the power of people

Since becoming an avid fan of walking (read: my knees keep hurting whenever I run) I have found numerous ways to channel my thoughts while my legs boost me forward.

Sometimes, I listen to podcasts (the Robcast, Denver Community Church, Modern Love, Call Your Girlfriend, and Fresh Air top my favorites); sometimes I focus on the sounds around me and identify what each thing is (certainly, more applicable in an urban environment), like yelling children, sound of birds, or bicycles climbing up long, arduous hills.

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Kayonza, Rwanda

Occasionally, and when I’m feeling particularly contemplative, I literally put myself in someone else’s shoes.

The exercise is simple: when you find yourself in an area with other humans, find someone that catches your eye. Without being a total creep, observe them.

Ask some (or all) of the following questions:

  1. Who are they?
  2. Where are they going?
  3. Where are they coming from?
  4. Do they have a family?
  5. What has happened in their life?
  6. Who has molded their life?
  7. What goals could they hold? Dreams?
  8. What might be easy in their life? Hard?

You won’t know the answers to these questions. That’s the whole point.

The exercise is not about judgement, nor is it about feeling jealous or “sorry” for another person; it’s about thinking about all kinds of persons and what their lives might be like.

I believe, and I know, that existing outside of ourselves (even for a few minutes) cultivates a deep, abiding kind of empathy because when we realize that the moving world does not hinge upon us, we are more fully aware of what and who we are surrounded by. I started doing this a few years ago, and I’ve noticed that with time, it’s furthered my understanding that we all sit on different spectrums of everything.

There is no linear human being.

Most recently, I did this exercise on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a town named Cyangugu. The town sits on the Southwest corner of Rwanda, with just over 60,000 people living in the surrounding area. It is a lakeside town, with sambaza (a type of fish) as a preferred food type. I spent little time here when I was in the Peace Corps, as my community was nearly 8 or 9 hours away, within the Eastern part of the country.

Our TWB team was in the region to complete a bread market analysis which involved visits with other local bakeries, visiting shops that source bread for customers, and researching local preferences for consumption. To understand the place as best as I could, I knew that moving by foot would be advantageous. I think that because you can use your five senses in varying degrees, walking is the most optimal way to learn about a place. Amid our bread research, outside a crowded, local market, I decided to contemplate a woman moving hastily with charcoal on the road.

It was raining.

The moisture of the air swelled together with the dust-capped pavement, like a gust of earth touching each part of my body. I tried to squint my eyes so I didn’t fall into a ditch or misstep and run into one of many pedestrians moving from one place to another. People were moving with intention; while the sunshine might keep people in a haze, the rain acts like a buzzer for immediacy. Suddenly, whether going to the market, to the lake, or to home, the journey must be done speedily.

As the pace of the conglomerate of people around me quickens, I spot a middle-aged woman carrying charcoal. The bag rests in such a way that the top piece is strapped around her forehead and the bulk of the weight is held by her back. She was wearing royal blue fabric with yellow adornments. She was also sweating, profusely, and her muscles seem to mold to the bag as if she knows it well – perhaps carrying these kinds of things every day. Her skin is well-worn by the sun. She seems tired. Strong, but very tired.

She had a ring on her left hand – perhaps she was married – and hence, it’s possible that she was also a provider for children, too. She dropped the charcoal near a bus for loading. I watched from afar as she received a wage – what appeared to be in coins – from her presumed boss. She counted her money. She left.

Was this her day’s wage? Was it enough to buy food? Is she from around these parts?

I can’t know the answers to the questions. I know nothing about her life. And yet, I feel heartbroken.

At any given time, we are surrounded by those who have a life full of opportunity, or perhaps oppression; poverty, or perhaps money; dreams, or perhaps hopelessness; limitations, or perhaps, educational access; hunger, or perhaps food; a job, or perhaps unemployment; nothingness, or perhaps status; mobility, or perhaps subjugation; isolation, or perhaps friends; and health, or perhaps sickness.

Turns out, our privilege is mobile (we carry it with us) and it sits on a spectrum depending on where you find yourself.  If we are engaging with the people around us, we can’t always know the levels or places of their privilege, but we can assess the levels of our own – depending on the situation.

As I watched this woman walk away, with hundreds of others around me, I couldn’t help but think: why do individual lives often look so disproportionate? Is this privilege at work? Or something else?

For instance, on this trip, I walked into bakeries, asked questions, and received tours of the facility without hardly a second glance. I even went home with a free loaf of bread. It’s possible (and likely) that being white had something to do with this.

