Tag Archives: small business

Christmas Songs

Hazy and muddled, specific and definite.  My memories patch together like an heirloom quilt in reverse.  They remain clear and crisp in the places that are held the most frequently.  They fade in the places that are not often touched.

Perhaps the vagueness of this one memory comes from its being annually repeated, in some form, every Christmas that we are all together.  My family, in the living room, singing Christmas carols.

But one year was different— when, I don’t remember, but I and all of my siblings still shared an address; the nieces and nephews and novels to which they would give birth were yet unknown; and my fingers remembered how to coax a song from the yellowed, out-of-tune piano in the hallway.

My brother still played guitar often.  My sister could brush up her flute.  The youngest had just started learning the violin.

This nameless Christmas saw four siblings rallied over a song, and its two audience members— Mom and Dad— awed by the harmony, as we performed our version of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

— 

They have no idea what I am saying.  

I’m at an end-of-the-year celebration for the dozen or so ladies who work at our community center, to make jewelry and household items from recycled materials.

Their small business has gone through big changes in the past 12 months.  In the midst of all of it, they have rallied to fill challenging bulk sales orders, started doing fitness and English classes together a couple of times a week, and held “family” gatherings every few weeks to increase their sense of harmony and identity.  Meals cooked with love in the kitchen of the community center.  A road trip to a historical site and the spot with the best bakery for a particular dessert.  A piñata— looking like a pinterest fail, made by me, but still a hit— at a “Mexican Night.”

IMG_8768For the end-of-year event, they have made the national dish, the one that is synonymous in this region with celebration.  They pose with the flowers and bonus envelopes that they receive from their director, like graduates getting a certificate.  Pictures and piles of food seem to be the basic party requirements.

IMG_8767Then someone tells them I know Christmas carols.  I sing O Come All Ye Faithful, and Joy to the World.  I think, They have no idea what I’m saying, but release the words over them, to the rhythm of my guitar: “He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found…”  “Come and behold Him… O come, let us adore Him.”

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

This time we found someone to sing in Arabic.  She has yet to be accepted on Arabs Got Talent, but she would have all our votes; we ask her to sing for the Christmas party of our community center’s wellness program.  A combination of American and Arab teachers lead those classes, and usually have more people wanting to attend than they can enroll.  Three times a week the women gather for aerobics, basic yoga, and bellydancing— or some combination of these— along with a post-workout community and coffee time in the center’s upstairs sitting room.

On the morning of the party, we fill the top floor of a restaurant, 50 local women and a handful of ajanib, foreigners.  “May you be well every year,” they say as they enter, kissing my cheeks.  It’s the general blessing for every holiday, but several add “Merry Christmas” with a smile, as if to communicate that their knowing this phrase honors my language and my faith— though they are not their own.

IMG_8794Our local singer takes her place in the front; I stand next to her, guitar in hand.  I try to follow the unfamiliar cadence of Arabic through renditions of Jingle Bells and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.  Then she sings Silent Night in her language, and stretches the microphone to me so I can sing it in mine. I look at a room full of women wearing headscarves, at the mosque outside the giant picture windows, at the mountains beyond that.

I sing, “All is calm, all is bright.”

My heart says: O come, O come, Emmanuel.

I am a substitute for the center’s adult English classes.  But several of the students have been very receptive, and several of my friends are teachers, so I decide to attend their graduation.

Certain semesters of English seem to foster a higher degree of camaraderie; this group was particularly close.  After graduation, when most of the selfies had been taken and students were starting to return to their homes, a young woman takes me and another female teacher by our hands.  “We need you upstairs,” she says.  She hurries us past the second floor, with its classrooms, to the third-floor gym.

Music pours from the speakers.  A group of female students stands in a circle, hips and feet and fingers twirling in Arabic-style dance.  We laugh and jump in, to the approval of the students, who twine their fingers with ours.

We hand them sequin-covered hip scarves from a basket.  The lead dancer straps a yellow one around herself, mauve around me, blue around the other foreign teacher.  But none of us can make the imitation gold coins jingle like she does. This woman’s face is unfamiliar to me; later I learn that I know her, but did not recognize her because I usually see her in mixed-gender situations, when she is wearing a niqab— a head covering that only shows her eyes.

We dance until it is time for the building to close.  The women descend to the first floor, we kiss their cheeks, and they disperse into dark streets.  A young Arab woman, who is visiting the center for the first time, tells me, “It is like a family.”  Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

Sixty of the Young Leaders boys are gathered in the gym, our last session of this youth mentoring program for the semester.  How are you different than when you started this program in May?  What did you enjoy?  What did you learn? I ask.

