Christmas: The American Dream

2012 has been a year of many travels (you may have noticed).  So what more fitting way could there be to end the year, than with my first overseas Christmas? I am in the USA.  Where my brother now lives.

It has been a peaceful, calm, introverted Christmas (in my family we celebrate by eating and reading).  We were all enthralled by my new baby niece who is utterly adorable and completely wonderful.  There was snow on Christmas day, for the first time in 85 years in Arkansas (it even made the UK news, apparently).  My sister-in-law’s dad is a professional chef and so we ate some seriously good food.

With my beautiful niece

With my beautiful niece

But here’s the surprise.  I am used to being in different cultures really regularly, and places where the food, language and customs are completely foreign, and where there are few creature comforts.  And mostly it’s fine. Now here I am in a country which shares so much of our own culture and where every desire for convenience and luxury is fulfilled, and I have found it to be unexpectedly uncomfortable (and I’m not talking about the inflatable mattress we slept on).

I have struggled to work out why.  But I think it’s because the part of US culture I dislike most, is merely a reflection of something I am only too aware lurks in my own heart.  And it’s ugly.

It’s consumerism. The drive to always be buying stuff and to make that activity the means by which we define ourselves/cope/relax/attribute value is something that I battle against on home soil, and in my own soul.  It’s hard not to feel like the struggle is ratcheted up a few notches in suburban USA where civilisation seems almost exclusively to take the form of endless fast-food outlets, super-sized stores and shopping malls.  In the absence of any ‘third spaces’ for people to interact meaningfully, there is only the mall and your home – the place where you buy and the place where you use/display/consume what you buy.

Here, I revolt against this way of living; but at home I know and am ashamed of how easily I embrace it.

I picked up a book from my brother’s shelves over Christmas, called “The Trouble with Paris” and it spelt out the same truth.  The title refers to a girl struggling with depression who moves to Paris because she decides that she just needs a change of scene.   It turns out that “the trouble with Paris” is that hopping on a plane to a new city is just another way of chasing new experiences and avoiding reality.  We have become addicted, the book claims, to the hyped-up version of reality constantly sold to us by the media and the marketeers, and so we devote our time and attention to chasing (buying) a better reality than the one we live.

Well, quite.

At the cowboy superstore

At the cowboy superstore

But then I stumbled across this quotation which made it all hit home:

“We can buy fairtrade and organic, yet still live under the framework of consumerism, running from commitment and community, living for self, chasing experience at the expense of intimacy and connection, and treating others like objects.”

(Yes I buy fairtrade and organic).

Southern US suburban culture might be an easy target for me with its obvious excesses, but a few different shopping habits don’t make me immune from the infection of consumerism or the compulsive quest for a hyper-real life.  I am as addicted as the next person to constant social media news-feeds; new and exciting experiences; allegedly self-improving purchases; pretty, sparkly things…and just look at how much I travel.  Somehow I am reminded of a proverb involving specks of dust and planks of wood.

It’s not that I think I have no right to critique, but it’s always easier to judge something you’re not a part of.  A community you don’t live in.  A culture you don’t shape.  The more painful, more demanding work lies in the neighbourhood where I do live, amidst the consumer options that face me every day.   How can I share with my community, rather than consume as an individual?  How do I become a creator rather than a consumer?

So in the end it all comes back to me not them.  And it comes back to London not Little Rock.   It’s crazy how far you travel sometimes just to discover what’s in your own heart.

In 2013 I’ll be sharing some of my journey to live more simply in the city.  In the new year I’ll tell you all how the blog will be growing and changing… 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Needing a witness

The mountains of Guatemala

The mountains of Guatemala

Our five days in Guatemala are over, and we have arrived, exhausted and a little dazed in Nicaragua. As I write, I am sitting in a converted cinema, now a church, waiting for leaders to assemble for the gathering of La Red del Camino, the brilliant network who have hosted us for the whole trip. Literally, their name means the network of ‘the way’ or ‘the path’ because the first Christians were known as followers of ‘the way’. They gather leaders across Latin America as friends, journeying with them in understanding faith and mission as a holistic, whole-life adventure (rather than a purely spiritual project) that leads them to engage with the poverty and injustice surrounding them. They are good, crazy, grounded people.

Our final day in Guatemala was spent in the indigenous, mountainous region around Patzun. It was breathtakingly beautiful and surprisingly cold. I was wearing flip-flops, but thankfully had packed a sensible cardigan, purchased for me by my mother.

