The Journey

the-journey

One of my favorite animated movies is Ratatouille, a movie about a rat and a clumsy orphan boy. In the movie, Remy the rat dreamed to be a chef someday like his idol Auguste Gusteau, but all odds were against him—a detestable little rat. Remy became separated from his family and started to live in the sewer pipes in Paris, France while he scrambled to find food.  He eventually found himself at the skylight overlooking the great chef Gusteau’s restaurant.

Remy saw a young man named Alfredo who got hired as a garbage collector spill a pot of soup and was trying to recreate it with disastrous outcome. Remy came to the rescue and fixed the soup to perfection. Alfredo caught Remy cooking and was confronted by the restaurant owner. While the restaurant owner was yelling at Alfredo for spilling the soup, Remy’s soup got accidentally served and became a huge success. Skinner the restaurant owner orders Alfredo to kill the rat, but he could not because he discovered Remy’s intelligence and his passion for food. Remy and Alfredo decided to work together. Through their partnership, Remy uncovered information about Alfredo’s late father—Gusteau, which made Alfredo the rightful owner of the restaurant. But Remy was soon exposed and Gusteau’s restaurant closed down. Remy, Colette and Alfredo teamed up to form a new bistro, “La Ratatouille” and became successful.

Even though the story in the movie Ratatouille is fiction, the message within is just as powerful as any real life stories we have heard or seen. I find it very interesting through my own life’s circumstances that help came from the most unlikely places. We tend to underestimate and dismiss people who do not seem to carry value because of the way they look or based on their status in life. Time and time again, our perception of what we think of others is challenged when we see those we look down on excel in what they do.  Or maybe we doubt our ability to help others and ourselves excel.

So what can we learn from a rat and a clumsy young man? A lot.

My spiritual mentor spoke a lot on the importance of bridge building. He said never to underestimate anyone based on what you see or how you feel because you never know if the person you just met might be one of the bridges you have to cross on your way to reach your destination; maybe even your only way out of a situation.

When I was younger, I doubted my ability to sing, let alone tour the world. I saw kids my age with great vocal talents who could have started groups that toured the world. I did not see myself as someone who could sing until I was told that I had a good voice. There were people who were more qualified and talented than I was and could have easily attained everything I attained. And yet, here I am, having traveled the world and sang in schools, churches, and for presidents.

I met my friend Daniel in Sunday school who later introduced me to his friend Vusmas. We created a singing trio that traveled around Zambia. When our talent was discovered, we started a vocal group which became famous and toured the world. Five other groups were formed and toured under the vocal group. A lot of people have benefited and a lot of talents have been discovered in the process. On the flip side, Daniel and I could not have done everything we have done without the help of the guys in the vocal group. Together we accomplished a lot and many people have been impacted.

In the past couple of years, I have had the privilege of mentoring couple of computer science graduate students on a web project they were working on as part of their internship with College of Business and Technology.  One of the students was offered an internship position by a local business as a developer upon his graduation. He consulted with his professor and me whether he should accept the job. He was offered an entry-level pay with good benefits. We advised him to take the job so he could gain some much needed experience. He decided to decline the position because his family wanted him to move to a bigger city where he could find a job as a developer with a six figure salary. He is still looking for a job.

A lot of times, we think about the destination, rather than focusing on the journey. Sometimes, we forget we have to prove ourselves before we can go to the next level or even before someone can discover our talents. When I started to work for the university, I accepted a position as an educational support tech, which was not what I went to school for. I made the best of it even though it was not a web programming position. I didn’t know how long it would take; I just did what I needed to do with excellence. I even developed a help desk web application for the department to keep track of trouble tickets and inventory even if it was not part of my job description. Someone started to take notice, and before long, I was offered a position as a web developer creating web applications for the university.

I love the quote from Saeed, a character, in my wife’s book, Secrets Kept, “Sometimes the journey is greater than the destination.” This quote nails it for me. When you look at the journey of some of the great minds of our times; people who helped shape our world. They all have one thing in common – determination. They were determined to make the best out of what they were doing and knew they needed others to help them reach their dreams one step at a time. Some had to take odd jobs just to make a living while pursuing their true passion. In the end, someone took notice and was willing to give them a chance.