Their answers make my heart swell.  I tell them, though, that none of it matters.  Nothing of what you learned this semester matters.  Unless you use it when you are not at the center. Then it matters.  

And I believe that it does.

We descend to the first floor.  Someone puts candles in a big pan of cheesy, sweet kanafeh, to honor one teacher’s birthday.  They begin to sing; first, “Happy Birthday” in English, but then the song somehow changes to a clapping, table drumming, tremendously loud chanting of songs probably written before their grandfathers were boys.  Some of them don’t stop, even when the usual time for them to go home arrives.  They sing with one voice.

I sit behind the counter and watch.  I remember the awkward silence before their first class.  Their nervous interviews when they came to apply for the program.  The fights and insults that teachers had to intervene in, some just weeks before.  The looks on the faces that have changed.  The looks on the faces that haven’t.

And I keep a song close in my heart.  Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

The words stay crisp and clear, remembered often, in the dark and in the light.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Has come to thee…

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Wholistic Community– A Story of Beginnings

What significant conversations would you have, if you knew you only had a few talks left with someone?  

Seven years ago, in Southeast Asia, I visited a remote farming village with an amazing husband/wife development pair.  Spent the last 15 minutes trying to remember their names, but with limited success.

I will always remember what they taught me.

Before we went to the village, they sat me down on a weathered gray couch, and spent hours talking through:

  • the origins of humanity (delving into Hebrew translation the first three chapters of Genesis)
  • the theology behind “wholistic” community development (from the first three chapters of Walking with the Poor, by World Vision‘s insightful thinker, Bryant Myers).

These together had shaped their work with rural farming families.  The idea is that we were created to walk in shalom— more than peace: wholeness and restoration– with God, other human beings, ourselves, and the rest of creation.  We fell; and evil separated our ability to connect healthily with God, others, ourselves, creation.

Ah, but the second story… God did something to restore those broken relationships.  And as our relationship with Him is being restored through the Son, we also experience healing with regard to others, ourselves, and the rest of creation.

So on the farm, families talked about being made in the image of God (a concept shared by Christians/Muslims), and how this would impact their interactions.  My hostess tirelessly modeled caring for one another, walking from plot to plot to pick bugs off plants and swap stories with women, in a local language.   The families refused to use the prolific chemicals that made land temporarily productive but barren after only a few years.  In that way, they found an untapped market for “organic produce” nearby.  Starting with an understanding of who they are in relationship to God, change was happening in their relationships with their community, the rest of creation, and themselves.

Friends and I here asked each other the question, If you only had a few conversations left with someone, what would you want them to know?  We were full of ideas.  For me, it always comes back to the conversation on the worn couch: people made in the image of God, in perfect relationships, broken.  Unable to find restoration again, without Jesus’ reconciling presence.  A second story.

A couple of days ago, a few university students and I talked about the beauty of confidence.  Their faces, framed by scarves, shone with delight as they realized that significance is not about appearance or performance. It does have something to do with knowing who you are, and aren’t…and I realized that I am on that journey with them.

I’ve been restored to God, and am being restored to Him, others, myself, and creation. So when we talk about development of body, mind, and soul, I come as a sojourner, a co-learner.

And A & T– I did remember your names in the end– if you see this, deep thanks.

 

 

 

Which of us is teaching?

The look was something between concentration and panic.  The first day I saw her in my English course, one among forty women, I would remember her look.

She was petite, shorter than the other university freshmen in the course, with wide eyes and a childlike face emerging from a white headscarf.  In my experience teaching and leading a group in worship, I have seen many expressions: nervous, eager, frustrated, engaged, vacant, hoping… But this look was different.  It did not change through the whole first lecture.  “Tell me your name, and one thing about yourself,” I asked, and 37 young women answered.

Three could not find words for anything other than names.  When it was her turn, she said shortly, “Nani,” and let the other question fall.

I kept this in mind and prepared a language assessment for the students.  If they don’t speak ANY English, they should not be in this class, I thought.  Nani’s look intensified during the second class, as she joined her classmates in answering questions and filling in blanks.

“Kevin has a headache.  He should take some _________.”  Most students filled that blank with some form of the word “medicine.”  Two wrote that Kevin should take some “coffee.”  Geniuses.

Three students struggled to answer even the question, “How are you doing?”  Nani was one of these.  She desperately tried to drink in everything, but was unable to, and therefore had the look of someone who was drowning in a downpour of English.

Third class: a new student named Mohammad, one of the few men in the English department, walked in–saw that the whole class was female– and walked out again.  His loss, I thought.   One of the three struggling students had dropped also, but it wasn’t Nani.