We left at 5.30am to drive in some kind of hardy landcruiser to have breakfast with a group of indigenous pastors. I was picturing a rustic shelter in the hills (not dissimilar to the communities where we had been in the mestizo region the day before) and a breakfast of beans and rice.  But we pulled it at a lodge with pancakes and waffles in the menu. There are times when I bless the USA.

Breakfast with the pastors

Breakfast with the pastors

This group of tiny (shorter than me), wizened (for the most part) indigenous leaders told their stories quietly and gently.  Their people have been violated, abused, disempowered repeatedly over many years.  And these men lead churches and encourage their people to participate in political and civic life, a milieu from which they have been effectively banished by the authorities. Countless laws and policies are passed that continue to diminish their rights, desecrate their land and way of life, and drive them to violence. Poverty and despair characterise these communities, and they are armed to the teeth. The pastors have been threatened and targeted many times, both by militants in their own communities, and the powers of government.

I can’t remember all the details of the stories but what I remember very clearly is walking away from breakfast feeling like I had been given a long cool drink of water, and fed something nourishing (and I’m not talking about the pancakes).  And it was because of what they had witnessed and shared with us. In the church there is always talk about being witnesses in the world to who Jesus is, amongst people who don’t believe in him. But hearing the stories of these pastors, I felt witnessed to, and I realised how much I needed it. What they have experienced of God’s presence and faithfulness and justice in the midst of such oppression and violence and lack, told me again that this isn’t just my imagination or wishful thinking, but something real and beautiful.  It is the backbone of what these pastors live, to their peril, each day.

We drove across the most extravagantly beautiful terrain, we ate bowls of rice and local vegetables with pastors who used to be competitors but now lived like family, we sat and prayed with a resettled community who could now live without fear of their homes being washed away (again) in landslides, we visited an enormous greenhouse full of tomato plants, 2500m above sea level.

We were wrecked by the end, but also made new.

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Go (coco)nuts!

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Coconut milk for your curry. Shredded coconut for your Bounty or Lemingtons. A fancy-dress bikini. Something to make the sound effect of horses hooves. A cool cocktail glass. And there I run out of uses for coconuts.

Today highlighted the poverty of my imagination as I was introduced to the coconut-themed socio-economics of Mario Morales. And as a permanent reminder to think a bit bigger, I now own a pair of shoes made from discarded coconuts.

Mario is a practical, gentle man. He has worked for many years helping to make communities in Guatemala more resilient to the natural disasters that plague them. He works with churches, helping them to see what they can do improve conditions in their communities.

In the last few decades life has changed massively in Guatemala, and in the communities where Mario works. This is mainly because of the huge sugar cane plantations, and all the associated industry. Indigenous crops have been cleared, pastoral land has been converted, and gallons of dangerous chemical fertilisers are sprayed from helicopters and by locals on foot, causing massive health problems, taking most of the water and polluting what’s left.

Mario’s work over the last few years has led him to encourage communities to plant gardens again and reinstate indigenous crops. The people are farmers and they know how to work the land. What they need is encouragement and a little innovation in the face of the deteriorated conditions and the new scarcity of water.

But a year or two, Mario became fixated by coconuts. Suddenly, all he could see were the piles of discarded coconuts around (his home town), and he began dreaming about what he could do with them.

This is where he has got to: He has created a machine, based on something he saw on the Internet, which takes discarded coconuts and shreds them until nothing is left except dried coconut, like hay in consistency (as modelled below by Travis) and dirt, which is rich in nutrients and can be used as compost. Then he packs this shredded, dried coconut into frames which he coats with a naturally occurring latex. There’s another machine he has invented which presses layers of this coconut matting together, and then he cuts out shoe soles. Locally produced fabrics are sewed together to the soles to produce beautiful Eco-flip-flops.

Every stage of the process is carried out by local people in the communities where he works. We drove around all corners of Escuintla to witness each stage of the manufacturing. Half of it takes place in Mario’s own home; other parts in other families’ back gardens. It’s not an industrialised process by any stretch of the imagination. We had coconut chips sprayed in our faces, we had the life frightened out of us by the sound of all the machinery, we modelled the new shoes, we wound the coconut ropes and Travis (crazy American film-maker who is sharing the adventure) constructed a coconut toupe.

Mario also has groups who wind the shredded coconut into ropes and then weave them into giant nets, which can be used to minimise soil erosion during earthquakes, landslides and the like.

It’s a bit nuts, but totally brilliant. I love the ingenuity and creativity of being able to take something that is discarded in huge quantities daily by so many people, and working out how to turn it into something beautiful, and doing it with integrity, in a way at empowers and involves others.

