Reflections on Millennial Leaders Program, From Central America

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Picture by the very awesome and talented Jose Vasquez.

When I arrived in New York City to attend the Millennial Leaders Program (MLP) at Union Theological Seminary, this summer, I didn’t have any expectations. I was just humbled to be there because of the history and weight Union carried at the intersection of American spiritual and political life. The school is the leading source of social consciousness and justice teaching. To be there was an honor, even if it were for the summer leadership program.

There I was walking around New York, two weeks before I had to set out to Central America. Comparing locations now that I am here in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, is just extraordinary to think about. But I am here, and immersing myself fully, because of a conversation I happened to have while at MLP. (More on my (ad)Venture in Central America here.)

One thing that was on the forefront of my mind, before MLP, was this trip. I was developing an inexplicable anxiety about it. The way I described it to people was that

“I tried to construct barriers to prevent the trip, but each one of those barriers were removed. God wanted me to go to Central America this summer. I decided to listen. In that sense, I felt called to go. But the truth is I don’t know what to listen too. I don’t know what God wants from me on this trip. I don’t have excuses to not go, but all I have is anxiety building up, slowly. Its churning and rolling into its own sort of barrier. I wish that there was someway through this.”

I stopped thinking about the trip. Thats what was great about being in NYC, it allowed for the maddening crush of humanity to swallow me up whole. I accepted the fact that I was going. Regardless of the violence, the US State Department warnings, the news of the civil unrest I was getting in my news feed, my worry and/or anxiety about the trip didn’t stem from these factors but whatever it was, I had decided that weekend while roaming block to block down to Manhattan and then onto the Brooklyn Bridge, to just let it go. I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it, but being at MLP helped guide me to recognize and place my anxiety.

StarWarsShaikh_BrooklynBridge

Experiencing the Divine

I realize now that the internal slump I experienced was about the purpose of the trip, it just didn’t fit into my understanding of things. Gods’ ways weren’t making rational sense to me. In relations to my life path right now, where does the trip to Central America fit? That no answer came readily, and the fact that I hadn’t even come to clarify that this question was the source of my anxiety, was part of the frustration I was experiencing. At the time I hadn’t quite had the clarity to identify that question, not like I do now.

The trip deals with human rights, with globalization, with migration, with drug trafficking and politics of former banana republics, neoliberalism, and a host of other factors that are mind bogglingly complex. Many of these I studied while I was at UCSD doing my degree in International Studies. I had worked on the margins of globalization, migration, and directly with the American Muslim community in the United States dealing with the laws, policies, and acculturation.

Today, in our home base at the Catholic retreat center in Progresso, Honduras, we were asked in the group night and closing activity- where did we experience the Divine?

This really struck me, because while I was at MLP, I was advised to look for the Divine in Central America. In fact,  it was the very first night of the MLP, things were just getting underway. That night, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Rev. Traci Blackmon. She delivered this beautiful and inspiring opening guest lecture during our welcome dinner. This keynote actually deserves its own separate blogpost, however, I totally spaced out and did not record its entirety so can’t do something constructive with it.

Rev. Traci Blackmon, for those of you who don’t know her, is a Pastor at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, right next to Ferguson.  She also happened to be a full time nurse who took vacation time during the awakening of social consciousness there. After the fatal shooting of the unarmed Micheal Brown by the Ferguson Police officer, she took time off of her full time job to go straight to the heart of the movement, meeting with two-parent households, young professionals, single mothers and veterans living in the apartment area where Micheal Browns’ body lay for hours, unceremoniously left by the police.

Out there on the streets, she ministered to the young people protesting and built an interfaith movement to support the voices of the people in that area. Her efforts to organize the clergy brought about the Missouri Governor, Jay Nixon, Senator of Missouri Claire McKaskill, and the entire media contingent that had converged on Ferguson to cover the unrest to her clergy conversation. Blackmon continues to organzine her efforts via the web site PrayingWithOurFeet.org and the social media hashtag #PrayingWithOurFeet.

