Category Archives: Relationships

10 Statements That Shaped My Life | Perhaps They Can Yours, Too

Julian Fellowes’ superb historical piece drama, Downton Abbey, is chock-full of pearls of wisdom if you listen closely. A Season 4 episode has Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) telling young Tom Branson (Allen Leech), “Life is all about solving problems and then you die!”

By no means exhaustive or ordered, I recently compiled 10 statements, which over time and through life’s ebb and flow have transformed into 10 pearls of wisdom.

1. “Focus on the grass”

To understand this statement a farming image and true story from Mooi River, South Africa, might be most helpful. You can then apply the principle to your personal situation.

How to turn a profitless, underperforming dairy farm in a tight economic market, into a competitive contender and revenue generating one?

The answer? Focus on the means of increased milk production–grass. Everything on the farm took a temporary secondary position to the primary. The farmer increased his time, effort and resources on pasture. Good grass meant happy cows, resulting in increased milk production and a healthy profit margin.

*I wrote at greater length on this in Frazzled, Frustrated or Fearful? Focus on Your “Grass”.

2. “Walk on the grass but don’t make paths”

You’ve seen the signs on groomed landscapes–“Keep Off The Grass.” Who would have ever thought they convey a life message? This is the response I got from my South African PhD mentor when I asked him to tell me his philosophy of life.

Transliterated–

“In your search after life’s meanings and truths, courageously risk veering off from your too-familiar life path, and into a pathless wilderness, which might appear at the outset murky, messy, even ominous. Risk the journey, whether it be into the depth of human thought, or the much more unsettling kind: face-to-face encounters with people different.”

3. “Writing is in the editing”

On my Research, Writing and Teaching seminar’s first day, my professor was wise to warn us, “Start your term papers early, because if you want an A-letter grade, good writing only happens in the editing.”

If truthful, we each and all aspire for instant success. It’s not mere vanity, but reflective of our daily struggle to balance life’s demands over and against a 24-hour clock.

In life, like in writing, we want each first act or draft to be near perfect. This is even more true for anal-retentive persons.

So no matter how much we might pursue instant success in life, relationships, vocation, politicking, et cetera, remember that like writing, life is in the editing, in the falling down and getting back up, or in the dogged determinism to keep taking one step forward, even though you know it frequently will result in two steps backward.

4. “Do no harm!”

Fact–In life there are assholes too numerous to count or categorize. This realization and personal experience prompted Stanford University professor of management science and engineering, Robert Sutton to write The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

The important point here is that you don’t have to be an asshole! And the way to avoid being perceived as or labeled one is to live, think, love, speak and act by the credo, “DO NO HARM”–to yourself, to others, to the environment.

5. “Think and hope the best of people, but be prepared for the worst”

Aka, Mental Health 101. It’s a truth that has helped me avoid incarceration when my life has been persistently frustrated by Robert Sutton’s subject matter above!

People are essentially good––definitely, at least, “more good” than bad. What “evil” they are or possess is much more reflective of nurture (environment and neuroplasticity) than of nature. In fact, it is this positive perspective of human nature that enables one to think and hope the best of people, yet be prepared for the worst.

6. “You can’t parent or love well if all you have to give are your leftovers”

Everyday and ever-present is a ghost of the so-called Industrial Revolution. Industrialization initiated many new mechanized and now technological wonders, but one intangible yet irrefutable feature it brought to all peoples is a rapid change of pace and way of life.

We seem to learn only after fallouts and break-ups that meaningful life relationships take an immense quantity of time, effort and shared experience. If you’re in the process of falling out but haven’t quite yet fallen down, then please read statement #6.

7. “For every new responsibility or relationship you take on, you will have to sacrifice another”

North Americans have a very “can do” mindset. It’s reflected in the slogan of the U.S. Army, “Be All That You Can Be,” and in our willingness to work excessively hard and long hours so as to attain and maintain an accustomed way of life.

The hard truth is this: With too full lives already, for every single new event, role, responsibility and relationship that we choose to involve ourselves in or with, some previous event, role, responsibility or relationship will suffer neglect.

8. “All you need is 20-seconds of insane courage”

You likely will recognize this statement from the movie We Bought A Zoo. It was Benjamin Mee’s (Matt Damon) explanation to his children of how he found the courage to walk up to a total stranger at a cafe and introduce himself. She later became his wife and the mother of his two children.

Every day and in many ways I’m reminded that it only takes 20-seconds of insane courage and action to change negative circumstances, contexts or dour moods into positive ones, and even if the change is small and less-than-transformative, at least it might be big enough to help you re-engage life and its struggles for one more moment or day.

9. “Break the overwhelming into bite-size pieces”

Likely you’ve heard the expression, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Like focus, this, too, is an especially hard statement to put into practice. College graduates remember only too well the first day of the academic year and perusal of each course’s curriculum requirements. Panic!

Every professor seemed to think s/he was our only class. Professional work pressures soon made college expectations seem like child’s play. Yet the same lessons learned apply–break the overwhelming into bite size, daily tasks, and you’ll pleasantly be surprised how much can be accomplished.

10. “What’s the worst case scenario? Can you live with it?”

Aka, Mental Health 201. Fear is a, if not the greatest paralysis. While this statement of question likely provides small comfort to someone given a terminal diagnosis (at least initially), it does provide a modicum of relief for that “punched in the solar plexus” feeling, which makes for a grievous and sleepless night, and which likely resulted due to unwelcome and unexpected news, such as a termination letter or a lover’s betrayal.

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Haggling | Customary Business Transaction or Another Means of Exploiting the Poor?

I grew up as an expat in East Africa. A part of my childhood experience and memory is haggling with hawkers/vendors/traders, whether for farming produce in the open air market or for curios made out of a combination of ebony wood and elephant ivory.

Ebony walking sticks

Ebony walking sticks

Baseball caps, in particular, were a popular trading item. My family kept a ream for just such occasions. Economic transactions of one baseball cap for one or more carvings was always disproportionately financially skewed to favor the buyer, and gifted the buyer with a smugness that s/he got the better of the merchant.

