Monday, February 08, 2010

Greg Mortenson - Tea to stones to schools - all in pursuit of Peace

"There are things you just don't understand ..."

I've lost count of how many times I heard that phrase rolling off the lips of one who was so deeply involved in politicial machinations and posturing that they failed to realize that what they were advocating was the blind support to the status quo, and the unwavering quest for photo ops and press conferences while little was being done to actually address the issues being raised in our community ... Over and over, staff and volunteers heard the same phrase - "There are things you just don't understand ..."

Over and over, the staff and volunteers shook their heads in amazement and disappointment and said under their breath - "really?" And set out to do what was needed IN spite of the stonewalling that was thrown up out of fear and ignorance ...

This morning sitting with a mug of steaming tea I spent time on Facebook reviewing pictures posted by a High School friend of his parents' recent 50th Anniversary celebration ... looking at the colourful pictures of his family dancing and celebrating the joyous occassion took me back to my highschool and university days when I spent countless hours with his family eating, dancing, and just enjoying life ... one picture of his father reminded me of the evening when we were sitting listening to tunes in the living room and his dad walked in and with his heavy Punjabi accent said - "No, no, boys. This is not okay ..."

I was expecting him to turn the music down, but instead he smiled as he reached for the volume control and he cranked it as LOUD as he could ...

"You have to FEEL the music ..." and he proceeded to dance around the living room in his own unique Pujabi inspired style, smiling, laughing and bopping to "Pump Up the Volume"!!

I look back with fondness on those memories ... in their own way, father and son taught me much about a culture very different from my own, but very similar ... They opened thier home and welcomed me in as friend and family ... I shared countless meals, and joined in many moments of laughter as I learned much about Sikhism and their life in both India and Canada ... There were marvelous meals full of laughter and good food, and there were moments where I realized what a challenge it is to be a visible minority in mult-cultural Canada.

One chilly spring morning, I was helping the family move the eldest sister and her family from one part of Toronto to another. I was the sole white boy among a towering crowds of bearded, turbaned Sikh men who looked ready for a battle field somewhere ... yet with laughter, smiles and slaps to the back, I was welcomed in and put to work like one of the family. After the moving van was loaded and ready to go we discovered it had been blocked in my a parked car.

A call was made and the Metro Toronto Police were summoned. The brother in law being moved went out to talk with the officers when they arrived and they kept saying - "there's nothing we can do ... there's nothing we can do ..."

One of the uncle gave me a shove and said - "Go talk to your people ..." With his chin he motioned to the Uniformed Officers. I reluctantly headed over to see what the problem was ... it's amazing what you'll do when a bearded Sikh man who towers over you and outweighs you two for one makes a suggestion.

When I stepped into the circle voices were being raised and the police were more insistent that there was absolutely nothing they could do about the parked car that was clearly illegally parked ... then the senior officer with his three stripes noticed me.

"Can I help you?" he asked.

I stumbled over my words as I said, "Um, I was just wondering what was holding up our moving van ..."

"You're with them?" he asked.

I nodded.

The officer looked at the brother-in-law and the other men standing with their arms crossed and said, "Let me see if we can run the plates ..."

Three minutes later a very apologetic man dashed out the back door of the apartment building and hopped in the car ... five minutes later we had thanked the police officers for thier help and our parade of vehicles pulled out of the parking lot ... The general consensus was that had they not had the token white guy with them, the Sikh family would still be waiting for the van to move ... Looking back over 20 years later, I can't help but agree ...

Our day ended with one of the most amazing and delicious spreads of food I've ever encountered ... I joined the men on the floor of the living room/dining room and was getting ready to dig in when one of the Uncles grabbed my wrist and said "No, no ..."

He then shouted something in Punjabi to the kitchen which was met with the sound of drawers opening and closing, and my friend laughing from across the room ... My friend said something to his Uncle in Punjabi that left the whole room laughing and me visibly confused. The Uncle turned to me and said "Really?"

I looked to my friend - now thoroughly confused ... "What?" I said bewildered ...

"Uncle wanted to get you a fork and spoon," said my friend, "But I told Uncle that you eat with your hands like normal people like us !!"

"Oh," my confusion evaporated quickly and was replaced by a sense of belonging ... "Yeah, right!" I said as I reached again for the food and joined in the well deserved feast ...

That day underscored for me a lesson that I've revisited over and over in my life - the power of fellowship forged around the table. Over food and beverage most of the world forges relationships and builds community one cup, one plate and one face to face contact at a time.

