Grandma Sloths and Donor Designations

I had a dream the other night. Okay so I have dreams every night. Wonderful, wild, bizarre and beautiful dreams. But the other night I had one that seemed pertinent enough to write about here, so I invite you to follow me down this rabbit hole for a moment because there really is a point to it all.

So I was here in Haiti, down at the Living Media center with a group of people, some Haitian, some American, and we heard a loud crash outside. I ran outside to see what had happened and noticed that a large tree had fallen, trapping an entire family of sloths underneath of it (no, there aren’t sloths in Haiti, that’s why it’s a dream). Overwhelmed by a burden to help the sloth victims, I hurried to the tree and was discovered a sense of superhuman strength which allowed me to heave the giant tree trunk off of the sloths. I threw it to the side to find a mother and a papa with four babies and one older grandma sloth all smiling up at me in appreciation. The grandma sloth had grey hair and granny glasses, yes, granny glasses, much like Sophia Patrillo’s. She was apparently quite near-sighted. She spoke to me with a frail but wise voice, thanking me for saving their lives and expressing that they wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for me. The others didn’t speak but just smiled gently while the little ones giggled and cuddled with one another. As the grandma spoke, one of the babies reached out slowly and grabbed my hand. I told them that I was happy to help and then carried them all to a different tree where they could all move on with their lives. Then I told them that I had to go because I had another activity that I had to get to but I was sure that I would see them again. They waved good-bye and I left, leaving the other humans there at the center while I hurried off to take care of some other responsibility, thinking very little of what just happened because that’s just what I do. If I see someone, or some sloth, that needs help and I have the ability to help them, I do so.

And that’s that. No big deal.

  
But then I got back from whatever it was that I was doing a couple of hours later and I found one of the Americans that was there still standing there at the center. All of the others had left but she was standing there waiting for me to get back. When I got there she said that she wanted to make a donation to Living Media and would be giving us $1,000. “That’s great!” I said, knowing how much that money could help us with our programs designed to realize our mission of helping young adults in creative educational opportunities. Then the donor told me that she was giving it to support research in the cross-breeding of sloths and beavers because maybe then sloths would be better equipped naturally to protect themselves from falling trees.

And that’s where the dream fades, or at least my recollection of it does. So I don’t know how I responded to the donor’s offer in the dream, but I know how I would be tempted to respond if it was real life. I would have smiled and thanked her for her donation and her heart for the poor sloths, but also explained clearly that I couldn’t be sure how much we could do because we are not, after all, a wildlife protection organization, or even anything close to one. Then once her donation cleared our bank accounts, I would encorage our staff to use the money to serve the people that our programs were designed to help in Living Media and cover some of our unavoidable financial needs that we’re unable to find other donations for. I would advise the money be used for what our organization and our community have agreed are top priorities from the time that we started working, knowing that the donor was clearly out of touch with the reality of why an organization like ours exists and what it exists to do within a community such as ours. Knowing that pointing out how out of touch she is would only mean losing her as a donor and making myself come off as an egotistical jerk, I would choose rather to take a path of leaving the donor in the shadows of her good intentions while using my own experience and that of our staff to make better decisions of how to use that donation. I would feel a burden to remain accountable to my local community and hold their priorities above that of the donor even if that means not sharing the entire truth with the donor. Because I know that the local community would place the cross-breeding of sloths somewhere on the priority list way after education for their children, support for their young people, business opportunities for families, but somewhere before receiving TOMS shoes and fortified meal packets and one more VBS program. So I would make sure that those top priorities are addressed first, which means focusing on people, but I would keep the sloths in the back of my mind just in case down the road we are so successful at the other things and have so much extra money that maybe we can put one of them in a cage with a beaver and a box of dark chocolates with some romantic music and see what happens.

But then a year later when that donor emails me asking for some photos of the sleavers or bealoths that we’ve bred and evaluations of their superior survival adaptations and financial reports of how it all happened, I would be screwed. I would have a clear conscious knowing that legally I didn’t do anything wrong because we never solicited any donations for sloth protection so we wouldn’t be obligated to use the funds for that purpose even if that’s what the donor requested. Legally, we would be first and foremost required to be accountable to the demographic that we were established to serve, which would be the young adults of Haiti, not the sloths in old trees, or the donors with money to give, and that original demographic would have a lot more important ways to benefit from that money than what the donor had requested. But I would still be stuck in a murky moral mire knowing that I had accepted the money based on the donors misconceptions and now I would be left to defend that decision and account for what we did with the money without alienating the donor or coming off as apathetic to the cause of the sloths.

The fact is that I love sloths. It would be awesome to have one as a pet if that were an option. I also love donors. Couldn’t live without them. But what I love even more than both of them is undesignated donations that are given without any emotions attached to them. They are what allows an organization to most effectively achieve its mission, yet they are the least likely kind of donation to be given because we all like to think that we have complete control of our money to its absolute end. We all like to think that we always know what’s best to be done with our money. I suppose it’s easy for me to see things differently as someone who’s always worked hard to earn everyone else’s money but has never had much money of my own. That’s why, despite all of that hard work, even if I choose to use $5 out of that $1,000 to eat a sandwich for myself instead of one more brick to build the sleaver habitat, then I’m the one that gets criticized as corrupt.