Not everyone is willing to work for the life they want to live. Life’s journey is not as simple as following the seven steps from a prosperity book or getting degrees from acclaimed universities. It is a journey that is uncertain, full of challenges, yet beautiful as we find our talents and help others in the process.

What’s your life’s journey? Do you remember people who helped you reach your destination, or are you just getting started?

The Digital Bubble

The world is in a digital bubble

The world  through the eyes of digital media

If we were told 100 years ago that we would be able to send little packages of information through cyber space faster than the speed of sound, we would have thought the whole idea was ridiculous. We had some ideas of how technology would revolutionize everything, but not to the extent of which we see it today. Technology is growing and changing faster than we have time to comprehend and catch up with it. I remember the simpler times growing up as a little boy in Zambia when we only had one broadcasting station for TV and two local radio channels. Some of my fondest memories were when we gathered around the radio, and we would listen to songs, the news, story tellers, and skits that captivated our imagination. The news was told like it happened and without experts throwing around their opinions – it was simply information and the listener was free to come up with his/her own conclusions. We had social gatherings which were face-to-face conversations and interactions.  For many who did not have a home telephone, the only mode of distant communication was through word of mouth, snail mail, or telegraph.

The last 20 plus years has seen a rapid increase in technology. The race to personalize products for individual consumers is on. It’s now all about your life, your happiness, your device, your personal computer, your profile, your timeline; you can’t live without your social media or electronics. Companies like Apple have come up with clever ways of naming and marketing their products – iPhone, iPad, iTouch, iPod, I this, I that. You are the center of attention and it’s all about you.  Thousands of apps are developed everyday for almost anything we can dream of. Some tech companies have even hired psychologists who study consumer behaviors so products they develop will resonate with buyers. Google and Facebook have developed complex algorithms to track browsing habits of their users so they can create personalized ads and suggest information they think users wants to see — creating a digital bubble.

Is the advancement in networking and communication bringing our world together or creating a virtual wedge between us?

From the palm of our hands, we are able to get in touch with family and friends everywhere anytime; get the latest news of what is happening around the world from TV, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets.  GPS enabled smart devices help friends or potential enemies track our every move. We have developed technology that syncs to every device we own, providing us with information we want from any place with internet connection. The world is getting smaller and smaller everyday – we can travel around the globe through cyber space in seconds. Even remote places in the world are getting connected through the use of battery powered cell phones. I saw an article a few years back in the National Geographic magazine with a picture of a young man in one of Congo’s rainforests climbing a tree to look for a cell phone signal. Technology will continue to change our way of life, and there is no going back unless some technological catastrophic event happens.

Most of our interactions are done online nowadays. Take for example, our smart phones. We think we cannot live without them. The first thing I check in the morning is my phone, going through my emails and social media. And before I go to bed?  Well, you guessed it; I’m on my phone. It’s addicting, and we are becoming more and more uncomfortable interacting with people in person than online.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with using technology or social media. I am very thankful for the internet and websites such as Facebook which has made it possible for me to connect with people I lost touch with, and staying connected with family and friends around the world. The affects of social media are not limited to just our personal lives. Like in Egypt. Tired of political upheaval, the people connected through social media and organized demonstrations against tyranny that eventually toppled their dictator.  A lot of injustice has been exposed. Organizations that help others have had a big boost. Great talents have emerged out of social media. And the list continues.

While the internet has connected people, improved business transactions, and made it easier to research, it is also a source of false information, a virtual highway for predators, and has created a pseudo reality for many. Many online communities have emerged where people interact with each other through chat rooms, gaming, and video conferencing. For the most part, these are great opportunities to meet others who share similar interests. But we can become consumed with the virtual world, and neglect our responsibilities and the people around us.

Remember the story of the teenage boy who died playing online games for more than 24 hours without taking breaks? He did not want to give up his winning streak but ended up losing more than the game – his life. This troubles me greatly. His sad story illustrates the reality of how addicting the internet can be. We can be locked up in a virtual world such that the real one becomes boring.  Unfortunately, many young and adult alike have a hard time separating between the reality and fantasy. This has brought a lot of grief to families. People have even lost jobs and have had relationships torn apart.