My family learned this “cultural practice” as it were from other expatriates, and probably, truth be told, from Kenyans and Tanzanians themselves, never having personal reason or conscience to rethink a practice or game, depending upon one’s perspective, that everyone seemed to participate in.

It wasn’t until years later as a young adult living in one of South Africa’s self-proclaimed “Bantu homelands,” Venda, that I became conscience-stricken over my acquired attitude toward and manner of engaging people, who just happened to be street vendors.

Venda, a small and veritable garden of Eden exception to the much more arid homelands the apartheid government created in an effort to falsely convey to the world a “separate but equal” racial policy, was renowned for its fresh produce of litchi (lychee), mango, papaya, banana, avocado, and pineapple.

Early during my family’s three-year residence in Venda, I discovered that local roadside traders refused to haggle over price. The price listed–most often times scrawled on a cut-out small piece of cardboard–was the cash expected. Full stop.

I asked our language and culture tutor about this, referencing my experience in East Africa. I remember him looking at me with a puzzled expression before replying, “If anything, you should pay more than the asking price. Never less than.”

Our mentor’s surprised facial expression was similar to a Germiston Afrikaner police officer’s two years later, who, when I asked why South African law did not allow motorists to turn left on a red light (called “robot” in South Africa) after coming to a complete stop and checking to be certain no cars were oncoming (as motorists are allowed to turn right at most stop lights in the United States) looked quizzically at me and stated emphatically, “Because the light is red!

These random memories came tumbling to mind this morning when I was reading the former South African Pulitzer Prize novelist and anti-apartheid activist, Nadine Gordimer’s short story, “The Train From Rhodesia” (now Zimbabwean). In it, she describes a sleepy Rhodesian backwater, where the only social stirring and economic activity occurred when the “creaking, jerking, jostling, gasping, train filled the station.”

An old man attempts to entice a young white woman and her male compatriot passenger to buy a lion, one “carved out of soft dry wood that looked like spongecake; heraldic, black and white, with impressionistic detail burnt in.”

The woman hesitates to buy the lion carving, uncertain of how it will look back at home or where she’ll put it. As the train lurches to movement again, the young man, thinking that he’s doing his lover a favor, quickly tosses the old man “one-and-six” pence for the lion (just a bit more than one penny in old British currency, I believe).

Once the train is moving he arrives in the carriage doorway breathless, “shaking his head with laughter and triumph. Here! he said. And waggled the lion at her. One-and-six!”

What was merely a fun-filled argument (haggle/barter) for him, was perceived and met with angered incredulity on her part.

She almost shouted, “If you wanted the thing, her voice rising and breaking with the shrill impotence of anger, why didn’t you buy it in the first place? Why didn’t you take it decently, when he offered it? Why did you have to wait for him to run after the train with it, and give him one-and-six? One-and-six!”

 

 

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Grasping An Elephant’s Hand | Navigating Life’s Journey

This blog is dedicated to “Bum Bum,” “Teddy Beddy Bear,” “Fooey,” “Tusky or Tutty,” “Puuddy” and “Wuwoof”–my five children’s stuffed animals, whose inanimate lives like Winnie the Pooh and Pals, took on life and needed companionship in the imagination of my children’s lives.

Tusky and Puuddy

Tusky and Puuddy

Tusky & Moose

Tusky & Moose

 

Transitioning through life’s early developmental stages of infancy, childhood and adolescence is difficult enough without having to fearfully obsess or freak out about dying by random acts of violence, infectious diseases, or colossal acts of nature, such as tsunamis. Unfortunately, merely Google “children’s exposure to violence” or “death” and you’ll obtain more than 10M hits.

For two years I taught South African Department of Education life orientation teachers a curriculum developed by Community Information for Empowerment and Transparency (CIET), that corroborated the link between sexual violence and AIDS. As facilitator I often illustrated violence with reference to South Africa’s endemic “culture of violence.”

I illustrated it this way:

Imagine you’re driving to work at 8AM on X-Highway, when you turn on the radio and hear motorists excitedly calling in to John Robbie, local Radio 702’s Talk Show host, informing him and other commuters that an armed hijacking of a cash/coin truck is occurring as you speak. Twelve to 16 men wearing balaclavas and holding AK-47s are hacking into the overturned armored truck with axes to grab the money bags before fleeing in several getaway cars (I recall one November that 31 cash in-transit heists occurred in Gauteng Province alone).

A culture of violence is not the violent act itself, but rather, the day-to-day life reality and expectation that violent acts are commonplace, part of life’s “normal” existence in South Africa.

So, with respect to the cash heist, commuters who are not bottlenecked on the highway because of the armed robbery in progress, express little thought or mention for the safety of the security guards or other commuters, and instead, think, “So glad I’m not caught up in that traffic jam?” or “Whew! I should still make my 8:30AM meeting if I hurry.”

Adults everywhere struggle with this daily physiologically and emotionally tense white elephant–this walking on death’s black ice and knowing you’re going to fall yourself one day, but hoping against all hopes it’s not “your time” to break your neck, but merely get “a good” bruising.

Seldom do adults still possess or have reason to rely on stuffed childhood animals to mediate fearful and anxious tension. Many people have no-one to accompany them through difficult life passages. It’s notable that Seton Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, began an initiative in 2009 to help indigents.  It’s called No One Dies Alone or NODA.

Doctor Bongani Thembela didn’t know it at the time, but his recall of the last hours spent with an HIV/AIDS patient, effectively qualified him to be a NODA volunteer–“I could see he might die any minute. So I sat with him, held his hand. We sat there an hour, two hours, three hours, four hours, five hours. Eventually he died at 4:30 in the morning.”

Children being the little human sponges they are, absorb overt and latent fear from whomever and wherever it might originate, and yet, unlike adults, they are less capable of managing early-life stress and violence, which adversely affects their developing brains.

For an oddly engaging and informative glimpse into childhood trauma and development, read The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: And Other Stories From a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook–What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing.

