Pressing toward collaboration

26 Sep

A couple months ago, I was driving through Austin on the way to a conference for work. I glanced at an overpass to see these words scrawled across the concrete wall:

“Collaboration is currency”

The phrase stunned me with its elegant simplicity.

Encouraging community collaboration, dialogue, and connection is a huge part of what I do as an outreach-oriented professional working and living in Waco’s nonprofit world. Still, I regularly struggle to clearly outline the role and value of collaboration in the work I do. I came into this position with well-intentioned ideas about the importance of collaboration, and yet have struggled to pursue earnest, engaged collaboration as much as I had hoped.

As I strain toward being a part of the renewal of this broken and beautiful city, perhaps it’s easier to begin with an honest reminder of what is not currency.

My privilege is not currency. My whiteness is not currency. My femininity is not currency. These are things which I admit, however uncomfortably, that I have used to my advantage for social or professional gain at various points in my journey. But collaboration – collaboration is a different story, and an entirely different currency, because it doesn’t belong to me. I can’t own it, steal it, or borrow it. Collaboration is currency which may be freely used, exchanged, and debated by all – which the reduced and exclusive currencies of culturally normative gender, race, wealth, or health status cannot. Regardless of my background and experience, genuine collaboration insists that my voice is not the one that matters, and that collectively we can achieve, learn, grow, and heal more together than we can apart.

While collaboration may seem like a sexy term – and we may be tempted to extol its virtues and slip it into conversation to further our agendas – collaboration lived out is anything but sexy. It’s messy, confusing, and hard to define. As soon as we find ourselves patting each other on the back for “collaboration well done,” we find another voice that has been excluded, another empty chair that should have been filled and pulled up to the table. Collaboration forces me to come to terms with what I lack. It reminds me that I do not know my neighbor, and if I don’t know my neighbor, I cannot possibly love my neighbor well.

Using collaboration as currency starts to chip away at the uneven playing field to which we arrive each day – a field which benefits me unfairly, to the detriment of others. Collaboration, however amorphous and hard to define, holds great promise for restoring dignity and humanity to people whose unique voices have been silenced for too long. Collaboration rightly understood is the only way out of the predicament in which we find ourselves. Trapped by isms, by poverty, by hunger, by finger-pointing and poor-blaming, collaboration is like a first awe-inspiring glance into the Grand Canyon. We may be impressed by its beauty and potential, but none of us are so foolish as to think it can be conquered or wrested away for our own purposes.

What I’m reading (and watching) this week (1/31)

31 Jan

Finally, after a few months of topsy-turvy transition, I am back to becoming the voracious reader I was destined to be. (I’m convinced my mother must have read to me while I was in the womb, because I’m pretty sure I came out with a story in my heart and a book in my hands.) Here’s an overview of some of the written words I’m enjoying this week.

I am challenged by this article which communicates the role of wonder in leading us to worship. (I’m always thrilled to find good articles about wonder – it’s one of my favorite concepts in the realm of Christian spirituality.)

This small article – about the power of a loyal friend in dark times – moved me deeply, as do many contributions to The Good Women Project.

The current crisis in Mali is, perhaps for the first time, being given more attention in the international media. This video project is a fantastic exploration of the potential of music – of beauty, really – to respond to and silence violent voices. (The subtitles are in French, but here’s an article explaining the video.)

A friend of mine posted this article about a young artist in Syria offering his art as a transformational response to a norm of violence.

I’ve had a maddeningly short attention span for books in the past few weeks, but I’m moving through The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling and benefitting from John Stott’s clarity and conviction in his exploration of the Christian life.

Happy reading, friends! Please feel free to share any great reads or recommendations in the comments!

Texas, here I come.

17 Jan

I’m moving back to Waco in a few short days! Here are the four simple reasons why:

1) Blue Bell ice cream

2) Breakfast tacos

3) Shiner beer

4) Low cost of living

OK so those aren’t really the reasons (but they very well could be).

For any of you who are curious (Uncle Keith? Grandma? Any of my other four readers? I’m looking at you), I’m not exactly sure where I’ll be working in Waco, or how long I’ll be there. I know I will get to spend some time with adorable kids (looking at you, Lawsons!), and enjoy the company of dear friends. For now, I’m sure that it’s the place my heart is telling me to go, where there is much potential for growth and dreaming and community. I invite you to pray with me as I search out what is next for me on my journey, and know that I look forward to what is to come – bends and twists and turns included – with faith and excitement. I feel incredibly blessed to move back to a place with a fantastic farmers market, good coffee, and favorable climate (I’ll take the heat to this Chicago wind any day…), and am glad that it won’t take too much time to feel like home.

