Monday, September 21, 2020

Meet Aziz Abu Sarah, Author of BEYOND BOUNDARIES


Aziz Abu Sarah is a peace builder, cultural educator, entrepreneur, author and international speaker. 

A Palestinian raised in Jerusalem, his journey from a radical seeking revenge to peacemaker seeking reconciliation led to an innovative method of peacemaking. Harnessing the transformative power of travel, he cofounded MEJDI Tours in 2009—originators of the Dual Narrative™ and a leader of socially conscious travel.  Aziz’s educational and conflict resolution work throughout the world has earned him the titles of National Geographic Explorer and Ted Fellow. He has written opinion pieces for The New York Times, The Washington Post, AlQuds, Haaretz, and has been published by National Geographic, CNN, TED, and Alarabiya. Most recently he has written CROSSING BOUNDARIES: A Traveler's Guide to World Peace.


Before you became a partner in MEJDI Tours, you were co-director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (at George Mason University). What motivated you to make this transition?

I’ve always been fascinated by travel, even before my international conflict resolution work I was focused on bringing people together. I asked ‘How do we make confliction resolution sustainable’? It’s a very hard thing to do. We needed a business model to make this work. To insert conflict resolution in daily life. To make it normal.

Tourism is the largest educational, intercultural exchange program on earth. 1.4 billion people travel internationally each year. That doesn’t include domestic travel.


In your book you write “If I don’t travel or explore within my own community, then I’m not going to do it, even if I travel 5,000 miles.” Could you elaborate on that?

You have to learn [to explore different cultures] at home. If doesn’t become part of your life it becomes harder to do abroad. [When traveling] you’re going to look for your comfort zone. Stay in the hotel, eat the same food you’re used to, without exploring culture.

Lots of people travel to different countries and all they did differently was take photos.

We need to connect to the place [where we are] and meet people. Beginning in our own community. For example, the Vietnamese culture is strong in my own neighborhood in the USA! I’ve learned more from the local Vietnamese community in the USA than I did in Vietnam.

I don’t know any community that is one hundred percent homogenous, having a single story. That’s the most important statement I wrote in the whole book.


You wrote “The most crucial travel we can experience is usually just outside our front door.

The most transformational trip I ever made was walking across the street [in Jerusalem].

We’re realizing, in the United States, how divided we have become, within class, within cultures. But there are no borders. No checkpoints.

In your book you reference an answer that Stephen Hawking gave when asked what trait of human nature would he most like to change. He said it was aggression.

We cannot deal with any of the main issues (conservation, global warming, etc.), we can’t address any of these issues until we can work on aggression. Until we do, we won’t cooperate. These issues are stagnated because we can’t work with each other.

We need more conflict resolution training in schools. How do teachers handle [this issue] in the classroom How do diplomats handle conflict? We [continually hear] talk about winners and losers. So many diplomats I’ve met don’t even deal with conflict resolution.

We seem to have the wrong priorities.


You go on to note that “The issues facing human society do not recognize the artificial boundaries and borders we’ve created. We are all connected.”

Covid-19 is a great example of a global health issue that has no borders. The less we [are able to] work together the more we will all suffer.

Global warming is another big example. A whole country could disappear due to global warming. And look at Syria, Lebanon Jordan, Turkey, all [these countries are] dealing with refugees.

The idea that we can seal ourselves from the world, it just doesn’t work. Our decisions (in the USA) effect the whole world. Living inside a nationalistic bubble is an illusion.


Towards the end of CROSSING BOUNDARIES you write: “If we approach other religious communities with the same spirit of humility, respect, and learning that we extend to others, we'll discover both a world of diversity and surprising similarities But we have to be willing to suspend judgment and approach the existence of others with different beliefs as a learning opportunity, not as a threat.

Through travel, I realize how much I don’t know. The more I travel the more I learn what I don’t know. There’s so much I need to educate myself about.

I’m continually learning new things about conflict resolution by traveling, experiencing different cultures. To explore and ask: “How do you [in your culture] address these issues?” We need to connect with local knowledge. I ask a lot of questions about how people deal with solving conflicts. I am always learning something new.

It’s a different way of travel.


In your book you write about countries each having their own historical narrative, which while based on historical events, "are remembered or forgotten based on how they relate to current events and concepts of self... As a result, when learning about a country's history for the first time, it is important to consider how the present intersects with the past. How does an archeological site, museum display or historical event fit into the group's narrative of who they are? Who curates and promotes this narrative (the government, a majority ethnic group)? What historical events or groups are silenced in (or left out of) the narrative or museum display, because their inclusion might challenge the moral of the story?"

Once I was teaching a class on Israeli-Palestinian history. On one side of the room, I wrote down the Israeli timeline, on the other side, the Palestinian timeline. There wasn’t much difference in how both sides saw recent events; but there were differences in what was missing in each other’s story. The focus was different between the two groups. You have to ask yourself ‘what’s missing in this history?’

Every country has a national narrative. But it leaves out certain stories that don’t jive with the national narrative. So, it’s important to learn what’s missing.

There’s often a dominant narrative story, but some stories that are left out. We need to ask ‘What’s missing?’ [What’s missing is] not necessarily anti-government, but someone decided it wasn’t important.

Are there other voices [from different communities] we’re not hearing because they don’t fit in a box [of the national narrative]? If you include these stories it creates a new dynamic. When we travel we should try to find the missing voices.

