Tag Archives: Young Leaders

Stories and The Story

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.

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One of several amazing Southeast Asian sunsets

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.

“Own it.”

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.

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The Fourth Option

Zacky barked at every entrance during my first two and a half years of living in this house.

I had thought he would get used to me, since I frequently came in and out of the front gate to get to my basement apartment, and spent hours with his owners upstairs.  Excitable and determined to guard the family, the tiny terrier never let familiarity be an excuse not to bark.IMG_5073

His bark woke the family up when an electrical fire had started in the living room, and was quickly filling the rest of the house with smoke.  His bark deterred stray cats and warned off desert dogs.  His bark let us know every time someone was entering that gate, and the family could tell by his tone whether it was a stranger or a friend.  Like a baby’s parents know the difference between a hunger cry and a hurt cry.

He was strangely subdued when we took him, and the rest of the family, to the airport.  That could have been the result of the meds that were given to him to keep him calm on the plane; his human counterparts had no such outside influence.  Emotionally spent, celebrated and packed and grieved beyond the place of breaking, the family stood in a long security line and hugged us one more short time.

And then we left.

Empty handed on the way to the parking lot, we were weighed down more heavily than we had been by the suitcases and carry-ons.  The family eventually managed to get all 17 bags, and their dog, through security, and then flew away.

When we returned to the house, it looked the same as it had an hour earlier.  But there was no bark when I entered the gate.

“I understand why they are afraid,” Najua told me.  “I would be afraid too if I were them.”

And then she added, “We are afraid here also.”

Najua had asked me about America’s current political state, and I had commented that both in my home country and in many other places around the world, politics right then seemed to be driven by fear.  As a minority woman in her own country, Najua understands what it feels like to be marginalized.

It’s part of what makes her empathetic, determined to help end stereotypes and racism, and committed to developing Young Leaders (she teaches for this program at our center).  But she faces those fears daily.

In the face of the false dichotomy that fear presents– fight or flight– sometimes a nefarious third option emerges, to entice those forced to endure sustained stress: hope less (ness).  Giving up.  Thinking, I cannot fight successfully against this, and I cannot run away from it.

So I will allow the bitterness of despair to come over me .

We talked about how the power of God is seen in the death and crucifixion that brought life and resurrection.  And asked, What if there are options other than putting up a wall, being a doormat, or finding an escape hatch?  Is this upside-down kingdom possible to apply to us and our world?  

Does love have something to do with it?

I sit in the empty house often in the weeks after Zacky and my housemates move back to the U.S.  I brought my belongings from the basement to the second story, but the sounds of their youngest on his pogo stick, of at least one of six family members rustling in the kitchen for food, of the music that someone was always playing, have ceased.  My own small sounds echo off of walls without their paintings.

Every night I go back to another area of town, where I am staying with an Aussie friend until August.  Then my new housemate will arrive, and a new season will begin as she and I live together in the second story house which once was occupied by four kids, two parents, and various four-legged creatures.

I converse with most of my teammates via Skype (as they are in America for the summer).  I study, plan for Young Leaders, read good books.  I eat unpronounceable things in the homes of local friends, laugh at stories in Arabic a little more often than I did before, attend the wedding of good friends.  When I invite the newlyweds to the second story for breakfast, there is no dog to alert me of their presence, so they text to say they are outside.  We eat my crepes and drink the coffee that my old housemates left behind.  When they leave, I lock the gate.

Before my housemates moved, they prayed for me.  May she not fear the loneliness.

And yet I fear more than isolation.  I fear closeness being withdrawn, due to choices or changing circumstances.  And changes are invariably looming on the horizon, like tides that pull back the water to leave the shore exposed, only to return with rock-splitting force time and time again.  In this sustained stress I reflect:  I cannot fight this.  I refuse flight.  

But there is a bitter taste of inevitability, of hopelessness, on my tongue.

Trying to wash away that bitter taste with familiar promises proved to be more difficult than I anticipated.  Until this one cut through: For I am convinced that… neither the present nor the future… nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

An empty house, so it happens, provides a perfect atmosphere for singing.  I draw my guitar out of its case.  The sounds of the strings echo off of empty walls, creating acoustics that are a musician’s dream.  I lift my voice as loud as I like, knowing that no other ears, human or hound, can hear.