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Fighting against the violent tide

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(excuse the tiny, dodgy photo, I’m limited by technology in a far flung place).

Today I woke up in the most violent country in Latin America, and not long after breakfast there was a blast of gunfire nearby (or maybe it was just an early morning fireworks display, mum).

But I spent the day in a place known as ‘the refuge’ where flocks of bright green parrots whizzed (and shrieked) overhead, and children of all ages played together in a beautiful garden. Where another kind of life felt possible.

We spent the day with Pamela Leon, a relaxed Guatemalan lawyer in a turquoise polo shirt, who set up the refuge after encountering the horrific injustices and abuses suffered by the victims of domestic violence in her country. Very few of these cases even make it into the country’s legal processes, but the few she saw were enough.

Domestic violence has somehow, heartbreakingly, become an accepted part of Guatemalan culture, as much within the church as outside of it. (And Guatemala boasts the highest numbers of Christians in Central America, outside of the traditional Catholic church. It’s a sidenote to where I’m going, but this just hits me in the guts, how can we offer so hope little to the world?).

I met women today who arrived at the refuge barely recognisable, bruised and swolen from all the blows they had so recently received. There are plenty theories as to why this violence persists, some tracing its normalisation back to the long civil war from 1960 to 1996, and others (including Pamela) believing instead that it began with the violent colonisation of the country in the 16th century. The question that matters, however, is how ‘normal’ gets rewritten in a country’s psyche (or even just a family’s).

It’s not that it’s legal. Guatemala actually has an impressive legal system and a series of laws which protect women. On paper they’re great. If only it led to action. Corruption and machismo combine to mean that women and children are left undefended and unheard, and that men are shown preferential treatment. Pamela shared how when the police are called out by women who have been beaten by their husbands, it isn’t unusual for the police to suggest that they just need to learn to cook better, or make more effort with their appearance.

Pamela’s project is, for a privileged few, making possible the life that the law is supposed to enshrine. She and her tiny staff team are helping these women create a different future. The women come and live at the refuge for a year or so, with their children. In contrast to where they have come from, it is safe and peaceful. The children are able to go to school. The women are given psychological support, a calm environment, friendship, prayer and love. There are small businesses through which they can earn money. They are encouraged to study and to find work. (Today one of them was taking her entrance tests to train as a nurse). If they are prosecuting their aggressors then Pamela takes up their defence and advises them legally. Sadly there are few other lawyers who will defend these women because of how hard it is, and the lack of financial reward.

El Refugio is the only project of its kind in the country. If, miraculously, your situation is taken seriously, then if you’re lucky you’ll end up in a government-run service which offers respite for 48 hours up to a maximum of 3 months. They don’t offer any lasting way out, so your situation probably won’t change in the long-run. Pamela’s project can take 7 women and their children at a time.

It’s a drop in the ocean.

And I know the ocean is made up of many (squillion) drops but it must feel like blowing against the wind.

Pamela is less defeatist, and it’s because she has genuine faith that there is a bigger story than these depressing statistics suggest. She feels called (you’d need to, to undertake such a courageous and dangerous task, especially as a single woman), and says that her part is obedience to that calling. She is not single-handedly responsible for turning the tide, but she will play her part.

And maybe that’s the only way to fight violence: to refuse its tactics, to resolutely live out an alternative, to be patient and compassionate and do what you can, to defend others and create space for their healing and rebirth. It’s not fast (unlike the alternative), but perhaps it grows something that will endure?

When small things are big things

I’m fresh back from spending most of the last week in beautiful Burkina Faso (not Uganda, as my mother believed).  I say ‘fresh’ which is an unusual state to return from any trip in (especially one which involved 5.30am starts every day, temperatures in the high 30s and not a lot of food), but it’s how I feel.  Grateful, inspired, humbled.

Beautiful Burkina

I was making a film about how churches are doing small, beautiful, counter-cultural things in their communities to improve their lives and those of their neighbours.  (You might remember part one of the same project in Sierra Leone last year).  This time I was out with Prospect Arts‘ Ben Sherlock, a whizz with a camera and a failsafe vitamin supplier.

One day we drove off down a dirt track, and then turned off that onto a footpath (still in the 4×4) and continued on for about an hour across sandy, uneven scrubland, dodging bushes, trees and huge gaping pits.  We arrived in a remote village in the far east of Burkina and were greeted by some of the community who took us out the other end of the village on foot to see their school.