Countries' stories don’t fit nicely into one box. No country has such a perfect narrative.


In the last pages of CROSSING BOUNDARIES, you note that we need to “Stop. Breathe. Reflect. And act in ways that will make the world a more kind and humane place." I really appreciate that piece of wisdom!

Sometimes it’s really important to take a step back, to really clear our mind, to think about where we are, to meditate (think). Take a moment of reflection. To ask: Where am I? What is happening here?

When we’re frustrated or anxious It’s really hard to be kind. To be purposeful.

It’s very easy to get into the spiral of: They yelled… so I’m going to yell.. They shoved… so I’m going to shove back. But my mission is to be kind.

I see this even in religious places [in Jerusalem], with people becoming frustrated and anxious. For example, at the Church of Holy the Sepulchre, one tour group got so mad because they thought another group was trying to shove their way past them.

I tried to make my book relevant, even for people who never want to leave their city. These concepts of travel can be applied in everyday life.

Fact Checking VP Pence

Recently during the Republican National Convention Vice-President Pence gave a speech from Ft. McHenry.

He began by speaking to the historical importance of the Fort, noting: "They [the British] came to crush our revolution, to divide our nation, and to end the American experiment."

Right away, a sense of irony intrudes.

"For the last four years, I have watched this President endure unrelenting attacks and get up every day and fight to keep the promises he made to the American people," Pence offered.

One of the biggest campaign promises Trump made was that he was going to build "a big, beautiful wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it." The BBC has pointed out that in nearly four years, about three miles of new wall construction has actually been built. The other 197 miles is nothing but refurbishing on what already is there. And Mexico hasn't paid for any of it. (And wasn't one of Trump's buddies, Steve Bannon, recently arrested on criminal charges concerning a scam on funding for the wall?)

Another promise made was to fix our nation's infrastructure. Trump said, "we will become, by the way, second to none, and we will put millions of our people back to work as we rebuild it." This also hasn't happened.

Pence continued, "Not much gets past him [Trump] and when he has an opinion, he's liable to share it. He's certainly kept things interesting, but more importantly, he's kept his word."

Yep, after nearly four long years, we're aware of his opinion sharing. But keeping his word? Not so much.

The Vice President goes on to call Trump "a doer." Noting: "Few presidents have brought more independence, energy, and determination to that office." When it comes to handling his Twitter account, that's certainly true. And he has built-into his schedule 'executive time' to watch Fox News and other right-wing cable shows daily, often making follow-up phone calls to on-air personalities, in-between tweeting.

According to Business Insider Trump brags that he gets up at 5 am, and needs only three or four hours of sleep. That's not high-energy Mr. Vice President, that's sleep deprivation and it would explain his seeming inability to stay focused or speak in complete sentences.

"From Day One, he [Trump] kept his word. He rebuilt our military, created the Space Force, the first new branch of our armed forces in 70 years... " That's great that he created Space Force, Mr. Pence, but what exactly is it? Does anyone have specifics? And as for keeping his word, he hasn't.

Pence continues: "[C]loser to home, [Trump] appointed more than 200 conservative judges to our federal courts, supported the right to life and all our God-given liberties including the second amendment right to keep and bear arms." I'd say Trump is more anti-abortion than right-to-life. And since when is being for life (in every other sense of the term) the exclusive domain of conservatives?

If your definition of life means birth to the grave, Trump has done more harm than good. Like lowering SNAP (Food Stamp) benefits, seeking to have those benefits counted as income against claiming other benefits, and separating children from their parents at the border, while seeking to completely dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which would end health coverage for tens of millions. Taking all of these actions into account, he is by no means pro-life. 

Quick sidenote: The second amendment isn't about our "God-given" right to bear arms. What's written in the second amendment has to do with bearing arms as part of a militia. Specific to a fledging democratic republic in the late 1770s, fresh off a revolutionary war. Not 21st Century America.

In regards to how your partner in the Oval Office handled Covid-19, you say: "Before the first case of coronavirus spread within the United States, President Trump took the unprecedented step of suspending all travel from China. That action saved an untold number of American lives. And bought us time to launch the greatest national mobilization since World War II. President Trump marshaled the full resources of the federal government to direct us to forge seamless partnerships with governors across America in both parties." 

Calling a travel restriction a "ban" is a bit much. But, getting to the heart of Pence's claim about the most seamless mobilization since WWII? Hardly. I live in Michigan. You know, the state with the Governor that Trump called "that woman from Michigan."

[By the way Mr. President, her name is Governor Whitmer, and anyone could ask her, or Governor Cumo or a host of other governors just how seamless the mobilization was. It was Cuomo who referred to the federal government's lack of a response to a request for PPE as pitting states against each other "like being on eBay."]

According to PolitiFact, governors were still asking for PPE as late as July. That isn't rapid or seamless.

"Because of the strong foundation that President Trump poured in our first three years," says Pence, "we've already gained back 9.3 million jobs over the last three months. And we're not just opening-up America again—we're re-opening America's schools."

It's great that 9.3 million jobs are back, but according to Market Watch, only 42% of all jobs lost due to the Covid-19 pandemic in the US have been restored.  PBS recently reported the figure as a little less than 50%. Either way, we've got a long way to go.

And about schools reopening. Well, you know how that is going. Not well.

Trump has demanded schools reopen, but most educators and scientists see this as a mistake. And the majority of states have either gone to a hybrid of remote or reduced in-person learning. Several school districts have had to backtrack opening in-person after outbreaks of Covid-19 among students.