Your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me.*  Words I sung with my housemates the week before they left.  Words I sung with my small group the night before I moved to the Middle East.

Despair, fight, and flight are options that cloud the vision so that it is hard to see one’s own hand in front of one’s face.  But even then, His hand remains on our shoulders.

Constant through the trial and the change.*

And I am starting to taste a fourth option.  Love.  To the God who knows my hungry cries and my hurt cries, from the God who fills this empty home with His songs.

*Lyrics of One Thing Remains, by Bethel Music

 

 

Last Question

Sixty girls sat on the floor in front of me, wrapping up their conversations from snack break, nudging each other.  They were settling in for one final hour– for this semester– in the Young Leaders program.

They will take three months off for summer.  But they know that before every significant break, and after every meaningful activity, comes one thing: a debriefing.

Usually this means that we direct questions to them, draw out their reflections, and delineate how the lessons inside this mentoring program should apply to life outside.  Some friends had inspired me to turn this around… So this time, we invited them to ask us about anything they wanted to know.

Teachers handed out slips of paper and pencils.  Students scribbled words in English or Arabic, whichever they felt more comfortable with, and passed their notes forward.  And we read their anonymous wonderings:

Why do girls fall in love so often at this age?

Why is the Young Leaders Program free?

Why do individuals like to say words that hurt other people?

Why don’t people care about what I feel?

How do I overcome the fear that controls me?

Why is everyone more beautiful than me?

 What existed before God created the universe?

How did Obama become president when there are so many racists?

Every week, a goodbye party takes place.

Departures and transitions often feature heavily in the months of May and June, but this year extraordinarily so.  Some are short-term goodbyes to long-term friends, heading to the States just for the summer.  A few are long-term goodbyes to several-month friends.  These volunteered for a season with our programs, but now must return to participate in grad programs, or weddings, or next steps.  They also must learn to give skinny answers to the fat question, “How was your time out there?” in order to squeeze it into a listener’s attention span.

Frequently featured at these goodbye parties are the questions: “What is something about _____ that you appreciate?” and  “What’s a funny story about ______?”

For one volunteer, Stephanie, several of us came up with the same answer.  Stephanie had gone with the Young Leaders girls to a bird observatory, when a two-hour nature walk among ducks and eagles and gulls had concluded with a surprise visit from a television crew.

They wanted to film the students and some interviews, but I protested– we would need pre-arranged permission from our organization.  They argued; our guide, eager for the promotion of his observatory, was beginning to lose face in front of both his visitors and the TV crew.  We would dishonor him by a refusal.  So we agreed to let them interview only adults, and they requested that both Arabs and Americans participate.

Smiling, southern-born Stephanie had been attentive to the girls all morning, her Arabic advanced enough for good questions and greetings, but not for the guide’s description of the birds we had seen or their habits.  She agreed to the interview, in order to help us out.

Stepping in front of the camera, several teachers and students watching her, and Ramsey at her side to translate, she colored a little.  “I’ve never done an interview,” she said in her Arkansas accent.

The interviewer asked how she had liked the bird observatory, and if she had visited before.  And then the simple question: “What kinds of birds did you see?”

Stephanie turned slightly pinker.  The names had all been given in Arabic.  She knew she had recognized many types of birds, but could recall nothing except the fact that people were staring at her and there was a camera and the whole thing was being translated. The question was asked a second time.

Maybe Ramsey can make this sound specific, she hoped, and smiled sweetly.  “Oh, we saw all kinds of birds.  Big birds and small birds, black birds and white birds…” she drawled. “Yellow birds and red birds, really pretty birds.  Lots of nice birds.”

Ramsey smothered his laughter long enough to translate her words– exactly.  Stephanie’s description of the birds may not have made the local news, but it went down at the center as a legend, retold with the echo of Stephanie’s amiable laughter in our ears, and her distinctive Southern accent describing the birds and protesting afterwards, “I just couldn’t think of anything else to say!”

