Monthly Archives: February 2014

Standing Up For What Is Right

stand-up-for-what-is-right

On one of my trips back home to Zambia, I had gone into the city to buy some African wood carvings and paintings for friends and for my apartment back in the United States. After I was done shopping, I made my way to a bus station. A man, a little older than me, was heading in the same direction a few feet in front of me.  There was a group of young boys between seven and thirteen ahead us, begging on the street. They were totally ignored by people passing by. One of the boys went to the man and asked for money to buy food. The boy looked dirty and hungry. The man grabbed the boy’s head and pushed him to the ground. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I reached in my pocket for some change and handed it to the boy and continued to walk behind the man. I felt the urge to say something to him, but did not know how he would respond.

We walked a few blocks without any incident. My anger was growing. I had to say something. He stopped at one of the street vendor’s shops to buy himself a snack, and I gathered enough courage to talk to him. I politely asked him why he pushed the boy away. He responded, “Which boy?” His question made me even angrier. I couldn’t believe he had already forgotten what he did a few blocks away, or maybe he was trying to play dumb. I reminded him where the incident had occurred of which his response was, “Those Street kids are a problem; we had helped a few at our church, and one of them ended up stealing church property. These kids choose to be on the street, and they are nothing but trouble.”  I tried to plead the boy’s case. He really needed help but got shoved in the face instead, which was unnecessary. He told me he didn’t want to talk about it anymore and left.  I watched him walk away and disappear in the crowd. And this guy was supposed to a Christian?

I bought some food and made my way back to the spot where I saw the boys, but could not find them. I waited a few minutes to see if they would come back, but they had already moved on. What if those boys were angels in disguised?

The incident inspired me to write a song called “Reach Out” about a little boy and little girl who were pushed away by the very people who are supposed to help them out. Jesus taught a lot on taking care of the little children; the most vulnerable and defenseless; the least of these.  The church is not only a place of worship, but a place where the sick, the helpless, the hurt, the disillusioned, the fatherless should find refuge and healing. It’s a place where everyone should feel welcomed and loved, and should not feel like an outcast.

Unfortunately the church has become more of a country club where if you don’t share the same political views or wear certain clothes or look a certain way, you are not welcomed. It has become a place of hypocrisy and condemnation. We care more about the color of carpet than our neighbor next door.

We are faced with situations where we see injustice, corruption, abuse, and hatred, but are too fearful to stand up for what is right because of what others might think. For instance, a little church out of Topeka, Kansas became infamous for going to funerals of servicemen to protest for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The forty member church believed the death of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan was the result of America’s tolerance for homosexuality. The church’s mission was to show up at funerals unannounced picketing, holding hate signs.  I can’t imagine how families of the deceased felt seeing hateful signs that said: “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.  God Hates America. Jews Killed Jesus. God Hates Jews. God Hates Fags. Fags Doom Nations.” Wow! A time of mourning for a loved one turned into a nightmare. No one stood up to counter their hatred until 2000 bikers created a human barrier to stop their plans to picket at a staff sergeant’s funeral in Hinesville, Georgia.  In recent years, they have been met with counter protest which has derailed their hateful mission.

I have always cringed when people of faith spread hatred in the name of God. As a Christian, churches like Westboro or any other supposedly religious organizations who have preached hatred does not represent my religious belief and what I know about Jesus’ teaching. The teachings of Jesus were centered on love: For God so loved the world; love your neighbor as you love yourself; love your enemies; do not judge, and the list goes on.  Anything that is preached contrary to what Jesus said is anti-Christ.  If we do not stand up to condemn injustice and hatred towards people who do not have the same belief or political values as we do; people who have been bullied to the point of committing suicide because of their lifestyle; people who have been abused and taken advantage of, we are simply endorsing the hatred, the abuse, the bullying, and the injustice.

Unfortunately, the media focuses more on stories that encourage division and hatred, but there are people who stand up for justice and speak out in the face of evil. A picture surfaced on the internet of people picketing at a high school holding signs with hateful and derogatory words.  Some motorists were even honking showing their support as they passed by. No one stood up against their hatred until a young boy wrote a small sign with words, “God Does Not Hate Anyone” and stood in front of one of the signs. The picture of the boy was all over the internet. It took a lot of courage to do that. Standing up for what is right can be costly at times. It can mean rejection, being ridiculed, and even risking our  lives. People like Abraham Lincoln  and Martin Luther King Jr. did stand up for what was right and paid the ultimate price.

