My Heart Bends East 


It’s early morning in the Netherlands. I have just left The Hague and with it, a rich time of friendship and learning. 

We are on a train headed to Schiphol Airport. Our family and friends in the United States are still in deep sleep. Our friends in the East have been wide awake for several hours. 

I sit and gaze out the window at a green and serene landscape. I watch an early morning sun rising in the sky on my far right. I smile at my elementary school learning as I realize that I know we are heading north-east because of the many times in my childhood where I heard the phrase “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west”. 

Always my heart bends toward the east; toward bright sun and color, toward lands far from the west and ideas even farther. My heart bends east where time is more flexible and silohuettes of palm trees are etched on my memory. It bends toward the east, where the sun rises and daylight comes sooner. 

My heart bends east, where all my “firsts” took place. First steps, first tooth, first kiss, first heart break. It is no wonder then that my faith too now bends toward the east, toward the Church Fathers who lived far from the west; toward the early church and sustaining scriptures; toward rich colors on light-reflected icons. 

Today I will head west, where winter is still present and my body takes time to adjust. I will head west because that is where my heart now lives, where there are parents, friends, jobs, and children; where two cats await my arrival with eager expectation – though they don’t yet know it. I head west to continue creating meaningful work and continuing faith. 

My heart bends east, so when I arrive, I will remember to breathe, remember to take some time, remember to give thanks.

And I will remember that even when my heart bends east, I can still live and live west. 

Readers! Remember you can buy Passages Through Pakistan and proceeds go toward refugees! 

Finding Your Niche at #FIGT17NL

In 2014, I hosted a blog series called “Finding Your Niche: Using a Multicultural Past to Create a Meaningful Present.” The result was a set of essays from adult third culture kids, each different and each exploring what it was to find a niche as an adult. Writers talked about the jobs and communities they had found that complemented their multicultural past.

The series ended up being the inspiration for a panel discussion that will be held during the Families in Global Transition Conference in The Hague this March. I am excited to be facilitating this panel, featuring other adult third culture kids who will speak to the journey, joys, and challenges of finding a niche that connects their multicultural past to a meaningful present.

If you are an expat, a global nomad, a third culture kid, an adult third culture kid, or someone who loves and works with all of the above, then this is the conference for you! It’s not too late to register for FIGT17NL! Just click here and it will take you to the registration page. You will be so glad you came!

In the meantime, I am reposting one of the submissions from the series. Cindy Brandt has written for Communicating Across Boundaries before and I’m so happy to welcome her again with this repost of her essay for the “Finding Your Niche” series.

*****

TCKs and “finding your niche” seems to be an oxymoron.

 After all, we are TCKs, Third Culture Kids, as in, they couldn’t fit us in any category so they created an extra option just to throw us all in there.

 We are the miscellaneous crowd. We are the ones who can thoroughly enjoy the company of whoever it is we keep during the day, but when the sun sets, we look in the mirror and see a different color skin, or go home to speak a different language; we don’t ever fully belong anywhere. No matter which group of people we are with, there always seems to be a slice of insider information we can’t access. We scramble to uncover that knowledge, but feels a bit like flailing awkwardly at the fringes of each particular culture.

 I am reminded of my favorite children’s book, Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees. It’s a story of a giraffe named Gerald,

“whose neck was long and slim. His knees were awfully crooked and his legs were rather thin.” 

Each year at the Africa Jungle Dance, he freezes at the thought of dancing in front of his peers with his gangly limbs. Like Gerald, TCKs know intimately the feeling of crippling self-consciousness, and the fear of being found out we are not really one of them.

Of course, there are ways that TCKs are just like other people. We go through normal developmental phases in which we discover our own likes and dislikes; our skills and assets. We have different passions and desire to live into them. It’s just challenging to simultaneously walk this journey of self discovery while skittering on the outskirts of cultural worlds. It’s too difficult to hear the true calling inside of us over the noise of banging cymbals keeping us away from the mainstream.

In order to find our niche, we must cut through the noise and stop being led by fears of exclusion. TCKs are rich with benefits. We make the best spouses, friends, neighbors, and employees by bringing our dynamic stories and a myriad of experiences. We are strong from having endured difficult life transitions, yet sensitive from having been conditioned by a diversity of worldview. We are flexible from years of shifting from one culture to another, yet firm in our convictions having learned to hold on to core values while physically moving to and from. We are not either/or, we are both/and. We may not belong one hundred percent; but we can be one hundred percent present when we show up.

When we dart from one place to another, distracted by finding a place to belong, we miss investing the whole of ourselves in any one single space. In order to find our niche, we must bravely claim the life we’re in and start acting like we have already arrived. We don’t apologize for being different, instead, we bring our divergent ideas to sharpen the existing ones. We don’t dismiss monoculturals around us, instead we listen and learn from them, insistent upon building meaningful relationships. We vehemently find common ground until the fears and lies and insecurities of being excluded melt away by shared passion.

Gerald the giraffe was booed off the dance floor competition because he listened to the voices telling him there is no way he can dance. He retreated into a quiet clearing, lamenting his situation beneath the gleaming moon, when a small cricket coaxed him to cut through the noises of the jungle and listen to the music only he can hear. Slowly, he began moving his body to the rhythm of that music and by the end of the story, every animal stood in awe of his beautiful movements.

We don’t have to flail awkwardly on cultural perimeters. We need not continuously seek approval for being the unique persons we are. We can walk confidently onto the dance floor, clothed in the many colors of our background, take a deep breath, and just begin to dance.

It’s like what Gerald learns by the end of the story:

“We all can dance, if we find music that we love.”

You can find Cindy at http://cindywords.com/

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People Have Friends; Governments Have Interests

When I first began dating my husband, I would joke that I dated him and 30 Iranians. Cliff had hundreds of friends and most of them were international students at the university he was attending.

During those initial dates we would go to underground Marxist events, Nowruz parties, or sumptuous Wednesday night dinners of kebabs, pilau, torshi, and tea served in special glasses with sugar cubes — all with Iranians. He counted them among his best friends. Through our courtship and then marriage they became my friends as well, some of them young men; others whole families. I became convinced that God created Iranian women first and used up so much beauty that there wasn’t much left for the rest of us. Bad theology? Maybe. Truth about their beauty? Absolutely.

It was during the Iran Hostage Crisis that my husband befriended these students and families. In a recent conversation one of his friends admitted that several of them thought he may be with the CIA. Who else asks that many questions?

Iran was not popular with the United States at the time. Three decades have gone by and not much has changed.

The number of countries that the United States considers dangerous has only increased during the past three decades. Different administrations have made a variety of statements and decisions about who is safe and whether they meet the litmus test of coming to this country.

