The Gift of Community

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As a small child, my favorite thing about the holidays were the gifts. I was always excited to reveal the surprises under the Christmas tree and I would spend time weeks before writing my wishlist of toys.

Today, it’s a little different. I am growing up some and my perspective of the holidays has started to change. I have discovered that Christmas really isn’t about presents, it’s more about the unity of the season. Although December is the coldest month in the year, I have always associated it with the warmest feelings. People come together, my family refrains from fighting, and my grandma smiles more.

Unfortunately, I am beginning to notice that the holiday season is continuously becoming less about unity and giving, and more and more about receiving material things. I see people that are so concerned about their kid getting the latest toy craze or getting the biggest ham at the market.

Are we missing an opportunity? I think the holidays can be time to intentionally fill  the void of poverty and come together to celebrate community.

During my internship at Think Tank, I have been introduced to trainings and materials that help people better understand poverty. Recently, we have had some conversations about the holiday giving program called Adopt a Family.

Now, at first glance, it seems like a pretty good idea, right? I mean, a family in need gets presents and you get to feel good about helping them. What could possibly be bad about that? Well, from the perspective of someone who has been raised by a single mom who has worked her tail off to provide financially for me, I can tell you — this whole Adopt a Family program doesn’t seem like a very good idea to me.

I think many years the holidays caused a great deal of anxiety and stress for my mom. She would worry about how she could afford the expenses of gifts — should she pay rent or buy me the doll I wanted? Time was also a stressor. Many people look forward to the extra time at the holidays — taking a short vacation and being with family. This was not true for my mom. For many years, we didn’t even get to celebrate the holiday on Christmas morning, because she had to work. I used to be really angry that she had to work on Christmas morning. Today, I am grateful for what Mom has taught me about sacrifice and being a hard worker.

I think about if we had the opportunity to be adopted during the holidays. I imagine what it would be like from the perspective of the parent. You have your children, who you would do anything for. The fear of not being able to give them a fulfilling Christmas scares you, and to be quite honest you feel like a bad parent. Along come people who have financial resources and they want to help. Your children are completely aware of the fact that these presents didn’t come from you. You couldn’t do this for your kids, but someone else can, and they get the enjoyment of seeing them open these gifts and smile, all while feeling good about the deed they’ve done.

As a parent in poverty, there are a lot of times that leave you feeling vulnerable, and possibly, like a failing parent. Just imagine having to raise a child and do all of the grueling daily tasks as a parent, but not be able to feel like you’ve worked for anything, because you can’t even give your family the holiday that you think they deserve. Having another family get to do all of the fun parts really isn’t so fun. This is why I think the Adopt a Family strategy doesn’t seem like a very good idea.

So, I’d like you to consider these suggestions:

1: Instead of buying gifts and bringing them directly to the family for them to open, bring the parent(s) shopping with you, or offer assistance less publicly. This can make the entire situation much more personal, and you get a chance to engage with the family rather than simply being someone who can bring them presents, because you have more resources than they do.

2: Take the children shopping for their parents. This would be a great opportunity to teach kids about giving. Although the holidays are in no way just about gifts, this is a good place to start.

3: Invite the family to your holiday dinner! Not everyone is in poverty financially. Actually, there are a lot of people that are in poverty of education, faith, and relationships. Breaking isolation and coming together for food and fellowship can help with this.

This Christmas, I plan to give the gift of community. Will you join me?

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by Angel Canter for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Think Tank, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Moving From ME to WE

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As I drove in between the stone pillars and up the long drive, I couldn’t help but think — this was not our typical spot for meetings…the country club. I am used to conference rooms, church basements and coffee shops for meetings in my line of work.

I was the first to arrive. A hostess greeted me at the door and escorted me to a lovely room with a beautifully-dressed table. The atmosphere felt cozy with a large fireplace in the center of the room.

The waitress arrived and immediately took my drink order. I couldn’t help but wonder about her life. Did she have a family? Was she in poverty? What did she think of our reserved table for 13? I contemplated telling her that I worked for a nonprofit and the purpose of our dinner. Instead, I was quiet.

Folks arrived. There were some familiar faces from our board of directors and some new faces. We made small talk. Soon, everyone was seated and introductions began.