When recently I took a trip to the US, I was met by friends and family, and supervisors and strangers, with the same question, one that made me pause. Sometimes it is easier to articulate answers to Middle Eastern teenagers about discrimination, personal value, the origin of the universe, and love-sick hearts, than to answer the well-intentioned inquiry: “How are you?”

  • In under three weeks, my housemates will leave permanently, a long-term goodbye from long-term friends.
  • In a little more than three weeks, the center will close for a season due to the approach of Ramadan, the fasting month, and other local and foreign coworkers will travel.
  • In two and a half weeks, I will move into a friend’s apartment for the summer, and later I’ll move again, to the second story of this home, with a different housemate.

Ask a new volunteer to describe the habits of sparrowhawks and storks in Arabic, and you’ll know what my answer to “How are you?” is like.

I am looking forward to breathing fresher air above, but I will miss my basement-turned-garden-level apartment.

I am holding on to hope, but I am letting go of loved people, routines, and places.

It is good, and it is hard.

Simplistic answers which satisfy some.  But they don’t fit the situation any more than the Dead Sea fits into a water bottle.

We asked the girls to give one another answers.

Hands shot up around the room.  “Comparing yourself with others isn’t worthwhile.”  “Do things even when you are afraid.”  “Martin Luther King, Jr. and others helped change peoples’ thinking.”

These aren’t answers so much as starting places; they will move forward and backward, believing and disbelieving, adding questions to questions and finding that the empty spaces of silence can be as significant as speech… or more valuable.

Basements have been comfortable starting places for me– I lived in one for three and a half years in New York, then two and a half more in the Middle East.  Perhaps the only way to summarize my answer to the last question is this:

I am about to begin a new story.

Turning Back… and Around

He has two good friends here, this American living in the Middle East.  Both of them are named Abdullah.

David left his home and family to work in this region for a specific timeframe: long enough to mess up his plans for life, but not long enough to master the local tongue.  Early on, he met Abdullah A, a young man who had been friends with many of our center’s staff and interns over the years.

They connected over sports, stories, and meals.  Abdullah’s fluency in English and general likability not only made his friendship with David flow sweetly, but also helped Abdullah to get a teaching role with Young Leaders, our English and mentoring program for youth who come from limited resources, a few months later.

One day, the Young Leaders volunteered to do activities at a center for youth who face harder obstacles than they do, and David accompanied them.  There he met Abdullah B: sensitive, caring, and incredibly loyal to the troubled youth with whom he works.  David met him again when he attended a wedding with Abdullah A, in a city a few hours from where all three of them live.  Abdullah B speaks very little English, but when one of the youth he is responsible for started knocking on David’s door, he stepped in and helped to resolve things.

Now Abdullah B and David, without sharing language or history or faith, share a deep friendship.

Abdullah A and David’s shared love for running led them to run a half-marathon together.  But this was not a usual race— their path led through the desert.

During the warmest month of the summer.

At the hottest time of the day.

Without water or any refreshment beyond what they carried on their backs.

With just a few training runs under their belts, Abdullah A and David hit the sand.  They were doing well until they neared the end of the race and encountered dunes; not only were these obstacles exhausting, but they poured sand into their sneakers.  Blisters soon punished each step.

Abdullah A said he needed to walk for a bit.  David pressed on toward the finish line, alone for his last few kilometers.

And then— just at the finish line, just before earning second place— he turned around.

He returned to where Abdullah was now running again, and they finished together.  As a win-loving athlete, who knew that the drive to compete and achieve was something he shared with his friend, Abdullah was blown away.  He kept asking,

“Why?”

And no words, Arabic or English, would satisfy his desire for an answer.

A few months later, Abdullah A led 14 Young Leaders students in training for a 10K run for charity.  David was out of town on the day of the race.  I arrived at the finish line to congratulate them, and a few were done, with a few more still on the way.  I asked the students, “Where is Mr. Abdullah?”

“He got to the finish line,” they answered.  “But then he turned around to finish the race with the boys who were behind.”

—-

I had met Abdullah B a few times, as students from the Young Leaders program volunteered with the youth in his program.  When his birthday rolled around, he invited both me and David to join in the celebration.