During the same period of time, our friendships with people from these countries has only increased. In the last 7 years, we have had the privilege of traveling to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, We have also formed friendships in Cambridge with people from Iran, Turkey, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Algeria, Somalia, and so many more. Two years ago, we were able to introduce a young Syrian family to a young Israeli family at a Thanksgiving gathering. Watching them talk and connect was incredible. Their former views of each other’s respective countries was through the barrel of a gun, not over tea and pumpkin pie.

“People have friends; Governments have interests” is a quote that I’ve heard many times. Living in the United States affords many of us unique opportunities to form friendships with people who are from countries considered dangerous, countries that are not counted as ‘friends of the United States’. Because we are not our governments. Our decisions on who to love, who to trust, and who to befriend are not dictated by who or what our government does; by who our government does or does not deem ‘safe’. 

Too many times we confuse the two. Subconsciously our attitude becomes: If the United States Government and the mainstream media sources do not trust a country, then we can’t trust people from that same country. If they are on bad terms we must be on bad terms. 

My husband and I are not unique in having Muslims as some of our best friends. We know many Christians who claim the same. And we are among many who believe friendship and dialogue trump government interests and activity every time. As I’ve seen articles and been in conversations there are times when I fear some Christians in the west allow government policies and opinions to dictate their friendships; other times when media sources control their hearts and minds. I would suggest that this is misplaced loyalty creating a poverty of thought and spirit preventing us from befriending and reaching out to those who God has placed around us.

From Cambridge, Massachusetts to Tehran, Iran, the last few years have given us uncountable opportunities for meaningful interactions, because people are not governments.

“If we leave it to the mainstream, corporate media to form our conception and understanding of the surrounding world, the entire universe will be a gloomy, failing and disappointing entity in which no sign of hope and dynamism can be found.”*

There’s more to say on this topic, but I want to open it up to you. Wherever you live, how does the government and media affect how you view people? Who you will or won’t let into your life? Do you agree with the quote “People have friends; governments have interests?” Why or why not?

*Quote from Kourosh Ziabari — an award-winning Iranian journalist, media correspondent and activist

Note: This post was revised from another written in 2014

The Eclectic Nativity Set

I’ve been a little lazy about Christmas this year. I did most of my shopping on the Internet (something I’ve sworn off of in the past). I delegated all the wrapping to our oldest daughter who seemed to actually enjoy it. I let the girls do most of the decorating this year too. We’re leaving for Ontario to celebrate with my family and it just seemed like too much work to put up a tree, let alone, to ‘deck the halls’. I’ve been rather ambivalent about the whole thing. (That’s the gentle way of saying I’ve really been a party-pooper and a grouchy Grinch.)

And so in a spirit of half-heartedness and efficiency (‘let’s just get this over with!’) I decided not to set out all the nativity sets I have. Rather I grabbed bits and pieces from each of them and put them together. I set out the wise men from our Ethiopian set, the shepherds from India. There was another lone shepherd with his sheep that I swiped from the Playmobile Nativity, I suspect he was from Europe. Mary and Joseph came from a Bolivian Nativity I’ve had since I was in college and the baby Jesus was hand made by our youngest daughter Bronwynn when she was 6 or 7.

Something happened in my heart as I set out this motley crew of international delegates to the Holy Nativity. I felt a worshipful shift in my spirit. Slowly I lowered the handmade angel off to thimg_5211e side. Balding and heavy bottomed this angel is full of joy. I think I felt a little of the “radiance of the Lord’s glory surround” me. As frightening and disturbing as this year has been I knew the reassurance of the angel’s message: “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior, the Rescuer, the Lord is here!”

With tears in my eyes I stood back from the scene. I shook my head at how silly a Nativity set really is. In no way does the plastic, or clay, or wood capture the chaos of that long ago holy night. It was earthy and bloody and noisy and messy. God became flesh. Grace and Light and Life were embodied and Mary, “wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger.”

It brought me such joy to see representatives from three or four countries and continents surround the manger at this commemoration of the first Advent. The Ethiopians tall and proud, the Indians colourful and exuberant, the Bolivian couple sincere, the lone European shepherd stiffly holding his lantern.

I imagined the glories of the second Advent where people will gather from every corner of the globe. Picture it! Every language will be buzzing, every tribe will have someone there, even the remote places will be represented. Some from every nation and every race will come. People from every background will gather. It will be a huge crazy crowd! And Christ, having long since outgrown his manger bed will be seated on a throne, our crowned and glorious King. We will fall on our faces before him and worship,

Oh, Yes!
The blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving,
The honor and power and strength,
Belong to our God forever and ever and ever!
Oh, Yes!

I pulled the clay figurine of Mary closer to the manger. I scooted the plastic sheep back a little. Maybe it was the light from the tiny plastic lantern, but as I stepped away from my Nativity, things seemed a little brighter and hope seemed a little clearer.

(Scriptures referenced from Luke 2:8-14 and Rev 7:9-12).

The Simple Pin

Since November 8th, the day that shall live on in infamy, people have started wearing little safety pins. I was unaware of this until my friend Jill explained their significance and gave me one to wear.

To wear a safety pin is to make a statement. Where this began is a little uncertain. There are stories from World War II of Dutch resistance members wearing the safety pin in loyalty to Queen Wilhelmina. More recently, after the Brexit vote in the UK, there was reportedly a woman, who used the twitter handle @cheeahs, who wanted to demonstrate publicly that she stood in solidarity with the immigrant community. Immigrants were treated with suspicion in the UK. The Brexit vote seemed to open up a door for hatred, threat, and violence. Hatred had a voice. What about a voice for safety? So this woman wanted members of the immigrant community to know she was a safe person. She wanted to stand with them. Here in the US people are wearing the safety pin to similarly align themselves with people of color, women, members of the LGBT community, and immigrants.

On Thursday, following the election, our youngest daughter came home and reported a story about her Muslim friend. His mom was nervous to go out of the house wearing her hijab. The world now felt like an unsafe place for her. I know of another young woman, this one white, who is a victim of sexual abuse. Fear and a renewed sense of her vulnerability left her paralyzed for several days after the election. I wish with all my heart that these two women would know that I and so many many others are safe spaces in this new atmosphere.

While the safety pin has been a meaningful symbol to many it’s also been met with eye rolls and it’s share of sighs and “Oh brother!”s. The Internet is full of sarcastic posts and tweets and articles that disclaim it. Perhaps it’s another meaningless attempt by white people to band aid up a fatal wound.

I’m not naïve enough to think that wearing a safety pin is all that we have to do. But surely we have to do something even to communicate hope to those suddenly a feared? Maybe the safety pin is a good place to start.

