Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Does God really look that different to you, dear Lahore?

Since I arrived in Pakistan less than a week ago, there’s been one major thing that’s separated Lahore from all the other cities I’ve been: Around every corner, around every intersection, around every driveway, there’s bound to be some type of goat lying on the pavement, a sheep eating straw, or a camel playing with the kids in the alley.

Not what you were expecting me to say? Yes, Pakistan is a Muslim country in South Asia, thousands of miles from the US, with a reputation as the most dangerous country in the world. But I’m realizing that it’s not that different, when you dig a little deeper and begin to replace assumptions with questions.

Take the animals, for example. After asking a few questions, I learned that they would be slaughtered, shared with family and the marginalized, and eaten in honor of today’s holiday, Eid-ul-Adha. Yes, that still sounded kinda exotic, but then I learned what the holiday represents: a celebration of an event both the Christian and Jewish faith also hold dear, when the obedience and faith of Abraham (Ibrahim) to sacrifice his son on Mt. Moriah was rewarded by a ram substitute that God (Allah) provided.

While this has been an interesting revelation, it was actually one that I had been marginally prepped for back in New York. A few weeks ago, the Fellows and I visited the NY Public Library on 5th Ave (one block away from my old job) where they have a special exhibition called “Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.” As we walked from section to section – reviewing scriptures and artifacts from hundreds and thousands of years ago – the underlying theme became clear: The three religions are actually more similar than different. As the NY Times put it: out of many, one. Although we’re all keen to highlight why our religion is better, the reality is that the similarities are alarming. For example, each religion is founded on the idea of monotheism (one God), upholds the importance of Abraham, supports the revelation of God through prophets, and claims those revelations are documented in canonical written texts.

In the same way that the media loves to share bad news, I’m realizing that humanity has been increasingly guilty of tirelessly promoting the differences between societies, rather than focusing on how we are similar. Sure, differences are what make us unique, but what makes uniqueness beautiful is the ability to appreciate diversity within the context of our similarities. Alternatively, if we allow these differences to polarize and ostracize communities, diversity becomes a source of tension and degradation instead of the reflection of God’s creativity from which it was inspired.

My hope is that I can internalize and develop this appreciation during my 9 months in Pakistan, and especially as we enjoy the Eid festivities during the holiday season. 


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Our last night in NY and my love letter to Lahore

Last night, the Acumen Fund had its annual Investor Gathering, where the Acumen community assembled in order to celebrate the past and upcoming years, and to send the Acumen Fellows off to our respective countries (Kenya/India/ China/Pakistan). The ten of us are flying out today, so we presented “love letters” to the cities we will be meeting in less than 48 hours. While I should be able to post video footage of all the Fellows soon, I wanted to share my letter before I board my flight in a few hours.
                                                            
Dear Lahore,

You were the girl that I was never supposed to like
The relationship that was never supposed to be
No, not a great way to start a love letter, so let’s start with history

Me
Black American
Christian community
Unrepentantly republican region
Teachers who think Pakistan is actually Afghanistan
And a heart, that is already in love

In love with the Mathare slum of Kenya, and the 20 guys on my football team that launched an internet café this past July in pursuit of dignity. In love with the 10 widows in the Kibera slum, who struggle from HIV but are brave enough to create their own businesses, feed their children, and invest in their future. In love with the highschoolers that I tutor in the Tembisa township in South Africa and the kids that I coach in Harlem.
In love with
My 7 month niece
8 adopted siblings
2 parents
80 year old grandpa
and handful of extended family and friends from California to Costa Rica to New York

So in love that I’m scared to love another
Scared to take on another’s burdens
And even more scared to share mine
Scared that love spread thin really isn’t love at all
                                                                               
And to be honest, dear Lahore, you seemed okay with that
The car bombings aired on TV, the kidnappings posted online, the wars screened in the cinema 
All seemed to send the same message
That you weren’t that interested in my love

But then I started listening
·         not to the naysayers and their bombings
·         or the news and their kidnappings
·         or the naïve and their wars
But to you, dear Lahore…
To Dr. Ahmad from Pharmagen
To Asim and Zahoor from the 2010 Fellows class
To my brother and 2011 Fellow Khuram

And I started questioning…
What does poverty and injustice look like to you?
How does happiness and laughter sound and what does family mean?
How does love feel and
Does God really look that different to you?
                                                                                                                                                                             
And quietly, dear Lahore, you’ve started to answer
And quietly, dear Lahore, I’m falling for you...


With constantly growing love,
Benje

Friday, November 5, 2010

Am I poor? AHAs from the concrete jungles of NY pt 2

Photo credit: NY Times
Last week I shared a few AHAs from the perspective of a young man (me) living below the poverty line on the streets of NY. Through conversations with Stereo, Sam, a number of social workers/volunteers/etc., there were a few additional lessons that I didn't share – partly because I didn't have space but also because I needed to process these more. So, I wanted to take a few quick minutes to get these out and see if there are any thoughts/comments.
                                                                                              
Being poor is often about choices
When I met Stereo, he was sitting outside of the St. Apostles soup kitchen on 9th Ave and 28th St. It was at 12:40pm and I had just missed the clam chowder lunch, but Stereo was capping it off with a bag of $4 Tahiti cookies from Pepperidge Farm. He would later tell me that these are his favorite cookies, and that he prefers to have them with milk (Don’t give me no soda. Soda’s what junkies drink with cookies). He turned down the pair of Dockers and the American Eagle shirt that his friend Sam had offered to me, as he didn’t like the fashion and already had a similar shirt. And he refuses to apply for welfare, because he believes the jobs they offer are dehumanizing.

Throughout the day, I began to realize that it’s because of these decisions that Stereo doesn’t consider himself poor. Acumen Fund’s CEO has often said that poverty is about choice. And that choice is dignity. Stereo has found a way to eat the cookies he wants, with the milk he wants. He’s developed his own fashion style. He has a preference for the women he dates (which is another discussion!), and he likes to host parties after he’s saved up enough money from selling cigarettes, singing in Washington Square Park, and telling jokes on the 1 line. So even though his monthly income is below the US poverty line, Stereo has clearly said that he doesn’t consider himself poor, and my guess is that the choices he’s able to make have a lot to do with this declaration.  

It’s expensive to live below the poverty line
If being poor is about the absence of choices that Stereo or Sam or I can make, then the system is tragically relentless at promoting poverty. As I trudged from Western Union, to Bank of America, to AT&T – in hopes of utilizing various services available to someone with limited income – I realized how many additional fees I would be paying, simply because I didn’t have a minimum amount in my personal checking… er, piggy bank.
                                 
Let’s not even discuss the prices that I would have had to pay at American Dental, a disturbingly life-draining doctor’s office lined with shining posters of people that starkly contrasted with the 11 black patients sitting anxiously inside. Even “affordable” housing (read: the projects) would cost me up to $1,000 a month, and I would have to wait 6 to 18 months in order to be placed.

Somehow, I don’t think this is the idea CK Prahalad was promoting when he coined the term fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.

Unanswered questions
At the end of the day, I sat back in the office with the rest of the Fellows, energized by the community and dignity I found in Stereo and Sam, but also discouraged by the system. 43 million people in the “most developed country in the world” is unfathomable, and yet the system seems to operate in a way that is set at persevering that figure. And unfortunately, the pinballing questions in my head have only increased: What can we do to help? How do we begin to transform the system? Is this purely I policy intervention, or are there practical actions that we can be taking?