Spacecraft

Empty space can be an invitation. Whether space in time or a physical place, emptiness invites creation - a making of something where there was nothing.  There is a creative act in the filling of emptiness; I like to call it Spacecraft.

The past year of my life has been one of fluidity. There is less predictability, schedule, and set expectations, than in other seasons, so that leaves a lot of empty space to be filled and it's up to me to decide how to fill it. Who to be, what to do?  These are big questions.

I keep finding myself saying I want to, "create spaces for people to access their own wisdom."  I just keep saying that and so there must be something Real in it. Surely, I must listen to myself and surely there must be wisdom in something that seems to keep bubbling up from a place deep inside.

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Here are a few of the spaces I've filled or I'm working to fill, all exciting and touching on a purpose I can't quite pinpoint and say, "This right here is who I am and what I do."  All I can really say is, "I'm starting to specialize in Spacecraft."

SPACES IN TIME

  • There is a week in July that a friend and I decided to use to bring people together across continents and across religious divides to form lasting friendships. We meet each week to decide how to best fill this week and we're quite certain it's going to be a special time.  Find out more at The Unity Initiative website.
  • Nonprofit organizations in the region are giving me spaces in their annual staff retreats or within their work days to lead workshops on staff care and soul care. Emotional and spiritual burnout is a common issue for those working to improve the lives of others; we can't give what we do not have and we cannot help when we are cynical and stressed. This has become an issue I love working on and one that needs addressing. I'm also consulting individuals who are taking a personal retreat and need ideas on how to best fill their time to make it meaningful and leave them feeling full again. This is all a lot of fun for me.
  • Last year, I worked with a team to host 200 people from this region and around the world to come together and learn how the teachings of Jesus are not Christian, but radically relevant to us all and a point of unity across the divides in our world. My specialty was in organizing the small groups and craft how people from all different backgrounds would get to know one another deeply within a few days. It was my dream assignment.

PHYSICAL SPACES

  • Last year, we crafted a rooftop jungalow addition to our home. An empty rooftop is now a treasured Space for the Special.
  • There is a piece of land right on the Nile River, only a few kilometers from where this longest river in the world begins its journey. A vision is slowly forming around this family property and we've had the fun privilege to share in its creation.  A beautiful home is nearing completion and we hope to use this space to serve others well for rest, fun, and soul-searching.

DIGITAL SPACE

  • Last year I began The Living School and I'm working to be more consistent in my spiritual practice alongside motherhood.  It launched me into a journey of questioning whether it's possible to be both a mother and a contemplative. After all, there aren't many role models out there who bridge those two worlds. After thinking about this for over year and talking to several other women, I started on online space to expand this conversation.  Do let me know if you're interested in exploring the topic of "Motherhood as Spiritual Practice" with me.

What I've learned so far

This post originally appeared on The Her Initiative, a fabulous venture bringing awareness to water issues around the world and bringing women from around the globe together.

I moved to Uganda in 2010, a fresh graduate from college with a diploma in International Studies and a focus, I would proudly tell you, on Development and African studies.  Along with that diploma, I also wielded a naively arrogant attitude, thinking that somehow my studies and my 3 short-term trips to Africa had afforded me some kind of African Development Street Cred.

I was lucky to land at Cornerstone Development, an organization whose culture is vastly different from most nonprofits, where I would learn many lessons as a white girl in Uganda.  Now, over 5 years later, I realize how very much I still have to learn and I’ve settled into a life rhythm and a community where proving my street cred is an absurd notion.  My experiences and the people at Cornerstone have taught me important lessons over these few years, saving me, in a way, from my own arrogance.

I originally came to Cornerstone to work with children from the streets and my interests led me to deeply care about women in leadership.  Cornerstone was gracious to let me follow my curiosity and morph my role into a kind of “gender consultant” for the organization.  However, I soon learned that a young American girl jumping into the rivers of gender relations in a very different culture can lead to murky waters.  Confronting relations between men and women quickly takes you to several sensitive and quite personal issues, right at the foundation of culture.  And here I was, an outsider with my passions and beliefs in tow, thinking I could change the world.

This led to epiphany number one: I don’t know much. As it turns out, you need more than just passions and beliefs when working in another culture, and you often need to tame those down in order to be effective.  I know that’s not what people want to hear; we are a society fueled by our passions and beliefs.  We define ourselves by our opinions and which side we take on any issue.  This has a tendency to create oppositional energy or, in other words, to pit ourselves against the other side and create divisions.  But when trying to effect change, at some point it became necessary to put aside my beliefs and simply ask questions.

For a whole year, this is what I did.  I just asked, trying to figure out why few women were stepping into leadership and diving deeper into the roots of the issue.  Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “The heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong.”  If I tried to ride my passion without getting a true grasp of the issue, I wouldn’t have moved in the right direction.  I would have simply been the foreigner marching forth with my torch of righteousness with few people following behind me.

Once I realized this, I came to epiphany number 2: Relationships are key.