Perhaps the pin serves as more of a statement to myself. I will do something. I will respond. Maybe it emboldens me to reach across community divide, to smile at a stranger who looks differently than I do, to make conversation with someone I don’t know at the grocery store, on the bus, at the library. Maybe it reminds me that there is always something I can do—something small, something a little bigger, something bold.

My friend Jill is a perfect example. Jill is a gregarious extrovert. She loves people without restraint. This election cycle has been hard for her too. She sees the ostracized further marginalized and it’s hurt her. She hears the racial slurs, the negative stereotyping and she sees what it’s doing to her country, her community, her family.

A week ago, Jill donned a silver safety pin. She wore it to the airport, through security, to the departure gate. In the departure lounge she looked around to see who might need someone to connect with. She approached a black man across the way and commented casually about his t-shirt. He was wearing the team mascot from the same high school where her freshman son attends. They struck up a conversation about teenage sons and sports.

Fully aware of the pin on her lapel, she crossed the lounge again and sat next to an elderly black woman. Jill struck up a conversation. Before long the two women discovered they had Albuquerque in common, and interesting family systems and a love of cookies. After they boarded the plane and were en route to Dallas, Jill escaped her seatbelt and sought out her new friend. She handed her a card with her phone number and address on it. She told Ms. Johnson she would be bringing her cookies. “No you won’t!” Ms. Johnson responded in disbelief. “Oh yes I will,” Jill laughed!

When the plane reached Dallas and Jill was deboarding, the flight attendant made eye contact with Jill’s safety pin and then with Jill. Tears filled her eyes and she reached out and hugged Jill.

Jill sent me this text message: I think the safety pin has meant more to me as a reminder to be bold and seek out others. I was not afraid to look for those who might need a smile. Honestly I have not worn my cross necklaces lately-even before election. It just has too many negatives. But the safety pin felt right-be an ally, just be there, show that you care and are not judging. 

White people wear your safety pins! Don’t pretend to think that this enough…but understand fully that this is a beginning. You’re making a statement even to yourself. We have work to do…. We are going to need all the courage we can get and if a pin can poke our consciences and wakes us up to do something it’s worth it!

I just got another text message from Jill. “I just took my new friend, Ms. Johnson, cookies! It was very special.” Wow! Maybe the safety pin can also serve the same function as strings tied around our fingers, reminders to actually act on our best intentions.

 

You can read more about the pin:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-poignant-reason-people-are-wearing-safety-pins-after-brexit_us_5773da43e4b0352fed3e8368

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/11/11/safety-pins-brexit-donald-trump-election/93639074/

https://www.bustle.com/articles/195044-wearing-a-safety-pin-isnt-enough-here-are-8-concrete-ways-to-be-an-ally

 

A Short Correspondence on the Issue of Feeling Trapped

Dear Robynn,

I enjoyed your “Friday’s with Robynn” post (A Hidden Pearl. January 29,2016). It really resonated with me, so thank you for posting it. It was very thought provoking for me.

Earlier this year I experienced a very similar feeling to the one you had having returned from Thailand. My friends and I arrived back from India on January 5th. But my first day of work felt so meaningless. I sat behind my desk and stared at my computer thinking, “who care’s about organizing this stuff….!?!” It felt so pointless and so mundane. And it took me a long time to get back into the swing of things and be motivated again.

It brings back fears I have of being trapped and not being able to move and travel or something. But at the same time I wonder what is it that I hope to find overseas that I cannot find here? Being in India this Christmas was fantastic, but it showed me that even if I was to move back it would not be the same as all the memories I cherish and the experiences I wish to recreate there. As a TCK am I cursed to always be discontent where I am living? Am I always going to be trying to re-establish what I lost? It scares me.

I found that book you lent me very challenging; The Wisdom of Stability, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I love the idea of building that strong community with the people around me and knowing a place and its people intimately, but putting down roots and making that decision that this is where I will live and work and help to build the Lord’s kingdom is terrifying.

Thinking of the Pearl of Great Price is comforting in the midst of all this going on in my head and in my heart. Jesus is here in America just as much as He is in India and Pakistan or anywhere else for that matter. I feel a level of guilt for not allowing Jesus to be my stability and the center of my affection and the source of my contentment. I need to move away from this idea that I will find peace in any country of this world and move toward knowing I will find peace in the One who created this world.

I think its high time I started to search for this Pearl! And like you said, that hunt for Him will never disappoint!

Dear Young Third Culture Adult,

Thank you again for reading what I write! And thanks for so honestly interacting with it too. I love your heart.

I can so relate to the fears you’ve articulated. I still fear being stuck more than anything. Sometimes when I think about the decision we made to stay here in Kansas I feel a sense of panic begin to creep up from my toes. The idea that we are trapped here, in this house, in this city, in this country freaks me out. I have to constantly present my heart to Jesus asking for daily grace and new mercies.

I think I probably told you this story already…but when my husband Lowell and I decided to buy the little blue house on Colorado Street I resisted. I was anxious to move out of the trailer court only because I really wanted a basement here in Tornado Town. But the idea of BUYING felt so permanent and so forever and so stocks and barrels like. I felt claustrophobic. It stirred up anxiety in me. After we had put our signature on hundreds of papers, initialed countless more and signed our souls over to the bank Lowell and I went out for lunch. Most couples, I imagine, celebrate the purchase of their first home. For me it was a bittersweet time. I cried, wet, salty tears. I’ll never forget Lowell’s response. He put his hand across the table and gently took up my shaky hand. He looked me in the eyes and said what I longed to hear. This doesn’t mean anything. We are not stuck here. If Jesus calls us to Mongolia tomorrow we’ll sell the house. This is not a big deal. There was such reassurance in those words. I felt such relief.

You are not trapped. You are not stuck. I think the enemy of our souls piggybacks on this issue for the Adult TCK. He wants you to think you are stuck. He wants you to feel that a life in your passport country is a purposeless life. Whatever he can do to undermine your sense of worth and calling and purpose He will do. He comes to steal and kill and destroy. Jesus comes to give us life abundant—“a rich and satisfying life!” (John 10:10)

Returning from Thailand in January was difficult at first. But then out of the blue I started reading a book about prayer. It struck me that our purpose is sure in Christ. We are here for the Kingdom of God. We are here for His Glory. We are here to make Jesus famous. Those things have not changed—no matter where we live. But our enemy likes to erode our sense of who we are. He likes to confuse. He steals our purpose. He makes us feel like we have nothing to offer, that we are meant to live somewhere else. It’s the same argument he used in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. The enemy tries to tell us that God is cheating us, that God knows we thrive somewhere else but he’s stuck us here forever to rot away.