The waitress came back to the table and took our order. The standard three choices: salmon, chicken or steak. Then, my colleague did a brief welcome and purpose of our dinner — “To talk about the work being done to create abundant communities.” Specifically, how we can end poverty through holistic approaches and relationships. Folks were challenged to share their personal “why”.

This is when everything shifted for me.

The people around the table were influential leaders. People with financial capital. People who know business and have been financially successful.

They shared personal encounters of how they experienced community. Instances of when they felt rich… Times when they worked with young children in an urban setting… An instance when they recognized that a new community center was just a building; it needed people working together to bring it to life… And how they want their children to live out community and be challenged to think about poverty alleviation.

I could tell when they shared their “why” that it gave them a feeling of abundance. A feeling of purpose and meaning. A feeling of connectedness and community. I felt the same way. When we share our stories, we make discoveries, discoveries about how connected we actually are and can be. We discover that more of our wealth can be found in the heart and mind, not always solely in the pocket

Poverty isn’t always about your paycheck. Poverty is complex. However, we all experience poverty, we all have parts of our life where we long for abundance. Sometimes we need more money or education. Sometimes we need more meaning and purpose in our lives. Sometimes we just need to feel more connected to others.

I feel privileged to have these sort of conversations, because building abundant communities takes all kinds of people, each with the willingness to build each other up. Moving from ME to WE creates a rich environment.

Being in relationship with others who want to do better, who want our world to thrive and not merely survive, is why I look forward to many more conversations about how to create community — whether it be in a country club or a church basement.

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by Heather Cunningham — to learn more about Heather’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

You’re Not The Only One

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One of the hardest things in a relationship is to remember that you’re not the only one in it.

It seems like a simple concept, something that you and I should totally be aware of, because, hey, a relationship means that’s it ‘not just me’. There’s someone else in the room that is attached to you to your consciousness or state of being in some kind of definable or ambient way. A relationship means you are in relation with one another.

A relationship means you aren’t the only one.

But we do forget that we aren’t the only one. We do it a lot. We forget that we have a responsibility to prefer the other, our better, when we’re in union with our partners. We sometimes get so caught up in monitoring ourselves and weighing our own thoughts, ideas, and feelings that we can forget to allow them to be present in our most intricate and minute actions.

Oftentimes, we forget our partners, not just in our romantic partnerships, but often when we think about our world-at-large, when we think about the community. In fact, let’s talk about the phrase, “the community”. It has been spat out among the masses from our civic leaders, our politicians, our faith leaders, our educators, and so on for so long in our national culture that it’s largely become a benign expression to represent people who are connected by some sort of common people, place, or thing. In many respects, it’s largely become an abstract euphemism to describe people who might be the center of urban planning projects. It’s become a political phrase, a cliche.

And we need to dignify it.

The Community that we so often reference is actually the epitome of a relationship. It spiritually is Webster’s definition of relationship on a macro-level; and when folks refer to The Community, there can often be a disconnect. A lot of times, even if we don’t hear the disconnect in lifeless descriptions of these random, characterless people that we reference in our pontifications and declarations to one another, we feel the disconnect in our hearts. And we have the nerve to wonder why the various Communities that we all have spoken of, with their vague and numerous problems and inconveniences, don’t ever seem to find the solutions that we figure are so simple or beget the answers we feel are so clear. It’s because we have forgotten about those same random, characterless people in our hearts and only really focused on ourselves.

Here’s what I’m getting at — if we seek to help solve the problems that are affecting our collective ability to commune with each other and come together to solve problems that affect our world as a whole, including our own geographical pockets of the globe, we must remember that we aren’t the only ones in the relationship, we aren’t apart from The Community — we are a part of The Community. We and The Community are one and the same. We’re just we.

You cannot fix within what you do not acknowledge is present. All a community is, is a band of people who are in relation with humanity or some product of it. And when we address The Community, be it large or small, we must address ourselves in the dictation — not as we might do thoughtlessly and with laissez-faire, but with mindful intention. We must decrease and allow our neighbors the space to increase. Again, we are not apart in a community.  In a healthy community, we are together and in congress, giving one another the floor to think, feel, and act with respect for our wellness as a whole, both literally in flesh and in spirit.

Just as you might show respect for your spouse and you think of them, mindfully and intentionally, as you act upon the plans that you have in your heart and mind, so it goes that we should do the same for the Communities in which we belong.