In contrast to the other simple, sandy homes scattered through the village, here was a large, clean, modern-looking structure with three big classrooms housing about 100 children from 4-16.  The youngest ones had never seen a white person (I went and said hello and shook all their hands to dispel their fears…).

Fascinated by white people…

We interviewed the pastor of the community who told me the beautiful story of how the school came about.  It began with a letter he received one day, there in the middle of nowhere.

He set off to the next town, the one we’d driven from, to find someone who could read it to him.

Was there no-one in his village who could read? the inhabitants of the next town asked. (Nobody). Did they not have a school? How many children were there?  Did he know that if he could prove there were 60 children with no access to schooling, the government had to provide a school and a teacher?

And that started the journey of the small, illiterate church community advocating to the government on behalf of their village.  The government sent a teacher and the church members built the teacher a house.  And then, a few years on, the government built a school.  And now how the horizons of those young people have changed.  Different futures have become possible.

That same day we spoke to a church elder in another community with a similar story, and he said something that has stayed with me.  “These things probably seem small to you, but to us they are huge.”

Heading off into unknown territory in faraway countries with a nice camera to make a film makes me anxious to find impressive sounding stories that will captivate people.  Some of this week’s stories were about church communities building themselves a church building, which can seem underwhelming, but the journey behind those projects is a deep and significant one.  It’s the story of people who struggle to meet their most basic needs starting to believe that they have the ability to do something for themselves, and for their wider community.  It’s the start of a longer journey towards a better life.

So I don’t count any of the stories as small.  To believe things can be different when you have never known what ‘different’ looks or feels like is an amazing act of faith and courage, especially when you live so close to the edge of survival.

These are big stories. And just think where they might lead.

Our impromptu crew (minus camera man Ben who was behind the camera)

(The work I was filming was part of Tearfund’s Church Mobilisation work, carried out in partnership with local NGO, ODE.  You can find out more about it here.)

Taking it personally

This week I have come to Thun in Switzerland, which looks just like the illustration on the front of a Milka bar.  Here in the foothills of the Alps I have been submerged, you might say rebaptised, into the strange world of professional Christian poverty-fighters.

We’re an odd bunch: an eclectic mix of 320ish people, of more than 50 nationalities, gathered daily around tables with our regulation conference bag and some strong Swiss coffee.  The Micah Network.

At the beginning of these events I often look around and wonder “how has this become my world?” (After 8 years, I figure I need to own up to it, to some degree).

But then in amongst the strange lingo, the hodge-podge of language and culture, and the complicated schedule (which really has to run on time or the Swiss get anxious), there are moments of transcendence.

One morning we heard from a Russian former-communist who shared his experience of becoming a Christian and being sent to prison camp in Siberia.  One night his teeth were punched out individually while a Muslim was made to read him the verse in the Bible commanding him to turn the other cheek.  He told us that the ability to love and to forgive does not come naturally, but is a miraculous gift of God.

Compassion, in this man’s mouth, was not pity or soft-heartedness.  It was a costly and painful transplant that stopped the fist of the guard: “Stop LOVING me”.

Another women shared how many years ago her husband had left to look for work in anther country, never to return, and she had so little to offer her children she was on the verge of having to feed them grass.  Her pastor told her that her suffering was brought on by her own sin.

Amazingly she was able to start a small business with other women in her community, and was supported and trained by an international organisation, and years later was able to love and support her pastor’s family when they lost all they had.  She had held nothing against him.

That is compassion that costs us our perceived rights to grudges and retribution, at our hands or anyone else’s.

At its best moments, this conference has not been about my professional work.  It has been a gathering that has spoken of hearts and asked something deeper and more significant that my conscientious efforts from 9-5.

Even today, as I chatted to a wonderful, anarchic Aussie friend, I was struck by the reality that this depth of compassion is never something that can be transmitted fully by an organisation or programme.  It is necessarily personal.

I love the line in the film ‘You’ve Got Mail’ when Meg Ryan’s character criticises the company who put her out of business for saying “it’s not personal, it’s business.” “What’s so wrong with being personal?” she asks. “Whatever else something is, it ought to begin by being personal”.

And maybe it should stay personal too, somehow.

You can probably tell that it’s personal stories that have struck me most deeply this week. They humble me.  And I realise how much they have changed me in the last eight years. This strange group of people have, in that time, re-shaped and anchored the way I see the world. Not just this particular group of conference delegates, but the wider family of which they’re a part.  And my challenge is not to let these people, these truths and experiences, settle slowly like sand on a seabed into a generalised attitude or posture in the world.   It has to become more personal, not less.