And the damage is mounting. We see young kids who lack adult supervision getting sucked into the digital bubble. Our kids are more vulnerable to potentially harmful information on the internet or online predators now than in the past few years.  They are bombarded with garbage and information overload from TV and the internet. They face a greater challenge interacting with peers than we did growing up.

The digital bubble has created a false sense of friendship by making us feel we are connected with a lot of people, yet we are not.  Divisions have derived from us posting our feelings and our frustrations about people we don’t agree with, and sometimes we say things that are hurtful without caring who will read them. The name calling. The fear mongering. The political bashing. Some of us are out to create controversy by posting things that stir up heated arguments. All for what?

We need face to face human interaction; a time to go eat out with friends or family. My wife and I have enjoyed spontaneous outing with dear friends; playing games and just plain old fashion face to face conversations. Building friendships that goes beyond the superficial. Building relationships that matters – all done outside the digital bubble.

So, how do you get away from this digital bubble and connect with people on a more personal level? Maybe sharing here can help us all find ways of turning off our smart devices and spending precious time with friends and family.

Fear

fear

In 1999, I was in Zambia at a meeting and people were asking me what I thought about Y2K. I jokingly replied, “You won’t have to worry about it, if you’re Amish, or live in a village.”

People in the computer industry believed that the computer internal system clock was going to misread the date 1/1/2000 as 1/1/1900, causing catastrophic malfunctions and miscalculations. The so called experts had warned that this one single event could be catastrophic for businesses around the world and would take years for companies to muddle through the mess and build their technologies back up again. With much of the world dependent on the computer technology, it was nerve racking to imagine the aftermath of an event deemed apocalyptic. Anything that ran on a microchip could be affected and fear was mounting. Our society was believed to be so fragile that this on single Y2K computer glitch would bring us to our knees. People had stocked up on water and groceries; preparing for the technological nightmare. Books were written to warn people of what not to do as we move into the new millennium. CNN, MSNBC, and FOX had their experts lined up to speculate on how this might go down, and how we could survive if indeed something happened to the computer systems. Thousands of Y2K computer experts emerged and were bringing in big profits from companies that hired them.

A lot of developing nations were not as worried about the supposedly impending disaster because they lacked advanced computer technologies, but the rest of the world was in a mad dash to stop Armageddon.

And then, there were those who made fun of the whole idea of Y2K and did nothing to upgrade their systems. They were the crazy bunch; the unprepared fools. I was among the crazy ones who did nothing to upgrade my operating system to Windows ME (Millennium Edition) which was supposedly a Y2K compatible version.

The countdown started after Christmas of 1999. Even though I knew somehow that the whole Y2K thing was a fluke, I still had little voices in the back of mind that said, “what if the Y2K is in fact true? How would we survive if the computer systems would crash? What if after spending billions of dollars to fix the Y2K issue, the catastrophic event still happened?” The clocks kept on ticking, the fear kept growing.

And then, nothing happened.

No power outages. No major system failure around the globe for both compliant and non compliant systems. No food shortages. No flight delays. Nothing. One good thing that came out of Y2K debacle is the business boom in the tech and food industry. Out of fear, a lot of people had spent thousands of dollars buying products to prepare for an event that never happened. Sure, a few companies like GE Medical Systems had reported about 14 issues out of their 400 Y2K compliant and non-compliant systems. Ontario Hydro Power Company discovered a few bugs in their systems and had them fixed within a few hours and had no power interruptions for their customers.

Y2K, one of the biggest flukes of recent times caused by experts, carried on by us. What did this all come down to? Fear.

Fear drives the stock market and politics. Fear drives hatred. People are fearful when they do not know or understand each other, thus resulting in hatred against those who are different from them. People have committed heinous crimes against humanity, all because of fear.

