  Then we took the last 15 minutes to talk about the pilot.  Many of the students had seen the video, which had been made public the night before, of his death.  How do you feel?

“This is not Islam,” one began.  The class nodded their assent.

“We feel sad…sad.”  “People think it will separate us but it will unite us.”  “They make our Muslim faith look horrible.”

“We feel angry.”

“We feel like he is our brother.”

“I have no words in the English language,” said a young woman in the front row.   Encouraged to speak Arabic, she still struggled to find vocabulary:  “It’s a crime. How… how could anyone do that?  How could they burn a person?”

Some other students studied the tiles on the floor, solemn-faced and articulately silent.  Finally one spoke up: “We feel frustrated, because there is nothing we can do.”

What do people do when they are angry?  Our response to others’ actions is a choice– so what should WE do?  I want to give them answers.  To throw them a life preserver, as they wrestle with a flood of confusion and grief… To drag them back to safety.

But I don’t have answers either.  As we left, I saw a printout of his picture, posted at the university’s entrance.  Not the military picture from the news articles; he is dressed casually, smiling, maybe on vacation.  Relaxed.  And I thought, this is over our heads, and there is no shortcut.  We are going to have to learn how to swim.

And that will take some time.

Forty-one teenaged Arab girls spent Friday exploring the most famous tourist attraction of their country: a world-renowned, historically-rich archeological city.  Many had never visited before.  Groups had prepared presentations on one of 12 specific locations, which spread out over several kilometers, up hills, and in valleys.IMG_2371

I was in charge of the day, and felt responsible to get them to as many sites as we could visit.  Maybe 10 out of 12, I thought.

We left an hour late.  I looked the list of locations.  Maybe nine out of twelve?

Lunch, which we had arranged in advance, wasn’t ready on time.  We lost another 40 minutes.   Eight? 

And then there were the girls themselves.  I tried to motivate them by making it a game– “Your team gets a point if you make it to the next spot on time!”– without smothering the fun of the journey.  They were stopping to look at Bedouin shops, posing in caves and on camels.  Their songs reverberated off the rocks, as they ambled ancient paths between the mountains.

At one point, what I thought I said was meet in 15 minutes.  The whole group laughed good-naturedly.  “We’ll starve if it takes that long!”

What did I say?  

Apparently, my Arabic still needs help.  “You just told us to meet in fifteen years!”

At the end of the day, I think we had hit six or seven of the sites.  But rushing toward the goal would have robbed them of the chance to fully savor it all– the journey.  The presence of their teachers and each other.  The conversations with locals.  The challenges of exertion and exploration.

Together with the ones at the university, these students will keep reminding me that learning, like healing, can’t be rushed.

When I meet my friend for coffee tomorrow, I’ll know– just a little more than I did last week– it’s not about time.

Beyond All Expectation

Skip school.  Don’t help with housework.  Return anger with a higher degree of rage.  Use coarse language.  Objectify.  Disrespect public property.

Expectations for local teenage boys, in many peoples’ minds, do not rise much higher than this.

And those who challenge expectations face consequences.  So when fifty teenagers piled into the community center, for the first day of our Young Leaders’ “Winter” Camp, their presence defied stereotypes.

They were not taking a break during school holidays, with their peers.  They were sitting shoulder to shoulder, cross-legged on carpet squares, listening carefully as the program director explained the week’s themes: Understand your identity.  Understand the truth.  Understand what it means to be a leader.

They watched clips from a speech by the highly-respected ruler of this nation; he called on youth to become authentic and clear-sighted leaders.  They listened to a story about an eagle who was raised as a chicken: born to ride the wind instead of scratch the soil, but limited by the assumptions she had internalized.  And throughout that hour, they seemed to forget that only a thin square of fabric separated them from the cold concrete floor.

They were locked in to every word that was said.

IMG_4105Two weeks ago, I sat along the beach, wondering what I was called to and searching for one word to lock in to for the next twelve months…. Something to shape my approach to work, friendships, family, faith, and everything else.  No big deal, right?

One word.  But as the sun was setting, I still had thousands of words tumbling in my mind.  Fragments of dreams, run-on sentences of determinations, each lofty but seemingly empty.  I had already tried hard, in the past year, to become all of those things.  I had landed far short of my goals.  Why should I expect my story to be different this year?

The students, when they finish their Winter Camp, will have heard writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDTalk The Danger of a Single Story.  She tells of growing up in middle-class Nigeria, on a university campus.  Later, in the United States, she discovered that many people had a single story of Africa: one of “senseless war,” poverty, and rampaging diseases.

