A Picture of Ferguson, Missouri

You have probably noticed there isn’t one.

I looked for a picture of Ferguson that didn’t have police lined-up across from citizens or chalk outlines of bodies on the asphalt or clever protest signs. I grew tired of looking.

I simply wanted to write about Ferguson and its struggles with words that would provide the space we all need to grapple with the problems and handle the results of confrontation, death, peaceful demonstrations, riots, prospects of grand jury indictments. And the incredible sadness of a community where the pictures are all of trouble.

And, I wasn’t hoping to show a peaceful Ferguson in an effort to downplay all that is at risk there today. I was hoping to show a town much like the towns we know. Towns not caught in the public spotlight. Places where mistakes are made and bad things happen, but we have a sense that, overall, people are trying to do the right thing. I was hoping that there was a time when Ferguson was like that.

From what some would say, there may not be a picture of a truly peaceful Ferguson in recent history — perhaps decades. I don’t know. I don’t have enough information.

I read a blog post earlier today that said I shouldn’t write anything about Ferguson if I was going to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t have enough information.” But I don’t have the information that can positively place blame on one side or the other. I don’t know what the outcome should be.

So, here is what I do know.

  • It is a shame whenever anyone’s life is taken by violence, whether justified or not.
  • Minorities, especially African Americans, are involved in confrontations (often deadly) with police at a much higher rate than white Americans.
  • To some degree, that higher rate is the result of personal and institutional racism. (Sorry, I don’t know to what degree. I am not smart enough to read and interpret all of the statistics. But I’m not dumb enough not to understand the implications.  If you are offended by my use of the word “racism,” I apologize for making you uncomfortable. But, it’s an accurate word. Discrimination based on race is racism. Our systems do discriminate.)
  • People across the ethnic spectrum misbehave and make mistakes.
  • It is not wrong to enforce laws for the good of society regardless of a person’s race or the color of their skin.
  • It is wrong to hand out justice inconsistently based on race and skin color.
  • Because of past history with our justice system, many of our friends and neighbors who are not white will not trust an outcome by that system — in Ferguson or elsewhere — if it does not result in an indictment against the police officer. Their experience makes the system suspect.
  • If the system is corrupt, it needs to be changed. If people are corrupt, they need to be replaced.
  • This is a horrible situation.
  • We need to find one piece of holy, common ground to start the conversation and the healing.

And that is where most of us will say, “I don’t know” how to find that one piece of holy ground.

Let me offer this.

Find one person who does not share your racial background. Sit with them and talk quietly about this. Listen. Don’t expect to solve all of the problems. Do expect to discover holy ground. Don’t make it your job to persuade the other person. Do make it your job to understand the other person. If your relationship permits, pray with the other person. If you don’t have a praying relationship, pray that you will.

If you can’t do that, please pray that others can have the conversation.

And while the blog post I read earlier tells us that we should be ashamed to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t have enough information,” I can’t be tagged with that shame as long as I am listening and searching for the answers. With understanding, we come to that place of knowing.

We should pray for hundreds of thousands of these conversations. Even if that quest for holy ground only saves one life . . . even if it only helps one individual make a better decision, it will be worth the effort. I know that it will do far more.

I can guarantee that the holy ground discovered will be exponentially larger than that small stretch of asphalt in Ferguson where tragedy occurred. Even if we don’t know — and may never know — the full story of that tragedy.

Who are you listening to today?

[Also posted on joeycope.com.]

Ex Africa Semper Aliquid Novi

Out of Africa, always something new.

I suppose every out-of-the-ordinary event could be classified as “once in a lifetime.” Since early spring 2014, I have been preparing for a conflict resolution training mission in Rwanda and Kenya, and as family and friends learned of my plans, rarely a conversation passed when those words — “once in a lifetime” — weren’t uttered.

Now, I’m back. As I’m writing, I can hardly believe that I’ve been home for a week. My body clock is slowly resetting. My stomach is adjusting to the absence of anti-malarial medications and non-African cuisine. Transitions are often challenging, but perhaps my most striking mental challenge is finding a new descriptor for the trip.

2014-10-07 07.20.36That’s because a voice in my head keeps asking how and when I can return to Africa. Perhaps September 19 through October 1, 2014 was a once in a lifetime experience. Yet, I’m having trouble accepting it as my one and only shot.

An email about eight months ago began this journey, when I was invited to accompany a group of students from Southern Methodist University’s graduate program in Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management. My dear friend, Dr. Betty Gilmore, directs that program and sent me this email, dated February 3, 2014:

Would you be interested in going to Rwanda with me in the fall for 8-10 days to do training on peace building etc with indigenous leaders???