This was understood by the Early Church who shared the strong tribal culture of hospitality that continues to undergird the Middle East to this day. The power of breaking bread and sharing the cup was as much about the ethereal connectedness to something Holy and beyond ourselves, as it was to the action of breaking bread and sharing the cup with a stranger, a neighbour, a friend, or a family member. The Holiness was strengthened and under-girded by the mundane action ...

This concept has been central to the work and writings of American Activits Greg Mortenson, who has authored two books (Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools) which chronicle the work that he and the many people involved with the work of the Central Asia Institute (CAI - that has (and continues) to build schools throughout the mountainous regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I will readily and openly admit that I am a 'johnny come lately' to the work of Mortenson and the CAI. The first I heard about him and his incredible work was an interview three weeks ago on CBC's The Sunday Edition when he was interviewed by Michael Enright (click here for the episode). I was driving to Portage and by the time I arrived I had to re-think some of the pieces of my sermon to fit in the startling new information ...

That night when I got back to Brandon I searched out a copy of "Stones into Schools" and bought it ... I read late into the night until I couldn't hold my eye lids up any longer ... The next day I went searching for a copy of "Three Cups of Tea." I devoured both books and have used them in both my work on my Masters Thesis, AND in my preaching and writing since ...

The whole premise of Mortenson's work is breathtakingly simple ... he is ALL about education. He wants to lift the veil of illiteracy and ignorance that comes when children and their education are neglected, and instead of receiving a much needed and deserved education, they are instead given ONLY the indoctrination of small minded political and pseudo-religious instruction that may pass for education.

Through his stories and experiences, Mortenson shows his readers what is possible when over tea and meals trust is built, relationships are strengthened and people are honoured ... He doesn't come and build a school to help the people, instead he comes and helps the people build and run their OWN school ... over and over, communities have searched him out seeking a school for thier children.

Even in the wake of the events and conflict that emenated from 9/11, Mortenson found his cause strengthened rather than weakened ... he expanded the work of the CAI into Afghanistan and in the process reflects on the importance of slowing down, and listening to the stories of the people we may found ourselves surrounded by ...

Along the way, Mortenson continues to challenge those who seek security through military effort, to consider the investment costs of a smart bomb ... instead of spending millions of dollars on armament that devestates buildings, countryside and lives, that money could be spent building schools that will give rise to teachers, doctors, nurses, and community involved children who will forge a peace more lasting than any bomb could ever offer.

Most telling however, is the wonderful account Mortenson relates of battle hardened veterans who put down put down their AK-47's and spend time playing on the slides, swings and teeter-tooters of a school they were visiting. These men were the core supporters of the Taliban, and yet after that 45 minutes of play, they were committed to building a school for thier community's boys AND girls ... their only caveat was that the new school HAD to have a playground too!!

By sharing these stories, Mortenson reveals not only the necessity of education as a foundation to a lasting peace for humanity. He reveals, perhaps in advertently, the danger of ignorance in our world.

The last chapters of "Three Cups of Tea" celebrate the power of education and the changes it can make to the individual lives of young women, to their communities and their countries. The best counsel Mortenson offers comes from a former Pakistani general who noted "the enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fight will go on forever."

Ignorance is the real enemy in our world. As an adage reminds us - 'the difference between genius and ignorance is that ignorance has no limits ..."

There are truly ignorant people in the mountains and valleys of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East, and there are truly ignorant people living in our towns and cities in North America. Fortunately, there are determined people like Greg Mortenson and the many others involved with the CAI who are doing everything they can to lift the veil of ignorance through the power and value of education.

"There are things you just don't understand ..." is a statement of profound ignorance. It is safe, and it is secure, and it precludes any discomfort or challenge to the status quo. Thankfully when folks like Greg Mortenson encounter such an attitude, they set their jaws and offer the opportunity for true enlightenment for the one who would dare to oppose the dynamism of change and growth and education in our community and our world.

One of the things I've never understood is how people can be so closed to the possibility that they might not be as aware and as enlightened as they thought ... I learned the value of being open to what life offers from the first cup of sweet tea I shared at my friend's house, through to the many meals I've shared with a wide diversity of human cultures ... "there are things that you just don't understand ..." is anything but an enlightened and open statement - it is a statement of fear and ignorance, and it often comes from those who like to think of themselves othewise ...

Education is about experience and relationship and taking chances ... Mortenson learned one cup of tea at a time that you can actually bring real and tangible change to the world ... it's a lesson we ALL would do well to heed and follow, and thankfully many have and do and will ... Peace is achievable and attainable - and education is the only viable path.

Thanks Mr. Mortenson, for turning your failure into such an astounding success, and for bringing all of us along on the journey !!!

I'll never look at a cup of tea in the same way again !!


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