The Lonely Islands

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 The civic culture of years past has been replaced by individualism and personal isolation.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)

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

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

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

Trust Is A Must

 

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I recently enrolled in an improv class.

Improv (short for improvisation) is a state of being and creating action without pre-planning. Commercially, improv is taught mainly as a comedic art-form.

My first class, I stepped on the stage and the lights were shining bright in my eyes. Anxiety took over my body and my heart was pounding. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I make a fool of myself? Who in the group will be my ally?

Trust became of overwhelming importance for me.

So often, we forget trust is not something you automatically receive, but something that is earned. One essential ingredient to improv is listening. If you are able to hear your partner on the stage, then you can reflect, and work together to build the scene. You must trust that what they have to say is important and you are a team. In many cases, you are nearly strangers working together to build this beautiful story that includes lots of laughter. Patience is critical.

This makes me think about the families we work with, who work to build a new life and move out of poverty. Often times we start the relationship as strangers. We cannot forget that we are on the same team, and the opposite of poverty is community.

We have a bad habit of predetermining others’ needs and telling their story for them. We become impatient and forget to listen. We fail to recognize that we ALL have something important to contribute. We forget to trust them.

I think we have something to learn from the art of improv to better build relationships across class lines to create stories of transformation. Here are a few lessons I’ve gleaned:

LISTEN | not just to react but to truly understand.

 

TRUST | step out on faith and remember just starting the conversation takes tremendous courage.

 

THERE IS AN AUDIENCE | our story is not just about us, but about the community who wants to be part of it.

 

HAVE FUN | it’s important to enjoy the journey and laugh some along the way.

As I continue the improv class, I’ve gotten better at working with my team and creating scenes together. We are building trust. Trust comes from sharing stories with each other over and over again. Trust builds when we feel listened to. Trust gives us motivation to take on challenges, sometimes things we’d never consider doing on our own.

Today, I went on the stage. The light was shining bright in my eyes. My heart was pounding again with anxiety. Our instructor said, “Just say something. You’re doing great. It’s your story.”

I can say anything. The courage it takes to be there is enough, I am not a fool. I have allies surrounding me waiting to listen and create a new story with me.

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

Stand. Listen. Love.

We have a bedtime routine with my one-year- old daughter, Helen. She gets a bath, a bottle, we rock and then she is laid in her crib for the night to go to sleep. This nighttime regimen was created when she was a newborn after plenty of reading and years of previous parenting experience, where my husband and I had a child in the middle of our bed.

Recently, when I lay Helen down she will wake and begin to whimper as soon as she discovers she is alone in her crib. As long as I stand by the crib and she knows I’m near after a few minutes she will fall into a sound sleep.

I could spend countless hours trying to figure out why Helen’s crib is a scary place and what I should do. I could become paralyzed and over think how to fix the situation.

Instead, I stand there at the side of her crib. Thinking, listening to her breath and occasionally say aloud, “I’m right here”.

Helen just needs to feel my love.

Tonight while standing by her crib, my mind was racing. Another young black man was shot by a police officer and my social media feed is drowned in posts. Posts from preachers,professionals and personal friends—some who are being advocates and some who are being adversarial. Videos of the violence. Statements from the young black man’s family. Articles about injustice and the racial war our communities continue to battle. My heart is heavy.

I scroll through the news feed and read each post. A few instances I click on the comment button and then change my mind as I begin to type. I don’t want to be in this conversation, I tell myself…it’s too complicated.

Then a woman who I respect and care for wrote a post. It reads:

I just can’t bring myself to watch the videos of these executions.  Thats what they are. I have a son and I am so afraid for him. He looks older than he is. He’s muscular. He sometimes rides his bike or walks home when its dark. I have to tell him if he’s ever stopped by an officer to keep his hands visible. Don’t make sudden moves or reach for anything. Comply with whatever they say even if that means getting arrested falsely.  I’d rather pay bail than pick out a casket.

My heart is no longer heavy, my heart is broken.

I know her. I know her son. She is a great mom and an amazing woman.

Relationships can be the force that drowns out the noise. Relationships allow us to hit pause to begin to take complicated issues and gain a glimpse of understanding. 

I could spend countless hours trying to figure out why her community is a scary place and what I should do. I could become paralyzed and over think how to fix the situation.

Instead, I will let her know– I’m thinking, I’m standing here and I’m listening. She is not alone.

She’s a friend who needs to feel my love.

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

*Shared with permission

Flight Connection

Airports are places full of people. People of different cultures. People of different race, age and gender. All on an unique journey

Recently, I was in the Chicago airport and had an experience that caused me to reflect on building community.

45 minutes until boarding time, I sat in my seat and typed on my laptop at the gate. Across the way, there was a young mother with two children. One in a carrier on the front of her body and one holding on to her hand, like a chained animal who wanted free. Occasionally she would let go of the toddler’s hand. This followed with yelling his name repeatedly and making a run to sweep him up, before he went too far in the crowd of strangers. It was clear she was exhausted.

Meanwhile I typed away. Other people quietly observed while the mom and young boy ran through the seats. The baby started crying. This made the situation more difficult and as the mom tried to tend to the crying infant, the little boy became more out of control.

30 minutes to boarding.

I noticed by this point, folks started talking about the young woman. Some spoke of pity. Others displayed frustration. I noticed one man in particular, who constantly would look at the mom. He even waved at the rambunctious toddler.

Why wasn’t anyone offering to help?

20 minutes to boarding.

Finally, I stood up. Passing the gentlemen who seemed interested in the young mom’s situation I said, “Come on let’s help.” He didn’t hesitate for a second and immediately followed me.

I introduced myself to the young mom and said, “We want to help. What do you need?” With tears running down her face she delegated instructions. I held the baby while she made a bottle. The other gentleman made fast friends with the little guy as he sat and read to him. The mom thanked us over and over again.

Five minutes to boarding.

Both children were fast asleep. Mission accomplished. I looked at everyone around me and couldn’t help but think–why didn’t anyone else offer to help? That wasn’t so bad….Actually it was nice to hold the little baby.

Well, I think this happens all the time in our community. Here’s a list of thoughts that I had when trying to decide whether or not to reach out to the mom. Maybe you can relate?

1 | I’m too busy.

I was trying to get caught up on emails and tending to kids was not in my plan. The work will always be there. Live in the moment a little!

2 | I’m not sure if ‘she’ wants my help.

I had no idea what to say to the young mom. I didn’t know if my offer to help would embarrass her. If you don’t ask you’ll never know.

3 | I don’t know what ‘she’ needs.

The gentlemen who helped with me, kept saying afterwards “I’m glad you got up- I wanted to, but I didn’t know what she needed.” Of course you don’t. That’s why the question, “what do you need from me?” is so powerful. Needs are universal and we can usually communicate them when asked.

4 | I worry about what others will think.

The young mom and children captured nearly everyone’s attention at the airport gate. I knew that lots of eyes would be on me if I helped.  Sometimes modeling is one of the best teaching techniques.

5 | I’m different than ‘she’ is.

I could tell in the short period of time that the mom and I probably parented differently. I knew she and I had a different culture. BUT I am a mother and I know what it feels like to be completely exhausted. Figure out ways to connect to the experiences of others, maybe not the exact situation or circumstance.

6 | I won’t get anything out of this.

Selfishly, I was tired and wasn’t in a giving mood. However, I had no idea how much holding the newborn was going to calm me and give me renewed energy. Reciprocity isn’t always obvious right away.

Our communities are places full of people. People of different cultures. People of different race, age and gender. All on an unique journey.

Isolation is terrible for us. Take the risk and reach out.

Five minutes to landing.

 

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