Are we willing to stand up for what is right? Going outside of our comfort zone to help our neighbor?  What we say or do can make a difference. If we all loved our neighbor, the world would be a better place.

365 Days of Love

365-days-of-loveWhat do we cherish the most?

This last week before Valentine’s Day, I was thinking of what I should get my wife.  Last year I had gotten her flowers, but this year, I needed to up my game a little. I usually get off work at 5 p.m. and make the 40 minute drive home in time for dinner. I needed to find an excuse if I show up home late from work, but could not find one. Lo and behold, pastor called a special leaders’ meeting, and it was a day before Valentine’s–perfect timing. An hour and half will be more than enough for me to find the perfect gift for her.  I drove to the store Thursday after work and found a mad dash of people, all looking for gifts for their loved ones. I thought a day before Valentine’s wouldn’t be as bad, but I was wrong. The front shelves were covered with teddy bears, flowers, cards and all kinds of Valentine’s Day gifts. I walked to the card section of the store, but the aisles were full of people. My head was spinning, trying to figure out what I would get my wife.  I walked to the back of the store to gather my thoughts.

Focus, James, focus.

This should not be this hard. I normally don’t go shopping, and if I do, I usually have a list of things I will get, and will be in and out of the store in no time. This time I didn’t have a clue what I was going to get her, but I knew it was going to be something other than flowers. I walked around for at least 40 minutes before I found myself in the fresh produce section. What was I doing there? I was supposed to be finding something for my wife. How romantic would it be for me to come home to my wife with lettuce and collard greens for a gift? I could have pulled it off if I told her that I was going to be making her favorite Zambian dish, but I couldn’t hide the food until the next day. Time was closing in on me. I needed to find something quick and head out of the store in time for the meeting.

Then it hit me. What am I doing? Is this the only time of the year I have to show my wife that I really love her? I have 365 days to be creative and do something special for her. Yet I found myself scrambling to get something she might not even like. Why do we even celebrate Valentine’s Day in the first place? How did it even come about?

I have celebrated Valentine’s with my wife for years,  but never have I really known how the day came to be associated with romantic love until this past week. I pulled out my phone and searched Google for information about its origin.

Valentine’s Day started as a religious celebration of one or more early Christian saints named Valentinus. Valentinus is a Roman masculine name which derived from the Latin word “valens” which means “healthy, strong”.  So the word doesn’t even mean love. Several stories surfaced about different martyrs sharing a similar name centered on February 14. One of the famous stories was that of St. Valentine of Rome who believed to have been imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were not allowed to marry and for preaching to Christians, who were persecuted by the Roman Empire. Legend has it that during his time in prison, he healed the daughter of his jailer, Asterius. An embellished story states that before he was executed, he wrote a letter to Asterius and signed it “Your Valentine” as a farewell.

It wasn’t until the High Middle Ages when the day was first associated with romantic love and the tradition of courtly love flourished. In England during the 18th century, the day had evolved to an occasion were lovers showed their love for each other by giving flowers and sending handwritten cards. During the 19th century, the handwritten cards had given way to the commercialized mass produced ones.

How a day of celebration for religious martyrs came to be associated with romantic love for couples is anybody’s guess. Don’t get me wrong, I like to get away and do something special for my wife. I enjoy getting her flowers, chocolate, and having a romantic dinner. There is nothing wrong with getting each other expensive gifts; we can’t really put a price tag on love. It is the commercialization of days like Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas that gets me. Our culture makes us think we need certain things such as manicure, pedicures, flowers, date nights, and expensive jewelry. This creates in us certain expectation of ourselves, of people, and of life in general, and when these so called needs aren’t met, we become disappointed and disillusioned, sometimes creating division among our loved ones.