Yes, the sloth situation may have just been a dream, but the sad truth is that it represents all too often the reality that many, if not all, nonprofits have to continually deal with. Donors are the ones giving money that they’ve worked hard to earn, so they like to make all of the decisions of what that money should do. Meanwhile, the organizations have spent critical time and energy researching what their communities’ most urgent needs are and then they’ve invested resources in training local staff to address those needs according to their own specific abilities. And too often those two sides don’t match up. There’s a disconnect between what the donor thinks is best and what the community actually needs. And it always puzzles me why people think this is appropriate. We wouldn’t pay Nike to make us a laptop and we wouldn’t pay Ford to build us a house. And when you buy your groceries from Walmart or Whole Foods, when you hand over the payment to the cashier, you don’t leave a note for the CEO of that company of how they should spend your money. So why do we donate money to environmental organizations expecting them to send kids to school, or educational organizations expecting them to build churches, or arts organizations expecting them to feed people? Why do we donate money to an established organization with an established mission and clear methods of how to accomplish that mission and experienced boards and staffs in place to ensure that it gets carried out, but then we still try to tell them exactly how we want that money to be used? Once we pay for groceries at Walmart, we accept that that money is no longer ours, it belongs to Walmart. (Don’t send comments about how Walmart is evil, it’s simply the most universal example I can use.) But when we donate to an organization, why are we unwilling to accept that that money now belongs to that organization and trust them to do what they know is best?

Yes, I have strange dreams every night but maybe my craziest dream of all is a dream of an organization that is truly empowered and supported 100% to do what it was created to do. A dream where poor local activists and foreign wealthy donors can sit down together at the table of brotherhood without compromising their visions. I have a dream.

The Boogeyman in America’s Closet

   

There’s a boogeyman in America’s closet. And this November we have a decision about what we want to do about it. We are going to have two choices.

One candidate will be telling us that there is a boogeyman in the closet and we need to protect ourselves from him. So we should build a big wall around our beds, sleep with a gun in our hand, and then drop a couple of bombs on the closet. Because although we’ve never seen the boogeyman or know anything about him, he’s definitely in there and he’s different than us, so we should be nothing but terrified of him and react only with hate-filled, deadly force. Problem solved. Nighty night.

The other candidate will open up the closet door, pull the light switch, and show us that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Then they will sit next to us and explain that yes, although there are dangers in the world that we have a right to be careful of, they are not hiding in our closet waiting to gobble us up. Those dangers are worth educating ourselves on and understanding as much as possible about them so that we can work together to reduce the risk. In the meantime we should sleep tight and not let the fear prevent us from having the sweetest of dreams. Then they’ll read us a lovely bedtime story. In the morning, after you’ve made it through the night…

The first candidate will wake you up and tell you to work hard to climb over your wall around your bed (because you’re privileged enough to go outside of the wall but no one else is allowed in) and after showing you the ash filled crater where your closet once was they will tell you to keep ahold of your gun. “Why?” You’ll ask. And the candidate will tell you because you don’t know if the Muslim family across the street, or the Mexican family next door, or the black family down the block, or the lesbian couple next to them, or the single transgender man with the pet pitbull across the alley, might have been friends with the boogeyman and they probably believe in gobbling up people too, so just carry your gun around with you to be safe. Don’t try to talk to any of them. If they make eye contact with you, just shoot them.

The second candidate will ask you if you slept well and cook you breakfast before telling you to have a good day. They’ll tell you to go to the park and play with the Muslim children, and the Mexican children, and the black children, and the children of the lesbian couple, and the handicapped child from that other family. Then they’ll remind you that all of those families along with the transgender man and his pitbull, Creampuff, will all be coming over later for a potluck where everyone will be contributing to the meal. And if anyone can’t contribute, they’ll be welcomed anyway and everyone will make sure that they have plenty to eat, because you all belong to the same neighborhood, the same community, and you look out for each other.

  Sure, this is an oversimplified description of our complex modern democratic political system. But it is clear that there are certain candidates out there that are much more concerned about creating policy based on fear rather than knowledge. And it may fill us with a sense strength to say that we’re going to exert all of our power over the boogeyman by showing him who’s boss. “Destroy the bogeyman and make yourself invincible!” is an attractive message. But is it really what’s best for our country? Can our strength really be built by demonizing, stereotyping, criminalizing, illegitimatizing, and dehumanizing entire categories of our population? Are we willing to sacrifice our religious freedom, our racial diversity, and our colorful spectrum of varied voices all for a misplaced, abstract notion of greatness?

I know that there are many, many, issues at play in the upcoming election for the United States. But one issue that is at the center of it all is our very identity as Americans. And I’ve always felt that who we are depends much more on who we extend freedom to rather than who we keep it from. Who we are is more fully realized by making freedom inevitable for as many people as possible, not making it only available to an exclusive few. We have never been a country that has guaranteed that everyone will be rich and powerful, but we have always been a country that has guaranteed that everyone will be free.

As I’ve traveled around the world to countries where that same freedom is not guaranteed to everyone, I have always been proud to be an American for that reason. Now we stand on the precipice of a pivotal moment that could be flushing all of that freedom down the toilet if we allow a candidate to take power that would make that freedom available to only a select few that looked and thought like themselves. If that happens, I’ll be much less proud to call myself American. I’d survive. I could easily pass as Canadian or even French if I had to here in Haiti. Fill out a few pieces of paper and I could actually be Haitian. I’d survive. But freedom would be dead.