At least Pence had the sense not to refer to the White House's response to Covid-19 as a masterpiece.  How could he? As of September 2, over 6.15 million United States residents have gotten the Covid-19 virus and close to 200,000 individuals have died from it. That's 23% of the total cases and 21% of the total deaths worldwide.  To put this perspective: Overall the US holds just over 4% of the world's population.

Finally, about BLM and the protesting around the recent (in a long, continuing series) of police killings of black men, Pence said of Joe Biden, "The hard truth is... you won't be safe in Joe Biden's America. Under President Trump, we will stand with those who stand on the Thin Blue Line, and we're not going to defund the police -- not now, not ever."

This claim about safety is highly ironic, given what's happening in Portland and Kenosha and elsewhere is happening on Trump and Pence's watch. We shouldn't forget that. We shouldn't forget that Trump went to Keonsha and didn't meet with members of Jacob Blake's family. At the same time, he excused the policeman who shot Blake seven times in the back, comparing him to a golfer who chokes on a putt.

If anything Mr. Vice President, the bottom line is that, given the lack of the White House response to the systemic racism that fuels anger over the senseless killing of black individuals by police, and the lack of a coordinated response to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is on the current President's watch that we are not safe.  To point the finger of blame at Joe Biden, as a presidential candidate, is completely pointless. 


Monday, August 31, 2020

CROSSING BOUNDARIES: A Traveler's Guide to World Peace by Aziz Abu Sarah - A Review

I was aware of Aziz Abu Sarah because of another book (Strangers, Neighbors, Friends) that he had co-authored with two others).

His writing in the first book was engaging, relatable and inspirational. So is CROSSING BOUNDARIES: A Traveler's Guide to World Peace.

Aziz lets us know, straight away, that travel doesn't necessarily have to involve airports, train stations or bus depots. "I'm a firm believer that if I don't explore or travel within my own community, then I'm not going to do it even if I travel 5,000 miles away."

His definition of travel is very straightforward. "Travel can be anything that helps us explore people, cultures and environments. Travel is about exploration. At times, this exploration can be challenging. But the most crucial travel we can experience is usually just outside our front door."

Before going much further into the specifics of responsible travel, Aziz reminds us that, "We don't live on islands isolated from the rest of the world's political problems, climate policies, economic situations, and threats. The issues facing human society do not recognize the artificial boundaries and borders we've created. We are all connected."

Even before making this point, Aziz quotes Stephen Hawking's response to what he thought was the biggest threat to humanity: "The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression."

Aziz follows up by writing, "If we accept Hawking's claim that human aggression is a major threat to human existence, then I don't know a better medium than travel to promote understanding and co-existence."

CROSSING BOUNDARIES is full of tips and helpful nuggets of wisdom. For instance: "When we visit a new place, we should look into what the local community wants us to learn about their neighborhoods, lives and traditions. Residents in the Brazilian favelas do not want us to learn only about their suffering; they also want their stories of struggle and innovation to be heard. When we actually listen to the local people, that's when we begin to see them as human beings and break the stereotypes that simplify their complex lives into a caricature of poverty."

Here's another gem to help avoid stressing out while traveling. "In most cases, how we react to the problem is more important than the problem itself... It's important for us to recognize what irritates us and focus on harnessing our reaction before responding to others. It is also important to remember that airline and airport staff are human too, and just like us, sometimes they make mistakes and have bad days."

Aziz's personal story (told in STRANGERS, NEIGHBORS, FRIENDS) of his growth from being a Palestinian radical to peace advocate, translates into life lessons applied to religion as well as travel "Overall, if we approach other religious communities with the same spirit of humility, respect, and learning that we extend to others, we'll discover both a world of diversity and surprising similarities But we have to be willing to suspend judgment and approach the existence of others with different beliefs as a learning opportunity, not as a threat."

The crossover between traveling and interpersonal relationships is powerful and potentially life-changing.

When approaching a culture that differs from our own, Aziz suggests that "Hearing stories that conflict with our own historical narratives should not be seen as a threat to our story and identity. Perhaps one of the worst things to come from the Enlightenment was the idea that conflicting stories can't exist side by side. But in many cultures around the world (and in many biblical narratives, including the four Gospels), different narratives are welcomed. They give us different perspectives."

Aziz writes about countries each having their own historical narrative, which while based on historical events, "are remembered or forgotten based on how they relate to current events and concepts of self... As a result, when learning about a country's history for the first time, it is important to consider how the present intersects with the past. How does an archeological site, museum display or historical event fit into the group's narrative of who they are? Who curates and promotes this narrative (the government, a majority ethnic group)? What historical events or groups are silenced in (or left out of) the narrative or museum display, because their inclusion might challenge the moral of the story?"

At the end of the day, whether we actually travel across countries or across town, Aziz encourages us: "... [I]t's important to remember: be gracious. You and I have been that rude person before (and sometime in the future... we will probably slip up and be that rude person again)... Stop. Breathe. Reflect. And act in ways that will make the world a more kind and humane place."

To watch a National Geographic talk given by Aziz Abu Sarah click here.

And here is the link to Aziz's book, Crossing Boundaries: A Traveler's Guide to World Peace.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Your Vote Matters! The 2020 Census Matters!

All elections are important for a democracy (or democratic republic) to function.

The upcoming presidential election is especially important, but the current president has been spreading falsehoods in regards to voting.  Take a moment to check out some of the myths. 