I separated the students into small groups, and asked them to describe a picture from their textbooks.  Nani struggled to come up with the English words, her look of concentration creating furrows in her forehead.  So when each group picked one person to report their discussion to the class, I was surprised to see Nani stand up.

She held her notes close to her face and read as quickly as she could, clipped words delivered in a childlike voice.  I held back applause as I saw this young, brave woman diving into the difficult language, boldly attempting to form its strange sounds.   As she stood, she rose above the knowledge of her peers, and showed something far more fundamental for success in college, in life…

After class she lingered.  “Nani,” I got her attention.  “You did a great job reading today.  Well done.”  Her brow un-furrowed, the fearfulness left those wide eyes, and a generous smile took over her face.

…On another day, we worked alongside local ladies from the fitness program at the community center,  organizing clothes and household goods to give to refugees.  As we were working, one of my Arab mommas, who works in an income-generating business also at the center, came up to me.

She handed me something, and I wondered if it was for the refugees.  “No, for you!” she smiled, and I opened the black plastic bag to find a purse and hand-knit slippers.  Her generosity leaves me speechless.  I learn what love and courage look like when I see them in the quiet choices of these women.

Not to be Captured

2014-01-11 14.44.25Writing usually evokes the thoughts and events that have been percolating in the back of my mind.  But there are so many right now, it’s hard to decide what to put out here.

Should I write about my first attempt to speak Arabic, when my listener gently replied– in English– that she was from the Philippines and doesn’t speak Arabic?

Or of the women who make jewelery at the center, part of a “small business” enterprise.  Upon our second meeting, these motherly and grandmotherly women began calling me “habibti,” a local term of love and affection.  They teach me Arabic, show me how to roll paper beads from recycled magazines, and feed me quantities of green olives and hummus.

Or maybe I should write about the fun couple from the US who has had me in their home–twice– in the past week, expressing their commitment to helping me settle in.  The map that he made, and the cheesecake she made, were very welcome.  The intentional questions they asked, even more welcome!!

On the other hand, I could tell of writing an e-mail to a friend in Pennsylvania, and of crying as I answered her question about how my last week in the US had been.  Everyone loved, encouraged, expressed appreciation, and blessed me greatly.  My family & dear friends have sent me well.  And I miss them.

I could write about seeing a refugee child selling peanuts on the street, long after dark.

I could write about the eyes of a young woman from the same area, distant and guarded until a smile came her way.  Unbelievably quickly, the look of caution fled, and her face lit up with her own brilliant smile.

I could write about teaching my first-ever English class yesterday, and explaining to a crowded room of students what the words “hope” and “confidence” mean.  “Optimism”– we talked about that, too.

I could write about my first venture into the desert– a beauty unique from any others.  But I don’t think words could capture any of it.

 

Out of Place

Have you ever looked at those drawings where you compare two almost-identical pictures, to figure out what is out of place?

When I was in Asia a few years ago, a woman in my neighborhood asked if I would go to the local outdoor market with her.  Aunt Sue, as she was called, bought vegetables there each day, early in the morning, and then sold them door-to-door at a small profit.

I set an alarm for 5:45 a.m. and dragged myself to the door at 6:00 (she was starting “late” out of compassion for me).  We walked two kilometers to the market, and began weaving our way through fruit stands, rice stands, vegetable stands… Aunt Sue was all business, bartering in a local dialect that I understood little of.  I could tell everyone was asking about the foreigner.  Our small town was no tourist destination, and the heart of the street market was not frequented by many with my tone of skin.

Grinning, Aunt Sue picked up something wrapped in a banana leaf and handed it to me.  I remember that I didn’t want to eat it, but did, and it was better than I thought.

Eventually Aunt Sue did not want to answer questions anymore.  She found a friend– a cheerful woman chopping meat, one hand bare and the other wielding a butcher knife– and told me to sit and wait for her.  I tried to make small talk with the butcher but she was shy, and my language was limited.  Her young daughter looked curiously at me, and two teenage girls selling baby clothes in the next stall giggled to each other.

Everything I saw, smelled, and tasted that morning was new and foreign to me.  But as I sat next to the butcher, realizing that this market went on seven days a week almost year round, I realized that the only thing out of the ordinary in the market that day was… me.

Getting ready to move to the Middle East, I am anticipating that some things may look and feel strange, when really it’s just that I am a stranger.  At least, to start.  The market got easier to visit every time.  Aunt Sue became a dear friend.  I learned the local language well enough to figure out what they were asking about me… but that’s another story.