‘Learn from history, maintain your mystery, take your victory.’ (Amit Kalantri)
Sometimes, we need to look back to look forward and the New Year can present us with a special opportunity to do just that. We could think of this as analogous to an annual performance review, where we pause for a moment and take stock of progress and learning so far before moving on. At a personal level, I’ve been thinking and writing quite a lot recently about Kairos moments in my own life that have, in retrospect, often proved pivotal. These experiences carry a spiritual quality and significance for me that both transcend the temporal and reveal a deeper sense of meaning.
An instance comes to mind when, 3 days into a leadership role in a new organisation (to me), my line-manager called me into his office to confess, in deep disappointment, that funding for (a) a new leadership coaching programme and (b) a new management development programme, both of which were to lay in my area of responsibility, had been slashed as part of broader financial cuts. He apologised that, as a consequence, these flagship initiatives could no longer go ahead. I could see a look of anxiety on his face wondering, I imagine, how I might react to this bombshell news.
I prayed silently then responded in a spirit of curiosity that, if these initiatives were priority, I’d just need to find a different way to achieve them. I thanked him for being open, prayed, then placed an invitation on LinkedIn, asking if anyone would like to offer pro bono coaching support for leaders in a national UK charity. Within 10 days, 180+ people had responded to offer their services. I also prayed and asked around if anyone would be willing to run a pro bono management development programme. A prestigious agency responded and ran an annual programme for us for 4 years running.
I’m reflecting on why this experience came to mind for me now. It happened 10 years ago yet still feels so profoundly resonant as we approach the New Year. The first lesson for me is that it’s not all about me. God is capable of doing far more than I can ask or imagine. The second is the rich relational resourcefulness of networks, the kindness of so many people who are willing to offer themselves in heartfelt service when offered meaningful opportunities to do so. The third is the power of invitation, not expectation, that draws people freely into co-creative partnership to do something amazing.
'The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved.' (Victor Hugo)
Bursting with excitement would be an understatement. These poor Filipino children today know that something very special is about to happen, but neither they nor their families know what it will be. Living in a very poor community that exists at subsistence level in a cemetery, they don’t normally expect to be seen, let alone be treated to gifts.
When Jasmin, her daughter and her small team of helpers appear, the whole community goes wild. Supported by friends in the UK and Germany, every one of the 127 children receives a mattress to sleep on. Christmas gifts and food parcels are distributed too. With wide smiles of joy, the whole community springs spontaneously into song and dance.
God is amazing. Love in action. We can be hope.
Today is a dark day. The wind and rain outside reflect the deep, dark feeling inside. One of the women who featured in small things, the video, in July…has died. She didn’t die from an accident or a serious illness. She died because she is poor. She loved to help others and brought joy to the lives of those who live on the far edge of hope. That is her tribute – her simple, beautiful legacy.
With no shoes to wear, she got a small cut on her foot. Not wanting to burden her family with the cost of help that they too could ill afford, she hid it from them and didn't say anything. She wrapped a makeshift bandage around it, but couldn’t keep it clean. With untreated diabetes, no sanitation and being too poor to access doctors, hospitals or medication, the wound festered and killed her.
I hate that the poor are so vulnerable. And I’m trying to remind myself: we can be hope.
‘Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.’ (Albert Einstein)
If you ever read David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade, you’ll get this. Two weeks ago, a song came to mind that I had written then recorded as a duet with a Christian friend, Maggie, some 37 years ago. Life moved on and Maggie and I hadn’t spoken since. In fact, I had completely forgotten ever having written and recorded that and other songs. Wondering what this mysterious prompt might mean, I rummaged through a box of old items and, to my immense relief, found a cassette with a hand-written label, ‘Niksongs’, on the side.
Filled with excitement, I searched online to find some way of copying the cassette to USB so that I could listen to it on my laptop. I found a device designed for that purpose and tried it in eager anticipation but, unfortunately, it didn’t work. Whilst pondering today what to do next, my phone pinged. A message from…Maggie. What?!! Living in Sri Lanka now, she had just found a copy of that very same cassette and was in process of working out how to convert it too – and that was her cue to contact me now. Pure coincidence? I don’t believe so. You decide.
‘What is the human being? In our anti-metaphysical age, we regard the question as having little importance. It is, however, the most crucial of all.’ (Felipe M. De Leon)
A good friend in the Philippines – St. Paul as I affectionately call him because of his dedication to the Jesus and the poor – works with student educators, teachers of the future. Today, he supported his students to create their own art exhibition as a way of exploring the relationship between art and humanities. It’s a topic that interests me too. I’ve travelled and worked in many different countries in the world but I’ve never encountered a culture as vibrantly and spontaneously artistic and creative as the Philippines. Music, dance and colour are everywhere, and with such natural richness of talent.