In recent years, fear has become a major money making machine. Politicians use fear to raise money for their campaigns and to win votes. I was watching some TV attack ads before the last elections and was just appalled by how nasty political campaigns have become. Each side was out to convince us that the other guy would ruin our way of life. We see corporations do the same in their ads as well. Some prominent TV and radio hosts have used fear to drive their agenda. They have used it to sell books and market other products even if what they say for the most part is based on speculation and not facts.

Not all fear is bad. As a matter of fact, positive fear is a good thing to have. Positive fear is founded on fact and not speculation. For instance, I know not to drive my car 160 miles per hour on the highway even though my car can go that fast. The fear of losing control and crashing at high speeds helps me to be cautious when I am driving.  This kind of fear will not paralyze me; it will in fact make me aware of how my reckless driving will not only affect me, but others as well. Positive fear allows us to make wise decisions and is needed for us to function properly on a day to day basis.

The fear that comes because of speculation and negativity is the deadly kind. Some radio and TV hosts have become experts in spreading speculation to boost their ratings. They are more concerned about their bottom line rather than having healthy conversations that make a difference in people’s lives. They have figured out that fear is a great money making business and are bringing in millions from diligent listeners and corporations. Unfortunately, their fear mongering has resulted in hatred and harm for certain groups of people. This fear derives from propaganda; it is unfounded, based on misinformation or just plain lies. It usually comes out of mistrust and self-absorption.

And we perpetuate it. We buy into this fear and we share it on Facebook, Twitter, at the local salon, barbershop, hardware store, bar, religious gatherings, etc. When we allow this type of fear to rule our thoughts and our actions, we distant ourselves from each other and discord grows. We can get so caught up in our speculation and fear mongering, that we forget to live. We forget about the important things in life. We forget to love.

And the cycle of fear continues, growing worse until something bad happens, or until we stop it. So let’s think twice about the messages we are spreading. Research it. Is it fact? Or opinion? Or pure speculation? Is it necessary? Let’s not forget that there are humans on the other side of the screen, reading what we are saying on social media. That human could be your employer, mom, dad, ex-girlfriend/boyfriend, ex-spouse, your spouse, your kids, kid’s teachers, (or you are the kid’s teacher venting about the difficult students) extended family, your coworkers, your neighbor (who you’ve been trying to reach for Christ) or a future employer (who might scan your Facebook timeline). Are we building bridges or burning them? We want others to understand us, to accept us, and to not push their beliefs on to us. So, why shouldn’t we do the same?

One Bad Apple

bad-apple

I check mail at the post office about twice a week, and I don’t think too much about opening the door and waiting for someone to come through, but it is something I do very often; sometimes unconsciously.  I notice people begin to hurry up when I have the door open for a while as if they didn’t expect this act of kindness.  Each time I have the door open for someone, I get all kinds of complements from people. They will say things like, “you are such a gentleman” or just a simple “thank you”.  I don’t expect people to show their appreciation, but it is always nice to hear people appreciate a simple gesture such as opening a door for a stranger.

I have also had moments when someone I opened the door for came zooming in without saying a word of thanks. Some even have had an attitude of “you better open that door for me because I am better than you”. When that happens, it makes me want to stop opening doors for people. And then these thoughts go through my mind: Maybe I should have let go of the door right in their face instead. Who do they think they are? Why should I be the servant of all? Maybe I should not be nice to people anymore since everyone else seems to be so self-centered and unappreciative. A single incident like this could possibly ruin the evening and affect not only me but my action towards others.

I am sure all of us have felt like we are the only ones who are making an effort to be nice or help others. We sometimes go out of our way to do an act of kindness to strangers only to be disappointed by the response we get back. We have heard many stories of good Samaritans getting hurt even killed because they helped someone who appeared to be in need.

I am reminded of an incident that had happened late December of last year. A South Carolinian young lady gave a ride to a stranger who seemed harmless enough. Little did she know that this harmless looking man was a dangerous criminal who would change her life forever. She was attacked and assaulted. Her vehicle was totaled. Her medical bills have piled up to over $250,000, and she is facing paralysis. With no medical insurance, she has been moved from one hospital to another.