1. There is widespread voting by ineligible voters. Not true.

2. Election Day should be postponed. Not true.

3. Non-citizens are voting in droves. Not true.

4. Voting machines malfunction, so they are clearly rigged to do so. Not true.

5. If the votes take too long to tabulate, somethings fishy. Not true.

6. Recounts, audits and election contests are ways to steal an election. Not true.

7. People can't help people vote. Not true. (The truth is, ballot tampering is illegal. But most states allow certain individuals, like family members and health care workers, to assist by helping to collect and submit completed absentee ballots). 

8. We need more aggressive purges to clear out all ineligible voters. Not true.

If you'd like additional information on any of the above myths, check out the Brennan Center for Justice's link.

If you're planning to submit an absentee ballot, it's important that you apply to receive

a ballot NOW! Check with your local County or City Clerk for details. And then, once you receive it drop it off in person on in the mail soon after you receive it. Allow plenty of time for your ballot and vote to be processed.

If you plan to vote in person, realize that, because of Covid-19, some voting precincts may have been combined with others. To be sure where you should vote, contact your County or City Clerk well ahead of election day.

And if you're still undecided about voting, here's a few more reasons to vote in the first place! Especially when local officials are on the ballot - which is pretty much everywhere in this coming election.

The bottom line of it is that your vote matters because democracy matters. Because your city, your state and your country matter!

Still not convinced? Please take a moment to listen to Michelle Obama:

"[T]his is not the time to withhold our votes in protest or play games with candidates who have no chance of winning. We have got to vote like we did in 2008 and 2012. We've got to show up with the same level of passion and hope... We've got to vote early, in person if we can. We've got to request our mail-in ballots right now, tonight, and send them back immediately and follow-up to make sure they're received. And then, make sure our friends and families do the same.
We have got to grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown bag dinner and maybe breakfast too, because we've got to be willing to stand in line all night if we have to..."
And the 2020 Census matters as well! 
Consider that the 2020 Census will determine congressional representation, determine hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding each year, and provide data that will further impact your community over the next ten years.
Here's more information on the Census from the US Census Bureau.
And if you've already received your invitation to complete the simple 2020 Census (about nine questions), but have not yet completed it, you can do so here.
And, just like voting, there are false rumors circulating about the 2020 Census.
But the truth is: The 2020 Census DOES NOT contain any questions about citizenship. Your answers CANNOT be shared with law enforcement officials. You WILL NOT be asked your social security number. For more detailed information or to explore other myths, check out the 2020 Census site.
If you didn't get a chance to watch Michelle Obama's speech during the Democratic National Convention, you can watch it here

Monday, August 17, 2020

Meet Donna Odom, Executive Director, Society for History & Racial Equality

Donna Odom
Donna Odom/Kalamazoo College
 Donna Odom is a native of Chicago, Illinois.  She   holds  a   Bachelor of Arts Degree from Kalamazoo   College and a   Master of Arts Degree from Loyola   University of   Chicago.  Her background includes   teaching at the high   school and community college   level and higher education   administration in   Chicago.   She retired from the   Kalamazoo Valley   Museum   where she coordinated history   programs   and special   projects from 1994 to 2010. She   founded  the   Southwest Michigan Black Heritage   Society   in 2003,   which in 2015 became SHARE (Society for   History and Racial Equity). She now serves as executive director.

Donna was a member of the Steering Committee for the Southwest Michigan RACE Exhibit Initiative, is a past board member of the Kalamazoo County Historical Society, the Historical Society of Michigan, and the Michigan Oral History Association. She currently serves on the Kalamazoo College Emeriti Alumni Leadership Council and has been appointed to the Michigan Underground Railroad Commission. She was Project Director for the 2009 History Detectives Oral History Project, Project Co-director of the 2010 Telling the Kalamazoo Community Race Story Project in partnership with the WMU Journalism Program, and Project Co-Director of the Engaging the Wisdom Oral History Project in partnership with Kalamazoo College.  She is a recipient of the YWCA Women of Achievement Award (2018), the Westminster Presbyterian Peace Award (2019), and is a 2020 finalist for the AARP Purpose Prize.


How long has the Society for History & Racial Equality (SHARE} been doing its work? Could you give us a brief history of the organization’s beginnings?

The Society for History and Racial Equity (SHARE) was originally established as the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society with the purpose of researching and documenting the history and contributions of African Americans in Southwest Michigan to provide material for publications, programs, exhibitions, and possibly curriculum.  In 2014 we made the decision to make racial equity part of our mission with the core programs being the Healing Together Retreats, Engaging the Wisdom, the Race Initiative Book Club, and the Summit on Racism.  Recognizing that with the expanded mission and scope it was necessary to change our name to one that is more reflective of what we do, in May of 2015 the name of the organization was officially changed to the Society for History and Racial Equity (SHARE).

Part of the mission of SHARE is to fight racism and promote racial healing. One of the methods used by SHARE is the Racial Healing Initiative. Can you give us a sense of what’s involved with the Racial Healing Initiative?

The focus of the Initiative is to educate the community on the importance of our region's African American heritage, foster connections and conversations on race, raise awareness of racism and the broad societal benefits of its elimination, and awaken the community to the urgency of change.  We meet individuals where they are, inspire them to take action through self-education and increased involvement. Additionally, we engage in research and documentation of the history of African Americans in Kalamazoo that inform the Initiative.  