I find myself wondering – why is this? By stark contrast, in terms of art, my own part of the world can appear and feel quite cerebral, introverted and restrained. (I notice that even using the word ‘feel’ in that sentence can feel edgy and a bit risky in my context.) St, Paul’s students, like so many others I’ve had the great privilege of encountering in the Philippines, inspire me by their passion, energy and uninhibited emotional expression. They danced for me on my birthday even though I’ve never met them before, rather than offering me a simple written greeting. They bring the ordinary things of life to life.
In ‘Life as Art’, Felipe M. De Leon makes similar observations and explores cultural and contextual conditions that contribute to this gift-phenomenon. In Filipino society, in which, ‘a person learns to develop an expanded sense of self – a sphere of being which includes not only his (or her) individual self but encompasses immediate family, relatives, friends…closeness to others allows (one) to be more trusting, open and freely expressive. Arts and crafts are richest, most creative and diverse in communal cultures. Food is tastier, speech more melodic and things of everyday life more colourful.’
De Leon goes on to comment on other distinctive dimensions of Filipino culture and spirituality that also play a part. Yet there’s something about the relational dimension that resonates very powerfully with me. I notice when I work with people and groups that, if they feel genuinely loved, valued and involved, they often find themselves at their most free, experimental and creative too. Conversely, if they feel isolated, undervalued or excluded, they are more likely to become defended, closed-in or shut-down. These amazing Filipino students have a lot to teach the Western world, and me…and I’m still learning.
‘The arrival of Jesus in our lives is not just something that happened 2000 years ago. It still happens now.’ (Steve Sutton)
20,000+ people gathered in London to demonstrate against horrific human rights abuses in El Salvador. A friend, Paul, and I travelled down by coach from the North East of England wearing our protest-style combat jackets and keen to add our own voices to the crowd. A large number of people were assembling in Hyde Park, the starting place, with various organisers moving among us to arrange the procession. Suddenly, Paul and I were approached by the leaders to carry a large banner at the very front of the march. We were astonished that, out of so many thousands of protestors, they chose us.
God chose us. We were and are nobodies, yet as a new follower of Jesus at age 21, it felt like Jesus was walking with us, among us. Spotters on embassy rooftops monitored and took photos through long camera lenses. Our image appeared on the front cover of a well-known human rights magazine. On arriving at Trafalgar Square, the police mysteriously allowed only Paul and me through the cordon to sit at the foot of the speakers’ platform. 2 years later, I was chosen to meet the main speaker at a secret rendezvous in a basement flat in Islington, but I could never have imagined that at the time.
On moving to London a few months later, I attended a vigil at St James’ Church, known for its firm stance on behalf of the poor and oppressed in the world. We were there to mark the inspiring life yet brutal assassination of radical follower of Jesus, Archbishop Oscar Romero. By God’s mysterious design, I discovered that I was sitting beside the Nicaraguan ambassador. At the end of the service, a Spanish nun, passionate follower of Jesus and human rights activist chose me to come forward, a lone stranger, to have my photo taken with Salvadorean refugees. She and I became life-long friends.
Some 40 years later now, I’ve had the humbling privilege of witnessing and experiencing so many more such miracles than I could ever count or recount. I don’t know or understand why God chooses us but I’m glad and grateful that he does. When he does, it feels to me like a Divine voice that calls out from within and beyond, that we hear and experience as a realisation. Hitherto 'coincidence' takes on a deeper significance. As we approach this Christmas with all that it holds for us and the world, the arrival of Jesus in our lives is not just something that happened 2000 years ago. It still happens now.
‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.’ (Margaret Mead)
‘520,000,000,000’. I wrote the number slowly…and…deliberately across the whiteboard at the front of the class. The students looked on, intrigued. I asked, ‘Who can guess what this number means?’ The playful ones quickly put their hands up: ‘The population of the world?’ ‘The distance to the moon?’ I responded, ‘The number of Pesos (= US $8 billion) that people across the world spend on skin-whitening products in one year.’ The room was filled with looks and sounds of astonishment now. The students had considered this as a private personal-relational issue rather than a global economic one.
This was part of a 3-day workshop for student teachers and social workers – that is, key influencers for the future – in the Philippines. The first time I had arrived in the country, I had been naively taken aback when one of the people who greeted me apologised for their skin colour. My Filipina co-facilitator explained that this is a common phenomenon, where people evaluate themselves and are evaluated by others for how dark or light their skin is. The students went on to share heart-breaking personal testimonies of how far this has impacted their lives, prospects and sense of worth.
They were very surprised to hear how much money, by contrast, people in wealthy countries spend on products, treatments and trips abroad to darken their skin. I took some skin-tanning lotion with me from the UK to show them – and they could hardly believe their eyes. We went on to consider the deep cultural drivers and diverse vested interests that lay behind the skin-whitening industry. The lively debate that ensued generated novel campaign ideas to address stakeholders (e.g. manufacturers; marketers; retailers; consumers), and its damaging spiritual, psychosocial and financial effects.