The political cartoon satirist, David Zapiro made light of South African children’s daily fearful experiences in a drawing of a teacher asking her class what they wanted to be when they grew up, while immediately outside the classroom window stood two muggers, one armed with a large knife and the other with a pistol. One young girl raises her hand and shouts her response, “ALIVE!”

My children aren’t perfect but they’re as near perfect as I or my wife could have ever hoped for. We’re grateful for their polyester stuffed companions, who not only accompanied our children on their perilous developmental journeys, but who likely were all made or assembled in China, and who were loved literally to death and shreds by one American family.

 

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The Unknown and Unimagined Life of Being a (Black) Problem

IMAGINE for a moment that you were black, brown, yellow, whatever color, really–even white–as long as it’s not the reigning color of hegemony in a given place (hegemony=the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group).

The important point of imagining is that you belong to a segment of society that for what seems forever has been bereft of sociopolitical and economic power, resulting in a troubled state of life, being, even self-identification.

Imagine that you personally, or members of your family or community have recent and past memory of being routinely profiled, unjustly or disproportionately incarcerated, disenfranchised, subjugated, enslaved (forced marital and family separation, rape), derided, stereotypically blamed for high crime rates and indulgent abuse of welfare subsidies, a member of “the native problem,” and most shameful of late, given racially charged incidents such as occurred in Ferguson, MO, publicly ridiculed on prime time by “news” hucksters, the likes of whom resemble a wily red fox.

One North American, who not only successfully imagines, but also in a two-part Op-Ed risks exposing and challenging “smug white delusion,” and who knows first-hand a smidgen, at least, of what it’s like to be non-privileged in a democracy that often evidences a one-step forward, two-steps backward reality in matters of economic inequity and race relationships is The New York Times Op-Ed columnist, twice Nobel Peace winner, and “honorary African” (according to Desmond Tutu), Nicholas Kristof.

Similarly, Nadine Gordimer, former South African writer, anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace laureate, in a chapter story, “Ah, Woe Is Me,” (from Selected Stories), shares a white, apartheid-era, self-awareness moment, through the narrative of a white woman and her former obese and physically debilitated black “servant” Sarah.

In the short story, one of Sarah’s three children, a daughter arrives unexpectedly at Ma’am’s doorstep after years absence. Once the apple of her mother Sarah’s eyes, in terms of potential as scholar and aspiring teacher, the girl is now disheveled and anguished in appearance–the result of forced withdrawal from school due to lack of school fees, as well as her unyielding duty to care for her bedridden mother.

Ma’am nervously and immediately bombards the young “location” (black township=where black people were consigned to live under apartheid) girl with questions about her mom’s health, the girl’s schooling, her siblings, her father’s loss of job, the hardships of life in the location, et cetera.

Abruptly, almost, she becomes self-conscious of the incessant and personally detached nature of her questioning, and shares with the Reader this bit of inner self-discourse:

“I always had the curious feeling that they (Sarah’s children) were embarrassed, not by me, but for me, as if their faces knew that I could not help asking these same questions, because the real state of their lives was unknown and unimagined by me, and therefore beyond my questioning.”

This representative apartheid-era white woman, who lived in a white’s-only suburb, and who not only had the economic means to hire household servants, but also belonged to the ruling political power–one capable of dictating and enforcing upon everyone different to themselves not only where they would live, but what and how they should think of themselvesin a narrative flash realized she knew absolutely nothing about, and could imagine even less, what day-to-day life was really like for a non-white in apartheid South Africa.

Uncanny in similarity are W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 words in The Souls of Black Folk–

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy, by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ they say, ‘I know an excellent colored man in my town,’ or, ‘Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?’

At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ I answer seldom a word.

To not personally know what it’s like to be “a problem,” profiled, incarcerated or a systematically disenfranchised person or people is understandable, particularly if your life has been one of disproportional privilege than struggle and hardship.

An unwillingness, however, to attempt vicariously imagining what another’s life must in reality be like, is inexcusable, and reflective not of power, but of fear–a fear of what your conscience, like Ma’am’s, might instruct and compel you to act upon, given your new awareness.

 

Note: One example of one city’s bipartisan, interracial, and intentional effort to understand “the other’s” life experience and narrative of pain, is Richmond, Virginia’s Initiatives of Change and Hope In The Cities. They promote trust building through honest and courageous communities of dialogue.

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Speak Your Mind | A Tribute

Bumper stickers not only entertain, amuse, and sometimes offend. They also educate.

I came across the following bumper sticker in the parking lot of Austin State Hospital several months ago: Speak Your Mind, Even if Your Voice Shakes.

Apparently the words originated from Maggie Kuhn, an elderly Presbyterian educator and activist, who I had no knowledge of until I googled her. After a forced retirement at 65 she went on to found the Gray Panthers, an advocacy initiative focused on social issues specific to the elderly and women.

Wikipedia notes that in her social gospel advocacy, she refused to give any of her seminarian students a passing grade unless they each one risked venturing out and away from their respective comfortable confines of neighborhood and church–to seek, find and involve themselves in local impoverished communities.

The National Women’s Hall of Fame records this of Kuhn–

“Her advice to activists interested in creating social change shows the strength of her convictions: ‘Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.'”

This blog isn’t about Maggie, however. It’s about my friend Will who passed away this week. Nevertheless, Maggie and Will evidently shared at least two commonalities: feistiness (scrappy/determined) and candor (speaking one’s mind).

I won’t sugar coat what is likely the truth about any individual who is feisty and candid: They’re not going to win a popularity contest–not on planet earth, anyway! That’s not to say they aren’t liked or loved, because Will will have more people attend his funeral than I’m sure will be at my own.

Let’s just say that Will had a will! He, like Maggie, was an influencer, a mover and a shaker, a seeker of the real and meaningful in life (versus platitudes and popular culture), an advocate of equitable and wellness of life and opportunity for all people.

One thing that endeared Will to me, but might repel you, was his unabashed use of expletives, especially when confronted by today’s all too common and pervasive gobbledygook religious and political perspective and power, which over time has assumed a venerable, yet erroneous inviolability as “truth-Truth with a capital ‘T'” (what I wish I hadn’t overheard one church-going man tell his four religious brothers at a Panera Bread table yesterday morning).