Because, after all, that’s what you would do in your relationship…right?

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by Sandy Dover for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Think Tank, please visit thinktank-inc.org

The Lonely Islands

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A think piece cultivated from the upcoming book Radical Alliances by John White.

“Of all the places you have traveled in the world, which is the most impoverished?”

The little nun from Albania considered the question which had been posed by the reporter in front of her.

She’d sacrificed everything and moved to Calcutta, devoting her life to caring for the poor and needy. After decades of living in obscurity, this sister of mercy had gained international fame, largely because of the books and articles that had been written about her. Though small in stature, she would go on to become one of the most powerful figures in the Christian world. 

So, when Mother Teresa answered the question, she spoke softly:

“I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering, but of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America. America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness.”

These words at the time may have been shocking to some, but were they unfounded? Perhaps Mother Teresa was referring to the weakening of community life in America. Neighborly friendships are slowly fading, as is the notion of mutual accountability and “it takes a village” stuff. The civic culture of years past has been replaced by individualism and personal isolation.

Martin Luther King Jr. echoed the sentiments of Mother Teresa in 1964, while making the acceptance speech for his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. He commented on the desperation of America’s poverty. Dr. King said:

“In a sense, the poverty of the poor in America is more frustrating than the poverty of Africa and Asia. The misery of the poor in Africa and Asia is shared misery, a fact of life for the vast majority; they are all poor together as a result of years of exploitation and underdevelopment. In sad contrast, the poor in America know that they live in the richest nation in the world, and that even though they are perishing on a lonely island of poverty they are surrounded by a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

In recent years, there has been increasing debate surrounding an apparent trend in our country: a divided America. Some would call our current state a “two class” or “two caste” America. In fact, a former Presidential candidate John Edwards built his entire campaign around the notion of ‘Two Americas.’ Regardless of the debate and variety of viewpoints, it is inescapable. We can see and sense the different castes around us. We can recognize the separation and segregation woven into our society. The temptation, upon seeing these divisions, is to ignore it or assign blame rather than taking the time to step back and examine the reasons for these divisions.

People find a way to live in their own little pockets of reality. Whether in poverty, middle class or wealth, many of us have become increasingly isolated. Whether living in a wealthy community or an impoverished neighborhood, people sometimes come to accept isolation as the norm. Is the norm in your community marked by drugs, crime, despair, and family brokenness? Get used to it, says this isolation mentality. Or, is your neighborhood marked by stay-at-home moms, soccer camps, tennis lessons, and yearly family vacations to the beach? For many living in poverty, this chasm of separation is too vast to bridge.

Many cities are seeing this geographical and cultural separation between the impoverished and the middle & upper classes as a threat to the very relational glue and fabric that holds neighborhoods and communities together. Not only do these divisions foster a distorted view of reality, but they also rob our communities of the cultural richness and spirit of collaboration needed for growth and human flourishing. The beauty of blending socioeconomic classes was a strength in America for decades. This blending compelled people towards a civic duty to look out for one another, to get involved in community initiatives, and solve neighborhood problems together. That unraveling of civic culture is a threat.

I am reminded daily of the need for my heart and mind to be penetrated to reflect on my own defaults that seek comfort and ease. My tendency is to run away from pain or sorrow, which can prevent me from fully seeing and understanding the very pain and and sorrow of my own communities that face poverty, loneliness and oppression.

If I — no, if we have any conscience about loving our neighbors and being accountable to our neighbors, we must cross the rivers of false superiority, with a deep recognition and understanding of our common brokenness. No matter what we have in our pocket, or not have in our pocket we need each other to thrive and live a life of meaning, purpose and the ultimate richness as God’s image bearers.

We should challenge ourselves to make the voyages across the ocean of material prosperity.We must persevere through the oceanic ripples and tides of spiritual absenteeism and vacantness that might take us off-course to engage our communities..

We must intentionally break out of our lonely islands.

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by John White — to learn more about John’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

The Laws of Order (Time & Love)

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I’m in that stage of parenting where you wake up one day and realize you’ve made it past the survival days, where the kids needed you for everything, only to realize that you’re staring the teenage years in the face. There is something about this part of the journey that offers a crystallizing glance at the big picture. Perhaps it’s the fact that my window of center-stage influence seems to be closing in, based upon the increasing presence of their friends. Or, just awareness of the everpresent reality that the clock is always ticking.

