I’m originally from Central Asia. Now I live half of the time in a European country, half of the time in another Asian country.
And I cannot go home.
These were her answers to the questions, “Where are you from? What do you do in that place?” I had already exchanged these two questions with dozens of other younger leaders, at this international gathering in Southeast Asia. I had heard answers as varied as:
- a Swedish woman with an Alabama accent, who is passionate about training university students
- a Chinese man who works toward wholeness for people with leprosy, attending to their souls and their skins
- An Indian brother with a ten-inch beard and a smile that infects everyone around him, whether at the conference or at his home in New Delhi
- A South African lady who asks big questions and uses her expertise in design and marketing to share hope, via the internet and around the world
- A Nicaraguan who holds church in a dump and inspires children to a future other than picking up garbage
The woman from the sensitive region, whom I met on the second day of the conference, turned out to be one of our speakers a few days later. She told of what she had experienced while still in her country. Imprisonment. Pain. Solitary confinement for weeks on end.
The arms of God around her shoulders.
“I am not a brave person,” she said. “I am so ordinary. But I’m here to tell you that if God can give me the strength to suffer for His name, He can give it to you also.
“If God calls you to suffer, He will also give you the strength you need.”
She squeezed. I thought she might dislocate a couple of my fingers.
Lina, one of 60 teenaged Arab girls on the boat that day, had changed since she joined the Young Leaders Program the year before. She had been unwilling to interact with the other students, and held back whenever she encountered new things.
If concern about peoples’ stereotypes of orphans or of people with disabilities had had anything to do with it, Lina had two strikes against her, from early on in life.
Her teacher had coaxed her to share some of her insights and abilities with Young Leaders. Thriving in English, developing some real friendships, and leading her classmates to volunteer with children at the orphanage where she lived– Lina had eventually achieved some major victories. But on this day her teacher was once again trying to coax her.
This time it was to get on board the “banana boat,” a small inflatable raft pulled by a speedboat, a new experience for the students.
Lina didn’t pretend, when we asked her why she didn’t join the others. She answered with one word: “Fear.”
I put my arm around her shoulders. I’ve watched you become braver every month since you started the program. You can do this.
She paused for a second. “Will you come with me?”
So I got on the banana boat. Lina buried her face in her oversized life jacket, like a turtle withdrawing defensively into its shell. She squinted her eyes shut, and when one spray of water hit her, grabbed my hand like it was her lifesaver. My peaceful words were effective in getting her to look up and enjoy the view… for about three seconds at a time.
I have been riding around, particularly this summer, with my eyes squinted shut and with my head tucked low in defense. Yes, I’ve been on the boat. But I have forgotten to look at the view, to breathe through the challenges. Any little splash, and I grip His hand in panic, as if I don’t know there are already arms around my shoulders.
After a week surrounded by younger leaders from around the world, in the Southeast Asian nation I once called home, with the Love that expels fear spoken and danced and sung and prayed into me, I had gained perspective.
But I wondered if it would last once I got back.
On the last night, after the session, my Arab friend and I met up with some other conference participants. We sat across from a Mexican, who works among the physically poor, and a Canadian, who works with “poor people who happen to be affluent”– those leaders of business and government whose levels of power make their spiritual poverty harder to address.
They asked one expected question: “How do you like living in the Middle East?” I had prepared for it. I love it, but honestly it is really hard sometimes.
I had not prepared for the unexpectedly sincere follow-up: “What’s hard about it?”
In the seconds that followed three images swept through my mind: pulling up to an airport at night to release teammates, sitting in my empty house on the yellow couch and weeping, and the face of my Arab “younger brother,” who grasps my culture more than most but often still stereotypes my nation and my gender. I managed an answer: Heavy transitioning in the community of internationals… being in a leadership position that I feel inadequate for… cultural struggles as a Westerner in the Arab world.
The Mexican put her arms around me, encouraging me about what would happen for my soul this year.
Our exchanges of stories continued, as I told them of the woman on the red motorcycle who had once given me a ride in Southeast Asia, and the Canadian told of how being the son of Indian and Malaysian parents– and working with senior business folks in Saskatchewan– was strangely like being a blonde woman in the Middle East. A light rain fell through the opening in the outdoor canopy, and we went on regardless of the time.
Toward the close of the night, the Canadian asked if he could go back to what I had said at the beginning. “When you return… and you are in leadership…” He paused for a second.
I felt terribly ordinary. I looked at the table and said something about knowing I was supposed to lead whether I was good at it or not.
“No!” he replied. “Be good at it! You’ve been mentored more than most people have been. You don’t need to be perfect. You’ve got this– you have what you need.”
He continued, with belief: “And– when I read the Story– it’s a story of joy and light. Yes, there is grief, and there is darkness… but ultimately it’s a story not of darkness, but light.”
I lifted my head. My eyes opened.
And they have remained so ever since I returned to my second story home in the Middle East.
Sound track for this month: The Art of Celebration, by Rend Collective. Song Joy link is worth listening to now.