Coffee.  Soda.  Snacks.  Conversation.  We arrived late, but early enough to enjoy all of these before the real meal was served.  The rest of the party, all members of Abdullah B’s close family, eventually arrived; Abdullah gathered us around a table crowded with twelve different dishes and four desserts (which would be served with more coffee and tea).

“Thank you for coming to my birthday celebration,” he started.  “Before we begin the meal, I want to take this opportunity to tell each of you what you mean to me.”

I attempted to explain what was happening to David, as Abdullah thanked God for specific things about each one in the room: his wife who had impacted his life so strongly, his adorable and high-spirited little daughter, his father and mother, in-laws, siblings, their spouses, and David and me.  But as we watched the family members’ eyes shimmering with tears, the cheeks kissed and hugs exchanged, and the two Americans drawn in with the language of love… I knew my English translations were not necessary.

Yesterday, David invited friends to come and celebrate a milestone– he is halfway through his time in this city.  I’m eating dessert leftovers to be inspired as I write right now, because in addition to the homemade mac n’ cheese, gourmet burgers, and roasted veggies  that he served, we had something that brought chocolate cake and peanut butter cup cheesecake together.

It tastes as good as you think…maybe better.

Before dinner, David sat down with all of us.  “If it weren’t for you guys, I would have been home a long time ago.”

We laughed.  So are you saying that it is a good thing we helped you stay here, or are you upset with us for keeping you from turning back?

He laughed, smiling over the shared memories– really good, really hard, really shaping and stretching moments.  And the knowledge that more will be arriving.  “No, just, before we begin the meal,” he said, “I want to turn this around and tell each of you what you mean to me.”

Turn things around.

Temptation is strong to run alone.  And other temptations run stronger when we run alone: to be discouraged, to think we have accomplished things on our own, to be so focused on what we think is the reward that we miss the real prize… or to turn back.

When you upend expectations and remember the community, inspiration comes to others to do the same.  And winning becomes not a solo act, but a joining together of companions.

The pace may seem slower.  And, I am confident, the prize will be greater.

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.

—-

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.

—-

“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.

—-

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.

 

 

 

 

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…

In the Middle of the Art

This was unexpected.  I had arrived in Zurich the day before, with plans to spend two days roaming this city.  En route to a company leadership training in Germany, it was the first time in months that I had left my sandy home town.  I was greedy for some new scenery.

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Zurich at night

A dragon guarded the entrance to my first destination.  The castle-style Swiss National Museum was attended by a German-speaking curator, whose eyes surveyed visitors as if he knew that most would snap iPhone selfies and spend hours ogling his treasures, but have no idea of their real value.  After he had accepted the tribute of a ticket and allowed me to proceed, the heavy double doors opened slowly, automatically, to an enormous room, full of brightly lit display cases and dark red walls.

Prominently displayed in the center were four donkeys.  

An unexpressive Jesus sat stiffly on each one.  The figures seemed to be composed of simple wood and paint; their angles were unrealistic, ugly.

They were hauled through the streets in regular processions for celebrations, hundreds of years ago, a plaque informed me.  But why bother to save four that looked so similar?  And why give something that did not seem too valuable such an exhibition?  I did not understand.

An alarm sounded from somewhere in the room.  Another tourist and I eyed each other with the question, “Is this something we should take seriously?”

The Paris attacks had occurred less than twelve hours before.

The sound— perhaps a falsely triggered security or fire alarm— faded, and I thought again of the King on a donkey.  Of His peaceful entrance, subversively surprising a city in turbulence that was seeking a political savior.  Perhaps we did need all four to help us remember.

Later I visited an art museum, whose features included several moods of Van Gogh; a giant, disheveled Campbell’s Soup can from Warhol; a handful of powerful sculptures from Rodin, stylized Renaissance paintings of love and spirituality; and immense panels from Monet.

My sister and I always look for Monet when we explore— from our first art experience together at a little museum in Rhode Island, to the Met in New York, to the places we were privileged to see in Paris.  One in particular, the Musée de l’Orangerie, features waterlily paintings that cover entire walls; the viewer is encircled by them, immersed in their colors.  The story is that Monet donated this exhibit to the people of Paris, to help heal their souls after the terrible experience of World War I.

