Thursday, July 30, 2009

Remembering the Price of a Nice Day

One of my most cherished summer vacations came in the days immediately after the end of my Plebe Year at West Point. With the rigors and demands of Plebe Year behind me, I made my way to Fort Bliss, Texas, where my father was attending the U.S. Army Sergeants' Major Academy in preparation for his promotion to Command Sergeant Major and the fulfilment of the highest career goal an enlisted soldier in the United States Army can achieve. After relishing a few lazy days to just relax and regroup, my father invited me to accompany him to a social gathering of other "E-9"'s from the Army and as well as those from other branches of the military who were also attending the Academy.

One of his more colorful comrades whom I had the privilege of meeting was a Marine Corps Sergeant Major - a Recon Marine, Sergeant Major Solomon. He was a "typical" Marine - which means he wasn't typical to any average person you would ever meet - VERY highly motivated, very confident and very proud to tell you why he felt the Marines did everything better than everyone else and very ready to prove it! While these "Top Sergeants" were conversing, a bumper sticker on Sergeant Major Solomon's car caught my attention. It read, "Have a nice day America. Your Marine Corps is ON DUTY!" The truth of that statement grabbed me, especially in the context of standing in a parking lot alongside veteran service personnel who had all served their country sacrificially and had never forgotten the price that accompanies the freedoms all Americans enjoy so readily and that many Americans just as readily to often take for granted. It's just too easy to forget that while we work, play and sleep in comfort and safety, brave people driven by a love a freedom and a devotion to the principles for which this nation stands face continuous and innumerable perils for our benefit.

That is why any reminders of the cost at which our freedoms are maintained are appropriate and worth noting. I received such a reminder this morning as a friend and West Point classmate forwarded an article to me recounting the homecoming of an Illinois National Guard unit that her husband commands and that has just completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The Chicago Tribune article is entitled, "Not Everyone Comes Home". It is an excellent and touching article. The title alone stands a simple reminder that even when we celebrate the return of those who have served in harm's way, there are absences that go unnoticed by casual observations but that are all too conspicuous by those who returned alive, their families and the families of those who perished in the service of the nation.

After finishing the article, it occurred to me that had I not received this reminder, I would have very likely gone about my daily tasks without quite remembering that I am able to enjoy many pleasures casually because of people for whom the word "casual" in no way applies to any aspect of their lives. They are always "on" - standing ready to drop everything to confront the adversaries of liberty, even at the risk of their own lives. All of this, so that the rest of can "have a nice day."

As you consider the rest of your day, let me give you a little homework. When you have a little free time, click on the link I have included in this entry and reflect once again on the challenging work that is being carried out by those who serve in the military. When you've finished, think of how you might offer a personal message of gratitude to someone who is serving, has served, or who is paying a price themselves by being the surviving family member of someone who has demonstrated "the last measure of devotion." It will be a tribute that is well-deserved and much appreciated. Also, from now on, whenever someone addresses you with the benedictory salutation, "Have a Nice Day", use it as a reminder to remember the needs of those who are serving and the life-changing sacrifices they make for us all. Now, go on! Have a nice day! Just promise to remember how much it costs.

Until next time...


Friday, July 24, 2009

¡Manos arriba! The Challenges of Profiling

I was running a bit late and needed to get to the church for a sound check before the wedding. I was to sing a solo and was eager to make sure everything was just right for my friends. I had just pulled out of our seminary's boulevard and was headed towards the downtown area of Columbia, SC. Though I was in a hurry, I made sure not to exceed the speed limit since it was hard enough to make ends meet in seminary without having to add traffic tickets in the mix. Just as I was nearing the interstate, I saw several police cars behind me closing in at incredible speed. I pulled to the side to let them by and thought, "Wow, somebody's in trouble!" I had no idea. To my total shock, one pulled in front of me, several behind me and one the the side with a shotgun drawn and pointed at me, mouthing in the harshest possible language for me to pull over. As I came to a stop, several law enforcement officers bounded from their vehicles with heavy weapons drawn, surrounded my car and yelled for me to get out of my vehicle with my hands up! At this point, my parent's training kicked in. "Anytime you deal with law enforcement officers who for some reason believe you to be a criminal they must apprehend, be as respectful, courteous and compliant as possible. Do NOTHING to agitate, irritate or provoke a law enforcement official to even consider you are resisting them, especially when their weapons are drawn. If you are innocent and you heed our advice, you might live to fight them in court." That advice flashed through my mind as well as other instances in my life that I had been mistaken for someone involved in criminal activity and found myself staring down the barrel of a drawn weapon.