I’m going to miss my hour-long chats in his “office”–a patio situated just outside the back door, looking out on a small but beautifully landscaped garden with a loaded Meyer lemon tree.

I regret that I never shared a smoke with Will, similar to what close friends J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis did customarily with their pipes.

You’ll be greatly missed, always loved, and forever remembered my friend!

 

 

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Why The Hell Go To Church?

Last Sunday, rather than attend church, I opted to stay home, drink three cups of bold, Starbucks Verona coffee, and take a walk in spring-like sunshine with my wife.

My truancy was motivation for reflection and response to Joan Chittester’s question in her memoir Called To Question“Would Jesus stay in the church today? In any of them? And, if not, who would follow him out of it? Would I?,” as well as Steve McSwain’s Huffington Post thought piece, “Why Nobody Wants To Go To Church Anymore.”

If you missed it, one motivation for going to church (or any religious place of worship) is embedded in my title–as a means to avoiding hell (or damnation).

Although many still believe in a literal hell (a “furnace of fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth”) and profess to know “the way” to avoid going there, self-preoccupation arising from a foreboding perception of a capricious and punitive God is minimal today compared to times past.

For instance, nineteenth century North American worldview was largely influenced by the thought life of Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, and then his student Samuel Hopkins, of whom and among his writings was a 1793 piece entitled A Treatise On The Millennium (derived from a larger work, A System of Doctrines Contained in Divine Revelation, Explained and Defended).

It warned of an imminent End Time and reign of God, in which millions of sinners and saints would be judged, punished, and destroyed.

Like a thief in the night, God would “rise out of his place to do his work, his strange work, to punish the world for its wickedness, reduce and destroy mankind so that comparatively few will be left.”

This widespread and wholesale destruction of humanity would serve the purpose of an unforgettable object lesson for those “true believers” (elect) still remaining. It would demonstrate to them “the propensity of man to the greatest degree of wickedness, and of the great and desperate evil that is in the heart of man.”

The apostasy and destruction of so many, including those who professed or feigned Christianity, would serve as both reminder and motivator for the obedience and love of the remaining “true believers.” Ultimately reminding them of this one constant reality:

With God, there is an ever-present and unpredictable possibility of judgment and destruction, therefore, every person must live hyper self-consciously pure.

Sunday fidelity came to be viewed as an objective sign of authentic piety and true conversion.

Whereas conversion was thought to be arbitrary and prone to false verification, faithful sabbath observance was seen as an unambiguous and visible delineating marker between sinner and saint and between the sacred and the profane.

Accordingly, one of the first priorities of American missionaries abroad was to teach “heathens” the concept of time, especially the “sacred hours” of the Christian Sabbath. The instruction of time served two purposes: enabling the “heathen” to identify days of the week, yet also to impress upon their minds the brevity of life and the urgent need to repent.

As one missionary journaled a chance encounter with an elderly Zulu man, “Saw an old man of 90, I should judge, & told him of the fewness of his days, & his need of preparation for death.” Accordingly, flag staffs were a first priority construction on mission stations, so as to announce to the “heathen” the arrival of the Christian Sabbath.

Sunday, therefore, was more than a day of the week. It was the linchpin of an emerging North American (Christian) consciousness.

It’s little wonder that the Christian Sabbath became one of the first exports of the new Republic, and sadly, an identifying mark of “American Christianity” on people, who were so-called “Christianized” and “civilized.”

In southeast Africa, Sunday church observance became synonymous in African thought with the heart, soul and essence of Christianity (note the absence of Christian “essence” in speaking out against apartheid, much as it was absent in America for Native Americans) as stated by South African, Lawrence Zulu, “The Christianity that has come down to our own day seems to be too bound up with the Church Building and Sunday.”

Although today going to church (mosque, temple, etc) for the purpose of avoiding a one-way trip to eternal damnation/hell isn’t a compelling motivation for people like myself, there are several notable reasons why someone might choose to attend, including:

-Fellowship of friends

-Forum for candid, different-from-the-ordinary-perspective life discussions, and

-Fraternity of broken/wounded people, where life lessons learned in the thick and thin of living can be shared with one another, and where nurturing can be experienced.

Although these are more good than bad motivations, in my opinion they aren’t “good enough” to sustain my family’s loyalty, nor good enough to distinguish the church from “Sunday competitors.”

Why these “notable reasons” for attending church are simply “not good enough,” is that they all require little of the mostly socioeconomic privileged people (myself included), who make up weekly faith communities across the United States.

They require little in terms of:

-Lifestyle change

-Significant sacrifice or sharing of economic or skills assets

-Vulnerability–e.g., of belief

-Time, energy or reason for developing and nurturing relationships with atypical “others,” and

-Active participation in redressing entrenched social systemic indignities, inequalities and injustices.

I admit I struggle to comprehend early church and present day church incongruities. That is to say, what imaginative and creative energy present day professional clergy and elected lay leadership must expend to rationalize annual multi-multi-million dollar church property, buildings and operational budgets in order to read without blushing about the earliest and mostly powerless community of Jesus followers, “They were together, breaking bread (sharing meals), having all things in common, selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all as each had need.”

As one who grew up Baptist, I agree with McSwain’s assessment that the church is dying, although and obviously, this is not to suggest churches will cease to exist.

Although McSwain doesn’t note how many new churches are begun each year (to counter those closing their doors for the last time), he does cite Hartford Institute of Religion Research indicating:

-Between 4,000 and 7,000 churches die annually–one person put the number as high as 8,000 to 10,000/year

-On any given Sunday less than 20-percent of Americans attend church

-Every day for the next sixteen years, 10,000 baby boomers will enter retirement, thereby exacerbating an already graying of the church, but also depleting it of its financial base, and

-Between 2010 and 2012 more than half of U.S. churches didn’t add a single new member.

