Friday, February 20, 2009

From Stranger to Friend to Family

As I was sitting with my friend, Ray Maloney, last evening in the huge Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium in San Rafael, looking around at the audience which filled nearly every one of the 1,960 seats, I asked Ray if he could imagine standing to preach before a congregation this large! Neither of us, of course, has ever had that pleasure and, both of us being retired, aren't likely to do so except, perhaps, in our dreams.

The event we attended was a presentation by Greg Mortenson, co-author of the incredibly successful paperback Three Cups of Tea (106 weeks on the bestseller list). Greg asked the audience how many had read his book, and easily three quarters or more of the hands in the auditorium were raised.  The title refers to his early experiences in Pakistan, after he had literally stumbled down, dirty, emaciated, and hungry, from an unsuccessful attempt to reach the summit of the mountain called K-2, into the remote little Muslim village of Korfe.  I encourage you to read this fascinating book for all the details, but suffice it to say that out of his experiences, then and later, Greg learned that you have one cup of tea as a stranger, enjoying the hospitality of people different from you.  As relationships grow, the second time you have tea with them, it's as a friend.  And as shared experiences of trust and respect multiply, the third time you have tea is as one of their family members.

Greg's simple message to the world is that the root of our problems is fear based in ignorance.  He hammered away at the concept that learning, respect and trust lead to the accomplishment of what often seems humanly impossible. That message was reinforced by his sharing the fruit of his discussions, both with the indigenous people of Pakistan, Kashmir, and Afghanistan, of many tribes and backgrounds, and with people at the highest level of our national government and the military.  He mentioned General Potraeus several times, himself a reader of Mortensen's book, and of the general's convictions, along with most of the other commanders currently on the ground in those countries, that we cannot win the struggle there, particularly in Afghanistan, by a military approach.  The key is education, pure and simple, particularly of the women in those countries.  Educated women have the capacity to bring along whole communities.  Greg mentioned that there are even ex-Taliban now teaching in the schools which Central Asia Institute, his organization, has made possible.  Further, whereas in the year 2000 only 800,000 children were enrolled, currently, out of a population of 32.7 million, 6 million children are now enrolled, and more and more are begging to have that advantage.  As Greg pointed out, it has become more and more crucial as the operations of the Taliban are largely being funded by money from heroin and opium production and sales, which has dramatically increased since 2004.  More recently, the Taliban have been increasingly influenced by the criminal element, a sort of Afghan Mafia.

During the question period after the presentation, someone from the audience asked Greg what he would say if he had a short time with recently-elected President Obama.  His candid reply was that he would ask him to think long and hard about his decision to send more troops into Afghanistan.  He pointedly reminded the audience that, in her first important trip as Secretary of State, it was quite unfortunate that Secretary Clinton visited neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan.  In my mind, Greg Mortenson isn't trying to minimize the problems and challenges facing us, either here or globally in the modern world.  In fact, he's actually trying to model a solidly innovative approach to human relaltions for which we all must begin to learn, and quickly, to adapt and change.      

Pennies for Peace, a program originally conceived and initiated at Westside Elementary School, River Falls, Wisconsin, where Greg's mother was the principal, has caught fire among children of all ages in the U.S., and many of these young people are raising massive amounts of money, penny by penny, both to help the children of Central Asia have schools, but also to fund projects for the disadvantaged here at home.  One 13 year old boy, whom Greg mentioned, will this year raise about $200,000 through the project which he started to provide basketball courts for needy children in Johannesburg, South Africa.  The very first contribution, about $625, toward Greg's fulfillment of his promise to build a school came from children!

Greg used the word hope a lot during his presentation.  And I have to tell you that for me, because of his own lived example, it doesn't ring hollow as it so often does from the glib lips of pundits and politicians, including presidents. His clear and determined vision, as well as his humility and devotion towards the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan is truly inspiring in very gentle and real way. 

From stranger to friend to family.  Eliminating ignorance and fear.  Growing as a global human community through learning and wisdom.  Reminds you a little of words from a Jewish man from Nazareth a long time ago, no??


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