I don’t believe in making decisions out of fear. I also don’t believe in telling anyone who to vote for. I believe that everyone should be free to vote for who they want. I also believe that everyone should be free to worship who or what they want, love who they want, study what they want, work where they want, and be who they want. Free to be who they are. I am going to vote for someone who is going to fight to keep everyone free to keep believing, loving, doing, and being too.

A Green Mango Pilgrimage -Part 4 – The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro

“Humanity is but a single Brotherhood, so make peace with your brethren.” The Qur’an 49:10

I am not in Tennessee right now, I am in Haiti. But I am trying to get caught up some on my Pilgrimage posts from when I was in the States last and was able to work on my sacred space bucket list. And highlighting this particular place, The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, has been on my heart for a while, the more and more that I see Islamophobia normalized in the US and even celebrated within the current political campaigns, I wanted to share the example of this beautiful faith community there in Murfreesboro that has overcome tremendous adversity and still stood strong as a symbol of peace and tolerance.  The mosque is one of the newest places on my list having only opened up in 2012, after a long and controversial process to build a larger location for the growing congregation there to gather and worship. Once they announced their plans for the building in 2010 they endured more than two years of protests, vandilism, threats, and arson from community members that didn’t want them to be there. They were even sued in an attempt to stop construction, but a judge ruled in their favor and the building continued. When they finally opened in 2012, the congregation celebrated their new space that stood as a triumph over hatred. The Imam Ossama Bahloul at that time encouraged his Islamic community there by reassuring them that they had reason to be proud because God knew they were strong enough to deal with all of the opposition that was thrown their way.

That history in itself makes this place special as a sacred space that almost never was. But what is even better is that since then, this community of Muslims have made a conserted effort to establish their space as one that represents unity, understanding, and indeed community. Despite the violent reaction that they received, they have responded out of love and tolerance and become a place that brings people together in Murfreesboro rather than dividing them further.

From the homepage of their website,

Let us stand together and build bridges rather than barriers, openess rather than walls. Rather than borders, let us look at distant horizons together, in the common spirit of the value and dignity of a shared personhood as citizens of this great nation.

Sounds pretty different from what we’re used to hearing from certain politicians and the media these days. We seldom let the voices of Muslims themselves be heard on the issues that affect them. Instead most people hear “ISIS” and freak out because what they really heard was “Islam”. But that’s not what Islam is, this is Islam, “Let us stand together and build bridges rather than barriers.” 

 And from what I can tell from my own experience there in Murfreesboro, they are really embodying this as a congregation. The space itself welcomes you in no matter who you are and encourages to ask questions about where you are to shed light on a belief system that is so widely misunderstood. Even as I pulled into the parking lot I was struck by the fact that it sits within spitting distance of a Baptist church and the two buildings look like they belong next to each other physically and theologically. It’s a strong symbol alone that two such places can exist side by side in this country.

I, unfortunately, arrived at a time when only the janitor was around. I have since been trying to get in touch with Imam Bahloul to ask him some more questions about the center there, but he is in the middle of leaving his position there to focus on more academic work so I have not been able to talk to him as much as I would have liked. But I can understand even from my very brief correspondance with him that no matter where he goes or what he does he is working to bring people together and doing everything in his power to present a positive, more true image of Islam to the world. I pray that whoever the Center there finds to replace him will be able to continue to build on everything that he’s already done.

The mosque in Murfreesboro is just one example of the many, many mosques all across the US that are full of devote followers of Islam who believe in peace, in freedom, and in solidarity with other faiths. These places don’t get near enough attention. They are essential institutions for our communities and important parts of our republic. They are sacred and they people that worship there are our brothers and sisters. The sooner we all realize that, the sooner we can all know peace. Until then, I’m happy to stand with them and look at distant horizons together.

Questions From the Road: What Do You Like Most About Living in Haiti?

I’ve been living in Haiti for 9 years now. I’ve built a house; I’ve established roots. Making such a commitment to a place would imply that there’s something really special about the place that I like so much that makes me keep staying. And yet, when I’m asked this question it’s always very difficult for me to answer. In fact, the most recent time I was asked it, I gave a really shallow answer about the weather being nice and the beach being close. And afterwords I was disappointed in myself for such a cop out response.  

 After I gave my lazy answer, someone else there in the conversation, asked, “it’s not the people?” Which, would seem like a good answer. In fact, it was my gut answer when first asked the question, but I didn’t say it, because it’s not really my favorite part about living here, it’s just the “right” sounding answer for a liberal altruitic humanitarian type of expat like me. But it’s not the truth. The people are not my favorite part. Yes, much of the time I love most of them. They are bold and endearing, indulge in joy and laughter, and understand community deeply. But they are also dramatic and petty, love to hold a grudge, and have terrible telephone etiquette. The Haitian people, just like people anywhere in the world, have plenty of positive and negative characteristics about them that make it equally as infuriating to live with them as it is enjoyable. So to say that they are my favorite part of living here seems to me to be just as much of a nonanswer as the sunshine. Saying so would take away their right to be imperfect. 