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Claude Monet, Seerosenteich mit Iris — Kuntshaus, Zurich

I remembered them as I sat alone before the massive irises and lilies in Zurich’s museum.  A few days later, an artist would host some of our meetings in South Germany’s Art Factory, an abandoned roof tile factory turned into a haven for travelers and artists.  “I have heard it said that ‘Art is God’s secret weapon…,’” she told me.  “It makes sense.  No one would suspect; when things are very dark, art brings hope, it heals, it shows beauty.”

Between museums, I visited Fraumunster Cathedral, with stained glass windows stunning in size and color.  They fell short, to me, of capturing the greatest moments in the story of Jesus.  But the riotous color reflected the infinitude and intimacy of the moments when Christ took on flesh, and awakened my heart to long for more than the representation… for the real.  Each piece of art I saw that day expressed longing, love, or lust from the artists; their disillusionment, depression, and desires to gain peace; their defiance or acceptance of their societies; their fears, pains, hopes, joys.  Maybe the reflection of what is real, and the stirring of longing for more, were the point.

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View of Fraumunster Cathedral in Zurich, from the tower of Grossmunster Cathedral

After I had admired the windows, I crossed the street to Grossmunster Cathedral.  I was expecting less there; I had been captured by the story of Katharina von Zimmern, Fraumunster’s last abbess, who knew both how to lead and how to let go of power in an era where few women were allowed to do the former, and few human beings knew how to do the latter.  Tourists milled around the Grossmunster sanctuary; sound technicians were setting up for a sacred music concert the next day.  I walked up the side and found a postcard, printed in five languages.  The words:

Almighty God,

unto whom all hearts be open,

all desires known,

and from whom no secrets are hid:

cleanse the thoughts of our hearts

by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,

that we may perfectly love thee,

and worthily magnify thy holy Name,

through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

—Book of Common Prayer

The front stage was marked, “Please no conversation here.  Listen to the silence.”

I sat and listened.  A Renaissance painting seen earlier had portrayed Jesus’ baptism with everyday life happening around Him, and against the backdrop of European mountains.  I chuckled at the inaccuracy at first, remembering the “real” wilderness of the baptism site.  Perhaps the artist did not know any better.

But it is more likely that he did, and still had in mind something deeper, more vivid and more real.  The holiest moments can take place right in the middle of life as it usually goes.

All the cathedrals, all the great works of art, they are not the keepers of silence, or beauty, or hope.

They are simply places that we can remember.

Thanksgiving week.  The Young Leaders girls learn how to bob for apples.  Their laughter echoes in our community center; their head scarves are soaked.  I take a break from mixing biscuits and mashing potatoes the next afternoon, as the sun is setting in stunning color, to go to visit the Young Leaders boys; the moon, stunning in size, is rising when I go home.

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Hand turkeys from Young Leaders– part of learning about Thanksgiving in the United States 🙂

The teachers bring their families later that night, an Arab/American Thanksgiving.  Our table is filled with all the traditional fixings, give or take (a two-day turkey search had ended with chicken; and someone brought FullSizeRenderhummus to go with our glazed carrots and green beans). Strong Arabic coffee and sweet tea
accompany homemade aple crisp, blackberry pie, and kanafeh, a local cheese and honey desert.  Someone starts to sing, first in Arabic, later in English; others share stories over dishes in the kitchen.

And my heart is full thanksgiving, from this cathedral, amidst the art.

 

The Kiss of Release

She approached me in the middle of the bus.  “One of the girls is crying,” she said.  “She got a call on Miss Mae’s phone, and now she’s really upset…”

I looked forward, where Mae– one of our local teachers with Young Leaders– was leaning over a slump-shouldered fifteen-year-old girl.  Teena.  Her family was the one that set up an accidental (for me) blind date with her brother, shortly after I arrived in the country.  There had been no second excursion with Mohammad, but when Teena applied for Young Leaders, she immediately won our teachers’ hearts.

She had determination, ready laughter, social intuitiveness.  What could have happened to bring about those tears? 