After her keynote, at Union’s MLP dinner, as things were wrapping up, I felt that she probably was the person to ask about my upcoming trip to Central America and how to make sense of it. I had a feeling that she just might be the person to direct me towards a means of properly jumping the hurdle that the internal slump was becoming. After all, she was trying to make sense of what her role in the #BlackLivesMatter movement was, as she candidly shared with us in her talk.

And I was getting to a point of desperation on how to handle not letting this feeling become a challenge that hinders my full participation on the trip, I had nothing to loose by asking her. I have become more conscience about these internal matters and have proactively tried to address them, so this was the opening to a conversation piqued by my inner curiosity to figure out what was going on.

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MLP Group photo with Rev. Blackmon by the very awesome and talented Jose Vasquez.

And boy did she have a response. Interestingly enough, Rev. Blackmon became, what I am considering as my first “Curiosity Conversation” when I asked her my first question, which was followed up with  rapid-fire questions for ten minutes, until I was told “other people were waiting.”

A Curiosity Conversation

Her response is something I typed up hastily afterwards.  While I was typing it, I remember feeling like I needed to yell out “Yes, why didn’t I think of this!”, thats how to-the-point her response was. Since then I have referred back to these notes on the trip, so I decided to share.

I keep using this as a reference point, a frame if you will, for my experiences here in Central America. I feel like thats the spirit of Union Seminary I carried with me here to Central America, and how fitting because its at Union that Liberation theology found a home in the United States! In that way, I hope to also provide the contents of our Curiosity Conversation here, as it may benefit others.

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Photo taken by the very awesome and talented Jose Vasquez.

Me: I don’t know what is calling me, or what God wants from me by having me participate in this trip? How do I make sense of this?

Rev. Blackmon: I went to Ghana while I was in seminary, the trip wasn’t sold as an evangelizing mission. We were told that it is called “A Trip to Find God in Ghana”, and an effort was made to emphasize the nature of the mission being to find God in the face of severe poverty, violence, and lack of resources or access to services as simple as bathrooms and basic needs of food. You need to go look for God. Stop worrying about all the other stuff, look for your connection to the Divine, and God will sort everything else out for you. That is what having Faith is all about.

Me: You speak about the feelings in the young folks in Ferguson. You know the feeling of oppression and lack of change and what it does to a community. How do you keep hope in the face of continued, persistent oppression and lack of change? 

Rev. Blackmon: People hear the stories and connect with people, its a human characteristic that is exemplified in the stories of the Prophets. We connect to the story of a young David, and to Moses’s struggle with the Pharaoh. When you go into situations like this you find that people have where you would find no hope. In this circumstance hope is their firm belief in the Divine. So when you go into areas of severe poverty don’t go looking for hope, or looking for answers, or wanting to assist people- you’ll find that every corner you turn, but you won’t get hopeful, you won’t feel fulfillment, you won’t effect change. So connect with people, try to put yourself in their shoes and their lived experiences will make sense, from that you can figure out what to do, but don’t go looking for hope there.

Don’t look down on these people, their circumstances, or feel they are in dire circumstances. These people haven’t lost their collective potential, they understand community, struggle, and the Divine in ways that we can’t begin to comprehend because our lived experiences are so drastically different. We bring something to the table, however, its not pity, its not handouts, its not hope. Whatever you’re being asked to bring, God is going to only reveal it to you when you embrace and engage in searching for him. So don’t hide, don’t be scared by this calling, and don’t think you don’t have something to offer.

Me: How do I know that I am looking for God, I mean what does “looking for God”, what does that look like?

Rev. Blackmon: No, you need to go looking for God, not physically, but spiritually. The journey there is physical, but when you get there the spiritual part of the journey is being open to God’s presence and not letting things hold you down- worry, anxiety, anger, frustration- these are all feelings that will lead you in all sorts of directions. When you go looking for God, God will find you. When you walk toward God, He works in divine ways to provide you with hope, the right questions and the ability to bring about change. This is what you need to do when you go to Central America, when you walk around New York, and back in your community. So its not just that you go looking for God in Central America, but you keep this mind-frame, this way of looking for God as a lifestyle. Look for God and let him work his miracles through your search for the Divine.

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