So a better answer may be that some people are my favorite part of living here. A few specific, still imperfect, individuals are my favorite part. A few who prove family can be more than blood, a smile can truly be one’s passport to a better place, and any obstacle can be overcome together. A few who can still be narrow sighted, entitled, and have no clue how to shut a door, but still find ways together to make life worth living here despite the many imperfections and frustrations that surround us and that we each are indeed a part of. 

My favorite part may not be the people but my favorite part is when the people forget their problems, they dream of the future, they remember what unites them, they celebrate their strength, and they create space for beauty and pleasure. The people who do that more often than not, those people are my favorite part. 

But those people are my favorite part of this planet no matter where I encounter them. So it remains that my favorite part of Haiti remains very layered. Some people are just one of my favorite parts. Others include:

  • The fact that I get to where jeans and t-shirts or sometimes just my pajamas all day and still am considered one of the most productive and accomplished members of society.
  • The fact that I am removed from most forms of Western entertainment and still never get bored.
  • The diverse multitude of people from all over the world that I get to meet by living and working here.
  • The boob swipe as an acceptable greeting for men or women. 
  • The artistic inspiration that I am flooded with daily that I wouldn’t find anywhere else.
  • Being able to travel back home in the middle of winter and having the best tan in Iowa. 
  • The way the stars look from my rooftop.
  • Being in complete control of when I do or do not have to hear about Donald Trump.
  • My Green Mango readers. I mean this from the bottom of my heart. The fact that in my fourth year of writing on this blog so many people still find value in what I have to say continues to challenge and encourage me each day here.

These and many more.

There is no one radiant element of life here that I can point to as my favorite or as my biggest motivator for staying. Just the same as those who ask me this, if I would ask them what their favorite part is of living in Iowa or Michigan or New York, they’d probably have trouble identifying one thing. For me, Haiti is simply where I’ve ended up. You can call it what you want: I’ve been called, all paths led here, Haiti chose me, whatever, but in the process of ending up where I am today I’ve found plenty of things that I love about this place. But I have yet to find a way to articulate whether any of those things could be called my favorite. And I’m okay with that.

    Books15

    My Top 10 Books of 2015

    This year offered far more books that I wanted to read than I could get to, but the ones that I did get to were some of the best ever. This year was dominated by books that drew me in with gorgeous covers but kept me turning the pages with inspiring, entertaining, and emotional stories inside. There were certainly characters in these books that have stuck with me and words that inspired and illuminated truths for me with poetic styles and powerful stories. I’ve discovered new authors that have become quick favorites for me for the future as well as experienced masters that demonstrate what it means to be a truly great writer. I share this list hoping that it will encourage some others to find the joy and beauty and wealth of feelings from these books as I have this year.

     

    sun_375w1. I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

    This book quickly became a real contender for one of the best books that I’ve ever read. Ever. I fell in love with the prose and the way that Nelson strings words together into phrases that would wash over me full of color and life and vitality. The characters are brilliant creations, the main two of which are teenage twin brother and sister, both of whom are artists exploring the world and life in bold and dangerous and sensual ways. I think what makes this book so satisfying to me is that the relationship between these two twins represents something so real and yet indescribable that each one of us yearns for in our own lives. And yet, the way that Nelson writes, we are able to go on an individual journey with each of them as well and see the world through each of their very different perspectives. The book also takes place in two different time frames, each told from one of the twin’s point of views as they seek to mend broken relationships, discover their own identities, and try to understand how to love in a crazy and wild world.

    5164oA+waiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_2. The Painter by Peter Heller

    Another book with an artist for a protagonist, not surprisingly also one of the best books that I’ve ever read. I enjoyed it almost equally as much as I’ll Give You the Sun, but for very different reasons. The story of The Painter is much more suspenseful and takes us on a ride where at every turn we find ourselves questioning our own beliefs about what’s right and wrong. Are there different degrees of evil and how do we as a society deem certain acts justifiable based on our impressions of the victims and the perpetrators? It’s a book where it is told in such a way that you become very sympathetic towards the main character, however you can also imagine that if the narrative was told from any other point of view it would be a very different story and you as the reader would feel very differently about this man, the painter. One of the also rather lovely side effects of the way that the story is told is that we get a glimpse into this man’s art and how it channels his feelings of guilt and regret and truth while also providing us a much more genuine picture of his character and who he is. (A note to all other writers in the world: make your protagonist an artist and it opens up a whole world of new tricks for characterization that you wouldn’t get otherwise.)

    Euphoria by Lily King cover3. Euphoria by Lily King

    Euphoria by Lily King wins the award this year for best cover design. I decided to read the book based solely on it’s beautiful cover but was also overwhelmingly pleased by the story that I found inside. It follows three young anthropologists working in isolated areas of Papua New Ginea in the the 30’s as they each struggle to find their own relevance through their research as well as through each other. It eloquently explores the feeling that we’ve all experienced of knowing overwhelming loneliness despite being surrounded by people. For these three anthropologists, their jobs are to study people, so they are constantly in relationship with those they are researching but that doesn’t fill the voids inside of them that they feel personally. The story of this book follows the lengths that they go to to fill that void and the characters are so relatable and vivid that you are happy to join them on that ride as they each make decisions that change all of their lives forever. Yet this book also holds value for the cross cultural issues that it illuminates as well for the native people of these areas that get caught in the tangled web of these foreigners’ passions and ambitions.