Mae explained.  Teena had been given permission by her mom to go on this class trip to a desert reserve, but another family member found out about it and responded the opposite way.  He called and demanded that the bus stop at a nearby security checkpoint.  From there, he would pick Teena up and take her home.

“He’s on the way already,” Mae told me.  “Teena says he never lets her go on trips outside of town, with school or clubs; but he did not know about this one until a few minutes ago…”  We told the bus driver to slow down.  We called Teena’s mom to see what she wanted to do.  She instructed us to let Teena go if that was what this relative wanted.  We called him, we begged, we reasoned.

She’s with all of her friends.  She’s worked hard in this program.  She’s already twenty minutes out of town.  We will protect her like our own sister, our own child.  

He refused.

I knew that Teena’s seat in the program would be lost if she did not participate in ALL activities.  So no field trips also meant no more after-school English lessons.

No more leadership-building activities.

No more mentoring from Miss Mae.

A few days after this incident, I called a cousin of Teena’s whom I know well.  I asked her to appeal to the male relative on our behalf: She is a delight everyone in the program.  But if she doesn’t take the trips, we have to give her spot to another student.  Please, remind this relative that your family knows me, and that I will look after Teena like my own sister. 

Then we called Teena and asked her to have her relative come to the center, so we could try to persuade him face to face.  She was thrilled.  She knew we were fighting for her.  We felt a small measure of hope.

The day of the meeting, Mae called to reconfirm.  No one answered.  Teena texted soon afterward: “We can’t have a meeting today.  Our father passed away this morning.”

That night, Mae and I drove around Teena’s neighborhood, until we found the apartment where dozens of women were gathered to recite funeral prayers and support the family (the men– including the relative who had forbidden Teena’s attendance on field trips– met somewhere outside).  Despite her grief, Teena’s mom recognized me right away.  I kissed her cheeks and repeated the consolation my tutor had taught me for such an occasion.

Someone pulled up extra chairs, and the mom introduced me: “She’s American, a teacher.  My daughter Teena is with her in the Young Leaders program.”

With us in the Young Leaders program.  I repeated the words as if to etch them in stone.

On rising to leave, I forgot the phrase I had learned for funerals, so substituted my favorite parting words: “God be with you.”

Despite hearing that the relative planned to withdraw Teena from the program entirely, Mae and I returned to talk with Teena’s mom, and with a friend who had a voice in his life.  We drank three cups of coffee, offered consolation again, and explained why Young Leaders was vital for Teena’s personal development.  We invited all of them to attend the Opening Ceremony.  We sensed that they supported us– but depended on the male relative’s approval for Teena’s inclusion in the program.

On rising to leave, Teena’s mom randomly informed Mae, “We wanted this foreigner to marry our son.”

It made the mom smile briefly.  It also left me needing to explain the story to my coworker.

We discovered, just a day before the Opening Ceremony, that as soon as the friend had approached Teena’s male relative, he knew what was going to be said.  “Don’t even try,” he said.  “I decided she isn’t going anymore to Young Leaders.”  And that was the end of that portion of the story.

We used all the cultural wisdom we could get.

We fought, we visited, we begged.

We prayed.

Still, with the Opening only hours away, she left an empty space.

—–

What is surrender?  Some think of giving up.  Of being controlled by someone other.  Of passive living.  But what if it is active?  What if it calls for us to not be coerced, but consenting?

What if surrender needs to happen even in the moments that we are fighting… visiting… praying… as much as when we are giving a kiss to each cheek and saying, “God be with you,” in releasing with a blessing?

—–

A hasty search of the waiting list.  Acceptance into the program of a new student.  Her face is familiar when she joins Mae’s class at the Opening Ceremony; we realize her sister was in last year’s program.

Our hearts accept it as a little bit of balm.  What is your name? we ask.

Faith.

Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand

Their voices traveled through the air and across the sand.  The cliff where these teenaged Young Leaders stood was facing another, larger mountain, which threw back the sound.  The students were surprised; it was the first time, for some of them, that their voices had echoed.

For many of them, it was also their first trip to this famous desert reserve– despite its proximity, only an hour from their homes.  Their first time racing across the sand in the backs of pickups.  Climbing sand dunes.  Seeing stars undimmed by city lights.  Letting themselves go in a trust fall.  Day five of our group’s summer camp took them into the “wilderness,” both rewarding and continuing the previous days’ intensive English and leadership development.