A torrent of emails and phone conversations followed. It just so happened the organization that Dr. Gilmore was working through to arrange her trip was African Leadership And Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM), and I was already in conversation with them about possibilities of partnerships between our program at the ACU Duncum Center for Conflict Resolution. In fact, on the day I received that email, I had just scheduled a meeting between ALARM leaders and our academic director, Garry Bailey, and myself.

“Coincidence” is a skeptic’s term for “providence.” The fact that I was being divinely provided an opportunity to do something unique was apparent to me. How could I turn this down?

Indeed, in the early weeks of talks and planning, every door was opened, and every obstacle was removed. Abilene Christian University administrators quickly embraced the idea and made it possible for me to go, providing both time and financial resources. My wonderful wife, Nancy, was on board, too, and she provided support and understanding.

Over the next few months, I made numerous trips to Dallas to meet with the SMU team. In addition to Dr. Gilmore as faculty and director for the travel course, I was introduced to Robyn Short, Allison Russell, Dan Russell, Aaron Horn, and Malcolm McGuire. We became immersed in intensive sessions to design and prepare for training sessions with multiple and diverse audiences.

Finally on the day before departure, with vaccinations, documentation, and seven duffel bags filled with donations for Congolese refugees, we congratulated ourselves on how smoothly things had gone. And then the email from the airline:

Your flight from Dallas to Amsterdam has been canceled. We are working to reroute you.

Eventually we were reticketed and sent on different flights, but the team was reunited in Amsterdam, and we flew into Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, after more than 24 hours of plane and airport time.

After an opportunity to attend worship on Sunday morning, we ventured downtown to the Kigali Memorial Center — one of several museums dedicated to remembering the genocide of 1994 where almost 1 million children, women, and men were killed in the name of ethnic cleansing. Our team was caught up in the enormity of our thoughts and our grief, even as we walked along the hillside where over 250,000 of the victims were buried.

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However, Rwanda is a nation dedicated to reconciliation and rebuilding. The conflict was built on the tension between two tribes, the Tutsis and the Hutus. In a place where revenge and harsh justice could be readily justified, those who have risen to leadership have chosen to set aside those instinctive response mechanisms. Justice is still being done. But forgiveness and reconciliation are an official part of the recipe for rehabilitation and healing. Thus, the national theme, “Rwanda: We are one people!” stands as a call to move forward, even in this difficult time.

Our team was asked to help train several groups in Rwanda. For two days, we trained the security forces of the Kinyinya district. These men and women are the first responders on the streets of the city. Unarmed, they speak of their work as their “walk” through the community. And they walk all night, coordinating services for people in need and resolving conflict wherever they can, without the intervention of the national police or the military.

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Dr. Gilmore and I were also asked to offer training on trauma, compassion fatigue, and leadership to the workers and leaders of a refugee camp in the eastern province of Rwanda. The rest of our team was to work with the children of the camp and our gifts of soccer balls, art supplies, and medical supplies were packed with care in the back of our bus. We had been told that the camp of Congolese refugees included about 500 individuals, 150 of them children.

When our bus rolled into the camp, it became evident that the population had grown a bit. We would later learn that almost 6,000 children and 3,000 women were at the camp. The number of men wasn’t discussed, but that’s a theme in working with Congolese refugees. Most of the adults are women, either widowed or separated from their husbands. Forced to flee in the face of horrific violence and threat, they move to surrounding countries to seek shelter and assistance.

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore

Dr. Gilmore (or, as our African friends referred to her “Doktor BET – EE”) was wonderful in the training, and the response from the adults was beautiful. Meanwhile, the rest of our team came face to face with bureaucracy as camp officials suddenly cut the time with the children short and refused to allow us to distribute our gifts. More than likely, the decision was in the interest of safety. Our donations wouldn’t go very far given the size of the crowds. Although we were disappointed and saddened, in hindsight, the decision to reapply and to allow the camp officials to engineer that distribution seems the most prudent.

Our last two days in Kigali were spent training the professional staff of ALARM Rwanda. These are delightful people with missions in peace and reconciliation, business development, administration of a girls’ school, and even the ongoing operation of a coffee plantation that provides jobs and work experience for Rwandans. Our team was blessed in these special moments.

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore

From Kigali, we flew to Nairobi, Kenya to spend four days with the staff and the children at Made in the Streets Ministry (MITS). A marvelous outreach, MITS forms relationships with children living on the streets of Nairobi and then provides opportunities for schooling and trade experience.  Almost 100 children were living at their location outside of Nairobi. We provided training for all of the children, plus recent graduates, in conflict resolution and leadership. Dr. Gilmore and Malcolm McGuire spent an afternoon with the MITS staff. While the plight of the kids was somewhat difficult to embrace, the hope and the possibilities from this God-inspired place helped us to see the unbelievable truths of God’s promise. God helps us. We help others. It’s a divine plan we saw unfolding — even recognizing the way that the children who were being helped were finding their place in the cycle of helping others.