I can’t imagine what she must be going through in her mind as she spends time in rehab, having to re-learn how to do everything; going through the terrors of the attack. She is probably blaming herself for being naïve and for being kind enough to help a total stranger. She will never open that door again. She will never trust a stranger again. Her innocence was taken. All it takes is one bad apple to spoil the rest.

We live in a world where people feel entitled to things; they feel there is no need to be thankful for things they have, even if someone went out of their way to help. I know of family members who have been burned time and time again for their kindness, taken advantage of, and even had property stolen by the very same family members they have helped. Sometimes it could be ungrateful kids who seem to complain about everything we do to provide for them. We buy them clothes, and they turn around and complain because they are not brand names.

My wife and I had an old car we wanted to get rid of. We were looking at selling it for $2500 and using the money for the school in Zambia. A family we knew was going through some tough times financially. The husband had expressed to me they needed money quickly or they would have their utilities shut down. I wrestled with the idea of giving them the car verses selling it to help the school. I told them the car needed a new battery and a few minor fixes that wouldn’t cost a lot. They could sell it as is, or fix it and then sell it and use the money to pay bills. A week later when I signed the car title over and handed the keys to the couple, the first thing that came out of the husband’s mouth was, “I was hoping it was drivable so we could sell it right away.” I was dumbfounded by his comment. I was tempted to tell him to give me back the title and keys, but I restrained myself. They went on to sell the car and never said a word of thanks; not even a thank you card in the mail. We felt used, manipulated, and unappreciated, and that the school in Zambia could have used the money more than the couple, but we never regretted our act of kindness towards them.

We never know how people will respond; whether they will appreciate our generosity or brush it off as nothing. People can be self-centered and can totally disregard the feelings of others to get what they want.  Should we stoop so low to their level and stop helping others? One of the most difficult things in life is to forget when our act of kindness has been violated or worse yet, having to suffer because we opened our door to help others. How long can we keep being kind or keep giving when people we help seem to step on our toes?

As a Christian, I am called to do good to all people, even those who would hurt me. The world tells us, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The problem with this kind of mentality is that there is no end to the cycle of revenge. If you burn my house, I burn yours. If you treat me badly, then I will do the same in return. There are bad apples out there, but there is also good ones. Do not let the bad apples spoil the good ones.

Have you had an incident happen to you that made you think twice about showing kindness to others? How did you handle it?

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.

The Rainmakers

rain_makersThe journey of one touched by many

With the child mortality rate of about 19 percent, many Zambian children were not expected to survive past the age of 5.  2 out of every 5 children had no chance of ever setting foot in a classroom. Life was a dead end. I was like a little plant in the desert going against all odds. I could have been one of the many children who did not make it had it not been for the  rainmakers–people who caused it to rain, providing physical and spiritual nutrients for me to grow. So, how did I make it?

My parents were born and raised in the village. They believed in personal liberty, strong work ethic, self reliance and living in a strong village community. As a British colony, Zambia had gone through some drastic social and economical changes. The British way of governance had changed much of the village life resulting in an influx of Zambians migrating to the cities to work.  After Zambia’s independence, my parents were among the new immigrants to the city to find work in the commercial farms, construction, mining, and other new industries. Many had no formal education or technical skills, and worked menial labor, working for less than a dollar a day. Adapting to city life was challenging for my parents. They move around a lot before finally settling in a shanty compound built on a farm which was previously owned by an Indian farmer called Kalingalinga. The compound was eventually named after him.

Kalingalinga grew and so did the challenges. Houses were built out of mud and covered with tin roofs with no running water or electricity. By the time I was born, this makeshift town had grown to about 10,000 residents. Mounds of garbage piled up on every street corner. A quarter of a mile from my house was a huge hole where waste from nearby industries was dumped. Every year during the rainy season, there were outbreaks of waterborne illnesses such as cholera and dysentery, and many children lost their lives from these preventable diseases. There were funerals everyday in the community, of which most were children. There was so much hopelessness and devastation.