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The students raised their voices again, in celebration and to hear the rock reply: “YOUNG LEEEEADERRRRRRS!!” 

Lana had been one of the first to make it up the cliff.  She was not one of the original Young Leaders; she had been at the top of our waiting list of 180 students, and when another girl’s family withdrew her before the camp, this petite 15-year-old got her chance.  She wore a flowery headscarf and an expression of delight the whole week.

“Do you remember the lesson about dreams?” she asked me.  I did.

Lana and her classmates had thought first of occupations, when they had been asked, If money were not a factor, and you knew you would succeed, what do you dream of doing?IMG_6706

We pushed students to take the question more broadly: what kinds of people they would help, how they would influence the world, what experiences they would have.  Answers ranged from, “Create peace in the Middle East” to, “Take a selfie with a lion.”  Students made posters about their dreams, and Lana had written something, without knowing how soon it would be fulfilled:

‘Climb a mountain’— this was one of my dreams.”

The setting sun spilled golden light across the desert, creating a storybook-like background as groups of students stood chatting, or bent to write their names in the sand.  But Lana’s eyes looked at me with a deeper fire, and with pride.  She came from a family of limited resources and opportunities.  She had, nonetheless, turned at least this one dream into reality– so what dream could come next?

I cannot show you her picture.  My cell phone wouldn’t quite capture the desert light, anyway, or the glow in Lana’s eyes over this simple experience.  But even if it did, respect for her culture and privacy would limit what I share in this public space.

If you saw her picture, would its thousand words-worth articulate a call to somehow take action?  Climb a mountain.  Ask a young person their dream.  Chase a dream yourself.  

Last week many of us viewed a photograph that we did not want to see.  It spurred media, individuals, and governments to focus once again on the long-term problems faced by displaced people.  It saddened us, it shook us.

But it cannot surprise us.

If it does, we haven’t been paying attention.  To the hundreds of gut-wrenching headlines over the past few years.  To the thousands dead (220,000 in Syria’s civil war alone, about half of whom are believed to be civilians).  To the millions displaced (from Syria, 7.6 internally, 4 million in other countries–the most severe displacement crisis since the Rwandan genocide).  To the swell of voices of oppressed people who have lost their homes, family networks, and security, and are desperately seeking a place of shelter, safety, and hope for their children.

Somehow a single, controversial photograph of a dead Syrian child on a beach commanded us to face the incomprehensible.  But far too many other tragedies came before the one with Aylan Kurdi.

My good friend Zaina is one among the displaced.  She lived where I am only a few months, in between her life in Syria and in the country where her husband now has work.  Last week she sent me a message: “I saw you in my dream last night, my dear friend.  How are you?”

When I returned the question, she sent emoticons streaming with tears.  Financial stress, social isolation, the cultural gap between where she is from and where she lives, and continuing difficulties registering her son for school– these have left her heartbroken.  If I sent a picture of her son– a round-cheeked six-year-old with a mischievous glint in his eyes– would the story mean more?  “Sometimes I think about trying to get to Europe by boat,” she wrote.  “Maybe it is better to die at sea than to live here.”

This is not news.  This is a mother of three– a woman the same age I am– seeking options.  Getting doors slammed.

Though my hands are tied from reaching her, I stretched words out across the distance.  Your life echoes, it matters, to me, to your beloved family.  Please be careful.

“I won’t attempt anything,” she texted.  “It’s just my sadness doing the talking.”

Her sadness is what needed to be heard a long time ago.  We tend to photograph drama, to tell stories full of excitement, but the slow death of Zaina’s hopes and opportunities speaks loudly of the need for justice both in her country and in the surrounding region.

Even if you can’t see her, can you hear her?

Lana’s slow ascent toward one of her dreams– and the light in her eyes– speaks of the power of putting action behind ideals.  She envisioned a goal and accomplished the task.  Even if you can’t see her, can you hear the echo of her voice, across the oceans?