    5111iRbakKL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_4. Give and Take by Judy O Haselhoef

    Give and Take by my dear friend, Judy Haselhoef, wins high points primarily because it quotes the Green Mango Blog in its narrative. But even beyond that this is a great book that tells the story of one community artist who tries to navigate the messy waters of nonprofit work in Haiti. It also tells the story of the nonprofit that she started, Yon Ede Lot. But what’s great about the book is that it is not a marketing tool for Yon Ede Lot, in fact it tells the entire story of the organization’s evolution which eventually ended in dissolution. Throughout the book it is very honest about both the failures and triumphs that led to that end, but through it all, teaches a number of very important lessons that anyone involved in the nonprofit sector can learn from. One of the most clear of those lessons is the importance of an exit strategy, which is unique in a sector where most organization’s goals are growth, growth, growth. Through Give and Take we are able to see one nonprofit that started with a very clear mission, did what it could to complete that mission, and then exited gracefully. But for me, what is even more interesting about this book is Haselhoef’s own evolution from community artist to nonprofit manager and the compromises that she has to make as well as the rewards that she gains for making that journey while continuing to remain true to herself as an artist.

    fallingtoearth5. Falling to Earth by Kate Southwood

    This book touches on so many things that I could relate to: survivor’s guilt, scapegoating, grief, relief, jealousy, superstition, and yet it does it all through a fictional story that literally sucks you in and spins you around, leaving you breathless. It is far from the feel good book of the year. I don’t advise anyone to read this book if you are in a fragile emotional place at the moment. It will leave you wounded and reeling but you will come away from it knowing that you just read an incredible piece of writing as well. The author is able to create a setting and make you feel like you are right there like no one else. And that is exactly why it is almost traumatic to read because the story follows one small town in Kansas after a supercell tornado sweeps through and destroys the whole town. Because of the adept writing you become a victim right along with all of the citizens of this town. But there is one family, and only one family, who comes away from the storm completely unscathed. Their house, their business, their kids, everything is fine and they suffer no damage while everyone around them is dealing with death, homelessness, and absolute loss. Through relating to this one family, your heart gets ripped out, tossed about, and exhausted. I’ve made an explicit effort to avoid reading books about the Haiti earthquake and even earthquakes in general because I know the emotions and memories that they will bring up for me. This book did all of that and more without being about an earthquake. And somehow, I still came away from it loving the book and wanting more from the author.

    41N+hI1WoyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_6. God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

    I am late to jump on the Toni Morrison bandwagon, but this year when she released her new book, God Help the Child, I decided it was time, and I immediately became a fan of the Nobel prize winning author. I ate this book up like the delicious morsel of literature that it is, every word, every metaphor, every symbolic social commentary. The main character, Bride, endures a traumatic childhood at the hands of her mother who never treated quite as human because of her dark black skin. She doesn’t let that define her however as she fights to define her future for herself  claiming professional success and owning her beauty with a fierce defiance of all her mother told her she would ever be. As an adult she encounters a number of other characters that help define her path and her own identity as she struggles with love, her own self worth, race, social class, fortune, and more. It is a quick and easy read which I have since discovered is not necessarily comparable to some of Morrison’s older works, but she packs a tremendous amount of raw humanity into the pages of this book.

    51pjKBOXa2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_7. Zealot by Reza Aslan

    Zealot was to me this year what Redefining Realness was to me last year, a book that I decided to read because I had seen the author on multiple cable news programs as a commentator on different issues and really respected his perspective on things. In particular, Aslan is known as an expert on contemporary Islamic issues and frequently appears on television to represent a modern American Muslim point-of-view on current events. But what was enticing about Zealot is that it is an entire book about Jesus but written by this author who is Mr. Expert on Islam. It started off very heavy on the historical side of ancient governments and politics leading up to Jesus’s life. And if I hadn’t have been listening to it on audiobook during my huge road trip this fall, I’m not sure I would have been able to get through that first half for this reason. But by the time that it got into the second half and really started delving deep into Jesus’ life and who he was, specifically drawing a distinction between the historical man Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Messiah as worshiped as Lord in modern day Christianity, I really learned a lot that I had never stopped to think about. There is so much context and historical facts that can be found in texts outside of the Bible that once you start to piece those together as Aslan does, it provides a much different picture of Jesus than most people allow themselves to consider. In the end though, my favorite part is that Aslan, a Muslim scholar of world religion comes to his own conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth truly was a man worth following and worth praising. But at the same time it seems that the majority of people in today’s world who claim him as their savior would do a better job following him if they understood him more fully beyond the Bible school stories and Sunday sermons.

    205754258. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

    This book was captivating primarily because it kept me reading just to find out what the title meant. It reveals the title late in the book and as soon as it does the entire rest of the book immediately means so much more. And to me that is a sign of a very skilled writer committed to his craft. The book spends most of its time setting up a series of questions in the reader’s head that must be answered to satisfy the reader. To me the story and prose itself in this book were not that engrossing but this structure of writing kept me invested. In the end you are left with revelations about the devil that resides in all us, usually in hidden unacknowledged places. We’re led to these revelations by one very unique character as we follow his journey to search for meaning and answers to his own existence in the midst of social isolation. Along the way we also get a healthy dose of fantasy through the world that the protagonist creates for himself and the reader gets lost in the grey area themselves once in a while between fantasy and reality.