The four touchstones of the Initiative are:
Healing:  Providing opportunities for community members to engage in self-reflection and story- telling to begin the process of addressing the trauma of racism.

Facing History:  Lack of knowledge of the history of racism and discrimination is a major cause of misunderstanding and lack of empathy. Educating participants on the history of racism and how we got where we are is central to the Racial Healing Initiative.  
Making Connections:  Providing spaces where community members have opportunities to connect across racial, gender, and generational barriers.

Taking Action:  Offering opportunities for the community to come together to identify and plan action steps, forge partnerships, and develop strategies for community transformation.
All of our programs fall under the heading of one or more of those components.
The goal of these programs is to bring people together to relate to one another on a human level, eschewing hierarchical structuring and seeing each person’s success and achievement as a benefit to the community as a whole and not as a threat.


Preservation of local history, pertaining to racism and the fight for equality, is an important part of SHARE’s work. For example, SHARE’s Oral History Project. On SHARE’s website there’s a powerful quote from James Baldwin: “History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” Would to like to expand on this?

Our motto is Acknowledging the past, healing the present.  Racism is Deeply Ingrained in our Society.  Racism is based on fear – fear of “the other,” ignorance – a lack of knowledge about and familiarity with “the other,” and the belief in the inferiority of one group and superiority of another.  As Americans, we have a history of racism and until we deal with that, we will never come together across the barriers that divide us.  As mentioned above, facing history is central to the Racial Healing Initiative.  Until we understand how we got where we are, we will continue to be unable to move on.

Another part of what SHARE does is initiate Community Discussions. Could you mention a few of the past topics, how often the discussions are usually held, and their importance?

When we first began the community discussions were held every month.  History and other workshops often now occur in place of the community discussions.  Topics we have covered since 2016 include White Privilege; It Starts with Us!  People of Color and White People in Alliance Against Racism; Racial/Ethnic Bias in the News Media; Police/Community Relations, Let’s Play the Race Card; Building a Racial Equity Network.


SHARE also hosts an annual Summit on Racism. What’s the goal of the Summit? Given the reality of Covid-19, are plans in the works for this year’s Summit?

The Goals of the Summit on Racism are:

1. To educate the community on issues of racial inequity.

2. To share testimonials from current activists and organizations.

3. To provide inspiration for self-empowerment.

The 2020 Summit on Racism will be presented on a virtual platform over three days – Thursday, November 12, Friday, November 13, and Saturday, November 14.  Our theme is "#BEYOND 400: THE VIRTUAL SUMMIT ON RACISM:  400 Years After Slavery Began, A Collective Conversation to Chart a Better Future." The areas we are targeting are Education, Health, and Voter Suppression.  We will be putting special emphasis on COVID effects on the Black and Brown communities.  Keynote speaker will be Jesse Hagopian, social justice educator.  Other sessions will feature representatives from the Southern Poverty Law Center addressing voter suppression, and health experts addressing COVID’s effects on the Black and Brown communities.  The finale will be a multi-media presentation on 400 years of African American history sponsored by the 400 Years of African American History Commission of the National Park Service.


Is there anything else you’d like to mention? Especially of the importance of SHARE’s work, in light of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement?

When we first learned of the Pandemic, I revised our programming for the year and began making plans for how we would handle reduced donations and grant funding believing that giving would be most concentrated on organizations and activities that fed and clothed.  Then George Floyd was murdered, and the Black Lives Movement happened.  And all suddenly we became more relevant than ever.  Our donations increased; we were awarded grants I had considered long shots; and we ascended to the final stages of the AARP Purpose Prize awards.  These developments are heartening and encouraging, and they inspire me to move forward with greater purpose and renewed energy.  We won’t see a total transformation in my lifetime and perhaps not in the lifetime of our children, but I do see an awakening.  It’s up to us to seize the moment and do our best to answer the call for change.



Wednesday, August 5, 2020

A Conversation On Leadership with Rev. Denise Posie

Rev. Denise Posie/Chris Meehan
You recently retired after 21 years, from the  Christian Reformed Church (CRC), most recently as director of Leadership Diversity:  Women’s and Ethnic Ministry. Over the course of two decades, what changes have you seen, within the CRC and the Christian church in America, in general?

In my 21 years in the Christian Reformed Church in North America, I have had the privilege of serving in the following roles:

-     Pastor of Immanuel Christian Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI, an urban church with a passion for multiculturalism located in a predominately Black community. 13 years, longest serving pastor in the history of the church.  

-     Congregational Consultant, denominational staff in Grand Rapids, MI, 2 ½ years

-     Co-Director, Reformed Leadership Initiative, a Christian Reformed and Reformed denominational collaboration for cultivating leaders in six networks in the U.S. and Canada funded by a grant from the DeVos Foundation, 2 ½ years

-     Director, Leadership Diversity, Women’s and Ethnic Ministry – roughly eighty percent of my work focused on developing a Women’s Ministry. The rest of my time focused on the Black and Reformed Leadership Network and five other ethnic ministries and several other projects.  2 ½ years

I think it is important for women and ethnic minorities, more specifically Black women, to know that God has a plan for our lives. He will open and close doors according to his plan. There is nothing anyone can do to prevent God’s will from coming to past. God has a way of surprising us sometimes!