It’s changed the way I’m praying. I’m now asking God to protect my sense of purpose. I’m asking him to give me a divine satisfaction with the space he has for me. I’m asking for contentment and joy. And then I’m asking for protection over that satisfaction, over that contentment, over that sense of purpose. Understanding my sense of purpose as something the enemy is opposed to is a new thought for me but I’m trying this out and seeing Jesus victorious in it. To be honest, and this is surprising me even as I write it, I haven’t thought much about my purpose for the last couple of months since I started to pray that way. I think Jesus really is protecting that….declaring it off limits to the enemy of my soul who has tortured me there for so very many years.

Resist the guilt my friend. You wrote, “I feel a level of guilt for not allowing Jesus to be my stability and the center of my affection and the source of my contentment.”  What might feel like guilt is really an invitation. Jesus is inviting you into deeper places of stability and affection and contentment. He longs for you to find those things in him…

We are so in this together. I wish I could tell you that these things go away. I’m afraid this is your opportunity to find Jesus faithful for many years to come. This is your place of need. This is your thorn in the flesh. But I can also say with great rigor that Jesus WILL BE faithful at every turn. I’ve battled these things over and over again. I can see how Jesus has used this in my story to push me deeper into Who He Is! My faith has grown. I’ve learned that in this suffering He has been kind to me.

 

Approaching the Holy

holy-ground

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

For the place we are approaching is holy

Else we find ourselves

Treading on another’s dreams

More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.

We have to try to sit where they sit, to enter sympathetically into the pains and grieves and joys of their history and see how those pains and griefs and joys have determined the premises of their argument. We have, in a word, to be ‘present’ with them.”

Quote attributed to Max Warren in 1963 

*****

I just discovered this quote, written when I was only three years old. It is an amazing quote and a picture of the cultural humility that is critical in working across cultures, particularly when we are working in faith-based settings. In our fractured world, this feels more critical than ever.

Today, I want to sit with this quote and be reminded that this should be my posture every single day as long as I have breath. 

We Had a Prayer Meeting

On Wednesday evening we had a prayer meeting. Our church isn’t big on prayer meetings. Prayer, yes. Prayer meetings, not so much. They happen very rarely. And this was no ordinary prayer meeting. The leadership of the church called us together to pray for racial reconciliation. The announcement read like this: “In light of the racial unrest of this summer, please gather with our elders on Wednesday, August 31st at 7 p.m. to pray for racial reconciliation in the Church and in the world.”

True to my nature I was in the foyer of the church visiting with a friend and arrived in the sanctuary just as things were about to start. Lowell guided us to a circle across the room, close to the front, where we knew one single mom of young black sons. He wanted us to pray with her. The circle also included other friends we’ve known for a long time and two young black women we had never met. We quickly introduced ourselves, shook hands and sat down as our pastor stood to welcome people and begin the prayer meeting.

The format was pretty straightforward. We sang a song or two, Pastor Steve shared some scripture and some thoughts, suggested prayer requests were projected on the screen, and then we prayed in small groups around the room.

It would have been better had I had a chance to chat with the young black women before we started. It would have been much easier to pray about such weighty emotionally charged issues, issues that are far from black and white, had we known everyone in our small group. As it was I felt so uncomfortable and so awkward. Who were these women? What was the condition of their hearts on this topic? Were they students at K-state? Were they from Manhattan? Were they from places torn apart by fear, prejudice and violence? What were their stories? Who were they?

I joined in the prayer, praying haltingly, hesitantly, tiptoeing around the deeper places, always aware of the place in my stomach that felt so very uncomfortable. I wanted to leave the room. I wanted to find some excuse and leave the room. The discomfort and dis-ease I felt in the pit of my stomach were poignant. It didn’t help that the two black women for reasons unknown to me (were they shy? did they know anyone in the circle? were they feeling as uncomfortable as I was?) didn’t pray out loud.

Midway through the evening, Pastor Steve invited Dr. Kimmery Newsom to the front to share before launching the next round of requests and prayers. Dr. Newsom is my personal friend. A strong black woman with unbelievable drive and determination, she’s a professor at Kansas State University and knew most of the people at the meeting. Her quick wit and expressive face diffused the dynamic with laughter. You could feel the room exhale and relax.

Kimmery greeted the elephant in the room. “Many of you are probably feeling uncomfortable. And that’s ok.” She read scriptures about love: the love of God and the love we are called to. “They will know we are Christians by our love,” she quoted. And then she ended matter of factly with this, “This isn’t a race issue, it’s a sin issue.” When you’re told to love, not loving is a sin. It’s that simple.

Love compels us to join a circle that includes people we don’t know. Love is willing to feel uncomfortable. Love sits with the discomfort in the belly, admits it, attends to it, but chooses to stay in the room. Love holds steady. Love takes a risk. Love is willing to step into the places that feel uncertain, awkward, and vulnerable for the great cause of unity and reconciliation.We are called to love. In this way we participate in the healing of our country, our community and of our own soul’s core.

The prayer meeting finally came to an end. My distress did not destroy me. I was not undone. As soon as the final amen had been said I turned to the tall young woman sitting to my right and enquired after her. My inner disquiet was silenced and we chatted freely. The holy work of prayer still encircled us, giving space for true communion graced with love.

Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Yeah, so we had a prayer meeting.

The Cup of Mediocrity

mediocrity

“I would rather die of thirst than drink from the cup of mediocrity”

A number of years ago, this slogan from Stella Artois brewing company hung on our kitchen cupboard. It stayed there for at least four years. It captured the essence of what we felt life should be – a striving for adventure, discovery, excellence, and God. No matter that it was from a beer company — we adopted it as our own. That along with “Seize the day” and “Be a Critical Thinker.”

The signs were outer symbols of an inner fear — how could we raise children in a small town to think bigger than the town where we lived at the time? How could we ensure that they would understand the world as bigger than where they were — as bigger than a small school and a smaller library?

While living in Pakistan and Cairo this was not a fear. Their passports held stamps from around the world and they were already familiar interacting with those around them.They knew kids from many different countries and their diet ranged from Middle Eastern to Pakistani to street food. They could order items from a menu in Arabic and English, and their babysitter did not speak a word of English. They knew and interacted with people from different cultures, different belief systems, and different family dynamics.They had grown up under the shadow of minarets, just as I had, and the call to prayer was one of the only constants in their lives.

But that had all changed. We now lived in a lovely Victorian home on Main Street, U.S.A. They walked to an elementary school up a hill and played soccer on a field near by. We now had a television — although thankfully we had not yet discovered cable. We were living someone else’s dream. We had exchanged the extraordinary for the mundane; the exceptional for the mediocre – or so I thought.

Had we abandoned a life of change and growth for a mere existence of mediocrity? 

But mediocrity is like stability: It’s not about where you live, it’s about how you live. I have met plenty of people in my life who live fully and well in small towns; I have met others who lived life afraid and sheltered overseas. I have met families who, in the midst of suburbia, gave their kids a deep love for the world and the one who is different and I have met families in the midst of the developing world who despised those around them.