    Atkinson19. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

    This book asks the fascinating question of what one might do with a life that he never expected to have. The main character of the book, Teddy, fought in World War II and witnessed so many of his friends and fellow soldiers perish in the war, that he always expected he would as well. When he survives to live in a post-war Great Britain, he is met with the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding a life that he thought would have been over by then. He goes on to marry a woman that he knew since childhood and become the father to a single daughter. The book jumps around in time and space to show Teddy as a child, a soldier, a father, and eventually a grandfather, all the time showing glimpses into the lives of all his family. In this way we see how the experiences and trauma of one man radiate out to affect the lives of all of those around him in emotional, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes even comical ways. An entertaining book that revealed a lot of history without reading at all like a textbook. Beyond the concepts of war it can touch any reader by introducing these characters that show us how we adjust and evolve through all of the curve balls that life throws at us. It makes the reader naturally wonder about the certain paths they’ve taken in their own lives and how things might have been different through a series of small seemingly insignificant choices.

    eba860a3820f07115880b2ab40b87d8110. Living With a Wild God By Barbara Ehrenreich

    This one was actually the opposite of Zealot in that I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I had read a hard copy of it rather than listening to it on audiobook with Ehrenreich’s droning voice reading the text. Because when I step away from her voice that makes everything sound like she’s bored with what she’s saying, the content of the book was actually quite revealing. I downloaded the book because I had appreciated Ehrenreich’s previous book, Nickeled and Dimed, and thought that this was an intriguing concept for a book (also with a very pleasing cover). It tells her personal story as an atheist going through life not believing in God or any higher power yet constantly encountering personal mystical experiences that make her question everything that she’s ever been taught and taught herself not to believe in. The book follows her through her phases of science and reason and solipsism but also curiosity and wonder. In the end it never presumes to provide any absolute answers to what does or doesn’t exist, but I feel like it does an excellent job of portraying the absolute undefinable but undeniable mystery of the spiritual realm that every human being must reckon with in one form or another. For the author she comes to a place where she acknowledges it but never labels it, and that in itself is sort of refreshing.

    On my To-Read list for 2016:

    The Sellout by Paul Beatty

    The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

    Orphan Train by Christina Baker Cline

    Allah: A Christian Response by Miroslov Volf

    The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

    What were your favorite books of 2015? Please share in the comments and let me know if you read any of these on my list, what you think of them. I hope everyone has a wonderful and blessed Christmas holiday and a beautiful New Year! May you find glorious bundles of books in your stockings! Peace.

    Photo by Cancillería Ecuador

    Questions From the Road – Is the Government There Really Corrupt?

    As I travel in the US and speak about my work and life in Haiti there are always a number of questions that people ask me and a few that get asked much more than others in one form or another. The questions usually come from a place of earnest interest from someone who wants to ask something a bit deeper than, “So how are things in Haiti?” And a few of these questions have responses that are more complicated than what I can give in the brief moments that I have in person with people after a presentation or at an event. So I’ve decided to take a few of these more popular questions and break them down in a new series of posts called “Questions from the Road”. In the next few weeks I am going to try to answer six particular questions that I get a lot during my travels. 1) Is the government there really corrupt? 2) Are they starting to recover/rebuild from the earthquake? 3) Is voodoo really a big thing down there? 4) Is anyone investing in tourism at all? 5) So what’s the deal with the Dominican Republic? and, 6) Is it safe? Some of these questions are very difficult for me to answer adequately when people ask them in person because my initial reaction to some of them is to blurt out something that would end up being very offensive. So I’m hoping that by taking the time to write out my responses instead, I can more effectively address some of the messy issues that will more completely explain the situation better than I could do face-to-face.

    So today, the first one: Is the government really corrupt there?

    I’m starting with this one because last week Haiti actually had elections to select a new president for the country as well as new representatives at all levels down to the most local of leaders. And as I follow the international news coverage of the election, I usually get very frustrated at the way I find the media describing the situation so this current question comes with a lot of feelings for me right now. But that’s not where I need to start because the truth is, even in the last 2 months that I’ve been Stateside, most people that ask me this question have absolutely no clue that an election was even taking place nor do they have any clue about the current administration or what the last 5 years of their leadership has been like. Most people asking this question are doing so out of some minuscule tidbit of information that is lingering in their cross cultural consciousness from Haiti’s tumultuous political past. Most of the people asking this question remember that sometime back in the 70’s, 80’s, or maybe 90’s they heard something about some tyrannical dictators ruling the population like monsters and they’ve clung on to that small unspecified nugget of information to define their understanding of the country until this day. They remember something about a doctor or a priest or a general or something once upon a time violently taking power and then killing a bunch of people that disagreed with him and then gobbling up all of the money while exploiting the poor. And while there may be a small sliver of truth somewhere in there, a lot has changed since those times.