McSwain lists seven trends affecting negative church attendance, including:

-Demographic changes/remapping

-Technology under utilization

-Leadership crisis

-Competition for people’s time and resources

-Religious pluralism

-“Contemporary” worship experience, and

-Phony, BS advertising by churches–professing “All People Welcome” when in actuality it’s not true.

most identify with McSwain’s initial statement, in which he informs readers that the title of his thought piece–Why Nobody Wants To Go To Church Anymore–is a question individuals who are leaving the church to join the ranks of the “religiously unaffiliated” are more than ready to respond to and answer, yet . . . . a question “few insiders are listening to.” 

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Hurtful Charity | A New Year’s Appeal To The Kind-Hearted and Well-To-Do

You’ve likely heard the adage, Give till it hurts, yet it’s unlikely you’re aware just how hurtful those acts of giving can be.

I’m not referring to charity of international aid type, which at times hurts more than it helps people and countries. This, because money is frequently wasted on minimal impact, culturally insensitive, and non-humanitarian programs, or alternatively, pilfered by greedy and corrupt individuals.

Rather, I’m speaking to some portion of the billions of dollars given each year by individuals, especially North Americans, to charitable causes, whether in cash, clothing, household items, or vehicles, and whether given to needy individuals who knock on one’s front door, stand in line at soup kitchens, or donated to residential or virtual non-profits such as Goodwill or Invisible Children.

Too frequently, it seems, the needy occupy a dumping ground for the well-to-do’s excess or discarded items, with little thought given to what it must feel like as human becomings, persons, to be so struggling that you’re reliant on the sometimes whimsical and charitable gifts of individuals or government–especially in the U.S., where 24-7 exposure to affluence is so pervasive.

“Excess benevolence” is predictable, particularly in capitalistic societies such as the United States, where home garages are more often used as storage containers than for their intended vehicular use, where garage sales serve to free up household space so that new items can be purchased, and where multi-storied, climate-controlled Public Storage is booming business and architectural landscape features.

Given realities that, one, “the poor will always be with us,” and, two, excess benevolence will persist irrespective of what I say or anyone campaigns against, what I’m trying to speak for is a more compassionate thoughtfulness toward the economically struggling, plus speaking to a prevalent attitude people have toward those who of necessity live at or below the poverty line–an unconscious versus pejorative attitude, perhaps, yet definitely condescending.

By compassionate thoughtfulness I speak for the dignity of those who by society’s definition are “poor” or “needy.”

Donna Hicks defines dignity as “a feeling of inherent value and worth,” and argues that a desire for dignity is humanity’s highest common denominator, as well as the missing link in understanding conflict.

She, more than anyone else, articulates what I am appealing for in this thought piece—

developmental shift in understanding, from our typically egocentric worldview and cognitive understanding, to a primal empathy.

Primal empathy calls for each one of us to develop a heightened emotional sensitivity and identification with those who suffer indignities.

That is—each one of us is capable of, and should more intentionally versus merely accidentally develop the capacity to “feel what the other’s life is like,” even to the point of “feeling the indignities they experience.”

Duplicity of intention, whether in the form of benevolence, generosity or “love,” is acutely felt and experienced at the nub of self-worth and self-identity by charity recipients.

Examples . . .

Pointing the finger at myself.

I wager that most of us will not perceive ourselves to be well-to-do. Comfortable, perhaps, but not wealthy. After all, one has to earn upwards of $400,000 annually in order to attain status as the “one-percent” richest in America.

Prosperity is fickle / relative, however.

For instance, although my non-profit take-home salary in South Africa was in the $30k’s, low by U.S. standards, benefits such as tuition remission for my children, rental housing allowance, healthcare, company use of vehicle, et cetera, took the figure upwards to a U.S. respectable $70k’s figure. At the current exchange rate, my salary equated to almost 750k rand, high above the average South African minimum income of 24k.

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

My family frequently had clothing, accessories, luggage, linens, even aging electronics like laptops and cameras, which despite still being wearable or operational, were, nevertheless, well-used. How convenient that we had one, sometimes two “needy South Africans” who worked as domestics for us ! It was easy to think: “Surely they will want and be able to use these items.”

Our "family" minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Our “family” minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Shamefacedly I admit that I have offered our well-used, soon to be discarded or replaced items by expressing the following type statement–“I’m going to throw these items away. Do you want them?”

Such “gifting” communicates the following attitude: “We recently bought new, and these used items are no longer desired or good enough for me or my family. But I thought to myself, ‘Given you and your family’s evident economic need, I’m sure you could use them.'”

The truth is: My own unconscious, yet condescending attitude toward the poor, didn’t slap my conscience until which time that my family and I were experiencing economic struggle ourselves.

The past three years have been a grateful awakening–despite them being painfully emotional ones–to what many people experience on a daily basis, including the many jobless and economically struggling in Austin, Texas, as well as many of our South African friends, colleagues and acquaintances. They likely felt the pain of “having less,” and perhaps, even, (wrongfully) perceiving themselves as “being less than” when in the presence of our material trappings of success.

Several personal comparisons:

Whereas our African friends heard us excitedly talking about going on this or that family vacation to the beach, mountains, or some international destination, I now experience my own Texas friends talk excitedly about their impending trips to Vegas, Hawaii, Vail, or similarly, reminisce about recent past trips to New England, Lake Tahoe, Paris or Cuba, while my own kids pine for glimpses of the life and experiences they once knew, while finding substitute in a 12-hour road trip to visit Abuelita in El Paso.

Whereas African acquaintances, even friends, perhaps, saw excess money in my family–that is, a means to enabling a better life for themselves, such as assistance with education expenses–I now experience that same temptation to hint at financial need to help offset my wife’s graduate study debt or enable vocational re-education/training for myself.

Whereas South Africans saw my family drive new or new-like vehicles, I now experience Texans test driving $100k electric cars, while my family makes do with a ’98 Honda and ’02 Toyota, which despite their age and my longing to drive a more updated and spacious vehicle, are still far more “life enabling” than required reliance upon foot or taxi power.