In the same trip, however, I also entered a bar full of drunk men to purchase a bottle of water. Quickly, I was made to feel small, like my place was not there. I was mocked and laughed at and felt uncomfortable immediately. A drunk man tried to touch me – I left. Here, in spaces like that, I hold very little power – conceptually speaking. It’s possible (and likely) that being a woman had something to do with this.

After intentionally thinking about this woman – and the realities and possibilities in her life – I came back to our hotel room and cried.

I cried because I am maddened by inequity. I’m angered by lack of opportunity. I’m aghast at the nature of cyclical poverty. I’m saddened by loneliness. All of it – it’s so much to absorb and understand. It seems, tapping into this ONE woman’s life for 15 minutes allowed an outpouring of questions, thoughts, concerns, and opinions to rise from deep within me.

I can’t forget the way this feels.

If I forget, I become numb to justice.

If I forget, together, we will not overcome.

If I forget, we cannot acknowledge where we are limited, but where we have power.

I want to understand, know, and dissect the privilege I have. I also know, intimately, that there are areas in my life in which I’m not privileged. Learning to know these places is just as important.

And so, I will keep going on my walks and will maintain awareness of the people around me. For me, people serve as markers and reminders of all the powerful, incredible diversity of humanity, and still also the work we have ahead to ensure human rights are met for everyone.

Justice does not imply equality and that life is the same for everyone; justice, instead, necessitates equity – that we all can build a healthy, prosperous, supportive life, all within the context of our God-given place on this Earth. Whether in small-town Indiana, or on the shores of Thailand, all of us, as people, must know more about others, and then take hard-looks at ourselves, too. We must not be afraid to see our own privilege (and limitations) and then address it head on.

How does our privilege perpetuate systems?

How do acknowledge our mobile privilege and do something about it?

How can our privilege influence change?

These are the questions that this exercise ignites in me.

This is the power of people.

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Cyangugu, Rwanda

teeth-cleaning, life-giving, kind-of conversations.

Naturally, I was late for my bi-annual dentist appointment. Wrongly assuming I was some sort of a traffic god, I gave myself three minutes for a 15-minute drive. Slightly frazzled, I walked through doors that I have walked through since I was a little girl.

Dr. Long has been my dentist – well, forever.He’s a good one but it’s kind of always like this:

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He gave me a retainer, helped me get my braces in tip-top shape, fixed a chipped tooth, and most times, cleaned my altogether decent teeth.

Escorted back by the hygienist, the tension was palpable due to my late arrival.

To mitigate this, I quickly commented, “I’m really sorry for being late.”

Nothing. Except for the whining of the ultrasonic cleaning instruments that dentists frequently use. What a pleasant background noise.

Great. Now the woman about to clean my teeth with a razor sharp tartar scraper is less than enthused because of my tardiness. Less than ideal.I really, I mean really, need to work on being on time to things.

Delicately but without much sympathy, she put the bib around my neck so that the spit, toothpaste, and general dentistry-grossness didn’t get all over my shirt.

She was still silent.

Quick! Say something! I couldn’t think of anything.

She nudged first, “So, how has your summer been?”

I paused. Answer with grace. Grace, kindness, grace, enthusiasm, and still more grace.

“Well, first of all, I can’t believe we are nearing the end. It’s kind of crazy. I’ve been working and doing some trips around the country. Trying to have as many outdoor adventures as I can. It’s been a good summer. What about you?”

She told me about her big move into a suburban community from her previous home of 16 years on a southeastern Colorado farm.

We bonded over the mutual experience of boxes and settling into a new neighborhood. She softened, and told me about her upcoming anniversary – her wedding one – honoring 15 years of marriage.

I’m always about asking the deeper, thicker, molasses-heavy kind of questions, so I posed, “Did you change a lot in those years? With your spouse, I mean?”

“Of course I did. You – we – always will. I got married late. 36. I had resigned to the idea that I had been blessed with the gift of singleness. Just when I gave it up, like a boomerang, it came back to me.”

“I guess you never know, right?”

“Exactly. That’s exactly it. I kind of think that the right thing will always happen. We just have to be willing to loosen our grip and you know. Let it go, I guess.”

With crumbs of plaque resting idly between the crevices of my teeth, I moved my tongue to ask the next question that had popped into my mind –

“Are you a Christian?”