My favorite part of parenting is talking to my kids about the good and hard lessons of life. I love to see them wrestle with things they are slowly able to understand and in the process develop foundational values and wisdom for life. In reality, though, much of my ability to shape their character comes more from what I do than what I say. Recently, a thought occurred to me that the legacy that my husband and I will pass on to our children will mostly be comprised of how we treat each other and how we order our lives.

Think Tank, Inc. lost two cherished friends this month. When eternity touches time, we are reminded of what matters most. As I watched the tributes to loved-ones-passed fill my social media feed, I didn’t learn much about their hobbies. I didn’t hear about their awards at work or the titles they held. What I did hear was stories of embracing vulnerability with courage. I heard stories of risk and sacrifice for the cause of justice. I heard stories of practical strangers or mere acquaintances being touched by one gracious encounter. Stories of how faith in God has the power to meet us in the pit and sustain us for every good work.  

I couldn’t help but be moved by the fabric of community that can be woven around every life. Yet, knitting takes intention. Relationships have to be fostered and there are too many distractions that can get us sidelined from what matters most.  

This week in my reflection and solitude I have some important questions to ask myself. Am I ordering my life around things that matter most, or am I pursuing myself and my comfort? Am I taking every opportunity to be fully present in my family and my community and offer love and grace in my interactions with others?

Will you take some time to ask yourself the same?

by Marlo Fox — to learn more about Marlo’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

DO vs. BE

A photo by Greg Rakozy. unsplash.com/photos/oMpAz-DN-9I

I’m grateful to have a wealth of mentors in my life. I am surrounded by people who have wisdom and are willing to share it. Real leaders. People who do all sorts of things. Young and old. Men and women. Rich and poor. Their relationships help me do what I do.

Last night, I was having a conversation with one of these mentors. He is a man I look up to and respect. He has a wonderful sense of humor and likes to challenge me in any opportunity he gets. There are a few things in life he takes very seriously — his relationship with Christ, his family, politics, and — of course — golf.

I often look to him for wisdom on parenting. He has three daughters who are now adults. From what I can tell, he did a pretty good job raising them. I ask him parenting questions all the time. Questions about college, drugs, sex, peer pressure, discipline, and the list could go on and on.

I have a teenager– you get it… . Parenting an adolescent is sometimes like driving into an unfamiliar territory without your GPS. It can be a wonderful journey, but it would be a little less stressful if you knew exactly where to turn.

So, I asked the question, “How did you talk to your girls about drinking? Did you tell them they weren’t allowed to do it?” I got a response I wasn’t expecting.

“No, I didn’t talk at all about the do. I talked about the ‘be’,” he said.

He explained, “As parents, my wife and I focused less on what-to-do or not-to-do, but shifted the conversations with our children to, ‘What do you want to be? Who do you want to be? How do your choices affect who you will be?’ We didn’t talk much about the ‘do’.”

Wow. It’s just two letters. Two words.

DO or BE? So simple. So powerful.

We don’t ask the BE question enough. I think about our with families in poverty. How many times have I completely overlooked this? Going straight to the to-do list. Get a job, enroll in school, go to counseling, get housing and do,do,do…

We need to shift the conversation and begin asking different questions. What do you want to be? Where would you like to be in the future? What will influence who you want to be?

We have to explore purpose and meaning. This isn’t the stuff that we can chart out on a case plan or measure with a matrix. This is the stuff in our soul. Why I am I here? What are my God-given gifts? Who am I intended to be?

I’m thankful I have so many people in my life. People willing to share their personal insight and experience. Young and old. Men and women. Rich and poor. Their relationships help me BE who I am.

by Heather Cunningham — to learn more about Heather’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Four Ways To Ruin Your Life

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My name is John White, and I had the honor to serve four terms in the Ohio House of Representatives. During my service, my focus was to encourage Ohio’s faith communities to partner with state and local governments to help solve the most difficult social problems facing our state. The following experience gave me a fresh clarity on the opportunity we have to engage those communities that are ready to tackle the issues surrounding returning citizens.