When she– or her novels– did not fit into those categories, she faced others’ disappointment.

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Image from http://www.ted.com

She admits that, at times, she too has believed in “single stories.”  After seeing much Western media coverage on desperate immigrants from Mexico, who risked the breath in their bodies to achieve American soil, Adichie was shocked to travel south of the border and see contented souls, living out daily routines.

And, she says, she was ashamed.  She had bought into the media’s tale, as if it were the defining narrative for all Mexicans.  “That is how to create a single story,” she realized.  “Show a people as one thing, and only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

During the camp the Young Leaders will choose a way to express their condolences, to youth in a similar leadership program, in a city where 136 students and 13 adults recently lost their lives.  They know that many people around the world associate the majority faith here with violence, although they themselves are grieved and horrified by the events in Peshwar… and now also in Paris.  Adiche’s words resound in the context of these tragedies: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story.”  

These teenagers face the single story of assumptions from outside their culture, expectations within their neighborhoods– and the limitations they put on themselves.  Will others’ opinions, or their own past failures, define their futures?  Will they internalize false presuppositions, like the story of the eagle who thought she was a chicken?

Or will they figure out who they really were made to be?

Stories soar in the context of relationships.  Sitting by the sea, searching for the right word, I saw that I had limited my hopes for 2015 to what – I – was capable of making happen.  Alone.

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Our words – from friends worldwide.

So I chose a word that is primarily relational.  It depends more on the Author of the story than on anyone else, and it feels like a risk.  If you gave me a word, and I gave you mine, know that I will remember you this year — we’re in this story together.  And if not, but you want in, comment with your word below :-).

Me.  You.  The teenagers in the leadership program .

Will we tell a second story?

The Great Stone Face

Sixty teenage girls, a handful of Arab teachers, and one American (with very limited language ability) piled into three buses this past Saturday, headed to the beach.

Another car with a family from the U.S. followed, bringing our group total 2014-02-08 15.20.28close to 70. These young women, along with sixty young men who will hit the beach next week, are part of a program that offers leadership development, English study, and cultural experiences to students from limited-income backgrounds.

Sixty teenage girls collected sea glass, so that other women can make their living by turning it into jewelery.

Sixty teenage girls played team-building games with sand, saltwater, and a couple of hula hoops as the main props.

Sixty teenaged girls laughed in the sunshine and ate shawarma.

Educators, anthropologists, and politicians have discovered that small things like these can influence a person’s perspective.  They challenge us to think outside our own needs, to work as a team, to be a community of life– that laughs much.

IMG_0286From my neighborhood I can see these barren, rocky mountains.  While they lack the chaotic fun of sixty Arab teens on a beach day, the mountains serve as a testimony in my mind to one of my very favorite stories.  They remind me that as I seek to help others gain perspective– to be an influencer– I am also being influenced by whatever I hold closest.

The story tells of a boy from another time and place, who loved to study the mountain from his valley home.  A formation of rocks on the mountain looked like a face, full of wisdom, grace, and strength.  The people of the valley had a prophecy: one day a person from their valley would emerge who would both resemble that Great Stone Face, and embody its nobility and virtue.

The boy spent each day gazing at the Stone Face in the mountain, contemplating the goodness he saw there, eager for the day that the prophecy would be fulfilled.  As he grew up, he would still slip away to study the Face, drawing strength from its depths.

Different citizens of the valley emerged who were thought to be fulfillments of the prophecy: a wealthy business owner, a war hero, a politician.  Each one promised something but could not match the virtue of the Great Stone Face, and fell short of the prophecy.  Finally, the boy who had grown up studying the Great Stone Face– now an old man, and still meditating on that Face each day– met one last candidate.

He was a poet, born in the valley but absent for a long time.  After meeting with the old man, the poet acknowledged quickly that despite his gifted pen, he lacked the depth fulfill the prophecy…  The old man had begun a custom of going into a field at sunset, where the people of the valley gathered to hear him speak simple words of truth and encouragement, and the poet followed.

As the poet listened, and saw behind the old man’s shoulder the mountainside with the Great Stone Face, he called out something that everyone in the valley– except the old man himself– could see plainly: the old man was the fulfillment to the prophecy.  He had gazed so hard at the Great Stone Face that he had become like it.

(read the full story, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, here: http://www.classicreader.com/book/726/1/ )

So what are you looking at?