It’s not about where you live – it’s about how you live.

It’s about not swallowing the koolaid that gives us a formula for a successful life.

It’s about being aware and humble toward those around us.

It’s about making big and small choices that move us outside our comfort zones.

It’s about loving God and his world, no matter where our feet are planted.

I still hold to the slogan – I would still rather die of thirst than drink from the cup of mediocrity. But my definiton of mediocrity has changed, and that makes all the difference. 

Pondering Privilege – a Book Review

Pondering Privilege – Toward a Deeper Understanding of Whiteness, Race, and Faithby Jody Wiley Fernando could not come to us at a better time. As media and newsfeeds fill with images and stories, many of us who are white really want to know how to do things better. Many of us, as uncomfortable as it is, are beginning to acknowledge a system that benefits people based on the color of their skin.

Into this conversation and thought process comes Jody’s thoughtful, challenging, and well-written book.

At the very beginning, Jody states that the book “was born out of my life’s circumstances.” Jody is white, raised in the midwest, the place that some describe as the “heartland” of the United States. She married a Sri Lankan and through marriage and being accepted into his entire family, continues to encounter a completely different view of the world, a completely different way of being and of seeing.

A couple of years ago, Jody wrote a blog post called When White People Don’t Know They’re Being White. The post went viral, a clear indication that there was a lot to discuss and a single blog post was not enough. This volume takes the idea of the blog post and expands it exponentially, giving us relatable experiences and stories coupled with questions that challenge and convict. This makes it ideal for a small group discussion.

Pondering Privilege begins with something the author believes is critical to the conversation – and that is cultural humility. She gives several examples: “Instead of ‘get over it!’ cultural humilty responds ‘I don’t understand. Can you help me understand more deeply?” or “Intstead of replying with some variation of ‘quit whining’ to someone who feels wronged, cultural humility responds ‘I’m so sorry this hurts you. How can I walk alongside you in this? What do I need to learn?'”  

This first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book. Jody gently but persistently challenges those of us who are white on how we are relating to those who don’t share the same skin color, and how we can do better. She addresses things like the reality of white privilege, why we need to talk about race, myths and emotions that prevent us from having these conversations.

Through out the book, Jody doesn’t cast stones, instead she walks the journey with us. She acknowledges the hard work involved and how inadequate and insecure we often feel. Significant in the book are the practical tips that she gives. They are invaluable, particularly the “21-day Race Challenge.” The challenge is a gold mine of resources, including films, books, articles, and practical steps toward further understanding.

I highlighted these words at the end of the chapter on Tips to Help White People Talk about Race, words that are deeply transformative when lived out:

“There’s a final tip that I’ve found the most transformative. It’s not so much a tip as it is a magnificent gift because it cannot be forced or created but rather arises organically and unplanned. By far, the most life-changing way I’ve learned to speak of race is under the umbrella of love…..When you love someone of a different race, part of the process is listening, learning, accepting, and affirming this part of their experience as well. When we love well, we offer the words I’m listening and I’m sorry to each other without reservation.” 

Jody’s humility and heart are evident throughout the book. In a small section towards the end of the book, she writes about speaking from our scars instead of our wounds. Her words deeply moved me, and I offer them to you here:

“While the scars remain, the wounds no longer gape. In fact, as I speak from my scars, I find a strength within them born from the painful process of healing. If only more of Christ’s followers would understand the same from this broken racial road we walk – that when we admit weakness to one another, and walk toward each other in humility, Christ’s Kingdom grows stronger, and so do we.”

…understanding begins with learning and practicing a discipline of cultural humility and seeking to understand another’s experience without judgment. May more of us boldly begin to walk on this long and winding path.

Note: This book is written for a Christian audience with the hope of increasing productive conversations and action within largely white churches.

You can purchase Pondering Privilege here. 

*I received and Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of this book for review.

The Bubbles Inside our Heads

stereotypes

Every time I do a workshop on culturally responsive health care, I use the picture above. The audience sees it on a big screen and I give them a minute to take it in. Then I ask them “What’s wrong with this picture?” It’s not long until someone gets it; until someone says “They are stereotyping each other.”

Exactly. It’s pretty simple. 

I have quoted Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before, and I will continue to quote her wise words: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are incorrect; it’s that they are incomplete.” She doesn’t stop there. She goes on to say “No one is a single story.”

The cartoon characters have formed opinions based on stereotypes. Neither of them are capable of complexity, of seeing beyond the surface and trying to understand each other. It’s an excellent cartoon showing the great divide between cultures and the danger of stereotyping.

I call this picture “The Great Divide.” There is this chasm separating these two that has far more to do with the bubbles inside their heads than reality. Indeed, research tells us that if they did get to know each other, they may find they may have much in common.

In the book Who Speaks for Islam, tens of thousands of Muslims, both men and women, were interviewed in 35 countries. Here are just a few of the findings:

Counterintuitive Discoveries in Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think

Who speaks for the West?
Muslims around the world do not see the West as monolithic. They criticize or celebrate countries based on their politics, not based on their culture or religion.

Dream jobs
When asked to describe their dreams for the future, Muslims don’t mention fighting in a jihad, but rather getting a better job.

Radical rejection
Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustified.

Religious mainstream
Those who condone acts of terrorism are a minority and are no more likely to be religious than the rest of the population.

Admiration of the West
What Muslims around the world say they most admire about the West is its technology and its democracy — the same two top responses given by Americans when asked the same question.

Women interviewed overwhelmingly said that their top three concerns were political corruption, lack of unity among Muslims, and extremism. 

If we are honest with ourselves, we will recognize that much of the time we are like this cartoon. We live according to the bubbles inside our heads. None of us are immune. We form opinions and assumptions based on our cultural values, our religious views, our socioeconomic status, the media we listen to, watch or read, our countries of origin, the countries that adopted us, the families in which we were raised, and the list could go on.

Bubbles aren’t inherently bad — often they help us to make good choices; but other times they prevent us from seeing people as they really are. They float down through our brains and cloud our vision.

My African American friends often fall victim to head bubbles. At one time, the director of my program was an African American woman raised in Ohio and transplanted to the East Coast. She was amazing and had degrees after her name that I could only dream about. But no matter where it was, when she walked into a new doctor’s office or clinic, immediately the person behind the desk asked for her Medicaid card. The bubbles above their heads told them that she was black, so she was poor. She was black, so she must have public assistance in everything from food to insurance.

I have met some people who immediately assume if someone is from Mexico, they are undocumented.

Others who get onto planes and fear the woman in hijab who is sitting in front of them.

I’ve had people react to me according to who the bubbles in their heads tell them I am, and I am left frustrated and hurt that they were unwilling to find out more about me, unwilling to see a story beyond the surface.