‘If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you are a comrade of mine.’ (Ernesto Che Guevara)
It looked like a scene from Dante’s inferno. Students from a very poor barangay (community) in the Philippines arrived home this week… Delete, rewind: arrived at where their makeshift homes had been until this week, to see them engulfed in a blaze of fire and billowing with thick, black smoke. The poor have no land rights, no insurance and no savings to fall back on. For a moment, it felt like their lives, as well as their homes, had gone up in flames.
On hearing of this, one of their tutors, Jasmin, raced to provide them with emergency relief. She offered them a safe place to sleep in her own home, yet they refused – preferring to stay with their families in the midst of the charred and burned-out remains. On receiving her gift of food supplies, they immediately shared it with their extended families and with their neighbours who had lost all too. The next day, their fellow students rallied around in support.
Rumours spread quickly that corrupt officials were behind the disaster as a way of driving the poor off the land to sell it to rich property developers – in exchange for a substantial bribe. Being sited at a prime seaside location, and being told immediately by the local Mayor that they would not be allowed to return, added sinister credence to these fears. The barangay residents have no access to justice, yet say they have Jesus as their advocate and hope.
Life is hard-edged for the poor. We, too, can be hope.
‘There are moments in history when a door for massive change opens, and great revolutions for good or evil spring up in the vacuum created by these openings. In these divine moments key men and women and even entire generations risk everything to become the hinge of history, the pivotal point that determines which way the door will swing.’ (Lou Engle)
Some have asked, ‘What happened next..?’ after I shared some early experiences in my previous blog, ‘Against the grain’. Having recently become a follower of Jesus and a left-wing social-political activist, my first action back in the workplace was to tear down the explicit pornographic posters that totally covered the workshop walls. (To understand the impact of this, the shop floor of such industry at the time was a heavily male-dominated environment. In fact, there was only 1 female apprentice in my year of around 80. Against this backdrop, I imagined I would get lynched for this act.) When my work mates saw what I had done, however, they just asked in dismay, ‘Why have you done this?’ I replied simply and assertively that the posters were demeaning to women. Nobody spoke a word.
Next, I created a petition to reform the trade union. I used every lunch break to travel to different industrial plant locations to invite colleagues to sign it. Almost everyone said they agreed with what I was doing and advocating. At the same time, however, many explained they felt afraid to sign it in case the union retaliated by dismissing them from membership. They therefore signed with disguised names that were barely legible. On learning of what I was doing, the local shop steward, as official representative for the union, demanded that I give him the petition. I refused and he became angry, warning me sternly that I was ‘playing with fire’. On handing the final petition to the site convenor, the highest trade union representative for that region, he too reacted with predictable outrage.
I didn’t wait to be dismissed or sacked. I sensed God was calling me in a new direction so I handed in my resignation, 3 months before I was due to complete my 5 years of studies there, and moved to London instead to work as a Community Service Volunteer. On just £12 a week, my family and friends thought I had gone crazy or joined a cult. In this role, however, I worked alongside a radical Marxist community development worker as part of an innovative social work team and, in my spare time, as a volunteer with local Central American political and human rights organisations. This was a decisive turning point in my life and I have never looked back for a moment with regret for that decision. When I completed this assignment, I hitch-hiked to the Middle East to work in a hospital for the poor.
But that’s another story…
‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less travelled by.’ (Robert Frost)
It was in a dark, cigarette smoke-filled pub one night. The trade union reps sat behind a long wooden table, cluttered with half-full beer glasses. We about-to-graduate apprentices sat opposite, waiting to be called forward. (It was in the days of closed shop when qualified trades people could only be employed if they held union membership). At the time, I supported the value of trade unions in principle, yet felt dismayed and disillusioned by the corruption that this source of power had created. I noticed my colleagues often lived in fear of the union rather than represented by it. If you said or did something that challenged or upset union leaders, you risked losing your union card and therefore your job.
One by one, my fellow apprentices stepped up to the table. ‘Raise your right hand. Do you swear to abide by the rules of the trade union?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘OK, go and sit down.' My turn came. ‘Do you swear…?’ ‘No’, I replied. ‘I have no idea what the rules of the trade union are.’ The panel looked bemused. ‘You really want to read the whole rule book before you agree?’ ‘Yes’, I replied. The shop steward thrust a copy into my hands then ejected me forcefully from the meeting. ‘Wait outside until we call you back in.’ I skimmed through the book then, on return, insisted I was exempted from default political party contributions, as was my right according to the rules. They looked intensely frustrated but had to consent.
I don’t think such encounters changed the trade union, but they did change me. Some months later, I was sent on a 2-week residential apprentices' programme that aimed to stimulate personal leadership qualities. I challenged the senior managers there with whom, providentially, I had opportunity to speak. ‘Why invest in this programme when the prevailing management behaviour in the workplace is so autocratic? We need to change culture, not just individuals’. They looked deeply uncomfortable yet I held my ground. (They had, after all, encouraged personal leadership). At the formal dinner of the final evening, they invited me to sit at the top table alongside the most senior leader for that region.
I was learning to navigate my way through power structures and systems and to exercise personal and political agency.
[See also: Pivotal points]
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