What do you desire?

13 Jan

“…Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires…” (Song of Solomon 2:7)

Bet you didn’t think I’d start a post with that one, did you?

At the risk of stepping on some toes…our Christian culture has taken this beautiful wisdom too far. When applied to romantic relationships, it’s true that we often rush into things or stir up love before the time is right. But what about other kinds of loves? What about other desires? I see evidence that we have started undermining this verse and telling half-truths about what is in our hearts because we’re afraid of desire.

During my senior year of college, my desire to move to Texas and live in community on a wacky little farm was fanned into a flame, even when strategic thinking and “long-term career planning” told me it was a terrible idea and would get me nowhere. I took the leap and experienced the most exciting, growing, life-giving year of my life. While at the farm, my desire to pursue getting some counseling was strong and persistent, even though my head told me it was a stupid idea, and that I didn’t have enough problems to merit such drastic measures. Because I heeded my desire and not my “logic,” I met an amazing therapist who pointed me to healing and an increased dependence on the grace of God, and who helped wholeness grow in my heart.

Our hearts can deceive us, yes. But so can our minds, especially when our hearts are not healthy and alive, and when we work to deaden desire instead of directing it to God-honoring ends. Let’s not forget the beautiful Scripture that reminds us that our hearts are the wellspring of life! (See Proverbs 4:23.) And how can we miss this desire-soaked prayer? “O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear” (Psalm 10:17).

When we are in Christ, our deepest desires are not usually evil, they are not deserving of our perpetual distrust, and they often reveal the most tender, important truths about who we are and how God has made us. Desire is beautiful, and should be encouraged and nurtured to grow in directions that are healthy and beneficial to our flourishing as Christ-followers. We can embrace desire, or we can lock it up – but we can’t ever quite get rid of the key.

“When the desire is too much to bear, we often bury it beneath frenzied thoughts and activities or escape by dulling our immediate consciousness of living. It is possible to run away from the desire for years, even decades, at a time, but we cannot eradicate it entirely. It keeps touching us in little glimpses and hints in our dreams, our hopes, our unguarded moments.” – Gerald May, The Awakened Heart

This year, I want to grow in acknowledging and welcoming my desire when it is healthy – even when it is for things I cannot yet have or have no certainty of gaining in the future. I want to be someone who asks the question, who approaches our God with my whispered, “Please? What about this, is this for me?” (Even when the answer is no, or not yet.)

And when my desire seems overwhelming or confusing, I can cling to this promise:

“And the Lord will guide you continually

and satisfy your desire in scorched places

and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water,

whose waters do not fail.”

– Isaiah 58:11

[This post is inspired by some of the insights in John Eldredge’s book Desire: the journey we must take to find the life God offers.]

A favorite hymn

11 Dec

This hymn is particularly sweet to me these days not because I’m enduring an intense trial or hardship, but because I am deeply comforted by the reminder that the One who created the hills and the valleys is with us in the midst of ours.

I’m reminded that, as unfortunate as I may feel it is, we don’t tend to apparate or magically appear at the mountaintop places. We usually have to climb to reach the mountains. I hiked up a 14er in Colorado once. There were some tough spots, and the altitude had me feeling a little heady at times, but mostly I was struck by the repetitiveness of the motion it took to reach the top. All it took to get there was putting one foot in front of the other, over and over, enough times to eventually see something extraordinarily beautiful.

This part of my climb often feels monotonous and slow and uncertain, but every time I think I want to take a detour, my Guide and Comforter shows up, gently but firmly nudging me forward. There’s something beautiful ahead, if only I will keep my feet moving. No matter how unspectactular the views from where I currently sit, I’m reminded of a throned and sceptered King whom I am so blessed to love, in whom I “live and move and have my being.”

In The Hours

1. In the hours of pain and sorrow,
When the world brings no relief
When the eye is dim and heavy,
And the heart oppressed with grief
While blessings flee, Savior Lord we trust in Thee!
While blessings flee, Savior Lord we trust in Thee!

2. When the snares of death surround us,
Pride, ambition, love of ease
Mammon with her false allurements,
Words that flatter, smiles that please
Then ere we yield, Savior Lord be Thou our shield
Then ere we yield, Savior Lord be Thou our shield

3. When forsaken in distress,
Poor despised and tempest-tossed
With no anchor here to stay us,
Drifting, sail and rudder lost
Then save us Thou, who trod this earth with weary brow
Then save us Thou, who trod this earth with weary brow

4. Thou the hated and forsaken,
Thou the bearer of the cross
Crowned of thorns and mocked and smitten,
Counting earthly gain but loss
When scorned are we, We joy to be the more like Thee
When scorned are we, We joy to be the more like Thee

5. Thou the Father’s best beloved,
Thou the throned and sceptered King
Who but Thee should we adoring,
All our prayers and praises bring?
So blessed are we, Savior Lord in loving Thee
So blessed are we, Savior Lord in loving Thee

(I highly recommend the version by Indelible Grace on their live album – which you can download legally for FREE from Noisetrade here!)