Creating relationships that are open, without power dynamics involved, are essential to creating change.  It sounds obvious, but for many people this requires an unfamiliar humility.  I am grateful every day for my coworkers, who are open enough to tell me when my ideas won’t work or inform me on a piece of the cultural puzzle I may not be clued in on.   Asking questions and forming relationships work hand-in-hand.  You can’t get insightful answers to your questions if you don’t have open relationships; and you can’t form open relationships if you’re telling people what to do rather than asking and learning.  But if you would rather have a committed team working with you than being the foreigner marching ahead on her own, take the time to form relationships.

The key word here is time, which leads me to epiphany number 3: Lasting change comes slowly.“I would rather be a pilot’s light than a firework” has become one of my guiding mantras in my work. In just 5 years of living in Uganda, I have seen a lot of fireworks explode and fizzle away. A social enterprise has a cool idea, gets a lot of publicity and maybe even a celebrity or two behind them, launches their program, and it quickly dies out.  Or maybe it continues on, with a lot of fanfare from the West, but with exaggerated impact on the ground.  Sometimes it seems like these enterprises are built more for the satisfaction of their Western founders than for truly making change.  They have not taken the time required to ask questions and to form relationships, but their social media accounts are buzzing.

What I love about Cornerstone is our longevity of vision. We have been operating for over 25 years and growth has come slowly, but organically. I believe our impact is undeniable, like a pilot’s light steadily heading toward the destination.   I’ve seen my incredibly talented colleagues keep their heads down and do the work required to make a difference while others seek social gratification and I’ve had to remind myself plenty of times that it’s the work that matters more than what the world thinks of me.

I truly love my life in Uganda. Many of us who work out here laugh when those at home think we have sacrificed much to be here. Sure, I may not always have access to all the same material goods in America, but I always have a chance to learn something new and dive deeper into my own growth. If you are considering any international or social work, I invite you on this incredible growth journey and I can’t wait to hear what you learn!

Inspiring Woman - Sister Rosemary

Last year, I helped develop a leadership development curriculum for university students and it was my privilege to be assigned to finding great women leaders who exemplified each leadership characteristic we covered.  Unfortunately, I was only afforded 21 slots for 21 women, although there were so many more to feature.  While reading and writing about these women, I felt as if they were surrounding me, whispering in my ear all their inspirational words and encouragement.  I felt their courage seep into me as I read their stories of bravery, conquest, and compassion and I couldn't wait to share with our students what I had found, particularly about the many incredible women in East Africa.

Earlier this month, during a conference for university student leaders throughout East Africa, we had the honor of hearing from a friend of ours who is one of these East African women powerhouses - Sister Rosemary.

Sister Rosemary began her work in Northern Uganda during Joseph Kony's reign of terror.  She provided a safe haven for the young women and girls affected by Kony's violent army, teaching them crucial skills for self-reliance, recovery, and prosperity.  She and the other sisters at Saint Monica's Vocational School humbly worked with these women for several years before anyone recognized the impact of her work...but that has all changed.  In 2007, she was named a CNN Hero and just this year, she was named one of the top 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine, nominated by Forest Whitaker.  While staying with a friend in San Diego earlier this year, we turned on the Colbert Report and watched her challenge Stephen Colbert to a boxing match while raising awareness for the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.  She has since been on a demanding speaking schedule in the U.S., spreading her joyful spirit everywhere she goes while sharing her inspiring story of bravery and compassion.

In February last year, I joined Sister Rosemary and other African friends in Virginia for a gathering, which happened to be the same time as the super bowl.  I asked her who she was cheering for - the Ravens or the 49ers?  "Oh I can't watch this and I can't cheer for either team,"  she responded, "because I have friends on both teams and I don't want either to lose!"

Indeed, Sister Rosemary has true friends on multiple teams in the NFL and the NBA, through her connection with the organization Pros For Africa.  When I was with her a couple weeks ago, I asked her about the many issues the NFL and its players have faced lately with domestic violence, child abuse, etc. and if she could play any role in speaking into these issues with the players and the league.  She brought up the case of Adrian Peterson, one of the players with whom she has a personal relationship, and although she acknowledged the troublesome actions of his abuse toward his child, she also reminded me to have compassion for these players, many of whom never had great role models themselves. 

This unique woman, a nun from a village in northern Uganda, who has helped countless young women recover from the horrors of a brutal war, now has influence on some of the most famous people in my own country - the sports stars who so many young people look up to.  She is influential, indeed.

So with all her international fame, Sister Rosemary decided to spend an afternoon with us at our Africa Youth Leadership Forum, speaking to the upcoming East African youth leaders.  Of all our speakers over the 4 days of the conference, I know she was the most loved and inspiring.  Most of these students had never heard of her, but after listening to her speak and share her story, she quickly became a friend and a role model to all.

I encourage you to purchase her book Sewing Hope and learn more about this incredible woman.

Friendships, Not Walls - Goma, Congo

We arrived in Goma with 100 young people, mostly from Eastern Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda, all attending a conference put on by our program for university student leaders - Africa Youth Leadership Forum.  For three days, we listened to inspiring leaders from the region and we discussed topics relevant to becoming better leaders for our communities and nations.

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