In each role I brought passion, aspiration and God-given gifts. I welcomed an opportunity to serve in positions in the CRC, in my case, never filled with a Person of Color. It is an honor and adventure sometimes to be the first. These positions could be a pathway to new ways of thinking and doing things. One of the challenges is whether or not your presence and voice will be taken seriously. Another challenge is not to allow gender, racial and theological differences to hinder your efforts. Lastly, it is a challenge sometimes to always remember who you are and who called you.  Otherwise, barriers or disappointments may be discouraging. Embracing these realities enable you to influence the culture and to stand no matter what. I am reminded of the biblical metaphor of one body with many parts serving in different capacities, but one in Christ.

I do not take it lightly that God has a plan for my life. This was not always true for me. There were a couple of times in my journey that I fought for a higher-level position at IBM or relied on someone else’s solution to a difficult situation in seminary without seeking God’s guidance first or along the way. Neither situation ended well and was a costly lesson ordained by God. We do not naturally know how to follow Jesus; it requires times of testing in nurturing our faith. These situations can be quite painful or emotional, but God works all things for our good. I truly believe this and “know” that it is true.  


In 2017 you were picked to head the CRC’s Leadership Diversity: Women’s and Ethnic Ministry efforts. What were the highlights of your leadership there?

One highlight of my leadership was creating space for women and ethnic minority leaders to network, learn, share experiences, fellowship and worship together. Some of them worked in isolated situations and these monthly or annual gatherings connected people for meaningful purposes. In 2021, the recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the ordination of CRC women will happen at synod in June and there will a celebration for these women later in the year. The 25th Anniversary is a major milestone, particularly because the CRC holds two biblical perspectives about ecclesiastical positions concerning women. I am again reminded who is in control as I stated in a recent interview, (Posie) “There were a few resources for men and women to use in learning how to work better together that I am pretty excited about. With input from our fabulous Advisory Team, we created Ten Ways for Men and WomenThriving in Ministry Together. We also made available a resource created by two exceptional leaders in the field, Drs. Jim Herrington and Trisha Taylor, Gender Dynamics in Church Leadership (SharedLeadership).  

I had the privilege of serving as leader of two Formation Groups at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids for four years. What an amazing time in each of these lives of men and women being prepared for serving God’s world. What an honor to reflect on personal life experiences and biblical teachings. This was life-giving!


You didn’t start your career by working in ministry, or in West Michigan. Could you tell us a bit about what caused the switch from corporate culture (at one point working for IBM) to church service?

By no means can I say that I was not surprised by the switch from corporate culture to church and denominational service.  I have held several positions in the public and corporate sectors and landing at IBM was the bomb! It represents excellence in customer service and employee training! These two areas were important to me then and even now. Within a couple of years before I left IBM, I started losing interest in my work. This was surprising because I graduated from high school a year early because I was anxious about working and making a life for myself. It was quite clear that God’s hand was moving me out of corporate to something else. At the time, I did not know where I was going. I became like a sponge in absorbing as much as possible in knowing God. I attended several bible studies at my home church and with a well known retired bible scholar and teacher in the Brethren faith. It was apparent to my church family and friends that God’s hand was on me. He eventually led me to seminary in Columbia, SC at Columbia International Seminary in 1999.


You seem to have a heart towards leadership mentoring. Why is this so important to you?

I never would have made it without special leaders and people in my life to nurture and shape my identity, understanding of God and leadership style.  In the chapter Preparing to Meet the King of my book, Consider a Greater Purpose, Vashti, Esther and the Courageous Women Who Followed, I recall the words in a sermon, “embrace the thoughts of who God wants us to be.” I included my reflections.  “Sometimes we are so busy doing and we don’t take time to discover God’s hand at work in molding and shaping us…we must shift our focus from who others want us to be to who God shapes us to be.”   It is important to have an open heart to God’s will and his work through others, if at times difficult conversations are necessary. Trust is a key factor. I have several “go-to” people as mentors.  


You’ve noted that part of the mentoring process involves “creating space for identifying leadership challenges, sharing experiences and personal transformation.” Could you go a bit further with this thought?

In 2015, when I was appointed Co-Director in the Reformed Leadership Initiative along with Dr. Ken Eriks of the Reformed Church in America, whom I regard as mentor and coach, this was a pivotal moment for me in learning how to prepare leaders for mission and ministry. It was not a leadership development program but a leadership development process. Ken and I witnessed co-leaders creating space in learning networks for discovering leadership challenges. I was amazed by leaders’ transparency and willingness to discuss their failures and successes. Once again, trust is a key factor. I do not believe that leaders naturally trust each other; however, I believe if the right space is created, with the enablement of the Holy Spirit, the right conversations and learning take place. Contextualization is also important in order to meet people in helpful ways instead of imposing our one size fits all approaches. 

I can say with integrity, conviction and encounters in previous settings that I am passionate about inspiring and growing leaders by creating space for identifying leadership challenges, sharing experiences and personal transformation. Whether this space is created for one-on-one, small or large group settings, it is my aim!  


Do you mind sharing an important life lesson you have learned? How about one piece of advice for leaders? 

I have so many life lessons I have learned. What comes to mind is the Apostle Paul’s testimony of his weakness in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10: “ Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

In the past, at times I unconsciously or consciously allowed negative thoughts about myself and oppressive spirits to linger as I compared myself with other people’s accomplishments or when I felt unqualified to do something. I had to remind myself of God’s strength and calling. The Holy Spirit is the Enabler, not me. I am weak. My strength comes from him. My lifetime scripture is another reminder, Isaiah 64:8  “Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

We must learn to let go of our securities and insecurities and find our strength in the One who shapes us for mission in life and eternity. In this way, he receives all the glory!