Millions of dollars are spent by companies creating TV, internet and billboard Ads that tells us we cannot live without certain things, and that we deserve more stuff. We have bought into the lie that says you are worth more than what you have now; you deserve better. And the flip side to that is if you don’t have this stuff, then you don’t have value. We are constantly bombarded with the message that you can only find happiness in gathering more stuff. If our love for each other was measured by material things we get on holidays such as Valentine’s, then the absence of these things would mean that we are not loved. When we put more emphasis on stuff, we send a wrong message to people; a message that says you are worth only as the things you receive. There were a lot of relationships that started this last Valentine’s, but there was also heartbreak that came from unfulfilled expectations. I hear things like we broke up because “she doesn’t do things she used to do anymore” or “he used to buy me flowers and take me out every Valentine’s but he stopped; I’ve finally had it.” Of course, there are many other underlying issues that lead to couples breaking up.

Love is more than the things we get, and it does not change based on how we feel. Love is intentional and not an afterthought. We have 364 other days out of the year to do something special for our loved ones. Showing love does not have to involve buying expensive gifts, but could be as simple as spending time together, cooking a special meal for a loved one, or going for an evening walk. It’s the little acts of love we do throughout the year that makes a big difference. When we take the time to stop and think about our loved ones regularly, we might discover that what they want the most is not the stuff we get them, but simply our presence. An expression of love that says: through it all, I am standing by your side. I will always love you expecting nothing in return–sacrificial love.

So what’s your take on Valentine’s Day?

It’s Never Too Late

never-too-lateDreams can be reborn – sometimes a little different than expected.

When I was about 7 years old, I had a bad allergic reaction to some food I ate and my skin was breaking out with a rash. My mom took me to a hospital some four miles away from our home. While at the hospital, I saw a lot of children suffering. They were scattered with their parents all over the floor with different types of ailments, all waiting to see a doctor.  After a long time waiting in line, I was finally in the doctor’s office.  On the way out through the hallway, I saw a lady holding a baby, weeping uncontrollably. I asked mom why the lady was crying, and she told me that her baby had just died. I remember feeling very sad. We walked home from the hospital with the picture of a crying mother holding her deceased child still in my head. I had never seen that much pain and suffering all in one place.  Funerals and diseases were not new to Kalingalinga. I had seen children die from preventable diseases almost every week. What I saw that day was different; so many children afflicted with pain and death. I wished God had given me super healing powers to heal the sick children all over the world.  I hated going to hospitals from that point on.

My desire of becoming a doctor grew. I figured that would be the only way I could help people who are suffering with illnesses.  How can this huge dream be accomplished in such a place as Kalingalinga?  Who will pay for medical school? My dad’s $40 per month income? It would have to take a miracle.

In my last two blogs the Rain Maker and The Timeline, I shared a little bit about my journey, the challenges I faced growing up, and how mom’s old sewing machine literally became a miracle that helped us through the toughest times. With me working about 10 hours a day making clothes and also taking care of the family, it was impossible for me to go to school. Children my age are supposed to be in high school, not taking care of their families. I had kissed school goodbye; the dream of traveling the world and becoming a doctor was shattered. I had no desire to return to school. I lost my childhood. Even with an opportunity to tour the United States, singing in schools later on, the desire to go back to school was never rekindled. The thought of having to take subjects such as algebra, physics, and chemistry made me cringe. I wouldn’t know where to start.

When the vocal group traveled to different schools across forty states, we encouraged students to work hard and stay in school. We had one simple message, “Do not let your circumstance dictate your future; with a dream, education, and self determination, you can achieve whatever you desire in life.” We had sung in some of the toughest schools in the inner cities, from Dallas, Texas all the way to Cleveland, Ohio. We shared with students that nothing can stop them from achieving their goals here in America.  My mission in life was to help others accomplish their dreams. I figured at least part of my dream to travel the world had been fulfilled and nothing more.  I was pretty much content with where I was. I did not want to put myself in a stressful situation where I could get into depression again.

Several years had passed. Our road manager encouraged us to enroll for classes at a local GED center. I told him it was too late for me to get into school. I wasn’t even sure what I would study if I ever went to college. He told me not to worry about anything but focus on getting my GED out of the way. After his constant nudging, I enrolled in some GED classes, and a month later I had taken a GED mock exam and passed. I was encouraged with the result and saw a glimmer of hope. Few weeks later, I took the actual exam and passed it. My desire to go back to school was rekindled.