As I slowly and carefully kept my hands visible and opened the doors of my vehicle to get out, the officers barked harsh and rather vulgar directives telling me to place my hands on my vehicle and to spread my legs. As I was doing this, the voice of the officers changed. "Wait a minute." he said. He then asked his comrades, "You notice anything strange?" One of his partners replied in a quieter tone, "Yeah, he's wearing a tuxedo." A could hear other officers walking to the rear of my vehicle. One of them said, "There's a sticker from the Bible College on the bumper, some christian stickers and an 82nd Airborne patch too!" The leading officer's face changed slowly as he asked me, "Are you a CBC (Columbia Bible College) student?" I replied, "Yes Sir officer - actually I attend the seminary, but yes Sir, I am." he then asked, "What wre you doing about thirty minutes ago?" I replied, "I slept in, spent some time studying in my room, then showered to get ready for my friend's wedding at a Presbyterian Church downtown." He looked at me, then his compadres who had inspected my vehicle, lowered his weapon and said, "It's clear we've made an error. You fit the description of someone who just fled a murder scene and has numerous other serious warrants outstanding as well, and your vehicle is the same, make, model and color as the vehicle in which he fled. it's obvious ou're not him. You're free to go." With that, I got back in my vehicle, they returned to theirs, and we were all on our way.

Was I the victim of profiling? Yes. Was it understandable? Yes. Did I like it? No, but I understood the officer's perspective and didn't allow the incident to cloud the rest of my day or life. There are times when peace officers must draw quick conclusions with limited information and act on their hunches with little room for second guessing. In a similar situation, I certainly would have taken the same action that the officers took towards me. There are other incidents, however, that are significantly different in context and require a great deal more restraint when experienced. On another occasion while in seminary, I was attending a meeting for our school's first welcome week event. I had forgotten to bring some notes to the meeting and ran back to the dorm with my travel-sized Bible in my hand. It took me a while to find my notes, but I eventually located them. When I emerged from the dorm with the notes and my Bible, a light suddenly shone in my eyes, and I heard those chilling words, "Freeze. Slowly put down your weapon and get your hands up!" I froze. "What weapon?" I thought. Acting on instinct and my parent's training, I slowly put down everything in my hands and raised them up high. I heard footsteps approaching. As the officer got closer I heard a sigh of embarrassment, saw him holster his weapon and heard him say, "Sam?" I replied, "Yes, Sir." As he drew closer I realized that I knew the officer - actually a bonded security guaard authrozied to use a weapon - and he knew me. He informed me that a call had been received saying a threatening looking black man had been seen running towards the dorm area with a dark object that appeared to be a weapon in his hand. I reflected, "Was I threatening looking? Very fit (at that time) pretty serious looking when not smiling. Small Bible that could be mistaken for a weapon. maybe." But I was still frustrated. I breathed deeply and summoned every bit of godliness I could muster in a situation I knew had now been diffused. Not in a chatting mood, I asked "Can I go now?!" My friend responded, "Oh, oh...yeah. Go ahead!" I had experienced profiling in a totally different context, much less threatening than the first incident at a glance, but in many ways, a situation that was actually much more dangerous for me!"

Of course, I am sharing these memories in light Harvard University Professor Henry Gates and his recent experience in Cambridge,Massachusetts where he was arrested in the context of his own home. As a citizen who understands the need for law and order and who appreciates the diligence of a concerned neighbor, I can see the one side of the equation. Law enforcement officers as a matter of survival must err on the side of caution as a matter of life and death. A call from a concerned citizen, the abundance of clever criminals and the need to protect the innocent could lead to a decision similar to the one the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, made, especially if his experience had placed him in situations that validated his conclusions. On the other hand, as an African-American male who has experienced profiling numerous times and continues to experience it in many different contexts beyond the two incidents I've shared, I can understand the frustration of being caught up in a situation that might have seemed ludicrous.