Here are some link references to additional information on a few of the interview questions:

Question #2


Monday, July 20, 2020

A Conversation With D.L. Mayfield, Author of The Myth of the American Dream

D.L. Mayfield/photo by Jared Whitney
D. L. Mayfield is a writer and activist who has spent over a decade working with refugee communities in the United States. Her work has been published in McSweeney's, The Washington Post, Christianity Today, Christian Century, Sojourners, Vox, and the Englewood Review of Books. She is also the author of Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two children. In the third chapter of THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN DREAM, Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety and Power, you reference a powerful quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. "Men convinced themselves that the system that was so economically profitable must be morally justifiable... Their rationalizations clothe obvious wrongs in the beautiful garments of righteousness. This tragic attempt to give moral sanction to an economically profitable system gave birth to the doctrine of White supremacy." You write that King was talking about slavery. You also make a connection between White supremacy and the doctrine of manifest destiny. I remember, as a kid in the 1960s, being taught (by nuns) about manifest destiny, as if it were inevitable and a good thing. I wonder how you would explain this connection to present-day elementary and middle-school kids, and adults too?

I think manifest destiny is another way to live into the white supremacist belief that America, in particular, is at the pinnacle of innovation and God’s dream for the world. What is interesting is that in the history books I grew up reading, it was only White European Protestants that had the blessing from God to take over North America and make it great (Catholics were of the devil!). Slavery fits into this narrative neatly--first, the indigenous peoples were exploited and then decimated by the European settlers, then chattel slavery became the norm to make the plantations profitable. The most troubling thing about my background is how this conquering mindset is “God-ordained.” As theologian Willie James Jennings puts it, this means that the American (White) Christian imagination is inherently diseased, since it is bound up with the idea that one group of people at the top of a racial hierarchy, and this is God’s will. 

Just a few pages after the mention of supremacy and manifest destiny, you write, "The only problem [with the American Dream] is that being safe and secure isn't a major theme of Scripture - but unjust economic practices are. Especially among the white evangelical churches in America, how can this observation be shared and better understood?

Looking at Scriptures in a more holistic light (and less from an individualistic approach), we do see that the Bible is obsessed with people--and economics affects people! Growing up I thought much of the Hebrew Scriptures were about bowing down to idols--but actually, it’s much more than that. It’s all about shalom, or the flourishing of an entire community. This is why the Hebrew Scriptures talk constantly about prioritizing the poor: the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow--people who were not prioritized then (or now) in exploitative economies.. But what are American white evangelicals known for currently? From our radio stations (safe for the whole family) to our immigration politics (America first) we have lost the vision for the common good. We believe focusing on our family first is a Biblical principle--and I just don’t see that fleshed out in the whole of Scripture. 

I love what you write about the Thanksgiving Address recited by students on the Onondaga Reserve in New York. "[T]he Thanksgiving Address takes its time to thank various elements of the earth - water, wind, fire, plants, animals, and more. At the end of each section, there is a time to invite the listener to agree, to come back to... 'We give things to the stars, who are spread across the sky like a jeweler... With our minds gathered as one, we send greetings and thanks... Now our minds are one." This prayer seems so solidly natural, inclusive and gracious. And I wonder, are these qualities partly an antidote to the American Dream?

Yes, Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote about the Thanksgiving Address in her book Braiding Sweetgrass--which in itself is a great antidote to the extreme individualism of the American Dream! I’ve had the profound pleasure to live as a neighbor to people who come from more collectivist countries and it has shown a blinding light on the limits of my own individualistic framework (both my theology and my civic engagement, to be honest!). I think keeping in mind our relationship to our vulnerable community members, to the earth, and engaging in the practice of gratitude and articulating interdependence are all values I want to continue to grow in.

About half-way through your book, you discuss education and what part it plays in propagating the American Dream. You talk about a once-a-decade touch-up on the local elementary school, conducted by sincere folks, from outside of the neighborhood. And you write "What exactly does it mean to love a neighborhood, to adopt it, to help it, to fix it, when you wouldn't actually ever move into it?" And a startlingly honest follow-up question: "Someone's kids have to attend the worst school in your city. In your mind whose kids should that be?" You make the point that how we answer these questions shows how deeply autonomy is lodged in us. We want the best for our kids, to the exclusion of everyone one else. Is this why the issue of public education is such an emotional one? And why well-meaning parents/guardians can be blinded to complicity in supporting unjust systems?

I think public education is where the rubber meets the road for our values (especially people who consider themselves progressive)--or where intent isn’t enough if the impact is negative. And the truth is our education system is wildly inequitable, and if you have means you try and work the system so your kids get a better situation than others. But if you are a Christian, and you believe the gospel in action looks like loving your neighbor as yourself, we need to not make these decisions with only our children in mind. We need to make them with the most vulnerable children prioritized. I know this can feel touchy to people, but perhaps that is because we are so much more comfortable only thinking about what we owe our own children. But that is not a Biblical concept, especially in the kingdom of God that Jesus talked about constantly. I’m not telling people what they should do with their kids or education, but I am saying we need to ask better questions about our responsibility to those our educational system is failing. 