May the God who is King of both the mountains and the valleys bless you and keep you this evening.

“You are looking fat and beautiful!”

26 Nov

This statement issued enthusiastically from the mouth of my fifth-grade friend Austin.

I stared at him, stunned. I replayed it in my head. Yes, yes he just said what I think he said. And it also wasn’t the first time someone had said it to me.

But let’s back up about a week, when I was having a conversation with some Liberian friends about physical descriptions. Jessica and I explained that to call someone fat in the United States is extremely offensive; mostly, we just use euphemisms like “heavyset” or “husky” or even “overweight,” but never fat. Armah, Munsemah, and Roland were surprised. What do you mean? they wondered. But it’s just a description! they protested. They informed us that Liberians routinely describe each other as fat, huge, or very big when the description is fitting, no value judgment attached.  According to my friends – who, as twenty-something males, I trust to know their stuff – telling someone they’re “looking fat” or “getting fat” is synonymous with saying “you look healthy.” Fat – or, well, “fat” – is good, people. Looking healthy means you must be eating well, eating well means you’re not poor, and having such obvious physical evidence that you’re not poor is a status symbol. Crazy, right? Or maybe not crazy at all.

But what happens when a culture, like mine, goes too far? When we tried to explain the overweight/obesity epidemic in the United States to our Liberian friends, they didn’t really get it. I don’t think they had ever seen an overweight child, or obese adults who need special tools and adjustments to complete everyday tasks. In a country still struggling to feed all its people in the aftermath of civil war, routine, intentional, unnecessary overeating is still not something people can personally understand. (Neither, thankfully, is fast food.) This conversation raised some hard questions for me. What does eating well really mean? Are there any universal values about food and food culture? Should there be? Has American food culture overstated the need for variety and protein from meat sources, and is it thus the source of people moving further and further away from eating what grows and is available in their local foodshed? How can I offer my insight on good food and nutrition when my country is doing such a terrible job with those concepts (and when I love the occasional “bad food” as much as anyone)?

Food culture in Liberia is something I was still grasping to understand at the end of three months there. I tried lots of new things: new-to-me preparations of cassava, potato greens, bitter ball, fresh coconut, palava sauce; and enjoyed many locally-available foods that had never tasted fresher or more delicious: papaya, avocado, oranges, bananas, plantains. Liberians have a saying that if you haven’t eaten rice, you haven’t eaten. Rice is the biggest staple food, with cassava next in line in order of importance. But unfortunately, Liberia produces very little of its own rice – despite adequate soil conditions and rainfall – which many Liberians chalk up to a lack of investment and desire on the part of both the government and individual citizens. Being a farmer is perceived as being a glamorous job precisely nowhere in the world, and Liberia is no exception. In fact, in a local language called Kpelle, the word for “farmer” is used as almost a slur or derogatory word for anyone who engages in agriculture or is economically poor.

In reflecting on all of these conversations, it continues to amaze me how words that we think have such clear images and definitions – words like fat, healthy, successful – can mean something completely different halfway across the world. “Embarrassing” means something completely different to Liberians than it does to Americans. To describe something as embarrassing commonly means that it is bothersome or irritating. Before I figured this out, people would say things like, “my leg is embarrassing me today,” or “those bees were really embarrassing us in the garden,” and I would be totally confused. Here’s one it took us weeks to figure out: when we were shoveling manure onto our vegetable beds to fertilize them, a teacher came by and told us that the manure was “embarrassing the school.” Oh no! we thought. Jessica and I were dismayed that we had possibly done something to make the school look bad or damage its image…until we figured out that the teacher was just trying to tell us the manure was stinking up the school. Phew! That was a big relief.

Here are some other favorite Liberianisms:

“I’ll carry you there” = I’ll accompany you to where you’re going (a particularly funny image when spoken by a child if you don’t know the implied meaning)

“Rogue” = thief

“Spoiled” = ruined or broken; can be used to describe any object or tool (not limited to food)

“Vexed” = angry; that one really cracked me up for the British tone it lent to impassioned conversation…

“I beg you” = “watch it,” or “I’m warning you!”