I had my reservations about traveling two and a half hours to Marion Correctional Institute in central Ohio. I had plenty of reasons not to go. It was icy — in fact, black ice lay on the road that morning, and it was cold. I was just going as a favor to the warden who I admired and heard much about. However, I, already disdainful about the inconvenience, turned around after slipping a little and started to go back home. Then something got my attention and told me to get back on the highway and GO. I’d like to think it was the Holy Spirit and that I heard the voice of God. That makes good piety, but maybe it was just a guilty conviction that I didn’t want to let her down. Either way, I can look back now and see…more on that later.

That wintery morning, I had a nagging temptation to be lazy and just stay home. I was a legislator and had reached my goal. What else was there to learn? Besides, I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t want to be embarrassed. It could be awkward. It could be very uncomfortable. It was self-talk time! “John do the hard stuff today to be the person you want to be tomorrow. After all this is what I tell my kids to do.” (I probably got that line from some cheesy motivational poster on a wall somewhere). At this moment I had an internal street fight on my hands. Marion won.

GO

Snarling barbed-wire fencing. A dreary day on a dreary piece of land with a dreary welcoming. Bars…lots of bars and locked doors everywhere. I couldn’t move. It took 25 minutes just to get into the place. Everywhere you move, security doors slam shut behind you. “Empty all your pockets!” I shoved down the impulse to shout, “Hell’s bells, don’t you know who I am? Weren’t you expecting me?” And then, there they were. 300 men stuffed into a room singing gospel hymns. A choir of 40 men; Black, White, Latino, old, young. There were clearly some grandfathers in here, probably some sex offenders in for life. They were in awkward choir robes and amazingly proud of it. All were holding hands singing aloud and sometimes off key. Tattooed, arms raised high, unashamed. A rank, sweaty-men smell permeated the room. They were unashamed and clearly free. Two giant men surround me. They were both lifers. On my right, a Black man revealed he was locked up for murder. On my left, a White man admitted his Aryan Nation leadership and former hatred of anything not him. Their arms were raised, tears in their eyes. Not me! I’m not buying it yet. I’m holding back and my shield is on to anything that disrupted my facade, my comfort of how I saw the world or needed to see the world to protect my long-developed mental box. I witnessed the experience of forgiveness and repentance as they all got on their knees, celebrating oneness through their Creator. I opened my eyes and looked around, still a skeptic. But what I saw was a joy that was raw, unvarnished, palpable and honest.

SEE

I felt naked and vulnerable. I was disrupted. This was not what I expected. I hadn’t even given a speech yet, or even been introduced. They probably couldn’t care less about my visit. They had found meaning, purpose and a divine and sacred brotherhood in the bowels of a medium-security prison in the middle of nowhere. They said that they were going to pray for me, asked about my family, and offered to write. They didn’t ask for anything in return. It was as authentic as anything I had ever seen before. I was numb and my chest was pounding, but I felt as alive as never before. Surprisingly, I didn’t want to leave. I hugged as many as I could grab to say goodbye and that I was coming back to see them. I wanted to worship with them again, an experience that was as powerful as I have ever felt in the grandest of cathedrals. This was a holy ground, I thought, and the whole place (some 2000 men and staff) all knew that it was different. I felt beaten up, penetrated, small, ruined and renewed!

FEEL

What did I discover that day…what was God wanting me to see? Why was I feeling so rich and honored, and yet a little unworthy to be a part of this? How does this work? What program in that prison makes this stuff happen? I think I saw more truth in that prison than I have seen in a lifetime of sermons and Christian books. I experienced a world that I wanted to see everywhere. The impact was as powerful as a blow to the head. Where can I find more of this? How do I get ruined every day in order to feel the joy in my heart now, and what does this have to do with being a better man, father, friend, legislator, leader, and Christian? I spent that day with imprisoned people considered to be the worst of sinners, only to end up ironically captivated by their freedom. What haunts me at this very moment is how many invitations I have ignored, because the road was too perilous, risky, and unknown. Even more tragic was the reality that I had been so sure of myself, that I thought there was nothing for me to learn. I didn’t realize how I had fenced myself in, not allowing myself to be moved by anything that would penetrate my protected and comfortable way that I saw the world, my community, and my neighbor. Before that day, I had never known anyone who went to prison and was completely humbled by the experience. As I drove into my lovely suburban neighborhood and pulled into my garage alone, I knew what I had to do…

GO AGAIN.

by John White — to learn more about John’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org