Whereas African friends and guests walked into our relatively large rental home and were no-doubt dumbstruck by its size, spaciousness, furnishings, amenities, security apparatus, et cetera, my children now experience leaving Texas homes, conscious of how constricting their shared and small bedroom is. While I’m truly grateful to have a roof over my head, I’m in awe of the extra spaciousness of some homes, which so effortlessly accommodates an office/study space, which as an academic I pine for.

What, then, should the (relatively) well-to-do do in light of such pervasive social need?

It’s tempting to advocate what is recorded in the Bible about the early community of Jesus followers, that “they were together, having all things in common, selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all as each had need.”

I do believe that a greater sharing of wealth and its privileges is essential not only for a more just and equitable society and world but also for a more peaceful one. I’m grateful for the rich and celebrity trend setters, in such persons as Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono, Warren Buffet, and Salman Khan, all of whom we should be grateful to for helping co-create a more equitable world.

Within a Christian or faith context, sharing beyond tokenism or for tax deduction benefit, as well as sharing in and alongside life with those whose life narrative is one of struggled existence would definitely restore a measure of credibility to “American religion,” perceived by many as elitist, segregated, socially reactive and disconnected–at least my own Baptist context of meaning.

Being realistic, however, I’ll settle for more compassionate and conscientious thoughts and acts of charity toward the poor and economically struggling.

I seldom reference the Bible in thought pieces, but it speaks to “offending the consciences” of those who are weak. Seems to me that those gifted with the “benefits of capitalism,” as well as a non-volatile/violent life setting in which to live, raise a family and children, should strive to live and engage the world with greater sensitivity and understanding, always mindful and sensitive to our shared and collective humanity.

 

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“A Good Fight” | Essential for Forever Relationships

People, like carriage horses with blinkers on, tend to restrict their social engagement to people and circumstances they find emotionally safe and comfortable. Pugnacious individuals are rare.

horseblinkers

While holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year are perceived and celebrated as family centered and joyous occasions, a common yet under-acknowledged fixture to each–like angel ornaments are to Christmas trees–is interpersonal and familial conflict.

My family is excitedly waiting this Friday’s midnight arrival of our eldest daughter and her husband. Despite only 1,326 miles (2122 km) separating our home from theirs in North Carolina, we’ve not seen them (apart from Skype) since December 2012.

Two days out, minds are singularly and excitedly fixated on the immediacy of family reunion: bear hugs at the airport, as well as laughter and squabbling in the minivan as each one-eighth member of our family vies against other family contenders to inject and condense 365 days life experience into a single 30-minute drive home.

cropped-kids.jpg

Inevitably, though–whether a few hours or days into our reunion–differences of opinion and perspective will occur, resulting in varying degrees of conflict.

A South African friend, who our middle child is named after, loved “a good murder” on the telly (TV).

Similarly, contrary to what some people, in particular couples, allege (i.e., that they never fight) it’s my family’s experience that wholeness and longevity of relationship occur only because of “a good fight.”

A “good fight” is

-An oft times emotionally charged conversation over differences of perspective and opinion . . .

-In which everyone involved stays engaged/committed (often through coaxing or by one another’s insistence) . . .

-Despite frequent and intense impulses to flee from the associated unpleasantries of conflict . . .

-And which, persists however long until either respectful and/or affectionate feelings and actions for one another return.

A representative example is Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) angrily pleading with Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams) to remain with him instead of running back to her fiancé in The Notebook; a romance drama set in the 1940’s, in which a wealthy teenage big-city girl and a much poorer, small-town boy find true love over one summer, and how their ultimate forever love for each other was nearly sabotaged by Allie’s meddling mother and overly austere father.

Toward the end of the movie, the following discourse occurs–

Noah: “Would you just stay with me?”
Allie: “Stay with you? What for? Look at us! We’re already fighting!”
Noah: “Well, that’s what we do! We fight! You tell me when I’m being an arrogant son of a bitch and I tell you when you’re being a pain in the ass, which you are ninety-nine percent of the time. I’m not afraid to hurt your feelings. You have like a two-second rebound rate and you’re back doing the next pain in the ass thing.”
Allie: “So, what?”
Noah: “So it’s not gonna be easy, it’s gonna be really hard. And we’re gonna have to work at this everyday, but I wanna do that because I want you. I want all of you, forever. You and me. Everyday.”

Strong, forever relationships are not only messy, but more often than not occur at inopportune moments of life. They require more work (fights) than one has the patience or time to give at the end of an overly crammed work day or week.

Ultimately the potential wholeness and longevity of relationship comes down to whether or not one or more persons really want or value the relationship.

In my family, truth be told, we often frustrate, irritate, and fight with each other.

No, we haven’t to date engaged in physical altercations, or, to my knowledge, rattled off a litany of profanities against one another (although I understand via the sibling grapevine that I have been called “a dick” at least once). One or more of us, however, have been known to slam a door, hurl a hair brush from the car on to the lawn, slam down hard some ready at-hand object like a glass or a book, or get up and stomp away from a discussion while the other person is still talking.

Fingers crossed . . .

So far conflict has only strengthened versus inflicted any fatal blow in all immediate family relationships of mine, although regrettably, it has effectively ended several friendships.

In the case of friendship losses, they resulted in large measure, I believe, because they chose to disconnect . . . to walk away from, and to stop fighting for the relationship.

Evidently the necessary hard work and discomforts associated with conflict–e.g., as in The Notebook, sometimes hearing or sharing the hard and painful truth that one’s being a big pain in the ass, or acting like an arrogant SOB–outweighed for them the value of having relationship.

 

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Prejudice & Racism | Sometimes Unconscious, Always Unconscionable

No one likes to admit to or think of oneself as prejudicial or racist.

There is no such thing as prejudice, racism or bigotry. They are mere fabrications of an elite and liberal media!

At least this is what a former student of mine in effect argued to his class of peers several years ago. From his Deep South, predominately white, and socioeconomic sheltered childhood, to his burgeoning young adult affinity with Joel Osteen’s prosperity Christianity and Mike Huckabee politics, this young man became near incensed on several occasions during the semester when he felt our collective, yet honest class discussions on matters of race and stereotypes was unfounded, merely perpetuating long since left behind racial antagonisms.

