Finding Direction

The Presidents Interfaith and Community service Campus Challenge

Recently I applied to a journalism internship. For the application I wrote a personal bio on why I wanted to be a journalist. I find it fascinating that as we look back on our lives all the small turns, conversations, and moments add up to one clear direction. I wish it was as clear at the beginning as it is in retrospect, alas that would not give me the breadth of experience I need to discern. Sometimes we find out what we shouldn’t be doing before we find what we need to be doing. While each of these jobs and careers were what I needed to do at the time, it wasn’t what I needed to do for all time.

As I negotiated the changes of the last two years I have been reviewing my life searching for patterns, taking the next steps that presented. Working even if I wasn’t sure each step was the right one. This living in ambiguity has been hard and it is revealing an exciting and passionate focus I look forward to developing.

Below is the bio I submitted for my applications. 

The exhumed grave of a child killed at the Lukodi Massacre is an image that will never leave me. While in Uganda, I heard the stories, saw the scars, and visited the graves arising from the 20-year-old conflict.

Nearly 12 years earlier, just three months before the second intifada began in Israel/ Palestine, I visited the closed markets of Hebron. Learning about the history and current situation in Hebron, at 19 years old I became acutely aware of the power of American spending abroad. I also became curious about the role of religion in a conflict, traditionally characterized along religious lines. The next year, in 2001, I began university and a journey to understand the intersection of religion, politics, history, and the people caught in the crossfire.

After my BA in religious studies, still questioning the link between religion, politics, and conflict, I enrolled in graduate school in Northern Ireland. Determined to learn more about the elements of conflict and unwilling to join the vilifying of Islam, I wrote my dissertation on Islamic non-violence in Palestine. I discovered that the lack of evidence and understanding for the complexity of Islam and the Middle East was driving a dangerous rhetoric, which oversimplified and clouded the truth. Newspaper headlines and academia focused on the bleeding headlines and not on the large community of people working to bridge understanding.

I found that each question leads to another question, revealing layers of answers. Ultimately, this questioning and peeling back of answers lead me to believe that the smallest acts can change a world, and an opinion. I also discovered that it is often small acts built up over years that lead to huge changes, good or bad.

This realization is what led me to leave academia and engage in community development, first with AmeriCorps NCCC in Louisiana for hurricane recovery efforts, then in California working with teenagers at a local church. Working with people dedicated to the everyday struggle of doing more with less, I gained a deep appreciation for all that gets accomplished in this world.

I also discovered that time and again I was answering questions and translating for people the reality of working with few resources. After finishing my year of work in Louisiana, friends, family, and strangers asked me how much longer until the recovery would be complete. My response was that I could work my whole life and the recovery would still be incomplete. The problem was not the hurricane; it was a legacy of poverty and neglect.

The six years I spent working with AmeriCorps and other community organizations revealed that while I loved working in the field, I also relished the challenge of digging deeper into the questions surrounding issues. I found myself drawn back to the challenge of distilling large pieces of information to find surprising connections, all for the goal of providing a bite-size nugget to enhance understanding.

This drive brought me to the field where I stood beside the grave of a child in northern Uganda. I wanted to discover what was happening after the conflict was over, to learn how people were reclaiming their lives.

What I discovered was a community struggling to navigate development after the multilateral NGOs had withdrawn. Today, UN envoys use Gulu only as a quick overnight stay on the way to Juba. I saw Americans and others working on the ground to empower people through relatively small, daily acts. I learned how, in the midst of conflict, community workers reached across previously un-crossable divides to find safety for the region’s children.

In Uganda I learned that I needed to be part of the community who translates these events into stories; creating a glimpse of understanding that would otherwise remain clouded in misunderstanding. Bringing these small stories to the world can seem insignificant; yet revealing a new understanding is never a small act.

The Sarajevo Commitment, launched at the 2000 World Media Assembly sums up my professional aim: “We shall combine freedom with responsibility, talent with humility, privilege with service, comfort with sacrifice and concern with courage.”

Why Lanterns?

IMG_0519“On a summer morning / I sat down / on a hillside / to think about God / a worthy pastime. / Near me, I saw / a single cricket; / it was moving the grains of the hillside / this way and that way. / How great was its energy, / how humble its effort. / Let us hope / it will always be like this, / each of us going on / in our inexplicable ways / building the universe.”

–  Mary Oliver

“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

–  2 Corinthians 3:18

 

 

 

While in Uganda I witnessed an overwhelming amount and level of poverty. I learned to easily spot signs of malnutrition in children and saw firsthand the inefficiency of the government to provide adequate services.  It occurred to me that while its very cheap to live in Uganda, the actual cost of living is incredibly high. The cost of being poor to the human body and spirit is a figure too high to measure.

When you witness poverty at such a close proximity and for a prolonged period the perspective of “change” and “help” takes on a new dimension.  I had a similar experience while I was working in Louisiana, post Hurricanes Katrina & Rita, with AmeriCorps NCCC.  It is the experience of seeing a wall of problems and only a long road ahead.  I used to say that I could get a new job in Louisiana and in 30/40 years retire and the they would still be hiring new workers.  This wasn’t necessarily because of the damage from Hurricane Katrina and Rita, it was from the accumulation of  years of poverty that had slowly deconstructed communities. The hurricanes simply sped up that process. I have heard people mention that they wish they could work themselves out of this job.  That every morning you wake up and hope that today would be the last day poverty claims another life.

However it isn’t and what do you do when you are standing in front of a wall that is preventing true growth and flourishing.  At a PICO (Community organizing) training I attended years ago, they said the best thing you can do is to find one piece and pull it out of the wall.  You keep doing this until finally the wall is too weak to stand.

The solar lanterns are one piece of a complex system.  The solar lanterns feel at times like just one brick in a huge wall.  To keep deconstructing it is all we can do, even if you never see the wall weaken. Its not out of naiveté, its methodical and hard, and necessary for the soul.

Another experience that many people talk about is the joy you witness, the love, the life that exists in the face of these issues.  The solar lanterns aren’t bringing light to darkness.   The solar lanterns join the light that already exists in the people who I met in Uganda.  The light that was born and lives in Uganda.  The solar lanterns allow us to participate in the growth of more light, in the dawning of students who are able to read into the night.

We have 32 days left to raise just $700.  Donate and please share this campaign.  To learn more about the campaign visit the campaign website or this earlier blog post.