During our tours, we had met a family doctor in Ennis, Texas where we went for our medical checkups. He and his wife would invite the group to visit their home often. At the end of our final tour, they sponsored me and three of my friends to attend school at a junior college. My first semester was scary; I did not know what I was going to study. The last time I was in school was in the seventh grade.  I decided to go for general studies until I could figure out my course of study.

I enrolled in a music class, a basic computer course, and was involved with couple of the college choirs. In my first computer class session, I found myself sitting in front of a computer for the first time. I always had a curious mind. When I was growing up, I would take things apart to learn how they were put together. I had learned how to make clothes by taking apart my old pants and shirt from the seams. I even got in trouble one time when I opened my dad’s radio to see what was talking inside.  Now, I wanted to know what makes a computer work.  After my class, I had found my course of study – I would become a computer engineer. I wanted to learn how to design computer systems.

Before my second semester, I had consulted with my academic adviser to select the classes I need to take towards my degree.  All the classes I had dreaded taking were on my schedule. I would start out the second semester with college algebra, university physics, a programming class, and of course my two choir classes, and a music class. I felt intimidated, but I was determined to work hard. My first class was a programming class in the morning. During class, the instructor had handed out a computer code written on a piece of paper. It all looked gibberish to me.  I had trouble understanding what he was saying and had asked him to repeat what he had just said. He looked at me and told me that if I can’t understand the concept of this basic computer program, then I will never be a computer programmer.  I couldn’t believe what he had said right in front of the whole class. I grew up listening to the little voices that said “You will never amount to anything. Kalingalinga is a dead end place. Nothing good can come out of Kalingalinga. There is no way out.” Little did he know that he had just given me ammunition to work hard; I was not going to give up.  I decided to change my major that day, and I would become a computer programmer instead.

In the coming semesters, I took on even harder courses; Calculus 1, 2, and 3; University Physics 1 and 2, and Differential Equations. Everything was hard to say the least, but nothing was going to stop me. After I graduated with my associate degree, I challenged myself even further. I went on to a four year university to get a degree in computer science. Before I walked the stage to receive my degree, I looked back at the mountains I had to climb; the sleepless nights I spent studying for exams. What a journey; a roller coaster ride. I have finally reached the summit. I am done. I am a computer programmer.

Dreams can be reborn. What about my friend Daniel? He also had many challenges as much as I had growing up in Kalingalinga. His story is that of perseverance and determination.  He went on to medical school and is currently a licensed general surgeon near Cleveland, Ohio. My circumstances took me on a different path; a path that birthed something even greater than I had anticipated; a passion for children — a passion that helped build a school for nearly three hundred underprivileged children in Africa.

What are some of the challenges you faced growing up? What motivated you to move forward?

The Timeline

the-timelineHow the past can make or break us.

Years back, McDonald had put out a really neat commercial. In the commercial, there were two boxers. One of them was getting hammered and was about give up when his coach reminded him of something that happened in the past. The coach told him, “Remember when you were six, and we took you to McDonald’s for your birthday? All the kids? All the fun? All for you, son? Remember when someone stole your fries and we never found out who? It was him. ”  Even though the McDonald commercial was fictional, it reminded me of how the past can either motivate us to do something extraordinary or cause us to be paralyzed by fear and shame.

A timeline by definition is a graphical representation of passage of time. Using a timeline, we can go back in history and look at the chain of events that shaped our world, good or bad – slavery, wars, famine, natural disasters and of course, some of the great inventions of our time, such as electricity, automobiles, airplanes, computers, and the list goes on. These things of the past have greatly impacted and changed our lives forever.

On a personal level, the things we have experienced shapes who we are and how we do things. Things like marriage, parenting, divorce, loss, disappointment, success, abuse, etc. Sometimes it seems that the negative experiences impact us the most. There are two different types of negative experiences. Ones we have no control over and ones that derive from our choices. It all comes down to how we handle it. Whether we learn from it or make the same choices expecting different results yet find ourselves facing the same consequences. We can chose to let it strengthen us or embitter us.