My student’s opposition to discussion merely supported David Shipler’s statement in A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America–

“Fears and assumptions, often far beneath the surface prevent honest discussion from taking place. When it comes to race, we do not know how to talk to one another.”

Regrettably, this young man’s denialism and lack of awareness of the often subtle and nuanced versus overt prejudice and racial bigotry still pervasive in many parts and communities of the United States isn’t exceptional, but rather, representative.

For instance–and what prompted this blog to begin with–the December 2013 issue of The Costco Connection, contains a section entitled “MemberConnection / Changing the World,” in which several short paragraphs highlight individual Costco members’ social development non-profits.

One piece entitled, “A Dream Made Real,” focuses on “The O’Brien School for the Masai” situated in rural Tanzania, yet begun and operationally managed by a woman and her daughter from Hinsdale, Illinois.

CC

According to Fran Schumer, Costco Connection writer, the O’Brien School “stands as a testament to how one (read: American) woman, with the aid of family, friends and anonymous well-wishers, can transform a village.

Schumer quotes the school’s founder, Kellie O’Brien, as saying, “Living in a dung hut does not determine who you can become in this world.

Translated: “Rural Tanzanian Masai live in genuinely shitty houses, but this unfortunate reality need not restrict their evolutionary and prosperous development! With our help an entire (read: uncivilized or backwater) village can be transformed–i.e., ‘developed’–and from this benevolent act of ours future Tanzanian leaders will be educated and shaped by our (read: white, American) core values and worldview.”

The issue I’m focusing on is not whether international aid or kind and well-intentioned donor benevolence, in this case a gift of education, is wrong or misplaced. After all, and understandably so, few, if any resource struggling people would look a gift horse in the mouth, including the Masai community where the O’Brien School is located.

Rather, my focus revolves around attitude or perception toward people different–especially, so-called “needy” people.

Should it be of any importance, I self identify as bicultural. That is: I am a white, Texan, North American, Protestant, middle-age male, who spent many years of childhood and adulthood in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.

It’s because of my shared white identity that this blog is intentionally and disproportionately pointed at my own “white America,” maybe, even, especially, “Christian America,” the likes of Franklin Graham, who frequently spews vitriol against anyone “non-Christian,” especially Muslims and Islam.  This blog speaks particularly to the white elephant of “white attitude” toward difference.

I hope it goes without saying, that despite my stated focus above, I believe prejudice and racism to be a universal reality (common to all of the world’s people) and circular (e.g., blacks discriminate and are prejudicial against whites, too).

The relevance and particularity of speaking to white America lies in our to date disproportionate global power/influence in all matters social, economic, media, political, military power, etc.

In The Costco Connection, both the writer and the non-profit founder express disrespectful attitudes toward the “different other”–a community of Masai in Tanzania–attitudes that are paternalistic and prejudicial, yet also most likely unbeknown to them, i.e., they’re unaware, unconscious of their prejudice.

Their personal attitudes toward and perceptions of the “needy Masai,” is in full public display because of their choice of words and manner of expression in a printed magazine.  It could be argued that it also reflects negatively on a corporate institution because Costco’s editorial team failed in its censorship responsibilities prior to the publication of its December issue.

Perhaps most revealing in terms of attitude, however, is O’Brien’s reason for why she and her daughter founded the school in Tanzania–

There comes a point where you go from success to significance.” Translated: After you’ve made your millions–enough to live comfortably for the remainder of one’s lifetime without formal employment–it’s time to focus on your legacy.  If you can help needy people living in needy countries, so much the better!

As I read this short piece I wondered whether O’Brien ever paused to consider whether or not a traditional Masai or African house, aka, manyatta or rondavel hut made with mud, dung, sticks and thatch is considered a negative and inferior existence to so-called European architectural development by those who live in them, as she intimates?

An atypical African rondavel

An atypical African rondavel

For example, Frances Colenso, wife of John W. Colenso, nineteenth century bishop of the Church of England in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, remarked in an 1880’s letter to a friend–

“The (Zulu) Chiefs, who have some of them never been in a square house before, did not appreciate the comfort of it at first—they thought their round huts with a fire in the middle much more snug, and described a square house as a ‘collection of precipices’ with a hole in one of them where the fire was laid.

Similarly, yet thirty years prior, an American missionary by the name of Hyman A. Wilder, wrote to his U.S. constituents–

“When we tell them (Zulus) of the advantage of civilization; & of the happiness & comfort & skill & wonderful works of christianized (read: civilized) nations it seems to excite only a brief stupid amazement & reverence, but awakens no emulation, no desire to be different from what they are.”

It’s a fact that early colonial and missionary effort included teaching Africans “practical information on sitting in chairs, eating off plates, and building square houses.”

Regrettably, what used to be widespread and overt racial antagonism, such as depicted in the movie Mississippi Burning, has subsequently become more insidious, cloaked in jokes, quips, even political satire.

sticker

Two “small” and personally experienced incidents, which reflect how prejudice slides below the overt racism radar, occurred in South Africa and sadly involved a person who should live above the line of decency: an American pastor, as well as executive director of a Christian non-profit focused on vulnerable children.

During a visit to South Africa he was introduced to our domestic (house helper) worker. Since his last visit we had hired a new lady, because the former domestic wanted to relocate 550km back home to her husband and child, whom she had left years previously in search of work in Johannesburg. After being introduced by my wife, this man’s scoffing comment to my wife (in front of our African friend) was, “How many of ’em have you gone through?”

"One of 'em" - our friend Precious

“One of ’em” – our friend Precious

On a separate occasion, this pastor/ED met with my multiracial colleagues at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg.  The director of the children’s research and development non-profit was soon-to-be visiting the United States and planned to include a trip to Houston where this man lived.

My Belgium director friend enquired of the pastor/ED whether he would have any trouble proceeding through Houston’s airport immigration check-point with his dual Belgium and South Africa passport. The response was, “You won’t have any problems. But it would be easier if you were black!