    Haitians line up to vote

    Haitians line up to vote

    I’m not saying that the current Haitian government is perfect, not by a long shot, but we cannot assume something about today’s Haiti based on the problems of it’s past. Now if someone started their question by saying, “So I read this thing about Martelly the other day that said… so is their government really corrupt there?” Then we can have a real conversation. But the problem is that I feel most people assume that the last 30 years have just been a string of Baby Docs and Baby Baby Docs in power and apparently that is going to continue forever without taking the time to try to understand anything substantial about the current situation.

    But what’s even worse than this assumption based on a vague notion of history is when people ask this question out of no notion of history whatsoever but just out of an implicit ethnocentricity and white supremacism. And unfortunately, I often feel that this is lingering under the question somewhere. The belief that has been perpetuated subliminally that any country that is poor and black must have a corrupt government. That’s just how it goes. So clearly, Haiti’s government must be corrupt too. We don’t apply this formula to poor countries that have lighter skinned populations (unless, of course, they’re Muslim). But we’ve all watched The Last King of Scotland and Hotel Rwanda and assume that that’s how all economically poorer countries with black populations must be ruled. Which is an absurd assumption even if you were looking at the specific countries that those movies were set in.

    So, now, if we can get past all of those things, and really take a look at what really is going on in Haiti right now politically, let’s see if there’s any way that we can even answer this question about corruption. As I said, we are right in the middle of an election season right now with results of the first round of votes being revealed earlier this week. And during the time that votes were being cast and then counted afterwords, there were lots of media outlets that were throwing around the word “corrupt” as if there were no consequences of using that word. Most of them cited random people on the street who were unhappy with the government as their reasoning for calling it corrupt. This is not journalism, people. I am not defending the administration here, but I am defending the right of the people to be accurately portrayed in foreign media. There are plenty of places where criticism can be brought upon the current administration for the way they have governed, but let’s use real facts when placing that criticism and not just the angry people in the street who would be perfectly happy to burn tires and throw rocks based on gossip. Those angry people do not necessarily represent the entire population.

    This is why the current president was elected in the first place. Yes, there were plenty of people who were against Michel Martelly gaining the office and they’re the ones causing the protests and screaming “corruption”. But there are also plenty of Haitians who were in favor of him becoming president and have even been satisfied with his leadership the last five years. So, what I’m saying, is, let’s look at the whole picture and not assume corruption just because there are a number of people angry and willing to go to extremes to express their anger. But also, before we place too heavy of blame upon the current president for the mistakes that he has made during his tenure, let’s also be very realistic about how he got to where he is.

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    President Martelly at a campaign event in my hometown.

    Michel Martelly was elected in 2010 shortly after the earthquake when Haitian voters were not at all concerned about electing someone with any political acumen. They were coming out of a very traumatic experience and during the campaign and election season most were still dealing with very serious emotional difficulties and so they gravitated towards a candidate not because he could rebuild effectively or stimulate economic growth, or improve foreign policy, but because he had proven that he could entertain. (Americans take note what happens when you elect someone without any experience in governance like, oh I don’t know, a real estate mogul or brain surgeon.) People voted for Martelly because they knew that he could help them forget the trauma, bring a smile back to their faces, and celebrate the good things in life that remained. Martelly was famous as the great president of compa music where people loved his performances because they usually came with him dressing in drag, telling dirty jokes, and even being blatantly lewd on stage. When a good percentage of the population has seen your plantain and passion fruit because you’re always pulling down your pants or flipping up your skirt, then the population can assume that you’re not someone who’s going to hide anything. Nudity = transparency is a pretty safe assumption and transparency is the exact quality that voters want in a leader who is not corrupt.

    Whether or not he lived up to that expectation is certainly debatable, however, I think the reason he was elected was pretty clear, for his name recognition and fame as an entertainer. The majority of Haitians that I know were wanting him elected back in 2010 and despite all of his flaws, still are not tremendously disappointed in him because he has lived up to their expectations of being a great entertainer. He has also done enough good things along the way as president like building roads and bridges and making education more accessible, that they are willing to overlook the blatant policy bumbles. People who are disappointed in him and slinging accusation of corruption, clearly had the wrong expectations to start with. But I think that the truth is, the majority of Haitians knew exactly what they were getting into by electing this guy. So we can’t really be surprised when, for example, he neglects to hold legislative elections and the congress dissolves by default because he can always claim, “Hey, I didn’t know I was supposed to do that, I’m just a singer!” And then the majority of Haitians will respond with, “That’s right! Who cares about Congress? Sing a song! I wanna dance!” This is not to paint the Haitian population as naive but rather to express the real amount of importance that music carries in their culture and daily lives, which I actually believe proves a great depth to their social conscious. It does not, however, guarantee the best decisions when it comes to governance.

    This is a very complex issue, which could be expanded much more, but for the sake of economy on my blog, I’m going to leave it at this. Let’s just be honest in our own prejudices towards what government is supposed to look like when we are judging someone else’s alleged corruptions and let’s also be sure to look at the facts on the ground as they represent the general population. Let’s not project our own cultural definitions of what corruption is or isn’t when we’re not the ones voting and let’s not negate the very real life issues that are currently affecting the people who are voting. Is the government really corrupt there? As should be expected from the Green Mango, my answer is that it is never black and white. The truth lies in the grey areas.