In my last blog post, The Rainmakers, I highlighted a little about the people who made a difference in my life; people who helped me to be who I am today. I also talked a little bit about my two young sisters, Maria and Chuma.  In times when I felt like giving up; when I felt that there was no way out, my sisters had become a source of strength. I did not want to fail for their sake. They became an inspiration for me to be innovative and to find ways of providing food and shelter for the family. I became like a mother and father to them.

When the time came for me to travel internationally with the vocal group, it was hard for me to leave my two young sisters behind. I was scared for their lives and what might happen to them in my absence. As the plane was getting ready to take off, I took one last look at the crowd standing at the balcony of the airport waving their goodbyes. My sisters were not waving, but instead they had covered their faces, weeping. I knew it had to be painful for them to see someone who took care of them leave. The images of seeing them cry at the airport burned in my head. I doubted myself, and I had all these unanswered questions. Am I making the right decision?

Our trip to Moscow was very uneventful. My heart and mind was still back home. I wondered how my sisters were doing. Did they have food for the day? Would they make it without me? I had a hard time eating, I had lost my appetite. I felt guilty and that God would punish me for being selfish. If I loved my sisters so much, why did I leave them behind? I did not only provide food and shelter for them, but I was also their security. Kalingalinga was still a very dangerous place to live.

When we got to Russia, we were told that our flight to New York had already left and it would be three days before we could catch another one. To make matters worse, we met a guy at the airport who had missed a flight. He told us he had been at the airport for several weeks and that the Russian government would not give him a visa to leave the airport and find a hotel. Since I was already filled with guilt, missing our flight was an indication that God had already started to punish me.

The Russian airline had petitioned for a three day visa and had put us in a hotel. They also provided meals for us. We had less than $100 as emergency money. Our road manager was already making his long drive to meet us in New York from Texas. We needed to inform him that we are not going to make it in time. My friend Daniel and I had gone into downtown Moscow to find a place where we could make an international call to the United States. We were told the charge will be about $80 to make a 5 minute call. Since we had about $95, we figured that would be enough money to make the call. After we made the call, we gave the attendant $80, but we were told they didn’t accept dollars, only Russian money. He confiscated our passports until we could pay for the phone call. After we converted the $95 next door, we came to learn that the Russian money was not enough to cover the call. We went back to the hotel without our passports, helpless and fearful of what would happen next. How would we ever leave Moscow?

That evening, we went up to the 9th floor of the hotel to lounge and have a pity party. People from different countries gathered for some coffee and fellowship. We started to sing softly in the corner, providing entertainment for the hotel guests. A man from Italy jokingly offered to be our music manager. He took off his hat and passed it around. People started to put money in the hat for the group. The guests got excited and danced around the room with us, but then the Russian police came and stopped the festivities. We raised more than $100 that evening and were able to pay the rest of the phone bill and got our passports back in time for our flight.

After about three months in the United States, my guilt worsened. I became depressed. I would not sleep. Every night while in bed, my mind would play all the negative things that had happened in my life. The worry I had for my sisters; the condemnation for leaving them. I couldn’t  shake the guilt. How could I be so defeated in the land of opportunities? Life is supposed to be better here. It seemed like my past was once again showing its ugly face with a vengeance.

It wasn’t  until a year later when I realized that no matter what I did, all my life experiences would remain on my timeline. I could either accept my past or live in denial for the rest of my life. For the first time, I was able to grieve my mother’s death. For so many years I had lived in denial. I had become numb to pain. I did not want to show any emotions. I thought showing emotions was a sign of weakness. But this time, I had made a choice. I would not allow my past to dictate what I would become.

I often hear people say “just move on” or “life goes on” when others have experienced disappointment or loss. But the stuff is still on the timeline. That painful, hurtful moment will always be there, a part of you. You can’t just move on. Avoiding it doesn’t  help. If we deny it, ignore it, bury it, we will not be able to heal. Instead of becoming stronger, we allow it to hinder us.

We need to accept our past and stop fighting it. Take time to heal. No amount of beating ourselves over the head will change it. All that is, is wasted energy and time. The past is but a memory of which we do not have any control over, but we have control of what we do in the now, the impact we can have in the lives around us and beyond.