Bubbles in our heads can convince us of all sorts of things. 

Bubbles 2

The challenge is to be aware of them, to recognize them for what they are: stereotypes and biases that are rooted in our subconscious, and must be recognized and confronted.

I have found that the best way to confront these bubbles is through relationships. Once we form friendships and respect for the one who is other, we are less likely to react according to the bubbles in our heads. We are more willing to see both people and situations with the complexity that they deserve. We see beyond the surface and respond to people as individuals with inherent worth. We learn to love them.

A couple of years ago, Robynn said this on Communicating Across Boundaries: “In the very insightful book, Cross Cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer encourages us to ‘suspend judgement’ –which essentially means the same thing as cultural humility. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t assign meaning. Don’t guess. Don’t interpret. Instead suspend judgement. Ask questions. Be curious. Learn. Learn. Learn.

As for me, besides being willing to learn and seek forgiveness, more and more, I am asking God to replace the bubbles in my head with the Jesus Prayer – a simple prayer that says “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me — A Sinner.”

It’s the best way I know to clear the bubbles and replace them with the love of God.  

Summer Fun Ideas that Promote Sanity and Potentially a Wider View of the World

These are ideas for (mostly) free stuff that can happen anywhere in the world. Teenage daughters should take note.

Go for a walk.

Create a scavenger hunt in your house, backyard or courtyard.

Make playdoh. Play with playdoh.

Brainstorm strange flavours of pancakes…make the top three strangest even if it means making up the recipes!

Make window paint. Paint on the windows!

Bubble bath!

Plan an at home spa day: make fancy drinks, give massages, do manicures and pedicures, put cucumber slices on your eyes, make homemade facial masks.

Go camping in your living room, or backyard, or courtyard!

Go for a picnic!

Make cards or postcards. Mail them to someone who might need a burst of joy!

Colour or paint.

Have ice cream Sundaes for supper.

Choose books to read that are written by International authors.            http://www.nypl.org/blog/2014/07/22/around-world-childrens-books

Work on a puzzle. (Puzzles can be expensive…but I buy them at thrift stores or garage sales. It’s true you don’t know if all the pieces are there but you’ll never know unless you do the puzzle!)

Watch an old western TV show or a Bollywood movie without the sound. Choose characters and dream up the dialogue as you go!

Play a board game but not monopoly. Monopoly causes family drama. Every time. These days we like Ticket to Ride, Forbidden Island, Pandemic, Probe.

Sidewalk chalk art!

Visit a pet store and pretend it’s a zoo!

Start a family book club: Each person share for 10 minutes about the book they’re reading. Serve cheese and crackers and lemon squash!

Have a water fight –with squirt guns or water balloons or spritzer bottles.

Throw a party—just because! Blow up balloons, hang paper chains or streamers, mix      juice with sprite and pour it in fancy glasses, invite friends over! Play silly party games (pin the tail on the monkey, upset the fruit basket, charades).

Create a fitness challenge in your front yard! Pull out the timer and see who can get            through it fastest, with their eyes closed, with their arms behind their backs, on one foot etc.

Make cookies or brownies with a secret ingredient!

Turn on some classical music and take turns telling the story of the movie the music            is a sound track for.

Pretend you’re a tourist in your own town. Go on a walking tour of a part of town you’ve never been to before. Try a local restaurant you’ve never tried.

Find a new recipe for an odd or interesting snack. Make it!

Set up paints and paper and watch an episode of Sister Wendy on DVD or on Youtube –A TCK in her own right.

Hand each kid a roll of masking tape—send them outside for an hour to see what they might make!

Read aloud from a really good book!

Try some games that kids in other countries play. Google it! There are tons of ideas out there. Here’s a simple spot to start if you have younger kids:    http://beafunmum.com/2012/11/games-from-around-the-world/

Create a new beverage! What would chai mixed with lemonade be like? Or Orange Fanta with orange sherbet?

Make a pillow fort. Make a really big pillow fort!

Pull out the scissors, construction paper, a pile of old newspapers or magazines and             the glue: Collage!!

Visit an international food store. Choose a snack from some place faraway that you’ve never had before!

Visit the Aquarium Supply Store near you and look at the fish.

Hang a white sheet from the side of your house or garage and use a projector to watch a movie. Make popcorn. Serve root beer floats.

Geocaching—see if that’s a thing where you live. Try it with friends or family.

Borrow kayaks or canoes from friends and explore waterways near you.

Presuming someone in your family has a smart phone have a selfie competition. Make a duck face, a sad face, a I’ve just lost my pet face, an ecstatic face, an oh no my ice cream is melting face.

Play Chopped or Cupcake Wars at home in your own kitchen.

Pick a country—plan a pretend trip there. Research where you’d go, where you’d stay, how you’d get there. Rent or download a movie that features that country. Check out books from the library about it. Make a meal or a snack from that country (google it!). Do you know someone from that place or someone that’s been there? Invite them over and ask them to tell you about it.

Climb a tree.

Fly a kite.

Visit your local zoo.

Get multiple copies of a one act play. Or make copies of a segment from  Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Host a reader’s theatre complete with props and costumes.

Sit down as a family with a very large piece of butcher-block paper. Make a family history timeline.

Invite friends over for a joke telling night. Each guest brings their best ice cream topping and their best joke. Dish up the ice cream and prepare for the belly laughs.

With the help of YouTube learn a Bollywood dance!

Sit down with a stack of thank you cards. Think of random people that live thankless   lives. Send them a card. Do this with a friend or with your family.

Set up a lemonade stand. Use the money you make to do something frivolous as a family.

Get out a map. Pick a place within a 50 mile/100 kilometer radius. Go for a drive.

 

Explore this town or place as a tourist might. Take pictures.

A Hymn, a Flag, and a Father-in-Law

 

The lights dim in the First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach, Florida. Music begins to play, and the music director welcomes us to the service.

And then we begin to sing.

My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

We are singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a patriotic favorite that links parts of the books of Isaiah and Revelation with the American Civil War. A multimedia show of flags and stars swirls on the walls around us. We are mixing our Lord with our Flag and the triumphant tune and well-dressed choir begs us sing along with them and their red, white, and blue.

He is trampling out the vintage, where the grapes of wrath are stored.

I want to throw up my hands in frustration; my sense of being “other” is at its height. This God and country connection is too much — I can’t do it.

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

The tribute continues with homage to the flag and an admittedly touching short video interviewing a gentleman who lost his brother to World War II. But I am still impatient, willing myself to be gone, challenging the God and Country patriotism that marks this part of the country, that marks a Memorial Day weekend. I miss my Orthodox Church and worshiping with people from Russia, Greece, Romania, Lebanon, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and more. I tap my foot, frustrated and caught up in my frustration.