One attribute that seems conspicuously absent from both Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates is humility. Professor Gates may have assumed that his position and standing in the community had made him exempt from profiling and finding himself in such a position. It doesn't. He may also have forgotten that one captures "more flies with honey and vinegar" and that a "soft reply turns away wrath." In most of my profiling situations, I have found that the use of courteous speech and thoughtful and careful responses has allowed those charged with enforcing the law to take a step back, reevaluate their actions based on my response and come to a better conclusion that the one at which they had first arrived. As Carol King said in her song "Smackwater Jack" one must take great care in trying "to talk to a man with a shotgun in his hand." The professor might have later thanked the officer for his zeal and carefulness and used the moment to "win a friend", by commenting on the complexity of law enforcement when race, class and profiling merge together in the "fog of a moment".

On the officer's part, his refusal to apologize for anything he did is a failure to acknowledge that even when one takes a step that one believes is right - and which may be "right" procedurally, one must have the ability to regroup after the revelation that one's response was in error "factually." Imagine the power if Sgt. Crowley had said, "Sir/Ma'am, it's clear I made an error. My intent was to protect your home from an intruder. I did my duty in your interest, not understanding who you were. I just want to reassure you that we will be vigilant in protecting you and your property. You have my sincerest apologies, however, for mistakenly thinking that you were the intruder and embarrassing you publicly by arresting you. If I can do anything, including making a public statement to help to restore clarity and truth to the situation, be assured I will be glad to do so."

Perhaps I am asking too much here. We're not talking about a street thug and a crooked cop. We have a highly respected professor and a seasoned, veteran police officer. It seems that between the two of them, they could think beyond self-justification and think about true reconciliation. As a Christian I must hold myself to a higher standard on both sides of such issues. Christian forgiveness is an exercise in taking hits. It means, regardless of the other person's response, I will take the high road. This incident could have presented a wonderful opportunity for the professor and the officer to show how two reasonable people can find themselves in an ugly situation, but make an effort when time and information allows, as this situation has allowed, to pause - step back and regroup with an appreciation for another's perspective and the human decency to rise above the need to be right by doing right. I know that life being what it is, I will certainly face future profiling situations. I ask you my friends to pray for me - as I will pray for you - that when found in such positions, I will have the courage to pause, reflect and to do the right thing. If enough of us commit to this standard, maybe we will make at least a small dent in our nation's on-going challenge to truly live out its creed: E pluribus unim - From the many, ONE! Until next time...


Monday, July 6, 2009

20 Years Ago In Manila - Lessons from a Love Story!

It was breathtakingly beautiful! Palm trees, crystal blue water, perpetual sunshine - just a gorgeous place! I had read of how Douglas MacArthur had been enchanted by the striking view of Manila Bay, but didn't fully understand until I saw it for myself - I was definitely spell-bound. Then I met the people. Friendly, hospitable, courteous, I knew this wasn't Heaven - there was enough poverty and pain present to keep reality within my grasp, but still I found the place truly enchanting! I wasn't the only one who noticed. In fact, several of my colleagues had also managed to notice that there was an abundance of smiling, friendly and beautiful Christian women serving with us as we began carrying out our duties as Missionary Stewards during Lausanne II (Manila 1989), the Second Global Congress of World Missions - sponsored by groups like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Our co-laborers had not escaped my notice either, but I had steeled my mind to be focused. "We don't have enough time for socializing." I explained. "We can be friendly, but our duty comes first and there's way too much of that to have time for coffee and chit-chats." Yes, I had it all figured out. But that was before the Xerox machine broke down, and before I met her.