One day I was at church with my mother when I met a boy named Daniel. Daniel and I became best friends instantly. We had dreams to become doctors and travel the world; even though it wasn’t really the world, but countries that surrounded Zambia, nonetheless this was the extent of our world. Later on, we started a musical group that sang in funerals and some local churches. We had hoped to someday travel around Zambia and eventually to all of Southern Africa. Naïve to the challenges we were about to face, we were determined and nothing was going to stop us. We dealt with the challenges of living life and people’s stereotypes about Kalingalinga, hearing constant little voices that said we will never amount to anything; nothing good can come out of Kalingalinga. We believed education was the key to our dreams.

In the early 90’s, an American educator and his wife came to Zambia to help with a school zvgat our church. He had heard our group and was impressed with our vocal talents, and the fact that we had no formal music training. He promised to help sponsor the group to travel to the United States to sing at a student convention and schools. He encouraged us to practice every day, so we did. For several years we had practiced six days a week for at least three hours and had opportunities to compete in music festivals around Lusaka, the capital city. We had gotten better. We were even invited to sing for the head of state at the State House. Things started to look very good. We were finally getting somewhere.

And then it ended.

One evening my mom became mysteriously ill. We did not have the money to take her to the hospital, and the next day her situation was getting worse by the minute. By evening, our neighbor managed to raise money to take mom to the hospital. With Zambia’s extremely poor healthcare system, doctors did not fully know the cause of her illness until it was too late. The doctors said her cause of death was a stroke, but we later found out it was bacterial meningitis. With the death of mom, dad’s alcohol problem became worse. About a year after mom’s death, he had severely hurt his back and was unable to work anymore. I had to be innovative. So, I quit school and looked for ways to provide food for the family. My dreams of becoming a doctor died.

My mom had an old hand-powered sewing machine she received from her older brother. She used it to make quilts and patched holes in our clothes from time to time. Never in my life would I ever think that the little machine in the corner of the living area gathering dirt would become my lifeline. All I had was 3 shirts and 2 pants for clothes. I had to sacrifice my clothes to learn how to sew.  I took the seams out, laid them on the floor, studied the patterns, and practiced sewing them back together. I did this daily. My younger sister thought I was losing my mind after she saw the pieces of my clothes lying all over the floor in our little mud house. I was determined to learn.  In about three months, I was able to create my first outfit. I later started a small sewing business from my mom’s old leftover fabric. The business grew, and I later opened a shop at a local market.

A year and half later, the education missionary came through with his promise. He had managed to sponsor the group on its first international tour to the United States. The group traveled to over forty States, singing in over three thousand schools.

I have heard this phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” being thrown around a lot. You might say I was innovative to use my mom’s sewing machine to create a business from the ground up, but I look back and see an army of people who helped me along the way. You can only pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you have boots; in my case I had nothing. Had it not been for my uncle giving mom the sewing machine, my pastor who became like a father to me,  and the many other people who helped us with food during the time I was learning to sew, there was no way I could have made it. The army of rainmakers in my life continued during our tours in the United States. From my American mom and dad who had three of their own biological children and us ten adopted Zambian children all living in one house,  to a family doctor and his wife that kept and sponsored three of my friends and I for our first year of college. We had families that loved us and supported us with their time and resources.

james-at-schoolIf it wasn’t for others raining blessings in my life, I would not have been here. Let us think twice before we tell someone to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”. We all have been helped by someone to become what we are today. I can’t do enough to pay back all the people who helped me; the little I can do is to help someone else. We all can be rainmakers, making a difference in someone’s life, one person at a time.  Do you have someone that has had an impact in your life?

A Life Changing Moment

a-life-changing-momentWhat changed my life is not what my father said, it’s what he did.

I was born and raised in a shanty compound east of the capital city of Zambia. Kalingalinga was one of the poorest communities in Lusaka. An average worker made about $30 a month. Poverty, crime, diseases, witchcraft, and prostitution were rampant; there were more bars than there were churches. The nearest schools were about four to five miles away. People called Kalingalinga the dark city because of all the crime.