Until I hear a motion beside me and turn to look. I am sitting beside my father-in-law and he has raised his hand to brush away the tears forming in his eyes.

My father-in-law, Richard Gardner, is a good man. He served in the US Airforce until retirement, including tours in Vietnam, Germany, and many parts of the United States. He worked hard, sometimes working not only his airforce job, but also another in order to provide for a family of five growing boys.

My father-in-law made sacrifices and so did his wife and family. His family felt the absence of a father during his tour in Vietnam. They moved across the country and the world, uprooting a family of seven many times over. Their orders came from a military machine and when they said go, you packed up and you went.

I struggle with the notion of Christianity as a political force that is uniquely American. I struggle with a definition that includes allegiance to a country and flag as opposed to what I believe is a transformative gospel, indiscriminately available to all people at all times. My faith has never been rooted in something as fragile as a nation.

“The identification of religion with nation and nation with religion is something Christians should avoid at all costs. It is a direct violation of the growth of a body in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28).”

But right now, that’s not what this is about. Right now, it’s about my father -in-law.

To my father-in-law, memories of the past are clearer than memories of yesterday. The aging process, that process that respects no person, but creeps in and takes over the wealthy, the poor, the strong, and the weak, is quickly taking over. I am aware as I look at him that he will not be with us forever, and a rush of affection comes over me for this man. I am convicted and humbled – my frustration fading along with the strains of the music.

As I put my hand on the man beside me, as I see his tears, and feel his poignant memories of times gone by, I realize that I can and I do honor this man and his service.

Because people and relationships are always more important than ideas. 

It comes down to being capable of complexity; of recognizing that even as I disagree with the God and Country ethos that defines our military and much of our nation, I can and do honor the men and women who serve.

There’s another reason I am convicted. And it is this: I’m constantly asking people to be okay with paradox and complexity when it comes to the Middle East, when it comes to third culture kids, when it comes to those things I care deeply about. Can I then be willing to be equally capable of complexity when it comes to things that others care about? 

The hymn, video, and homage to the flag are over. My father-in-law still sits beside me, lost in his own world of memories.

The strains of the last lines stay in my mind, because I believe them. Not in the way that the author of the hymn intended, but in the way I know them to be true.

His truth is indeed marching on. And I am humbled by that Truth. 

*quote from Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens

Always Too Foreign

diaspora blues

On Mother’s Day, my youngest son enters the house. “Today is a good day to read Between Worlds” he says.

I look at him puzzled. “Why’s that?” The answer comes quickly: “Because I’m your son.”

For better or for worse, we who have lived between pass on the in between to our children. We who are “always too foreign” give birth or adopt children who will absorb this, and cry out in their own pain.

So I go looking for expressions of between, and I don’t have to look far. I find a brilliant Nigerian poet, and after two poems I know she is my favorite.  I offer them to you who live between. You – the foreigner. You – the one who absorbed your parents’ in between.

At the embassy,

they never warned us that some days, 

America will feel so lonely,

we will gather our mother tongue,

hastily swallowing words that reminds us of home to keep warm.

******

i have a special place in my heart for children who calmly translate for their parents. so proud of how they switch their tongue, carrying two languages in their mouth without ever feeling like their parents are a burden. bless your hearts.

*****

So, here you are

too foreign for home

too foreign for here.

never enough for both.

“Diaspora Blues” by Ijeoma Umebinyuo

Note: You can buy Ijeoma’s book of poetry here. 

To You Whom I’ve Never Met


Last week, my husband came home with a package. After tearing off the brown paper, I opened a beautiful, decorative, handmade sign for our home. Someone who I’ve never met, who has never seen my world, took the time to make it for me. I couldn’t believe her kindness and generosity. And so I began thinking about so many of you, you whom I’ve never met. You who email, comment, and encourage. This is for all of you. 

To You Whom I’ve Never Met….

I read your messages and I alternate between weeping and laughing. We share so much – yet we’ve never met. From boarding school tears and laughs to awkward first days in our passport countries it is like we are brothers and sisters.

And yet – we’ve never met.

We know the joy of international terminals, and the tears of the word ‘goodbye.’ We share the cynicism that overpowers when we confront narrow world views and the fresh breeze that comes of kindred spirits communicating. We know what it is to grow up too quickly and yet be considered immature in many ways. We don’t have a clue what it would be to stay in the same place for life and yet we partially envy it.

We share all these things – and yet we’ve never met.

I receive your emails and your messages, your tweets and your texts. We might share our thoughts through a couple words, or through long paragraphs that detail our stories. No matter – there is a common thread that binds us.

We come from places of faith and places of doubt, from different countries and political persuasions, but something binds us together.

We know what it is to live in a world between, we know what it is to communicate across boundaries. Whether those boundaries be in our back yard or across the ocean, we navigate them regularly and learn through the hard and the easy.

And yet, we’ve never met.

Others of you have stayed in the same place all your lives. Yet, you read and connect with my words with warmth and empathy. You encourage me to be settled but not stagnant, to love places that are near and far.

Thank you. For being a part of this journey; for living between worlds so well; for being okay with home not always being a ‘place’; for laughing at the funny and crying at the difficult; for loving the world and understanding negotiation; for getting what it is to be ‘other’ and using that to make a difference. Thank you for being the third culture kid, global nomad, and lover of the world that you are.

Maybe someday we’ll meet, but until we do, I’m grateful. 

And Jenn Sforza, thank you for my beautiful sign! 

Donald Trump, Walt Kowalski and Hope for Transformation

What happens when a bitter racist is transformed?

In the movie Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood) is a bitter old man living out his years in a neighborhood that has changed from working-class white to Hmong and Chinese.  He does not like it and makes no pretense of civility and no apology for being an open racist. No one is safe from this behavior, particularly the Hmong mother who lives next door and who is victim to Kowalski’s growling and racial slurs every time they happen to be on the porch at the same time.

In the course of the movie, his character changes and he gradually makes peace with the neighborhood, getting to know the teenagers who live next door and becoming both friend and protector. A scene showing him at a Hmong feast eating food he has never seen before (and still makes no pretense of liking) is a beautiful image of the grudging respect he is gaining for these neighbors.

As I have watched areas throughout the United States change, I have seen a lot of Walt Kowalskis and a lot of ‘Wanda’ Kowalskis; men and women at odds with neighborhoods in which they have deep ties.  They grieve for a neighborhood that was and struggle with the neighborhood that is.  The words ‘us and them‘ are present in their speech and they are angry and fearful. The world is a scary place to them. Some of them move through a slow process of change; for others it’s too difficult.  The movie initially portrays the tension and hatred of a man at odds with his changing neighborhood, moves on to the slow process of change and ultimately brings the audience to an act of deep love and ultimate sacrifice as Walt serves as a human shield to protect his neighbors.  Walt gives up his life in the process of protecting people that he used to hate. He gradually accepts and, dare I say, loves the community that surrounds him.