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    A Green Mango Pilgrimage – Part 3 – Abbey of Gethsemani

    What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous. – Thomas Merton

    I know that this is going to sound hyperbolic and absurd, roll your eyes at me if you must, but the moment that I stepped out of my car in the parking lot outside of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, I immediately heard the birds in the air and the trees that populate the acres of beautiful land that the abbey sits on sing more clearly and and beautifully than I’d ever noticed anywhere before. I felt like I had just stepped onto the set of a Snow White film and soon the squirrels and bunny rabbits would be running up to me carrying freshly plucked flowers and ripe fruit for me to snack on while we all speak to each other in our universal animal language. But I guess, in a way, that’s sort of the point of this sacred space. Not to feel like you’ve been sucked into a Disney film, but to feel like you’re separated from all of the hubbub and chaos of modern life and are able to find a sort of serenity and solitude that allows you to commune with God, nature, and your very self, in a completely different language. Specifically for the monks and others who retreat at this monastery, that language is silence.
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    IMG_0095The Abbey of Gethsemani is a monastery of the Cistercian order of monks who “lead a life of prayer, work, and sacred reading, steeped in the heart and mystery of the Church,” according to their brochure. It is through the methodical study of Scriptures and concentrated prayer regimen that monks here are able to explore more deeply what it means to live fully in Christ and discover the depths of the love of God and ultimately to share that love with the world. They are in a unique position to intercede on behalf of the Church and the world through their prayers in a tumultuous time when the average person does not take the time to slow down and pray themselves. This very fact hit me hard to realize that with all of the division that currently exists within the Church and uncertainly about its future as well as in the world in general with injustice and misunderstanding plaguing every corner of the earth, there are people whose job it is to intercede on our behalf. All of us, myself included, without these monks even knowing who I am, are being prayed for by men who have the strange luxury of being able to focus all of their life’s energy into that prayer. That’s a powerful realization and it brings extra gravity to my own personal prayers, knowing that these men center their life around such a gift, to come in contact and communicate with God. It brings extra vitality to the need to embrace what a true gift it is.
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    The Abbey’s most famous monk was Thomas Merton who lived there from 1941 until his death 27 years later during which time his prayer and study led him to become one of the most respected theologians of the 20th century. His works focused on interfaith truths and social justice and have drawn connections between a number of world religions including Buddhism and Native American beliefs, from a Christian viewpoint. He studied Eastern religions as a way to draw himself deeper into the human experience which he considered being at the core of his own beliefs as a Catholic. Merton’s work has been credited as giving rise to an explosion of spiritual exploration in the 60’s and 70’s and continues to inspire and inform seekers of all backgrounds to this day. His grave is placed in the cemetery right outside of the monastery in Kentucky, but his legacy continues to live through the many who have been touched by his writings to plunge the depths of the human soul and rise to seek justice and peace for all on the planet.
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    IMG_0098Although most of the property of the Abbey is off limits to the public and reserved for the monks, they do allow the public into the sanctuary and invite anyone to join them for their daily prayers. I was blessed to be at the Abbey just in time to witness their afternoon prayers inside the beautiful, narrow sanctuary. I sat there for a few minutes alone before the monks entered, meditating in a silence that was even more intense than what I had experienced at the Baha’i Faith Temple the week before. When the time came for the prayers, the monks came in one at a time, in complete silence, and took their places. Once everyone was there, with no fanfare of any kind, no speaking or instructions, they simply stood and began singing in unison a cappella. I naively expected it to sound like one of those Tibetan chanting monks CD’s that you find next to the spa music in some holistic health store. But as soon as they started singing, it was clear that their goal was to pray, not to sing. This is not to say that they were bad at singing, it was just clear that they were not concerned with how they sounded to anyone but the Lord that they were praying to. The authenticity with which they sent their voices up and sincerity with which they sang each word filled that simple space with a Sacred Presence so palpable that no one could deny that the Spirit was active in their prayers. It was refreshing in a world where so many churches have turned praise into performance and the singing becomes empty when authenticity is sacrificed for entertainment. There were no fancy lights, or instruments, no hipster glasses or skinny jeans, no frills, no show to be put on, just pure honest praise that ushered in a more powerful worship experience than any modern service could offer. For four simple songs and fifteen simple minutes, I witnessed a group of men unified with one simple goal of praising the God that they loved and inviting him to work through them in this world. Everyone in worship services always claim that they’re there only for God’s glory, but I never really believed it fully until I saw those men consumed by it so purely at the Abbey of Gethsemani.
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    After my short visit, I have to admit that I left the Abbey of Gethsemani thinking to myself, “I could be a monk for a while”. The revelations offered through the lifestyle the monks live there and the unadulterated experience that is offered through such a simple and direct encounter with something so Holy is so undeniably attractive that it certainly makes one question why everyone doesn’t commit themselves to such a life at least for a while. But I’m afraid I won’t have the courage to trade in my Levi’s for a white robe any time soon. I will, however be reading more Thomas Merton and doing what I can to walk through life with a more conscious appreciation for both the opportunity for solitude as well as the gift of relating to the rest of humanity.
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    This post is part of my Pilgrimage series where I write about places as I check them off of my Sacred Spaces Bucket List.
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