Her eyebrows pointed downwards quickly in a bit of shock, disbelief, and uncertainty. Mostly, suspicion. What business did I – a patient – have asking in the middle of a cleaning appointment?

I asked because her spirit, sentiment, and largely, her vocabulary choice ruminated and dabbled slightly in Christianese you often hear in the church. The “gift of singleness” is an idea or phrase I’ve only heard in that context and so, frankly, I just had to ask. As usual, my curiosity got the best of me.

She laughed hesitantly and looked at me like I was no more than 10 years of age.

“Aww, you’re cute.”

Wait! No! I’m not about to whip out the bridge to Jesus or some device or tool to convert you to a particular brand of faith! Literally, she just struck me as someone who was probably deeply spiritual.

“So – let me tell you first. I don’t like that question – “

I interrupted her.

“It’s the wrong question. I don’t ask that of you because you have to fit in that label, necessarily, I ask because you seem like you know God. From the way you are talking. I should ask, something like, do you know God?

“I’m a seeker. I’ve been seeking my entire life. I go to church, I take part in bible studies, and I desperately want to know God. But, Christianity carries a lot of meaning that I’m not sure I can also carry that word with me. It’s full of hate, honestly, and that really scares me.”

Totally fair. And, she didn’t have to explain all of that, but she did. And honestly, I understood exactly what she meant. I got it.

“I struggle all the time. There’s “Christians” who live lives full of malice, judgment, and narrow-minded ideologies. There’s also “non-Christians” who are revolutionizing communities for positive movements. What I’m trying to say, I think, is that it’s essential to love what God loves. Faith is an active part of life. It’s more than what you label yourself. It’s how you are living.”

“Yes! That’s it!”

She softly, much more openly, laughed again and mumbled that I was “adorable.”

“How old are you again – 27?”

“Yes.”

“Oh for heavens sake! You are a baby. Just a baby. Are you dating anyone?”

“No, not right now.”

“Well, no rush. Like I said, it all happens for a reason. Don’t give up.”

I gargled, spit, and smiled. My front row of teeth were now sparkly clean – glowing from the removed coffee stains of the past year.

The best advice I have read is that everyone is our teacher. Thus, if everyone is our teacher, then certainly, that should (and can, and will) include dental hygienists.

My teeth are smoother, cleaner, and my love for authenticity in in the world is a little higher, too.

Own what you are. Share it. Listen to others. Even from a dentists’ chair.

I love living a life of faith because it presents an opportunity to reclaim the identities placed upon us. I’m a Christian. And I’m so, so ridiculously imperfect as a human. But, I also choose to believe God loves me exactly for who I am. He created me, after all. If you start believing this – really, fully, in your bones believing – than it becomes less scary to function in this world.

My authenticity was made good on a cross. Label or not – that cannot be taken.

Perhaps we can consider what it would look like to reclaim this word “Christianity” – so that instead of being seen for the hatred played out in the world, people would instead find a faith rooted and made right in love.

That’s what I think about when I sit in a dentist office. That’s why life is so cool.

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seeking.

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It’s recently come to my attention that all of us – you, me, the grocer, the man in the car to your right, the neighbor down the street – we’re all seeking.

What, exactly, are we looking for?

I think we’re searching (be it subconsciously or totally, 100% fully aware) to connect with each other.

And let me be honest, here.

On the outside looking in, it kind of appears to be the complete opposite.

At least in my little corner of the world, so much of our time is spent with our necks arched, staring at our phones. We’re closed off in the world of our customized “what love sounds like” playlists (that could just be me) and a lot of us are one step ahead of the game: what will we cook when we get home? What’s on tap for tomorrow? Did you send that email over in time?

For the first month or so after arriving back home, this kind of insular world really freaked me out. I didn’t get it, I didn’t understand it, and I wasn’t sure I could find myself in it.

But sure enough, now I’m doing the very same things: I’ll go outside for a breath of fresh air and before a minute or two has passed, my phone is out and I’m unaware of everything happening around me.

It’s different, you know. And really, I wouldn’t say it’s different from Ghana or Rwanda as a whole– but it is significantly different from my small little village that I lived in not too long ago. The divergence of urban and rural worlds, I might argue, are sometimes bigger and larger than cultural variances themselves. A city can be a city anywhere. Yes, the infrastructure, atmosphere, weather, people, accents, food, and housing can have major divergences. However, if you compare the kind of “city lifestyle” to the rural life that most people in the world lead, than you would be amazed at how it’s like we are living in two completely, separate worlds.