Communities in the United States have changed and they will continue to change.  A community health center that I work with saw three thousand patients from 40 different countries and 60 different language groups in  a 6-month time period. That is just one of many examples of our changing world. As the world continues to move closer, the transformation process that Walt Kowalski undergoes in the two-hour film is worth watching and modeling. He changes because he gets to know the people who surround him, he begins to see beyond visual differences to what is underneath. He begins to see the “other” as human. 

Although the movie is eight years old, I have thought about it a lot in past months and I want to watch it again. Just below the surface in America is a deep fear and dislike, often hatred, for the one who is other. The campaign of a presidential hopeful is built on promoting these fears across the country. Over and over, we hear people say that they like Donald Trump because he “tells it like it is.” But what he “tells” is deeply troubling. His rhetoric is about walls and isolation, about spewing racism and bigotry, about hating anything that is not like him. 

Consider this from a NY Times op-ed piece by Timothy Egan: With media complicity, Trump has unleashed the beast that has long resided not far from the American hearth, from those who started a Civil War to preserve the right to enslave a fellow human to the Know-Nothing mobs who burned Irish-Catholic churches out of fear of immigrants.When high school kids waved a picture of Trump while shouting “Build a wall” at students from a heavily Hispanic school during a basketball game in Indiana last week, they were exhaling Trump’s sulfurous vapors. They know exactly what he stands for.

Donald Trump is Walt Kowalski and he has found favor with many. Would that he would sit down and watch the movie so he can learn what transformation looks like, what it is to learn to love people and ultimately give your life for them.

I have little hope that Trump will do that. Nothing so far has touched his conscience and moved him to apologize for anything he has said. But what about those thousands who have the same thoughts but are not as high profile?  In the character of Walt Kowalski we see hope for transformation and change. Is it just Hollywood, or can we hope for the same redemptive stories in our own neighborhoods? I hope with all my heart we can.

Note: Some of this content comes from one of my earliest blog posts. I revisited it as I was thinking about much of what I have heard in past weeks.  

How to Build a Bridge

constructing-a-bridge-v2

In an old book titled Observations on the Re-building of London Bridge by John Seaward, he says this:

It is generally acknowledged that the construction of a commodious bridge over a wide, impetuous river is one of the noblest efforts of human genius. In no country that has made any advances in civilization has the art of bridge-building been neglected. On the contrary, it has everywhere been esteemed for its great utility and has engaged the attentive care of enlightened men.

I want to focus on these words: In no country that has made any advances in civilization has the art of bridge-building been neglected.  I’m struck by how much this applies to work of non-physical bridge-building and how wise we would be to pay attention to these words. If we have any hope of moving forward, bridges need to be built. We need to learn the art of bridge-building.

I sat in a clinic this morning talking to a man who is building bridges in the Muslim community. He builds these bridges person by person, activity by activiy, conversation by conversation. His passion is contagious and everything he says reflects a love for this community.

As we talked he told me some things about the community that I hadn’t heard before. A young Muslim man, beaten to a pulp while he was walking down the street; a Muslim mom in hijab out walking with her baby in a stroller, assaulted in broad daylight; Muslim food service workers being told they are “F%&*in terrorists” as they give change back to their customers. Those are only a couple of the stories that I heard.

Every single one of the people we talked about came from Syria.

Think about that for a minute. You have to be an ostrich to not see what is going on in Syria. Ghost towns with bombed out buildings; people fleeing with only the clothes on their backs; stories of families separated, of children lost. It challenges every notion we have of humanity.

And all of them came from Syria. 

At one point he said: “Few people have any idea of the extent of stress present in the Muslim community.” 

I came away wondering “In what universe is this okay?” I came away wondering how this is any different than ISIS. I came away choking on rage. I came away thinking that “bridge-building” is no longer just a nice idea, it’s an essential part of civilization. You don’t ignore the art of bridge-building.

“Bridge is not a construction but it is a concept, the concept of crossing over large spans of land or huge masses of water, and to connect two far-off points, eventually reducing the distance between them.”*

There is an art to building bridges.

I am not an engineer, but I do know how to look things up on google. And there are a few things about physical bridges that can be used when we think about bridge-building in our communities.

Know what you want your bridge to accomplish. Understand why it is important to build a bridge. Maybe it’s easy to understand, maybe it’s about making a community stronger, or offering health care services. But maybe it’s more difficult to know what you want to accomplish. Be able to say in clear language why you think bridge-building is so critical in our world.

Phrases to use: “I’d like to understand” “How can I help you understand why this is important?”

Understand the ‘load point’. The load point is the area on a bridge that needs to be able to sustain the most stress. This is critical. What are the areas where you see the biggest gap or divide in thinking? Those will take the most work, so start with the easier pieces. Perhaps the easy points are around food and kids — focus on the commonalities and then move into the harder things.

Phrases to use: “Tell me more.” “What do you think?” “How else can I help?”

Gather the materials – or the right people. Everyone doesn’t know how to build bridges, but gathering the right people gives credibility and strength to your bridge.

Phrases to use: “Can you help?” “Thank you for being a part of this.” “Thank you for going out of your comfort zone.”

Build the bridge step by step, activity by activity, conversation by conversation. Bridge-building doesn’t happen overnight. A lot of people died building the Golden Gate Bridge until the bridge builders put a safety net under it. Be willing to be patient. Rejoice in small victories and progress that seems slow.

Phrases to use: “I want to learn.” I want to understand.” “I trust you.” “I’ve got your back, I’ll stick up for you.”

Evaluate and learn. Test your bridge, and if it breaks look at why and how. Ask questions, and humbly admit what you don’t know. Keep on building and learning and growing. An Arab proverb says this: “Those who would build bridges, must be willing to be walked on.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that proverb.

Phrases to use: “What else might work?” “What have we not thought of?” “How can we do it better?”

And now I speak to fellow Christians.  Frankly, I’m tired of excuses, I’m tired of fear mongering and hoarding, I’m tired of people saying “we must be practical.” I can’t help thinking what our world would be like had the God of the universe decided to be practical. He surely would not have decided on a virgin birth; he definitely would have dismissed the idea of death on a cross; and as for loving the likes of us? Forget it.

Because this I know, and I know it well: We know the ultimate Bridge-designer who bridged heaven and earth so that we could find our way. So we are called to build bridges and tear down walls. There is no other way. 

Note: When I first wrote this, I didn’t realize that I was writing it on the anniversary of the Chapel Hill Shootings. One year ago on February 10, 2015, Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha were shot in their apartment complex. Shot for being Muslim.

*The History of Bridges