Hearing is not sufficient.  Will you take action against the injustice, near and far away, that you encounter?  Will you stand for the ones whose stories don’t make headlines and don’t get photographed– or who do, yet continue suffering?

A picture is worth a thousand words.  Action’s value can be ten thousand times ten thousand.

Drunken Drivers, Engagements, & Other Misunderstandings

He honked the horn of the bus.  I ignored him, and opened the trunk of my car.

He smirked, gestured, and beeped a second time.

I hoped he wasn’t trying to get my attention.  For women in this part of the world, it’s not unusual to receive some level of rudeness from random guys; but this bus driver was with the Young Leaders group that day.

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Team building games w/ Young Leaders, by the sea

Three busloads of teenage boys, five local teachers, and I had come to the beach that morning for a field trip.  The students were finishing the last of their “team building” games, just a few minutes behind schedule.  Earlier that morning, they had combed the beach for sea glass, which women who are employed at the community center would later transform into jewelry.

I packed the glass in the trunk of my car, and the bus driver beeped again.  “Hurry up!” he yelled in Arabic.  “We’re waiting.  Let’s get going!”  His abruptness led the thought to flash across my mind: Is he intoxicated?

Out loud, I apologized, and told him I would get the boys moving onto the buses.  Given that drinking was against his religion, it was 11:00 a.m., and he was a bus driver, I dismissed my previous thought as preposterous.  I told Ramsey, one of our Young Leaders teachers, that our bus driver wanted us to hurry up.  The boys got into the buses while Ramsey went to see what the rush was about.

He came back to talk to me, keeping his voice low.  “He’s drunk.”

I thought I heard wrong.  I asked him to repeat himself.

“He’s drunk.  Either that, or he’s wearing this bad-smelling cologne that’s common in his home city.”

We needed to figure out, quickly, if this guy was under the influence, endangering students– in which case my instinct was to pull him out of the bus, leave him in the blazing sun on the beach, and replace him behind the wheel with one of our trusted teachers– or if he just had little social aptitude and a poor choice of cologne.

What to do, with so much at stake?  And with so much, from hometown colognes to cultural methods of confrontation, beyond my knowledge?

We came up with a plan, but all I could think about on the drive home was, How do I make sure this vulnerable scenario never. happens. again?

Last week, my best friend from this city, Sammi, was telling me again what she hoped God would provide in her future husband, though she had no current candidates.  She is helping me with my Arabic, and our “studying” often turns into conversations about heart and soul stuff.

The following day a family who had heard of her came to visit– unexpectedly.  By the end of the evening, they had asked her to marry their son.  The two met that night and signed the marriage contract the next morning.

I understand that this story is normal in this country.  I have met many ladies here who began their marriages this way. And when they talk about their relationships, my limited Arabic is enough to understand that a few are delighted, and others are depressed. I have even had well-meaning friends try to set me up like this, with my blind date Mohammad

But on a deeper level, when I saw my close friend Sammi, joining her hands and connecting her life with this almost-stranger, I knew I didn’t understand.

When we lead, when we love, or even when we simply talk, or connect with one another, the risk is present: of not understanding.  Or, what is an even less appealing option to some of us: of not being understood.

Sometimes the stakes are low.  I recently tried to ask one Young Leaders teacher, in Arabic, Do you know how to cook?  It came out, Do you know how to get engaged?   

Sometimes the stakes are higher.  A bus full of students.  A friend who needs support even if I can’t understand the road she is traveling.

When the stakes are raised, but the guarantee that I will understand and be understood is not there, my tendency is to reduce risk factors as much as I possibly can, and try to increase safety.  I put my hands in fighting stance, or attempt to put distance between what I love and what I feel is a threat.

But, in fight or in flight, many times I’m also guarded against good things.  Deepening relationships.  New experiences.  Trust.

After Sammi told me her news, I went to Dana, my wise friend from this city, for help in wrapping my mind around their quick commitment.  What’s the best way for me to support her?  I asked.  Dana asked if there would be an engagement party.

Next week.

She smiled, knowingly.  The best way, though I don’t fully understand what happened previously or know will take place in the future, to be fully present and engaged?

“Just dance.  Just show up, and dance.”

***Song to this story is Counting On, by John Mark McMillan.