And then you talk about the Biblical writers and prophets, "who would be baffled by how individualism, consumerism, and affluence have shared our communities - including how we eat, shop, educate our children and worship." You go on to describe another factor of this complex equation, the ramifications of living in a fear-driven culture. "You can't love somebody if you are determined to be afraid of them. Perhaps that's why the Bible is full of the messengers of God telling everyone to 'fear not.' It is our human impulse to fear. And it is our human impulse to baptize it under religious language." Do you see fear actually fueling individualism, consumerism and affluence?

This is an interesting question to answer during a global pandemic. When I wrote The Myth of the American Dream I was thinking specifically about how fear shaped the political mind of white evangelicals in regards to immigration and the decimation of the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. I also see this at work in our drive to be political--if we don’t vote for Trump, then the liberals win. What are we so afraid of losing? Cultural power? Government funds? Tax Credits? Again, the Biblical writers would be stunned at our hubris. They lost much more than that--even their lives--and were following God wholeheartedly. But so many white evangelicals don’t seem to be very afraid of turning people away from the good news of Jesus with our actions--and yet that is what is currently happening. 

In the chapter of your book titled "Empire," you write "...White evangelical
expressions of Christianity in America, cannot die because it is inherently blessed by God. This is ingrained in my brain, where this vicious myth has taken root and made itself true." You go on to make the point that: "There is nothing in Scripture, nothing in Jesus, that says my proud and terrible and interesting country is particularly blessed, has some special favor, has some special reason for existence." Believing this myth "leads to small, deformed imaginations - I see it in how White evangelical Christianity has been tangled up in the same pull toward greatness, toward power, toward viewing ourselves as specially anointed by God to rule the world, to hold and be in charge." Given this understanding, how do you see the recent response to the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement?

I think we are in a really important time of unveiling. America has never been great--and it shouldn’t be perceived as threatening to be honest about that. If you feel threatened by that statement, then you have made an idol of your nationalism. It’s scriptural to seek out and listen to the voices of those who are the farthest away from the seats of power and sit at their feet. To see what a just and equitable world would look like for them. Because if the marginalized flourish in our neighborhoods and cities, then we all will! But our entire economy has it backwards, prioritizing the rich at every turn. I think it is moments like this that can actually bring about a cultural shift--if we can listen and try to understand the anger of Black Americans, if we can have the imagination to wonder what it would look like if we defunded the police and put resources towards public education, if we wept with those who wept--I think we can begin to make real systemic and moral changes. 

Part of the solution, as you see it, is "To seek and celebrate the stories we were taught to ignore, erase, or dismiss. This is the first step in acknowledging that how we see ourselves in the world is not always correct. It is the first step of acknowledging that people who come from places of power and privilege always see ourselves as the center... The antidote to these myths is to consciously remember those who are not writing the history textbooks. To pay attention to the world, and the myths we promote and the histories we ignore. To seek out the stories that do not just celebrate people like us but that remember those who came first." Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a powerful TED talk about 'The Danger of a Single Story.' She seems to be making a similar observation. In your book, you go to note that: "Empire loves to create statues to itself - think of the bull on Wall Street, the statues of Confederate leaders..." What do you think about the recent pulling down of such statues as part of the protests around the killing of George Floyd? Could this be a way of dismantling a single story?

I love all the symbolic imagery happening right now--both the pulling down of statues that seek to reinvent history (the noble lost cause narrative of the south was a strategic and targeted plan to make slaveholders and confederate generals appear noble) and the memorials and murals we are seeing pop up everywhere to lament the loss of Black and Brown lives to police brutality. Obviously, imagery and symbols aren’t enough, but it is a way to shape the cultural imagination. The United States has a horrible history of refusing to engage with the racial violence in its past, and so now the people are forcing a public reckoning. It complicates the narrative, which is vital for people like me. 

Finally, you discuss the importance of lamenting. "In arenas packed with people, in the halls of government buildings, in churches large and small, in universities and conferences, I was not taught to learn how to lay down my power willingly. I was taught to fight for it, which dulled and tarnished my ability to mourn the reality of those who truly were being oppressed in my midst. And if I can't learn to lament and repent, I will never be able to envision a world where resurrection is truly possible." What's your definition of lamenting? What does lamenting look like to you? And how can we learn to lament, and leave room for it?

I’m still learning about lament, and I am indebted to people like Walter Brueggemann, Soong-Chan Rah, Lisa Sharon Harper, and Donna Barber (among others) to reclaim this important piece of Christian and scriptural heritage. Lament starts with the belief that there is a God who is present and listening, so it really is about faith. Lament also is about naming exactly what is wrong in the world--no sugar coating it, and no rushing to make it better. It’s being honest about exactly how messed up our world is. Right now it can be so overwhelming to engage with the news--global, local--because of the sheer amount of tragedies and histories we are being forced to reckon with. Lament helps us be able to name what troubles us, to have an honest conversation with God. And through that, we remember how God has shown up in the past for oppressed peoples. And for people like myself, who envision being the savior in these scenarios or like I can fix racism in the U.S. with a snap of my fingers, it reminds me I am just one tiny person among many many Christians who long for God’s dream for the world to be made manifest. Lament centers us in our actual world, with a faith in a present and good God, and in the knowledge that we are a part of a large community with dreams that come from far beyond us. It’s a beautiful and restorative practice, and at least 30% of psalms are in the lament tradition. And yet we don’t engage with them as White evangelicals hardly at all in our worship services. I wonder if that is because naming the world as it is can be seen as threatening to a religion that has tied itself to the success of the empire?  Click here for more on D.L. Mayfield.

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