We were a few days into the conference and I had come to know the Philippine International Conference Center (PICC) like the back of my hand, and a good deal of the surrounding part of Manila too. I had run all kinds of errands. I served as a Body Guard for people who made runs to Embassy Row on Rojas Boulevard and served as a "gofer" - going for this and going for that - on all kinds of problem-solving adventures that blessed me with a good deal of exposure to the area and to a number of fascinating missionaries from all around the world and some pretty high profile folks too! Everything was humming along perfectly until my supervisor, Bill Thatcher, asked me to go back to the Central Office to make copies for a Plenary Session speech that needed to be translated. I just didn't want to do it. I don't know why, or what got into me, but I spent 10 minutes trying to convince him that he could find somebody else to do it. "No." Bill insisted. "I want YOU to go!" I grudgingly gave in, and took the materials I was given to the central office to be copied. I opened the door and then I saw her. She was on the phone and efficiently and effectively moving people, projects and paper - getting things done. I walked over to the copier to get started on the copies, but couldn't get it to work. "Well", I thought, "that might give me an excuse to chat with her." She noticed I was waiting and looked up smiled and asked if she could be of help. BEAUTIFUL smile. BEAUTIFUL PERIOD! I felt like someone had hit me with a gazillion megawatts of high voltage electricity. I had NEVER felt this and hoped it wasn't what I thought it was. It felt like I had a stupid look on my face and I prayed she hadn't noticed. I tried to play off what I was feeling and asked for her assistance in making the copies. She assisted right away, directing me towards another copier, removing a project she was working on as she helped me. The project contained information about the agency she served with, Youth With A Mission, and the work she did with children in a severely impoverished area of the city situated on a garbage dump and known as "Smokey Mountain". I was fascinated by the work and fascinated by her. I found out her name was Luz Bautista and knew right away that I would find as many excuses as I could to run more errands to the office. When I returned to Bill and asked if he needed any more copies, he didn't ask me why, but smirked in a way that made me suspect that he had a hunch. I guess those Gazillion Megawatts left a something on my face that was hard to hide!

In the days immediately after that encounter, I did manage to find all sorts of reasons to run errands to the central office. In the midst of an insane schedule, I always managed to swing by the central office to say "Hi" to Luz. I even began to leave her written messages when she wasn't in (a strategy that almost backfired as my first mote was misdirected to another woman named Luz - "Luz" is a very common name in the Philippines!) Nevertheless, it all eventually got straightened out. After sharing our hopes, dreams, and vision for serving the Lord over more than a few cups of coffee and late night phone conversations, it was clear that God had brought us together.

I won't go into the details in this entry, but suffice it to say I had no idea of how much of a quest was in store for me in the pursuit of making Luz Bautista my wife. The excitement involved Labor Strikes, Air Strikes, Negotiating with Governments and even powerful church officials. The adventure exposed the redemptive power of chastity and restorative power of selflessness. My oddessy also fulfilled years and years of prayer that started when I was a very little boy, who at my mother's gentle urging began asking for a wife that God faithfully and powerfully provided in a totally unexpected way at a totally unexpected time.

Yes, twenty years ago this week I was struck by a lightning bolt named Luz. I can't stop the tingling, and 20 years later though there have been some frowns and some tears too, I'm still stuck with a silly grin that I can't quite explain. For those of you who are looking for love and fulfillment in your life, I don't really have any instant formula to give you. I can share this timeless principle from a well-known but frequently ignored directive from Jesus:
But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you(Matthew 6:33).

A friend of mine put it this way: "You take care of God's business, and He'll take care of yours." J. Hudson Taylor, the faithful missionary to China had his own take on the principle. He said, "God's work, done in God's way will never lack God's supply."

If you're struggling to see God at work in your life, is God's Way and His Work your first priority? Are you pursuing Him knowing that He will lead to you to everything and everyone you need, or are you pursuing everything and everyone, hoping that God will jump in and go along for a ride according to your plans later? God has been very merciful and mighty in my life, not because I was good, but because when He chose to work powerfully for me, I wasn't so far away from His hand that I couldn't recognize His move when He made it. I challenge you today to stop making Jesus your motto or logo. He needs to be your Lord, which means HE'S in charge of your life! When He is in charge, as His hand moves, you won't have to scurry or worry trying to figure out if He's working. Instead, you'll be ready to conform to His will following the leading of His hand. It all came together for me by following His Word and His Way. As I have followed, He has been more than willing to lead and guide me in a ways I can't miss. God hasn't changed. He can do the same for you in your life situation as well if you just follow His lead and let Him have His way. To think He showed me all that through a love story. Until next time...