My hoped for purpose in writing this blog is similar to the author of American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict.  That is, it is not to condemn white America, white Europe, or white any country, but to facilitate understanding between people, which in turn, hopefully, will lead to greater awareness of our respective life realities, and lead to a new spirit of mutual responsiveness and empathy.
World Solidarity / Unity

World Solidarity / Unity

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Word Choice | The Power to Shape Attitudes and Entrench Stereotypes

Coffee shops are somewhat like water troughs.  People come in parched and desperate for the black, sometimes sweet, yet always caffeinated rush, but also to shoulder up alongside the regulars, say “howdy,” and postulate on the problems of the local community and the world.

My remaining-at-home kids and I are habitual, four to six visits per week Starbuckers. It helps, of course, that my middle daughter is a recently hired Starbucks barista, but even before she took on her newfound responsibilities and identity (yes, she wears the logo with pride and a smile), we were regulars.

starbucks

If you frequent a place long enough, its staff and customers become a surrogate-like family. Driving up, we can determine before stepping foot in the store whether certain “family members” are there, in particular, a local construction contractor, whose presence is noted in the parking lot by his company’s logo, painted large and long on his dual rear wheel truck.

In Texas, clergy, aka religious professionals, seem to be regular Starbucks fixtures. Several weeks back I was sitting in one of four leather chairs located in our store’s entrance cove, a much vied for place from which to sit, sip, survey incomings and outgoings, and surmise about life. Three gentlemen who obviously knew each other, at least at a “Starbucks level,” were talking about a microbotic wonder. One of the men got up and left for a scheduled business meeting, accompanied by an attractive looking woman, whom I had not seen before. After they left, one of the remaining two men–a minister at a nearby church–remarked to the other, “That’s a pretty girl! That’s about the best work he ever did.”

Was he merely talking “Texan” or did his reference to the woman as “work” reflect and reveal something deeper, less respectful? For example, almost every driver has “worked” to own a vehicle, particularly a first car. The purchased item then becomes one’s “property,” to drive or (mis)treat as one determines or feels like. True of any material object, the allure and luster–e.g., new car smell–diminishes over time, and with it, too, one’s affection for, commitment to care, to maintain, and to fidelity.

If my academic studies benefited my life in no other way, than this one, I would still be exceedingly grateful.  In my face-to-face, experiential studies of other cultures and religions, I learned that our choice of words and our repetitive use of them shape and maintain images, stereotypes, attitudes and perceptions of others–especially those who have not been on the victor’s side of history’s narratives, which, to date, probably includes most anyone who is not male and WASP!

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, David K. Shipler, observes in his book A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, that with contentious topics like race, words have the power to label and circumscribe people, particularly those, historically, who have been bereft of privilege and power.

strangers

Despite the widespread popularity of “tolerance” messages, which on the surface positively advocate for recognizing and respecting people different from oneself in matters racial, religious, cultural, socioeconomic or sexual, such words have become tainted over time by their secondary definitions of “variation from a standard,” or “capacity to endure hardship.” As Shipler sensitively notes of African-Americans, “Black Americans do not want to be ‘tolerated’ as one tolerates deviance or pain. Anyone who advocates tolerance today risks being misunderstood as grudgingly accepting the unpleasant qualities of another group.”

When I was in my early 20’s, I remember driving in a pickup truck through a section of rural, East Texas with a much older and prominent community resident. It was spring time and orange wildflowers–Mexican Hats (Ratibida Columnaris)–were in everywhere display. Obviously trying to conversationally connect with me and provoke a laugh, he remarked with a mischievous smile on the abundance of “n&#g*r tits” in the fields.

Mexican Hat

Mexican Hat

My discomfort might not have been as acute if I had not just a few weeks prior, had another, even more senior, yet this time female resident shout out twice to her near-deaf husband upon the ringing of their doorbell and during my visit to their home, “THE N&#G@R’S HERE!” (they were expecting an African-American to come by and clean their rain gutters) Come to find out years later that racial prejudice in this part of the United States, was endemic, such that one nearby civil rights advocate claimed “East Texas is Mississippi 50 years ago.”

Benedictine nun and popular speaker/writer, Joan Chittester, observes in Called To Question that “once an image is cast in stone” it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to go back or reclaim its essence again. Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, co-authors of The Myth of Africa, similarly echo about Africa and Africans, “The errors and biases so perpetuated have by now acquired an inviolable tenure.” The truth of this statement is no where more evident than Africa, a place synonymous in the Western mind with “the dark continent.”

Chittester speaks from a woman’s and oft-times socially invisible and undervalued perspective to the inviolable “heresy of God the Father,” in which, religious professionals legitimate their male positions of ecclesial power by stifling, even excommunicating anyone who dares question the status quo’s interpretation of Scripture–one, in which, God, despite disclosing identity to Abraham in neutral gender terms, “I am who am,” is from their accustomed privileged position Solus “Father.”

Call it over-sensitized, call it picky, call it anal, call it what you will, the truth is words possess a passive and active heritability, reflecting attitudes and perceptions toward others different to oneself, as well as maintaining entrenched stereotypes and emotions.

Choice and use of words is often subtle yet significant. It is common among the Christian community to hear or read reference to people different as “non-Christian.” Obviously the implication is that “Christian” or “Christianity” is the exemplar, the standard by which all others are to be assessed. Another popular term of reference is “uneducated,” implying that if you don’t have at least a high school education you’re “less than” — uncivilized, uncultured, uninformed, unworthy, unimportant, and un-opinionated. As my mentor respectfully distinguished, why can’t we be more sensitive by referencing those who possess “informal” versus “formal” education?

Given the world population’s unabated increase, coupled with simmering tensions and all out conflict in countless hot spots, the least we–aka, those privileged to be living in a part of the country/world not yet noticeably affected by overt conflicts of relationship–can do in reshaping a more peaceful, equitable, and just world order, is begin intentionally utilizing vocabulary and language that is respectful, inclusive, and sensitive.

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