IMG_1221Our hosts, Charles and Darlene Coulson, made certain that we felt welcome. We were treated to a safari at the Kenya National Wildlife preserve. Our driver and guide from MITS, Jackson, did a wonderful job and brought us face to face with a wide assortment of animals. Although we heard the lions early in the morning, we were never able to catch them in a place we could see them. But Jackson balanced our disappointment by giving us the added thrill of a visit to the nearby elephant orphanage.

Throughout our trip, I continued to feel the hope and the desire of these good African people for peace and reconciliation in a world that delivers chaos and strife. I also felt their quest for something beyond what mere humans could bring. For some, perhaps it was a the potential of combined efforts and collaboration — a communal discernment. But for most, and for me, it was a greater understanding that God is the one who delivers us and brings us peace.

Africa Team

Photo Credit: Betty Gilmore. L to R: Aaron Horn, Joey Cope, Betty Gilmore, Allison Russell, Dan Russell, Robyn Short & Malcolm McGuire

“Once in a lifetime” is more than I could have ever asked for. Yet, I find myself wanting to invest more of myself in this journey. Because you see, ex Africa semper aliquid novi. Out of Africa, there is always something new. I was blessed to be on a team with incredible people — all of whom are discovering something new within themselves.

 

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.  – Reinhold Niebuhr

Wisdom is something humans have sought after since the Garden of Eden. But, as in that story of Eve and Adam, we often attempt to acquire wisdom from the wrong places.

The fruit that Satan offered to Eve was not from the tree of wisdom. The bite in Eve’s hand that successfully seduced Adam was not a magical morsel of discernment. Instead, the forbidden package contained only the knowledge of good and evil.

Knowledge is only an element in the equation that presents us with wisdom. Wisdom demands more than knowing. From experience we know that wisdom isn’t fully realized unless we act on that wisdom.

The most memorable quotes from all sources are those that impart wisdom. Almost anyone can say something wise. Some people are better at it than others. Perhaps you have a collection of “best sayings” from famous people or your peculiar uncle. Regardless, we all take solace in grasping wisdom and making an effort to align our lives with its direction.

My job is to think about conflict and peace. The contrast between the two is quite stark. Yet, if you chart them on a line, you’ll often find that the distance between them can be very small.

The difference between conflict and peace is what I call complete wisdom.

Complete Wisdom = Knowing + Action

I am constantly searching for ways to help myself and others move from a state of conflict to a realm of peace. As such, I am constantly searching for complete wisdom.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve found much of what I’m looking for in the sacred texts. While I’m certain that there are concentrations of wisdom nuggets in many locations, my recent studies have led me to what is for me the mother lode of wisdom thought — Proverbs 18.

Serenity Prayer

In the coming weeks or months or even a year, I’ll be taking a closer look at these writings from King Solomon who, according to Scripture, was the wisest man to walk this earth. And as a conflict management person, I’ll be viewing his words from the unique perspective found in that open field between conflict and peace.

In the meantime, I hope that you will adopt Niebuhr’s prayer as one of your daily devotions. Serenity and courage can be yours.

Take a Small Step

For whatever the reason, I sat with my legs crossed as the other speaker made her presentation. Thirty minutes. I thought about how ill-advised my position was several times.

Yet, I convinced myself that there was a sophisticated look to the way I was sitting. It was only for a little while. No harm could come from this innocent posture.

As the previous speaker made her closing remarks, I shifted in my chair and looked down at my notes. I really didn’t ever see my notes, because I became aware of something much more important. My right leg was asleep.

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You know what it’s like. Initially, it’s all mental. No feeling. But as time marches on and sensation begins to return, you feel the tingling and the realization overtakes you: “Until this passes, walking will almost be impossible.”

It’s not paralysis. Instead, you are keenly aware that every movement with the impaired leg will be challenging and painful — perhaps even perilous.

But the moment comes, as it came for me, that you have to take that first step.

Fortunately for me, I had on a wireless microphone. So following the introduction that seemed far too short. I stood and began addressing the audience from where I had been seated. There was no podium, so it didn’t seem too awkward . . . at first. But the chairs were at the back of the stage. I soon realized that I had to take a step toward the audience, I had to begin to move. So, I waited for my moment, summoned every ounce of will within me, and took a very small step.

I can’t say that it was pleasant. But the movement did a number of things.

First, it brought a degree of confidence. I hadn’t fallen down. I hadn’t revealed my discomfort to the audience. I was making progress in my presentation.