Out in the country, speaking from my own experiences, you can just talk. To anyone. Perhaps that’s why I fit the mold of a village woman oh-so-well. Maybe a little too well?

But the village inclinations in me haven’t stopped just because I’ve re-entered the wonderful world of suburbia, first-world speeds, and unlimited access to Starbuck’s, Five Guys, Q’doba, and excessively stocked grocery stores. I bid farewell to those really dusty roads, my aimless walks for hours, and the small run-down shops that provided just enough for me to get by.

I said goodbye to all of that, but somehow, I’m still doing the same sort of things.

Case and point.

I stomped on into the bank earlier this evening – in my black heels, still dressed in work clothes – in order to put in my money transfer for the girls’ education in Rwanda. They are about to start school in just a few short days and so I am trying to be sure they have the funds they are needing to pay for their new school tuition, uniforms, books, laboratory fees, and transportation. Maisara, Yazina, and Divine will all be attending new schools this year and I couldn’t be more excited. Zahara has one more year in what is called “ordinary level” and so she is doing another year at Ruramira Secondary, the school I taught at for all of 2012 and 2013.

So, like I said, I walk into this bank and get this process started. I grab a butterscotch sucker as my forms are processed and me and the teller, well, we get to talking.

She asks about why I have dropped in for multiple money transfers to Rwanda. One thing leads to another and soon we’re talking about her former career in Albuquerque and her struggle to be separated from her husband and kids. I had come in for a 3 minute transaction and I stayed for over 10. By the end we were talking about what makes a good cup of coffee and how really, everybody is really just trying to make it work. That is, in life at large.

I couldn’t believe I was having this kind of conversation randomly with a bank teller.

That isn’t even the only example.

I discovered an investment client at my job that had recently adopted a three-and-a-half year old from Uganda.

Another prospective client is dealing with the death of her husband and is facing the possibility of having to deal with finances on her own for the first time in her 76 years of life.

The barista over at Starbuck’s – who has been happy to provide me with grande decaf misto Americanos for the last couple of nights as I’ve passed by following my bank trips – helped cover my coffee the other night when I was down about 50 cents. This got us to talking and she’s not exactly thrilled with her job, but what can she really do? It’s a job.

If someone calls the office and merely mentions the words Denver Broncos, I can easily be on the phone for 15 minutes discussing the ins-and-outs of our Superbowl bound team.

This guy and I talked the other day for several minutes about his upcoming trip to New Orleans. Oh for business? I asked him. It wasn’t. He is going to cause mayhem and I realized I should probably get off the phone before I start leaking my own tales of New Orleans. That city is quite legendary.

Yeah, you demonstrate good customer service if you relate well to potential clients, but I should probably reign in the 15 minute digressions as I tie up the lines and neglect my never-ending pile of paperwork to get through.

My point is this.

It’s not just me.

We’re all trying to connect.

To something. To anything. To each other.

Our phones helps us text, call, reach out, or acknowledge another person so that we can feel a little less alone in the world. We want – we need – someone to know about our day, about our interactions, and for that person to really take the time to listen.

I’ve made the mistake of writing off America too quickly when I first came home. I was aghast about our lack of true communication and genuine value for relationships on a daily basis. And for sure, it’s not perfect. But I made the mistake of assuming that we aren’t trying. And we are. It just looks a little different, doesn’t it?

Admittedly, it’s exhausting to keep up. I’m the queen of staying in touch and for every text, phone call, email, tweet, Instagram, status update…it’s like, am I actually being heard? Does it really need to be like this?

What brings it all full-circle is the times I turn on my computer, load skype, and call back to Rwanda to say “hi” to my girls. How do I even begin to explain all of this? It’s a struggle to explain Rwanda to Americans and it’s equally hard to explain America to Rwandans.

But it doesn’t change the end goal: we are still trying to understand each other and really, that’s one of the deepest and most enduring human needs.

And that definitely goes for me. Some days I just want to thrown on Netflix, watch Parks and Recreation and relish in just how hilarious Leslie Knope is. But for me, that isn’t enough to keep me fulfilled. So, I’m trying. I’m starting to attend a small group at church. I’m looking at library-sponsored events at my local branch (probably much like my old, retired neighbors), and I’m reaching out to the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community in Denver. I’m attempting to connect because for me, it’s really the only way I know how to feel satisfied, happy, and like I can combine two parts of my life in the most cohesive way possible.

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