Our house did not have running water or electricity. Mom had to go to the market every morning to buy fresh food. One Sunday morning, my mother was making her trip to the market and  was stopped by a missionary. The missionary gave mom a Bible and other pamphlets.  She politely accepted them.  My mother did not know how to read or write; she never had a formal education. Both my parents did not attend church and did not know what to do with the materials. Thus my mother used the pages of the Bible to wrap roasted peanuts that she sold on the streets to supplement my dad’s $40 per month income.

The following year, I wanted to go to school with my older brother, but the school principal thought it would be dangerous for me to make the four and half mile trip through the corn fields. I had heard stories of kids who had been kidnapped and killed taking the same gravel road I would have to take, but that did not deter my ambition to go to school and become a doctor someday.  After I learned that I couldn’t go to school until next year, I was crushed.  I attempted to teach myself to read by using what was left of the Bible. I wanted to prove to my parents that I was ready for school. My determination paid off. I had learned how to read.

The first year of school was great. I was excited to finally start learning English and how to write.  I had excelled through the third grade, but by the fourth grade, I had become a target for bullies. By then, I realized my family was very poor compared to most of the kids in the school. The kids would tease me, spat on me, and call me names. The fact that I was wearing old hand-me-down girl shoes and a patched up uniform, made the situation even worse. I started to resent school. I was afraid to tell my parents about the torture I was going through. Something had to change if I was going to make it.

I became the monster the kids were afraid of. I became mean and fearless to gain respect from the bullies. I started to physically hurt the students who teased or bullied me. I was at the principal’s office at least seven or eight times per week because of all the fights I had gotten into and was suspended from school numerous times. The principal told my parents at one point that if I didn’t change, they would have to expel me from school, but I felt respected and important, because the students feared me.

One afternoon I came home from school, I had lunch and set out to play with a friend, but a neighborhood kid started to tease and taunt us. I picked up a sizable rock and threw it at the boy as hard as I could. The rock hit the boy in the top left side of his head barely missing his eye. The boy fell to the ground and was unconscious for several minutes. He was rushed to a clinic at my dad’s work. I knew immediately that I had done something very bad and was afraid my dad was going to literally kill me. My dad gave me harsh punishments very often since I started to get in trouble, but none of the punishments would make me stop the destructive path I was taking. This incident was very different; I saw my life in a different light.

I fled and hid until evening. I had contemplated about spending the night in the nearby bushes, but the thought of poisonous snakes and spiders made me think twice. By the time I came home, I had hoped my dad, who was an alcoholic, would be gone to the bars, but he wasn’t. I came into the yard and heard him talking with my mom. My heart sunk. I had never been this scared for my life before. I made my way to the front door and stopped. Then I heard him call my name. I responded and made my way into the house. He asked me to get a stool and sit in front of him. He looked me in the eyes and told me that what I did was very bad and never to do it again. I got startled as he reached to grab something on the table next to him. I was expecting a devastating blow on my head to knock me unconscious; instead he grabbed a plate of food and handed it to me. He said bye to my mom and left for the bar.

I ate my food in silence. This was unlike my dad. I was afraid he would come home and still punish me severely. He came home three hours later that evening a little drunk and did not say a word about what I did.

For several weeks I lived in fear. I had stayed out of trouble, expecting my dad will come home one day and snap at me. I had all these unanswered questions of what made him act this way. I started to read the half Bible again. Three weeks had past, nothing.

One evening, I was sitting outside doing my homework. My dad came home and told me he had gotten something for me. He handed me a package and I opened it. It was a brand new Bible. Wow! My family did not have a lot of money and Bibles were very expensive. His simple gesture was a life changer to say the least. It was then that I knew without a shadow of a doubt that he had forgiven me. All my fears melted away.

If my father could forgive me, could I do no less for those who had wronged me? I forgave the students who bullied me, and I set out to right the wrongs.  My goal was to make a difference and to be a friend to everyone, including the least popular kids. Mothers of my friends at home took notice of the drastic change and would use me as an example for their children. It’s amazing how something so simple, an act of love and grace, but yet so powerful would change my life forever.

What are some of the life changing moments you have experienced? How did some of the things you went through shaped who you are today? Maybe sharing them here can be a life changer for someone else — you never know.