Second, that step increased the flow of blood to my impaired leg. Sure, the tingling was intensifying. But recovery was imminent. Taking the small step boosted my ability to move.

Third, moving that tiny distance gave me a new perspective on my audience. I could see that I would need to move a lot to keep them engaged. I saw a clearer path to success. It wasn’t going to happen from the back of the stage.

And finally, all of the anxiety over that first step changed my future. I probably won’t cross my legs like that any more. And, if I do, I will know that the consequences are temporary and can be overcome by beginning with even the smallest of steps.

In dealing with life’s problems, we are often brought to a state of near-paralysis. The challenge seems too great. In this short series, From The Smallest of Things, we’ve pointed to the way that small things can tackle even big problems. You must Create a Small Space in your heart, you must Breathe a Small Prayer, you must Allow a Small Answer, and finally you must do something — you must take a step, even if it’s small.

Much like dealing with the stress of a leg that’s fallen asleep, we must best the forces that keep us from moving toward a solution. Remember that once you’ve paused and prepared, taking even the smallest action can:

  • Instill a new level of confidence in you. Realizing that you can move and negotiate and respond will bring a brighter outlook to your day.
  • Overcome the inertia. Movement energizes us. The new experience of doing something — anything — stimulates our creativity and works out the stiffness in our thinking and our willingness to act.
  • Give us new insight. We are able to look at the problem from a new angle. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem nearly as bad as it first appeared. Or sometimes it is worse. Regardless, we have a better idea of what we’re facing.
  • Better prepare us for our future decisions and actions. We learn through our experiences, even the smallest ones.

We like stories about courageous people — the heroes. You know what makes a hero? One small step.

 

Allow a Small Answer

You can hear it, can’t you? That constant, high-pitch squeal that settles around us every minute of every day. Some times it drowns out conversation or simply obliterates certain sounds. At it’s most intense, it scrambles thought. Ever present, ever annoying, it is the noisy companion to every moment we are awake.

Of course, not everyone hears it. Maybe you don’t. What I’ve just detailed is tinnitus. It is often described as a ringing in the ears, although mine is more like incessant feedback from a poorly regulated public address system.

Whatever it is, it is persistent and piercing. I have been known to beg this invisible assailant to stop, even for a little while. But it doesn’t.

In truth, I’m simply reaping the consequences of my youth. A few too many decibels, too many times, as I had the time of my life drumming for various amateur garage bands, college jazz ensembles, and even a semi-professional Eagles-like group.

John_Dolmayans_Drum_Kit__Super-Con_2007photo by r3v || cls on Flickr

 

Even with my present condition, I don’t think I would change those times of making music with friends and, a few times, playing before large crowds or recording an album. (Although, I think I would consider ear protection.) The truth is, all of the things I have experienced make up a part of the individual I’ve become. And, while I wish that I was different in some ways, I’ve come to see that God will use me as I am and where I am. There’s a simple beauty and strength to that.

In this series, I’ve been writing about overcoming our feelings of inadequacy and insignificance in the face of great — bigger than us — challenges. Because the truth is, God can employ whatever we have and are willing to give to make a difference. Thus far, I have highlighted a few things that we can use, with God’s help, to bring good to the world around us. First, I suggested that we Create a Small Place in our hearts that will allow room for God to work. Next, I recommended that we Breathe a Small Prayer to invite Him into that space.

The third step in moving from small things to great things is, once we’ve created a space and invited a higher power to share it with us, to allow ourselves to hear, consider, and respond to the small answer that will certainly come.

So what does tinnitus have to do with hearing small answers? Quite simply, just as the incessant tone in my ears can mask my perception of quality sounds, the consequences and the baggage of my past can prevent me from grasping and appreciating the obvious opportunities and solutions that are right in front of me.

The key is intentionally opening ourselves to the answer. Just as I seek ways to compensate for my tinnitus, I must develop techniques for hearing small answers. The parallels are remarkable:

  • With practice, I can mentally suppress the noise that prevents me from hearing. That means, that I must first recognize my life experience for what it is and make room for other thoughts and perspectives.
  • I can expand my understanding by concentrating on the context of the situation and what I’m perceiving.
  • I can move closer to those I’m seeking to understand and allow their voices to become louder. I can step into their perspective.
  • I can kindly and gently seek clarification on those things I couldn’t quite grasp.
  • I can join those around me in restating that small answer and deciding what our next steps might look like as we pursue solutions.

Some times we mistakenly believe that small answers are no match for big problems. Yet, time and again, we see that the difference in an average person and a remarkable person is the small space they create in their hearts, the small prayers they make that invite a larger presence, and their willingness to consider the small answers that appear.

I hope you’ll join me in quieting the inner noises that prevent our hearing of small, but elegant, answers.