Also, you can add “yeah” or “O” to the end of pretty much anything you want to. For example, “thank you yeah,” “sorry O,” and “tomorrow O” are all common expressions. I caught myself saying “that’s good O!” between mouthfuls at the dinner table upon my arrival at home, which my parents didn’t really seem to appreciate…they said I sounded Canadian.

Life in Liberia

28 Oct

Two weeks ago I had an experience I’m sure will become one of my dearest memories of my time in Liberia. Mr. Shannon, the farm manager who we love working with in the garden, invited us to a Friday service of his Catholic congregation in a village called Meme Town. It is no exaggeration to say that it was one of the most stunningly beautiful services I’ve attended at any church in a long time. After getting lost in someone’s potato green field, we found our way to the small church building, constructed simply and neatly, with stuccoed walls and just a few wooden-plank pews. We were greeted by Mr. Shannon, and the priest who introduced himself as Adrian. He is Irish, lanky and kind-faced. He asked us our names and a few other pleasantries. When I said we were from the United States he smiled, and said, “there’s no hiding that” with a twinkle in his eye. He ushered us in and we sat down, greeted by some smiles we knew and others that were unfamiliar, and received some giggles from the gaggle of children across the aisle. The room was quiet, reverent – even the children didn’t make a peep. We began with some songs, none of which I knew, but mostly with one or two repeated lines. The form was call and response, the truths glittering like gems from the strong, unashamed voices of the congregation. Father Adrian intermittently voiced a prayer or an inspiration, which would then morph into a simple repeated chorus. He invited the Holy Spirit’s presence, invoking the name of Jesus with deep tenderness. He invited us all to pray aloud and led us in prayer, ending with the Lord’s prayer and several Hail Mary’s. He nearly chanted, each thought a liturgy, and yet so fresh and genuine. Then he went to the front of the chapel (he had been leading worship from the middle, standing amongst the congregation), and picked up a Bible, asking those present to talk about what was inside. Church members voiced favorite stories and scriptures, ways the Word of God has changed their hearts and lives. It was moving and warm. The priest has such obvious, unashamed love and respect for the parishioners in his care – as they shared, he picked out key truths, exhorting and encouraging each person who shared. He even acted out some of the Scriptures, showing a sense of humor that spanned all age ranges and crossed a culture divide with great ease. He grasped Liberianisms so proficiently, with a naturalness that could only come from deep commitment, and as a result his service was a real joy to participate in. The raw and tender beauty of the gospel was clearly displayed, and witnessing the sincere worship of this community who deeply love Jesus and one another is a gift I will never forget.

I’ve also had the opportunity to attend Sunday services at a few different Baptist churches, which have all had animated, enthusiastic choirs and preaching that has sounded more to me like screaming than anything else. Jessica and I have also been teaching Sunday School on campus for the 11th and 12th graders, and that has been challenging (they ask good, hard questions!) and fun.

The task of setting up a garden designed to meet the needs of the school cafeteria is progressing smoothly, and we have planted or transplanted in almost every square inch of the garden space. The work is increasingly rewarding as we become better friends with our coworkers, who with the exception of Mr. Shannon are all in their twenties. I am grateful for all the opportunities we get to encourage them and admire their hard work; they are doing a spectacular job. Jessica recently remarked to someone that this garden is beginning to look like a second Garden of Eden, and I can’t disagree! Ok perhaps that is hyperbole, but we are so pleased with how well all of the vegetables we’ve helped plant are coming along, and look forward to their harvest in a few weeks. Jessica is continuing to work with the oxen, and they are now comfortable around people and doing very well with halter training, during which they learn to respond to voice commands and the body positioning of the teamster (the person leading the ox). It’s pretty amazing to think that just two months ago, they were skittish, unruly, testosterone-filled three-year-old bulls, and now they are quickly becoming a working team!

It’s sad to think that our time here is already nearing an end, and to imagine all that will grow and bloom and fruit and wither in the garden without us here. I feel so grateful that I got to spend an entire year at the World Hunger Relief Farm in Texas and participate in the full-year growing season; three months here in Liberia is simply not enough! In the past 16 months I’ve spent as a fledgling farmer, the rhythm and pace that farming requires has taught me a new way to think of time. I’m learning to measure time based on sunny days and rainy days, prolific germination and pest damage, rather than seconds, minutes, and hours. My understanding of how long a task should take is becoming more flexible, and my patience for setbacks and unforeseen obstacles is increasing.

I look forward to continuing to invest time in the garden and in this great community, and feel blessed to be here and to be receiving so much more than I could ever hope to give.

(Apologies for the lack of pictures – the internet is too slow for uploading so it may have to wait until I’m back in the US!)

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